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May 10, 2002
The long walk out of London
Still thinking about the depiction of London in From Hell. Also thinking about St. Paul's Cathedral, and what it means to me personally. When I was last in the U.K. I walked from London to Oxford, more or less along the Thames. I wanted to start from somewhere significant, some kind of distinctive landmark. London, to my astonishment, had a meagre, disappointing selection.
I went to Trafalgar Square, and looked around at what is probably the best view you can get from ground level in London. Arranged in front of you is the National Gallery, and the South African Embassy, and St. Martin in the Fields, and lots of traffic and pigeons. I vividly recall standing there, thinking: "is this it?" It's all very low rise, which is kind of nice, in a funny sort of way, but you'd have to be squinting very hard to describe the view as inspiring.
Because it doesn't have what New York has, or Paris has, or Sydney has. It doesn't have a place where you can look out and think "ah, so this is why there's a city here." London doesn't have a spectacular harbour. It wasn't built on a hill. It does have a river, of course, but there's no real reason why the city is at that particular spot on the river. London could have been built, quite conceivably, much closer to the sea, or as far inland as Oxford. It's different in that regard from Paris, which grew outwards from two small islands in the Seine. One of those islands now contains Notre Dame cathedral, and the plaque in front of it marks the point from which all distances in France are measured. It all makes a pleasing amount of sense.
But London seems to have come about entirely by chance, or by bad management, or as the result of several thousand sternly worded letters of complaint. It's as if all those cars and all those pigeons somehow arrived there by mistake, and then couldn't get out again, owing to all the other cars and pigeons in the way. Frustrated, they remained where they were, and formed a city.
The one genuine landmark in the oldest part of town is St. Paul's Cathedral, so that's where I started my walk to Oxford. St. Paul's is also the first thing I go to see whenever I arrive in London. Looking at it satisfies my need to fully register exactly where I am.
There's a wonderful passage in Nevil Shute's The Far Country where the heroine is debating whether or not to leave England to live in Australia. She's in London, so she does something to help her make up her mind about what she's going to do. She walks through the city to St. Paul's Cathedral:
She moved towards it, and stood staring at the mass of masonry. This was the sort of thing that Australia would never have to show her, this masterpiece of Wren. If she left England she would be leaving this for ever, and a hundred other beauties of the same kind that the new country could never show her. She stood there thinking of these things, and two devastating little words came into her mind - so what?
I was born in London, to Australian parents, and I've lived in Australia from a young age. Every time I've been to London I've found myself looking at St. Paul's, and being generally impressed. It's big and old and overwhelming, in a city that's become bigger and older and underwhelming. What I love about the cathedral is that it's the most obvious trace of what was once a glorious place, which makes it even more important as that glory falls into ever deeper disrepair.
So on the day I started the walk to Oxford, I went down to St. Paul's, and looked up at it, and then moved away from it in a westerly direction. I then spent more than a week just getting out of London. That seemed an incredibly long time to be walking through one city. Especially because it was a city that had so often made me think - so what?
Last night I met Flash, who's going to Varanasi, in India, to teach at a school which offers Vipassana meditation, Indian philosophy, and the usual range of high school subjects: maths, science, English. "Wow," I said, "good luck."
But she got me thinking about my time in India, which came at the end of a long journey, and the same journey that took me from London to Oxford. And I remembered that I'd already written something, but never got round to finishing it properly. So maybe what I'll do over the next few days or months is to give you installments of a travel piece.
May 25, 2002
Just taking a short break from the city for a few days, so no more updates until Monday or Tuesday. I'm at RiverChange, on the Barwon River. I've only been here a few hours, but I already feel much, much healthier.
I read somewhere that on the night that the moon is full several things all happen at once: the moon rises, the sun sets, and it's low tide. There's a place near Anglesea that's ideal for witnessing all this, and that's where I intend to be tomorrow. As an extra bonus, there's also a long walk along the beach to get there. Just something I like to do.
July 17, 2002
The worldwide conspiracy of postcards
Q. Why is it that you can only buy postcards from where you are right now?
A. It's a conspiracy.
And I'm not talking about a loose, badly organised collective, with strangely worded objectives involving miscellaneous wrongdoing. No, this is a highly orchestrated, worldwide conspiracy. You know: That Kind of Conspiracy.
Postcards are a problem for the indecisive traveller. If you take too long to decide which postcard to buy, the one you want may be unavailable. By the time you've decided, you can be hundreds of miles away from the only place in the world that sells them.
I was in Esfahan, in Iran, and seriously considering buying some postcards. There were a couple of nice ones available, but nothing that really grabbed me. After several minutes of indecision I decided to come back when I'd thought about it some more.
The next day I took a bus to Shiraz. It was a long bus ride, but that was fine. It gave me plenty of time to think about which postcard I liked.
When I got to Shiraz I was tired. It was a fifteen-hour bus ride, and it lacked somewhat for comfort. But I shrugged that off and went shopping. I'd decided which postcard of Esfahan I wanted, and went off to buy a few copies.
All my endeavours were met with crushing, humiliating failure. The Worldwide Conspiracy of Postcards saw to that.
"No Esfahan postcards here," I was told. "Only Shiraz postcards. Nice Shiraz postcards. Very, very nice postcards. You like?"
No, I did not like. To get the postcard I wanted I would have to travel hundreds of miles back to Esfahan. All of a sudden I realised the awful, sickening truth: you can only buy postcards from wherever you happen to be. If you want a postcard from somewhere else, you have to physically go there. Even if it takes a fifteen-hour bus ride, or a transcontinental train journey, or a hot air balloon trip halfway round the world.
But this kind of inconvenience is exactly what the Worldwide Conspiracy of Postcards would like to put you through. It hampers you. It restricts your options. It's evil. It's demonic. It's just plain wrong.
Anyway, so I told my engineering friend about this ...
... and he went away and invented the internet.
The site's not live yet, but we've formed ourselves a little company. Look for us at www.postcards-from-all-over-the-world-including-several-nice-ones-from-esfahan.com
July 19, 2002
Hitching a ride with Willy Russell
September 20, 1998. Watford Gap, just out of London. I'm standing next to a petrol station, trying to hitch a ride north to Glasgow. A beat-up old car stops and the guy inside offers a lift. He's driving to Liverpool, 200 odd miles in the right direction. I get in.
After a few minutes of conversation, I realise that I can't figure this guy out. He seems to own or rent property in both inner city London and Portugal, yet he's driving a rustbucket to Liverpool. And his accent doesn't add up. It's half Liverpudlian, and half something else. And he's got a suntan. And he's really, really interesting. He seems to have met all kinds of people, and he's got a wide perspective, and seems to have a well thought out opinion on virtually everything.
When the motorway takes us through the centre of Birmingham, we suddenly get a close, intimate view of some of the worst architecture in the world. There are horrifying slabs of high rise concrete all around us, and the guy tells me that this is where thousands of people on low incomes live. Indicating the buildings, he says "if you're going to build something brutal and inhuman, do it properly."
The conversation is wide-ranging. We talk about families, about Japan, about alcoholism. Eventually he says that he was lucky in Japan, because his work allowed him a foot in the door. I've been in the car for nearly an hour, and this is the first time he's mentioned his work. I figure it's a good moment to ask him what he does.
"I work in the theatre," he says.
The theatre, I think. I'm really interested in the theatre. I make a vague note to ask him what he does in the theatre, and then I forget. More time passes. Eventually I remember my vague note, and I ask him what he does in the theatre.
"I'm a writer," he says.
A writer, I think. I'm really interested in writers. I make another vague note, and let more time go past. But eventually I ask the question. "Have you written anything that I might know?"
"Well," he says, "Educating Rita?"
"Oh," I say. "You're Willy Russell."
"Yes," he says, "I am."
And I think: this is the guy who also wrote Shirley Valentine. This guy is a wonderful writer. And I think: perhaps I should let him know that I haven't just seen his name in lights in the West End. I really do know who he is and what he's done. So I ask him about something he'd said in an interview, that if you write well enough about a particular place, people in other places will be able to respond to it.
"Yes," he says, "I did say that." Then he pauses for a moment and smiles. "But it's not my idea. It is a good idea, and I think it's true, but I was just paraphrasing Isaac Bashevis Singer."
That's Willy Russell for you. He's an immensely likeable guy. Not only does he give long, brilliantly entertaining lifts to Australian hitch-hikers, but he's also incredibly honest.
200 odd miles later
Shirley Valentine is about a woman who's trapped, and who finds a way out. Her normal life has robbed her of self-esteem, of power, of respect. She has the opportunity to holiday in Greece, and while she's there she starts to re-evaluate herself. It's a difficult journey for her, and a fascinating one for the audience. Towards the end of the play she says "I think I quite like myself, really."
I always really liked that line. And on a Sunday afternoon in 1998, I had a wonderful conversation with the man who wrote it. When he slowed down to drop me off, I quoted that line to him.
"Thanks for writing Shirley Valentine," I said, "and thanks for putting that line in."
He smiled with an easy grace, and said "oh, no problem."
"And Willy," I said, "thanks for the ride."
July 25, 2002
Hitch-hiking in Scotland
After hitching a ride with Willy Russell I was tempted to make a sign that read "celebrity lifts only, please." I'm glad I didn't, because I would never have met ...
The man I'll call "Cram"
I'm in a petrol station just north of Edinburgh, trying to hitch a ride further north. I get talking to a cheerful bloke filling his car up with petrol. The conversation goes well, which distracts his attention from the petrol pump. He ends up overfilling the tank. Initially he offers a small lift of maybe fifteen miles, but then he asks where I'm really trying to get to. "Inverness," I say, which is more like a hundred miles away.
"Well," he says, "I think I can do that. After all, I've got enough petrol."
After we get going I ask why he only needs a small amount of petrol. He says he's selling the car tomorrow, and "there's no point giving the buggers free petrol."
As the conversation progresses, it becomes obvious that Cram is an outrageously busy man. As well as selling his old car the next day, he also had to buy a new car - and preferably before lunch. He had a particularly busy afternoon scheduled. Then the next day would also be busy, because he was moving house. And the day after that offered no respite, because he had tickets for the big Celtic Rangers game.
But this is not all. It turns out that he works two full time jobs. And on the day I met him, he'd started a third.
"Well," I say, trying to keep up with all this, "how did the new job go?"
"Well," he says, "Not too good. I didn't get there."
Upon closer inspection, it turns out that he has a sensationally bad attendance record at every job he's ever worked at. And he's done a lot of jobs. And he was quite cheerfully looking for more.
I couldn't figure out if he wanted to make tons of money, or if he liked being busy, or if he wanted to see how far he could go without getting caught. Perhaps he just got bored by things at record-breaking speed.
But there was one other thing he had to fit into his schedule. At some point in the next frantically busy week he had to get his tonsils out. He'd already had one part of this operation done but had to go back for more. "Wouldn't it have been better to have the whole thing done in one go?" I asked. But before he could answer, I heard myself saying: "but maybe your doctor had another job to go to."
August 3, 2002
Those Pakistani train rides are never really over
A couple of years ago, when I came back to Australia after travelling through Pakistan, a strange thing happened. I would wake up in the morning and immediately realise that I wasn't on that overnight train journey across Pakistan any more. I was safe. I was warm. I was comfortable. It was all immensely cheering. And these positive thoughts endured for months. My first thought on waking was always "yay! I'm not on that Pakistani train."
Of course, now that I'm sick, I've been dreaming of all things strange and vivid. And it's alarming to discover what my subconscious can throw at me. For most of the last few hours I've been dreaming that I was back on that train, and that the ride will never finish, and I'll never get off it. In other words, I've been dreaming that I'm well and truly ... doomed.
So given a choice between this and embarrassing dreams about Flashdance I'm starting to wonder if I should pick Flashdance. At least the leg warmers have a practical use, and perhaps in time I could learn to tolerate one or two of the songs.
August 19, 2002
Ludicrous things I have heard in tractors
In 1993, when I was hitching around New Zealand, I went through a place called Te Awamutu. It's the town mentioned in the first verse of "Mean To Me," the Crowded House song: "and the sound of Te Awamutu had a truly sacred ring." It's where Neil and Tim Finn were born, and where they grew up. It's a nice little town.
The guy who gave me a lift there claimed that he'd gone to school with Neil and Tim.
At first this seemed implausible, but then I had a closer look at him. "Implausible" was rapidly upgraded to "impossible." Even a conservative estimate of his age would put him upwards of the 75 year mark. The word "wizened" leapt to mind.
Upon a bit of casual cross-examination, it turns out that he did indeed go to the same school as the brothers Finn. But he was attending classes there at least twenty years before they were born. It's even possible that he'd graduated from the school before the boys' parents had met. It's possible that he'd graduated before the boys' parents had been born. But, as he said, it was the same school.
This guy was distinctive in another way: he was driving a tractor. He'd been a farmer in the area for something like half a century, and he told every new face he met that he'd gone to school with Neil Finn.
"Tell me," I said, "have you ever thought about a career in advertising?"
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