Chapter 37: Three Days That Way Part II
Dave told me about Sinai. His car became a theatre. The desert’s dirt and the dust and the hot, hard breeze began to blow. It was the story of when he went to find the Bedouin.
“I was in a village on the coast. Or in those days it was a village. Not much more than a few tents scattered about. Now it's a resort. I started asking where to find the Bedouin. One guy smiled and looked at me like I was a fool. ‘You want to find the Bedouin?’ I said I did. I was 18 and I was a fool. You do stupid things when you’re that age… He replies, ‘You want to find the Bedouin, you walk three days that way.’” Dave struck a flat vertical palm, a single chop. That way.
“That way?” Dave’s eyebrows rose. He was acting it back and I was along for the ride. “‘Any more detail than that? That way is quite vague…’ ‘My friend, you walk three days that way, you find Bedouin.’ So the next day I set off. Three days that way.”
Dave walked for two and a half days, crunching weary feet over rock and dirt. 20, 25 miles a day. That way. “It’s a magical place, but I had no clue where I was going. There are huge rocks everywhere, they’re like hulks in the sand, or the backs of huge animals or something. I had no map I was just walking between them. I knew the sea was behind me and I knew where the sun was. That was all.
“After two and a half days I began to run out of water. I suddenly realised this was madness. What the hell was I doing? Three days into the desert! I was 18, the thought hadn’t even crossed my mind back in the village. It certainly did after two days in the desert. Doubt crept up, needled its way into my mind. I could have gone the wrong way. Maybe I’d missed them. Maybe I’d run out of water. What would I do then?”
All around him was a mirage, shimmering, shaking, a silver mirror. Slowly it descended into a vision, some hellish apparition. And then in the glimmer, he saw a black dot. It got larger, black cloth billowing in the wind.
"Suddenly there was a man. He was standing in front of me. He was dressed head to toe in black, black eyeliner too. ‘Good day my friend,’ he said, ‘Tea?’
“I was speechless. I…I thought I was hallucinating! I stammered a reply, amazed, exhausted, ‘Wha…how…how did you know… I was English?’ That was all I could think to ask. He threw back his head and laughed a deep, guttural laugh. ‘Ha ha ha,” he looked at the miles of desert behind me, ‘Only the English..!’
Beyond the music, the travel and the stories of his time with the Bedouin, Dave was a photographer. He’d taught a university course, developed it from scratch over 25 years. It was his life’s work and the fact the Guardian rated it the best in the country was a great pride. When he started they had two students. When he left they had 116, several doing masters and five doing PhDs. Three years ago he’d been forced to take early retirement for his health. It was the hardest thing he’d ever done and he was still grieving. He missed it bitterly, thought about it constantly, dreamt about it even.
His photographs were panoramic. He built his own cameras. Great big things with wooden bodies and leather hoods and handles. They needed huge negatives, the sort that are hard to come by now. They make an image clearer than the eye can tell. Landscapes were his subject.
Walking had always held a near religious significance for Dave. To be in a landscape, wherever it may be, had a purity and a beauty. Our relationship with the land, how we interact with it politically, fascinated him. His panoramics sought to bottle it.
We shared a mutual admiration for the artist Richard Long. Long would venture deep into a wilderness and leave behind a stone circle, or perhaps just a line of footprints, some small mark of his being there, though the piece was never about him. It was easy to see why Dave liked him. Long was also a walker and a hitchhiker. I remember a talk of his I went to. He told of hitchhiking Route 66. He’d stop in the desert somewhere to walk a circle through purple wildflowers, a sculpture of flattened petals, temporary on the land but immortalised on camera. Hitchhiking shares a spirit with his work. Fleeting moments and connections. Though the wind would eventually sweep away the circle he left, it had left its mark all the same.
Dave once met a similar land artist, a Scotsman called Hamish Fulton. Dave took part in a piece of his in Newcastle. About 100 or so people came along and Fulton asked them to walk up and down a carpark for an hour. Dave asked him why he’d chosen that place but the answer was disappointing. It wasn’t profound at all. “I just saw it on a map and thought it looked cool,” Fulton shrugged. Never meet your heroes was Dave’s advice.
When walking, Dave never used a map, he had an instinctive sense of direction. He could use landmarks and tell his vector by the sun. If it was cloudy he’d use other signs. The moss on the bark of trees was always a telltale. He’d only ever been lost once. In Venice.
When on his great journey to Egypt all those years ago he had stopped in at a Buddhist monastery in Italy. There he met a monk from New Zealand and they became friends. One day the monk said, “Here, I want to give you a gift.” He led Dave through to an orchard. It was square and quite large, full of beautiful apple trees. The monk then showed Dave how to walk and meditate, how to pace without thinking, to remove the mind from the process entirely. It wasn’t easy but with weeks of practice Dave found, in that orchard, he could meditate for four hours, walking. “It sounds silly, but you focus without focusing. You wouldn’t know four hours had gone.”
He left the monastery and continued but never forgot the gift. He practised and got better still. When he got to Egypt he planned his greatest photograph. In the middle of midsummer’s night, he went out to Giza. Under the pyramids’ euclidean shadow, he set up a circle of eight white stones on the ground. In the middle, he placed his camera on its tripod. He used tent poles to extend the lever so he could turn the camera while walking. They were just long enough to reach the stones. With a rucksack full of water, a tube to his mouth, an umbrella above his head, and the tent poles in his hand, he began to walk. He took three hours between each stone, meditating and walking until all 8 were passed, focusing without focusing. A crowd gathered to watch him, “Who’s this crazy Englishman?” they asked. Around he went, inch by inch, until 2 o’clock the next morning. Exactly 24 hours.
He was exhausted, wiped out by the midsummer sun. The umbrella wasn’t enough to stave the heat stroke. When he recovered days later he took the negative to the developer, passing it like a servant with the crown jewels. “This is my life’s work,” he told the technician.
The next day he found the technician white with sweat. He handed back the negative. All but the very edge was overexposed, blown out, nonexistent. Dave was distraught.
“I suppose the monks would probably have said that was right,” I suggested consolingly, “The process is what’s important. Not the material outcome.”
Dave still had the negative. It was his most prized possession, even though it was nothingness. If students complained about spending hours in the dark room, he’d bring in the hallowed frame and show them. “My negative” he called it. I know the feeling well. So much expectation laid onto film only to find the image was never there. The disappointment is acidic.
Photographs are the blocks of memory today. We forget they only record a tiny fragment of the moment, a single, visual part. Really, when all is done, nothing beats a story.
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