...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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December 26, 2004 || 10:12 pm

What is it about earthquakes and Boxing Day? we all wake up woozy and contented, looking forward to finishing up the left-over food and booze, and suddenly the old whitebeard in the sky feels it necessary to remind us of our piggish self-indulgence by sending a huge natural disaster. Last year I shakily trotted off to our traditional Boxing Day events worrying about my friends in Bam; this year I worry about a very dear friend holidaying in Thailand. Maybe it is timely to remind us, at the time of our greatest consumption, of the fragility of the world we depend on to provide us with our turkeys and crackers and stocking fillers.

But it's eqally strange or ironic that the first photo of the disaster I see, on the BBC website, features a South Asian boy climbing over the wreckage, wearing a (fake?) Arsenal football shirt advertising O2, a mobile phone network which no doubt advertises its 'foreign roaming' service heavily. The Arsenal won today, comfortably, but I wonder what the O2 executives think of seeing their logo emblazoned across a disaster scene abroad. I also wonder why the BBC chose that photo out of the hundreds of Associated Press images they could have chosen. Does seeing a man wearing the same shirt as we wear down the pub or the football ground mean we have more sympathy - 'it could have been me'? Or does it look more like one of the British holidaymakers that we all worry about - our friends and relations - as if it were my mate X swept away by a tsunami when he was watching Arsenal-Fulham in the local bar. The sad fact is that most of us do think first of our loved ones and second of the 'natives'. But how shaming that we can export our football shirts to these people and take their money, but when it comes to giving them help, we help only our own.

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December 24, 2004 || 10:30 pm

It's Christmas, again...and the routine repeats itself, with subtle variations, fromthe moment I leave my London flat to go back 'home' to my parents in the countryside. I have too many bags to carry the 15 minute walk to the station, so I get a cab. On the way, I pass two police cars that have stopped and three 'youths' thrust against the wall under a garish stret light, being questioned under the benevolent gaze of a police horse wearing red reindeer antlers.

The train is really packed. My father, meeting me at the station, has a cold. I'm exhausted by last minute shopping and the travelling, and go to bed immediately after supper. Today, as is our tradition, we decorate the house, going to get our Christmas tree from the same old farm where we have the same conversation about the virtues of buying trees on Christmas Eve that I have had for as long as I can remember. We pace the field, weighing up the pros and cons of various trees and measuring their height against our shoulders.

At home, my mother pesters me to leave off what I am doing and come to gather holly from the tree before the darkness closes in completely. I read all the newspapers and journals that I've missed, and don't talk much, slightly irritable at being a 'child' again. Lots of tea is drunk.

We decorate the tree with a glass of champagne before dinner, listening to our ancient, totally camp LP of the Vienna Boys Choir singing Christmas carols and laughing at the same mispronunciations when they do 'The Twelve Days of Christmas' in English with that absurd vibrato. We have to load every single decoration onto the tree, a garish and totally tasteless mishmash, making the same comments about the same deocrations as always happens. My mother sighs over the ones I made in primary school when I was five. My father always forgets the provenance of one or two, and insists that something was certainly so last year when it certainly wasn't. I'm told I make the same comment every year too, but I don't ever remember making it before.

It's a great family occasion, even though the lines are worn and now that I am no longer childishly entranced by the magic of Christmas, one slightly wonders why we bother. Small things change - we put up less holly than we used to, realising that it is actually a really dark plant and not that jolly. We don't actually sing the carols around the tree. We debate whether to display the crib figures that my father made when he was fourteen as we're all no longer religious, but realise that if one year we make the decision to secularise, we will never display them again and there is something slightly sad in that. After dinner we all scatter to our rooms and shut the doors while we do our last minute wrapping, and I peek my head out to check the coast is clear before delivering my stocking contribututions to the relevant 'Santa's.

I've been reading the diaries of Cynthia Gladwyn, a now-dead friend and matriarch of a local family from an era of parties with the Asquiths and tiara-clad diplomacy in Paris. Like her husband, a former ambassador the the UN, and her children and grandchildren, she was hugely intelligent and observant. Her comments about the Americans hold absolutely true - too much food on every plate, never walk even ten minutes, an alcoholic nation and working too hard making money to have any leisure and therefore 'crashingly boring' and badly read. The latter failing is a timely one to remind myself of - an easy trap to fall into, sacrificing civility and all-round education for a 'career' and 'success'. The calibre of one's thinking and perception has to be nurtured, by reading properly (and not just the LRB, however wonderful), going to as many plays and films as possible, and making time to meet the most intelligent and thought-provoking people one knows in situations where one can really enjoy their conversation and benefit from their company.

An old-fashioned idea, I know, but I must try to stick to it. After all, one can be happy with very little in the way of career or money if one's brain is constantly stimulated.

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December 22, 2004 || 2:15 pm

Christmas shopping is a nightmare (I know, you all know). Not only am I revolted at the amount of absolutely useless shit there is available to buy, I suffer a complete melt-down of creativity and then, when I finally get an idea, nowhere fucking sells it. The one decent present I managed to buy in Alabama for my mum was typically me in that it was too big to transport back to the UK given my suitcase size, a fact that totally passed me by from the day I bought it until the day I packed my bag. From now on, everything is being done over the internet, and all I will have to do is sit at home drinking tea and answering the doorbell. That way, I might even have time to make something for someone, for a change.

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December 20, 2004 || 10:36 am

Back in London Town, nothing much has changed....five new vintage clothes shops have opened up around my flat, but apart from that everything is much the same. Pubs are very nice things. As is a Sunday spent getting up very late, going for a long walk and watching the football in a pub with friends. At the risk of sounding like an outtake from a Working Title film, I've also braved Christmas shopping in the West End, gotten really soaking wet in the rain, taken an old-fashioned Routemaster bus and worn high heels while sipping champagne. Four months of dirty jeans and muddy boots have really brought out a slightly alarming girlish side to me now I'm back in 'civilisation'.

I'm also inevitably struggling with how to describe Alabama to my English friends. It's such a world apart from what they expect America to be. The usual cliches about right-wing Christians, race relations and George W come up again and again and it's hard to explain how they may be on one level true but also how much more infinitely complex the whole thing is. At the end of the day, despite often holding problematic views, the people I meet may also still be fantastically kind, interesting, and instinctively smart despite their cripplingly bad education. Not for a moment do I want to excuse some of the opinions espoused by the denizens of Club 28 or the radio preachers, but listening to them, staying judgement for a little while, is important.

So often I try to avoid these difficulties by focusing on the landscape, the work I'm doing and the culture of catfish and bluegrass.

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December 15, 2004 || 3:40 am

It's been all hands on deck this week to finish our foundations...finally, after all the delays. All pretty chaotic but we got it done. Many incidents involving lots of water in our holes, lots of mud that needed to be got out so we could fit our rebar cages in, still having to cut the cages down as we couldn't dig that deep by hand with post-hole-diggers, levelling sonotubes, weird bracing, tangled strings and all the other accoutrements of first time builders. Then the big moment...the concrete truck arrives...


...and the first hole is an inevitable mess, too much water left in it, sploshing cement everywhere, looks of horror from the team. But luckily things improved after some hasty pumping-out of water, which alas had the side-effect of de-levelling some of our sonotubes and tangling some rebar (prompting a lot of 'why didn't we think of that earlier' type remarks) and it was wheelbarrows and shovels all round.


Finally, it was all done before sundown, J-bolts set and only one or two (or three or four) piles off so much that they're going to need a good shim at the next stage! Foundation initiation complete, and time for a beer and a debrief.


But the drama wasn't over...back home I was de-concreting myself in the shower when my housemate yells that he's looking a possum in the eye. Sure enough, I run out dripping in my towel to the kitchen and there the little thief and pillow-pisser is, crouching on the shelf with the peanut butter and staring Phil out. I was about to freeze my butt off if I didn't jump back in the shower so I couldn't get a picture, but he was chased out roundly and with much cursing. Hopefully we won't wake up to more bumps in the night as he breaks another jar of jam for a while.

It's back to Eng-er-land tomorrow for real beer and dark pubs over Christmas...can't wait.

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December 12, 2004 || 10:07 pm

After working late and getting up early, it was a long, cold but interesting Pig Roast day. Cars in caravan formation behind the Dually pick-up adorned with the fluttering flags of the USA, UK and Auburn University, we toured each project in turn, where the group presented on site and the visiting Jersey Devils played their traditional role as guest critics. My group presented first, luckily as by the last presentation I was on the verge of falling asleep.

With only a short break for a freezing catfish lunch at Mason's Bend, we finally ended at 5pm back in Newbern, for a BBQ supper and bonfire before the main event, our party/art show at Beacon Street. This was lots of fun - I got my bluegrass-playing friends to show up, much to everyone's surprise as they mostly had no idea that I played the fiddle, and we got another bonfire going, and the whole crowd of students, tutors, devils, proud parents and random others drank and danced and chatted around the bonfire with that relieved, relaxed air of 'end-of-term'. We made mulled wine (apparently this is a novelty to the American South) but sadly, no mince pies...

Today was therefore one of those woozy, blissful Sundays recovering from a slight hangover and doing absolutely nothing apart from my laundry (long overdue), and following the Arsenal-Chelsea game 'live' over the web, rather jealous knowing that certain friends were there in person. Can't believe Thierry missed that sitter but still, it could have been much, much worse.

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December 10, 2004 || 4:26 am

Time proceeds scarily fast towards the end of the semester. Last night we had our Christmas party, or rather one of the two parties we are having, the other being the end-of-semester pig roast. Last night was our one lecturer dressed up as Santa giving out our 'secret Santa' presents (he usually teaches History and Materials & Methods), soft drinks only of course (unless you bring your own), sausage rolls and crisps (sorry, chips) and general seasonal cheer. It's been mild and we were sitting out on the porch of the Spencer House all evening.

Today I got well and truly muddy on site. We had to shovel away all the dirt that came out of our foundation holes when we drilled them. And as there was a lot of rain last night, the pure clay of the soil was now impossible to shovel and unbelievably heavy. We actually realised it was easier not to use the shovels at all and just use our hands. And with several inches of clay stuck to all sides of our boots, it was the true Hale County experience. I'm sure this isn't how 'real' builders do this but hey, we got it done in a couple of hours so that's got to be some success. And of course, our holes are now absolutely full of water...

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December 07, 2004 || 4:21 am

Another week begins. We managed to persuade (with a little leaning from our tutor) the rest of the group that it really was a good idea to move our house to the least swampy part of the site, so most of the team spent the day putting up new batter boards and strings, while I worked in studio drawing through some design options for a couple of things. It's amazing how long a day can feel when you start out on site at 8am - by the afternoon I was convinced it was Tuesday.

This evening Carol and I continued with our preparations for the informal art show and party we're holding at Beacon Street on Saturday after the end-of-term reviews and Pig Roast. Painting, climbing up and down ladders and making things interspersed with drinking wine and chatting - as it should be. It's a good thing that the Rural Studio doesn't really have a late-night work culture - more of an early start ethic - as otherwise, the idea that we could do this in our evenings would be out of the question.

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December 05, 2004 || 12:11 am

Every day on site brings unexpected new developments. Yesterday, the truck that we got in to dig the holes for our foundations became almost fatally sunk in the mud around the site we'd chosen for the house. It may be that we choose to change the site of the house as a result, moving it as close as possible to the hard standing and driveway, so that concrete trucks/diggers/our cars don't turn into permanent installations in Elizabeth's front yard (a teammate's car also got stuck last night just after we'd managed to dig/winch the big truck out). It's really quite extraordinary how soft the soil is, and it's definitely going to get even less fun as the winter gets wetter. But of course the debate about moving the site is a major headache, with the team split.

Today, however, was another ridiculously beautiful, clear, mild day, from the morning when we drove to site through mist rising like smoke from the catfish ponds, to the opening ceremony in Perry Lakes Park of the bridge, a thesis project from last year that is now finished (well, apart from the handrail). It's a really impressive achievement, putting our struggles over our tiny house into perspective. Any professional practice would be proud of the design and execution of the project, which for four students to build with their own hands is really extraordinary. It seems to float miraculously above the creek, held up with fantastically precise engineering which is completely imperceptible, so integrated it is into the design.




After that it was off to Selma for a three-hour bluegrass jam with some real old boys, including a 83 yr old fiddle and mandolin player named Mr Jessie. Exhausting but exhilarating, learning new tunes and listening to how they all play. It's really deceptively simple music - the standard chord progressions hiding a multitude of melodic and rhythmic variety - and thus learning it by ear requires real concentration.

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December 03, 2004 || 5:14 am

We are progressing on site slowly but surely. As in, no actual bits of building yet but very meticulously set out batter boards and strings. Digging holes for foundations tomorrow, after which there really is no turning back. Meanwhile half the team has been researching every possible sort of anchor bolt/holddown for our foundations, as well as organising a septic system and various other indoor jobs. The foundations were today's subject of lengthy debate due to a ninth-hour loss of confidence among some team members. The soil around here is fundamentally a bog despite how pretty it may look - soggy, a high water table, sticky and generally liable to shift and sink. Not particularly good for any kind of foundation apart from 18ft piles going down to the bedrock, which certainly aren't within our budget. Luckily, after going round the houses again and consulting everyone else's opinion (all the tutors, fellow students, a local contractor, Johnny Parker, the internet) and considering the cost implications, we're still going with what we originally planned.

It's suddenly got very cold here - warm when the sun is up but as soon as it dips, our feet, wet from standing all day in our swampy site, suddenly become numb. Everyone is wrapped up to the ears after dark and in the morning, but in the daytime its gloriously sunny and clear, perfect working weather.

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December 01, 2004 || 4:11 am

Well, today we finally made our first marks on our site! The first part of the process: setting out the footprint of the building with stakes and string. No glamorous ceremony, though, just three of us and a very long tape-measure. I was reminded of Chuck Palahniuk's book 'Diary' which I read on the plane to New York, and its description of the rituals and superstitions of housebuilding, reminiscent of what I had previously learnt about ancient Mesopotamia and also Japan. Would the lack of ritual bring bad luck to this building? It certainly felt strangely mundane - no audience, no blessing, no mayor laying the foundation stone. It's an important and exciting thing, building a dwelling, even if it is a small and cheap one.

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