A Little Country

Genève-London Flight: Darkness and the cold mountain air of a Swiss morning just before the 06.00hrs news broadcast; they are playing a short extract of birdsong – the first broadcast of the day. It arises from silence on the car’s speakers, increasing in volume and gradually becomes noticeable; very much like the real thing. Birdsong and high frequency sounds reduce stress, I feel relaxed. Day begins, the news in French as we sail through the silent Genève streets to the airport. Taxi like a limo; everything is reassuringly taken-care-of. No problem, no suffering; the heaven realms.

Airport check in, and through to Departures, impossibly expensive luxury goods in Duty Free. At the Easyjet desk, staff wear fluorescent orange Hi-Vis vests; cheap and cheerful. We are processed, boarded, I have time to find an aisle seat, stow away my bag. Up and away and the next thing is, I’m looking from the plane down on the surface of the planet.

Clouds cover the landscape with openings here and there where I can see the ground below. Very soon we are at the French coast and the clouds disperse as we fly over the English Channel. I can see a few isolated ships with lights on; it’s still early morning. In a very short time the coast of England appears up front and if I look behind me I can still see the coast of France – hadn’t realised how close these countries are to each other.

England is a patchwork quilt of very small fenced enclosures. Everything is the same as it was when I left a year ago; it could have been yesterday. I think I recognize the little houses down there, same flight path as before. No change. Buildings last for hundreds of years, built from iron, brick and stone. It was all here before I was born and will be here after I’m dead. So different from the bamboo and thatched roof dwellings of South East Asia; they fall apart and new ones are built in their place. That kind of fragility and tenuous existence is frightening for people who live in a stormy climate like this, surrounded by the sea.

Concrete bulwarks along the English coast keep the sea out. The threat of the sea engulfing the land is psychological; an island mentality. The perceived fear that it’s impossible to open up to fully accommodate this energy of life. We have to hold it back. There is no space in this little country; cross from East to West by road and it’s done in a few hours. The recognition comes back to me – I know this feeling; a deep familiarity. The claustrophobia of ‘self’; I am an island surrounded by water. There is this anxiety that comes from always wanting to know things are under control; the sea will not breach the flood barriers.

Descend at Gatwick, off the plane and processed through formalities. Large posters saying you cannot bring potatoes into the United Kingdom… okay so this is my last chance to declare hidden contraband of illegal potatoes. Welcome to England. ‘Passengers are reminded not to leave baggage unattended.’ It’s only 07:55 hrs, thanks to 1 hr time difference; a sense that you’ve arrived before you left? The day is yet to begin; dull grey, cold and damp. The Rail Network, rock’n roll, rough and ready; an empty beer can rolling around on the floor of the train carriage. Seats are small, very close to each other but passengers are all looking the other way. How good it would be if we could all just be friends…. My niece would say: can you give me a hug please?


Let there be a little country without many people.
 Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred,
 and never use them. 
Let them be mindful of death
 and disinclined to long journeys.
 They’d have ships and carriages,
 but no place to go.
 They’d have armor and weapons,
 but no parades.
 Instead of writing,
 they might go back to using knotted cords. 
They’d enjoy eating,
 take pleasure in clothes, 
be happy with their houses, 
devoted to their customs.

The next little country might be so close, 
the people could hear the cocks crowing
 and dogs barking there,
 but they’d get old and die
 without ever having been there.

[Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin ]

Photo: Louk Vreeswijk


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