Cambridge Underground 1990 pp 59-62

Cavers in Relation to Monkey Money (and other tails)

By Julian Todd

As I have tried to say, on record, several times, if we knew all the reasons why anyone would want to go caving, as we do, we would have gained a pretty good insight into what life is all about. Since, in this culture, it is not generally acceptable to have profound opinions relating to the meaning of life (and, in cultures where they do promote Meaning of Life insights, they sit on hills, meditate a lot and don't go caving at all), we can't answer tricky questions like that, and so anyone who asks us about it is out of luck. "Why do you go caving?" I get asked when I return from a wet weekend, bruised, exhausted, with flu symptoms, drippy nose and a Monday morning work crisis on my hands. And I say, "Because I like it," and that's the end of the question.

Incidentally, Rambo, in his first film, went caving through a wet cave with no wetsuit, no electric light and no call-out time. He burned his shirt on the end of a stick and was bitten by man-eating rats because it was better than being cornered by two dozen American policemen. And cavemen didn't really go caving either; they just lived in caves because most of them were bad at building houses, what with no suburban housing estates to move into or DIY stores to shop at.

Back to the question: Why do we go caving? The most abortive answer I have ever heard was given by some French Freud-based crank who said that a cave is an adult's retreat into the womb. And birds fly because of the hot air in their lungs. Meanwhile I read in The Guardian last year - and this is no joke - of an eccentric psychiatrist who claimed that part of the problem with schizophrenia, and other mild non-descript disorders of the idios kosmos, was the need to retreat for a while back into the safety of the womb. So, in a swimming pool, he constructed a giant artificial womb: a large submerged bag decorated with paintings of pulsating red arteries and veins on the inside, and, in the water outside, he surrounded it with big bass speakers playing noises of heartbeat and gut motions recorded from the interior of a woman. The doctor would spend a day and a half teaching his patients how to scuba dive in the pool before placing them into the womb to float around for an hour or two. He could continue providing this treatment on the NHS because he had a success rate of about 50%!

Even the reporter, trying to present The Balanced View, noticed there was something fishy going on. A couple of patients who had been cured by this method had since left hospital and taken up the sport of Scuba Diving. Perhaps, she said, this was the active ingredient: learning to do something entirely new and totally engulphing, such as Scuba Diving. It is easy to see that had the doctor been a purist he would have dispensed with aqualungs, flippers, wetsuit, swimming pool, lead belt, mask and demand valve; just have a warm, wet, translucent army-issue corpse bag too small to do anything but kick and squirm around in foetal position under a pile of meat-factory left over blood and offal with an umbilical-cordlike breathing-tube mouth to mouth resusitated with somebody else's used air. What a schizophrenic patient would do under these conditions has not, to my knowledge, been tested. Though I don't much trust those doctors from the Victorian era - they got up to some nasty things in their mental asylums.

Back to reality. And what a reality it is! Have you seen the people who run it? They tend to be the sorts of people who would never go caving in their lives from now on - maybe as a child, but never as an adult! Caves: horrible damp holes you have to thrust your body through, on your side, with your arms and legs in mud and your face in gravel, fighting your mind back from the verge of overwhelming claustrophobia - that helpless feeling of the world closing in on you from all sides! Caves are places where you lose your dignity, and crawl like a snake in a waste heap; the place for your feet is on the floor, in nice brown leather shoes, with the rest of you standing vertically above them, not touching the floor, in a suit, gold watch on the wrist, fresh hairstyle, refined table manners and conversing with other examples of normal human civilized beings about big business and setting up your own city developement land agency. "Oh, this is a very nice bit of land here! Good view of the sky. Let's build a skyscraper!" After all, every rich monkey wants his own tall tree.

He calls in his architect who computer-generates a 3-dimensional design based on congruent rectangles, everywhere the same shape: four walls, floor, ceiling, desk, chair, carpet, filing cabinet, desk-tops, doors, erasers and typing paper. The only curvy things are the toilets. There's nothing to swing off or climb up, and can you imagine foraging in such a place? It's enough to drive a monkey mad. Burglary is the only answer. A burglar is allowed to climb around and grope things, slip through tight windows and crawl behind bars. Purely for financial gain, you understand. There is no other reason, according to self-appointed guardians of decent behavior, for caving related activities in the city, town or village.

It's a matter of motivation, you see. Like learning to scuba dive because the psychologist says you can float in his fake, unrealistic womb underwater to get out of the mental hospital. Or pratting around in a cave to experience some decent form of architecture not thought up by some square-eyed block-head trying to satisfy his client who doesn't know what he wants. Who, if he had been too imaginative, would complain: "Here, why does this corridor slope down jaggedly at 60 degrees to the vertical so that I have to cling onto the banister with both hands to save my life?" To which the architect would reply, "Shove yourself in a cave, or go climb a tree and ask the same question, and get the answer: Because nature grew it that way!" In normality when men build their own environment, hell quits for lunch, and you get things like eight-lane tar-encrusted motorways which are the same at the beginning as at the end and at every point in between.

When work is done and the hours are gone and you've blandly travelled wherever you have to go, there are man-made monkey places to spend time at: roller-coaster fun parks and dry ski slopes. I have had someone claim at me over dinner, after much heated dodging around the point, that money, which he was so eager to get, was for spending on his (future) house, wife, kids, fast car and... and... and skiing holidays, for example (his only example). I was unable to convince him that that was not enough reason to motivate him into unsound selfish anti-social ideology (by his own admission) to amass the wealth he had been talking about. Because: Why not, if skiing was what he wanted to do, cunningly work towards becoming a hotel manager in the Alps? Probably because the way we do things here is to siphon everything in our lives through Money; work hard in dreary job to get money to buy new house instead of work hard at interesting job of building new house in first place! Or perhaps we're still just as bad as cavemen at building things even though we do have DIY stores. Cavemen were the ones who invented agriculture, the idea of working hard to grow your own food instead of wandering around, picking what has grown there by itself and going hungry every so often - reminds me of my visits to the kitchen these days.

With so much going on above the ground, caving has a real strange effect on me. I feel freer in a cave. This is odd because in no place except, perhaps, in jail am I so trapped. I have no money, I can't buy things, I can't listen to the radio or watch TV, I can't sit in a comfy chair and read official secrets. Not that I would want to do such things. The set of things I can do in a cave is very limited. Shall I squeeze over this boulder or dive down that pitch? Quite quickly new cavers learn how to choose, out of the few things they can do, which actions are the right actions. Quite often there is no choice at all, for any given mood. When I'm in the mood for poking around, I have no choice but to force myself into every nook and cranny I can see in each side-passage. If this is the wrong thing to do, it could be because my party is running short of time, in which case my mood is a rushed one, and hence in tune with what I do. It's a wonderful feeling to act according to your feelings. It's the best thing in life. When you race down a mountain, when you swim underwater, when you burn your hand and shout, when you sneak into certain bedrooms at night, when you get drunk and giggle too much, when you're stoned on rock'n'roll, when you can't stay awake any longer, when you skate on a river, when you drive your car too fast through the twilight avenues you are like an animal living by instinct, hardly conscious at all. It's a dreamstate, so elusive and hard to find. And so impossible to publically look for.

Like I say, animals have got it made. They are always in a dreamstate. They can do anything. They are, and they don't want to be more. You don't find a cat riding a horse, or a lizard riding an eagle, or a tortoise in a submarine, or a donkey on a hang-glider. Peacocks don't wear trousers. They have got what it takes. They neither need nor want augmentation. Bats have sonar, they don't have any torches. And how are we better than animals? We can think, build unbeautiful things and get bored. If I could lie in the sun all day as well as the ducks on the riverbank can, I'd do it every day. Let any animal free in its correct environment and it gets along just fine. A cave is an incorrect environment for a human being, but obviously it is correct in a certain number of ways. Firstly, it is engulphing. The business at hand is the only business at hand. And there is nothing in this business more engulphing than an emergency. Or a near emergency. We can talk about that. And we do talk about it all the time. 'Remember that day we did the gorge La Fosca and it went on for miles, we thought we'd never get out alive...'

One thing I've become aware of in this field, at least with certain classes of strangers is: You Are What You Bullshit. You have to convince people you are a person of stature, a man not to mess around with. By the quality of your bullshit you can gain a reputation and get yourself invited onto expeditions and wild parties where you can manufacture even more persistent up-to-date bullshit!

However, in recent times I have noticed the bullshit quality has gone down hill a bit. It's becoming ragged at the edges. Be honest, how many of you have given the slightest advance thought as to what to bullshit this evening in the pub? Do you stand up in front of your taperecorder and practice it out loud even occasionally? Why not create a card index of your best bullshit? Call it your Bullshit Wardrobe. A little bit of effort can go a long way. Win friends. Save money. Feel good. Look good. Say, maybe we should do the same with our clothes. It'd make better first impressions. Look at those holes and rips. Sew them up so they are better to wear and show. This has to be done skillfully for it is dishonest to fabricate alterations in bullshit.

And while on the subject of wear, let me say a few words about the gear freak in all of us. Yes, it's bodily augmentation time again! Jingly-jangly, warmth, fabric, Goretex, boots, bicycle helmets, goggles, beards, wetsuits, mittens, gear belts and chain-mail bondage. And the ultimate question is: Why is gear so embarrassing to wear in public? One is so often cunningly creating situations in which it is necessary to wear gear. Then one can say, "Yes, I have to wear these stupid coloured skiing goggles because otherwise I will get snow-blindness. They are necessary. Anyway, everyone else is wearing them." For an example of extreme blatancy, let us examine the army. They used to have really beautiful, excellently crafted metal armour for knights to wear to stop swords going through them. Then some bastard invented the musket. After that, soldiers had to wear fancy dress. "Sergeant, why do we have to wear these stupid embroidered jackets with the tassels and hats like licorice allsorts?" "Because the Sergeant will have you shot if you don't! Now you have a justification to stop feeling so self-conscious, you can get on with the job of feeling important, mighty and indestructible..." Fortunately they weren't. So now everybody wears camouflage gear and plays Skirmish. It's a uniform. Soldiers wear it even when they drive their jungle proof vans through Cambridge. Some of them have boot polish on their face.

So where does it leave us in the end? Frankly, I'll say I couldn't give a toss. At least that's my story. If you can find anything of value in the above after reading it fifteen times, it's yours entirely. I didn't mean it. I only wrote it because I got into this crazy mood, so I am not responsible. It's the editor's fault; he forced me to do it. (And he is now regretting it! - Ed)

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