Browsed by
Tag: memory

Nidificating

Nidificating

It’s the first Saturday of August. After being held prisoner all night with an overactive mind I’m sitting, surprisingly comfortably, in an empty, early morning, coffee place in an English market town. So guess it’s somewhat like my childhood, except with better coffee. And the money to buy it. And wifi. And the person making the coffee reminds me of Lena Dunham in Girls. And the coffee place has the spacious, relaxed, brick wall feel of a coffee place in an American midwest town. Okay, it’s nothing like my childhood then.

Thank God.

This last year has been frustrating, though not as much as the previous three which felt like going backwards, while the body relentlessly aged. Health, in a wider sense, has had knockbacks, but there’s been more positives than negatives. Some legacy issues have been sorted. Others are in the process of being sorted. Some remain, kicked into the long grass for probably another year.

I’ve written more in the last year than any of the previous ten, but most of it isn’t public. A combination of nerve, legal worries, a lack of editorial skills – I still cannot figure out how to do apostrophe’s – and wondering if there’s any audience for these texts means most of it stays in the digital vault. Yeah, I’ll come back to that.

People I know, or knew, have had children, gotten married, gotten divorced, died. Less family deaths this year, but there’s not many relatives left now. Planes fall from the sky, rockets fall on schools, tanks roll into towns, diseases wipe out communities. The news is a relentless reel of grim; there is no dog on a skateboard any more. Twitter isn’t significantly more positive, but at least there are cats there.

Always cats.

And no matter what you do, or what you don’t do, life perambulates on everywhere else.

I’ve cut back on social media and use it more sparingly and less like a sugar addict in a sweetshop. In both social media and real life most people have been quietly dropped. I’ve escaped the city, my biggest mistake of several big ones these last six years being to not realize, or remember, that I’m happier out of the city than in it. Though that’s tweet-simplistic and there’s a bundle of probably contradictory feelings, on Birmingham and Detroit, to unpack at some point.

I’ve walked a lot of miles and seen a lot of trees. One or two may or may not have been hugged when there’s been no-one around. It’s probably the beard.

But though these are fields and trees, they are slightly familiar fields and trees. The country of my birth, which I don’t love but have learned to tolerate, still holds me while its health service (one of the pluses) fixes me, a frustratingly long car service at the biological garage. Home, in heart and mind, are a long way away and I feel like a semi-detached visitor on this island of sixty million. The contrails in the sky are my route map; the sound of the wood pigeon a daily reminder that I’m still here, and not there.

+ + + + +

The most significant event this last year was a malfunction, several months ago. Though, on reflection the most significant event may have been my inability to properly pack a large glass jar of coffee in my suitcase a few days before. Yadda yadda yadda coffee grinds and broken glass in seemingly everything, including some tech.

Thus my backup drive, instead of purring in its usual digital cat manner, screeched in a high pitched and almost violent fit, then suddenly went silent. The air filled with the chemical smell of some kind of plastic-metal melting or burning. Instinctively I knew this, whatever it was, wasn’t going to be fixed by a software upgrade.

On contemplating the digital death of the apparently sentient drive, I realized what was on my computer was the only versions of many things. And that computer was over half a decade old and would one day unexpectedly keel over, perhaps in sympathy with the now-smoldering drive. I could have run out and bought another backup drive, but that would have continued my usual bad practice of dumping everything on there in a random manner, with the good intention of sorting it all out one day.

A good intention never carried out. And I’ve written several times about this good intention, of sorting out all my old ephemera, and the started and abandoned blogs (several) and social media (many) accounts online, and making it all neat and tidy and online and blah blah blah. But never actually got off my 45 year old English ass and followed through. Always a job for tomorrow. Tomorrow never came.

But now, in the gaps between medical appointments, work tasks, waking up and the first coffee working, it made sense to do the big sorting out and saving and backup. To “nidificate”, as Becky told me; to build a (digital) nest.

The first task, sorting through and backing up everything from the laptop in some kind of ordered fashion, is pretty much done; all 14,319 files. Various “clouds” (look, a cloud is just some remote place you FTP stuff to – no magic) now house my stuff. More clouds house backups of other clouds. I should be able to survive at least one security breach, or cloud owner going under, or laptop eventually joining the old backup drive in digital heaven, without losing my stuff.

The second, much longer, task is underway; moving some of this stuff into one “blog” or place. The name was supplied by Becky and is appropriate, so it’s eventually my home for previous posts – everything except for the long-form decent writing which stays here on Wordshore. And by everything, not just the conventional posts of extremely variable quality, but ephemera such as posts from the quirky BBC Island Blogging thing from the middle of the last decade, most of the posts from this site, some of the descriptors from Flickr pictures, diary entries of varying tones from current times to some years back (effectively a private blog), possibly some other stuff I’m looking at now that may cause the odd ruckus. A smorgasbord of often quantity over quality. And the ride won’t always be fluffy and pleasant; I’ll leave the fakery and the trying on of personal hats to social media.

Why, rather than delete it all and start afresh? An aide memoir. Some context for what I do. An experimental place for writing. Hopefully a reminder of previous mistakes so history doesn’t get repeated (yeah, right). A few records being set straight (“history is written by the one who remembers to backup his shit”). And a memory stamp when digital history, and the history of digital, is being silently removed at an increasing pace. To explain; all six UK academic organizations I worked at or for, doing digital library and informatics stuff, between 1995 and 2004 have closed down in the last five years. Some of these have archived their stuff; some have rammed it into one database; some have chosen to just wipe everyones work from over the years (seriously, CDLR; wtf?). Yes, there’s the Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, and it’s great – essential, even – but it takes time to browse around historical timelines. And what happens if the volunteer-funded Wayback Machine itself stops?

So, Nidificate it is for much of my online texty stuff that’s currently scattered online and off. This will take a long time to do, as it’s the work that fits in the gaps between everything else. It’ll certainly take a lot longer than a year, so on the first Saturday of August 2015, I’ll hopefully be typing about what is done and what there is still to do. Maybe.

Archipelago days

Archipelago days

An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.

But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.

Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.

Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:

Out tae sea

Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:

Deer

There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.

Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.

You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.

Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.

In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.

One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:

Stensholmen

And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.

Zig-zag

Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.

There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:

Welcome to my world

Arctic Blue | Lofoten, Norway

p e r s i s t | lofoten, norway

But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.

+ + + + +

Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.

Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.

Best travel decision ever.

The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.

The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.

I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).

Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.

As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.

Sweden

We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.

And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset:

Sunset

Writing

Writing

You remember the sunrises and the sunsets, and in between the diners, the customers, the food, the coffee refills, the waitresses, the way the cutlery was arranged, the condiments, the font and laminate of the menu, the anticipation. The person opposite you, your reflection in their glasses and in their eyes. You see yourself, and you always look different to the person you think you were.

You watch the confidence and immortality of youth, the middle life struggle of definition, the eventual acceptance of the lot, the scars accumulated by death and grief on those who witness. All of us, we all collect them. You see the comfort in small things, small gestures, small words. New meaning. Different lives. Different futures, now.

You drift, and pause, and move, from room to room. And watch people play, the act of life, and party, and connect, and love, and break themselves and each other, then leave. The talk and the laughter and the tears and the silence. And remember those times, and record in head and on paper, in prose, in image, in poetic line, explicit in fact, or implicit and buried amongst fiction.

But, recognizable. Always, recognizable.

And you eventually write all of these things and times in the long form, and save and backup and edit and tweet and blog and story and book and publish. The thoughts and memories and emotions constantly work to find the weakest point in you, of you, out of you; punch a wound and escape, spew and gush as words, snake venom sucked from a wound, toxins expelled. A day, a month, a decade later. But always, at some time later. You erupt and empty, feel weaker but feel relieved, lighter, content.

It isn’t a calling, a hobby or a lifestyle or frivolity. Dear God, no. It’s a pressure reduced, an exorcism and a confessional, a dam bursting, a burden of witness to humanity shared, a bloodletting with pens and keyboards over leeches, a trepanning of your soul.

A necessity.

Dusk

Storms over Lake Michigan

Storms over Lake Michigan

It was a few years ago, now. More recent than many of the other adventures I’d had in America, but still disappearing into the cognitively dusty corner of things done in the past. Some memories, most memories, fade, but some memories are sharp enough to endure.

I’d been dating H. It wasn’t good. The hot summer in the rust belt, and the previous baggage we’d both brought to the relationship, had stifled it pretty quickly. She was coming back to England with me. We both knew this was a mistake, but neither of us wanted to say. Eventually, we were both proved right.*

Her mom and her partner had a trailer. No, they weren’t the stereotypical rednecks – they also had a house – but this was a trailer in some kind of middle class holiday park, in northern Indiana. It was ridiculously big; and comfortable, with “all mod cons” and places to sleep, and a large TV on which reruns of Top Gear could be watched by Americans easily amused at the comedic value of British men. Back in my own country, I’ve lived in smaller apartments.

As I said, it wasn’t good between me and H. That’s in the past – the receeding past, thankfully – and it’s unlikely we’ll ever speak again, especially when I’ve published all of the memories that are emerging, some years in the future when it’s more appropriate. And speaking was something we weren’t good at doing anyway, even when we were together.

Aurora Over Lake Michigan

In the trailer park, I’d increasingly go off on my own to avoid talking. One evening I took the golf cart out, something I enjoyed doing on my own, less so with other people. It had cup holders, meant I didn’t have to exercise in any way, and therefore made me feel a little bit American.

The air was oppressive; hot and still that evening. The heat had been nudging 100 in the daytime, and the insects were feasting on my slowly cooking skin that week. Driving the golf cart gave a little relief; a slight and silent breeze.

I drove it to the entrance to the trailer park, on a few yards more, to the top of a rise. Not a big rise, but in Indiana, a rise is a rise. Feeling … something … I turned around.

To the northwest, the view swept over the border into Michigan. In the distance, far far into the distance, huge storm clouds, impossibly large thunder clouds, moved imperceptibly across the sky, like silent buffalo in great numbers, on the move. Lighting lit up random clouds, but no thunder rolled across Michigan and Indiana to where I sat in the golf cart, the storm was so distant.

I tried to work out where the clouds were, and realised that, with the distance, the storms were likely to be over Lake Michigan, moving out of Chicago, trundling towards Canada. But here I was, in Indiana, close to the border with Ohio, watching storms sweep across a lake so vast that you sail on it and soon lose sight of the shore from where you came. A lake larger than countries such as Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium or the Netherlands. A lake which I’d swam in several times, watched fireworks fall into, and pottered around on, in boats. To an Englishman, used to tiny lakes not much bigger than ponds, and a gap from his birth country to continental Europe much narrower than Lake Michigan, the scale of this unobstructed panorama woke me from my evening heat slumber. And woke me from the place I’d retreated to, inside myself, that summer.

Solitude

I watched the silent lightning and wondered; were there boats on the lake? Under the storm? Being battered by large waves, and worked desperately like Truman Burbank trying to keep the Santa Maria afloat? Ships heading for safe harbour, in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Benton or Evanston?

That was the America I was looking for. The big sky; the big country; liberty defined in a thousand ways, but an important one being that with wheels and cheap gasoline, you can drive in the same direction for hours, days, and still be in the same country. Where a quick trip to your favorite restaurant for dinner can be a hundred miles or more. And train journeys between major cities are sometimes measured, not in minutes or hours, but in days and nights. A landmass so big, many people go a lifetime and never see the edges.

Only a third of Americans have passports, I’d read in the paper. True or not, it suddenly seemed plausible; the place was so big, endless, rolling, why go elsewhere when there’s much still to see here? I’d only experienced this feeling of scale before in Scandinavia, the overwhelming size of the fjords of Norway, the coastline that seems unimaginably long, the hundreds of thousands of islands, and the endless roads through the snowy northern European landscape. Nowhere else, apart from here in America, had a landscape this epic.

I drove back to the trailer before the golf cart battery drained completely. No-one had noticed that I’d gone; symbolic, obviously, of the dying relationship that would unfortunately stagger on for another half year.

And that is my most vivid, persistent and positive memory of that relationship (for even out of the worst ones, some good things usually come). Ironically, an event in which I’d found a near-perfect moment, but in solitude. Watching lightning and storms, from an American state away, move slowly across an inland sea. And understanding a mixture of emotions of calmness, liberty and freedom that come with watching a natural display of this scale, this distance and this grandeur.

* Update: August 28th 2012

Having said that, things did work out well – eventually – several years down the line, though in odd ways involving social media, patience, mistakes and regret, cheese and other things. If I hadn’t been tweeting, blogging and whatever else that summer from Ohio and Indiana, they may not have. Guess social media has its upsides, after all.