...in the bottom drawer
I knew I'd lose it so I put it in a safe place, and now I can't remember where it is.

currently stashed in: Cheshire Street, London
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November 30, 2004 || 5:15 am

After the Thanksgiving break, it's back to the proverbial drawing board. We are (although I've been saying this for the last two weeks) going on site any day – or rather, as soon as we can steal the long tape measure and surveying level back from the other teams in order to set out our site. Meanwhile, we discuss all the things of no design significance and major importance to the building process like how to fit the formwork for our foundations into the holes we dig and whether the weather will hold for long enough that the concrete will cure. The second year team have stolen a march on us, which is great as we can go down to their site and see all the things that have gone slightly wrong, hopefully learning from their errors.

Meanwhile, we got home tonight to find some kind of animal has been exploring the huge shed we call home. At least, we found its footprints on the countertop and unfortunately also its piss on my housemate's pillow. Possum? Racoon? A search in all the dark corners reveals nothing but a reminder to keep the doors firmly shut, and gets us slightly hysterically giggly at the thought of waking up to a possum's tail dangling in front of you. Not your usual student digs, one might say…but then again, not every student has 2000 square feet in which to paint on the walls, put up art shows and play hip-hop so loud the walls shake without worrying about the neighbours.

And Greensboro's Main Street now has its Christmas decorations up - absurdly pretty for a street where no-one lives.

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November 29, 2004 || 3:19 pm

Apologies for lack of posts. The big Thanksgiving travel thing where the whole country decamped to somewhere else involving a really long and tortuous journey, ate turkey and then went home again, also swept me up, decamping to New York for what in Europe we call a 'mini-break'. A big culture shock from Alabama. Things to buy, everywhere, a strange and rather illogical thing after the total lack of consumer luxuries in the Black Belt (apart from big trucks). While it was rather wonderful it did also make me feel slightly queasy, the analogy of a kid in a candy store being more than apt and the consumption (or even availability) of quite that much candy giving me literal stomach pains. Bright lights, big city, we walked in Central Park (easily consumable beauty), ate oysters and Guinness for lunch at Grand Central Station, took a lot of yellow taxis (easily consumable transport), went to the new MoMA (the ultimate art candy store - ooh, look at how many Matisses they've got - ugh, I can't eat any more good art, I feel sick), stayed in a hotel.

It was, of course, really fun to hang out with English expat friends, with English sensibilities and lots of intelligence. And, unforgettably, the post-prandial invasion of New York neighbours into our English Thanksgiving dinner - the most quintessential New Yorkers imaginable - all Jewish mama and her late-teenage kids, wannabe rock star with a one-hit-wonder dad, stories about getting arrested for letting a dog off its leash and three thousand words a minute. Woody Allen would have been proud.

But my reversion to small-town life must have gone deeper than I thought, because I'm happy to be back in my town of two grocery stores and one licensed restaurant.

PS. The new MoMA, for those of you interested in architectural gossip, is really big and boring. Too crowded (with people and art), too many shadow-gap details, a crap foyer. A green marble floor which saps the life out of the beautiful Monet that they hung above it.

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November 23, 2004 || 4:48 am

Today was not rainy, but misty - beautiful, driving across the gentle undulations of West Alabama in the frog-jeep. The whole of the Rural Studio was away, apart from last years thesis students who are still working frantically on trying to finish their projects. It's true that many of the projects past and present out here are hugely ambitious- projects that in a 'real' architecture firm would easily take over a year to complete. It's testimony to the energy present here, as well as the refreshing absence of bureaucracy, that group fo four or five totally inexperienced students can themselves build these major projects with their bare hands, in so little time.

Later on it was over to Marion for my weekly old-time music jam. Wonderful old songs, and slowly my fingers get used to playing blues scales, blue notes and the squashed sliding thirds and fifths of this old music fusing Irish, Scottish, French, African and English melodies. The modal tunes reminiscent of pipers' fifes and reels mixed with ragtime and black scales is a really extraordinary and rich mixture, constantly a reminder of the history of the South. Marching tunes from the Civil War gain a few blues inflections; a song about 'London Town' becomes a banjo setpiece, 'Summertime' gets a bluegrass makeover.

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4:48 am

Today was not rainy, but misty - beautiful, driving across the gentle undulations of West Alabama in the frog-jeep. The whole of the Rural Studio was away, apart from last years thesis students who are still working frantically on trying to finish their projects. It's true that many of the projects past and present out here are hugely ambitious- projects that in a 'real' architecture firm would easily take over a year to complete. It's testimony to the energy present here, as well as the refreshing absence of bureaucracy, that group fo four or five totally inexperienced students can themselves build these major projects with their bare hands, in so little time.

Later on it was over to Marion for my weekly old-time music jam. Wonderful old songs, and slowly my fingers get used to playing blues scales, blue notes and the squashed sliding thirds and fifths of this old music fusing Irish, Scottish, French, African and English melodies. The modal tunes reminiscent of pipers' fifes and reels mixed with ragtime and black scales is a really extraordinary and rich mixture, constantly a reminder of the history of the South. Marching tunes from the Civil War gain a few blues inflections; a song about 'London Town' becomes a banjo setpiece, 'Summertime' gets a bluegrass makeover.

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November 22, 2004 || 2:10 am

It's suddenly got very rainy here. Yesterday, last night and today it poured down, clattering on the tin roof of my warehouse home, in through some holes in the roof, gushing down the street like a river and turning front lawns into swamps. Everyone here thinks that England is rainy, but it's nothing compared to the downpours we have here. It's very annoying as we were hoping to pour our foundations on Monday or Tuesday, but it'll now have to wait until after Thanksgiving. Virtually everyone left on Friday for the holiday, so the Rural Studio is deserted.

Touring round with a visiting English friend to show him the sights of West Alabama, we trudged through puddles, red clay sticking to our feet And then the inevitable happened: my poor little frog-jeep got irretrievably stuck in a huge muddy rut out at Perry Lakes Park. And it doesn't have four-wheel drive. So we had to walk the mile and a half to the nearest house and beg to borrow a phone, and call the irreplaceable and long-suffering Johnny Parker to rescue us, dragging him away from one of the biggest football games of the season (Auburn-Alabama) to grumpily drag us out with his truck. I will be guilt-ridden for weeks, but luckily Auburn won. We made it to meet friends at the Shack just in time for the last minute of play.

Then later, it was out to Club 28 for more two-stepping to country music, pool and beer with the good white folk of Greensboro.

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November 20, 2004 || 5:37 pm

My first brush with the Greensboro police department! for that most American of offenses, the 'open container law'. Which basically means that you must not carry an open container of alcohol in the street or in your vehicle. So a late night, tipsy walk to the gas station to buy toilet paper, of all things, with two of us clutching our cups of bourbon, means that we attract the attention of the one bored copper circling round town. Being English, he blames my American friends for 'letting' me walk around town breaking the law. We look suitably contrite and he gets his small kick from telling us off, sending us on our way with a warning not to walk around town at all. 'Three good-looking gals and you two guys, there's guys round here that might notice you and I'm not sayin' you can't fight, but I'm not sure you two guys could hold off four or five guys'. Like, where on earth is this fear of crime coming from? We are literally two blocks from home and there is not another man, woman or dog on the streets.

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November 17, 2004 || 7:01 am

We finally, after many long and tortuous arguments, made our decision on for whom and where to build. The lucky recipient of our first house is going to be Elizabeth Phillips who featured in an earlier post.

We went round to tell her. Of course, she was very pleased. But boy, this lady has standards. We told her it was going to be a two bedroom house. 'Can't it be three bedrooms?' was her response, despite the fact that she lives alone and no-one ever comes to stay with her, apart from her daughter very occasionally. But despite these quibbles, when we told her that she was going to get a house, her eyes lifted and her beautiful face, still unlined at 86, showed pure relief. She had just been telling us how she was going to have to have a pacemaker fitted next week. She praised the Lord and clasped her hands.

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November 16, 2004 || 3:11 am

I still struggle, either here or in my letters and emails to friends, to really describe what the Black Belt of Alabama is like. I think that the longer I am here the more mundane and ordinary I make it sound, when in fact it is so strange, wonderful and worrying in equal measure. I suppose I have got used to G.B's Mercantile Store selling Stage Planks and Fig Newtons and bacon cut to order, and the battered trucks pulled up outside it; the fact that my 'studio' is an old barn clad in rusting steel which is freezing in winter and boiling in summer, and leaks when it rains; that my 'home' is a car repair garage, a huge, naked, abandoned space; that the 'downtown' of Greensboro contains no inhabitants other than the Rural Studio students who live in palatial lofts above shuttered stores; that the local nightlife consists either of the black bar or the white bar, and at the former I do feel uncomfortable; that most people live in second-hand mobile homes and work at the catfish plant for $6 an hour or claim disability benefit because it is the only social security available. That the better-off white families make-believe that this is 'normal', mowing their front lawns on a Saturday. That I can't buy a national newspaper unless I drive an hour, but everyone has CNN. Fertile fields lie empty, used only for hay, and rectilinear catfish ponds stretch out as far as you can see along certain roads, reflecting a blue sky and endless egrets and herons. The county clerk at the courthouse is called Gay Nell Tinker.

I don't know how to describe it, but it seems very far, yet very like what America is meant to be.

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November 15, 2004 || 3:13 am

Reading more of 'Let us now praise famous men' is like one sharp intake of breath after another. Not only because of the acuity which Agee brings to bear on what he observes, but because of the precision of his language, the direct, unapologetic, honesty with which he describes his own feelings and the forcefulness with which he does not pull his punches. More brutal yet lyric than any contemporary writing, his prose reminding me alternately of John Clare's tender yet savage descriptions of the English countryside and others like Cobbett or Thomas Paine, interspersed with the naked sensuality of Joyce or parts of early TS Eliot. No doubt Agee knows his influences and his conscious endeavour at a form of truthful realism, harnessing all the powers of language yet not letting them guide his purpose, is painful yet all the more gripping and stark for this pain.

And some parts in particular do not age at all. Particularly, reading the section on 'Education', especially given current political events, is terrifying in its contemporary relevance. His critique of the teaching methods imposed on children in the South, whether white or black, is sadly no less exact than the critique one would construct now. The grinding down of any form of intellectual curiosity, the perpetuation of false truths and half-baked pieces of religion as fact, the lack of good teachers and their inadequate training and the resulting creation of generation upon generation who are, to use Agee's words, "crippled..slowed, blinded and helpless-minded" and "at an immeasurable disadvantage in a world which is run, and in which they are hurt and in which they might be cured, by 'knowledge' and by 'ideas'".

Even his distinction between the teaching in the white and black schools still remains (which, if you have not read it, is that although the white schools are vastly better funded and less overcrowded, the teachers in the black schools are more committed, although they still teach a "white-traditioned education"). The voting patterns of the black and white areas of Alabama bear this out, as do the lunchtime conversations in Lou's over local politics. The calvacade of omissions from education in the rural South that Agee lists is intrinsically linked to the election result and the perpetuation of the gulf dividing the country.

Today, driving to shop in Tuscaloosa I flicked from radio station to radio station, white ones and black ones, to find only screeching Sunday sermons. They are funny for a bit, or as samples on the latest hip-hop track, but listening to the preachers hour after hour literally scream over the airwaves about the End of Days and the judgements awaiting the wicked, how can one not be reminded of the tapes circulated by Al-Qaeda and others to urge on a similarly ill-educated and dispirited population.

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November 13, 2004 || 7:56 pm

I've finally (thank you Aunt Min!) got my own copy of 'Let us now praise famous men', the Walker Evans/James Agee classic exposé of the poverty in rural Alabama in the 1930s and written about precisely the area where I now live. It is almost de rigeur to say that nothing has changed here, save the replacement of cotton with catfish. But reading that stark, intensely detailed prose, coloured by the pointed discomfort of Agee's relatively privileged background of which he is acutely self-aware, it still makes me draw breath to read the comparisons. Of course, conditions here are better than they were then - only 3% of houses now lack plumbing - but the gap in living conditions between this area and the rest of the nation is as wide now as it was then - this statistic is five times the national average. 53% of single mothers live in poverty, which means an income of less than $12,000 for a family of two.

It is a book that also struggles vividly and unashamedly with the awful paradox that the Rural Studio and the like also grapple with, the paradox of the beauty that comes from poverty: the simple, time-worn shapes of buildings, clothing, landscapes, faces that derives from existing in the most horrible conditions. Poverty now, however, seems much more ugly. Rotting trailer homes, the diabetes and obesity, polyester jogging pants and stained, shapeless t-shirts do not have the romance of faded denim overalls and the silver-grey boards of the sharecroppers' shacks. The poverty 'we' find beautiful here is the remnants of the poverty of Agee's time - the older generation still living in these timber two-room houses, still wearing old brown trousers held up by suspenders, with a creased cotton shirt and a flat cap, driving an ancient Ford or Chevrolet. Having said that, I looked in my iPhoto for a suitable illustration and found the ambiguity still remaining - I'm not sure whether the following pictures show some strange beauty or not.



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November 12, 2004 || 7:47 pm

Hooray!! I'm a fully legal licensed Alabama driver...finally...after the world's easiest driving test. My examiner (who had a fondness for the English Royal Family) actually told me how to do every manoeuvre. 'Now I'd like you to back up straight here, and remember, look out of the back window when you back up, don't rely on your mirrors.' 'Now I'd like you to turn left at the stop sign and remember, a stop sign means come to a complete stop.' No, really?

So now the Frog and I are free to roam as we like over Alabama (not that we weren't already, seeing as there are no policemen around here to stop me).

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November 11, 2004 || 7:48 pm

Another great evening yesterday, practising with the Kudzu String Band, clustered round a big woodburning stove in the lakeside pavilion on the farm of one of the members. Staples of the bluegrass/old time music repertoire such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown are now within my grasp, along with some fantastic old modal tunes. After a long and intense day in the studio, it was just what I needed - three hours not thinking about architecture at all.

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November 09, 2004 || 3:40 am

I never thought I would ever be such an architect. Remembering that I adamantly told my interviewer at Cambridge that I had not intention of becoming an architect...remembering that I was told I might fail my first year...remembering the first time I tried to draw a construction detail...and how a former colleague of mine asked me curiously 'Did you ever like making models at school?" when I patched another bodged cut in a presentation model...

But here I am, finger-wagging at my poor teammates who forget to think about the wall thickness in a model, who don't consider how a window-sill works...where did I get all this from? I thought I still couldn't do this architecture stuff!

Architecture, as my interviewer at Cambridge warned, sucks you in. It creeps up on you and before you know it, well you're well and truly nerdish on the matter of window details, paving slabs and concrete finishes. One of my fellow outreach students remarked, coming back from New Orleans this weekend, how two months of architectural education had made him look at buildings completely differently. Already, he's lost that naivety of experience that we architects try desperately to recreate, to see the world through the eyes of our clients. How can we ever know, really, what value our clients place on a beautifully detailed window? And especially here, where not having a leaking roof is the major goal, what should we really be prioritising?

Already I'm abandoning my architectural instincts - I'm specifying vinyl windows, for god's sake, because hey, they are cheap, they don't need to be painted, they last OK. Never mind the fact that I desperately want to replace the UPVC window frames in my flat in London because I find them so ugly. But still, I argue desperately for the windows to be arranged to bring light in just so, for their framing details to be perhaps not the most basic, to remediate their vinyl-ness with some 'architecture'. I cling to the belief that normal non-architects do sub-consciously notice these things and that they make them happier. But none of us look at all this with the eyes of a lay person - like losing your virginity, you can't imagine how things were before.

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November 07, 2004 || 4:38 am

My frog-jeep got a lot of action today, under a crisp clear blue sky, exactly how autumn should be. It was warm, too, t-shirt weather despite the chill last night. In the morning we went visiting some RS projects that I still hadn't managed to get time to see, and getting pleasantly semi-lost in the back roads of Hale County along the way. This place can be the most astonishingly beautiful - breathtaking quiet in the woods and gently rolling hollows, and the odd expansive view across a shallow valley. And after lunch it was off to the grounds of Kenan's Mill in Selma, where a small bluegrass festival was taking place, for learning more old-time fiddle tunes and jamming until the sun went down and our fingers got cold.

Playing this music with a group of people, even with my meagre skill and lack of knowledge ('You don't know Dixie?' a woman asked in disbelief) makes me smile so much. Picking up the chords and rhythms, especially the old modal tunes, feels like the best mental exercise and when it all comes together and banjos, mandolins, guitars and voices combine in a circle, nothing is more joyful, with no sins attached. And I managed to get one up on them all by playing a modal Scottish reel whose chord patterns none of them could follow...

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November 05, 2004 || 5:04 am

Meanwhile, better late than never, here is Butch before and after his fall.



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4:37 am

Life post-election is predictably, yet strangely, normal. Those of my fellow students who voted Kerry (by my estimate about two-thirds) show no visible signs of distress, and those that voted Bush finished gloating quickly. Speaking to Anne Bailey, an admirably liberal white woman, she expresses doubts in hushed tones about Bush's effect on the Supreme Court, but for everyone else it's just another day.

It's suddenly got cold today. Beacon Street is chilly, though warmed by a good dinner, a bottle of mediocre red wine and an unexpected indulgence in poetry reading (Keat's Ode to Autumn and William Blake). My hands are covered in paint from helping Johnny Parker paint a fence. The $20,000 house is another step nearer to being on site (hopefully next week). Lou's at lunch today was subdued. We listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X on my friend's iPod as we drive into Newbern, and wonder what happened to those heady days.

And I've discovered, thanks to some issues of the LRB finding their way across the Atlantic to me, that my Jeep Cherokee was the first true SUV.

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November 03, 2004 || 2:00 pm

OK, so if you're right-leaning it's all over and Kerry should graciosuly concede, if you're a hard-bitten liberal its time to fight for those provisional ballots and absentee votes to be counted properly. Fact is, once again these tactics probably won't manage to unseat a president-elect who has got the greatest proportion of the popular vote in history. We don't want a reversal of Bush/Gore. But to the folks back home whose black despair at having to deal with this moron for another four years has my empathy, keep up the good fight. It makes it all the more important to take positive action on whatever small or great level. And in America, I can't help but feel that the most necessary action is urgently to educate - so this kind of politics becomes unacceptable not just to 'people like us' but to the population at large.

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7:07 am

I'm logging off to follow the rest on NPR as I fall asleep. But for my two cents, when I wake up I reckon Kerry will be challenging Ohio in the courts.

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5:13 am

The liberal Daily Kos continues to be optimistic even about states like Florida, where apparently 1m absentee votes remain to be counted, and Ohio, where similarly large numbers won't be counted for several days under state law. I can't really allow myself to share his hopes, although how Fox can call Ohio before people have even finished voting I don't know. It's weird enough that they 'call' the states before all the votes have been counted, as they do in every state. I miss the certainty of that UK election experience of the broadcast cutting out to the reading out of the vote numbers with that very particular town hall echo, followed by an incoherent acceptance speech by the MP accompanied by the drunken cheers of his supporters.

Another weird election snake-with-tail-in-mouth is in Colorado, where the ballot includes an amendment to change the electoral college system to proportional representation, thus changing the outcome of the presidential election voting which occurs on the same ballot.

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4:40 am

Florida to Bush. Vodkapundit has most of the other swing states trending Bush. Although we all like to be optimistic, it looks like I could go to bed and wake up to the same old depressing government.

In talking to people here, and reading the web, the biggest single reason for this, which is hard for a European to come to terms with, is that people here vote not on politics, but on morality - as the most important issue poll shows. Devout Christians who disagree with Bush on every other issue will vote for him on the basis of the abortion issue alone. People frequently say they will vote for Bush because he is a Christian, so he will uphold the morality of the nation. It has absolutely nothing to do with Iraq, domestic policy, or any sort of policy at all. And absolutely nothing will change their minds on this.

You only have to look at the vast swathes of red on the map, covering the Mid-West and the South, to see how much of the country (and it is the country, the rural areas) hold to these sentiments. Ohio, the swing state, voted overwhelmingly against gay marriage. We may talk about the 'religious democracy' in places like Iran, but the religious dimension to politics here is as strong, especially in places like Alabama. This is in no way a secular society, however much the liberal pundits in the big cities may like to hope it is. The goggle-eyed amazement at the peculiarities of the 'religious right' (in Guardian terminology) should not pretend that this is a wacky minority - it is the way everyone outside the cosmopolitan centres of New England and the West Coast lives their everyday lives.

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4:10 am

The Guardian experiment seems to have been a turn-off: Bush leads by five points in Clark County, Ohio. Meanwhile California and Washington have been called for Kerry (no surprise) meaning it's painfully close again with all the focus on the swing states.

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3:44 am

One of the more fantastic things is the huge voter turnout which means that polling stations in many areas are having to stay open long past their official closing time. Though early intimations of a major increase in the numbers of young voters have turned out to be unfounded. Meanwhile it's still horribly close. The early exit polls have inevitably been shown to be hopelessly optimistic in favour of Kerry, but so many key states have yet to declare. Though Florida, sadly, is almost certainly gone to Bush.

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2:49 am

It's close. It's very close. I am trying hard not to get optimistic about the posted on Wonkette especially as the early high margins in favour of Kerry have been getting narrower as the evening goes on. We don't have TV at our house so I'm relying (again) on live TV streaming from the BBC and endless prodding of the refresh button on many blogs and websites.

Behind in Ohio and Florida in the precinct results so far, way ahead in Pennsylvania...it's still on a knifeedge, with legal challenges coming in from all directions in the swing states.

Today our 'critical reading' class turned, inevitably, into a discussion about the election and American political process. I was really surprised by the prevailing belief among all the class that the people and the state had no connection to one another - that the state was run by a political and social elite, bent on self-preservation rather than the common good, which none of them entertained any hope of every penetrating. I mean none of them - despite high levels of education (including graduates from some of the country's most elite universities) - thought it would be possible for them to amass the wealth and influence that they saw as the only means to any sort of political power.

As I am used to being berated by North Americans for the supposed 'class society' and elitism of 'old England', I was half pleased, half shocked by this revelation. No grocers' daughters will be leading the US of A on the basis of what these guys believe. Cynicism regarding campaign finance, lobbyists and business interests was directed at all those who have reached any level of political power. The extent of pessimism regarding the ability to affect the nations government, despite the heated opinions flying around the room on the election issues, was quite staggering.

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November 02, 2004 || 7:29 pm

Voting in Newbern, Alabama, in the old bank down from the Red Barn, is a strangely moving scene, full of a significance which I can't quite put into words. The building is not used for anything else all year.

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5:59 am

The polls have closed in a tiny hamlet in New Hampshire. Last time, they went to Bush. This time, the candidates are exactly neck and neck. The suspense continues...

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3:10 am

This election is a page-turner, but I can't skip till the end of the book to find out what happens. All I can do is come home from work and obsessively read Wonkette, the Drudge Report, and the endlessly fascinating rising and falling links page at Technorati. Amazing how shocked the US public, and even the super-cynical and sharp bloggers are at Osama's latest press release. I'm always amazed how coherent and well-informed he is. Good joke about Sweden, too.

For me, the way he speaks about why he does what he does is so obviously close to the evangelical crusading of GWB. "Is defending oneself and punishing the aggressor in kind, objectionable terrorism? If it is such, then it is unavoidable for us." Could have come straight from a speech to the UN about pre-emptive strikes. Instead, many bloggers prefer to compare him to Michael Moore.

Meanwhile, we all watch and wait. But those bloggers who think that they change the course of history, be aware I'm the only person here who reads blogs. 90% of people and friends I talk to here in Alabama, and even many in the UK, don't even know what a blog is. So far, the democratization of politics through blogs that many bleat about is far from complete.

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2:10 am

Alabama is top of the obesity tables, I'm unsurprised to hear. The diet here is appalling, and the total lack of opportunities for exercise in the course of one's daily life is staggering. Walk? Cycle? I took a walk today - five minutes down the street from a classmate's house rather than being dropped off at home - and it was probably the longest walk I'll take all week. The dispersed pattern of settlement means that driving is the only option. I get funny looks if I walk to the supermarket. My former landlady said that she never walked anywhere after dark and tried to drive me to a friends house three doors down. (She needn't have said that; she never walked anywhere anyway.) And everyone lives in a one-storey home - no huffing and puffing up the stairs.

Even I have put on weight since being here, I think. In London I would walk to work every day, then walk to go out to a bar or restaurant, walk home, or cycle around town. So much for the countryside being a healthier place to live.

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