f a u s t

[ 23:45 monday 11 july – shipton street, london ]

on saturday night jan got wind of a big open-air party at a location that would be announced on a secret number. this seemed splendidly nostalgic, like a proper old rave from 1989. however when it was revealed around midnight that the venue was actually a field in the middle of norfolk the distance seemed a little forbidding. hence jan and i found ourselves pedaling over london bridge, with vatche racing ahead on his ancient lambretta, towards kosmiche club’s ninth birthday party. this was being held in two of the railway arches under elephant and castle station, promising a line-up of bizarre krautrock bands and misfit djs. earlier in the evening i’d taken the precaution of sending our names down for the door list so we were hopeful we’d be allowed in.

we arrived to be told that faust was about to start their set. gosh! faust as in the german experimental rock band from the early seventies? we zig-zagged through a scattering of odd-looking dancers making angular movements in the first room, cut left around the back and squeezed our way into a room crushed full of wide-eyed people.

it was several degrees hotter in this room and drippingly humid. at the front was a small stage piled haphazardly with exotic instruments. and sure enough in the midst of the instruments were three members of faust, back together thirty years after the band split up. initially my excitement was tempered with a certain doubtfulness. once-radical groups going back on the road decades after the peak of their fame can be a less than edifying spectacle. but as soon as they started playing, or rather speaking, my scepticism was dispelled. this was not at all like the effects-drenched electronic droning of their former incarnation. in its place was a dry, unaffected, acoustic-driven sound-world based on percussion, soprano saxophone, flute, guitar and a variety of more exotic plucked instruments. but really the driving force was the words; issuing in a cannonade from jean-herve peron; sometimes sung, often declaimed, with a great deal of looping and repetition.

he is a strikingly charismatic musician who treats performance as a way of playing with the audience. he makes us complicit, sets us racing to follow him. we know he is telling us something, offering clues, teasing us. but we aren’t sure what we’re meant to do. he waits. repeats a phrase a few more times. sits on the front of the stage and holds the microphone out to his right. his eyes twinkle above his bushy beard. he repeats the phrase again. ah! someone at the front realises that peron is inviting us to come up to the microphone and say the phrase ourselves. with trepidation they go forward and lean towards the microphone. are they right? maybe. yes! then another person understands and goes up, and another. in a later song most of us end up taking off our shoes and clapping them above our heads.

possibly i’m making the performance sound like a sort of irritating novelty act which it truly wasn’t. there was an energy, an inventiveness, a delight and joy in the act of making music, that completely swept me up, along with the rest of the audience. peron and his associates possess a rare kind of greatness that has no interest in taking itself seriously.

at the end of the set peron explained that there wasn’t time for them to get all the instruments back to the green room ready for the next band, so we would have to help. i ended up carrying his zither. much later, when it was time for me to cycle home, he was standing by the exit and i spoke to him briefly. he invited me to go and visit him, “it’s a large house” he said.

n o b u s e s

[ 16:30 thursday 7 july – old aske’s hospital, shoreditch, london ]

i’m just back from biking down to ludgate hill, right in front of st paul’s cathedral, to drop off some papers with our accountants. the streets are filled with people on foot, pouring out of offices  and streaming southward, presumably towards the mainline stations at london bridge and waterloo. many are dragging suitcases behind them. the streets are almost devoid of vehicles. one can hear the patter of footsteps and a murmur of conversation, usually drowned by internal combustion engines. the eeriest thing is the absence of red double-decker buses.

modern urban horrors such as todays generally achieve their most pervasive impact through their affect on infrastructures (electricity, water, gas, cash machines, transport). yet as a cyclist i’m almost completely unaffected by today’s collapse of all public transport within and into london. i came into the office as usual, dropped off my papers and will return home when i’m finished. there is a gulf between my experience of the day’s reality and that of the many for whom routine and normality have been turned upside down.

the number of casualties is yet unknown so the usual bidding war proceeds in the media. 2 dead. 20 dead. 33 dead. each outlet waits gleefully to pounce on a higher number so that they may wring their hands the harder and wail the louder, so that their voices may be more clearly heard in this ever-competitive marketplace.

a flurry of sms and email through the day has probed and confirmed the wellbeing of friends. i pray that nobody i know is hurt.

: c :

s o l s t i c e

[ 23:57 tuesday – shipton street ]

the final minutes of the solstice. i sat on the roof watching the moon materialise, huge and yellow, from liquid wisps of cloud. in london the past few days have been sweltering. there is a feeling of being somewhere else, a thrilling sense of danger and possibility on the midnight streets.

one month and a half ago i was on stromboli. the words i wrote have remained unsent. perhaps i was shaken by the strength of my feelings to be there.

[ 16:00 friday 6 may – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

these are beautiful days stolen from the prevailing madness. i arrived here last sunday and tomorrow i depart. almost a year has passed since my previous time on stromboli. for the first four days the island was enveloped in a magical stillness. scarcely a ripple on the purple water. the air saturated with the sun’s silent bombardment. the ground exploding with foliage and blossoms, raised high up the volcano by the winter’s exceptional rains.

i have spent many hours alone, motionless against the black rock or slicing through the soft water. not thinking. just sensing, absorbing, knowing. the rest of my time i have been with my friends.

immediately on arrival i was enmeshed as if i had never been away. it was a homecoming, a feeling that a place in the fabric of the community had been kept open for me. during the months in london perhaps i forgot how much i love these people and how vividly alive i feel when i am amongst them. my friends in london are no less dear to me but the complex inter-connection of a community is absent and i am diminished by its absence.

today the weather changed.  the wind rose and swung to the north-west sending windows and doors banging. thunder menaced from the horizon. fat drops of rain introduced a deluge. the sea rose and started throwing grey waves at the shore. the island shows a different mood as i return to london. what does it mean for me?

p r o g r e s s i o n s

[ 19:20 sunday 27 march – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

easter day. the great pagan festival of fertility and life converted so ingeniously by the christian church into its number one celebration of agony and death. this is what you call progress. industrial society got the last laugh though, rendering down the christian festival into today’s riot of gluttony and tv specials, just as it has rendered down every other festival. the modern tagline for christmas and easter exorts us that these are times “for the family”, an implicit recognition that the remaining 364 days of the year are not for the family. the triumph of individualism seems to be the right to ignore blood relations for most of the time.

yesterday i helped dad cut down a fir tree in the garden which had been planted a few years after we moved to the house in 1987. over the years i’d seen it grow to be a substantial tree, perhaps twenty-five feet high. but its size had started to suffocate other plants in its vicinity and disturb the harmony of the garden. hence my parents decided it was time to remove it. killing a mature tree is a little tragedy but it’s what mum and dad wanted and i was glad to be useful. it made me think how long i’ve known this patch of land, how much it’s changed from the bare field of eighteen years ago, how many memories are associated with each corner and plant. it made me think about the slow cycles of life, of beginnings and ends, births and deaths.

in a similar vein, the pool family has been living opposite the house as long as we’ve been here, farming the surrounding land as their parents farmed it before them. now they’re giving up farming and moving out, having reached the conclusion that it’s no longer a viable business. they’ve already sold their livestock and yesterday people came from far and wide as their machinery was put to auction. here too there’s a sense of witnessing a point of transition in a cycle as the energy and intelligence of british rural society seeps away from agriculture after millennia during which it provided the foundation.

returning to my previous despatch on britain’s inventive new prevention of terrorism bill, the process continued well into friday evening. this is the longest period a bill has bounced around between the two houses since records began. mr blair continued to give the chamber a wide berth, preferring to make uncompromising statements to tv cameras in the opposition-free comfort of downing street. these statements were obligingly aired on all the news programmes and will thus have formed the basis of viewers’ understanding of what was going on, though they had almost no bearing on the passionate debate raging quarter of a mile away.

when the bill bounced back to the house of lords for the fifth time, with the clauses the lords had repeatedly removed re-inserted yet again by the commons, my noble friends stuck their hands in the air and gave up. within an hour the queen had signed the act and it passed into law. within three hours the home secretary had signed the first ten of the new control orders, impatient to try out the shiny new toy delivered to his hands by a parliament entirely impotent to stop or modify the legislation.

what did the parliamentary process achieve? the three primary demands raised in the commons and lords were that judges should issue the orders, not politicians, that the legislation should terminate after a period of between six and twelve months and that the standard of proof should be “balance of probability” rather than “reasonable suspicion”. not one of these amendments was secured. on the first point the government conceded that a court would have to examine orders issued by the home secretary within seven days, and if there was clear evidence that the home secretary’s reasoning was “substantially flawed” they could change the terms of the order. under all other circumstances the court is required to let the order stand. on the second point the government graciously agreed that parliament would be given the opportunity to discuss the legislation sometime next year. there is nothing in the act specifying this, it is purely an assurance from the government that it will make time and take notice of what parliament says. on the third point there was no concession at all.

in all points of substance, therefore, the government got precisely the bill it had put forward. yet anyone watching the tv news or reading the papers in the succeeding days would think something entirely different had occurred. opposition leaders proclaimed that the final bill was “almost unrecognisable” from the one originally presented, that the government had “caved in” on crucial demands and that the lords had achieved a great victory for parliamentary democracy. indeed this was the narrative that had played out in parliament, if not the substance of what took place. i surmise the government put forward the bill with several elements it fully planned to jettison in order to give an appearance of making concessions and offering opponents a way to claim victory without ever materially altering the bill. the art was to appear serious about defending clauses which were always destined to be amended, and ensure that opposition remained focused on these points. the word for this is “theatre”. a form of entertainment. a distraction from actuality.

and this, it appears, is what we have allowed our democracies to become. one day we may wish we’d paid more attention.

: c :

d e m o c r a c y

[ 01:33 friday 11 march – shipton street, london ]

the house of commons has just commenced debate on the government’s inventive new prevention of terrorism bill. hazel blears, the sharp and lawyerly home office minister leading for the government, is currently explaining why the government is rejecting (for the third time) the amendments which the house of lords persists in making. live feeds from both houses are open on my screen, as they have been for the past few days.

for those unfamiliar with the bill, it proposes that the home secretary should be able to issue “control orders” imposing a range of restrictions on british citizens. these include bans on using telephones and the internet, bans on meeting or corresponding with other people, bans on continuing particular kinds of work and (last but not least) house arrest.

the government’s creative genius reaches its dizzy apogee in the suggestion that these restrictions should be imposed upon people who have committed no crime and against whom no court has passed judgment. those subject to restrictions would have no right to be informed of the accusations made against them. restrictions would be maintained for as long as the home secretary deemed necessary.

the house of lords, that intolerable and undemocratic relic, has once again been proving itself the final guardian of basic liberties. stalwartly and in the face of great pressure the noble lords have repeatedly refused to pass the bill. gently and ponderously they introduce amendments to blunt its most egregious charms. specifically they demand that the burden of proof required to impose restrictions should be raised from “reasonable suspicion” to “the balance of probability” and the entire legislation should self-destruct after nine months. the government is determined to accept neither amendment.

02:21 – “clear the lobbies” cries the speaker. the honourable members file out of the chamber to vote.

02:29 – “lock the doors” cries the speaker. the names of members in each lobby are ticked off on giant sheets of paper.

the government will prevail and the lords’ amendments will be struck down. the size of the government’s majority and the force of whip applied on this bill make it inevitable. the bill will then return once more to the lords. this ping pong will continue through tomorrow unless one side buckles.

“the ayes to the right 298, the noes to the left 216”. the government wins by a majority of 82.

it emerges that mr blair, the prime minister, has been present in the house of commons throughout the debate and indeed voted in the division. yet he has not seen fit to enter the chamber or participate in the debate. the speaker apologises that he has no power to summon the prime minister to the chamber.

the majorities in the lords for each amendment have so far been solid, but i feel uncertain if their resolve will hold. one way or the other it will be resolved by tea time.

i remember the night in november 2001, sitting in my house in stromboli with the wood-burner rustling and crackling, as the previous prevention of terrorism bill was lurching through the same process. then as now the erudite words of parliamentarians reached me via rectangles on my screen. how distant it seemed then, how close it feels now.

: c*

c h a n g e / n o c h a n g e

[ 19:10 thursday 3 february – liefhebber restaurant, amsterdam ]

a small table at the back of a small restaurant just off the niuemarkt. candlelight reflects from the wide honeyed floorboards. fava beans and olives are brought to my table, the former firm with a hint of salt, the latter tangy and fresh. for the last couple of hours i’ve been wandering around backstreets in the drizzle. peeking into houses and house-boats. i am struck, as ever, by the residents’ talent for manipulating colour, light and space to harmonious effect; remarkable for a people whose landscape and climate afford so little of these three elements.

chunks of nutty black bread arrive with a pot of tapenade, closely followed by a big lump of tuna, nicely rare, on layers of fennel and pepper. the chilean red wine (“falerina” 2003) is better than i expected, thick and round like a ripe burgandy.

i arrived in amsterdam yesterday afternoon to take part in a change management conference. it’s been completely surreal. there were about twenty people and apart from me everyone was in charge of change management or organisational development for a business of ten thousand to two hundred thousand employees. then there was me running a five-man enterprise. most of the time it felt as if i was on a different planet. the main (only) reason i was invited is because they’re using trampoline to share information and organise these events.

the event was hosted by nuon, one of the netherlands’ main electricity generating companies. yesterday evening we were shunted onto a boat to potter around amsterdam’s canals for four hours, stopping in two restaurants for installments of dinner. today was taken up with seminars and workshops, with a visit to a wind farm at lunchtime. there’s not much to look at in a wind farm. i wanted to go up to the top of one of the enormous towers but the foreman was against it.

over the last twenty-four hours i’ve learned a lot about how the world looks when you’re at the top of a gigantic company. i didn’t enjoy it very much.

a glass of brandy arrives. i shall drink it then scuttle off to the airport and back to london.

: c*

a n o n u e v o

[ 23:50 friday 21 january – shipton street, london ]

last friday was the third anniversary of michael young’s death. i saw his face looking up at me from a pile of junk newspapers and undelivered mail in a box downstairs. it turned out to be the local council’s monthly rag, full of notices for employment training and drug counseling. i wonder if anyone ever reads it? the article was a routine one-page sweep through his career, trumpeting his connections with this part of london. it was nice to read it though; an quick visit from an old friend.

the despatch that follows was written at the beginning of the month whilst i was traveling in mexico but i wasn’t able to send it until now. at the start of december i was really feeling the need to get away for a couple of weeks and started scouting for bargain air tickets to leave immediately after christmas. i was primarily looking for sri lanka, thailand, india and the maldives but the best deal that came up was for cuncun on the yucatan peninsular so i grabbed that and flew out on the twenty-eighth of december. on this occasion i was fortunate not to get what i wanted. it was a wonderful journey. as i write these words my new nikon film-scanner is whirring and humming through the slides that returned with me.

but enough of the present, i return to the second of january and to another world.

[ 18:12 sunday 2 january – bus from merida to santa elena, yukatan state, mexico ]

i’m writing this on my smart-phone, bouncing along in an elderly bus with forest pressing in on both sides. to form words i tap a plastic stylus against a miniature image of a keyboard on the screen. normally i’m quite deft at this but the irregular motion of the bus makes it tricky and errors are frequent.

from merida, yucatan state capital, this service meanders through a succession of remote towns and villages before arriving at campeche, capital of the eponymous state, several hundred miles to the south. there are about forty people on board, most of them returning to their villages with packages and bags after merida’s sunday markets and festivities. there generally seem to be more passengers than seats on these services, often by a significant margin, and several people are standing in the aisle clutching the luggage racks as the vehicle sways and lurches. six passengers, including sergio and myself, are evidently tourists. the remainder mostly have the nut-brown skin, sloping nose and high cheeks that signify mayan genes. many of the women sport the traditional white smocks colourfully embroidered with flowers and birds, very simple but each one different.

as we leave behind the streetlamps of merida the driver snaps out the interior lights and no light is visible except the swinging loom of the headlamps on the road, the stars blazing above the flat horizon and the blue glow of my smart-phone screen as i tap away. there is no sign of habitation in the surrounding landscape, the savannah is empty blackness as far as the eye can see.

sergio and i must exit the bus shortly after it passes through a
village called santa elena. we’ve heard of a place with a few rooms where we hope to stay the night. there’s no telephone and no address, and of course it might be full; but we seem to be lucky more often than not. in the morning our aim is to reach the ruins of the mayan city of uxmul a few kilometres from santa elena, whose architecture is reputed to be breathtakingly sophisticated and expressive.

sergio and i arrived in cancun on tuesday evening, delayed by five hours as our plane had been sent to rescue stranded tourists from the maldives. cancun is not a place to remain so we immediately headed south down the caribbean coast. we spent a couple of days at tulum where we slept in a bare stick and palm leaf hut on the beach beside the mayan ruins. there was a storm during the night and we woke with a start to cascades of water splashing down on us from holes in the roof. i thought we were going to have to pack everything and abandon our simple home, but there were enough sound parts of the roof that some judicious rearrangement proved sufficient and we went back to sleep.

on new year’s eve we decided at the last moment it would be fun to be in merida, 200km away, to celebrate the new year. a surly lady behind the counter in tulum’s little bus office told us flatly there was no space on any service to merida that would get us there in time but we hung around anyway and pestered the driver of each bus that came through. sure enough after a few hours we got a space on very comfortable first-class one and off we went.

we reached merida around nine in the evening, found somewhere to stay in a turn-of-the-century merchant’s house (nineteenth-twentieth century, that is), and headed into the centre. at midnight we found ourselves seated on the road in front of a slightly surreal italian restaurant beside merida’s main jesuit church (consecrated 1618). they gave us a wonderful sicilian wine i’d never encountered before. this somewhat made up for the fact each course took an hour and a half to arrive. we politely bailed out after the primo and wandered round the streets.

so now, speeding through the yucatan night with my smart-phone clutched in my hand, i smile and think of my friends. i wish you all courage and joy for this year 2005.

: c :