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

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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