Fiction

The Runner

 
Overwork and pressure have put grit in his blood. Skin shadowy, tanned ashen from artificial light, mouth soured by stale air, back teeth aching from the lock-jaw of stress. There is shrapnel in his back; shot through with gristle, steel cables of torsion in his neck. His blood pumps thickly and sluggishly, sludging through brittle arteries, pooling as concrete in his chest. Later that night, insomnia mocks sleep – acid burning through bone-dry eyelids. Blinking blindly in the sickly glow of dawn, the road offers an escape.

At the outset there is clunking dyssynchrony, the awkwardness of a mind and body malaligned. He takes long, clumsy strides, lengthening stiffened limbs, bleeding off tension from chronically knotted shoulders. Stretching the abdominal walls, he pulls and blows the bellows to fill the tanks, preparing the body for performance. This ritual reminds him of accomplishments past, assuring of capability. After a time, the machinery melts down into autonomy in motion.

In the forest dene there is a multitude of birdsong, wind rustling leaves, icy water sloshing over moss-glossed rocks. Deliberately lost in the solace of nature, he imagines himself as the last man on Earth. This isolation is life-affirming, every foot-beat taking him further from the mess of an interconnected world. There is no collaboration or competition here; he runs for himself.

The low-flying sun splashes weakly through the smashed branches of wintered trees, tethered to a silvered horizon, mourning summer skies. Frosted breath is whipped away in his wake, vapour dissolving into the ether. Picking up pace, he becomes thermogenic; encapsulated in his micro-climate. The elements are matterless now.

Burning desperation produces speed, a catalytic converter fueled by poison. He is pace-conscious, torching torpor in the furnace, breaking down walls of negativity. Drinking in the purified air, he visualises torrents of life-giving oxygen rocketing through sixty thousand miles of veins to set his frozen fingertips afire.

Approaching the escarpment, self-talk is the primer. With single-pointed focus propelling him into the climb, he accepts that pain awaits post-summit. Willing his numbed arms to pump like pistons, mind over matter launches his leaden legs against gravity’s grip. The jet fuel of adrenaline throttles his hammering heart, lungs screaming with air-hunger, too small for the task. Dry aspiration hacks his throat, a hot nausea washed away in victory.

In gentle descent, the storm subsides into awareness of foot-strikes. Flesh and bone slip through space, invisible contrails of energy pouring into the atmosphere. A rhythm regulates recovery; respiration slowing, pulse thrumming reassuringly.

Charged with vitality, gratitude springs from the depths of a memory: a near-fatal car crash, a shattered leg rebuilt, the end of anaemic convalescence in a bitterly black depression. In a foreign place he once called home, on an empty beach bordering a desert, he set out to test himself; to bring an end to his recovery. Despite the proof in the slow, painful mileage, he felt a maddening urge to sprint, the need to face down a spectre of doubt. In the roar of a scalding wind, he saw himself from above: the crescendo peaking, barely skimming the sand on the verge of flight, shimmering distance trailing triumphantly, sunlight sparking off the ocean. Crashing headlong into the purifying surf, he was suffused with existential awareness. The memory has never left him.

Running is his remedy for a darkening sky, a big warm breeze that blows in the blue. Running is his anti-venom, the coolant for his over-wrought nervous system, a trial by fire offering redemption through suffering. In its afterglow, cognitive clarity and sentient calm bring him profound peace.

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Opinion

Kardashian Kult(ure)

Part 1 : Written In The Stars

Kim, Khloé, Kourtney, Kendall and Kylie. Like an alliterative roll-call of Disney princesses, the five sisters of Kris Jenner’s powerhouse have become the ultimate fantasy for Millennial women. With a combined social media following of 700 million impressionable young people, the Kardashian-Jenners now influence the equivalent of 9% of the population of Earth.

A decade in, their Reality TV show ‘Keeping Up With the Kardashians’ has been the most watched series on the ‘E!’ channel for 7 years, airing in 167 countries and spawning 9 spin-off series. It hit its peak in 2011, with coverage of Kim Kardashian marrying Kris Humphries attracting 10.5 million viewers (they divorced a few months later). In its 14th season, KUTWK still draws over 2 million viewers per episode, while E! have recently paid the family £115 million to commit to 5 more seasons.

In essence, the Kardashian-Jenners have developed a formula to monetise their lives through the manipulation of mainstream and social media. Leveraging their fame at every opportunity, they have cashed in on product endorsements, clothing lines, cosmetics, books and apps, building a £250 million dynasty in the process.

Family frontrunner Kim Kardashian-West has an influence on modern culture that is as difficult to overestimate as it is to comprehend: on Twitter alone – arguably the most cerebral of the social media networks – she has more followers than the BBC, CNN, Donald Trump, Theresa May, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton or Bill Gates. Variously described as a reality TV personality, socialite, model, and entrepreneur, her combined social media following now stands at 189 million, while her personal fortune sits at around £130 million. In 2015, Time Magazine named her as one of the most influential people in the world. As a role model and major authority within youth culture, hordes of youngsters around the globe mimic her behaviour and seem to share her world view.

Little sister Kylie Jenner is catching up fast. At 20-years-old, she is Kim’s junior by 17 years. Featured in TIME Magazine’s list of ‘Most Influential Teens’ last year, her combined social media reach of over 150 million followers makes her one of the highest profile media personalities of all time. Often described as reality TV star, style icon, fashion designer, entrepreneur and author, her app debuted at number one on the iTunes store, while Kylie Cosmetics posted revenue of £320 million in its first 18 months and is on track to be a billion-dollar brand within five years.

And that’s just Kim and Kylie. Kendall Jenner, for example, is reportedly paid £280,000 for a single Instagram post. Simply put, the Kardashian-Jenner sisters are a living, breathing global brand, the likes of which has never been seen before. Together, they are the highest profile members of the most famous family on Earth, appealing to women in a way that no other celebrities have been able to.

Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Cosmopolitan.
Credit: Frazer Harrison / Getty Images for Cosmopolitan.

Dismissed by many as a reflection of a sick society, heavily criticised for being underserving of their fame and material success, the reluctance of the wider community to take the Kardashian-Jenners seriously overlooks one fact: they are the kingpins of a cultural phenomenon that is likely to have far-reaching effects in terms of the values that an entire generation grow up to embrace. But how has this happened, and why?

In our mega-connected society of information overload, change often happens faster than we can understand it. It is easy to forget that widespread use of the internet only began some twenty years ago, and that over 80% of the developed world are online on a daily basis. The flood of information has produced a major cultural shift, not only in how we view ourselves and value others, but also in how we define what it means to be an inspirational person. Looking back to the 18th Century, an individual became a celebrity only as a by-product of outstanding achievement. Charity workers, political reformers, innovative thinkers, scientists and doctors: these were the people literally celebrated by the public because their actions improved the lives of their fellow human beings. Parents encouraged their children to follow in the footsteps of these celebrities for evolutionary reasons: it made it more likely that their offspring would benefit the human race. Fame served a positive purpose.

Nowadays, the relationship between fame and sociological achievement has weakened to the point of being practically non-existent. The five most famous people in the world are made up of four heavily manufactured pop stars and a footballer. Through Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, this handful of celebrities regularly reach and influence over a billion people. In this era of connectedness and scientific progress, we might expect the values of society to develop in parallel. Why is it then that the exact opposite is true? Why does an entire generation seem to ignore the members of our society who improve our world, yet hero-worship those that are obviously narcissistic and self-serving?

Part of the answer lies behind the curtain of hyper-capitalism, because the cleverly concealed reality of modern fame is that it is the Siamese twin of consumerism. It is no coincidence that in olden times, when people became famous as a result of genuine achievement, consumerism didn’t exist. In his book ‘Sapiens’, Noah Yuval Harari explains that the Industrial Revolution – the transition to mass production through the use of machines – created a previously unimaginable situation in which the supply of products exceeded demand:

‘The modern capitalist economy must constantly increase production if it is to survive, like a shark that must swim or suffocate. Yet it’s not enough just to produce. Somebody must also buy the products, or industrialists and investors alike will go bust. To prevent this catastrophe and to make sure that people will always buy whatever new stuff industry produces, a new kind of ethic appeared: consumerism.’

Before consumerism, whenever supply exceeded demand, producers would reduce supply until balance was restored. But harmony was no good for the capitalists, so they artificially stimulated demand instead. With their ability to manipulate consumers proven, it quickly become a game of choice and competition. As Harari puts it:

‘An entirely new problem was born: who is going to buy all this stuff?’

For the advertisers tasked with ensuring that all the stuff would be bought, the more pressing question was: ‘who is going to sell it?’. Fast forward to modern times: the explosive growth we’ve seen in the demand for celebrities has been driven by the ever-increasing amounts of stuff that need to be sold. Understood this way, celebrities of the Kardashian-Jenner variety can be viewed as puppets that received the breath of life from Reality TV. The rise of this format of entertainment goes hand in hand with the promotion of rampant consumerism.

As the quantity of celebrities has rocketed to meet demand, so the quality of celebrities has plummeted. Imagine an enormous motor show featuring endless amounts of every model of car known to man. Not every car can be a head-turning Lamborghini – huge numbers of Ford Ka’s jostle for position too. How do you get a Ford Ka noticed? A crude but undeniably effective method is to drive it straight into a brick wall. This is what ‘Reality TV’ is: a platform where ordinary people can appear extraordinary, providing of course that they are willing to degrade themselves in some – preferably every – way. The juicier the celebrity’s life story, the more embarrassing, outrageous, overtly sexualised and pseudo-tragic it can be made to sound, the greater the public fascination. Whether the celebrity happens to possess any talent is irrelevant; talent is no longer a pre-requisite for public fascination. The greater the celebrity’s following, the more fundamentally worthless and overpriced stuff they can sell. In this way, Reality TV can be seen as a production line of generic celebrities – it churns out walking, talking advertising boards to be exploited by the capitalist puppeteers who pull the strings from behind the curtain.

Perhaps the reality of (un)reality TV is an inconvenient truth that the puppeteers never want the audience to understand: those who operate the levers of society only award fame to those who can sell products on their behalf. The modern celebrity is merely a commodity to be traded, the thriving marketplace our artificially created consumerist ideology. The personalities of the Kardashian-Jenners are contrived to manipulate the emotions of their viewers, their primary goal is to whet the appetite for consumption. Modern fame, then, is an illusion: without anything to sell, the ‘famous for being famous’ breed of celebrity would simply vanish in a puff of bronzer.

The architects of hyper-consumerism tell us that ‘winning at life’ amounts to owning supercars, wearing diamonds, spraying enormous bottles of staggeringly expensive champagne into swimming pools and spending £10 million on a wedding. In order to normalise the absurd, they cast celebrity actors such as the Kardashian-Jenners as weapons of mass consumption, perfectly positioned to hypnotise their punters with the cartoony illusion of what life could be like if money and morality were no object. And who would deny that the puppeteers have been incredibly successful? We are all good little consumers who buy endless amounts of goods that we don’t really need, cannot really afford, and perhaps – deep down – don’t even want.


Extract from the Modern Celebrity Handbook: Portray yourself as being better than your followers. You can achieve this through distorting reality. When challenged, admit nothing; deny everything. Once trust is established, persuade your followers that there is something wrong with them. When they feel inadequate, sell them something that can fix it; something they believe will make them just like you! Ensure that any happiness they feel is only superficial and fleeting. Constant comparison is the key here (remember what President Roosevelt said – comparison is the thief of joy!) 👍


Generalised insecurity works wonders for stimulating market demand. Part of the fascination with the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kylie Jenner comes from the compulsion to covet the unattainable. The problem is that it is unattainable because it is not real: airbrushing, reshaping filters, cosmetic surgery, makeup artists, personal trainers, dieticians and the endless, unwavering distortion and denial. Here lies the moral problem with celebrities who project media fantasy as their objective reality.

Though the phenomenon of celebrity per se can be explained this way, it doesn’t necessarily explain why the Kardashian-Jenners in particular have become the most famous family in the world. Ironically, part of the appeal may be related to their perceived ‘family values’. In a modern online world, where family bonds are increasingly strained and a lack of community is evident everywhere, the Kardashian-Jenners do come across as a tightly knit family unit on screen. Enhanced by their relentless self-documenting on social media, this seems to give their followers a real sense of connectedness – almost as good as the real thing.

Postfeminism has played a part, too. In 2016, Durham University student Eliza Cummings-Cove chose KUTWK as the subject of her sociology dissertation. Although her choice of subject matter raised some academic eyebrows in the beginning, the dissertation won her a first class honours degree. In it, she explored whether the ongoing drama of the public lives of the Kardashian-Jenner sisters constitutes a postfeminist fairy tale. In explaining the difference between the traditional fairy tale and the postfeminist version, she wrote:

‘Unlike the one dimensional fairy tale Princesses of the past, the heroines of these new tales embody the ideals of postfeminism – they are beautiful, intelligent, sexually liberated, wealthy, successful in their careers, and still able to catch a Prince Charming.’

She also argued that the fairy tales have always served an important purpose in shaping society:

‘…to inspire individuals and provide a framework they can apply in constructing their own lives and selves.’

As far as the majority of Millennial women are concerned, the Kardashian-Jenners certainly seem to ‘have it all’: fame, money, beauty, career, close family and loyal friends. As the saying goes: women want to be them, men want to be with them.

Time and place have also been a major factor. To mark the beginning of 2007, Time magazine awarded their famous annual Person of the Year to ‘You’, thereby placing readers in the same bracket as recent winners Bill Gates, Bono and George W. Bush. The ‘winners portrait’ was an image of a computer screen with a mirrored surface, reflecting the face of the reader:

Time Cover

In his book ‘Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us’, Will Storr argues that Time had correctly identified that the internet was morphing from an open source of information into a social arena:

‘Its platforms would flatten hierarchies further, giving every ‘I’ a voice, a character, a presence, a brand. It would ride on top of our increasing sense of individualism, taking the neoliberal game of life to previously unimagined places, pitching self against self in a ceaseless competition for followers, feedback and likes.’

Between 2006 and 2008, the number of Facebook users grew from 12 million to 150 million, boosted by Steve Jobs unleashing the iPhone in January of 2007. In the space of a year, Twitter went from hosting 100,000 tweets per month to 25 million. The arrival of social media and its integration with Reality TV made the Kardashian family the first candidates for 24/7 voyeurism (Kim Kardashian’s sex tape was released at the peak of this communications revolution). With the cultural landscape in flux, a concept like KUTWK fulfilled society’s need for a public drama to reflect modern aspirations. The stage had been set, a lead actor was required, and a fame-hungry Kim Kardashian was happy to bare all for the spotlight.

In 2007, Kim Kardashian willingly entered into a contractual agreement with Vivid Entertainment, securing herself a share in the profits and authorising the company to advertise and distribute her sex tape.
In 2007, Kim Kardashian willingly entered into a contractual agreement with Vivid Entertainment, securing herself a share in the profits and authorising the company to advertise and distribute her sex tape. Legal experts agree that it is highly unlikely that she would not have been able to obtain an injunction to prevent its distribution. The tape led to the commissioning of KUWTK and launched her and her family to superstardom.

Increasingly these days, the majority of youth seem convinced that they are special, naturally deserving of a luxury lifestyle, too good for ordinary work and entitled to public recognition for their inherent extraordinariness. This goes hand in hand with having no patience for anything other than instant gratification. The Kardashians fed directly into this – their unremarkable CV’s propped up the new fantasy that anyone could become rich and famous, without any discernible talent and without the many years of hard worthwhile work that yields genuine achievement. Ultimately, the sisters stole the show because they were so apparently undeserving of it all, which made them all the more relatable.

The stars were now perfectly aligned: Consumerism, Hyper-Capitalism, Individualism and Post-Feminism, all coming together in a universe of deeply dissatisfied Millennials. As a result, the family has become a symbol of the 21st Century zeitgeist, in which wholesome values have been erased and narcissism has been normalised to such an extent that it can be openly and unashamedly admired.

KARDASHIAN Cover

Part 2 : Mirror, Mirror

Humans are naturally social creatures. Raised in groups, we have evolved to learn by imitation; by watching and subconsciously copying other humans. In psychology, this is known as mirroring – something that begins in infancy when babies start to automatically mimic those around them.

The importance of mirroring cannot be underestimated: when it fails, its absence is one of the key indicators of autism and other social disabilities. At its core, mirroring enables the transfer of information between people and down generations, bypassing the painfully slow process of genetic inheritance. This is one of the reasons the human race is able to develop so much faster than other animals.

Mirroring differs from straightforward imitation in two ways: it is unintentional, and the people involved tend to be unaware of it. To an outside observer however, mirroring can be seen in people who subconsciously imitate the body language or speech patterns of others, particularly in the company of friends or family. If you have ever noticed someone’s accent changing to fit in with the person they’re talking to, you have witnessed mirroring. Similarly, its most basic and spontaneous form can be seen in contagious yawning. Its function is to develop empathy and human connection.

MirroringObama

A key driver of mirroring is the need to be accepted, and it is at its strongest in young developing adults. This is a good thing for human evolution, provided that worthy human traits such as kindness, integrity and honesty are being mirrored. As a form social learning, its mechanism is so powerful that it leads to the development of traditions, which helps to weave the fabric of our culture.

Increasingly today, our social environment is as much online as it is physical: a recent study found that the average person now spends 8 hours per day consuming various forms of digital media, 4 hours of which is on their smartphone, with over 2 hours spent actively engaging in social media. This is an increase of 9% from 2016 and 13% from 2005. Given that we are only awake for around 16 hours a day, this means that we now spend half our lives consuming digital media. As a result, human social networks have transcended physical interaction, expanding to a global level through the virtual world of the internet.

In any social environment, humans automatically mirror people that they view as ‘successful’. Each generation defines success according to its culture, and – thanks to consumerism and hyper-capitalism – most Millennials measure success in terms of beauty, wealth and fame. Undoubtedly, these characteristics are the hallmarks of the typical celebrity image.

TWITTER TOP 10

As levels of mirroring increase in line with exposure, so digital media exposes us to a never-ending barrage of celebrities, particularly through their social media platforms. When a fan follows a celebrity on social media, they feel an emotional connection; as though they are following a friend. This creates a kind of one-way relationship known as parasocial interaction (parasocial as in paranormal, whereby para means beyond). This phenomenon goes into overdrive when the fan is given what appears to be an intimate look into the personal life of the celebrity, which is a key strategy of Kim Kardashian and – particularly – Kylie Jenner. The resulting false familiarity creates a real sense of ‘knowing’ the celebrity, creating the perfect social conditions for mirroring. Incidentally, though not accidentally, this also creates trust – the essential ingredient in any successful product endorsement.

KyliePublicImage

Media mirroring is not confined to doting teenage fans: fully fledged adults are susceptible too – it occurs at the subconscious level, across all age groups and levels of intelligence. This is precisely how fashions, behaviours, beliefs and attitudes become popular, and is why celebrities are often called ‘influencers’ and ‘trend-setters’. Given that as many as 700 million fans are watching and mirroring the Kardashian-Jenners – whose every move is documented for endless streaming broadcast from their iPhones – does it not make sense for society to be concerned about the message they are transmitting?

The message, it seems, is this: to be beautiful, rich and famous is to be a success. To be anything else is to be a failure. In other words, external values are more important than internal values – augmenting your appearance, having lots of money and being well known is more important than nurturing meaningful relationships, community spirit and helping the less fortunate. Nothing illustrates this mentality better than the Twitter backlash that followed Kim Kardashian’s most infamous naked selfie (taken, rather aptly, in the mirror).

Screen Shot 2017-11-19 at 17.48.11

CGK

Here we see Chloë Grace Moretz – recognising the responsibility that comes with the platform celebrities are given – voicing her concern over the message that Kardashian’s behaviour might be sending to her impressionable young followers. Rather than engage in any meaningful debate about the issues raised, Kardashian attempts to justify her behaviour with her earnings, before seeking to belittle Moretz for being relatively unfamous. It could be argued that this brief exchange gives an insight into Kardashian’s system of values: image is everything, a non-famous person has less worth, and collateral damage to society is an acceptable consequence of the accumulation of wealth.

If the driving force of celebrity culture is rising hyper-capitalism, and if hyper-capitalism prioritises the material and the superficial over the meaningful and sincere, mirroring is likely to have knock-on effects on the lives that the younger generation lead.

An indicator of what those effects might be comes from a study by the University of Rochester in New York, which set out to establish whether the attainment of good looks, wealth and fame can improve quality of life. Using in-depth psychological surveys, the researchers assessed participants in key areas, including satisfaction, self-esteem, anxiety, stress, and the experience of positive and negative emotions. Aspirations were identified as either ‘intrinsic’ or ‘extrinsic’, with the participants – all young adults – asked how much they valued having ‘deep, enduring relationships’ and ‘helping others to improve their lives’ (intrinsic goals) versus being ‘a wealthy person’ and ‘achieving the look I’ve been after’ (extrinsic goals). Respondents also reported the degree to which they had attained these things.

As with earlier research, the study confirmed that the more committed a person is to a goal, the greater the chance of success. But unlike previous findings, this analysis showed that achieving certain goals may not actually make a person happy. As lead researcher Chris Niemiec explains:

“There is a strong tradition in psychology that says if you value goals and attain them, wellness will follow…but these earlier studies didn’t consider the content of the goals. What is striking and paradoxical about this research is that it shows that reaching materialistic and image-related milestones actually contributes to ill-being. Despite their accomplishments, individuals experience more negative emotions like shame and anger and more physical symptoms of anxiety such as head-aches, stomach-aches, and loss of energy. By contrast, individuals who value personal growth, close relationships, community involvement, and physical health are more satisfied as they meet success in those areas. They experience a deeper sense of well-being, more positive feelings toward themselves, richer connections with others, and fewer physical signs of stress.”

The study concludes that intrinsic aspirations make people happy because they fulfil their core needs, adding that striving for wealth and adulation does little to satisfy these deeply human requirements:

“Craving money and adoration can also lead to a preoccupation with ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ – upward social comparisons that breed feelings of inadequacy and jealousy. Intrinsic aspirations seem to be more closely related to the self, to what’s inside the self, rather than to what’s outside the self.”

In a culture where people increasingly judge a book by its cover, rather than its content, the looming problem is obvious.


To read Part 1, click here 

Part 3 Coming Soon : ‘Nothing Compares To You’


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Business

Dream Responsibly

In an age when entrepreneurism has exploded in popularity – egged on by the innumerable Apprentice-esque TV shows that make such a mockery of the profession – it’s hardly surprising that a chasmic gap has opened up between the aspiration and the reality. This article is intended as an antidote to those typically saccharine and unrealistic popular portrayals.

While starting a business may have the potential to provide you with a more rewarding life, there are no guarantees and no shortcuts. Taking the plunge is not for the faint of heart – the mortality rate remains nightmarishly high. Of the half a million businesses that will be launched in the UK in 2017, a quarter will fail within year one. Half will not see the end of year three.

Assuming that you are still reading this (having resisted the urge to gingerly retreat to the safety of gainful employment), the good news is that new businesses do survive, and whether you become a positive or a negative statistic is mostly within your control. Laying a solid foundation with meticulous planning – before building on it with a diligent work ethic – remains the cornerstone of commercial success.

Start With Why

Before taking the first step, I urge you to examine your true motivations for embarking on such an epically arduous journey. Understanding what it is that brings meaning to your life will dictate the appropriate route to take. I say this because more and more people these days feel an overarching need to be busy. Perpetually busy people equate being busy with being important and of value, i.e their self-esteem is inextricably linked to their level of work activity. Their maniacal mantra is: ‘I am in the business of busyness – the busier the better!’ If this describes you, you are perfectly suited to the micro-management model of business building, whereby you are both the boss and the employee. Robert Frost hit your nail squarely on the head when he wrote: ‘By working faithfully eight hours a day, you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.’ In fact – if you work frantically enough – you can avoid any meaningful engagement with your personal life whatsoever.

If your motivation is purely monetary, you may be interested to know that numerous studies conducted over the past decade have conclusively proven that money really does buy happiness. There is a small footnote to this however: the plateau is approximately £50,000 per annum; anything you earn beyond will make little or no difference to your level of happiness. Furthermore, chronically high levels of stress – like those that come with establishing your own business – tend to be a real happiness-buster over time. Incidentally, the ‘Buying Happiness’ research also shows that the way in which you spend your money makes a significant difference to how happy it can make you. In particular, a life experience such as a restful holiday provides considerably more lasting happiness than material goods. This presents quite the catch 22 for the aforementioned berserkly busy business people, who are surely too busy to take a holiday; and would only spend the holiday thinking about work if they did. Off to Louis Vuitton they go!

If, like me, your motivation is freedom – in terms of your time, quality of life and financial means – my recommendation is that you design and build your company as a machine that will not ultimately require you to be its operator. The idea that you can own the machine that you built and have someone else operate it for you is incomprehensible to many people, yet I assure you that this recusant mindset leads directly to the Holy Grail of personal freedom. Helpfully, it also adds value in terms of a potential exit strategy: companies that are not owner-managed invariably achieve higher valuations.

Leprechauns

Our modern culture of instant gratification is plagued by delusional wannabe entrepreneurs. The pursuit of a ‘get-rich-quick scheme’ is idiocy akin to chasing a rainbow in the hope of finding the pot of gold. Producing a bonafide pot of gold takes time, tenacity and eye-watering amounts of work. Be under no illusions about the sacrifices you will need to make if you are to launch a startup successfully.

Answering two fundamental questions will help you to decide whether you would be best suited to a full-time, part-time, spare-time or seasonal business, or indeed whether you are cut out for starting any business at all: 1) How much time are you willing and able to commit to it, and 2) how little money – if any – can you afford to earn in its formative years?

In the slurry of syrupy ‘entrepreneur’ memes that pollute the internet, there is one that actually captures the essence of successful business building rather well: ‘Entrepreneurship is living a few years of your life like most people won’t, so that you can spend the rest of your life like most people can’t.’ The only caveat I would add to this – and it is a big one – is that anything that is going to significantly improve the quality of the rest of your life is most probably going to take more than a ‘few’ years to build (I would set aside five, but even then, you will have been lucky).

Formation Flying

There is plenty to be said for having a wingman or wingwoman. They may have the skills or experience that you lack and / or the capital that the business needs. Either reason justifies entering into a partnership.

The complimentary skills rationale is particularly useful when starting a business organically; when it is unlikely that you will have the money to employ someone who can fulfil an essential role that you are not suitable for. Having said that – if you are mercenarily minded and have the funds to pay someone to do the same job – an employee is usually preferable to a partner in the long term (it means that you are not obligated to share any profit that your business may make, or the proceeds of sale if you ever execute your exit strategy). Bear in mind however that nobody will ever be as motivated and energetic as a business owner who has everything to play for, and building a business is a lot more fun if you have the right partner to share the thrill of the ascent with. If you remain convinced that you possess the broad spectrum of every skill required and can do it all single-handedly, then good luck to you, Narcissus.

Should you find yourself in the position of ‘founding partner’, structuring your partnership in a responsible and realistic way enables you to retain control of the business while sharing the profits with your partner fairly. A true 50:50 division of ownership is the kiss of death – the business arena is not La La Land. The norms of human nature dictate that the partners will disagree on key issues at some point, spending endless amounts of time attempting to convince each other of their views. For as long as this nonsense continues (which can be indefinitely in a true 50:50 partnership), the board is deadlocked and literally cannot move forward, damaging both the company and all those who work within it. Successful partnerships require a clear decision-making framework on which to grow. For decisions to be made dynamically and in order to get things done, responsibility must be allocated within a business to give each partner the controlling authority for the appropriate field. For fundamental issues that affect the entire business, one partner – usually the ‘Chairperson’ – must have the final say, if ever a final say is needed. Who this power falls to is usually dictated by a historic disproportion in the investment of money, experience, and burden of risk borne. In my opinion, the closest you can get to the spirit of a 50:50 partnership in any professionally run company is 51:49 and – if you take it this far – you should ideally believe that the business will not work at all without your partner.

Never take on a partner because they are a friend – this is a lethally effective way to ruin a friendship; many people pour their heart and soul into their business and very much view it as the concomitant of their self-worth. The potential for conflict when ego and money are involved should not be underestimated.

20 / 20 Vision

Most successful entrepreneurs identified the niche to be filled before they dreamt up the vision and made it into reality – not the other way around. Any examples of exception are simply those that prove the rule (and they will have been flukes). Beware of randomly searching for ideas to suit your inclination to set up a business for the sake of setting up a business. It has been my experience that when someone wants something – or likes the idea of something – there is an unfortunate tendency to imagine that which is not there. Bearing in mind that whimsical blue sky thinking is responsible for some of the worst business ideas in history, I strongly advise you to allow your open-on-impact parachute concept to marinate before you plough your life savings into it.

Innovation is not a prerequisite for success. Many a stellar business has flourished by simply taking an existing offering and making it better – the bulk of Richard Branson’s Virgin empire was founded on the ethos of reinventing the wheel. Pure originality is useful, though not essential; you can simply be better, or cheaper, or – ideally – both. It is wise to avoid competing on price alone however, because doing so may not be always be enough to win customers over. Being cheaper is of course always a huge selling point in certain markets, but the consumer must believe in your brand in the first place and have the confidence that you are the real deal. Nothing will debase your brand kudos quicker than prolific discounting. If it transpires that the price point of your offering is so low as to make turning a profit all but impossible, it is likely that your business model was not viable to begin with.

Write the Blueprint

As stiff and boring as it may seem, writing a comprehensive business plan is wholly worthwhile, regardless of whether you are applying for any funding and even if the only people who end up reading it are your friends and family. The process of putting pen to paper – particularly when it comes to projecting the figures for your profit and loss, cash-flow and balance sheet – will focus your thinking by forcing you to explain exactly what your business is, how it will stack up financially, where it fits into the market, who your customers are, what you sell, how you sell it, and what you plan to do with your business in the long term. Even if you are only mirror-pitching, subjecting your idea to this structured scrutiny may well reveal it is barking lunacy. This is not the realisation that you want to be having when you have just invested your last pound in it and publicly stated that it is going to be the next Facebook. Far better to have this little eureka moment before you do any damage; when you can still make any necessary adjustments in sandbox mode.

Crystal Ball vs. Grim Reaper

Nothing is more important in business than having a sound grip on your finances. Anybody who blunders through each day without knowing the whereabouts of every penny is not ‘in business’ at all – they are asleep at the wheel, careering down the motorway in the wrong direction. Getting the figures wrong will annihilate both your finances and your reputation, and the ripples will spread much further than you can imagine. Most people underestimate the grave responsibility that comes with owning a company. I may have cut my teeth the hard way and learned invaluable lessons through humbling failure, but it took me many, many years of hard work to recover. You can avoid this by doing your homework properly first instead.

Accurate cash-flow forecasts – updated in real time – are the proverbial crystal ball and are your only real defence against the prolific Grim Reaper of fledgling businesses. Be pessimistic when it comes to your projected figures – under-forecast your revenues, over-forecast your costs. The essence of business is really quite simple: income must exceed expenditure – ideally in that order – and you must track every single penny obsessively. The equation for success in business is as straightforward as the one for losing weight (eat less, move more) yet there are morbidly obese people making themselves miserable everywhere. It is the same in business – the theory is proven; the practice requires staunch discipline.

A common area of fiscal ineptitude arises from the difference between cash-flow and profitability. Profitable businesses fail due to negative cash-flow, whereas businesses operating at a loss survive for as long as their cash-flow is positive. Monthly profit and loss reports that correlate with your cash-flow forecast are a necessity because understanding both profitability and cashflow – and how they interrelate – are the only things that can give you the foresight with which to steer your ship. Essentially, these tools enable you to see the oncoming iceberg – and figure out how to steer around it – before the crunch comes.

Speaking the Language

If you cannot read and interpret accounts, you simply do not understand the language of business. There is a plethora of self-help books on the subject out there, but the most straightforward and user-friendly I have come across is ‘Understanding Accounts’ by Stephen Brookson. The prevailing misconception that the accountant is responsible for financially steering the business has become the obituary of many a venture. The fact is that the only person that is ultimately responsible for the financial welfare of your business is you.

Feigning Innocence

Financial cross-contamination is a deadly sin; countless business owners have sunk the ship – and all the poor souls who sailed in it – by treating the company coffers as their personal bank account. This nefarious behaviour is born of building upon foundations of sand; a catastrophic oversight that occurred at the planning stage (if any planning took place at all, which it probably did not).

The way it should work is this: Assuming that you do not have personal reserves enough to enable you to wait until the business is profitable and cash-flow positive before drawing any money by way of dividend, your startup capital must include a modest survival salary for you. Alternatively – as long as you have good reason to believe that your company is on target to make sufficient profits before the financial year ends – you can take modest director’s loan drawings in lieu of declaring sufficient dividends to clear the outstanding balance (providing of course that cash-flow is positive enough to tolerate such ongoing payments in the first place). The key word in either scenario is ‘modest’ and the salient point is that payment should be made as strictly and as professionally as any payment to any other member of staff.

It is infinitely easier to forgive the actus reus (guilty act) if it was committed in the absence of the mens rea (guilty mind, i.e understanding or intent). What you will often see instead are unscrupulous business owners jetting off on holiday, quaffing champagne, eating lobster, paying the mortgage on their house, meeting the finance payments for the car(s)…..yet all the while their staff are paid late or not at all, the overdue supplier invoices are piling up, and their premises are falling further into a sorry state of disrepair. When the guillotine inevitably falls, the business owner pleads sympathy, waxes lyrical about the blood, sweat and tears he purports to have poured into the venture, blames everyone other than himself for the failure, and takes shelter from the carnage he has created under his coward’s umbrella of limited liability. Staff have lost their jobs (often having worked without remuneration), suppliers have provided products and services for which they have not been paid (sometimes to such an extent that they themselves go bust in turn) and taxpayers lose out on the monies that the owner should have been holding on trust for HMRC. In the face of such dire consequences – arising from dishonest and irresponsible actions – the mens rea defence is patently absurd.

It is precisely through this perversion of the capitalist creed that company law leaves itself open to abuse: the table is set for the amoral business owner to have his cake and eat it – to suck the lifeblood of the company’s cashflow to fund his lifestyle, safe in the knowledge that the statute of limited liability will most likely protect him from misappropriated monies being clawed back.

Moral issues notwithstanding, the legal reality is this: a company – enshrined as it is in commercial law – is an entity all it’s own, just as though it were a person. Your duty as a company director will always be to act in the best interests of the company, not in the best interests of yourself. Understanding this separation is crucial; one of the criteria that the government use for prosecuting or disqualifying a company director on the grounds of unfit conduct is ‘using company money or assets for personal benefit’. The fair warning in this could not be clearer.

Your Staff Trust You

As Benjamin Franklin famously wrote: ‘in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. If you employee people, you are obliged to operate a payroll; you must deduct their PAYE tax and – if they earn more than £155 per week – National Insurance (NI) from their pay. You may also need to deduct things like student loan repayments or pension contributions. Every time you make payment to an employee, you should provide them with a payslip that shows exactly how much they have earned and what deductions you have made.

All of the above involves a large element of trust: the government trusts you to pay the income tax and any other contributions; the employee trusts you to pay their income tax and things like National Insurance on their behalf. The money does not belong to your company, nor does it belong to you – the money belongs to your employees, and their money is due to the government via you.

Unethical business owners often deduct amounts equivalent to PAYE (and anything else applicable) from their employees pay, but – rather than paying it over to the government – swallow the money into the company’s beleaguered cash-flow, or even pocket it for themselves. Incredibly, it is the unfortunate employee that is held responsible in these circumstances; HMRC’s somewhat peculiar stance is that the money is ultimately owed by the employee, regardless of the fraudulent behaviour of the business owner. Again, the law seems to leave itself wide open to abuse here, but it is important to remember that such laws are predicated on the theory that business owners are honest and upstanding members of society. (In practice, it can be more like giving guns to monkeys).

HMRC Trust You

You have a duty to understand how VAT works and whether your business will be required to charge it. Broadly speaking, when a business reaches the point of taking £83,000 in one financial year, it must be registered for VAT. At this point you will need to charge 20% on top of everything you sell (unless you sell reduced or zero rated goods) and show the breakdown on all the invoices and receipts that you issue. Again, the key point here is that the VAT you charge is not your money; it is HMRC’s money – your company merely holds it on trust for the government. The classic schoolboy error that new business owners make is gleefully banking the VAT they have been charging as though it is some sort of 20% Brucie Bonus. They have somehow convinced themselves that they have taken £X, when in fact they have only taken £Y. Lo and behold, some three months later, the VAT man comes knocking for his £Z (£X minus £Y). “How unreasonable!” cries the new business owner, having spent all the money that was never his to begin with and bankrupting his fledgling company in doing so. How unreasonable indeed.

Powered by the People

The most powerful asset of any business is the people who work within it. A business is nothing without solid people, and this holds true for all the strongest businesses that are known for generating goodwill. Your team members should be happy in their environment and naturally motivated.

Be obsessively selective about recruitment – if you don’t employ idiots, you won’t need to rule with a rod of iron. Dictatorships are unpleasant and unnecessary; intelligent human beings – operating on a level playing field – rarely need to be told what to do. Establishing an incentivised structure with a clear pathway to success is the key (human nature will do the rest). I am proud to say that the staff of my group of companies treat the business as their own and work largely under their own steam. Many have been on the team from inception and have steadily worked their way up – credit is always given where credit is due.

False Prophets

Before you taxi to the runway, please undertake your own primary research on what starting and running your own business really involves. There are several excellent websites that offer free advice for startups: Business Link, Start Up Donut, Smarta and Startups.co.uk. As these sites contain all the information you need, there is absolutely no need for you to pay a charlatan ‘business consultant’ to give you overblown advice that is already free of charge and in the public domain (if the consultant were genuine, they would advise you not to waste any of your startup capital on their piffle).

Fortune Favours the Brave

Nothing happens overnight – it took a million days to build Rome. Like anyone starting any business, you will need an abundance of grit if you are to stay the course. Dogged determination and adaptability will be of more use to you than God-given intelligence, but there is of course a fine line between bravery and recklessness. Make no mistake about the fact that there will be dark moments when things seem rather hopeless; knowing exactly what you are working towards is the only thing that will get you through those times.

While it may be true that running a business is pointless if the aim is not to turn a profit, the sole motive should not be money. Freedom, independence and the satisfaction derived from creativity should be the key motivators. Money is of course a welcome by-product, but there will often be easier ways to make considerably more of it, albeit less exciting ones.

Personally, I enjoyed myself most in those formative years; when everything was touch-and-go and we were desperately trying to get the aeroplane off the ground before reaching the end of the runway (and – in the case of one company – sellotaping the wings back on in mid-air). I therefore suspect that the adventure you are about to embark upon will bring you some of the best and the worst years of your life. I envy you this first flush of entrepreneurial youth and I urge you to savour every minute of it – it is as good as it gets.

 

 

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Fiction

Well, Why Not?

I am walking to the central Monument in the bright May Sunshine. I am carrying a paper bag that contains a sandwich, a bottle of sparkling water and an apple. The content of the sandwich is not important.

This Monument is always crowded at lunch time, particularly today, with all of the prime sitting space on the steps occupied due to the warm weather. I would have chosen not to sit regardless, for two reasons: One; the stone is dirty and would transfer dirt to my suit trousers. Two; I know I will be sitting in my office for the rest of the afternoon, and I have this theory that the tension caused by sitting in my office is slowly ruining my spine. I stand at one corner of the Monument and I consider leaning my shoulder against its cool stone base. I decide against this for two reasons: One; the stone is dirty and would transfer dirt to my suit jacket. Two; slouching in that way creates an imbalance in the musculature of the back, and I have this theory that that contributes to the ruination of my spine.

I feel self-conscious. I have the thought that I must look suspicious to anyone who is suspicious of me. I find myself fumbling with the paper bag as I try to get the sandwich out. I notice that I am holding the bag with the degree of awkwardness that comes from intensely focussing on holding a paper bag. I take the sandwich out of the bag and I put the bag on the floor with one corner of it underneath my right shoe. My heart beats heavily, reverberating in my neck.

Across the way, a busker with a semi-acoustic guitar and a microphone begins to play and sing. He sings in what sounds like Spanish, and I cannot understand the lyrics. The busker has unkempt ginger hair, a mess of freckles and buck teeth. His clothes hang off him — like he has lost weight rapidly — though he looks healthy enough. The lid of his guitar case is wide open, but he appears to lack the good sense to scatter any coins of his own. He has scrawled his name, ‘Gerry Vega’, in thick marker pen on the inside in block capital letters. Underneath, he has scribbled ‘Gracias!’ and a childish smiley face. I assume that this was a desperate afterthought and, forming the opinion that this busker has no commercial sense, I feel a degree of pity for him having to make his way in the world like this.

I chew through the sandwich quickly without tasting it. This process of eating is a means to an end because I know that I will need the energy later. Although the music Gerry Vega is playing sounds pleasant enough to me, nobody throws any coins into his guitar case. This does not surprise me. Someone walks right in front of him to put their rubbish in the bin that he is playing next to, stirring up a cloud of flies. Perhaps his singing in Spanish is working against him. Maybe people suspect that he is an immigrant. There is a possibility that he is claiming asylum here. In any case, the penniless Gerry Vega looks unconcerned about what people may or may not think. He keeps on singing and playing and smiling in his hopelessly hopeful way.

A fat man with a beetroot for a face waddles up to Gerry Vega and says something that I cannot make out, interrupting him in the middle of a verse. Gerry Vega smiles apologetically and, still playing guitar, speaks into the microphone with his heavy accent:
“Sorry my friend, I don’t know that one.”
The man stands there for a minute, before shaking his head and walking away as though he cannot quite believe it. Encouraged, an excited woman with gold hoop earrings darts forward. She and Gerry Vega talk briefly away from the microphone while he keeps playing. The woman crosses her arms and looks displeased. Gerry Vega chuckles good naturedly and stops playing.
Into the microphone he says, “Anyone know who sang Stand By Me?”.
Nobody has any answers for him. Some people stare at the floor. Gerry Vega shrugs apologetically. It occurs to me that it is not credible that nobody knows who sang that song, and that somebody really should have said something. The woman sneers and walks away in the same direction as the fat man who had a beetroot for a face. I notice that I have eaten my sandwich.

I gulp the cold sparkling water, enjoying the way that it burns the back of my nose. In front of me is a middle aged woman with some kind of snap-on lego hairstyle. She wears a threadbare beige jacket with a matted faux fur collar. She looks from left to right quickly, more than once. She stands up, pauses, sits down and stands up again. She wears jeans in the way that a slovenly teenage boy wears jeans. Her eyes focus independently of one another as she looks in the direction of several people who do not look back. She fixes both of her eyes on both of my eyes and, just as she is about to look resignedly away, I find that I reciprocate. Then I find that I am broadening my mouth and softening my eyes for her. I realise that this is because I can see that she is not well, and I want her to feel well. I understand that I want her to be okay.
She says, “My Mam and Dad told me I should just carry on with my activities, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
She seems quite sure of this, nodding and then catching herself. Suddenly unsure, she looks to me as though seeking approval.
I smile and nod. “Well, why not?” I say, taking care to sound nonchalant about it.
“That’s it.” she says. “Why not?”.

The woman spins on one heel and skips over to Gerry Vega. There, she reaches into her pocket and throws a fistful of coins into his guitar case, bending her knees in a sort of curtsy. The coins thump as they land on the felt lining, and Gerry Vega winks at her and smiles appreciatively as he continues to play. As she walks away with her head held high, she looks over her shoulder at me and she grins. I grin back without even meaning to. I blink and I drain the last of the cool sparkling water. I feel sorry that it is gone.

The sun is warmer now. Gerry Vega stops playing and sits down on top of his speaker with his guitar resting on his thigh, his other leg stretched out in front of him. He yawns lazily and blinks in the yellow sunlight. He looks comfortable. What a life! He turns the pegs on the head of the guitar and plucks the strings gently back into tune. He must have grown tired of singing, because he starts unselfconsciously finger-picking the strings instead, closing his eyes and smiling to himself. He looks to me as though he could be sat alone in his room, teasing those sounds out of the guitar for fun. He seems to have lost the awareness of the people that watch him with their expectations.

This Monument is a crossing place, like a clearing in a wood. All day long, people come to it from all angles, criss-crossing right in front of it. A white bird soars overhead, and I imagine that this bird sees the traced trajectories of all these people like the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel. I have this mental image of all the colours of their souls leaving iridescent contrails in every spectral hue. Everything is vividly clear to me in this bright sunshine. The air is sweet and crystalline and I take pleasure in breathing it. I appreciate the lightness of my body.

The rhythm of Gerry Vega’s playing slows and he begins to play with more purpose. A breeze stirs. I recognise this melody as Mark Knopfler’s ‘Going Home’, a familiar melody that is appropriate to many here. I have this feeling of unity now, and a sense that it is not just me that feels it. Through a clear lens, I have the insight that life is hard for people in infinitely different ways that all amount to the same thing. I have this understanding of how brave they all are. Some people look happy, some look sad, some look nothing at all, but all of them carry on. A careful woman with a bruised face pushes a pram as her baby sleeps. As she passes Gerry Vega, she smiles at him. He bobs his head and smiles back. A white haired old man, resplendent in a well worn suit and painstakingly polished shoes, stands still and tilts his head, listening.

Everything is calm now. The breeze drops away and a single white cloud passes in front of the sun. I look at Gerry Vega, his ragged jeans and his dirty comfortable trainers. I stare at the coins that lie in his old guitar case. The silk tie around my neck has become a noose. I notice that my throat is tight, and then this tightness develops into a lump behind the button of my collar. My eyes are stinging. I hope for hayfever, but I understand now that I am crying. The droplets stick in my eyelashes and, as the sun emerges from behind the cloud, colours burst the banks of my vision. These liquid rainbows blur together until everything is uniformly white. I am blinking furiously. I take a big bite of the apple, crunch it quickly and swallow. I take another big bite. My mouth is twisting as I force myself to chew.

The feeling recedes and my eyes clarify. I watch Gerry Vega sitting there on his battered speaker, and I have an understanding that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Also, I have this urge to talk to him. What I want to say to him is this:

“People will tell you that art is just art, that it’s only a form of entertainment and that it doesn’t really change anything. But it does, because this music that you’re playing today, it helps people to see each other properly, it helps people to understand one another, it helps people to feel. You, Gerry Vega, you are better than me. And what is the point of our lives if we don’t help one other? Isn’t this reality that we live in created by all of us? Isn’t the way we see each other and treat each other the very thing that shapes all of our lives, and don’t you know that everything around us was made up by people that are no better than you, that you can change all this, that you’ve got this power right there in your fingertips? And no, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing music that was written by other people, because if you weren’t playing it, then it would just die with whoever wrote it, so you playing it now is just as important as them writing it was in the first place, and you can change the world — you’re changing it right now.”

But of course, I don’t say any of that. I just fold my arms and stay exactly where I am.

After a time, the clock strikes quarter to two and I cannot remember what it is that I wanted to say to this Spanish busker. I am deeply tired. I feel that I should at least leave him some coins, but there is no change in the pockets of my trousers. I have a five pound note in my jacket, but I worry that it would blow away on the breeze. I know that I could weigh the note down in the guitar case with the coins that the woman threw in there, but I feel sure that the busker would misunderstand and think that I was stealing from him. I know that I could go to the newsagents and change the five pound note, but there is nothing that I need to buy. Besides, I have a meeting at two o’clock, and doing this would make me late. I feel very strongly that I need to get back to work now.

As I stride past the busker, he looks directly at me, smiles, and nods encouragingly. I just draw my lips in, rais­­e my eyebrows, and look away. I have no idea why I do this.


 

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed my writing, please let others know by using the Twitter button above or the social buttons below – particularly Facebook – and do feel free to leave me a comment. I am grateful for all feedback – good or bad – and I will always respond to you.

 

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Fiction

Free Diver


Christian’s habit of over-weighting the belt made Samir nervous. Negative buoyancy in shallow water free-diving was known to be dangerous, lessening the odds of an unconscious diver floating to the surface. Samir had read somewhere that the vast majority of blackouts occurred at thirty feet or less; when the diver was kicking for the surface and both water and oxygen pressure were dropping. Heavier weights meant using up more oxygen whilst fighting to stay off the ocean floor, increasing the likelihood of running into trouble on the ascent. The stories suggested that the blackout came on with little or no warning, those rare survivors telling tales of being shaken awake from vivid dreams to find themselves vomiting seawater onto the deck, their terrified rescuers heaving sighs of relief, smacking the bewildered victim on the back. The majority of such incidents left no survivor to offer insight. More often, the poor souls were found drowned, the assumption being that they had fainted in the water. Many bodies were never recovered. The attraction of the over-weighting was that it allowed for much a faster descent, yielding more of the precious hunting time on the bottom. For Christian, this advantage alone outweighed any risk; he was in peak physical condition and had trained hard to hold his breath for almost six minutes.

The four boys entered the water together, pinching their nose-plugs and tipping themselves backwards smoothly into bubble-shrouded somersaults, oblivious to the cheers of encouragement from the deck. The cool water soaked the neoprene of Christian’s wetsuit, triggering a shiver that ran from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. The long flippers became weightless in the element, and he kicked gently to the surface, starting to suck the salty air slowly and deliberately into his lungs as he trod the water. Feeling himself acclimatising, he formed a circle with his lips and forcefully expelled every last particle of air, tensing his abdominal muscles to empty his diaphragm. Ballooning his belly as he inhaled, he drew until his rib cage hurt and he could take no more in. He repeated the process several times, faster each time, like a steam train chugging to build speed. A light tingling in his fingers spread into his hands and up his forearms. Mild wooziness told him he was ready; the carbon dioxide in his blood very low. He began to gulp air like a fish out of water, swallowing hard to pack the reserve tank of the stomach. If he felt the urge to breathe, he could belch into his lungs to buy time. He winked at Samir and made the thumbs down signal; his friend nodded tensely and reciprocated the signal. Christian tucked his knees up to his chest and leaned forward, upending himself gracefully and aiming his spear at the ocean floor. An elegant motion rippled through his body as he slipped beneath the surface, and with a hard kick he was powering down at speed. Samir followed closely at first, but Christian scissored away in a watery blur and was quickly swallowed by the vastness of the inky blue void.

For the first few metres the visibility was crystalline, every molecule of water glowing with the fierce white light of the Arabian sun. Christian felt the temperature dropping as he propelled himself deeper, the colours around him transitioning from turquoise through cobalt. The crisp coolness felt invigorating on his skin; a welcome contrast to the stifling humidity at the surface. At ten metres the detail of the reef came into view, a veritable sub-marine hunting ground. He eyed an overgrown coral outcrop, a natural parapet behind which he could crouch and watch his prey. Already he could see a large brown Hamour nuzzling at a sea-sponge, while a couple of the distinctively striped Cobia cruised over a sandy clearing to his left. The fish were oblivious to his presence as he descended to his shady vantage point and crossed his legs beneath him like a yogi, resting the butt of the spear gun on the rocky ledge in front of him. All that remained now was for a curious fish to come within the killing radius of four metres, and he would take his one and only shot. He glanced at his watch and saw that he had been down for a full minute already. He would have another minute or so on the bottom before he would need to ascend the twenty or so metres to the surface. He remained perfectly still, finger poised on the trigger, muscles relaxed to conserve energy.

A Cobia turned in the distance, briefly heading directly for him before peeling off and disappearing behind a large sea urchin. Christian began make a low gargling noise in his throat, alternating it with a nasal humming sound. This luring technique had paid dividends with similar fish in the past; the minute vibrations in the water would pique the interest of the likes of the bolder Cobia species, prompting them to make the mistake of investigating its source. His quarry failed to reappear, but a flash of silver in his peripheral vision signalled the arrival of a sizeable Kingfish instead. Christian felt his pulse accelerate with the thrill of the hunt, knowing now that he had a viable target. At over a metre long and weighing in the region of twenty five kilos, such a creature would not come quietly. He would look to take it side on, behind the gills and close to the spine, aiming to sever the spinal column. A successful shot would be textbook perfect, though such accuracy in the underwater environment was close to impossible. He stopped making the luring noises and remained stock still, willing his prey to come closer. At a distance of two metres, as the fish made a sudden turn with an oily black eye glinting defiantly, Christian pulled the trigger.

Continued in Part 2

Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed my writing, please let others know by using the social buttons below, particularly Facebook, and do feel free to leave me a comment. I am grateful for all feedback – good or bad – and will always respond.

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