3 t o 4

[ 18:40 thursday 25 december – all stretton, shropshire ]

sergio lies snoring quietly on the rug in front of the gas fire. bach preludes and fugues scurry from the powerbook’s little speakers. clusters of newly-opened presents dot the floor and tables. mum, dad and granny are in the kitchen fighting with the electric oven which switched itself off halfway through cooking their duck.

i’m here at granny’s house sitting in the armchair that was permanently reserved for grandpa, somewhat in the centre of the room with prime position for the fire and the television. it’s a month since grandpa sat in it for the last time. one morning granny found him unusually difficult to awaken and it turned out he wasn’t breathing. he was ninety-seven years old and the last ten years were a battle with depression, fear and physical decline. i visited just a couple of weeks before his death and found him lucid and calm. when the time came to leave i crouched beside him, clasped his hand and stroked his wispy white hair. in my heart i had a sense it was the last time i’d see him. when dad phoned to tell me he’d died i felt no sadness. i pray that he has found an afterlife filled with the serene mountains he loved to climb so much in life.

it’s been a long time since i wrote. now i break my silence. happy christmas to friends everywhere.

[ 18:20 friday 26 december – ludlow, shropshire ]

supper at granny’s last night was a splendid affair. it felt like we’d returned to the christmases of my childhood, to the time before the air around the dinner table was heavy with grandpa’s joylessness. after sixty-five years’ devotion to him it’s not going to be easy for granny to build a new life as an individual. but after a month it already seems to me that she is talking more lightly and laughing more. she’s a strong lady. i’m sure she enjoyed having us all there.

now sergio and i are here with bear and david, my excellent godparents. we spent this afternoon exploring ludlow in the freezing rain. everywhere are echoes of the former power and importance of this place, perched strategically in the midst of the wild march-lands between england and wales. the church is quite spectacular, a spacious gothic edifice most of whose fabric dates from a refurbishment in the fifteenth century at which point a majestic 135 foot tower was also added. the misericords are smothered with gorgeous carvings of beer barrels, pigs, hanging fowl and other accouterments of mediaeval life.

[ 00:45 wednesday 31 december – shipton street, london ]

back home, typing away to napolitan music. it’s been several years since the words “home” and “london” have been linked for me. ah well, i find myself more adaptable than i expected. the last time i wrote was in july when i was on my way back to stromboli after two weeks staying in warren and ann’s greenwich house. i spent just five days on stromboli, shifting all my belongings to gustl and valerie’s magazzino down by the beach at scalo dei balordi, packing everything into a transportable form and organising for its despatch.

predictably this turned out to be considerably more complex than it had any right to be. on poste italiane’s website i’d found details of a european package delivery service which looked ideal. so on my final full day on stromboli sergio and i lugged all the boxes to the post office in the blazing sun. we filled in all the forms then giuseppe (the most agreeable postmaster in the world; he phones when anything arrives for me) pointed out that the european package service was not available from stromboli. it’s too remote.

oh dear. leaving all the boxes in the post office i embarked on a flurry of research into the options. one possibility was to despatch my boxes from the post office either in lipari or in milazzo. but how i was going to get them that far was not clear. officially there was no outbound courier service operating from stromboli, but mario the pasticciere from bar ingrid had recently taken over responsibility for incoming courier deliveries and suggested i speak to universal parcel service. i phoned and after a few seconds consultation the lady said it would be no problem to collect a consignment from stromboli. she told me the local office was siracusa and they would send a van to pick up my boxes. bearing in mind that it takes at least a day to get from siracusa to stromboli this seemed slightly unlikely, but she insisted it was the case and proceeded to take my order. discussing it afterwards with mario he predicted that the ups office in siracusa would umm and ahh then call the company on lipari that handles all courier deliveries in the eolian islands. this company in turn would ponder awhile then most likely call mario and get him to send my boxes over. this didn’t seem like a watertight system but during my time on stromboli i have learned to trust to fate in such cases.

there being nothing more to do, i passed the evening getting nostalgically drunk with paolo and a few other friends. as dusk fell sergio and i excused ourselves, careered down the steps from paolo’s terrace, threw ourselves into the sea and swam out a little way, from where we watched the sun dissolve into the golden horizon. the next morning we shifted all the boxes from the post office into maria’s shop on the piazza, where she kindly agreed to keep them until someone turned up to collect them. then it was time to get on the hydrofoil and say goodbye to stromboli for the time being.

for the next two months i stayed on in warren’s house as britain sweltered in absurd temperatures. london was horrible and i felt wretched, but i kept my attention fixed on setting up trampoline and getting some investment together. i also started house hunting. in the meantime the sequence of events proceeded exactly as mario had predicted and after a week he received a call to pick up my boxes and send them over to lipari, from where they were conveyed to siracusa and entered the ups system, arriving creditably intact in greenwich a few days later.

on 18 september sergio and i moved into the house where i sit now. it’s the first floor of a victorian bakery in the no-man’s land between shoreditch and bethnal green, with most of the internal walls knocked down and steps which fold down from the ceiling to lead one to the roof. there’s a fireplace where we burn timber harvested on late-night scavenging missions on local streets. during the day three big windows wash the room with december light, and draw one’s gaze up the long straight road towards haggerston. on sundays the cobbled alleyway below the house becomes an open-air cafe and we find ourselves in the thick of the columbia road flower market. the many diversions of old street, brick lane and kingsland road are a few minutes’ walk from the front door. it is a satisfactory sanctuary. my new address is 36b shipton street, london e2 7ru.

on the first of october trampoline systems limited officially raised its first commercial investment. the total, £127,000, is tiny from the perspective of the venture capital market but it’s twice what we set out to raise and from my working-on-thin-air perspective seems like an amazing sum. craig and i are busy transforming it into magic of various kinds.

then on 23 december, just in time for christmas, a signed license agreement arrived from none other than the british foreign office, our very first clients. they’ll be using trampoline to provide communications and information management for an initiative they’re setting up to create a worldwide partnership of governments, businesses and non-profits involved in renewable energy. there are mountains to climb to make the business a success but this has certainly been a well-augured beginning.

during these months there have been many experiences about which i’ve wanted to write. a street full of steel bands going full tilt the night before notting hill carnival. a party around a fire by the banks of the canal in west london with eric, bobo and roberto. ten days of equinoctial sun and storm on stromboli in october. the turning on of hayle’s christmas lights with anna and adam in cornwall, accompanied by the town’s brass band. the tumultuous anti-bush demonstration in trafalgar square with craig, sergio, kirmo, warren and ann; after which we arrived back slightly late for our housewarming party. and so forth. on each occasion something has held me back from writing. i’m not sure what it was. maybe i was waiting to change in some way.

after writing the paragraphs from bear and david’s on 26 december sergio and i stayed with them one more day. in the afternoon we borrowed mountain bikes and headed out into mortimer forest. it was a beautiful day, crisp cold air with occasional pockets of mist hanging over the trees. the ground was covered with fallen leaves and still muddy from the previous day’s rain. we had a wonderful time skittering along the paths between the trees and zipping up and down hills. i got us rather lost and as the sun was setting i did feel a twinge of anxiety as the forest is large and we were not well prepared for a night in the wilds. however we carried on following our noses and eventually we emerged on a road, about ten miles from where i thought we were. we made it home shortly after sunset, covered in mud from head to foot.

i’ll be seeing in the new year from a crowded dancefloor in the centre of london. to everyone who’s reading this i pray 2004 realises old hopes and brings new dreams.

* : c : *

c o m i n g & g o i n g

[ 13:30 saturday 12 july – liverpool street station, london ]

the train hums angrily and creeps along the platform. a pre-recorded voice announces excitedly, in various languages, that we’re off to stansted airport. after 11 days in london i’m going back to stromboli for three days to pack up all my equipment and entrust it to poste italiane’s european delivery service. hopefully at least some of it will find its way to london (possibly even in working order). it can’t be any worse than parcelforce, surely?

being back in london is strange. the unremitting grey skies hovering over the city for the first few days felt like they were pressing me in into the ground but i started feeling more cheerful when the sun came out. the things i miss most are the freedom to swim in the sea on impulse and bumping into friends whenever i set foot outside the door. i hate having to think about locking doors again. my first visit to a supermarket was a predictably grim experience. but lots of positive things are happening with trampoline and this keeps me from getting too gloomy. this is why i came back, after all.

warren and ann were in london when i arrived, fresh from their journey through italy (to my delight they even paid a flying visit to stromboli). they’re back in san francisco now but have kindly let me stay in their house in greenwich for a few weeks, so i have a breathing space before i have to get to grips with house hunting. on july the fifth they held a “fourth of july” party. visitors were greeted with a rainbow-striped italian “pace” flag alongside an american stars and stripes, which i thought was an intriguing conjunction.

: c*

p a r t e n z e

[ 09:20 tuesday 1 july – train leaving central palermo ]

i spent much of sunday night reorganising my chattels and carrying boxes to gustl and valerie’s magazzino on the beach at scalo dei balordi, assisted greatly by sergio. leonardo came by with his taxi at eleven forty and conveyed me to the port where we shared a last bottle of water. at quarter past twelve i was on the hydrofoil to messina. from there i took the four o’clock coach to palermo, where i met some friends. we had some truly excellent pizza together, followed by some of the best ice cream in palermo (and therefore the world). the gelsi nero is exquisite at the moment. after supper we drove a little way out of palermo to the east and had a swim with the plankton sparkling around us. now i am on my way to the airport for a flight to london.

this first chapter of my life on stromboli is now complete. for the next six months i will be based in london. leaving the island isn’t something i particularly want to do, but it’s clear this is what trampoline needs from me at this stage. for the final week i lived once again in paolo’s house above the beach where i spent my first six months on stromboli. on wednesday evening i held a dinner party for 15 of my closest friends on the island, around a long table amongst the mesumbryanthemums, lit by candles and the stars.

in the last few days the volcano has started making its familiar grumbling noises again. the islanders greet this much as anxious parents greet the renewed crying of a baby that has been silenced awhile by a fever.

: c***

o n d a

[ 23:25 saturday 21 june – piscita’, isola di stromboli ]

seated in a deck chair with stars in the soft air above me and waves breaking on the beach beneath me. a candle flickers amidst the succulent mesembryanthemums covering the ground. my mobile phone is perched in the plants in front of me, the only place where it can find a signal. the phone in turn is connected to my computer by infra red. so long as i sit fairly still i have an internet link fast enough for me to be listening to thursday’s “late junction” programme from the bbc radio 3 website. a diverse selection as usual. it kicked off with some old skool ska and has now meandered into brazilian experimental jazz. turning my head 90 degrees left i can see the silhouette of the volcano with the now-familiar red glow in the sky above the right shoulder.

today was the solstice, the longest day of the year. as sunset approached i scampered round taking photos; then as the reddening sphere descended to the horizon i left the camera on a rock and threw myself into the sea, swimming out to watch it set with the silvery water all around me. there was nobody else in sight. wonderful.

there’s a party tonight on the beach at punta lena. i’ll head down there after writing this mail.

righto, time to backtrack a bit. when i arrived here on stromboli at the beginning of february there were about 60 people on the island, somewhat reduced from the usual 400. the rest of the population had evacuated to lipari (main island of the archipelago) and milazzo (nearest port in sicily) whilst hordes of vulcanologists checked out the situation and protezione civile installed an elaborate early warning system.

the top of the volcano was covered in snow. the island was veiled in swirling cloud. a layer of fine grey ash covered absolutely everything. and all around the coast was evidence of the wave which had hit a month earlier. at punta lena twisted remains of boats were piled on top of each other. the mesh fence in front of the power station was bent horizontal. daniella’s newly-planted garden was a bare patch of mud. the kitchen of a house at one end of fico grande had been demolished. sections of a substantial wall which used to stand behind the beach were scattered around at crazy angles. trees had been ripped off their trunks, leaving only ragged stumps. the narrow roads leading up from the beach were blocked waist-high with rocks. the whole front of a house at punta lena was taken off. everywhere the sand-covered ground was dotted with table lamps, pan lids, clothes, cushions and other everyday items, snatched out of their usual context by the water.

returning to casa schuldes, as i wrote at the time, i found the main house happily undamaged. there was a 5cm layer of ash on the courtyard and terraces. inside there was a fine layer of ash on every surface, and inside every cupboard and drawer. the magazzino (store-room) down near the beach was another story. this had taken the full force of the wave. all that remained of the stout wooden door was a foot-long piece of wood hanging from the padlock. inside was a scene of complete devastation. cupboards full of tools, cans of paint, the washing machine, an oil-drum full of petrol, an ironing board, hundreds of cassette tapes; everything had been picked up, thrown around and deposited in a tangled heap. i salvaged some items i found which were still intact but it didn’t amount to very much. the fridge was nowhere to be seen, either in the magazzino or further down the beach. the receding water had dragged it right out to sea.

eye-witness accounts of the event vary considerably. the picture which emerged was like this: a huge ash cloud rose up from the sciara and started drifting over the village, then the sea receded about five metres all round the coast, then the water catapulted back with enormous force, inundating low-lying areas and destroying anything in its path. it doesn’t seem as if the wave was enormously high, just a few metres. what marked it out was its extraordinary force. people who saw it describe the water hitting the coast as if shot from a gun.

there is little consensus about what caused the wave. initially the vulcanologists announced that there had been a large landslide from the sciara in which 5 million cubic metres of material had fallen into the sea, sending up the ash cloud and triggering the wave. this seemed like a reasonable explanation for the cloud but pretty implausible as the cause of the wave, which arrived at many points on the coast from directions inconsistent with a landslide at the sciara. the theory was later modified with a suggestion that the landslide above the water had triggered a larger one below the water (the volcano continues 2km beneath the sea) in which another 15 million cubic metres of material had slipped, and this had caused the wave. this sounds very grand but i still haven’t heard of any evidence for this theory.

the older islanders, on the other hand, say that part of the mountain under the water split away, sucking billions of litres of sea water into the fissure (thus the receding sea) after which the highly-compressed water exploded back out again (hence the super-charged wave). these people are hardly scientists but to me this sounds like a more credible explanation. there are others who believe there was a gas explosion on the side of the volcano deep beneath the surface.

whatever the cause, seeing a familiar environment so transformed is a powerful experience. it imparts a tangible sense of the terrifying forces lying dormant in this environment and the fragility of human tenure here. through february and march there was an unspoken sense of anticipation amongst the people who remained on the island. was there going to be another wave? would it be even more devastating than the first one? initially the protezione civile barred anyone from sleeping in houses less than 20m above sea level. this was ridiculous, and was of course ignored (not least by myself). then as the weeks passed and the sea showed no signs of further untoward behaviour people began to relax and those who had fled began to drift back to their ash-filled homes.

:

l a v a f l o w

[ 00:10 thursday 12 june – isola di stromboli ]

i’m sitting on the starboard bow of antonio’s catamaran on a flat flat sea looking up at the stream of lava coming down the west side of the island. the air is hot and humid. i’m sitting here without a shirt. a three-quarter moon casts a ghostly blue light over everything. the black silhouette of the volcano in front of me is sliced down the middle with a line of bright orange. to the right it forms a solid stream. to the left it breaks into pieces which tumble and bounce down the mountainside. it’s indescribably beautiful. there’s a sense of incredible force, but also a filigree delicacy to the shimmering particles of fire.

the lava makes a continuous grinding sound, underpinned by a deep bass rumbling. every few seconds there’s a fat crump as a mass of solidifying lava hits the sea.

this is the first time i’ve seen the lava flow from the water.

with my new sony ericsson telephone and gprs account i can send this message right away, from where i’m sitting in the boat. i’m still a bit awed by the fact.

: c***

l i m p e t s

[ 22:00 sunday 4 may – casa schuldes, isola di stromboli ]

sergio and i spent a couple of hours yesterday afternoon in snorkels and masks scouring the coast below the house for limpets. armed with blunt knives we hunted out the biggest juiciest specimens in every nook and cranny, trying to catch them by surprise before they could fix themselves immovably to the rock. all the while we kept a lookout for the purple jellyfish currently swarming around stromboli’s shores, which have tentacles several feet long and give a nasty sting. we came up the steps to the house with a good harvest and left them in fresh water to purge themselves of sand particles.

in the evening, joined by maria, we made a cous cous in the manner traditional to trapani (sergio’s home town at the western tip of sicily). starting with semola flour and hands dipped in olive oil we painstakingly rolled little pellets between our fingers. when these were fine enough we boiled a pan of water with bay leaves and steamed the cous cous above it for what seemed like an eternity. in the meantime we steamed the limpets vigorously for 15 minutes, during which time they obligingly shed their conical shells, then put the rubbery little chaps into the water in which they’d been steamed, added tomatoes, dried chilli pepper and garlic, and boiled the sauce gently for about half an hour. a little scorpion emerged from the chimney above the stove to investigate what was cooking. i took his photo then squashed him with a stone without much scruple. they’re not very friendly creatures. it was getting on for midnight when we finally transported everything up to the table on the roof and tucked in with the waves lapping the beach below us on one side and the volcano brooding above us on the other side. it was absolutely delicious.

i’m a big fan of wild food, as readers of this journal will know. but until recently i regarded limpets as somehow beyond the pale. they are plentiful and grow very big in cornwall and the isles of scilly, yet the people hold them in a disdain which exceeds any other shellfish. i never met a single person who likes them. they are described as tough, tasteless and inedible. in the isles of scilly there is a sort of folk-memory that during periods of starvation in the eighteenth and nineteenth century limpets were the “last resort” source of sustenance, and consequently they have particularly unpleasant associations. yet here in the south of italy “patelli” are highly regarded. last month i had a revelatory experience with them during a magnificent dinner cooked by giuseppe and emanuele. this meal also included sauro, ugly deep-water fish hauled up that morning by emanuele, which we ate raw with lemon juice, olive oil and wild fennel.

whilst we were gobbling up our cous cous last night dad, mum, anna and adam were at rick stein’s fish restaurant in padstow, cornwall, for a surprise dinner to celebrate dad’s 60th birthday and anna’s 30th. i had a romantic notion that i would fly from palermo to stansted, then fly on from there to newquay in cornwall and get to padstow in time for dinner. but none of the connections connected properly and it would have taken two days, so i had to be content telephoning my congratulations when they’d finished dinner. dad still acts younger than many of my contemporaries (he and mum are just back from skiing in the canadian rockies) so i presume he’ll be wearing this decade as lightly as the previous ones.

it’s three months since i wrote my last despatch, describing my illicit return to stromboli in the middle of a force 8 gale. during this period my attention has been obsessively focused on building up the intelligence i will need for the next stage of my trampoline project. it feels as if i have retreated into a sort of cocoon, continuing frenzied activity connected with the venture at the expense of almost everything else in my life, including communications with family and close friends. possibly this despatch marks my reemergence.

being in stromboli through these months has been a remarkable experience. but i’ll write about that later.

: c*

a r r i v a n z a

[ 22:10 thursday 6 february – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

i’m here, i’m back on stromboli!

the conditions yesterday did indeed render a landing at stromboli impossible. i sat watching its grey triangle emerge out of the rain on the port bow and pass agonisingly by. i could see clouds of steam rising from the sciara where the new lava flow enters the sea. we passed by panarea too without attempting a landing. at lipari the captain made five runs at docking, which took over an hour, but each time the wind forced him to back away again. in the end he abandoned the attempt and headed straight for milazzo on sicily’s north coast. there we docked at half past seven, twenty-two hours after i’d boarded the ship.

first i checked into a little hotel and deposited my bags. then, not having eaten a proper meal for two days, i went to a fish restaurant i know and wolfed down a pile of their home-made pasta with broccoli and bottarga di tonno (tuna eggs which have been dried and seasoned). yes, it was exquisite. then i went back and fell asleep at once.

this morning i woke at nine and phoned the shipping company office to check the situation. they said the 10:00 ship would be operating and they thought things had calmed down enough that it would be possible to land at stromboli. so i got my things together, grabbed a couple of jam-filled croissants and got to the ship. it was a beautiful departure, a broad panorama of snow-covered mountains with alternating patches of black rainstorms and sunlight roving across the leaden sea. slowly stromboli grew larger ahead of us. an officer came round asking for documents from everyone who wanted to land at stromboli to be checked against the list of formal residents. i sat with my book and pretended not to hear, my heart beating noisily.

after two hours we were drawing close. suddenly we were engulfed in a fierce rainstorm and visibility dropped below a hundred metres. the ship slowed to a crawl and we continued. once again the scattered passengers were pressed against the windows in silence. from time to time a gap would open and we would glimpse a part of the mountain before the clouds closed over again. one such opening revealed the miraculous fact that the top of the mountain was white with a once-every-thirty-years covering of snow.

the rainstorm passed and we came in sight of the quay. the sea was still rough, breaking white over the concrete platform. but it was clear the captain was going to try to dock. the anchors dropped, we turned slowly and crept astern metre by metre with the anchor cables holding us steady. the first line thrown across to the quay fell short and the stern began to drift sideways. the second line was caught and secured. other lines went over and little by little the ship inched backwards until the gap was just a couple of metres. at this point i quietly collected my bags and slipped down the companionway to the stern.

i got down there just as the ramp began to lower. one of the officers saw me and came over with a quizzical look. my heart was in my throat as he said surely i was going to panarea. i did my best to look surprised and said very emphatically “no, i live on stromboli”. he still looked unhappy but at this point the ramp bumped down onto the concrete quay and everyone was shouting “vai, vai, vai!” and people were running in all directions. in a couple of bounds i was on the quay, back on stromboli, with a great sense of jubilation.

the description of what i found here must wait for another time. for now suffice to say the house is fine, although the storeroom is indeed devastated. my slides are undamaged. i’ve started the job of cleaning the place out. there’s a fire burning in the wood stove. i’ve greeted many of my friends and established details of what’s going on.

right now the sea is growing rougher again and the wind is strengthening. from time to time there is a flash of lightning. occasional squalls of rain pass over but between them the stars are bright in the inky sky. the clouds over the entire western flank of the mountain are glowing a deep red. after sending this mail i’ll set off for punta u bronzu. it’s time to see this new lava flow with my own eyes.

i’m back.

: c* * * * *

p a s s a g i o

[ 23:30 tuesday 4 february – mt vittorio carpaccio, porto di napoli ]

sitting here in the ship’s deserted saloon, only the hissing and inane chatter of a badly-tuned tv for company.

i arrived last night in florence to be met by seb and ardis, who whisked me off along ever-diminishing roads until we bounced along the dirt track to seb’s house. supper was a magnificent artichokes risotto (seb’s a fantastic cook). we stayed up late talking, listening to music and knocking back weird italian liquors. around three in the morning a strong wind arrived out of nowhere and started rattling the windows and doors. i slept like a log.

today i planned to get the 15:54 eurostar from florence down to napoli, but seb’s sister amanda visited with her partner and two-month-old baby and they proceeded to get their land rover firmly stuck in the mud. this delayed our departure long enough for me to miss the train. i took the opportunity to buy some duck tape for makeshift draught-proofing and a box of face masks for the task of sweeping ash out of the house (both suggested by my father). after making my goodbyes to seb and ardis i got on the next train, an hour later than the one i’d intended.

the ship for stromboli was scheduled to leave napoli at 21:00, half an hour after my train’s scheduled arrival. from the railway station to the port takes about twenty minutes in an aggressively-driven taxi. i spoke to pasquale from the train and he proposed meeting me at the station with his old suzuki motorbike. this seemed like a perfect solution so i started trying to figure out how i was going to carry my huge rucksack, roll-up bag of books and slides and my precious hard drive on the back of his bike.

the train pulled into napoli at 20:35 with me hovering impatiently by the door ready to leap off. the door hissed open, i ran up the platform and around the front of the station, but no sign of pasquale. back into the station and there he was, very dashing in bright yellow waterproof trousers and a himalayan woolly hat. shouting his name i ran to greet him and together we stumbled out laughing to his waiting steed. with my rucksack on my back, the roll-up slung over my left shoulder, hard-drive clutched under my right arm and my left arm around pasquale’s waist it was possible to achieve some semblance of equilibrium. with a whoop of excitement we accelerated off into the rain-filled streets, dodging between maniacal cars and buses.

ten minutes later we pulled up at the ship’s stern and the crew explained that the sea was very rough and they wouldn’t be sailing until five in the morning at the earliest. so i went for a quick drink with pasquale, came back to the ship, waved him goodbye, and here i’ve been since then.

i followed paolo’s advice and bought a ticket to panarea (the next island after stromboli). i’m hoping there won’t be any difficulty sneaking off at stromboli.

[ 14:00 wednesday ]

sitting once again in the saloon, this time accompanied by six other passengers and as many crew. the passengers all have their faces pressed against the windows. the sea is breathtaking, beyond description. i’ve never seen anything like it. a libeccio of quite extraordinary ferocity is blowing from the north-west, i’d say force eight. the waves are white-streaked mountains of grey, five or six metres high. this is not a small ship but we are being thrown around like a toy. typing is tricky because my chair and table keep sliding across the floor at different speeds.

after all my efforts i rather doubt it’s going to be possible to dock at stromboli.

: c*

t o r n o

[ 17:59 monday 3 february – eurostar 9449, stazione centrale, milano ]

dalek-voiced announcements echo around the station’s cavernous iron-ribbed vault. a buzzer sounds, the external doors of the carriage hiss shut. we slide out of the station precisely on time.

landing in milan a week ago i was greeted by a taxi strike, the roads around the airport stacked with hundreds of static white-painted cars. i climbed into a bus which crept through the traffic-choked streets emitting sinister announcements that the day’s service would be “irregolare”. the bus deposited me at san babila. i walked towards la scala with my bags and quickly found myself in the midst of a noisy demonstration. it wasn’t clear what everyone was worked up about but every few minutes the crowd got swept up chanting another insulting phrase at the top of their voices. a lone trumpeter played a short fanfare whenever it seemed like things needed livening up. a row of carabinieri with riot shields and guns were lined up in front of the crowd, looking somewhat edgy and self-conscious. i took some photos, joined in some chanting (very satisfying), then picked up my bags and continued. it seemed like a good sort of welcome back to italy.

from la scala i threaded my way up through via verdi, via brera and via solferino to fabrizio’s light-filled apartment, which has again been my home for the week. these days have been blessed with clear skies and bright sun. fabrizio is currently much absorbed piecing together plans to revive an enormous botanic garden around the corner from his house, which has been abandoned for many decades. it’s a big undertaking but the potential is tremendous.

on friday evening bobo, roberta and their friends in the box collective had a party to launch their third group show. the exhibition is in a large modern apartment rather than a gallery, which gives it a relaxed informal atmosphere. it brought to mind the philosophy of the circle group of artists from the 20s and 30s, which challenged the sanctification of art works in museums and galleries, proposing instead that they should be absorbed into living domestic environments. the box show presented diverse work from six members of the group, united by a dark-humoured scepticism of modern society. it was a great party and i spoke to a lot of people i liked. amazingly for a milan art event there didn’t seem to be any of the fashionistas who usually turn up and pose like statues in their carefully-arranged clothing. there seems to be an inverse correlation between the prevalence of these people and the quality of a party.

while i was in london i managed to speak to a few of my stromboli friends. they were all living in temporary accommodation on lipari and counseled against returning to stromboli in the near future. i was sad to learn from antonio that his two boats, on which i have spent many happy hours, have been completely smashed. however last week i called paolo russo and caught him relaxing in his hot tub at home on stromboli. he told me he’d stayed on stromboli throughout all the shenanigans, resisting the calls to evacuate, and that the old strombolani were much amused by the fuss everyone was making. according to them the volcano has an episode like this every few decades then settles down afterwards. contrary to the reports i’d heard the electricity supply only failed for a few hours and one shop has continued trading throughout.

heartened by this information i plan to get the ship from napoli tomorrow night, stopping overnight with sebastian in tuscany. officially the island remains closed to all but home-owners, but i reckon i’ll be able to sneak back. paolo’s advise was to buy a ticket for panarea then quietly disembark at stromboli. we’ll see.

quite what i’ll find when i get there i don’t know. from what i understand there are only 40 people on the island so it’ll have rather the atmosphere of a ghost town. everything is covered in black ash and sand. gustl and valerie’s house may have survived the tsunami entirely unscathed, or it may have been inundated with water. the state of my photo printer, my film scanner, my musical instruments and several thousand slides remains uncertain. i’m bracing myself for the worst but the loss of my slides in particular would be a heavy blow. those little rectangles of coloured film are probably the most precious objects i possess. but i must remember they are only objects.

: c*