Breaking the Mould

[25 Nov 03] Spent the weekend visiting our friends in Nottingham. We'd all had a stressful week, so we whiled away Friday night drinking red wine and listening to Lieutenant Pigeon's 'Mouldy Old Dough', a song I'd never heard before but became so obsessed by that I tracked it down when I got home. The lyrics give you an idea of the wit and sophistication of this 1972 UK chart-topper (you have to imagine them drawled out by a grizzled Londoner over a honky tonk piano and penny whistle backing):

Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough
Mouldy Old Dough

I reckoned if someone did a techno cover of it they'd have a sure-fire hit. Turns out that some people already have. Sort of.

On Saturday afternoon we went driving in the Peak District, stopping at Matlock for lunch. (Obviously the town the mouldy old Australian cop show was named after. The Nottingham area is rife with action-hero town names: Eastwood; Arnold; Ripley; Attenborough. There's even a Gotham.) After walking into—and straight out of—a restaurant which smelled more -room than -aurant, we found one with a rave review from the Guardian outside the door, and ate relievedly well.

By the time we emerged it was mid-afternoon and freezing, but at least the fog had lifted. We drove up through Bakewell, home of the Tart; and then, with the light going, down the A515 through the heart of the Peak National Park. As the sun set I took photo after photo, before it finally disappeared behind the hills and we disappeared into a pub.

The Peak District, 4.10 p.m., Saturday 22.11.2003

Our final destination was Derby, where by uncanny coincidence another friend was making his professional theatre debut (as opposed to all that other larking about on stage he's been getting paid for for years). It was only when James posted about the play on his blog that I realised we'd be in Nottingham—only a few miles away—while it was on, so I couldn't very well not go. Before that, though, we had to find a place to eat, since we were too late to join him for an early dinner before he disappeared backstage.

Derbians, we soon learned, don't eat. There's no other explanation for the complete absence of restaurants in the inner city. We looped around and around the central streets, running out of time before the show, wondering if we'd end up eating at Sainsbury's. The place was deserted at six o'clock on a Saturday, apart from four bakewells strutting to a bar in high heels and underwear. We ended up with some suspicious chips from a kebab shop and a few snacks from a café that short-changed us ten quid. (To be fair, they worked hard for it, enlisting two members of staff and the manager to convince us that the customer is always wrong.)

But all that was put aside when we saw Joe Orton's Loot expertly staged and performed by James and his colleagues. The sight of Lucy Montgomery as Nurse Fay wrestling the clothes off a dead old woman was one of the funniest I've seen all year. It was hard to argue with those renowned theatrical organs the Uttoxeter Echo and the Derby Evening Telegraph, both of which loved it; there was nothing mouldy about this old dough.


Dead Again

[25 Nov 03] I can't seem to function without deadlines—the deadlier the better. But last week I thought I really was dead. I had a paper to present on Thursday afternoon, and after a week of Barton Fink-like agony it was still only half-written by Tuesday. I was having Freudian dreams of skidooing up the side of a mountain and then down into a field of mud. I spent ages staring at the latest Bob and wondering where I could get one of those buttons.

Somehow I managed to dump an hour's worth of words onto the screen, and recite them into the air. Now I have to rewrite them into something that will sit respectably on the page.

As if that wasn't enough, there was a grant application to write by Friday afternoon, and the night after my talk was over all I could do was stare blankly at the wall. Yet at 2 p.m. on Friday there was a completed form with supporting documents sitting on the screen, which read exactly as if it had been written by me. I'm still not sure where that came from, but submitted it without asking too many questions.

I keep feeling I should reassess my whole approach to procrastination, but I'm pretty sure it can wait a while.


[21 Oct 03] Heading north on the B709 in the Scottish Borders, Sunday afternoon.

The Innerleithen-Edinburgh Road in autumn

We followed that rainbow for miles. Not long after this photo it turned into a double bow, and eventually formed a full arc across the hill in front of us. As we got closer to Edinburgh we saw even more, some of them with ends as clear as if they'd been signposted; the rainbows passed behind the trees ahead of us and in front of others in the middle distance, turning them red and green.

Here's another.


You Are Here

[21 Sep 03]

Huonville, Tasmania


[12 Sep 03] That's it, I'm outta here. Setting the alarm for 4.30 for a flight at 6.30 BST tomorrow, and arriving in Melbourne 19.10 AEST on Sunday. That's... oh no... 27 hours and 40 minutes, plus a couple either end. Arrggh.

I won't have much web access for the first week or so, but I'll try not to repeat my April-May silence while I'm away this time. You can dream up a lot of animal poems in 27 hours.



[ 7 Sep 03] It's quiet. Jane is away; she's gone back to Australia to visit a good friend who's not so well. So for the past few days I've been knocking around the flat on my own. Waking up this morning I could hear... nothing. No breathing beside me, no noise from the street. It was a good sixty seconds before the silence was broken by the soft whoosh of a car; then more of them, inhaling and exhaling like waves in an irregular sea. I floated in that waking space, waiting for the next one.

I'm going out to Australia too next weekend. We're meeting up in Melbourne and then flying down to Tasmania for a couple of weeks, to help Mum and Dad move out of the house they've lived in for thirty years. The house I grew up in.

I've been wondering how to write about it since I heard the news in July, and have ended up writing about everything else instead. It's hard to get the tone right in my head. I don't want to sound maudlin, because I don't feel it; it'll be a relief for them not to have to look after the old place, and their new one looks just right. They've been contemplating this move since I was still living there well over a decade ago, so I've been ready for it most of my adult life.

Yet I don't want to treat it as if it's nothing, because it's far from that. I'm travelling halfway around the world, six months before we'd planned, to say goodbye to this place; to see its rooms empty, and close its many doors.

I lived in that house from Gough Whitlam's election until the end of the first Gulf War; we moved there a month before I turned five, and I left a month after turning 23. Every room and space of it has a story; every tree and lawn of it. Rooms and lawns and trees and streets that are so imprinted on me they feel like an extension of me; I can walk around every one in my mind.

I remember playing in the front porch with my brother, running Matchbox cars along the red tiles outside my bedroom door, as the distant drone of the bench-saw drifted over us from the workshop. Suddenly, Dad was jogging up to us; then standing over us, holding a handkerchief over his hand, saying, "One of you go and get Mum."

I remember sitting in the dining room, the sun filtering between the curtains, bloated blowflies bumping along the window-sill. Mona sat upright in the chair next to me, her eyes shut, as I stroked the back of my finger down the furry white arc of her neck. Again; and again. For half an hour. She may have drooled.

I remember climbing onto the roof of the chook-shed to reach the branches of the peach tree, heavy with fruit during its last bumper crop; and sitting there, peeling off their soft red skins and biting into their warm white flesh, one after another, until my hands were dripping with juice.

I remember a summer evening when the grass in the front paddock was as high as my head. Running along the edge of it, on the lawn by the walnut tree, with my brother and cousins; then plunging in, a shrieking band of jungle adventurers. The daring, the daring, to go where Joe Blake was hiding; if he bit you, you could die. But the only bite was the fat green blades slicing into our arms, and we knew we never would.


[ 3 Sep 03]


It was a breezy, bright morning, blowing the haze away, sharpening the lines of the buildings and darkening their shadows, making the tenements of the Old Town look like a Canaletto. In the hour after the office workers' rush, the Royal Mile felt near-empty. An old man in overalls dragged the chain off the bollards beside Parliament Square and St Giles. A number 35 rattled past along the cobblestones. A lost roll of film lay in the gutter beneath some scaffolding. Gulls played among the rooftops, their plaintive cries echoing down the Canongate. The smell of chip fat wafted out of a pub. Two early-rising tourists strolled uphill, looking up.


On Gorgie Road, we sat in the green bus and cycle lane, waiting to turn right. The lights turned amber, then red, as a last car or two ran through. We rode across to the right, into the empty side street. An old man was halfway over the pedestrian crossing. "You'll get murdered," he shouted, at either or both of us; "Stupid."


There was a box of books outside the musty antiques store at Viewforth, the one I'd only ever walked past late at night. One was an illustrated copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Frederick Pollock, Esq., published by Chapman and Hall in 1854, and signed and dated on the inside cover by its new owner, one Charlotte Clark, that same year. It seemed wrong not to rescue a 150-year-old object at the cost of only 50p, so I bought it.


[29 Aug 03] It looks like our kitchen will be finished today, after nine days of camping in the living room; the relief is washing over us like the grey clouds washing over Edinburgh. And I've got to say how impressed I am by the professionalism of the guys who've worked on it. Years of consumer watchdog shows about dodgy builders had lulled me into a false sense of insecurity; these people really know their stuff. Get in, do the job, clean up, get out; having messed about with tools and paint plenty of times myself, I can't help being impressed with how quickly they work.

It helps when you're not paying for it, too.


St George and the Kitchen

[21 Aug 03] Almost two months after Jane investigated the strange damp patch in the carpet next to the kitchen door, and lifted up the kitchen lino to find the Leak from Hellllll, the day of reckoning has arrived. Last night we emptied the shelves and packed the contents into the corner of the living room, and this morning four blokes in vans turned up, courtesy of our insurance company. Their mission: to wreak vengeance on a bunch of cheap chipboard cupboards that couldn't handle one measly dripping washing machine.

I hadn't been looking forward to the disruption, but must say I've been pretty impressed with progress so far:

08.52: Blokes arrive, size up the kitchen, and get straight down to work.

10.10: Jane calls me at work to note first complaints from the old dragon upstairs who has a record of whingeing about the slightest sneeze. Apparently the Blokes have been opening and closing the back door of the stairwell in a brusque, workman-like manner, spoiling the quiet retirement-home ambience of this large block of flats located close to the centre of a capital city with a bus route passing by its front door.

11.25: The Blokes are by now muttering under their breath about the dragon, who insisted that they move their vans, which were taking up at least three of the dozen or more vacant spaces out the back (one of which is ours anyway, 'cos we don't have a car). It's not like anyone is inconvenienced—there aren't even any designated spaces, although that doesn't stop her from claiming the one next to the back door as hers by right of conquest. After she drove away in her Toyota High Dudgeon, one of the Blokes moved his van straight into her spot.

15.10: All quiet on the dragon front. Probably out terrorizing a village somewhere. The Blokes have removed all the cupboards and benchtops, and have already installed the new cupboards; the joiner has already left for the day. Most of the plumbing and electrical work is done, and all that's left is the retiling and the new lino. We might even be able to use it again by the weekend.

If I'd known it was that simple, I'd have got the insurance company to buy us a new kitchen every month. Made out of concrete. And delivered in a more appropriate vehicle.


Life in One Day

[13 Jul 03] Yesterday we caught the bus to Tollcross and changed onto the 11 out to Leith; our kitchen needs repairing since a leaking washing machine seeped water under the lino and cupboards, and the joiners the insurance company uses are based out there.

After an action-packed hour contemplating the merits of vinyl-covered particle board in a range of fake naturalistic finishes, we cut down to Great Junction Street and made our way along to Leith Walk. Jane suggested catching a bus back from the bottom, but I wanted to walk up it for a bit to visit a charity shop or two.

Once I'd scooped up a couple of paperbacks and Beth Orton's first two albums for a fiver, I suggested heading for our favourite café round these parts, which was only a block or two up. So we kept walking, past the Asian supermarket with its pungent supply of durians; past the Snail Mail card shop; past the video game store with the sign like a 1950s newsagent's, all thin serif capitals with a shadowed edge, hand-painted in yellow on dark blue. You almost expected a card in the window advertising GameBoy cartridges for sixpence.

The café was further up than I'd remembered. As we walked from one corner to the next I recalled an old engraving from a local gallery, with its bird's eye view of Edinburgh in the 18th century: the old town clustered up the slope beneath the castle; the new town filling out the grid on the other side of the Nor' Loch; fields from there to the firth; and the port of Leith in the distance with a straight country lane leading out to it. Two centuries ago we would have been walking to Edinburgh, not right up the middle of it.

We reached the café at last, and took a table out on the pavement, a much more attractive option this summer than last. As we were waiting for our macchiatos and ciabattas, an old bloke at the next table made some comment about how you wouldn't have seen outdoor tables in Leith once upon a time; no, we agreed, as you do with any statement of the obvious—even today a cost-benefit analysis would come out against outdoor seating and in favour of placing every table next to an Aga.

"Where are you from?" he asked, and we told him; "Visiting?" No, we live here. He had trouble hearing us, what with the traffic noise and a touch of deafness, but it turned out it hardly mattered.

"I used to play draughts with the widows who lived in that building over there," he said. "When I was a kid. Got good enough to make some money out of it, playing around town."

We listened politely. He took it as encouragement.

"Just got a good deal on a camera lens at one of these places down the road. Ten quid—cost you a hundred and fifty new. A Zeiss. I used to be a professional photographer. Used to take photographs of celebrities. Burt Lancaster. Bing Crosby. I'd play golf with them up at Gleneagles. Alan Shepherd, the astronaut; got some good ones of him. He wanted to give me a set of his clubs, but I couldn't use them—they were right-handed, I'm left-handed."

And so he was away, telling us about his past. At first I thought it would all be showbiz gossip half a century old, a harmless claim to celebrity by proxy, but he was a better story-teller than that. His tales drifted back and forth through the decades, one by one covering the span of his life.

He'd been in the army and the navy; in 1947 he was stationed in Berlin, where a few cartons of cigarettes could buy you a Volkswagen, and where he saw a pal shove the cig he was smoking into his pocket when a C.O. came into the room, and set his leg on fire. Another friend convinced him to dive into a river because it would make a good picture—he got caught under the current and almost drowned.

He'd worked as Edinburgh's worst electrician, setting fire to office furniture all over town; and in a steel foundry covered in powdered rust that went up to his calves, alongside ex-cons "as thick as this stone" (tapping the wall). His hands grew strong from lumping around sacks of pig iron, and he needed them to fight off his co-workers more than once.

As a lad, he'd been at art college; later in life, he was holding cameras with foot-long lenses out of the bottom of planes, trying not to let go. Another time, he was some kind of technician at Heriot-Watt College, working for a science professor who didn't know a 3/8" spanner when he saw one. He was told once to get rid of a store-room of old chemicals by pouring them into an empty oil drum, where they bubbled and fizzed into toxic sherbert, and then tipping the results onto a nearby field. No wonder the Pentlands are bare.

So it went on, one tale after another, story after story of comic characters and moments—"You have to have a laugh," he said. At the end of a relentless hour I was starting to feel trapped; there was no room in his monologue for us to make our goodbyes, and if there was he couldn't hear us; but then he'd tell another great story, like the one about the prof wanting to test a machine that had just been stripped and re-greased, turning it on, and getting thick grease sprayed up his labcoat by its 8000 rpm motor—and standing there, getting more and more sprayed, until the grease ran out.

Whenever my attention wandered I would notice his plate slipping, dropping half his front teeth past the other half every time he laughed, like a game of dental Tetris; or his eyes and mouth wrinkling tight as he held his laughter in.

A second hour passed with stories from his childhood—the time he fished a black week-old egg out of the bins of pig scraps that dotted the streets during the war, and hurled it at his schoolyard enemies; or when he saw the first German bomber to fly over Britain in World War Two from the foot of Leith Walk, where we'd just been. Two Spitfires chased it, and some poor sod who was tiling his roof was killed by machine-gun fire—most likely from the Spitfires, not the bomber.

Two hours must have reached even his limits, because he finished at last, with the now familiar instruction, "Whatever you do, have a laugh. You've got to have a giggle."

We talked about him the rest of the way up to St Andrew's Square. It's not every day in Edinburgh you get cornered by a local and told his life story; more likely you'd have to corner him. Actually, more likely it wouldn't happen at all.

So where did this exceptional exception come from? Is this what it's like to be 73—so brimming over with stories that they slosh onto whoever's sitting nearby? It wasn't out of loneliness; he had a daughter living down the street, and waved to more than one white-haired passerby in the time we were sitting there. (One of them didn't notice, even when he called out to her. "Deaf as a post," he complained.)

"I could write a book about all this," he'd said at one point. He certainly had the stories for it; but maybe he would, maybe he wouldn't. If you don't write a book, then when do you get the chance to tell your life story once you're at the end of it? Your family knows it, or enough of it; your friends all know it. You might never get the chance to set it all down, all at once; to puzzle over its pieces and turn around the edges to see where they fit. Unless you sit down next to a couple of complete strangers, and start talking.

Still. I can empathize with that.


Robert Pirsig, Come On Down

[ 9 Apr 03] The fog has lifted, as you can see. Am I back? Maybe. Almost. Today, anyway. Next Thursday, I really will fall silent for a few weeks while Mum and Dad are in town. Then there's a trip down to London a week later to see them off; and Jane's bro is coming to visit in late May. So, it'll be patchy. This is a holding pattern.

Whenever I take a break from this thing to let the mental cistern refill, I end up looking over old archives. Hence the academic paper brought to the surface last week, and this post at MetaTalk about archiving comments there. As part of the process, I had a frenzy of exporting old blog entries from Blogger into MT import format in case I ever need them; and after that, curiosity prompted me to do a proper word count of it all—text only, sans titles and tags. (The leet BBEdit grepping skills came in handy.) I left out the extra pages that didn't form blog entries, but it gave a pretty good estimate of how much I've written at this joint in the past few years.

Walking West, or everything from 2000 and 2001, came to 125,000 words. The entries from last year and the first three months of this year came to 100,000 words; so much for 'winding back'. With the other odds and ends here and there, I've probably written over a quarter of a million new words for this site over three years.

That's two or three books' worth. It even feels like two books, looking back on it: Walking West was one, and 2002 to March 2003 another, with some fuzzy transition periods at either end. (Welcome to the fuzzy transition period.)

Now there's something to get you thinking, especially when you have another book lying around half-written in drafts and in your head. It gets you thinking: If I didn't do this, I could have finished that. But it also gets you thinking: Wow, look what I made. Because it hasn't all been asides and ephemera. It wasn't even mostly that, really.

Of course, the ballooning writerly ego is soon punctured when you consider the string of no-comments that most entries get, here or at most blogs. It's hard to put hours into any creative task and get little or no response; but hey, welcome to the creative life. This modern age has conditioned us all to crave rock-star fame and instant-feedback praise, but it's the opposite of what artists and writers have been able to expect throughout history.

(Fame shouldn't be the goal of the writer; the goal should be quality. Fame or renown of any degree is only useful as an indication of the quality of your work, and it stops being useful the moment you no longer believe that it reflects the quality of what you're doing now. So forget fame, and focus on the work. A few friends can tell you if it's worth doing as readily as a thousand strangers, and when they're not around, you can tell yourself.)

I don't know what the next Book of the Snail will look like, or even when it will properly start to take shape; the offline book is going too slowly, dammit, and Something Must be Done, which bodes more holding patterns here. But if and when I get the chance to post something, I'll try to make it good.


Snail's Pace

[ 7 Mar 03] I've been busy, as regular readers might have guessed; busy reading and editing tens of thousands of collectively-written words on staff and student IT skills in European universities. At the end of a hard day's Highlighting Changes in MS Word when everything's a sea of red, there's not much energy left to write amusing anecdotes. Then there's the time spent organising a trip up to Orkney at the end of April, getting out a bit on the weekends, going to the movies in the evenings, and generally not staring at the screen.

It's more than that, though; the busy-ness has coincided with my semi-annual bout of wondering what to do with this site. Last weekend I was running through the books and CDs and movies I wanted to review here and came up with a list as long as my arm, assuming that my arm is a couple of dozen books, CDs and movies long. Which gave me pause; that much writing feels too much like... well, work. What is this, the New Rory Review of Books? Rory Stone? Where's the funding coming from? How long will all of this take? And, more to the point, why do I keep writing about other people's creations instead of creating my own?

The same could be said for the usual link-and-commentary and insta-punditry of blogging. It has its moments, but it all feels so... ephemeral. Stop-gap. And I don't have too many gaps to stop these days.

I'm not saying there'll be none of that here from now on; just less of it. I suspect the front page of Speedysnail is, for a while at least, going to look more like it did three years ago: an old-fashioned 'what's new' page with updates every now and then.

But while I may not have been blogging much lately, I have created something new for the site: the latest instalment of Detail, Castles of Scotland. If a picture says a thousand words, then the 70 pictures in these collages are a whole freakin' novel's worth. Hope you like them.

Oh, and then there's this latest throwaway: found near a rugby field.


TV or Not TV

[ 7 Mar 03] Television. The drug of a nation; breeding ignorance, and feeding radiation. Or so I think at times. At other times, I wanna grab that tube of electronic goodness and pour its cathode rays down my starving retinas. Which can be difficult when you don't actually own one.

No, we still don't own a TV. A couple of months ago Jane and I spent a cold wintry evening discussing whether it was time to return to its warm glow (see? When you don't have a TV you have so much more time for conversation... even if they do end up being about not having a TV), but our initial feeling that yes, it was, eventually gave way to a determination to hold out a little longer.

We had increased our yearning for the box by buying DVDs of some choice series over the months—Spaced, The Office, Brass Eye—and watching them on Jane's laptop. At Christmas we went overboard, stocking up for the lean months of January and February with hours and hours of The Young Ones, Futurama, Blackadder and, best of all, Simon Schama's A History of Britain. Not a sign, you would think, of people who reject all things televisual; and you'd be right. So why not just buy one and be done with it?

My brother asked that very question when we last saw him, pointing out that we could pick up a TV pretty cheaply second-hand. It's not the cost, I said; we could afford it. Although on reflection it is partly the cost: £100 for a cheap TV or £200 for a halfway decent one; over £100 a year for the licence; £100 for a VCR; £100 or more for a DVD player; and £100 for a digital set-top box. That's over five hundred quid just to get set up. Sure, we spent more than that on our stereo, but when you're spending that much you have to ask what you're getting for it. And when you look at British television schedules, you soon realise that gems like The Office and A History of Britain don't come along too often.

It was the extras disk of Schama's masterly series that clarified it for me. The DVD box included a recording of his Inaugural BBC History Magazine Lecture, 'Television and the Trouble with History'. He spent some of it outlining the clever choices he and his producers made when turning centuries of written history into 15 hours of sounds and images, but at the outset was more concerned with defending television as an educational medium. There can be such a thing as good TV, he argued, and he hoped that his series was proof of that.

Well of course. A History of Britain was, apart from one or two weaker episodes, so extraordinarily good that we limited ourselves to only one or two episodes a week to make it last. But the very fact that we saw it on DVD was a key point: we didn't need a TV to watch it.

There's television the medium, and television the environment. As a medium, TV is as capable of being good or bad as any other; the best television can easily match the best movies, books or albums. And 'best' doesn't only mean high-brow; TV trash can be just as fun to watch as a cheesy B-movie.

But as an environment, TV mixes up its best and worst into an endless visual stew, forcing you to swim through advertising and promos and news 'updates' and schedule-filler in search of an island of meat in the gravy. The hypnotic attraction of vegeing out in front of the box results in countless hours of watching pointless slop, much of it without even kitsch entertainment value. The only way to avoid that is not to have a box in the first place; not to visit TV land at all.

Or at least, it was once. But now there are television-like devices called personal computers, and video-storing objects that work in them, and the choice isn't quite as stark as TV or not TV. It's actually possible to enjoy the best of the medium without daily immersion in the environment. And that's what we've ended up doing.

There are downsides, naturally. It's harder to find out what's worth watching, and it can feel excessive to shell out several pounds per viewing hour. But when you spend that sort of money on every screen minute, you choose carefully and watch less, and the results are generally more satisfying. Missing out on TV news is a problem, as following the news online and in newspapers can be heavy going; but then I'm quite happy not to have had all sense of proportion destroyed by hourly updates showing the same George Bush sound-bites about how threatened and anxious we should all be feeling.

The strangest side-effect of not having a honking great cathode ray tube taking up a corner of the living room, though, is how people react when you say you don't have one. It's as if our personal decisions about how to spend our own time and money are a criticism of their choices—although not having a TV is so unusual in this day and age that people forget that having one is a choice. Once you live in the land of TV, you're never allowed to leave.

But emigrants never completely leave their homeland, and neither have we. We may not own a TV, but we still watch TV (avidly, when we're away somewhere and there's one in our hotel room); we just didn't watch that particular show on that particular channel last night. And we're going out tomorrow night and won't be watching it then, either; sorry.

So that's what I'll tell people from now on when they ask "TV or not TV?": both.

(And now that I've said all of that I'll probably end up buying one on the weekend, just to be perverse.)


¡Español es Divertida!

[17 Feb 03] Hola. Me llamo Rory. En el año dos mil y tres, me aprendo español. Aprendo, pero no comprendo. Está muy difícil, y soy un poco estúpido. ¡Muchas preguntas y muchos deberes! «¿Cuántos años tienes?» «Tengo treinta y cinco anos.» «¡No! ¡Anos es muy mal! Años. Aññññños.» Estoy pensando «¿Qué quiere decir anos? Anos... anos... ¡caramba! Tengo treinta y cinco arseholes.» ¿Es doloroso, no? (La verdad es que «ñ» es fácil, pero c, h, j, g, y rr son difícil. Hijo, ahí, rehacer, herrero—¡arrg!*)

*Se pronuncia «aaaadddrrrgggghhhhh»


Snow Business

[ 4 Feb 03]

The Mound, Edinburgh, 3 February 2003

Edinburgh had more snow lying around yesterday than at any other time in the 18 months we've been here. Elsewhere in Britain it's been causing motorway gridlock and airport chaos, but here it made for some great wintry photographs.



[22 Jan 03] One a.m. Can't sleep. Reading The Mercury before going to bed was a mistake. Arsonists—stupid fucking kids and teenagers—are starting fires in southern Tasmania, which like the rest of Australia is tinder dry. Now as well as the continuing threat to family and friends in Canberra, I'm having nightmares about Mum and Dad's house burning down, with all of the trees in the front paddock turning into giant candles. A bloke from my grade at school has already lost his house in the Channel.

I feel... stretched. Like I've lived in too many different places, and seen too much of south-eastern Australia, and all of it's burning or covered in smoke and ash, never to be the same again. It would be worse to live through it, that's for sure, but in a way this is living through it, with streams of news from the web and email interacting with layers of memory and imagination. I've seen a red sun through thick smoke in forty degree heat before, and all of these towns and districts mentioned in the news reports, and my bastard brain is building a simulation of everything in panoramic sensurround. And I'm stuck here on the other side of the world, unable to temper it with actual evidence from my own eyes and ears, unable to combat anxiety with practical action, unable to do anything but remember, and wait, and hope.

My parents moved to Tasmania two days before the 1967 bushfires, some of the worst of the last century. I was born a year later, and grew up in the shadow of the relict chimneys and bleached skeletons of gum-trees that stood throughout the south. By the time I was a teenager the bush had recovered enough to pose a threat again; there was a particularly scary few days in early 1983. There have been other menacing fires in the decades since, even some that came close to Hobart and the Huon, but never a season as menacing as this.

And now a bunch of dickheads are trying to burn down Bridgewater, and with it the rest of the south—why? Because they've been saturated with war-talk, and are itching for some action? God knows. To think that some idiotic 14-year-old could burn down whole lifetimes of work and memory, in the place where my friends and my brother and I grew up, the place I still think of as home... is not what I want to be thinking at 1.43 a.m. on the other side of the world.


Under a Blood Red Sky

[18 Jan 03] My mind is full of maps. Maps of towns, cities, suburbs where I once lived. In my mind, I can walk around Hobart, catch a train into central Melbourne, ride the bus through Edinburgh, and drive all around Canberra.

Jane and I used to be op-shop junkies, scouring Canberra's Vinnies and Salvos for household items, furniture and amusing trinkets. At one point we visited every single one in the phone book. It was a great way to get to know the local geography: the suburbs of Belconnen; the arterial roads of Tuggeranong. Eight years in that city built up a pretty good mental map.

Now that map is burning.

Rowf has pictures of a sky turning yellow, orange, and every shade of red. Monkey describes watching the burning leaves blowing into her yard, and running to put them out. For anyone living there, anyone with friends and family there, anyone with a map of Canberra in their head, these are anxious times. Good luck, everyone; good luck.

(This site sits on a server in an outer suburb in Canberra's north. If it suddenly goes dead, you'll know why.)



[ 9 Jan 03] The fine dusting of snow that's been lying around Edinburgh all week melted away to slush yesterday, but the annoying cold that's been lying around my lungs over the same period is still there, dogging me with its barking cough. Not how you want to feel when turning a year older.

Reflection and resolution at this time of year is mandatory, it seems, especially if your birthday occurs at the same time, and these northern winters make it worse. When the day shrinks to a few hours of gloom, everything turns you inwards, prompting endless internal debates about what's been achieved, what hasn't, and what to aim for in the coming year.

Worse, the calendar's insistence that 2003 minus 1968 is more than the perpetual 32 I've been in my head since Y2K means that another five-year plan has fallen due. It was so easy last time, turning thirty somewhere over the Atlantic, flying from Canada into Stockholm, all that travel behind me and more ahead. See the world, that was the plan. Now what?

Fortunately, life doesn't actually work to the timetable of Soviet bureaucracy, or we'd all spend our days overproducing tractors. Nowadays I focus on months rather than years; and my new year's resolutions are only the most obvious and quickly achievable (or abandoned) goals.

So, between now and when my parents visit at the end of April, I will:

  • Stick to the writing plan mapped out for work (two reports complete by the end of January, three chapter-length instalments complete by end of April);
  • Do enough extra work on the Mad manuscript to decide whether to finish it or shelve it. (There may as a result be less activity here. Or there may not; I've given up trying to predict where this site is headed.)
  • Switch from IE to Mozilla as my everyday browser (done, but it feels strange);
  • Ration and roster my blog-reading (hence the reduced link list on the side-bar; sorry to those I've overlooked, but rest assured that my resolve will probably crack and it'll end up trailing off to infinity);
  • Do something completely different with this site;
  • Bread, milk, onions, detergent;
  • Negotiate lasting world peace (may have to postpone until second half of year).


3:26 PM Eternal

[ 5 Jan 03] No sooner do I leave behind the whole sunset/sunrise theme for the site than this happens right outside the window:

3.26 pm, 5 January 2003


The Whole Hog

[ 1 Jan 03] Hogmanay in Edinburgh is so popular that you have to apply months ahead for tickets to get into Princes Street. Last year we had to stand near the barricades up at one end, but this year we got it together enough to score some of the precious wristbands. From the composition of the crowd, it seemed like relatively few other locals did; we were caught in a crush of Aussies, Kiwis, Canadians and South Africans, with a large English contingent making up the difference. Kilts were scarce.

I was sorry to miss out last year, when local lads the Proclaimers were playing in the Gardens—especially once we learned that this year's main draw was Culture Club. Don't get me wrong, Boy George deserves respect for hangin' in there, even if his name will forever mean '1983'. But now was not the time to be seeing in the new year to the unsubtle strains of 'War, war is stupid'.

As it turned out, we didn't have a choice: the main stage was ticketed at thirty quid a head, and the video screens were blinking dots in the distance in either direction. The whole experience was starting to seem no better than standing on the barricades. But we found another stage with a band setting up, which looked promising, and stood there in wait.

Easier said than done. The crowd was streaming past in both directions on either side, washing around us like rough surf past an island; pushing, squeezing, groping and 'happy new year'-ing. It felt disturbingly like a trip down a duodenum. We braced ourselves, dodged the elbows, ducked into gaps as they appeared, and managed to stand our ground.

They were worth the wait: loud bhangra music, the perfect build-up to midnight. Urged on by a bunch of sweating drummers and pissed Antipodeans, we counted down the final seconds of 2002, watched a thousand fireworks go off over Edinburgh Castle, and felt glad to be there. Maybe if George Bush listens to George Boy we'll feel just as glad next year.


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