Category Archives: Sandhurst

v i d e o : maria delle mercede

[ 17:26 friday 25 december – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

christmas day, perched afront the log fire in mum and dad’s sitting room. this afternoon we went out walking in the forest of dean. everything was crusted in snow. a deep, timeless silence hung amongst the trees disturbed only by the crunch of our feet on the icy ground. the river wye was in full flood, winding around the limestone cliffs of symonds yat and churning tirelessly over the shallows. the sun hung low above the horizon and sent fingers of gold piercing the mist between the boughs. we got lost and ended up walking rather further than we intended. it was breathtakingly beautiful. i took photographs with a sense of wide-eyed wonder.

for christmas day i’ve made a little film of the procession i stumbled across in palermo at the end of september, celebrating the feast of the madonna delle mercede. it was a magnificently rowdy affair with two large marching bands, a dozen boys pulling the giant statue of the madonna and shouting fervent invocations to her, then at the climax the most intense firework display i’ve ever encountered. it felt as if we were under artillery bombardment. even the palermitans around me stopped gossiping for a moment and looked slightly nervously at the flaming projectiles darting on all sides.

anyway happy christmas to all who read this and i hope you enjoy the film.

: c :

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w a t e r w a t e r

[ 01:18 wednesday 25 july – shipton street, london ]

since the weekend mum and dad have inhabited an island surrounded by flood-waters from the swollen river severn. there’s water lapping at the bottom of the garden but mercifully it hasn’t advanced further than that. nobody can get in or out of the village except by boat or helicopter. the water supply was cut off days ago. there have been periods without electricity but at the moment it’s working. mum and dad have moved everything valuable upstairs lest the water rise a few more inches.

i remember one year when i was at school there were severe floods, though not on the present scale. initially access to the village was tidal, with the roads becoming passable twice a day when the tide was low. then we were cut off completely.

we’d brought up a small dinghy with us from cornwall and i remember going out with dad to deliver supplies and sandbags to farms that had become completely cut off from the outside world. my most vivid memory is of going out on my own one evening and rowing through a neighbour’s apple orchard at twilight, navigating carefully to avoid catching the oars on the wizened trees.

: c :

k a y a k

[ 15:23 sunday 13 august – sandhurst,  gloucestershire ]

i’m with mum and dad for the weekend, perched in the sitting room   with the garden a mass of lively greens against the overcast sky. mum   remedying my botched efforts turning up a pair of linen trousers i   bought from chieko’s stall at spitalfiends. on the radio the bach  cello suites are being played in a curious transcription for guitar.

yesterday we all went canoeing on the river wye, mum and dad together  in an open canoe and me in a bright yellow kayak. we did an eight  mile stretch around the symonds yat gorge in the middle of the forest  of dean, a gorgeous and mysterious landscape. we saw salmon jumping,  buzzards wheeling overhead and even a kingfisher darting azure across  the water. the river was very low and at several points the water  formed races over the stony bed. at one such race i made an idiot of  myself and succeeded in capsizing, to the amusement of mum and dad.  the water was so deliciously warm that when we’d finished the journey  and hauled the canoes out of the water i found a secluded spot and  went for a swim.

for the past month or two i’ve been looking for a house to buy in  london but truth be told i’m ambivalent about the whole exercise. one  of my experiments from 1998 to 2003 involved trying to avoid owning  things and it left me with a strong sense that the less i owned the  happier i was. so long as i have access to necessary things and  services i have no desire to own them. people usually talk about the  feelings of security that come with ownership but in my experience  there is much more sense of burden and restriction.

a house is probably the pinnacle of the ownership malaise, surrounded  as it is by long-term financial obligations and a multitude of  complex maintenance requirements. i have no interest in a house as an  investment, which seems to have become a primary motivator for many  people. i just want somewhere to live.

the thing that started me thinking about buying somewhere was the  realisation that there are a hundred things i’d like to change in the  flat where i live, but because i rent it i’m not able to do it. the  bathroom and kitchen need refitting, the roof needs strengthening and  given proper access, the brickwork on the western wall needs sealing  so rainwater doesn’t seep in, more storage needs building in. all  these things would make a difference to my daily life.

of course i don’t really like living in london, which further  diminishes my enthusiasm for buying a house here. when i returned  from stromboli in 2003 i sincerely believed it would be possible to  set up trampoline and be on my way again after six months. three  years later this looks somewhat naive, but i’m glad i made the choice  and i doubt i’d have done so had i realised how long it would take,  so that original naivety was a blessing. the company’s at a point now  where i expect to be able to start spending a portion of my time  working remotely before long. but i’ll still be spending a lot of my  time in london for the next few years so it makes sense to sort out a  living environment in which i feel comfortable.

amongst the many odious aspects of house-hunting there’s been one  real pleasure. in the process of determining which areas i’d like to  live in i’ve spent hours cycling round unfamiliar areas of hackney,  islington highbury, haggerston and canonbury. this has given me a  much richer sense of where the mediaeval village centres were and of  the explosive waves of residential development during the second half  of the nineteenth century. a bicycle is a wonderful aid to  understanding a city’s development and topography.

: 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 :

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

: c :

p a r t e n z e

[ 09:20 tuesday 1 july – train leaving central palermo ]

i spent much of sunday night reorganising my chattels and carrying boxes to gustl and valerie’s magazzino on the beach at scalo dei balordi, assisted greatly by sergio. leonardo came by with his taxi at eleven forty and conveyed me to the port where we shared a last bottle of water. at quarter past twelve i was on the hydrofoil to messina. from there i took the four o’clock coach to palermo, where i met some friends. we had some truly excellent pizza together, followed by some of the best ice cream in palermo (and therefore the world). the gelsi nero is exquisite at the moment. after supper we drove a little way out of palermo to the east and had a swim with the plankton sparkling around us. now i am on my way to the airport for a flight to london.

this first chapter of my life on stromboli is now complete. for the next six months i will be based in london. leaving the island isn’t something i particularly want to do, but it’s clear this is what trampoline needs from me at this stage. for the final week i lived once again in paolo’s house above the beach where i spent my first six months on stromboli. on wednesday evening i held a dinner party for 15 of my closest friends on the island, around a long table amongst the mesumbryanthemums, lit by candles and the stars.

in the last few days the volcano has started making its familiar grumbling noises again. the islanders greet this much as anxious parents greet the renewed crying of a baby that has been silenced awhile by a fever.

: c***

m e r r y

[ 23:30 tuesday 24 december – sandhurst, gloucestershire ]

three weeks since i landed in london. my plan was to whistle through some meetings there then race back to stromboli. but warren came over from san francisco and craig arrived from norway and we had so much to do and every day a new lead came up for someone else i needed to talk to. i wouldn’t admit to myself that i’d abandoned my escape to stromboli but i suspect i made the decision within a few days of arriving. it was all very productive and i was able to see a lot of friends but i’ve been pining for the sea and the ravens and the ever-changing silence. i have dreamed about the island several times. from september 2001 to october 2002 i was never away from stromboli longer that two weeks. it’s already two months since i left there bound for america. i doubt i’ll get back before the middle of january.

last week i tried to do some “christmas shopping”. i took a tube into central london and walked into one shop then another. i wandered through the relentless shelves of cheerful, pointless objects; trying to evaluate each one in relation to people i love. but after an hour i had bought nothing and was feeling nauseated. i walked out onto tottenham court road, put down my backpack in the middle of the pavement and remained perfectly still as the mass of shoppers streamed around me. almost immediately a sense of well-being and freedom sprang up inside me. i stood there for a long time, breathing slowly and smiling. from time to time someone would catch my eye and there would be a fleeting expression of puzzlement as they hurried onward. nobody smiled back at me.

i arrived here at mum and dad’s house a couple of days ago. it has been raining a lot. the fields are very muddy. yesterday i cycled into gloucester and got wet.

now it is nearly midnight, nearly christmas. the people scatter platitudes of peace and goodwill whilst an unneeded war is kindled in their name. everything grows dark and complex. my parents are at church. they were worried i would put too much garlic in the supper.

to my friends, the readers of this inadequate journal, in australia, malaysia, new zealand, brazil, italy, the united states, spain, germany, finland, china, norway, canada, ghana, japan, india and the united kingdom of great britain and northern ireland:

i bid you a merry christmas

: c