c h r i s t m a s

[ 16:05 monday 30 december – train from swindon to london paddington ]

after my bleak christmas eve despatch it’s a little embarrassing to admit how enjoyable the past week has been. i feel closer to my family, and freer to be myself with them, than any time i can remember. what’s more there did seem to be a worthwhile point to the festival despite all my humbugging.

on christmas day my parents and i drove up to shropshire where my grandparents live. this is a sparsely populated area on the welsh borders crumpled into a chain of decent-sized hills interspersed with wild moorland and sheep pasture. my grandfather is a week short of 97, my grandmother a decade younger. grandpa is not an easy man. he grew up in a brutally scientific household where an individual’s worth was determined by their academic results. relatives were forbidden to perpetrate superstitious fictions such as the existence of a man who rides through the sky and delivers presents down the chimney. grandpa inherited a good deal of this outlook on the world.

after a lifetime’s service as a schoolmaster he wanted to go back to the mountains of north wales, where he grew up, but granny put her foot down. shropshire was the compromise they arrived at, as close to wales as it is possible to be whilst remaining in england. of course it didn’t give either of them what they wanted. over the decades i have watched grandpa sinking into a kind of nihilistic joyless decrepitude, punctuated by bouts of depressive madness. granny has flurried about tending to his needs and maintaining outlets for her creativity in vigorous gardening, knitting and flower-arranging.

grandpa’s hold on life is intimidating, motivated not so much by a desire to live as a monstrous terror of death. up until the age of 87 there was also a competitive element: he wanted to live longer than his father had done.

as grandpa’s physiology has slowly deteriorated the strain on granny has grown. she is getting older herself and consequently her ability to cope with him has declined. there are few pleasures left in her life. on christmas day, for nine precious hours, we were able to bring some light and laughter into her world. i don’t give a damn about baby jesus and swapping gifts. but for those hours it felt like i was participating in a ritual that truly meant something worthwhile.

during the afternoon i snuck down the road to ludlow to gatecrash christmas “lunch” with my godmother bear and her family. she and her husband david been a fabulous subversive influence on me and my sister anna over the years but i see them all too rarely nowadays. it was great to be with them all. i forgot my camera there so mum and dad and i dropped in on our way back home after supper.

anna and adam arrived on friday from cornwall and we talked late into the night. yesterday evening dad dug out an ancient slide projector so i showed some of my photos from america and he showed some of the ones he took during the 60s when he was a dashing young officer in the merchant navy, travelling across the world in the final years of britain’s great merchant fleet.

here in my flourescent-lit plastic carriage the robot voice announces that we are arriving in paddington and everyone must prepare to leave the train. dutifully my fellow-passengers start to gather their bags. the robot (a humourless female voice) speaks with the flat vowels of estuary english, the favoured accent of the new british establishment, rendered uglier here by its disjointed electronic rhythm and intonation. a moment later the intercom crackles and the train manager informs us in his gorgeous devon burr that we are arriving in reading, not paddington, and apologises for “problems with the passenger information system”. people freeze for a second, then start putting their bags in racks and sitting back down, happy to follow whatever instructions come their way.

at swindon the plummy male robot voice was busy announcing delays and cancellations. in extreme cases it used the phrase “i am very sorry” which i found rather troubling. what entity is the “i” to which the voice is referring?

my intention was to go to the mountains in central spain to join my friends andrew and cristina for new year. however on impulse i decided a couple of days ago to go to berlin instead to visit my friend reimar, a saxophonist whom i met at a jazz event in wales ten years ago. somehow it feels like the place i ought to be, plus i’ve been promising to visit ever since we met. i fly there tomorrow afternoon.

: c

m e r r y

[ 23:30 tuesday 24 december – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

three weeks since i landed in london. my plan was to whistle through some meetings there then race back to stromboli. but warren came over from san francisco and craig arrived from norway and we had so much to do and every day a new lead came up for someone else i needed to talk to. i wouldn’t admit to myself that i’d abandoned my escape to stromboli but i suspect i made the decision within a few days of arriving. it was all very productive and i was able to see a lot of friends but i’ve been pining for the sea and the ravens and the ever-changing silence. i have dreamed about the island several times. from september 2001 to october 2002 i was never away from stromboli longer that two weeks. it’s already two months since i left there bound for america. i doubt i’ll get back before the middle of january.

last week i tried to do some “christmas shopping”. i took a tube into central london and walked into one shop then another. i wandered through the relentless shelves of cheerful, pointless objects; trying to evaluate each one in relation to people i love. but after an hour i had bought nothing and was feeling nauseated. i walked out onto tottenham court road, put down my backpack in the middle of the pavement and remained perfectly still as the mass of shoppers streamed around me. almost immediately a sense of well-being and freedom sprang up inside me. i stood there for a long time, breathing slowly and smiling. from time to time someone would catch my eye and there would be a fleeting expression of puzzlement as they hurried onward. nobody smiled back at me.

i arrived here at mum and dad’s house a couple of days ago. it has been raining a lot. the fields are very muddy. yesterday i cycled into gloucester and got wet.

now it is nearly midnight, nearly christmas. the people scatter platitudes of peace and goodwill whilst an unneeded war is kindled in their name. everything grows dark and complex. my parents are at church. they were worried i would put too much garlic in the supper.

to my friends, the readers of this inadequate journal, in australia, malaysia, new zealand, brazil, italy, the united states, spain, germany, finland, china, norway, canada, ghana, japan, india and the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland:

i bid you a merry christmas

: c

a m e r i k a

[ 15:00 sunday 24 november – track 19, union station, washington dc ]

a textbook autumn afternoon here in the, er, capital of the free world. the beech and maple glow red and gold in the slanting sunlight, their branches splattering a subversive tracery of shadows over washington’s unamused classical facades. any moment the doors of my train will hiss closed and we will begin our journey up the coast to new york. by the peculiar logic of the american market it would have been cheaper to make this journey by air, but having flown every other leg of this tour i really wanted to do this one over land and achieve a more tangible sensation of traveling.

it’s only three weeks since i was hammering away on the keys of fofo’s computer in milan, completing all the documents for trampoline. it seems like another age.

[ 21:35 saturday 30 november – christopher street, greenwich village, new york ]

an espresso bar populated by persons of an alternative chic demeanour. the cranberry orange muffins are good.

when i embarked on this journey i expected i would be tracing every step through this email journal, sharing my experiences and feelings as they happened. it was not to be. mainly i’ve just been wildly focused on trampoline. since arriving in america i’ve met with a succession of people in four cities (san francisco, seattle, washington, new york) to talk about the project. each person made a different input to what we are trying to do. some were commercial investors, some were social investors, some had started up technology businesses, some were running non-profit organisations, some were consultants or analysts. it’s been intense.

the main objective was to learn, and learn i have. it’ll take some time to digest everything. the input from all these different sources has been pretty consistent. on one hand, the response to the central idea has been “yes, this is really interesting, there’s great potential here and there’s nothing quite like it in the market”. on the other hand, i’ve been ripped to shreds on my lack of convincing answers about how we are going to get customers to buy the product and how we prevent larger firms stealing our ideas once we are in the market.

americans are not known for pulling their punches, and the directness with which my thinking has been challenged left me slightly shell-shocked by the end of the first week. but piece by piece i absorbed what i was hearing and began to see solutions. by the time i got to washington i found i was able to respond with gusto to questions which had left me floundering in san francisco. after three years submerged in trampoline with a product-focused outlook, i’ve started a transition to seeing it from a market-focused perspective. the question “how can we make this technology work” has to take second place in my mind to “how can we make this venture work”.

bearing in mind my main objectives are to do with social change, this seems like a bizarre point at which to arrive. but the logic is inescapable. realising the technology is going to take a lot of labour. mobilising that labour will require a good deal of capital. this capital is most likely to come from commercial investors. and these investors will only put resources into the venture if it is capable of generating a strong financial return.

a month ago i think my perspective was: we have to develop this technology at all costs, i’ll take resources from any source i can find and i’ll say whatever i need to say to get those resources. i didn’t really have any interest in what investors would get out of it. i just wanted to develop the system. two years ago i could probably have raised the necessary capital on this shaky basis and built the system. but the lack of commercial rigour would have revealed itself as the market grew tougher and the business would almost certainly have unravelled.

from this i draw two conclusions. first, in order to achieve my social objectives i have to think like a capitalist. second, the venture will benefit from the fact that it is starting out at a time when the capital market is extremely tight.

[ 08:30 monday 2 december – terminal 7, kennedy airport, new york ]

right about now a united airlines boeing 777 is rising from the tarmac. i expected to be on it. however it seems the sky is full of new yorkers returning to london after their thanksgiving turkeyfest. when i arrived to check in there weren’t any seats left. having got up at quarter past five this was a little tiresome. united offered me in a seat in business class on the 7pm departure and $400 of ticket vouchers. since i have no meetings arranged for this evening that seemed like an arrangement i could live with so i didn’t make too much fuss. of course the utility of those vouchers will depend on how long united manages to stave off bankruptcy.

so this gives me ten hours to kill. i’ve located some nice mies van der roehe chairs in a secluded part of the british airways check-in area where i aim on catching up with some sleep. last night i went to hear my friends read poetry in a williamsburg cafe and then accompanied them to a luridly festive bar where my intentions for an early night grew hazy after several whiskeys.

[ 05:55 tuesday 3 december – united airlines flight 958, western approaches ]

looking down at clusters of gloomy orange lights far below. this is britain. in contrast to my window-seat views of recent weeks these lights don’t fall into rectilinear grids. the first contrast of many i shall doubtless observe.

this has been an extraordinary tour. i am left with much to digest and to recount.

the instruction comes to turn off electronic equipment. we’ll be landing in half an hour.

: caro * * *

m i l a n o

[ 18:22 friday 1 november – via solferino, milano ]

it’s a little more than two years since i was sitting here in fofo’s apartment, writing a wanderer despatch describing my preparations to depart for london and thence for ghana. my heart was fresh with the exotic pulse of the south, i knew i would be back. and i haven’t been in milan since.

indeed i wasn’t expecting to be here now, but my powerbook needed repairs so i deposited it in rome and took the opportunity to sneak up to this end of italy. first a couple of days with sebastian in the rich hill country east of florence, then onward to this misty grey canvas on which my friends splash their brilliant colours.

this isn’t just a metaphor. everywhere i walk in these streets of hurrying unsmiling faces i come across delicious fragments of graffiti deposited by bobo, roberta and fofo. each one brings a grin to my face. the three of them are stubbornly getting on with the beautiful mischievous truthful work they want to do, in all manner forms, media and collaborations. it’s wonderful to be with them again.

two months ago i was on a hydrofoil speeding towards the first user trials of the learning web system, excited and a little nervous. those days in london were frantic. twenty-four hours before the trials the system died completely and resisted attempts to revive it. we stayed calm, worked through the possibilities. i went to bed around two in the morning, with richard still trying more options and keeping up pressure on the technical support team responsible for the server.

when i woke up the next day everything was working perfectly. it turned out the server’s hard disk had chosen this moment to fail, an extremely rare incident. fate often seems to have loki’s sense of humour. the trial group of sse students from around britain assembled in the early afternoon, along with the staff from bethnal green, and over the next four hours we worked through all the main aspects of the system. it couldn’t have gone better. it rapidly became apparent that my carefully-prepared explanations were redundant, everyone just wanted to dive in and work out how to use the different features by playing with them. so i left them to it, staying on hand to help out when a question arose or a bug cropped up. richard stayed at the end of the phone line ready to resolve any problems that occurred.

at the end of the session i felt exhilarated and exhausted. three years after my first speculations trampoline had completed the first step of its journey from concept to reality.

so much has happened since then. i returned to italy with james fink and we spent several delicious days in southern tuscany with don matteson. last time i met don he was a hard-nosed foreign exchange trader in london. this time he was living in the mediaeval hill-town of montalcino writing a book and preparing to participate in the grape harvest. quite a transformation.

then i dashed back down to stromboli, arriving barely twelve hours before mum and dad who to my joy came to visit for a week. i got them the house next to mine, up the torrente where the rustling bamboo stretches up the side of the volcano.

what can i say, it was just fantastic. the weather was idyllic. the dreadful mass of tourists was gone. the island was in a state of post-season euphoria. we went out on the catamaran with antonio, alessandro and valentina to swim where the lava comes down into the sea. we ate magnificently. mum and dad met all my friends on the island. they both made it up to the top of the volcano and saw some spectacular eruptions. i was overjoyed to have the opportunity to share it all with them. too soon it was time for them to leave, hastened by approaching storms. i waved them off from the quay with a lump in my throat.

then it was time to immerse myself in my work again. with learning web completed the next challenge is to raise finance to develop the full trampoline system. to kick-start this process i’ll be spending most of november on a blitzkrieg tour of the united states, spending time in san francisco, seattle, chicago, washington and new york. it begins on wednesday.

warren langley has made this possible and is arranging a succession of meetings along the way with potential investors and others who have valuable insights into the technology sector. i’m unlikely to come back with cheques in my pocket but i will learn a massive amount and initiate some relationships which may result in investment in due course. warren’s constant level-headed support for the venture is one of the things that gives me the confidence to keep pushing ahead whilst the markets collapse around us. this is going to be a tough challenge.

for the past month i’ve spent twelve to fifteen hours each day sitting in front of a computer, spewing out draft after draft of proposal documents, researching subjects ranging from constitutional systems in 6th century bc athens to complexity theory and emergent phenomena, solidifying technical elements of the system with craig and marshalling support from every direction i can find.

craig and heidi meanwhile have become the parents of tiny kai and are living on an island off the norwegian coast. craig’s contributions to trampoline are now made in moments snatched between changing nappies and holding back the forces of baby-driven chaos.

in the final days of september i asked my friends gustl and valerie if they would let me live in their house on stromboli through the winter. they spend four months on the island each summer and for the remainder of the year are based in vienna. to my delight they agreed. their house is one of the most spectacular on the island, even more connected with the sea than the house in which i lived last winter. on the first of october i loaded all my belongings onto the back of leonardo’s ape, bounced across the island in clouds of smoke, and unloaded everything into their house. every minute i spend there inspires me.

when one walks amongst blossom one must be prepared for thorns. a couple of weeks ago i was presented with some truths about the world i might have preferred not to know. it changed my perspective a little and made me feel very alone for a few days. but reality is always preferable to illusion. i am strong. i continue on my path with undimmed faith and determination.

: caro***

a l i s c a f o

[ 17:35 sunday 1 september – hydrofoil from stromboli to napoli ]

this is a rather soul-less way to travel. as with an aeroplane there is a sense of departing and a sense of arriving but between these points is a period of nothing. we left the quay at stromboli just over an hour ago. i’ve been sitting cross-legged on the little deck at the stern (the crew doesn’t seem to mind) with the afternoon sun on my face and the spray rising from the seething water behind us. now i’ve come into the cabin where people are dozing, reading papers and munching soggy cornetti bought from the bar. a cat in a carry-case squeeks from time to time. there is a constant roaring sound much like a jet aircraft, offset by inane radio. it’s soul-less, but it does get me from stromboli to napoli in about four hours as opposed to ten hours by ship.

i’ll stay the night with my friend alfonso in napoli then get a train to rome tomorrow morning, from where i fly to stansted. i can’t quite believe it but in a few days the learning web system will be complete. this visit to london is principally to spend an afternoon taking sse staff and students through how it works. this will provide the first indication of whether people find the system as easy to use as we have tried to make it. during my nine days in britain i’ll also have a chance to meet sse’s new director (rowena young). if there’s time i’ll get down to gloucestershire to spend the weekend with mum and dad.

the system we are completing now is almost exactly what i had in my head in march 2000 when i was sitting each day for a month at the table in ross’ home in sydney designing and building a new website for sse. it’s taken 12 months longer than i envisaged to finance and build the user-managed email and web publishing system to go behind the website. but finally we’ve done it and we can start seeing how it performs in practice.

there’s currently an exhibition of 32 of my photos on stromboli, in the garden of the little bookshop at piscita. typically i only decided to do it a couple of weeks ago. dad and craig despatched ink cartridges and photo paper respectively to me. after a week the cartridges had arrived (by airmail) but there was no sign of the paper. i mentioned this to craig and he let slip that he’d sent them by “datapost” which prompted a tinkle of alarm bells. datapost… but isn’t that a service from… oh no… surely not… parcelforce! but indeed it was, the very same undead travesty of a shipping company to whom i entrusted my belongings to be conveyed from london to stromboli last november (wanderer “m e s o”, 17 november 2001). six boxes were despatched on parcelforce’s 48 hour guaranteed service. five of them arrived after 22 days. the sixth took a couple of weeks longer having inexplicably followed the route london – croydon – rome – croydon – london – croydon – rome – messina – lipari – stromboli.

at this point i gave up hope of staging my exhibition. craig, with every good intention, had chosen their 4-day guaranteed service. extrapolating from my previous experience i might expect the photo paper to arrive after 44 days. craig called their “tracking hotline” who were able to confirm the package had arrived at croydon, but after this point it vanished from their system. i felt very morose.

but on tuesday evening i came back to my house and by some miracle there it was in the middle of the floor, just 11 days after it left london. i wasted no time. by midday on wednesday i’d produced all the photos, constructed mounts out of bamboo and string, designed and printed posters and burned an electronic catalogue on cd-rom. the exhibition opened (quietly) at half past five that afternoon.

so for the last three days i’ve sat at a little table in the garden with my powerbook in front of me as people wandered around peering at my photos of the island. the response has been very gratifying. these hours in front of the computer have also been notably productive, resulting in a user guide for learning web. i’ve even sold a few prints. chiara, who runs the bookshop, has kindly offered to keep the show going for another week in my absence.

this is the first photo exhibition i’ve put on. during the last few years i’ve accumulated thousands and thousands of slides, all of which have been stuffed in boxes and left to gather dust. buying my big epson photo printer last year was the first step to liberating them. in conjunction with the nikon film scanner i got in 1999 this provides a way to produce high-quality prints under my own steam. it took a while before i could reliably get good results. this winter i felt ready to make my first big attack on the back-catalogue, scanning and printing a couple of hundred of my frames from ghana in 2000. the quality isn’t the same as the very best photographically-produced prints but it’s remarkably close. producing high-quality digital prints doesn’t seem to be any less work than doing it the old-fashioned way (every print takes me about 20 minutes). but it’s a lot more convenient to lug a laptop computer, film scanner and photo printer around with me than to set up a darkroom.

i was planning to stick the catalogue up on my website so anyone who wanted could download it, but i notice now that i’ve only brought the high-resolution version which takes up 9mb. i’ll put up the low-resolution version when i get back to the island.

people keep asking me if i’m going to spend another winter on stromboli and i shrug and say i don’t know. why am i so reluctant to decide?

: caro * * *

a g o s t o

[ 23:45 thursday 22 august – san vincenzo, isola di stromboli ]

welcome to stromboli in august. i’m sitting on one of the terraces of “ritrovo ingrid” splashed by green, red and blue lights. a little behind me are nino, tommy and a female singer. nino has one of those sequencers which gobbles up midi files from the web and regurgitates tacky electronicky arrangements of popular songs, which are mixed with the vocalist’s exertions before being spewed out at high volume. nino sports a guitar and tommy stands before a large keyboard. both of them make the motions of playing but these “live” contributions are strangely inaudible in the mix.

i think it must be a while since nino connected his sequencer to the internet because whenever i pass the piazza they seem to be going through the motions with the same ten or twelve songs. this is a kind of torture. the audience, mainly rich kids from milan or rome done up in their labeled vestements, sit rapt as thought they are witnessing some kind of groundbreaking recital.

somehow i am reminded of a party i attended in london with bobo, roberta, eric, matheo and nana. it was hosted by mtv in a club near leicester square. the cocktails were free all night. a scattering of brightly-lit armchairs in the centre of the space was the setting of interviews being filmed throughout the night. the music was loud and perfectly-reproduced. the place was just crowded enough to say “everyone would like to be at this party but only the mooost exclusive people are invited”. i can’t for the life of me remember how we group of scruffians got in. bobo has a knack for getting tickets to this kind of thing. i recall nana didn’t have a ticket but she is so beautiful she gets in everywhere.

anyway the music was terrible and the atmosphere felt like something you’d be subjected to for punishment rather than amusement. yet every person there was boogying and laughing like it was the best party in the world. the six of us huddled together at a table clutching one drink after another and glancing with dulled horror at the perversely-animated creatures about us. after a while eric got on the floor and started practicing some capoeira moves, which he does rather excellently. a modish but worse-for-wear young man who might have seen capoeira on tv once made the foolish decision to join in. eric’s capoeira report card would say “doesn’t suffer fools gladly” and it was only a few minutes before worse-for-wear was ritually humiliated to the evident discomfort of the cluster of curious people who had gathered round. evidentally this kind of hard-edged behaviour didn’t figure in their idea of “best party in the world” behaviour.

[ 00:35 friday – antonio and nerina’s house ] enough was enough at ingrid so i escaped down here. poor sebastiano was ruefully preparing for his session on the decks as two girls from the supermarket were belting their way through “you’re the one that i want, ooo ooo ooo”. he came and sat by me for a bit. i asked if he was enjoying the summer. he winced slightly and said he could do with a break.

when i arrived here nerina was watering the vegetables with a hose and antonio was sitting cross-legged on the roof of the neighbouring house working out how to use his astrolabe. it’s quite small, all made of brass, a bit fiddly to get an accurate reading. but not so difficult to operate once you’ve got your head round how it works.

the moon is beautiful tonight, peachy-orange. it was full either today or yesterday. hard to tell. the sea is still and there’s a gentle breeze from the north-east. antonio’s edgy about a scirroco arriving tonight or tomorrow.

i spent this afternoon on his catamaran, working at my computer moored off fico grande. in a little while we’ll go back out there to sleep on the boat. there at least it’s peaceful.

being on stromboli through august is horrible. my senses are numb. everything is so surreal. the quantity of people is astonishing. tonight there are ten times as many people sleeping on the island as there were throughout the winter.

everywhere there is the same awful music, night after night. every road is laced with slowly-meandering herds of tourists, guzzling their cannoli, peering through their gucci shades, regaling one another with stories which reveal afresh how beautiful, simple and unspoilt life on the island is. the bars and restaurants are manic, bloating stomachs and dulling brains by the hundred every hour. everywhere is the fever for money. it is somewhat like being amidst hyenas in a feeding frenzy about the carcass of a antelope, snarling at one another as they fight to tear off another scrap of flesh.

my friends and i cling to corners of tranquility where we can find them.

[ 01:35 – catamaran “fera” ] ah this is more like it. i’m sitting on the coach-roof of the port hull in the moonlight with the powerbook on my lap. the keyboard is illuminated by a tiny white led on a bendy coil which plugs into a usb port in the back. it’s rather cute and i suppose a little frivolous. the bulb uses hardly any electricity, perhaps 2 seconds-worth of battery charge every hour. i bought it in london a few months ago. in the past if i wanted to use the computer outside at night i had to wear a caving torch fixed on my head so i could see the keyboard to type.

as we bob about on the dark waves there is the hum of the water being pumped off the tanker ship a hundred metres from us. these ships arrive in rotation during august, there is permanently one at anchor in front of “la tartana club”. this regime is necessary to keep four thousand tourists supplied with endless showers and flushing loos. the ships load up water from the desalinator at lipari (largest island of the archipelago). when it reaches stromboli a pipe is rowed ashore and water is pumped up to a cistern beneath mario cincotta’s supermarket. from there it is pumped in rotation to different zones of the island. every house, old and new, has beneath it a water cistern which is also fed by rain-water collected on the roofs in the winter.

until the 1980s the communities on stromboli were dependent entirely on rain-water, not just for their survival and cleaning, but also for the intensive agriculture to which they subjected the island. at its peek during the nineteenth century sixty percent of the island’s surface area was under cultivation. most of this took the form of narrow terraces carved into the steep mountainside. the remaining forty percent was cliff, sand or lava field. the discipline with which these meagre water resources were marshalled must have been amazing.

the disco has finished for the night at la tartana. the moon is high in the sky. antonio’s on the starboard hull, perched half-in-half-out-of the cabin.

having two separate hulls means two people have a good deal of privacy even in a small catamaran. this one is lovely. just seven metres long, completely wooded construction, very simple. she was built (probably in croatia) from a design by james wharram, an englishman who from the seventies has countered the increasing decadence of modern catamarans with a philosophy based on traditional polynesian designs. the hulls rise high at bow and stern, and are almost symmetrical fore and aft. six transverse beams bind the hulls together. the mast is footed on a larger beam in the centre, parallel with the hulls and supported by three of the transverse beams. the rest is open deck-space, covered with wooden slatting (between which i can see scattered reflections of the moon writhing on the waves). between the bows is a section covered with trampolining, which is very nice to sleep in.

: carolus

a n n o s c o r s o

[ 22:22 wednesday 21 august – scari, isola di stromboli ]

one year ago today i woke to my alarm at half past four and the first hints of the london dawn. i’d got to bed an hour earlier after spending the night digging through months of phone, electricity, gas, water and council tax bills, writing cheques and stuffing them in envelopes (i’m not very good at bills). a taxi arrived at ten past five to take me to heathrow airport. with everything i’d need for life and work for the next three months’ in my backpack i closed the door of 13 taplow house. i knew it was the last time i would think of this place as my home, maybe the last time i’d have a home in london.

the previous day (the 20th) i’d arrived at the passport office in victoria at opening time (by bike of course) so that they could produce a passport for me by tea time. i’d organised a new passport a couple of months earlier but it got lost in the post. in its wisdom the uk government doesn’t consider a passport sufficiently important to merit sending it by registered mail.

on the 19th i’d tracked down and reserved a flight from heathrow to rome for the 21st, taking a bit of a gamble there wouldn’t be any hitches getting my passport together. in fact this nearly ended in disaster. after queueing for half an hour or so at the passport office i was called to a desk where i spread out my various forms and documents. i really can’t remember why but the officer quickly decided that the photo i’d brought was no good (even though it was witnessed by michael young as a good likeness!). i nearly fainted. initially she said there was no possibility of getting me a passport that day but i must have looked truly pitiful because she relented and gave me one hour to get another photo, find a friend of at least three years’ standing to witness it, and get back to them. i racked my brains for any of my friends who lived or worked in the vicinity. stipo was my first thought since he lived just round the corner, but there was no answer to his phone and i couldn’t think of anyone else i knew in that area of london. i phoned christian, but his mobile was off. so i phoned jp morgan and they (eventually) came up with a number which would reach him. i called it… he answered and immediately agreed to help. he even calmed me down a bit with his usual relaxed manner.

christian’s office though was at london wall, four or five kilometres hence. printing a new photo took five agonising minutes. but finally the strip of images dribbled out of the machine and i grabbed them and ran for my bike. i don’t think i’ve ever cycled so ruthlessly. pedestrians and other cyclists received no quarter. i even cut up a couple of cars. i got to london wall in twenty minutes flat, found jp morgan’s office, and arrived panting at reception. they eyed me suspiciously whilst they put through the call to christian to tell him i was there. he was down in moments, accompanied by donald, both of them grinning at my predicament. in no time the forms were filled in, the back of the photos signed, i’d said my goodbyes and i was on my way back to victoria.

i got there with a few minutes to spare (when this happens craig castigates me for not cutting it finer). the officer was satisfied with the new photo and told me to return at half past four to collect my passport. i jabbering some kind of incoherent thank you, overwhelmed with relief. i felt nervous when i returned later, braced to learn of some new hiccup, but the passport was there waiting for me when i handing over my ticket. i urged the cashier to pass a message of thanks to the clerk who had rushed it through. she stared at me blankly, as though i was mad.

so it was that i escaped london one year ago. when i landed at rome i didn’t have any plans for where i was going. anywhere in the south of italy or sicily would have suited me. it wasn’t til i was on the train to napoli that i started phoning friends to see how things were looking. bobo, roberta and eric had a house near catania, but at that point it was infested with little insects and didn’t sound too inviting. there was no answer to fabrizio’s phone but i knew he was on stromboli. i had happy memories from my previous year’s visit so i thought i’d join him there for a couple of days then continue to sicily to see bobo and the others.

the rest is already documented. i spent the next three weeks on stromboli, two of them living with alice and her friends in ginostra on the other side of the island. by the time i finally continued my travels in sicily and pantelleria i knew i was going to be on stromboli through the winter. i haven’t got round to leaving yet.

this has been an intense year for me.

: carolus

r i t m o

[ 13:05 thursday 27 june – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

i’m sitting on a rock in the corner of a plot under beating sun (for the last week the temperature has hovered between 35 and 40). about thirty members of a film crew are milling about preparing to begin shooting. the principal actors are in position, my friends matias and eugenio have been enrolled as extras, there is the usual faffing about. shhhh. silence. and everything’s ready. the cameras roll, eugenio delivers his lines. stop stop stop. the sound wasn’t good.

the production is a glossy four-parter to be broadcast on rai uno, italy’s main state-provided channel. half of the fourth episode is set on stromboli. on tuesday the crew was filming a scene at sea. antonio was commissioned to hover around in the background in his traditional sicilian swordfish-hunting boat. i spent the day working as his assistant.

i’ve been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time on the water with antonio recently. a couple of weeks ago i made an overnight trip with him on his eight-metre wooden catamaran to lipari, two islands hence. we left stromboli at one in the morning on a mirror-flat sea ablaze with phosphorescent plankton, the dark mass of the volcano brooding above us. dawn broke just after we had passed panarea and its outlying rocks. as the sun reached the horizon the colour of sky and sea changed every moment. deep purple, pink, silver, azure. we arrived at lipari at seven, reaching the quay just as a fishing boat came in and its crew started offloading the swordfish they’d caught overnight. a deal was done and we breakfast on swordfish and squid, grilled in an old bronze brazier suspended from the rigging. we set off for the return journey around three in the afternoon and reached stromboli just after nine.

a few mights later we went out fishing for totani, a locally-prized variety of squid with a reddish flesh and a particularly delicate flavour. for this a long line is used (200m), at the end of it a vicious hook baited with rotting sardines and a battery-powered flashing lamp (totani are attracted to strange things). after half an hour maria hauled in a monster, thrashing and squirting and vigorously changing colour as we hauled it up onto the deck. all the while the volcano, highly active at the moment, sent fountains of fire into the sky above us.

i’ve taken to sleeping afloat whenever possible. i find i sleep more deeply than on land, and the possibility to awaken and leap straight into the water is a delicious start to a day. next i need to get hold of a 12v adaptor for my computer so i can work for longer periods afloat.

barbara, in charge of costume for the production, comes up to me and invites me to join the crew in the shade. i’d been hiding here on my rock hoping not to get in anyone’s way. but it’s much more comfortable under the trees!

a week ago i moved house again, this time to the mountainside above scari. i’ve got a room to myself and share a terrace, kitchen and bathroom with matias, sara and their baby carlos. above the house is a field with fruit trees and vegetables. to the side are grapevines. beyond this is wild bamboo stretching up the mountain.

after eight months living alone in a large house in piscita this is a big change. suddenly i am much closer to the quay, the piazza, the bars and restaurants; and further from the sea. to my delight however it is still possible to hear the waves lapping the shore at night. and in the summer one passes the majority of one’s time outside, so it is really not important to have lots of space indoors.

after about twenty takes the scene is completed to the director’s satisfaction and everyone relaxes and prepares for the next one. eugenio is a natural, maybe this will be a new career for him. matias’ job is to sit munching a panino. after all these takes he’s already got through three or four. i hope they were good.

tomorrow morning i’ll take the hydrofoil to napoli (four hour trip), to connect with a ship bound for porto vecchio at the south of corsica (sixteen hour trip) on which i have a cabin. with any luck i”ll find my parents there at the port when i arrive. they have already been traveling round corsica for a week. i’ll stay with them another week (it’ll be a complete break from my computer) before coming back here.

life’s not too bad eh.

: cH

e c c o m i

[ 14:09 thursday 21 march – alitalia flight milano to london, 3000 feet above the alps ]

mid-air is just about the only circumstance in which i haven’t yet written one of these things. well here i am, right at the back of a rather antique mcdonnel douglas super80, an aircraft which seems to form a large part of the alitalia fleet. the engines are bolted onto the side of the fuselage abreast of my seat which makes for a rather noisesome journey. i look out of my window onto a white cylinder which bears 50% of the responsibility for keeping several hundred humans suspended in the middle atmosphere.

[ 11:35 wednesday 8 may – via giacinto gigante, napoli ]

it’s raining. which is comforting since i’m going to be in britain for the next twelve days.

all correspondences contain periods of silence. sometimes these are more important than words. almost four months have passed since i sat desolate in my house amidst the breaking waves and collected my feelings about michael. there have been many moments since when i have thought, yes, today i shall write something for wanderer. but excepting the fragment above, written in the sky on the way back from my previous visit to london, these intentions have remained unrealised.

no, this is not quite true. on the outward journey of that visit to london i sat in a caffe at milan airport and wrote a long entry. but later that day i was relieved of my computer at heathrow airport and that was that.

really the difficulty is knowing where to begin. the past six months have been amongst the most intense of my life. a mountain has accumulated of experiences and thoughts i am impatient to share, yet i must be satisfied with chipping away at a corner here and there.

some basic things. i am still living on isola di stromboli. my six months in the house where i passed the winter ended a few weeks ago and i moved about twenty metres to another house. again i have been fortunate. it is the lower storey of a building constructed at the end of the nineteenth century in the usual eolien style. two big white-painted rooms, floored with the original hand-painted tiles, thick walls of volcanic tufa, a separate kitchen, a terrace dripping with honeysuckle and bouganvillea. here the waves are a background murmur rather than the constant splash and roar of the previous house. i’ll stay here until the end of june. then i shall spend the summer with matias and sara on the mountainside above scari, out of reach of the human maelstrom which seizes the island during july and august.

work is going splendidly. through this period my attention is principally focused on the creation of a learning and communication infrastructure for the school for social entrepreneurs. the system we are developing for sse (“learning web”) is itself the prototype for a more wide-ranging collaboration technology (“trampoline”) whose structure derives from my analysis of how traditional communities share information and make collective decisions.

it has been a very long path to reach the present point with many ups and downs. i took a gamble leaving london and moving to stromboli. at the time none of my bids for funding had been approved (several had been rejected) and i had no certain income whatever. but within a few weeks of arriving a bid was approved by the uk community fund (money from the lottery) and soon afterwards the gulbenkian foundation gave us another chunk of cash. it had taken three years of preparation but finally there were sufficient resources to put some of my ideas into practice. through november and december we started to work things out in detail and prepare to start building the system.

after spending christmas with my family i returned to the island for capodanno. in the end about 20 hardy friends joined me there. every single person was delayed either arriving or departing (or both) because of sudden storms. but while we were all together on the island the weather was wonderful. every day the light was different and a magical hush hung over the island. on new year’s eve 18 of us dined in my house on two tables set end to end. after midnight other groups of friends arrived and we danced. finally a few of us survived to join the party at a bar near the quay, a distillation of numerous private parties. i danced with complete joyous abandon, not a frequent experience for someone as self-conscious and inhibited as myself. i was unbelievably happy. the parties continued on stromboli for a week after new year. but on the sunday evening there was a palpable sense that we were marking the end of the festivities.

the next day landon fuller, the lead software developer we had recruited for learning web, the person charged with turning my designs into a working system, announced his decision to quit the project. this brought me back to earth with a bump.

it was not a good moment. finding someone with the necessary skills and attitude had been very difficult. craig and i had counted ourselves lucky to discover landon in seattle. now we were back at square one. sse, our partners in the project, gave us two weeks to find a replacement. if we hadn’t succeeded at the end this time my ideas would be put aside and we would have to install a microsoft sharepoint system for the school. for me, after three years of work on the trampoline design, this was a galling prospect. but we stayed calm and set about the recruitment process all over again, picking up threads that had looked promising and throwing out new feelers in every direction.

then, one week after landon’s defection, michael died.

somehow through my grief i kept up the hunt with craig. after a few false leads we got talking to richard mcgregor, a fellow-student of craig’s who had the right skills and an interest in social-sector projects. he was interested in what we were doing but he had existing commitments. we needed someone who would be able to start immediately and devote the majority of their time to the project for the next five months. our two week grace period ended. we didn’t have a firm agreement with anyone but on the basis of our ongoing discussions with craig’s friend sse gave us a few extra days’ grace. i flew to london and a meeting was arranged for the following afternoon. we met, discussed the project, sounded each other out. we knew we couldn’t afford another false start. the mood was good. we parted. twenty-four hours later, while i was trawling tailors’ shops in central london in search of a collar to wear for michael’s funeral, a text message arrived on my phone from craig. richard was our new lead developer. passers-by looked a little startled at the spectacle of me jumping up and down on the pavement shouting unintelligible blessings at the sky.

since that moment the project has been an immense pleasure for me. on one hand it is completely abstract, almost in the realm of philosophy. we are working towards a general mode of representing humans, their associations, their activities. on the other hand it is completely practical. we are developing a system to help several hundred social entrepreneurs around the uk to overcome the difficulties they face every day in their work. the first part of the system went live last week. this phase of development will be completed at the end of june. richard is a star.

meanwhile life on the volcano continues to beguile me. when i arrived in italy last august i didn’t intend to visit stromboli at all, let alone live there. when i arranged the original house for six months i didn’t plan to stay beyond that time. but now i have close friends on the island. there is a wider community in which i feel very much at ease. the environment presents me with a different beauty every day, every hour. for the first time i find myself wondering if i might stay for a number of years.

i cannot remember a period when i have been happier. i miss michael all the time but without any sadness.

[ 16:50 sunday 19 may – gloucester to london train, passing through the cotswolds ]

it’s a week and a half since i sat in pasquale’s apartment in napoli writing these paragraphs. my intention was to send them as soon as i arrived in london. i have had abundant opportunity yet they remain unsent. always after a period of silence i feel more self-conscious about resuming the flow of words.

tomorrow i return to napoli, and thence to stromboli. this period in britain has been productive. lots of good work on learning web with richard and craig. caroline and jeremy’s splendid wedding at st bride’s fleet street. a chance to catch up with a few friends, though there is never time to see everyone i hope to. then there’s been the usual dash round town to gather essential supplies for the coming months on stromboli (photographic paper, printer cartridges, computer accessories and so on: impossible to find in the south of italy). i spent a couple of days with mum and dad in gloucestershire but there wasn’t time to visit granny in shropshire. and as ever there has been administrative tedium to sort out while i’m in the country (tax, banking, bills…).

[ 17:55 monday 20 may – go flight london to napoli, somewhere above switzerland ]

i arrived at stansted only twenty minutes before my flight was due to depart (this is not recommended). check-in was closed and all the other passengers were already in their seats on the plane. a humourless official called gordon told me there was no possibility whatever of getting on the flight and i should rebook for tomorrow. but being an inveterate chancer i hung around and after ten minutes standing there quietly with a mournful look on my face he suddenly started running around and shouting at people and next thing i knew i was being hussled through security with all my baggage and then out onto the tarmac to the plane. and now here i am speeding towards napoli.

the staff at penzance heliport nicknamed me “the luckiest man in the world” after the number of times i arrived there at the last moment with no reservation for a fully-booked flight, but somehow got myself a seat. fortune does seem to smile on me rather often. but i have a sense that this happy situation would quickly change should i ever take it for granted.

: cH

t h e d e a t h o f m i c h a e l

[ 00:30 thursday 17 january – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

michael young left this life on monday night.

the words are still incredible to me. writing them brings another spasm of grief upon me. michael was never particularly healthy and for twenty years had suffered from a macabre assortment of cancers. but always his vigour and stubborness carried him through. it was too easy to assume this would be so for ever.

the news arrived in an email from my friend james smith early on tuesday afternoon. i had just started washing up in the kitchen. for a few moments i went back to this mundane labour, numb and incomprehending. but then the information started to sink in and i dropped into a wailing trembling pile on the floor.

my first contact with michael was an interview in the new statesman which i read on an aeroplane to finland in july 1997. i remember making a prediction to my friend kirmo as we left helsinki airport that this extraordinary man was going to have an important part in my life. i met him at the end of 1998 and got to know him over the next couple of years. in april 2001 he agreed to be my mentor.

i was with him just before christmas at his house in islington. he was frail, but no more so than i have seen him before. it was a lovely day, crisp and blue-skied, the grey london stone shining in the golden-white light. coming in from the hall i was immediately bid play some dances at the piano in order that gaia’s dolls could have a dance. there they all were, arrayed on the floor in a semi-circle, with little gaia sitting wide-eyed and delighted in their midst. i sat myself down and hammered through a few waltzes and tangos as she twirled her festively-arrayed friends around the floor. michael sat at the end of the room entranced by the energetic bundle of new life he summoned into being five years ago.

we talked of many things over lunch and afterwards. parliamentary process, various of my ventures, his latest ideas for reforming the health service, his health, his endlessly-gestating successor to “family and kinship in east london”. i remember him commenting rather apologetically that he might not have a very long life left to help me. i scolded him for giving voice to such nonsense and thought nothing of it. typically he offered to drive me back to bethnal green, where i was staying, but it was clear he was feeling weak and i already felt bad about drawing on his energy. bidding him farewell i was moved by some instinct to kneel at his feet and clasp his old hands firmly between my own. then i took my leave, urging him that i saw ample cause for hope in the world.

i seem to have a talent for making good exits and then messing them up. sure enough as i rounded the corner from gibson square i realised i had forgotten my scarf. returning to his front door and ringing the bell the door opened immediately. there was michael with the object in his hands. as i took the scarf i suggested to michael that he was telepathic. he smiled his childlike pursed-lip smile, bid me farewell once more and then the door was closing and i was hurrying on my way.

i shall not see him again in this life.

oh i cannot bear to write this. i cannot bear to be without him.

yesterday evening, desperate to share my grief, i stumbled round the coast to my friends matteus and sara. they held me while i sobbed, comforting me with wise words about life and death. carlos, their ten-month-old son, clung to me also, a vigorous intelligence of these cycles through which all pass.

matteus gave me a black and brown scarf for my mourning, which i am wearing tied around my head for seven days. sara gave me a candle she made with red bougainvilla leaves scattered throughout it. this burns behind me now, on the table, beside a big M assembled from pieces of white pummice stone washed up in the storms.

on sunday night i hosted a dinner party. mid-way through the evening my friend giuseppe picked up a copy of one of my most recent photographs of michael and asked if he could have a copy. to me this seemed like an extraordinary request. around the room there are more almost forty of my pictures, all of which i would presume to be of more interest than this particular image of michael. but that was the one he wanted and of course i was over-joyed to print off a copy and write beneath it the name of its subject. this in turn aroused my friends’ curiosity about michael so i at their beckoning i talked of him at length. after dinner, when everyone had gone, i picked up the photograph which had caught giuseppe’s interest in the first place and fixed it to the wall in my bedroom, beside my bed.

thus, mysteriously and portentously, was the final night of michael’s life celebrated here amongst my friends on stromboli. michael hoped he might be able to visit me here in the spring. his name at least will be honoured in this place.

writing all of this is perhaps a part of the grieving process. i find myself focusing on the words for a few sentences, then recalling what it is i am describing and breaking foolishly into tears again. the muscles of my face ache from crying. but i sense the emphasis moving slowly from misery at what is lost to celebration of what has existed.

i always knew i would not have enough time with michael. i could have spent a century with him and would still have felt cheated to have him snatched away.

early on in my time with him i sent him a note saying that i would never meet another human from whom i had so much to learn. i knew this from the moment i read that interview with him.

throughout my life i have been blessed with wonderful teachers but michael was something beyond this. he is the closest thing i have had to a role model. his whole way of living and working, his sensibility, his gentle selfless guile, his humanity and warmth. he was a fine painter and writer, a lousy politician, an imperfect father, a brilliant thinker, analyst, problem-solver, pursuader, opportunist. i shall not trivialise him by eulogising. that is for the obituaries.

last autumn he wanted me to take charge of a project in hull piloting an “open health service” using digital interactive television to provide citizens with access to information, organise self-help groups for particular conditions, and generally to empower users in their interactions with the health bureaucracy. i worked on the proposals with him and accompanied him to a project meeting in hull, but in the end i knew my path lay here in the south of italy and i would not be pursuaded otherwise. thus passed my one and only opportunity to collaborate with him directly. i made the right decision.

today the english newspapers are full of michael. even mr blair has issued a few encomious paragraphs, despite michael’s mischievous sniping in the guardian of the last year. now i brace myself for the hateful and inevitable process whereby michael’s shade will be claimed by cause upon cause, from most of which he would have run a mile. already he regretted writing “the rise of the meritocracy” as a satire, since politicians are wont to miss the point of the book altogether and come away with the errant conclusion that michael supported the system he describes in it.

oh i could write endlessly about michael. perhaps i feel if i keep writing this he will stay with me a while longer. but he would not approve of the dilation and i feel the close must soon be upon me.

so he is gone. he is really gone. how alone i feel, having had the privilege of this gorgeous giant for a moment as my guide. my journey seems darker and more perilous without him.

during my final months in london i taught michael to use a computer. it was not easy for him. but he persevered, got to grips with the web and email and, finally, gained an insight into the current era he could not have reached any other way. he has been reading these wanderer despatches since i have been in italy. this message will find its way still to his inbox. i would like to think that somehow his spirit may yet receive these words.

so michael, i hope the journey was interesting and if you’d consider a job as a guardian angel i know someone who needs one. i love you always.

: charles

– – – – –

links to obituaries