Naked hiker jailed for 21 months

naked hiker, nudismNudist activist Steven Gough has been given 657 days in a Scottish prison only a minute after finishing his previous sentence.

The BBC reports that the naked hiker has served numerous terms in jail for public nudity and appearing in court nude. He insists it’s his right to bare all wherever and whenever he wants. His refusal to wear clothes has led to an epic fight with the legal system in which neither side will back down. Every time he’s released from prison in Perth, Scotland, he walks out naked, straight into the arms of waiting policemen. Gough has spent much of the past ten years behind bars.

Gough once walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the nude. That’s the longest hike in the British Isles, going from the southwest to northeast tips, a distance of about 1,200 miles.

As an avid hiker and a big fan of Scotland’s and England’s trails, I have to say I’m impressed by anyone who has done this route, with or without clothes. Hiking in the nude is a legal gray area in the UK. Gough is generally arrested for disturbing the peace or contempt of court. While personally I don’t want to see Gough’s man berries while enjoying a view of the Highlands, I have to ask just who is he hurting? At a time when many thugs from the recent riots are getting lighter sentences, the persecution of Steven Gough seems a spiteful response from a legal system that doesn’t like to be laughed at.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons. The man pictured is not Steven Gough.]

England riots: watching Basket Case 2 and waiting for Oxford to burn

England riots, Basket Case 2The night before last, I walked into my local convenience store here in Oxford and the pothead manager told me, “Be glad you don’t have to stay here all night.”

“Expecting trouble?” I asked.

“You haven’t heard the news? It’s all over Twitter. They’re going to gather in five different locations and then attack the city center.”

I considered for a moment. The store, and my house, are on the south end of Iffley Road. It’s a nice neighborhood, but just south of it is Rose Hill, full of yobs and hoodies, just the kind of snaggle-toothed lowlifes who’ve been rioting in London and other English cities. I pictured a mob of them swarming down from Rose Hill, burning the nineteenth-century thatched roof houses in Iffley village (including my son’s school), spray painting the Norman church, and charging up Iffley Road in a lager-fueled fury.

They’d hit the store first, beating up the night manager and stealing his weed along with the liquor behind the counter. Refreshed, they’d head up Iffley Road towards city center. Right by my house.

I finished shopping and hurried home. There had already been incidents in nearby towns. A McDonalds set on fire. Shop windows smashed. When I got home my kid said that when he was coming back from day camp he’d seen a lot of police. Even a five-year-old knew something was up.

His bedroom faces the street. I pictured a brick flying through shattered glass. That happened to a friend of mine in London, and it wasn’t even during the riots. I moved him into the back room with his mother. I took the front room.

They soon went to bed. I texted some friends who live in Rose Hill, hardworking immigrants who work overtime to provide a good education for their kids. They didn’t reply. I constantly checked the Thames Valley Police Twitter feed, which said all was quiet but that there were increased patrols. I saw none from my window.

I needed to take my mind off my worries and nothing does that better than a B-movie. Lately I’ve been feeling nostalgic for New York City. Not today’s Disney New York of tourists and yuppies, but the gritty and vibrant 1980s New York of my teens. Besides Driller Killer, no B-movie captures the essence of the old New York better than Basket Case.This tarnished gem features conjoined twins: a regular teenager who looks a bit like I did at that age, and a shrunken lump sticking out his side. They’re separated with an operation, but of course they have a telepathic bond and the lump likes to kill people. The normal brother keeps the evil football-with-claws in a basket, hence the movie’s name. I’d seen Basket Case, so I put on Basket Case 2, which had to be better than the original, right?

In the sequel our “heroes” takes refuge in a mansion run by a mad psychologist who shelters mutants. The house is filled with them. In the first therapy session, the shrink tells the basket case, “I understand your pain, but ripping the faces off people might not be in your best interest.” Somebody should tell the rioters that.

The movie seemed to be taking an interesting turn. I kind of felt sorry for the monster. It never had a chance. I definitely felt sorry for his normal-looking brother, trapped into a lonely and fugitive life because of his evil other half. I soon lost all sympathy. Any regular people who enter the house of freaks are immediately attacked, and the freaks corrupt the normal teen until he’s as evil as themselves. The injustices of the world weren’t making the mutants do bad things, they just used that as an excuse.

I worry about my friends’ kids up in Rose Hill. Surrounded as they are by lager-swilling dropouts waiting to turn 18 so they can get onto the dole like their parents and grandparents, they’re going to have a huge challenge growing up clean. Decent folk in bad neighborhoods face a stark choice: be a victim, get out, or become one of the monsters.

The night passed quietly. The next morning the paper said several fires had been set across Oxford. None were serious. In one case a would-be arsonist stuck a rag into a car’s fuel tank and set the rag alight but somehow the fire didn’t spread. These guys aren’t exactly rocket scientists. I suppose the cops didn’t report the fires on their Twitter feed for fear of encouraging copycat crimes. Makes sense from a policing point of view, but from a taxpayer’s point of view I wasn’t pleased.

The next night I went to the Albion Beatnik, Oxford’s best independent bookshop. There was a reading sponsored by eight cuts gallery, a local small press, and unlike so many literary readings most of the stuff was actually good. This is the England I love, the England of intellect and wit, of culture and community. The England of the rioters is a different country occupying the same space. Shangra-La and Somalia.

I left early to make it back before dark. The city at dusk was quiet. Several times people moved out of my way. Two girls even crossed the street. A lone man is suspect. Once again I slept in my son’s bed in the front room. No bricks this night either, but at 5:30 in the morning I got woken up a hollow thump thump thump. It continued for at least ten minutes, punctuated by incoherent bellowing.

I peeked out the window. A young drunk guy in a hooded sweatshirt was kicking the plastic recycling bins and calling for his friend to let him in. Eventually he realized he had the wrong house and staggered off down the street. He wasn’t going to make it far. I pictured him curling up on the sidewalk and dozing off, oblivious to the early morning pedestrians stepping around him. You see that a lot in England.

As I got back into bed it started to rain. I thought of him asleep out there and smiled.

Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of Spain’s Basque region

Spain, BasqueOne downside to being an immigrant is that you have to learn a whole new set of politics and social divisions. Since moving to Madrid six years ago, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Spain’s Basque region. Everyone has an opinion about it but most haven’t actually been there.

I’ve recently returned from six days hiking in the Basque region with a group of Americans and two Basque guides. One guide, Josu, got elected mayor of his local group of villages on the night of our farewell dinner. This photo shows him at the moment a friend called with the news. In case you can’t guess, he’s the guy in the middle with the ecstatic look on his face. I think I detect a bit of surprise and relief too.

As is typical of locals showing around foreigners, our guides wanted to show us the best their region had to offer and leave us with a good impression of Basque culture. That wouldn’t have worked with a Spanish tour group, by which I mean a group of Spaniards from other parts of Spain. Any mention of Basque culture, the Basque country, or the Basque language will often elicit a variety of reactions ranging from dismissive grunts to angry lectures.

The Basque people have a distinct identity yet have never had their own nation. At times they’ve been oppressed, most recently from 1936, the start of the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s fascists bombed the Basque region, through Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975. Basques often say they suffered the most under the dictatorship. Many Catalans say they suffered the most. I’ve heard Castilians say everyone suffered equally. I have no idea who’s right and to be honest I don’t care. The bastard has been dead for 36 years. Time to move on. To keep the ghost of Franco hovering over Spanish politics is to grant him a power he shouldn’t have had in the first place.Spain’s regions enjoy a great deal of autonomy, but the central government is trying to hold them back from full independence. The Basque independence movement is the oldest and loudest. This perfectly legitimate expression of nationalism has been soured by ETA, a terrorist group that has killed more than 800 people and has set off numerous bombs in nonmilitary targets such as airports.

ETA today looks like an anachronism. The military dictatorship is long gone. It’s legal to speak Basque or Catalan, and in fact they are official languages in those regions. Nobody is being tortured for waving a nationalist flag. These things happened under Franco but they are not happening now. I’ve been to Palestine. I’ve been to Kurdistan. I know what oppression looks like, and I’m sorry if this offends the many Basques who’ve been nice to me over the years but the Basques are not an oppressed people.

It’s not even clear the majority want independence. I’ve asked several Basques the question, “If there was a referendum tomorrow, would the Basques vote for independence?” All of them said no. Our guide Christina said no, adding she herself wouldn’t vote for it. Our other guide Josu, who’s a member of the separatist Bildu party, replied, “Tomorrow? No. People need to learn why they should want independence.”

The central government in Madrid is helping with that. Its fumbling of the economy, stalemate political fighting, and widespread corruption and incompetence are enough to give anyone thoughts of secession. Having lived in six different countries, however, I’m not sure replacing one group of greedy politicians with another group of greedy politicians who happen to speak the local language is going to solve anything.

The one thing that must change here in my new country is that ETA needs to go. A group that sets off bombs in tourist destinations has no place in a democracy and too many people make apologies for them. I asked one Basque man what he thought of the ETA’s 2006 bombing of Madrid’s Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorians. This occurred after ETA had called a ceasefire. His response was to say, “The ceasefire had been going on for nine months with no political progress.”

Well, OK, I can see how that would be frustrating, but why does the answer have to be a bomb? Why not call a general strike, or block the highways with tractors like the French farmers do? Nonviolent direct action. The airport bombing seems to have been intended to derail the peace process rather than encourage it. Like other terrorist groups, ETA thrives on conflict. If it accomplished its goals it would lose its reason for existence.

And that’s why ETA remains a threat to everyone in Spain–tourists, Spaniards, immigrants like me, and the Basques themselves. As one Basque woman told me, “I know people who had to leave the Basque country because of threats from ETA. If they ask for a revolutionary tax and you don’t pay, that’s it, they kidnap you.”

Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Visitors come to experience both its present and past. Its sunny beaches and formidable castles. Its lively cuisine and Renaissance art. But if all Spanish citizens–whether they call themselves Spanish, Basque, or Catalan–can’t stop pointing fingers and get over their collective past, tourists won’t have a Spain to visit.

One member of our group emailed Josu after the election.

“You were kind enough to translate a motto that I wanted in Basque for a Makil walking stick that I am having made: “Makil zuzena egia erakusten du.” (The straight stick points true.). That’s not a bad political motto to use. Read that every Monday before you start your week. That is why you ran for office.”

Sounds like good advice for all politicians in Spain, whether they call themselves Spanish or not.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own. Especially this post.

Blackbeard’s pirate ship gives up its anchor

pirate, pirates, Blackbeard
A pirate ship owned by the notorious Blackbeard is being investigated by archaeologists, who have just retrieved one of its anchors.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, was grounded in 1718 while trying to enter Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard had just come from blockading Charleston until he received a ransom. Currently the wreck lies in only 20 feet of water, as easily accessible to archaeologists as Captain Kidd’s pirate ship, which will soon become an underwater museum.

The anchor, which is 11 feet long and weighs 2,200 lbs, is only one of thousands of artifacts recovered from the ship in recent years.

While Blackbeard transferred to another of his ships and continued pirating, he didn’t survive for long. He was hunted down and killed in a fierce fight in late 1718, shown here in a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Blackbeard was decapitated and his head hung from the bowsprit.

Blackbeard was one of the kinder pirates. There’s no record that he hurt his captives or his crew. He could be violent when opposed, though, and in reality no pirate fit the heroic adventurer stereotype of Hollywood and Johnny Depp. That’s just a romanticism. One wonders what tales people will spin about the Somali pirates 300 years from now.

For more information about this amazing dig, check out The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project’s website.

Junkie steals 100-year-old morphine, doesn’t get high

morphine, junkie
There’s nobody quite as determined or stupid as a junkie.

Maybe it’s hard to buy a hit on the streets of Cashmere, Washington, or maybe this particular junkie was short of cash. In any case, someone with a craving for drugs broke into the Cashmere Historic Museum and Pioneer Village and made off with a bottle of morphine pills dating back to World War One.

A doctor interviewed by the Wenatchee World newspaper said that the century-old pills would have long since lost their potency and wouldn’t have any effect at all, good or bad.

The intruder left a trail of destruction in his or her wake, as junkies usually do. Museum officials found a broken fence, a broken door, and a trashed display case. The case was a rare original from a period doctor’s office dating to 1890. Volunteers are now cleaning up the office so they can reopen it to the public.

This isn’t the first time the museum has been broken into. Its historic saloon has been burgled a couple of times by drunks looking for booze. There’s no alcohol in the saloon, and the folks at the Cashmere Historic Museum and Pioneer Village may want to rethink having real medication on display in their doctor’s office, even if it hasn’t been able to get anyone high since Burroughs was in short pants.

[Morphine cure ad c.1900 courtesy Mike Cline via Wikimedia Commons]