Monday, 29 April 2002

Why Does My Head Feel So Bad?

[music] One listen—one listen—to Moby's 'We Are All Made of Stars' on MTV in a Belgian hotel ten days ago, and I can't get that bloody song out of my head.

Now I'm going to have to buy 18 when it comes out and listen to it thirty-eight times. Not because I particularly want to, but as inoculation.


[weblog] Click.






[madagascar] Ratsiraka has now returned to Madagascar, but, emboldened by his provincial governors' refusal to recognise any High Constitutional Court election recount, has rejected the court's new verdict that Ravalomanana won the December election outright with 51.46 percent of the vote. Some provinces have threatened secession should Ravalomanana be declared president. Even though any break-up of the country would be unlikely and economically unviable, Madagascar now appears likely to face yet more uncertainty and unrest.


The Picture of Rory in Grey

[journal] It had to happen some time.

On the bus out to the airport in Dublin, as I was staring out of the window at the sunshine, Jane says, "Oh my God, Rory... I can see a grey hair! Two grey hairs!"

[Imagines entire head of luxurious red locks turning instantly white. Gulps.] "Where?"

"There, on your sideburns."

[Thinks: Oh, is that all. I've spotted grey whisker hairs before. That's not real grey.]

But it's too late. I'm sunk into a deep funk about reaching middle age. Somewhere in the past five years of madly racing around the world and looking for somewhere to stop and catch my breath, I got old.

But my spirits pick up a few days later at a conference dinner, when someone in her late thirties tells me that I look 28 or 29, not 34. Yes! Years of strenuous avoidance of outdoor activities and exertion pay off.

Meanwhile, the picture in the attic slips on his cardigan.


Saturday, 27 April 2002

If It Isn't Tuesday, This Must Not Be Belgium

[travel] Being Part the SECOND of an Account of their recent Sojourns.

What we didn't know when booking all of our flights back in January was that our jobs would serve up a few of their own. Within 48 hours of leaving Ireland I was flying out again for two days of meetings in Leuven, a university town half an hour out of Brussels. (No, I hadn't heard of it either. No reason to, I guess; the university has only been around since 1425.) Jane joined me there for the weekend.

I suppose I shouldn't feel too bad for not knowing anything about Leuven, because like most non-Belgians I didn't know much about Belgium itself, apart from the usual touchstones of chocolate, waffles, beer, frites, Poirot, Tintin, Ypres, Waterloo, the EU, and a certain statue of a piddling infant (Euro nation, indeed).

A few days turned out to be enough to cover most of these, which completely refute Belgium's reputation as the Most Boring Country in Europe:

1. Chocolate: You think you know Belgian chocolate. You've had the flat boxes of shells every Christmas, especially if you're the mother of two loving but somewhat unimaginative pre-teen boys (sorry, Mum). And they're pretty good. But they're Home Brand cooking chocolate compared to a box of fresh pralines. For one thing, you're supposed to eat fresh chocolates within two weeks—and how long does it take that box of shells to reach Australia? (Hint: Allow 6-8 Weeks Delivery.) Fresh Belgian chocolate is, quite simply, incredible. Switzerland, you have a hard act to follow. Cadbury Dairy Milk, don't call us, we'll call you.

2. Waffles: Again, a subject most would think they're familiar with; waffles are those styrofoam thingies you pull out of the freezer and heat up in the toaster. Except in Belgium they're sold fresh at street stalls ('Belgaufra: Probably the Best Since 1950'), are hot and custardy soft in the middle with just a hint of toffee on the outside, and are utterly delicious (cf. Chocolate).

3. Beer: Here's where I admit to being, in demographic terms, a statistical anomaly, or, in Australian terms, 'just bloody weeeiird'—I don't like beer. Never have. Ice cold or room temperature, stubby or pint, if it's got hops in it I won't drink it. (It may have something to do with cross-country training in a hop field throughout high school, but that's a bit too conveniently Freudian.) Okay, I drank a Guinness in Dublin, but only because it comes out of the taps there. They blood test you before you leave, just to make sure you've tried it: "Ah yes, this pint o' blood has a good head on it, 'tis Guinness for sure... oh wait, they're white blood cells. Back to the pub with you."

But on Jane's urging, I tried a wheat beer in Belgium. And it was decidedly un-bad: distinctly hop-less, quasi-bitter and semi-refreshing. Didn't go back for seconds, but I drank it all, and for someone whose first encounter with the brew led to an involuntary outburst of fine aerosol particles, that's saying something.

Still, from a work point of view it's lucky I wasn't a typical beer-drinking Aussie. Leuven is home to the Stella Artois brewery.

4. Frites, or, as the rest of the world knows them, French Fries: Invented in Belgium, double-fried to perfection, served in a paper cone, and doused with a thick splodge of mayonnaise. I ate my first coneful standing in a doorway in Brussels while sheltering from a rain shower. An old Belgian came up to me and started talking in French, something about frites avec mayonnaise french french french french, french? (I think he was hitting me up for a spare euro), until I could finish swallowing and say, 'Pardon, monsieur, je ne parle francais,' which was obviously true because I think I left out a 'pas' somewhere. 'Bon appetit,' he shrugged, and ambled off. And he was right.

5. Everything Else I Ate in Belgium: Was very good indeed.

6. Tintin: The eternal boy scout, one of the constants of my 1970s childhood, one of the reasons I draw cartoons (thinks: must draw more again), and one of the icons of Belgium. Hergé's creation is everywhere in Brussels: in the bookshops, in the tourist pamphlets, on posters, in museums. I spent a couple of happy hours in its gallery of comic art, marvelling at the range and depth of Belgium's comics artists. It's one of the few countries that gives comics proper billing as a medium and an entertainment; its bookstore equivalent of Border's, FNAC, has shelves and shelves of hardcover albums for sale, all beautifully drawn and produced.

7. Ypres and Waterloo: We didn't visit either, but how a country that was the front line for the Great War and the last stand for Napoleon gets called 'boring' is beyond me. Except for...

8. The EU bureaucracy: Okay, so this I get. Lived in Canberra, wore the suit, staged the daring escape; I know that civil service doesn't set the pulse racing. But it's not like Canberra is jammed full of ornate buildings from its days as part of the Spanish Netherlands; it's not like Canberra has an entire history and raison d'etre independent of its bureaucracy; it's not like Canberra is a couple of hours drive from four other countries, at the crossroads of Europe. If the presence of a large international bureaucracy makes a city boring, then so is New York.

9. Mannekin Pis: Is kitsch, not boring. And the only reason it's better known than the breathtaking Grand Place a few blocks away, with its elaborate stately buildings crowded around a cobbled square, is that you need a 360 degree fish-eye lens to get a decent shot of Grand Place.

10. Bruges: Not on my list above, because I didn't know much about it before last week. Once a bigger merchant city than London, Bruges was abandoned in the late 16th century when its river silted up, neglected for four hundred years, spared any damage by two world wars, and revived by the tourist industry. It feels like a time capsule, with little to remind you that it isn't still 1605 there apart from the crowds of visitors sharing your wide-eyed enjoyment. The whole city is a world heritage site, and rightly so.

So, no, not a boring country at all. Even Belgium's tangled language politics, with Brussels an island of French in Flemish-speaking Flanders, gives it an unexpected tension and added interest; the home of the EU is itself a microcosm of Europe.

But I see you're not convinced. You're waiting for that last piece of irrefutable evidence that Belgium isn't boring. It's all very well for a place to have a few interesting features, like its food, and shelter—but what about the mundane, everyday stuff? The stuff that's boring anywhere? Surely that might tip the balance?

But no. In Belgium, even the boring stuff isn't boring. Vous êtes sceptique? Voilà.


Thursday, 25 April 2002

You Make Me Feel So Blue

[site news] One of my favourite finds from last week's travels can now be found here.


Wednesday, 24 April 2002

The Guinness Book of Kells

[travel] Light deprivation does strange things to a person—like make them book trips out of town for every long weekend over the next six months. It's not too expensive, thanks to the cut-price airlines (BananaJet, as Jane calls them), and the over-valued pound helps—which makes a change, after years of converting A$ to sterling. So, thanks to a bout of winter cabin fever, we ended up in London in early March, Yorkshire over Easter, and Dublin a week and a half ago. Makes a change from the all-stops tours of the UK and Europe forced on Australians by long-distance airfares, where each city, gallery and cathedral blends into the next.

I first visited Ireland ten years ago, but for various reasons ended up spending only a day in Dublin, and a grey and rainy day at that. So I was pleased to see it again on a sunny spring weekend. Its Georgian buildings have been cleaned and painted up since 1992, and the place has a lively feel to it. Add a young population (nearly half under 25) and Guinness billboards and souvenirs at every turn, and walking around Dublin feels like one continuous Friday night.

As well as wandering the streets and enjoying the parks in bloom, we visited most of the sights: the National Gallery, with the usual range of old masters, skewered St Sebastians, 20th century and local works; the National Museum, with its spectacular displays of prehistoric gold and Viking artefacts; Dublin Castle, which is actually more of an 18th century palace (most of the original castle was blown up in 1684 to prevent a fire from spreading to its store of gunpowder and, erm, blowing it up); and the Long Room of Trinity College Library, which for my money (€7.00) is more fun to see than four dimly-lit pages of the Book of Kells.

My favourite discovery was the Chester Beatty Library, a terrific collection of Islamic, East Asian and European books and prints dating back to the time of Christ, all beautifully displayed and explained. Beatty was an American millionaire who moved to London after the war and to Ireland in the 1960s. It's amazing to see what one man can build with nothing more than an informed mind, impeccable taste, and astronomical amounts of money. Amazing, too, to contemplate the longevity and beauty of the humble page. If you're ever in Dublin, skip the queues for the Kells and see this for free.

But even 2000-year-old scrolls of the Gospels can't top Newgrange, a megalithic tomb an hour out of Dublin in the Boyne valley. It looks spectacular, with its petroglyphs and white quartz walls embedded in the hillside (a modern reconstruction, but then so is Stonehenge), and there's nothing quite like standing inside a burial chamber built in 3200 BC. Older than Stonehenge; older than the Pyramids. The oldest man-made space I've ever been in.



York Minster


York Minster

Approaching Looking up In the sun

Good Friday, 2002.


Monday, 22 April 2002

By Way of Apology

[net culture] There will be more soon, of course, including an account of where I've been since Friday the 12th, but only as time permits... so yes, this is an I've Been Too Busy To Post post. Which, it suddenly strikes me, is the perfect refutation of the hoary old trope (what a wonderful phrase. Hoary old trope! Hoary old trope!) about weblogging being a 'hobby'. You know the one: it gets trooped out (hoarily) in response to over-enthusiastic claims about blogging being the 'new journalism'. Now, while I wouldn't claim to be a journalist, I know a bit about hobbies, having had a new one every other week as a child; I know what hobbies feel like, and this ain't it. A hobby is a pastime, designed to soak up the idle hours of twelvehood. A blog is a time-sink, a never-enough-time, stolen from hours and minutes that should be spent elsewhere. No one apologises to the world that they've been too busy to rearrange their stamp albums to group the Caribbean with South America.


[journal] A week away from the machine, and I'm greeted with this (from you-know-where):

There have been 157 links and 3619 comments posted since your last visit

Talk about being dragged back to earth. No wonder they're called anchor tags.


[madagascar] After weeks of stalemate, events are moving quickly in Madagascar. On the invitation of the President of Senegal, rival presidents Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana flew to Dakar last week for a meeting that resulted in a tentative peace agreement, precipitated in part by increasing violence—most recently the assassination of a general in his hospital bed.

The specifics of the agreement remain unclear, although they include a recount of the December 2001 election results, in line with a high court ruling:

The High Constitutional Court, which gives the official stamp of approval to election results, validated results in January that showed no candidate had won an outright majority. But in a decision delivered on Wednesday, the court's Administrative Chamber said it had reinstated members of the court dismissed by Ratsiraka before the poll, effectively annulling the election results approved by their replacements. The court ruling ordered the re-examination of electoral files and the official proclamation of results.

Ravalomanana has agreed to stop calling himself 'president', but has nevertheless assumed control of a second of Madagascar's six provinces. Ratsiraka, meanwhile, has flown to Paris, his return date unknown. Blockades mounted by his supporters remain in place, despite his agreement to lift them.

Even if the blockades are lifted, the destruction of key bridges will make transportation of goods around the country more difficult than before. Officials speculate that the effects have already been grim: they "may have led to the deaths of 7,500 children and 400 women," one told Radio Madagascar. Fuel shortages in Tana have now been followed by bread rationing. Travellers have been threatened by bandits in the south, and Western governments are advising against travel to the country.

The long-term implications of the crisis are particularly disturbing—not only of its direct effects, but also of its indirect ones. One of Madagascar's major crops, vanilla, suffered badly from cyclones in early 2000 and 2001—in ordinary years it comprises half the world crop—and the current crisis exacerbates the problems faced by the industry. As prices have increased worldwide in response to such disasters, the search for alternative means of producing 'natural' vanillin has intensified. These, in turn, have the potential to badly undermine Madagascar's exports and balance of trade in coming years.

Meanwhile, I was pleased to hear from Barijaona Ramaholimihaso, who in the world of webloggers must be close to unique: a Malagasy blogger posting from Antananarivo. The blog is in French, but Google translation serves up a sort-of English version. As Barijaona said to me,

The situation here is still very difficult, but for the first time in many weeks, there is a thin ray of hope. May be we will have a democracy within a few months.


Friday, 12 April 2002

[whatever] It's another long weekend, and another trip away for the Edinburgh jet-set. And a couple of days after that I'll be on a work trip, so there won't be much here for the next week or so. To give you something to look at in the meantime, here's my favourite thing from the Royal Museum of Scotland—a photograph hanging discreetly in a display about Antarctic explorers (click for a close-up):

The Piper and the Penguin

The Piper and the Penguin.
Testing to see the effects of bagpipes.
From R N Radnose-Brown et al.,
The Voyage of the 'Scotia'
(Edinburgh, 1906)


The Unbearable Linkness of Being

[weblog] Random link dump: self-referential toast; the Big Lebowski Random Quote Generator (still my favourite Coen brothers film); US critics' list of the 100 Best Fictional Characters Since 1900 (pish and pshaw to half of them, but it's fun to read); The Fully Immersive Mind of Oliver Sacks; fun with words from Ed and Bill; and a web quiz post from James that reveals my inner bear.


[madagascar] Opponents of contested-president Ratsiraka have ransacked the homes of several government officials in Antananarivo, killing one and injuring ten. Elie Rajaonarison, an adviser to opposing leader Ravalomanana, says:

The people are fed up, and they want to act... For now, we are calming people down, but how long can that last? It is not a political crisis any more, we have to look at this in terms of war in Madagascar. The international community needs to see it like that—once it erupts, it will be too late.

Meanwhile, recently-returned visitor Rebecca Weeks has described the travel difficulties exacerbated by the crisis:

Taxis are expensive [in Tana, and there's a] higher than usual military presence ... Any small villages or towns seemed to be pretty much unaffected, apart from shortages in things due to difficulties with transportation. ... Travelling on the road south from Tana was basically impossible, ... bridges have been blown out and you have to carry your bags across [rivers] yourself. ... Internal flights are busy but still going.


[site news] I've moved the Madagascar entries out of the politics category and into a category of their own.


Thursday, 11 April 2002

[weblog] Note to self: remember what Chuck Palahniuk says about memory [via the null device].


[comics] Jonathan Ross meets Alan Moore: "when Idler HQ asked me if'd like to meet the great and beardy one, I rushed at the chance like Charlie Sheen at a porn starlet."


Wednesday, 10 April 2002

Cold Turkey

[infotech] This is it. X-Day. My work G4 and home iMac are now both staring back at me with the fuzzy gaze of Mac OS 10.1.3. Goodbye, 9.2.2, we shall not see your like again, except through the stained glass of Classic. I feel like Will stepping through a window into Cittàgazze. Hope there aren't too many Spectres about.


Tuesday, 9 April 2002

Northern Lights

[books] Jerry Kindall's link to a beautiful page of Northern Lights photographs reminds me that I never did get around to posting some links to various aurora photos that a friend sent a while back. I saw the southern lights in Tasmania once, but they were pale and indistinct, and there were no erupting volcanoes nearby—just our Hill's Hoist.

The subject of Northern Lights captures my attention because I recently finished Philip Pullman's book of the same name, being in a nostalgic mood to read a fantasy trilogy again. At first it was a jolt to read a work of children's fiction after all these years, but the story soon made its genre irrelevant. By the time it became clear that this wasn't fantasy but an example of one of my favourite genres—parallel-worlds science fiction—I was already hooked. Pullman's characters, children and adult, are masterly and memorable, archetypes rather than stereotypes, and his plots could hardly be improved. As for the gradually-unfolding theme, it's a true original, more provocative than an armful of 'literary' novels. After finishing Northern Lights over a couple of weeks I ploughed through The Subtle Knife in a weekend, left reeling by its dramatic ending. Now I'm afraid to finish The Amber Spyglass too quickly and leave Pullman's world behind.

It's intriguing to wonder how his work will shape the outlook of its child readers, who bombard the writer with questions at every opportunity. But the plaudits are no surprise: His Dark Materials really is that good. [Pullman links via LinkMachineGo, which probably did the most to convince me to read the books; thanks, Darren.]


Monday, 8 April 2002

Colour My World

[journal] As I mentioned last August, we saw some garish colour schemes while looking at flats to buy in Edinburgh. The British seem to have confused home decoration with cookery: how else to explain apricot bathrooms, strawberry living rooms and lime bedrooms (with matching duvet covers, yet)? Spend an afternoon wandering from flat to flat here and you'll see more primary colours than in a primary school art class.

What I didn't reveal was that the flat we ended up buying is a case in point. The colours on our walls are so extreme that they scared off many a potential buyer, which is the only point in their favour: it meant that the flat was available to two Australians desperate to secure a place within ten days of arriving.

The flat was originally owned by a retiree, and decorated accordingly in quiet whites and creams. But the later owners who sold it to us had brightened it up in typical UK 2000s fashion. Thus we have a navy blue bedroom with yellow trim; a purple second bedroom/study; a turquoise living room; and a yellow and red kitchen. If this colour scheme was a recipe it would be psychedelic trifle.

The only room its original colour is the bathroom, but in this case original doesn't mean best. It's green, possibly to match the moss that grows on the outside of Edinburgh's grey stone buildings. Where others associate bathing with cool blue rivers or aqua seas, the original owner of our flat must have associated it with stagnant algae-infested ponds.

Not content to leave well enough alone, the next owners took to the pale green tiles and painted dozens of them dark green, to cover up their old-ladyish but otherwise innocuous floral pattern. Tile paint is a quick and easy way to cover up old tiles, and starts coming off just as quickly and easily, especially in the damp conditions of a bathroom. Starts coming off, that is, but stops short of coming off completely. And nothing says 'clean' like half-visible flowers and flaky bits of paint clogging up the drain.

The kitchen has also been tile-painted—red this time—and the paint is chipping away there too. This and its yellow walls, green lino floor and ratty 1980s cupboards inspired us to do something we never thought we'd do: visit a kitchen centre. The eager sales assistant took down the dimensions of our tiny kitchen, fed our requirements into his modelling software, shuffled simulated cupboards and sinks around within the constraints of plumbing and window positions, and ended up with... a layout identical to our existing kitchen, but with a three thousand pound price tag.

Red and yellow make good kitchen colours, don't you think? Kind of like a taco. Or spaghetti bolognese.

We'll repaint it eventually, at the very least to help sell the flat when the day comes, but for now we'll live with it. Repainting the bathroom, similarly, would involve replacing the toilet, sink and bath, all of which are a matching green, so that won't happen either. Painting the bedroom is more tempting: sleeping in a dark navy room throughout the winter was like hibernating in the Marianas Trench. But since the painted walls extend into the built-in wardrobes, which are inconveniently full of clothes, they can also wait for now.

The purple study is actually the least obnoxious; it's more of a lilac colour, and hardly noticeable behind all of the shelves and desks and bikes and clutter. The turquoise living room, though, is driving us slowly mad. Nothing goes with turquoise, except perhaps gold. Since we couldn't afford gold-plated bookshelves, tables, or chairs, the walls are going under the brush, and soon.

But first off was the one space I haven't mentioned: the hallway joining the various rooms of the flat.

If you've ever decorated, you'll know the contrived names that paints go by. Harvest Fruits. Viennese Truffle. Vapour Blue. Clambake Pink.

Our hallway was Exorcist Green.

That is not the first colour you want to see when you come home every night. It's not the first colour you want your friends to see when they visit. And it was the first up against the wall when the revolution came.

Jane has been preparing and undercoating the hallway and the seven doors leading off it (front door, four rooms, two cupboards) for most of the week, and by yesterday the pea soup fog had finally lifted. Last night it was my turn to slurp on the final coat. After four hours of masking, brushing, rolling and drying, our hall is now a clean and light custardy shade of Pharoah's Gold. From the Exorcist to the Mummy.

We'll go even lighter for the living room, close to the original white that lurks under Montezuma's Turquoise. Once we lose the indoor swimming pool the flat should really start to feel like home.

No doubt the next owner will paint right over it, though, in the Baskin Robbins Flavour of their choice. Why settle for vanilla when you can have Neapolitan?


[madagascar] While the world is preoccupied with other conflicts, Madagascar continues its slide towards disaster, with self-declared president Ravalomanana declaring that the country is in 'a state of war'. Rival president Ratsiraka's temporary base of Tamatave/Toamasina has become defacto capital for five out of six regional governors. The blockade of the road between Toamasina and Tana, which has seen bridges destroyed that took years to build, has starved the capital of fuel and essential medicines; the World Bank estimates the cost to the already-struggling economy at US$12 million a day.

Ratsiraka recently said of his opponents:

I don't want people to say that Ratsiraka is a deserter, that he is the one who allowed a horde of neo-fascists and nazis, as they are often called, to vassalise our children and children's children.

He and some outside observers have expressed concern about a possible civil war along ethnic lines among Madagascar's eighteen major ethnic groups. Other observers have expressed frustration that Ratsiraka and Ravalomanana are refusing to reach the inevitable compromise before further bloodshed and damage to the economy, rather than after.

To add to Ravalomanana's woes, dozens of convicts have escaped from a Tana prison. Meanwhile, some of his supporters are resorting to naked non-violence to end the stand-off:

Prostitutes loyal to Mr Ravalomanana launched an alternative attack on the barricades, stripping naked outside Toamasina to demand an end to the blockade. They were persuaded to put their clothes back on after bribes from the local governor.

It all leaves me grateful to have seen Madagascar before all of this hit, and dismayed that it's happening at a time when the West is least likely to be concerned with the problems of a little-known land adrift off the coast of Africa. There's still a chance at this point that stronger attention from the outside world could avert the war, famine, and disease that threaten; but the chance of that attention being given could hardly be less.


Sunday, 7 April 2002

[net culture] The Guardian ran something yesterday by William Hazlitt, the 19th century essayist: the first half of his essay On Reading Old Books. A nice piece, but what struck me was how much it was like reading a longer entry in one of the better weblogs. All of this talk of blogs as journalism is missing the line of descent from 18th century pamphleteers to 19th century essayists to 21st century webloggers: Hazlitt as forefather of online musers; Tom Paine as progenitor of the rant.


Saturday, 6 April 2002

Full On

[travel] Some readers won't have experienced the joys of the Full English Breakfast mentioned in passing in my account of last weekend's outings. Sadly, while spam is all-too-readily transmitted over the Internet, the same is not yet true of sausages, bacon, and boiling lard. So to help you recreate this gastronomic wonder in the privacy of your own home, Speedysnail is proud to present the Typical Full English Breakfast: all the wonder of a B&B without the international airfare and dodgy shower-fittings.

2 Eggs
2 Large Rashers of Bacon
2 Breakfast Sausages
1 Can Baked Beans
2 Tinned Romano Tomatoes
3 or 4 Medium-Sized Mushrooms
1 Half-Slice White Bread

Fry bacon and sausages until all the saturated fat has come out of them and the bacon is semi-crispy, while still remaining disconcertingly pink and porcine. Fry the half-slice of bread in the bacon fat until it's the translucency of wax-paper. Slice mushrooms and cook in the remaining fat. Stew tinned tomatoes in a separate saucepan, and heat the beans to lukewarm. Meanwhile, scramble the eggs in the frying pan until they're the consistency of dry breadcrumbs, soaking up the last remaining traces of fat; or fry until leathery. Pile everything onto a plate. Serve with toast that has been left to dry out and get stone-cold in one of those metal toast racks.

Northern English Breakfast: Add fried slices of black pudding. Yes, I know it's made out of congealed blood. Just shut up and eat it.

Scottish Breakfast: Add fried haggis. Porridge optional.

Welsh Breakfast: As English Breakfast. It's hard to work a leek into the whole Full Breakfast ethic, because it's just too damned green-vegetably.


Thursday, 4 April 2002

[weblog] Sorry for the silence the past few days. I would have posted earlier, but was enjoying staring at the chicken. That, and posting to a couple of threads over at MeFi: on the latest half-baked blog-bashing newspaper column, and on deaf culture [excerpts mirrored here]. MeFi has been covering some compelling subjects lately: the threat to a priceless cache of Roman scrolls and the computer modelling of social events among them.


Old York, Old Yorkkkk

[travel] You realise just how far north you live when it takes all day to drive south to the 'Northern' city of York, about halfway between Edinburgh and London. The drive normally wouldn't have taken all day, except that twenty miles out of York and about twenty metres past a convenient turnoff we hit an enormous traffic jam on the A1, and another on the A59 into York itself. So we were three hours late in meeting our travelling companions (friends from Oz now living in London) on the steps of the glorious York Minster, and rushed around York's medieval streets in an attempt to make the most of the spring afternoon before driving back up to a B&B in Richmond.

The next day was another slow procession through the Yorkshire Dales, though at least the narrow roads with dry stone walls on either side were some explanation this time. The treeless green hills of the dales were beautiful, but even in cloudless weather were barely visible through the haze; a reminder that we were only a few miles north of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, the heartland of the Industrial Revolution.

Wharfedale. Photo by Jane Ewins.

The road to Malham was more promising: a single lane wide and pretty lightly trafficked (fortunately; the stone walls either side meant much reversing when meeting an oncoming vehicle). At last we were getting off the beaten track, we thought... until we reached Malham, where rows and rows of cars filled a temporary carpark in a field. Malham is on the Pennine Way, and its walking paths were another traffic jam. The area is beautiful, no doubt about it, but the presence of so many people in the countryside was as foreign to our Australian eyes as the area itself.

On Sunday we toured the North York Moors, looping down from Richmond to Helmsley and back up to Whitby on the coast. Compared to the green dales it's an environmental wasteland (overfarmed in the Bronze Age), with bare hills covered in brown scrub, but the valleys retain their trees and their charm. We hopped from monastery to monastery—Mount Grace Priory, Rievaulx Abbey, Whitby Abbey—all ruined in the 1530s by Henry VIII. Spend a day doing this and you soon conclude what the English Heritage signs so coyly avoid saying: Henry VIII was an utter bastard. The Church of England owes its existence to a philandering warmonger who filled his coffers by looting other churches. Of course, an England without the Reformation would be a very different England; but one can't help feeling the loss in the presence of the quiet soaring ruins of Rievaulx.

We skipped the Captain Cook museum in Whitby, claiming diplomatic immunity by virtue of endless childhood social science lessons on Australia's early explorers, and skipped the garish side-show along its docks (another inexplicable mystery of English life). The town was attractive, but not so attractive to explain the sheer numbers of tourists. But who am I to complain? I was one of them.

The bad weather that had been predicted all weekend had still failed to materialise by Monday, so we walked along the river Swale to Easby Abbey (fine, but less impressive than Sunday's; we rated it two and a half Abbots on our five-Abbot scale) and then back to Richmond to see the Norman castle that had towered above our B&B the past few nights.

It's a magnificent sight, perched on a hill, with a keep at least three storeys high. The keep was built by Conan, Earl of Richmond; I wonder if he carried the stones on his shoulders and cracked one-liners in an Austrian accent. The castle was also a favourite painting subject for William Turner, and was once home to Baden-Powell of scouting fame, who lived there when it was an army barracks.

In fact, like anywhere in England, everywhere we saw had some connection to someone or other of note. Ripon, with its medieval cathedral with Saxon crypt (what a buzz, to stand in a room 1300 years old), was home to Lewis Carroll; Bill Bryson had lived near Settle in the Dales; Whitby was where Bram Stoker wrote Dracula; Fountains Abbey, which was definitely a case of saving the best until last (a big five out of five Abbots), was a favourite haunt of a certain recently-deceased royal. With so many people crawling over every tourist attraction in the land it's only a matter of time before every square inch has some association with somebody famous and the entire countryside is covered in small polished brass plaques. And if a town has no famous connections, it makes up for it by twinning with one that does—or, in the case of Whitby, by quintupling.

Speaking of recently-deceased royals, after noticing the castle flag flying at half-mast in Richmond it wasn't much of a surprise to guess who it was for—or to see the eulogies rolling out on TV like fog over the moors. Much-loved old stick who looked the East End in the face and all that, sure—but she was a hundred and one years old, people. Humans don't live to a hundred and one—tortoises do. If she'd lived much longer they'd have attached small brass plaques to her with the names and dates of all the relatives she'd outlived. Fortunately, after a burst of wrinkly-visaged front pages on the Sunday papers, the grief-stricken madness seems to have died down fairly quickly. Or maybe I'm just lucky not to have a telly.

So, a long weekend of beautiful countryside, historic vistas up to two thousand years old (stopped briefly at Chesters Fort on Hadrian's Wall on the drive down), insane Bank Holiday traffic and crowds, cholesterol-laden English breakfasts, and more sheep than we'd seen since New Zealand. Good fun.

A final anecdote. On the way out of Studley Royal (the park attached to Fountains Abbey, not the ancestral home of Dirk, Duke of Diggler), we saw four deer walking together on the far side of an artificial lake. One of them had only one antler, while the other three had none. One of us wondered aloud if the antlers grew back; none of us was sure. We watched the deer as they walked along the grass. Then the one-antlered one flicked his head, flicked it again, and his remaining antler flew off and fell into the lake.

His mates immediately started butting him—"You think you're so big and tough with that antler of yours... whatya gonna do now, eh? Eh?"—and then casually sauntered off, as if they saw antlers being shed every day. Which, come to think of it, they probably do.

We considered walking around and fishing it out; it had fallen in right near the edge. But on reflection, we agreed that none of us really wanted a damp, rotting antler that badly.


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