The Brevity of Sensation…
Way, way back, when I was first told I was going to Afghan, I put a list together of gear and kit that I thought I would need to take with me…and eventually got around to getting.
I took a LOT of kit with me out there. A lot. Far more than I needed. It was nice stuff to have but it wasn’t essential. I ended up with a couple of bags worth that I just didn’t use. A couple of tee shirts, ditto pairs of shorts, gym stuff. about three pairs of socks, a couple of pairs of bomb-pants, two pairs of trousers and two shirts to wear under my body armour. I eventually just packed the rest of my gear away in preparation for coming home! Proof that you don’t need a lot of stuff out there – just good admin so that you wash your dirty gear as soon as you get in from a patrol and you are sorted.
But when it came to tech gear – and as a fully functioning gadget geek I love my tech gear – well, the same was true! I ended up with having far more stuff than I needed. There were a few essentials. My camera. My iPod. My netbook laptop. The rest…Well it was nice to have in a box by my bed, but it wasn’t essential. I only used my PowerMonkey Solar Charger a couple of times when I was on Op Omid Haft (to keep my iPod charged) and the rest…the Gorillapod – nope. The Pebble battery pack? Nada. Even my Kindle went through periods of use and neglect. The helmet cam the RAF gave me was in my day-sack and used on patrols but the footage was, to be honest, pretty dull – at best.
But the fact was, and is, that I’d have gone bonkers without my iPod. If I was packing to go anywhere for a couple of days, then pretty much the first thing I’d pack would be my iPod. Regular readers will know that music is a big thing in my life and it is the one thing that does keep me sane. It did keep me sane. It was (in the words of Peter Sarstedt) where I went to when I was alone in my head. It took me out of where I was, and took me to a better place. And although I had a huge amount of music out there to draw on, the music I listened to got less and less. I would enjoy sitting outside my tent and listening to ‘Songs for Dirty Lovers’ by The National, or drift of to sleep to Sigur Ros and their crazy, but beautiful vocalisations and Icelandic music of Ágætis Byrjun…and then find beauty in a Natalie Merchant song.
But it was just one song by Maximo Park that will forever remind me of Afghanistan. Songs stay with me for reasons best known to their own. They have a life of their own and they sometimes seem to squeeze their way into your life almost by accident and then stick there. One afternoon I was in the gym and Maximo were playing on my iPod. And this one song came on. And as I said, for no good reason other than the sound of it and the feel of it at a time when I needed to hear a song – not just listen to it…it made me feel…alive. It made me float and fly. For once it’s not some ballad, it’s a rock and roll song. It’s called ‘Sandblasted and Set Free’. The title line in the chorus ‘Sandblasted and set free’ just pretty much described the feel of being out there.
Free? Yeah. Free. I actually felt I was free and was ‘living’ out there. Back home at times we go through the motions. But out there you don’t. You are not in some sort of limbo where you are spending your time waiting for the next thing to happen. Not are marking time. Not just going through the motions; but actually living. As I said in an earlier blog – when you are being shot at you know you are living.
This is the ‘brevity of sensation’ that is mentioned in the song. I guess this is why the song spoke to me. Here’s a lyric that means at once nothing, and yet means everything. Even though it was scary, going out there and patrolling, it was something that I have always wanted to do. I was glad to do it and I will miss it. It’s a simpler life and simpler existence. You just get on and do stuff. You don’t need a lot to do it. All the background crap of our lives is forgotten and you concentrate on just two important things – staying safe and keeping your mates safe. You need to be safe so you can get home to the people that matter most of all.
Victor Frankl wrote about his time in Nazi Concentration Camps. He learnt there that to get him through the hell he needed to have a reason; a purpose. And his purpose was to get out of it and survive for his wife. The love of his wife was the driver for him. And although my experience wasn’t anything like his, I could identify. You need a purpose. A reason. And for me, it was to see as much as I could, to do as much as I could and then to bring all that home with me to my family. I was selfish to want to go out there but I wanted to bring all that back with me. To come home and get on with the rest of my life with the experience of it all locked away for when I need it to make me a better person. I wanted to do my bit and make the world a better place and be able to hold my head up and I wanted my family to be proud. It wasn’t about getting stuff. It wasn’t about having things, or getting things. It was about living, it was about experiencing, and it was about coming home with it all.
You can get by on the minimum amount of stuff. As long as you all get back ok at the end of a patrol then the world is good. But the feeling of going out. Of the adrenaline, of the anticipation. Of the feeling of testing yourself, pushing yourself. It is a whole different thing that I had not anticipated or expected. It cuts through what you thought was important before – and simplifies life quite beautifully.
We are almost programmed by our society – I know I was – to want stuff to make my life better. But I learnt, out there, that you don’t actually need a lot of stuff. I have pictures and momento’s of my time. But these are just more things. But I don’t need them. Every time I will hear that song – ‘Sunbasted and set free’ it will remind me of Afghan. You don’t really need stuff about you. You don’t really need gadgets and gear. You don’t need stuff to clutter up your life. You don’t really need a lot at all.
Just a few things will do you right. As long as they are the right things.