Category Archives: UK

c h r i s t m a s

[ 16:05 monday 30 december – train from swindon to london paddington ]

after my bleak christmas eve despatch it’s a little embarrassing to admit how enjoyable the past week has been. i feel closer to my family, and freer to be myself with them, than any time i can remember. what’s more there did seem to be a worthwhile point to the festival despite all my humbugging.

on christmas day my parents and i drove up to shropshire where my grandparents live. this is a sparsely populated area on the welsh borders crumpled into a chain of decent-sized hills interspersed with wild moorland and sheep pasture. my grandfather is a week short of 97, my grandmother a decade younger. grandpa is not an easy man. he grew up in a brutally scientific household where an individual’s worth was determined by their academic results. relatives were forbidden to perpetrate superstitious fictions such as the existence of a man who rides through the sky and delivers presents down the chimney. grandpa inherited a good deal of this outlook on the world.

after a lifetime’s service as a schoolmaster he wanted to go back to the mountains of north wales, where he grew up, but granny put her foot down. shropshire was the compromise they arrived at, as close to wales as it is possible to be whilst remaining in england. of course it didn’t give either of them what they wanted. over the decades i have watched grandpa sinking into a kind of nihilistic joyless decrepitude, punctuated by bouts of depressive madness. granny has flurried about tending to his needs and maintaining outlets for her creativity in vigorous gardening, knitting and flower-arranging.

grandpa’s hold on life is intimidating, motivated not so much by a desire to live as a monstrous terror of death. up until the age of 87 there was also a competitive element: he wanted to live longer than his father had done.

as grandpa’s physiology has slowly deteriorated the strain on granny has grown. she is getting older herself and consequently her ability to cope with him has declined. there are few pleasures left in her life. on christmas day, for nine precious hours, we were able to bring some light and laughter into her world. i don’t give a damn about baby jesus and swapping gifts. but for those hours it felt like i was participating in a ritual that truly meant something worthwhile.

during the afternoon i snuck down the road to ludlow to gatecrash christmas “lunch” with my godmother bear and her family. she and her husband david been a fabulous subversive influence on me and my sister anna over the years but i see them all too rarely nowadays. it was great to be with them all. i forgot my camera there so mum and dad and i dropped in on our way back home after supper.

anna and adam arrived on friday from cornwall and we talked late into the night. yesterday evening dad dug out an ancient slide projector so i showed some of my photos from america and he showed some of the ones he took during the 60s when he was a dashing young officer in the merchant navy, travelling across the world in the final years of britain’s great merchant fleet.

here in my flourescent-lit plastic carriage the robot voice announces that we are arriving in paddington and everyone must prepare to leave the train. dutifully my fellow-passengers start to gather their bags. the robot (a humourless female voice) speaks with the flat vowels of estuary english, the favoured accent of the new british establishment, rendered uglier here by its disjointed electronic rhythm and intonation. a moment later the intercom crackles and the train manager informs us in his gorgeous devon burr that we are arriving in reading, not paddington, and apologises for “problems with the passenger information system”. people freeze for a second, then start putting their bags in racks and sitting back down, happy to follow whatever instructions come their way.

at swindon the plummy male robot voice was busy announcing delays and cancellations. in extreme cases it used the phrase “i am very sorry” which i found rather troubling. what entity is the “i” to which the voice is referring?

my intention was to go to the mountains in central spain to join my friends andrew and cristina for new year. however on impulse i decided a couple of days ago to go to berlin instead to visit my friend reimar, a saxophonist whom i met at a jazz event in wales ten years ago. somehow it feels like the place i ought to be, plus i’ve been promising to visit ever since we met. i fly there tomorrow afternoon.

: c

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e c c o m i

[ 14:09 thursday 21 march – alitalia flight milano to london, 3000 feet above the alps ]

mid-air is just about the only circumstance in which i haven’t yet written one of these things. well here i am, right at the back of a rather antique mcdonnel douglas super80, an aircraft which seems to form a large part of the alitalia fleet. the engines are bolted onto the side of the fuselage abreast of my seat which makes for a rather noisesome journey. i look out of my window onto a white cylinder which bears 50% of the responsibility for keeping several hundred humans suspended in the middle atmosphere.

[ 11:35 wednesday 8 may – via giacinto gigante, napoli ]

it’s raining. which is comforting since i’m going to be in britain for the next twelve days.

all correspondences contain periods of silence. sometimes these are more important than words. almost four months have passed since i sat desolate in my house amidst the breaking waves and collected my feelings about michael. there have been many moments since when i have thought, yes, today i shall write something for wanderer. but excepting the fragment above, written in the sky on the way back from my previous visit to london, these intentions have remained unrealised.

no, this is not quite true. on the outward journey of that visit to london i sat in a caffe at milan airport and wrote a long entry. but later that day i was relieved of my computer at heathrow airport and that was that.

really the difficulty is knowing where to begin. the past six months have been amongst the most intense of my life. a mountain has accumulated of experiences and thoughts i am impatient to share, yet i must be satisfied with chipping away at a corner here and there.

some basic things. i am still living on isola di stromboli. my six months in the house where i passed the winter ended a few weeks ago and i moved about twenty metres to another house. again i have been fortunate. it is the lower storey of a building constructed at the end of the nineteenth century in the usual eolien style. two big white-painted rooms, floored with the original hand-painted tiles, thick walls of volcanic tufa, a separate kitchen, a terrace dripping with honeysuckle and bouganvillea. here the waves are a background murmur rather than the constant splash and roar of the previous house. i’ll stay here until the end of june. then i shall spend the summer with matias and sara on the mountainside above scari, out of reach of the human maelstrom which seizes the island during july and august.

work is going splendidly. through this period my attention is principally focused on the creation of a learning and communication infrastructure for the school for social entrepreneurs. the system we are developing for sse (“learning web”) is itself the prototype for a more wide-ranging collaboration technology (“trampoline”) whose structure derives from my analysis of how traditional communities share information and make collective decisions.

it has been a very long path to reach the present point with many ups and downs. i took a gamble leaving london and moving to stromboli. at the time none of my bids for funding had been approved (several had been rejected) and i had no certain income whatever. but within a few weeks of arriving a bid was approved by the uk community fund (money from the lottery) and soon afterwards the gulbenkian foundation gave us another chunk of cash. it had taken three years of preparation but finally there were sufficient resources to put some of my ideas into practice. through november and december we started to work things out in detail and prepare to start building the system.

after spending christmas with my family i returned to the island for capodanno. in the end about 20 hardy friends joined me there. every single person was delayed either arriving or departing (or both) because of sudden storms. but while we were all together on the island the weather was wonderful. every day the light was different and a magical hush hung over the island. on new year’s eve 18 of us dined in my house on two tables set end to end. after midnight other groups of friends arrived and we danced. finally a few of us survived to join the party at a bar near the quay, a distillation of numerous private parties. i danced with complete joyous abandon, not a frequent experience for someone as self-conscious and inhibited as myself. i was unbelievably happy. the parties continued on stromboli for a week after new year. but on the sunday evening there was a palpable sense that we were marking the end of the festivities.

the next day landon fuller, the lead software developer we had recruited for learning web, the person charged with turning my designs into a working system, announced his decision to quit the project. this brought me back to earth with a bump.

it was not a good moment. finding someone with the necessary skills and attitude had been very difficult. craig and i had counted ourselves lucky to discover landon in seattle. now we were back at square one. sse, our partners in the project, gave us two weeks to find a replacement. if we hadn’t succeeded at the end this time my ideas would be put aside and we would have to install a microsoft sharepoint system for the school. for me, after three years of work on the trampoline design, this was a galling prospect. but we stayed calm and set about the recruitment process all over again, picking up threads that had looked promising and throwing out new feelers in every direction.

then, one week after landon’s defection, michael died.

somehow through my grief i kept up the hunt with craig. after a few false leads we got talking to richard mcgregor, a fellow-student of craig’s who had the right skills and an interest in social-sector projects. he was interested in what we were doing but he had existing commitments. we needed someone who would be able to start immediately and devote the majority of their time to the project for the next five months. our two week grace period ended. we didn’t have a firm agreement with anyone but on the basis of our ongoing discussions with craig’s friend sse gave us a few extra days’ grace. i flew to london and a meeting was arranged for the following afternoon. we met, discussed the project, sounded each other out. we knew we couldn’t afford another false start. the mood was good. we parted. twenty-four hours later, while i was trawling tailors’ shops in central london in search of a collar to wear for michael’s funeral, a text message arrived on my phone from craig. richard was our new lead developer. passers-by looked a little startled at the spectacle of me jumping up and down on the pavement shouting unintelligible blessings at the sky.

since that moment the project has been an immense pleasure for me. on one hand it is completely abstract, almost in the realm of philosophy. we are working towards a general mode of representing humans, their associations, their activities. on the other hand it is completely practical. we are developing a system to help several hundred social entrepreneurs around the uk to overcome the difficulties they face every day in their work. the first part of the system went live last week. this phase of development will be completed at the end of june. richard is a star.

meanwhile life on the volcano continues to beguile me. when i arrived in italy last august i didn’t intend to visit stromboli at all, let alone live there. when i arranged the original house for six months i didn’t plan to stay beyond that time. but now i have close friends on the island. there is a wider community in which i feel very much at ease. the environment presents me with a different beauty every day, every hour. for the first time i find myself wondering if i might stay for a number of years.

i cannot remember a period when i have been happier. i miss michael all the time but without any sadness.

[ 16:50 sunday 19 may – gloucester to london train, passing through the cotswolds ]

it’s a week and a half since i sat in pasquale’s apartment in napoli writing these paragraphs. my intention was to send them as soon as i arrived in london. i have had abundant opportunity yet they remain unsent. always after a period of silence i feel more self-conscious about resuming the flow of words.

tomorrow i return to napoli, and thence to stromboli. this period in britain has been productive. lots of good work on learning web with richard and craig. caroline and jeremy’s splendid wedding at st bride’s fleet street. a chance to catch up with a few friends, though there is never time to see everyone i hope to. then there’s been the usual dash round town to gather essential supplies for the coming months on stromboli (photographic paper, printer cartridges, computer accessories and so on: impossible to find in the south of italy). i spent a couple of days with mum and dad in gloucestershire but there wasn’t time to visit granny in shropshire. and as ever there has been administrative tedium to sort out while i’m in the country (tax, banking, bills…).

[ 17:55 monday 20 may – go flight london to napoli, somewhere above switzerland ]

i arrived at stansted only twenty minutes before my flight was due to depart (this is not recommended). check-in was closed and all the other passengers were already in their seats on the plane. a humourless official called gordon told me there was no possibility whatever of getting on the flight and i should rebook for tomorrow. but being an inveterate chancer i hung around and after ten minutes standing there quietly with a mournful look on my face he suddenly started running around and shouting at people and next thing i knew i was being hussled through security with all my baggage and then out onto the tarmac to the plane. and now here i am speeding towards napoli.

the staff at penzance heliport nicknamed me “the luckiest man in the world” after the number of times i arrived there at the last moment with no reservation for a fully-booked flight, but somehow got myself a seat. fortune does seem to smile on me rather often. but i have a sense that this happy situation would quickly change should i ever take it for granted.

: cH

n a p o l i

[ 00:16 monday 26 november – via carrozieri alla posta, napoli ]

i write from an enormous room on the top floor of a crumbling eighteenth-century palazzo, behind the architecture school in the centre of town, tended by two grand napolitan ladies who appear to be equally ancient. there is no heating so i rely upon layers of heavy bedclothes to keep the chill night air at bay. adjoining my bedroom is a still huger salon, crammed with mismatched furniture. i am here as a result of a tip from my friend gabriele in palermo. otherwise i should probably have ended up somewhere sensible and ordinary.

it is almost exactly a decade since i last stayed in this city. the former occasion, in the middle of december 1991, was also my very first foray into italy. at that time i was studying at cambridge and managing a choir composed of my fellow choral scholars from st john’s college. financed by the banco di napoli and the british council we flew over here, gave a ticket-only charity performance in the british consulate, then a proper concert in the chiesa santa chiara in front of an audience of about 4000. after a self-indulgent programme comprising most of my favourite repertoire (josquin, gombert, poulenc, stravinsky…) we encored with mel torme’s “christmas song”. to my chagrin the crowd left us in little doubt which part of the programme they appreciated. the front two rows were composed entirely of diplomats and politicians and on this occasions at least their feelings were entirely representative of the wider population. afterwards the british ambassador took me to dinner with barone barracca who showed us his collection of antique guns. slightly overwhelming for a fresh-faced undergraduate.

despite all this i came away thinking napoli rather an ugly city, wondering why people made such a song and dance about it.

i travelled over from stromboli last wednesday determined to return with a codice fiscale, the tax registration one needs in order to open a bank account, subscribe to a phone service, view billing information online, buy a packet of crisps, &c. i first tried to obtain one in milano last summer but after a couple of weeks circulating between half a dozen offices in different parts of town, invariably closed at whatever time i chanced to arrive, i gave up. this time, despite another campaign of iterative misinformation, i persisted and am now the proud possessor of a smudged computer print-out bearing the precious chain of figures and letters.

during the struggle i have become completely intoxicated with napoli. for most of my life i have acknowledged myself a devout ruralist, viewing cities as splendidly diverting places in short bursts but essentially dehumanising and awful. now my credentials are in tatters. somehow this place has cast a spell on me. there is a precipitous excitement on the streets, a vividness and immediacy of living. it is an unruly, messy, passionate place. the narrow winding canyons of back-streets, decorated everywhere with washing, are continually interrupted by sumptuous obelisks and churches. law is something which emerges from a kind of wild consensus, all that is prescribed from above is contemptuously ignored. when an entire population takes this stance it is difficult for any authority to prevail. napoli is the triumphant example of a city sprung from humanity in all its shades, not from mechanism or rational organisation. nobody would ever plan napoli. it is a dangerous place, corrupt, decadent. dark and light elements are so tightly intertwined here that they cannot be disentangled. the city is a vast mega-celled organism; breathing, seathing, pulsing with an intelligence of the seasons of man and earth.

santa chiara is just around the corner from me, a massive mediaeval structure flattened during the war by an american bomb intended for the port and rebuilt immediately afterwards with unperturbable hauteur. i look on it with different eyes from those of 1991. walking back from an arabic cafe on piazza bellini (where i had been writing my journal and reading a powerful old history of the jackson presidencies of the 1830s) i entered piazza gesu nuovo to find it thronged with young people; cars and scooters arrayed at crazy angles around the edges, a bonfire blazing on the far side. to many this would appear a scene of urban collapse, a source of fear. such people i would urge to observe the details more closely; to see the intricate maneouvers negotiated between drivers to enable vehicles to come and go, notice how the fire is kept in place with the occasional nudge to avoid damage to surrounding buildings, witness how the crowd manages itself and how rapidly incipient scuffles are subdued. what i see is a celebration of civilisation, not its absense. what is see is a community occupying and using its city in a way i have not witnesses elsewhere. in napoli i feel tremendous optimism.

: cH

s n a p

[ 16:11 sunday 1 july – number 181 bus between bakewell and sheffield ]

the sun’s shining and the moors stretch to the horizon in all directions, punctuated by limestone crags. i’ve never visited this piece of britain before. for the last couple of days i’ve been staying in the midst of it with mark waddington, who’s running projects in gambia, sierra leone, ghana and camaroon for a charity called village aid. i met mark in the point seven bar in tamale, northern ghana, one night last november and spent a weekend with him, his girlfriend anatu and her son mickey in the mole game reserve.

village aid’s annual meeting took place yesterday in a community hall in bakewell. it was a lively and open-spirited affair, not at all bureaucratic. i have never come across a development organisation so rooted in a single community as is village aid in this small market town. the trustees and members are bound together by a myriad neighbourhood links. from this springs a real sense of shared endeavour.

anatu was there, as was saeed, who runs village aid’s tamale office and whose wedding i attended. it was surreal to be with them again in such different surroundings.

there has been another small miracle. my canon digital camera was stolen from the mandela development centre in tamale back in november. i did not expect to see it again but as i write it is in a bag beside me. someone tried to sell it to a friend of saeed’s a couple of months ago. it still had some of the photos i took at his wedding, which were recognised and word got back to him. after some delicate to-ing and fro-ing he was able to recover it and this afternoon it came back into my hands.

long-term readers may recall that this is not the first time the camera and i have parted company and been improbably reunited. within a couple of hours of acquiring it in 1999 i left it on the underground in london. it was picked up by a group of surfers from perth, australia, who took it on holiday with them to cornwall and handed it in to the lost property office a month later with 25 photos depicting their various exploits and a note wishing me well.

it’s not a particularly good camera and i haven’t exactly looked after it well. but somehow we seem destined to remain together.

: cH

n o – g o

[ 20:58 sunday 25 march – gate 4 , glasgow airport , glasgow ]

yes i know . weeks go by with nairy a peep from the wanderer and suddenly here is a slew of despatches .

perhaps it’s documenter’s block . it took a while to re-acclimatise to london and by that time there was such a backlog of things to write about that i didn’t know where to start . so i put it off , and with each passing day the bulk of material grew yet harder to chip into .

it took a completely unforeseen event (becoming imprisoned in glasgow) to break the deadlock . a kind of descriptive enema .

my flight has been called for boarding .

[ 22:56 – stansted express , platform 1c , london stansted airport ]

uneventful flight . i dozed .

i’ve walked about twenty miles today , up in the hills . it was fabulous . after breakfast in the hostel’s dining room , all carved mahogany and baroque plasterwork , i went straight out and found a footpath heading upwards . this is what i’d come for . but it wasn’t long before i hit a gate with notices urging walkers not to proceed any further for fear of spreading foot and mouth .

i stood there for a while , weighing my conscience , before opening the gate and proceeding (it was only a request , after all) . soon i was in open moorland , patched with bracken . the vista over loch lomond and the islands broadened around me . a little snow began to fall . a few sheep were dotted about munching but i didn’t pass near any of them .

over the crest of the hill the path entered pine forest , through which i continued until the trees ended and i found myself looking out over a wide expanse of the firth of clyde . my way was blocked by another gate festooned with warning notices .

again i pondered . i could either turn round and head back the way i’d come . or … looking at my map i could continue down to the firth , walk along to the little town of helensburgh , then follow a road cutting back through the hills to arden on the shore of loch lomond , not far from the hostel .

i hate covering ground over which i’ve already passed . so over the gate i climbed .

a while later the path rejoined a road . i heard a car approaching from behind . it slowed , drew up beside me , the window whirred down . a round-faced lady addressed me from within : “have ye come from bannoch ?” yes i have “did ye not read the notices ?” yes but i though if i kept to the path and avoided contact with any animals it would be alright . she was very angry and she sounded like she was under a lot of pressure . i apologised and promised i would not ignore any more notices . she drove on .

i felt very ashamed of myself . it seemed to be that my behaviour reeked of a kind of urban selfishness i despise . there isn’t a single known case of foot and mouth being spread by walkers who have had no contact with livestock . but that’s not the point .

it was a long walk and my feet were sore by the time i got back to the hostel . i just had time for a bowl of soup before leaving for bannoch to catch the glasgow train .

soon i shall be back in london . the flat in shoreditch has come on a long way since i moved in . over successive weekends inaki and i disposed of all the carpets , sanded down the floorboards , gave them a couple of coats of varnish , painted the sitting room white and painted the woodwork in the hallway a muddy green (on which our friends are divided) . i hired a van and collected some bits of furniture from mum and dad in gloucestershire . it’s growing into an excellent space to live and work .

my work meanwhile is gaining momentum . but i shall write about that another time .

it’s good to be back a-wandering !

: cH

e s c a p e

[ 21:10 saturday 24 march – loch lomond , argyle , scotland ]

as the location tag suggests i have escaped from north glasgow college !

after about three quarters of an hour there was a scraping and a rattling , then the shutter flew upward . a pall of flat glasgow light slopped across the floor and an irritated man bustled across the hall muttering to start jabbing at buttons on the alarm control panel .

i simultaneously swept my things together and stood up , which didn’t work very well . the alarm siren ceased and the man turned to look me up and down . “hoo on ayerth aer ye ?” he asked , incredulous in 100%-proof glaswegian . i started mumbled my explanation . but as soon as i got to the word “london” a glow of understanding suffused his features and it was clear i need say no more . there is no act of stupidity or folly so great that a glaswegian could not imagine a londoner accomplishing it . i was released .

my flight back to london was booked for that evening , but having come all this way it seemed daft to go straight back . so i put my booking back to sunday evening and got the train up to balloch , at the southern tip of loch lomond . from there i walked a few miles up the west side of the loch to a youth hostel occupying a stupendously gothic victorian mansion .

i sit here now in a huge study with a fire crackling in the grate and the wind rustling outside .

i like glasgow a lot . less polite than edinburgh , in which i spent many long weeks nursing a succession of plays during the early years of the electric company . but it is a greater joy to get away from urban civilisation altogether . this place is sublimely peaceful . across the leaden water of the lake are mountains swathed in snow and cloud . it’s gorgeous .

: cH

i n c a r c e r a t i o n

[ 17:48 friday 23 march – ringford building , north glasgow college , glasgow ]

ummm … i’ve got myself in a bit of a scrape .

i flew up to glasgow on tuesday night to spend a few days filming the six remarkable people involved in the sse’s pilot local programme . this was a mixture of interviews and going out and about .

the final piece was recorded at three this afternoon in the sse headquarters here at north glasgow college . i stayed on and continued with various other bits of work . about twenty minutes ago i was ready to head back into town so i packed up my stuff , locked the room and came downstairs .

somewhat inconveniently , however , there seems to be a steel roller-shutter where the street door was . and all other exits are similarly secured . it seems the building has been closed up for the weekend , with a degree of security becoming to the neighbourhood’s reputation .

now the burglar alarm has started wailing . oh dear .

so here i am , sitting on the floor in the hall with my powerbook on my lap and no means of escape . there’s a coke vending machine the other side of the room so i won’t be short of fluids and sugar if i’m stuck here a day or two .

i’ve called sandra duncan , glasgow co-ordinator for the sse , and explained my predicament . she was kind enough not to laugh whilst i was on the phone . i tried calling the main college office but everyone’s gone home . so sandra’s got onto the police and they’re trying to get hold of someone with a key .

this is all very embarrassing …

: cH