Category Archives: Uncategorized

The Carbon Diaries

Browsing the teenage fiction section of the library the other day,  I came across The Carbon Diaries 2015 by Saci Lloyd.  I borrowed it, planning to read a few pages and then pass it on to my sons (16 and nearly 13) but it proved impossible to rip it from my cold green hands until I’d got to the end.

The novel, as suggested by the title, is set in 2015 when, following storms which have devastated our western coasts, the U.K. is the first nation to bring in carbon rationing.   It is narrated by Laura, a middle class sixth former from Greenwich in South London who plays bass in a straight edge punk band, argues with her parents and elder sister and is falling in love with the boy next door.  The author is a teacher at a sixth form college and knows her environment well, with a few touches (the iPod has mutated into an ePod; a new quasi-anarchist hydro symbol is being scratched onto petrol cars) to remind us that the story is set a few years (but only a few) in the future.  The love story is predictable, Jane Austen’s old favourite, and Laura’s dysfunctional parents distinctly George and Pauline Moleish (is it ever possible for  teenage diaries to avoid echoes of Adrian?)  but these don’t really matter, as the focus is upon the events surrounding the characters rather than their individual characteristics.

The story begins gently, with Mum’s attempts to negotiate the bus, their central heating being turned down and the family’s cuisine morphing from Waitrose ready meals to locally-grown carrots.  Pretty soon, however, we’re into a summer of heatwave and drought, paralysing power outages,  riots, torrential rains and the flooding of large parts of London.  Meanwhile Laura’s cousin reports of the catastrophe wreaked by a hurricane across the western U.S.  and we watch as European riot police strike down climate change protestors from Rome to Brussels.  It’s all very much more than plausible; the virtually inevitable migration of catastrophes that are already taking place in the majority world.

The book, and its sequel, The Carbon Diaries 2017, are to be filmed for the BBC, so there will no doubt be much discussion (and dismissive contempt from the usual ‘sceptics’) of  Saci Lloyd’s  not-quite dystopia.  Meanwhile I’ll be interested to see what our boys make of it…

Sticky fingers

The extraction of so-called oil from tar sands is one of the most unpleasant, extravagant and destructive activities to be carried out anywhere at any time.  So how comforting to know that the (84% publicly owned) RBS thinks it’s a good place to invest our money.  (A fund for climate chaos, in today’s Guardian).  Joined-up government in action?


I went to see Newton Faulkner in Belfast on Sunday night – a fantastic gig, and he finished with a few wise, realistic but optimistic words about climate change, and this song from his new album.  If only the world could be filled with Newtons….

When in Rome (updated February 21st)

(From The Pen & Inkblog on our rejigged and refurbished Crystal Bard Books site)

Usually we order most of our Italian books direct from the publishers, or from our friendly Italian wholesaler, but a couple of times a year I go to buy a few in person, to see what’s popular in the bookshops and to add to our second-hand collection. When possible I go by train, but starting in Northern Ireland, with a largish chunk of sea to navigate before even reaching St Pancras, it tends to be cumbersome and expensive. ( Perhaps we should launch a carbon offset scheme whereby our customers fly and drive with squeaky-clean consciences while paying me to take the train? It would be more practical than a lot of such wheezes, but I somehow doubt whether it would catch on.) Anyway, the trains and ferries resolutely refused to mesh together this time, so I flew with Aer Lingus from Dublin to Rome.

As always, the trip began with a long bus journey (we don’t have a car, either for business or pleasure and your packages are taken to the post office on foot or by bike. Often this one.) One of the oddities of Irish geography is that the direct route from Donegal in the Republic of Ireland to Dublin, its capital (as any fule kno*), is through Enniskillen in Northern Ireland. Consequently, we in Enniskillen can take the (now really quite regular) service with Bus Eireann, the Irish state bus company, and pay the driver in euro, which makes us feel quite cosmopolitan. I like travelling by bus here, the combination of ease, mild eccentricity and potential chaos which makes Ireland, like Italy, interesting if not invariably comfortable.

Dublin airport, sadly, is neither interesting nor particularly comfortable, especially when my flight leaves at seven in the morning, and I don’t feel like paying for an entire night at a hotel for a few paltry hours.  Luckily I find an unoccupied banquette in the food hall and clutch at a little sporadic sleep, interrupted by headmistressy security announcements and the most appaling musak I’ve ever heard: covers by a girl band who, though they screeched more or less in tune, seem to have encountered human emotion nowhere outside a Vulcan tourist guide.  But then, it came from the direction of McDonald’s, so perhaps it shouldn’t have been such a surprise.

The plane journey next morning was a plain journey, as is, probably, the best that can be hoped for.

In Rome it was raining, fairly hard.  It does rain in Italy, at least for the moment, until we manage to turn the Mediterranean into a total desert, though somehow that’s the bit of memory that tends to go blank at suitcase-packing time.  Fortunately I’ve been in Italy for long enough to recall some quite spectacular soakings and had a compact umbrella almost handy,  stowed away beneath a small warehouse full of bubble wrap.  (Lest this should give a false impression of impressive forethought, I should mention here that several small but essential items of clothing which should have been in my bag were, at this moment and until my return, completing their nonchalant airing on the bedroom radiator.)

From the airport I took the train to Trastevere station (pictured right, on Tuesday in the sun), close to both the hotel and the Sunday morning Porta Portese street market from where I’ve bought books before.  My original plan had been to take my bags to the hotel first, but as it was already after twelve, and the market was due to close at one, I thought I had better make my way there straightaway.  I was concerned that, in the growing deluge, the booksellers might have already struck camp, but we’re a hardy lot, and they were still man- and womanfully bearing up with the aid of a few sheets of polythene.  I purchases a few piles of the drier volumes and remedied my sartorial deficiencies  at the modest price three pairs for six euro, thus preserving the frugal nature of the expedition.

Thus encumbered,  I made my way carefully to the hotel.  Carefully, that is, in part owing to the notoriously random habits of Roman motorists, but principally due to those of their dogs.  The canines to be seen in Rome are, on the whole, relatively small, but the evidence suggests that each must deposit near its own bodyweight of waste matter onto the pavements daily.  Either that, or it has the consistency of one of those novelty flannels which increase dramatically in size when brought into contact with water.

Anyway, treading gently, for I trod upon the drains, and, with the aid of my excellent, albeit by now somewhat soggy Giunti street map (available here – that is, not my precious dried-out copy with the sellotape corsetting and the bookshops marked with biro crosses but a nice new one that you can deface in your own inimitable style ) I reached the  Rome Nice Room on the Via Daniello Bartoli.

Rarely can a room have been more appropriately, if less elegantly named.  Not only the room, but also the proprietors, were delightful, helpful, interested and happy to switch between Italian and English as the twists and turns of the conversation required. After a quick shower, in which red turned out to mean cold and red hot, in a demonstration of the arbitrary nature of the signifier worthy of Umberto Eco himself, I headed out again to cross the Tevere into the Eternal City itself.

Roman trams, rather unexpectedly, turned out to be newer and less atmospheric that the ones I took in Milan last year, and ones like this, decorated entirely in adverts for Glee, breathtakingly globalized.  However,  it glided swiftly and painlessly into the city and deposited me in front of the big Feltrinelli bookshop, so I abandoned, with only a small sigh, my nostalglia for pale wood and creaking iron, and revelled in the efficiency.

Choosing books at a market stall is largely a matter of luck; anything that isn’t obviously outrageously obscene, dull, outdated or overpriced is worth consideration.  By contrast, in a big bookshop almost everything would do; the difficulty is in second-guessing quite what you, our fellow readers and cari clienti, would pounce on most joyfully if you’d been there with me.  Parallel texts are always helpful, whether your first language is English or Italian, so I chose a few, including William Blake and T. S. Eliot, together with translations of Bill Bryson’s Story of Nearly Everything and Raymond Chandler’s Lady in the Lake.

I was, as always, acutely conscious of Aer Lingus baggage allowances and of the fact that I had another full day in Rome on Monday, so I limited myself to a small collection of newish fiction and, after a vague ramble and brief conversation with the cats of the Torre Argentina, headed back to the Nice Room.  One disadvantage of travelling alone is that going out in the evening isn’t much fun, so I’d eaten properly (grilled vegetables and pasta ai funghi) in Trastevere at lunchtime, and just picked up some pecorino, bread, tomatoes and wine to eat in the room in the evening.  It gave me the opportunity to remember exactly what Italian television is like, and, for, alas, the two are by no means incompatible, to enjoy the luxury of falling asleep ridiculously early.

to be continued…

* If this phrase fails to ring distant bells, may we prescribe a short dose of Master Molesworth – just type Willans or Searle into the search box of Crystal Bard Books (sorry, we don’t have any in Italian yet).

Day Ten: the Irish Sea to Enniskillen

I am woken by an announcement, at 5.15, that breakfast is served. This isn’t actually as horrendous as it sounds, either the waking or the announcement. By seven we have docked, I have been reunited with my bags and together we have taken a taxi to the Belfast bus station. Sadly the first bus on a Sunday doesn’t leave until 9.45, but a friendly security guard watches over my stuff so that I can go for a walk to the Spar shop and back. The bus home is fine; I have to change in Dungannon but there is always someone ready to help with the bags, and M is waiting for me at the bus station in Enniskillen.

I’m still pondering the journey overall, and the lessons I’ve learned – will report back when any useful conclusions rise to the surface…

Currying favours

Do you remember the final scene of Clockwise, the one where John Cleese is giving his speech at the Headmasters’ Conference and the middle-aged motorcycle couple come creaking in? I felt a bit like that this morning, arriving at work in soaking waterproofs, some shiny black amphibian crawled out of the marshes. I was deliciously dry underneath, though. In the afternoon it didn’t rain at all, so I felt humanoid enough to call in at Curry’s and ask for the manager. She (which shamingly surprised me for a start) was very co-operative, explained that the sign wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the corner, and despatched one of her large minions to move it. Well, we’ll see…

I’ve reluctantly given up the idea of Eurostar, as their latest bulletin advises against travelling with them for the rest of the month, so we’ve booked with Eurolines (coach and ferry) instead. I think I feel happier on top of the water, anyway.

Limited means?

I’ve been watching bits of Charley Boorman’s travel programme, By Any Means, in which he travels from Ireland to Australia using, according to the website “over 110 modes of transport”. Sadly, an awful lot of the hundred and ten turn out to be different models of car, along with several virtually empty buses. Admittedly, he doesn’t fly, at least so far, but then (on the whole) neither did Michael Palin, when he did this sort of thing much more charmingly a couple of decades ago. By Any Means had a lot of talk about logistics, and film of harassed producers buzzing about “the London office”, all of which seemed a little over-the-top for what was after all, a completely arbitrary endeavour. But it at least helped me to put my Eurostar panic into proportion.

Meanwhile many thanks to Paulo for his comment and link to the Bike2Oz website. I’m really looking forward to watching Lowanna and Kevin’s adventures, and expect to be a great deal more inspired than by BAM.

Here comes the …

It’s the first day this week that the rain hasn’t been kellying it down at 3.15pm, so here’s a picture to celebrate.

Thanks to everyone who has commented on entries in this – yes, I think I can just about force myself to call it a blog. Please do continue. (And you don’t necessarily have to agree with me; at least not quite all the time).


Lots of stories in the news today and yesterday about Michelle Kelly, the aggrieved learner driver who failed her test for “splashing” a pedestrian who was waiting at a bus stop.

No-one seems to know how much water was flung over the poor man; Ms. Kelly says that he wasn’t “deluged” but doesn’t seem to rule out any less than Biblical flooding. The general tone of media comment seems to be along the political-correctness-gone-mad lines, with a murmur of dissent from readers of the Manchester Evening News, who have probably waited at a wet bus stop or two themselves.

Of course, most of us sympathize with Ms. Kelly to quite an extent. Driving tests are horrible experiences from every point of view (I had to be prescribed tranquillizers in order finally to get through mine) and it’s no fun at all to sit in the driver’s seat looking at the back of the examiner’s clipboard while he sighs and says, “I’m sorry to inform you….” But for almost all drivers, the way they conduct themselves on their test is the pinnacle of their careful and considerate driving – once the L plates get torn up, so do lots of shibboleths about mirror-signal-manoeuvre, keeping within the speed limit, checking for cyclists on your inside as you turn left, indicating what you’re planning to do on a roundabout and generally doing-as-you-would-be-done-by. If drenching bystanders is considered acceptable during a driving test, it shows that there can be nothing wrong about it whatsoever in ‘real life’.

I haven’t done any extensive research on this, but suspect that most people who walk or cycle anywhere find that they are getting showered more violently and more often by traffic than used to be the case. There may be a couple of physical reasons for this – cars are larger and heavier than they used to be, and with more extreme weather patterns and building on flood plains, there may well be bigger and deeper puddles at the edges of the roads. But more significant, I think, is the fact that so many drivers never walk anywhere and have forgotten, if they ever knew, what it is really like to be “splashed”. Whereas in the past the driver knew that she might well be in the pedestrian’s position tomorrow, now anyone walking is a member of an aberrant sub-species. I wonder whether it’s partly an age thing. Michelle Kelly is 31; I am 43. It’s only half a generation, but the shift in car ownership and usage between the mid 1960s and the late 1970s is enormous. For my contemporaries in early childhood, the family might have owned a car, but it would have been the father’s domain, used for work and significant outings, never for the school run. Our daily travel; to playgroup, school, the shops, was first on foot with our mothers. And the fathers driving to and from work recognized our situation and would, on the whole, no sooner drench us than they would their own families. Of course accidents, and even the odd deliberate devilry, occurred, and could be funny, but the humour came from the taboo involved. There can be nothing particularly amusing about doing something so unremarkable as Ms. Kelly sees her action.

The other week I was walking into town one morning, and, looking the other way, was covered from head to foot with a burst of very cold, very abundant water. On the side of me nearest to the road, I was as wet as I had been the evening before when I deliberately fell out of a canoe into the lake (but that’s another story). If I’d been a young child, an elderly person, or vulnerable in any other way, the shock and physical effects could have been quite nasty. That was a particularly dramatic instance, but not unusual, as anyone who walks or cycles in Britain or Ireland can testify.

It’s also the case, at least round here, that drivers speed up during wet weather rather than slow down. Their response to any kind of hazard: bad weather, roadworks, a cyclist, seems to be to try to get past it as quickly as possible. It’s as though the whole experience of driving is a kind of virtual reality computer game. The Daily Mail’s article ends with Ms. Kelly’s aggrieved comment that she was feeling “really confident”. How dare the kill-joy examiner puncture such self-esteem with boring concepts of courtesy and consideration? You don’t get any points for those.

Reaching for the Sky…

It’s good to know that the rare cycle/footpaths around Enniskillen have an important commercial use after all… This sign has just started popping up on the busy path where a few hundred children and teenagers go to and from school.

As you might be able to see from this picture, it’s carefully placed just where the path narrows and goes round a tight corner. On the other side of the corner is a steep hill (with the turn-off for Currys, purely coincidentally ) so anyone coming down that way will be able to build up a good bit of momentum before crashing into the sign. At least they’ll have the comfort of knowing that they’re going into eternity with the benefit of really low prices.