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.
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:
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,