Sunday, 21 September 2003

You Are Here


Huonville, Tasmania


Friday, 12 September 2003

[journal] That's it, I'm outta here. Setting the alarm for 4.30 for a flight at 6.30 BST tomorrow, and arriving in Melbourne 19.10 AEST on Sunday. That's... oh no... 27 hours and 40 minutes, plus a couple either end. Arrggh.

I won't have much web access for the first week or so, but I'll try not to repeat my April-May silence while I'm away this time. You can dream up a lot of animal poems in 27 hours.


[weblog] Latest links from the feed, to bring it up to date before I go:

Biography: Online Lives · Izzle: An Important Political Announcement · badgers badgers badgers badgers MUSHROOM MUSHROOOOM · QTVR of the 9-11 Tribute in Light · Germaine Greer discusses an amazing idea · Greer again—I was going to write about this, but no time · 'We find ourselves in the unaccustomed position of rooting for Microsoft' · Careful with it, it's a little hot · Art Spiegelman is making comics again




I don't know. I like to think that it gets better, but that didn't feel like it.

Two years ago I was just ducking back to the office for something, walking down Clerk Street, when I saw the headlines for the late papers: "Attack On America, Hundreds Dead". Fearing the worst—something like the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway—I hurried on, and when I got there switched on the PC and looked for a news site. They were all down. So I tried Metafilter.

I had only twenty minutes to read before I had to leave, because we were moving into our new flat that evening, and would have no access to news. Twenty minutes to read every damn thing I could; no time to write. So my reaction isn't in this thread.

On two anniversaries now, I've been dragged back to that moment simply by reading the same site; the one I still read regularly, and normally it's no problem, but that date, and the emotions it inspires in people, and in me, still, even though I wish I could escape them, pulls me in. And people post unbearable stories—and I don't wish they didn't; it's important to read them—but I wish...

I wish we could just go back.

And people post video streams of the news coverage from that day, and others complain, "That's not new, we've all seen that," meaning, "Don't take me back to that moment, don't manipulate my emotions like that, I've moved on, or at least I'm trying to, and this isn't helping."

But it's too late for some of us, because every anniversary there's a link to that first thread, there's no avoiding it; and that was our live news feed; that's what takes us back.


"Never Forget 9/11". How could we forget? We aren't allowed to forget, either by our own minds and memories, or by those who would remind us every single day if they could, so traumatized were they. There's no shame in their trauma; for those who were there, it's as understandable as the shell-shock suffered by countless thousands throughout the past century. And since this nightmare was broadcast live over TV throughout the world and had huge repercussions for all of us, millions of us feel the pull of having "been there" even if we physically weren't. Regardless of whatever political message we took from it.

But there's forgetting, and there's forgetting. Never forget the anger you felt; that's what is meant. Well of course not. After the initial shock and dismay, there was anger: anger at the men who did this. The 19 who did it; 11 of whom didn't know exactly what was planned, but were culpable nonetheless; all of whom were dead. And the small number of others involved in its planning and execution—for if half the hijackers didn't know the full extent of the plan, this had to have been a closely-guarded secret. Those conspirators who remain should be found, and brought to justice.

But that's still not what some people mean. Don't forget your anger at the people who did this, they mean, where "people" is defined as any enemy of America; anyone who lives in certain countries, and even tacitly supports the enemies of America; and, in the opinion of some, anyone who follows a certain religion. And that's where our memories of 9/11 and its emotional significance part ways.

Great horror has been unleashed by a small number of people before; the terrible business of Auschwitz wasn't common knowledge either within or beyond Germany until the end of World War II, and the bombing of Hiroshima was also the work of a relative few. But horror itself is not enough to gauge the political significance of an event, as those two examples, which had very different political and military goals, show.

What those examples have in common, however, is that they were the work of governments; of elected representatives and the people in their charge. Who did the hijackers represent? The entire Islamic world? A band of rogue states? Or a loose coalition of disaffected agitators, led by an outspoken individual? How representative were they?

That's the key question; and that's where the argument lies. That's where we draw our different interpretations of the political significance of 9/11, and how we should deal with it. No one disputes the emotional significance, particularly for those who were there, lost family members or friends, or, almost inconceivably, survived the event. Those people have to deal with it as best they can, with whatever support we can offer them. But not everyone shares the same ideas of exactly what it is that we should "never forget".


Some people have not only never forgotten their anger, they've kept it, nurtured it, and regularly expressed it through the medium of the weblog. They've felt compelled to think constantly about 9/11 and all that has flowed from it, and to gather more and more information about it—at first because of their anger over 9/11 itself, and then because of their anger over the new information they've found; and so it goes. There's no denying that some of these bloggers have gathered an enormous amount of information over the past two years, and have become as expert on the issues as anyone could reasonably expect. And because the quest for information has fuelled their anger, they infer that anyone who isn't angry—or isn't angry in the same way—or simply isn't feeling what they're feeling—is ignorant.

But there are limitations to expertise. Expertise is no guarantee against making mistakes, or misjudging a situation, or acting rashly. Someone can know, or think they know, a great deal, but if the sources of their information are biased, or the information is incomplete, their knowledge is compromised.

Unless we're part of the Islamic world ourselves, or have (through work, travel, residency) made it part of ourselves, our information is almost certainly incomplete. I don't mean the information you can gather; I mean the information you absorb, by living there. News feeds are edited highlights, and what gets edited out are the boring bits: daily routines; humdrum activity; the everyday struggles and joys. The feel of life. The greater proportion of life. The same kinds of details the relatives of the 9/11 dead try to impress on us, to point out that they were people, not statistics; human beings, not the Great Satan.

There's never been a greater tool for destroying our sense of proportion than the modern media, who will fill your every moment with horror if you want; horror on demand, 24/7. They're just servicing a need. But do you need to fill your life with horror? And do you need to echo those feelings to the world every day? Why?

They're rhetorical questions, obviously; the same questions I asked myself at the end of that year, and have again and again as one grim moment came after another. I don't pretend to be free of anxiety, distress, fallibility, even anger; there's evidence of that here, if you go searching for it. I just try to remind myself of that one word, in all its meanings: proportion.

I don't forget. None of us forget. But if we spend our whole lives remembering, when is the now?


Wednesday, 10 September 2003

Four Animals


I. The Snow Leopard

The noble snow leopard
Is sadly in jeopard
'E doesn't have too long to live
He lives in Nepal
On a mountain quite tall
And o, what he gladly would give
For a cosier spot
Than the one that he's got
A place where he could be replete
Where his foes he could flail
With his extra-long tail
And swipe with his over-large feet
But before you can blink
He'll be darn-near extinct
And his family will be bereft
The cheetah and civet
Will feel quite livid
'Cos they'll be the only pards left

II. My Axolotl

I keep my axolotl
In an empty plastic bottle
With a hole cut in its side just for his nose
And when I feel I oughta
I pour in tonic water
And a dash of gin (to calm him, I suppose)
But he only seems to settle
When I play him heavy metal
That's why I always call him Axl Rose
That tiny axolotl
Can play guitar full throttle
And tap 'November Rain' out with his toes
These few perplexing facts'll
Give you some idea of Axl
But what it means, the devil only knows
Head-banging newt or not, I'll
Still keep my axolotl
He gets me seats at all the Gunners' shows

III. Tarantula!

Eight-eyed, hairy legged
Limbs like a werewolf
And fangs like Dracula!
Speed of Ben Johnson
And charm of Scott Bakula!

IV. The Trouble With Sloths

The problem with the three-toed sloth
Is how to know which one of both
The possible pronunciations of
Its name to use: sloth, or sloth?

If you use 'sloth', you'll draw the wrath
Of those who will insist on 'sloth'
While those who prefer 'sloth' are loath
To refer to the three-toed sloth

This is a quandary, sure enough
So I propose we say it 'sloth'.


Tuesday, 9 September 2003

The Victorian Boy's Guide to Blogging

[net culture]

The nicely tended weblog
Should every rise and ebb log
Of its author's ever-changing mood:
His transient obsessions
And Rousseau-like confessions;
And once or twice a link just might intrude.
Choose your subject well,
And then proceed to tell
Everything you know: about, say, Food.
A dozen posts should do—
Then on to pastures new.
It matters not, provided it's not lewd.
(What's that? See here now, sir,
Don't cater to one browser;
It doesn't matter how on earth it's viewed.)

Weblogging for posterity
Demands all our austerity,
Consideration, and a cautious tone.
The gentlemanly blogger
Should never stoop to flog a
Nother whose opinions aren't his own.
Eschew the filthy flame war!
Chin up and play the game, or
Keep your views to you yourself alone.
It really isn't cricket
To wallow in that thicket
Let he who's without sin cast the first stone.
(You boy, up the back—
Stop saying this is whack.
And for heaven's sake switch off that mobile phone.)

In time, I fear, you'll find
The exercise of mind
Is really quite intensive, to be frank.
You may in fact get tired
Of cribbing posts from Wired
And find that you begin to draw a blank.
Just take a welcome rest,
Or get yourself a guest
Weblogger of the finest A-list rank.
Your audience will stay
For your return some day;
For that, your noble guest you'll have to thank.
(No, boy, it's not a waste
Of virtual real estate.
And it most
certainly is not a wank.)

As you blog your lives
You'll find that your archives
Will whisk you back to times happy and sad.
But don't delete a post
Or file from your webhost;
You'll only make your fellow bloggers mad.
The network is the thing,
And dear Google is its King.
That's right, my boys, you have indeed been had.
You may all think it stinks
To be slave to all those links,
But compared to sweeping chimneys, it ain't bad.
(Yes, I know it's quaint
For teachers to say 'ain't'.
Now go and piss off home to Mum and Dad.)


Certain Urges

[net culture]

go ahead
tear it down
rip out the windows
burn it to the ground
watch every pointless pixel
vanish off the maps
wipe all that tired data
and let it all collapse


Monday, 8 September 2003

Critical Mass

[net culture] Ed Champion, as you might already know, recently had a crack at a post about blogs by Tom Coates, drawing the ire of several bystanders who liked the original post—not to mention a slightly baffled reaction from Tom himself, who actually agreed with most of what Ed wrote. Blimey; we haven't seen an outbreak of metablog misunderstanding on this scale since HMCS Stavros fired a few broadsides at the good ship Megnut back in ought-two.

Most recently, Dan Hon has hoved into view with some cycling metaphors, and the whole thing looks set to end, like so many inter-blog disputes, with the critic being roundly dismissed by the defending parties as someone who Just Doesn't Get It. Enter the S.S. Snail bearing the flag of truce. As one of the few people who actually reads Tom and Ed on a daily basis, this is one skirmish I can't sit out.

First, to get this just-doesn't-get-it stuff out of the way: Ed has being playing with this updated personal website caper for as long as any of us (not everyone keeps archives going back to day one); he understands the medium just fine. He used to review weblogs for fun. Ed gets it. Do you get Ed?

Perhaps not. Dan writes:

To say, though, that because blogging isn't journalism it is inherently worthless, to say that because blogging couldn't possibly be raised to the standard to which journalism holds itself—that I find highly lacking in journalism in the first place—displays the kind of knee-jerk mentality that's really going to make you look rather stupid.

Which Tom links to with a so-there-Ed line about "Mr Missing-The-Point-Completely".

Well, who's missing whose? Ed didn't say blogs were "inherently worthless"; he said they had "inherent problems", and were "mostly worthless until the bar is set higher". There's a difference. I would say, and I suspect he'd agree, that some bloggers are already setting their bar higher; they're the "fine blogs" he mentions in that same concluding paragraph.

He isn't insisting that blogs are or should be journalism (at least not in every case; though some of them could be, one imagines, if done well). He's saying that bloggers should be the best writers they can be. Don't just use your bike to pop down to the shops; ride the Tour de France. Set the bar higher.

And Tom more or less agrees; he says as much in his comments on Ed's post, sounding perplexed that he's been singled out. Look at the way he structures his site: a links blog for ephemera; short posts for regular conversational entries; and long posts with titles in the vein of classical essays when he has something more substantial to say (the ones that start with "On..."), which he then highlights in a "best of" box. What's the point of that, if it isn't to say, "This site is more than just a bunch of links knicked from Blogdex and MeFi; there's substance here."

I'd say that what Ed was riffing off in Tom's post (though his primary target appears more to have been Dave Winer than Tom) was the unfortunate flipside of "mass amateurization": more people have gained access to a form of publication, sure, but without the competitive pressure that once made those who were published as good as they were. Writers once really had to strive to get somewhere; half-baked instant-karma entries weren't good enough. Where's the striving in clicking on a BlogThis button? Nowhere—unless we all set the bar higher. Which can, in some ways, make life harder for those who are trying to produce something of substance. There's no external authority: no editor of the New Yorker to convince before you can "make it"; no "barrier of entry" to test yourself against, or chance to relax once you're through; no subs to check over your work. Nobody except you, and a very small audience.

Sure, there's value in what we have—a growing number of people hopping on their bikes to pop down the shops. No question, that's a useful development. But Ed's saying, look, some of you could be Lance Armstrong if only you tried harder. And that's a message we need to hear too, if we want to be more than data points for the link aggregators. The more we strive to do the best work we can, the better the mass of weblogs will be. And the more our worries about the negative connotations of the word "amateur" will become less and less relevant.


Sunday, 7 September 2003


[journal] It's quiet. Jane is away; she's gone back to Australia to visit a good friend who's not so well. So for the past few days I've been knocking around the flat on my own. Waking up this morning I could hear... nothing. No breathing beside me, no noise from the street. It was a good sixty seconds before the silence was broken by the soft whoosh of a car; then more of them, inhaling and exhaling like waves in an irregular sea. I floated in that waking space, waiting for the next one.

I'm going out to Australia too next weekend. We're meeting up in Melbourne and then flying down to Tasmania for a couple of weeks, to help Mum and Dad move out of the house they've lived in for thirty years. The house I grew up in.

I've been wondering how to write about it since I heard the news in July, and have ended up writing about everything else instead. It's hard to get the tone right in my head. I don't want to sound maudlin, because I don't feel it; it'll be a relief for them not to have to look after the old place, and their new one looks just right. They've been contemplating this move since I was still living there well over a decade ago, so I've been ready for it most of my adult life.

Yet I don't want to treat it as if it's nothing, because it's far from that. I'm travelling halfway around the world, six months before we'd planned, to say goodbye to this place; to see its rooms empty, and close its many doors.

I lived in that house from Gough Whitlam's election until the end of the first Gulf War; we moved there a month before I turned five, and I left a month after turning 23. Every room and space of it has a story; every tree and lawn of it. Rooms and lawns and trees and streets that are so imprinted on me they feel like an extension of me; I can walk around every one in my mind.

I remember playing in the front porch with my brother, running Matchbox cars along the red tiles outside my bedroom door, as the distant drone of the bench-saw drifted over us from the workshop. Suddenly, Dad was jogging up to us; then standing over us, holding a handkerchief over his hand, saying, "One of you go and get Mum."

I remember sitting in the dining room, the sun filtering between the curtains, bloated blowflies bumping along the window-sill. Mona sat upright in the chair next to me, her eyes shut, as I stroked the back of my finger down the furry white arc of her neck. Again; and again. For half an hour. She may have drooled.

I remember climbing onto the roof of the chook-shed to reach the branches of the peach tree, heavy with fruit during its last bumper crop; and sitting there, peeling off their soft red skins and biting into their warm white flesh, one after another, until my hands were dripping with juice.

I remember a summer evening when the grass in the front paddock was as high as my head. Running along the edge of it, on the lawn by the walnut tree, with my brother and cousins; then plunging in, a shrieking band of jungle adventurers. The daring, the daring, to go where Joe Blake was hiding; if he bit you, you could die. But the only bite was the fat green blades slicing into our arms, and we knew we never would.



[music] Album of the weekend has been a recent BBC album of the week, Elbow's Cast of Thousands. (To think, I bought an album after hearing it over the Internet... but only after checking first that it wasn't copy-controlled. Cc: Eric Nicoli, Chairman, EMI.)

It's a real slow-builder, in the night-music vein of Coldplay and Doves; after the first tentative listens I've had it on constant repeat, so Jane's lucky she's away. Hints of early '70s prog, too, with flashes of gospel choir reminiscent of Dark Side of the Moon. And for any of you Floyd-is-passé cynics, that's a good thing. Go and listen to Dark Side of the Moon again, then write out a hundred times, "I must not dismiss classic '70s albums just because they spent years on the Billboard charts and The Final Cut was rubbish".

But back to Elbow, who deserve to be considered on their own merits, not as imitators. Lines about "the sunshine/Throwin' me a lifeline" and "keep[ing] your blues on cruise control" are an early indicator that this is uplifting, life-affirming stuff, even if it's cloaked in slow tempos, sparse pianos and droning guitars. By the penultimate track, 'Grace Under Pressure', they have the entire audience of last year's Glastonbury concert chanting behind them "We still believe in love so fuck you," and it sounds glorious.

There's a time and place for downbeat; I liked Radiohead's Hail to the Thief just fine, even if it wasn't the revelation their previous few albums were. But I seem to have spent most of the summer listening to a compilation of old Madness singles, the latest Dandy Warhols, and the cheekily-named New Pornographers. Their Mass Romantic and especially Electric Version are packed full of upbeat melodic rock: stuff that nowadays gets called 'power pop', implying an affinity with S Club 7 rather than the Strokes; but the drums kicking off 'The Electric Version' spell r-o-c-k to me. Tracks like 'The Laws Have Changed', 'The New Face of Zero and One', and 'The Mary Martin Show' are just fun, whatever the label; a word you'd never attach to Elbow's 'Crawling With Idiot'. If you like Matthew Sweet, Semisonic and, I dunno, Owsley (where is he now?), you'll almost certainly like this.

But my favourite upbeats of recent months remain Lemon Jelly's EP-compilation ky and debut album Lost Horizons, two hours of pure musical bliss. Maybe I was primed by five years of listening to lounge and samba and hefty doses of Air and Röyksopp last year; if so, I'm glad, because to these ears nothing sounds happier than 'Nervous Tension', 'Page One', 'The Curse of Ka'Zar' and 'Ramblin' Man'. The finest cheesy instruments and incongruous samples are all blended together with a chillout night-club sensibility to make an oh-so-satisfying whole; so satisfying that I hunted down all their singles just for the b-sides, something I haven't done in years. Upbeats of the year, no question.

Big thanks to Bill and Paul for turning me on to the New Pornographers and Lemon Jelly respectively.


All Things Must Pass

[music] I had plans for Saturday night; oh yes. Had the place all to myself, and was going to write, write, write. Not read, oh no, because as I told myself, reading is the enemy of writing—a line from Robert Pirsig I should tattoo backwards across my forehead. I was going to finish making this banana cake, listen to Elbow one more time, and then write.

Five hours later, I put down The Beatles Anthology, rose from the couch, and stumbled off to bed.

Well, it had been sitting there unread for eighteen months. But on the other hand: I already knew almost every single detail in it.

I used to read anything and everything about the Beatles. Their albums weren't enough for this nascent rock obsessive; I needed more. And their story had it all: the rise from rags to riches, from anonymity to staggering fame; the initial rejections, the proving the doubters wrong; the explorations, the discoveries, the making it up as they went along; the daunting peaks and the painful descent. All recorded with such a wealth of fanatically preserved trivia that their entire lives could be recreated in the test tube.

I read Hunter, of course, and Philip Norman's Shout!; and Ray Coleman's Lennon and Chet Flippo's McCartney; and every other Lennon and McCartney bio I could find (but not the traitorous Goldman, boooo); and I Me Mine, and In His Own Write; and Mark Lewisohn's Complete Beatles Recording Sessions again and again. I even read Coleman's bio of Brian Epstein—although I drew the line at Ringo. By the time the anthologies came out, I could just about write their track listings from imagination.

It's strange to think back to what it all meant to me in my late teens and early twenties. A crash course in rock history, sure; but also a crash course in growing up, whose nuances I perhaps didn't fully grasp. Couldn't they have held it together, I wondered; what if they'd melded Plastic Ono Band and McCartney; Imagine and All Things Must Pass and Band on the Run? Now, at 35, reading once again about the acrimonious, exhausted end of it all, all I could think was, "of course". Four men in their late twenties drifting apart to live their own lives, after achieving so much together; what's more natural than that? The wonder is that it took the rest of the world so long to accept it.


[weblog] The RSS weblog has been ticking along pretty well, considering my initial on-again off-again enthusiasm for it; the BlogThis button makes it ridiculously easy to update. Here's a round-up of the first ten days' links, minus the few already noted in other entries here:

Hugo - An Interactive Fiction Design System · When will US bestsellers enter public domain? · weblog, not web log · Wired: The Lost City of Venice · Turn any online PDF into HTML · Shauna's back with this great entry · The choice is yours, and it has to be made · JeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeEEEEEeeesus · Make Your Own Lava Lamp · Ars Technica: Mac Browser Smackdown · slant: The 25 Greatest Electronic Albums of the 20th Century · Tate Archive · Daring Fireball: high reliability, low maintenance · Global Rich List · Eugenics is back · It seemed to suck the whole earth into it · 'I want my historic pop culture back you god damn IP vultures!' · 'I have about one good idea a year. I hope this was it.' · Exhaustive Bert, Ernie and vice-versa research from Kafkaesque · Blogs: There Is No Spoon · Guardian: it's the hottest for 2,000 years · An American family in Raratonga · John Boorman waits for the blockbuster to implode · 'Whenever I have a disappointment in life...'


Wednesday, 3 September 2003



It was a breezy, bright morning, blowing the haze away, sharpening the lines of the buildings and darkening their shadows, making the tenements of the Old Town look like a Canaletto. In the hour after the office workers' rush, the Royal Mile felt near-empty. An old man in overalls dragged the chain off the bollards beside Parliament Square and St Giles. A number 35 rattled past along the cobblestones. A lost roll of film lay in the gutter beneath some scaffolding. Gulls played among the rooftops, their plaintive cries echoing down the Canongate. The smell of chip fat wafted out of a pub. Two early-rising tourists strolled uphill, looking up.


On Gorgie Road, we sat in the green bus and cycle lane, waiting to turn right. The lights turned amber, then red, as a last car or two ran through. We rode across to the right, into the empty side street. An old man was halfway over the pedestrian crossing. "You'll get murdered," he shouted, at either or both of us; "Stupid."


There was a box of books outside the musty antiques store at Viewforth, the one I'd only ever walked past late at night. One was an illustrated copy of Dante's Divine Comedy, translated by Frederick Pollock, Esq., published by Chapman and Hall in 1854, and signed and dated on the inside cover by its new owner, one Charlotte Clark, that same year. It seemed wrong not to rescue a 150-year-old object at the cost of only 50p, so I bought it.



[minutiae] Juxtaposed in a pile of books on our study shelf:


<<august 2003 posts

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