I’ve been thinking about gingham on and off for quite a few years now, but it’s finally inspired me to return to my blog via a particularly subtle and wonderful dress I encountered just a few days ago, which set my mind spinning, crystallising some vague ideas about fashion, time and change.Bali

Gingham is (usually) a medium-weight cotton-based fabric dyed with stripes in both directions to create a checker pattern. Apparently the name is a distortion of an old Malay or Indonesian word meaning ‘striped’ – there are other theories, but to me this seems quite convincing, having seen it so abundantly displayed all over Bali in both religious and secular settings.

I love what happens when you do a Google image search: a playful riot of colour that quickly demonstrates the basic range of gingham fabrics:Google

Gingham dates back at least as far as the 17th century, and is evidently quite simple to produce using traditional weaving methods. In fact I would say it’s just about the simplest fabric design that is deserving of being given it’s own name. As a concept it’s only marginally more complex than simply ‘striped’ or ‘spotted’. And as a visual phenomenon it has elements of both of those, which I think is what attracts me. It has a kind of spottiness that emerges when the eye focuses on the array of intersection points, and yet also a linear rigour.Multicoloured

It draws me into a kind of gentle visual grazing that I’ve done a lot of all my life. I find my focus wandering softly over the texture, my mind unconsciously sifting the pattern, feeling my way into it as it repeats across different depths of dye – intense at the cross points, milder between, and then the white – and noticing how it inflects with light and shade, the curves of the body, and movement. It’s a visual rhythm basic enough to pull me into a state of trance-like fascination sometimes (e.g. in business meetings), and I suspect that this potential for a strong aesthetic response, despite being so simple to make, is why it’s been popular for so long.

So Gingham represents a long line of tradition. As well as in Bali, where what I think of as Holy Gingham – usually in a bold black and white – is one of the distinctive sights of the island, adorning almost every statue, pillar and lingam in every temple, it’s found widely across Asia in various forms of traditional dress. An example is the gamucha, a thin towel / scarf worn by men in India. I believe in Bali the pattern has some kind of yin / yang resonance, which makes complete sense to me.Statues

It’s also been used for centuries in the western world, typically for blouses and dresses, but also for curtains, tablecloths, aprons, etc. and even furniture and crockery. It’s one of the staples of design. But what meaning does it carry; what is its stylistic significance?

A whole book could be written in answer to that – and of course it changes with time – but what I sense is a combination of childlike, whimsical, and relaxed, with suggestions of country, prairie, and a sizeable dollop of kitchen. To which must be added that it now references historical periods when it has been most popular – particularly the 50s (Dorothy), but also to a lesser extent Victorian times, plus mods and skinheads. It can be found in the V&A collection as an example of 1970s skinhead clothing.Dorothy

In this sense, with its modest range of colours and variations, gingham is always with us, morphing very slowly, picking up meanings over decades.

But what has caught my attention more recently is the way, over the past decade, it seems to have perfectly exemplified what I think of as the process of fashion.

The way a simple design meme becomes a heightened subject of creative attention, is subjected to waves of development and elaboration, changing, expanding, and distorting, until it eventually subsides and declines. Over a period of years, season by season, designers copy and inspire each other, competing to develop the basic form in what seems to me a process of squeezing every last drop of meaning from it.

Firstly, the basic traditional form of gingham simply becomes more fashionable – I can’t recall exactly when this happened – then, in the space of a few years, something like this takes place:

– Giant gingham

– Micro ginghamBen Sherman

– Diagonal gingham

– Double gingham

– Multi-coloured gingham

– Gingham on black

– Rectangular gingham

– Curved gingham

– Patchwork gingham

– Collage gingham

– Gingham with skulls

– Gingham / plaid hybrid

– Deconstructed gingham

This proliferation that takes place during the fashion cycle has other dimensions too. The range of fabrics is gradually expanded, as is the range of garments and other artefacts decorated with it: pants, bras, notebooks, umbrellas, laptop covers, corsets, shoes … in all sorts of fabrics, natural and synthetic, printed as well as woven. Latex gingham? Of course: the specialist is William Wilde.DM boot

Which leads us to the point at which the fabric ceases to be gingham at all and simply becomes a historical reference in the designer’s palette. It then subsides into the background ready to be reborn at some future point, presumably when a new generation of shoppers has arisen who are largely unaware of it. The basic forms continue to be available in conventional ways, but as a fashion phenomenon it is dormant.Cath Kidston ipad

To me it’s the perfect symbol of the creative process as applied in contemporary culture. It also exemplifies the pace of contemporary design. My (very limited) understanding of Roman culture suggests that fashions from haircuts to togas, while important, played out over many decades, presumably due to much slower transmission of ideas. The gingham fashion cycles centred on the 50s and in Victorian times seem to have been slower, less frantic, variants on what I’ve seen in the 21st century.

So gingham has a background meaning, which is itself quite complex and slowly shifting, touching on Balinese gods, prairie life and the fifties, but also a foreground meaning, which spins out in an exaggerated creativity with the waves of fashion. And whenever those waves return they will be different, because they speak specifically of the patterns of their own times.Dita Von Teese

These layered processes at multiple paces of change apply everywhere across our culture – music, painting, interior decoration, food and drink, technology, typeface etc. – though with variations depending on the economic context. The application of developmental processes to a basic phenomenon both exemplify and symbolise change, growth and decay. Which in a way takes us back to those Hindu gods wrapped in cotton.

Gingham makes me smile because it seems such a transparent revelation of the way almost everything happens in the great game of social and economic creativity. And I can enjoy reflecting on that while looking at frocks, which is always one of the happiest ways to practice philosophy. I could bring Wittgenstein, Husserl and Barthes into the conversation but I’d rather explore their vintage wardrobes.TJ shirt

To finish on a personal note, my own inventory consists of one single gingham garment: a linen shirt acquired in Top Shop, Birmingham on a business trip circa 2009. It’s completely classic, but for me it’s the absolutely perfect example. The only trouble is, it now sends me spinning off into philosophical daydreams.


Pilgrimage to nowhere

April 15, 2012

On a recent visit to the British Museum’s fascinating and admirable Hajj exhibition I was particularly struck by some images by the Saudi artist Ahmed Mater showing iron filings bending towards a powerful magnet, suggestive of the faithful circling the Ka’ba. A sense of the life force itself at its most fundamental physical level being drawn to the sacred object.

(Philosophically, I think the irresistible attraction of iron and magnet and the force of human will (to survive, to act, to desire, to create) are closer than they might at first seem.)Ahmed Mater

My response to the Hajj is of both attraction and repulsion. I’m attracted to the strong sense of community, to the emotional force that arises from shared ritual, and to the idea of an arduous journey being a condition of great reward. But I’m also repelled by the sense of a vast volume of people with their collective power and will, and by the idea of sacred obligation or prohibition.

I came out of the exhibition feeling that I would very much like to have the possibility of something like the Hajj in my life, but that I basically want to have my cake and eat it: to be able to share in some kind of profound sacred journey, yet be completely free to choose how I participate.

So what could pilgrimage mean for a non-religious, strongly individualistic, modern European?Dijon cathedral

We speak of all sorts of things in contemporary life as pilgrimages – artistic, musical, historical, mystical, gastronomic, retail – including various types of inner journey. But I always have the feeling that these are at least in part just metaphor. (And the word ‘Mecca’ of course has been completely trivialised in English right down to being a grubby brand of bingo.) I want the real thing.

To paraphrase various dictionary definitions, a pilgrimage is normally thought of as “a journey of great spiritual significance, typically to a religious shrine”. The journey part is easy enough to understand, but ‘spiritual’ and ‘shrine’ are both problematic. And there is also a fourth element to think about that seems to me implied though not stated in definitions: that there is something collective about the experience or at least its motivation.

The journey

Going on holiday is not pilgrimage. It has to be more than that – though I don’t doubt that in most traditions pilgrimage has an element of fun, of play, that overlaps with the contemporary idea of a holiday.

But travel is an essential element of pilgrimage, and to me the idea of that travel being really challenging is central to the sense of heightened emotional significance I would expect. Many traditions see repentance as an essential part of pilgrimage. I don’t, but the ordeal of long travel fits nicely into that.Burning Man at dawn

Walking half way across the country to a cathedral, climbing to a high mountaintop, crossing a desert – these kind of ordeals make total sense to me as a way in to a very special experience. Tourists try to access this feeling by, for example, walking to Machu Picchu. The Burning Man Festival is placed far away from civilisation in a maximally inhospitable place in part to create a sense of achievement in getting there.

The spiritual experience

My social circle seems divided into people who use the language of spirit a lot and those who basically find it embarrassing or laughable. Personally I think of ‘spiritual’ as one of those words (like perhaps ‘terrorist’ and ‘feminism’) that has been so stretched and drained of meaning as to be pretty useless, though I’m fairly comfortable using it as a kind of sloppy shorthand – for something, I don’t know quite what – if I’m pushed.

I was once put on the spot in a workshop and asked to talk about ‘spirit’ for three minutes! I decided that for me it’s not really separate from emotion – it’s simply the top slice of emotional feeling (in terms of depth and significance, not intensity). I’ve also been toying lately with the definition that the spiritual is “where philosophy meets emotional force”.

Obviously for religious people that means religion. And for people with strong belief systems that don’t fit into traditional religions there are clear places to look for the spiritual element in life.Durer's House, Nuremberg

For me it’s less clear, but there are certainly a few things in my life that sit in that space. Much of that is around art, music and literature. I sometimes wonder if worship is basically the same as art. When I attend a performance of, for example, music by Bach, it seems to me that I am doing something very similar to going to a church service. There are also things I do – dance, meditation, just being with nature – that take me into those same deep areas of reflection and connection.

So I do (sort of) know what it means for an experience to have spiritual force – and that is what I would be looking for as the goal of a pilgrimage.

The sacred shrine

This is where things get difficult. I love the idea of, say, Canterbury Cathedral as a destination. It’s very big and very old, with a massive collective history and physical presence. It’s a great focus for a long walk, and seeing it on the skyline for hours before arrival would be deeply exhilarating.

I would genuinely love walking to Canterbury, and I’m sure I would find it a very moving experience.Canterbury pilgrims

But, just as if I did a Richard Burton and attempted the Hajj in fancy dress, I would feel, at least in part, that I was piggybacking another community’s rituals. I’m not authentically part of that world for which Canterbury is a spiritual home, and it would have a distinct element of exotic tourism.

In the absence of organised religion, finding a potent physical destination for a spiritual journey is very problematic. In the age of communism phoney political shrines were developed to tap into the communal power of pilgrimage. For some people scenes of battle might play this role. For me the possibilities I have considered are artistic and natural.

Places associated with great artistic endeavour, such as birthplaces and deathplaces, are plentiful, and from a practical point of view can easily be made into destinations. The journey would have to be strongly focused on the specific destination, and not just be a holiday including dropping in at someone’s house as an afterthought. The Bach Cantata Pilgrimage of John Eliot Gardiner took this idea to another level, going way beyond simply visiting the Thomaskirche in Leipzig and other major Bach related places.

But I do have a certain discomfort at treating such places as shrines, with holy relics of old pianos and paintpots and fountain pens. These were people after all. Nothing supernatural. I love them because I relate to them as real individuals who lived and worked and loved and sinned.Golden Pavillion, Kyoto

Natural wonders are also attractive for great journeys, and again I’m sure I could devise very powerful experiences around them. But still it would only really be analogous to a pilgrimage, not quite the real thing, unless I was part of some community with a special relationship to place – e.g. perhaps native peoples around Uluru or the Grand Canyon. But I’m not. In my world those places may be awe-inspiring and even elicit spiritual depths, but visiting them remains only somewhat like a pilgrimage. This lack of collective relationship to place leads me onto the final topic.

The community of pilgrims

For me I think pilgrimage fundamentally has to be a shared experience. Not necessarily as strongly collective as the Hajj, with everyone congregating at the same time for the same rituals, but at least in the sense of there being a shared goal, a shared purpose, within a community. I guess my ideal is something like the Canterbury Tales. And this is the biggest problem for me in finding something that can be considered a pilgrimage.Srinagar Pilgrims

Discussing this with friends over the past weeks I’ve noticed that people find it easier to adapt the concept of a retreat to modern secular life, and I think one of the reasons for that is that it’s something you can plan entirely according to your own needs and potentially without the involvement of a community. A solitary week in the mountains of Wales with a sketchbook and pen is absolutely a retreat, not just a bit like a retreat. It’s a physical displacement from everyday habits that has the potential for exceptional meaning and depth.Bali pilgrims

So my conclusion has to be that only various partial approximations to pilgrimage are available to me. I can’t combine all four of the above criteria in a meaningful authentic way – at least not where I am in my life now.

I would love to have my own community with its own rules and celebrations and places to venerate. I’m not going to create my own religion. But in time that community may yet emerge, in a modest, personal way.

– – – –


Apart from the exhibition, the other reason I’ve been thinking about pilgrimage is that last summer I travelled with some friends to my first Bayreuth Festival.Wagner in Bayreuth

I was determined not to see the trip in tiresomely mystical terms. Wagner fanatics can be terribly excessive, and for me moving away from that sort of hero worship has been part of growing up.

But the feeling of pilgrimage crept up on me, unanticipated, once I arrived. Something about the collective purpose of so many people present in that place, including the collective purpose of my own little group, plus the particular seriousness and personal significance of the work itself, combined with the presence of the Wagner house – and especially the Wagner grave, with its attendant mood of silence and reflection.Bayreuth Festspielhaus

I think it may be the nearest thing I’ll get.Wagner's grave

I suspect I’m being overly delicate in resisting the parallel between artistic and religious shrines. In many traditions hundreds of individuals are held up for admiration and celebration – saints, bodhisattvas, etc. – not to mention the gods of the ancient world. If I stop trying to be cool about it, avoiding cheesy hero worship at all costs, not wanting to be the person crawling on hands and knees to Graceland … well, there’s no doubt that I really do have these figures in my life, and they are very significant for me. In the same way as saints? Perhaps.


Dance, pray, carve

February 12, 2012

My first awareness of Bali as anything more than an exotic faraway place came from reading the liner notes in a recording of Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie that I’d borrowed from the local library, as mentioned in my last blogpost. As well as the extraordinary ondes martenot, Turangalîla includes an elaborate percussion section that evokes the clattering metallic sound world of the gamelan emsemble central to Balinese and Javanese traditional music.

A couple of years afterwards my Dad visited Bali en route to see family in Australia. I remember the stories and pictures of mountains, temples, monkeys, dancers, and especially the carvings he brought back: Garuda, king of birds and ruler of the sky, and one of those appealingly scary Hindu goddesses with flailing arms and perfectly hemispherical breasts.Bali satellite

Then I spent a year studying music in York, and that was when I really got interested in Bali and the gamelan. Asian music expert Neil Sorrell had set up one of the UK’s first gamelans in the York music department, and I was able not only to hear performances but even to have a go at playing.

I won’t try to explain Balinese music in any detail here as it’s a huge subject and it’s been done hundreds of times before. Suffice it to say that the gamelan is an ensemble dominated by percussion – particularly gongs, chimes and a variety of instruments with tuned bars similar to the glockenspiel and xylophone. Other instruments and also voices are used, but the overall effect is of a hypnotic, repetitive metallic sound built up of subtly shifting interlocking patterns. The sound is utterly unique because of Bali’s distinctive position as an isolated Hindu culture, preserving and independently developing cultural threads for centuries that have long been lost elsewhere.Gamelan (Lila Cita)

I remember reading a quote from John Adams to the effect that great music needs to fully engage the listener’s emotional and intellectual faculties, and mentioning the Balinese gamelan as an example of music that fails that test. Well, possibly … its impact is certainly more on the sensual, psychedlic side of things than intellectual, and I’m sure that partly explains its appeal. It’s often highly reminiscent of seventies minimal music. In my life there has always been room for the sensual, emotional and intellectual in music, and they don’t all need to be present at once. And of course Balinese music only really comes to life in its religious and theatrical context.

The York gamelan is actually Javanese, which is a little different to Balinese, more in performance style than instrumentation. Balinese music is louder and faster and has a reckless intensity quite unlike the beguiling ritual sound of the Javanese gamelan. The other major difference is the social context: the sheer abundance of music all over Bali. Virtually every village has a gamelan, and it accompanies religious rituals from birth to death, plus dance and wayang performances telling the vivid stories of gods and heroes, and has now become a major tourist phenomenon.

So when I set off travelling in 1995 Bali was inevitably going to be a top destination for me. But I didn’t really know what to expect.

Bali from Lombok

First sight of Bali from Lombok

I’ve turned to my travel diary to see how I reacted, and it’s clear that there was a double process going on. Firstly, a gradual realisation, including frustration and then acceptance, of how busy, densely populated and simply teeming full of stuff Bali is, with mile after mile of choked streets lined with shops and every kind of trade – immediate abandonment of any fantasy of a conventional tropical paradise being essential. But secondly, a growing awe at the abundance and concentration of art, music, religious observance, myth – and really every form of creative human activity, all apparently bound up with everyday life. A few quotes from my diary:

“first day in Bali and I walked along a black-sand beach lined with fishing boats bearing monster heads with bulging eyes and gaping jaws”

“a disappointing 16-mile walk to visit various crumbling thousand-year old temples surrounded by traffic and wearisome commercial bustle”

“Barong dance far more wonderful, fascinating and entertaining than anything I had expected … a large benevolent monster operated like a grotesque pantomime horse; highly operatic hollering and squealing as the gamelan clanged”Barong

(I also saw the kecak, an extraordinary spectacle in which instruments are replaced by a whole villageful of people crammed into a small space who sort of imitate a gamelan – trancey rhythmic chak-e-chak-e-chak patterns mixed with howls and screeches in old Balinese, while serene dancers face down snarling monsters with angular grace.)Kecak score

“eerily calm walking past a kilometre of souvenir stalls as I approached the temple in the early morning … only those wishing to pray could enter, but pray and pay seemed to be interchangeable words”

“the aesthetic of Bali: a dancer so heavily laden with costume as to be almost a cube, muscles constantly tense, limbs bent, standing at a wonky angle and always aghast in a fierce bulging snarl”

“an 11km walk to see some white herons … passed football games, outdoor table tennis, a lengthy street entirely consisting of Garuda carving workshops, a tug of war about to be won by a large group of women, and a colourful shop advertising PARASITE – ANGLE – DUCK”

Well I left Bali absolutely loving it.

I distinctly recall meeting an American gentleman who told me his story of having felt a sense of homecoming on first visiting the island, and so had decided to stay, and had become a Balinese Hindu priest. At the time I imagine I was quite challenged not to find that ridiculous. Now, having known so many people who have taken extraordinary paths through life, it makes complete sense to me that an individual could make that kind of choice.

Back home I bought the CDs (see below) and spread the word, and when I started dancing myself later on I drew that spiky monstrous (and anti-monstrous) aesthetic into my own repertoire of movement.

It’s hard to find good quality videos of Balinese performance that give any kind of fair impression – the one below and these here and here are among the better ones. There are also some great images of musicians and dancers here.

I’ve found that many European composers have been drawn to the gamelan and influenced more or less explicitly by it. Here are a few good examples (all links open in Spotify):

Messiaen – Turangalîla-Symphonie

Debussy – Pagodes

Poulenc – Concerto for two pianos

Britten – The Prince of the Pagodas

Reich – Music for 18 Musicians

Cage – A Room (for prepared piano)

Britten’s late work is particularly steeped in Balinese sounds, following his trip there with Peter Pears in 1957. In The Prince of the Pagodas he uses rather intricate forms of counterpoint and polytonality to simulate an oral tradition – the texture and tuning of gamelan instruments.

Finally here’s a ‘Balinese’ étude by Ligeti. Apparently ‘Galamb Borong’ is a made up cod-Indonesian phrase that has no meaning!

Fifteen years later I returned to Bali, with Vanessa and our good friends Matthew and Maureen. I wrote a short guest post on their blog soon after we arrived, describing the unique Balinese urban jungle that seemed largely unchanged, though I’m sure the amount of road traffic must have increased.Statue 1

I noted that over the intervening years I’d gained much more appreciation of two things that would enrich my experience in Bali – eastern religion and plant life. I still loved the music and dance – we saw the legong, barong, kecak, and also wayang kulit – but this time I was much more drawn to nature, and even more to the profusion of religious art and architecture visible all around.Statue 3

On our second day we visited a watery palace to the east of Ubud in which I fell in love with the statues in various stages of mossy decay. Everywhere you look in Bali are reminders of impermanance; destruction and renewal. The island is so wet, and so green, that the soft stone crumbles and rots giving a sense of antiquity that isn’t always real. Statues therefore seem more alive, part of the community, than works of art to be admired and preserved. And they are so extraordinarily and publicly abundant.Carving bricks

Looking out from a café we noticed two piles of bricks stacked high, one on either side of an approach to a building. A few days later we were sitting in exactly the same spot when two sculptors arrived with tools and buckets of water and started turning these bricks into art. We watched in fascination. There’s something very palpably Hindu about these ongoing processes of creation and destruction being apparent the whole time in the streets of Ubud. Statue 2

My fascination with Balinese carvings led to a huge number of photos, and back home I decided to make something as a souvenir. Perhaps encouraged by the startling, luminous, repetitive feel of Balinese music I decided to take a single representative statue and make a bold, simple pop image by manipulating colours in various ways and fixing together a big rectangular array of prints. The image here is just an approximation in Photoshop to give the idea – the real thing is made of many more prints glued together and framed.24 statues

A few final words about the gamelan. There are now far more ensembles in the UK than back in 1990 – as listed here – though most are Javanese. Lila Cita is a London-based Balinese ensemble, and the Southbank Gamelan Players perform Javanese traditional and new music on a gamelan that is also available for workhops and courses. This is the second Gamelan I’ve had a chance to try – highly recommended!

The York University emsemble is still active and is in the forefront of composition of new music for gamelan instruments.

For composers and producers who want an easier option, there’s the sample library from Soniccouture.Soniccouture

Recommended recordings of Balinese music:

Gamelan of the Love God


Gamelan & Kecak


Kecak Ganda Sari


Worldwide misadventures

January 15, 2012

It’s been said that I’m bad luck as a travelling companion. In my defence, I’ve rarely had any problems when travelling alone, although this post will mostly be about the single major exception to that claim.

I’ve started by making a list of the main mishaps I can think of that have occurred while travelling in the safety of a group:

1. Interrailing robbery #11987.  In my second undergraduate summer vacation I toured Europe with two friends from Mauritius, Yusuf and Sadek. I’ve always loved train travel and spending many nights speeding across France, Italy and Spain with no hotel costs was brilliantly convenient and fun. Unfortunately the local thieves had caught onto this and there was an epidemic of robbery from sleeping students that year. My camera and a few other bits and pieces were nabbed in the night en route to Nice, so I can’t share any pictures from the trip. I can clearly remember the policeman: “que’st-ce que la marque de la camera?”  Some poor sod was even fined for pulling the emergency cord.Interrail

2. Interrailing robbery #21987. That was just bad luck, but it was arguably quite careless to allow the same thing to happen again two days later. I can’t remember what was stolen but it was while travelling overnight into Rome.

3. Interrailing robbery #3 – 1987. And then, later the same day, waiting in a tourist information office to book a hotel, the bag containing my dwindling collection of valuables was stolen from right between Yusuf’s feet. My passport was gone, so this caused several days delay, but the saddest thing was that lost with the bag was also the police report from the previous robbery. It took me quite a few years to recover my goodwill towards Italy and Italians!

In retrospect the most astonishing thing about that trip was that we travelled by train to Athens and back. I recall that with Interrail you could pay extra to go by boat from Brindisi, but instead we went overland right through Yugoslavia. It’s strange to think that this was before the Yugoslav wars. We spoke to people in broken German; I don’t believe that’s necessary any longer.

4. Driving into a brick, USA1993. In the dark, on the way out of Yosemite. Wrecked the automatic transition and had to get a new car. A minor obstacle really.


With Yusuf and Steve, companions on several trips

5. Bubonic plague outbreak, India1994. This didn’t directly affect my group, except that the railways in Gujurat seemed even more full than usual with people despetately trying to flee the affected areas. We decided it was best to just get on with the trip and hope for the best. Worst affected were probably those back home hearing all about the spreading plague on TV. To be honest, I doubted the veracity of my memory on this, but it is confirmed here.

6. Dysentry in Nepal1994. Unfortunately I didn’t escape the effects of this one. I quite enjoyed being the subject of tropical disease quarantine procedures back home and having to ask around the office if anyone was pregnant or otherwise at high risk.

7. Street robbery in Peru1995. I was the victim of a classic push & shove & snatch type robbery in the beautiful city of Ayacucho. The highland route from Lima to Cuzco had only recently opened up to tourists following years of violent threat from the Maoist Sendero Luminoso, and so it was a pretty risky area. Plus it felt a punishment of sorts for eating guinea pig the previous evening. I lost my second passport in this incident (the one that had been issued at the Consulate in Rome).


Peruvian guinea pigs


Venezuelan Monopoly

8. Taxi robbery in Venezuela1998. This was really spectacularly bad and stupid. My only justification in retrospect is that it was at the end of a three week trip and I was very much softened to the friendly Venezuelans. Nevertheless, accepting cups of coffee from a taxi driver in Caracas was a classic mistake. He drove round and round until my friend Jeremy and I were nicely dozy and then politely invited us to get out. And drove off with all the luggage. I half-remember surreal hours wandering around Caracas getting strange looks from locals, at one point buying and then quickly dropping an ice cream. No lasting damage (I think!), and of everything that was the lost what stood out most as irreplacable was my Venezuela Monopoly set. It featured Casualidad and Arca Comunal cards and I hope our taxi driver was caught out by a swift Váyase a la Cárcel!

I’ve been inspired to write about this today for two reasons. Firstly, I’ve just read Julian Barnes’ book The Sense of an Ending. I found it really quite unpleasant. I tend to empathise strongly with characters in well-written books and often notice myself invaded by their emotional preoccupations and speaking with aspects of their voice (points to another possible blogpost). Well, I’ve rarely found a narrator more unpleasant company than the unreliable hero of The Sense of an Ending, and I hope I can forget him swiftly. But the point is that the book revolves around documents from the past resurfacing which radically challenge the first hand memory of events.

Travel diary

Travel diary

I’m old enough now to have a few documents that could potentially do that, and as I was reading my thoughts turned to one in particular. I travelled the world for about 18 months in 1995-96 and, very unusually for me, I kept a diary every day, in a notebook covered with frogs. I tracked it down today and have been checking my memories of people, places and events, such as the Ayacucho robbery mentioned above.

The second reason for writing this today is the news of yesterday’s sinking of the Costa Concordia off the coast of Italy.

So I’d like to share some choice excerpts from my travel diary written during the week or so I was touring the Galápagos Islands, which could reasonably have been expected to be one of the highlights of the whole trip. Interspersed are a few scanned pictures from that trip, taken with a quite basic camera that I conclusively dropped into the ocean a few months later while stretching for a special shot on Bora Bora.

– – – – – – – – – –


The Lumabeda

5th July 1995 – “To my great relief I have not been completely ripped off: a boat actually does exist. In addition to a Spanish-speaking guide there is a Fleming who looks like Siegfried.” … “The Lumabeda is currently moored, taking on water, beneath a brilliantly-illuminated alien sky.”

6th July 1995– “Last night the boat ran aground on submerged sand at about 9pm. We all took to the lifeboat which proceeded to try to pull the boat free for two hours. We boarded a nearby boat for coffee and humour and watched ours gradually fall over as the tide lowered until it was completely horizontal, which left the Dutch lady artist weeping for the destruction of her drawing book in the inundation which appeared inevitable” … “But the ship was successfully unwrecked and cleaned up remarkably well.”


Maginificent Frigatebirds


Giant tortoise

7th July 1995 – “Still rather stunned and newly bonded passengers attempted to continue with naturalistic pursuits. I fall sick and narrowly avoid vomiting on a hill walk.” … “We sail all evening to Puerto Ayora; dolphins circle the boat en route.”

8th July 1995 – “One of the Germans is injured boarding the boat due to it being dangerous. It is a boat which seems to encourage people to fall down staircases or into the sea. Today, in fact, my third hat does just that.” … “I have been unable to eat for two days because of illness compounded by seasickness compounded by terrible food. Play Monopoly.”

9th July 1995 – “Awaken mid-ocean to a depressing silence and seasickness all round. The engine has broken down terminally. The situation inspires the cook to new horrors, which fall on the floor due to the sway” … “A fishing boat arrives at 3pm to tug us to San Cristóbal.” … “By 1am we are in sight of port but the boat is lurching and taking on water again. Flares are lit, but we succeed in limping to port with the aid of a water pump.” … “The hotel appears to be owned by an appalling disgusting character who also owns the Lumabeda and probably other crimes.”

10th July 1995 – “We take a day trip on a small boat and much argument breaks out, principally the German and Swiss males against Fate. They have long zoom lenses and strange motorists’ goggles.” … “Española Island tomorrow. Wine and appalling cake.”


Blue-footed Booby

11th July 1995 – “We sail at 6:30 but after 30 minutes the boat begins to take on water, and we turn back with six of us in the lifeboat and the remaining passengers and crew still in the boat removing water by bucket. Disconcerting.” … “Dinghies arrive from a naval base and rescue the other people. Minutes afterwards, we watch the Rábida sink. We return to the Hotel Chatham for another day of recriminations and negotiations. The survivors of the wreck are the centre of attention.”

12th July 1995 – “Third attempt to reach Española is successful. I am transferred to the good ship Seaman which appears to be from a different world and proves that none of the discomforts and incompetences of the week were remotely universal in Galápagos.”


An interesting cactus

13th July 1995– “I succeed in playing an almost complete game of Monopoly since no-one is seasick on this boat and the pieces do not fall all over the floor.”

– – – – – – – – – –


At the end of the tour

Well, my memory of the events was just about perfect. But I’m fascinated by how much my voice has changed. There is such a mischievous energy, and also so much mockery and judgement.

These events are all long in the past. I do love travel. And I intend to return to the Galápagos Islands someday.