Wednesday, October 31, 2007

And the healing has begun...

When I first talked to her about moving, Landlady was pretty upset, but she's getting into it now. As we sit and chat, she scans the environment: "Are you taking this plant? Are you taking this television? What about this plant?"

Time heals all :)

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

New horizons opening

It's a big week for Funchal airport. Today, Aer Lingus debuts its Dublin-Funchal direct flight, which will run twice a week. Yesterday, Easyjet started its new (daily) Stansted-Funchal route, with ticket prices from £24.99. The improved accessibilty should make a big difference to tourism here.

And on that note...

...I'm moving from Madeira.

I know, I know - semi-tropical island, cheap cost of living and my very own Flat Space - who would dream of moving! Well, the next book is taking me (briefly) to New York, and there's another batch of research for a non-fiction book waiting in Dublin.

And so, having not lived in Ireland for almost a decade, I'm ready to surround myself with its voices and stories. I'm heading off during the second week in December. I've spent the last 3 Christmasses in Madeira: this year it'll be West Cork, followed by New York in January. And I'll take it from there, and somewhere along the way I hope to find another horizon at which to wonder.

The important thing is this: to be able at any moment to sacrifice what we are for what we could become.

--Charles Dubois

Monday, October 29, 2007

Almost All Hallow's...

Another regular afternoon: Herman (the neighbourhood three-legged dog) is busy making his rounds, and the enormous shiny hearse just pulled up at the store -- stocking up on nuts and apples for Halloween, I expect. The Classic Tales podcast this week is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow - I'm waiting until it gets dark (the wind is already picking up - it'll be howling by twilight): I shall curl up with a glass of wine and listen to the tale of Ichabod Crane...

And on another subject entirely, musician Bob Mould (who you can see interviewed on Fora TV here) held an interesting poll and discussion of the future of music distribution, as changing technologies redefine the relationships between musician, label, distributor and fan. Well worth a look.

I hope readers in Ireland are enjoying the bank holiday :)

Friday, October 26, 2007

A pocketful of posy

I somehow spent the afternoon researching flowers. I've been at it for hours: reading up on gardenias, magnolias, freesias, peonies (vs peony trees, which are sooooo different), lily of the valley -- finding out when they bloom and what they symbolise and if they could realistically be in the same place at the same time.

Then I stopped, remembering that today was supposed to be filled with research for the New York book. How did I get here? And I traced it back: to a (NY-related) scene this morning which featured 15th century posy rings...

Some minxy corner of my brain probably thought 'posy... posy... what about that other thing you were working on, why don't you just google gardenia, see where it takes you...'

Have a lovely weekend :)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Dawn Café

Café life here - as anywhere - is fascinating. The Madeiran coffee experience is very cheap and very fast - the inverse of my experience anywhere else. There are other differences as well - bread and pastries are all baked in-house, and no-one seems to think that warrants bragging about; and everywhere serves alcohol (in addition to beer and recognisable spirits, there are a few strange bottles occasionally brought out from under the counter).

But the early mornings are when Madeiran café life really stands out. You know the usual: people queueing impatiently for a vat of coffee to drink on the way to work; a few solitary people taking the time to sit with a danish and a vacant expression.

It's different here: parents and children pop in on the way to school for juice and a pastry; suited types stand at the counter, chatting with the staff; friends catch up over breakfast before heading off separately to work. They make it seem like elevenses on a Saturday morning. It all happens very quickly, but without being rushed. And it continues through the day - people coming together for a few minutes and a thimbleful of coffee.

A 20-oz coffee to go would be unimaginable: What a ridiculous amount of coffee, and you say I'd drink it walking down the street... where's the point in that?

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A Day Off

Aah, the deadline was met at some point in the early hours of the morning. A contented sigh followed, then a glass of wine to de-work my brain, and a sound night's sleep.

So, today was like surfacing. Yes, I noticed that the apartment had grown those little 'tunnels of clean' again from room to room. And I'm sure that empty bottles must breed while waiting to be taken for recycling; there's just no other explanation for so much glass...

Anyhoo, today was a gorgeous warm day. I'm rested, fishy-swimmed, and email is up to date. And I think I may actually turn off the laptop for the evening.

Or maybe I'll just set it to standby...

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Holy perspective, Batman

I'm busy meeting a ghostwriting deadline, so for your viewing pleasure, here's some fun street art:

Trompe l'oeils wreck my head, but pleasantly so.

And my personal favourite...

Monday, October 22, 2007


I've been thinking about the whole Dumbledore-is-gay news. I think what surprises me is that the crowd reacted with a standing ovation. Presumably it was an expression of solidarity, but honestly, if Rowling thought that the fact was important enough, wouldn't she have mentioned it in one of the books? I mean, now that we all know, it's changed children's literature for the better, but it seems a little after-the-fact to me...

Now, if, after the unprecedented success of Book One, Rowling had written Dumbledore's coming-out scene for Book Two - that would have been audacious. That would have been worthy of a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Day of rest

Classic Sunday afternoon here: bit of lounging, bit of writing, and a swim followed by a beer (or two). Heavenly :)

Friday, October 19, 2007

A word from the stage

Funchal's Baltazar Dias Municipal Theatre is a gorgeous old building from the 1880s, which was apparently intended as a mini-La Scala.

I went last night - we arrived late, and I figured we wouldn't get in until intermission. But no, the nice man unlocked the enormous foyer doors, and the nice lady reopened the ticket booth (tickets costing an outrageous five euros). Another person guided us towards the theatre, and unlocked another enormous door. My first thought was "They lock the audience in?? That's got to break every EU H&S law going..." but it turns out she was opening a private stall for us, so we didn't disturb anyone as we took our seats. I felt like we were being rewarded for showing up late.

The play was a good laugh - I scrabbled enough Portuguese together to follow the plot. Some lines I understood fully, like "Where is the parsley?" (she asked for salsa, which we all know is not coriander but parsley, yessirree). The play was ruled over by an Italian harpy-granny, who barked orders in Italian throughout. When she shrieked"Vaffanculo!" I understood perfectly - thanks to my mother's careful instruction...

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A time and a season for all things...

As I was sewing up the super-thick wool jumper that I've been knitting for myself, it occurred to me that this would work in Dublin/Devon/Michigan. Finishing up a jumper as the night-frosts are beginning is entirely appropriate.

Not here, though. It's sweltering; Madeira never gets frosts. There was snow once up on the highest point - the restaurant up there has photos framed in wonder. I've just shoved the mound of knitted sleeves and bits to one side. I'll wait till the sun goes down.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Disturbance in the kitchen

There was a mini-crash in the kitchen, and I found my Feathers McGraw fridge magnet in pieces on the floor. And then I noticed the card that he had been holding up on the fridge...

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Tales from the Flat Space

Last night I was down at the Flat Space, padding around just before sunset. A tourist couple walked down: they didn't speak or pay any attention to each other. They stood around, and were about to leave when they noticed that the sun would be setting in a few minutes. So they stood and waited, looking bored and slightly pissed-off.

I see many sunsets here, but this one was particularly gorgeous: against a pale clear sky, the fiery orange sphere melted into the thin bank of lilac cloud lining the horizon. It was really stunning.

And I wondered if that last radiance of the day would transform their drab expressions, or if the couple would slump back up the hill, mentioning to friends over dinner, "Oh yeah, we took a walk, watched the sunset"--making what was clearly a chore sound romantic and pleasurable.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Working night and day

A short film about the workings of the solar system. The textures are lovely, and when the guy hefts the moon - you really feel its weight. A lovely fable.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Views from the edge

I went down to the Flat Space this morning to have a walk around the new development before the Superheat came. The dawn-clouds were just burning away as the first yacht sailed by...

The place was very quiet: just a few scuba-divers out, and some early-birds sunbathing & swimming.

Beyond the statue of Cristo Rei is a tapering cliff - they've built a path out to the edge, which will have some little seated areas along the way. At present it's filled with bits of timber and iron bars (if only I could unlearn all that Health & Safety training) but it looks like it'll be lovely.

The view from the edge is great - not only can you see the statue of Cristo Rei properly, but it turns out there's a cool cave along the coast just begging to be explored...

Friday, October 12, 2007

Nobel and Noble

Alfred Nobel invented dynamite??? Who knew!

The guy spent most of his life developing explosives for the family factory, which traditionally supplied materials for war -- they faced bankruptcy when the Crimean War ended in 1856. But by 1860, the chemist Nobel was experimenting with nitroglycerine, and in 1863 he patented his 'blasting oil'. Despite several people being killed in the factory (including his brother!) he persisted in his work - patenting dynamite in 1867, and blasting gelatine in 1876.

Setting aside his fascination with exploding things, Nobel was a pacifist throughout his life, and a shy, sickly man. He thought carefully on how his fortune would be best used -- the will that established the Nobel prizes was his third.

The back of the Nobel medal shows a tunnel blasted by dynamite. On the front of the medal is a portrait of Nobel, with the Latin inscription Creavit et promovit: "he created and promoted".

And blew stuff up. A lot.

But speaking of creating thoughtful legacies: there's a great (and rare) interview with Chuck Feeney on NPR. Billionaire Feeney founded Duty Free Shoppers, and is on track to give away all of his money before he dies. He's already done a bunch of philanthropic work, and his foundation will spend the remaining $4 billion over the next decade. Feeney calls it 'giving while living'. Fabulous fabulous work.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Making stuff up

Mango pulp, fresh orange juice and Absolut Citron. Heaven :)

I'm researching the next novel. I adore this kind of work: starting with a vague idea, then exploring and reading and thinking and exploring some more. Then patterns start to form...

I barely left home for my fishy-swim this afternoon!

Daily wombat update: he's no longer last!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Wombat and the Hare

The little Wombat is catching up with the other competitors of the Transat 6.50 -- go Wombat!

Although to be fair, the boats that he has caught up with just seem to be twirling around in circles in the vicinity of the Canary Islands...

The twirley-ones are probably just chilling out, taking in the great view, enjoying a bottle of wine and a little picnic that someone kindly packed for them. That's how the scene is playing in my head, anyway. Unless -- the picnics were actually prepared by the twirley-ones' villainous competitors, who are now taking the lead, laughing maniacally into the wind...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Don't abandon hope...

Interactive Dante is here! The University of Texas at Austin has a cool introductory site on the Divine Comedy, filled with beautiful images and straightforward navigation through the sources and allusions and influences and everything else that's going in that text.

This is exactly what we need for Joyces's Ulysses: everyone would read it if it was ridiculously well-annotated with a cool interactive flash website. I'm just sure of it...

Monday, October 08, 2007

Getting from there to here, to there

Over the weekend, the 88 boats of the Transat 6.50 Regatta left Funchal and headed for Brazil.

Madeira marks the end of Stage One - they sail here from La Rochelle (France). The first boat to arrive in Funchal from La Rochelle was captained by Isabelle Joschke, and she’s got nearly a 4.5 hour lead for the second leg, which ends in Salvador da Bahia. They reckon it should take 25 days to get from Madeira to Brazil: it's a 3000 nautical-mile journey.

The race's website is good fun: it zooms around the ocean to show you the current positions, and if you hover over any of the boats it shows the sole occupant, their speed, co-ordinates etc. There was one little red boat-marker still in Funchal: turns out Tom Braidwood had trouble with something on the Wombat and had to turn back, but hopes to set out again tonight - he'll be about 240 miles behind the others, who are now just approaching the Canaries...

Friday, October 05, 2007

Republic: The Return

Today is Republic Day. It commemorates this day in 1910, when the Portuguese monarchy was overthrown and Portugal was declared a republic.

In retrospect, it's called the First Portuguese Republic, since from 1926-74 Portugal was not so much a democratic republic as a Salazarist dictatorship. Still, they got over that blip, and a spanky new republic was proclaimed.

So, everyone has started their weekend early. And I think I may do the same :)

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Seeing dead people

I was thinking about Hugh Lane's will, and about the different responses of the living: some feel a responsibility to fulfill the wishes of the dead; others think "dead is dead; it's not like they care anymore".

And I don't mean this just in a legal sense. Take the case of Charles Byrne, the "Irish Giant". He was over 7 1/2 feet tall, and died in London in 1783. Byrne was terrified of being cut up and put on display after he died, and begged to be buried out at sea. But when he died, his body was sold to the museum at The Royal College of Surgeons; it's still on display there today.

Now, most bodies in museums haven't had the opportunity to make their wishes clear, and the choice of how to treat them is left up to us. There's an interesting article from last winter's Heritage Council Newsletter about the morality of exhibiting human remains, whether it represents a violation (or in the case of the murdered Lindow Man, exhibited at the British Museum with the garotte still clinging to his neck - whether it's yet another violation). The author, Jerry O'Sullivan (no relation) says:

"The core of this problem is that the treatment of human remains by archaeologists is diametrically opposite to their treatment by society in general. In almost every part of the world, in every period of human history, it has been customary to bury the dead with ceremony, in a special place set apart from everyday life. The dead themselves are regarded with reverence. Strong taboos attach to their physical remains and the places where they lie. In effect, they are put apart and hidden away. Archaeologists, on the other hand, have a lively and pragmatic interest in the remains of the dead. We treat them as scientific material to be harvested, analysed and interpreted. We bring the dead back into the light, figuratively speaking, in our analytical reports and, quite literally, in our museum exhibitions."

It's not an issue that can be neatly resolved - except for the rare instance where the person has stipulated "please don't put me in a museum". With all the public apologies and attempts to set the past to right that have been carefully formulated over the last 50 years, it's odd that no-one has thought to dismantle the exhibit, and let Charles Byrne be buried in accordance with his wishes.

I wouldn't want that preying on my conscience.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Round Trip

This began when I caught up on the Classic Tales podcast: it was a special on Edgar Allen Poe (and was great fun). I remembered that the Irish artist Harry Clarke had illustrated Poe's tales -- magnificently...

The picture above is from The Pit & the Pendulum - the scene where he gets the rats to chew through his bindings. Clarke also illustrated Hans Christian Anderson's stories (picture from The Little Mermaid below).

Now, one of the past-treats of Dublin was to sit in Bewley's on Grafton Street and gaze at Harry Clarke's beautiful stained glass windows. I saw his Eve of Saint Agnes stained glass in the Hugh Lane gallery last year, and it's just stunning.

Which reminded me of the dramatic story behind Hugh Lane: the Irish art collector who died with the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915; shortly before his death he changed his will, and bequeathed his collection not to London but to Dublin. But the new codicil had not been witnessed...

And where did that lead? Back to the New York Times Archive, which offers this simple report from 3 October 1915:

The will was not as straightforward as the NY Times first thought; the argument over Hugh Lane's collection went on until 1959.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Mapping famine

I'm not quite sure what I was supposed to be researching, but I ended up with one of Eavan Boland's (many) great poems.

For those unfamiliar with famine roads, they differ from the altruistic work of New York debutantes: when most of Ireland was being devastated by famine in the 1840s, the then-Government was fearful that charity might encourage laziness. Thus, the famine victims were given the opportunity to work for their alms, and were set to building roads: roads that weren't actually planned or needed, you know, but they kept everyone busy while they were dying. First-hand accounts describe the 'living skeletons' working these often pointless roads that started at a random point and went nowhere in particular.

Those famine roads remain today - as Boland says, "so powerful in their meaning and so powerless at their origin". It's a remarkable feeling, to follow one to its abrupt end in the middle of a field. It just suddenly disappears, and you realise: everybody died. They all died, and then there was no more reason to try to help, and therefore no need to force the dying to labour so that they wouldn't become greedy, lazy, good-for-nothings. A neat ending.

That the Science of Cartography is Limited

-and not simply by the fact that this shading of
forest cannot show the fragrance of balsam,
the gloom of cypresses
is what I wish to prove.

When you and I were first in love we drove
to the borders of Connacht
and entered a wood there.

Look down you said: this was once a famine road.

I looked down at ivy and the scutch grass
rough-cast stone had
disappeared into as you told me
in the second winter of their ordeal, in

1847, when the crop had failed twice,
Relief Committees gave
the starving Irish such roads to build.

Where they died, there the road ended
and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that

the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

Eavan Boland

Monday, October 01, 2007

Weather indecisions

The weather has been somewhat eclectic over the last few days.

The evening:

The morning:

Right now:

You wouldn't know whether to pour a refreshing vodka & tonic or a warming glass of red...