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Monday, December 21, 2009

Port Adelaide

Taking photos in the market at Port Adelaide this weekend...

And then this

at the beautifully named Semaphore Beach

Sunday, December 13, 2009

And it's all true

Yesterday's Guardian online has a lovely profile of Jenny Uglow, my editor at Chatto.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


A new book is coming out on how great writers of the past can give us tips on how to live well - this time it's Jane Austen.  A year or so ago, we had James Joyce (Declan Kiberd's Ulysses and Us: the art of everyday living), and before that there was Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life.  Is this a new trend?

Of course I like this idea: I've written a book like it myself.  Mine's about Montaigne, who, unlike the others, wasn't a novelist.  But he might as well have been, because he explored different points of view and contradictory opinions, and avoided laying down rules.  Like good novelists, he observed what people actually did rather than telling them to do something else.

Perhaps this is why it's more appealing to get "life tips" from fiction writers rather than from professional psycho-gurus.  It's a lot better to observe someone else being silly, misguided or self-deluding, and to learn something from it, than it is to see Moses come stomping down from the mountaintop in your direction with a slab of commandments under his arm.

Vaguely connected with this, I've also come across a blogging project called "100 days to make me a better person": horrible idea!  But it includes one blog I really like.  The author has just started uploading one photo a day, for a hundred days, in memory of a recently deceased friend.  The idea is to take proper notice of life, at least for 100 days.  It's called  100 days (Happy to be Alive) - a much more appealing idea than trying to make oneself into a better person.  (Or maybe it's just a better way of being a better person..?)

Friday, December 4, 2009

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Return of the angler fish

A dramatic new incarnation of my Circle Line as Angler Fish idea!  It looks more alarming than ever.

And what I didn't know, but have just learned from that Londonist link, is that there is a whole site devoted to animals on the underground.  Much cuddlier animals than my angler fish.

Amazing, the human desire to find patterns in things. It's the same instinct that makes us hear voices in random radio interference, or see images of the Virgin Mary on tree bark or a whale in a cloud.  How clever we are, and how silly.

Meanwhile, this guy is going to catch the last ever fully circular Circle Line train.  But will he fall asleep on it?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Frosty seaweed

Frosty seaweed
Originally uploaded by sarabak

On the beach in Reykjavik..

Monday, November 23, 2009

Revolution 1809

Just got back from a wonderful weekend in Reykjavik, at the conference Byltingin 1809 (Revolution 1809), celebrating the 200th anniversary of that revolution and its wayward hero Jørgen Jørgensen (or Jörundur in Icelandic; Jorgen Jorgenson in English).  What a guy!  I won't go on and on about the story here, but here's the background on my website.

The conference was a heroic achievement in itself, conceived and beautifully organised by the historian Anna Agnarsdóttir, who managed to make it happen at a time when things in Iceland are far from easy (though not quite as bad as 200 years ago, when Icelanders were starving and living on moss scraped off the rocks).

For me the biggest thrill - apart from eating putrefied shark at Anna's very merry dinner party, and watching the morning sun over the north Atlantic - was being able to look at the rows of people in the conference hall and think: Wow, not only do all these people know exactly who Jørgensen is (a rare thrill for me) - they like him enough to give up their Saturday for him!

Jørgensen had a rough time in Icelandic history for many years. People know of him, it's true, but they have never taken his revolution seriously. Yet he did set out to reform schools and health care, abolish crippling debts, establish the country's neutrality in the Napoleonic wars, and restore Iceland's lost ancient parliament.  That all sounds pretty serious to me.  And maybe this conference will be the start of a new way of looking at him.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


So I went out this afternoon with my camera, hoping to notice something peculiar or magical on the street for the noticing game.  A quirky sight or two caught my attention, but, in each case, either it wasn't interesting enough or I found myself too embarrassed to get my camera out.  Then it got dark, so I gave up, and just plodded off towards City Uni for my evening class.

And then ... I saw this:

I leaned over a railing and there it was, propped outside someone's front door as if waiting for garbage day.  There was a brick post to my right, so I couldn't get further over to get the whole word in the picture, even if I'd wanted to. And I wonder - these creatures must be what before consumption?  Cleaned?  Killed?  Registered?  Reported to the police? Sauteed in garlic?

What an exciting start. I'm addicted!

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Game of Noticings

A wonderful idea!  It's called "The Game of Noticings". 

In the Game of Noticings, you walk around places, you notice things, you take photos of them, and you upload them on to flickr.  It's a game, so it's competitive, but in a strange and random way.  You get points for noticing something in a place where no one has noticed anything before, noticing something in a place near where someone else has noticed something, noticing something red, or noticing things every day for a week.

In essence, it's a fancy name for taking photos of quirky things and uploading them.  But what makes it brilliant is the name, which acts as a reminder of what photography is really all about.  Writing, too, is about being struck by things instead of glossing over them.  Someone once called the New York journalist and short story writer Joseph Mitchell a "virtuoso noticer" of everyday life, and that sums it up.

As it happens, I'm famous in some quarters for failing to be struck by anything at all.  I didn't notice for months on end that my house was covered in scaffolding.  You even had to bend your head to get in through the door, but it didn't register with me.  But never mind that. I still believe in noticing as an ideal .. perhaps all the more so because I forget to do it.

So - I'm off to flickr to register myself (and my trusty little camera) as a competitive noticer. Let's see how I do..

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Deep-sea angler train

Hm: pondering the designs for the new extension to London's Circle Line.  Seems it will no longer go round and round.  Now it will go off into a dangly bit at one end, and on the map it will look like one of those deep-sea angler fish that suspend a light over their faces to attract prey. (If you look at the east end of the Circle Line, there's even a stubby tail-like bit, too.)

This also means that you will now have to change trains if you want to stay on the Circle Line forever.  The days when you could fall asleep and go round the whole Circle four, five, or six times in peaceful slumber are over. 

There's even an ad on the Tube at the moment, which shows a stressed-out female executive type asleep on someone's shoulder.  Caption: "It was Claire's third time round on the Circle Line."  Sorry, Claire! From now on you will have to take more vitamins and keep yourself alert.

On reflection, why is it called the Circle Line anyway?  It never did look like a circle.  Why wasn't it the Vaguely Rectangular Line With a Stubby Tail-Like Bit?  

But convention is a powerful thing, and anything that plods over its own footsteps like this, keeping going without realizing it is going nowhere, is thought of as "circling".  The actual shape doesn't matter. 

Anyway, henceforth in London, I guess everybody will be going somewhere whether they like it or not. 

Monday, November 2, 2009

Gentlemen Danes

The "Gentlemen Danes" of Reading were commemorated last week - Danish officers who were kept as paroled prisoners of war in the town, during the seven years that Denmark and Britain were enemies (1807-1814). Here's a link to the local news story.

I missed the event itself, but went along to a chatty friendly reception the night before, with guests from Denmark and the organizer, local historian John Nixon. I was there because the subject of my second biography, Jørgen Jørgensen (or Jorgen Jorgenson, as he anglicized it) was a Gentleman Dane. It was a long story - he captained a ship for Denmark, was taken prisoner by the Brits, skipped his parole, then led an anti-Danish revolution in Iceland which eventually landed him back in British imprisonment again. He was paroled to Reading, where he spent his time:

- writing a book about Denmark
- writing a book about Iceland
- writing a book about Tahiti
- getting into brawls in the local tavern
- chuckling over obscene graffiti on the toilet walls of his inn. ("I laughed above an hour at them.")

Poor Jørgensen though - his fellow Danes in Reading thought him a traitor, because of the Iceland episode, and they gave him a very hard time.

And poor Denmark! It had never wanted to enter the war at all. It sided with Napoleon only after Britain bombarded Copenhagen civilians with incendiary rockets over three nights in 1807. The casualties and destruction were terrible; eventually the Danish government surrendered its entire naval fleet just to make the bombing stop. They then declared war - but the loss of neutrality (and of the fleet!) was fatal for its maritime economy, and it took the country decades to recover. The British action was condemned as an atrocity, but it is long forgotten here now. (Not forgotten in Denmark.)

It was fun for me to relive the Jørgensen story again - the book came out 4 years ago and I have been embroiled in 16th century France with Montaigne ever since, so the Napoleonic stories had faded to the back of my mind.

It was even stranger to relive being in Reading. I lived there as a teenager for 2 years, and this was my first time back.

It was a funny period of my life. I was supposed to be at the exceptionally godawful school I was enrolled at. Instead, as often as I could, I played truant and went to work at a West Indian reggae shop in town, which sold clothes, jewellery, records and a huge range of hash-pipes and bongs. From the back of the shop came wafts of Peter Tosh, Dillinger and the Ethiopians - for the ears - together with marijuanic aromas for the nostrils. I loved it. I would love to know what happened to Shine, who ran it, and to Moses, who was my boyfriend for a while, and to all the other droopy-eyelidded ones who floated in and out.

I strolled around town for a while before the reception, but couldn't quite locate where the shop had been. (Someone told me later it was probably Harris Arcade.) Reading has become a giant shopping mall, just like all other English towns of its size - but it still bears the ghost outline of its former geography, superimposed on its 21st century self like a wavering, faint, badly-projected image.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Conversation between Rat and Mole

Rat: “Whether you get away, or whether you don’t; whether you arrive at your destination or whether you reach somewhere else, or whether you never get anywhere at all, you’re always busy, and you never do anything in particular; and when you’ve done it there’s always something else to do, and you can do it if you like, but you’d much better not.”

Mole: “What a day I’m having! Let us start at once!”

- Kenneth Grahame, Wind in the Willows.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blog virtues

I am transferring my blog here from my website! Earlier posts can still be found there, at

That shouldn't really have been called a blog, because you couldn't leave comments or get into any dialogue. This one, on the other hand, will have all the proper blog virtues.

distantfires: Montaigne Reflects On Sixteenth Century Blogging#c6735774229786161624

distantfires: Montaigne Reflects On Sixteenth Century Blogging#c6735774229786161624