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

Sunday, 27 July 2014

King George Square

I'D had a day of wandering. Partly, this was to fill time, to make the most of a rare free day before business began. Mostly, however, it was to fend off jet lag, for I had arrived at 7am after a day of flights on the back of a full working day, with little sleep in between.

I packed it in. First there was the music emanating from the West Side, next the story of the kuril and the elephant, the dinosaurs, the Nepalese pagoda and finally the lizards of the botanic gardens. I was all ready to head back to my hotel, when I heard it.

"ABC. Easy as 123."

Except... this was no Jackson 5 song. As far as I recall, the Jackson 5 version did not include such words as 'boycott' or 'Israel'. I walked towards the sound. There, in the shadow of a cafe whose logo is of Batman, the masked vigilante, a speaker rallied masses to boycott Israel.

No matter your feelings, expertise or interpretation, sometimes a sight is truly stronger than words, certainly stronger than words I can think of. The sight of 1000 people, including children, marching in solidarity with Gaza through the streets of Brisbane, is one I shall never forget.

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.