[ 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.