In search of the spirit of adventure – a pecha kucha

Confession: I kind of hate the word ‘adventure’.

Bear_Hunt_BookIt conjures all the wrong things for me.

Snow shoes. Crampons. Special hats. Technical fabrics. Terrible fashion. Shite weather.  Long distance air travel. Mosquitoes. Bragging rights. Selfies at altitude.

Adventures out thereOk. ‘Hate’ might be too strong a word for it. But it’s up there with once-useful words like  ‘narrative’ and ‘curate’ and ‘bespoke’ that have been worn to the knuckle from over-use by slack-thinking newspaper columnists and advertisers to describe every kind of human experience, from buying a loaf to falling in love, from getting dressed to dying of cancer.

Adventure Game

‘Adventure’ is like ‘fun’. Or the BBC. It’s one of those things we’re conditioned to believe is inherently Good, something we’re obliged to enjoy and we feel like losers if we don’t.

Like watching a Sunday night drama, going on an adventure often ends up being a little bit disappointing, a little bit dull, and leaves a feeling at the end of the whole thing being less than one had hoped.

SherlockAnyway, the best adventures seem to happen to other people. To heroes. To characters. The larger than life sociopaths in fancy dress with brandable first names who populate our popular culture. Sherlock. Tintin. Tarzan. Alice.

But people like you and me? Unless you’re secretly Superman, or this guy . . .

Indiana Jones

. . . ‘adventures’ are probably something you have in a lifestyley instagrammy facebooky kind of way: “Yeah, we had a wee adventure at the farmers’ market on Sunday. We totally curated our own breakfast out of artisan meat and hand-started sourdough.”

An adventure these days is basically anything that involves shopping.

Or a lot of booze and a long taxi ride home.

Or any kind of trip to East Kilbride.

Roundabouts

But maybe, I thought, the action heroes and hipster tourism mob have skewed my understanding of the word. So, with my best schoolboy Latin and my rudimentary grasp of Romance languages I went off in search of fresh insight.

We have the prefix ‘ad’ – meaning ‘towards’. And the Latin ‘venire’, meaning to come or arrive, suggesting that the essence of adventure is something like “Towards arrival”,

abba arrival

It invokes excitement, requires us to imagine what’s ahead. In the anticipation of arrival, adventures are grammatically in the future perfect tense: they’re about what will have been.

Like that scene in Gregory’s Girl where Madeline orders a ginger beer with ice cream and schools her brother in the meaning of adventure:

Gregory and Madeline

“The nicest bit is just before you taste it. Your tongue goes all tingly. But that can’t go on forever.”

‘Adventure’ invokes risk – of success as well as of failure. We go on a bear hunt and it’s all jolly japes – but what happens when we actually find the bear?

Well, at the very least, that part of the adventure’s over and you’re suddenly into something else entirely.

revenant

You may even have jumped to another genre.

The ‘ad’ prefix also implies movement, impetus, outward momentum. (Adventures are always out there.)

But what about us introverts? Can you have an ‘inventure’? And really, what happens when you find the object of your desire? What happens when you successfully woo the princess? What happens after you slay the beast? What then?

I say never arrive.

moebius road

I say, don’t buy the special hat. You’ll use it once and never again and it’ll sit there in your cupboard as a mocking reproach to the boring bastard you’ve become since your bespoke Himalayan adventure in, what . . . was it really fifteen years ago?

No goals

What if your adventure didn’t have a destination? What if you made a point of there being nothing to achieve? No summit to reach. No princess. No beast. No crampons. What if it never required going shopping? What if you just went – not knowing what was out there, but going anyway?

Or what if you didn’t go anywhere at all? Could you still retain the spirit of adventure? The anticipation? The momentum? The risk?

walk the plank

I’ll tell you what happens when you travel without a destination. What happens is my career. All six of them, so far, that I’ve walked out on without so much as even packing mosquito repellent.

And when I eventually get round to quitting my current job, I’ll use the same phrase I used all those other times: I’ll tell myself, It’ll be an adventure.

lao tzu

I’m reminded of Lao Tzu, who said: “A good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent upon arriving. A good artist lets his intuition lead him wherever it wants.”

Even when it’s seemingly into the void. In fact, especially so.

Which is a hard thing to square with how we’re encouraged to live our lives, as well as our jobs, according to goals and targets: highly defined, endlessly reviewed, SMART – the unquestionable articles of faith of a corporatised world.

enso - incomplete

Also difficult to square is this hand-drawn circle – one of the symbols of Zen Buddhism. It stands for lots of things: the beginning and the end of all things, simultaneously the looking-for and the finding. It’s a reminder of the imperfections in all things, that all things are perfect as they are. It gently invites us to stop striving for perfection, to just let things be.

Klein Void

It also stands for the Void. It’s what Sherlock sees through his glass. It’s what Tarzan contemplates reaching for his next vine (maybe). It’s what I see when I’m halfway through a project that I’ve lost faith in. I start to forsee that its completion will fall very far short of the very high standards I’ve set myself.

Indy leap - feet

When that happens, it’s like I’m about to fall off the edge of the world. None of my knowledge and learning has any meaning any more. My intuition is lost to me. I feel blank, confused, worthless. The sense of adventure I started out with has given way to a sense of futility.

I begin again to walk down the familiar path towards the diabolical town at the end of the line called Failure, to drink deep from the bottle of self-doubt and pick a fight with myself at the saloon of self-loathing.

Indy leap - step

Sometimes it takes a leap of faith into the void to find our Holy Grail, that the Void itself can sometime support us.

If we can be true believers in the things that support us, that give impetus and momentum to our abilities in the world – such things as curiosity, integrity, diligence, creativity, community and love – then we can embrace uncertainty, we can welcome doubt, and enjoy the process of figuring it all out as we go.

Enso - complete

Here’s Sherlock’s Zen looking-glass again. Turns out there are two versions. The completed version is for me the more energising. It implies a continuous loop. The idea of adventure that most inspires me is not one that resembles a journey or a narrative – no beginning, middle and end – but one which is ongoing.

detective

For me, the trick to living an adventurous life is finding the thing that keeps you looking, that keeps you moving.

It’s about locating the impetus towards an arrival that may or may not come, that if it does is fleeting and transitory and which only gives fresh impetus to one’s momentum. The continuous loop.

bicycles ai weiwei

Which, conveniently, as a lover of bicycles and bicycling, is how bikes work.

Gregory’s Girl

Dir. Bill Forsyth (1981)
With John Gordon Sinclair, Clare Grogan, Dee Hepburn, Rab Buchanan, Alex Norton, John Bett, Jake D’Arcy, Dave Anderson and Chic Murray

Gregory's Girl VHS“Off you go, you small boys!”

I was only a small boy myself when Gregory’s Girl was released in 1981. I’ve seen it so often now, know its lines, its characters, know the world it describes so well, that watching it again feels a bit like putting on one of the family cinefilm reels that my Dad used to make.

Not that my Dad was a film maker of Bill Forsyth’s calibre, of course, but just to let you know that it may be impossible to gain any kind of critical distance from a film that is so close to my heart, that I’ve grown old with like a brother – but, who ever cared for bloodless rationality when it comes to art.

Gregory’s Girl is a coming-of-age film that was shot and set in Cumbernauld, a New Town in the west middle of Scotland’s conurbated belly band (a Canadian friend of mine who once worked there called it ‘cumberbund’) and was made at around the same time as I was coming of age myself in another Scottish New Town, 20 odd miles away.

Watching it for the first time – in a cinema in London in 1982 on a weekend family city break – it felt real. This was us on screen. That town was our town. My school looked just like that one. Those accents were our accents.

And while Gregory’s adolescent growing pains were similar in lots of ways to my growing pains, I wasn’t really a boy like Gregory: I didn’t play football, didn’t play the drums, didn’t gangle the way he did, didn’t have the friends he did, couldn’t speak to teachers the way he did. If Gregory was, according to Susan, “slow and awkward”, I was slower and awkwarder, socially, as well as physically. If Gregory was struggling to get the girl, I was struggling to even speak to them.

I have heard the story is loosely based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which I once taught to a class of button-bright second years when I was training to be a teacher, so I do know it a bit. But other than Andy’s clumsy rendering of the play’s dialogue in the window cleaner scene at the high school, the film owes less of a debt to Shakespeare’s topsy-turvy rom-com, than it does to goofy boy-meets-girl caper movies in the Billy Wilder tradition. Besides, Bill Forsyth’s script is much funnier than the bard.

The script is as sharp, as affecting, as clever as it ever was. It certainly hasn’t aged as badly as Cumbernauld has. And if some of the more inexperienced actors can be a bit stagey and am-dram, you barely notice, or even mind, because every other element of the film is so perfectly realised. Watching it again (again, again), it’s clear that the film is as much about that particular ensemble of actors who came together to make the film as it is about the characters they portray: Forsyth has tailored the film for them, in most cases he’s written the parts for them (you get some insight from the cast here). This tailoring may also explain the many scenes that seem to exist only to showcase the talents of the few professional actors in them and which do nothing to advance the plot of the film: Chic Murray at the piano; Jake D’arcy, John Bett and Alex Norton in the staff-room; Dave Anderson in the car.

It’s a film that still brings my brother and I closer, despite the years and the miles and the kids. We can still quote chunks of it at each other, its lines of dialogue can still provide punchlines for decades old family in-jokes. I haven’t watched the film with my brother in a long while but I know for a fact that we could recreate the entire film word for word from memory, and probably crack each other up repeatedly in the process.

It’s because of this deep connection with the film and the way it has become spliced with my relationship with my brother, that I’ve always held Gregory’s Girl up as a useful barometer of a friendship – I’ve watched it and shared it with friends and prospective girlfriends: if you’re laughing along, we’re going to get along. And so it has proved. The one exception was my Italian friend Luca (no, not bella bella), who struggled with the accents, despite his excellent command of English.

Other times the film has become spliced with real life involved meeting “Andy” – actor Rab Buchanan – at Stirling Castle in 1998 where he was directing a history play in the grand salon. I was with a group of foreign language students and was watching the play with some of the other teachers – none of whom could understand why I was so giddy with excitement. At the end, I walked up to him, nervous and beaming, and blurted out something like, “It’s a total honour to shake your hand, Andy. I think you’re brilliant. You were a big part of my childhood.” Or something like that. Embarrassing for everyone, but he was gracious and seemed genuinely flattered and thanked me and that was that.

A few years later, I met “Gordon” – Would you like to do something special this Saturday night? – in the staff room of King’s Park Secondary, the same day it was being shown on TV. I was a supply teacher; he was evidently the drama teacher, and he made absolutely sure everyone knew he was going to be on telly that night. I didn’t introduce myself.

More recently, in 2012, my partner & I went to hear the soundtrack being performed by its composer, Colin Tully. The poster wasn’t saying much beyond that, the date and the venue. But the familiar artwork – John Gordon Sinclair thumbs aloft, Dee Hepburn in her football kit, leaping up for a header – was all the draw we needed. We imagined a projection of the film on stage with a live band. Brilliant!

It didn’t quite turn out like that. The first half was a set of tunes by Colin Tully who was on tour to promote his new album – his band kicked around some technically excellent but quite dated jazz tropes, in a style familiar to fans of, say, early Tommy Smith or late Kenny G. The Gregory’s Girl stuff was condensed into a 30 minute second half, and no film clips – not that you really needed a projector. As soon as you hear that familiar cheeky soprano sax theme, your heart warms and you’re instantly there, walking out onto the red blaze pitch, saying to yourself, “She is gorgeous. She is absolutely gorgeous”.

Weirdly, Tully seemed almost resentful having to play this stuff, annoyed (at us, it felt at times) that he hadn’t been able to shake his association with the film, or at least translate the fame it brought him into something more. . .

If only he’d loved Gregory’s Girl a bit more; perhaps she’d have loved him back.