Category Archives: Stromboli

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 :

d i n u o v o

[ 18:39 wednesday 27 august 2014 – piscita, isola di stromboli ]

i’m sitting on paolo’s long terrace, dripping wet after swimming. the evening sun hovers low above the flank of the volcano. below me the sea is almost motionless. tiny waves lick and fizz against the black sand. the day’s hydrofoil from napoli creeps across the horizon, the growl of its powerful engines clearly audible in the shimmering air.

it’s twenty-nine months since my last entry in this journal. this has been a wondrously fertile period for me. seeds i’ve planted and tended over a decade are sprouting on every side. the trampery has grown from one building to four; spreading across software, fashion, design and the arts. two more buildings are due to open before the end of the year, including a spectacular new flagship in the centre of shoreditch. the trampery’s also part of a project to develop a completely new kind of “entrepreneurial community” integrating 500 apartments with 50,000 square feet of workspace, studios, cafes and event spaces. meanwhile after years of ups and downs trampoline systems has found a solid niche as a data analyst focused on business clusters. over the past year the company has won a string of landmark projects including one from the greater london authority to undertake the most detailed ever analysis of the region’s technology industry and one from the european commission to analyse europe’s entire startup ecosystem. finally one click orgs has launched the world’s first fully electronic co-operative, providing member-owned organisations where membership, voting and governance can all be managed online. i could happily write an essay on each venture but this journal exists to chart the personal journey rather than the entrepreneurial one.

two years have passed since i last set foot on this island of stromboli. after living here from july 2001 until july 2003 i’ve continued to come once or twice each year. the island became a second home for me, a parallel set of continuing relationships and experiences, an opposite pole to my frenzied life in london. stromboli was my safety valve, a retreat open to me whenever i needed it. here i could find the solitude and the immersion in wild nature which london denies. this second universe allowed me to throw myself into my work in london with a vigour that would otherwise have been impossible.

by my last visit in 2012 my relationship with the island felt out of balance. after coming here as a complete outsider in 2000 with he photographer fabrizio ruffo i’d gradually become an insider. my time with matteo sforza in 2010 accelerated the process by casting me as partner to someone who grew up in the community. without realising it i’d developed a sense of entitlement, feeling aggrieved if i wasn’t invited to certain parties or gatherings. this was ironic bearing in mind that during my two years living on the island i carefully maintained my status as an outsider and sought to avoid entanglement in the complex systems of obligation and affiliation.

i needed a break to reset my relationship with the island. the two year gap since my last visit has done the trick. when i arrived on the island last friday i felt like an outsider once again with a fresh sense of humility. during these days, as in my earliest visits, i have mostly sought solitude. during the afternoon i pass hours sitting alone on the black rocks bathed in the intense white blaze of sunlight watching the shimmering azure horizon. in the evenings i become more sociable, circulating around the village and visiting friends. i find myself eschewing parties in favour of smaller private gatherings. i feel close to my dearest friends again in a way i haven’t done for too long. everything has come back into focus.

this restoration of balance has manifested itself forcefully through my photography. from my earliest visits the camera was a catalyst for my exploration of the island and its people. behind the lens i would become entranced, completely absorbed in the delicate rhythms of light and colour around me. over the years the trail of images i left served as a record not only of my obsessive explorations of the island but also my changing relationship with it. one of the most unsettling aspects of the final years was the increasing difficulty i found to capture the inspiration which had arisen so effortlessly in the past. from this perspective my arrival on this visit was like my very first arrival. everything that had become familiar and over-explored was once again new and mysterious. 

this sense of a new beginning was heightened by having a new camera in my hands; indeed not just a new camera but a completely different photographic format. a couple of months ago i lost my faithful canon eos 3. instead of replacing it i started researching medium format cameras. the eos 3 subsequently reappeared but by that point it was too late to turn back. i spent a month trying to make sense of the byzantine variety of formats, bodies and lenses before concluding that i wanted a rolleiflex 6008i with a 6×6 back and a 40mm or 50mm lens. a happy combination of destiny and ebay then delivered me precisely what i sought. one evening a couple of weeks ago i cycled up across walthamstow marshes to collect a tightly packed box from a fellow called ibraam. i spent the next few days putting everything together and figuring out how it worked. after a week i felt confident enough to load my first film and take the camera blackberrying with some friends by the river lea. each roll of 120 film provides just twelve frames, each frame six centimetres by six centimetres square. this encourages a certain economy in usage. so far on stromboli i’ve used three rolls. the camera is considerably heavier and bulkier than the eos but this should be amply compensated by the quality of the images that result. of course until these first films have been developed i can’t be entirely sure i’m actually using it correctly. i half expect a set of blank images to be returned from the laboratory.

three weeks ago a lava flow formed on the side of the volcano, the first time this has happened since 2007. stromboli’s typical pattern of activity is three or four eruptions an hour from craters at the summit. this pattern switches to a lava flow if the pool of magma rises to the top of the cone. the last time i saw one was in january 2003 shortly after a massive explosion ripped the top off the mountain and a tsumami triggered the island’s evacuation. the opportunity to capture the new lava flow with the rolleiflex was an irresistible mission for the trip. just before sunset on monday i set off up the mountain with paolo and a group of friends. we’d ascended to around three hundred and fifity metres when we were stopped by a pair of guides who informed us that the mountain was closed above two hundred and ninety metres for safety. usually in these situations if a guide recognises you they’ll turn a blind eye but on this occasion they made it clear they weren’t budging until we turned round and descended. reluctantly we began to retrace our steps with the guides following at the rear. having lugged the camera so far and got so close to my objective i wasn’t going to let anything stop me. so i nonchalantly wound my way to the front of the group and waited for a sharp bend in the path then darted into the bushes and hid myself. once i was sure everyone had passed, including the guides, i returned to the path and continued the ascent. to avoid attracting attention i avoided using my torch, relying on starlight and peripheral vision to follow the path.

i spent the next five hours on the mountain, ascending to six hundred metres and being rewarded with a jaw-dropping experience of the lava flow. the fact i was the only person on the mountain made it feel even greater a privilege. it’s hard to express what it’s like to be so close to a lava flow. it’s like watching a massive incandescent creature, writhing its way across the mountainside, probing for new gullies to occupy, constantly in motion. whilst i watched a new channel formed and pushed its way down a hitherto dark section of mountainside. the lava was orange and red with brighter whites and yellows where the crust cracked exposing hotter material inside. in parallel with the viscous lava rocks were constantly solidifying and breaking off, rolling down the slope like incandescent snowballs, exploding with showers of sparks where they bounced. the visual spectacle was accompanied by an incessant fizzing, crackling, popping and banging. i could feel the heat on my face.

on this visit, as with so many previous visits, i am staying with my friend paolo russo on his estate at piscita. to a large extent the preservation of my sanity over these past ten years has been thanks to his hospitality. 

[ 13:32 wednesday 3 september 2014 – cinema mele, pizzo, calabria ]

on saturday afternoon pasquale dropped me at the port in stromboli and i hitched a lift to vibo marina on the return leg of a day-tripper boat from calabria. my friend giuseppe picked me up in his gorgeous 1970s fiat minivan (a 900 pulmino) and drove me back to pizzo. i’ve spent the last five days staying with him in the clifftop cinema his grandfather built in the 1950s.

cinema mele is an exquisite and miraculous survival of post-war italian architecture. one descends a narrow side street in the old city of pizzo to find a tall doorway at the end with “cinema mele” written above. the entrance opens into a grand marble-floored lobby with a huge square window offering a panoramic view over the sea. to the left one staircase ascends to a lobby at balcony level and another descends to a lobby at stalls level. tall teak-veneered doors open from each of these lobbies into the flank of the main auditorium which is twisted around to place the screen on the same side of the building as the entrance.

the walls and ceiling of the auditorium are covered with moulded white plaster panels in three different designs. the floor is polished concrete. the lower sections of the walls are painted brick red or cream. the doorways and windows are trimmed with red velvet pelmets and gold tassels. the auditorium seats 500 in rows of delicate curved plywood chairs mounted on thin steel legs. the staircases and balconies sport simple steel bannisters with a zigzag motif. at the rear of the auditorium a terrace runs the whole width of the building. from the edge of the terrace. at the edge of the terrace the cliff falls away to the sea a couple of hundred feet below.

the cinema fell out of use thirty years ago and has lain abandoned since then. for reasons nobody can fathom giuseppe’s great uncle had the windows removed. as a result the building has suffered. in places the reinforcing steel rods in the concrete structure have corroded and chunks of concrete have crumbled away. damp in the walls has caused paint to peel away and the rendering to bubble up. the velvet pelmets are rotted and hanging in tatters. leaks in the roof have stained a couple of the moulded panels. but overall the building has survived miraculously well. the cinema has never been refurbished so the building one experiences today is fundamentally as it was designed by giuseppe’s grandfather sixty years ago.

two years ago giuseppe took upon himself the epic task of bringing cinema mele back to life as an arts venue. over the last two summers he’s installed new electrical and plumbing systems, created a kitchen in the stalls lobby and started work to stabilise the building’s condition. in the process he’s turned its ruined aspects into sculptures and things of beauty. through the summer he lives here with the artists and performers he invites from around the world to collaborate in this extraordinary environment. his next challenge is to raise money to put in windows and waterproof the roof. my rolleiflex has been busy documenting the building in its current condition. i’m up to eleven exposed rolls now.

this evening i fly back to london and resume battle on my ventures. i feel ready for everything.

: c :

f o t o s : stromboli, august 2014

so here they are, the very first images from my rolleiflex 6008i medium format camera taken during ten days on the island of stromboli. out and about in piscita and the rest of the island; at home with paolo and enki; a night on the volcano watching the lava flow and getting covered in ash; gustl’s catcus garden; salvo in his ceramic studio; nerina in her new shop.

these images are dedicated to gusti schuldes who at the time of writing (october 2014) lies silent in a coma. we’re ready for you to come back now gusti.

camera: rolleiflex 6008i
lens: rollei distagon el 1:4 50mm
film: fujichrome provia 400x
scanner: nikon coolscan 8000ed

f o t o s : palermo, salina & stromboli – september 2012

twenty-five pictures from a trip to palermo, salina and stromboli in september 2012 with mattia. i was captivated by the hat-making shop in palermo with all its patterns and tools. it had been running in the family since the 1930s but none of the children was interested in taking it on so the two old men were resigned to being the final generation. i arrived on stromboli to find a fire raging above the timpone. don luciano, the island’s priest, kindly allowed me to record a series of improvisations on the ancient organ in the church at san vincenzo. the maintainer had left a note dated august 1917, which was apparently the last time the instrument was serviced.

v i d e o : stromboli ix 2010

[ 02:30 wednesday 24 august – haggerston hall, london ]

between working on my projects and partying i’ve rather neglected the cycle of processing and uploading photos and films. previously the backlog held fairly steady at three months but now it has swollen to a full year. in a couple of days i’ll be fleeing the frenzies of london and heading south to stromboli for a bit. the impending trip has shamed me into editing my film from last september’s visit to the island.

i already uploaded some pictures from the trip back in april.

: c :

m e t e o r i t e

[ 15:58 wednesday 3 may – hydrofoil from stromboli to milazzo ]

a few minutes ago i embraced matteo, salvo and my other friends on stromboli then hauled my bags up the gangplank to the hydrofoil and gave a final salute as it pulled away from the quay. today the volcano is sombre with a dense white mass of cloud swirling around the top. every fifteen or twenty minutes a black stain appears in the cloud as an eruption blasts its lava, ash and gases into the air. the weather has been restless the last few days with the wind veering from south to west to north to south to west again and the sea switching rapidly between calm and crashing waves.

i arrived the day before easter with some slight trepidation. what would it be like to be with matteo again so soon after we broke up? would we want to see each other? would the pleasure of being on the island be impaired? within hours of arriving my anxiety had evaporated. matteo and i spent time together each day. sometimes alone, sometimes with friends and family. there was never any awkwardness or rancour. we talked with the same honesty as before. i think we recognised this was remarkable for two people who have just separated and perhaps thought even more highly of each other for it.

matteo’s family were amazingly welcoming to me. they invited me to easter lunch at their house, second only to the christmas meal. there were twenty people at table including three aunts and two uncles who’d come over from puglia, matteo’s brother and two sisters, his older sister’s husband and their two children. the meal was exquisite and continued without pause for four hours. knowing i didn’t eat meat matteo’s mother and aunts had been kind enough to prepare several dishes specially for me. the high point was roasted totani (pink-fleshed deep sea squid) stuffed with ricotta, mint and walnuts. sublime.

for the first time in all my years on stromboli i followed the island’s easter procession before lunch. this is a ritualised portrayal of mary’s reunion with the resurrected christ and a symbolic linking of the island’s two churches. at midday on easter sunday a statue of christ departs from the church of san vincenzo in scari on the shoulders of four men whilst a statue of the virgin leaves the church of san bartolo in piscita. each statue is preceded by banners, bells and chanting with a crowd of islanders following behind. with careful coordination the statues meet each other mid-way between the two churches. as they close the final gap each statue bows several times to the other. at the climactic moment when they come together mary’s tightly-closed robes are unbound to release doves or swallows which fly away having been secreted inside. after this the two statues proceed together to san bartolo where they are placed on pedestals and the priest ends the ceremony with a short address. it was a beautiful piece of theatre, much lighter than the hysterical mortifications of the easter spectacles i witnessed at trapani and marsala. photographs and film will follow.

irene did add a somewhat macabre edge to the story, explaining that the island’s children are pressed into service to stalk the island with nets and clubs the day before easter to catch the birds for hiding under mary’s robe. apparently the young hunters are prone to be a little over-enthusiastic in their efforts resulting in a proportion of the fowl being despatched to the great aviary in the sky before they can participate in the procession.

a couple of days after easter i spent the whole night on spiaggia lunga with salvo, renzo, luca and arianna. we were graced by one of the most spectacular meteorites i’ve ever seen. it arced across the sky in a shallow diagonal right the way to the horizon leaving a thick trail of sparkling light in its wake. we were left whooping in wide-eyed amazement. towards dawn i became completely absorbed watching as the colours of sea, sky and vegetation changed hue minute by minute. then as the sun rose dozens of swallows started to swoop in a circuit around us flying just a few centimetres above the surface of the sea. at the same time thousands to tiny white moths, just one or two millimetres across, appeared around us in a layer a metre above the black sand. none of us had ever seen anything like it before. i felt lucky; more than lucky.

following matteo’s request the island’s priest (don luciano da rico) very kindly gave me permission to play the organ in the church of san vincenzo which i’ve never done before. as we ascended the spiral steps to the dust-covered balcony i didn’t have great expectations of the ancient, rarely-played instrument. underneath the stops was a handwritten maintainer’s note dated 1917. the panting and wheezing emitted when i turned on the pump suggested this might have been the the date of its last service. the air pressure was irregular, one stop produced a sound like a car’s starter motor, several didn’t work at all and those that did work were erratic and outrageously out of tune. but despite this i completely fell in love with the instrument. the principals were chaffy and sweet. the quints were piquant and angular. the acoustic was thick but still intimate. best of all the unpredictable air pressure gave rise to a tremelo effect which sounded uncannily like a human flautist and changed with different combinations of keys. over three days i recorded several hours of improvisation. matteo joined in for some of it.

on my way to the island sergio mentioned that telecom italia was offering a cheap deal for data so i called them to active it. predictably, nothing happened. after several persistent calls to their support centre matteo managed to get it working. but the moment it was running i realised i had no wish to be connected to the internet and the cat’s cradle of services that interlace my urban routine. so i turned it off.

: c :

p h o t o s : stromboli ix 2010

[ 00:43 wednesday 20 april – haggerston road ]

here are fifty-four pictures from september’s trip to stromboli. catching up with old friends, getting to know matteo’s family, the birthday party he organised for me, long idyllic days beside the sea, the tempest which held us captive on the island on the final day. it was a very happy time (though not without its little stresses).

in four days i shall arrive on stromboli once again. i think matteo and i are slightly apprehensive about seeing each other for the first time in a month and a half, but mainly we’re excited. this will be like meeting for the first time. something new and different.

: c :

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m a t t e o

[ 23:41 sunday 9 january – haggerston road ]

on saturday the first of may, a little before seven in the morning, i reached stromboli on the overnight ship from naples. it was a perfect spring morning. the flat sea gleamed like silk. the sky was cloudless. dolphins raced and jumped either side of the ship’s bow as we neared the black triangle of stromboli. i caught one of them in mid-air with my camera.

the ship dropped anchor a few hundred metres off the port, turned and backed slowly until it was close enough to put a couple of lines to the quay. the anchor chain was wound in until the ship was firmly held in position and the ramp started to creak down to meet the quay. i was one of the first off, carrying the big rucksack on my back. i hadn’t slept much on the voyage or the previous night but i was filled with excitement and emotion to be back on the island.

there were many familiar faces in the throng of people waiting on the quay. i was overjoyed to find my friend pasquale, whom i’d thought was in australia. we greeted each other then he got back to his work. i walked up to the malandrino restaurant and had a coffee and pastry with my friend paolo. then he took me down to his house on the rocks in piscita where i’d spent my first winter on stromboli, and which he was generously lending me for the coming week.

alone in the main room, a spacious open cube with white walls and a polished cement floor, i put down my bags and stood still. the familiar sense of arrival and peace swept over me accompanied by the soft breeze passing through the room, the twittering of birds outside and the shushing of the waves on the little black-sand beach below. i organised my belongings, changed into shorts and sandals and walked out onto the terrace to look out over spiaggia lunga and breath the sweet air.

thus began the last day of my old life. i spent the rest of it wandering around the island, catching up with friends, seeking out people i hadn’t seen in a long time, reacquainting myself with beloved places, piecing together what had changed in the six months since my previous visit. the first of may is the “festa dei lavoratori” throughout italy, the workers’ day celebration. on stromboli there’s a big party at the port in front of one of the main restaurants with music and free food and drink for everyone. it’s the last big community celebration before the summer tourist season takes over. i knew lots of my friends would be there but by the evening i felt so tired it was hard to summon much enthusiasm for the walk across the island. i sat reading in my kitchen by the light of a candle, soothed by the waves and flickering flame. but in the end i put on my shoes, extinguished the candle and set out for the port, intending to show my face briefly then return.

the party was already in full swing when i arrived. a couple of hundred islanders were dancing and making merry to a band whilst the air was filled with smoke from a row of big charcoal grills on which meat was being cooked. i collected a glass of wine, spoke to some friends and danced half-heartedly. in my memory the picture of what happened next is that the crowd parted and a smiling young man walked towards me through the middle. i didn’t know him but the family resemblance prompted me to ask “are you matteo sforza, luigi’s brother?”. an hour later we were at the end of fico grande’s ruined old jetty, kissing.

the days that followed were sublime. matteo was working in a shop during the day. in the evening he would come to my house where we would eat dinner, play music, talk and dance. towards the end of the week we took the hydrofoil to lipari together to visit matteo’s older sister anna. the last evening carried the heaviness of everything we were trying to avoid thinking about. all too soon it was time for me to board the hydrofoil to milazzo and watch matteo’s face shrinking to a speck on the quay. i felt numb. matteo had talked of visiting london in october but it seemed distant and unreal.

three weeks later matteo arrived in london with his over-stuffed suitcases. i met him at the airport and led him back joyously to my house in dalston. we haven’t looked back since.

here are the photographs from that enchanted week on stromboli when i met him.

: c :

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