Oats and Water

A new word hit the OED in November of 2010 – Glamping. It’s a form of luxurious camping where you’ve got all the pleasures of the outdoors without any of the trials – where your tent, for instance, happens to be an Indian tepee or a Mongolian yurt, and your campsite includes a sauna and a jacuzzi.

My formative camping experience was my Duke of Edinburgh expeditions, where you carried everything you’d need for the next 3 or 4 days on your back. Buying anything, or sleeping beneath a roof, was forbidden. Strictly speaking, they weren’t keen on you walking through towns or along roads, either. Hence, my idea of camping is the opposite of glamping. It’s a holiday from the luxuries, as well as the distractions of urban life. Unless I’m bedding down on a battered roll-mat with a bundled-up jumper for a pillow, in a campsite where the plumbing runs to two toilets and a cold tap, it doesn’t really count as camping.

IMG_4205A whole new level of asceticism was reached while I was preparing for a weekend in the Highlands of Scotland. I had to bring along my own breakfast and lunch for both days, but I couldn’t be bothered to bring anything fancy. So I brought four bags of oats. One with hot water for breakfast, and one with cold water for lunch. I was thinking chiefly of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, where David Balfour and Alan Stewart go on the run through the heather with nothing but a bag of oats to sustain them – hot porridge when they can risk a fire, cold porridge without. I seem to remember it being called skillet, like the frying pan, but a brief search of the online text reveals I was probably making that up. The recipe is:

  1. Take 250-300g of oats, for one serving.
  2. Add water until the oats are submerged. Stir until the water goes a milky colour.
  3. Eat.

It is lightweight, compact, hydrating, extremely economical, and leaves you with a pleasant feeling of having eaten something. It gets you plenty of attention and something of a hard-man reputation from those you’re walking with. On the other hand, you have to really, really like the taste of oats. Even so, it’s a pretty grim meal. I generally eat a chunk of fruit and nut chocolate afterwards to balance the carbohydrate with some sugar. Yet it’s quite reassuring, I think, to know that if things get really tough, in life or on the trail, all I really need to survive indefinitely is access to fresh water and a really, really big bag of oats.

On my sleeping bag

Each morning, when I drag
Out of my sleeping bag
Into the cold dawn air, my languid limbs
I bless the bag that keeps me warm
In frost and sleet and thunderstorm
And all the English weather’s whims.

Each evening, when I crawl
Into its folds, and fall
Asleep the moment that my eyelids shut,
I bless the bag that lets me sleep
So long, refreshingly and deep,
Within the draughty mountain hut.

In January or June,
Within this warm cocoon
I know a long and restful night will pass,
Though I am far from home and bed,
Without a pillow for my head
And with no mattress but the dewy grass.

And this, you see, is the problem with writing in metre. You scribble, and strike through, and scribble, counting stresses on your fingers and muttering rhyme words to yourself, and suddenly you realise you haven’t produced a poem but a jingle – something full of symettry, and alliteration, and vowel patterning, but completely destitute of any of the thought or feeling that made you want to write a poem in the first place. As I cannot find it in me to burden this glittering, silly little fragment with any more serious reflection, the only thing to do is continue in prose.

My sleeping bag is a Lamina O, which I bought for £99 three years ago from Cotswolds. It may have been the best purchase I’ve ever made. Quite apart from all the camping and sofa-surfing I’ve done over the years, my sleeping bag is, first and foremost, where all the work gets done. In the dark, skint days of my undergraduate, where it once dipped down to eight degrees celcius INSIDE my room, it was a haven of warmth, a cocoon of quiet reflection. I would do my reading in it, and write my essays in it; eat my dinner in it, and watch TV in it. If it had actually had legs, like one I saw in a hiking shop in the Lake District, I would never have taken it off. The basic format of my evening in, for a number of months, would be to get into my sleeping bag and read for my course until I nodded off mid-sentence (they may be great things to work in, but they don’t keep you awake!). I would then wake up around three AM in an extremely muzzy state, throw off all my clothes and tumble into my bed, which conveniently was only three feet away from the sofa where all the reading happened. Yes, I could have done all this under the duvet and saved myself the trip, but my bedsheets were never so versatile, and even more soporific than my sleeping bag.

Besides, there’s a feeling of smugness unique to the sleeping bag (and this is what I wanted to work into the poem, but couldn’t find the heart). Unlike the duvet, where there is always the risk of sticking my foot out of the covers into a frigid zone, or at least a colder part of the bed, a sleeping bag gives me complete enclosure. And with it, the delightful consciousness that it’s my own body heat, reflected back on me, that’s keeping me so nice and toasty. Never mind the radiators, or the gas fire, or the snow outside – while I’m in my sleeping bag, I’m entirely self-sufficient.

I suggested to a friend that this made the sleeping bag a fitting emblem of the happy bachelor state – of complete self-containedness and contentment with one’s wants. She just laughed. You can too – but I’ll be snug and warm inside my sleeping bag, so don’t expect me to care.