NB: Science writing is now mostly published at my second blog, Longhand & Scribblings. Follow the link to find out more!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Frankfurt am Main

Baggage carts roam wild with
dollies pulled behind and
tugs heave the big boys,
the jumbos and the jets, and
Lufthansa the main man,
the lord of all around but
other airlines flash their
tail feathers with pride as
planes they line up end to end
ready for the skies, and
trolleys zip between them all,
to keep the queue from failing
and a giant hulk of metal touches down, ready to be serviced, confident that all will bow before him

I look up. Ukraine have just missed a shot on goal, their blue livery a flash of colour between the whites of England. It had been a spark of excitement in an otherwise disappointing game. The lone man at our gate sits down, disappointed. It is just him and us, three in all, watching the people, the football, and the patterns of the vehicles as they perform so dutifully outside.

Small and nimble luggage carts

zigzag past the fuel trucks;
vans they follow secret tracks
that intersect the thoroughfare
occupied by flat things:
wide and brutish flat things
chased by wobbling stairwells
and a bendy sluggish apron bus;
catering trucks elevate
while belt loaders they lift weights:
the weights of all the baggage load
of nimble, zippy luggage carts
while a giant hulk of metal roars, ready to tear a hole in the sky en route to far away

It is unnervingly quiet at our gate. It is still just three people, and departure is imminent. The score remains 0-0. 

But outside, everything is moving to a secret rhythm. Planes land. Planes take off. Planes taxi and are swarmed by mechanical pilot fish: tugs and ramps and carts and vans and caterers and refuelers and container loaders and conveyor belt loaders and solid states. And all around are invisible roads, crossing one another to keep everything ticking. Everywhere movement: everyone busy. It is a logistical dream! A vehicular ballet! Another set of engines roar.

A call is made on the radio. Our gate has changed.

We have to run.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


High above the city, fortifications tell of a wicked tale: a castle built out of love for a country — a love of Catalonia — yet taken by rounds of kings, tyrants and dictators: built by Catalan rebels, taken by Philip IV, garrisoned by forces of an unsupported king, successively stormed, re-occupied, demolished, retaken, defeated and rebuilt to become a home for first political, then judicial, repression. For every insurrection by the people of the city, the castle would be used to bombard them. Cannons were installed: cannons that fired down on the public below. The terror was indiscriminate. Hundreds died. 40,000 fled. At last the castle passed from military hands, but into the hands of torturers. A time of mass detentions, starvation, show trials and immediate executions began; prisoners numbered into the thousands; tribunals for treason, espionage, defeatism, sabotage and anti-fascism were the hallmarks of what became a memorial to Franco. “The city”, they say, “was subjugated by the mountain”.

And yet, on this day, the sun shines. Bright flowers spring forth between cracks in the ramparts, purple and green bursting through the dust; a worker ant wanders across the path over the bastion, clutching the leaf litter with which she will build a new home but frequently being blown back by, what is for her, a ferocious wind; a tourist poses in a summery dress beneath a cherry blossom, unaware of the dark cloud that hangs inside the castle chambers; in what was the Santa Eulàlia moat, long since turfed over, archers practise their craft — I witness a perfect bullseye; and on the roof, a couple embrace with the entire city beneath their feet.

Four Vickers 152.4/50 model 1923 battery cannons sit silent, looking out over the coast they were installed to defend and terrify. Signs of damage are evident on these enormous symbols of violence, but their damage was not caused by violence — slowly, they are being attacked by graffiti: a peace sign on one, “PROUD” written on another; and declarations of love scatter the inside of them all — Laura for Peter, Sergio for Loli, Ron for Mörgane, Dani for Enri, Javi for Ana. These weapons of war rust, their olive drab disappearing to the red-brown metallic residue, but the names of lovers, friends and explorers etched into the metalwork remain.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Place Saint-Sulpice

Stood beside the fountains, in the shadow of a roaring stone lion, I watch.

A gentleman sits at the farthest tip of a bench. He wears a pale blue and white striped shirt beneath a black trench coat, stone coloured trousers and brown sandals. He has very little hair, but a bushy grey moustache, and he stares in contemplation into the middle distance. He flicks baguette crumbs from his coat and trousers to the floor, stands, then takes his contemplation elsewhere.

A tourist thumbs through an A-Z, stopping at Île de la Cité. She studies the page thoroughly.

Two cyclists, a couple, arrive on hired bicycles. They stop, dismount and stare at the grand façade of the church across the square. Having shown their appreciation, they mount their vehicles and depart.

Two ladies prepare to take photographs, one with a camera, the other posing, pretending to hold in her palm one of the stone columns from the church’s double colonnade. The camera flashes. They inspect the picture, laugh and resume their positions. Several flashes follow, each with the lady’s palm in a slightly different position. They inspect the new pictures. Satisfied, they laugh once more, then embrace.

A man leans against a bollard, cigarette in hand, earphones in his ears.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves of the church, three or four storeys above the square. Slowly it falls, a tiny moment of movement dwarfed by the immovable grand eighteenth century stone building behind. At the last moment the bird lifts its wings, converting the fall into a glide. It reaches the ground, where it has spied breadcrumbs.

And then, chaos.

Suddenly, a hundred other pigeons swoop in. Unsighted mere seconds before, the air is rife with birdlife, eager to share the spoils of the solitary breadcrumbs. Some tussle and fight, others jostle for position. Some are quick to give up. It is not long before all have returned to their distant perches and calm returns.

A lady walks past with her dog, both neatly presented.

A homeless man sleeps with his back against the church door.

A lady sits on a bench, waiting. Another sits, talking on her phone.

Teenagers sit on the church steps, smoking and texting. One rises, armed. With one fell swoop, the bread arcs through the sky, out into the square.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves.

Chaos, however fleeting, returns.

Lunchtime continues in Place Saint-Sulpice.