All posts by charlesarmstrong

c o a s t s t a r l i g h t

[ 17:16 thursday 2nd november 2017 – amtrak coast starlight, oakland to los angeles ]

like a gigantic migratory creature this train left seattle at 9am yesterday morning on its southward journey. 24 hours later at 9am this morning, heralded by a mournful tritone whistle and clanging bell, the huge double-decker tube of shining corrugated steel snaked alongside the platform at oakland jack london square beneath a crisp blue autumn sky and i climbed aboard. the journey will reach its conclusion when the train pulls into the art deco splendour of los angeles union station at 9pm tonight. i’ll have been on board for 12 hours of its 36 hour journey.

for all america’s supposed abandonment of the train for its devotion to the automobile, this service is a true inheritor of the nineteenth century trans-continental trains that have all but disappeared from europe. as well as seating carriages equipped with deep reclining armchairs there are sleeper cabins with en-suite bathrooms, an observation car with full-height windows and swivel-chairs, a dining car with linen tablecloths and napkins, even a cinema car.

the train crew is like a troupe of actors assigned slightly over-written parts. the earth-mother cafe attendant who had to deal with an armed war veteran’s post-traumatic meltdown as the sun rose. the irascible dining car host whose announcements mimic a television game show and whose timings for meal sittings seem to be entirely arbitrary. the senior conductor whose messages elaborate an evolving narrative of her grudge towards one of the junior conductors regarding some money she loaned them which has yet to be returned.

meanwhile the mix of passengers is almost unfathomable. on european trains one finds a fairly representative cross-section of society, rich and poor alike. on this train it feels like 99% of american society is absent and instead the train is populated with just a handful of narrow niches. people on low incomes with too much luggage to carry by greyhound bus (the only travel option that’s cheaper); wealthier people who don’t like flying and can’t be bothered to drive; hardcore railway buffs; folks like me who are doing it for the sheer adventure.

for most of the journey i’ve been camped in the observation car with a couple of dozen people scattered around the banquettes and swivel chairs. leaving oakland we passed through the decayed industrial residue and salt pans of the east bay to the bland techno-architecture of san jose. this gave way to the hyper-fertile agriculture of the salinas valley followed by baroque twists and curls through hill country where the grass gradually paled from lush green to dry yellow. in san luis obispo the train stopped for 40 minutes so i took the opportunity to run into the centre of town, buy myself a mango smoothie and run back; pressed on by the thrilling fear the train might continue on its way without me.

after san luis obispo the track joined the pacific coast for a spectacular sequence of dunes, wild beaches and rocky promontories. i couldn’t help being reminded of the stretch of brunel’s great western railway where the track runs beside the atlantic coast along the red sandstone cliffs of teignmouth and dawlish. but of course this is california and everything is a thousand times larger.

as the track reached the coast the atmosphere in the car shifted perceptibly. conversation became muted and everyone turned to gaze at the ocean, as if drawn by the same primal urge towards the sea. a lady with steel-grey hair hanging to her waist and a sequence of trembling chins struck up a running commentary on the passing coastline, uniting the rest of us as her audience.

for half an hour either side of vandenburgh air force base the coastal scenery was punctuated by rocket launch towers and radar installations. california has the power to make even such surreal intrusions seem as much part of its landscape as a rock outcrop or river. shortly after point conception i watched a pair of whales breach the surface close inshore and send twin fountains of steam rising from their blowholes.

almost a decade ago i performed one of the canonical american journeys driving down highway 1 along the coast from san francisco to san diego (photographs here). it was a magnifient experience, particularly the stretch down the big sur coast. ever since then i’ve been yearning to travel the same route by train.

in los angeles i’m looking forward to visiting my friends paul and sarah who moved there a couple of years ago. i’ve always felt slightly afraid of the city. the prospect of traffic-infused suburbs stretching to an infinite horizon and a perma-tanned culture of insincerity have been enough to keep me away. but it’s high time i brushed off these prejudices and explored for myself.

these have been happy months. the trampery is doing great things, i feel in harmony with myself and a new romantic focus has appeared in my life. the only note of sadness has been learning of the death of robin murray, a remarkable economist and human. i met him at an event on democratic innovation hosted at the very first trampery building in 2010 and we became friends. his childlike curiosity, brilliance and compassion reminded me of michael young. now he is gone i realise how much i will miss his advice.

my journey continues.

: c :

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r e t u r n t o s t r o m b o l i

[ 00:36 saturday 26 august 2017 – piscitá, isola di stromboli ]

i’m sitting with my laptop at the desk in paolo’s house. beside me a flickering candle provides the room’s sole illumination save the blue glow of the screen. through the open window in front of me the warm night air carries the sound of the waves and a faint perfume of jasmine.

this is my favourite room in paolo’s house. it stands in a separate whitewashed cube across the terrace from the main building, overgrown by an ancient and labyrinthine fig tree. inside there’s a giant bed with a carved headboard, two mahogany chests and a highly designed standard lamp from the 1980s made from blue and white glass. one side of the room is piled with books in italian, english and dutch collected by previous generations of paolo’s family. the walls are covered with paintings and drawings by an italian artist from the 1990s, testaments to his obsession with man/bull fusions.

it’s three years since my last visit to stromboli, the longest break since i first set foot on the island in august 2000. last saturday on impulse i bought a flight to catania. by sunday evening i was here. that was six days ago. now my visit is almost at an end. at dawn i’ll leave the house and cross the island to the quay ready for the first hydrofoil of the day to milazzo, on the north coast of sicily.

after such a long absence i feared i would have been forgotten on the island but within half an hour of arriving a dozen people had run up to greet me. by the second day everyone seemed to know i was back. it was a little overwhelming. i feel as if i have a parallel life here that continues even when i’m absent, a life with its own rhythm and narrative separate from my existence in london.

my evenings have been spent in company with friends but during the afternoons i’ve sought complete solitude. after eating a breakfast of sicilian cheese and peaches on paolo’s terrace and working on the laptop for a couple of hours i walk down the narrow street through piscitá to spiaggia lunga, the last beach on the island. since this is august the first short black-sand section of the beach is generally crowded with tourists. i pass through and continue to the longer rocky section beyond, stepping from stone to stone, until the people are far behind and i’m alone. at this point i find myself a flattish rock close to the sea where i can lie down and lose myself in the intense sunlight, the breeze and the shush of waves. at first my mind races with thoughts about relationships, work, hopes and fears. but each afternoon i strive to let go of the hubbub and empty my mind.

this afternoon i broke this habit and went out with marina and pepe in the latter’s speedboat. we skimmed across the azure surface of the water, rounded the western side of the island and anchored at a rocky, uninhabited point known as “le piscine” (“the swimming-pools”). there we donned snorkels and spent an hour harvesting shellfish for our supper.

by the time we returned to the quay and i’d walked back to paolo’s house in piscitá it was dark. i descended the steps from the terrace to the small beach below. the storms of last winter stole all its sand and left it rocky, just as it was the first year i lived here. i stepped across the stones and threw myself into the gurgling swell. in the darkness the water felt warm and sensuous against my skin. i swam a long way out then turned to look back at the lights of the island. a creamy crescent moon hovered above the flank of the volcano.

after my swim i dried myself and walked up the hill to marina’s house to feast on the shellfish we’d gathered earlier. we cracked open the urchins and ate the pink eggs raw from the shell. marina baked the limpets having stuffed them with cheese, breadcrumbs and parsley. she cooked the winkles in a thick chilli and tomato sauce, then we extracted the coiled-up animals with pins. it was all sublime.

it’s been wonderful to visit the isles of scilly and stromboli in such short succession this summer. both these places are integral parts of me, regardless how frequently or rarely i visit. now it is time to pack my bag and prepare for the journey ahead.

: c :

r e t u r n t o s c i l l y

[ 23:32 tuesday 10 july 2017 : yacht “ange saint louis”, moored off st mary’s, isles of scilly ]

anna dropped me off at penzance harbour on saturday morning to join arthur and gregoire aboard “ange saint louis”, the twenty-seven foot yacht belonging to arthur’s father in which i’ve sailed with them for the last couple of summers. we picked up provisions in town. at 4pm the huge steel gate of the tidal lock slid into the water, we slipped our mooring and set out from the harbour.

penzance harbour has a lifetime of memories for me. in july 1983 this is where i boarded the ferry to the isles of scilly for the first time with a group of musicians from truro school. dozens of trips followed. then in february 1999 this is where i loaded all my belongings into a container on my way to live in the islands for a year. however saturday was the first time i’ve departed the harbour in a yacht.

over the years i’ve travelled to the isles of scilly by ferry, helicopter, light aircract and even on the freight ship during a heavy storm. but prior to this trip i’d never made the crossing by yacht. two years ago arthur, greg and i set out from salcombe with this intention but the wind was resolutely from the west which would have condemned us to days of motoring or endless tacking. we abandoned the plan and sailed eastward through devon and dorset instead.

on saturday once again the wind was from the west but this time we were not to be thwarted and set out under motor. passing along the jagged granite coastline of south-west cornwall every cove and cliff brought back memories from my childhood. the christmas lights and a brass band in the harbour at mousehole; kynance cove in a gale with huge waves breaking over the quay; summer evenings on the cliffside at the minack open-air theatre; picnics on the beach at porthcurno. after a few hours we passed land’s end and the mainland receded from view.

the twenty-eight mile stretch of sea between land’s end and the isles of scilly is a notoriously turbulent stretch of water. this is where the irish sea, the english channel and the atlantic throw themselves at each other, piling up unstable swells and currents. for us though the water was limpid and benign. throughout our passage we were accompanied by bottlenose dolphins. sometimes there were just one or two, leaping and darting around the boat. sometimes more than a dozen surrounded the yacht and played in our wake. greg sat on the bow and dangled his feet in the water, trying to touch the dolphins as they zipped past. the sea was alive with dolphins, i’ve never seen so many of them. it seemed like a positive augur for our voyage.

we had our first glimpse of the islands around sunset, just a low grey smudge on the horizon. above them clouds were gathering ominously in the sky. half an hour later a fine drizzle began to fall around us and the islands disappeared from view. we plodded on, the engine growling its monotonous note, relying on the GPS chart plotter for our course. around 10pm the plotter told us we were passing the eastern isles but all we could see was grey murk.

by 11pm it was fully dark and i was growing uneasy that we’d seen no sign of the islands’ three lighthouses. according to the plotter we were less than a mile from the penninis head light but peering into the darkness not even a faint glow was discernable. could it be the GPS was deceiving us and we were heading out into the open atlantic? after an anxious hour we saw a light close by which i recognised as one of the hazard marks in the channel between st mary’s and st agnes, to our relief. shortly after midnight we rounded the southern tip of the gugh, pulled into the cove of st agnes and dropped anchor.

when we awoke the next morning the sky was still overcast and drizzly but the mist had lifted. my heart leaped to see the familiar outline of the gugh on one side and st agnes on the other with the ever-shifting sand bar between them. we ate a speedy breakfast then inflated the tender, lowered the motor onto it, climbed aboard and buzzed through the anchored yachts to the sand bar.

it’s been twelve years since my last visit to the scillies. walking around the perimeter of the island with arthur and greg my eyes were alert for every change. a fine new bench at the top of the bar (which i later learned was designed by joffy hicks); reinforcements to the quay at covean; an unexpectedly grand new island hall with a glass frontage overlooking the playing field; a mass of boat parts and clutter around the old lifeboat shed. but nothing dramatic had changed, the island remained fundamentally as i knew it.

as we approached wingletang down the sky was clearing so i led arthur and greg down to the little beach at praskin and proposed a swim. praskin is my favourite beach on the island with coarse white sand running down to the water, jagged granite boulders along the north side and long tendril-like seaweed waving in the current. it’s sheltered in almost all conditions but hardly anyone goes there. i stripped to my bathing trunks and waded in. the water was just as cold as i’d remembered. i plunged in and began to swim, gasping at the glacial temperature. greg and arthur followed. afterwards i jogged back and forth on the beach to warm up.

having introduced arthur and greg to the island and had our ceremonial swim, i was eager to catch up with old friends. my first stop was to westward farm to see mike and christine hicks and their family. twelve years ago there was the old farmhouse and a bungalow built for mike’s parents. now the farm had expanded to five dwellings with new houses built for their sons ross and aidan, each with their respective families, plus a wooden holiday let managed by aidan. meanwhile the economic activity of the farm had changed beyond recognition. when i lived on the island in 1999 the main crop was scented narcissi, which the family had been growing since the start of the twentieth century. twelve years ago mike was starting to experiment with aromatic plants from which he extracted essential oils to make soap. today no narcissi are grown and the farm is a diversified patchwork of different elements. several fields are filled with rows of lavender, geraniums and other aromatics. another houses two hundred chickens. yet another’s planted with different varieties of cider apple from which scrumpy is produced. the latest innovation is a range of small-batch gins using local botanicals. one variety is distilled with wild gorse picked on the island. another uses geranium. everything is thriving.

after saying goodbye to mike and christine my second visit was to johann hicks and his family at tamarisk farm, where i lived during my time on st agnes. johann was one of the main supporters of my project nurturing digital skills in the islands. for most of his life he served as one of st agnes’ two councillors but now he’s retired. like mike and christine, the community on tamarisk farm has also expanded. johann’s two sons ben and joffy have both returned to the island with wives and children. johann took me over to visit joffy who’s converted one of the farm’s barns into a house for his family. here too the farm’s economy has evolved. ben has assembled an armoury of heavy machinery which he employs on construction projects around the island, whilst joffy applies his considerable skills as a joiner and designer.

leaving tamarisk farm i returned to the boat with arthur and greg. a fresh breeze had sprung up so we hoisted sail right away for old grimsby at the opposite end of the archipelago. it was grand to have the wind in our sails and the hull leaping beneath our feet after the long motor from penzance. however the tide was falling and the whole of the northern part of the archipelago has only a couple of feet of water at low tide. we realised were cutting it fine if we were going to reach our destination without running aground. once again relying on the GPS chart plotter we picked our way through the last half mile, trying to avoid the shallowest patches as the water ebbed. greg stood at the bows calling back with growing nervousness as the sandy seabed grew closer and closer. we made it through by the skin of our teeth and anchored for the night.

we spent this afternoon exploring tresco then sailed back to st mary’s and moored off hughtown. supper was fish and chips from a van, eaten sitting on the beach at porthellick. a clever seagull crept up on us and seeing its moment grabbed arthur’s fish from his hands and flew off with it. afterwards we took a taxi up to watermill in the north of the island to visit gaz. he’s been a friend of mine since we played together in a jazz band as teenagers in cornwall. in 1999 i spent several months living in a tent in his garden. now the wooden cabin which was his home is gone, replaced by a pristine two-storey house where he lives with his partner ashley and her children. we spent the next few hours gossiping and catching up. gaz also is representative of the islands’ changing economy, managing a new vineyard which produced its first vintage in 2014.

now we are back on the yacht preparing for the next stage of our voyage. we will wake at 5am, eat a swift breakfast, then set out for the channel islands 125 miles away. this will be a long passage. we are likely to be at sea for thirty-six hours and out of sight of land for most of it. the three of us will hold watches in rotation, each of us taking the helm for two hours then sleeping four hours whilst the other two take their turns. as if this wasn’t enough of an adventure already, a gale is forecast for the morning. winds up to force seven will arrive from the west around 10am and continue for the next fourteen hours before swinging round to the north and abating. the waves will be two to three metres high. i must confess to being a little afraid of the challenges facing us tomorrow, but that is part of why i love sailing.

: c :

w a t e r w a y s

[ 17:44 sunday 18 june 2017 – roydon gravel pits, hertfordshire ]

yesterday morning i woke at 4am, showered and dressed, then sped on my bike through the empty streets to limehouse. the sky was already bright enough that i didn’t need my cycle lights. it spanned a gradient of chroma from deep azure in the west to cerulean blue in the east. the half-moon and venus were still visible. the air whispered the thrill of a blazing day to come.

winding through the narrow alleys i emerged onto limehouse basin. this area of water, originally called “regent’s canal dock”, was a pivotal connection in britain’s commercial infrastructure through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. this was the point where freight coming up the river thames was trans-shipped onto barges to continue its journey through the inland canal system. a couple of hours either side of high tide ocean-going ships could pass through a lock from the river into the basin. here they unloaded their goods into warehouses from where it could be transferred into barges. to expedite this process the world’s first hydraulic cranes were installed here in the 1850s. once loaded the barges either travelled up the “limehouse cut” to join the lee navigation canal heading north into hertfordshire, or up the “hackney cut” to join the regents canal to west london and beyond that the grand union network linking birmingham, liverpool, manchester, leeds and the great industrial heartlands.

the commercial dock closed in the 1960s and was redeveloped with (mediocre) housing in the 1980s. nowadays it is is a marina for motor yachts, but it still serves the same function providing a link from the canal system to the tidal river. so at 4.50am yesterday morning i chained up my bike, found my friends arthur and mathilde on their narrowboat “manatee” and prepared to untie from the wharfside ready for the slot they’d booked for the lock.

at 5am the lock keeper appeared, cheerful despite the unsociable hour, and opened the inner gates. we passed slowly into the lock chamber and made fast to cables on its side. the inner gates closed and pumps started evacuating water until the level was equalised with the river. the pumps stopped and the massive outer gates slowly swung open. in front of us was the open river, shimmering blue in the pre-dawn light.

at the exact moment we pulled out onto the river the first sliver of sun peaked above the eastern skyline and the buildings on either side of the river exploded into red and gold. we turned and began to head upriver.

at that hour on a saturday morning we had the river completely to ourselves. we passed the warehouses of wapping and rotherhithe then entered the realm of central london’s icons. passing under the traffic-free tower bridge with a cloudless morning sky above us and the empty expanse of river around us, it was hard to escape the feeling that it was there just for us.

i’ve travelled along the river many times in the clipper ferries. but zipping along at high speed in an air-conditioned cabin is a world away from standing on the roof of a seven foot wide narrowboat chugging upriver at three knots. there is an intense sense of connection with the river and time to appreciate every detail of the passing landscape. minute by minute the icons of central london unfolded around us and the sun slowly rose in the sky. the houses of parliament were at their best, the intricately carved stone glowing in the morning sun. the lock keeper at limehouse had taken a macabre pleasure warning us not to slow down in front of parliament since a narrowboat is apparently an ideal transport for a mobile rocket launcher and the security services are prone to get twitchy.

passing under the thames bridges was a revelation. from ground level they are all much the same with their tarmac, traffic and pedestrians. but seen from the water each one is individuated by its style, engineering and ornament; from the ornate gilt panels and bold scalloping of bazelgette’s cast iron battersea bridge of 1890 to the wonderfully light steel underframe of the grosvenor rail bridge from 1965.

after putney the character of the river changes with fewer buildings and more greenery lining the banks. by hammersmith the river’s width is halved from limehouse. on this stretch we began to encounter our first traffic, with rowing fours and eights out for practice on this idyllic saturday morning.

at 9am, four hours after leaving limehouse, we arrived at brentford where the lock keeper was waiting to usher us back into the canal system. from here we set off north on the grand union canal, mostly following the ancient path of the river brent. we passed through seven of the nine locks in the hanwell flight, which gave me some exercise, then we tied up. the water looked clean so arthur and i couldn’t resist stripping off and jumping in for a swim to cool off. after bidding farewell to arthur and mathilde i walked to southall station and took a series of trains to arrive back at limehouse where i picked up my bike thirteen hours after locking it up.

today has been even hotter with temperatures reaching thirty degrees. craving water, greenery and a breeze i took the train up to hertfordshire with my friend mathias and his pug sophie. half an hour’s walk brought us to the gravel pits where i now sit, surrounded by willows and oaks. we’ve spent the afternoon swimming and sunbathing in the swaying reeds listening to birdsong. this is my favourite swimming spot within an hour of london.

for a country boy like me, london in the summertime still has its charms.

: c :

p o r t h a l l o w

[ 17:35 sunday 16 april 2017 – porthallow cove, cornwall ]

today is easter day. i’m sitting on the broad pebble beach of porthallow cove with mum and dad accompanied by a thermos of tea and homemade apple cake. the sky is a deep azure. the sea laps lazily on the shore. the air is filled with birdsong. a family is trying to light a fire at the other end of the beach. a pair of swans bobs inquisitively at the water’s edge. otherwise the cove is deserted. this is cornwall at its most sublime. i took the train down on friday evening and return to london on tuesday.

porthallow is on the eastern side of the lizard, the rugged peninsular of serpentine and shale that juts south into the atlantic between falmouth and penzance. the lighthouse at lizard point marks the southernmost extremity of the british mainland. the western side of the lizard is windswept and rocky, exposed to the fury of the atlantic’s winter gales. the sheltered eastern side is shrouded by a canopy of trees and cut with humid, mysterious valleys.

earlier we walked along the winding coastal track to nare point and back. the path was engulfed with a firework display of spring blossoms. golden yellow gorse and celandines; snow white blackthorn with its long spines; deep pink campions; pale yellow primroses; azure spanish bluebells and the deeper indigo of their native cousins; pale purple violets; a thousand shades of green in the lush foliage of trees, grass and ferns. everything blazes with the exuberant joy of life and growth.

how lucky i was to grow up in this landscape. as i child i was only partially able to appreciate it. but unconsciously the beauty and savagery seeped into my soul. now i am able to find solace simply by standing on this turf, feeling the breeze on my face and letting the sound of waves fill my mind.

: c :

i m p r o m p t u

[ 18:15 sunday 26 march 2017 – old ford lock ]

late last night elaine came round. we watched a 1970s documentary about the inhabitants of the (now demolished) tower blocks of hackney wick’s trowbridge estate then chatted about life and love. we both had things to do on sunday so around four in the morning we decided to call it a day. i accompanied elaine downstairs to see her off. as we reached the front door i observed a slight rhythmic vibration in the walls. somewhere nearby an unusually powerful sound system was playing. i suggested we should go and hunt it down. elaine concurred. i donned shoes and a jacket, turned off the lights. we went outside and locked the door.

coming out of the gate onto the dark towpath the sky was clear and, in the absence of street lamps, populated with more stars than the usual meagre london ration. the surface of the canal was inky smooth and black in the windless night. a swan grunted from its nest in the centre of the lock, protesting our disturbance of its sleep. straining our ears we followed the faint rhythmic sound of bass. we crossed the footbridge over the lock and proceeded down dace road. walking past the edwardian red-brick stables on the left and the construction hoardings on the right. there wasn’t anyone around. i was about to turn up bream street but elaine suggested the sound was coming from further down so we continued to smeed road. the bass increased in intensity. half a dozen people were huddled on the street outside one of the warehouses. elaine said “let’s see what the door charge is”. we approached and found the door open. we walked in.

over the years i’ve visited a lot of the warehouses in hackney wick but never this one. the pattern was familiar; a two-storey brick structure with a pitched roof of corrugated asbestos, the interior subdivided with stud and plywood to create a large open living space, kitchen, bathroom and several bedrooms. at first floor level a dozen bicycles were mounted on a rack. decorative gewgaws were displayed on the walls and floor. the kitchen area had been turned into a makeshift DJ booth with decks, a mixer and a tangle of electronics. a video projector played abstract images across the side wall. a laser scanned patterns like an oscilloscope. speakers were stacked two metres high in the corners opposite the DJ booth , explaining the vibrations we’d felt from the house. a hundred or so people were in there, ranging in age from twenty to forty .

elaine and i started to dance, weaving through the crowd until we found a welcoming space. after a few minutes we realised the music wasn’t being played from a recording, it was being generated by a curly-haired man working a suitcase-sized modular synthesiser with a mass of dials and patch cables. we kept trying to leave but it was too intoxicating. we stayed and danced until our limbs could dance no more.

experiences like this are what make me feel alive in london. the event itself was beautiful. there might only be half a dozen places in the world where one could encounter a live performance with a modular synthesiser like this. but the fact we walked out of the house and discovered it through pure serendipity is what makes it truly transcendent.

ten years ago it might have been commonplace to encounter something like this in hackney wick. but every month that passes brings the demolition of another warehouse to make way for a bland apartment block. nowadays each time i stumble across an event of this kind it requires an effort of will to appreciate its beauty straightforwardly without allowing myself to feel a sense of impending loss.

: c :

a r c h i v i n g

[ 13:12 saturday 31 december – perranwell station, cornwall ]

for this final day of the year i’m back in cornwall, where i grew up. i’m sitting in mum and dad’s conservatory with a vase of daffodils blazing yellow beside me. outside the sky is dove grey and the air hangs motionless. three chaffinches and a pair of robins hop and chatter in the lichen-covered tree beyond the window. cornwall has been especially beautiful in these days. every morning i wake to a different world. there have been spring-like days with clear blue skies, golden sunlight and waves lapping at the sand. there have been stormy days with atlantic gales, surf crashing on the granite rocks and squalls driving in from the writhing ocean. finally there have been damp mysterious days like today when moss and gorse blossom glow in the diffuse light.

2016 has been an unsettling year for the world. old certainties are fracturing and dark fears start to creep in through the cracks. for my part, i end the year with a greater sense of clarity, purpose and optimism than i’ve felt in a long while. across several strands of my life this has been a year of addressing unresolved legacies from the past and preparing for new stages of my journey.

the most personal part of this has been the process of sorting through my archived papers. when i was six years old i asked my parents for an album to store postcards received from grandparents, aunts and uncles. they got me a beautiful big book with a forest green cover. whenever i received a postcard that was too large i’d snip off the edges to make it fit. thus began a habit of preserving ephemera which expanded through my childhood to include scribbled notes, ticket stubs, concert programmes, pieces of art and design, recordings on cassette and minidisc, newspaper articles mentioning me; anything really that carried some personal significance or memory. it was completely disorganised. i’d put things in a pile. when the pile got too big i’d sweep its contents into a plastic bag. when the plastic bag was full it would be thrown into a cardboard box and i’d start a new bag. when a cardboard box was full i’d close it and find another.

this process of accumulation continued steadily through my childhood in cornwall, sixth form in cheltenham, studies at cambridge, establishing my first businesses in london, the year-long project in the isles of scilly, back in london with michael young and the school for social entrepreneurs, my two years living on stromboli and my return to london to set up trampoline systems. then finally a decade ago it began to abate. throughout this period the cardboard boxes kept on filling up. until the end of my time at cambridge the boxes all gravitated back to mum and dad’s attic. after that, each time i changed location i’d find somewhere new to stash them.

five years ago when my parents were preparing to move back to cornwall i was given an ultimatum that i could either pick up everything deposited at their house or it would be thrown on the tip. i rented a van and drove down with mattia. climbing the ladder to their attic i realised shamefully that it contained more of my stuff than theirs. i brought everything back to london and hid it in my spare room. then a couple of years later i moved from dalston to old ford lock and gathered the boxes in the dining room. it was the first time i’d seen them all together at once. dozens of them, all different shapes and sizes, with nothing to indicate what place or period they represented. it was obvious i needed to go through everything, throw away as much as possible and organise the bits worth keeping. but it was such an appalling prospect that i kept putting it off so month after month the boxes sat there reproachfully.

finally one evening last october i decided the time had come. i pulled out one of the cardboard boxes, took the uppermost plastic bag, emptied its contents onto the dining table and started sifting through its contents. every free evening since then the work has continued. i’m about three quarters of the way through at this point. fifteen foolscap folders have been filled with preserved material ordered by period, whilst sacks and sacks of rubbish have been jettisoned.

i was expecting it just to be a tedious housekeeping job but it’s proven a lot more charged than that. the experience has been like an intimate and merciless biography. everything is in there. hopes, failures, loves, triumphs, anguish. the fact the boxes are in random order has made it more gruelling. one moment i’ll be wading through notes on social structure from stromboli, the next it’s adolescent poetry from cornwall. thus my picture of each period has developed in a fragmentary and jagged way.

all kinds of treasures have revealed themselves. poetry and paintings from my infancy. copies of the magazines i printed with a friend at truro when i was thirteen. letters from my grandparents filled with love and wisdom which i could barely appreciate at the time. proposals for scores of mad projects from my early twenties.

one of my favourite artefacts comes from my first year at cambridge where i always kept a piece of notepaper clipped to the outside of my door on A staircase cripps, along with a pencil on a piece of string. i would leave messages for friends, friends would leave messages for me; and friends would also comment on each other’s messages. every scrap of paper is preserved. it’s a wonderful and self-contained collective document, distilling the shared life of my group of friends at that moment in our lives.

though leavened by the discovery of delights like these, i’ve found the overall process rather harrowing. the teenager who emerges is cripplingly shy, searching for a role and a way to engage with people. the person i see in my twenties is self-centred and burdened with an overmighty will, unable to acknowledge failures or properly learn the lessons they provide. going through the papers has brought me face to face with who i’ve been at each stage of my life and it hasn’t been an entirely comfortable experience.

this discomfort however is greatly outweighed by the therapeutic value of the process. in a very tangible way it’s forcing me to acknowledge all the shades of my personal history. after this there will be no ghosts left lurking from the past, nothing half-forgotten or swept under the rug. it’s helping me to foster a deeper acceptance of who i am which is perhaps something i needed.

the question remains what drove me to archive all this stuff in the first place. was it born out of narcissism? or a manifestation of my broader tendency to hoard things? or was i subconsciously laying the ground for the process i’m now undertaking? i don’t have a clear answer.

having thrown away so much of what i’d stored and organised the remainder, there remains a lingering thought in my mind that the day will come when i also need to throw away what i’ve kept if i wish to release myself fully from the weight of the past. this may come to pass, but it’s likely to be some years away.

for now i send my love and wishes to family and friends for the year ahead. sometimes it is the moments that seem darkest that give birth to the brightest light.

: c :