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Archive for November, 2007

In Search of Celtic Gold

It’s odd that after so many years spent travelling around Europe, I never before made it to Ireland. It wasn’t a lack of curiosity about the place, though, that said, Ireland did not rank highly in my list of destinations; somewhere between Norway and Estonia to be honest. I’m not sure why I gave Ireland such low priority as I always suspected it to be a beautiful place, in both the countryside and the towns. My perceptions of Ireland were a mixture of images and shabby history gleaned from literature, films, television, newspapers and the occasional mention in university lectures. When I thought of Ireland I thought of a place with an air of mystery about it; a place that was somehow distant, peripheral, a frontier of sorts; a place that had been ignored, neglected or abused for centuries. Ireland seemed to have remained outside of history until Lindisfarne and the Book of Kells. It seemed to be a place that had rarely had a chance to assert itself or impose itself on history except through tragedy or doggedness; a place that had, until the twentieth century, largely exported its talent and suffered for this at home. Ireland had always fought its own wars and steered clear of those that ravaged the continent and the British Isles. In a way it was outside of Europe; too far for an invasion from the continent and insufficiently resource rich to offer much incentive for imperialism. Even the British presence seemed more an a assertion of local overlordship than a genuine desire for Ireland as another jewel in its crown. In my lifetime it had been the land of “The Troubles”; I had first seen Ireland as a violent, sectarian place; a place that was still getting up off its knees, with the double burden of a cancerous conflict and a moribund economy. Ireland had always seemed quaint, but sad, and yet full of a sort of ragamuffin optimism.

Of course Ireland has always had a rich and unique culture – its contribution to early medieval scholarship was pivotal; the literary contributions Ireland has made punch far about its size and weight; its famed friendliness, pubs, bars, the green fields, its towns and villages, its music, both traditional and modern; and last but not least, the significance of its diaspora in the new world. All of these things fuelled a genuine curiosity about the place, yet still I did not go. Perhaps it seemed insufficiently exotic; perhaps it still seemed too peripheral; perhaps, like Scotland, despite all its difference, I expected it to be little more than England seen through a slight twist of the Kaleidoscope. The more I thought about it, the more I wondered exactly why it was I had never come to Ireland.

Then it struck me. There were no visible Roman remains. It was, of course, Roman history that had first brought me to Europe, or, rather, despite my passion for the history and culture of Europe in all historical periods, the classical world was what fascinated me the most and it was, in effect, the core of my curiosity and my studies. When I first travelled to Europe in 1996, I went from Holland to the UK, to France, Spain, Italy, Greece and Turkey, overland and over sea. It was designed to be a tour of the Roman Empire, or, at least, as much of it as I could afford to see in six months. When I returned to Europe two and a half years later to do a PhD in history at Cambridge, it was more often than not the chance to visit Roman sites or museums dedicated to Roman history that gave me the excuse for another holiday. Even when, for instance I set off to Samothraki for a five day trance party, you can be sure that I was taking in Roman, Greek and Minoan sites on the way there and back. Perhaps it was the absence of the Romans that had put me off.

Whatever the case, here I was at last in Ireland. As with my recent trip to Austria and Slovakia, I almost didn’t make it. I booked the flights three months ago when Ryanair was having one of its free seat giveaways, and paid a grand total of one Euro cent per ticket, taxes, everything included. I had booked the time off work and was particularly enthusiastic about finally seeing Ireland after the booking was made, yet as the date approached, having just had a holiday throughout which I was plagued with dreadful weather, I began to doubt my commitment. In fact, last week, as I eagerly watched and waited for the federal election in Australia (hoorah!) I came to the conclusion that I definitely was not going to go. I would instead stay home, do a lot of running and weights, and go see every single film about which  I was curious, and, of course, write up a storm.

I changed my mind at nine thirty the night before I was due to fly. I had just been to see Brick Lane and came away with a weight of sadness and some confusion about love; the question of how one determined which country one ought to live in – and mixed emotions about a film which seemed to work well on so many levels, but was lacking on others. What I felt, primarily, was restlessness. Over the previous months, but more particularly, the last week, I had been obsessed with following the election in Australia and this had distracted me very greatly from my writing. I wasn’t sure that if I stayed home I would have the focus and concentration to get enough writing done to justify not going. If I was as restless over the next few days as I felt on Sunday evening, then how could I expect to sit in my chair and finish the two short stories I am currently working on – Everyday Parables and The Final Playlist ?

7323 Cork

It struck me that there could be no better cure for restlessness than travel. And what the hell – I even had the tickets booked – why not simply go? Wouldn’t I regret it enormously if I didn’t? I pictured myself the following day, sitting at my computer, knees hopping up and down, wondering why I could not concentrate and turning instead to timewasting; Facebook, Neverwinter Nights… No! It would be inexcusable.

I went straight online, planned my route, booked a couple of hotels, printed up maps, purchased a coach ticket, then packed. At midnight my Irish housemate Garret returned from Cork, his home town and my first destination. He was just in time to give me some very hand tips about what to see and do. Now I was properly excited. I sorted everything, set my alarm for two thirty and lay down for an hour’s sleep. At five past three I found myself marching down the street in the damp early morning, wondering how all this had come to be…

7355 Cork

And so, at seven thirty, in a heavy fog, I flew into Cork. The forecast had been for “sunny intervals”, and were it not for this positive outlook, I should almost certainly have stayed at home. I watched the sky closely from the bus stop outside arrivals. There were positive signs of a breakthrough on the horizon, where the cloud was thinner and seemed to be dissipating as the sun reached it. If there was fog and sunshine, dark rain cloud and bold, silver light, then it might prove to be just the right conditions for “Gold”

7336 Cork

It is worthwhile digressing at this point to mention that I have a number of classifications for the quality of the photographs I take. Gold is the highest ranking that can be awarded and it is very, very rare. Out of two hundred shots I might only get one gold photograph. On my recent trip to Austria I managed only two gold out of about eighteen hundred. Gold essentially denotes a photograph in which not only is the composition perfect and captivating – either through spectacular symmetry or idiosyncratic asymmetry – but the light and colour must also be absolutely first rate. Without a doubt my strength is shooting directly into the sun in black and white. I was always fond of socialist realism and the stark silhouettes of workers at toil in their blocky rhythms. This interest has translated to photography, though with a much greater tendency towards more fluid movements in figures. My attempts to find gold in Austria were largely hampered by a lack of direct sunlight. I can still get shots that I consider okay in poor lighting conditions, though I prefer then to wait until dark and shoot with a tripod to obtain a similar level of contrast between light and darkness, as opposed to the greys of dull daylight.

7394 Cork

7402 Cork 1

7395 Cork

So, I came to Ireland looking for Celtic gold, and upon arrival in Cork, I had high hopes that I might strike a rich vein should the climate play its part. Sadly, however, the fog had long cleared from the town and the sunlight was to break through only infrequently. I did not let this get me down and, as soon I as arrived in the centre of town, I climbed straight up St Patrick’s hill; a very steep incline that affords lovely views. I hovered about up here toying with angles, then made my way down the dip towards the other rise on which stood Shandon Steeple. As I descended upon a vast Heineken brewery, I was briefly handed gold conditions; yet the subject matter did not lend itself so easily to great compositions and in the brief time I had, I was forced to make do with a few silver and bronze.

7351 Cork

Ever since reading Moby Dick ten years ago, I have been a big fan of digressions, and I will indulge myself once again here on the subject of systems of classifications. In my first month of my post-doc at the British School at Rome, January 2003, I was fortunate to have a group of graduate students from the University of Melbourne staying there for a course on Renaissance and Baroque Rome. Three of the students who were staying there, Con, Dom and Willie, (no pun intended) developed a system for classifying the many beautiful women to be found walking the streets of bella Roma. This system was based on the general attractiveness of women in artworks by the great painters of the Renaissance. I can only remember the basic outline and have thus made some adjustments based on subsequent research, but it remains broadly the same. I thought I might throw it in here as it will likely be out of place wherever I put it. I have also included links to some fine examples of their craft.

10. Botticelli

Botticelli

9. Raffaele

Raffaele

8. Filippino Lippi

Filippino Lippi 2

Filippino Lippi

7. Bronzino

Bronzino

6. Caravaggio

Caravaggio

5. Da Vinci

Da Vinci

4. Massacio

Massaccio

3. Michelangelo

Michelangelo

Much as I love him, my old pal Buonarotti comes last on account of the fact that his women all have male bodies and the sort of biceps that could gather up all the pieces of the True Cross and rebuild Noah’s Ark. It has to be said that Mother Mary in the Pieta is seriously fit – however, we are talking about painting here. Ranking anyone below Michelangelo and Masaccio seemed ungentlemanly and unnecessarily cruel. Though he did not originally appear in the list, I have promoted Lippi as a personal favourite. There are many others who belong here, perhaps as half points between the big men. For instance, Lukas Cranach could be worthy of an appearance if only for the pokey little smirks so many of his women wear.

Lucas Cranach

It is worth mentioning that it is also possible to qualify a ranking by identifying a mix of styles. For instance, one might spot on the streets of Rome a Lippi with Bronzino tendencies, which would constitute, in my book, about as good as it gets. Indeed, it was not long before “Bronzino tendencies” became a byword for cool. Please feel at liberty to use this system of classification with any amendments you might feel are necessary. I’m sure that a similar system of classification could equally be devised for men. It’s probably a good idea to stick to the Renaissance as they all become a tad more paunchy, poncy and somewhat less roguish by the time the Baroque rolls around. Although, that said, Caravaggio could provide a handsome bridge there I’m sure; if you like effeminate men with clumsily oversized hands, that is.

So, there I was in Ireland! I marched about Cork, snapped some a few silvers, some bronzes and a whole swag of also-rans amidst a sea of worthless pap. I liked Cork; it had a northern English working-class uniformity to it; the boxy houses lay across the hills like Lego bricks, but their serried ranks were reminiscent of the patterns one sees in vineyards. I was left thinking of the corn-crop hair style, oddly enough. Here the spires all had the greyness of lamb fat, yet the colourful houses did not restrict themselves to pastel.

7439 Cork

I walked to the campus of the college, where I drifted around spotting Bronzinos. Garret had recommended the Glucksmann Gallery, which was impressively designed, but unfortunately closed. I wandered some more then made a decision to head for the bus station and take a trip out to Blarney Castle. I had been warned that it was a tourist trap, but likely worth the trip anyway. Once at the bus station, owing to an alertness deficit brought on by mounting exhaustion, I promptly missed the bus to Blarney Castle. As it was, I then found myself with three hours to kill before the bus left for Kilkenny, so, in a desperate attempt to keep myself alive and interested , I decided to walk up the hill again, but this time, go all the way to the very top of the town.

The walk took just under an hour and afforded me ever better panoramas of Cork. From the top of the rise my lens dropped and fired down the gully streets; foregrounding people and junk against the blurred background of a staggered town. I descended slowly, windingly, prospecting, as it were. The results were mixed, though they shall likely make nice enough snaps.

Down below again, the river at low tide was a mere dirty canal full of muddied, blackened discards. The sun stayed behind the clouds and, out of frustration with the prevailing dull light, I photographed two dumped and muddy shopping trolleys lying back to back, the way dogs stand when they mate and get locked in a tie. I gave it the title “dirty love”. Though I knew the photo to be utter rubbish, it amounted to perhaps the most original thought I had all day.

At three o’clock I got the bus and set off for Kilkenny. In the warmth of the coach I was soon assailed by sleep and drifted off for the first hour of the ride. When I woke up, I felt annoyed with myself for not taking the chance to view the landscape. After all, I had a strong suspicion that I was missing out on this trip by not having allowed for any chance to get into the famous countryside of Ireland. I slapped some water on my face, washed my eyes awake and fixed a stare through the window to the struggling sunset.

7516 Kilkenny

With my eyes resting on the low, cloud-crowded hills behind the fields before me, we sped along into evening. As it sank lower, the sun began to break through behind the hills and a bright glare flared from one pyramidal mound, whose western slope was slewed with such a rich, white smoke as to appear smoothly snow-capped. It was as I gazed on this gorgeous light that I very suddenly felt the weight of history.

I have often failed, when looking at ruins, to see my way into the past quite as well as I can when looking at geography. For, while the dusty, broken structures might make plain the nature of ancient habitation, they are also very clearly dead sites. Yet, should one see a geographical feature – the outline of a mountain or hill, the misty damp of a forest – and consider that it has likely not changed since ancient times and that the light shining upon or around it is just as it must have been at the same time of day in a winter two thousand years ago, if one is in the right frame of mind this vision can bring home the past more strongly than anything else. I have had such moments in Italy, Greece, Croatia – many places, though it comes quite rarely – the true, gut-wrenching, melancholy tug of the past. Once more I found myself taken by it in Ireland. I knew that I was looking at history in the outline of the hills; other men and women had seen these same shapes – had been seeing these shapes for centuries. Yet, oddly enough, what got me the most when looking into the sunset was the thought that for all those four hundred years the Romans were in Britain making it a going concern, they had never bothered to come over and conquer Ireland. Why on earth was that? Why, oh why, did they not complete the picture?

7562 Kilkenny

It is worth pointing out at this stage that as a historian of the late Roman Empire, my mind turns all the more readily to this period. Now, as I turned again, I was suddenly struck by the most unexpected and jolting thought. For the first time ever, I was in a European country that had never been a part of the Roman Empire. Despite years of continental exploration, I had not yet made it north of Germany or north of the Danube. This was my first time outside of Roman Europe. It seemed so odd, so strange, that right there and then I could not, for the life of me, conceive of Ireland as a part of Europe at all. It became in my mind in that instant, something else; more akin to Scandinavia, to Iceland, or even Greenland – so peripheral as almost not to qualify as European. It was then that I realised just how much my perception of Europe was intrinsically tied to the map of the Roman Empire, which likely explains why I’ve always felt that north Africa and the Levant ought to be included in the European Union. I do believe this will be one of Europe’s ultimate goals, though certainly not for at least two decades if ever. But, once again, I digress.

7511 Kilkenny 2

7496 Kilkenny

So, back to Ireland, why had the Romans not come? Obviously some must have done. It is difficult to believe that in all the time they were in Britain, Roman traders never crossed to Ireland. We know that Irish raiders crossed to Britain, and it seems difficult to believe they were left unchastised. The problem is the paucity of written evidence about Roman Britain. Tacitus’ Agricola, c. AD 98, is the best source we have for the early period. The only mention of Ireland is the following, where Tacitus is discussing events c. AD 82:

“In the fifth year of the war, Agricola, himself in the leading ship, crossed the Clota, and subdued in a series of victories tribes hitherto unknown. In that part of Britain which looks toward Ireland, he posted some troops, hoping for fresh conquests rather than fearing attack, inasmuch as Ireland, being between Britain and Spain and conveniently situated for the seas round Gaul, might have been the means of connecting with great mutual benefit the most powerful parts of the empire. Its extent is small when compared with Britain, but exceeds the islands of our seas. In soil and climate, in the disposition, temper, and habits of its population, it differs but little from Britain. We know most of its harbours and approaches, and that through the intercourse of commerce. One of the petty kings of the nation, driven out by internal faction, had been received by Agricola, who detained him under the semblance of friendship till he could make use of him. I have often heard him say that a single legion with a few auxiliaries could conquer and occupy Ireland, and that it would have a salutary effect on Britain for the Roman arms to be seen everywhere, and for freedom, so to speak, to be banished from its sight.”[1]

Richard Warner has argued that the Irish myth of the return from Britain to Ireland of the exiled Irish prince Tuathal Techtmar is in fact a folk memory of a Roman-backed invasion. [2] Tuathal Techtmar is alleged to have returned to Ireland backed by foreign forces called the “Goidels”. Warner and others have pointed to increasingly convincing archaeological evidence for a possible Roman settlement at Drumanagh, around fifteen miles north of Dublin. The presence of artifacts could just as easily be evidence of trade, which must have been frequent owing to the proximity and location of Drumanagh, facing towards Britain as it does. Scholars have also pointed to the coincidence of the following line from Juvenal’s Satires:

“Indeed, we have sent forces beyond the shores of Ireland, to the recently conquered Orkneys Islands, and to Britain with its short nights.”[3]

Juvenal may well have served in Britain under Agricola, which certainly does lend weight to the suggestion that this legend of the return to Ireland of an exiled prince refers to a Roman-backed invasion by the same prince mentioned in the Agricola.[4] The evidence is scanty, and we must also consider the fact that the mytho-historical figure of Tuathal Techtmar might not have been an exiled Irish prince after all; it is a commonplace enough historical phenomenon to fabricate ancestry in order to enhance the rightfulness of conquest. Incidentally, I’ve always thought of this practice as indigenuity – a bullshit little term I cooked up one rainy day.

So, did the Romans have a client king relationship with a Romanised dynasty they had backed? If so, then for precisely how long did this continue? Was it for this reason that they never conquered Ireland and directly administered it themselves? And why not Scotland for that matter, in order to complete the set, as it were? They were certainly capable of doing so militarily. Was it a concern over having then to guard so much coastline? Yet contrast this with the increased chances for piratical activity if they did not control the coastline. Was it because they believed it to be easier to filter and channel the externals through Hadrianic and Antonine walls? Was it a strategic concern over the power that might be wielded by provincial governors in charge of such a large area? For, surely, the British isles would have come to constitute a single prefecture or unit of administration. Perhaps it was simply that these regions were deemed too resource poor – that they could see no economic advantage from ownership. All the same, one has to wonder what stopped them and what caused them to resist the temptations which must have cropped up. Through recent historical and archaeological research we now have a much better picture of Roman Britain as a thriving, prosperous, resource-rich province. Constantine was first proclaimed Emperor in York (Eboracum) in AD 306 and his father, Constantius, had based himself there very successfully. Was there not pressure from wealthy merchants and traders to ensure Roman monopolies around the whole of the British Isles, Ireland included? Dare I say it, and no offence to Ireland, but perhaps they just thought it was crap.

7565 Kilkenny

This question will continue to mystify me now, I suppose. Short of the discovery of the foundations of a long-buried Roman settlement, we are unlikely to have a definitive answer to the question of why the Romans failed to conquer Ireland. I guess I’ll just have to keep my eyes and ears open for any developments.

And so, there I was in Ireland, on a bus to Kilkenny, watching the creamy slopes of the hills in the rain-grey glare and thinking of the past. Soon it would be night and day one of my three day jaunt would be drawing to a close. Would I push on and go to a pub looking for action, or would I simply lie down and fall into a deep and welcome sleep?

Either way, all this thinking was making me very hungry indeed…

7483 Kilkenny

7747 Dublin

7684 Dublin

7662 Dublin

7767 Dublin


[1] Tacitus, Agricola 24, (trans.) Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb.

[2] Warner, R. ‘Tuathal Techmar: a Myth or Ancient Literary Evidence for a Roman Invasion?’ Emania, 13, 1996.

[3] Juvenal, Satires, 2, 159-60.

[4] See also, Vittorio di Martino, Roman Ireland, The Collins Press, 2006

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One more sleep!

So here it is at last, the election that has obsessed me for so many months. Tomorrow morning, just one sleep away!, I shall arise at seven to begin watching the election results coming in from Australia. I have waited eleven and a half years for this moment, the first federal election since 1993 where it looks as though Labor will actually win. The polls have been indicating a Labor landslide all year, though in the last two days the results seem to have narrowed considerably. Still, a Labor victory seems the most likely result at this stage, and that is certainly where the money is going with the betting agencies.

The recent Galaxy and Newspoll figures indicated a breakdown of 52/48 to Labor in the two-party preferred vote – this ought still to be enough to get Labor over the line, but it has produced a great deal of angst amongst those who have dared to believe that the end of Howard’s government could really be about to happen. I’m particularly enthusiastic to see this happen. Not out of any great sense of belief in the rather pissweak and watered down version of the Labor party on offer at this election, but because my dislike of the conservative Liberal/National coalition is so intense. Some years ago I would have been satisfied with any victory, just to get them out of power, but as the dangerous legacy of the years of misrule becomes ever more apparent, I’ve come to feel that only a complete massacre will be satisfying. The Liberal party has moved further right than at any point in its history since the war, and only a complete change of personnel or its collapse altogether as an organisation can be good for the Australian political landscape.

That said, considering the immensity of the task that was before Kevin Rudd when he assumed the leadership, even a narrow victory to Labor would be an incredible feat. It has been said that this would be the first time that a government had been thrown out in the middle of an economic boom, though, it could be said that really the economic boom commenced in the years immediately after the last recession and was well underway when Keating was defeated. Either way, considering his success at the last election, his general popularity (which I have always found utterly mystifying) and the well-known fact that Howard is as cunning as a shithouse rat, defeating the man Keating once dubbed “Lazarus with a triple bypass” would be a Herculean task.

Three years ago, when Howard defeated Latham with an increased majority, I had already given up hope of a change of government at this election. So convinced was I that we might have entered another Menzies era, I wrote a novel titled “Advance Australia Farewell,” set thirty years from now, in a future in which everything, inevitably, had gone to the dogs. It was designed to be a worst-case scenario forecast, to the point of being slightly farcical, sarcastic, sardonic and mordant; a story about a seventeen year-old boy who joins a group of professional beggars and eventually escapes as a refugee to New Zealand. By the time I finished the novel in June of last year, I realised that I had lost all hope of a positive future of Australia; that it was destined to become increasingly conservative, Christian, vapid, greedy, materialistic, anti-intellectual, intolerant and assertively nationalistic; that it was heading for environmental collapse. It was an extrapolation of the effects of a continuity of current policy and attitude; an extrapolation from a belief that conservative rule would not only continue, but would become more extreme.

With this forecast in mind, it seems remarkable that I am sitting here, the night before an Australia federal election, looking forward to a shift back towards the centre. It seems even more remarkable, after the devastating loss of the last election, that I am sitting here feeling a deep sense of disappointment, not that Labor might not win, but rather, that they might not win by a landslide.

There are good reasons, however, for desiring a significant majority, the most obvious of this is that a government with a secure mandate can afford to take more risks. What has been most disappointing about this Labor opposition is how risk-averse its entire strategy has been from the moment Kevin Rudd became opposition leader. Who would ever have imagined a Labor leader stating calmly and clearly that he was an economic conservative? It is certainly understandable considering the generally benevolent economic climate and the low level of unemployment that an opposition leader would need to reassure the public that this one positive to which the government laid claim could be sustained. Yet this cannot excuse the Tasmanian pulp mill, or the matching of government tax cuts, or, indeed, the entire Labor tax package. Howard made hay with Peter Garrett’s slip up, in which it was suggested that once Labor got into power they would “change it all”, but many Labor supporters, myself included, hope that Garrett was telling the truth. As Ross Gittins pointed out in the Sydney Morning Herald several weeks ago, the sad truth with Kevin Rudd is that what you see is what you get.[1]

At least, however, this would suggest we might have a new prime minister who was honest and genuine and who was outspoken about the fact that the key to the future was education and acting sooner rather than later on climate change. In a recent article urging Australians to drive a stake “through the dark heart of Howard’s reactionary government,” the man Howard replaced, former Prime Minister Paul Keating, argued that this election was “a chance to rebuild after a decade of moral erosion.”

Keating writes:

“He (Howard) has turned out to be the most divisive prime minister in our history. Not simply a conservative maintaining the status quo, but a militant reactionary bent upon turning the clock back. Turning it back against social inclusion, cooperation at the workplace, the alignment of our foreign policies towards Asia, providing a truthful and honourable basis for our reconciliation, accepting the notion that all prime ministers since Menzies had: Holt, Gorton, McMahon, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and me: that our ethnic diversity had made us better and stronger and the nation’s leitmotif was tolerance. Howard has trodden those values into the ground.”

Keating is correct when he states that “Cynicism and deceitfulness have been the defining characteristics of John Howard and his Government.”[2] Personally I think the worst aspect of this government has its aggressive, insular, nationalism and parochialism. The Cronulla riots were a direct and very obvious consequence of this, but I could list countless other, smaller, everyday examples of aggressive nationalism. By way of an example, an old friend, an Australian of German Jewish descent, when visiting Bondi Beach was asked “How did you find the water mate?” When he replied, “It was okay,” the response that was thrown back at him was “well I bet it’s bloody better than wherever you’re from,” which was odd, considering he was from Bondi Junction.

I left Australia because I no longer felt comfortable amongst Australians. The rampant parochialism made it feel further away from the rest of the world than ever before. In a time when growing connectivity ought to have been increasing tolerance, it seemed as though xenophobia, which had so easily re-asserted itself under Howard’s first government thanks to his lukewarm condemnations of Pauline Hanson and which was later augmented by the Howard government’s fear-mongering hypocrisy on terrorism, was becoming more firmly rooted in Australian society. I can only hope, should Rudd win tomorrow, that a change of government will lead to a significant change of tone; less bombastic rhetoric, and a renewed drive for tolerance and social inclusion.

Last weekend, in a desperate need for some popcorn entertainment, I went to see the film “Beowulf ”. When Beowulf first arrives on the shores of Denmark, he makes the bold statement that “I’m here to kill your monster.” I sincerely hope that Kevin Rudd, like Beowulf, can kill the monster tomorrow, before much more harm is done. One more sleep!

It only remains for me to make a prediction. Taking into account all the polls and the analysis of various psephologists, and putting aside my fear of BoBos (Bohemian Bourgeoisie who make a noise in the polls, then turn up and vote conservative) I’m plumping for a Labor win, somewhat narrower than hoped: c. 81 seats to 67. I’m also hoping for a significant increase in the Green vote and, ideally, the addition of as many as six Greens to the Senate. I’ll happily take five, or even four, so long as they hold the balance of power. This can only exert a positive influence, in my mind. Mark Latham might have called this a “Seinfeld election” about nothing, but the truth is that a very great deal is really at stake. The very fact that we are still talking about Kyoto, without having moved beyond it, is indicative of how far behind Australia has fallen. A change of government might provide the momentum needed to catch up fast.

Bring it on!

 


[1] Sydney Morning Herald, October 24, 2007 “A Smarter Vision for the Future: Not Ruddy Likely.”

[2] Sydney Morning Herald, November 22, 2007. “A Chance to Rebuild after a Decade of Moral Erosion.”

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December 2006

There was a Spaniard, a German, an Australian and an Irishman in a house with only one toilet. Sound like a joke? Welcome to 8 Primrose Street, Cambridge.

Yes, the Sturton Street years have ended and the Primrose Street years have begun. Well, they began a while ago now, at the start of December. I have been slack in keeping in touch of late. Happy holidays and all that. Brace yourselves for a bit of an extended update. Much of what follows might be old news for some of you, but for the sake of the uninformed I shall hop, skip and jump over some old ground. For all your sakes, I shall try to keep it brief, and clean.

Firstly. Do any of you remember Leif Garret? Things didn’t really work out for him in the end once he got into the gear and on the bottle.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leif_Garrett

Anyway, it so happens that my German housemate is called Leif, and our resident Irishman goes by the name of Garrett. No kidding.

So, news. The curtain was closing on the Sturton street years and I spent a week inspecting rooms, then ended up taking the first one I’d looked at. I saw some of the most bizarre living arrangements in the process. All these poor little postgrads tucked in together in tiny houses. One house I inspected, courtesy of a Frenchman by the name of Antoine, was a tiny, triangular building with a bar downstairs which the owner had bought from a pub and installed himself. The room itself had been advertised as a “nice double room”, but it was smaller than a coach toilet, had a built-in “double” bed that was not as long as the average fully grown male, had one square foot of floorspace, and was currently occupied by a Chilean Catholic fanatic who had crucifixes, bibles, saints and virgins strewn all about the place. Yes, nice if you are a Dwarven monk perhaps, though not at three hundred and fifty quid a month…

So, it turned out I’d already struck gold without realising it, for the first house I’d inspected was Primrose street, and as my search went on, it grew more and more attractive. When I saw it the second time, I was amazed at my initial reticence. It is a lovely room with French doors opening into the backyard, built-in bookshelves and sturdy, if functional furniture. Perfect for someone who likes living like a monk, only not as a dwarf and without all the religious bollocks.

My housemates are cool – Leif is a material scientist from Karlsruhe who is into punk and rock and rides a skateboard to the lab. Garrett is a champion who is doing something or other seriously technical with plastics, and as for Ignasi the Spaniard, he’s busily working at translating help menus into Spanish for a computing firm. It must be tough because he seems to need to watch a lot of soccer.

The winter has been particularly mild. It waved a few threatening fists in December, but then grew shy and we had the mildest January on record. “Mild” is one of those special English euphemisms for weather which is not particularly menacing and essentially means “unhostile”. We had a morning of snow about six weeks ago, but that was that.

Over Christmas I had the pleasure of minding a rabbit (a fine French Lop for all you rabbit enthusiasts), the darling of someone I met in a book club I have recently joined (first up, Knut Hamsum – “Mysteries”, then Hemingway – “For whom the Bell Tolls”, next is J.M. Coetzee – “The Master of Petersburg”). Many of you will be familiar with my obsession with giant rabbits, yet Milo was, I’m sorry to say, of normal size. The one advantage was that he costs a whole lot less in carrots.

More news: A couple of months ago I also extended my visa for another five years. The home office have recently made a few changes to the visa renewal system. You no longer have to turn up at five in the morning and stand for six hours in a rainswept queue with a thousand other applicants and asylum seekers at Lunar House in East Croydon, which is, incidentally, the most sublunary building ever constructed. Instead, you phone them up, make an appointment, join a much shorter and faster moving queue at Lunar House in East Croydon, still the most sublunary building ever constructed, and pay five hundred pounds for the privilege, whether they accept your application or not.

Fortunately, they did accept my application and I emerged clutching a passport stamped with leave to remain and work until 2012, by which time, of course, we’ll all be working on orbital space platforms. So, as I said to my colleagues at work, I’m practically a Pom.

In order to celebrate, I planned a couple of holidays, or, campaigns, as it were. First was the Benelux countries plus France. I’d been away too long, so flew into Amsterdam about a month ago, stocked up on fresh air-sealed, Venezuelan magic mushrooms and other Dutch delicacies, then went off to look at great art and windmills. First, to Haarlem, home of the Frans Hals Museum, but also home to some very nice weather. I was thus inclined to drift along the canals and soak up the sun. Australians living in England during the winter become like reptiles the moment the sun is out… Time to bake bod, as Clive James said. Anyway, to cut a long story short, I went down to Delft (home of Vermeer, as in Girl with a Pearl Earring, and no, Simon Tracey, not Girl with a Pearl Necklace), to Rotterdam, to Breda, to Roosendaal, and then on into Belgium, through Antwerp, and from there direct to Bruges, where I had some great hallucinations and nearly froze to death in this splendid hub of the high medieval cloth trade. I then nearly froze to death in Ghent, walking around with permanent ice-cream headache – didn’t bring a coat, see. The problem with having a bulky camera, spare lenses, laptop, adaptors, cables, mouse, power leads… something’s gotta give, and this time it was clothing. Still, I made it to Brussels, at which point it began snowing heavily. I put on four tee-shirts, a long-sleeved cotton top, and a hooded, fleecy-cotton track top, but by Christ, it was still not enough. Thankfully when I arrived in Paris I met up with Kathy who had kindly brought me a coat from home. So, things worked out in the end, and, as you can see, I lived to tell the tale. Paris was as great as ever, although I have come to the conclusion that the coffee there is way overpriced and utter shite as well. It’s almost as bad as English coffee, in fact, sacré bleu!, I think it’s worse. Dan Chez, you’ll be pleased to know that Rue Mouffetard is still there and still swinging.

So, this brings us perilously close to the present. Last night I flew back from Venice after another campaign, this time across northern Italy. It was a madly ambitious itinerary, but I managed it with style and aplomb. I flew into Bergamo last Sunday morning on a 0630 flight and arrived at nine-ish. I checked out the town, ah, the sun! It was seventeen degrees – have you any idea how amazing seventeen degrees can be given the right circumstances? I was sweating as I ascended to the high, old town, shooting like a madman in the high-contrast blaze. I hung about for a few hours, then split to Como, on Lake Como, funnily enough. Como is a nice resort town in the northern lakes region of Italy – it’s only a bit over an hour north of Milan on the local trains, which, incidentally, are dirt cheap and highly efficient. I’ve always found public transport to be exceptionally good in Italy, just in case you needed to know. I also find that a modicum of snuff can be most efficacious.

So, from there to Milan the next morning, straight to the Duomo and straight back out. Milan looked like a big, grinding, stinkhole overrun with far too many cars and people. I didn’t see any models, unfortunately, except maybe one, but she was German. It was your typical big Italian city – dirty, loud, chaotic, and – why, oh god, why, can no one in Italy do neat concrete formwork? Even the Workers’ Socialist Democratic Republic Paradise of 6 Furber Road puts them to shame.

I fled to Verona, via Brescia, where I bolted into town with shouts of “move it soldier!” and “go, marine, go!” to see an eighth-century rotunda. Had a tight train connection, see. Verona, by contrast to Milan, feels like it was briefly run by the Swiss. It is not only beautiful but it has the third largest Roman arena in western Europe. It also has a lovely Roman bridge and a whole swag of fourth to eighth-century churches, which is just the sort of thing to float my boat. I also had the good fortune of accidentally booking the same hotel I booked when I last stayed here in  2001, which is cheap and slap bang in the heart of the old town. Locanda Catullo, take it from me – it might be one star, but it’s one hell of a star. Plus, any hotel named after a Roman poet has already got a head start. That’s Catullus, mind you.

From Verona to Mantua – nice, but dull; I dug it for two hours then took the train to Bologna, which was big, dirty, smelly, chaotic, (poor concrete formwork), but also totally entrancing. Bologna’s one of those places you get in Italy where everyone has had a go at decorating it, but what is most noticeable is how grandiose the projects there were once the papacy got their hands on it. That said, the main basilica, of San Petronio, is the fifth largest church in the world, and would be larger still if the papacy had not decreed that it should not be larger than St Peters. Consequently, after beginning construction in 1392, it was never finished – the façade is only half clad with marble and the top half shows bare brick. From the sides protrude the vestigial beginnings of apses which were never added. The papacy decided that the land should instead be used for the university – hear hear! Bologna also has over forty kilometres of arcades and porticos. It also has a marvellous fifth-century church which has been joined to two Romanesque churches to make a conglomerate maze of chapels, apses, rotundas and cloisters. I nearly shot my bolt at that point. Bologna is a very interesting place, and, of course, home of the famous hot sauce. Sadly, I could not bring myself to order it, though I did not weep for this.

Next stop was Ravenna, which in the early fifth century became the capital of the western Roman Empire. It was hopping around a bit at that stage according to expedients: Milan, Arles, Trier, but for a good long while it was in Ravenna and, accordingly, the town was splendidly adorned. Ravenna has the greatest collection of late Roman mosaics in situ that you can find. The sixth-century church of San Vitale has to be seen to be believed. It is a riot of colour – mosaics, being comprised of tiles of glass and glazed clay, do not fade, and consequently, none of the original impact has been lost despite fifteen-hundred odd years having gone by. There are several baptisteries, mausoleums, first to fourth-century houses etc, which still retain their entire mosaic adornment. Anyway, just bloody well go to Ravenna and check it out yourselves, although, be careful, because, the following morning, on my way back from a sunrise bolt to Rimini to photograph a Roman bridge and Arch of Augustus down the sun-struck decumanus, I was arrested at the train station when a sniffer dog took an interest in my bag!

Yes, it seems he detected evidence of my trip to the Netherlands, so I had the curious privilege of going off with some Italian policemen for half an hour while they searched me and my sack. Fortunately, unlike several other famous expeditions of Benny the Mule, I was not carrying anything at all. They were very polite about it, even apologetic, and we found the time to swap a few jokes, although I didn’t tell them the ones about the Carabinieri, who are notoriously thick as pigshit.

So, from Ravenna, to the piece de resistance… Venice. Ah, what a dream… The sun blazed, the accordions played, the gondoliers gondoliered, the waters glinted, and for two and a half days I was back in my favourite dream. I took fifteen hundred photos (recently passed the 10000 mark since leaving Australia), drank a few litres of wine, ate a big hunk of cheese, inhaled a few pizzas, knocked off a few hundred cakes, smoked a pack of cigarettes, and had the requisite ball one has in Venice. It was all too good and I even got a bit of a farmer’s tan, but yesterday afternoon I had to leave. Flew out of Treviso at ten thirty and got home just after one last night, and that’s about that. So, there you go, that’s me in a nutshell. I’m still working for the Cambridge City Council selling tickets for the Corn Exchange. If you’re curious:

http://www.cornex.co.uk

Finishing my sixth novel – been on the final chapter for a month now, too many distractions… and otherwise, just hangin’ out. When should I expect you?

Adios amigos, kiss kiss,

Benji.

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Apples and Pears

26/09/06

 

Comrades!

Now, where was I? Back at the end of July, sleeping on the floor in W8 Lawn Bowls court… Ah, the Pembroke years, how long ago that all seems…

So, the interview went well and International Programs at Pembroke gave me the golden handshake. I was back in the system. In twenty-four hours I went from sleeping on the floor on the sly in college and dodging the bedders in the morning to having the right to demand a room at a moment’s notice. Marvellous. But there was one thing. The job. I had to learn to co-lecture a third-year university course on South African fiction, including four novels, two short stories and ten poems I’d never read, in a week. Needless to say, I was packing death.

On the 25th of July, Chris and I left behind our room in Lawn Bowls court. No more would I wake to the roar of two cement trucks parked in the street at the back of college; no more would I emerge from the shower to gaze across the contrastingly quiet lushness of Pembroke college’s overgrown quads. We moved into 5 All Saints Passage – a run-down old four-storey flat above Ray Newman’s Gentlemen’s Hairdresser. It was a strange place, tall and thin. It began in darkness, towards the back of the passage behind the shop, where one musty door led to the cellar (with a note to the effect that two of the stairs had gone) and another, up towards the light. Up the first flight were my room and the bathroom with the pigeons living in the skylight. My room looked out through a ten-foot high arched window onto the narrow passage, with Trinity College on the other side and the carved faces of saints all down its length. It was a dark room, but high-ceilinged and comfortable, and it was also free.

Upstairs from there was the small lounge and kitchen, and at last, the view opened up. For, once above my level, the rear of the flat rose above all the neighbouring buildings and looked right out across the roofs to Castle Hill and the Saint John’s chapel tower. It was a splendid view, which improved further as one ventured up to the top level where the master bedroom and study were located. Naturally Chris took the best rooms. We moved in in a flurry one afternoon and immediately established the ritual of sitting in the tiny cast iron balcony overlooking the passage, drinking. The third floor provided an enviable vantage point and came quickly to be a favourite spot.

Thus began the All Saint’s Passage years. They were busy times. I was working full time at the pub for that final week of July and in my spare time, getting stuck into reading King Solomon’s Mines while trying to finish my novel. Thankfully I finally got there and sent it off… now, the waiting game… Finding it difficult to prep myself for teaching without an active internet connection in the flat, I decided to get a room from Pembroke after all and they came good, though the room left a lot to be desired. It was on the top floor of a complete warren of a college house on Pembroke Street, directly opposite Pembroke, which afforded views of the mossy ceramic tiles opposite and the spires of the college buildings, but not much else. Another two feet and it would have been spectacular. It was so small that only Harry Potter might have found it expansive, yet it did have a live broadband internet connection and, like everything in this town, it wasn’t at all far from home. It was also free. My “office” soon became a second home.

The next step was to sort out my finances and get some transport. Barclays Bank love Cambridge students, whatever vintage, and without even blinking they gave me a five hundred pound interest-free overdraft. At last I was solvent. In pounds! It all seemed to be falling into place. Pembroke handed me a meal card with two hundred and fifty quid on it and told me to stuff myself as often and as much as I liked at their expense. I bought myself a sturdy, fast, reconditioned second-hand mountain bike and before you knew it, the kid was back. As Sacha Coles once famously said, “Ich bin hell on wheels.”

So, July 31, the teaching began. I thought I might vomit my innards out from nerves during my first class, especially when, having hoped for a tutorial-style discussion, it became clear that my seven Californians had arrived only two days before and were half dead with jet-lag and I was forced to give a lecture. Thankfully the one thing I’ve always had up my sleeve is the ability to talk seemingly without pause for hours on end, and, once I got going, all was well. Our first week was hellishly busy and we soared through South African history, poetry, foundation myths, post-colonialism, a deconstruction of imperialism, critical theory, the kitchen sink… and wound up with a relaxed class fuelled by Western Cape Pinotage and Billtong, during which we watched a documentary on Sofia Town.

Our teaching all took place in Downing College – new by Cambridge standards, being only a couple of hundred years old, but gloriously spacious with the largest court of all, bordered by simple, neo-classical buildings and thus having the aspect of an enormous, grassy agora. Once our students warmed up and got into the swing of it, they proved to be an excellent bunch – one of whom was called Randy, haw haw. Chris and I relished the opportunity both to bash Apartheid and to use glaring examples of imperial rape and pillage by genocidal megalomaniacs such as Cecil Rhodes (when you think Rhodes scholarship, imagine there being such a thing as a Hitler scholarship…), to give our Americans clear examples of precisely how America behaves these days, without ever even mentioning America! Ah, the subtlety of education… That said, I got the impression that our students didn’t lean towards Bush in the last election, assuming they were old enough to vote then, that is, and if they had leaned that way, it was likely only because they were drunk.

So teaching was a great buzz – the environment, the students, the material (if you haven’t read Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country or J. M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K. then I can’t recommend them highly enough), the free dinners… and since they were sorting me out rather nicely and I wasn’t paying rent, I cut down to about fifteen hours a week at the pub, which became more a social occasion than anything else. Indeed, I turned up Saturday night for a “celebrity shift”.

So, eventually things wound up with a great formal dinner and rapturous applause which brought tears to my eyes – naturally culminating in the sort of laid on, pissed-up binge the colleges always responsibly encourage. The following day Chris flew back to South Africa for a month. Within two days all the American students, who had been such great drinking buddies, were gone. I finished at the Anchor. I had no mates. I had to turn in the keys to my “office.” It was heartrending. Then one day my college meal card stopped working. The system had tossed me kicking and screaming back into the streets.

Then my bike got stolen – sheered clean from the fence with bolt cutters. A word of advice – don’t park next to a construction site. Naturally I was pissed and was forced to storm from one place to the next, glaring at every red bike with a keen eye for mischief. Then it dawned on me as I was steaming through the market square one morning that every step I took just rubbed salt into the wound, so I went and bought another bike. To warp slightly an old adage, if your bike gets nicked, get straight back up and go buy a new one. Or a new second hand one, that is. Plus the biggest, most fuck off lock ever invented. This time around I bought a twenty-year old Raleigh. It’s built like a tank and goes like a frolicking filly in a harvest-time pasture. The kid was back, again…

Then I got the flu, but it was a blessing in disguise. Having no job at the time I lay in bed on the top floor for a week with my lap-top, writing like mad and reading up a storm; staring here and there across the pigeon-soiled roofs. It was a golden age, if brief. Cook, eat, shower, read, cook, eat, shower, write, sleep, wake up, go for run, duck out for a sly beer hoping my sensible side won’t notice, sleep… I was enjoying myself so much in this great old musty flat that I hung on for an extra weekend and finally moved out late on a Sunday afternoon in early September.

It was dark in the passage. The gun was heavy in my pocket…

Oh, sorry, wrong story…

I stood outside Ray Newman’s, pondering his forty-six years of service, pondering the paradox of his sign which read “Modern Hairdresser” and had done for the same forty-six years, pondering his worn-through linoleum floor, thinking hard on how I’d miss all my pigeon buddies who cooed, shat and shagged shamelessly outside our windows on the rooftops and chimneys, thinking of the good times and the bad, the camembert, sauerkraut stench from the Polish cheese shop next to Ray’s, wondering what the next episode had in store for me, wondering how long I could go without having a conversation with someone, wondering how I’d get by without any mates at all…

It was bliss.

Throughout August, on many days and nights in the “office”, I had searched like a bastard to find a place to live, written countless e-mails in response to ads and gone to inspections. I was fortunate in striking gold on my second visit. In order to sew things up and stop fretting about where I would wind up, I accepted the offer there and then and agreed to move into a lovely house with two other people roughly my age.

And hence we come to the start of the famous Sturton Street years, which ought to be ongoing for at least the next three or four months. The people I moved in with are lovely, or so it would appear from brief acquaintance: Sonia, who owns the house, is a clinical psychologist and Pete, the other housemate is an ecologist. Both are very bright and cool and, it seems, never here. Sonia left two days after I moved in to go to Philadelphia for a month where she is working on a joint research project, and Pete who, in my first three weeks here was away six days out of seven doing wildlife surveys for environmental impact studies, (“Off to do another bat survey”, he says… “off to watch badgers and water voles in Lancashire…”) has just set off on holiday and won’t be back until the second week of October. So essentially I’ve had the house to myself, and since it took my new employer ages to sort out confirming the start date for my next job (Cambridge Corn Exchange, box office, customer service, shit-kicking), which is in fact, tomorrow, Monday, the 24th or whatever it is, I’ve been living here entirely by myself, having no obligations, writing and reading in the sun all day and going out for increasingly epic cycles and runs, soothed here and there by the odd puff of “zorl”.

And it’s a very nice house. The backyard is long and grassy and full of interesting plants. There is a fine young apple tree which has just this month produced its best fruit ever (apparently) and hence I’ve been stuffing myself full of apples. And pears, for there is also a towering great pear tree in the middle of the yard which rains down pears like you wouldn’t believe; ten to fifteen a day. Many that I find are hapless, bruised, cracked, already spoiled things, and many others get got by the squirrels before I can save them. Yet the sheer number has ensured a steady oversupply. To avoid having to throw them out, and also taking into consideration that many are rather too small and bitter, I’ve taken to stewing them en masse. Now I have to eat them with every meal just to get through them. Pears on my cereal, a bowl of pears after lunch, a bowl of pears and cream after dinner, a bowl here and there just for the hell of it. So much for my fear that things might go pear-shaped, boom boom.

I had long feared that living this side of Parker’s Piece meant living on the wrong side of the tracks, as it were. Yet this end of town holds the Anglia Ruskin University, which is “the other” university in Cambridge. The cool thing about that is that the students aren’t all complete toffs and nerds and are more like your regular university undergrads; dreadlocks, smoking pot, doing coke, dodging lectures and hanging out in cafes, hanging around street corners, making films about each other, chain smoking in the local cemetery, trying to work out how the hell they’re going to pay off their student loans to cover increasingly exorbitant tuition fees… they’re also mostly foreign which makes Mill Road – the local version of King Street, Newtown, a regular Babel. Throw in all the awesome Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Malaysian and Chinese shops around here, and you get a pretty good result all round. So it’s a cool area, and oddly enough, feels a lot more like a student area than the centre of town, which is dominated by the University of Cambridge. It also has quaint old pubs and houses – row after row of the bastards.

So, as yet the Sturton Street years have been good years. Unfortunately, however, all things must pass, as George Harrison said (and did, for that matter). Come tomorrow I’ll be back at work in a dull job. Still, worse things happen at sea, and what the hell, there’s novels and poetry and photography to keep me going and the money has to come from somewhere… Plus, there is the exciting fact that next week a Cuban student will be arriving here who needs somewhere to stay and will be living for a couple of weeks in the study. Gus – any tips on how best to entertain him?

Orright, Comrades, I’ve chewed your ears long enough, be off with you, and best wishes in all endeavours.

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No Fixed Address

Comrades!

 

Firstly, I hope this finds you all well and happy into the bargain.

I’ve been living rather a nomadic life for the last few weeks, but things are about to settle down into a more regular rhythm. After returning from The Sausagelands, I had a week before my friend Chris’ lease expired on his flat which had been my base camp since arriving at the end of May. It was a strange place to live in, with possibly the most poorly designed kitchen in the world, low ceilings, no access to the back courtyard from the flat, an oven that only occasionally worked, a washing machine / dryer that murdered clothes and was entirely uncooperative, a shower so small you banged your elbows continually whilst washing, and no ventilation since all the windows were designed not to open properly. The bit that really kills me is that this pokey little dive is also the chosen retirement home of the Dean of (insert Cambridge College here). Ahhh, the Poms!

That flat faces directly onto a park (Frisbee lawn) and has a small front yard which can be accessed by climbing out the one window that did open fully – a space about three or four feet wide and ten long, full of shrubs and bark. It was better than nothing under the circumstances, and proved quite useful for drinking in the afternoon sun while people walked and rode past immediately beside us.

Owing to the proximity to the park, it made both us and any passers by into an endless spectacle. Having spent many hours watching pikies and plebs suck back cans of Tennants Super Strength Lager, guarded by the ubiquitous dog-on-a-rope, I was gutted to learn that I missed the very best spectacle of all whilst in Czech, namely, two proper Newmarket race-goers in three-piece suit and frock, going for it no holds barred under the tree immediately outside the window.

It had been rather cramped in the flat with Lucy and Liz, but we all got on OK and muddled through. Naturally things improved as soon as we got rid of the women ; )

After a final disposable BBQ of Boerewors and beers aplenty, Chris and I farewelled the flat and I went down to London on Saturday to stay with Liz. She was holed up in a flat belonging to old friends of her family, at which we used to stay years ago to get a break from Cambridge. Liz was busy researching in the British Library and I am currently racing like the devil to finish my novel in the hope of reaching a July 31 deadline for a competition entry, so I stayed in, set up in the kitchen and hammered the keyboard all day Sunday and Monday. As a consequence, I will now reach my deadline.

Whilst in London, I received some extremely good news from Chris, namely that our cunning plan had come to full fruition. See, one afternoon around ten days ago, we were dining in Kings College (for reasons too boring to explain) when he hit me with the proposal that he hire me as his teaching assistant for his summer school course on the South African novel, commencing at the start of August. I agreed to do it immediately and the following day we sent my CV off to the director of studies for the international programs at Pembroke College, from which these summer schools are run. On Monday the good news came through that the job was mine at the rate of 70 pounds per hour. Essentially I shall be taking all the tutorials whilst Chris does the lectures. Yes, I have a lot of reading to do, and needless to say, there was much rejoicing.

Monday evening Liz very kindly took me up the London Eye. We reached the peak at around 2100, which chimed in perfectly with the setting of the sun. London was hung with gold dust in an umber haze, but however romantic the light, it’s still an ugly town.

On Tuesday Liz and I parted ways and I took the train back to Cambridge, unsure of where I would be staying. Chris had assured me I was welcome to the floor of the room in Pembroke into which he has moved temporarily, but I was concerned about imposing upon him further.

For about five hours I felt like my entire plan of relocating to the UK was going to fall through and I’d be flying back to Sydney with my tail between my legs, ungodly broke, especially when it became clear that the cheapest bed and breakfast I could find was thirty pounds a night. After a very sweaty search (over thirty all week and Wednesday hit 38 degrees) I bit the bullet and took a garret room at 30 quid, then went straight into town to a job interview with the Cambridge University Temporary Employment service. Having been told there would be nothing available until the start of September and needing some readies in the meantime, I walked straight around the corner to my old pub, The Anchor, which is still run by the same landlords for whom I worked back in 2003.

The following day, I moved my stuff into Chris’ room and that evening, like a dog returning to his own sick, I worked my first shift at the Anchor for three years. It was alarming how familiar it was and I had no trouble in slotting straight back into being a piss merchant, as it were. I expect to be doing around twenty to thirty hours a week to tide me over as I won’t be paid by Pembroke until the end of August. There is a cool crowd so far as the staff are concerned, with three Poles, two Frenchmen, an Italian girl and a side order of Poms. Do drop by!

So, here I am, sleeping on a futon mattress on the parquet floor of W8, “Lawn Bowls Court”, Pembroke College, and things are looking up. I now have two jobs, hope of another with the city council commencing at the start of September (working for the local theatre / gig venue) and, as of Tuesday, I will have a new place to live. For, in another stroke of extraordinarily good fortune, Chris, whose lectureship is now permanent, was successful in applying to become a fellow of St John’s College (where we both did our PhDs). John’s, who may take their time but do things properly, have kindly offered him a house at peppercorn rent into which we shall be moving shortly. This arrangement will only last until the end of August, at which point John’s will give him his permanent rooms and by which time I should be loaded with Sterling from my teaching work and have had the time to organise a room here in town…

So, that’s me in a nutshell, writing by day and drinking by night with the Young Americans, soon to be my students. I’d forgotten what a nice place Cambridge is when you’re on the right side of tracks, so do drop in – good show, what! – Pimms and Lemonade all round…

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The Sausagelands

This is a copy of an e-mail sent out to friends and family after a brief trip through Czech Republic and Germany in July 2006.

Comrades!

I’ve just returned from Czech Republic and Germany which was a nice little holiday from my holiday. I needed to clear out on one last jaunt before I am forced to take life seriously over here (whether that will ever happen remains in doubt) so off I went on the Sunday before last and flew into a town called Brno, about two hundred clicks southeast of Prague. The name is pronounced not entirely unlike “Bruno”, which had me chuckling to myself repeatedly. Travelling alone can be dangerous, I warn you…

Yeah, got into Bruno and took a train up to Prague, keen to feast on Kafka and Mucha and quench my thirst with some fine local pilsners, only, I arrived at around eleven in the evening and my first stop was therefore the twenty-four seven train station sausage joint. After recently travelling through the Balkans, I have come to conclude that they ought to rename mitteleuropa “the Sausage Lands”, which has a certain ring to it. There really is nothing finer than the sight of twenty kranskeh boiling away in front of you, or the lightly sizzling bratwurst, or the dusky aromas of the long, red, spicy… okay… yep, sure.

Basically Prague is beautiful and the six hundred and fifty-two odd people who had told me so previously were not lying in the slightest. It has been scrubbed down, spruced up, buffed and polished, given a few licks of paint, de-loused and thoroughly velvet revolutionised. It has also become considerably more expensive than it once was, or than anything else in Czech Republic for that matter, the upshot of which is that it is increasingly geared towards tourism – now making up sixty percent of the city’s total income. But, then again, it does look very nice, so why shouldn’t they make a few bucks off us into the bargain?

I spent the next three days wandering about town in dry, 32 degree sunshine, shooting around a thousand photos, talking to myself, singing along to my iPod and basically looking like a typical dickhead tourist who was totally full of himself. Then, to really rub it in, I went and sat right under a rather imposing saint on the smashingly grand Charles Bridge and got slowly drunk smoking cigarettes and sniping people with my “perving lens”. I enjoyed this so much – drinking through the late afternoon until dark (c.2200) – that I did precisely the same thing the following evening. After two nights of this on the trot I’d already told myself all my best anecdotes, so I slunk back to my hostel room feeling the weight of a diet of cabbage, beer, dumplings, sausages and smoked pork, and made the decision to leave town first thing Wednesday morning.

What followed was a day of mixed pleasures and an evening of harrowing tribulation. I took a train through the Sudetenland via the town of Bad Schandau (sounds like a westy haircut, methinks) and on into Germany where I disembarked at Dresden. Rejoicing at still being in The Sausagelands, I immediately downed a bratwurst and walked on into town to see what remained.

Dresden had had the double fortune of being almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War and then being occupied by the Russians. The town was hit by unprecedentedly heavy incendiary bombing raids on February 13, 1945 which led to a horrific firestorm that not only burned most of the city down, but blasted, roasted and suffocated to death possibly as many as 150,000 people.

No one knows how many people were in Dresden at the time, but the population had swollen to roughly double its then 650,000, owing to the number of German refugees fleeing the advance of the Red Army. To quote Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse Five: “You guys burnt the place down, turned it into a single column of flame. More people died there in the firestorm, in that one big flame, than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”

What I liked about Dresden was that contrary to the usual soulless, brutalist architecture of socialist realist idealism, Dresden looked rather more like the shining visions of the future dreamed up by the less addled Soviet social architects. Indeed, the stretch from the train station leading to the old town would not look out of place in Tarkovsky’s Solaris. I walked about for a few hours before doing as the locals did, which was to recline with my feet in a public fountain. One sausage later and I was off to take the train to Leipzig.

It was here that the trouble began. I was, admittedly, somewhat culpable since I was travelling without a guide book, and though I almost always do have a guide book, it’s never been too difficult to find a hotel without one. I figured, sure, I’ll find a place, no worries. I took the time to admire the vast train station whilst looking for a tourist information office, a search that ultimately proved fruitless. I then found a couple of guys on the street welcoming people to Leipzig and thought, hello, here’s a map. All good. I asked them if there was a hostel in town, but it was an uphill battle – ein bischen Deutsch meets kein Englisch… so I figured I’d wing it.

I walked into town, la did da, and it seemed nice enough – typical central European city, nothing too spectacular, some grimy old churches, trams, prefab concrete tower blocks, an occasional loggia, soccer madness in the air, beautiful women on bicycles and sausages cooking on stalls, only, there was something missing. Hotels.

It was six in the evening when I arrived and by about six forty I had given up and was asking a French girl and a fruity man from Saxony if they knew where I might find a room. They gave me another map and sent me off south to a part of town which they assured me was practically thronging with cheap hotels and pensions. So, I set off confidently, figuring I’d be showered and having a beer in about half an hour. Forty minutes later, I reached the end of this street having gone past a grand total of two pensions, both of which had no one at reception and signs informing me that there would not be anyone at reception again until tomorrow. This sort of thing happens the day after Germany loses in the world cup, I guess.

I started to branch out into the side streets where I found a three star hotel which would, knocking off breakfast, cost a mere fifty euros. It felt rather like being shot in the wallet, so I politely declined and walked all the way back into town, figuring that since in every other city in Europe there are several homely dives right next to the train station, I’d find one there.

Forty minutes later, I discovered otherwise. Now I was seriously pissed off. It was eight and I was exhausted and sweating like a you know what (Not a pig, incidentally, as they don’t really have sweat glands). I realised what a fool I had been not to cop the hit and pay the fifty, so I slogged it on down that road again, looking for an autobank on the way. There didn’t seem to be any, but I recalled seeing one close to the hotel, so I thought it would not be a problem. When I reached it, I discovered that it did not accept foreign bank cards at all. I walked around for fifteen minutes trying to find another one, before giving up and going to the hotel in the hope that I could pay after I’d been shown to my room, left my passport or other form of security and at least had a shower and change of clothes before going all the goddamned way back into town.

I presented this idea to the man with the comedy accent behind the counter, but despite his amazing affability and quite incredible facial expressions, it was not an option. They did want to help me, however, and said they would accept British pounds. From this there proceeded an almost unfathomably idiotic passage wherein they tried to get the internet to work to find a currency converter, which took five minutes – then, having worked out the rate, everyone, including myself, was too shit at maths to work out how to do the conversion.

In the end, he happily presented me with the exchange rate of seventy-two pounds nineteen, for fifty euros, which struck me as rather odd considering the Pound is worth a good deal more than the Euro. “Okay, okay,” I said, grimacing with astonishment that I had not as yet fallen over and wept, “I’ll go to the bank.” So, I walked back into town and all the way back – this time, however, in record time (around fifty minutes round trip).

Being ten o’clock and dying of dehydration, sausage-starvation and a general lack of stimulants, I did not dally in my hard-won shower, but rather was back out the door in five minutes time and over the road watching the last ten minutes of the France v. Portugal game for which I had hoped to be half-drunk at kick off.

I downed several beers, sucked in a few fags, and then marched back into town to see what the scene was like. There I encountered the tail end of a free concert in a public square wherein some local band were banging out covers such as “I was made for loving you.” I put on a brave face and saw it out, then walked back to my local bar. By this time it was after midnight, but I was determined to have a good time since I was paying so much to be here. I sat at the bar with no intention of going anywhere for a few more hours.

It was at this point that I was approached by an elderly gentleman, if sprightly, originally from New York, who had officially changed his name to One Zero Six Nine. He was not afraid to show me his passport to prove it either. This guy was at least two thirds of the way off his trolley and after enjoying his initial inquisition, I endured several hours of his telling me that as a writer I was “the weaver”. The elaborate spiels which followed across the froth of many cold pilsners are too esoteric to recount here, suffice to say there were a lot of hand-gestures.

Relief came at around two in the morning when he introduced me to an Australian linguist who was lecturing at the local university and who had been here ten years. He too could not understand why people kept voting for John Howard, even though he was originally from Pymble. We still had no answers when at around four I staggered home and went to sleep to have a long, long dream about my alarm going off.

I woke up drunk just before the dream had a chance to turn into a nightmare and bolted with barely sufficient time to get back to the train station. I made it, thankfully, and took the train out to Altenburg, roughly an hour outside of Leipzig, from where my flight was departing.

– Handy hint, incidentally, if flying with Ryan Air, often two one-way tickets are cheaper than booking a return flight, so it’s a good idea to fly into one place and out another. Just pick a spot nearby on the map…

Right, looks like part two of my Balkans narrative will have to wait…

P.S. – was it just me, or was Roger Federer pointing north immediately after championship point in the Wimbledon final? I think that’s why he went and sat down for a while with his head in his hands before getting up to bask in the applause.

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Balkan Jaunt

This is a copy of an e-mail sent out to friends and family after a trip through the Balkans in the northern summer of 2006. As age does not seem to diminish my enthusiasm for archiving my life, nor for serialising my autobiography, I decided to include it here…

Balkans: June 8-15, 2006 (Part 1, June 8-10)

By way of an introduction…

“The Balkans” as a geographical idea did not really exist before the nineteenth century. The region was, prior to that, referred to largely as European Turkey, as it constituted all the European provinces of the Ottoman Empire. The word “Balkan” actually refers to a type of mountain. It was only as western European geographers began to penetrate into the region to conduct surveys that the term “Balkan” came to be applied more generally. It was chance more than anything else that the name stuck, as a consequence of the distinctly mountainous nature of the terrain.
When not thinking of their fabulous sausages, we tend to think of the Balkans as a place that has suffered dreadfully from conflicts driven by competing “nationalisms”. This is, however, only a relatively recent phenomenon. No such conception of nationhood existed prior to the end of the nineteenth century amongst the different ethnic groups, who did not use contemporary national identities to define their ethnicity. From the chaotic aftermath of the collapse of Byzantine rule, “European Turkey” lived in relative harmony under the tolerant umbrella of Ottoman rule. The universalism of imperial rhetoric and the higher allegiance to Constantinople was replicated under the Ottomans, so that Bulgarians and Serbians saw themselves rather as Orthodox and were more worried about the infiltration of Catholic missionaries and Venetian inquisitors than being ruled by an Islamic dynasty. Indeed, religious tolerance and diversity was a financial necessity for Ottoman rule since non-muslims paid higher taxes to the Sultan.
The rise of national consciousness amongst ethnic groups was sparked largely through agitation from Western Europe. The goal was to incite these populations to assert their right to national status against Ottoman rule. This long, slow and initially fruitless agitation began to produce results towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was greatly exacerbated by the political boundaries drawn around and through these ethnic groups by the Great Powers at the end of the First World War. In Romania only seventy-two percent of the population were ethnic Romanians, whereas in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, around fifteen percent of the population, such as the Bosnian Muslims, did not belong to any of these three dominant ethnic groups. The situation was unsatisfactory for both minority and majority – to quote Mazower, “The former found that their complaints fell on deaf ears… the latter were irritated by an arrangement which allowed other states to intervene in their internal affairs… Balkan states were, in effect, free to treat their minorities much as they wished.”
What a pity that the old indifference to “nationhood” was not replaced by a secular universalism instead of the creation of a bigoted cluster of nationalist ideologies with often falsely exaggerated historical and regional claims!
In the 1990s, the most significant minorities were the ethnic Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and the ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. When, in 1992, following in the wake of Slovenia’s surprisingly peaceful secession from Yugoslavia (six day war, only 66 dead), Croatia declared its independence, it suddenly found itself not only involved in a civil war against its ethnic Serbian population, but also in a full-blown war against the bulk of the Yugoslav army, the majority of which was commanded by Milosevic in Belgrade. Bosnia’s declaration of independence soon after led to a similar civil war with its ethnic Serbian population, neighbour against neighbour, town against town, the invasion of the Yugoslav army and the previously unthinkable situation of the siege of Sarajevo which was to last longer than any other siege in modern history (ie, longer than Leningrad) ; more than four years in total.
Of course, it was only after years of dithering by the international community during which time many terrible atrocities were inflicted on ethnic minorities that the conflict broke from its murderous stalemate with a 300-odd tank driven thrust by the Croats and Nato airstrikes against the Serbs. It had been a long time coming, particularly for the Bosnian Muslims who suffered the most. But more on that later…

So, in the middle of the afternoon on Thursday the 8th of June, I flew into Trieste with my old friend and travel companion Lizzie. We took the bus into town and made straight for the ticket offices once we arrived at the bus station. We were keen to get into the Balkans. After scanning the options, we decided to take a bus that was leaving in an hour, at 1700, heading all the way down the coast to Dubrovnik and stopping at Split at 0400 in the morning. It was at this point that we decided to switch to potential itinerary number three, and bought a ticket, then got ready to split for Split (sorry, had to be done.).
After a dash through the sottopassagio to the supermercato for supplies and back to the stazione, we soon found ourselves at the beginning of rather a long ride. It was always going to be a bit of a trial, but could have been a lot worse. Indeed, it was a spectacular and beautiful drive made all the more memorable by the rather inconvenient placement of the main highway right at the edge of the coast and the subsequent need for drivers to negotiate a seemingly endless sequence of hairpin turns. This road ran at times within only feet of the water and that night we were blessed with a full moon over the sea. Thus, contrary to what is often the biggest drawback with long night rides, we not only did not miss the sights, but saw them in the mesmerising silver glare of the moon.
In Rijeka, about two hours in, a chap called Irwin, an affable banker from Chicago, boarded the coach, sat in front of us and immediately engaged us in conversation. He was on his way to Dubrovnik and, despite looking forward to a twelve-hour ride, was in good spirits. The rest of the trip was interspersed with conversations with Irwin that kept us all in a positive mood. We swapped ideas, travel tips and stories amidst the banter. When we finally arrived in Split at four A.M., sore-bummed and legged, we joked with Irwin that we might bump into him in Dubrovnik later that afternoon…
So, there we were, in Split, at dawn. It proved a pretty enough harbour like so many around the Mediterranean and Adriatic littoral, providing spacious safe anchorage for the fishing fleet and passenger ferries. What had drawn us here, however, was the fact that Split is the site of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian (AD 284-305).
Its dimensions are worthy of note. The north-south walls extended 705 feet (215 metres) and were 7 feet (2.2 metres) thick and 72 feet (22 metres) high on the Adriatic side and 60 feet (18 metres) high on the north. There were 16 towers (of which 3 remain) and 4 gates at the compass points. Like so many monumental Roman complexes, when the Dalmatian provinces were overran in the seventh century and the nearby regional capital of Salona abandoned, the inhabitants grouped themselves around this handy fortification, building houses and workshops into and against the then largely intact Roman structure. Consequently, in the early middle ages, the site of the palace became a town in itself from which Split (Spalatum) has since expanded.
It was a gorgeous day that was dawning and a fine pleasure to walk through this chic old town with no one about but the cats. The pale blue of the brightening sky leant a tawny softness to the blocks of the palace walls and a pale, bone sheen on the smoothed stone pavement. For two and a half hours we wandered up and down before grabbing coffee and spending another hour watching peasants. The local markets had begun setting up their stalls at around five o’clock and by six thirty were in full swing. The ubiquitous Balkan peasant, something of an outmoded and clichéd rubric for the agrarian population, were in full swing – the heavyset, cankled women in black sporting winning (if toothless) resilience from beneath their headscarves; the men, lugging and toiling and permanently huffing on cigarettes. Vast piles of cherries and strawberries predominated, for the region is known for its soft fruits and berries. On the whole, however, the Dalmatian coast is a hot region sprouting palm trees, agaves, cacti, with pristine beaches, fjords and inlets and over a thousand islands in an archipelago stretching all the way down the Adriatic seaboard.
At around eight that same morning we boarded another bus for the journey to Dubrovnik and this time were able to view the coast all the way in glorious sunshine. Owing to the way the political boundaries have been drawn, with Bosnia and Hercegovina having been given a corridor through the tail of Croatian coastline stretching south from Split, we passed through four passport inspections in the one trip as at both checkpoints we were stopped first by Croatian then Bosnian officials, and vice versa at the other end.
We drove into Dubrovnik at around 1300 and immediately took up an offer of accommodation from a welcoming old gent. He drove us to a nice little flat and there we met the real proprietor of the business, his wife. Having shown us to our room, she then proceeded to talk us through a map of the old town and surrounding beaches. As she did so, a military helicopter flew overhead. All the blood drained from her face and her breathing became laboured, after which she began apologising for her “turn” saying that having endured so many bombing raids during the conflict in 1992 and 1993, she was still terribly unsettled by the presence of any aircraft. It was our first taste of the impact of the conflict, since everything we had seen so far had been either restored or remained undamaged by the conflict. Dubrovnik, however, was hit very very hard.
They say of Dubrovnik that you can estimate the damage to the old town by counting the number of new rooves. As we walked down to the old town from our flat on a hill above, the startling number of bright new terracotta rooves became immediately apparent. Dubrovnik was once known as Ragusa and had been a Venetian settlement and coastal stronghold, which broke away from Venetian rule in the fifteenth century to establish itself as a rival trading town in the Adriatic. The influence of Venice is most prevalent in its architecture, and as we walked through the huge fortified and crenulated gates leading into the old town, the stonework looked very familiar indeed.
Dubrovnik is something of a theme park these days in my opinion. It has been so perfectly restored, scrubbed, patched and scoured and, with polished marble streets, it gleams blindingly in the glare and seems only to exist for tourists to walk through. It is undeniably beautiful and situated at the end of a peninsula with a number of wooded islands off in the sea nearby. There was, however, no real sense of anyone doing anything other than catering for visitors. The Croatian tourism industry has been booming for years and this combined with the country’s fertility has enabled it to recover both very rapidly and very prosperously.
We were strolling along the main promenade when we were both surprised to hear our names called. Upon turning around we saw none other than Irwin rushing towards us, waving his hands and smiling like a garden gnome. This re-union, only ten hours since we had left him, called for a celebration of sorts, so we went straight to a restaurant and dined alfresco on mussels, squid, and squid-ink risotto with clams. These guys do a great line in seafood and the meal, washed down with plenty of mineral water and wine, came to around four pounds a head.
After lunch, fighting hard against the consequences of not having slept the night previous, we took a tour of the town and went up the battlements to walk the walls. The walls have remained completely intact and it is thus possible to make a circuit of the entire town, which we did, in around two hours. By the time we had finished it was around seven in the evening and Liz and I were so exhausted that we decided simply to go back to our hotel and get some sleep. We did this, farewelling Irwin again and expecting we had had our last encounter.
The following morning, having decided to leave town and get to our real target, Sarajevo, we got up at six and walked through the rain to the local bus stop. I should perhaps have expected it to happen, but sure enough, who should also be waiting at the very same bus stop, but Irwin, on his way to the coach station for a day trip to Mostar.
“Ha,” we said, “we’re off to Mostar as well. Perhaps we shall meet there too…”
Under normal circumstances it would have seemed unlikely…
We took a coach from the bus station and travelled back up the coast to the Bosnian corridor, at which point we turned inland. It was not long before we had passed through the rocky hills that line the coast and entered a broad, flat plain full of lakes and emerald rivers. The transformation was dramatic and the fertility of southern Bosnia was immediately apparent. The distinction was made all the more clear once the sun returned in full force. Bosnia is only about one tenth the size of France and with the exception of its corridor to the coast, it is embraced on the west, south and north by Croatia, with Serbia and the newly independent Montenegro on its eastern flank. In shape it is rather like a landlocked Tasmania. Whereas the north is mountainous and covered in thick forests, the south is flat and is ideal for cattle, wheat and fruit orchards. It was through such fields and orchards that we drove for the bulk of the morning.
On the road signs we passed were many familiar names from the war. Banja Luka, Bihac, Srebrenica, Gorazde, Tuzla, Jajce, and of course, our main destinations, Mostar and Sarajevo. As we began to enter more mountainous terrain, the view became increasingly beautiful. Thoughts of the suffering of the people and land were paramount and came to us continually, so that in a moment of optimism, Liz and I decided upon “Here comes the sun” as our anthem for Bosnia Hercegovina. It was heart-warming to know that this place was on the way to recovery, if in a rather stop-start fashion down a long, slow road.
As we neared Mostar, the devastation that had occurred here became immediately apparent. There were almost no houses at all which did not bear some visible scarring. If this was not moving enough in itself, as we entered the town proper, I found myself gasping at the state of the buildings along the main road. Hollow shells and bullet-riddled walls lined the way – dry and overgrown ruins, piles of rubble, burned out buildings, and a once towering hotel, with every level shot through, dominating it all. It was too much for the man in the seat behind us who began sobbing and then crying aloud as we passed through.
Still, once we were further into this small town we could see to what degree people had picked up the pieces and were getting on with their lives. The minarets on all the mosques had been rebuilt, having been shot down in 1992 and ’93; small businesses were open and lively along the main streets; and busloads of tour groups were rolling on in to see the famous bridge.
Mostar had it worse than most places during the war. After Bosnia declared independence, Mostar was first attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) in April of 1992. They were met in defence by the armies of Bosnia and Hercegovina (Armija Bosne i Hercegovine, ABIH) and the Bosnian Croat founded Croation Defence Council (Hrvatsko Vijeće Obrane, HVO). Thus began an eighteen-month siege. The forces of the Yugoslav army shelled and bombed the town repeatedly, destroying most of its buildings and killing thousands of civilians. Thirteen mosques, the Catholic cathedral, the Bishops Palace, a Franciscan monastery and almost all secular public buildings were destroyed. Half of the town was captured by the JNA after fierce street fighting and it was not until June 12th that they were driven out, only to make further use of the surrounding hills to enforce the long siege of the town. Mostar had previously been a mixed community of Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs, but with the commencement of the conflict, the latter of the three main ethnic groupings turned against the other two and bitter fighting took place between the civilian population whilst the siege was underway, leading to thousands of killings. Bosnian Serb forces soon joined the JNA on the mountains to the East and contributed to the regular bombardment of the town.
Things became worse when the HVO turned on the ABIH in anticipation of a Bosnian Croat secessionist campaign, and the two principle forces defending the city began fighting each other. This resulted in the division of the city into two distinct halves on either side of the Nevetna River, with the HVO on the western side. The HVO then commenced their campaign of systematic “ethnic cleansing” involving the rape, murder and dispossession of the Bosniak people on the western side. The fierce shelling and fighting across the river resulted in the almost complete destruction of the old town, which had been largely built in the 15th century. After a year of conflict, Mostar’s famous, world-heritage protected bridge, constructed in 1566, the beauty of which had been commemorated in songs and poems from the time of its construction, collapsed after repeated shelling. All the other bridges had already been destroyed and, with its collapse, the last link between families on the eastern and western sides was cut.
Though all of Mostar’s bridges have since been reconstructed, there is certainly much suspicion remaining between the main ethnic groups in the city. Mostar still contains peace-keeping forces from Eufor. Shortly after the war ended in 1996, the reconstruction of Mostar’s old town began. The buildings were rebuilt exactly to their original specifications, using stone quarried from the original quarry. The reconstruction of the old bridge (Stari Most) was finally completed in 2004 and has once again become a huge tourist attraction. It had always been a draw-card for Mostar. People had for centuries come to admire it, and when it was gone, they came to try to fathom how it could not be there anymore. It was a terrible wound, which has, thankfully, been healed as well as it can be.
It was a stinking hot day when we stepped off the bus. We set off through the ruined and the new, amazed and disturbed by the great holes blown through walls and the omnipresent bullet pocks. Mostar is a beautiful town and wonderfully situated on a rocky plain above a bright turquoise river. For a long time we were too moved to speak a word but as we passed through the gorgeous old Islamic quarter, in anticipation of the coming bridge, we began to sing a combination of “Here comes the Sun,” and an alternate lyrics version of Don MacLean’s Vincent which began “Stari, Stari most…”
We walked along rough cobbled streets through a crouching, close-packed bazaar selling copper ornaments, carpets, pottery and other handicrafts, and just as we rounded the corner to get our first glimpse of the bridge, we ran straight into Irwin.
He only had another hour and a half before he had to leave, so we wasted no time and went straight to the nearest restaurant. We were well up for another Balkan feast and this time we didn’t muck around with things that swim, but went straight for the hoof and the trotter. Pola pola, cevapcici and raznjici, all served up with lashings off raw onion and washed down with… mineral water, as we were in a Muslim establishment.
After lunch we toured the bridge and the old quarter more fully, then sat by the river watching the Icarii. These are men who hang around in Speedos waiting for someone to offer them enough money to dive off the bridge into the river below. It is a long-standing tradition, highly regarded as a great display of manhood. Sadly, only registered people are allowed to jump as it would be rather risky for some.
It was not long before we found ourselves farewelling Irwin for what was to be the final time. He was off to Montenegro and there was no way our paths would cross again. Off he went, and off went Liz and I to a bar. After sitting and drinking for an hour, we made our way to the decrepit train station to wait for our ride into Sarajevo. The air about was dusty, and soon a light rain began to fall…

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