Sunday, November 27, 2011

winding down

Out on the terrace is not exactly the most obvious place to hang out with the calendar going inexorably towards December, but it's still unseasonably warm. It's been dry for weeks and the gales that wreaked havoc on the islands off the coast of Scotland last night haven't done much to disturb the peace here. There was some wind this morning but now it's calm. Best of all, the sun is out, though it's hanging quite low in the sky.

The view is stunning, as always. St. Paul's is imposing, rising imperturbably above the increasingly messy protest camp at its feet. It's a spectacular sight from any direction and cause of severe planning restrictions. The number of high-rises that slowly spread outwards from the City is surprising given the views protected by ordinances. On certain lines-of-sight, nothing can be built that might obstruct the mighty cathedral.

Ten miles up the Thames in Richmond Park is a little hill, a knoll, to employ a word that gave me good points in a game of Scrabble the other day, called King Henry VIII's Mound, with a telescope. Point the telescope at the plain in front of you, the obvious view overlooking the river, and you see the plain in front of you. Point it back towards London at a narrow clearing in the trees and you're bound to gape. Out of nowhere, St. Paul's jumps at you, hovering above the city like a mirage, with nothing in the way, rising above the horizon formed by the low wall encircling the mound. This view is part of the soul of London and the telescope free for all.

Nothing can be built between King Henry VIII's Mound and St. Paul's, in front of the cathedral or up to a dome and a half to either side. No one would imagine building something between me and St. Paul's at the moment either. The terrace I'm at is on the fifth floor of Tate Modern, facing the river and the cathedral behind. Leave Tate and walk a few minutes towards Southwark station and you will wonder how permission was ever granted to build the enormous power station that now houses the gallery, but out on the terrace, all you see are the river, the riverfront on the other side and the footbridge that takes you there.

view from Tate Modern

The bridge was built in the run-up to the millennium festivities and like the Millennium Dome – the other highly visible infrastructure project at the time – it came dangerously close to being a complete failure. The bridge opened in June 2000 and earned the moniker Wobbly Bridge during the first two days when those crossing, mostly as part of a walk in support of Save the Children, experienced a noticeable sway. Some felt unwell.

Too late, engineers realized that the minimal lateral vibrations that were part of the design would cause people on the bridge to walk in step, amplifying the motion to intolerable levels. Two days after it opened with great pomp, the bridge was closed for refitting. It didn't open for another two years. Even so, that was much better than the Millennium Dome's immediate fate.

After running a mildly successful exhibition during 2000, the Millennium Dome stood empty for years. It was leased to a developer who initially couldn't figure out what to do with a gigantic events center in the void of North Greenwich. It was off most people's maps and sat there, a spiky white elephant of public spending gone horribly wrong. Somehow it was turned around, and now it's the world's busiest music venue, with frequent knock-out shows. Led Zeppelin's ephemeral reunion in 2009 could have sold a million tickets. Prince played 21 nights in 2007. Michael Jackson was scheduled to play 50 (but that proved too daunting a prospect).

I've never been to The O2, as the Millennium Dome is called these days, but, to bring this post back to where it belongs, I've been on the terrace at Tate Modern many times. It's the best part of the member's room, a café only accessible to those shelling out for an annual membership to Tate. I've been a member pretty much since I moved here. While Tate Modern and Tate Britain are free to visit, the temporary exhibitions cost dearly, but members always go free. When Salvator Dalí came around in summer 2007, I bought a membership and never looked back.

It was a good deal. After four visits, I had recouped my investment, and there are at least eight shows a year in the two London spaces. Sometimes I would go see an exhibition twice. Overall I got so much out of my membership that I was a bit embarrassed at times. I was not so much supporting the museum as taking advantage of it. Here are my favorite exhibitions over the last four years (Tate's online archive helping me remember):

Salvator Dalí ("The difference between me and a surrealist is that I'm a surrealist") got it all started. I didn't expect much of Francis Alÿs but was bowled over by his poetry in everyday actions. Pop Life was a gaudy riot. Rothko's enormous canvases seemed to change color as I watched them. Cildo Mereiles's installations turned the exhibition into an adventure.

Up the river at Tate Britain, the Turner Prize retrospective was fantastic: Anish Kapoor's infinity, moving video art, and the split cow, all you ever need to see of Damian Hirst. From John Everett Millais I learned that there's no end to the meaning a few masterfully painted hands can convey. Richard Long's memories of walks undertaken were huge and subtle at the same time.

My time in London is coming to an end. Whether it's weeks or months, departure is near, and I'm slowing winding down my presence. When my membership came up for renewal this month, I declined. And so it came to pass that this weekend is the last I can spend in the member's room. Earlier, I had a tea and a little salad, but now, with the sun setting but the view still splendid, it's time to say farewell.

Thursday, November 24, 2011


If legend is to be believed, Lady Gaga, who's all the rage these days with juicy outfits and chart-busting mobile-phone commercials, picked up her name when she couldn't get enough of Queen's Radio Ga Ga. She hummed it all the time and it stuck. That's one version. Another says that record company marketing executives came up with the stage name. In either case, it couldn't be more fitting.

Lady Gaga is by all accounts an uncompromising individual, a unique weirdo, one-hundred-percent her own woman. There's no one like her, and she appears totally gaga. But there was someone who in his own time cultivated a similar in-your-face-and-whatcha-gonna-do-about-it attitude, who strutted the world's stages in hilarious kit and sang before enthralled audiences of millions.

I'm of course talking of Freddy Mercury, the frontman of Queen who died exactly twenty years ago today. I discovered Queen as a teenager and quickly bought their untitled debut album and Queen II, two jewels that are still among my most beloved CDs. Over the years, I added to the collection, everything from the 70s ("No Synthesisers!") and Innuendo, their farewell.

Curiously, Queen were most popular in the 80s when their greatest music was behind them. They recorded insipid drivel and vapid rock anthems, but one triumphal stadium tour followed another. They rarely played audiences of fewer than 100,000. Freddy Mercury pranced around the stage in tights and absurd jackets, flaunting his open, free and undiscriminating sexuality. Millions watched, gaped and cheered – at the music and the show, but also at a life lived to the fullest.

Twenty years ago today, Freddy died in his house in London of complications from AIDS. On my way home from work tonight, I stopped by to pay my respects and see how he was being remembered. There was a swelling crowd of 60, many of them young but a also few older characters, some of whom behaved as if they had known him, regaling fascinated audiences with stories from way back when. A good 30 bunches of roses and carnations were piled against the door and many letters and cards. Candles lined the forbidding wall that protects the property, burning stubbornly in the November chill.

Later at home, I put Queen II on the stereo and let it rock. With a glass of whiskey in hand, I searched for relevant memories, but there weren't any. I never saw them live. Freddy had died by the time I started buying CDs. Their music and stories I read are all I have. In the Guardian I found this tribute and in the comments a line that transposes Freddy to today: He was "the original Lady Gaga". Keep yourself alive!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011


The British government, a government that I did not vote for, that I have not been allowed to vote for to be precise, a government that doesn't exactly claim to represent my will or even take it into account announced earlier this week it would use the taxes I pay to make mortgages available to those who can't afford them.

I have nothing against paying taxes. I see them as a small personal sacrifice for the greater good, a contribution to a civilized society. I also have no issues with taxation without representation and wouldn't get smelly feet throwing tea into the Thames to protest nonexistent injustice. Instead, I make sure that I vote in Germany every time an election comes my way, getting representation without taxation in the process and fast trains to boot. Paying taxes here is merely involuntary reciprocity. I'm ok with that.

I'm not ok with owning property at all cost. If you till the land under your feet or want to diversify your millions, go ahead and buy, but it doesn't make sense for everyone, especially in these globalized, mobile times. Why would you lock a large proportion of your wealth in an illiquid and immobile asset? And yet, the Prime Minister talks about owning a flat as an experience he wants "everyone in this country" to have.

To this end he proposed earlier this week helping people who can't afford the deposit with a state guarantee, as if the subprime lending crisis in the US had never happened. And as if the Spanish meltdown hadn't happened and unemployment weren't at 20% down there, he dreams of using construction and house price inflation to resurrect the ailing economy.

Property prices have outstripped incomes dramatically over the last decade. There is no way this can continue. People can only pay what they have. At the moment it looks as if a plateau has been reached. Now the Prime Minister wants to encourage the less well-off to join the party in the hope to prop up prices and avoid the inevitable. Rewind five years and transpose five thousand miles to the west. It's not going to be pretty.

If people don't buy, in a country as property-crazy as the UK, with estate agents more of a blight to high streets than betting shops, chicken shacks and off-licences, it is because prices are much too high relative to income. And as long as a fall in property prices is not hailed for making property more affordable but deplored for destroying wealth, this is not going to change.

The UK has to wake up to the fact that people will rent more. As the situation is at the moment, renting is not a pleasant experience. (When I leave London, I will quote renting as one of the forces driving my away.) Tenants live without any security. They can be thrown out with two months' notice on a periodic contract or else be served with rent increases every half year. I can see how a family would be reluctant to turn a flat into their home under these conditions.

Tenant protection has to be ramped up sharply. This is clear but only part of the story. New stock has to be added to the housing market, especially at the lower end. Rents in London are apparently up 12% this year, though I can't say by what method the numbers are compiled. My rent is up 4% over two years. Anyway, Londoners, including those in unfashionable boroughs, now pay £1200 a month on average. With an average job, that's almost impossible to afford.

Boris the Clown, when he ran for the office of Mayor of London, an election I was allowed to participate in, promised to flush the city with affordable housing. Not sure this is what got him elected, but the numbers made for good PR. Mind you, they weren't high enough for everyone to afford an adequate flat, but enough for a lucky few. Fifty thousand said the campaign promise, over the course of four years, twelve-and-a-half thousand per year.

Between last April and this March, 12,870 flats were finished, easily meeting the target. In the last six month, in stark contrast, fewer than 3000 were added and work started on another 56. Is this the grim face of the recession or the bite of budget cuts? In either case, fifty-six is nothing in a city of eight million. It's obvious that neither local nor the national government knows how to use my tax pounds wisely.

Monday, November 21, 2011

living legend

I've just popped a CD into the stereo, a young chap blowing his tunes into the wind. His voice sounds accidental, as if he had chosen song only reluctantly as a vehicle for what he had to say. Nearly 50 years after that record was made, after decades of heavy use and frequent abuse, the voice has nearly disintegrated, deteriorated beyond possibility and yet, it still sounds from stages the world over.

This past weekend, Bob Dylan (you must have guessed) was in town, giving three concerts at the Hammersmith Apollo. The venue is just down the road from where I live, but what welled up inside me was hesitation not fervor. I dig his old tracks, the passionate protest songs that were just as passionately disowned by him as soon as the public took them up as weapons in their fight and embraced him as a hero. I love the ambivalence between him and his songs as much as I love his songs. But there's more than his songs. Dylan is an attitude, a time in history. He is a legend, someone who belongs to his era. I have never seen Dylan live.

I've never felt compelled. From what I've heard and read, the Dylan on tour is different from the Dylan in my mind, far removed from the Dylan on my stereo drawling out A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall in all its existential fear. The song's powerful words are half hidden by an incomprehensible mumble, half exposed by catchy rhythm and melody. How could an old man, battered by the decades, deliver similarly?

But maybe I should see Dylan at least once, in the same way that I'd join the Queen for tea if I had the chance? A click on the right button on Dylan's endless tour schedule took me to a ticket seller (that doesn't deserve mentioning) with all options still there. Seventy quid is not cheap but certainly not outrageous. I kept clicking a few more buttons, on the verge of committing, when the final bill cleared my mind. A Ryanair-like list of extra charges appeared, service charges, delivery fees, payment supplements, I don't remember the details. But it was nearly as much as I have paid, over the years, for the eight Dylan CDs that I own. And buying the tickets at face value at the venue box office didn't seem to be an option. To avoid getting screwed I declined that final click.

I don't know what I've missed; I haven't talked to anyone who has been to the concert and there's hardly a review out there on the shows. The same old story has probably been rehashed too many times. Dylan scrambles on stage and mangles his songs. There's little new material and old favorites are frequently unrecognizable, transfigured by his ruined voice and constant reinterpretation. Maybe it's the tedium of repetition, of being asked by adulating fans to play the same songs over and over again, dozens, even hundreds of times, that drives him to experimentation, maybe it's his ostentatious nonconformism that he wears like a uniform. In either case, I don't think I'd like it much.

What does he see in it? That he enjoys it must be the answer because nothing could possibly force him. Books, paintings and continued sales of his back catalog keep him flush and, at least the first two, busy. But while he might get the kicks out of his concerts, few in the audience seem to. In the comments section of this scathing preview, there are a few opinions on Saturday's concert. It doesn't look as if I've missed a thing.

What I did instead of going to the concert was project No Direction Home onto the long sidewall of my living room, five square meters of time warp, from New York to Berkeley to Newport. To me, Bob Dylan will always be the energetic young folk singer, the musical spirit of the 60s, the voice beyond compare, the songs the shaped a generation. This is the memory that I'll always have, and even though it's not my own, it's better than what I could get.

Monday, November 14, 2011


Over the four-and-a-half years that I've lived in London, I haven't much ventured into the land surrounding the city. I've walked in Kent a bit and spent a week in Cornwall. I've done, repeated and three-peated the mandatory fun trip to Brighton and taken day trips to the coast between Seaford and Eastbourne when it was hot. I've been to Bristol several times. I've visited Belfast and explored the north of Ireland, and I've been to the two villages of higher learning that loom just a stone throw away, always threatening to overshadow the ambitions of London's universities.

This list sounds long, but it isn't. Since I moved to London, I've seen more of Spain and Portugal than of England. I know the south of France better than Wales. And what exactly is Scotland? For domestic travel, I think in zones, and I rarely venture beyond the boundaries of the tube map and the limits imposed by the Oyster card. This is related to the fact that I imagine the rest of the United Kingdom as so different from London that it might as well be a different country, and as dull.

On Friday, from a different country, my sister came to visit. An inveterate Beatles fan, she wasn't content with the Abbey Road crossing (near St. John's Wood, zone 2) or 34 Montagu Square, where Ringo Starr lived for a while and then John and Yoko (near Baker Street, zone 1). No, she wanted to see where it all started. On Saturday, we took a train up to Liverpool.

Railroad travel started in England. The steam engine was developed here and quickly put on wheels and rails to increase the efficiency of coal mines. It was only a small step from these early cargo and hauling engines to passenger trains, a business idea that grew phenomenally in the late 19th century but then lost the race against the car. The glory days haven't been recaptured. Trains are slow (but frequent). Ours, averaging 84 miles per hour with hardly a stop, counted as fast. But the ride was comfortable and we got to our destination on time.

A friend in the lab who had done the same journey a few months earlier had warned me: "There isn't much to see in Liverpool. One day is enough." I was left doubtful: What were we gonna do there? I knew about the Tate, and I downloaded a music-themed walking tour in mp3 format. It clocked in at half an hour. I forgot to look up Penny Lane.

Leaving the station took us straight into one of these cheerless pedestrianized shopping streets that house the same stores in all English towns and cities, exchangeable in their drabness. We could have been anywhere. Mathew St., a side street a few blocks down where the Cavern Club hosted the Beatles 292 times, could have been only in Liverpool, but around lunchtime, there wasn't much of an atmosphere, and we missed the John Lennon statue, leaning forlornly against a wall. Out of options, we headed for the waterfront, my eternal hope when everything else fails.

We were saved. The Mersey, a river of inconsequential length but impressive width and tidal might, lapped high against the flood wall. Docks, quays, luffing cranes and passenger terminals used to be here, bustling with activity when Liverpool was the gateway to America. Smoke must have sat heavy in the air and the noise been deafening, but all this was gone. The riverfront is a promenade now.

On our left was the brand new Museum of Liverpool, welcoming visitors though still under construction. A poster on the hoarding surrounding one of the remaining piles of rubble showed a Ford Anglia with the sensual curves of the 60s for which alone I would have wanted to go in, but the sun was shining and we wanted to see what else there was.

A precariously balanced building to our right, its first and second floors jutting out over the murky water of the Mersey, housed an exhibition of previously unreleased Beatles photos available for sale in limited-edition print runs and the ticket agent for the river ferries. We booked the river explorer cruise and sat on a noisily departing ferry fifteen minutes later.

I normally don't do such a thing. I like to explore on my own and detest organized tours. But this one was different. It wasn't a tedious hour-long harbor cruise with too much information and not enough time to look, but essentially a regular ferry service that offered hop-on-hop-off opportunities on the other shore. We had an hour in Seacombe and an hour in Birkenhead with ten-minute ferry rides in between.

The walk along the estuary from Seacombe to the Irish Sea looked nice but was too long for the time we had. We did part of the walk because that was the only thing in town, then caught the next boat to Birkenhead, formerly a hub of shipyards and repair docks and, judging by fine late-Georgian architecture, the prestigious address of factory owners and wealthy merchants. The town had the first urban tram in Europe and the first public-funded park.

The park still exists, but the tram runs only on special occasions to commemorate the past and overall the paint is peeling on a massive scale. Hamilton Square is still elegant, but there are more To Let signs than there are Georgian façades, and there are empty shop fronts galore. There were no people and no business. The town seemed dead, ruined by decades of industrial decline, desperate for the kind of revitalization that has transformed the center of Liverpool but with no real hope for it.

Liverpool waterfront
Return to Liverpool

Our ferry ride back showed the Liverpool waterfront in all its redeveloped glory. Old buildings, tycoon baroque as well as industrial utility, have been restored and put to new uses. New buildings, bold and striking, have been added. The sinking sun added sparkling highlights and painted bricks an acrylic red.

The new energy doesn't stop by the water. A few city blocks have been turned into one of the more spectacular outdoor malls I've seen, three levels high with stairs and bridges at all angles, exposed viewpoints and a plaza with a big ice-rink overlooking it all. People were everywhere, all restaurants were packed. Further out along former warehouses, the bustle continued, clubs readying themselves for the Saturday night crowds, coffee shops, bookstores and other shops. It was lively beyond imagination, an area of a good twenty minutes across in constant motion.

This was not what I had expected. London is where the UK's life pulses, economically, socially, culturally. From a London-centric, deliberately ignorant and willfully arrogant perspective, there isn't much worth wasting quality time that could be spent much better within the confines of the tube network. Liverpool proved this approach wrong, if proof was necessary. There's no way round broadening my British horizon a bit in the months to come.

Sunday, November 06, 2011


Even though it's been going on for weeks and discussed ad nauseam in all news media, it was only this afternoon that I made my way over to St. Paul's to check out the Occupy London camp set up to the feet of the cathedral. Approaching from St. Paul's tube station, the first thing I noticed were fences around Paternoster Square. Like most of the City of London, nominally a local authority but in fact a medieval old-boys' network that serves to promote the interests of the headquartered companies not the residents, the land is privately owned and alleyways and plazas are concessions, revocable at the snap of a finger, by the landowner to the landless masses. The Paternoster Chop House, deprived of footfall, was clearly not amused and advertised its presence loudly, but found few diners willing to breach the barricades.

When the camp had jumped up, church authorities were quick to denounce it. Protesting greed was deemed irreconcilable with Christian values. Or maybe it was that the income from paying visitors was more important than either. The occupiers interfered with that, and the church, citing daily losses of £22,000, threatened legal action to have them evicted. (You can't just call the police to get rid of squatters in the UK.) With the violence looming, these early days must have been tense, but they were great PR for the occupiers. The church felt the pressure from all sides, not the least from within. High-ranking clerics resigned over the painful conflict between the Bible's teachings and the church's posturing, and suddenly the eviction was off. The occupiers stayed.

They have erected about 100 tents, stacked densely along the northern flank of the cathedral and sloping around towards the forecourt. The first impression is of Glastonbury without the mud. Thick-haired hippies sit strumming beat-up guitars and blowing imposing didgeridoos or stand juggling – the usual protest carnival. One tent proudly referred back to Climate Camp 2010 in Edinburgh and a placard kept the memory of Dale Farm. Clearly, the professional againsters were there.

It was all professionally organized as well. There was a first-aid tent, a library and education tent, half a dozen portaloos that were being noisily pumped empty by a sanitation truck, an info tent, a battery of solar panels futilely pointed towards the grey November sky, a tent advertising meditation at 3, and more recycling bins than you could throw exhausted newspapers at.

Kora player in Bristol

A fair bustle surrounded the camp (though it didn't seem to penetrate deep into it). A despondent-looking fellow with bagpipes by his feet wailed into the raised iPad of his video-interviewer. A frail lady in a bright blue khurta with devotional symbols printed all over shuffled around with a tall crucifix in her right hand, exhorting people to follow "Jesus the King of Mercy". Here and there, people were hunched over laptops, but there were vastly more spectators, photographers, journalists and tourists visiting St. Paul's that were caught unawares than there were protesters handing out revolutionary pamphlets or debating exit strategies from the economic crisis.

By the fountain in front of the cathedral was a little stage with a microphone and two big speakers, but while I was there no one took the opportunity to rally or pontificate. The walls of the buildings surrounding the churchyard were plastered with slogans, newspaper clippings, manifestos and calls for further protest. 9th November – Central London, 10th November – Fortnum and Mason. The coffee and sandwich shops resident in these walls were doing good business off the occupation and the attention surrounding it.

In the churchyard, the mood was one or placid routine not energetic protest. There was not much action or perceptible passion, no spirit of fight and no despair from which hope and dreams can rise. There was no sense of high stakes, but it's tough to retain your anger when the owner of the land you're occupying is rather content to let you have it, providing you separate your rubbish and don't compromise the fire engine approach. The bells of St. Paul's, which rang so long and cacophonously that their purpose cannot have been anything but driving the occupiers out or, if that proved elusive, mad, was the only thing I interpreted as official belligerence. The police just stood and watched with the distantly bemused look of British cops.

What was this all about? Occupy Wall Street coined the catchy phrase of the 99% and pointed out the disconnect between the excessively rich and everyone else. This is an issue here as well. The CEOs of the FTSE 100 companies saw their remuneration rise by 49% last years whereas common employees got a raise of 2.5% on average. But other issues feature, often raised by the mad fringe that has come along for the ride. Here are some examples: A picture of Che, mandatory and vacuous in equal parts. Bring the troops back home flyers. The UFO Society of Ireland advertising next to the Liberation of the People movement. Flu is not the problem! The vaccine is. A note, scrawled in raw despair: The System is wrong. Change it.

The problem with all the complaints – and it's easy to mock them – the problem with all the inequities pointed out and all the travesties of contemporary capitalism is that there is no simple and easily implemented solution. There are radical approaches aplenty: Privatize the banks, take money from the rich, turn businesses into worker-owned cooperatives, but none of these slogans could form the basis of a political platform that appeals to the silent majority, which is the only way, in a democratic society, to bring about change.

Maybe the occupiers in their workshops and debates develop visions that will shape the future. I have my doubts, the wackiness-to-sense ratio seems rather high. But at the very least, they've catalyzed discussion on topics that need to be tackled for us to continue living in prosperity. The present system of financial capitalism is quite clearly rotten, but at last this realization has become mainstream. Finding a way forward, even identifying starting points for change that is majority-compatible, will require efforts much beyond camping in a churchyard.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

taking up the pen

Late in September, I announced my likely retirement from blogging. October has been silent and my site left to wither. In the list that counts the posts, down on the right side, October doesn't feature, which is better than a big fat zero next to it but telling nonetheless. A gap has opened, not just between the last post and the present day but also between my desire to write and reality. This gap has now become a chasm too wide to ignore, and the only way to close it is to fill it with words.

It has been clear to me for a while that I would continue with this, though I'm still not one bit closer to figuring out what it is that I want to write about. There has never been a unifying theme in my writing. Maybe that's for the best. My life can't be put in a neatly labeled box and neither can my attitudes, passions, interests and opinions. Life is colorful, especially in London, and if I let one interest grab me for too long, I'd miss out on the rest.

So to restart the blog – and I was wondering what the topic of the first post would be – I dive my fingers into a small glass jar of characteristic shape that once contained the gooey goodness of Bonne Maman. It now serves to store the pens I keep accumulating, most holding emotional value but some fit to write. The fingers push aside lesser objects and imposters and pick, with great care and delighted anticipation, a slick silver fountain pen, its metal body cool to the touch.

I've owned this fountain pen for a good 15 years, must have bought it right after high school when I was sure I would never again be required to write with one. By that count, in all its pointlessness, it was the ultimate vanity item. By another count, in monetary terms, it quite obviously wasn't. The pen is no Cross or Montblanc. I've gone though moments of intense desire for such pieces of high luxury but I've never caved in.

The pen is a no-name from a budget store, the kind of place I used to frequent fresh out of high school, long on wants and short on cash. For its cheapness and namelessness, the pen has lived up fabulously. Whenever I rescue it after prolonged periods of deathlike inactivity – and its life so far has been a seemingly interminable train of periods of inactivity – it is ready to go. I uncap it, wipe it clean, insert a fresh ink cartridge and moisten the nib, and it starts writing just as it did when I had just bought it.

When I was in middle school, in leaner times than now, all of us wrote with fountain pens. Such were the rules, plus there weren't many ballpoint pens around. Our people-owned companies, under the rigors of five-year plans, didn't have room for frivolous activities such as giving away biros. Who would have manufactured them in the first place? China didn't exist back then.

In conditions of scarcity, the oddest objects can acquire prestige and desirability. At some point in school, someone discovered the magic of capitalist ink cartridges. Our home-grown ink, produced in the Barock factory in the next town up the river and purchased by our moms at the local stationer's at the beginning of each school year, came in cartridges plugged with a little plastic bung. Those made on the bright side of the Wall, available only to those whose grandparents could travel West, were capped with a little glass bead that could be recovered after use, liberated from the cartridge and dropped into the hollow interior of the pen where it would roll around during use with a characteristic sound.

This rattle, which could be much amplified by vigorous shaking, set the cool apart from the lame. The cool kids had other defining marks: blue fingertips, blue spots on their lips and possible blue teeth. To extract the glass bead, the empty cartridge had to be opened first, a task that was most easily accomplished by biting off the plastic disk that sealed the other end. The cartridge then had to be washed to get the bead out, spilling blue all over. One might have looked dyspraxic, but with a pen that clattered one could smugly look down on those poor and desperate fellows who wrote in silence.

These days my pen is silent all too often. While I don't need it to make any sounds – I don't recover glass beads anymore – I would like it to make metaphorical noise, liberating the power of ideas and words and turning empty space into sense. The first step, as always, is to get going, and I've done that now. The question of why I blog hasn't been directly addressed but it's contained in this rambling discourse anyway.

Blogging takes time, demands creativity and works my brain. The reward, and the reason why I'll keep doing it, is that I like the results, sometimes right away but more often, as with a fine wine, after a suitable while. In moments of quiet reflection, or when I'm tired, down or empty, I pick a random month and frequently surprise myself with the cool things that have happened and the delightful ways they are described. Some posts are drab and inconsequential, but others are memory and enjoyment rolled into one. That's how I see it, anyway. And if it's good enough for me, it's perfect for this blog.