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*

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