Goodbye to Florence

Florence cloudburst

Arriving in a misty haze at Pisa international, I took my coach seat and felt a renewed love for nature. With steam rolling off the fields, I remembered being driven around Aberdeenshire as a child, watching herons and buzzards roam in a far harsher playground. Simple moments stirs memories as fresh as the soil. An earthly reminder of who you used to be and what you have become.

Florence marked a departure point for me last year. I gave up everything and nothing to live here last October. It’s an uneasy feeling to leave home without a key. Unsure of who you might meet or anyone at all. It’s a weightless feeling I guess – you are finally free of routine.

Settling into the finest apartment of my adult life, I was astonished by the timeless perfection of its medieval palaces and gardens. Just going to the supermarket and pouring over the sweet variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables became a daily highlight. I can’t cook to save myself, but fresh Italian ingredients made it almost fanciful.

Duomo

Walking around Florence city centre is like entering a children’s picture book. You have to adjust to the Duomo’s scale and size for context. Brunelleschi’s snowy mountain dominates the Arno valley for miles – a majestic beacon of engineering that has glittered for over 500 years. The terracotta temple lends a secular prestige to your visit. Gods of engineering and science designed and constructed this through their wits and determination alone.

Settling into my Oltrarno home, I became fascinated at how Florentines still make things with their hands. Unlike the gated walls of their stately homes, the city’s workshops brim with creativity in full transparent glow. From boutique chairs to bird cages, an artist is sweating in paint and sawdust on almost every side street.

I loved the bookbinding and cartographer shops, many of them so expensive they only have to sell one item every three days to survive. Via Tornabuoni is famous for its opulent displays of garments, watches and leather shoes. No one remotely normal can afford to buy anything here, but it’s another tribute to the city’s self-confidence.

Such is Florence’s timelessness, there is a melancholy in returning this year, and everything is the same. It feels like a parallel universe in that respect. I exist in multiple dimensions through my work and metaphysical friendships, and this epilogue feels uncannily familiar. Like I never really left, but the romantic fable has shifted, and I can’t reclaim the optimism of before.

Fiesole villa

I have been focusing more on nature than art or food this time. I took the bus to the Fiesole, a scenic hillside village near Florence, and felt like a schoolboy walking amongst the vineyards and forests. Almost like I had stepped into an Italian mirror of my Scottish childhood.

Seduced by November sunshine, I walked for miles to neighbouring Tuscan hamlets with my smartphone operating as a map. It felt glorious for the few hours it lasted. For we travel for romance, we travel for architecture, and we travel to get lost.

Fiesole view

During my daytime crossings over the Arno, I often wondered what lay beyond Fiesole’s green hills. Even more so when I ran along the riverbed at lunchtimes, pushing my body harder and faster than any inner-city slog, where my thighs would tremble like jelly on the final bend home.

Oltrano is no longer my place anymore. I am currently staying in a small townhouse outside the town walls, and it was never going to be the same. On coming back you remember how little there is to do after sunset, and the seclusion of people’s lives becomes more apparent every day.

Florence’s walls are too grand to be emotionally available. The city if nothing else is a fortress. You can visit as many times as you like, but you’ll never belong in the garden.

Fiesole walk

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Disruption

From my cold, solitary desk in Glasgow’s West End to pink orchids and boho lighting in Hackney Downs, a fuse can blow up anything. With my router frazzled by the surge, I remembered a time gone by in the dear green place. How I used to steal Wi-Fi just to maintain my faint connection with the outside world. There were no moving pictures for company back then. No escape into make-believe worlds.

Just words.

That place was so lonesome and cold looking back. I used to wear a jacket under my duvet just to keep warm.

 

Keep it in the ground

London

I think most people write because they don’t want to sleepwalk through life. Writing is a means of keeping memories alive. If you don’t record, paint or obsessively photograph or film every living moment then why are you even here?

I write to stay alive as you forget what matters otherwise. That’s the one thing that scares me the most. Not being able to remember my stories for better or worse. I also want to keep a record of my changing. I am always changing.

School years are easy to remember if your parents keep hold of your jotters, paintings and teacher reports. Thereafter you have landmark birthdays with complementing photographs, graduation days and long hot summers doing nothing at all. Memories feel more tangible when your everyday life is administered year by year.

Only now I find months and years morph anonymously into a cloudy void. This year doesn’t feel any different than the previous four. I’m sure plenty of things have happened, but for some reason I barely notice the difference. Perhaps amnesia has set in prematurely because I’ve lived in the same flatshare for five years. Working as a freelance copywriter chasing unpaid invoices and ignoring voicemails is a repetitive trade at times.

East London Bedroom

An inconspicuous lifestyle in East London doesn’t provide much visual stimulation either. I’m sure the past few years would have been more memorable if I had gone backpacking in Chile or got married to a blonde jazz singer in Melbourne.

Alas, when I wake up in the morning there is no orchestral soundtrack accompanying my footsteps to the bathroom. My laptop screensaver is the same as the year before. Pulling open my black Primark curtains I see the same tattered plastic bag swinging from the communal birch tree every day.

Grand Central Station

If it wasn’t for my blog then I wouldn’t be able to trace anything at all. Blogging provides a highly subjective recorded history, but a necessary one if you want to join up the dots. For example I can’t honestly remember when I flew over to New York for an OK Cupid date (yes that’s right).

If I scroll back I can remember arriving in Grand Central Station. It was unseasonally hot and I was jet lagged for the first time. Walking around I remember the towering sense of civilisation, meeting Nicole, queuing outside MOMA together and buying Mexican beers in a Harlem grocery store. But the timing of this otherwise memorable trip escapes me. It could have happened anytime in the last three years. Now that’s what you call experiencing life on a big scale.

Notebook

From red ochre cave paintings in southern France to tweeting rubbish about football, there is something incredibly human about keeping a record. Skipped behind my bookcase lies a collection of diaries and notebooks I have curated over the years. With literary quotes squashed in the margins justifying their existence, I keep filling them out and dumping them alongside their older colleagues. A scrapheap of memories no one will ever read.

If I am lucky enough to have a family of my own they’ll eventually be boxed and kept upstairs in an oak wooden loft. Maybe they’ll be sparingly reopened for an old quote or a nostalgic rummage through the past. Only to be put back in their place again, a written bond with a young man that no longer exists.

In addition to my dusty notebook skip, I keep shoeboxes full of old letters, gifts and Valentine’s Day cards underneath my bed. Occasionally I take a look at them, but I haven’t checked them or my ex-girlfriends emails for over a decade. I know I will never look at them again. But I can’t bear the thought of getting rid of them either. A skip or recycle bin makes no difference to me. Deep down I want someone to read my stories when I’m not here.

Aberdeenshire Pictish Symbol

Before I longed for a written legacy I remember being assigned a primary school project to recreate the standing stones of the Picts (an ancient warrior tribe in northern Scotland). The Romans called them the ‘Painted People’ because of their elaborate monstrous tattoos embroidered on their chests. On building Hadrian’s Wall in 128AD, the Romans essentially formed an ideological frontier that stated civilisation lay down south – roads, aqueducts, fortresses.

Northward bound was a land of mist, barbarians and Pictish standing stones. The same stone circles I tried to recreate with my Dad’s chisel. Looking back it was one of my all-time favourite school projects, bashing away at a lump of rock in a bitterly cold garage. I’ve resoundingly failed to experience the same sense of joy in working ever since.

Artifical Intelligence

A large number of Pictish stone circles have survived in Scotland. Whatever messages the Picts were to trying convey I cannot fathom even now, but their recorded history remains accessible even today. Like the Picts we too express our own stories in equally vivid and complex ways, but assuming there will still be an inhabitable planet 2000 years from now, I don’t think any of my A.I descendants will be recreating my stories on an interstellar spaceship.

Electromagnetic Pulse

In some respects my skipped diaries are physical reminders of my narcissistic desire to be exhibited just like the Picts. While stone circles remain visible, our digital archives could easily be wiped out by a nuclear inspired electromagnetic pulse (EMP).

Electrical magnetic storms have the ability to destroy our civilisation just like fire pulped the ancient scrolls of Alexandria Library. A world without Wi-Fi would be nasty, brutish and short if a magnetic dystopia were ever to take place. Don’t try and order a pizza on your iPhone when it happens.

Internet Dsytopia

Bit rot – the slow deterioration of data software such as floppy discs also renders our digital civilisation useless to future historians. Cloud based services are not worth anything if technology moves so fast that you can’t even open them. Unlike calfskin vellums and hardback books accessible in public libraries today, our collective knowledge requires constant software upgrades just to stay alive.

Augmented Reality

My stories are unlikely to be remembered by anyone and that’s assuming I’m fortunate enough to have children or grandchildren interested in genealogy. My WordPress subscription has to surely expire at some point. What happens if the software company goes bust or evolves into an augmented reality server projecting to a visually attuned audience?

Email

While it probably isn’t a tragedy if my ex-girlfriends emails are unable to be read by future generations. I still want to keep them alive somehow. By taking one glance at them you hear the voice of another person, someone still alive but lost forever. Writing to me is one of the greatest human inventions, holding us all together, providing an emotional bond with the dead, living and unborn.

Biblioteca

Change is the one constant on a writer’s journey to the recycle bin. It doesn’t matter how eloquent and grand your thoughts are in the twenty-first century, all it takes is an epic server upgrade and your life stories will become robot.txt. You see that’s the progressive irony of our digital revolution. No amount of technology can save your words, especially anything stored on an electro-powered server.

A memory palace is more likely to be derived from handwritten notebooks than your Facebook archives. If I want to preserve this particular record it would be wiser to print it off and laminate it for safe keeping. But even my words will fail to outlast the stone circles of an ancient Caledonian tribe. That’s real power if you ask me. All this superlative technology spinning in the sky, and ancient rock symbols carved with a chisel in the ground will out last us all.

Quarter of a Century

Glasgow is a city with a brooding gothic soul. A city I once wrote about regularly, even if it was just the banality of routine. With its violence menace, religious iconography and twee bourgeois sensibility, Glasgow captured my imagination at a particular period in time. Back when I described the insignificant truth of this solitary journey to the cinema on a cold weekday evening. A melancholy love letter so to speak. I had just turned twenty-five. 

Tuesday, 10th January 2006

Moth to a Flame

I go the cinema when I’m bored and lonely. It all begins with an over familiar route through the West End and after several twists and turns I will magically stride through Garnethill down towards the largest cinema building on Planet Earth.

The beginning of the journey is arguably the most comfortable upon the eye, it is invariably dark and rectangle shades of affluent light can be seen frozen behind coloured glass. I walk across the Byres Road up towards Great Gibson Street, where mercenary cranes hang over an underdeveloped patch of soil; it is a docile but rapidly changing stretch of road.

The sharp gradient tightens the muscles on both of my legs and I have reached the peak of the road, where in sudden twist of fate I feel compelled to go down the hill towards Gibson Street. I used to live around here, the car park is still a muddy disgrace, littered with crass aluminium shells and alien sized craters. The park dominates the area, it is a spooky place and lit only by a curved silver moon; its iron gates lie open but I dare not enter.

I stride past fancy Lebanese and Scottish restaurants, it is an ordinary night but they both appear full of people. I cross over the gentle river, there are no grebes or mallards to be seen and only now do I start to accelerate towards my destination. I twist past two Protestant churches and a cold young fox lying dead in the leaves. The road ahead is empty and without a soul, it appears darker now, the motorway is within walking distance.

I head towards Charing Cross, it is very quiet and all the cars have gone. It is not the right time but I prefer to take to the skies than walk alongside them. I adjust my legs and walk over an arched granite causeway; it elevates me above the carnage of the roads and provides access to the mysterious ways of Garnethill.

I am in the city now, there something sinister about this place, something threatening, although my mind is playing tricks on me. It is dark right now and no one is here. The street is awash with neat green lawns and vacancy signs, there are places to stay on my left, while to my right there are scattered bins and graffiti strewn fire exits.

I walk ominously closer and there is a Catholic Church approaching, which is separated by yew, rowan and a piercing iron fence. This secretive place of worship performs mass in Latin and the priest is kept hidden behind a secret silver veil. The church is small but intimidating and I don’t think it likes me at all. I walk on alone and without a God, the winter air is biting my cheeks, my hands are beginning to get cold now.

I walk towards the famous art school and admire its subtle and decorative style, there are no students in the nearby eighties lounge. I am almost there now and feel like a distant stranger, people are on the move down below me, there is a collection of buckfast and vodka sitting alongside a corrugated steel gate. The streets are colliding into one, there are cars passing by me, it is now sparkling with light and the silence has gone.