Monday, 27 July 2009

Falling Chopsticks and Lonely Streetlights: the path to Sark

I've always liked those Rube Goldberg machines. You know the ones. It starts off with someone nudging a chopstick off a shelf which then lands onto a marble which rolls into a matchbox car which falls into a precariously placed bucket of water which spills into a set of scales which lowers and stretches out a slingshot which fires a yellow bouncy ball into a red cabbage and in the end a little wind-up monkey lights a candle or something. Those born in the 80s might remember that Mousetrap game as a good example (along with the way your 8 year-old hands and body had to stay unnaturally still lest you accidentally bump the board and set off the whole plastic sequence of events that took sixteen episodes of Heman to set up).

Even the simplest of endings, like a monkey lighting a candle or a dart piercing a goldfish, had to go through a meticulously constructed set-up for it to happen at all.

Some people think that their whole lives have been designed like this; that there is some old codger who is setting off seven billion Goldberg machines at once, with different 'end points' for each of them: some of us pierced like a goldfish and some of us choking on a chocolate-coated peanut.

Even if you think that that's a load of codswallop, it's still interesting thinking about all the precariously placed buckets and falling chopsticks that had to happen to lead to whatever you're doing right now. I think about it all the time, usually at stupid tiny moments like when I'm chopping cauliflower or eating hummous.

When I was on the Isle of Sark recently - the smallest of the Channel Islands near Guernsey and Jersey - this 'Goldberg Machine' feeling was particularly potent. If my uncle hadn't given me the Gormenghast trilogy when I was 15 years old, I more than likely wouldn't have caught a bus, two tubes, an aeroplane, a taxi and a ferry to end up on this small island with only one street-light and an adherence to feudal laws.

All sorts of other things had to happen too, of course. However, I have a sneaking suspicion that although all my falling chopsticks and slingshotted bouncy balls may be endlessly fascinating to me, others would find them about as thrilling as watching a dormant cheese-grater for six hours.

Let us test this theory now. Here are some of the things that had to happen to lead me to Sark:

I had to move to London, be introduced to Couchsurfing, plan a trip to Brussels, discover the profile of a Couchsurfing host there who listed the little-known Gormenghast trilogy as amongst his favourite books, stay with him, become friends, discover that Mervyn Peake (the author of Gormenghast) had written another book based on the Isle of Sark, be contacted by my friend months later and told of his intention of making a documentary about Sark (and other 'micro-nations') and asked if I would like to tread the ground where Sir Peake once lived with him and his girlfriend.

If your eyes felt weary half-way through that, please draw a picture of a cheese-grater and post it to me. If you found it utterly gripping, please reward yourself with a spoon of peanut-butter and then post me the spoon. I will add them up and give you the definitive result in the next edition of Testing Things Scientifically (a quarterly publication. Readers of the next edition receive a free spoon that smells of peanut-butter).

I made it to Sark continually wondering if I would have gone there at all if my uncle had given me Latour's Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy instead. That would have been a shame, not only because I probably would have crumbled underneath the expectations put on my 15 year-old mind by my family, but because Sark is an eccentric little island.

Some facts about Sark:

- It was the last feudal state left in the world up until 2008. They have a Lord known as a 'Seigneur' who is in charge of upholding some of the ancient feudal laws.
- One of these ancient laws is that cars and 'modern' forms of transportation are banned on the island. Transport is via horse-and-cart, tractor, bicycle or on foot.
- The population is around 600 people. I think I pass this many people on my way to the tube every morning...
- Children born on Sark are encouraged to leave the island once they reach a certain age so that they can experience other things and see whether the 'Sarkese way' is for them. A lot of these children end up returning to Sark.
- Sark only has one street light, which makes getting home from the Dixcart Hotel Bar to your B&B a slow-moving and pothole-filled task.
- Sark is closer to France than England, but nonetheless remains a self-governing British dependency. English is the official language, but all the place-names are French. In 1990, a French nuclear physicist named André Gardes arrived on the island clad in combat gear and carrying a semi-automatic rifle. He tried to singlehandedly reclaim the island for France. According to the Guernsey Evening Press of August 24, 1990, he was fined £200 and sentenced to seven days in prison. A rather light sentence, you could say...
- Everyone knows everyone on Sark, so a couple of Belgian journalists and their Australian colleague are quite easy to spot on the roads.

Most holidays that I have taken involve cathedrals and squares and monuments and pock-marked maps from where I've tried to circle things without leaning the paper on a flat surface first. On Sark we had a map, but since the island is only 5.45 square kilometres, we ditched the map and just walked in the general direction of an 'edge' we hadn't seen yet. This isn't quite as ho-hum as it sounds, when you consider that the paths looked like this:

And the 'edges' looked like this:

Julien & Salomé at Window in the Rock, Sark

As a result of Julien's journalistic efforts we were introduced to a few locals who explained that on Sark the policeman can also run the shop, tend the gardens of the Seigneurie and teach advanced dentistry (or whatever else), and that for this reason they never really feel constrained by the idea that there is a 'career' everyone must actively pursue. I love that idea, mainly because I feel like I could have been an ace badminton player if only I hadn't limited myself by sticking obsessively to the alphorn. I may be able to play Messe für Alphorn und Chor with the world's premier alphornists, but sometimes I imagine feathery shuttlecocks shooting out of the horn's mouth and find myself wishing I had the time to follow some side-interests. Don't tell my colleagues at Alphornbläsergruppe Oberaargau this, though. Ulrich would be very disappointed in me.

Alphorns aside, after various cliff-top walks and talks, pats of local Clydesdales and strolls through the Seigneurie maze, it was plain to see why Sarkese children come back to the island after their enforced periods abroad.

It is easy to romanticise 'island life', forgetting about the boredom, conservatism and gossip, or even to reach the conclusion that because island life is quiet and slow-paced that it must be 'simple'. But after leaving our doors unlocked when we went out and having only one daily concern - how to dodge puddles in the no-streetlights-blindness of night - all three of us agreed it would be a comfortable and open place to live.

It looks possible, though, that Sark's own Goldberg Machine may be leading it to something less open and comfortable. A wind-up monkey has lit a candle, and this candle is sitting perilously close to a microfibre bathrobe. On one of our clifftop walks, we noticed a sleek black helicopter approaching. This helicopter made a beeline for the Sarkese version of Tasmania: Brecqhou (an even smaller island separated from Sark by a narrow channel of water). In particular, it was heading towards this:

This is the mock-Gothic castle on Brecqhou, commissioned by twin British billionaires the Barclay Brothers. These fellows, who also happen to own the Ritz Hotel in Piccadilly and the Telegraph Media Group, bought the island of Brecqhou in 1993.

We had of course heard about these men from almost the first second we arrived, and as we sat dunking chocolate Hobnobs into our tea with a local artist, it became apparent that these brothers are generally viewed by islanders as the possible outcome of a liaison between this man and this woman.

You can read the full account of their spoiled billionaire antics here, but to give you a condensed version, after contesting the 'backwards' feudalism of Sark so that they could have free run of their cars and helipads on Brecqhou, and bring the whole of Sark into the 'modern age' by updating the island's hotels, infrastructure and tourism (I have no doubt that the words 'Sark' and 'Rococo interiors' do not fit together), their representatives were voted down by the democracy they themselves had pushed for. Obviously this did not go down well. Billionaires will have their way, after all. They had invested a lot of money into Sark - in hotels, pubs, restaurants and construction companies - and retaliated by closing all of these businesses, leaving at least 100 people (or one-sixth of the population) suddenly unemployed. With Christmas only a fortnight away, I might add.

The children of Mr. Evil (sorry, I mean Doctor Evil. He didn't attend 6 years of Evil Medical School to be called 'Mister', thank you very much) and Ms. DeVil retreated to Brecqhou and have stayed there ever since. Talking to the lady in the tourist office, there seems to be a general feeling that the Barclay Brothers are over in their Brecqhou castle knitting things out of Dalmatians while they plot and scheme their next move. This 'quiet island life' may be the precious last moments of calm before the next storm.

If another billionaire storm ever happens, I am going to do all I can to support Sark, even if all I can offer is a few illustrations of the Barclay Brothers dressed in Dalmatian suits with knives and dead puppies at their feet. And if that day ever comes, I will be able to douse the flaming bathrobe with water from the bowl of a pierced goldfish, and when someone asks me how I came to be drawing such highly detailed pictures of dead puppies at my kitchen table in London, I will put down my pen and explain. It all began when my uncle bought me the Gormenghast trilogy when I was 15 years old...

Friday, 17 July 2009

Punk'd in Portugal

I have just walked into the Baroque Library at Coimbra University, Portugal. It is dark inside, but I can see shelves and shelves of yellowed, fragile-looking books and golden-gilded pillars rising up to the ornate, floral-painted ceilings. There is a faint, insect-like squeaking that continues in a staccato rhythm. After reading on the pamphlet that the books date to 1750 and that the walls of the library are 2.11 metres thick, I see this:

'In their daily fight for preservation, books rely on another ally: inside this temple of books lives a colony of bats, which come out at night and feed on the occasional insects. The presence of these mammals requires special care in the prevention of any possible damage caused to the valuable wood of the tables: every day, before leaving the library, the keeper covers the magnificent tables with leather towels, and the following morning he cleans the library before opening it to the public.'

As with many things on this chequered tablecloth of Europe, as soon as I read about bats cohabitating with 250 year old books in a tiny, gold-encrusted library, crapping all over ancient tables and having a man specially appointed to clean up after their insect-gobbling ardour, I think: 'Toto, we're not in Sydney anymore'.

Roman ruins, crumbling aqueducts, multi-turretted castles built on clifftops by malnourished townsfolk under the rule of a portly, pointy-bearded King known for his love of Rococo interiors and sardines served on silver platters shaped like hollowed-out aubergines... Things here can be so eccentric and mysterious that my mind radar starts bleeping and circling, trying to find anything remotely like the Australia I remember.

I am a bit more used to European weirdness now, having lived here for a little while. The intitial feeling I had when I arrived here is beginning to wear off. You know the feeling: that of having eaten seven too many
Pastéis de Belém in a magical land where the walls are older than anyone's great-great-grandfather, your neighbours an hour's train ride away can only speak to you in sounds that roll and zip and somersault unintelligibly by, and 'coffee' has only one possible meaning, served to you in a cup the volume of an amoeba's sigh. By now, I have seen a lot of old doors, I can order pastries from my Portuguese neighbours, and I have grown to enjoy drinking 5 amoeba's sighs per day (don't worry, I line my stomach with port first...).

But as this library-o-bats will attest to, sometimes things take a turn down such a Bermuda Triangle of crazy, that all I can do is laugh crazily and then think how crazy it is that
Sydney's oldest building only dates to 1811. Of course we've had our share of crazy characters, and Aboriginal presence in Australia has been proven to date back to at least 40 000 years, but in general ours is not a history of gluttonous Kings with a penchant for Rococo.

I spent most of my time in the
Baroque Library trying to locate the bats, rather than fawning over the books. However, after scanning the tops of the bookshelves and peering at the golden crests from every possible angle, I did not see any black leathery friends hanging upside down. I was looking with such childlike intensity that suddenly I felt a pang of being taken-in. The thought to question this highly suspect claim had not occurred to me until long after it should have. Maybe a guy in a bat costume would jump out and mock me and my Australian gullibility.

But no. This wasn't America. I wasn't going to see a film crew spring out from between the leaves of the books, and a man in a bat costume would not tear off his mask to reveal Ashton Kutcher. As far as I know, 'punking' has not spread through Europe the same way it spread through Summer Heights High.

I decided that the bats are there. You just have to know where to look. With this in mind, before leaving the library I walked up to the library/bat keeper and whispered, 'Where are the bats?' He just shrugged, presumably not speaking my somersaulting language, and pulled out a faded golden key from his pocket. He placed it into the massive teak door and, with great care not to let too much light in, motioned me back out into the courtyard.

A courtyard for a university founded in 1290. I should say, founded in 1290 by King Dinis I of Portugal, who also happened to be a troubadour with 137 songs under his belt, including a rather unusual one about
love (rather than religion).

A King penning love songs at the same time as founding universities? In 1290? Toto, my canine friend, come here. I have an announcement to make...