Archive for the ‘Memoir’ Category

The photographs below were taken in November of 2007. The italicised passage at the end is the opening paragraph of an e-mail which I began, but never finished, shortly after this trip to Austria. When I stumbled upon it this morning, I decided to write the following.

The rain turned to snow at around two in the afternoon. The windows of the coach, once streaked with chilly rivulets, were now spattered with sticky flakes. The dark and bristling silhouettes of the fir trees slowly lightened as snow collected on the branches. Every so often I wiped a fresh porthole in the frosted window, pressing my cheek against the glass and imagining the flakes falling on my face.

The winding descent through forest, in thick, primordial mist, grew steeper as we neared the lake. Hallstätter See, cupped in the palm of a hand of mountains, on the road between Salzburg and Graz, appeared through the whitening trees. It might have been endless in the close, damp air; streaked by snow and stretching under the fog until it vanished in the clammy distance.

The Schiff station, where the small ferry waited, was utterly quiet.

Only one other passenger stepped off with me, and we spoke not a word to each other. The silence that comes with snow and cold was here enhanced by the solemn beauty of the lake and mountains. All I heard was the muffled scuff of my own feet as I approached the ticket window. I was drowsy and warmly wrapped, and the air, rather than bringing exhilaration, instead brought a raw contentment. The sense of loneliness was acute, but it was the very thing I was after. Solitude seems all the more welcome when the landscape is heroic.

As the boat crossed the lake, the snow intensified. It sliced through the cloying mist and carved neat diagonals across my compositions.

The lake proved not to be so large after all, and, approaching the shore opposite, I noticed that the quaint and quintessentially alpine houses had no snow on their roofs.

It was early November and the winter had not yet locked in. Perhaps this now was the beginning, and soon all would be dressed for a season in white.

From the small concrete dock, I walked along the wet streets. The wooden houses, seeping human warmth, kept the snow from accumulating. It seemed, however, that it would not be long before the whiteness swallowed everything.  Behind the buildings, the mountain rose sharply, cloaked in fir trees. Throughout this dark expanse were patches of silver, gold and bronze, the needles hued with autumn.

The tall slopes dwarfed the proud, upright buildings, lending them the air of dollhouses. As my nose slowly froze and my face tingled, I smiled broadly at the loveliness of the place. As an Australian, used to a hot, if temperate climate, true winter will always remain exotic and romantic.

It was a Saturday afternoon, just after four, and I was concerned that nothing would be open. When I strolled past a general store and saw the light was on, I didn’t hesitate to pop in a buy supplies; bread, butter, ham, fruit, milk and yoghurt. With a population of under a thousand and only a very few restaurants, I’d heard the town tended to hibernate throughout the winter and didn’t want to get caught short.

My hotel was some distance from the centre of the town, which hugged the lake at the foot of a mountain. I set off for the hotel immediately, aware that it would soon be dark. I followed the town around the lake until reaching the turn off.

The road followed a river in the valley between two peaks, and the spaces between the houses grew gradually wider. I passed several farm buildings and woodsheds on which the snow was now beginning to settle in. Indeed, once the land opened up in flat stretches either side of the river, the land became increasingly white. With the heaviness and relentlessness of the downfall, it seemed certain that the entire locale would be covered entirely by snow come morning.

After a kilometre or so I caught sight of my hotel. It was now very nearly night, and the outline of the building was barely visible. It seemed to be the last place in town, though the road continued beyond into misty shadow. The sight was very welcome indeed, for the cold had broken through my defences and my fingers were stiff and stinging.

Like everything else in Hallstatt, the place was eerily quiet. I entered the hotel to find no one at reception, and eventually had to wander into the kitchens to find the manager. She was very warm and welcoming once she realised I was there, and immediately showed me up to my room.

“We are not very busy,” she told me, “so I have given you a nicer room.”

I was appropriately thankful for this and was very pleased to check into the upstairs suite, with a separate lounge and bedroom and a small balcony. It was clean and cosy and the shower was blisteringly hot.

That evening I was too hungry to wait for dinner and ate the provisions I’d bought earlier in my room. At around seven I decided to head out into town with my tripod to try to get some good night shots of the town in the falling snow.

I made it all the way back to the centre, noticing only one open restaurant and bar. I stayed out on the street and focussed my attention on the architecture. The conditions were extremely difficult as the snow kept sticking to my lens and I struggled to position my tripod, manipulate the camera and hold the shabby umbrella I’d bought in Salzburg. Eventually, it proved too much, and, with aching fingers, fearful of the wet and damp to which my camera was being exposed, I decided to quit early and head home. The snow continued to fall. Warmed, after another shower, I watched it for a couple of hours whilst listening to the BBC; too sleepy to get out of the chair and into bed.

By morning, it was winter in Hallstatt. Throughout the night the snow had covered everything.

The steep roofs, the road, the fields, the firs; the thick white snow capping the conifers offset their metallic hues.

The river now stood out stark; a darkly shining wash through the blanket snow. The ducks waddled and swam, unperturbed.

At breakfast I learned what the manager had meant when she said the hotel was quiet – I was the only guest. Little wonder then that I had been given the luxury suite for a mere forty Euros. I had only planned to spend one night in Hallstatt, so after breakfast I took my pack with me and left.

The road into town was lined with arresting vignettes.

The woodpiles and colourful houses, the river and farm buildings, were – what the Baroque Minstrel would once have called – “ludicrously picturesque.”

I embarked upon what was to become one of my favourite shooting sprees and three hours later, found myself shivering on the docks.

I’m still not sure if anyone else survived. So far as I know I was the only one who made it out. I escaped across the lake on the train-station Schiff, ferried by two daring men who, though fully cognisant of the danger, had the sense of duty to return to see if any others might also require passage. As I sat in the warmth of the waiting room at Hallstatt station, the only would-be passenger, watching the heavy snow weigh on the bronze and black-green firs, I thought of all those poor souls stuck across the lake, soon to be interred beneath a mountain of snow. It fell no less thickly on this side of the lake, yet I would soon be on the train heading south, away from the Salzkammergut and into the relative warmth of Styria.


Some extras from Hallstat:

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I began writing this a couple of weeks ago, nearly finished, then ran out of time and have been altogether too busy to finish it until now.

This evening I will begin a new job providing additional English tuition to high school students in years nine and ten. I’ve spent the last few days doing a lot of reading and thinking in preparation, and I feel as though I am now ready to enter the classroom and give a good lesson. This doesn’t mean, however, to put it colloquially, that I’m not absolutely shitting myself.

Teaching might seem a strange choice of occupation for an introvert, and I often wonder why on earth I would choose to put myself through something so utterly nerve-wracking. In most jobs there is someone on hand to assist or give advice or to take over in the initial stages if there is some uncertainty about a task or procedure. In an office I could turn to my colleague and ask a question. In a call-centre, I can put my customer on hold, or escalate the call to a manager. Behind a counter, I could say “just a minute” and get some assistance. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that in most jobs there is someone on hand to guide one where necessary until one is fully confident of doing the job correctly. Not so, however, with teaching.

My first real experience of teaching, not including training new staff on a bar or usurping university tutorials, was back in 2006 when my old friend Chris hired me as co-lecturer for his Cambridge summer school on South African literature. Having recently returned to Cambridge after two and a half years back in Australia, I was in dire need of gainful employment – working in a pub and struggling to find a proper job. Chris was in dire need of a reduction in his workload and the solution of him hiring me dawned on us one afternoon when having a beer in Kings College.

I had not taught South African literature before, but I’d read a lot of J. M. Coetzee and had spent years at Cambridge talking with Chris about his work in sub-Saharan African and post-colonial literature. I’d also studied a lot of literature and literary theory both in my undergraduate degree and Masters in creative writing, so I felt confident I’d be able to interpret and present the material, once I’d read it and familiarised myself with it. Herein, I learned early on one of the great lessons of teaching. So long as you are one step ahead of the students, everything will be fine, for you already know more than they do about the subject. Still, I was terrifically nervous and apprehensive, largely because these students were clever kids from California, and I was afraid that they might just possibly be one step ahead of me.

Ultimately, I did just fine, but I was awfully nervous in the classroom and spent the whole time sweating and fretting, fearful of the pauses in discussion and desperately thinking about where to go next. The first time I took the class by myself, I was so on edge that one of the students asked me “Are you always this nervous?” Despite highlighting my predicament, this comment actually helped me to relax, as I could thus get it off my chest that I have a terribly nervous disposition and tend to feel rattled when expected to perform in front of strangers. Once I get comfortable with them, however, I become very gregarious and switched into a far more extroverted, performative mode. I knew this to be the case with me socially, but at the time I didn’t know it to be so when teaching. I hoped then that things would pan out in this fashion, and was thus very pleased when they finally did. By the time the course was finished, I was far more relaxed and confident in my interactions with the students.

A couple of months after returning to Sydney in 2008, I got a job teaching English as a second language with a private college in the city. The school, where I am still teaching as one of three current jobs (!) uses the Callan Method, which, for better or for worse, is a method based almost entirely on speaking, as opposed to study and technical instruction. In a nutshell, the teachers ask students questions, then prompt them through the answers; the philosophy of the method being that the more students speak and make mistakes, they will not only be better at pronouncing words correctly, but will also lose their fear of speaking and making mistakes. That’s all very well, provided they don’t merely switch off and parrot the teacher, without actually thinking about the content of their answers.

Over the last four years, I’ve seen some students really benefit from this style, and others not at all. It’s difficult to pin down whether or not the method or the students’ application is to blame, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. The Callan Method is certainly dated in its approach and techniques, and the books are in desperate need of modernisation, but the rote nature of the speaking seems to suit many of our largely Japanese and Korean students, who want as much speaking practice as possible and who often prefer a more drill-based teaching style.

So it was that, after a week of training, I was sent into the classroom, unsupervised, to teach my first lesson. It’s difficult to describe the intensity of fear and nervousness that I felt upon entering, but the expression “my bowels turned to water”, probably best sums it up. Fortunately, there were no mishaps on that front, but I lost several kilos that week through anxiety, which suppressed my appetite and, quite literally, gave me diarrhoea. The anxiety was largely due to fear of not being able to answer a question authoritatively and explain things adequately. I was also worried that I would stumble and lack the flow that the experienced teachers had, who were more familiar with the material. When I feel compromised in front of a group of people, and am put on the spot, I tend to flush bright red and sweat a lot, and even the smallest error or uncertainty can bring this on.

It took a long time for me to adjust to teaching in this new job. I was nervous for weeks, indeed, months, largely because the job continually presented new challenges. Trying to explain what an auxiliary verb is to a person with next to no English is a difficult task. Try explaining the idea of a “cause worth dying for” to someone with a very limited vocabulary, and you might see what I mean. There were, quite literally, thousands of such brain-bending moments, and even after I’d mastered the art of explaining a particular concept, grammar rule or idiom, there would always be slow students who never actually got it at all. It took months to get used to exactly what words I could deploy in explaining things, according to their level of vocabulary, and some words are not easy to explain. Take “happen” for example. It seems innocuous enough, but its best synonym is either “to occur,” or the phrasal verb “to take place”, and really, it’s not worth going there at a beginner level. Of course, the best resort is demonstration, as is the case with most words and situations, but this then requires the correct performance, an act of theatre, and a responsive audience with a good faculty for interpreting such a performance.

It took me at least six months, possibly as long as a year, before I lost all fear of entering the classroom. Only then did I feel completely and utterly confident that I could explain, via language, dance, theatre, diagram, graph or sheer fluke, everything I needed to explain. For the last few years I’ve had no qualms whatsoever about teaching any of the material, with the exception of a few real mongrel words like “abstract”, “justice”, “even”, “despite” and the like. Thank the mother of invention for electronic dictionaries.

And so, just last week, I had a successful interview and got another teaching job. This was a great score in that they pay four times more than my other school and the material is far more interesting – poetry, narrative theory etc. I must say, I’m very impressed by the difficulty of the material with which these year nine and year ten students are presented. It’s so long ago since I was in high school, that I find it almost impossible to remember the nature of the curriculum at that age, but I don’t recall it being quite so academic in its language, nor pitched so high.

My nerves don’t come from fear of not being able to handle the material, though that is a small component, but more from a fear of the technicalities of classroom procedure: the timing of the delivery of the material in our textbooks, the use of the projectors and various databases of resources, and the method of teaching itself. Much of my anxiety also derives from the fact that I will be teaching teenagers, whereas I’m used to teaching young adults, mostly in their twenties. I suspect it will take some time to adapt to their level of vocabulary and contextual understanding of the world, history, and literature. Also, I am used to students who have chosen to be there, whereas most of my students will be there because they are struggling with English and their parents have sent them. Having said that, from my class observations so far, the students seem generally to be a good bunch of kids who respond well to kindness and attention.

Ultimately, however, my biggest fear is that I will look nervous and lack confidence in both my delivery and my handling of the students. I know from four years of teaching experience that I will be absolutely fine once I’ve done this a couple of times. I doubt I will suffer for as long as I did when I started teaching The Callan Method, and it is really the first lesson that I fear the most. Indeed, on Saturday night, I became so overwhelmed with fear of the moment when I first enter the classroom that I felt short of breath and got a raging headache from the cold that gripped my body as the blood drained away. I have, for the last few days, been fluctuating between this cold fear and hot flushes. The worst case scenario is to enter the room and either faint or completely seize up and not know what to say or do. It would be a terrible way to begin a new job and my relationship with the students, whom I will have all term, would suffer.

There are, of course, many ways I can try to reassure myself. I have a lot of teaching experience now, I’m an adult, and school children generally expect authority and professionalism from teachers. They will likely be more afraid of me! It’s also true that I have not only prepared extensively for these particular lessons, but I have, in effect, been preparing for them for almost twenty years. I know, and I say this not in a boastful way, that I generally do things well when I really apply myself to the task, so I ought to be confident that I will also nail this job. Yet, the thing about fear and anxiety is that it is not rational, and no amount of reassurance will stop the heart and mind from quivering with fear of failure. Were it any other job or situation where I could ask for assistance, then I might be less fearful, yet the thing with teaching is that one does it alone and is expected to have complete command of the situation.

Either way, whilst I’m sure it will all go well, I suspect I’ll be shedding a few more kilos on the job. I hope I can summon the confidence with which I now stride around the classroom in my other teaching role, where no one would suspect that I was nervous in the slightest. I do very much enjoy teaching, yet it is, perhaps, an odd choice of profession for someone whose worst fear is to stand in front of a group of strangers and perform.

By way of a post-script, I’m pleased to report that not only did I not faint, but my first two classes went off perfectly well, and sure enough, the confidence I have from my previous teaching experience, came flooding back as soon as I’d gotten through the first, slightly awkward five minutes. After my second week, I now have no fear of teaching these classes at all and am both enjoying the job and looking forward to presenting the material in the courses. Woot!

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Anzac Day

In Australia and New Zealand April 25 is Anzac Day. The term ANZAC refers to the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps, and the day commemorates the first landings of these forces at Gallipoli, in the Dardanelles, on the Aegean coast of Turkey in 1915. It was a controversial strategy designed to give the allied British, French and Colonial forces a springboard from which to choke Turkish shipping and troop movements, secure a sea-route to Russia, and also to prepare for a push towards Istanbul.

The campaign was not a success to say the least. It began badly in March with a failed attempt to force a way through the Dardanelles by the British and French navies. The older and, in some cases, obsolete battleships tasked with clearing the straits met with unexpectedly heavy concentrations of mines and the attack was called off after a number of ships were severely damaged. Ground forces were then deemed necessary to secure the coastline and allow the minesweepers to clear passage for the larger warships.

Without wishing to go into too much detail about the campaign, it will suffice to say that ultimately the Turkish forces, led by a man who was later to become the founding father of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, proved more than capable of meeting the allied attack. Like so many battles of the First World War, the Gallipoli campaign was characterised by wave upon wave of men charging across artillery-harassed killing fields towards trenches and well dug-in machine guns. Between April 25 and January 9 of the following year, when the allied forces finally relinquished their toehold on the Turkish coast, both sides suffered heavy casualties, with an estimated 250 000 Ottoman and 140 000 allied dead or wounded. Ironically, as was later to be the case with Dunkirk, the most successful part of the campaign  was the evacuation.

For the allies, the campaign was an unmitigated disaster. It failed to achieve any of its major objectives and gave the Ottoman forces a significant moral boost at a time when they were struggling to maintain the integrity of their empire on all fronts. Yet, the Gallipoli campaign also came to mark a defining moment in the development of national consciousness in Australia and New Zealand. It was also a defining moment for modern Turkey – a last great success for the Ottoman Empire, which laid the grounds for the Turkish war of independence and the foundation of the republic of Turkey in 1923.

The brutal nature of the Gallipoli campaign instilled in the soldiers of both sides a healthy respect for their opponents. This was in no small part due to various outstanding acts of chivalry and an empathetic understanding of the difficult conditions under which all the soldiers were forced to operate. Nowhere is this respect more visible than in the strikingly powerful words of Kemal Ataturk, composed in 1934 as an epitaph for those who lost their lives.

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives… you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours… You, the mothers, who sent their sons from far away countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Australia and Turkey continue to enjoy close relations as a consequence of the Gallipoli campaign.

Every year, on April 25, the returned service men and women in Australia and New Zealand, parade to commemorate not only the Gallipoli campaign, but to show respect for the contribution of all men and women in the armed forces in both countries. The day has long been both a solemn occasion for reflection, and something of a carnival, as is the nature of any public holiday. There has always been some discomfort amongst those who mistakenly interpret Anzac Day as a glorification of war, and those who remain sceptical of overzealous national sentiment and flag-waving. Yet, irrespective of the rightness or otherwise of any of the conflicts in which Australia has taken part – far too many for my liking, particularly in the case of Vietnam and Iraq – it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge that the poor sods who have gone to war did so, in most cases, firmly in the belief that they were doing the right thing. There is little that is glorious to celebrate, but we can certainly recognise that almost all of these people have suffered in some way, and their suffering was, for better or for worse, done on behalf of the rest of us.

It has been some time since I have paid much attention to Anzac Day. The last time I actually attended any form of  public commemoration was in 2001 when, in one of the more out of character acts of my life, I travelled to Gallipoli on Anzac Day to camp on the beach and watch the dawn service. The idea was largely a result of homesickness, for I had been living in England for two years at the time. Once surrounded by a horde of Australians and New Zealanders, however, and after staying up all night only to hear the voice of Alexander Downer, the then foreign minister, at dawn, I wanted to get away from them all as quickly as possible. Still, it was a fascinating experience, and when I scaled the sandy cliffs at sunrise with a country-town west Australian called Scott Hardy, I felt a strange and eerie connection with the campaign and its setting.

After returning to Australia, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with expressions of national sentiment under the conservative Howard government, whose Nationalist agenda was disquieting to say the least. It was around this time that I developed a deep feeling of discomfort whenever I saw the Australian flag. Rather than being a symbol to which I felt I could relate, it seemed, for many years, as though it were being thrust in my face as the paradigmatic emblem of an Australia in which I didn’t believe.

I still remain deeply sceptical about overzealous expressions of national sentiment, yet am willing to accept that Anzac Day is an appropriate occasion on which these symbols might be deployed as a mark of respect for people who have risked their lives on behalf of others. Yet it does trouble me that in the modern world people are still willing to join the armed forces, despite a widespread understanding and awareness of the ugly, unjust nature of recent conflicts. I don’t wish to suggest that those serving in the various forces are bad people or that their decision to join was not well-intentioned, but let’s face it, if no one joined the army anywhere ever, however crazy and naive such an idea might seem, there would be little possibility of war. Ideally the entire world would put down its weapons and form peace corps of people armed only with tools to help the needy. Sadly, however, this is not going to happen in the near future, and whilst others bear arms, it seems everyone else will continue to do so.

It was thus an interesting opportunity to be given the job this year of heading out to take photos of people on Anzac Day. The photos, of people in uniform, spectators and “everyday Australians” celebrating Anzac Day, are needed for a teaser trailer for a television show pitch on which I am working. I can’t say any more about the project at this stage, except that it’s another collaboration between the dynamic duo of Dr Fantasy and Mr Plausibility. The basic remit for the shoot was wide, flat frames in colour. Dr Fantasy, behind the wheel, dropped me at a variety of locations and off I went looking for shots.

I mostly sniped people from a distance with the long lens, but was also looking for close and less candid portraits, so I often approached people and asked if I could take their photo. I especially enjoyed some of the conversations I had with veterans, all of whom were very obliging in letting me photograph them. After hitting the War Memorial in Hyde Park and various city pubs, we drove down to the very wealthy and decadent eastern suburbs, on the hunt for cashed-up Australians putting it out there. Many pubs hold Two Up competitions on Anzac Day, a form of gambling in which two pennies are tossed in the air and bets are placed on the outcome – either two heads or tails, with one of each a dud result. This usually results in some very boisterous scenes of hard-drinking and money waving. Precisely the sort of larrikin behaviour for which the Australian population likes to think its armed forces were responsible, out of a desire to be considered roguishly affable.

And on that note, enough said – here is a collection of portraits of people throughout the day, which I hope you will enjoy.

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Included below is a collection of photographs from my last visit to Rome, in February 2008. They were taken on my old Canon EOS 350D. If you prefer to scroll straight to these, I won’t be in any way insulted – indeed, I fully sympathise. There is a hell of a lot to read in this life!

There was a time when Rome – the city itself and its once vast empire – were the be all and end all. My childhood fascination with ancient history stemmed as much from sword and sandal epics as it did from the history I learned from school and my parents. There is a point in every child’s life when they first learn about Pompeii and are overwhelmed by this incredibly fortuitous insight into history. In many cases, they soon let it go, just as children will grow out of being fascinated with dinosaurs. I, however, never really let it go.

My love affair with the Roman Empire as an historical subject actually began rather late. As a child and a school student, Classical Greece always seemed more attractive and interesting. Perhaps it was the more archaic lure of Agamemnon’s death mask, the prominence of the Parthenon as a recognisable monument, or the incredible story of that paradigmatic marathon runner – whatever the case, it was Greece that grabbed my attention. As a child who played a lot of fantasy role-playing from the age of nine onwards, I was also strongly drawn to Greek mythology. The story of Homer’s Odyssey opened a door to a world where men and gods and mythical beasts still co-existed, and this fantastic, largely illusory past, this time of legends and heroes, was more appealing to my fantasy genre inclinations. The Roman Empire, by comparison, was so terribly modern; it was the developed world of ancient times, and, indeed, hardly that ancient. They were also, more often than not, portrayed as the bad guys in cinema, and it was difficult to sympathise with their perceived brutality and mercilessness.

Despite my keen interest in Greek history, I wasn’t especially interested in studying classical Greek. This was partly because my high school’s head classics teacher was a predatory paedophile, but mainly because I was already doing two modern languages, French and German.

In ancient history classes I tended to switch off a little with Rome. It was too vast and complicated, unlike the neat spectrum of the Aegean and the coast of Asia Minor. The Persian Wars were such an epic tale of victory against unbelievable odds, and so admirable for being a co-operative effort amongst people willing to forget their differences in the face of an overwhelming common enemy, that little else came close to tweaking my romantic fascination. That is, until I discovered Tacitus at the age of seventeen. It was the sheer brilliance of Tacitus’s writings, particularly in his Annals of Ancient Rome that properly got my attention and gave me a newer and deeper understanding of the Roman Empire. The complexity of his observations and characters, the subtlety of his descriptions, and his at times, scathing wit, opened a view on the Roman world that was too alluring to ignore.

It is worth making a brief digression to note just how much chance was involved in me or anyone encountering Tacitus’ Annals. Tacitus, who has been called by some the greatest writer of the ancient world, unsurpassed until Dante, barely made it through at all. The first six books of his Annals survived on just a single manuscript, written, in all likelihood, around AD 850 in Germany at the Benedictine monastery of Fulda, which was probably copied from a third or fourth century edition. The manuscript was transferred at some point to the monastery of Corvey in Saxony where it remained without further reproductions until it was stolen in 1508 and sold to Pope Leo X. It was re-published in its first printed edition in 1515.

Books 11 to 16 (books 7 to 10, covering the reigns of Caligula and Claudius have been lost forever) and Tactitus’ Historiae, were also preserved on a single manuscript, likely written in the second quarter of the eleventh century at the since destroyed monastery of Monte Cassino in Italy. This manuscript (M. II, or Second Medicean) had a rather interesting life. Some time in the late fourteenth century, it wound up in the hands of no less than Boccaccio, who donated it to the monastery of S. Spirito in Florence. By 1437, it was in the monastery of San Marco in Florence, and it was shortly after this that the first new editions began to appear. Had either of these manuscripts been lost or destroyed as so many other ancient manuscripts were, then there would be no Annals and our understanding of that most pivotal Julio-Claudian period in Roman history would be unimaginably poor by comparison. That anyone can read Tacitus at all these days is really down to some incredibly good luck – one shudders to think what other Latin masters have vanished altogether.

So it was that Tacitus opened the door, and for my Higher School Certificate, in which I focussed entirely on Ancient History, Modern History, English and Visual Art, I wrote about his Annals with a loving keenness. Once I began to study in earnest at the University of Sydney, I took units each semester in both Ancient and Modern History. Realising that my sympathies had shifted from classical Greece to Rome, I took only Roman subjects each semester, focussing on Roman religion and ceremony, Roman imperialism, Roman law, the early Republic and the transition from Republic to Principate under Augustus. I learned a great deal about Roman history from the foundation of the city in the eighth-century BC, to the end of the first century AD, but little beyond that, and, ultimately, it was the question of what happened next to which my attention shifted.

In my final year of high school, I had turned once to the end of our textbook and lit upon a map of the Roman Empire at the accession of Justinian (AD 527-565). All that remained on the map was the “Eastern Roman Empire”, with a line drawn down the middle of the Mediterranean marking its western boundary, and not including Italy, Gaul, Spain, Britain or Carthage and the other north African provinces west of Cyrene. What!? The Eastern Roman Empire? Justinian? And neither Rome nor Italy included in its ambit?! How could this be?

Of course, I might have answered these questions simply by reading the textbook, but considering that, at the time, I had only advanced as far as the reign of Nero in the first-century AD, the idea of catching up to this time, five hundred years later, was just too daunting. What on earth had happened in the meantime? I had never imagined the Roman Empire to have lasted quite so long, and yet, in what form had it lasted? When I flipped the pages showing a map from AD 565, after Justinian’s reconquest, I was even more baffled. Did they really mean to suggest that, in the second quarter of the sixth century, the East Roman Empire had reconquered Italy, Carthage and southern Spain? What had happened in the west? It all seemed too extraordinary and I realised that I knew nothing whatsoever of this time. To me “Byzantine” was merely an adjective meaning unnecessarily complex and bureaucratic.

Despite two years of studying Roman history at university, I still hadn’t satisfied this old curiosity.  Thus, when I looked at the available subjects for ancient history in my third undergraduate year and saw a course called “The World Turned Upside Down”, covering the period from roughly AD 200 to 800 and spanning the entire academic year, run by Drs Peter Brennan and Lynette Olson, I leapt at the chance. It was during this incredible lecture series that my true obsession with Roman history began. Inspired initially by Peter Brown’s primer The World of Late Antiquity, I could not get enough of this later period with all its incredible complexity and diversity. Not only was the history of the transformation of the Roman Empire, economically, culturally, militarily and religiously, fascinating, but in finally coming to understand the so-called Dark Ages which followed, I was at last able to join the dots historically in the West.

In 1995 I graduated from my undergraduate degree, took a year off, and travelled across Europe for five and a half months with my then girlfriend. It was during this trip that I first got to see Roman ruins and a far greater array of artefacts than the meagre offerings available in Australia. My trip had largely been planned around visiting a lot of prominent ancient sites, though there were also many more that I discovered along the way. When I finally reached Rome after a couple of months on the road, I felt an especially great sense of having achieved something I’d always wanted to achieve. For years I’d tried to imagine what this city was like, sifting through the abundant clichés, and finally, here I was. Initially I was not greatly taken with the place. It took a few days for my eyes to adjust to its shapes and colours. There seemed too few green spaces, not enough trees and an excessively red and ochre palette, but once I grew accustomed to its spectrum, I came to love the colours of the city and its buildings. Most of all, however, I was mesmerised by the sheer number of prominent ruins and standing monuments, which seemed to rear up from the past in the city’s many holes. We stayed for twelve days and, though I didn’t know it at the time, it was the beginning of a long and curious relationship with the city.

After Rome, we headed south to Naples to see Pompeii and Herculaneum, and by the time we left Italy on a stormy ferry ride to Greece, I knew that I could not walk away from studying history. Upon returning to Australia, it was fascinating to reflect that through every country we had visited, from Britain to Turkey, we never actually left the boundaries of the former Roman Empire. For the first time in my life, I got some sense of the true scale of the Roman achievement. The ubiquity of their structures and ruins, in or under nigh every single European city or town, was mindboggling.

In 1997, I began an honours year in Australian literature, but my heart wasn’t really in it. During that year, I also took the honours preparation course for history and became keenly obsessed with the twelfth-century renaissance. I found myself tossing up the possibilities of working in the Middle Ages or the late Roman Empire, but, in the end, I chose the Roman Empire.

My now burning obsession with finding out what happened in the late period found a focal point in a thesis on a barbarian generalissimo called Ricimer, who rather badly co-ordinated Roman military policy and raised and deposed emperors in the 450s and 460s, shortly before the deposition of the last western Emperor in AD 476 – the ironically named ten year old Romulus Augustulus. During that year, I became so possessed by the story of how, over seventy-odd years, the Western Roman Empire slowly delegated itself out of existence, that I didn’t want to put it aside once I was done. That year I fell in love with someone whose ambition was to do a PhD in medieval history and to do it at the University of Cambridge and, once this idea entered my head, I began working keenly towards the same goal. The idea of doing a PhD had never previously occurred to me, yet suddenly it became the only thing I could imagine myself doing, despite never having studied Latin.

To cut an already too long story short, sure enough I got a scholarship to study a PhD at Sydney University and then, later that year, was offered a scholarship to do my PhD at St John’s College, Cambridge. In September 1999, after a year spent swatting hard on German, Latin and French, I moved to Cambridge. I had originally planned to write a thesis on “Nostalgia, Pessimism and Optimism in the Late and Post-Roman West,” but after a few meetings with my excellent supervisor, Professor Rosamond McKitterick, she quite rightly pointed out how broad, difficult and unquantifiable these concepts were, and directed my attention to a little-studied history of Rome written in the eighth century by a chap called Paul the Deacon. I was to spend the next three years translating and researching the Historia Romana and its context.

Though many will tell you writing a PhD will send you crazy, this was the happiest time of my life – so far. Once I discovered Ryan Air’s ludicrously cheap flights around Europe, I began a period of unprecedented travel, flying to the continent frequently, in some cases, every month for up to two weeks at a time. I tried to make each trip have an historical or cultural focus – visiting ruins, archaeological sites, museums and galleries, but I also partied harder than I had in years and indulged in the many pleasures of modern Europe.

When I first returned to Rome in February 2000, I did so with two good friends – both scholars of Italian history – and some ecstasy, which we popped before visiting the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel. I know it’s not the sort of thing I ought to recommend, but can I just say that seeing the Sistine Chapel on ecstasy whilst listening to the choral movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony was a life-changing experience.

It was this trip that really made me fall in love with the city of Rome. Wandering the streets, fired up and talking nineteen to the dozen with two people who shared my obsessive enthusiasm about history and ideas, remains one of the greatest pleasures I have experienced. I learned a lot, not only about the city’s Roman past, but also about the medieval and Renaissance period. And it was here that I realised the true potential of my time at Cambridge. It was not merely an amazing place of learning, with its inspiring lecturers and brilliant graduate student community, but it was just forty minutes from Stanstead Airport, the home of Ryan Air in the UK. I liked to joke and call Britain “Airstrip One,” its rather utilitarian name in George Orwell’s 1984. It was that trip to Rome which kick-started my European travel-mania that was to bring so many more amazing experiences.

For the next three years, in between study and research and way too many parties, I toured many ancient sites around the Mediterranean and northern and southern Europe. I re-visited Greece and Turkey, spent a lot of time in France and Italy, and explored Eastern Europe for the first time. I visited Rome on another two occasions and gradually began to feel a familiarity with its various locales.

In the final year of my PhD, I slowed down considerably, needing to save money and to write the bulk of my doctoral thesis. Looking ahead, with very little real idea of what I wanted to do with my future, I applied for a post-doctoral fellowship at the British School at Rome and was pleasantly surprised when my application was successful, granting me a four-month stint there from January to May 2003. Once I knew I was leaving in January, I made it my goal to have the PhD written and submitted before the year was out.

With just four months to the finish line, I fell into a strange routine of working all night until 0700 AM, sleeping roughly four hours, getting up to eat breakfast in front of Bargain Hunt, then heading for the library. I would begin work slowly, finding, reading and photocopying texts, then heading home around five to go running and prepare dinner. At around eight or nine I would sit at my desk to write and always seemed to hit my full stride around midnight. I kept this up until the damned thing was finished, firing off a group e-mail to old friends entitled Printer at the Gates of Dawn, as the sun rose on the St John’s college library and my thesis spilled hotly from the laser printer. I include below not the e-mail, but perhaps the most amusing response from a Cambridge colleague:

Congratulations Ben. And it sounds like a performance worth of Enkidu, and possibly also Gilgamesh. Collect your magnum opus from the binders; take it to the Board of Graduate Studies, and then go out and get absolultely cunted. It’s what Paul the Deacon would have done – if there had been a house doubles night at the Eagle of a Saturday Evening.

It was a great relief to get it finished, and sure enough, I did go out and get absolutely cunted – so much so that I woke up drunk, four hours late for an appointment with the binders to hand in a revised text with some minor corrections, having slept through three alarms. I went out that night and begged some marijuana off some guys rolling up outside a pub, then went home and packed my life into boxes. The next morning, I flew to Rome.

When I finally did arrive at the British School at Rome, I was totally and utterly exhausted. I was shown to my room by the old porter, Reno, whose Italian was rather gruff and difficult to follow. It didn’t help that whilst I had managed to acquire a basic reading knowledge of Italian, my spoken efforts very wanting indeed. I felt a terrible sense of being lost and out of my depth, but once I entered my room for the first time and saw the bed, I lay down and went almost immediately to sleep. Over the next two days I slept almost fifteen hours a day, only emerging from my room to eat meals down in the dining hall. It was during these meals, however, that I became acquainted both with some of the school’s residents, and a group of seventeen Australian students, who happened to be staying there throughout January for a course in Renaissance and Baroque Rome.

Over the following four weeks I joined this group’s excursions and visited many amazing off-limits sites around the city. It was a wonderful way to learn about aspects of Rome I’d not been aware of previously and a privilege to have two good lecturers in Renaissance and Baroque art on hand to explain both the history, context and significance of much art and architecture in the city. I did my best where possible to pay my way with insights from earlier periods in the city’s history.

That four months in Rome was a very curious time. Once I’d recovered from the exhausting effort to finish my PhD, I had absolutely no desire whatsoever to do further research and made no effort to further the next project I had outlined – namely a translation and commentary on Jordanes’ sixth-century Historia Romana as part of a comparative study with Paul the Deacon’s later work of the same name. I found it almost impossible to get motivated on this front and far preferred the more active education of wandering the streets, visiting museums and galleries, familiarising myself with Roman life and culture and spending a hell of a lot of time thinking. I made good friends with three students from the Australian group, especially a bloke called Dominic, and we had some great times exploring the more Bohemian locales around Trastevere, meeting odd characters and puffing on the occasional joint. To wander through Rome at night a little toasty can, if done in the right spirit, be an epic experience. I often detoured past the Pantheon, or via other prominent monuments, just to see them and soak up their atmosphere.

In this way, I truly came to love Rome and developed a life-long attachment to the place. Almost every day I went running in the Villa Borghese gardens, across and down to the top of the Spanish Steps, before turning around to head back towards the plaza overlooking Piazza del Popolo. I often set out walking very early, wearing sandals in the chill morning air, taking photos with my first digital camera, which I bought en route to Venice after a return visit to Cambridge. Some days I just hung around watching people, drinking coffee and eating gelato. I regularly visited Della Palma, the gelato shop just up from the Pantheon, and tried forty-three of their different flavours – the honey and sesame being my favourite. I took every possible opportunity to walk into the Pantheon, especially when it was raining. On such occasions the open oculus in the centre of the vast, domed, second-century ceiling allows rain to fall far below on the marble floor. The acoustics in this great, circular stone and concrete chamber amplify not only the shuffling feet, but also the sound of splashing.

Most days I wandered down the Corso once the road had been closed to private vehicles after peak hour traffic. I was gratuitous in visiting some places repeatedly – the Trevi Fountain and Piazza Navona, the Roman Forum, the Campidoglio,  the Capitoline hill, the Palatine – just because I could. I’d been given a pass from the Italian cultural ministry that allowed me into any state-owned museum or gallery free of charge and I used it often.

In April another group of students arrived, this time from various universities in the UK, to take a course called “The City of Rome.” This focussed primarily on the Roman period, and being right up my alley, I again joined their excursions. Thanks to a significant number of previously arranged permessos, the group was able to visit many off-limits places – newly dug archaeological sites, locked basements at the old Roman street level, the ancient pavement of the Campus Martius with Augustus’ horologium in ankle-deep water, the inside of the Aqua Virginae – things deemed too precious, obscure or plain dangerous to be open to the public. The course was a deeply satisfying experience that taught me a great deal about life in Roman times. It only served to increase my wonder and fascination at the precocious modernity of Roman civilization.

When it came time to leave Rome, I felt a terrible sense of loss. It was not merely for having to leave the city, but was made more acute by an awareness that the long run of funded academic indulgence had come to an end. I was also suffering homesickness both for Cambridge and Australia, and confusion about where I was headed in my relationship with my girlfriend who was back in England at the time. I no longer knew where home really was, but knew that Rome would forever remain one of the places I called home. After a somewhat lacklustre four more months back in Cambridge, I returned to Australia in September, having abandoned all hope of finding a lectureship in my field.

To skip ahead somewhat, I last visited Rome in February of 2008. In 2006 I had moved back to England and this trip to Rome was actually the last hurrah of that two-year stay. When I walked up the stairs from the metro and stepped out into the street, I was immediately overcome with emotion. There before me was that characteristic Roman style and palette. There in my nostrils was that dry winter air, full of scooter exhaust and desiccated leaves. I stood on the pavement and tears filled my eyes. I had been away five years and the immediacy with which my memories came flooding back was shocking and left me unseated. I had to sit down a moment on a bench to regain my composure. As I sat there, I kept asking myself – how could I ever make this work? To be able to live in or regularly visit all the places to which I am attached? Or was I simply destined to spend the rest of my life feeling torn, with never a clear sense of belonging?

I spent five days in Rome on that trip and dedicated my time to indulging my nostalgia and taking countless photographs. It was an odd visit, coloured by the fact that I knew that within a week of returning, I would be flying back to Sydney and abandoning my mission of trying to make a new and permanent life in England. The photos I took on that occasion have since come to colour my memories of Rome, as some of the old detail falls away and the My Photos screensaver throws up these images. I’m not sure when I shall make it back to Rome, but feel almost wary of returning again as a tourist. I don’t know that I could achieve much more than wallowing in an active and exciting nostalgia, and feel more inclined to go out into the world and find new memories and experiences. Either way, I doubt I shall ever stop loving the city of Rome and its history.


Temple of Jupiter

Centurian assists Muslim tourists

Centurian silhouette

Glass baubles

Carabinieri, off Piazza del Popolo

Theatre of Marcellus

Roman Shop

Roman Forum

Bernini sculpture and advert hoarding, Piazza Navona

Vatican Museum

St Peters, traffic cop

Arch of Septimius Severus, dedicated AD 203


Capitoline seagull


Roma from Spanish Steps

The Pantheon portico at night

4th century Roman Sarcophagus

Pantheon interior

Mendicant, Spanish Steps

Ara Pacis

Vatican museum, apologies, forget the attribution, but suspect Raffaele

Arch of Constantine

Busy day, St Peters


Sunset view

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Making a Cookbook

Over the past month I’ve been assisting my partner in putting together a cookbook. Being a trained nutritionist, the book is to be sold to her clients as another means by which to encourage them to eat healthily. All of the recipes here are vegetarian and made from fresh, quality ingredients and have very strong and distinct flavours. Indeed, one of the things that has impressed me so much with these recipes is the surprising and delightful mix of flavours they all exhibit.

These photos were compiled over three separate shoots, all of them taken in or near the kitchen in which they were prepared. I found it a rather challenging task to get the best results – questions of lighting, focus, colour, background. Not being a professional food photographer and not wishing to do a great deal more than present the food as it appears, I generally kept the backgrounds and compositions as simple as possible. Ultimately, as we entered the photographs into the cookbook template, using an online self-publishing service, we found that square-cut images fit best, further limiting the presentation to, essentially, a close-up of the bowl or plate and contents. In some cases there were issues with the colour balance of the photos due to reflected internal light, and hence the dishes might occasionally appear overdone. This lush, saturated colour seemed in some ways at odds with the natural qualities of the food, yet it does also add a certain attractive vibrancy.

The shoots were hard work but a lot of fun. In a sense I had it easy in that I only had to arrange and take the photos – (You will, however, be pleased to learn that I washed up). I took more than fifty shots of each dish, in some cases as many as a hundred, trying a variety of different lighting conditions and placing the dishes on a range of different surfaces. Funnily enough, the best results came from placing the bowls upon the shiny, reflective surface of a dishwasher that had been removed from its housing to be discarded. It was not only well positioned by the French doors, but also radiated a soft, white, uniform light that helped to clearly illuminate the compositions. I very much lamented the absence of this most excellent surface when doing the final shoot.

Originally planned as a single volume, the book was eventually divided into two slim volumes for Hot Dishes and Salads. We’re both very excited about seeing the final product, which is only a few tweaks away from the press.

Unfortunately, as much as I’d love to offer up the recipes here, so any readers could prepare these dishes if desired, that might defeat the purpose of the exercise in the first place, which is for V. to produce a sellable product. Either way, I hope the photographs steer you in the right direction with your next lunch or dinner option. Eat well and the rest will take care of itself : )

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Memory can be a fickle thing, subject to all manner of flaws in storage and recollection. There seems to be little logic governing what we remember and what we forget, though to suggest that the process is entirely random would be rather an unscientific assumption. There are clear differences in people’s capacity to remember information, with some displaying quite prodigious talents in recollection. We talk of short and long-term memory, of absentmindedness, of photographic memories, of good and bad memories – so far as ability is concerned. Yet, despite our differences in capacity, all of us remember a great deal more than we give ourselves credit for.

When I was a very young child I had an overzealous desire to know everything I’d ever done and felt an innate distress at the idea of information slipping away from me. In particular, I wanted to know how many times I had done things in my short life thus far – how often I’d caught the bus, how many times I’d had a bath, how many times I’d kissed the dogs, and how many times I’d said “Mummy, I love you,” all too audibly, in the supermarket.

This feeling really began to take hold around the age of four, when I first developed a sense of having done certain things a number of times already. I had, then, an inkling of a routine stretching into the past, and some understanding of the narrative of my life to that point. It baffled me that there were things my parents mentioned or told me about, things I had apparently said or done, that I couldn’t remember. Why couldn’t I remember everything? It seemed almost as though it had never happened.

Being the owners of an effete, pedigree dachshund and a rescued stray bitsa, Jason and Lady respectively, my father used to walk the dogs every afternoon in Centennial Park with my older brother and I. On the way home from a good, long walk, we’d stop in at the Nelson Hotel in Bondi Junction, and there my father would drink a middy or two of Reschs, whilst my brother and I made do with sarsaparilla and lemonade. Often, sitting in the afternoon beer garden, I found myself thinking – how many times have we done this? It was a routine that had been established before I had sufficient language to form coherent, narrative memories, and so my recollections were hazy and impressionistic – but the park had always been there, as had the dogs. How often had I been there? How many sarsaparillas had I drunk in my short life so far?

My brother began to collect bus tickets around the age of six. Back then the driver tore a bible-paper thin ticket from a long, flat piano keyboard-like array of stubs, and the flimsy little things were excitingly colour-coded: Purple, yellow, red and green tickets, for which my father’s order was always “One and two halves,” when he took us down to the beach. How many times had I been to the beach? I’d seen photographs of myself there as a baby, something I could not independently remember. When my brother began to collect tickets, it seemed there might be some means by which to answer these questions. If one always kept one’s ticket, then there would be a ready reference point for such information. But how on earth would I record the other things? The number of times I’d eaten food? The number of times I’d worn a certain shirt, or ridden the tricycle, patted Jason and Lady? How could I possibly store and recall all this information?

Perhaps the obsession with small details derived from the relatively limited world in which I operated as a toddler. The local geography had enough detail in it to keep me preoccupied for years, but once I had the basic features down pat, I wanted to know about things more intimately. I made an ineffectual attempt at collecting bus tickets too, but soon abandoned this in the face of that all too common feeling of the younger sibling – that everything one does is, in its execution, a pale imitation of the actions of the older sibling. It never occurred to me to write anything down, but this is not surprising considering how late I came to reading and writing, initially resistant as I was to books and letters.

Despite my frustration at not being able to recall everything, as the years passed, I realised that the bigger picture was more important than the minutiae. I didn’t really need to know how many times I’d had my haircut, for it was not these things that gave life its narrative, beyond forming the flat, regular palette on which all else was presented. Rather, I wanted to recall the events that stood out as exceptional; our family trips to the Blue Mountains, my brother’s attempt to flush me down the toilet, the time the window slammed down on my mother’s fingers. It was, after all, these things around which any narrative in life seemed to gravitate, and which formed the basis of moral and ethical lessons in the household and world at large. These events all carried both a story and a moral of sorts.

Take, for example, the infamous day on which my mother angrily threw a pair of tongs out the kitchen window and hit my brother in the face, completely by accident. The “snappers” incident was often conjured up as a great milestone in our lives; it was an early, pivotal example of an error of judgement and a lesson in caution. There was the time my brother and I left our racing car towels at the bus stop. Certain that we had lost them forever, and dismissing my father’s reassurance that we would get them back, we were both amazed when my father asked in the local shop on our return home and the towels were produced from behind the counter. This story added strong impetus to life’s narrative, both chronologically, as a way point, and morally and ethically, as an example of consideration, thoughtfulness and selflessness. Perhaps more importantly, despite its less salubrious nature, there was the famous incident that occurred at the Pizza Hut restaurant in Bondi Junction, circa. 1977.

This last event stands out because it was the first example in my life of a written diary entry, of deliberately recorded information. My brother had been given a pocket appointments diary with a week to a double spread. After dining out at the Pizza Hut that night, we returned home to giggle uncontrollably for hours about what had taken place in the toilets. My brother summed this up very nicely when he sat down at his desk on our return.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” were the exact words he wrote in his diary that evening. And indeed, some poor lad, stretching well beyond his capacity to reach the chain, had overbalanced and fallen face-first, then down sideways, right into the pisser, with its frothy flow and yellow mints.

“Boy fell in trough at Pizza Hut,” is a line that has been quoted many times since by my brother and me, and, for a long while, it was my favourite memory. I wonder in retrospect whether this was in part because, for the first time in my life, I’d seen the clear relation between something I’d witnessed, and the written version of the events. Either way, it was an early example of how we can record and shape our memory of things with language that is both succinct and arresting. It presented a whole new range of possibilities so far as solving the problem of remembering was concerned. I still value my brother’s early chronicling of this event to be one of the key snippets of narrative non-fiction. Its total and utter insignificance historically is irrelevant and in no way detracts from its long occupation of one of the summits of the very spike and trough graph that constitutes my childhood recollections.

However much I might have been inspired by my brother’s efforts and, however keen I was to record information, I didn’t make any real attempt at keeping a diary until 1983. For Christmas the year previous, I was given a small appointments diary by my friend Marcus – he was from South Africa and the diary, appropriately, had a cheetah on the cover. It was some time before I got around to writing anything in it, and, indeed, the only time I really used it was to begin counting down the days til my birthday; a rather pointless task, it must be said. When my birthday did actually arrive, I made a note of the presents I had received, and after that, the diary fell into a drawer somewhere and was, so far as I remember, not used afterwards. It was thus not until 1986 that I truly began to keep a diary. This too was a small appointments diary with seven days to a spread, and very little room in which to write anything. All the same, inspired as I was by the Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, I at least had a much clearer understanding of what a diary really could be – of the sort of information one might record, and in what style.

Still, to begin with, my diary was too small to contain any strong narratives. Invariably my efforts did not go beyond such brief entries as “Gus stayed over. Played Dungeons and Dragons. Had meatballs for dinner.” It was hardly a very exciting chronicle, yet it was a chronicle nonetheless, and once I’d begun to write the diary in earnest, every day, I didn’t look back. Indeed, from around April 1986 to the end of that year, I didn’t miss a single day and diligently filled in the admittedly small rectangle provided for each day. For Christmas that year, I received a new diary for  the coming year, which was significantly larger – an A5 book with a day to a page, though with Saturday and Sunday squashed together on a single page. I didn’t hesitate to make full use of the greater space that was available to me, and from January 1 1987, I diligently wrote a full entry for each day throughout that year.

It may surprise some to hear that I have never, ever missed a day since. Indeed, from April 1986 to the present, I have recorded every single day of my life in a diary, always following the same rule – that the page must be filled completely. In 1988, I continued with an A5 diary, but this time, had a full page for each day of the weekend. Using a diary of this size was standard practice until 1998. That year I began to use a full-sized, A4 diary, and have continued to do so to the present. I always fill the entire page, and I never allow a day to go unrecorded.

Now, of course, this may seem like some impossible task, given that one can hardly expect to be in a position to sit down and write a diary entry at the end of every night. Of course, there are all too many occasions when this is not possible. Consequently, I have written the entry at a later time, sometimes as much as a week later, always, however, maintaining the fiction that it was written on the day itself. When I travel I take the big, heavy thing with me wherever I go, which, considering I have, for the last twelve years, used a mere day-pack for every trip I’ve done, means that it constitutes quite a significant part of my otherwise minimalist baggage.

There have, too, been several incidents where the diary has caused problems. On four known occasions it has fallen into the hands of others, or been read illicitly, thus causing emotional crises and much embarrassment. Despite this, I have never considered not writing my diary. I suppose that if I behave honourably there should be no cause for suspicion and no need for my partner to dip into my diary. Generally, I trust that people will be honest and trustworthy, being good enough not to read my diary. Still, I have ultimately been forgiving of those who read my diary, as my behaviour certainly warranted it. Whatever the case, the show must go on.

And so the diaries continue to accumulate. Mostly I write the entry before I go to bed, but often I am too tired, lazy, or otherwise engaged, in which case I try to do it the following morning. Either way, the process takes me roughly ten minutes and is thus subject to the mood in which I approach the task. It is also subject to my ability to remember events. Even a few days later, it can be very difficult to find anything to write about a run-of-the-mill Wednesday. Sometimes this provides a great opportunity to sum up a recent emotional situation, to flesh out an idea, or to provide an update on current affairs – yet it often hardly says a great deal about the day itself.

In many ways, this is a good thing, for the biggest limitation of my diary writing is the day-to-day format. Limited to one page, it is difficult to go very far with any narrative at all and, often feeling the need to record basic information about the day, I lack sufficient space or time to discuss emotional and personal developments. I suspect that much of my diary is extremely bland, with some very engaging passages here and there, driven and inspired by emotional investment in the content. This usually happens at exciting turning points: – during the beginning or breakdown of a relationship, when travelling, when beginning a new course of study, or a new project. It can also stem from an uplifting and exciting experience – a great gig, an excellent party, or just a desire to wax lyrical about a beautiful morning at the beach. When I approach the task with enthusiasm, I always write a much more interesting entry. The writing process also helps me to take charge of narratives in life and put the present into context. I have found this a valuable aid in coming to terms with things.

I have often asked myself what is the purpose of all this record-keeping. It is, as much as anything else, a burdensome habit that I could not possibly break for fear of the scale of regret it might bring about. I’ve made it this far, with a record of every single day of the last twenty-six years of my life, and I’m not about to stop in a hurry. I used to dip into my diary a great deal more, either to satisfy nostalgic urges, or simply to find the date of a particular incident. When I wrote volume one of my autobiography Sex with a Sunburnt Penis in 1997, I relied heavily on diaries for inspiration and enhanced recollection.

On this latter score, the diary is an invaluable tool. I have always been considered to be a reliable source of historical information in the personal lives of my friends and acquaintances, due to my ability to recall dates, times and seasons of events. I can usually narrow something down sufficiently to pinpoint where to look in my diary, when finding the exact date of a particular event is the goal, provided, of course, I actually made a record of it. For me, personally, the best thing about the diary is that it allows me access to memories I might otherwise not have, even where the diary entry itself is brief and inadequate. I can open to a random date, in a random year, read the entry, and almost invariably picture the events once again. It is rare that I cannot do so, and yet, without such a jog, would I ever have remembered that otherwise unremarkable day again?

The diary also gives me an excellent ability to examine progress in my life. Perhaps my favourite use of it is to see what I was doing on the same date a year ago, or, perhaps, five years ago. It is a rare opportunity to put life more into context. The vividness with which I can recall events with the aid of the diary entry also allows me to be nostalgic in a very pinpointed manner.

One might ask, but isn’t it better to forget sometimes? Certainly it is, and one of my biggest problems is an inability to forget things, particularly where I need to move on. My memory, particularly my emotional memory, is simply too good, and I carry things around with me for a lot longer than I ought or need to. In part, I blame my diary-writing for this. After all, writing things down is said to be a strong aid to memory, even without reference to the written information. Yet, considered in the light of my early obsession with the recording of information, my subsequent years at university studying history, including a PhD on early Medieval Italian historiography, my habit of writing autobiographical memoir, short stories, novels and poetry, my presence on several online social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus, my seemingly insatiable desire to photogaph everything and archive it, and, of course, this blog, it seems that perhaps I was cut out to be an historian after all, be it of my own life, or, for that matter, the lives of others.

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Except for a very small percentage of people, nobody wants to die. At least, not before having lived a full and satisfying life, and even then, when the end nears, many choose to hang on for as long as possible. It’s a strange thing to be aware of one’s mortality. So far as we understand it, no other creature on Earth is conscious of its life span, though for many survival and reproduction are the two principal biological imperatives. For some creatures reproduction is the only imperative, and once this has been achieved, survival becomes obsolete and their time here is done.

Humans, on the other hand, as with many social mammals, have found a means by which to make themselves useful beyond reproductive age. Our consciousness and sophisticated intelligence have also made reproduction itself a lifestyle choice rather than a necessity. However we choose to live our lives, we do so according to our own ideas of fulfilment, contentment and achievement. For some, it is work and sacrifice, for others, it is the pursuit of happiness, for some it is reproduction and providing for one’s children. And, of course, some humans find life too difficult, meaningless, complex or unpleasant and so choose to take their own lives irrespective of whether or not they have passed on their genes.

I value life a very great deal and, being an atheist, consider it to be all that I have. So far as I see it I am nothing but a bag of meat and a bunch of cells and my consciousness, the bafflingly complex software of billions of rapidly firing neurons. When I die, there will be nothing left beyond material remains and anything I may have produced that is worthy of preservation. So far as I see it, the only shot I have at immortality is to produce great art, and, I suppose, offspring. For the latter reason, I have long considered becoming a sperm donor. After all, if the real, underlying purpose off life is to pass on one’s genes, then surely the best way to distribute these most widely, without the unaffordable social and financial complications of fatherhood, is to impregnate as many women as possible. Ultimately, I decided against this course, though largely because I simply didn’t care enough to do so. The decision ultimately to have children will not be based on the desire to pass on my genes, but rather for the joys of parenthood and an unwillingness to miss out on this pivotal life experience.

As someone who has always been a keen history buff and who studied history at university for many years, including going to Cambridge to do a PhD in late Roman, early medieval Italian history, and as a weekly reader of New Scientist and someone fascinated by questions about the future, I would prefer to live for at least five hundred years, in order to see what happens and how many of my predictions come true. The future promises to be endlessly fascinating and the rapid geopolitical, technological and environmental developments are worthy of study in the longue durée. Five hundred years should just about satisfy my wish to see how current short and long-term trends unfold, and to witness how humans cope with the environmental consequences of their development. Considering I cannot quite manage five hundred years, without very sudden and dramatic discoveries in arresting the ageing process or, beyond that, some form of cryogenic freezing and rebooting in a rejuvenated body several centuries from now, I’d like at least to live for as long as is physically possible, whilst retaining my mental faculties.

In short, the last thing I want to do is die young. Many might suggest that is no longer possible at the age of thirty-nine! But after all, one is only as young as, well… we know how that one goes. It was, therefore, a great relief to me when I visited my most excellent doctor this morning to be informed that my chest and lung x-rays showed nothing of concern whatsoever. For the last three months I’ve suffered muscular pain and discomfort in my chest and shoulder area, and it has, at times, been difficult to pinpoint the source of this pain. To begin with, I thought it might be my all too vigorous copulation style; secondly, I blamed my keen and regular use of barbells to buff myself up. Ultimately, I began to fear that the source of the pain was deeper than these possible structural causes, and once the idea had gotten into my head that the source of discomfort might be my heart or lungs, the paranoia grew into a dreadful fear.

It is worth pointing out that I no longer smoke cigarettes and have not smoked a single one since April 2007. I have, however, smoked a good few joints in the intervening period and, anyway, lung cancer can strike many years after quitting smoking. So there was no reason to feel complacent on this front, and once the thought had entered my head, I began to fear that I was about to pay the ultimate price for the follies of youth.

I have often experienced such paranoia about possible catastrophic health problems in the past. In late 2010, I became convinced that I had something very seriously wrong inside my head, when for three to four months I suffered from constant headaches, sore, dry eyes and dizziness. I visited five doctors and was not at all impressed with their attempts to identify or diagnose the source of the problem. It was the fifth doctor, now my current regular, who had no hesitation in sending me for a CT scan (I still can’t believe it took this long!) which determined that it was, in fact, a cyst in my sinuses. When he read the report of the scan in the office, and, nodding and frowning said “Mmmm, there’s definitely a lot going on there,” I thought I was doomed and broke into a cold sweat. For, perhaps twenty seconds, all the fear and paranoia that had built up in preceding months reached a terrible peak and I genuinely believed I was about to be told I had a brain tumour. Once he had made sense of the jargon in the radiologist’s report, however, Dr Lam was very quick to reassure me that all was well. A most glorious sense of relief washed over me. I wasn’t, after all, going to fucking die! I was going to live!

For the last month I’ve been living with a similar gnawing feeling; that really something awful was going on inside my body and my time on this Earth was about to draw to a premature close. It was quite overwhelming at times, and indeed, I would have dizzy spells and moments of desperation as the feeling congealed inside and, naively convinced, I asked myself “What else could it be? It must be my lungs.” Well, that is yet to be determined, when I take the next step, in seeing a sports medicine specialist at the University of Sydney, but the good news is that it ain’t lung cancer and is most likely, as originally suspected, a structural, muscular problem.

You may wonder why I took so long to confirm this and have x-rays done. The reason, I suppose, was that a part of me needed to believe I was just being paranoid and I tried to reassure myself that it really was nothing serious. There was also a part of me that did not wish to face the truth if there was something serious amiss; this despite the fact that were something seriously wrong, the sooner it was identified and addressed the better. It was also, in part, because I knew that my worst fears about my health were often misplaced, as on the occasion when my fears of testicular cancer resolved instead into a diagnosis of epididymitis; not a pleasant condition, but certainly not fatal! As was the case with my nuts, and, indeed, the cyst in my sinuses, there have been several other occasions when I thought for certain I was dying. Before leaving for Europe in 1996, for example, when I’d been plagued by a mysterious pain in my side for months, and again in 2005, when I suffered long dizzy spells and bouts of blurred vision for several weeks. On both occasions these turned out to be posture-related, and I’m now beginning to wonder if this latest issue is not also posture related, though I have for a long while used an ergonomic chair and sat upright and straight-backed at my desk.

I hope that soon this problem will be solved, and I can get back to lifting weights (other important pleasures have not been curtailed). For now, however, I will simply revel in having seen off the worst-case scenario and return to looking forward to a long and fruitful life, ideally, several centuries long.

By way of conclusion, I would like to present a half-completed poem. It was written in 2005 during my tenure at “Cornieworld #1”, when the dizziness I was experiencing led me to believe that something was seriously wrong with me. When, after seeing a couple of doctors and ultimately consulting a physio, I realised that I wasn’t, in fact, dying, I sat down to write “For three weeks I thought I was dying.” I never completed it satisfactorily and am unlikely to do so, so I present it now in its unpolished form.

Live long and prosper!


For three weeks I thought I was dying…


For three weeks I thought I was dying.

The misunderstood stink of sleeplessness;

greasy sweats born of fear and imagined

tumours within this corrupt, greying vehicle

still desperately far from success.


The horizon became naught but wasted grafting

with the falling short suggested in my wrenching

abdomen, aching head and blood wisps

snaking from a stool. A pallor which even

hard running could evince, a dizziness growing

and solemn, I was convinced.


Til, on a day away from vulgar work I walked

afraid for projects long assured, en route

to seek the testing proof across the arching

concrete bridge. Humidity smeared my skin while spring

bustled in my chest and the looseness,

transported from the earthworms to my joints,


watered my swoon to encourage a distant lifting

from sharp displeasure at the nape, the protest

and the query of my body yet to answer

for betrayals. Taunted by the semblance

of a lifespan, I pressed on, assured I carried

some illness come from the burrows, come


from some lodger born of me. I tottered amongst

the students as though sunstruck and recalled

a film wherein a thirsting bumpkin

staggered on a rippling road; recalled a youth

I then thought was old – outside this very building!

The coming dim this doctor must soon name


– I don’t doubt I’ve mouthed it in some searching,

prussic forecast – has ensured this clarity

and the poignance of each nostalgic yearn.

Outwardly now, a sunset hacienda, bloody again

in my fearful cheeks and lips, roaming forward,

pursed against the ague, aghast at atoms in disjunction.


The lion’s share lies still ahead, my organs

take me there! That night, unfurrowed, though as yet in limbo

I walked down to the sinking docks. High across

the water stood a straddling bridge, wired and search-lit,

streaked and roaring, with two great striving concrete towers.

And about these, trailing their dusty orbits,

five hundred seagulls fed on a million moths.

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An updated, edited and polished excerpt from Volume 1 of my autobiography, Sex with a Sunburnt Penis.


My grandmother had a very strong influence on me as a child, largely because she was so utterly different from everyone else. To begin with she was by far the oldest person I knew, and on top of that she was French. Indeed, my grandmother was so French that she almost seemed a parody; like Edith’s bed-ridden grandmother in ‘Allo ‘Allo. Nana, as we called her, however, was far from bedridden. She was a dynamic elderly lady who busied herself in the house and garden and whose wizened frame held remarkable strength.

Of course, as a very small child, without any sense of context, I simply took Nana at face value. She was always kind and loving, though she could certainly be tetchy. My brother and I stretched her patience as all children will, and whilst she wasn’t quite overprotective, we at times found her rulings a little ridiculous. Like most children, I always wanted to run down the street when I got excited, but, knowing how uncoordinated I was, like most five year-olds, Nana would order me to stop.

“Oh, Benjamin, you will fall over!”

“No I won’t!” I would protest, before promptly tripping over my sandals and grazing my knee. Too ashamed and embarrassed to cry, I was also too stubborn to admit that her judgement was sound on this front. Restraint is, after all, never appealing in the eyes of a child. She did, however, let me pick my nose; watching with her cunning, smiling eyes and saying “are you hungry?” whenever my finger went searching.

The only thing I really remember holding against her was her gravy. She could cook the hell out of a peach pie and made a knockout custard, but her gravy was something else altogether. One hot evening when she was minding my brother and me, she marched into the dining room and placed a clear glass jug on the table. We could see the contents in cross-section, and on top of the gravy was an inch-deep slick of molten, light-grey fat. As a child, I loathed fat in all forms. While Nana returned to the kitchen to collect the peas, I turned to my brother, Matthew, to share my astonishment. He too seemed to feel a wave of indignant protest welling up inside, but so afraid were we of the gravy that neither of us could articulate our anguish beyond the words; “No way, it’s just not fair. That’s not gravy. It’s not fair.”

My lip trembled as the tears formed in the corners of my eyes. I wanted to cry out that I wouldn’t eat that pooing, snot-breath, bum-hole gravy even if you gave me five bucks, a Tonka truck and told me what condom meant. But such was the power of the gravy that my spirit was utterly crushed. I don’t even remember whether or not I ate it, and think that therefore I must have done so, and the trauma was such that the memory has been repressed all my life.

If at times I was blind to the good sense behind her admonishments, I generally paid a great deal of attention to what Nana told me. She had a certain prophetic quality about her, like an Oracle, full of superstitions, sayings and adages that rang with the undeniable truth of ancient wisdom in my young ears.

Nana told me that things would always go my way – something my mother often reminded me of. If I had a stroke of luck, my mother would say: “Nana always said you’d land on your feet. She said you were the lucky one.” I believed what Nana said with such conviction that it developed into a sense of entitlement. Things were supposed to work out for me naturally, and though opportunity doesn’t generally knock, she was firmly of the impression that I wouldn’t have to make my own luck. I always kept that thought at the back of my mind and somehow it helped me to screw a lot of things up later on in life.

Being old-school colonial French – having come from Noumea in 1922 aged 17 – Nana was a good, superstitious Catholic. She had a little shrine to Jesus and a ceramic bell with the Pope’s portrait on it. She drank once a year, never wore make up, never swore, venerated Joan of Arc and Saint Anthony and always cheered when the Pope came on television.

They must have really done a good job on educating them into the spirit of Empire over in New Caledonia. Nos ancestres les Galles and all they stood for were being threatened by the Bosch when Nana was in school, and they ensured that the spirit of Nationalism was planted deep. She worshipped Napoleon and swore blind he never really abandoned his men. She hated Italian art because as far as she was concerned it couldn’t possibly be as good as French art. She didn’t drink wine, but knew deep down that that Italian rubbish wasn’t a patch on the French product. She hated the Nazis with a passion and still resented Germans as though the war had happened yesterday, and to her personally.

Nana also had very old-school Catholic attitudes to various social phenomena. One day, as I sat playing euchre with her in my old bedroom that had since become hers, she turned to me after something flashed across the television screen and said: “What is a lesbian?” The thought of explaining that to an eighty-nine year-old woman who changed the channel when people started kissing was just too much to come to grips with.

“What is zis, Lesbian? Er… two women,” she said with a terrific sneer. “They should shoot zem!”

When I was a kid, it was easy to converse with Nana, but as I got older her conversation grew a little more unsettling. She liked to put the knife into whichever of my parents had misbehaved in some petty way or another. In this respect she was venal and vindictive, though I knew her to be loving and generous at heart. It was loneliness and a life of disappointment that had done it to her. It must be difficult to avoid being jealous of youth and the opportunity it still affords. She never got over losing her husband and her son, and ultimately she resented being a tenant of her daughter. I could hardly hold those things against her, when all she’d ever wanted was to own her own home and feel the security and permanence that comes with it. It was remarkable that she showed such pluck all the way through. She did so by narrowing her desires down to small, everyday pleasures, none of which could be considered luxuries.

Nana was almost eternally optimistic about something and had quite incredible stamina, despite having shrunk to about four foot ten. Being so small she’d get drunk on half a glass of sauterne or Tia Maria with lemonade, which she insisted on drinking at Christmas, and her little face would bubble up bright red with life and hardy vigour let briefly off the hook as she pulled on a christmas cracker.

Nana collected toy frogs, which was the only piss-take on the French she would condone. Her favourite past-time was to play card games and for years she had been going to the local French Club for poker nights. She and I would, at times, play hours and hours of patience, euchre, poker and rummy, and she never seemed to tire of it. We’d natter away during hands of cards, and whenever the conversation got a bit curly, I’d try to shift it over to a safe topic like sport or France, or, more particularly, French sport, which was safe so long as one heaped undiluted praise on even the most minor of French achievements.

Nana was a real fount of knowledge on French sport and will likely remain the only ninety year-old woman I’ll ever know to sit up until three in the morning and watch an entire grand prix race because there was a Frenchman in it. She watched the entire Tour de France. She watched tennis, soccer, yachting, skiing, anything, so long as there was a Frenchman. She supported the Eastern Suburbs Roosters in the rugby league because their colours were red, white and blue, and they had the same mascot as the French team. She even called them “les tricoleurs.” Heaven forbid, but Nana even watched golf if there was a Frenchman playing. I think she sincerely thought the French ran the entire world and if there was any evidence which might bring French superiority into question, either on or off the playing field, such as getting a thrashing in the rugby by Australia, she would always have a nimble excuse.

“Oh, zose Australians are terrible. Zey won’t let ze Frenchman run with ze ball. Every time ze Frenchman gets ze ball, zey stop him! Zey are brutes!”

There was no point in explaining the legitimacy of tackling the opposition in a rugby match, just as I couldn’t explain why Guy Forget and Yannick Noah weren’t both equal number in the world tennis rankings. After a while I simply got used to complying with her wishes and telling her that I found it equally baffling, and no doubt a network of saboteurs and agents provocateurs were at work undermining French hegemony over the entire universe. Either way, it beat the shit out of explaining what a lesbian was.

Nana was also a great fan of French industry. Whenever I visited her, I was duly informed of the arrival on the market of any form of manufactured good which had been produced in France.

“Did you know zat ze French have built ze largest sailboat in ze world?”

It seemed quite incredible to be told what a wonderful thing it was that Club Med was opening up a new resort somewhere previously unspoilt. If the French did it, it was almost certainly beyond reproach. And yet, Nana wasn’t entirely uncritical of the French. When they were blowing the Christ out of Mururoa Atoll with their nuclear tests, she became very deeply upset and looked rather sheepish for weeks. She, like most reasonable people, really didn’t see the point behind the further development of the world’s most destructive weapons – and testing them in the beautiful Pacific Ocean was patently insane. It hurt her to hear all the protests against French testing, particularly because so many protesters lashed out unnecessarily at French culture and French people without sensible discrimination of who was actually responsible. One night when I sat in her room and the news came on with the leading announcement that the French had exploded a nuclear device on Mururoa, a look of terrible shame came over her face. I felt immensely sorry for her to have to feel any loss of faith in France this late in her life. I was angry with France myself, but it was mostly for disappointing an increasingly frail ninety-year old woman, whose heart was unswervingly patriotic.

From her shame, however, she could lash back with some wonderful exclamations.

“Oh, zose terrible sings zay say about ze French. Those Australians, they steal all zair ideas from ze French! Zay always copy ze French.”

Sometimes she just loved to put the boot in.

Nana used to do all her own housework, and then sit in the sun and read the newspapers cover to cover. She was an avid reader and manic word-puzzle fanatic. Nothing gave her greater joy than the latest edition of Le Courier. She’d take it out into the sun, sit at the little table beneath the boughs of the mulberry tree with some quartered, de-crusted ham sandwiches and a weak, very milky cup of tea, and read it about sixteen times. Occasionally she’d offer me articles to read, and I’d struggle through, embarrassed by how much my French had gone down the toilet. Oh look, something about a bridge. Yes, somebody built something. Oh, hang on, they shot something. No, they ate it. Maybe it wasn’t a bridge after all…One way or another, Nana would make it seem about seventy-three times more important than it actually was. I mean, honestly, what was news like that doing on page 13 of Le Courier?

The terribly sad truth, however was that Nana couldn’t live forever, though it seemed for a while there that she might just pull it off. She only visited a doctor for the first time when she reached eighty-eight years of age, and wouldn’t have had to go at all if she hadn’t tripped over the bull-terrier and hurt her arm. Sadly it was Pug’s fault that she went to hospital again a couple of years later, as he came tearing out into the back yard to bark at passing small children and ploughed straight into my unsuspecting Nana.

The resulting broken hip landed her in hospital, where she came through the operation with flying colours. Yet, sadly, as she lay there in the hospital bed recovering, she seemed to lose interest in everything. She stopped eating and became withdrawn and subdued. I have no idea what came over her in that hospital bed, but despite being well set to recover, she seemed to give up trying. Initially she had been so proud of herself; so proud of her health and vitality – up walking a day after the operation, and at the age of ninety. Perhaps she at last realised that there was nothing left for her to live for, though she’d always seemed so happy with simple pleasures. It mystified me a great deal, and of course upset us all immeasurably.

I sat holding her hand for as many hours as possible either side of work. My mother never left her side, and my father, who was also a great admirer of Nana, was there night and day as well. Slowly, but surely, she shrank away into herself. Her features slowly sank, as though the muscles that supported her robust expressions had slackened for good, then vanished. As I stared at her face for hours on end, I noticed for the first time in my life all the physical similarities between her and my mother and brother; the shape of her nose, the set of her mouth, expressions I had seen on her blood relatives. Then, late one Saturday night, with me at home, in the middle of a relationship crisis of my own making, she passed away.

Nana’s funeral was perhaps the most moving experience of my life. As we took up her coffin, draped in red, white and blue flowers, and proceeded down the aisle of the church, the organist struck up La Marseillaise. Strangely, I had not expected it – too grief stricken to have any thought for the logistics and organisation of the funeral, about which I had asked no questions. The  first few notes struck me like a thunderbolt.

“Alons enfants de la patrie! La Jour de gloroire et arrive!”

I felt a heavy mix of pride and awe; a momentous weight became a glorious burden. Fatality, which can seem so mundane and nondescript in an inglorious church, became a heavenly power; grief, which can be so black and all-encompassing in its restrictive singularity, became the channel for a unique beauty and rare soaring of emotion. For the two days before I had been so upset that I felt like lead – but when I heard La Marseillaise, I knew that in the end Nana had been victorious; she had left the battlefield on her own terms and she had ascended in a way that I didn’t even believe in; such was her greatness, she could defy even the tenets of my atheism. Nana had risen and taken her place in heaven – a reward she deserved more richly than anyone else I’ve ever known.

The saddest irony about Nana was that she was never not French at any point in her life – after seventy-odd years in Australia her accent had hardly diminished – and yet when she died we discovered that her citizenship had lapsed after fifty years. It struck me that the French government needed to be notified about Nana. Her patriotism was so undying and overwhelming that she deserved to be awarded the Legion of Honour, or at least some ribbon commemorating her devotion to France. Even when at last she lay dying, she managed with her weak voice to sing the entirety of her true national anthem, and cried out “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité!” I don’t think there is a single person in France who was as French as my grandmother. Though of course, her Frenchness was an anomaly; an anachronism from the golden age of European imperialism, and now, sadly, she has passed from this world, taking with her rare memories of a bygone era.

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Having come to Darjeeling in part to see its views of the Himalayas, I felt frustrated when the horizon proved to be continually covered in cloud. Only in the late afternoon of my first full day did I manage to catch a glimpse of the mountains; when heavy rain cleared the mist and fog from the sky. The break in the clouds was brief, however, and by the time I reached a decent vantage point, the view had vanished.

This was, by no means cause for despair. For, by way of beautiful compensation, the following two days had seen the town entirely shrouded in heavy fog. The beauty and wonder of it were ample entertainment and I could probably have continued to photograph the silhouettes and shadows without ever getting bored. Indeed, the fog proved so beautiful and entrancing that I almost forgot about the mountains altogether. Almost.

I have always had a great love of mountains and snow, possibly because of Australia’s relative lack of them. There are the Snowy Mountains in southern New South Wales, with a roughly eighty to one-hundred day ski season. Yet the highest mountain, Mt Kosciuszko, is a mere 2228 metres, and lacks the drama of other, more elevated peaks. There is, of course, the Great Dividing Range, a vast line of mountains stretching for roughly 3500 kilometres down the east coast of Australia, making it the third longest mountain range in the world. Yet, the Great Dividing Range formed some three hundred million years ago during the Carboniferous period and has suffered significant erosion since. These are very old mountains on the planet’s oldest and flattest continent.

If Australians want to see high mountains and better skiing, they traditionally duck across the Tasman to New Zealand. Still, despite the significantly more impressive peaks of New Zealand and their year-round snow-caps and glaciers, the highest mountain, Mt Cook, or Aoraki, is only 3754 metres tall. If New Zealand does not suffice, then Japan, Canada, or the European Alps are the likely choice for skiing, with The Andes, Rockies and, of course, the Himalayas, also featuring prominently on the mountaineering circuit. For most Australians, therefore, snow and high mountains are exotic – and elsewhere. For some, no doubt, they have little appeal against the perhaps more obvious attractions of paradisiacal beaches, yet for me, who was never especially fond of the hot climate, high, snow-capped mountains are the ultimate dream. They are impressive not merely for their staggering reality, yet also for their fantastical implications; being so long evoked throughout my role-playing childhood as the home of dragons, frost giants and hard, uncompromising barbarian folk. Just looking at mountains is enough for me, and I could likely do it all day without ever getting tired.

So, despite the great beauty of the fog, I was dying to see Mt. Kangchenjunga, which, at roughly 8500 metres high, is more than six kilometres higher than Mt Kosciuszko. This very thought – eight and a half kilometres, up into the sky! – was enough to give me goose bumps, and the brief glimpse I had caught of it had confirmed for me that it looked uncannily tall against the Earth. Determined to see the mountain properly, on the evening of day three, after another gorgeous day in the enveloping fog, I decided to stay in Darjeeling until I had done so. If it took a week, then so be it. But one day surely, perhaps just one morning, the horizon would be clear and the full glory of the snow-capped peaks revealed.

On my fourth morning in Darjeeling, therefore, I rose at 0500 AM and parted the curtains. It was still very dark outside, yet the sky had lightened just enough to see that it was clear. The dim stars overhead faded towards the horizon, from which the day was beginning to spread. The mist that had cloaked the town for the last few days had lifted, and whilst it was still too dark to make out the line of mountains in the distance, I felt confident that I should get lucky on this occasion. I ran to the shower, washed up and dressed, then set off with my kit into the cold morning.

Darjeeling was quieter than ever at this time of day, but once I neared Chowrasta, the main square at the top of the town, there were signs of activity along the street. Shop doors stood open with the owners sweeping their floors; on the wooden stalls hugging the road, vendors were already laying out their wares: fruit, vegetables, poultry and the like. On the edge of Chowrasta, in their ramshackle tarpaulined shelter, the tea-wallahs I’d become so fond of the day before were setting up. I checked my watch – it was still only five-thirty. How hard these people must work, for they continued serving until almost ten at night! Opposite them, the concrete stables were, for once, full of horses. Several of the handlers dozed on the steps, and I wondered if they were stoned already.

Being, shall we say, rather naughty, I had, just two days before, purchased a bag of marijuana from these so-called Pony Boys, who provided joyrides around Chowrasta, and along the road that ringed Observatory Hill. The night before I had prepared a couple of joints in hopeful anticipation of a clear morning, or as a form of consolation should things prove otherwise, and it was with one of these tucked behind my ear that I crossed the square and set off down the road beside the hill.

I expected it to be very quiet and largely free of people, yet, walking around Observatory Hill on its eastern side, I was astonished by the number of people exercising. Many of the locals were out running already; men and women of all ages. I passed a lot of joggers and groups of people doing stretches and aerobic exercises against the metal railings. Despite having been a keen runner for many years, even when I’m in an early-rising phase, I’ve never been able to exercise this early in the morning and have long been jealous of people who woke up feeling so energetic. The people were all very friendly, both to me and to each other, and I was surprised by how many used English greetings amongst themselves: “Hello” and “Good morning.”

When I rounded the corner to the northern side of the hill and saw the horizon, I felt a sudden slump in my hopeful mood. The sun had not yet risen, though now the sky was light and clear, but the mountains were dressed in cloud and remained invisible in the distance. In their place were great stacks of cumulus of varying heights. I imagined the shape of the cloud might somehow reflect the size of the mountains underneath, yet without any real sense of scale or proportion at such a distance, I might have been horribly wrong. Either way, the mountains were not to be seen.

I did not want to give up hope just yet, for in truth I knew very little about the meteorological conditions and reasoned that perhaps the sun might rise and burn away the cloud. There was obviously less moisture in the air today, which felt much more dry and crisp. It had a mild sting in it, as cold, clean air will do, and this gave me further hope that the day would not be so humid and thus less foggy.

Unable to see the mountains, I continued walking and focussed on photographing the valley below and the locals performing their exercises. When I reached a lookout I had discovered a couple of days earlier, I stopped, deciding this would be the best vantage point should conditions prove favourable. It was a shelter of cast-iron, with a corrugated sheet-iron roof, under which sat long, old-fashioned park benches. One of these bore the inscription Darjeeling Health and Fitness Club (I think), and it was a very popular place to congregate for early morning exercise. Around the shelter and benches, before a steep, wooded descent into the valley below with its rounded slopes of tea, were roughly twenty men and women performing stretches, jumps and running on the spot. To the side of them stood a Buddhist monk with a large, round, hand-held drum, like an outsize tambourine. He was humming and banging on the drum, facing the east where the sky was ever lightening, singing in the dawn, I can only imagine.

I figured there was likely another twenty-odd minutes before the sun actually rose, so I walked to the back of the road, where Observatory Hill rose steeply, and began to climb a steep watercourse. Before long I was thirty metres up above the people below, with an excellent view to the hidden mountains on the horizon. I took the joint from behind my ear and, feeling ever the fugitive, crouched behind a shrub to smoke.

I was soon joined by a friendly dog; a healthy and clean stray who was scavenging for food in the trees on the hill. She nuzzled in and sat down beside me, deciding we were to be friends. I patted the dog just a couple of times, not wishing to encourage her too much for fear of having her sit outside the hotel for the rest of my stay. It was difficult not to show more affection to this attractive, light-brown bitsa. I hadn’t had much in the way of company for some time, and as the marijuana put me once again into very high spirits, I wanted nothing more than to play and wrestle with this lovely dog, then buy the poor thing a great feast and give it a bath.

The sun, however, was rising and I needed to focus my attention on getting the shots. I took some from where I sat; switching lenses repeatedly for a wider or longer focus, then descended back to the road. The dog followed me down, but had the decency not to hang off me. She skirted the exercisers nervously, wondering which way to turn.

The monk’s drumming and droning was all the more intense now in my heightened state, and I felt completely in the zone for shooting, targeting people and scenery alike. Just above the layers of cloud in the distance, long, bright rays of sun were spreading in triangular fans. The cotton wool, popcorn clouds, beautiful in themselves, were rimmed with a fiery gold that burned in the back of eye. Below, on the slopes and in the valley, the tin and iron-roofed houses nestled in a light mist that blew like puffs of smoke. Where the hills spread out in lower undulations, the rich green of the orderly tea plantations was washed with drifting coils of mist.

The monk continued his slow beat and droning, and I, taking refuge behind my sunglasses, watched from a short distance, shooting video. I wanted more stability for the long-range focus and, not having brought my tripod this morning, I soon moved to one of the benches, alongside the shelter, and rested my camera on the rail in front. On either side the locals continued their exercises; huffing and breathing loudly, but otherwise, doing their routine without a word. The valley below made a pleasant subject for study, and I spied on the activity of tiny distant people and dogs, drifting through the light cloud that brushed the tree tops. I could hear the happy singing of children from a school a couple of hundred metres down the slope; a dawn chorus of upbeat, unbroken voices, both energetic and joyous. What time did school begin here? Such happy singing seemed a very positive way to start the day.

When, at around 0630, the sun climbed atop the rounded crenulations of cloud, there was a splendid murmur of excitement. The lens flared with the light that shot in clear beams from the small orange arc of sun. The sun rose rapidly and the light fanned quickly across the hills and valleys below. The tree-tops lightened, the fog shone white, and the locals doing their exercises seemed to find an extra spring in their step. It was a powerful and uplifting vision, without a hint of anticlimax and, though I longed to see the mountains, I was happy indeed with this burst of sunlight.

I sat and stood and sat again, photographing the scenes around me in the growing brightness. I continued to hope that as the sun grew higher and hotter, it might burn away the cloud below and reveal the snow-capped peaks of the mountains. Was this the beginning of a dry, warm, clear day in Darjeeling? Was I about to be treated to that mountain view at long last?

It was now that I noticed a change in the valley below. The mist that had, until recently, been sparse and thin, began rapidly to thicken. In the warming sunlight, the abundant moisture was evaporating and gathering into pockets of cloud above the vegetation. Slowly the iron rooves and tea plantations became more difficult to see as these blooms of mist spread and floated until, after about ten minutes, with the sun now well clear of the clouds on the horizon, the scene below was almost entirely shrouded.

This gathering cloud now sent up a long, thin coil of white mist. It rose in a tall column that stretched up high above the tallest trees near where I sat watching. This column of rising moisture began to widen, fattening until it grew dark and dense, like a pillar of thundercloud. At the top of the column the mist very abruptly spread sideways, like a flat mushroom cloud, colonising the sky with fog.

Once this process was underway, the speed with which it continued was astonishing. The sun, it seemed, rather than burning off the cloud, was having quite the opposite effect; vaporising all the moisture in the valley and lifting it into the air. From a meteorological perspective, it was absolutely fascinating. The spreading cloud soon covered the sky immediately above, blocking all direct sunlight. The treetops began to dim, the golden wash turned silver then grey as the hills and valley below vanished completely from view.

Soon the entire sky, as far as I could see, was covered in haze and cloud. Great waves of fog rolled up the slopes and onto the heights where I sat, brushing my skin with cool moisture. By the time the clock struck seven, the fog had smothered everything. I could see no more than twenty metres.

This marvellous meteorological event was too exciting to allow for disappointment. So much for the mountains – I was perfectly content to spend another day in thick fog and try again the following morning. I took another joint from my packet and wandered back along the road I had followed to the look-out.

Silhouettes appeared against the wan backlight, and the trees, now full of enticing shadows through the filter of fog, seemed especially fecund with their newly wetted leaves. I smoked took photos, looking back towards the “Darjeeling Fitness Club” where several locals were still doing exercises. Their shapes made excellent subjects and I kept the camera trained on them for some time.

I drifted back into Chowrasta, towards the chai place on the edge of the square which I had adopted as my own over the last couple of days. The man and two women were all there, and the place was fully operational. I ordered tea and a chilli egg bun and sat down on the bench to watch them at work. It was sad how much I loved what they did, yet could not possibly love their life. To work such long hours and to be so constantly busy was not something to which I could relate. It was hardly a new sensation, this wonder at the workers of the world who slog it out all day. Yet, sitting so close to this dynamic trio, who gave me such pleasure with their excellent tea and lovely, simple food, I felt a passionate hope that they should find enough time to be happy outside of work. At least they were their own bosses, and perhaps this was the life they chose, but it didn’t exactly look easy. I stayed there almost an hour, and drank three cups of the best tea in the world.

Over the next five days, I repeated that morning almost exactly. I rose just before five AM, showered, dressed and set off towards the same look-out. There was, at Ghoom, the highest railway station of the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, a very famous and better situated lookout called Tiger Hill, to which many people ventured in the morning to see the mountains. This, however, was equally contingent on the sky or horizon being clear and, without such conditions, it seemed pointless for me to take one of the many early morning jeeps there.

Every morning over the next five days, I carried the same hope around Observatory Hill: that today would be different; that the sky would clear completely for a spectacular view. Sadly, however, on every single occasion, the entire horizon was covered in fog.

In the later mornings and afternoons, with never a sign of the distant cloud lifting, I wandered around town, photographing the workers, shops and the closer views.

I spent some time up on top of Observatory Hill, stoned, lost in thought, watching the colourful flags of the Buddhist monastery flap in the persistent breeze.

I spent hours sitting with the monkeys at the back of the monastery, watching their antics, squabbles, grooming and occasional surliness. Some days I wandered quite a way out of town, floating along the curving roads through the smaller, surrounding villages. I walked up into the forest and sat amongst the trees; smoking, reading, dozing, lying, thinking, thinking, thinking.

I saw a man with a prize pig, a most flamboyantly feathered chicken, women breaking rocks for a roadway.

I walked all day, looking for photographs and vignettes. I followed the railway out of town into some of its slightly grubbier quarters.

A small, quiet man showed me around another monastery. He told me its quaint, unassuming history, then a story of the school they hoped to build if only they had the money. I made my donation on cue, then left, feeling disappointed with both him and me.

Every breakfast lunch and dinner was spent at my favourite chai wallahs. I never learned their names, and we hardly ever shared a word, but we had an unspoken friendship that lived in our genuine smiles. I was certainly curious about their lives, but, knowing how much I value my own privacy, I did not want to pester them with a bunch of personal and anthropological questions. I figured that if I just kept ordering tea and food, and they kept making it so well and serving me in so friendly a manner, then we already had a strong enough relationship.

When, on my ninth morning in Darjeeling, the horizon was once again covered in cloud, I gave up all hope of seeing Kangchenjunga. Two days before, I had booked my ticket – from Siliguri to Delhi – and I wasn’t about to miss my flight. I sat and watched the mist rise from the valley once more, then walked back to Chowrasta for a final breakfast.

On the way there, I passed the very Pony Boy from whom I had bought a bag of marijuana almost a week earlier. He was standing holding the reins of his horse, grinning enough to show his blackened teeth. He recognised me and said:

“Are you going riding again today, sir?”

“No. Thankyou!”

I laughed and smiled at his conceit. How sad and happy this little encounter made me feel. When I sat down on the bench and ordered tea a few moments later, I felt a choking thickness in my throat. How could I leave Darjeeling, having become so used to the place, and with my mission still unaccomplished? Did I not feel as though I were stagnating, perhaps even on the brink of a sort of dissipation, I might well have stayed on.

I knew that there could be only one cure for this growing burden of loss: to get back on the road and find new places and people. From Delhi I was flying on to Amritsar, right across India in a day, and after that, it was anyone’s guess. That morning, sitting there for the last time, I drank four cups of tea and made a new plan. From Amritsar, I would head north up into the mountains of Himachal Pradesh and see the Himalayas around McLeod Ganj and Manali. If the road was open and I could make it all the way to Leh, then so be it.

As many attractions as India might hold, the need for mountains was in my blood, and anyway, I preferred the cooler climate of higher altitudes. My mission in Darjeeling was indeed as yet unaccomplished, but if I couldn’t see the mountains here, then I would travel until I saw them somewhere. I had at least another month up my sleeve, and nothing, whatsoever, was calling me home.

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It is not especially easy to find cigarette papers in India. This first became apparent in Jaipur, when I wanted to roll up a little something. I had just returned from ten days travelling around Rajasthan and my contact, Sunny, had been kind enough to donate a small rock of hashish. I crossed the street that afternoon to the local general store near my hotel, which sold cigarettes, assuming they would also sell papers. Yet, when I inquired of the man behind the counter, I was told otherwise. Baffled but by no means thrown, I walked around the corner where there were two small, free-standing booths which also sold cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

“Do you sell cigarette papers?” I asked.

“No, sir,” said the vendor. “Up the road. Near the roundabout.”

“And the other guy?” I asked, pointing to the other booth.

“No, sir. Roundabout.”

He pointed up the street.

The roundabout of which he spoke was a couple of hundred metres down a long road. On the way, I passed quite a number of small businesses and stopped in at three general stores, thinking surely someone must sell cigarette papers. Again, my plans were thwarted. When I did finally reach what was a colossal roundabout, beneath an overpass, with small shops and booths circling it, I expected to be at last rewarded for my efforts. Yet, when I asked the shopkeepers, all of whom sold cigarettes, not a single one of them sold papers.

Now I was indeed thrown. Did no one in India roll their own cigarettes? It seemed like just the place for it, considering how popular rollies were amongst the budget minded, and India, sadly, is not exactly a rich country on a per capita basis. If no one sold cigarette papers, and not having spotted any shops selling chillums, I had little choice by to compromise. I bought a cheap twenty-pack of Navy Cut, resigning myself to carefully emptying and repacking the cigarettes, after having “enhanced” the tobacco.

When, roughly three weeks later, I went looking for cigarette papers in Darjeeling, the situation proved no different. Walking back through the heavy fog, armed and dangerous after a successful and picturesque score in Chowrasta, I asked in every single shop I passed, only to be told no. Oh well, I sighed, there’s always that battered packet of Navy Cut in my bag.

Upon reaching my hotel room, I lay down on the bed and took out the bag of weed I’d collected from the so-called Pony Boys, or, rather, the horse-handlers down in the square. It was a large if lightweight parcel, roughly the size of a very healthy potato, full of stick and twig and seed, and lots of dry, leafy marijuana. It certainly didn’t look impressive, but it had a fresh and natural smell which was a refreshing change from the heavy, pungent, hydroponic wipe-out buds circulating round Sydney in this day and age. Either way, there was plenty of it, and it had, after all, been recommended by a gruff Queenslander, who seemed to know his business.

It was not yet ten o’clock and, having risen early, the day seemed destined to be a very long one. Lying there, with the curtains wide to a view of faint outlines in cloying fog, I pulled some sprigs of weed from the bag and began diligently to remove the small, oval seeds. There were so many of the little buggers, that this task took me the better part of forty minutes, after which I had produced an impressive pile of mix. I hopped up and emptied three cigarettes by carefully rolling and squeezing them between my fingers. Then, having blended some tobacco with the marijuana, proceeded to re-stuff the cigarettes, ably aided by a pen. By ten forty five, I was ready. I took a warming shower, dressed and gathered my things.

Just before leaving I paused by the window, taking in the limited view. Since arriving in Darjeeling two days ago the town had been shrouded in mist and visibility did not extend much beyond the foreground. Only on the afternoon of the day previous, when it had rained heavily, had the sky cleared for long enough to catch a glimpse of the Himalayas in the distance. It was an impressive glimpse, but very brief, for the dispersal of the clouds lasted just a short while, and soon they had reformed their ranks.

On the street below a family of carpenters rested on the pavement outside their shop; at their feet a carpet of shavings. I watched them a while and photographed them, before deciding that I could likely get away with smoking a joint there and then.

I tested the wind direction with a licked finger, took a smoke from my packet, struck a light, and crouched by the window. Feeling rather deliciously naughty, enjoying this fugitive act, I inhaled as Bill Clinton never did, with zeal and gusto. The smoke went straight to my head and I wobbled a little on my heels, but, determined to do things properly, I diligently smoked my way to the filter, exhaling in carefully directed puffs, guiding the smoke away from the closed, neighbouring window.

When, two minutes later, I stepped out into the roiling fog, I was as high as a weather balloon.

“Sensational,” I muttered, and set off towards the carpenters. Feeling rather louche and chummy, I couldn’t resist a rather baroque greeting as I walked past, and waved with both hands, spewing forth hellos. The two men and a young boy responded warmly, and it was at this point that I realised just how ridiculously happy I was. The high I was experiencing was of the most rare and upbeat variety, and its effect was growing in strength with every passing minute. For the last two days the mist had fascinated me and already its beauty had won me over. Yet now, intensely stoned, feeling marvellously fit and rested, having been travelling for a month already, full of wonder and curiosity, the magic of what I was seeing exploded inside me like a bomb.

Despite six years spent living in Cambridge, which could, on occasion, become enveloped in mist rolling in from the fens, I had never seen fog anything like as thick as this. Since the blanketed morning it had increased its hold over the town, turning even the most derelict and mundane subject matter into something breathtakingly beautiful. Tears welled in my eyes and my jaw-dropped; I was thankful that in the thick mist, the few people I passed could not see my face clearly, for I could barely control my expressions. My throat was thick and my lips wobbled. I felt a burning in my heart and was flooded with a feeling of love; love for the fog, love for the cool air, love for the buildings, love for the passers-by and the curled-up dogs. The world was a pencil sketch, viewed through tracing paper. It shifted and whispered itself through the droplets, soft and muted.

I strolled onwards through the moist air; my camera at the ready and Sigur Ros in my ears. The houses, shacks and shops, huddled together along the route, loomed in and out of focus. The figures in attendance, crouched inside their stalls, seated cross-legged next to their wares, were quiet and patient. They seemed in many cases very poor, and I hoped that their lives were happy and their hearts at peace.

The mood and pace of Darjeeling was so very unlike the insistent whirlwind of the India I’d seen so far. Perhaps it was the influence of Buddhism, the cooler climate, the different ethnic blend, or their relative isolation from the weight and competition of the population at large, but whatever the case, it was a pleasure to be left alone.

I passed the stables and the tea-wallahs I’d visited that morning.

Only now did I feel slightly conspicuous, as though the so-called Pony Boys, from whom I’d bought the weed in the first place, might soon be pointing and laughing at me. Feeling far too positive to allow any paranoia to take hold, I shrugged away the sensation and wandered out into the middle of the square, where the horses stood calmly about. Despite the relative cool and the heavy fog, the square was very busy. The orange and white-striped benches along its edges were full of locals relaxing; reading newspapers, drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and in one case, playing a game of chess. People milled about in the centre and periphery; tourists, bringing children for a pony joyride or shopping in the stores along the western side of the piazza, and locals, trudging back and forth, carrying loads and pushing carts, or simply taking a stroll.

It was a pleasure to photograph these people, but having hung around the square on several occasions already, I wanted to explore further and see new sights. On the eastern side of Chowrasta was an alluring road that led down the less-developed side of the mountain. It was impossible to see where it went in the heavy mist, yet, considering how incredible everything looked and having no specific goals other than to revel in the beauty of the day and take as many photographs as possible, I set off down this narrow street.

The fog so far had been very thick indeed, yet once away from the mass of people and the tightly packed houses and shops, it grew thicker still. Without the warmth of the people and kitchens, the moisture did not disperse so readily and, a mere two hundred metres down this side road, the world closed in as never before.

I was stopped in my tracks, breathless with excitement. Above me the trees were embraced by cloud, rising up in ever-paler shades of grey.

The density of the air was such that within small spatial increments visibility dropped alarmingly until the merest ghosts of branches could be seen. I stood there, overcome, looking up into the branches, shaking my head and muttering expressions of disbelief. I took out my video camera to film the mesmerising trees, trying to comment on what I was seeing.

I soon stopped talking, for there was too much emotion in my voice and it kept cracking with pending tears. How could anything be so beautiful? How lucky was I to be right here, right now, completely off my chops?!

A family of three – an older couple and their adult son – all wrapped in bright orange or yellow shawls and blankets, stopped me to say hello.

“We are here, on holiday, from Kolkata,” the younger man told me. “It is very nice to get away from the heat!”

We shook hands and I took their photograph. When I showed it to the old man and said, “Very handsome!” he seemed extremely pleased. We all laughed and smiled and shook hands again, and in less than a minute, I was on my way, smiling at just how much warmth and friendliness the Indians had shown me since arriving in their country.

The road wound down along a natural contour, passing Buddhist shrines, tall trees and occasional houses and shops.

After a stretch, I came to a cluster of buildings – too close to town to be called a village, but otherwise so in its likeness.

The steepness of the road made its vanishing point more daunting, as though this were the last stop before the end of the world. I passed between these silent houses, again surprised at how quietly and patiently the locals sat in their doorways and shops.

An old man emerged from the fog, wearing two large square tins on his back. I followed him slowly, through the village and down to a bend in the road where a lone shop perched on the brink of oblivion.

The man took one of the tins from his back and placed it on a low concrete wall. At first I thought he was resting, but then a young boy approached from the shop to buy some of what he was carrying. I watched from a distance, but could not see what he was selling through the fog; perhaps milk or oil, or even cheese?

After taking more photographs, I continued down the hill. Slowly, but surely, the number of houses diminished and the road grew increasingly lined with trees.

Five minutes later found me standing beside a row of cute wooden houses, their weathered boards and unsquared lines only magnified their beauty. I have long fantasised about such small, cosy dwellings; for their privacy and intimacy and simple provision of basic necessity. The houses didn’t look especially warm, however, and the man of whom I asked if I could take his photograph, looked cold. I felt a somewhat hypercritical taking this shot, suspecting that thousands may have done so before me. So much for my vision of privacy and intimacy!

The road soon turned in a hairpin, with a dirt road running off the bend. With an hour and a half having passed since leaving my hotel and thinking that now might be the time for another joint, I stepped off the bitumen and walked twenty metres up the dirt road. The road was backed by a wall of dripping ferns and dew-laden grass clumps, whilst in front was the swirling nothingness. I took out the cigarette packet, extracted a joint and stuck it in my lips. Again, feeling excited and ambitious, I smoked the whole thing. As I stood exhaling into the cold air, looking over the edge of the road, I blinked in amazement as a faint outline revealed itself. I tried to focus my eyes through the fog as it shifted and rolled and saw what looked like a monastery below. Then the intensity of the fog diminished in the face of a momentary breeze, revealing what was indeed a Buddhist monastery.

I hurried back to the road and followed it down the hill. It soon turned again, back in the direction of the monastery, and I walked quickly towards it, keen to have a look. The monastery slowly materialised to present a bright face, veiled and wan with mist. It was a tall, square building, with a tower at each corner, painted with lavish designs in blue, red, green and gold. The curling patterns and images had a floral, almost organic quality, as though a colourful, symmetrical mould had grown on the structure. The flair of the portico and façade, with its rounded columns, gave the monastery a slightly garish, yet beautiful stateliness.

I kicked off my thongs and wandered inside. The wooden floor was satisfyingly worn, and the rich interior contrastingly cold. I noticed a monk in the corner and, not being sure of the protocol, decided not to take any photographs. Instead I merely stood for five minutes, hardly moving, slowly turning my head to follow the many bright images on the walls and ceiling; peering from the low light.

Once outside again, I felt inclined to press on. I’d taken off my headphones, but now decided I wanted music again and chose the Guo Brothers, performers of traditional Chinese music. The haunting and exotic mood of the music combined well with the atmosphere, and I set off away from the monastery with renewed purpose.

Just around the corner from the monastery the road steepened and spilled away into a another small cluster of houses and flats. I paused on the top of a small rise, suddenly feeling very hungry indeed. It seemed that after all this walking in the mountain air and two brilliantly uplifting joints, the good old munchies had finally kicked in. Not wanting to distance myself too much from the momos and tea of Chowrasta, I turned around and headed slowly back up the hill.

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