Sunday, 25 March 2012


This being the first weekend after the vernal equinox, I decided to indulge myself in some good old-fashioned spring cleaning.

To properly clean the windowpanes, I had to stand on Yūdai the Madodai and lean out.

Passers-by on the street below, seeing me halfway out of a third-storey window, stopped to stare in concern. But I waved them on, indicating that there was nothing to worry about. Thus reassured, they carried on with their jogging and their Sunday-morning grocery-shopping.

It is hard to see how my morning could have been better spent. Anasua was right: the effect of alkylbenzenesulphonates on dirty glass is nothing short of modern-day alchemy.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Shunbun no Hi: Terrace Garden

Having posted last year about Shunbun no Hi (spring equinox day in Japan), I thought I’d make it an annual tradition – a post to celebrate nature and living things.

These days the view from my office window is very different from the usual, because I am on a 3-month secondment to a client’s office at St. James’s. The buildings here are lower, older – some dating back to the 17th century. They have gabled roofs, chimney-pots, turrets, courtyards, wrought-iron spiral staircases. My favourite design feature, though, is a terrace garden at the back of the building next door. Victorian red-brick may be fetching enough in its own right, but there are few vistas which cannot be improved by a patch of greenery.

One afternoon a man appeared on this terrace, wearing a plum-coloured suit and holding a champagne glass. Carefully placing the glass on the parapet, he commenced to pace the terrace, declaiming to the winds and performing an incredible series of flamboyant gestures. He may have been an actor, or a madman.

Separated by a hundred yards and a plate-glass window, I sat at my desk, reviewing a non-disclosure agreement and making marks with a highlighter. I say this without exaggeration or undue fancifulness: it was like looking out into a different world.

Sunday, 4 March 2012


Village church of Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland. Vík has a population of 291.

Despite its size, Vík must be an exciting place to live – perhaps too exciting. The village huddles against Katla, one of the most powerful volcanoes in Iceland. Katla last erupted in 1918, and its next eruption is statistically overdue. Furthermore, all known eruptions of the nearby Eyjafjallajökull have triggered subsequent Katla eruptions. Eyjafjallajökull, of course, last erupted in 2010. When Katla erupts, Vík will be obliterated. Earlier this week someone in northern Iceland told us, “When you’re in southern Iceland, sleep with your boots on.”

When we visited Vík yesterday, the Icelandic flags were flying at half-mast. They told us it was because a farmer who lived on the other side of the hill had passed away in the night. He was 102.

Vík also has a black sand beach with spectacular basalt formations.

The waves of the North Atlantic lash the cliffs with vicious force. There is no landmass between here and Antarctica.

Thursday, 1 March 2012


Lava formations at Dimmuborgir (the dark citadels). In winter at these latitudes, the sun does not rise far above the horizon. This photo was taken a few minutes before noon.

Akureyri, 12:43 am

The photo shows the lights of Akureyri in northern Iceland, seen from the eastern shore of Eyjafjörður.

Now you may ask why the photo is slightly blurred and the people look as ghosts. That’s because I took the photo with a 15-second exposure, resting the camera for stability on the rear-view mirror of a van (I don’t have a tripod).

You may also ask – and this is not an unreasonable question what we were doing out in the open in northern Iceland on a winter night. We were looking for the northern lights.

Did we see the lights? Well, not tonight, although the skies over Akureyri were exceptionally clear. We saw the lights on Monday night outside Reykjavík, but it was overcast and the display was brief and faint.

I am in Iceland for four more days, and will keep you posted if I see anything more dramatic. In any event, I can’t help feeling that standing around in the open in subzero temperatures, often in strong winds and snow, craning my neck at the night sky looking for something elusive and fleeting, will – as Calvin’s father would say – help build character.