Thursday, 19 May 2011

Eating Out Solo

The landing of the plane in Perugia was one on the bumpiest I had experienced, and was followed by a recorded bugle that reminded us that Ryanair had once again met its targets of punctuality. Well done Ryanair, you nearly killed us, but at least you did it with perfect timing. Minutes later, having survived that kind of taxi ride that only visitors to Cairo can properly appreciate, I was checked in to a wonderfully ancient hotel in the centre of the city. After struggling to manipulate the heating system with a remote control for about half an hour, and having searched in vain for a kettle and tea bag, I settled down and contemplated the evening meal that would satisfy my hunger after a period of self-induced starvation caused by flying the world’s favourite no-frills airline.

The centre of Perugia was strangely quiet, with several restaurants closed, but I eventually found a nice looking place up a dingy alley. Walking in, I asked for a table for one, which seemed to displease the waitress. She looked at me with that mixture of hostility and pity that made me feel that I must be entering a pornographic cinema wearing a stained overcoat. I was seated and given a special menu – all for 30 Euros – decorated with pink hearts, and realized that it was of course St Valentine’s Day, and to eat alone was an admission of utter failure as a member of the human race. Looking around, it did indeed seem that the tables were occupied exclusively by couples. But on closer inspection I realized that one couple was a middle-aged woman with an iron-like grin as she flattered and humoured a man old enough to be her father, who he undoubtedly was. Another couple consisted of a young woman who repeatedly smoothed her bald partner’s head. I suppose there’s no law against it. And another couple consisted of some well-dressed young men with rather too much bling for my liking. By the time I had finished my mixed salad, pizza and half bottle of something red, the waitress had seemingly changed in her feelings of disgust and smiled at me in the way a daughter does to her father on Christmas Day. I was grateful for that, left the restaurant and started the short walk back to the hotel, noticing ruefully that the Teatro had some time ago started its production of ‘La Traviata’.

The following day, I tried a place called al Mangiar Bene, which promised well. It was reached by a precipitous staircase that convinced me that disabled people either don’t exist in Italy, or they never eat out. Seated at a delightful table under a vaulted ceiling made from Etruscan bricks, I had few causes to complain. Having mediocre German, rather poor French, even worse Spanish and Italian, barely recognizable Swahili and non-existent 143 other languages, I seemed to make a veritable hash of making my intentions understood. For some inexplicable reason, I ended up with some extremely harsh red wine in a litre jug, having ordered a quantity that was called mezzo, when I really required piccolo, and a vast supply of expensive water. On seeing that the wine was far too much for me to drink without serious consequences, I sighed, but when the waiter arrived and asked if the wine was what I wanted I instinctively said ‘yes’, when what I meant was ‘no’, which is what Englishmen do when they don’t want to cause a fuss. To my surprise, I added the word belissimo, to indicate my great delight at the wine rather than a more subdued acceptance. So the waiter must have been equally surprised when I left half of it in the pitcher. 

Opposite me in the al Mangiar Bene was a man with a forehead that managed to achieve an exact right angle bend, whereas the young man he was dining with had a more rounded and inclined forehead beneath a luxuriant growth of black hair. They were most abstemious in their eating and in particular in their drinking. When delivered with a singular bottle of beer, the older man inspected it by peering over his spectacles at the label as if it were some première cru. Having satisfied himself about the credentials of the bottle of beer, he filled his glass and then reached for his dining partner’s glass, and would you believe it, filled it with an inch of foam, which evidently didn’t strike the recipient as being at all curious. You notice things like this when you are eating out solo. I speculated silently that this was a father and son, the latter a student at the University of Perugia, the former having divorced acrimoniously from his wife, who gave the son his normal forehead. No doubt the son was grateful to his mother for this genetic gift, and somewhat angry at, but resigned to, the poor relationship he had with his father. They left the restaurant hurriedly, and nearly caught me up as I climbed the staircase to the Corso Vannucci, which had turned into a cathedral-like quietness, lit by dimly yellow streetlights, with a background clickety noise of footsteps and muffled conversations. The Teatro was closed, and the colourful poster advertising ‘La Traviata’ had been taken down. It was only in the absence of the poster that I contemplated it, and I recalled that it was illustrated with a square-shouldered woman with long flowing hair and a low cut dress.  Her head was deliberately slanted, as if looking at a mouse behind her right heel, which seemed to add a great deal to her demeanour.

The following morning the watery sun and the translucent walls were replaced by the irregular drips of rain from the clay-tiled roofs distantly, but vertically, above me, and the narrow alleys were engulfed in a grey dampness. I was forced to hurry to the University precinct rather than listening to people’s lives reflected off the old stucco walls and travertine slabs. Distances were foreshortened and sounds swallowed up by the heavy shroud over this city on the hill. It was still raining as that evening I searched for somewhere to dine, conscious that I wanted to leave the posh and commensurately expensive La Taverna to the last evening, when I judged that I would not object to paying a packet (or parcel) for a few ravioli sitting in an exquisite creamy sauce like a pile of little suitcases hurled off a no-frills flight onto a wet runway. But adventurousness surrendered quickly to the practicalities of a raging hunger, and I descended the now-familiar staircase to the al Mangiar Bene, where I felt confident that I would not be eyed up and down with suspicion – the key to successful eating out solo.

For those followers of fashion, I should inform you that the colour in Italy this season is black. Black shoes, black sweaters, black quilted coats and black shiny jackets, and black-dyed hair. Even priests in the Roman Catholic Church seem to be following it. Some Italians wear fur-lined hooded coats that suggest they are preparing for a few months at the South Pole. Instead they are making their way through some heavy drizzle, dodging the puddles accumulating on the irregular flags of sandstone edged with porous travertine, and trudging up and down the red brick floors of stair-cased alleys that connect the centro to the world beyond the museum with its endless early Renaissance masterpieces, the lofty church, the square with its fountain. They walk head-down over the thousand year-old steps. Their lives are suspended in time, as are our own, like the frozen picture of an arrow, propelled from an unseen bow and directed at an unseen target.

My second visit to the restaurant allowed me to ponder anew on the virtues of pasta, since the slurpy tagliatelle with tomato sauce of the previous evening had been replaced by a bowl of rubbery rigatoni looking like a pile of severed human fingers. I concluded that one’s choice of pasta is critically dependent on whom you are dining with and what you are wearing. I would definitely avoid the long splattery variety if having a first date while wearing a white suit and a pink tie. This being unlikely in my case, I would extend the advice to the wearing of a dinner jacket and bow tie surmounting a frilly shirt-front. In such a case, definitely go for the dismembered digits, irrespective of whether your dining partner is your first date or your last.

Ten metres from my table was surely a twin of the Italian manager of the England football team. He had a superb head of (black) hair, though his face was lined, and his square jaw seemed hewn from stone. On the adjacent table a youngish man with a designer stubble to die for, and those fashionable spectacles that Italians tend to wear, was having dinner with a cross-eyed woman with hair pulled back a little too tightly into a pony tail, but who had a natural smile. Their occasional intimacies, as she lightly touched his forearm during conversation, suggested that they were newly acquainted, and they seemed delighted in each other’s company. They paid their bill, I mine, and as I walked up the staircase a discreet distance behind them, I noticed that they were arm in arm, he with his stubble and she with her squint.

As it happened, the visit to the La Taverna was precluded by a fairly serious bout of lack of ambition, which I find is quite common 4 days into an excursion. Two hours previously, I was having my photograph taken with a group of African geologists, having signed their course notes with ‘best wishes, Philip’. This didn’t prevent me from going to the La Taverna, but having ended up by some quirk of fate with three panini at lunchtime instead of one, I had felt obliged to consume one in my hotel room whilst struggling with the remote control. My appetite collapsed, and my final night in Perugia was spent half-looking at a game of football on the TV and half-observing a group of Chinese visitors navigate their way through meals that they had ordered with speculation and a good deal of apprehension. ‘Spaghetti’ seemed to be a word that they were all familiar with. Fair play. After all, we were all in the same boat, they as three couples and I eating solo.

The Weeping Clouds of Woodstock

If  I were to calculate with the accuracy of a watch maker the geometrical epicentre of the small English town of Woodstock, it would be where two roads converge at a point, like the apex of a slim gothic arch laid on its back. From this singularity, as I stand there, I can see the quaint post office with its traditional hanging sign looking like a small airborne casket of ashes. En face, a wall covered in wisteria provides the backdrop for a large pub sign. On it a bear stands upright like a village parson, snarling somewhat at a bothersome dog, advertising one of the finest country inn hotels in the merry land of England. Have you stayed at the Bear? Why yes, 25 years ago when the Marquis married and we stayed overnight. Why yes, we stayed for a night when visiting the Colonel at his new care home. Why yes, what a delight it was to get some country air after the frightful claustrophobia of Knightsbridge. Immediately behind me is a well-proportioned classical building serving as the town hall, with heraldic arms plastered on the yellow coloured stone wall, and surrounded by cobbled paths that cause Health & Safety officers palpitations. But my main preoccupation is the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, set back from the road frontage occupied by the illustrious Bear, with its Wrenish square tower sitting at the church’s west end. A blustery wind rises and creates a vortex of small leaves near my feet. I look up, and the tower looks back as it surveys this very English scene beneath the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.

Under the Wrenish tower of St Mary Magdalene, 40-year distant recollections of maps, the Tube, long walks and short walks along avenues, across parks and through squares intruded into my thoughts. The Ford Cortina was deposited in an underground car park close to Hyde Park.  Two young and inseparable boys braved together the dangers and excitements of London with a patient father, who sat as we drew the architectural details of churches that sprang up after the desolation of the Great Fire. We eagerly entered the churches, collecting information sheets that were later stored for posterity in cardboard folders, and with second-hand cameras we took endless pictures of arches, porticos, steeples and vaulting. Why we did this is not clear. The folders have mostly been mislaid, whereas the 35 mm slides still sit neatly arranged and perfectly catalogued in small cases, written by a young hand whose penmanship spoke of pride and nerdish interest. Something about the new beginnings after devastation and the beauty of the geometric lines must have caught their quiet souls. It rattled in the emptiness of their consciousness, and reverberated against the narrowness, poverty and emotional narrowness of their lives. Himself a child of the Victorian poverty of a crowded tenement building in Chelsea, broken by the effects of war and the failed aspirations following it, who was this man who took his sons to explore the Wren churches of London, and who listened to Joan Sutherland on the HiFi he had himself made? We shall never know, least of all these two frail young boys, since their father died before an adult conversation could be held. Such were my thoughts as I stood at the epicentre of a very English scene beneath the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock, weeping lightly over the 900 year old town and its inhabitants as one of them wept lightly beneath his expressionless exterior.

A stone’s throw down the High Street stands a butcher’s shop that appears in ancient sepia images taken by equally ancient cameras. Nothing seems to have changed since those days, especially when braces of pheasants hang from big hooks above the front windows, or when queuing in the biting cold on Christmas Eve for a previously ordered turkey. On entering this establishment, a stable door activates a bell, which makes one think one has stepped over a threshold of time, like the wardrobe at the entrance to Narnia. The butcher men have plenty of jokes and varied witticisms, which they try out on every new customer. If a customer, unaccustomed to the traditions of the Woodstock butcher, were to ask if the chickens are free range, he or she would be told ‘no’ but that they were ‘happy chickens’, which is generally followed by a sigh of relief by the customer and a smirk by the butcher man. What is surprising is the delight of each and every customer to receive this never-ending stream of wit, and even more surprising is the constant joviality of its originators, despite having to concentrate on slapping raw meat about with their bare hands. I don’t suppose it’s much different with orthopaedic surgeons. On this occasion, there were no braces of pheasants and no queue for turkeys. The door rang the bell as I left, stepping from a thick sandstone flagstone worn down in the middle by feet, as one often sees in an old cathedral or monastery. I was holding a plastic bag with a pound or two of garlic sausages as I crossed back over the threshold of time into the main thoroughfare of this small town alongside a not so small royal palace. The wind had strengthened. I stood below the flagstone, struggled with the buttons of my coat, turned and with the wind at my back, proceeded in the same direction as the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.

There were few photographs of family in the small terrace house in Bath where the boys grew up, and all but one were hidden in small albums or were left loose in a cake tin serving as a tribute to the young Queen Elizabeth on her coronation. The only photograph I can remember being on show lay behind a glass fronted frame, a young woman bursting with energy, holding two plump young boys with mops of curly hair, one infant in each arm, supported partly by the curve of her hips and partly by the strength of her forearms. A third child with almost white, medium-length hair stands somewhat forlorn at her mother’s side, as if temporarily forgotten. She was in the picture, but not the focus of it. She seems to be offering the camera holder an old tennis ball in her small hand, as if to say ‘I’m here, you know’. A small print from the cake tin shows the same two curly-headed bundles of plumpness sitting either side of their older sister. The boys are identically dressed, with small bow ties and with trousers that came half way up the chest. What had gone unnoticed by me for decades was that the wallpaper behind the three children was badly stained, tired and drab. The picture shows three particular children, circa 1955, but the scene was repeated a million times in the working class terraces of England. No mortgage, no credit card, no bank account, no telephone, no central heating, no dishwasher, no washing machine, and of course no computer, no iPhone. It would be tempting as a literary device to say ‘and no worries’, but it would not be true. There was a certain honesty in that hard-working existence, but there was also something suffocating that propelled the two boys outward like the sparks flying off a Catherine wheel on Guy Fawkes night, away from the stained wallpapered rooms of the terraced streets of Bath, armed with fortitude and self-reliance but unaware that they were ill-equipped in ways that they were yet to discover. And when discovered, it would be too late. 

It’s a very peculiar thing that happened to the two inseparable boys with the interest in those Wrenish steeples. The years leading to adulthood were dripping with opportunity and danger in equal measure, though neither were very easy to recognize at the time. They were joined by an invisible chord. I don’t believe that they were really individuals until the chord had dissolved, but once it was gone they were also diminished. The world span into a wild maelstrom of opportunities, and decisions were made whose consequences were to slowly materialize like the sinking of a box of treasures under the ocean. Relieved of the weight but the contents gone, two trajectories flew out across time, with as much chance of intersecting as the arrows shot from two bows into a turbulent sky, but drawn from the same quiver. I reached the entrance to a cottage with the last roses clinging for survival across its porch. Inside the cottage, I was no longer aware of the lightly weeping clouds of Woodstock.

About 45 million years ago, a vast ocean spread from east to west and separated a northern landmass from a southern. At the edges of the ocean were shallow, warm regions, much like the Caribbean is to the Atlantic at the present day. The shallow continental shelves were the home of single celled creatures with calcareous shells, but they were enormous. They look like long grain rice, or pennies, or buttons. Dying in profusion, they accumulated, un-thinking, on the sea-bed as limestones that the Pharoahs would mine to build their pyramids and temples. And I would use to make the kitchen floor. The colour of honey, slabs of ancient sea-bed in a Cotswold kitchen, walked over, a listener of conversations, a frozen capsule of time, oblivious to our victories, agonies and traumas. Multicellular me, with a piece of seabed under my feet in a cottage festooned with the end of the second bloom of roses, preparing for the chill of autumn. Somewhere far away is a genetic copy of multicellular me, with an interest in Wrenish towers and with perfect penmanship.  How is it that we were separated by such tectonic power, now living in two parallel universes, unable to understand when and why it began? 

The light was fading when I ventured out to collect some dry birch logs for the fire. I noticed that the clouds of Woodstock were no longer weeping. Smoke from the chimney struggled in its upward ascent into a clear sky.  The land seemed to fall silent as the sky grew imperceptibly darker. The evening air took on a fragrance. As in a tired child, rubbing its eyes, thoughts subsided. Deeper senses were aroused, senses of regret and grieving and thankfulness. Two silhouetted shapes fluttered across the rooftop, then rose in unison, and were gone.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Paradise Lost - The Age of Man?

When John Milton wrote (Paradise Lost 1667) “Accuse not Nature, she hath done her part; Do thou but thine”, I doubt that he quite foresaw what is increasingly being called the Anthropocene, or ‘The Age of Man’ (see

Nature has indeed done her part to bring the world to this point, towards an increasing consciousness and self-determination of Man[1]. It is difficult to find any sizeable chunk of the planet that has not succumbed in some way, subtle or dramatic, to the handiwork of modern humans. In 200,000 years we have left our unmistakable imprint, and it is accelerating. The coral reefs of the open ocean are in distress from rising water temperature and acidity, caused in turn by emissions of greenhouse gases through the activities of Man. There are so many dams on the world’s waterways that natural or pristine rivers are a thing of the past. Many of the world’s deltas, the dumping ground of conveyor belts of river-borne sediment, and the home of billions of people, are sinking beneath the waves. The oceans’ fisheries are depleted, some of them to the point of exhaustion. Biodiversity is undergoing a big crunch, with unprecedented rates of extinction of species. And human population continues to go through the roof, from 3 billion to nearly 7 billion in the last half-century. So pervasive, so systemic, so global and yet so local are these impacts that many believe we should label our current time the Anthropocene. Some also believe that by labeling it so, we wake up to the reality of our responsibility for the future. For Nature has opened her eyes, and has for the first time seen herself, through us poor humans, the failed masterpiece of creation.

My walk to the conference at the Geological Society of London on the topic of the Anthropocene (11 May 2011)[2] was not extraordinary in any kind of way. From the stucco-fronted classical squares of Kensington, with their neatly kept gardens, past the memorials to a diminutive queen, or rather to her German husband, along the margins of one of the world’s great parks, where dog walkers chat and joggers with white earphones jog, and mounted cavalry take shining horses to train in saw-dusted enclosures. There was nothing unusual about these scenes of peace and order. And there was nothing unusual about the disheveled man in the subway with a little whistle, which he played badly and intermittently, as if his musical attention span extended to a mere 4 bars. He stood beside a grimy sleeping bag that lay above flattened cardboard boxes, comprising a stratigraphy of homelessness. On the other side of the subway the world changed from green to urban-grey, save for a hotel on a corner with a veritable jungle growing up it, a Living Wall ten storeys high.  The Living Wall screams at you that it is an anthropogenic biome, carefully designed and planted by Man, and watered and cared for by Man, and rather wonderful. It is a human ecology, a paradise on a street corner, not more than a quarter of a mile from the Geological Society, my destination this fresh day in early May.

Recognizing what you have done and owning up to it is a cathartic process that is necessary to go through if you want to make anything better, whether it’s spilling red wine on the new carpet or thoroughly messing up our disappearing world. But it is a good idea to separate the analysis of the impact of one’s actions from the separate question of what we should do about it, because these are two different conversations, the first being scientific, the other involving a bit of everything, preferably including wisdom. Although these two conversations are linked, the first should inform the second. There are hidden dangers. If we get the scientific analysis wrong, we do not have the correct basis for making decisions about the way we manage the world in the future and perhaps carry around a flawed philosophical position guiding our actions. But the bigger danger is that the second conversation is hijacked by those with a range of pro- or anti-environmentalist agendas that they wish to advance, whatever the results of the scientific discourse turn out to be. In short, recognizing that we have entered the Age of Man does not provide a better moral, ethical or philosophical position to make important policy decisions on over-consumption, the futility of war, population growth, poverty and infant mortality. The moral compass for these issues is to be found elsewhere.

The Anthropocene is the recognition that natural ecological systems that have developed since the melting of the last continental ice masses from the northern hemisphere, a mere ten thousand years ago, have been so changed that they function differently. And the agent of change is Man. Delegates at the conference asked, ‘When did this trend start?’, ‘What indicators do we use, what things do we measure?’, ‘What are our predictions for the future?’, ‘ How long can we continue like this?’, ‘What will species in the future find when they look back at the beginning of the Age of Man?’,  ‘Should Man and Nature be restored to some former state of innocence?’

The Anthropocene will continue to be used as a powerful metaphor for the impact of Man on this small blue planet. To ground the term in a scientific appraisal will add force to its use. One hopes that the process of assessment does not take as long, and does not involve as much acrimony, as the great debates of the past over the subdivision of geological time and of the archive of rocks formed over those aeons.

By the time we emerged from dinner in a subterranean vault, darkness had fallen softly and comfortably on the city. It glowed electrically as people scurried to unknown destinations, and traffic buzzed, screeched and hooted, leaving long neon streaks in the photographic plate of my memory. My taxi sped past the great park now lost in darkness as I returned to the quiet Kensington Square. Above the chequer-board of lighted apartment windows was an aircraft descending to Heathrow, identified by a blinking red light and a low sonic rumble, suspended in space as if held by invisible wires. I had time to reflect on the day’s conference and the conversations I had had over dinner in the subterranean vault. Had it been a consecration of a Paradise Lost? The last sacraments of a disappearing world?

Earth felt the wound, and Nature from her seat
Sighing through all her works, gave signs of woe
That all was lost.
John Milton, Paradise Lost, 1667

I reflected on the closing thoughts of one of the speakers, Erle Ellis from the University of Maryland, who said “In the Anthropocene, we must embrace humans not as destroyers of nature but as creators, engineers and permanent stewards of the biosphere”. So the answer is ‘No, it had not been a mournful consecration’, because when Paradise is truly lost, it will not be the ‘Age of Man’, but the ‘End of Man’. The blame game will then seem particularly futile.

[1] As foreseen by Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945), author of The Biosphere (1926), who introduced the idea of the noosphere representing the emergence of human cognition.
[2] The Anthropocene: A New Epoch of Geological Time? Conference at the Geological Society of London, Burlington House, 11 May 2011, convened by Michael Ellis, Jan Zalasiewicz, Mark Williams and Alan Haywood, sponsored by the British Geological Survey. The plenary lecture was given by Nobel laureate Professor Paul Crutzen, discoverer of the ‘ozone hole’. 

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Warr Ringa

Warr Ringa means cold place, so I’ve been told. It’s on the side of a hill, with views over a paddock surrounded by gum trees, and in the distance, forested slopes that occasionally rise into peculiar conical shapes. The mailbox is a beaten-up tin can, rammed into the crevice between two red, ragged branches. It doesn’t look as if anyone has ever delivered mail to Warr Ringa. The cabin can’t be seen from the dirt-track road, only by the quietly grazing highland cattle in the paddock, and they ignore it. This cold place is certainly far from the madding crowd.

The main structure of the cabin is made of roughly hewn red bricks – not the crumbly variety that wears back recessively between the hard splintery flints in the mellow climes of southeast England, but a hard, uncompromising brick that breaks in harsh jagged edges and refuses any form of deference to mother nature. Above the brick structure is a low corrugated roof punctuated by skylights and vents. From the eucalyptus wood above the house, where a large cylindrical water tank is found, one looks down on this utilitarian, low-pitched roof surrounded by ornamental shrubs and trees, and catches the essence of living in Oz. Survival, cheerful and resolute survival. The roof collects the rains and diverts it to a second cylindrical tank at the side of the house. From there, a pump transports the water to the more elevated tank of which I have already spoken.

The roof of corrugated iron extends over a shaded verandah where crimson crested cockatoos perch and pick away somewhat maliciously at the wooden window frames. It also covers a wood store where snakes hang out, a barbecue area and also serves as a car-port. It is a thin protective cloak from the clicking and rustling of sun-weary summer days, and from the chilling rainstorms of winter. Beneath it is a haven for mice that live and die in their hundreds and accrete a thick layer of their skeletal remains, cemented by their excrement, like a fossil bed eons old. Australia is to some the opera house and Sydney harbour, but for me it is a corrugated roof, a water tank, and a bony fossil bed.  

Warr Ringa is in the Macedon Range, which stands defiantly above the surrounding plains largely because it was here that, not so very long ago, volcanoes erupted viscous lavas that barely had the energy to escape from their vents. The choked vents and small, steep, cones of lava now punctuate the landscape, and provide the topography for picnic places and wineries, like Hanging Rock. It doesn’t take long to walk to the top of Hanging Rock, through the pillars of cavernous volcanic rock, but by Australian standards this is a tourist hotspot. The State of Victoria sits at the stern of a powerboat heading northwards towards Australia’s future neighbours, the wake causing melting deep below to feed the acidic volcanoes and the brown basaltic plains. While the rear of the Australian surfboard melts, the front crumples in Timor and Papua New Guinea, as Australia, bit by bit, becomes geologically part of Asia while bit by bit she does the same economically.

We departed for the Ocean Drive along the south coast of Victoria accompanied by drizzle alternating with heavy downpours, but the day finished in a brightness that gave outstanding contrast to sand spits separating sluggish backwaters from surging surf, weatherboarded guesthouses, lobster cages and seaside boutiques. The coastal scenery changed rapidly from hour to hour as the ocean revealed the secrets of Victoria’s past like a natural, indented and serrated wound. Vegetated slopes dropping precipitously to small coves and broader bays with houses stuck on wooden platforms; hilltops swathed in temperate rainforest populated by tree ferns and the green filigree of groundcover; trains of sea stacks standing like sentries guarding the mighty but vulnerable sea-cliffs as oceanic swell batters their feet. Australia crumbles as she sets her course towards Asia from her rightful berth alongside Antarctica, tilting forwards, hell-bent on collision with the tropical islands of southeast Asia at the bow and careless of her jettisoned history at the stern.

The gum trees that surround Warr Ringa drop their branches with a certain amount of enthusiasm, which is why it is unwise to park oneself beneath one of them during the blowing of a strong wind.  During one such strong wind, a gum tree deposited a hefty branch that barred the driveway until neighbours with big gadgets could saw and remove the inconvenient timber, thereby connecting Warr Ringa once again to civilization. By civilization, I am referring to the odd flittish kangaroo that scarpers at your scent and the docile Aberdeen angus that can’t be bothered to raise its head to recognize your existence. So being trapped by a branch of a gum tree is perhaps not the shock to the system that, for example, running out of Veuve Clicquot after the shops have closed might be in Chelsea, or discovering that your (former) friend has quaffed the last remaining bottle of Chateau Lafite while thinking it was Jacob’s Creek. No-one could remain a friend of mine who made such a serious mistake in wine appreciation.

Shortly after the incident that led to the involuntary isolation of Warr Ringa, its owners decided to cut down a gum tree that was sufficiently close to the cabin with its corrugated roof so as to represent a safety risk. First enormous ‘rounds’ were cut, up to a metre in diameter. Then the rounds were rolled down a hill rather like, in ancient films, children with summer dresses and short trousers would navigate a thin hoop across a lawn to its uncertain destination in a herbaceous border. Perhaps a more accurate analogy would be the rolling of large cheddar cheeses down a precipitous slope in the Cotswolds, followed by yelping young men who crash, twist and somersault their way to the nearest casualty department. The rounds are assembled close to the splitter, which consists of a loud machine that sends a ram with a chiseled end into the wood, splitting it in sizes suitable for the stove. Wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow transports the logs to a store where they are assembled in Swiss-like geometrical correctness, to await the happy day when they might surrender to combustion. By my estimation, one tree provided work for three men for three days and enough wood for three winters. Just when you think you’ve finished, another mighty branch falls from another eucalyptus, and you are left wondering if there is anything in all of Nature so daft as the gum tree. Or to be fairer, if there is anything quite so daft as someone who buys a cabin surrounded by 50 acres of the damned things.

My first visit to Warr Ringa was by train from one of Melbourne’s main stations on a Saturday morning, but not an ordinary Saturday morning. It was the morning of the Melbourne Cup, which I understand is a momentous occasion where horses compete against each other on the race track and ladies compete against each other in their dresses and hats.  It was a most peculiar experience to wait for my suburban train to Bendigo as groups of ladies walked past in shoes that caused them to stagger like drunks, tilting them forward as if they had slipped a disc or were urgently making their way to a public convenience. The ladies were dressed in a minimalist kind of way, if you know what I mean, no doubt in anticipation of a hot day at the racecourse, whereas the men were dressed like Shane Warne picking up a sports personality award, with brightly embroidered waistcoats that were in conversation with their girlfriends’ frocks. There was a procession of groups such as this. And it occurred to me that Ozzies like having a good time and really don’t take dressing up at all seriously. Australian Ascot with a different accent, a different hue.

My crowded train to Bendigo drew into the small town of Woodend on the edge of the densely forested Macedon Range, from where I was transported to Warr Ringa for the first time. The following morning, we went to a community fire defense meeting in a hall that seemed to mark the centre of the village, only it was the sole building for miles around. We listened to a man who frightened the life out of us with tales of disastrous fires, but with that phlegmatic and unruffled style that I recognized as common in Australians. Mid way through the lecture, which was illustrated with pictures from the previous year’s bushfires, I heard the clanking of heavy metal tongs against grills as the barbie was prepared outside, though it sounded initially as if a car mechanics course had started. After a rather long set of questions and answers, which were more answers than questions, we exchanged pleasantries and made a get-away. But we had not reckoned on the heavy barbie that blocked our exit. It was clearly going to cause a diplomatic incident to refuse a sausage, so I gathered one in a flimsily thin serviette, which gave me third degree burns before I could get rid of it beneath . . .  yes, a gum tree, where it possibly still lies. To this day I savour the irony of incurring burns while attending a fire defense meeting, and that a gum tree came to my rescue.

It was a happy coincidence that my visit to Warr Ringa occurred at the time of a wine festival over the weekend. We set off with the intention of visiting several wineries in a circuitous route that maximized the pleasures of the Victorian countryside with the strict limitations of the road plan, to produce a route that would allow the best of the whites to be consumed before the best of the reds. Of course, the British come into their own on occasions such as this. Thus it was that we started our day sampling the best that Victoria could offer, reaching dizzying new heights of pretentiousness by noon, and ending it laughing in the back of a 4WD under the influence of a churning mixture of riesling, pinot noir and shiraz, which in the case of my brother was added to by a few indulgences in the sparkling stuff. ‘Initially disappointing, but with a strong finish’, and ‘After that nose, it didn’t quite live up to expectations’ were gradually replaced with ‘Cor, that’s nice’, and ‘Blimey, that’s cheap’, until eventually one resorted simply to  ‘Where’s the loo?’ and ‘Have you seen my hat?’ At the final winerie, aptly named Granite Hills, mon frère stared at a flat panel of wood for long enough for me to realize that he must be calculating his finances in the light of the impending purchase of a few bottles of their outstanding pinot noir. This was the signal for me to sit outside as the sun started to cast long shadows across the vineyard, and a slight breeze freshened the skin. The breeze gave life to the tea trees and wattles around us, as two brothers, now continents apart, sat in the sharp contrast of the oblique light of evening, reflected, and said nothing.

Strewn by the Million

On the chilly eastern flank of England is a town, a small town. It is situated where the coastline turns its back on its Scandinavian and Teutonic cousins, particularly when, as now, the jet stream arcs southwards at the impulse of the flapping of a butterfly’s slender wings in some distant hemisphere, causing cold Arctic air to compel its inhabitants to turn up coat collars and shiver. It is also situated where the River Alde attempts to enter the sea, but is deflected listlessly for miles along the coast where, when it has almost given up hope, an opening presents itself and fresh and salt are sweetly mingled.

Standing on the well-sorted brown shingle, the beach stretches like an arrow northwards to the eroding cliffs that turn someone’s loss to someone else’s profit, from depletion to accretion. Strong, rusted cables connect the waterline with weather-beaten wooden shacks close to the small concrete wall at the back of the beach, where small fishing boats safely perch away from the devouring tide that sweeps this coastline with metronomic regularity. Fresh herring, crabs and Dover sole are advertised on the fronts of the shacks, though few customers stop amid their bracing and strictly linear walks along the backshore

The main shopping street of Aldeburgh is set back and exactly parallel to the seafront, protected from the easterly winds by a block of stoic but slightly seedy hotels and various brave but uninteresting dwellings. After a while, one realises that all of these buildings share one thing in common – they all have the appearance of having been built by wealthy Victorians with a penchant for fresh air and then left dormant for a hundred years except for the addition of layer after layer of thick gloss paint. Window glass has that murky, translucent appearance caused by the accumulation of North Sea salt. In more clement climes, as at the coastal resort at the end of the tramline in Adelaide, South Australia, the waterfront would be lined with adventurous architectural experiments in glass, bold rooflines and quirky balconies, but the conservative English psyche prefers mock Tudor to Frank Lloyd Wright. Nevertheless, our Victorian and pseudo-Victorian buildings have the very beneficial effect of allowing the townsfolk and visitors to this small English town to walk along the main street carrying out their business in some degree of comfort. No doubt Benjamin Britten did so in his time.

Walking linear fashion north of Aldeburgh we go in search of the source that nourishes the beaches of the town with nobbly, hard and rounded brown flints. Now I appreciate that this does not quite have the ring of discovering the source of the Blue Nile, but it’s pretty interesting nonetheless, for countless English men with handkerchiefs as head coverings tied by four small knots at the corners have sat on the brown shingle with their wives and children and not had the slightest idea of what they were parking their rears on, and what they were slinging distractedly into the waves, and what was swallowing up the small coins falling from their pockets with such ease.

In our search for the source of the brown flints, we are obliged to stop for a moment at the lost village of Dunwich, now beneath the waves, having kept a safe distance from Sizewell B on our route northwards. Dunwich also gives its name to a heath, with a thick, matted undergrowth of heather and gorse that camouflages small families of deer, and through which oaks, birches and the occasional pine poke to break the flat skyline. A walk down to the deserted beach reveals that the heath is underlain by sands, almost as friable as the day they were formed in a shallow sea not unlike the present-day North Sea, but 40 millions of years ago. The cliffs of ancient sands are wearing back by the attack of the North Sea, so that the elevated heath is shrinking, and it will not be long before the white coastguard cottages atop the cliff suffer the same fate as the sad old village of Dunwich.

It seems inconceivable that Dunwich once boasted a population of about 4000, who with faith built 8 churches, three chapels and two hospitals, and exported from the harbour the wool and grain of ancient Suffolk. All that is left is a row of brightly painted beach huts, a red brick pub appropriately called the Ship Inn, and a small terrace of assorted houses. There is a melancholy about this loss, as if some bizarre calamity had struck the luckless inhabitants of this eastern extremity of England. But the reality is more mundane, though equally chilling, for the village succumbed, in stages like a Greek tragedy, to the free rein of nature. To the sea, the tempestuous sea.

Most of the destruction took place in the 13th century, and the last remaining portion disappeared at the same time as the first world war loomed, enacted its ugliness and finished amid relief and grieving. The coast was a mile to the east during the village’s heyday, so a simple back-of-the-envelope calculation suggests that the sea advances by the length of a cricket pitch every ten years.  Off the Norfolk coast, a small distance further north along our linear walk, coastal look-outs built of ugly concrete lie askew in the shifting sands, pounded by surf, scoured by currents, testament to the retreat of cliffs since a second world war. The coast is far from the static frontier of an island nation, to be defended with Churchillian vigour. Frontiers are a human invention, and a disquieting illusion.

From these Norfolk cliffs come the brown flints that nourish the strand at Aldeburgh, first scraped by ice streams, then dropped, left like garbage, strewn carelessly, falling in landslips as the sea undercuts and devours, and transports to new temporary resting places, and to a final oblivion who knows where. The indestructible pebbles are graded in size from north to south along their zig-zag route dictated by wind and tide by a Nature intent on orderliness. They are Earth’s great survivors, left piled high on stormy beaches, rattling in contact together as backwash flows over and through them, defying time’s arrow.

Standing on the long beach beside the eroding cliffs of sand, under a grey, lowering sky, and with the rhythmic beat of shingle in motion, I felt vividly a personal onward march of time. I felt the freakish and ephemeral intersection in this vast expanse of time of two hearts and minds and bodies. We hugged each other silently, she facing the sea and I the cliffs, as a small tear formed, hovered on the brink and descended, un-noticed as it quickly dissipated through the wet sand into which our footprints were temporarily etched.

Strewn by the Million

What hard stone can this be,
Strewn by the million beneath my feet,
Dark glass, brown weathered rind,
Piled up where wave and river meet?

From where comes this stone,
Where was it first crystallised,
Micron by micron from leaching brine,
Now drifted in zig-zags on reversing tide?

For how long has this palm-sized stone,
Held silent stories of universal time,
In colour, shape and rounded form,
That Nature briefly intersected hers with mine?

How big a world is in this stone,
Trapped incognito within its blackened glass,
Stretching infinitely beyond my vision,
Yet into waves so carelessly cast?