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What I really liked about New Zealand wasn’t the spectacular scenery. The scenery was spectacular. I liked the way palm trees and tree ferns exploded like green fireworks from the centre of what looked like ordinary forests (by which I mean, the ones I’m used to seeing). I liked the way you could look down into the craters of Mounts Eden, and Rangitoto, the former spewed of red rock, the latter of black. The dust of Rangitoto, which was as black as coal and as fine as flour dulled our shoes with a grey patina and each step we took ground out a teaspoonful more from the pumice-like scoria. And the phrase itself has such a rhythm about it – The Dust of Rangitoto – there’s got to be a ballad/poem in there somewhere!

But we have scenery. We even have volcanoes, though not dormant ones, and Arthur’s Seat is a plug that you look up at, rather than down into. At Waiotapu the hot springs were colourful and spectacular, and smelly, but the vents you could stare down into and not see the water that you could hear boiling below were, to my ears, the most spectacular (which is a mixed metaphor you might recoil at – though I rather like it). What struck me most there was the way the birds were nesting in the volcanic cliffs’ letting the geo-thermal heat do the work of incubation while they flew in and out of the rock vents catching the insects that lived even there. By the mud pools, where min-geysers (guysers, the Kiwis call them – yis!) threw handfuls of grey gloop a few feet or even only inches up into the air, and the concentric ripples of their falling back moved slowly outwards, the pool-edge bushes grew close enough to get coated in the hot, killing, grime. Life pushes in as far as it can go, and sometimes further. We’re not alone, then, in such follies.

But what I really liked, apart from the wonderful coffee, and the Asian food, all along Ponsonby Road, or on the more edgy ‘K’ road, that turns downhill towards the CBD, was the fact that in New Zealand, the drivers don’t just wait patiently for you to cross at the zebra crossings, they actually wait for you to get to them! And on the lights controlled crossings in the CBD, with not a car in sight for two hundred yards in either direction, the pedestrians wait, equally patiently, for the green man to expose himself. This isn’t waiting the way the Germans are said to, because it’s the rules, or doesn’t seem so, but seems instead to be, well, because they can, and who’s in a hurry? Now that’s what I call civilised.


Churchill is reputed to have said that the only thing you needed to know about an Englishman (I think he must have meant only the orficer class) was which side he would have stood on at Naseby. In my generation that might have been amended to actually knowing which side he would have stood on, and perhaps to even knowing what Naseby was.

Today there could be another test: which side did he vote for over Brexit?

Anywhere is just a bigger version of somewhere. Just back from Venice.

I’m not a natural traveller, but a friend and I had been talking about driving to Trieste for about ten years – slightly more time than it might take!

Time is an issue though, and both of us must be running out to some extent. Last year we opted for finally getting round to doing it, and set the date for this year. The middle of October was chosen, and on the fifteenth I set off by train to meet him in Suffolk, from where he would drive us, there and back, as Hobbits go.

There was a purpose to all this – or was that a porpoise? It was to allow me the unalloyed pleasure of walking past the statue of James Joyce, whilst appearing not to notice him. The intended comic moment became more comic in reality. My camera packed up a couple of weeks before we were due to go. No problem, I thought. I can take the old Sony Handycam – a decade out of date but still going strong. All those stories I put up on Vimeo have been shot with it!

The salamander in the firewood though, was that my friend would have to do the shooting. He’s about as much of a technophile as I am.

I spotted Joyce from a hundred yards away, a slim, upright figure, motionless among the desultory few who were crossing the bridge on foot. There are tourists in Trieste, even in October, but the place was quietly bustling rather than frenetically overcrowded.

There’s our man, I said, perhaps sounding like some B-movie hit-man supplied by central casting. Where? Keep looking, I told him, and we strode down the Canal Grande to our destiny. Then, as we neared the end of the bridge I sprung on my partner what it was he had to do. It’s like a trumpet, I told him, passing over the Handycam. You switch it on here, and you film here. You zoom in here, and you zoom out here too. You can do it all with one hand, like holding a trumpet. I’ve never held a proper trumpet. Maybe I should have asked, but hasn’t everyone held a trumpet, even if only a toy one?

So I sauntered over the bridge, looking cool, and avoided the Irishman’s glance, staying on the far side of the road. Let him wonder! Then, just out of his line of sight, I crossed over and looked around the buildings, which are impressive. Then I turned and walked back, passing him as I had intended to do. It worked like a dream.

My friend was at the end of the bridge, holding the camera like a saxophone.

He said, you’ll have to do it again.


I think I missed you.

You’re kidding?

No, I’m pretty sure I missed you, at the crucial moment.

The footage shows me, not that cool as it turns out, walking across the bridge, and then the trumpet voluntary kicks in, and we zoom, in, zoom out, pan wildly, find Joyce, lose him, find me, lose me, not necessarily in that order. I couldn’t have written a better screenplay for the culmination of a fifteen hundred kilometre drive from one side of the continent to the other.

I’m a big fan of Daniel Boorstein’s old book on the falsification of reality (The Image, a history of pseudo events in America ). I don’t know if it’s still in print, but if it is, get hold of a copy, because it still stands up to scrutiny. A pseudo-event, in case you haven’t jumped to it, is an event staged for the camera: re-run, re-envisaged, totally fabricated.  Of course, you might wish to consider, at this point, just to what extent a written account of a past occurrence – even at Owl Creek Bridge – is itself, a pseudo-event.

It’s OK, I said. We’ll make do with what you got. Joyce, I think, would have appreciated the comic irony, and even if he didn’t, I do!

Of course, what I should have said when my friend proposed that I repeat the exercise was, if only I’d thought of it at the time….No, no I won’t

Meanwhile here’s the latest collection of short stories from BHD…49 Tales, Anecdotes,Flash Fictions, Monologues and Short Stories…

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T.E.Lawrence (Cape, 1935)  T.E.Lawrence remains an enigmatic and controversial figure. Lawrence’s most famous work is Seven Pillars of Wisdom, an account of the Arab Revolt against Turkish rule during the First World War, and I recently found myself reading it once again. I have been clearing out thousands of unsold books, the residue of a quarter of a century of bookselling. Among them is a copy of the Seven Pillars as heavy and large as an old family bible. In my opinion it is the only edition to read – though there are others, and even an abridged version, entitled Revolt in the Desert. A part of the appeal of this book, perhaps the major part, must lie in its differences from what I have experienced, living in a temperate landscape and under a western, liberal-democratic ideology. Arabia was a foreign country too, to borrow an aphorism, and they did things differently there. This book goes a long way towards explaining how, and why, or at least giving one thoughtful and observant outsider’s view on that. Stick with the massive 1935 edition, the first unabridged text to be prepared for general publication. It is not an uncommon book. There was a time (and it still may be the case) when it was harder to find a second-hand bookshop without a copy of this edition for sale than one with it, and harder to find a book auction catalogue without one recorded! The copy I’m reading from has its caramel brown cloth binding stained with a soft white mould, but the crossed sabres, and the text between them, still glitter with gilding, which is a form of gold. The paper is thick, and slightly glossy. The foredges are rough cut. Holding the pages to the light though, we see no chain marks, suggesting that it has been factory, rather than hand made. The maps fold out, are in fact what booksellers call ‘thrown out’, with a sheet of plain paper between them and the binding, so you can have the map on display while you read on beyond it in the text. Reading from such a book, because of its size, because of its weight, is an awkward business, and not to be taken lightly. The tome must be laid upon a table, or better still, a lectern, or you must bear the weight of it upon your lap, and be reminded that you are not dealing here with some lightweight piece of indulgent fluff. I had not intended to read it again. There are unpleasantnesses in it that are worth knowing about, but unnecessary to re-visit for their own sakes, yet. Yet, it is a book of great beauty. I want to say, immense beauty: the beauty of the desert, and of Lawrence’s appreciation of it; the beauty of his feasts (ever since reading it my desire has been to serve a whole roast sheep, on a bed of rice, in a tin bath – how could we eat it any other way, without recognising our own unimportance?); the beauty of his portrayal of the semitic peoples among which he lived and fought; the beauty, when all is said and done, of his prose. It is a reasonably long work, stretching to some 350,000 words over many ‘books’ each of several short chapters. It is a work to take a few chapters at a time, perhaps even one at a time, despite their brevity, for they are dense with his understanding and his observation. Each sentence is to be weighed and considered, to be mulled over and reflected upon. One could argue that the trend of modern politics, the so-called war on terror and the Arab spring, make this a timely read, and that may be so, but Seven Pillars of Wisdom needs no such impetus to prompt a reading. The desert, I suspect, has not changed in the eighty years since Lawrence wrote it, though its skylines may have, nor will it have, I guess, eighty years hence, and what Lawrence has to say about it, and about its profound effects upon the thoughts, and behaviours of those who venture out upon it, will be as powerful and as resonant then as it is now, and has always been. Here’s Lawrence arriving in Jidda at the beginning of ch.VIII: ‘We had the accustomed calm run to Jidda, in the delightful Red Sea climate, never too hot while the ship was moving. By day we lay in shadow; and for great part of the glorious nights we would tramp up and down the wet decks under the stars in the steaming breath of the southern wind. But when at last we anchored in the outer harbour, off the white town hung between the blazing sky and its reflection in the mirage which swept and rolled over the wide lagoon, then the heat of Arabia came out like a drawn sword and struck us speechless. It was midday; and the noon sun in the East, like moonlight, put to sleep the colours. There were only lights and shadows, the white houses and black gaps of streets: in front, the pallid lustre of the haze shimmering upon the inner harbour: behind, the dazzle of league after league of featureless sand, running up to an edge of low hills, faintly suggested in the far away mist of heat.’ If you have seen the movie version with Peter O’Toole and his sparkling blue eyes and flaring nostrils, don’t be put off – that epic draws on Lawrence’s account, but as if with the sound turned down and the colour switched off. The visual is a pale echo of the written story, and in the written story Lawrence is not the hero. Neither, for that matter, are the countless Arabs, leaders and fighters, along with their European collaborators, who are mentioned by name. The true hero of the book is the desert in all its ethereal beauty, and it was for this, certainly, that I was prepared to endure again the ugliness of the human story with which the author presents us. Lawrence’s description of the desert, of its dawns and dusks, its jebels and wadis, its arid landscapes of sand and stone, and its star filled skies, as much as the way the nomadic tribesmen have adapted their ways of life to its necessities, is the presence that draws me back to this haunting memoir.