Saturday, 14 May 2011

El Tiburón, part 2 -- take 2

I think nobody enjoys their twenties. It's the worst of times. Your life is a mess, and you seem to be permanently in a state of transition, usually from something bad to something worse. I certainly didn't enjoy mine; I found that the closer I got to 30 the more I was changing from the person I thought I was into someone I didn't much like. I didn't particularly like anyone else, either, and I put a lot of creative effort into being disagreeable. Um. My apologies if you met me between about 1977 and 1984...

Anyway. One summer in our 20s, not long after the death of generalissimo Franco, my partner and I shared a Ford Fiesta with another couple we knew, and toured around the Basque country, Cantabria, Asturias, and Galicia in northern Spain, camping out or staying in cheap hotels. Rural Spain, back then, was remarkably under-developed. No sooner had you crossed the border from France than you started to see ox-carts in the fields and peasants threshing grain by hand with flails. Seriously. It was like driving into a Breughel painting.

The disadvantages of touring a hot country in summer with four adults in a small car designed for suburban shopping don't need pointing out, I'm sure. If, in addition, one of the company is a non-driver and prickly provocateur (that would be me), then the difficulties, anxieties, and petty squabbles resulting from just co-existing at close quarters are not eased. Mild disagreements on diet, where to go next, what to do there, and how to spend the night can build the tension like a summer storm, until released explosively in a "free and frank exchange of views". Luckily, our friends were remarkably tolerant, and remain our friends to this day.

We had heard that the Picos de Europa mountains were worth a visit, and decided to take a look. If the coastal lowlands were a little backward, the remoter mountain passes of the Picos seemed primeval. Paved roads quickly degenerated into rutted tracks, and there was a watchful silence in the tiny, ramshackle settlements that made you feel like a visitor from outer space. The last bears and wolves in Western Europe are said to roam in these mountains.

We found ourselves camping near a strange, end-of-the-road place called Caín (no, really). Beyond it was a spectacular, steep-sided mountain gorge, the Garganta de Cares, along and through which, perched halfway up the cliff-face, some lunatic had blasted a canal before WW1, in order to feed a hydroelectric scheme. Right alongside the canal runs a precarious rock-hewn path. This path is little more than 4 or 5 feet wide in places, has no handrail, and it's a long way down. The canal runs in and out of the cliff, and where it is open to the air swallows dart along, skimming the water for insects within a couple of feet of your nose.

Most bizarrely, perhaps because of the lack of steep gradients, even back then it was a popular track for recreational walking. Occasionally, whole families would come strolling up the hazardous rocky path, wearing flip-flops and even high heels. Passing the oncoming traffic was an ordeal, not least because two of our party had serious issues with heights and steep places. I can't imagine why we even started up that track in the first place.

Eventually, the inevitable happened, and we reached a stretch of path that had been knocked out by a landslide. It was easy enough to negotiate, you simply had to drop down onto the fan of scree, and scramble across. But, due to the combination of height, slope, and real or imagined peril, D (one of our friends) froze; she simply could not, would not go any further. The family parties simply went around us, in their flip-flops and high-heels, shrieking in mock terror as they tottered over the loose rocks. But D's terror was very real: by the time we had forcibly manouevred her stiff legs one in front of the other, step by step, she was shaking with fright.

I don't think I had ever seen such raw, elemental fear expressed before, and something in D's reaction lit a fuse buried deep inside me. When we stopped for a rest later on, I climbed up by myself onto a rocky promontory, out of view of the others, ostensibly to look at the view. What happened then is quite hard to explain.

Gazing across at the opposite bluff, hundreds of feet high, I noticed it was shaped like the snout of a gigantic rising shark. The film Jaws was then still quite current, and the poster image was everywhere. I started to feel a deep, mounting terror. It was as if I had gone fishing for mackerel, and caught the world-fish on my line. There seemed to be a basso profundo roar running through the landscape like an earthquake, or a volcano humming to itself. I knew -- simultaneously -- that the bluff opposite was merely a formation of jagged Carboniferous limestone, and that it was also a gigantic shark surging out of the depths of the earth. I knew -- both at the same time -- that I was perfectly safe and in mortal danger. I was acutely aware of the utter inconsequence if I were to die at that moment. The sensation lasted only 30 seconds or so, but it was the most intense experience of existential dread I had ever endured, and I went back down the hill a chastened, not to say changed, man.

I came to call my new, terrible acquaintance El Tiburón -- the shark. My secret mantra was the quotation from Büchner's Woyzek, displayed on screen by Werner Herzog at the start of his film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser over a shot of a wheat field writhing in a blustery wind: "Don’t you hear that terrible screaming all around, which is conventionally called silence?". Being of a literary bent, I presumed I had had an encounter with a full-on manifestation of what the early landscape enthusiasts called The Sublime, or perhaps I had even had some kind of brutal enlightenment experience, a satori. There's nothing so reassuring as self-importance and up-market labels.

The next time I encountered El Tiburón I was driving a car on a busy road in Hampshire, and I was convinced I was having a heart attack. As well as the sense of overwhelming danger, I had pins and needles in my face and hands, and had to pull off the road onto the hard shoulder to recover. My doctor explained that I had not been having a heart attack, however, but a panic attack. Ah. He recommended substantial changes in lifestyle, and maybe a little therapy. The next 25 years were the story of me learning to come to terms with Old Sharkie, and his tendency to come roaring out of the floor without warning, especially, it seemed, when travelling abroad.

If nothing else, I am much better company these many years later, and rarely if ever seek to upset or alienate anybody -- I know how tough it can be when your life story has, ah, "jumped the shark", and things need to change. People don't need pointless aggression from their friends. I also know how remarkably easy it is to mistake a panic attack for some kind of satori; we are all ridiculous in our vanity, in the end.

On the other hand, I know El Tiburón is always down there, figuratively at least, and have learned how not to be bothered by this. Some days you eat the shark, some days the shark eats you... A large part of the secret, I can divulge, is remembering to breathe at all times.


Kent Wiley said...

The shark - yikes! Fortunately we've not been introduced. But the trip sounds depressingly similar to one I undertook from North Carolina to New Mexico in... well, suffice it to say, during my 20's. It's a mystery even to me why I was such a flaming a hole. Now the object of my affection at the time is dead, and the other couple are lost in the long gone past.

Love the first photo. Is it really a Mike C.? Goes to show how little we really know about people, especially interweb "friends."

Mike C. said...


Yes, that's one of my holiday snaps from last summer in N. Spain. I take a lot of pictures, especially on holiday, that don't "fit" into my my more considered work. I don't tend to put them up on the blog much because it gets too confusing when everyone says, "Hey, now *that* is a good photo..." It's easy to start doubting your own judgement and chasing applause...

I like that particular one because it highlights the difference between the British and European attitude to "public spaces". That is a seafront wall at San Sebastian, backed by a municipal theatre, the sort of thing that we Brits would construct out of monolithic concrete, probably decorated with rusting outfall pipes (see the third picture).


Kent Wiley said...

Yes, I understand about "holiday snaps." It used to be that I thought travels were an opportunity to mine new material. Now the drive-by photo ops seem to result in fewer keepers. Am I simply taking fewer exposures? Or I have I learned that newness and unfamiliarity with location do not necessarily make for photos that we'll treasure in the future? "Interesting" maybe, but meaningful, only occasionally.

Mike C. said...

Incidentally, this Wondermark cartoon seemed appropriate:



Kent Wiley said...

Awesome. Indeed.

Kent Wiley said...

And then there is this one.

Gavin McL said...

I rather enjoyed my twenties though now in my forties I realise I was laying the foundations for a shark jumping episode in my thirties, perhaps I was just a late developer.

I had been a hopeless teen and my competence at my chosen career gave me a confidence I had lacked for most of my life up until then. I remember the moment when I realised I was actually enjoying it, I was on board a pipelay barge being towed up the Nieuwe Waterweg in Rotterdam when I small boy waved at me as I rested on the guardrail – It took me straight back to my childhood – (not that difficult, it was barely a decade earlier) and I thought when I was that age – this is all I wanted - to work on board a ship and here I am – something clicked and I settled down to a few years of fun.

During that period the woman who became my wife and I journeyed through France and Northern Spain also in a Fiesta – we only had one argument during the 3 week trip and it was then I realised the relationship had some potential We walked along that path along the Cares gorge – If I remember the guide book some of those cliffs that line the gorge are more than a kilometre high, it really is something and that path gives access to some amazing – indeed sublime scenery and all you need is flip flops. I remember being fascinated by the rocks, cliffs and meadows opposite the path, the occasional glimpses of evidence of human works on the steep slopes – maybe mining, perhaps seasonal dwellings for shepherds

The reason Tracey and I went there was I had visited the Picos a few years earlier with some university friends and I had wanted to return. On the first trip we had the aim of climbing up to and over the high plateaux on the opposite side of the Cares gorge but we were defeated by some unseasonably heavy snow. We instead walked around the south of the plateaux and arrived at the head of the Cares gorge and descended it, then caught the bus down to the coast and camped on the beach for a few days. We did walk through one village in the high Picos where we saw nobody – the streets were barely metalled and most were muddy but despite this ours were the only footprints – we could only see patterns of the 3 holes in the mud. It felt quite eerie then we spotted some huge wooden overshoes stacked under the porch of one house –each with three “prongs” carved into the bottom to keep the shoe out of the mud.

I would still like to return – the cheeses and the mountain trout now bit more appealing than the high passes.

Mike C. said...

Thanks for that, Gavin -- it's good to know that someone reading this blog knows the area and has good associations with it.

It is a magical place, though I imagine it's rather more visited now than then -- back then ETA's bombing campaign kept most tourists away from N. Spain. As instinctive supporters of a left-leaning autonomy campaign, I guess we probably thought we were immune to explosions...

I saw the one and only Camberwell Beauty butterfly I have ever seen in the Covadonga Park -- amazing.

Those (rare) moments when you see yourself through a child's eyes and are surprised to find that you like what you see are very, very precious. I doubt it happens more than a few times, if ever (unless you're an astronaut or David Attenborough).


Gavin McL said...

Ah a Camberwell Beauty - that would be a sight - seeing something named after a north London suburb in the Picos would be rather odd though.

When I visited the Picos in the mid nineties British cars were rare, a sighting was worthy of note, most visitors were madrileños (I think thats how you spell it) escaping the heat further south.

ETA was a tricky one as a Scot brought up on tales of fighting for self determination - but the bombs.

How are the windows?


Mike C. said...


The move from "bombs" to "how are the windows?" was slightly disconcerting... Then I realised what you meant. The book is undergoing another period of "creative neglect" at the moment, as other things are demanding my attention. Despite what I say every year, I expect I'll submit it for Photo Book Now, if only because it gives me a deadline (July).

N.B. Camberwell is Sarf London -- I mention it only because it's next door to Elephant & Castle, where my Scottish grandfather's family moved (from Edinburgh) in the latter part of the 19th century. It must have seemed an ironic name, even then -- Camerwell and Lambeth included some of the worst slums in London.

The Basque autonomy demonstrations that we saw in the 70s were strange -- very passionate, but on the back of every banner was advertising for local businesses, something I've never seen anywhere else. The elaborate mural grafitti was world class, far better even than N. Ireland -- strong design sense, witty, colourful, carefully done in full daylight... Wish I'd had a camera...


Tony_C said...

I have a cure for this, a claim you may be skeptical of but, to borrow Dud's words to Pete in reference to superstition, it works even if you don't believe in it.

All you have to do is, whenever El Tiburon raises its awful snout, think of:

[checkword: "ailism" - prejudicial treatment of those who ail?]

Mike C. said...


Good grief... Aren't those the homoerotic 118 118 advert guys? I can't imagine that working for most people (assuming you're even half-serious), but "whatever floats your boat", as they say on TV.

Talking of lip-synchs, I don't suppose you've ever seen The West Wing, but if you csn get access to a set of Series 1, get someone to let you see C.J. doing "The Jackal" -- it's the best lip-synch I've ever seen.

I should say, in all seriousness, that panic attacks (in the medical sense) are no laughing matter -- your body has convinced itself you're about to die, and reacts accordingly. It's a bit like drowning in the air.

The simplest "cure" often involves getting conscious control over muscle relaxation and breathing, but the most difficult cases will require therapy of some kind.

Personally, I think everyone should experience psychotherapy at some point in their life (the "brand" is irrelevant, though I have good things to say about Gestalt) -- the world would be a better place. Maybe I should post about that sometime.


Tony_C said...

Yes, that would be interesting (a post about psychotherapy), but....

Really I'm astonished in general that you bloggers (and you, the private, retiring type that you are, in particular) are happy to reveal to, literally, the World (or that portion of the World connected to hyperspace) your innermost fears and vulnerabilities. I suppose it's a bit like when we were young and would set a tape-recorder rolling at a social occasion, which would lead to highly stilted speech and behaviour at first, becoming more natural as the recorder faded from the forefront of consciousness..

Do you ever post something and think later, "I wish I hadn't written that?"

Mike C. said...


Interesting question, that. I can't speak for others, but in my case the answer is "not really" -- these are by no means my "innermost fears and vulnerabilities", and those are things I would not write about, for obvious reasons.

Most of what I (and most others) write about, I would have thought, is pretty dull stuff to anyone seeking vicarious emotional thrills. I would have pegged it at the level of a "personal column" in a newspaper. There have been, I think, just two posts that I thought better of and deleted, not because of what they said about me, but because of what they said about others.

Most of what's here is either ancient history or intended (!) to be entertaining. Also, don't underestimate the element of "art" in all this -- if I wrote this stuff in the form of poetry, perhaps it would seem less surprising.

Blogging is mainly a new form of creative expression, available to everyone, it's not a raw teenage diary accidentally left open. Though there are blogs, it's true, where the level of self-exposure can make you wince...


Tony_C said...

"I would have pegged it at the level of a "personal column" in a newspaper"

Yes, but who reads yesterday's newspapers? Like radio broadcasts, they are essentially ephemeral. It's the fact that blogs linger on that distinguishes them...

The moving digit writes, and having writ,
Moves on. nor all your piety nor wit.
Shall lure it back to cancel half a bit
Nor all your tears wash out a whit of it.
(After Omar Khayyam)

More like writing a book, really.

Must get round to reading the bits of your blog I haven't got to yet. Or the Bible. Or summink.

P.S. Are you in a cupboard under the stairs? Or a shed?

Mike C. said...


Yeah, I take your point, but I think this is mainly an issue for foolish youngsters using Facebook and the like -- can you imagine the legacy for our generation if such things had existed?? There is a single photo of Chris Huhne using a bench as a battering ram which has caused him some embarrassment in the papers (I've featured it a couple of times). But as I say, my posts are very "considered" and there are no real secrets here (I really can't talk about my time at MI5, anyway).

I am currently in my private jet, cruising over France, on my way to a late breakfast with Werner Herzog.


Mike C. said...


Meant to pick up your "writing a book" point. I think this does raise interesting questions.

I don't think anyone's quite sure whether putting something on the Web counts as "publication", in the legal sense, but it's clear that 1000s of really good writers, who would never have been "published" in the classical sense -- whether as journalists, novelists, poets, whatever -- are getting their stuff out there and read.

Compared to a volume of essays, gathering dust in a library, a blog is instantly and effortlessly available to anyone. That's a good thing. It does however mean that the earnings of "professional" writers are undermined (though nowhere near as much as those of professional photographers). That's a bad thing.

These are interesting developments, and it's fun to play even an extremely modest part in them.


promotional said...

Thanks for sharing your inspirational story! It’s amazing how big ventures start out with humble beginnings, right?

118118 said...

Blogging DOES constitute publication and in the absence of a retraction,we shall be applying to the High Court for a disclosure order against Blogger regarding your clear innuendo that the 118118 men are homosexuals. They are simply SPORTY!

Lawyers for 118118

[Checkword: stewlyne - Legal French for a pleading which mixes matters of fact and law]

Tony_C said...

"I am currently in my private jet, cruising over France, on my way to a late breakfast with Werner Herzog."

Yebbut usually you're in the cupboard under the stairs, right?

[Checkword: sproust - a la recherche des vegetables perdus]

Mike C. said...


"sproust" -- heh! I concede that one is funny.

What is this with the cupboard? Is it some long ago thing I've forgotten all about? Or are you confusing me with a vacuum cleaner (easily done, I know).


Tony_C said...

I don't remember any particular cupboard-related incidents, though I definitely see that as a place you'd be (would have been?) comfortable. It's just, I'm guessing (MODERN PRESENT CONTINUOUS!) that, as you live with your woman and children, you must be doing your blog in your "manspace". Typically these are quite small and, in council housing especially perhaps, may often consist of the cupboard under the stairs. But maybe your manspace is the East Wing (or that part of the room in the East Wing with enough floor amongst the bookpiles to mount a workstation)?

P.S. Hope you gave Wernie a couple of good ideas for films?

P.P.S. How come your blog comment editor doesn't recognise the word "blog"?

[Checkword: ledito - "told them" in an imaginary Romance language]

Mike C. said...

Ah, I see -- no, we do "open plan" and "hot desking" like all the best modern offices. Wireless connectivity and multiple laptops means the only thing under the stairs is the hoover.

N.B. please stop scattergunning comments all over the place -- it's easier for me, and more interesting, if people make their comments just on the current couple of threads.

And please keep it relevant -- as I've said before, I don't like giving the impression this is a "chums only" blog, as it puts off other potential commenters.


Tony_C said...

"we do 'open plan' and 'hot desking' like all the best modern offices"

I'm confused. Do you mean you organise your domestic life in accordance with an agenda set by U.S. Management Theory, or that you do your blogging at work, where they have embraced these bulwarks against workers' territorial tendencies?

"scattergunning". Ok.

[Checkword: perter - comparative of pert. pert/pərt/Adjective
1. (of a girl or young woman) Sexually attractive because lively or saucy.
2. (of a bodily feature or garment) Attractive because neat and jaunty]

Mike C. said...


No, I simply mean that we have a wireless network in the house and everyone has their own laptop -- this is not an unusual arrangement, these days. To be honest, I don't think I've ever seen any house where computer access is limited to some peculiar gendered "man space" under the stairs, but maybe that's the company I keep.