s l e e p e r

[ 23:56 monday 8 november – shipton street, london ]

i wrote this four weeks ago. the final sentence, in retrospect, is ironic and slightly forlorn.

[ 21:53 monday 11 october – first great western train from hayle to paddington ]

i’m on my way back to london after spending the weekend in cornwall. leaving this remote limb of britain always provokes a slight lump in my throat, a gentle yearning. we are all imprinted in some way by the environment in which we spend our childhood but some places seem prone to leave a stronger mark than others. my (wholly subjective) impression is that cornwall is located at the more affecting end of the spectrum. the identity of many of my friends who grew up in cornwall seems to remain in some way anchored to its landscapes, climate and culture long after their lives take them elsewhere.

at a quarter before midnight on friday evening i checked into my cabin on the sleeper train at paddington. this is only the second time i’ve travelled on the service, the fist being in spring 1999 when i was living on the island of st agnes. on that occasion i recall a rather splendid dalliance kept me from my cabin until the final hour of the journey so i arrived in penzance exhausted and slept the whole journey by ship to the islands. traveling on this sleeper is overpoweringly nostalgic. arriving on the platform one is greeted by uniformed train officials standing outside every carriage with documents, a much larger crew than any other train service i’ve used. stepping into the train feels like entering a museum of 1970s british industrial socialism. the rolling stock was financed, constructed and brought into service in that period; fully in the state sector of course. somehow it has carried on ever since despite the intervening privatisation and general rendering-down of the railways. it is hard to believe this is a profitable service. i can only imagine that enough politicians with constituencies in devon and cornwall find the sleeper convenient to ensure a nice subsidy is maintained.

the cabins are all formica surfaces and sturdy cast steel fittings. everything has a chunky engineered feel to it. it doesn’t scream “design” in the way contemporary rolling stock tends to but all the details are pleasingly resolved. i like the clothes hangers built into the wall, integrated with elastic restraining bands to stop your clothes flapping around. this is what british design used to be, before it stopped being an engineering-driven discipline and became a fashion-driven discipline. one half expects to find harold wilson puffing on his pipe in the restaurant car.

at half past seven on saturday morning a steward called tamsin tapped on my cabin door and brought in a jug of coffee and some biscuits. twenty minutes later sand dunes hove into view outside my window and the train pulled into hayle station where i alighted, to be met by anna (my sister).

the two poles of the weekend were a big family dinner on saturday night and a long coastal walk on sunday afternoon. dinner brought together my parents, my aunt jill from canada, anna and adam, sergio and myself. anna and adam won’t be in britain for christmas so the meal was slightly surreally accessorised with streamers and crackers. sergio and i braved the rain before supper to pick our way through the cowpats and gorse to the top of trencrom hill. this is a westerly outpost of the west penwith moors, a rugged windswept landscape dotted with weathered granite outcrops and stunted trees. from the top of the highest carn, buffeted by the wind and rain, we could see both coasts: the sand-fringed sweep of st ives bay stretching to godrevy to the north and st michael’s mount to the south.

on sunday we set out from lamorna cove around eleven in the morning. the strong easterly wind and a rising tide sent the swell crashing against the quay and sending plumes of spray high into the air. i find the atlantic incomparably thrilling, cold and mighty and relentless. a straggle of off-season tourists perched slightly nervously near the quay with their cameras poised, unsure how close they should advance. jill walked straight to the end of the quay and a huge roller exploded all around her. she returned grinning from ear to ear and miraculously dry.

from lamorna we walked along the coastal path to penberth, the first time i’ve covered this stretch of coast. every step was accompanied by crashing of the atlantic to our left. about half-way along we descended into a patch of ancient oak and chestnut woodland, with arum lillies peppering the ground. lowland cornwall was once covered with this habitat but today it is extremely rare. for me it is magical to be in such a place. under the canopy formed by the trees, their lichen-covered branches formed into a smooth mantle by the wind, everything was bathed in a damp greenish half-light and the roar of the sea was muffled. in places such as this i have a sense of enormous spans of time.

later on, at porthcurno, we ate pasties sheltering from the rain under the cliff whilst the rollers crashed against the beach. jill ventured to the shoreline and this time she get soaked. we found a slow-worm on the beach, just twenty centimetres long with a lustrous golden skin. maybe he had fallen from the cliff, certainly the sand is not his favourite habitat. as i held him in my hand he twisted around my fingers, as if fearful of falling, and pressed the side of his head against me, his tiny black tongue darting in and out against my skin. we carried him up the beach and placed him in some grass where he darted off.

my life is bursting with unshared stories. i am absorbed in trampoline to the exclusion of almost everything else. previously i believed it was just a question of finding time to write these despatches, but i now realise the reflection that underlies the writing is equally important; and it is this that i lack. my days are given to the ceaseless demands of my business. it is thrilling. but having achieved a near-perfect balance in my way of living between 1999 and 2003 it pains me to recognise how unbalanced my life is become. yet this is what i chose, in full consciousness, and through this imbalance i am achieving things i could achieve no other way.

in the last few months we have brought several more people into the team, and have moved the company’s office out of my house into a rather splendid neo-classical pile off old street. week by week the momentum is increasing.

a month ago i was in japan with christian and kumi. i have 400 photographs to show for this and a half-written wanderer despatch. two similarly half-written despatches from sicily were lost when my computer was stolen from a train between florence and milan in july. a further half-written despatch describes these losses. somehow i have to learn new habits which permit me to write and send these things, rather than having them fester unfinished on my computer. possibly i should try to write briefer observations rather than the rambling descriptives towards which i seem inclined.

with perfect timing my train is now arriving into paddington. this message, at least, is complete.

peace to all : c*

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f l a m i n g o s

[ 23:05 monday 19 april – torre ventorello, sicilia ]

cross-legged in my tent on the edge of a small bay. sergio is lying next to me tapping out a message on his mobile phone. the area is a nature reserve which means camping is prohibited. we saw some wardens doing their rounds earlier and we’re eager not to attract their attention, so we haven’t got any lights on. in such circumstances the powerbook’s backlit keyboard is a great asset, making it possible to dim the screen and type without any light.

this place is fantastically beautiful. behind the curving white sand a series of pools and marshes overflows with plants and birds whose ecosystems have not been disturbed. shortly after we arrived this afternoon a flock of flamingos flew over. later on thousands of swallows swooped and dived around us as the sun set. further inland there’s a stand of tall eucalyptus trees surrounded by orange and lemon orchards. on the point of the bay, just beyond us, are the ruins of a rectangular fort (aroganese i think, from the eighteenth century) and the columns and chimney of a tonnara where freshly-caught tuna was offloaded from boats to be salted and packed.

the nearest streetlight is several miles away. the sea is very still, just a slow lapping of waves. the light this afternoon was golden and rich. my camera was busy.

the ventorello reserve is on the east side of the rolling plains which occupy the southern tip of sicily. to the south west there is the town of pachino, where we bought some groceries earlier. to the north rise the long ranges on which the towns of noto, rosselino and ispica are perched. the ancient cities on these sites were flattened by a big earthquake in the late seventeenth century so the baroque architects and town planners had a field day. likewise ragusa, spectacularly wrapped around a lump of rock.

this will be my fourth night in a tent on a beach since arriving in sicily a couple of weeks ago. the first was the day after i wrote my previous despatch, when gabriele guided me along a bumpy dirt track to the shore below torre salsa, far to the west near sciacca. this was an amazing place, absolutely unspoilt with nobody for miles. the second was last wednesday, on stromboli’s spiaggia lunga. i remember sleeping on the beach here back in august 2000, when i built a shelter from palm leaves and wedged some candles in the rocks. the third occasion was last night, which we spent on the long straight beach at marza, to the west of pozzalo, a tip we got from a barista in a caffe in ragusa. there was a strong wind blowing all night and the tent was bowing and shaking but it stood firm. this morning sergio and i emerged from the tent to find the beach stretching for several miles in each direction without a single person in sight. we both ran naked along the beach whooping with joy and splashing in the waves.

tomorrow morning we’ll drive back to milazzo, hand over the car and get a train to palermo. we’ll spend the night there before catching the plane early on wednesday morning. sitting here in this wonderful place with the gentle waves and the tent rustling in the breeze london seems a long long way away. by the miracle of bluetooth and gprs i can send this email right now, direct from the tent!

: c * *

h e a d i n g s o u t h

[ 20:15 wednesday 7 april – via castore e pollusa, selinunte, sicilia ]

sitting here on the rooftop with the bark of three or four dogs echoing across the fields, mingling with the warble of crickets and night birds. the moon has not yet risen so venus’ cold blaze commands the sky. to my right the floodlit columns of a two-and-a-half-thousand year-old greek temple stand out on the dark hillside. i cannot hear the sea but it is there below me.

the process of arriving in selinunte has been as beautiful as the place itself. forty-eight hours ago i was in london, mid-way through a tele-conference with some possible clients in america. my flight was at seven on tuesday the morning and i didn’t get any sleep on monday night. i was tying up loose ends with my work until about three in the morning, after which sergio and i wandered round the cab firms of shoreditch and bethnal green to book the friendliest. just after five we were collected and whisked to heathrow as the sky started lightening. at the airport i bumped into john and janie maclay (janie’s my third cousin i think) on their way to croatia. this was doubly improbably as i also bumped into john and janie the last time i was in heathrow, back in february when i was flying to vienna and they were on their way to morocco.

i like alitalia. the dark green upholstery reminds me of being in a forest and the staff resemble prison warders less than those of other airlines. italians make good fellow-passengers too. our flight was packed but when it emerged that a mother and two young children had been seated separately a cry of “c’e una mama con due bambini!” went up and everyone rearranged to give them a row together.

en route to palermo we had an hour to kill in rome. the sardegnian cashier in the airport’s self-service restaurant taught us some numbers in sardo dialect, to which sergio replied with the equivalent words in the trapani dialect. arriving at palermo airport i was too knackered to feel much excitement, even greeted by the hot sun and clear skies. having taken the bus into the stazione centrale we went straight to the gelateria da ciccio round the corner where we revived ourselves with some of their fabulous ice-cream. the mulberry ice-cream they produced last summer was one of the most impossibly good things i’ve ever tasted. i went back for three cupfuls in a row of the deep purple confection. mulberry (“gelsi”) is out of season at the moment so i’m counting the days until june or july when the trees are once again dripping with the dark red fruit.

after our ice-cream break sergio took the coach westwards to trapani to stay with his parents (where i’ll join him on friday) and i set to thinking about where i was going to go. gabriele was in the port at palermo working on his boat so i organised to meet him there and maybe spend the night at his flat before heading on. but encountering a coach that was about to leave for castelvetrano in the south i had a sudden impulse to get to selinunte straight away, so i jumped on board. the coach dropped me in castelvetrano about half past six. an old lady came up to me and started babbling away in pure dialect. i couldn’t understand a single word, which delighted me no end. it’s the first time i’ve met someone in sicily who doesn’t speak italian. only when she pressed a timetable for the airport coaches into my hand did i realise that she’d seen my backpack and assumed i was trying to get to that destination.

in the next ten minutes i garnered two pieces of information, neither of which was encouraging. first, the day’s final bus for selinunte (14 kilometres hence) had departed a couple of hours earlier. second, there wasn’t anywhere in castelventrano where i could spend the night. my impulsive decision to head south was not looking like a good choice. feeling crestfallen i wandered into the station bar and ordered a coffee. it was an unassuming place, selling newspapers and lottery tickets as well as drinks and pastries. i asked the girl running the bar if she had any ideas about what i could do. she said i should ask the owner, which i did.

the bar owner, michele, thumbed through the phone book and made some calls. i gathered he was trying to track down a place in selinunte called “il pescatore” but was having trouble getting its number. he spoke to a couple of other hotels in selinunte but didn’t like the sound of them. a detective from the local caribinieri called matteo came into the bar and soon joined the search. i felt pretty overwhelmed. i don’t know many places else in the world where a stranger could walk into a bar and be treated in this way.

half an hour later, after speaking with several friends, michele got the number for “il pescatore” and spoke to its proprietor, salvatore, who agreed to drive to castelvetrano to collect me. michele, matteo, valentina and i took each other’s photos, joked about the price of wine in restaurants and swapped addresses. if i needed any reminder of why i am so enraptured by sicily, and why living in london so depresses me, it had been convincingly provided.

on the way to selinunte salvatore told me about the village and how his family balances fishing with running their small pensione. when we arrived there the streets were completely silent and the air was fresh and clear. i was led up marble stairs to a spotlessly clean room overlooking a terrace. i had a shower then went out for a wander; down to the shore, around the port, everything silent. my heart was leaping with delight. i returned to my room and fell into a deep sleep.

that was yesterday. i spent the whole of today exploring the ancient city which covers 300 hectares of the neighbouring hillside, carpeted with daisies and mimosas and other spring flowers. late in the afternoon i found my way down to a deserted beach where i took my first delicious swim of the year. now i am sitting here writing waiting for gabriele to arrive from agrigento, where he had a meeting this afternoon. we’ll eat together and he’ll stay here at “il pescatore” for the night, then tomorrow we’re planning to head further east with my tent and see what we can find.

this is all wonderful

: c **

t e e

[ 12:30 thursday 19 february – “nice rice” cafe, mariahilfer strasse, vienna ]

back again for a pot of green tea.

this visit to vienna has been the first time i’ve used the combination of bluetooth (a radio link from my powerbook to my mobile phone) and gprs (mobile phone to the internet) to maintain a connection whilst traveling. it works well. without any new configurations i can connect from other countries using my uk orange account. unlike the infra-red link i was using on stromboli, with bluetooth it doesn’t matter where the phone is so i can connect even if the phone is in my pocket or my backpack.

right at the end of the lunch break in yesterday’s renewable energy conference, a lady from the austrian foreign ministry came up to me and asked if i could give her a quick demonstration of trampoline. i was able to plonk my computer on a table, connect to the internet at once, and give her a whisk round the system before the next seminar commenced. i am becoming some kind of glorified traveling salesman, ready to trot out my wares at any opportunity.

in the evening i had a yen to search out some off-mainstream entertainment, so i connected and found a site providing information about underground parties and events here in vienna. having chosen one that looked promising i set off around ten for the periphery of the city armed with vague address details garnered from the site. for over an hour i wandered up and down streets trying to find the place amongst the strip clubs and run-down bars. i was close to giving up when i had the inspiration that “U-Bahnbögen” might mean railway arches and turned my attention to the railway running down the centre of the street rather than the buildings lining its sides. sure enough i found my goal, a bar called “chelsea”, occupying four successive arches. going in i found it packed and lively, low lights, the walls packed with enamel signs advertising beverages. pushing through the crowd from one arch to the next i got to the final one just in time to catch the last set of a band called “jellybeat”. the line-up comprised a lead vocalist who appeared to be pregnant, electric guitar, bass guitar, keyboard player with a 1980s oberheim synthesizer, roland digital piano and de-rigeur ibook running a drum sequencer. the music was the kind of rock-plus-deranged-electronics that i have encountered and enjoyed so much in london in the past couple of years. i took some photos, danced a bit and chatted with a couple of the friendly people.

the one sad thing is that now i have finally made it to vienna and my friends gustl and valerie, who live here, are in india of all places. it’s hard to catch up with people who travel so much.

in a couple of hours i will set out for the airport and thence london. i will be sad to leave this city.

: c*

v i e n n e s e w h i r l

[ 00:45 tuesday 3 february – shipton street, london ]

a quick glance round my desk. 1 steel tape measure. thirty or forty business cards associated with sustainable enterprise, renewable energy and venture capital. aphex twin’s “classics” album, freshly sucked into my powerbook. the thick wadge of guidelines for a government r&d grant programme. a big brown elastic band. “the augmented social network” by jordan, hauser and foster, printed from the internet.

things feel more settled. i adapt. i worry about adapting too much.

last wednesday afternoon the sky went dark and snow began to tumble and flurry around the windows. snow divides london into two tribes. there are those who shuffle grimly along the streets filled with resentment at this unwelcome element that disrupts meticulous timetables and makes the daily walk from the underground an effort. there are those seized with childlike excitement and glee, for whom every white-capped car is ripe for scooping snowballs and every icy pathway begs to be slid along.

as the snow began to fall, a retired irish judge sat in a tall red chair and pronounced his verdict (deliberately, word by word, without excitement) on the future of journalism in britain. by the evening the chairman of the bbc had resigned. during events it deems important the bbc streams its 24 hour news channel on the web. whilst i worked i followed the news presenters and journalists struggling to report objectively as their institution crumbled before the hutton-blown whirlwind. occasionally an emotion peeked through, an edge of desperation discernible in an interviewer’s questioning or urgency-seized reporters interrupting one another pell-mell. somehow these moments of cracking sang-froid conveyed the significance of what had happened more eloquently than the slew of reportage.

at two o’clock last thursday the director general of the bbc resigned. greg dyke is not a man about whom i have ever given a thought in the past. his reputation in the television industry was based on bringing a talking rat on board a moribund programme and thereby reviving its fortunes. however during these days he has become a sort of hero to me, a martyr to journalistic freedom and integrity where i least expected to see one.

in the past the bbc has inspired ambivalence in me. compared with other mainstream current affairs broadcasters it does seem to sustain more balanced reporting of events, but that is like saying “compared with other junk food a big whopper is not too bad”. a big whopper is still revolting and the bbc still reflects paternalistic establishment values, just a shade more liberal and less grotesquely partial than cnn. however faced with the likelihood that the bbc will now be shorn of what little critical freedom it has exercised i realise how much i will miss it, and how much worse off the world will be without it.

the bbc has been around for eighty years and its castration is a moment of some historical import. a couple of hours after mr dyke’s resignation the photographer couldn’t resist the chance to be among the group of disconsolate bbc employees who had left their work and were hovering in front of broadcasting house. so around four o’clock, at a convenient break in my work, i took to my bike and sped through the snow-covered streets to central london. to my disappointment the truculent employees had already gone back to their warm desks and all that remained in front of broadcasting house were a gaggle of film crews and cameramen. i wandered about, looking for something interesting to photograph. suddenly there was a commotion. people started grabbing their equipment and a lady trotted past nervous muttering at me “he’s coming out, he’ll get into this car” gesturing to the large lexus beside which i was standing. and sure enough at that moment greg dyke came out of the door and up to the side of the car, just a metre and a half from me from me. the next thirty seconds were chaos, a barrage of questions and flashes and people pushing to get a good view. it’s hard to say why, but i felt a strong liking for mr dyke. he seemed extraordinarily relaxed and there was a mischievous sparkle in his eyes. when asked if he had anything to say to tony blair, he paused, looked at the journalist who’d fielded the question, smiled and said “no”. then he got into the car. i got about a dozen photos.

[ 21:05 wednesday 18 february – “nice rice” cafe, mariahilfer strasse, vienna ]

here’s what i do. i write these things, then i don’t send them because i want to add to them or rewrite them or whatever. my “drafts” folder is a graveyard of half-baked jottings that never made it to the outbox. almost daily i have an urge to write something new, yet nine times out of ten i do not. this is all very frustrating. surely i can develop less dysfunctional writing habits. i look back with a kind of nostalgia to 1999 and my time on st agnes when unselfconsciously i’d record every change in the sea state or my mood and broadcast it without a second thought. now i seem to be much more self-conscious.

it also seems that i spend less of my time documenting things. between 1999 and 2002 i was constantly carrying a computer, two cameras (slides and digital) and my diary. several hours each day were devoted to recording what i was doing and seeing. between 1997 and 1999 i was also recording what i was hearing, carrying a minidisc recorder and microphone at all times. my friends got used to me sitting on the floor in a club and scribbling for half an hour in my diary, or pulling out my computer on the beach at night to write about the starlight reflected on the water. in the past year my behaviour in this regard has become slightly less narcissistic. this is probably a good thing, but there was something exhilarating about my hyper-documentation which i miss.

now i am sitting here in a tiny and rather magical vegetarian cafe on a cobbled alleyway in vienna. the walls are yellow and there is a big blue painting on one wall depicting snooty diners sitting along a table with curled-up noses. the tea and food (vegetarian) are excellent. i’m in vienna for a couple of meetings with partners in the foreign office’s renewable energy partnership, discussing trampoline and introducing the directors from south america, eastern europe and the united states to working with the system.

i like the city much more than i expected. the people are gentle and wry. the architecture is absurd, it makes me feel that i am in a fairy tale and have stumbled into a city built by giants. it never occurred to me before that the baroque style would be an appropriate vehicle for inspiring imperial awe amongst citizens.

on tuesday afternoon i went through a door in a courtyard and found myself in the augustenkirche. this is an enormous old church, long and narrow with a pitched roof that goes up and up and up, stylistically much more sober than the others i have seen here. as my eyes adjusted to the gloom and i walked through the building, my footsteps echoing, it became clear that i was the only person in there. no sign even of a priest. as i reached the centre of the church i stopped and stood there for many minutes looking up at the evening light reflecting in the huge chandeliers, the rumble of traffic infinitely distant. there was something magical about being there, tiny and alone in this massive space, i felt a great sense of wonderment and privilege.

: c*