Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Where I was the weekend before last? Who wants to know? Because I could have been anywhere. Could have been back in Ireland, for example. Could even have been at a wedding. It’s all possible, you know. Look, if you want to ask me if I was at my sister’s wedding in a big house in County Monaghan, why don’t you come right out and ask? It’s not like I’ve got anything to hide.

How did my sister look? Well, just imagine, for the sake of argument, that Sofia Coppola was making a movie about the life of Marie Antoinette, and that she leavened the ancien regime opulence with a dose of New Wave spikiness and panache, and cast Kirsten Dunst in the lead role. Can you imagine that? Well, that’s pretty much how my sister looked.

Did the two families click? From the moment they met. Were the speeches actually touching and funny, portraying the bride and groom as a couple you’d actually enjoy spending time with, rather than congratulating them wildly for fulfilling the basic requirements of a functioning human being? You betcha. Was there murder on the dancefloor? There were massacres. Did the groom crack open a Nebuchadnezzar, the world’s largest bottle of champagne? Did the bride and groom appear together in the afterparty in fancy dress as shepherd and shepherdess? Did the groom present his bride with a diamond necklace- a necklace that would seal the course of a dynasty? Dude, you’re thinking of that movie again. Apart from the champagne. That was one good Neb, my friend.

Didn’t the bridesmaids look lovely? Didn’t they just.

Did E. cause a stir among my relations, most of whom she was meeting for the first time, and did, at certain hours of the night, various uncles and aunts take me to one side to deliver admiring remarks about her beauty or ask searching questions about her eyesight? Undoubtedly. Were my relatives more impressed by how stunning she looked or by the fact that she was the tallest person to ever go out with a member of the family? It broke down about 50:50, truth be told.

Were there moments when I was seduced by the glamour of the occasion? Did I, for instance, stand at the window of our bedroom, looking out at the early morning mist lifting off the lawn, a solitary rowboat braving the waves out on the lake, the sparrows flitting in and out of box limes as if they were cities in the air, and, despite having at least three generations of ardent nationalism in my background, did I think: well, I can kinda see the point of this landlordism lark after all? Possibly. Did I promptly tell my dad about my reverie? Uh-huh. Was this, in retrospect, a bit of a mistake? Abso-fucking-lutely.

Did I nonetheless get accustomed to the smell of peat smoke, the raised bathtubs in the middle of the room, drinks in the library by candle and gas-light, everyday talk of ghosts in the corridors, the fantastic food, the banging pipes in the night, the click of nails on stone as elderly dogs patrolled the entrance hall? A little. Would I have regretted the weekend of high-living if the sans culottes had tumbled into our room on Sunday afternoon, demanding fresh flesh for Madame la Guillotine? Not for one moment.

Were there pictures? What is this, the inquisition? I’m sure you’ll find some photos on the net if you look hard enough. I’m not saying the girl with the red hair posing on the jetty is any relation, or that the cheerful guy with the cheerful goatie has just become a relation, or that one of those blurry figures in the background might just well be me. I’ll let you figure things out for yourself, if you don’t mind.

Was this, all told, pretty much one of the best weekends of my life? You’re getting a little personal now here. Do you really think I’d give you an answer to that question? On the internet? You must be crazy, dude. But yes, of course it was.

Friday, October 13, 2006

My Internet Problem

Maybe dial-up wasn't so awful after all. True, dial-up is a drain in so many different ways, but at least it imposes discipline. Like the older lady eyeing up the dessert trolley, you gaze at song downloads and video on demand and flash plugins and think: Ooh, I can’t have that. Do you know, if I took a piece of that I’d be up all night. You go ahead, have some, you’re young, you’ll be able for it, I’ll just sit and watch… And after an interval of fascinated scrutiny, you return with a sigh to the twelve staple web-sites you can actually visit– your carrot and celery salads, your cocoa flavoured rice cakes, your ryevita with marmite and cottage cheese. My nightly session on the net used divide neatly into forty-five minutes of expansive frustration, followed by a pleasant quarter hour quietly re-visiting familiar comforts- a few nostalgic smiles at the Onion, a scurry around the blogs of my friends, a pat down in the flattering mirror of Sitemeter, a mail check, a valedictory google and goodnight.

But for the past month, since we’ve moved into our new flat, I’ve been sitting on 8 megs of wireless broadband. To someone brought up in Ireland, that sounds like a big deal, even though it’s BT’s standard package for this part of London (I’d imagine that being so close to the BBC helps matters somewhat). It comes into my house modestly enough, through a clean white box that sits quietly beneath the window. The box has a discreet, pinkie-sized aerial, and a grille on top, as if it were filtering all the goodness out of the aether, and zapping it directly over to my laptop. It reminds me, more than anything else, of the ioniser that a deeply hypochondriac kid used bring into our class in primary school. If I had my way, the net wouldn’t come in like this. If I had my way, the net would come in through a downed electric cable, lashing wildly at the furniture, sending showers of sparks cascading onto the wood floor, because this is 8 megs of broadband, buster, and it’s taking all of God’s creation and pumping it straight into my brain.

I’m not sure I can take all this power, though. All this torque, you know? I’m not sure that I can take it. I knew I was in trouble half-way through the first session. Sure, there was the initial thrill of revisiting familiar haunts and getting the star treatment, all the pages loading straight away, the waiters all snapping to attention now because you’re covered head to toe in bling– 8 megs of bling, baby, 8 megs of bling. Then there was the secondary delight of opening doors on the places I’d previously been refused entry: YouTube, Itunes, ZeFrank. To finish, I thought I might do a spot of freewheeling; a randomiser slalom across the blogosphere. But the bodycheck- the salutory episode of friction or slowness or boredom that makes you sigh and shut up shop and return gratefully to the meaty embrace of the world beyond your monitor– the bodycheck never happened. Instead, I just kept on drifting, mistaking ease for impetus. After an hour or two learning about the lives of proud suburban moms, I dimly intuited that I was bored out of my skull, but I was helpless to do anything about it. A new instinct was driving me forwards: aimless, endlessly expansive, utterly unstoppable. I looked around for an article or post or tune that would provide closure to my session, but I couldn’t get purchase. I was out here on the sargasso sea with the soccer moms and the rafts of floating weed and all the writhing eels, and my face moved above the face of the water, and there was morning, and there was evening: the first day.

The next day was going to be different, though. The next day, I would be disciplined. The next day I would confine my visits to those few sites where I was a regular. Of course, now that I had broadband, that list had expanded a little: from twelve sites to maybe thirty, thirty-five tops. And it was imperative that I went and viewed every one, because I knew that overnight, on the internet, a heavy snow had fallen, and there was a thick carpet of fresh information lying across those forty webpages, information that would shock and inspire and illuminate, and it was my duty as a reader to motor round all sixty sites and soak this information up. Eight hours later, eyes parched, tongue glazed, the snow all deep inside me now, packed tight into my head, I paused in my scrutiny of the top 100 German language blogs, and thought: maybe, just maybe, I have a problem here.

There are two problems really. The first may just be a generational thing- a tic common among those of us who grew up before the net, whose habits were formed before it came along. No matter how much time I spend online, I still treat the internet like a treasure map. I’m always trying to reach the core of it. Each morning, when I stand on the verge of my familiar territory about to click my first external link, I get a frisson of self-importance, as if I were Marco Polo abandoning Venice and turning his feet East. But the comparison doesn’t hold. The internet isn’t China. The internet is Belgium- a Belgium the size of Brazil. The internet is just one thing after another. There are no Himalayas; just thousands of local peaks. Germans, it seems, hardly ever read english language blogs, and yet you can map the top 100 German blogs onto their US equivalents with little difficulty- there is a German Gizmondo, a German Huffington, a Deutsche Dooce. And the longer you spend on the net, the flatter and more homogenous it will seem. Five minutes looking at today’s most popular videos on YouTube will make you smile at the common values that bind us all together. Five hours perusing random homemade videos on YouTube will bring you to a different conclusion. This, you think grimly, will be the future of the internet: a ball, landing in a groin, for all eternity.

The second problem is a bit more personal. You think, when you first get broadband, that the scales have dropped from your eyes, that you’re seeing the net the way it should be viewed. But should it really be this accessible? From the outset, a large component of the internet experience was delay. The value of a site or link depended partly on how long it took to load; your anticipation added to the reward. Equally, the slowness imposed limits; forced you to make choices, prioritise, cut your losses if a search wasn’t going anywhere. To some extent, you needed the difficulty, you needed the frustration. Broadband doesn’t make the frustration go away- it just transfers it to the other side of the equation. The ease of surfing means you’re suddenly confronted with your own limitations. You can’t monitor all the blogs that interest you, because that would be a full time job, and the pay is shit and the boss is a wanker who spends all his time on the fucking internet. You can’t comment on all the things that interest you, because, although you like writing, you write very, very slowly, and if you try and write two things at once your mind bubbles up like butter in a pan, and even if you overcame these obstacles, this would be another full timer with only marginally superior working conditions. And if you decide to put your own content out there, broadband is always on hand to show up how limited you are (try as you will, you’ll never write as wittily as Little Red Boat, as engagingly as Dooce, as cleverly as Malcolm Gladwell, as much as Andrew Sullivan). So you lose all ambition very quickly, and end up drifting from sidebar to sidebar, from search page to search page– another lost soul on the internet, another hungry ghost.

So, from this week on, I’m setting limits. One hour on the net each day, enough to answer my mail and check in with my mates. Then it’s into Word and back to actual writing. Whenever my attention starts to wander, I’ll crack open a book or even go out for a walk. Because there’s one thing I’ve forgotten with all this internet malarkey. It’s London out there. London, baby. 8 Megs of London, waiting right outside my door.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Pleasure Island

Pleasure Island. You’ve got to remember. Out of Pinocchio? Take a moment to dredge it up. Because it's way down there, buried deep in your psyche, one of the great, uncontested stories at the base of you, like the Nativity and Tommy Cooper dying and the Big Snow of 1981. That was the year you turned eight, and also the year you decided to get your fledging consciousness organised, and stuffed it full of things like Pleasure Island, things with a heft to them, things you thought might come in handy, little realising that for the rest of your life you would approach all sorts of crisis situations with a psychic toolkit packed by an eight year old.

Anyway, Pleasure Island. It all kicks off when Pinocchio falls in with a gang of brattish street kids. (I've forgotten how; maybe they sang to him. He always was a sucker for a catchy tune. Which is the general problem with Pinocchio- the cartoon is apparently intended as a fable about the risks and responsibilities of maturity, but the real message you take away is: don’t trust musicians. A pretty viable message too, as it turns out.) In turn, the urchins fall in with a crew of Satanic circus barkers, who carry them on a hayride to a queasy looking Coney Island mock-up, where they gorge themselves silly and drink and smoke and shoot pool and hurl abuse at the donkeys that are unaccountably roaming free in this funpark, until, in a twist I genuinely didn't see coming, they find themselves turning into donkeys too (the most terrifying scene for me as a child wasn't the sudden onset of braying, or the floppy ears or the fur, but the part where the kids looked at their mutating forearms and realised that they couldn't bend their elbows). It ends with the Satanic circus barkers, who have now revealed themselves in their true guise as Satanic donkey wranglers, locking the whole crew into crates and shipping them out for export to donkey-beaters worldwide. It’s a sequence that still stands out today for its brutality and misanthropy; a lot of awful things were happening in 1940, and Pleasure Island seems to plug into all of them.

As I grew older, I realised that Pleasure Island wasn’t unique. This was a motif which had been used by preachers and painters and storytellers to scare people off their own appetites for centuries: from Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights to Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. But I never saw it put to use as a business model. Never, that is, until last Sunday, when E. and I took the final, decisive step into coupledom, and visited Ikea.

At the start, Ikea seems ridiculously user-friendly; it’s as if someone designed a walk-through internet. You and all the other doting couples walk along a gracefully curving path through a wonderland of domesticity. Everywhere there are sofas and chairs and wardrobes and shelves that are charming and stylish and cheap, and promise to shear all complications out of your life and leave you both with nothing to do but loll around all day in bleached white dressing gowns, drinking bowls of coffee and reading Le Figaro. To each side, there are apartment mock-ups showing how Ikea furniture can make your 20 square metre studio flat look like a villain’s penthouse from a Luc Besson movie, and even though their idea of optimising space seems to include covering up all the damn windows, you are charmed and inspired, and want, more than anything else in the world, to be a villain in a Luc Besson movie. And all you need to do to claim any of this plenitude is to take a stylish stub of an Ikea pencil and note its number in a little pad, a process that is actually less physically demanding than pointing and clicking. So you walk along the mazy path, plucking items of wonderful furniture as you pass, a wardrobe here, a bookcase there, and believing with all your heart that it is going to be magically spirited into your living room, that, in fact, it is all there waiting for you right now. Then you go downstairs, and steady yourself for what looks like a brief trot to the checkouts, when the path unaccountably veers rightwards and leads you into a giant hangar of a warehouse, and that, my friend, is where the donkey wranglers come out.

Two hours later, braying, exhausted, unable to bend our elbows, we arrive at the check-outs. We’re toting enough pine to build a barn, and we’ve just completed three long-haul expeditions against the crowds back to the showrooms upstairs, first to get hinges, then to get door handles, and finally to get the right door handles.
“All in all, I think it’s all gone pretty well,” I say.
“Have you got the piece of paper, honey?” E. says.
“The piece of paper we got at the sales desk upstairs when we came in?” I say. “The piece of paper that this guy needs to scan to process our entire order?”
“That’s the one,” E. says.
“I gave it to you,” I tell her.
“You know you didn’t,” she says.
“I gave it to you, then,” I tell the cashier. He looks at me blankly.
“Aside from that,” I say, “I think it’s all gone very well indeed.”

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


They have a perfume, you know. They do. You can buy it in Superdrug. There is a poster of the couple in the shop window, in a sophisticated yet saucy pose, apparently inspired by the cover of the Mastermind boardgame. Victoria presses up against her husband and gives her signature look- Blue Steel!- the kind of pose that’s meant to accentuate her cheekbones, but ends up giving her face a freakish angularity, as if she’s stuffed protractors in her mouth. Behind her, David looks absented and seigniorial, clearly lost in the task of pinching his wife’s bum. Inside the shop, there is a promotional stand, with purple drapes and two separate his’n’hers scents, presented in heavy glass decanters with great cut stoppers, like love potions in cartoons.

It’s not unique, either. In fact, there’s a whole Fantasia of signature scents lining the back wall in here- perfumes by Paris Hilton, P Diddy, J-Lo, Cindy Crawford, and Naomi Campbell, among plenty of others. Most of the bottles are labelled with punchy sounding nouns and adjectives– Instinct! Curious!; if you added the definite article, you’d have a comprehensive round up of New York garage bands circa 2001. There are a few exceptions- the Sarah Jessica Parker scent, for example, goes for a strangely lukewarm “Lovely”, which is exactly what a friend might say if you bought it for them; it’s the closest thing to calling a perfume “You Shouldn’t Have”. And perhaps it's best not to mention the Jade Goody scent, which is called “Shhh…”, presumably so that you can say “Smells like Shhh… in here”. Looking at the range, the overall effect is of one more staging post in the refinement of celebrity. Already these stars exist independently of their actual purpose and even their surnames; the next logical step is to move beyond matter entirely, to establish themselves as a fragrance, a sweet abstraction moving freely among the Children of the Air. Perhaps these bottles of fragrance are the ultimate distillation of fame. Because what in the world else could they contain?

Well, let’s see. E and I make our rounds of the tester bottles. The scents are obviously geared towards teens and tweens. They all smell light and impossibly sweet- apart from Jade Goody’s “Shhh…”, which layers floral disinfectant on a base of something vile beyond belief (You can only imagine the blackness in the heart of the perfumier who discovers he’s been handed the Jade Goody account). And what of the Beckhams? Victoria’s fragrance smells like mothballs and oranges. In what may or may not be a particularly audacious act of cross-marketing, David’s smells like Pepsi Cola. It leads you to wonder whether, in the future, the web of brands connected to the Beckhams may decide to cut out the middleman, and just refer directly to each other. You put Pepsi and Adidas and Gillette in the same room together, and David Beckham emerges by inference- a kind of genie of branding, a personality articulated by his endorsements.

Maybe I’m being cynical. Maybe these perfumes perform a useful function. Maybe they offer a prop to insecure kids who want the comfort of their hero’s presence in their lives. In earlier times, these kids would have clutched at a saint’s relic to get them through the day; now the millions of atoms of P-Diddy floating around their neck provide the same service. The Beckham his’n’hers scents push that model a little further: not only articulating the stars’ personalities but also their coupledom. I imagine these are targeted towards teenage girls who worry about keeping their boyfriends, and see joint branding as the best way to cement the relationship- for what, after all, is Posh without Becks, Becks without Posh? And this points to a sweet correspondence between stars and audience. As their individual gifts fade, what the Beckhams give to each other is exactly what Homer Simpson offered to Marge- absolute dependency. Perhaps, when they invoke the Beckhams as their inspiration, the teenagers intuit what the posters never say- that the golden couple stays together because they can't survive alone, that their USP is their insecurity, something teenagers understand very well. No wonder David looks preoccupied...

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

London Loves

London on a fleet, breezy morning. Everything in this sidestreet is bleached and sun-dazzled, like an image from an old polaroid. And this is how the city seems: like library footage, something called up at short notice from the archives to fill the space left by my office job. The houses are sturdy, two-storey, fronted with pale yellow bricks, with plaster porticos hugging the doors and bay windows. They seem intensely familiar, remembered not from my own childhood but from the childhood of every single sixties rock star- you can easily see a young Jagger or Lennon or Moon squirming behind the net curtains, looking out at the English rain and wishing that the bombs would fall again. The tree outside my window is a lollipop of dusty olive leaves and bright orange berries, the colours of a dress from the seventies, you’ve got to remember, your great-aunt wore it to your mum’s wedding, she looked weighty and mysteriously troubled and older than she does now. A cabbage-white, a butterfly that practically belongs on Super 8 film, flits among the trellises across the road. The whole scene is soothing, predictable, almost advertising itself as gentle backdrop for the harried creative. All I’ve got to do, it seems, is sit down and start writing. Well then, here I go…

So, what’s been happening? What has been happening? If all you’ve got to go on are the posts on Moving Sideways, you’re probably looking for a bit of extra context around now. According to the blog, Ben awoke from a deep sleep at the beginning of August and promptly threw himself into an exhausting rota of activity- contracting a series of driving lessons, going flat-hunting, hymning French boulevardiers, travelling to Greece, evading forest fires- before lapsing once again into sullen indolence. According to the blog, Ben is Robert De Niro out of Awakenings. And sometimes I feel tempted to leave him to his slumber… But while Ben’s been sleeping at the wheel in here, outside, in the real world, there’s been a few genuine changes going on.

Last Friday, I finished in my job. My contract in London was up, and I decided, for personal reasons, to remain here under my own steam rather than return to Dublin. A bit more contentiously, I also decided to stay home for a year, and try to support myself through my writing. When people ask me exactly how, I tend to get vague and self-righteous at the same time, which is so not an effective rhetorical device. I will TRY AND FREELANCE, I tell them. I will SORT OUT A FEW PROJECTS HERE AND THERE. The important thing is that I will be FENDING FOR MYSELF. As opposed to, you know, LIVING OFF MY SAVINGS. All I’ll need for a 21st century media career is unparalleled moxie, the internet and A DOG-EARED COPY OF THE WRITER’S AND ARTIST’S YEARBOOK 2001. And if all of this gives them any problems, they can FUCK RIGHT OFF. Like I said, not the most refined of mission statements. Still, I’m looking forward to putting it into practice.

A few days previously, I left my work-sponsored flat in a swanky but soulless part of London, the kind of area where the traffic meters make more than the traffic wardens, and moved with E. into our new place in Shepherds Bush. This is where I expected to be confronted by the grim realities of modern London, pulled up short by real life. But all in all, the change has been incredibly positive. The flat itself is a dream; cosy and stylish and bright; the kind of place that’s made for literary poseurs. Three days in, and I have already adopted the most writerly pose imaginable- sitting in the front room, staring out an open window, with a full cafetiere on the table beside me and a lopsided think bubble of a mirror above my head. The landlord is young and enthusiastic, and genuinely eager to help; in any of our contacts with her we’re all competing to see who can do best by the place. The neighbours are pretty friendly too, and those who aren’t manage at least to be pleasantly crotchety, in a crumpled 1950s way. And, like I said, the neighbourhood is damned comfortable, a version of urban London as soft-edged as any Madness song. Even the annoyances are quite enjoyable. In my old place, I was regularly blasted out of it by tightwad Europop from the coked-up Norwegian asset-stripper upstairs, God bless his soul; now I’m sporadically charmed by bursts of glitchy electronica from the hip-hop kids in the garden flat next-door, erratic beats popping against the wall like corn in a pan.

Sure, sometimes I feel the absence of the old job, and occasionally crave its jagged contours; but only in the absent, compulsive way you prod your tongue into the space where a tooth used to be. I miss the early morning immersion and the break-down into coffee at eleven-ten. I miss the company, and the banter, obviously. I miss the adrenalin jolts at odd hooks and angles of the day, when a stray phone call or email pulls your job description taut about your neck. I even miss the information: the two fat morning papers folded on your desk, the bloated 9am inbox, the sense of starting out every day at ground level on a massive trading floor of news. Most of all, I miss the occasional sense of fulfillment; of producing relevant copy, of being of use.

And this is where the blog comes in. I resurrected Moving Sideways about a month ago, and I guess this break was always at the back of my mind. I’m hoping to keep it updated fairly regularly from now on in, partly to instill the discipline of producing something creative on a daily basis, partly to gear up my rusty writing brain, but mostly to make sure I don’t get cabin fever in here on my own, goddamnit. So over the next while, you can look forward to frequent updates on everyday life in Shepherds Bush, more trawls around the further reaches of the chessboard, plus, if I can manage the upload, some pictures from the fires on Kassandra. Bet ya can’t wait…

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Forest Fire, Kassandra peninsula, Greece

Different trees, you notice, have different ways of burning. The olives burn like lanterns, the flame nested deep inside their hollow trunks; you can see the warm orange glow through knots and spyholes in the wood. The palm trees burn like roman candles, the fat flame on top of the trunk sending a cascade of sparks down through the fronds and onto the ground below. And as for the pines, they burn constantly, vigourously, relentlessly; they burn like the waves of the sea. Driving along the main road from Pefkochori to Polichrono on Monday night is like passing through a Disneyland of fire- everything that's not moving is either burnt out or aflame. Along the roadside there are burning houses and burning sheds, burning olive groves and burning vegetable gardens. A two story supermarket is merrily burning down to its metal frame; outside it sits the scorched shell of a car. A decorative gazebo is ablaze, but the garden around it remains completely untouched. In an abandoned basketball court, only the baskets are burning. A low yellow flame laps at the base of a circular stone-clad outhouse; the building looks as if it is being gently heated on a gas hob. To the west the fire is still raging through the pine forest, turning the night sky a lurid salmon pink. On top of the highest branches dance bright red flames, as tall as the trees again. I've only witnessed scenes like this in Vietnam movies; it's corny, but I think of Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now, ghosted and raw-eyed, scanning the devastation on the riverbanks as he approaches Kurtz's lair.

At seven thirty that evening, E and I had met her mum for dinner at the Roma Pizzeria on the main street of Pefkochori. After four days of sunbathing, swimming and backgammon in nearby Polichrono, we were pretty much resigned to a change of weather, so when the sky above the sea darkened to a dull oyster colour, we just thought it was the afternoon's thunderstorm come back with its mates. Not so, the waiter told us; this was smoke from a small fire in the hills above the town; it was old news; it had been burning for a couple of hours already. About half an hour later, the electricity in the main street flickered, came back, flickered again and went out for good. It felt thrilling, sitting there munching our pizzas on the darkened terrace, watching the lightning flashing, and the palm trees blowing and the tourists scurrying; like the prelude to a hurricane. A thin white ash began to drift onto our plates and clothes, and we went out to look at the fire. Now, for the first time the sky to the north was lit up with an eerie pink glow. When I was fifteen, and more than regularly gloomy, I used to spend hours in my room staring at a reproduction of Bruegel's painting "The Triumph of Death"; I now realised I was looking at it again.

The fire seemed to be moving closer to the road back to Polichrono, so we decided to get our bus home before the road became impassable. All of a sudden, there was a hot wind all around us; it felt like it was coming from every direction at once. The air was thick with ash and soot. The traffic out of Polichrono and Hanioti grew heavier, and tailbacks began to form. Someone said that the fire had reached the road. A fuel truck pushed its way through the jam with blaring horns. Now, tourists carrying children and cases began to stream out of the hotels- Germans and Austrians mostly, but also Czechs, Serbs, Russians and Brits. Some of them got into their cars and drove further down the peninsula; others just walked as fast as they could into the countryside or towards the beach. Motorbikes weaved in and out among the fleeing pedestrians. A guy in a yellow muscle-top loaded his cases into the boot of a hatchback, then sat in on top of them. People were starting to do stupid, panicked things, and there seemed to be no police around to calm the situation down.

E's mum phoned her sister Katerina, and asked her to pick us up at their flat in the old town. As we walked uphill we found ourselves pushing against another tide of fleeing people- tourists mostly, but now also local people using towels as masks. Then the crowds were gone. The smoke and ash were much thicker up here, and in the dark, hushed streets, you got an inkling of how it must have felt in the final hours of Pompeii. At last we turned a corner and saw the fire full on for the first time; it was wilder and stronger than I had imagined, and less than 500 metres away. The flames didn't roll along at ground level but perched like birds at the top of the tallest trees. Even at this distance you could feel the toasty warmth on your calves and lower arms; it felt pleasant and cosy, like when you sit too close to a campfire. Two kids on a motorbike shared a cigarette and watched the flames in silence. I had always thought of forest fires as incredibly noisy, but my strongest memory of this scene is the quiet and the calm. The smoke was too thick to wait here, though, and we were hardly halfway to the flat- finally we got through to E's aunt and arranged to meet her at the post office on the main street instead. As we returned downhill, we passed the last few departing families. A father packing luggage into a car screamed at a little kid, who had almost run away into the dark.

We settled down at the water fountain in the main street. E. filled up a couple of bottles, and I tried to wash the soot out of my eyes. A shirtless, middle aged guy wrapped a wet towel around his head and set off stoutly into the woods- no fire, it seemed, could ever withstand the fury of a bare-chested Greek. Two teenage boys brought a clutch of plastic bottles to the fountain and filled them up. "Wanna buy some water?" they asked us. "Only three euro." Then they set off to hawk the bottles to the crowds on the beach. Every five minutes or so, I crossed the road and checked on the progress of the fire. By the time Katerina arrived, it looked as if it had pulled away from Hanioti and Polichrono, and was heading for the old town of Pefkochori instead. (In the end, it got to within 100 metres of the town, but firemen checked it before it reached its first hotel.)

The rest of the night played out as a series of more or less surreal car trips up and down the peninsula. We originally headed south from Pefkochori, but the fire was travelling faster than the gridlocked traffic, and at one stage threatened to outflank us , so we turned tail and headed north back through Pefkochori and on to Polichrono, along the newly re-opened road. This was the landscape dripping with fire from the first paragraph, and this was also the place where people had suffered the most- in Hanioti, halfway between the two towns, the fire had jumped the road and travelled down as far as the beach. The first time I saw any emergency personnel was at half-eleven in Polichrono- squads of black-clad police were holding up traffic and tv crews, and waving through fire-engines, and blowing whistles and acting both enormously busy and enormously aggrieved, in the classic manner of people who know that they've fucked up already and, whatever they do from this point in, are still going to get their asses chewed tomorrow morning. We stay here for an hour, but then the wind changes and sends plumes of thick acrid smoke into the town. By one o'clock we are on the move again, this time further north, to a German run resort that Katerina knows, where we will spend the next day drinking Fanta lemon among dauntingly cheerful families, who know what time aerobics is at, and when the kiddies' karaoke final is taking place, but who have no idea that half the book of Exodus just took place thirty minutes down the road. That late night journey is the strangest of all, a kind of lulling comedown through gradually less worried towns- from Kriopigi, which is basically on a war footing, through Kalithea, where plenty of people are still up in bars and cafes watching news reports- but also hanging out on bikes and playing test your strength games and generally acting the maggot- and into Aphitos, which is completely shut down at this late hour, no signs of alarm at all, apart from the stream of cars and buses coming through, and, to the south, the thinnest sliver of pink just about grazing the horizon.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Web 0.2

The kids, they don’t understand. They don't. Acting so proprietorial about the internet, with their MySpace and YouTube and iTunes, as if they had just happened upon this cool abandoned factory in the woods, and decided to kit it up as their clubhouse. They don't know that the internet is ours- we watched it grow, we built it up, those are our initials etched into its roofbeams. Of course, things were very different back then. Back then, there was none of your broadband or skype or always-on connections. Frankly, it was a struggle, kitting the house out for the internet. I remember the whole family pitching in, my sister fiddling with the aerial, while dad tweaked the whiskers on the monitor, trying to find hotmail. After an age, the static eased, and a dim, fuzzy picture emerged on the screen.
“Can you see what it is?” dad asked.
“It looks like a lot of hamsters dancing,” mam said.
Dad thumped the back of the computer, hard.

In those early days, you learnt a lot about website design. Originality was the key. A guaranteed way to stand out was to tweak your text colour and your background colour until you hit a combination that had never been seen before in three thousand years of graphic art. If reading the front page felt like being forcefed spoonfuls of sugar through your eyes, you knew you were onto something big. The next important thing was to whack an enormous, metallic-effect counter in the centre of the page, ensuring that visitors' eyes were drawn to this before anything else on your site. Depending on your traffic levels, this was a great way of either telling your visitors how unimportant you were, or how unimportant they were. And finally, you linked your site to every other website on the net, because you were Irish and you didn't want to appear rude. All these links made surfing a uniquely circular experience, like driving down an endless ring-road composed of nothing but roundabouts.

Of course you could always make use of a "search engine". Back then, there wasn’t just one search engine, there were dozens, and they were all equally shambolic. Performing a search was like engaging a private detective firm staffed exclusively by autistic savants. They'd either come back with nothing, or empty the entire internet into your lap. Some search engines even made it into the dictionary. For instance, if you were going out to a restaurant, you might make sure to "jeeves" your date. This meant telling her reams of useless information about other people who shared her surname, most of whom were dead. That way, you got to eat her dinner too.

Back then, there was only one webcam in the world, and it was owned by an American college student called Jenny, who left it on around the clock, and it was watched by millions of men the world over, on the basis that Jenny at some stage in her life might possibly get undressed. Now those men are in their early forties, hunched over their workstations, in the all-white boxroom that used to be the loft- no, sweetie, this is Daddy’s office, you can play downstairs- trawling the net for live feeds of young women from the former Soviet Union performing sex acts on Vietnamese pot bellied pigs, the pot bellied pig lovers really doing it for them right now, and occasionally- no, for the last time, you can’t come in, Daddy’s busy, Daddy’s doing important grown-up work-occasionally they shed a little tear for innocent Jenny, and her apartment, whose dimensions they still know intimately and which, to be honest, they sometimes dream about, and they wonder how Jenny looks today, and what age she might be, and how she feels about the webcam now, and how she might react if they introduced themselves to her in the street, and what they might talk about, and where they might go later, for a drink, and whether, if the mood was right, she might consider trying some pig porn.