e r u z i o n i

[ 00:31 wednesday 3 may – punta u brunzu, stromboli ]

this is one of my favourite places in the world, though i don’t think i’ve ever written from here before. i’m sitting cross-legged on the corner of the helipad at punta u brunzu, a hundred metres above the sea at the northernmost tip of the island.

walking along the mule track to get here there’s a powerful sense of leaving the settlement behind, entering the wilder presence of the mountain. from here you see no houses, no lights. humanity feels far away.

all around me the bamboo rustles in the warm breeze. above me the inky sky is splashed with a million stars and a few wisps of cloud. behind me the sea stretches mysterious to the dark horizon. nesting gulls grumble on the cliff below. and dominating the scene, in front of me, rises the triangular silhouette of the volcano with its scar of bright fire on the right side of the apex.

it doesn’t matter how many times i sit here watching it, i still feel the same sense of incredulity and awe i felt the very first time. tonight it’s more active than i’ve ever seen it before. one crater is in continuous eruption, emitting a pulsing fan of lava. two of the other craters follow a more typical pattern, blasting out a jet of lava a hundred metres high every ten or fifteen minutes.

during the two years i lived on stromboli i came up here every week or so. when michael died i lit a catholic funerary candle here on the corner of the helipad and sat with it through the night. all my hopes and fears have been brought here over the years. my eyes have seen a thousand shooting stars. here everything is in proportion.

i watch as the final tip of the crescent moon sinks reddish beneath the horizon.

: c :

t a r t a r u g a

[ 16:33 thursday 28 april – eurostar 9363 to napoli ]

here we are forty-five minutes out of rome. the landscape grows craggier, more volcanic, whilst bamboo, olive and cactus gain prominence in the flora. thus the mezzogiorno, italy’s intoxicating south, announces its dominion. the rain which has followed us from milan eases and chinks of blue appear in the sky.

i spent last night with bobo and roberta in milan, the first time i’ve seen them in two years. they’re simultaneously finding success in the worlds of graffiti and fine art, with exhibitions around europe and some commercial commissions too. their new home is fantastic, a long narrow cellar divided into a series of spaces for living and working. every inch of the walls is covered with the warped faces and gnomic slogans that characterise their work.

bobo and i worked together ten years ago in the electric company, the chaotic media venture i formed when i came down from cambridge. i’ve always loved his style and admired his stubborness in persuing his own creative path. he’s been with roberta, a mini-volcano of ideas from the shadow of etna, for most of the time i’ve known him. it was a joy to catch up with them both.

earlier in the afternoon i met fabrizio and kiriku by the little lake in parco sempione. fabrizio suggested we should hunt for turtles. i was delighted to play along, assuming it was a make-believe game for kiriku’s benefit. my error was revealed a few minutes later when kiriku lunged at a rock and turned round proudly clutching a turtle; twenty-five centimetres long with scarlet stripes along the sides of its head. i couldn’t believe my eyes. fabrizio explained that a couple of pet turtles were released into the lake a few years ago and have established a thriving community. it all seemed very improbable, like finding orangutangs swinging from the trees in st james’ park.

kiriku was only a few months old when i first came to live in italy. now he’s a fearless six-year-old. indeed it’s almost three years since i last saw napoli, a city that fascinates and thrills me. i hope to meet pasquale for dinner then take the overnight ship to stromboli. this is a holiday weekend so the ship could be busy. if i can’t get a cabin i’ll have to sleep on the deck. a few years ago this prospect wouldn’t have bothered me in the least but now it provokes a mild sense of unease. living in london i see myself growing inflexible and domestic. the balance in my life needs to change.

: c :

f o r m i k

[ 20:05 friday 14 april – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

here i am at mum and dad’s where i arrived last night. today we went walking in the malvern hills. soft air, trees bursting with bud, the sun warm against our faces. as i write mum’s in the kitchen preparing supper and dad’s taking advantage of the last moments of light to finish his labours in the garden.

last week i lost a friend, or rather several thousand of them, which was a sad experience. some months ago i acquired a magnificent bamboo tree for the office from plant-seller friends on brick lane. it’s fifteen feet tall and some of the stems are as thick as my arm. it looks just wonderful. shortly after the bamboo’s arrival we noticed a couple of ants crawling around the floor. a few days later a column turned up to harvest biscuit crumbs from jan’s table. it seemed we had some new residents and it didn’t take great deductive skills to link them with the enormous tub in which the bamboo was planted. since then the ants have been our constant companions in the office.

living on stromboli there were always ants around the house. in a way i came to appreciate their company. whether i was working, reading, cooking or whatever i’d be subliminally aware of where they were and what they were up to day by day. individually their behaviour is monotonous but collectively it’s incredibly varied. i remember one time on the terrace talking with gustl whilst a double column of ants tracked up and down a fig tree beside us. all at once the ants froze, every single one of them, and remained motionless as we watched in wonder. there had been no external trigger that we could discern but somehow the decision to stop moving had communicated itself instantaneously through the whole column. i rapped on the tree trunk but the ants remained completely still. then after several minutes they all tentatively wiggled their antennae and a few seconds later the entire column was back in motion.

when the ants appeared in the office i suppose i felt a kind of nostalgia to have this familiar presence in my environment once more. previously the office ecosystem was inhabited only by plants and humans. the ants added a rich and unpredictable element to the mix that secretly delighted me. each day they would be doing something different. sometimes a week or two passed without any trace of them. anyone leaving food in their workspace was liable to find ants crawling all over their computer and up their arms. i’m sorry to say my associates didn’t always share my appreciation of their presence.

it all continued in a sort of strained harmony until last week when the ants made the unfortunate decision to swarm. they had obviously been building up their forces, really i had no idea they’d become so numerous. our neighbours’ offices were crawling with them. the walls of the kitchen were a seething mass. the atrium was criss-crossed with ant-motorways. i can’t say it was popular with the other tenants. the man from rentokil arrived to deal with the general situation and it was made clear to me that i should really do something about the bamboo.

thus, with a heavy heart, i found myself pouring five litres of a potent liquid pesticide into the bamboo tub last friday evening after everyone else had gone home. i will miss my six-legged friends.

by way of conclusion, we’ve just taken possession of a powerful new production server and needed to think of a suitable name for it. therefore, unbeknownst to our clients, some of our hosted systems will henceforth be running on a machine called “formik”. i hope this gives lots of little ant-souls cause to smile. their memory liveth.

: c :

w i r e d

[ 02:19 monday 3 april – shipton street, london ]

a week ago wired magazine published a splendid article on trampoline by quinn norton, which you can read here.

the fortnight since i got back from california has been pretty intense. a lot of people are interested in trampoline. i’ve been zipping around giving presentations to bizarrely divergent audiences, from pinstriped venture capitalists to t-shirted hackers to tweed-suited earls.

meanwhile i’ve uploaded some of my photos from finland and california.

: c :

b o l i n a s

[ 20:38 sunday 12 march – bolinas, california ]

traveling from san diego to san francisco last friday i felt a powerful urge to get away somewhere remote for a day or two. warren said he knew just the place. yesterday he and ann brought me here to bolinas. it’s exactly what i needed.

san francisco is less than twenty miles away down the coast, but it might as well be another planet. bolinas consists of fifteen hundred independent-minded people scattered around the tip of a peninsular; a lagoon on one side, the pacific on the other. the town centre boasts a bar, a general store, an organic co-op and a tiny museum. most of the buildings are wooden. many have hippy murals painted on their flanks.

i’m sitting now in my room in the “grand hotel”. in point of fact the hotel comprises two rooms above a bric-a-brac shop. the room itself is delightful, all sloping floors, odd nooks and crannies, mismatched antique furniture and mid-century prints. there’s a kitchen downstairs in much the same vein (an ancient stove with flues coming off in all directions), a freezing bathroom and an overgrown garden at the back. i adore it. the proprietor is a twinkle-eyed old fellow called vic who’s lived here thirty years.

this morning it was pouring with rain but i went out walking anyway. filaments of cloud curled mysteriously through the trees on the surrounding hillsides. the sea was like hammered pewter. on the beach i came across a raven sitting on a tree trunk, tearing at the remains of some animal. he let me creep up really close, just a few metres, and watch him as he dined. after a while he flapped away so i carried on walking and just continued with no hurry and no objective.

eventually the rain eased off and the sky got brighter. a bit later the sun came out so i took off my coat and shirt and lay down on the sand for a while. there was nobody around, just the trickle of rainwater draining off the cliffs, the chatter of sea birds and the rumble of surf on the reef. some time later the sky clouded over and it started feeling chilly so i turned round and made my way back again.

the vegetables here are phenomenal, especially the kale. all the farms round here are devoutly organic. apparently prince charles visited a couple of weeks ago to swap notes. the locals emphasise that he spent three days here and just one in san francisco.

there’s a kind of vibrant town democracy here i’ve never encountered before. a lot of people seem to care about the community enough to participate in regular committees and ballots. amongst other things they’ve managed to sustain a moratorium on new houses for thirty years, for which they had to win the supoort of the supreme court, and successfully opposed a state decision to spray pesticide over the area. these are big achievements amongst many more quotidian matters. this is probably the closest thing i’ve encountered to a greek city state and it’s made a big impression on me. i’ll be fascinated to learn more.

tomorrow morning at quarter past six i’ll get on a bus that will deposit me in marin an hour and a half later. being here in bolinas has refreshed my spirit and given me space to reflect on everything that happened in san diego. i’m ready to return to the fray.

: c :

e t e c h

[ 17:00 thursday 9 march – fir & india, san diego, usa ]

nine metal mesh chairs are strewn around a concrete fountain topped with a mosaic globe. this is the centre of san diego’s “little italy”. pastel coloured wooden boutiques with self-consciously italian names rise up fir street to my left. dark clouds mass ominously overhead. soon it will rain. the bay is flat and leaden to my right. i feel monochrome myself, hollow with anti-climax.

i arrived here on sunday to give a presentation at the o’reilly emerging technology conference. this meant a lot to me, really a lot. it’s the world’s most important forum for upcoming technologies and we were given a forty minute slot in the main hall. my session took place yesterday afternoon. it’s the first time i’ve talked about my project in the isles of scilly and explained how trampoline grew out of it. i’ve been preparing for weeks. last saturday i was more nervous than i can ever remember feeling.

well, the presentation couldn’t have gone better. all day today people have been coming up to me with questions and friendly comments, even people who didn’t hear the talk. yesterday evening i felt a wild euphoria but this afternoon as the final sessions wrapped up and delegates started drifting away my spirits grew flat and heavy.

by nature i think i’m a good communicator but i’m very shy. the prospect of standing up in front of people terrifies me, as did musical performances in earlier days. once i’m started it’s fine. the apprehension is always the bad part.

other than my stupid nerves the conference has been a wonderful experience. i’ve met so many thinkers and technologists whom i admire and trampoline has taken a step onto a much larger stage. there’s a lot of emotion tangled up in me. i feel like it wouldn’t take much to make me cry. i suppose this is the state one would call “over-wrought”.

i’ll be back in balance tomorrow.

: c :

f e a r

[ 19:15 wednesday 22 february – levi, finland ]

i’m with my family in lapland for a week’s skiing  to celebrate mum’s sixtieth birthday. the sun peeps above the horizon for seven hours each day, bathing the snow-clad expanse of forest and lake in golden light. on monday the temperature hit twenty-six below zero, cold enough to freeze my eyelashes together.

i’m learning to snowboard, which i never thought i’d do. from birth i had a defect in my knees that periodically caused excrutiating pain. i was a pallid and bookish child. sports like skiing were out of the question and i retreated from sports i might have tried. when i was eighteen i had an operation that fixed my knees. but it took a long time to stop thinking of myself as a cripple. little by little my physical confidence grew and i began to enjoy my corporeal capacities as well as the cerebral ones. i thought it might be too late to start skiing but when mum chose to celebrate her birthday this way i wanted to try.

i’ve been throwing myself into it with all guns blazing. each day i accomplish something that seemed impossible the day before. i’m learning in a group of teenagers which sets a brisk pace.

my progress suffered a jolt this afternoon when i took a hard fall and got myself concussed. standing at the foot of the piste it slowly dawned on me that i had no idea how i got there or, more problematically, where i lived. the row of houses and restaurants seemed vaguely familiar but i couldn’t pin down anything specific. my heart was pounding. a boy tapped me on the arm and handed me my goggles. i saw my instructor and hailed him. he said something and it jogged my memory, returning my chalet’s location to mind. i thanked him and gratefully made my way home.

it was a strange experience, a reminder how fragile our perceived realities are. i was quite frightened and felt anxious about the prospect of snowboarding again. but after sitting quietly for an hour and drinking several cups of tea i pulled my skiing clothes on again and went straight back to the piste. i knew if i didn’t get back out immediately i might never overcome my nerves. i took the lift up and boarded down three times without incident. that’s all i needed to get my confidence back.

i think you either confront your fears directly or you become a slave to them.

b r a z i l f o t o s

[ 00:20 thursday 9 february – shipton street, london ]

several friends have asked why i stopped publishing photos on the web. i uploaded my first collection in 1997, a hundred or so pictures from my travels in finland with kirmo. this was a real labour of love. starting with photographic prints i scanned each image then built a web page around it including relevant details. i linked these pages together around different stages of the journey and put in a map of finland as the top-level navigation.

at the time i was doing this i’d just started working with the web agency online magic. each evening i would come home and spend a couple of hours working on the site. it was like my devotion, a thread connecting me to the beauty and purity of those days with kirmo. it somehow made it easier to tolerate the soul-destroying hours of stupidity and politicking in the office. it took three months to finish that site. after all these years i don’t think i even have a copy of it now.

in the summer of 1999, when i was living on st agnes, my friend vajra bought a digital camera for me in new york. another friend, simon, brought it to london where i collected it from his sister caroline. traveling back from caroline’s flat i managed to leave the camera on the tube. i thought that was the last i’d see of it, but several weeks later i had a call from london transport to report that it had been handed in. amazed, i picked it up and found it packed with snaps of surfing exploits featuring the australian tourists who’d found it.

starting in december 1999 i published a collection of pictures every month or so, documenting my experiences in the isles of scilly, london, ghana and italy. it was still labour-intensive, with every web page having to be built by hand, but i streamlined the process as much as possible and using the digital camera saved a lot of time. having started the wanderer despatches in february 1999 the photos seemed like a natural accompaniment. at this time i was also doing a lot of sound recording on a minidisc recorder and religiously keeping my personal diary. what’s more i was taking most photos twice: once with the digital camera (for uploading) and once on slide film (for posterity). all told, my documenting habits were becoming a tiny bit obsessive.

in the end this is why i stopped. at some point i realised that documenting my experiences had become more important to me than the direct experiences themselves. i was living through the lens, the keyboard and the microphone; a vicarious observer of my own life. i knew it had got out of balance and it was time to change. i published my final package of photos from the island of pantelleria in september 2001 before returning to stromboli to find a house for the winter.

i haven’t published any photos on the web since then, more than four years ago. there’s been no slackening in my love of photography or the rate at which i chug through film. but going back to the analog technology and ceasing trying to publish sets of images in real time has brought it back in balance.

now i’d like to start sharing my pictures again, but in a different way. just pictures scanned from my slides. meanwhile web-based technologies have come on a long way so now i can upload a bunch of pictures without having to hand-build a website.

so without further ado, here are thirty-three pictures from brazil.

: c :

b o i p e b a

[ 00:05 friday 6 january – ilhã da boipeba ]

lying on the sand watching the star-filled sky with the incessant atlantic surf for company. tonight there are a lot of meteorites. on the north-eastern horizon it’s possible to see the glow from salvador 120 kilometres away. to the northwest there’s a smaller glow from the bars and clubs of morro saõ paolo 15 kilometres hence. from this island, boipeba, no light is visible.

we arrived here on new year’s day. first a two-hour boat trip from salvador to morro saõ paolo. then a protracted negotiation to obtain a four-wheel-drive vehicle and an expert driver for the forty-five minute journey over loose sand and scrub to reach the southernmost tip of the island. when we reached the water’s edge the driver stopped and flashed his headlamps for ten minutes, which is how long it took for one of boipeba’s boatmen to notice and putter over to collect us.

it was worth the effort. the island’s about seven kilometres by four kilometres, covered alternately with palm forest and scrub. there are 1,200 inhabitants split between three settlements and a similar number of tourists in high season, which is now. there are no cars or metalled roads. horses and mules are the main forms of transport, supplemented by wide-beamed wooden boats and a couple of tractors. to its west and north boipeba is separated from neighbouring islands and the mainland by tidal rivers and sand-banks. the east and south coasts face the atlantic ocean.

boipeba is at a tantalising stage of development. the environment and the structure of the community are largely intact, but tourism is growing steadily and has probably already passed the point where it is the island’s dominant economic force. several ambitious traders on the island already exhibit the polished impersonality that comes with a fully-developed tourist economy, but they’re still rare. the place i’m experiencing now is unlikely to exist five years from now. being here has a slightly bittersweet edge to it, a sense that i am witnessing something beautiful that will soon disappear.

new year in salvador was a hoot. it’s probably the largest crowd i’ve ever been in. the newspapers reported there were a million people but i think it might have been half that. a huge stage and sound system had been set up in front of the lighthouse at barra with revellers massed on the surrounding dunes. i didn’t see more than three or four tourists. vendors pushed their way through the crowd with polystyrene boxes of barely-chilled beer. one glazed-eyed smiling rastafarian passed by with a petrol canister on his head offering some kind of deadly home-brewed hooch. i wasn’t inclined to try it.

the music was stupendously bad considering bahia is among the world’s richest music cultures. apparently the succession of plasticky electro-calypso bands with their pudgy dancers were all very famous, but to me they seemed entirely talentless. in any case the crowd around us was noticeably more excited by the scuffles which broke out every few minutes. in each case a pocket opened instantly around the combatants, pushing people back in a fast-moving wave. a contingent of truncheon-wielding riot police would then shove their way through the crowd and drag the protagonists off. it felt like we were having an authentic experience of the city.

at midnight fireworks erupted from two barges in the sea and the air was filled with the spray of what people described as champagne but actually turned out to be cheap cider, leaving a correspondingly sticky residue on everything. the next ten minutes was a rampage of embracing random people and shouting “feliz ano!”. i suspect a large number of wallets and mobile phones went mysteriously astray around this time.

: c :