All posts by charlesarmstrong

o n e m o n t h

[ 19:43 sunday 26 april 2020 – old ford lock, london ]

in the month since britain’s quarantine restrictions came into force, life has diminished in almost every way. my world has shrunk to a sphere comprising the house, the garden and a surrounding radius of one hour’s cycle.

at the same time, though, life has also expanded in certain respects. alejandro and i have both noticed a heightened awareness of the natural world around us. in this most most abundant period of spring, each day brings a thousand changes; trees newly in blossom, shoots peeping from the earth, buds opening into flowers, different species of migrating moth appearing in the house. i’ve never been so conscious of it all. there is a luxury of stillness, the ability to sit for ten minutes and allow one’s mind to soak up and appreciate everything that is around.

with the closure of london city airport the usual background noise of jet engines has disappeared. it’s like an extended version of the intense quiet i remember from 2011, when the volcano grimsvötn erupted in iceland and for a few days european air traffic ceased. our location at old ford lock was already quiet. with the planes gone, the loudest sounds are now birdsong, the rustle of wind in the trees and the trickle of water escaping through the lock gates.

alejandro and i continue our daily bike excursions, progressively scouring the area for wild or interesting places that fall within range. over the past two weekends we’ve traced the path of the river roding from woodford, through the bluebell-carpeted grounds of wanstead house, past ilford and barking to the reed beds and wastelands where it finally reaches the thames. frisbee, badminton and yoga have been added to our daily outdoor routine. scrabble and trivial pursuit have become evening fixtures.

many of my friends have found themselves undertaking heroic projects in the house or garden. for my part i’ve dug out several new flower beds and planted them with twenty-one dahlias, nine peonies and ten begonias. with luck, some of them might flourish. i’ve also cleared out the small yard behind the house, which had become an overgrown dumping ground for boats and abandoned flowerpots, to create a new seating area. since it gets the late afternoon sun we’ve taken to having our tea there.

on weekdays i remain occupied with my work for the trampery. march and april have been a hectic cycle of planning for possible scenarios and responding to events. the most demanding period was the second half of march when the situation was changing dramatically from day to day. it was during this period we switched most of our team to home working and took the decision to close down the workspaces. during april things have stabilised in their new geometry. in the last couple of weeks i’ve been able to start working on future projects once again.

a crisis like this tests the mettle of any team. the trampery team, currently numbering twenty-seven employees plus eight contractors, has been magnificent. throughout the whole rollercoaster experience everyone has stuck together, calmly evaluated what was coming and adapted to each successive change. a full week before the quarantine was announced, the team had already switched most of the company’s activities online and launched “the trampery at home“. i’m excited to see what we can achieve together once the crisis is past.

since january i’ve been writing an article each month for the trampery, touching on aspects of entrepreneurship and society that interest me. the most recent one explores how the coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the future course of capitalism. if you’re interested the article is posted here on medium (the rest of them are listed here).

life under quarantine, with the house as an undifferentiated setting for work and life, and no access to mechanised transportation, is like a reconstruction of pre-industrial life; just with netflix and video calls added. in the midst of this arcadian existence, the element i find most jarring is shopping. there is something dystopian about the regimented two-metre-spaced queues, the guards at the door, the sense of pressure and the subtle undercurrent of fear. i recognise it’s all necessary, but supermarkets now feel unpleasantly similar to airports.

the single most disquieting aspect of visiting shops is routinely seeing bare shelves. i remember as a child in the 1980s seeing television news reports portraying empty shelves in eastern european cities, with images of housewives queuing to enter a shop. in consumerist societies we were brought up to view this as something alien and shocking, yet we are now confronted with it daily.

since 2013 i’ve been baking all my own bread (which alejandro refuses to eat). my staple loaf is a mix of dark rye and wholemeal with sunflower seeds, walnuts, figs or whatever else is to hand. whilst the initial shortages of toilet paper, tinned tomatoes, pasta and rice have all faded, the flour shelves remain stubbornly bare. apparently this isn’t due to any production shortage, it’s simply that 99% of britain’s population has taken up bread-making as a way to cope with being stuck at home. the flour crisis has become so severe that not only are the shops bereft, online suppliers are also sold out.

thus i now find myself, in a surreal reversal, awaiting the delivery of 20 kilos of rye and wholemeal flour from a supplier located in dresden; one of those east bloc cities featured on television in the 1980s, with the empty shelves and queuing housewives.

: c :

q u a r a n t i n a

[ 23:01 tuesday 24 march 2020 – old ford lock, london ]

today was the first day of britain’s mass quarantine against the coronavirus. along with most of the population i shall be secluding myself at home for the next three weeks, and i suspect longer. here in london it has been a glorious spring day. the air remains chilly but the sky was a perfect blue and the midday sun was strong enough to warm the face.

since the middle of february the storm’s approach has been creeping up on my consciousness. each day as i visited an exhibition, walked into a shop or passed a group of friends laughing on the towpath i found myself pausing for a moment to appreciate the beauty of these everyday things, and wondering how long remained before they were swept away.

the final large gathering i attended was a seminar at mansion house on tuesday 10th march, hosted by the lord mayor of london, where i chaired a discussion on the relationship between place and creativity. it was a splendid event, and a remarkable experience to observe a hundred and fifty city dignitaries bashfully experimenting with elbow bumps, waves and various alternatives to shaking hands.

my last face-to-face meeting came a day later on wednesday 11th march, from 5pm to 6pm, with the team at the trampery old street.  for the subsequent twelve days i’ve been working from home, so yesterday’s announcement didn’t feel like a particularly abrupt change.

the fashion business where alejandro works sent their team home last week, so each day he’s been working here in the house alongside me. quickly we are establishing new etiquettes and habits for these novel circumstances. when it’s sunny we each have our spot to work on the terrace outside. when the air becomes too cool for alfresco working, we perch at respective sides of the circular table in the sitting room. if either of us has a video call there’s a tacit agreement to retreat downstairs to the dining room.

yesterday’s announcement from the prime minister’s came three years, almost to the minute, from when alejandro and i first met each other at a lecture in poplar. we celebrated a slightly muted anniversary at home. a lot of the local shops had closed early so the most luxurious items i was able to forage were peach ice cream, watermelon and a chocolate rabbit.

all of my life, i’ve been drawn to solitude and generally i find myself comfortable in isolation. i chose to live on islands for most of the period 1999 to 2003; first on st agnes and st mary’s in the isles of scilly (diary entries here), then on stromboli in the aeolian archipelago. (diary entries here). i was serenely happy for much of this period. however as it became clear last week that extensive restrictions were likely to be imposed, i felt a growing terror at the possibility i might be barred from leaving the house for excursions on foot, bicycle or kayak.

perhaps in subconscious preparation, over the weekend i gorged myself on adventures in wild places in the full thrall of springtime. on saturday alejandro and i cycled out to explore the huge expanse of wanstead flats. then on sunday i did a twenty-five mile bike ride up to epping forest and back, getting completely smothered in mud in the process. finally on monday afternoon, just a few hours before the prime minister’s announcement, i dropped my kayak in the water for the first time this year and paddled up to hackney marshes.

in the end, to my relief, the restrictions leave us free to make an hour-long excursion each day. this bodes well for my sanity and for the future of my relationship with alejandro. today at lunchtime we celebrated this liberty by cycling up through the olympic park and across hackney marshes to my favourite stretch of the river lea. i climbed down the bank and stood on a stone in the flow of the river, listening to the rush of water and birdsong, with fresh green leaves glowing in the sunlight along the sides.

this is truly a remarkable moment. it will be a shared experience for almost all humans now alive, in a way that possibly has no precedent. people refer to the september 2001 attack on the world trade centre (diary entry for that day). however that was an event that happened in one place and was experienced only vicariously by the rest of the planet. even the second world war was, in truth, largely a european, western russian and pacific affair that left much of the world untouched.

i suspect many people will have felt moved to record their impressions on this first day of the general quarantine, as countless others will have done in different countries. perhaps i shall write more in the coming weeks as the situation evolves. for now i hope that you, my friends and my family, wherever in the world you are, remain safe and cheerful.

: c :

t y p h o o n

[ 20:48 saturday 12 october 2019 – hatchobori, tokyo ]

as i write, the centre of typhoon hagibis is passing directly overhead. or more accurately, it is everywhere around me. from the seventh floor window where i’m sitting the lights of skyscrapers are barely visible through a sky that is more water than air. sheets of rain comb between the buildings like rollers traversing an ocean. below me the surface of the river is tormented and whipped into leaden confusion. swollen high above its normal level from rain and storm surge, it has spread to submerge surrounding paths and vegetation. trees bend and twist, writhing wildly. the sound of the wind has become a solid element, a low constant scream like a jet engine, punctuated with high whines and screeches.

growing up in cornwall i witnessed each year the south westerly gales coming in from the atlantic. sometimes the wind was so strong it wasn’t possible to stand up straight. one year i remember huddling with my family beneath the stairs as trees and power lines crashed down around the house, whilst tiles and other debris hurtled past horizontally. however i have never seen anything like this typhoon. according to the japanese meteorological service this is the most powerful storm to hit japan since 1958. the wind speed outside is currently 114 kilometres per hour, and by midnight 130 centimetres of rain will have fallen on the city since i woke up this morning.

today alejandro and i were meant to pick up a campervan and drive north to the mountains of gunma, to spend three days at the labyrinth festival. we arrived in tokyo on wednesday, just as the forecasters began to speculate whether the typhoon’s track might lead directly over tokyo. we debated whether to collect the van a day early and get as far away from the city as possible, or sit out the storm in tokyo and hope the roads would be passable a day later. i erred towards the former, alejandro to the latter. in the end i came round to his side and here we are with ringside seats.

yesterday the weather was perfectly calm, giving not the slightest intimation of what was coming. this morning around seven o’clock the first drops of rain arrived, hesitant at first, then steadier. by ten the air was growing fitful with half-hearted gusts tugging at the trees. at midday i put on yachting oilskins, carefully packed my rolleiflex into a waterproof backpack, and ventured out into the street. all public transport was shut down, the streets were empty, every balcony and courtyard cleared of flowerpots and ornaments.

without a specific plan i walked down the west side of the kamejima river, then kept going where it joined the sumida river. the rain was already torrential, and minute by minute the wind was strengthening. i had brought an umbrella which i raised each time i wanted to take a photograph, doing my best to protect the camera. but soon the wind was so strong it below the umbrella out the moment it was raised, so the photography was abandoned.

just beyond hatoba park i decided to cross the river on the kachidoki bashi road bridge and walk home along the east bank. climbing the steps onto the bridge i left behind the shelter of the buildings. exposed to the full force of the wind, the rain came at me horizontally and i had to bend double to make headway.

returning up the east bank of the sumida river i found myself walking through a neighbourhood of tumbledown two-storey houses that looked different from anything else i’d seen in tokyo. despite the typhoon i couldn’t resist exploring. i found a small temple, a tiny shop selling a thousand varieties of dried fish and a glass-fronted building by the river with a huge ceremonial relic in its window. sheltering in the porch of the temple i pulled out my phone and discovered this was the tsukuda neighbourhood, originally an island, where a fishing village was established in the seventeenth century.

continuing back towards the hotel i had to walk across the chuo-ohashi suspension bridge. about halfway across i realised it wasn’t my imagination, the whole bridge was actually shaking. i looked up and indeed the suspension cables were vibrating vigorously across a span of several feet. everything i knew about japanese engineering gave me confidence this was well within the bridge’s design tolerances, but all the same it was a little unsettling. i arrived back at the hotel three hours after my departure, soaked to the skin despite the waterproofs.

for the past two hours i’ve been sitting here in our room, with the lights turned out, glued to the window, watching and listening to the storm. yesterday i felt a bit scared, but i wouldn’t have missed this for the world.

: c :

l a n g s h i

[ 20:19 friday 23 november 2018 – langshi village, guanxi province, china ]

the night air is mild, humid, a faint perfume of moist soil. i stand at the base of a flight of stone steps, at the top of which is the house where alejandro and I are staying. in front of me stretches the wide expanse of the li river, sensed more than seen in the darkness. the water tickles and laps around the step on which i stand.

tonight’s full moon hovers below the horizon. its glow in the eastern sky revealing the mountains on the far side of the river like gigantic ghosts, rising from the water in sheer cliffs a thousand feet high. for  fifty miles in every direction the landscape is dotted with narrow, pointed peaks, rising into the air like huge anthills. these are the so-called “karsts” for which this region of guanxi is famed.

behind me the village of langshi and its two hundred inhabitants are already sleeping. the village supports itself catching fish from the river and growing crops on the abundant flood plain. the strip of fertile land between the river and the mountains is divided into neat parcels of oranges, pomelo, banana, greens, sweet potato and ground nuts.

the house in which we’re staying was built in the qing dynasty, most likely the early eighteen hundreds, for one of the village’s wealthier families. the exterior walls are made from dressed stone, whereas most of the older houses are constructed from layers of rounded river stones bonded with mud. the roof of rounded grey tiles rests on timber beams, held up by four massive pine trunks.

at the centre of the house is a double height reception room that opens onto private rooms at two levels. at one end of the hall is an ornately carved wooden gallery. at the other end carved wooden screens fold open to reveal a sunken courtyard. the house forms part of a cluster of six houses in similar style linked by shared courtyards and alleyways. i have no evidence, but i would guess the complex grew out from this central house over time as the family expanded. the mesh of semi-public reception spaces, courtyards and private rooms would have supported a complex social hierarchy.

this is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever stayed in. we have the entire place to ourselves. indeed alejandro and i are the only tourists in the village. other than our house there is nowhere for an outsider to stay. neither is there a restaurant, a cafe or a shop.

this my first visit to china. it is an overwhelming privilege to be granted this possibility to experience an agricultural community whilst it remains almost perfectly pristine and untouched by tourism. but the experience is also heartbreaking, as we are witnessing something that i fear will soon be gone. the government is vigorously developing tourism along this stretch of the river. the current generation of farmers is likely to be the last in a chain that stretches back five thousand years.

today is alejandro’s birthday. we got up before dawn, walked through the village and waited with the schoolchildren for the ferry to take us across the river. from there we arranged places on one of the outboard-powered rafts, traditionally made from bamboo boughs lashed together, but nowadays made from moulded plastic in the shape of bamboo.

as the sun rose we set off on the fifteen mile journey down the river to the market town of xingping. we spent several hours exploring the mediaeval streets and the sprawling hyper-active market, which seems to permeate the entirety of the new town. after that we hiked back through the farmland and forest bordering the river back to langshi, where we arrived shortly after dark.

yesterday we went for a shorter hike up the mountain behind the village, following the path used by goatherds. the steep slope is covered by tall trees, interspersed with outcrops of granite. with the sunlight filtering through the feathery branches of the trees it was like being in a fairyland.

when we reached the top we stopped and sat down to admire the view. as we sat there i asked alejandro if he would marry me, and presented the silver ring i’d brought from london.  he said yes!

: c :

e q u i l i b r a r

[ 18:49 saturday 4 august 2018 – near broxbourne, hertfordshire ]

seated on the grass at the edge of a lake. droplets of water fall from my hair and run in silver trails down my body. my breathing is quickened from the exertion of swimming. even at this hour the sun is fierce, settling towards the horizon in a cloudless sky. above me willow leaves shake and rustle gently in a half-hearted breeze. the edge of the lake sparkles with a thousand azure damselflies, clasping the reeds that poke and sway above the water, each one pointing its body identically towards the sun in mysterious alignment.

this year i’m working as intensely as at any point in my life. one project has been particularly demanding. to keep myself in balance i’ve been trying to intersperse work with other activities. sometimes if there’s a gap between meetings i’ll throw the kayak in the water and paddle up the canal and back before starting again. or after a long stint at the screen i’ll bike up to hackney marshes to a curving section of the river lea, then swim against the current as hard as i can with the water weeds rippling at my belly. the lake where i’m sitting now has become a favourite escape at weekends. within an hour of closing my front door i can be here, far from the city, plunging into the dark water with not a soul in sight.

alongside these local escapes the year has also been punctuated with travels further afield; some for projects, others purely for pleasure. the spring brought trips to montenegro, helsinki, chamonix, cornwall and the basque country. summer took me to california, paris, warsaw, corsica and (again) cornwall. the next few months will see me in berlin, sailing with dad in cornwall, granada, california (again), gdansk and my very first visit to china. more and more of these journeys are in the company of alejandro, who’s been brightening my life for a year and a half now.

the strategy has worked wonders. most days i feel energised and ready to face the challenges ahead. on the occasional days when i feel weighed down, all it takes is a smile or laugh from alejandro to lift my spirits again.

time for one last swim, then i’ll head home and resume battle.

: c :

m o n t e n e g r o

[ 23:54 saturday 20 january 2018 – hotel splendid, zavala, montenegro ]

since thursday night i’ve been staying in this luxury hotel on montenegro’s jaggedly beautiful coast. the british council invited me to give a speech about the trampery for an audience of government officials and entrepreneurs from the balkan countries. i enjoy missions like this which offer a short, intense experience of a new place and interesting conversations with people working there. the speech was yesterday and went well. i decided to take an extra day to explore before returning to london.

it’s extremely rare that i stay in a place like this. usually when i travel i get a flat, or a room in someone’s apartment, or i stay with friends. there is something about the anonymity of large hotels that i find dispiriting. but being here in this cosseting environment for the last couple of days has been strangely pleasurable. at meal times i just wander into the restaurant and pick whatever i want from a buffet. in the spa i can spend hours swimming lengths in the pool then let my mind drift in the succession of saunas and steam rooms. everything is effortless. i feel as if i am floating, weightless. if i stayed longer it would start to drive me crazy but for this brief burst it’s delicious.

right now i’m in my room, all polished marble and carved wood, reclining on the gigantic bed with the laptop resting on my thighs. most of the room’s lights are off, just a dim golden glow from lamps discretely hidden in the carved wall panelling. at the end of the room sliding glass doors open onto a balcony. the doors are slightly open, admitting the shush of waves from the beach and a hint of the crisp night air.

this afternoon i walked along the coast to the old town of budva, one of the oldest settlements on the adriatic coast. it was successively a military outpost for greeks, romans, venetians, austrians and italians before becoming a popular tourist resort as part of yugoslavia and now the independent montenegro. the weather has been moody and grey with clouds swirling over the mountains, a heavy swell from the sea and sporadic showers. the conditions served to heighten the already-melancholic air of an tourist resort out of season, so i enjoyed exploring all the more for the drizzle.

the old town of budva shares the essential characteristics of many other ancient coastal settlements around the mediterranean. a ring of defensive walls (venetian in this case), a labyrinth of narrow marble-paved alleyways, a church and citadel at the centre, all ordinary businesses replaced by cafes and trinket shops. today thanks to the weather the place was deserted so i had the magical sense the whole old town was there just for my pleasure.

this afternoon while exploring i was taking photographs with my trusty rolleiflex and found myself undergoing a rather sad rite of passage. for twenty years, since 1998, i have loyally been using the same film stock: fujichrome provia 400. i love the richness of its pigment, the tight grain structure of its emulsion and its incredible tolerance for low light. the final point is particularly important since i dislike flash. until 2013 i used the film in 35mm format with canon SLRs. then i bought the rollei and switched to 120mm format, but continued using the same film.

since 2000 the rise of digital photography has relentlessly eaten away at the economics of film manufacture. gradually each manufacturer has reduced its range (or in some cases disappeared entirely). in summer 2013, just as i switched to medium format, fujichrome announced it was ceasing production of provia 400. for the last four years i have been buying up remaining stocks of the 400 from further and further afield. evenetually japan was the only place where rolls could still be found. then several months ago the final sources dried up and i began to run down my last remaining boxes.

this afternoon, sheltering from the rain beneath a tree, all alone in the little square behind budva’s orthodox church, i loaded my final roll of provia 400 into the rollei. i realise i shouldn’t be so sentimental about these things, but it felt like greeting a dear friend for the last time. i couldn’t have wished for a more melancholy and beautiful scene to mark the end of this little thread in my life. now i suppose i shall have to choose a new film.

: c :

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 :