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Archive for September, 2011

Thulsa Doom

Of all the villains who populated the books, comics, films and role-playing games of my youth, one figure stands head and shoulders above them all: Thulsa Doom.

Thulsa Doom was, what my mother would call, the evil baddie in the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian, which starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan. I first saw the film at the cinema at the age of ten with my brother and my best friend Gus. Before going, I was terrified of being made to feel unwell by reports of gore and bloodshed, for I was pretty squeamish at that age and couldn’t bear the sight of blood. Gus, who had already seen the film, warned me of a scene with a soup made of human body parts. Funnily enough, I misheard him and thought he had said a “suit”. The soup, ultimately, was mild by comparison, and when I came to see the movie, perhaps on account of the gore being rather stagey and over the top, I enjoyed it thoroughly.

And there, before me, for the first time, was Thulsa Doom!

Thulsa Doom was, and still remains, an absolutely splendid villain. A god of sorts, with the ability to change himself into a giant snake, Thulsa Doom was more than a thousand years old. The leader, chief priest and guru of an ancient cult of snake-worshippers, he was a fearsome warrior, a demagogue, a philosopher, and a downright murderous son of a serpent. Played by James Earl Jones, with long black hair and a frighteningly square helmet fringe, decked out in chunky, adorned black leather armour, armed not only with two murderous, serpentine swords, but also with the voice of Darth Vader, he was certainly something to behold. Thulsa Doom had a mesmerising stare, an enchanting voice, and a wonderful way with words.

He first appears on the screen in the opening scenes of the film, in the frozen wastes of the Cimmerian north. Having, with his warband, raided and wiped out Conan’s village, Thulsa Doom approaches Conan’s poor mother, who stands defending her young son. Flanked by his two stalwarts, Thorgrim and Rexor – Norse metal-heads never looked so good – Thulsa Doom removes his horned helmet, revealing a noggin that seems curiously moulded to the shape of said headwear. The scene is a masterful combination of sad music, pathos and lingering stares. Thulsa Doom, without a word, hypnotises Conan’s fiercely defensive mother with his big, beautiful eyes, so that she lowers her sword and relaxes, in a sort of trance. Slowly turning, as though to walk away, he suddenly swings back in her direction, removing her head with the very sword we had seen Conan’s father forging through the opening titles, now taken as loot from his mauled corpse. Conan, looking up and into the face of Thulsa Doom as his decapitated mother falls beside him, is not about to forget either the visage or standard of his mother’s murderer in a hurry. Thus begins this epic tale of survival and revenge.

Despite its being something of a fantasy genre gore-fest, Conan the Barbarian is a surprisingly good film. It has its flaws, technically and dramatically, but written by Oliver Stone and directed by John Milius, it was a serious attempt to render the epic nature of the original Conan stories by Robert E. Howard. Beautifully shot and with a very moving soundtrack composed by Basil Poledouris, it feels at times more like a sword and sandal epic of the 50s and 60s than a fantasy genre film. The great sets and locations and the use of thousands of extras in vast crowd scenes, give its settings a very real and tactile quality, whilst the limited dialogue is terse and laconic, but nonetheless emotionally engaging. I was absolutely blown away by the movie when I first saw it, largely because I had, just a year before, started playing Dungeons & Dragons and reading a lot of fantasy literature. It was very much my cup of tea – an enthralling evocation of a fantastic world that felt authentically historical. Shortly after seeing the film for the first time, my brother and I began collecting the original Conan stories, which we were to read and re-read avidly through our teen years.

I went to see the movie twice at the cinema, and as soon as it was released on television, recorded it on the VCR and watched it repeatedly. I became so obsessed with the film that I kept a tally of how many times I had watched it in my diary – an early indicator of a life of mildly autistic behaviour! I learned the entire script off by heart, and could quote it from start to finish without prompting; aided, no doubt, by the relatively limited dialogue in the film. And, all the while, there was Thulsa Doom, looming large as my very favourite on-screen villain, even more so than Darth Vader himself.

The character of Thulsa Doom first appeared in Robert E. Howard’s Kull the Conqueror short story Delcardes’ Cat. Kull was a sort of precursor to Conan the Barbarian, a hero of the world prior to the destruction of Atlantis.

Thulsa Doom is described by Howard in The Cat and the Skull as being a large and muscular man (As he and Kull are said to be “alike in general height and shape.”), but with a face “like a bare white skull, in whose eye sockets flamed livid fire.” He is seemingly invulnerable, boasting after being run through by one of Kull’s comrades that he feels “only a slight coldness” when being injured and will only “pass to some other sphere when [his] time comes.” (Wikipedia)

Thulsa Doom later re-surfaced in comic-strip versions of Kull the Conqueror as his principal nemesis, wherein he is portrayed as a powerful necromancer through various editions.

In Oliver Stone’s film version of Conan The Barbarian, Thulsa Doom’s strength seems to lie in his antiquity, demagoguery and hypnotic presence as much as his magical powers.

http://bit.ly/TheStare

Thulsa Doom can not only transform himself into a snake, but can turn snakes into arrows, which he fires from his serpentine bow. His snake cult engages in the sacrifice of young nubile women to giant snakes reared, in some cases it seems, as pets by Thulsa Doom and his principal henchmen.

After a torrid youth spent strapped to the “wheel of pain” – http://bit.ly/WheelOfPain – followed by years in a brutal fighting pit, having excelled as a gladiator, Conan is trained in more delicate martial arts and given an education before being set free one windy night. It is not long before Conan, accompanied by his own henchies, in the form of Subotai and Valeria, has his first run in with Thulsa Doom’s snake cult and begins to plot his revenge.

Without wishing to describe the film in detail or at length, it will suffice to look briefly at  Conan’s ensuing encounters with Thulsa Doom, which are certainly memorable.

When Conan rather clumsily infiltrates Thulsa Doom’s cult and is captured, we are privy to one of Thulsa’s more eloquent outbursts. Having finished interrogating his battered and bleeding prisoner, Thulsa Doom proceeds to tell Conan of the power of flesh over steel. He summons one of his many female followers to leap from the cliff above to her death then, indicating her recumbent corpse, he says:

“That is strength, boy! That is power! The strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it?”

http://bit.ly/SteelVsFlesh

Having, in typically megalomaniac fashion, suggested that he himself was the source of all this power, Thulsa Doom admonishes Conan to “Contemplate this on the Tree of Woe,” before instructing his henchmen to “Crucify him.” An order that is duly and gruesomely fulfilled.

After having been rescued from the Tree of Woe, Conan and his companions make a murderous raid on Thulsa Doom’s compound, slaying many of his followers and guards. Thulsa Doom escapes by transforming himself into a snake, but, reverts to human form in sufficient time to shoot a snake arrow into Valeria, Conan’s lover, as they flee the scene, sated with the gore of their enemies and having liberated the princess they were seeking to liberate.

It is here that we are treated to one of Thulsa Doom’s more memorable lines; one I often find myself quoting when seriously pissed off.

“Infidel defilers. They shall all drown in lakes of blood. Now they will know why they afraid of the dark. Now they will learn why they fear the night.”

Conan, after a long night watching Valeria’s funeral pyre, now with even more reason to detest Thulsa Doom and wish him dead, prepares for the final battle amidst the mounds and gravestones of the ancient dead.

Yet the final confrontation does not take place in the ensuing, climactic battle, in which Conan slays both Thorgrim and Rexor, the latter wielding Conan’s fathers sword, taken at the start of the film. The sword is broken in a mighty overhead cleave by Conan, and, with Rexor dead, Conan retrieves it and holds it aloft.  That evening, he makes his way once again to Thulsa Doom’s impressive temple, at the so-called Mountain of Power. It is here, as Conan sneaks his way past the guards, aided by the charms and access of the errant princess, that we are treated to Thulsa Doom’s finest moment.

Standing before a vast crowd of thousands of extras in white robes holding candles, bellowing from atop the podium of his epic temple at the head of a grand processional staircase, Thulsa Doom makes the following speech:

“The purging is at last at hand. The day of doom is here! All that is evil, all their lies – your parents, your leaders, those who would call themselves your judges! Those who have lied and corrupted the earth! They shall all be cleansed. You, my children, are the water that will wash away all that has gone before. In your hand, you hold my light, the gleam in the eye of Set. This flame will burn away the darkness, burn you away, to paradise!”

http://bit.ly/ConanTheEnd

I am still deeply stirred when I hear this speech, and believe it has profoundly affected my rhetorical style over the years.

A short while later, Conan approaches from the shadows and comes face to face with Thulsa Doom. Thulsa Doom turns his benevolent smile and loving gaze upon Conan and tries to woo him with his honeyed words.

“My child. You have come to me, my son. For who now is your father if it is not me? Who gave you the will to live? I am the wellspring, from which you flow. When I am gone, you will have never been. What will your world be, without me, my son? My son.”

After being briefly seduced by those beautiful, snake-charming eyes, Conan looks down to his father’s sword and snaps out of hypnosis. With a look of sudden alertness, he promptly hacks Thulsa Doom’s head from his shoulders with his father’s broken sword.

It is a rather gruesome end for a villain, to see his head tossed like a hairy medicine ball down the steps of the temple, to flip and flop with an ugly wet sound, but the simple fact is, he sure had it coming. And as for Conan’s fate, well, that is another story…

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Shooting Sydney

In more ways than one, I’ve been trying very hard to get back into Sydney. Not only as a place to live, work and enjoy myself, but also as a photographic subject.

Sydney is certainly a lot more fun these days. Despite the inability to purchase decent ecstasy anywhere in Australia, the countless new bars that have opened in the last few years since the licensing laws were changed has made the place a hell of a lot more livable.

The city also looks a lot better thanks to a great deal of inner-city gentrification and the completion of prestige developments and re-developments. This process really began back in the late nineties with the first efforts to beautify the city centre in preparation for the 2000 Olympics; widening and repaving pavements, replacing lighting, redirecting traffic flow, planting hundreds more trees and generally cleaning up a lot of ugly crap. The property boom of the mid to late 90s not only saw the filling in of the many unsightly holes left by projects which stalled in the 89/90 recession, but also attracted architects such as Renzo Piano and Norman Foster to the city. Anyone who remembers the ugliness of the CBD before this process began will no doubt be thankful for the transformation – perhaps with the exception of Darling Harbour, an overdeveloped nightmare. At the start of the 90s, almost no one actually lived in the city centre, and the chances of finding a supermarket or convenience store were next to none. Now it is a vibrant place that is alive with people in the small hours – for better or for worse. Irrespective of one’s opinion of the nature of the activities, the type of culture that has emerged, or the calibre of the people dwelling in the city, it is far better in its living incarnation, than the dead and, let’s face it, dangerous place it used to be.

Of course, the unfortunate upshot of all this investment and development was skyrocketing rents. This phenomenon, however, is by no means a necessary consequence of the improvement and renovation of public spaces, but rather it is driven by the selfish habit of Australians to speculate on property and buy for the sake of investment rather than to secure a home in which to live.

But I digress, for I came here to talk about taking photographs. Recently, I’ve been trying to get back into shooting this city, which, for a few years left me quite cold. The problem often lay in knowing where to start and why. What is most interesting about the place? The people, the geography, the architecture? I generally find people to be the most interesting subjects in any place, but in a modern, cosmopolitan western city, are they in any way different to those of other such cities? Sydney certainly has many diverse subcultures and scenes; inner city hipsters, inner westies, surfies, bogans, cashed-up bogans, office-workers, city professionals, winers and diners, foreign students, clubbers, surfies, grommits, beach-bums, goths, westies, rev-heads, fixies, transvestites, swing dancers, wanna-be latinos, hip-hoppers, theatre-goers, glamour-pusses, café-crawlers, jocks, hoons, thugs, prats, geeks, gits, princesses and parasites, and everywhere, the disconnected, disjointed, unemployed and homeless. It’s difficult to know where to start, and occasionally they’re all thrown together in the endlessly fascinating, chaotic and democratic mess of places like George Street or the Pitt Street Mall, where most will venture at some point, whether they like it or not.

George Street, despite its relative ugliness, is not a bad place to start because of its mix of characters. The area around Town Hall in particular is, without wishing to be too disparaging, a magnet for freaks. Along much of the length of George Street, however, it is not an easy place to shoot. The subjects are many and diverse, but outside of midday, when the sun is overhead, or in the late afternoon, when, for example, the towers of World Square reflect the setting sun onto the pavements, this north / south canyon is in shadow. I’ve spent many hours hanging around on the pavement in George Street and in Chinatown, but with mixed results. Frankly, I’m a little tired of the place. There are, of course, more obvious and picturesque subjects; the prestige buildings, the harbour, the beaches, but they either have a magazine neatness and sterility, or a clichéd obviousness about them that ultimately leaves me unsatisfied. It’s nice enough to catch a good sunset around the Opera House, but without a unique and curious foreground subject, it all feels a tad pointless and touristic.

Often the best strategy is to head out with no expectations and shoot whatever seems interesting. I’ve been trying to do this recently, but again it’s difficult to know where to start, nor in which direction to walk once having started. There are the various “villages” of Sydney; Balmain, Leichhardt, Surry Hills, Erskineville and Glebe to name a few, yet unless some spectacular combination of light, weather, subject and drama occurs, seemingly by random, they can come up rather boringly flat. Without access to a car, it is difficult to go further afield at the drop of a hat. It would be nice to spend some time in places like Lakemba, Strathfield, Ashfield, Cabramatta, Blacktown or Liverpool, which have their own particular ethnic concentrations, but I haven’t quite managed it yet. Perhaps I’ve simply been unlucky in the last few years in Sydney, for surely any old place will do, provided one is fortunate in witnessing some utterly random and unpredictable ballet of chance elements. Who knows quite where a fight will occur, a car crash, or a wedding spill onto the street? I’ve learned many times that the planned and deliberately targeted subjects can give the most disappointing results. The key element is, more often than not, having time and mobility at your disposal and stumbling upon an event or play of light.

So what exactly am I banging on about? Basically, that Sydney, a city which ought to provide a diverse range of subjects, is proving disappointingly difficult to shoot at the moment. I’m not sure if it’s me, my choice of locations, my failure to make the most of good subjects, or the fact that the subjects are not that interesting to me. Having been spoiled in places like India, Vietnam and Cambodia in the last few years, where the people and backdrops were so fascinating in themselves as to bring a photograph alive, I sometimes wonder if the people of Sydney are just too intrinsically dull to be worth shooting.  Inside my head is a frustrated photographer shouting “Come on, do something! Dance for me!” only, much of the time they seem just to be walking on down the street minding their own business and looking any old bunch of westerners. I wish they’d do something ever so slightly theatrical or curious more often.

One thing I which continually frustrates me is cars. Oh man, cars! Grrr. My intense dislike of the things is always significantly enhanced whenever out on a shoot. Not only are most cars ugly, misshapen lumps, with so little thought put into their aesthetics, sacrificed no doubt in favour of aerodynamics, but they are quite simply everywhere. It’s almost impossible to find a street without the hideous things parked all along its length. They block views and make it nigh impossible to shoot from a low angle across a pavement. They are continually trying to steal the show by driving past, sitting in the field of vision, sticking their ugly noses, bald pates and shiny foreheads into shots. How much finer streets would look without them!

In some places the strata laws dictate that people cannot hang their washing out on balconies, nor drape clothes over railings, in order to maintain a boringly sterile appearance. Clothes, however, add colour and individuality; they flutter, create shadow and movement, they can have both a simple homely, domestic quality, or a diaphanous beauty. Cars, however, are almost universally hideous. In my ideal world they should all be hidden away in garages, or not kept at all. Antique vehicles, in which form seemed more important than function, might just get a look in, but the average modern car has all the attractiveness of a fridge with wheels. Put simply, I detest cars. They pollute, they kill, they’re awfully noisy, and they are responsible for ruining thousands and thousands of photographs the world over.

But again, I digress… And so, of late, I’ve been wandering about trying to catch some interesting shots, with varying degrees of success. I’ve had some success with workers before, especially in some of the more graphic and gruesome industries – meat-markets, fish-markets, industrial workers, construction sites – and perhaps this is where I need to direct my energies. I’ve thought about heading into more clubs and bars, yet these people are well enough documented in publications like TheThousands and the social pages of the Sunday rags, and I don’t think we need more photographs of hipsters and clubbers. Having said that, why am I kidding myself that anyone needs more photographs of anything?

Anyways, I have already ranted far too much on this subject. Here are some more recent shots, along with a few not so recent ones, from the last three years.

Have a nice day!

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This is the transcript of a talk I gave on Alain de Botton’s “The Art of Travel” for my creative writing masters, c. 2005.

Alain de Botton has made a name for himself writing popular philosophy. In a review of de Botton’s best-selling Consolations of Philosophy, in the Independent, Christina Hardyment wrote: “Singlehandedly, de Botton has taken philosophy back to its simplest and most important purpose: helping us to live our lives.” In The Consolations of Philosophy, de Botton considered the works of six great Western philosophers – Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche – and drew from them ideas he found of particular value and relevance to modern life.

This was a theme he had already explored in depth in his earlier publications, Essays in Love, published in 1993 when the author was only twenty-three years old, The Romantic Movement, 1994, Kiss and Tell, 1995 and the best-selling How Proust can change your life, published 1997.

Philosophy, poetry and theory do not normally attract popular attention owing to a misguided conception that they bear no relation to the practical and exist solely for the gratification of intellectuals commonly derided for their social disjunction. What de Botton succeeds in doing so masterfully is to reveal the simplicity and humanity of much philosophical writing, poetry and theory by putting it into the context of personal experiences which are familiar to all of us. At the same time, whilst locating material parallels for these ideas in the quotidian, he avoids making them appear mundane or banal. The high brow becomes palatable by removing its intimidating veneer, but without cheapening or ridiculing the evident seriousness with which much of these ideas were initially produced, except where were they were, to some degree, designed to be amusingly provocative.

In the Art of Travel de Botton examines themes in the psychology of travel; how we imagine places before we have visited them, how we interpret places upon arrival, and how we shape our recollections of places upon our return.

As is the case with How Proust can Change your Life, The Art of Travel is really a collection of essays. The text is divided into five parts under the thematic rubrics of Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return. Each of these parts is further subdivided into chapters with subtitles such as On Anticipation and On Travelling Places. On the title page of each chapter, de Botton provides a sort of itinerary for what is to come; a handy list accompanied by thumbnail illustrations not only of the place or places he intends to discuss, but also the guide or guides through whose eyes or with whose thoughts he will consider the place or places. Thus, in the first chapter, On Anticipation, de Botton considers his own locale, Hammersmith in London, and his impending holiday destination, Barbados, through the eyes of Joris-Karl Huysmans. In his 1884 novel, A Rebours, Huysmans’ “effete and misanthropic hero”, the Duc des Esseintes, attempts a journey to London. He makes it as far an English tavern near the Gare St Lazare, where, after a meal of oxtail soup, smoked haddock, roast beef and potatoes, two pints of ale and a chunk of stilton, he is overcome by lassitude.

“He thought how wearing it would be actually to go to London, how he would have to run to the station, fight for a porter, board the train, endure an unfamiliar bed, stand in queues, feel cold and move his fragile frame around the sights that Baedeker had so tersely described – and thus soil his dreams. ‘What was the good of moving when a person could travel so wonderfully sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, food and even cutlery were all about him? What could he expect over there but fresh disappointments?’”

De Botton applies the lesson of contrast between anticipation and realisation to his own experience of a holiday to Barbados. The promised lures of a travel brochure with its palm trees and spotless beaches are soon darkened by a cloud of anxieties. Shortly after arrival, fretting about concerns he ought to have left behind, de Botton notes that:

“A momentous but until then overlooked fact was making its first appearance: that I had inadvertently brought myself with me to the island.”

He adds:

“My body and mind were to prove temperamental accomplices in the mission of appreciating my destination.”

In the chapters that follow, de Botton continues with this clever interspersing of accounts of real and imagined journeys with personal, anecdotal accounts of his own travel experiences. The tight and entertaining summaries of the thoughts and ideas of his guides make clear and immediate the experience of these writers, artists and thinkers. The anecdotal accounts make even clearer just how quotidian are the concerns of many of his guides, and are further enriched with photographs of his own personal spaces and acquaintances.

He applies the techniques of the anthropologist and ethnographer in examining social artefacts and extrapolating from them about the society they represent. In describing the exotic nature of an overhead sign in Schiphol airport in Amsterdam, he writes:

“A bold archaeologist of national character might have traced the influence of the lettering back to the de Stijl movement of the early twentieth century, the prominence of the English subtitles to the Dutch openness towards foreign influences and the foundation of the East India Company in 1602 and the overall simplicity of the sign to the Calvinist aesthetic that became a part of Holland’s identity during the war between the United Provinces and Spain in the sixteenth century.”

De Botton’s analysis of cultural artefacts extends to an exceptional empathy with the subject matter of artists. His chapter On Travelling Places which includes a study of places of transit such as services stations, airports and roadside diners, is a masterful combination of art appreciation, focussing primarily on the twentieth-century American artist, Edward Hopper, and extrapolation with personal, anecdotally driven musings.

In Chapter 4, On Curiosity¸ de Botton describes his first experience of Madrid, to where he travelled in order to attend a conference. Having been advised of Madrid’s many attractions, he finds himself overcome with an intense lethargy upon arrival.

“And yet these elements (ie. the sights of Madrid as described in his guide book and assorted brochures) about which I had heard so much and which I knew I was privileged to see, merely provoked in me a combination of listlessness and self-disgust at the contrast between my own indolence and what I imagined to be the eagerness of more normal visitors.”

He contrasts his own lack of enthusiasm with that of his guide to the chapter, the German explorer and Botanist, Alexander von Humboldt, who was driven by a powerful urge to visit foreign lands. The chapter serves to establish the difference between the known and the unknown – von Humboldt’s explorations take him to uncharted places, whereas de Botton feels overwhelmed by the seemingly meaningless level of detail available to him through his guidebooks. The philosophical point of the chapter is to establish an understanding of what lies at the heart of curiosity and the degree to which it is personal and contextual.

De Botton writes:

“In the end it was the maid who was ultimately responsible for my voyage of exploration around Madrid. Three times she burst into my room with a broom and basket of cleaning fluids and at the sight of a huddled shape in the sheets, exclaimed with theatrical alarm, “ola, perdone!”

De Botton not only contrasts his attitude to Madrid with von Humboldt’s attitude to South America, but also highlights their respective realms of exploration. Again, the ideas he explores are firmly rooted in highly illustrative personal anecdotes, and the success of his anecdotes lies not merely in the ideas they are designed to illuminate, but in the level of personal detail he provides. He appears wholly honest with us, occasionally pushing the envelope of self-deprecation to the point of humiliation. He informs us of the flavour of a packet of crisps he ate in Madrid, tells us of a hair he found attached to the sideboard of his bed in a hotel in the Lakes District, and describes the sound of the timer on a microwave on a train.

In many ways the core to de Botton’s philosophical approach in The Art of Travel can be found in his chapter on Ruskin. He focuses on Ruskin’s ideas of the importance of “seeing” and “appreciating”. Ruskin worked keenly to promote the teaching of drawing in nineteenth-century Britain, believing that drawing would teach people to have an eye for beauty and to appreciate detail, thus making them happier by enriching their everyday experience. For Ruskin talent was an irrelevance – it is not ability as an artist that matters, merely the attempt to draw that is important, for, Ruskin argues, drawing teaches us to see.

“A man is born an artist as a Hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself an artist than you can make yourself a giraffe. My efforts are directed not to making a carpenter an artist, but to making him happier as a carpenter.”

His aim was to teach people to spend time to appreciate the detail and complexity, or indeed, simplicity that made something beautiful, and to notice beauty in things that might not be obviously beautiful. Ruskin was fervently opposed to people who travelled and looked, but did not see. He wrote:

“No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, happier or wiser.”

In many ways de Botton’s intention mirrors that of Ruskin, though he is hardly about to suggest that we take a sketchbook with us on holiday. Rather, he impresses the importance of remembering how rewarding it is to appreciate things with the eye of a sketcher. He is equally keen to make us “see.”

“The only way to be happy is to realise how much depends on how you look at things.” Your own viewpoint will fix feelings far more solidly than any vista: “If you have to rank how happiness comes about,” he argues, “beauty is a worryingly weak ingredient, in terms of shifting mood.”

This key injunction to learn to “see” underlies every major idea presented in The Art of Travel.

Despite the apparent variance between many of the places and the historical figures upon whose thoughts de Botton draws in The Art of Travel, each selection of place or person is so apposite as to seem almost inevitable. His combination of personal, anecdotal detail with equally personal anecdotes from his subjects ensures a specificity and intimacy that engages. It is only in his chapter on Provence, aided by Vincent van Gogh that one feels his point is rather laboured. It still holds our interest but lacks the charm and economy of his writing elsewhere in this book.

De Botton’s works have been bestsellers – selling in the many hundreds of thousands in many different territories over the last eleven years. He has written and presented two TV series based on The Consolations of Philosophy and Status Anxiety. His work has also been characterised as ‘popularisation,’ yet his books are in fact attempts to develop original ideas (about, for example, friendship, art, envy, desire and inadequacy) with the help of the thoughts of great past thinkers. There is much that is original and, indeed, amusing in his application of the ideas of the people upon whose thoughts he has drawn. As stated above, his “popularisation” does not come at the expense of intellectual integrity and he thus avoids the lowest common denominator as a benchmark for his relativism. De Botton has been described as a “Mass-market metaphysician,” a term which could be misconstrued as a pejorative, but is not intended as such.

For an aspiring writer The Art of Travel is almost as frustratingly neat as it is delightful to read. The end result is a book of theory and philosophy that reads with the ease and accessibility of a travel guide. It comes effectively to constitute a companionable treatise on Romantic aesthetics.

It has been said of de Botton that his musings are akin to an accessible W. G. Sebald, equalling his gravitas, though perhaps falling short of the depth of Sebald’s personal reflections. De Botton’s strength lies not only in the quality of his writing, which, for its complexity, shows no signs of impenetrable flabbiness, but in the powerful ideas to which we can all easily relate. His scope covers all aspects of travel, from the quotidian journey to the bus-stop, to international flights and expeditions to unknown regions. Essentially de Botton’s purpose in writing The Art of Travel is to promote further the importance of applied philosophy as a way of enriching life.

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Sunset Burlesque

It’s been a while since I took my camera out with me regularly, just as it’s been a while since I wrote a lot of poetry. Between 2003 and 2007, there was a period when I never left home without my camera. I had carted a little film number around for years, but things really picked up with the purchase of my first digital at Stansted airport for a trip to Venice in February 2003, en route to Rome, where I was living at the time. It was a sexy and very portable 3.2 megapixel Minolta with a 3x zoom and a wholly inadequate chip, c. 100 meg – I really can’t remember, though I do still have the thing in a drawer somewhere, its circuit board fried in Gatorade. It was a wonderful camera and the sheer delight with which I pointed it at things cannot be overstated.

In 2004, back in Australia, I really thought I’d hit the big time when I upgraded to a 4 megapixel 10x zoom Olympus, purchased en route to New Zealand. I loved that camera, and dreamed of seeing it displayed in a glass case in the Museum of Me, which I intended to build in the megalomaniac bachelor future to which I’ve since abandoned looking forward. Irrespective of the future existence of said museum, my father’s forgetful abandonment of the camera in a bottleshop in Prague in 2008 has rather put paid to these plans. Still, it took some magnificent photographs of which I remain very proud and which now constitute the High Romantic Era of the inter-Cambridge years, also known as the first incarnation of Cornieworld: 2005-06.

Judge for yourself:

http://on.fb.me/Sydney2003-2006

This was a splendid period of endlessly seeking photographs. I often took a bus into town or hung around before and after work, looking for shots. At night I would take my tripod with me, armed with a couple of hefty bifters, and prowl the streets of Glebe in search of gold. I was especially fond of dusk, and made many a mission at this magic hour to shoot the royal blue skies that emerged in extended exposures. I tried to capture the sentiment of those times, when I was also writing an absolutely stupid amount of poetry, in an ineffectual poem, which has long since languished on the scrap heap. I include it here for its attempted evocation of the restless, and overtly melodramatic yearning that gripped me.

Late afternoon

This late afternoon’s neither open nor closed,

though most of the day is gone and I’m yet to feel

proud. I stared through the morning as through a picture

window, running an hour late for nothing

and already that sickness, that sinking.

Luncheon came with just a few short lines.

The sun on the palm flower (soft as the flesh

of a sapling stripped by a child’s

tepid inquisition) was hypnotic; milky

smooth as an albino root.

Speckled doves rattled the leaves;

dry, resounding clicks with every branch-hop.

Foliage fell, winking down the sunned backs

of traffic-hardened terraces

through mottled streaks of blaze. Come four o’clock

I’m typing into warming gold and expectation spoils

these clutched-at scraps. Calling, the low sun urges

its partisans, drives me to grab my camera for this brief

hour – hasty magic, when so far north of south.

Go shoot tired vistas, hoping copper light will tweak

their tune. I need to be three places at once: the light-

rail viaduct, the sunken ferry, the bridge

like a leggy woman pissing – that mongrel pylon

never lets me win. In the park trying to work

out how my heroes made it. One low

cloud wiggled like a swung dash across

the rending sunset; an overexposed, sylphid burlesque.

My hands already clammy with that pallor

born of going home, restless to head out again

and squeal in the interrogation of the moon.

___________________________________

In early 2006, in preparation for my return to England, I upgraded again and bought myself Canon 350D. Before leaving I carried it with me everywhere I went, including taking it to work every day, with two hefty lenses. I didn’t mind the weight of it so much, though it was bulky and awkward. I suppose I felt not a little windswept and heroic, and, armed for the first time with a 300mm lens, became quite obsessed with “sniping” people at a distance.

I’d like to think I got some grand results, and once overseas, put it to good use on many trips. Yet it was here that I also slowed in my quest. I lost the habit of taking it with me every day. I got tired of the weight and bulk of it and, increasingly, left it at home. There were certainly many bifter-fuelled missions wherein I rode my bicycle for hours on end seeking shots, and when I travelled overseas I shot like a man possessed. With less regular practice it took me a little longer to warm up, yet, when I went on holiday, I was pretty quickly inspired by the exciting subject matter and took some of my very favourite photographs in this period.

http://on.fb.me/RecentWork1

http://on.fb.me/PhotosBCornford

When I returned to Australia in 2008, I upgraded again to the Canon 450D and bought myself an L-series 200ml lens. It is this camera that I am currently using, though I would dearly love to upgrade again and spend ten grand on lenses. That megalomaniac bachelor future seems more distant than ever, though the bachelor part is, shall we say, in full swing.

And so! Having recently moved back to Glebe, to a studio from the back window of which I can see the old flat in which I wrote the above poem and where I dwelt during the High Romantic Era of the inter-Cambridge years, I have once again been inspired to write bucketloads of poetry and cart my camera about with me. It’s a wonderful feeling, as though I have returned to complete some long-unfinished business, and, so far, I’m pleased both with my output and dedication. It’s two in the morning, and really I ought to be in bed, but ABC Classical FM is having a bit of a Bach special, and after a long day of writing, conditions are ripe for hammering the keys still further.

Yet, I have digressed too far, for the purpose of this piece was merely to introduce a few photographs of a rather unique sky I spotted on Saturday afternoon. It seems almost unreasonable to be excited about these photos, considering the subject matter was presented to me complete, and by chance, and I certainly had no hand in it other than being in the right place at the right time. I had gone to Chinatown – pork buns are my weakness (sung to the tune of a certain Kate Ceberano song) – but the clouds, which later proved to be so enthralling, were a hindrance. I was hoping for conditions such as those which prevailed when I took some photos in Chinatown a while ago. Namely, these, for example:

But such was not to be. And so, I took the bus home, all bunned up as it were, and when I hopped off just past the footbridge, found myself quite mesmerised by the following:

Fingers crossed, there shall be plenty more to come. And on that note, I shall bid you good night!

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Ashes and Diamonds

This is the half-finished (now rounded off and polished) first chapter of a science fiction novel I began sketching some years ago, entitled “Hotel Paradiso.” It was inspired by a number of long and involved conversations with friends and colleagues at Cambridge about how much awareness of the past the human species might retain were it to survive for millions, even billions of years. I doubt, for example, that in the year 5,793,657,349 they will be focussing on Germany between the wars in history faculties around the galaxy…

The heavy black ship drifted through the barren dark. Across the vast silence of limitless death its engines burned a lost roar. Ranged along its bulky hull, tiny windows shone like torches pointed across an immense cavern. Their power was rapidly swallowed by the emptiness; their minuscule warmth, much less even than that of the engines, made no impact on the one Kelvin expanse of eternity.

The ship knew where it was going, for its occupants – a bipedal, carbon-based form not entirely unlike ourselves – had instructed it to move into orbit around an ancient planet. The planet had long since ceased to receive any warmth from its dead sun, which, were it shining still, would have illumined a red soil, here and there fused by great heat into fields of glass.

Deep inside the hull, in the ship’s museum, warm orange light illuminated an extensive archive. Beneath a frescoed ceiling, painted with scenes of ancient forests, of suns and stars, of a world out-of-doors, of ruddy, bipedal beings playing, swimming, surfing, or sitting cast in thought, were rows of computer banks, storage shelves, display cases, brackets, niches and cabinets, stretched through the ship for almost two kilometres. This was the heart of the University of the Empyrean, one of thousands in the sprawling, skulking civilisation of Homo Superior.

Even now, as the ship moved into orbit around the heavy, sullen orb, negotiating with the gravity of the crushed white dwarf, a lecture was taking place. It was given in a language of which we cannot hope to have an understanding, so many were the years through which it had evolved, so many were the contexts, so many were the worlds, indeed, galaxies that it had traversed, that the vocabulary, grammar and tones bore little relation to the dialects to which it traced its origins, billions of years before, on a planet lost in mythology. The basic sense of it is given here.

“Naturally,” said the lecturer, “any study of a period as ancient as this one is heavily dominated by conflicting methodologies. It is why, as ancient historians, we emphasise the development, above all, of the faculty of interpretation. Our evidence is so limited, so much has been lost which could have illuminated our understanding of the very early origins of homo superior, and indeed, our evolution from the Homo Sapiens and Homo Sapientissimus…”

The amplified voice was crisply resonant in the gallery of students and fellows. They sat attentively, looking not so much for revelations as confirmations of their common purpose.

“With only several hundred Earth texts surviving, and mostly in later translations from the publishing houses of Mars and Europa, you know as well as I do what a paucity of evidence we have for constructing the chronology of human social evolution on Mars. With five hundred million years of habitation, commencing with the first mission in the year thirteen billion, seven hundred and three million, four hundred and eight thousand and fifty-three, little was preserved from the earliest period of settlement.”

“However,” and here the lecturer, Professor Julian Rollmops, tapped his elongated middle finger against the air as though knocking on the door of an important point, “you will all be familiar with the ancient Homo Sapiens novel Moscow Gherkin on the Rocks, with its wealth of anecdotal evidence about the Hotel Paradiso, founded two hundred years after the initial Martian settlement. It paints a picture of a time that witnessed the first true flourishing of the economic potential of the Martian colony, which had, for so long previous, languished under the cost of overheads, the logistics of communication and transportation, the absence of sophisticated culture and cuisine and the consequent inability to attract colonists to the slow-growing, insular, claustrophobic frontier mining society. Though we cannot be certain that the incidental information is entirely accurate, we do have proof that the Hotel Paradiso did exist, for, owing to the popularity of the novel as much as the hotel itself, it was preserved as a cultural icon, a vast artefact, celebrated as the gateway to the golden age of Martian settlement.”

Professor Rollmops cleared his throat and adjusted his adrenaline level. He was excited and nervous, but over all, proud to be delivering what amounted to a pep talk preliminary to the exploration phase of a long-dreamed of project. It was well-trodden ground and his audience were all too familiar with the details. Once they were on the surface, however, or under it, for that matter, every so-called fact enumerated here would be open to conjecture.

“We know this,” continued Professor Rollmops, “because the hotel is inventoried in the famous document, Grand Marineris 793. If the accepted dating is correct, this originates in the twenty-seventh century of Earth years. The monograph, a pivotal examination of ‘gender blending’ amongst the wealthier colonists, displays a sophisticated use of academic reference, a most impressive awareness of several Earth dialects, and, judging by the scale of the bibliography, it gives tantalising hints about the culture of detailed research which existed. But I digress. What is significant for our purposes is that it pinpoints the exact location of the hotel and indicates that having been decommissioned, it was encased by surrounding developments and came to form a sort of subterranean museum, the structural integrity of which, according to Olympus 137, was still intact some two thousand years later. Whether we can hope to find anything after five billion years is anyone’s guess! But, ladies and gentlemen, fellow scholars, that is precisely why we are here.”

The room hummed with muffled murmurs of interest and one man began to clap, before thinking better of it.

“Sol was a main sequence star in the G2 spectral class. At the end of its lifecycle, in the shedding of its outer layers – still barely visible in the fading remnants of the planetary nebula – and subsequent loss of gravity, both Earth and Mars were pushed into more distant orbits and their atmospheres slowly but surely stripped. Exactly what, if anything, survived on or beneath the surface, is anyone’s guess. The loss of so many ships in the flight to the moons of Saturn and subsequent Titanic War has left us with only a piecemeal understanding of the final Martian evacuation. Fortunately, however, it is only twenty-three thousand years since the last ship is estimated to have departed from the dying system and I personally am hopeful that we shall find some astonishingly well-preserved archaeology. Our scans and models of gravitational dynamics indicate next to no asteroid bombardment, despite the planet’s acquisition of two new moons. Or, rather, two replacement moons, after the expulsion of Phobos and Deimos.”

Professor Rollmops leaned forward, placing both his elbows on the synthetic wood lectern, as though about to deliver an aside. Instinctively, the audience leaned forward, joining him in this greater intimacy.

“Indeed, I am very hopeful that, what is, for the moment, an almost non-existent chronology outside the framework of a vague mythology, will soon be transformed into a sophisticated understanding of the history and culture of this latest phase of outer Sol system settlements.”

There were murmurs among the audience, and shuffles not of restlessness, but warm approval. As the keynote speaker, at this, the last lecture series before the archaeological exploration got underway, Professor Rollmops was tasked with reminding all of their mission and raising spirits appropriately. He was not so much here to inform and instruct, but to motivate; to celebrate.

“We have, of course,” Professor Rollmops continued, “the well-known reference from Phobos 652, regarding the final evacuations from the planet Earth, and the then very great mythological significance which it entailed. The parallels drawn between the long-remembered destruction of a place called Troy, and exile from an abundant garden, are a tantalising glimpse of, we can only assume, even more ancient Earth myths whose significance, again, we can only assume, had acquired a purely academic currency for the fleeing Homo Sapientissimus.”

Across the audience heads nodded sagaciously and Professor Rollmops was pleased to see them so poised for his coup de grace.

“Well, ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “How proud and, perhaps, surprised, our long dead ancestors would be to know that now we have returned from exile after so many troubled millennia!”

This comment brought spontaneous applause from several audience members, and once it was underway, the rest joined in. “Bravo!” they cried. “Hoorah!”

A few stood in their seats, and soon the entire crowd was on its feet, caught up in a wave of nostalgia and destiny to which only an intelligent species that has somehow survived and replicated itself successfully, never quite losing touch with its origins, over a time-span of five billion years, is privy.

Professor Rollmops, himself overwhelmed with the historical significance of the moment, found himself choking back tears.

“Yes, my esteemed colleagues,” he croaked. “We have come home at last!”

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Published Poems

From Antipodes,  December 2005:

 

Veronika on the Gold Coast

You must have wondered

at your sentence; to be sent

from Köln to the Gold Coast

to learn the clarinet. A boy

soon asked what ‘that thing’ was,

but you knew boys everywhere

were dumb, though here

brain death was endemic.

 

You did love the beach

until it was a prison

and you fancied the boys

until they spoke of engines;

you were sweet and serious and even

loved the heat and sun

until you knew it never stopped

and no one ever seemed to take an interest.

 

It was not arrogance that made you

laugh in a shopping mall of glass

where the minister for culture

had erected a plastic David,

but rather, sadness and fear

that you might soon dissipate

to become as hollow as their cars,

or vapid as the burning sand.

 

You were shown the “big” things;

a pineapple, large as a house,

a banana, long as a boat

and perspired

in their shadows, blinded and wet

belying your years to think

how small was all this empty size,

and how lost is rootless modernity.

__________________________


From Meanjin, 66.1, 2007:

 

Budapest

I rode into town from Vienna

to be welcomed by your arms flung wide

by the glistening to hasten the thawing

of my heart strained across this divide.

 

We buried our love in our shoulders

to inherit the scents we had lost

to revisit the tricks of your pelvis

in a room stained by poverty’s cost.

 

I’ll see that your legs remain parted

on this street where the concrete has died,

with my heart in the throat of your beauty

I will drink to the clench of your thighs.

 

The musk lingers far into morning

where we carry our love like a bird

found lost in the thrust of migration

o’er the frets of this musical world.

 


Shutting Traps

i

I feed magpies on

hot mornings

with their chests puffed

on the clothes-line –

they sing in echoes of squeaky

swings, slow as wind-chimes on water lapping

limescaled walls in an underground cave,

or a lost cry from the past.

I make them earn

their meat

 

ii

Loving her was like loving a magpie

if she squawked too much

I wished her ill,

but when she sang

small metallic pipes hummed

softly, a low triangle left ringing

in an empty odeum.

I rarely, if ever

let her sing

 

iii

You magpie cunts

you drive away the bulbuls

and give the kookaburra shit

then walk into my kitchen

past couldntgiveashit cats

and when I’m fed up with your crap

on my clothes,

you hop and say ‘how dare you

defy my insolence’

I will wait and watch

and crush you

in the slamming door

 

iv

When she left me

I stopped trapping mice

so no more

but after

maybe

I shall set traps

for the younger birds

who venture too near

too beautiful

 

v

Caught one the other day

and that’s just

the beginning…

______________________

 

From Sentinel Poetry Online, 48, November 2006:

 

Gaza drowning

i

In the morning more gunmen,

black-clad and with weapons

raised to prise some credit

in this lottery of warlords; smiling,

 

cheering and firing

guns. Yet this was something else,

for only a day ago the massive tanks

– pesticidal spaceships – rolled out,

 

leaving the scraps to the oven hatred

and the safety of home-grown thugs.

Yesterday the rubble and helping

Asif’s father take bricks in

 

a half-dragged cart; dusty white

with glistening, tanned-skin streaks

of sweat. You heard at last

the beach was free, but the hours ran

 

in the fight to boast this liberty.

 

ii

Today the sea is free again,

they say it will now always be;

that constant thing, the only thing

 

free of the smashed and half-built

and raw, free of the ruins

that litter the shore

unblemished as a tile

 

and wet as a wound,

it beckoned

this parable of endurance beheld;

it glittered

 

as though damascened, such wealth

lived only in dreams in siege-saddened rooms

where unslaked generations brood.

 

iii

To the beach for the one thing

they handed you pure,

an ablution to mark the still birth

of a land; down the long, pitted road

 

to the long-forbidden sand.

Asif was there with you, his hands

smooth from lime and his smile

encouraged you into the brine.

 

Playfulness surged in the spray

of his joy and discarding your shirt

you followed this boy

to the salty delight, this border

 

now gone, you flailed you arms

and the dust came away

and ducking your head, you pushed

under waves, mere ripples they were

 

yet soon you were far

from the shallows and feeling

a tug underneath,

you thrust up to clutch

 

at an ocean of breath.

The weight of your body

the screams of Asif,

the disordered panic

 

as your lungs filled with sea.

Half-submerged, dripping, afraid

and unsure, Asif stood waiting

til he saw you return

 

buoyant as ever, you came up at last.

 

 

Wasn’t it you?

Wasn’t it you who approached me

down the aisle of a supermarket?

Back in town, I guess,

from some unimaginable failure.

 

Wasn’t it like you

not to let me touch you –

a stroke of your back as a prelude

to placing my arm about you?

 

Wasn’t it you who said that we might

just as well be together again,

since you were here now and since

I had spent six years pining?

 

Wasn’t it you who knew slowness

must govern this strange recommencement,

this unlikely coupling of something

long dead with a dream?

 

Wasn’t it like me

to cling to these night hopes,

to lie still expecting

that really we might have loved on?

 

 

The Anchor Pub, Cambridge

Upstairs at the Anchor, young Eddie,

distracted whilst pulling a pint, loses

his eyes in the brass of the taps.

Therein, staring back, he finds himself

giant-armed, flanked by his comrade

and haloed with scattered hangings:

a photograph of Al Capone, ladies

taking tea at The Orchard, rowers

lowering their tubs, heifers

grazing in the boggy dew

and a timely rescue from a waterlogged

steam-ship foundering in a storm.

 

Along the racks and shelves are jugs

and busts; Nelson skulking dusty beneath

a penny farthing; Mozart beside

a bedpan and clock; Beethoven

topping a broken barometer

pitching askew to a staggered deck

 

and ever on in, come the customers…

 

“This one,” says Tom, “she’s a delicate fawn

shot by a crossbow on a frosty morn

sublime in her sorrow, gorgeous, torn,

evanescent as she pales to lifelessness.”

 

“Here’s our moody porn star again –

overworked and glum as a college

porter, be-jowled by scratchings and lager,

he spat himself into sports casual.”

 

Eddie throws his eyes out the window.

Below, the river, splayed

and wet as a spent horse, shrieks

with unseen children, bellows

with drunken men

and, on the patio, as on the bridge

swarms a gaggle of lusty young beauties,

all here to taste the merry delights

of his beloved England.

 

And he, stuck behind the bar,

with a would-be poet, sore.

 

 

The Room of Kings, Barcelona

You arrived before me, tired from Buenos Aeries,

lean with a dancer’s strength,

and when I saw your bags beside the narrow beds

I’d booked from England, I apologised

for the humidity of this cupboard,

four flights above those human canals

of the old quarter, stained like a rectum.

“This is the room of kings!” you said.

 

“Ah yes.”

We shook moist hands

and went to the beach of rough and dirty

sand and sea

that frothed with warmth and garbage.

The afternoon was copper-hazed and stretched

towards a smog horizon; something in its

smoky glare spoke of a faded postcard.

 

The colours by night won us over;

soft umber pools between pitted arches,

olive fronds, sagging, pointed,

and fountains, seeping, margarine grey.

In Placa Real we sat drinking and listening

to ragged Dylan and Marley songs

while the super-strength lager

turned our stomachs, growling.

 

At midnight we fled the demanding

hookers, back to “la Sala de los Reyes”

though the streets still screamed with drunks.

From above, below, in an ugly show,

the cleaners hosed and shouted

and the rubbish men made karate sounds, tossing

bags and bins with evident hatred

for whoever dared to sleep.

 

Furiously a man called for Davide, his dog

and out the next-door window, an American

yelled back at the street then lit

a hashish joint which he dangled,

taunting passers by.

I rested my elbows

on our shared pane, and smoked shoulder

to shoulder, hoping for a knockout punch.

 

At four-thirty the delivery began;

the supermarket shutter below

banged like a wrecking ball of shivered tin.

I heard you groan, lying, wincing,

tortured by this thrash and bubble, sweating

this molten night through. The air

pressed close in a pillow smother

and through it  we squeezed laments.

 

“The room of kings indeed,” you breathed,

exasperated.

_________________________________

 

From PN Review,  176, July-August, 2007:

 

Soldier’s Cup  (On a visit to the Tunnel Museum in Sarajevo.)

Three thousand journeys daily through the slush,

but for the grunts and gasping, slupping hush.

 

Through water, knee deep, driving goats and sheep,

all tired of asking how long they must keep.

 

The moon haunts winter like an undead sun, snow falls on the ruins…

 

The tunnel ran eight hundred metres long.

Down Sniper Alley death was quick to come.

 

Out came food and blankets, weapons, life;

their fearful, angry hopes received a spike.

 

Water freezes, soil stiffens, fear stays ever warm…

 

The scenery had turned a deadly note.

as shells and rockets shouted from the slopes.

 

At this end, sandbags, trenches, ducking men;

the snipers culled, but could not find their den.

 

No trains come, trams and buses hide, the cars race round the pits…

 

In Leningrad they said the tears would freeze;

a war less total still affords no ease.

 

The food was scarce and soon the pipes ran dry

It was their solemn duty not to die.

 

Libraries burned, civilians fell, defenders had few guns…

 

Beneath the streets the rudiments hung on

the schools and kitchens, prayers and stirring songs.

 

The Sarajevans set their jaws and fought

against the cleansing of their every thought.

 

“We could not leave, why should we go? We could not let them win…”

 

With throat in check, his caveat is blunt;

his house and land once formed the battlefront.

 

He shows us footage of this longest siege

The silence hangs on us a while. We grieve.

 

Bent and pushing, wounded seeping, Atlas comes to each man’s heart…

 

Along the chilling tunnel breaths puff hot;

the trolleys cut their wake, the fodder coughs.

 

The bearded, grimy heroes lift and lug,

the women shoulder with them, no less strong.

 

“How could they let this happen here? We Muslims knew well why…”

 

We watch them coming up with fighting aid;

sleepless, ready, stone-set, frightened, brave.

 

A lady, proud and crooked, tips a quench

into a cup while waiting by the trench.

 

A soldier steps up, fraying like a rope.

She hands the haggard man a mother’s hope.

 

 

Mistras

The roots are smooth as the stones

over which they coil into a backdrop of mist;

ringing this saintly hill suspended

above the fields of Sparta.

 

The sun hung radiance on the frosted edge

of this morning and vaselined the chalk white roads.

The orchards hummed with insects of cotton light;

particles in a filmy, smeared bliss.

 

Such spacious peace exists beneath

the monastery washed in a halo glare; walls

brushed by dipping reeds, gentle in the absent

breeze, blushing into windless silence.

 

There is a tuft of holiness spent in the huddled brick;

the miniature churches, baked and bleached,

are steeped in mysticism so sleepy in myth,

they evoke mere wistful dreaminess.

 

How war could find its way here is not plain

and yet, this ruin overlooks another:

buried Sparta with barely a monument,

fertile through the year with hardy grass.

 

 

Best left

She made me stress the honesty I’ve only sung in bursts.

I wish that I could long sustain the strength within my thirst.

 

There’s hope inside the fresh idea of every nascent love;

the goal of endless novelty exhausts the promised grove.

 

We met when I was everything for nothing yet was done;

as soon as I get settled in I’ll loath what I become.

 

Is she here now for all the things I promised on the way?

I spent the sunshine at the stalls that fed me til today.

 

She was a love, an energy that never courted guilt;

she came without the ruin field beneath what I had built.

 

I longed her til I knew that she must never let me near,

for Aristotle’s shapes are only flawless as ideas.

 

 

Photo of Venice

Maroon undulations, crests of copper, steel blue deeps

slicked with bronze and mercury blanched;

this might be an artist’s impression

of the gaseous oceans on a lurid sunset Titan.

 

Into these palazzo reflections juts the nose of a vaporetto

and below, large in the corner, rises

the crowned black S of a gondola moored, seemingly

to the lens. An old woman told me to take

 

this photo; a New Zealander who made me tea

while I hovered, locked in a towel for an hour

from my room, as the sunrise grew without.

__________________________________

 

From Westerly, 54.1, 2009:

 

First Harvest

I saw my first harvest today

– it was all dust and sunset.

On a byroad to Grantchester Village

in a leonine August, I halted

my bicycle. Wheels still, saddle-seated,

air like a malty basket;

in its belly plumes of chaff.

Lengthwise and widthways

the land spread, ruched, in low undulations.

On the one side, the grass green and trodden, full of cattle;

from the other blew a dry, oily meal wind

– the husk and raw of severed wheat.

 

Yellow sky, yellow field. A far off machine

– like a child’s plaything – rolled its scythe;

funnel pumped seed into the dump.

Closely huddled were the waiting fecund heads,

their fattening done. As the broken

stalk and stem-stump wake expanded,

I was minded of a rending imperfection.

How even the agents of ruin

are picturesque.

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Rain

This is a chapter from a novel I wrote between 1998 and 2004 entitled Et in Antipodes, Ego. It was intended to be something of a romantic epic, but lacked sufficient gism to make it readable. Too long and slow, the romantic elements were based, at times quite painstakingly, on personal experiences from the period prior to its conception. The story centred around Edward Cockfoster and his uncovering of a literary controversy whilst writing a PhD on the fictional Australian author, Bryce Chapman. His unexpected, serendipitous success with his research contrasted with the failure of his relationship with the Cambridge-bound Pandora.

Whilst containing some, if I may say so myself, quite beautiful moments, there was too much pedantic and pedestrian detail which could only be described as self-indulgent. With the first draft running to 140,000 words, it was terribly overwritten, yet at the time I was too precious to take the axe to it in the way that was necessary. In retrospect, it was good “marathon training”, but not something I intend to go back to, having moved so far away from its characters, themes and sentiment. This is the fourth-last chapter, wherein Edward finally sees a light at the end of the tunnel.

 

Rain

Edward met Felicity at her house at eight and they walked around the corner to the local church. He had worn his only suit for the occasion, a dark blue pinstripe over a pale mustard shirt. Felicity wore a ballooning white skirt, a pale blue blouse and dark blue cardigan; her long black hair hung flat to the top of her bottom.

It promised to be a difficult sitting when they saw the uncushioned benches. Felicity curtseyed to the alter and slipped by, the hem of her skirt brushing Edward’s shin; the cotton half catching then springing away from his trousers. He slid along the bench after her.

“This is nice,” said Edward, shrugging.

The service began soon afterwards and Edward stared ahead, thinking only of the girl beside him. Neither he nor she was Catholic, but as students of Latin, this had seemed a curious excursion. It was not long before Edward was overcome with drowsiness, induced by the soft fragrance of Felicity. The slow rhythms of the Latin washed over him, spoken by an Italian-accented speaker with a cadence and elision usually neglected by unimaginative readers. The words hummed in the solid wooden pews; a language come back from the dead.

Amidst the press of Italian families, Edward and Felicity moved hardly a muscle. Forced close together, the fabric covering their upper arms touched lightly. The contact filled Edward with such a sensual languor that he was afraid of moving and breaking the spell. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Felicity was transfixed, though he did not know by what.

When at last it was over they stood up quickly to leave. It was just after eleven and they emerged into a mist of light rain.

“Well…,” Edward trailed. “That was kind of interesting.”

“I was pretty disappointed actually. It wasn’t as medieval as I’d expected.”

“Vatican Two is to blame.”

They began to move off under the dripping trees in the direction of Norton Street.

“What’s the point of Catholicism without the incense, mystery and chanting?” said Edward. “They’ve lost their schtick.”

“I know. And, hello, guitars and cow bells? Whatever…”

“Say no more.”

They hurried through the rain to Bar Italia, a busy, informal café; worn tables, ice-cream counter, movie posters and a bohemian crowd. The clash  of plates and clink of spoons reverberated on the wet-footprinted tiles.

They ordered a fettucini melanzone and salata caprese to share. They drank tea and coffee and laughed about the service. When they had finished eating Felicity suggested going on a walk around the neighbourhood.

“It’s raining,” said Edward.

“But I want to get wet,” said Felicity.

She led him through the streets in her ballooning white skirt; small in stature and perfectly proportioned. All she lacked, thought Edward, was a wand trailing stardust. They came to a wide grassed pavement behind which lay railway tracks upon an embankment. Along the line of the fence an array of towering trees and flowering shrubs hung their branches to form bowers. In their romantic communal enthusiasm, the local residents had set up wooden benches, constructed from old wood, and painted with a fading assortment of blossoms.

They stood talking under an arched trellis until Edward decided to brave the wet bench. He wiped off the top slick and sat on the damp wood.

“You can sit in my lap, if you like,” he joked, putting his elbows up on the back of the bench.

“Alright,” she answered. “I should have known better than to wear white.”

“I’m sure the church-goers liked it. They love to fantasise about virgins.”

“Well don’t you get any ideas.”

She sat on his lap and he adjusted her weight until they were comfortable. Although he tried his hardest not to place his hands on her with obvious intent, the merest touch communicated more than he had intended to learn: the neat roundness of a thigh, the inward curve from hip to waist; hands where they might be in a more ardent encounter.

Felicity sat in Edward’s lap until his bottom went numb. They talked and talked and when she enthused about her favourite poets, Edward’s suffering increased tenfold. She too was a fan of the romantics, and after a time he could bear it no longer.

“I am dying to kiss you,” he said.

“What?” she said, genuinely surprised. “Oh no, you can’t say that, it isn’t fair.”

She twisted in his lap and looked at him.

“Why? I’m sorry,” he said. “But it’s the plain, simple truth.”

Edward leaned back to give her more room, relaxing his hold on her.

“But… This is such bad timing. I’ve just started seeing someone.”

“Oh? Really? I know. I mean, I didn’t know, but I should have known. That you must be, that is.”

He bit his lip.

“Someone like you would be, I guess. I wasn’t sure.”

She sat stiffly.

“You shouldn’t have said it.”

“That I wanted to kiss you?”

“Yes.” She turned her eyes away and moved further towards his knee. “It’s been a month now. It’s just turned the corner towards something more.”

Felicity stood up and so did Edward, she walked away a few feet and turned to look at him, smiling.

“I still want to kiss you,” Edward said. “Maybe it’s not too late.”

She looked at him pityingly, moving about on the spot.

“This is so unfair. It’s so confusing.”

She giggled nervously. She walked in a circle, looking up and then around, laughing when their eyes crossed.

“You know, I had a dream about you the other night,” she said. “You came to me in a Latin lecture and handed me an envelope. Inside there was a card with a heart in it, a simple heart cut out of paper and coloured in with red pencil. I hoped you were going to turn up after class, and then you didn’t, and I realised how much I wanted you to be around. That was Wednesday.”

“Well here I am!”

She laughed again and let her voice trail off in a frustrated whine, walking away again and turning to come back.

“It’s just such bad timing all this. No one should have to make this sort of decision.”

“So there is still a decision to be made then?”

“Oh, please, Edward, no, no. Don’t keep on about it.”

“I’m really sorry. Honestly, I should never have said anything. I wouldn’t have said a thing if I knew there was someone else. Something you said gave me hope. I thought you were just out of a relationship.”

“I was. I am. But then I met this other guy. He’s in third year. Undergrad.”

Never demean the opposition, thought Edward, just keep hoping.

“Studying?”

“Science.”

They were both standing, facing each other, twisting on their feet and half smiling.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know. I always pick the wrong time.”

“It’s hard to get the timing right. Things just happen when they do.”

“Are you in love?” he asked.

Felicity began to nod, then slowly stopped. Gradually her head began to shake.

“Not yet. But there’s nothing wrong. Everything is nice with us. Maybe I will be.”

“I’m sorry,” he said again. “It just seemed so right here. Normally I don’t have the courage.”

She looked up slowly from the wet ground with mischievous eyes.

“It is right, and I want you to kiss me, but…”

“Perhaps I should try anyway?” Edward’s heart was pounding beneath his breastbone. All about him water was dripping. He could hear and smell and taste the world so well.

“I guess you could try,” she said, faintly.

Edward advanced rapidly, afraid of a change of heart. He put his arm around her waist and drew her in, and she placed her hands, a little cautiously, upon his shoulders. He closed his eyes and she closed hers, and their mouths came together in an awkward, mistimed kiss. Their teeth clashed. He kissed her again and she responded, but their mouths seemed not quite to fit, and they broke away, both feeling disjointed.

“Mmm,” said Edward. “Your face is even more beautiful up close.”

She skipped away from him.

“I thought our first kiss would be better than that,” she said. “I imagined you kissing me the way Ewan McGregor kisses.”

“How so?” asked Edward, a little shocked at the critique.

“I’ll have to show you,” she said, and she came for him, taking his face in both her hands and tipping her own face to one side. He tipped his head the other way and their lips met and this time they got the kiss right, full mouth sucking full mouth, their lips softer, more pliant. Edward warmed from his brief shock and Felicity seemed more enthusiastic now.

Once the kissing had begun it acquired its own momentum, moving forwards to familiarity and then to a sort of immediate necessity. Edward picked her up in his arms and held her there, kissing her further. Her small body was almost weightless and so he held her for minutes until he felt sure something larger must come of this.

An hour later she led him into her back yard and snuck him through the window into her bedroom.

 

 ********

Edward reached Parramatta Road at a trot, his coat flapping. With his breast thrust out, sloughing the wind, he might have warbled like a proud robin. The rain came on in clinging beads; undecided drizzle that reminded him he wore his only suit. It had been put through the motions this night and dawn, blessed and baptised then hung from a bed-post.

He swept under the tired awnings and faded signs, slowing to pace down the pavement. In the light spread evenly by the bright grey sky, he saw and loved this dirty, great road. Bereft of cars and with its bitumen black and clean, the run-down shop-fronts and two-bit businesses pooled forgotten glories.

He smelled her in the humidity of his warming body; her scent rising from his shirt as he thrust his arm out for a taxi.

“Good morning,” he said, settling in; relishing the soft neatness of the door’s closure. The driver smiled at him, happy simply to drive. Edward rested his hands on his knees and sighed. In the taxi, all he could smell was her. He could not stop smiling, despite his exhaustion. A vision of her naked form hung behind his eyes. Had it really happened? Had they really lain together, right through to the wet sunrise? Tired in the chest, his limbs just a little numb, he flowed home unhindered through lights that stayed green.

How he longed for a hot cup of tea. How lovely then to shower and towel, and simply to be so alive at dawn.

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“Depression presents itself as a realism regarding the rottenness of the world in general and the rottenness of your life in particular.” – Johnathan Franzen, How to be Alone.

When you’re sad, you see things as they are. It’s a blessing and a curse, because whilst there’s nothing as refreshing as the truth, when it’s ugly it only compounds the problem of feeling sad in the first place. Sadness not only takes the sheen off things, but it also takes the screen off things. It denies us the levity required to accept things that we have tolerated rather than enjoyed. When its cause is sudden, and its magnitude is great, it pulls away the carpet that hid how cold the floor was.

This effect has many repercussions, some of which, if coupled with sufficient will, are positive. In the short term, however, it magnifies the sorrow. If we are unhappy with our job, then the work becomes intolerable. If we are unhappy with our home, then the place seems unbearable. If we are unhappy with our life in general, then even the most everyday situations can become awfully difficult, especially when preoccupied with the source of our depression. These peripheral circumstances, which cease, in the thick of things, to seem peripheral, can, however, be addressed, even though it might not be possible to address the original source of lament. Depression provides us with an excellent opportunity to become pro-active and to make important and necessary changes that we have delayed for too long. The only problem is, of course, finding the strength, positivity and determination to take these necessary steps when feeling so deflated.

This ability to see the truth in things also applies to human relationships. In situations where a dispute or disagreement has jeopardised a relationship, where we have neglected someone or paid insufficient attention to their concerns, we can more easily see the significance of this. Without the security of things being ostensibly well, when depressed, our egos deflate and petty points of order upon which we might have stood become so glaringly trivial as to seem repulsive. The sources of displeasure, of frustration that were present previously, seem as nothing to the possibility of losing the relationship altogether. The onset of a deeper sadness can cause us to see just how foolish we have been in handling aspects of a relationship, and how much more easily certain situations might otherwise be or might otherwise have been negotiated. It must be seen as a chance to remember, so fiercely, the example, as to prevent its repetition in future.

Sadness can, of course, be as selfish as it is selfless, especially in situations where two people are involved. Sadness can cause us to fall into ourselves, from which point of view it is difficult to perceive things through the eyes of others. We can too easily monopolise grief and see our own troubles as paramount over those of our friends or partners. We can hurt those around us with the inherent egotism of sorrow, just as easily as we can sympathise with them. And sadness can be a great source for sympathy. Just as we see the truth of our own lives, so we can see the truth of others. We can find a great deal of empathy in sadness, for we detect it so much more readily in others. Even if they cannot see their truth, when we are depressed, and utterly disillusioned, in the most literal sense, we can see through others. The fraudulence of things becomes most readily apparent.

One of the principal troubles of a heavy depression is that it becomes nigh impossible to enjoy oneself. In the case of the loss of a partner, when grief for their absence is the source of depression, it is hard to enjoy anything because the only perceivable source of happiness is their presence. Everything acts as a reminder of the person’s absence; the inability to share the experience with them makes it cold; the heightened desire for them to be there makes their absence more urgent and hurtful. Every guilty pleasure becomes a crass mockery of the fulfilment we crave from their company.

Time, and its passing, presents a dreadful dilemma. When a crisis is fresh and the rawness is absolute, the spirit is completely abject. Time passes awfully slowly and each day can seem interminable, yet we long for time to pass so we might be on the other side of things. Day one, day two, day three after a tragedy, without sleep, unable to eat, feeling sick in both head and stomach, wanting nothing but to curl up and cry out in agony, unable to do anything to alleviate the cause of the sadness, full of self-loathing, loneliness, and finding everything in one’s life abhorrent, in such a state, time is not your friend. It must pass for the healing to take place, it must pass so that distance can accrue between the cause of suffering and the present one inhabits, yet it crawls more slowly than ever at such times.

It also takes a long time to resolve problems and make changes. It can take months, for example, to find a new job, to find a new house. It can take months to bring about changes in oneself, of habit, attitude and outlook. And whilst we wish time would simply pass, that we might find ourselves six months into the future, sufficiently buffered from the source of hurt, time also acquires an urgency, a preciousness that it lacked when we neglected it. Where once it seemed alright, even delightful, simply to do nothing, when in the thick of an urgent depression, where one feels a very great need to change things, to change oneself, all time becomes of the utmost importance.

Recently, battered by a devastating break-up, once through the first two weeks of hellish torment, I wanted more time each day to write job applications, I wanted more time to read, to write, to watch quality cinema, to listen to classical music, to read poetry, write poetry, take photographs, meet new people, meet with friends. Time became something that must be spent well, always, with purpose, with energy, because doing things to improve the depressed mood and unhappy situation was the only way forward, the only apparent possible way to lay the foundations of a future happiness.

Not only did it seem to me that time must be well spent, but I found it especially difficult to enjoy anything lacking in depth. Deeply depressed and distraught, I was unable to stomach what I would call “popcorn” entertainments. Television radiated an unbearable artifice; all sport seemed not merely futile, but appallingly populist and anti-intellectual; popular music that had once cheered or stirred me, now seemed glib and insignificant; computer games that had so appealingly rendered a genre, now seemed so awfully genre. Almost everything acquired an aspect of irrelevance. I could no longer stomach the theoretical physics articles in the New Scientist, which I read every week, so baselessly speculative are some of them. Where is Occam’s Razor in theoretical physics, I ask you?

Feeling no artifice in the self, it was nigh impossible to stomach artifice in anything else. It is a strong recommendation of psychologists that one should seek fun entertainments when depressed. This strategy is no doubt successful in many instances, for lifting the mood is paramount when depressed and comedy, or any other light-hearted distraction, is one of the best means of going about this. “Popcorn” works to shore up the spirit against heavy moods. Yet, when I tried to take pleasure in amusing trivialities, I found they were not powerful enough to distract me from my thoughts. Indeed, they seemed unpleasantly frivolous. It was far better either to exercise, read a good book, or immerse myself in a symphony.

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. So it was that as I dropped the popcorn in the aisle, the quality entertainments grew once again in stature: great literature, great art, live performance, art-house cinema, classical music, opera and intellectual radio programs. Not that I had neglected these things entirely by any means, but, when plunged into a gloomy mood, they acquired an almost intense relevance as carriers of truth in art and emotion. Such thought, philosophy and talent have gone into “the canon”, that it offers the comfort of sitting at the feet of wisdom. I needed to hear intelligent voices; to be moved again by powerful art and ideas, to remember how much there is beyond the self.

It was thus in the great work of others that I found satisfaction; beauty, honesty and integrity, such important fundamentals when trying to lay the foundations for self-rehabilitation. Great art can teach us not only how to improve ourselves, but also how to forgive ourselves. It broadens our perspective and sympathies by teaching us about others, directly and indirectly. The meditative quality of a lengthy piano concerto; the range of moods in a symphony; the intense engagement with the emotional circumstances of a character in a film or novel; the overwhelming satisfaction of beholding a beautiful painting; all these works speak directly to emotion and require no artifice. They move us before we have time to think, but then we think, for we are moved, and it is, more often than not, a philosophical, reflective train of thought.

There are, of course, other more scientific avenues for rehabilitation; medicinal and therapeutic. In my own case, reluctant to go down the medicinal route, I took the advice of trusted friends and began to see a psychologist. I had always doubted the usefulness of such consultations, as I seemed to spend most of my life ruminating on myself and identifying my issues. Yet, it occurred to me that whilst I knew what was wrong with me, I wasn’t entirely sure what the best solutions were. Perhaps a psychologist could lend some assistance on this front.

Speaking with a psychologist is certainly an interesting experience. On one level, it’s nice to seem so important as to be worthy of discussion : ) On another level, being assessed by someone trained to rationalise and contextualise emotion and character is pleasantly reassuring. However well we think we might know ourselves, it is hard to see the wood for the trees much of the time, and to hear an intelligent and informed assessment of the big picture is an opportunity to replace the image of the self in one’s own head. It is a little like working with an editor to improve a narrative.

To know that we are, as Neitzsche said, Human, all too human is something of an unwelcome relief. To learn that anything learned can be unlearned, that one can in fact, with discipline, change habits of thought and behaviour, however long established, is, however, genuinely reassuring. People who have always driven on the left-hand side of the road, can, within days, drive comfortably on the right. People whose response to frustration is to become angry, can learn to prevent the anger developing. People who have a fear of talking to strangers, can, through practise, approach people without the irrational fear that their approach is an unwelcome intrusion.

Yet, all this requires a lot of energy and effort and many will, through the weight of their depression, lack that energy. Perhaps, in their instance, some form of medication would be beneficial. Perhaps, also, in such cases, they would do well to seek levity in light-hearted entertainments. I can only speak of my own experience, where quality art and psychotherapy have been immensely beneficial – as indeed, has writing. The process of creation provides an outlet, a means of channelling emotion, though regaining the concentration required to practise any art is a hurdle in itself. Each person must tailor their response to themselves and to the source of their unhappiness; yet perhaps the best starting point is to see depression as an opportunity. Clearly, things must change, and the sooner we seek to make those changes, the sooner we might find some form of emotional equilibrium once more.

Again, I reiterate, I can only speak from my own experience, and enough has been said on that front already.

adieu.

*True Seeing (Divination) Reversible

Sphere: Divination

Range: Touch
Components: V, S, M
Duration: 1 rd./level
Casting Time: 8
Area of Effect: 1 creature
Saving Throw: None

When the priest employs this spell, he confers upon the recipient the ability to see all things as they actually are. The spell penetrates normal and magical darkness. Secret doors become plain. The exact location of displaced things is obvious. Invisible things become quite visible. Illusions and apparitions are seen through. Polymorphed, changed, or enchanted things are apparent. Even the aura projected by creatures becomes visible, so that alignment can be discerned. Further, the recipient can focus his vision to see into the Ethereal plane or the bordering areas of adjacent planes. The range of vision conferred is 120 feet. True seeing, however, does not penetrate solid objects; it in no way confers X-ray vision or its equivalent. In addition, the spell effects cannot be further enhanced with known magic. The spell requires an ointment for the eyes that is made from very rare mushroom powder, saffron, and fat and costs no less than 300 gp per use. The reverse, false seeing, causes the person to see things as they are not: rich is poor, rough is smooth, beautiful is ugly. The ointment for the reverse spell is concocted of oil, poppy dust, and pink orchid essence. For both spells, the ointment must be aged for 1d6 months.

From the Dungeons & Dragons – Players’ Handbook.

ps. “If you end up with a boring, miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it.”

– Frank Zappa

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This short story was first published in Wet Ink #22, March 2011.

This is a mix of fact and fiction, involving elements from four visits to Venice. Conspicuous by its absence, however, is perhaps my favourite Venetian anecdote, wherein, forgetting my key on the way to the shower, I was locked outside my hotel room at 0600 AM in nothing but a towel, for two hours. Three wonderfully adventurous octogenarian Kiwi ladies made me cups of tea and kept me company the whole time, which made up for not being able to photograph the sunrise, sorta. As to cigarettes, I took my last drag in New York, in April 2007 and don’t miss them at all.

Last Smoke in Venice

I had to give up. Again. I swore I’d never smoke another cigarette after the age of thirty on pain of cancer and, being superstitious, I believed it. For many shining months I didn’t have so much as a single drag. It was tough when waiting for trains. It was tough when drinking, tough after eating, tough with my afternoon coffee, tough when emerging from a film. In the end it was just too tough. After eight months, like a dog returning to his own sick, I found myself back sucking grime.

The truth is that I was already suffering from cancer: cancer of the discipline; cancer of the willpower. If I couldn’t control something as simple and straightforward as an addiction to a deadly poison, then what hope did I have of achieving anything worthy? I needed to find the strength, or perhaps the romance, for a ceremonial act of excision; the cigarettes had to go once and for all.

Travel was a serious problem. Every time I gave up smoking it would be a holiday that brought me back. It’s nigh impossible to resist cigarettes on the road. My resolve had failed in Tokyo, in the Balkans, in Italy, Spain and Greece. Wherever the smokes were plentiful and cheap, and whenever I was in a festive, campaigning spirit, out came the wallet and in came the poison.

Then it hit me. Perhaps I could turn the problem on its head. Perhaps I could make a journey just for the sake of quitting; pick somewhere special – new and exotic, or even an old favourite – go there, smoke myself silly until, in a chosen moment of unmatchable glory, I polished my final gasper.

I was excited by this idea. It was also a good excuse for another holiday, and I immediately began to think about where to go.

Four weeks later I flew into Bergamo, having decided on a forced march across northern Italy as a prelude to the glories of the Venetian lagoon. In five days I travelled through Como, Milan, Brescia, Verona, Mantua, Bologna, Rimini, and Ravenna, smoking all the way. On the night before I set off north for the floating city, I went out skulking. In the grey exhaust side streets, before a rainy fortress, I met some hooded men and bought some hash.

The following day was lost behind curtain rain. I took my time. At Ferrara I changed trains in a fish-tank world, fearing the worst for my visit to Venice. I was banking on sunshine for high-contrast, black and white photography, and of course, for plenty of outdoor smoking. Thankfully, as the train rattled across the causeway, the sun returned; shining low through departing clouds. The winds flicked raindrops like mounted archers peppering a column. It was late afternoon. The lagoon was bruise and silver blue.

At the station I ordered a coffee and smoked a cigarette on the steps outside the cafeteria. It was nothing special, but I enjoyed every drag. The first of my last cigarettes in Venice! I had booked a hotel in advance; a little two-star number only three minutes from the Piazza di San Marco. November was clearly a good time of year to visit; if only the fog and the rain might hold off. I set off into Venice down its old, paved ways.

I found my hotel without trouble. The heating worked, the bed was comfortable, the outlook simple but pleasant. The tiled floor was cool on my hot, tired feet and the shower ran with rare force. Having stopped at the supermarket, I opened the shutters and placed my supplies on the deep window sill; ham, cheese, bread, milk, pastries, and a two-litre bottle of cheap barbera.

Warmed, fed and spruced, I set off into light rain to commence my picturesque arrivederci to the smokes. I chose melancholy music to match the chilling beauty of the weather. I wandered without aim over bridges, stopped under awnings, leaned against dry walls, puffed my way down narrow alleys. After two hours the long day got the better of me and I returned to the hotel for another hot shower and some bed rest. I treated myself to one last cigarette; leaning over the street with a glass of milk. There were plenty of smokes left, so I didn’t count them. This may have been the final packet, but it wasn’t ration time yet. Below, the wet stones scuffed and echoed. I exhaled into the backlit droplets.

The following day dawned with a piercing blue sky. The air was mild and bracing and standing at the window I felt fresh. Ahead lay many indulgent hours of smoking and photography. I showered, made my lunch, ate my breakfast, and kicked off with a nice hit of hash. At seven thirty, I set out to walk the streets in awe.

I spent the morning circumnavigating the Arsenal; from here the Venetians had once ruled the eastern Mediterranean. It was no mean feat and yet, despite the size of the space, and not normally being one to judge a book by its cover, it had about it the quaintness of pre-industrial industry. The small, clean, pocked bricks of the wall belied the great scale of the business they once secreted.

I took the ferry to the Island of Burano. Despite the beauty of its rainbow streets, it left me empty and distant. My eyes were ever looking back to Venice; the floating city seemed so rare and precious that I could not stand long to be separated from it. Anxious, I rushed back to the ferry and returned post-haste.

By one in the afternoon I was half drunk. The bottle of barbera in my pack steadily lightened as I swigged my lost way through alleys and down canals. At two I followed the signs to the Rialto and waited to take up pole position. Once installed at the bridge’s summit, the sun swung into place and shone down the blinding Grand Canal. The water turned to a black steep of silver stars; oblivion overrun with ripple sparks. I shot in black and white, straight into the face of the sun, seeking out silhouettes, cigarettes hopping on my lips. It might be impossible to take an original photograph of Venice, yet if one can get the cliché just right, then perhaps there is art in that.

So, things were going nicely! If this really was to be my last packet of cigarettes, what better place could there be, what better than this? And there were other good signs to consider. For all the pleasure of the loving drags I took, I rued the pungent reek of my fingers and the oily prickliness in my cheeks. I allowed myself to enjoy the cigarettes, yet did not forget the many, immediate and obvious disadvantages; the stench, the dizziness, the heaviness in the lungs. How I longed for a scrub with soap and water.

I grew increasingly drunk on the Rialto Bridge and did not budge for two hours. By four in the afternoon I was exploding for the loo and finally abandoned my post. Back at my hotel room, relieved by a rumbling torrent, I lay on my bed to download my photographs and woke up, lap-top across my thighs, at eight in the evening. The day had gone, the sun had set; the clear sky had retreated behind fog and rain clouds.

Sunburned and beat; hungover and nicotined out, I set off into the clinging night for a final, tripod-mounted shoot. My impeccable sense of directionlessness got me lost in all the right places. I felt fraught with a wonderful longing that pained me to know what to long for. I stumbled across floodlit decay; scaffolding shoring up damp bricks; dead ends in the emerald murkiness. I looked for spots to sit, spots to smoke then leave behind for other spots, feeling at times both whole and halved.

I was woken at six by a booming siren. In my pillow-muffled ears it sang like the old factory hooters that once sounded so sonorously across Sydney. The low moan tugged me back to harbour sunrise; rinsed blues and yellows in a hazy glare. With the dawn colour of ocean behind my eyes, I recalled where I was. My lids fluttered, blinking away the chimneys and rusting cranes. I stirred, happy in my heat, and sent a foot to the temperate air.

A moment later I knew the siren’s meaning. It came with unexpected clarity. Some time ago, when reading up on Venice, a particular detail had stuck; that the sirens warned of floodtides. Their sounding called the city council into action and prepared the people for a day of sloshing. All across the sinking city, Venetians would be pulling on gumboots. I sprang out of bed feeling lucky. It was too good to be true. The surf was up.

From my window I could see nothing of the flooding, but my faith was strong. I showered and dressed quickly, emptying my pack of all that I would not need. I should have to return before eleven to check out, but there was plenty of morning before then. I sat by the window and rolled two joints, tucking them into my cigarette packet. There were only five smokes left. I made myself a packed lunch; over-buttered rosetta rolls, ham and chunks of hard, dry cheese; apples and chocolate. I ate half a packet of cupcakes, drank a pint of milk and went downstairs for a surprisingly bad coffee.

It was seven thirty when I left the hotel. Outside the door, to the left, the street came to a dead-end at a narrow canal. Here the water had spilled over the lip, but it was dry along the base of the wall. I stopped, eyes locked to the ubiquitous arched bridge opposite, and smoked up one of the joints.

Being morning, the first thing that hit me was the tobacco. I felt so light-headed that I leaned against the wall to avoid dizziness. Good old tobacco, wondrous nicotine, with its strange ability to relax and make uneasy simultaneously. The hashish came on strong as I turned back towards the main vein.

I soon found what I was looking for – the canal overlapping its banks. Along the promenade, heading west and south, the water had risen above ankle height. Men unloaded from barges onto these swilling pavements. The manmade banks with their pretence of ordering the ocean had lost authority to the swollen sea.

I stopped, aghast, in love, in awe, propped and fired off shots. The cigarettes were hot in my pocket; the sea air risen, sharp and salty. I pulled out a smoke and stuck it in my lips. I knew I was putting it on, narrowing my eyes, sucking in my cheeks, trying to look tough and cool, but that’s how I started smoking and that’s how I was determined to finish. It was an irresponsible stance, foolish and vain, but how I loved it here on this fired-up, overflowing morning, the thin sun yellow through a fug of fading mist. I set off for the fish markets; first stop on a long day’s march.

Along the lengths of the main thoroughfares, wooden platforms, like clattering old school desks, had been erected. Upon these people walked, one abreast, turning their shoulders sideways as they edged past each other. Alongside, vendors stood in calf-high water, wearing thigh-high, olive green gumboots. People leaned from the safety of the platforms and bought whatever they required. I stuck some Italian opera in my ears, highlights, arias, then walked up and climbed aboard the platforms. It was slow going and soon lost its novelty, so the first chance I had I hopped off onto an island of dry land outside a café. On a whim I went in and ordered a scotch, to put some fire in my belly. It went marvellously well with a cigarette. I stood outside watching people shuffle down the boards; I was high on the atmosphere, high on the romance, high on the nicotine. It was all going so well!

I made my way along the higher, drier streets, photographing everything I could: men slicing fillets from large and bloody fish; market stallholders and deliverymen unloading goods into handcarts; widows sloshing from their homes; bored gondoliers lamenting the clouds; waiters waiting. I wandered through these vignettes; hoping my camera could capture the narrative. Venice was such a tumult of stimuli that it had ruined my concentration. The emotional tugs in the arias; soaring beauty and epic despair, robbed me of the desire to force things. I abandoned all plans to visit galleries and museums. Despite the rich interiors, this was not a time or place to be indoors. I strolled on through the wet and marvellous gloom that grew across the morning, content to witness this decay and fading grandeur. Venice is a living ruin, the heart of glorious sadness. It was appropriate that under a leaden sky, chest heavy with the weight of awe, I was smoking my final cigarettes.

I stopped and had another whisky. It warmed me and loosened my shoulders. Cold was seeping in from the ever-present damp. The clamminess and slow oil of skin passed to memory with the macchiato chaser. I had another smoke, then washed up in the bathroom. I had only two cigarettes remaining and the thought was making me anxious. Doubts were beginning to creep in. What would really happen when the final one was smoked? How long before the joy of being clean was overcome by gnawing need? I wanted to be free of anxiety on this front, yet I felt the impending nostalgia of finality.

Time had flown and I had to get back to my hotel to pack my bags. I made a beeline and walked apace. I took a gratuitous extra shower, freshened up, packed and left right on the stroke of eleven. Once outside I took stock of how to spend the afternoon before the train and plane and coach ride home. All along I had been avoiding the obvious; I aimed myself towards the Piazza di San Marco to see how the floods had taken hold.

The Basilica sat on the shore of a tidal lake, rain-stained and murky gold. The walking platforms had been erected around the piazza, one line of which led directly into the church. The smooth-worn and deceptively soft marble shone with wetness and reflections. Under the cloisters the scrape of steps echoed; the air was sewn by the whispered gasps of voices and a ceaseless lap and plop. I stopped just before the entrance; the hot damp of a present congregation exchanging its breath with the outside cold. My interest was unfocussed; bemusement and preoccupation with the presence of water. I wanted only to sit undisturbed on a wet marble step and listen to the drops and ripples.

I turned straight around and headed back out, walking on the platforms to the side of the piazza. The three steps to the arcade were sufficient to keep it above the height of the water. I had missed the tide at its peak and cursed.

Walking to the opposite end of the square, I sat on the steps and opened up my cigarette packet. The moment was dawning and the ludicrous significance I’d attached to it filled me with the melancholy of pointlessness. Was my life so devoid of purpose or meaning that I had to resort to conceits such as this? On the other hand, should I not be pleased that I was able to take such a curiously indulgent holiday? One cigarette, one joint, that was it.

The time beyond smoking seemed like darkness. It was a significant step towards death; like losing my hair or being forced to give up dairy products. Yet, it was a good while since I’d smoked without guilt; the casual unconcern of youth had long since left me. I knew I would live more comfortably if I accepted the inevitable.

I fired up the joint. There weren’t too many people about and I figured they would be none the wiser. The smoke curled roughly into my lungs; harsh, dry tobacco; sweet, oily hash. I had taken the music out of my ears to be alert and watched the people around me. Only one person seemed to have an inkling of what I was up to; a lithe and pretty girl with long dreadlocks, in hipster jeans and a colourful, striped top. She was facing perpendicular and our lazy stares must have met somewhere out on the shallow water.

As the hash came on, I closed my eyes and breathed. I wanted some music that kicked me with its pith and began spinning the dial on my iPod. I loved all these songs but was growing tired of them. Then my eyes lit on something so apposite I could have wept. Fate was guiding me, lending this moment a whole new grandeur; Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks.

The loud, echoing snare timed me into six minutes of heart leaps. I rocked back and forth with the slow grind of the intro, till Page’s spanking riff had me breathing in tears. The basilica rippled at the end of the square, mirrored in the flood.

The song built and built, up and up so my hair stood on end. Yes, this was the moment – the moment to finish with smoking. The levee was broken, the pigeons shat hard from the columns and pilasters; the heavy sky was threadbare with blocked silver light. My heart was full; rich with excitement and the anxiety of uncertain yearning. I held the moment as tightly as I could; sweating in it, rocking with it.

My eyes locked to the centre of the piazza, I noticed a break in the water where the tide was receding and the land revealed its uneven shape. Had the weight of the buildings pushed down the edges of the piazza, leaving a hump along the centre?

The song was drawing to a close, petering into repetition. I turned down the volume and smiled through its coda. Perhaps now was the time. The longer I waited, the more anxious I would become about commencing the final smoke. I picked up the packet and withdrew the cigarette.

It was in my fingers, ready to be applied to my lips, when I heard a scuffle to my left. As I turned my head, a bright, cheery face leaned into view, introduced by a waving hand. It was the girl with the dreadlocks.

“Hi,” she said.

I smiled; startled, embarrassed, and pulled out my earphones.

“Hello,” she said, “sorry to disturb you.”

“No problem.” I hadn’t had a conversation in English for four or five days and was surprised at the sound of my voice.

“I don’t suppose you have a spare cigarette?” she asked.

“Well, actually,” I began, but then my heart sank. How could I explain?

“It’s my last cigarette,” I said, “really my last one.”

Knowing just how old and tired this excuse was, I added, “It really is genuinely my last cigarette.” I showed her the empty inside of the packet.

“Oh, that’s cool,” she said, but she did not leave immediately.

I was not sure what she was waiting for. Did she want to share it with me? Did I really want her to go away?

“I guess you can have it if you like,” I said a moment later. “I’m supposed to be giving up.”

“Oh, no,” she smiled, “I couldn’t take your last cigarette.”

“No, go on,” I said. “Seriously. You can have it, I suppose. I don’t see why not. Or we could share it, if you like? I guess a little company’s a fair price.”

“For sure,” she said, beaming. She sat down beside me, closer than I could have hoped.

“I’ll start it, if you don’t mind,” I said.

“Go right ahead.”

She was English, probably from London, though I couldn’t be sure.

I put the cigarette to my lips and stoked it up. My final cigarette! The very last one! And here I was, completely distracted from my mission to savour it. I’d been dragged kicking and screaming from detached, heroic edginess into thoughts of lewd acts following an imagined pissed-up luncheon. Never could I have predicted such a dilemma. This would be a cigarette to remember – that much was certain, but how, how, how could I explain?

I passed the cigarette to her and she took her first toke. I watched her technique; it was practised and sure. She drew the smoke smoothly, without grimacing. She took three tokes then passed it back to me.

I was pleased to find the filter dry. I took my drag, thinking of things to say. There was so much from which to choose that I said nothing at all.

“Any plans for the afternoon?” she asked.

“Not especially,” I said. “How about you?”

“Nothing really. Just more sightseeing I guess.”

“Cool, me too.”

I passed her the cigarette.

“Are you here by yourself?” she asked.

“Yes. And you?”

“I am now,” she said, “my sister went home yesterday.”

“Cool,” I said, not really knowing exactly what was cool.

“Well, in that case,” she said, taking a drag and passing the cigarette back to me, “we’d better get some more cigarettes.”

I laughed and smiled at her. I liked the sound of “we.”

“Yes, I suppose we should,” I said.

The floor was falling away beneath me. Was I really about to get lucky? This had happened once before in Turkey; a grand opportunity arising just prior to my departure. I gave a woman my jumper – she was worried about being cold – and she smelled it saying it had the scent of a real man. I left and caught my flight on that occasion, yet here, already I was calculating the cost of skipping tonight’s. I had often joked about heading back to England overland. I felt an awkward, bowel-shaking mix of despair at the impending failure of a sacred mission and the longing to succumb to a rare romantic possibility. It would need some thought, it would need some good fortune, it would definitely require more cigarettes.

“Yeah, fuck it,” I said, exhaling out the side of my mouth, “let’s go get some more fags.”

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