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*