Tuesday, 30 July 2002

Now We Are Three

[site news]

The Three Speedys

Just over three years ago, I settled on a project worth putting on the web, after a year or so of contemplating the best use for a personal site. The novel came out of the bottom drawer, the cartoonist came out of hibernation, and The Stand-Up became a 'wobble', or web novel. (There's one neologism that sure caught on.) A few weeks later the first three chapters were revealed to an indifferent public, with the others following one by one over subsequent weeks. If you'd typed speedysnail.com into your browser on 30 July 1999, this is what you would have seen.

Initially the novel was all there was to the site. Fortunately, I'd avoided registering the domain as thestandup.com, and instead settled on a suggestion of Jane's, after days of trying to find a name that wasn't taken (even in '99 it wasn't easy). And so we ended up with a site named after her nickname for a key-ring.

A name that could mean anything meant a site that could mean anything, and over the past few years I've put just about everything into it: academic papers and personal tales, cartoons and photographs, old reviews and new, and a string of weblogs. Hundreds of images, hundreds of thousands of words, thousands of lines of code. It's been the major project of my early 30s.

A website is never finished, and there isn't time to do everything you want to with it. The comic strip serial, the collaborative fiction project, the lengthy photo-essays, the section of travel tales, the in-depth reviews of all-time favourite books and albums, and the follow-up episodes of Doktor Komputor have all stayed on the mental shelf. Others intended for 'any day now' remain on hold, waiting for a day without anything better to do—which isn't often.

But why keep adding to something that always looks so ephemeral from the front page no matter how much lies behind it? Doesn't that apparent ephemerality just encourage those who consider the personal web a waste of time and effort? Is it a waste of effort?

No. Server statistics are notoriously imprecise, but some of the previously published material on Speedysnail has been seen by more people here than ever saw the print versions. The number who've looked at The Stand-Up is respectable compared to the small print-runs of your average Australian first novel. I'm not sure how many people regularly read the weblog, but it's enough to feel wanted, and has been enough to make some good virtual friends.

And: maybe. While the web is great for breathing new life into old material, and great for publishing small observations and chunks of writing that might otherwise stay trapped in a notebook or a neuron, it's harder to create something significant for it—at least single-handedly and part-time. Yet those are the projects that feel the most valuable: the ones that say not just 'look at this', but this and this and this and this.

After my recent outpouring of travel-inspired words, it feels like time to write something big again—which means paying less attention to the site for a while. The updates won't disappear completely, but for the next couple of months I'd better lie low. Who knows, another big project might come out of it; something worth celebrating next birthday, perhaps.

Don't think of it as a hiatus. Think of it as me being really slack about replying to your mail. Although if you'd like to email me—perhaps via the convenient comments link on this entry—I'll be more than happy to say hello.

As the original About page read:

speedysnail is dedicated to bringing you the best in web-based entertainment. speedysnail has an accent on the unusual and amusing, but is open to anything and everything. speedysnail's first project, launched in July 1999, is The Stand-Up, a wobble (web novel) by Rory Ewins. stay tuned for more from speedysnail!


Goodbye to Berlin

[site news] Now on DVD and VHS, all six episodes of Berlin, the documentary series by acclaimed bloke Rory Ewins, as seen on Speedy TV. The critics rave: You little beauty! - Shauny; A damned fine entry - Ed; I want an all-Rory BBC/PBS series - Bill; I must eat your brain - Tom.

Watch it again and again on this lavishly prepared compilation, now with hidden extras* and director's commentary.** Never scroll backwards through an archive again!

*View source to reveal hidden extra HTML tags.
**He didn't have much to say, really.


Monday, 29 July 2002

6. Aus in Europa

[travel] The train from Vienna back to Berlin, on the morning before our flight home, ran a couple of hours late, and Jane and I ended up talking with the young Austrian couple sharing our carriage...


Blurring Blue

[minutiae] I shouldn't really have been sitting in the seat 'particularly appreciated by the elderly and the infirm', but the bus wasn't particularly full, and there was still room for the old man to sit down next to me.

It's hard to get a good look at someone when they sit right next to you; you can't just turn your head and stare. Instead, you look down and glance sideways. Jeans and trainers; unusual for white-haired Scotsmen, who often wear a jacket and tie with a tweed cap. A tattoo on his right hand.

The bus lurches to a stop, and a small girl staggers forward in the gangway, grabbing onto his left arm. She looks up at him and smiles as he asks gently if she's all right. Another glimpse: white hair cut fairly short; judging from the lines on his neck, about sixty. The girl's mother tells her to hold onto the grips on the seats. The bus starts moving again.

A tattoo of a bird; a dove, perhaps, drawn in blurring blue. Gothic letters on the back of his fingers, just above the knuckles. Can't quite read them. One of them a 'T', I guess, if it's upside down.

We come to his stop, and he stands up. Holds onto the rail beside the doors in the middle of the bus, and then swings out to the left as he gets off. For a moment I can read the letters on his left hand. L O V E.

A hard man, once. But softer now.


Curse You, Sir Humphrey

[uk culture] So there I was, having sent off our passports and driver's licences last Monday to get our UK driver's licences before we'd been here a year (after a year we'd have to do a test to get one, rather than just swap our Australian ones over), all prepared to wax lyrical about how we'll be stuck in Edinburgh for weeks and can't drive or fly anywhere even if we wanted to, and about how nerve-racking it is to send your passport away when it has your work visa in it, when suddenly the passports and new licences arrive in the mail only five days later.

Typical bureaucratic inefficiency. Can't even be reliably inefficient.



[books] I'm working my way through W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz after those comments from Bill and Ed on a recent post, and only realised after 82 pages that the entire book is one long paragraph stretching over 400 pages, with no convenient place to pause at the end of the night or the bus journey, and what's worse he doesn't use quotation marks to mark off the comments by Austerlitz relayed by the narrator, which leads to some confusion, almost as much as a single long sentence with no breaks and lots of clauses, and while I find the book interesting so far it does get rather exhausting with its constant digressions, unlike the last book I read, James Hawes's Rancid Aluminium, which is flagged on the cover as a spleen-bursting bundle of hilarity but is, in fact, rather serious in intent, like his more recent Dead Long Enough, and apart from its joking matey middle-English narration really has very little in the way of hilariousness, spleen-bursting or otherwise, as opposed to Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones's Diary, also read recently and really quite amusing in several places, that being the most I expect from a comic novel (if a novel is what it is), but which meant my expectations were exceeded by David Lodge's Changing Places, started and finished last week, a finely judged tale of transatlantic academe in the late 1960s with several genuinely laugh-out-loud moments, much funnier than 1984 by George Orwell, which after many years I finally got around to reading (spurred on by that list of 100 Greatest Books that the Guardian publicised a few months ago), the strange thing being that I read all of his long non-fiction and most of his essays at the age of 21 in preparation for reading Animal Farm and then this, then somehow stopped before the last hurdle, but reading his reportage first certainly made 1984 more enjoyable, even if it's a grim little tale (though not as grim as I anticipate Gitta Sereny's Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth will be, having made it part-way through its several hundred pages), and I'm inspired by it to read more on that list of greats, but also somewhat reluctant after getting halfway through Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway, which while it has many poetic turns of phrase is actually written as one long stream-of-consciousness narrative (though not, fortunately, one long paragraph or, heaven forbid, sentence), which is really quite exhausting, and I think I'll give it a rest.


Is This Summer?

[uk culture] Sixteen degrees at noon, foggy and wet. Walking along Princes Street the Scott Monument and the towers behind it look like surgical instruments in silhouette. On the right, Edinburgh Castle is a set of broken molars chewing through fairy floss. And along a pavement packed with tourists, buskers play and stalls sell ice-cream as if the cold is heat and the damp is humidity.


Friday, 26 July 2002

5. Kultur

[travel] The major art galleries of the West are often billed as 'museums', and, in many cases, its major museums are full of art: art that has been dug up, art that has been hauled half-way around the world, and sometimes both...


Thursday, 25 July 2002

4. Kunst

[travel] Anyone without a taste for castles, cathedrals and canvases is going to find European tourism pretty dull; and since Berlin has few of the first two, that puts a lot of pressure on the paint. Fortunately, the city has museums and galleries galore; even better, a €10 pass buys you three days' entry to all of them. We had seven days in Berlin, three of which Jane spent at a conference, leaving me free to see anything I wanted. As usual, I wanted kultur und kunst...


Wednesday, 24 July 2002

3. Alt und Neu

[travel] Crossing the vanished wall in early '98, it was easy to tell where it had been eight years before. The solid buildings of Mitte, once the centre of pre-war Berlin, still spoke of forty years of the DDR: their lines recognisably modern, but their line of descent tilted slightly askew. The clear winter skies challenged my Western stereotypes by painting blue where I half expected grey, but the buildings compensated for that. East German architecture was intended to exalt the People, but people seemed to shrink in these streets, in numbers and into themselves. They huddled in their leather jackets and strode rather than strolled, keen to be somewhere else. There wasn't much to do in Mitte but look around, and Berliners had already looked...


Rory Planet's Nottingham on a Shoestring

[travel] It seems a shame to overshadow poor Nottingham with these entries on Berlin and fail to mention it completely, so here's my quick guided tour. Nottingham looks like a pleasant place to live (for my friends, at least), but even though everyone has heard of its notorious Sheriff, there isn't actually much to see there. In fact, because most of its medieval buildings turned into slums in the industrial revolution and were subsequently demolished, there are Four things to see there.

1. Medieval Nottingham was home to one of the largest, grandest castles in all of England, sprawled over a hill in the middle of the town. So large and grand that it was a stronghold for Charles the First in the Civil War. Who lost. The castle was demolished by his enemies, and replaced by a modest baroque manor, now a local museum and art gallery. Key exhibit: mannequin in Home Guard kit and gas-mask.

2. Medieval Nottingham was unusual for the large number of cave dwellings carved out of sandstone rock by the locals. A few of them are still in use as pub cellars (including a couple of the oldest pubs in England, dating back to the Crusades). It's possible to tour one of the main cave complexes, linked together during World War Two to form air-raid shelters. The historic buildings above these caves were demolished by their enemies, and replaced by a 1970s shopping mall; the entrance is actually in the mall itself, and part of the tour features its attractive concrete foundations. Key exhibits: war-time sign advertising 'Doctor Carrot, the Children's best friend', and life-size baby doll in full upper-body gas-mask suit. (Gas-masks would have been handy for us, too. One cave was once a tannery, and a sampling box let us learn what a tannery smelled like. Since the tanning process involved steeping rotten hides in dog dung and urine, this was one lesson we could have done without.)

3. Elizabethan Nottingham was the site of Wollaton Park, the biggest Elizabethan stone mansion built out of stone in an Elizabethan park that was big. No enemies demolished this building, which consequently still looks quite impressive. Today it's a natural history museum. Key exhibits: various stuffed animal heads bagged by previous owners now recast as part of a 'Green Trail'.

4. Medieval Nottingham was not home to Sherwood Forest, which is some miles away, but that hasn't stopped Modern Nottingham from honouring the original Boy in the Hood at the quiveringly scary Tales of Robin Hood. This knuckle-biting thrill-ride is guaranteed to scare the pantaloons off anyone aged six to sixty (months) with its uncannily unconvincing animatronic figures. Marvel at the arrow-like sound effects, the stuffed-animal-like wolves, the emaciated papier-mache horse, and the world's only animatronic jelly (in the feast scene at the end). Leave none the wiser about Robin and his Merry Men, but, in the finest outlaw tradition, several gold pieces lighter.


Tuesday, 23 July 2002

An Expatriate Moment

[politics] You bloody beauty.


2. Die Neue Welt

[travel] I was twenty-one when a wall came down on the far side of the world: the defining moment of a year already of moment, already defined by the blood on Tiananmen Square. The political plates were buckling, the fault zones heaving and shaking. Sitting together on the wall that November, East and West Berliners dangled their legs in the possibility of a world free of divisions, free of Evil Empires and Banal Bureaucracies, a world of movement and freedom of movement, thought and freedom of thought. A new world, before there was a New World Order...


Friday, 19 July 2002

1.1 Unterbrechung

[site news] We interrupt this programme on Germany to write some emails and do some actual work and go and visit our friends in Nottingham over the weekend. (Sorry about the anticlimax. There will be more. I have a self-imposed deadline of July 29th, the day before the site's third birthday—and something else planned for that. Oh, the suspense.)


Wednesday, 17 July 2002

1. Eingang

[travel] I've been trying to think my way into talking about Berlin, and it's difficult. I doubt there's a city on Earth that carries as much disturbing mental baggage for English-speakers, even (or especially) those who've never been there. Trying to overcome that, to unpick the threads of twentieth century history that weave through its streets and look at it as new twenty-first century cloth, is not only a daunting task but one that carries substantial risks of being misunderstood. And with a city of so many layers, not neatly stratified like sedimentary rock but twisted and folded together by tectonic historic forces, it's hard to know where to begin...


Monday, 15 July 2002

Why Wasn't I Told?

[music] Cha-cha-cha with Senor Coconut's El Baile Aleman:

The concept alone is almost enough to get music lovers to shell out fifteen bucks. Get a traditional Latin salsa band to cover Kraftwerk songs, including the classics 'Trans-Europe Express' and 'Tour de France,' complete with marimbas, congas and maracas filling in for the primitive synthesizers and drum machines of the pioneers.

Must... own... must... own... must... own!


Sunday, 14 July 2002

[whatever] A foolish aside.


Friday, 12 July 2002

The Austro-Hungarian Empire Strikes Back

[travel] I can't claim any credit for this, apart from keeping out of the way as Jane rotated around to take the photos, but her panorama of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is great. (She later considered doing one where I didn't sidle out of shot, but instead was duplicated half a dozen times like a touristic Jango Fett; but her compact flash cards were getting too full.)


Honk if You Love Football

[travel] Berlin and Vienna ruminations coming soon, but first a photo or two. By coincidence, Jane and I both took photos of this guy in the midst of the celebrations in Berlin after the World Cup final. For me he captures the happy chaos of that evening... [click to see a 62K close-up].

World Cup Celebrations in Berlin


Thursday, 11 July 2002

George IV Bridge


A man in an overcoat
Sifts through a bin
Under an overcast sky
Watched from the top
Of a double-deck bus
There but for grace go I

A dust-lined face
Salt-pepper beard
Head in habitual nod
Chews on a half-eaten
Bagel he's found
There but for the grace of God

A boy half-asleep
Coat at his feet
A few dull coins in its fold
A line of commuters
Stare past him and think
There but for the grace of gold

Some stiff in a suit
Power-lunch paunch
Look of disdain on his face:
Don't be so dirty
Don't be so poor
Don't be such a bloody disgrace

Spare some change
The dead boy drawls
As in all their minds
Time drags, guilt crawls

There but for the grace
But there is no grace
of God
but there is no

There but for gold
But he won't get ours

There but for luck
go I


[site news] More things found: on a bridge; on the Viennese U-Bahn.


Wednesday, 10 July 2002

Must be Acclimatizing

[uk culture] I was able to answer this passenger's question (in my head):

Ca' y' tay m'yichbuss ghose tie kay'h?

before the bus driver, who had to ask her to repeat it. Answer: the number 37 bus goes to Ikea.

Two weeks of listening to German puts Scots into context.


Tuesday, 9 July 2002

Bonne Chance, Madagascar

[madagascar] Naturally, Madagascar's months-long crisis would reach some kind of conclusion just as I'm away from home and unable to follow the news—though 'conclusion' is an optimistic way of describing the pause before a long period of rebuilding and repair. After using prisoners as human shields and riddling homes around the north with bullets, Ratsiraka's forces surrendered in the face of their leader's desertion for France. Ratsiraka, who lost key international equivocators ('supporters' was hardly an appropriate description) when France and the US swung behind Ravalomanana, has exiled himself before, but this time the chances of a comeback must surely be slim. He leaves behind a country in considerably worse shape than before the elections of last November, thanks to a willingness to have his supporters destroy its infrastructure and push it close to famine rather than pass it into the hands of 'fascists'. Whether a certain millionaire-turned-politician deserves to be compared to Hitler is difficult for outsiders to judge, but past examples of decades-long rulers leaving the stage unwillingly and ungraciously tend to suggest that the comparison is just slightly biased. Given the choice between:

it is, admittedly, difficult for outside observers to know which side to support. But at least it only took our Western governments six or seven months to recognise the potential benefits of acidophilus and bifidus.


It's a Liquid Thing

[net culture] Reluctant though I am to encourage anyone to actually read the stuff, I'm hard-pressed to remember a more jaw-droppingly insane piece of spam than this; even though, like everyone, I see all too much of it. Korean spam really does seem a class apart.


Monday, 8 July 2002

REOS Error: Cortex Cache Full

[journal] Back. Head full of thoughts about Berlin, and Vienna, and Germany and Austria, and history, and the Holocaust, and Europe, and the euro, and the UK, and UK attitudes to Germany and Europe and the euro, and art, and ethnography, and empire, and museums, and Australia, and travelling, and travelling Australians, and Australians connecting with European history and art, and Australian history, and Aboriginal history, and reconciliation, and coming to terms with history, and Germans and Austrians coming to terms with history, and the Holocaust, and the Jewish Museum in Berlin, and Berlin, and Berlin.

Too many to write just now; I'll work through them over time. Meanwhile, just been looking around the weblogging vicinity, more thoroughly than I could in a few quick net cafe sessions over the past two weeks. Redesigns and hiatuses everywhere: Stavros, Graham, Jerry, James off-and-on, Bright Cold Matt, Shauny by the looks of it, and most especially Ed, who has torn down everything with scary and scarifying thoroughness (an urge I can well understand, and the new direction looks intriguing; but the appearance of an Ed-shaped hole in the archives of so many cross-weblog conversations, including several here, is a sobering reminder of one's online mortality).

Meanwhile, a flurry of academic ideas from having just been at a conference for a few days, and web-related ideas from having been away from it for a few weeks, compete for cerebral real estate. The results might appear a bit erratic, or might not appear at all. Bear with us while we taxi to our take-off position. Cabin crew close doors and cross-check.

[Is this post 'site news', 'weblog' or 'journal'? It was so much easier when everything was 'travel'.]


Friday, 5 July 2002

[travel] Hmm. Glad that paper presentation is over. I wrote too much, ran out of time trying to cram it into 25 minutes, and had to drop whole chunks of the second half and skip to a diminished ending. Out of practice...

But it's fun thinking about the Pacific again for a few days. And Wien gets better and better: watching a free open-air film of Karajan conducting Beethoven's Ninth after dusk in front of the Rathaus last night was great. (Rathaus = City Hall. Further evidence of the Germanic roots of English.)


Wednesday, 3 July 2002

The Third Man

[travel] A postscript to that footnote on Germany's World Cup semifinal win: the celebrations were as nothing compared to those by Berlin's Turkish community after their homeland's third place win, or by the many Germans determined to use up their beer, firecrackers and Deutsche flags even after coming second to Brazil. Cars jammed the length of Kurfürstendamm and all around Zoologische Garten, horns and explosions filled the air, and the Polizei looked on in bemusement.

We're now in Vienna, and despite the shared language and even historical experience (like Berlin it was once divided into British, French, American and Soviet zones), it couldn't be more different from the German capital. Tourism keeps Wien's old town in a perpetual state of 18th century Mozartification, although the enormous palaces left over from the Habsburg empire may also have something to do with that. Strange that Baroque architects designed all of their buildings to look like elaborately iced cakes... unless... hang on...

The museums charge like wounded schnitzels—the best part of twenty euro for the pair of us to see several rooms of old masters—but when you can experience delights like the original Sacher Torte at a table outside the Hotel Sacher, or a fresh box of himbeeren (raspberries) from a stall outside the U-bahn, or a lazy meal in an 18th century courtyard beer garden on a warm summer night, it's hard to feel ripped-off for long.

We missed the end of the Staatsoper season by one day, though. That was a shame; standing room tickets are only a few euro each.

The poem below, by the way, is Based on a True Story, or at least on the experience of lying on a couchette in the Berlin Charlottenburg to Wien Westbahnhof overnight train listening to the Tourist Who Wouldn't Shut Up. I decline to mention her nationality on the grounds that at least some readers will suffer acute patriotic embarrassment.


Ode to a Noisy Tourist on a Train


Henrietta Maria Boyce
Loved the sound of her own voice
From dawn each morn she'd start to chatter
Settling in for a lengthy natter
Up and down the carriage halls
Her strident tones would shake the walls
As she explained—and never quiet—
All about her brand new diet
And TV shows she used to view
And every goddamn thing she knew
About the world and its travails
Do y'like the colour of her nails?
Exploring each and every angle
'Til everyone would want to strangle
Her. But they never would
'Cos human beings are far too good.


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