Book Black Hole Conundrum

I knew it would cause trouble as soon as it happened.

I thought the trouble would come in the form of a bitchy post-it note stuck to the book I’d requested. Something along the lines of This is the second time we’ve had to pull this book for you, written in red biro, of course, with SECOND in block capitals and underlined twice.

Instead I got a phone call just as I was about to board a train into the city. You already had that book yesterday, the voice said.

I was quick to set the record straight. What happened was this: Yesterday I tried to request a book from the stacks but there was a system error and my online request didn’t go through. I asked a librarian for help. He clicked around with the mouse. “There we go. Your book will be ready in half an hour.”

“Oh, but I wanted it tomorrow.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll just put another request in for tomorrow.” Click click click. “Done.”

I’m afraid you’ve been misled, the voice on the phone said. It’s not that simple. We’ve got millions of books, and get hundreds of requests a day. We took back the book you requested yesterday and haven’t been able to locate it today. I’ve had two members of staff looking for it.

I asked if I could request it again for sometime next week.

No, it won’t work, because we’ve got millions of books and hundreds of requests to deal with each day…

“But what happens if you’ve got someone doing long term research who needs to use the same book every day over a long period of time? Is that not possible?”

In that case you can reserve the book. If you like I can give you a tinkle when we locate it and put it on reserve for you.

“Ah, OK, I understand. That would be great, thanks.”

But I don’t really understand. I don’t mean that I’ve got no sympathy for the people who manage the library’s huge collection, or that I’m unforgiving about the situation. I mean that I cannot comprehend what it’s like to work with millions of books..

A million dollars. I know what that’s worth, but I don’t know how many suitcases it would fill in $10 dollar bills. 10 suitcases? 100? A room full of suitcases?

It’s the same with the books. Are we talking about kilometres of shelving here? Is my book on a long overnight journey in a robotic car through a canyon of shelves back to where it came from? But it can’t be, because it took half an hour to get from its shelf to the library reading room in the first place, so surely only it should have only taken half an hour to get back to where it started? It must be sitting there on the shelf right now, right under the noses of the two staff that have been looking for it; that phenomenon where the very thing you’re looking for becomes invisible the moment it comes into direct eye line.

It’s the physics of the situation that’s so difficult to get to grips with. There must be some kind of variation in the properties of time depending on whether a book is moving in or out of the stacks, or a change in the light reflecting properties of recently disturbed books. A book black hole, perhaps?

It’s a mystery, all right.


Electric Avenue

I was planning on buying a heater. That definitely fell under the category of something I would die without. After the third night in a row when I’d woken up from the cold, I realised I urgently had to buy a heater that day. I opened my front door and there was one on the street, literally right in front of my house. I didn’t think it would work. Who throws out a functioning heater in winter? You would at least wait until the worst of the cold weather was over, right?

Before plugging it in, I checked the location of the fuse box in the house, just in case. But it worked fine. In no time at all my room was toasty warm. Thank you, universe.

Then, the other day I was walking to the laundrette when I saw a TV at the end of my road with a note stuck to it saying, FREE TV, GOOD WORKING ORDER. The universe works in mysterious ways. I would rather have had a chest of drawers, say, or even some cardboard boxes to put my clothes in, but what the heck; if the universe wants me to watch The Shire and MasterChef, then so be it.

The only problem was the TV was massive, huge, enormous, and I was already laden with bags full of dirty laundry.

I ran back home, past two men loading up a trailer with furniture from a house a few doors down from mine. I shot them a warning look over my shoulder: they’d better not think about grabbing my TV.

“Quick, I need some help!” I yelled to my flatmate.

“What is it?” she appeared at her bedroom door in her dressing gown, face half made up.

I threw my arms up in exasperation. Why can’t my flatmate be in a constant state of readiness to help me move large items up the street at a moment’s notice?!

I dumped my bags of dirty washing on the floor and ran out the door again shouting “Never mind!” as I went.

Running back up the street I saw a shopping trolley bumping against the kerb. No, no, it would never work; the TV was far too big.

“Excuse me,” I accosted one of the men loading the trailer. He was either moving house or robbing the place. Either way, I guessed he would be sympathetic to my plight. “Could you please help me take that TV back to my house?”

So he kindly loaned me trolley to wheel the TV along the street. It was so big, I couldn’t get it through the front door face on but my flatmate redeemed herself by helping me shuffle it in sideways.

That evening, when I went out to meet some friends, I saw a second TV at the other end of my street smaller than the one I’d nabbed earlier. If only I’d seen one first! I thought, before I could stop myself. I smacked myself on the forehead. What’s wrong with you? You’ve got a free TV! Rejoice!

Obviously the universe must really want me to watch bad reality shows. Either that or everyone’s switching to flat screens.


Sorry for my long absence from the blogosphere. I’ve been travelling on the west coast of Australia where a good internet connection is hard to come by. I’ve still been writing posts, I just haven’t had the opportunity to upload them till now so they’ll be appearing over the coming week.

Don’t feel bad for me when you read this one, because I wrote it two weeks ago and of course everything has changed since then.

Yesterday I left the tomato farm. The time I was there passed so quickly. I wish I had appreciated the stability more, maybe taken a few moments every evening to be thankful for my own bed, the regularity of the working hours and the nice people that surrounded me.

In seven months in Australia the longest I’ve stayed in one place was seven weeks. There were the six weeks on the tomato farm and the rest of my time has been a patchwork of two weeks here, ten days there. Stability has definitely been lacking.

I feel so lonely to be hitting the road again on my own, leaving friends behind. I spent the day in Adelaide today brimming with tears. I watched a video installation in the art gallery for half an hour just to be in the company of other people, focusing on the same thing.

I’m not homesick, but I miss the comfort of being able to stay in one place with loved ones close by. I miss being able to meet friends for tea in Edinburgh at a moment’s notice and then decide to spend the whole weekend together just because we could. I’m sad because I can’t imagine I’ll ever have that again in the future.

When I left Melbourne to go to Tasmania I felt the same way, lonely and lost, and I wrote about it in my notebook. A few days later I was in the Barossa Valley working on a vineyard with a great group of people. When I reread my notes from Tasmania I couldn’t believe that I’d ever felt like that. The loneliness passes so quickly.

Tomorrow I’ll be in Perth and I’ll be meeting friends so I know I’ll be fine.

Housemates, Hobbies and Sky Hi Heels

Only a few weeks after writing out my universe wish list, everything seems to have fallen into place.

My new housemates are kind people who are into yoga and sustainable living. We eat organic, vegetarian food and very little dairy; only a bit of cheese every now and again. I spoke to my mum on Skype last week and she asked if I was eating well enough. I had to laugh because I have never eaten so well in my life. Meals here consist of rice and quinoa and vegetables from the garden.

I spent a bit of time in the garden with one of my housemates, planting beans and cucumbers. Who would have guessed that I would one day do gardening for fun? Another housemate showed me how to knit and has lent me her needles and wool so I can practice for a bit and work my way up to yarn bombing something. The third housemate hooked me up with some work in a shop. I’m grateful to all of them for their help.

The shop sells Goth style clothing: chunky, buckle clad boots, floor length black coats and PVC corsets. It only opened last week so we still get respectable looking, middle-aged business women coming in to browse, then gradually looking more and more perplexed until they realise that the store they thought they were in has gone.

There’s a whole heap of new vocabulary that goes with the shoes we sell: punknews zip up sky hi six eye neon peacock creeper… Luckily the customers know what they’re looking for, even if I don’t. Not yet, anyway. I’m still working on my opening line to greet people who come into the store. The standard “How’re you going?” over here sounds fine in an easy going Aussie accent but unnatural in my tightly done up Scottish one.

I’ve got another job too, teaching English as a foreign language. My accent is causing me some grief there too. The other day I gave a pronunciation lesson. The students played a game where they had to identify words that rhymed. “No, no, no,” I insisted. “’War’ does not rhyme with ‘sport’.” Well, they looked up the words in their phonetic dictionaries, and wouldn’t you know it? They do rhyme. But try as I might, I cannot say ‘war’ and ‘sport’ and make them sound the same.

You know you’re in a good place when the worst of your problems is a little bit of trouble with rhyming. Every so often I roll my eyes skywards and smile and say a silent thank you to the universe.

The Universe Provides

In this place where I’m staying, where op shops have shelves devoted to New Age books, the cafés boast vegan menus and you can nip in for a palm and tarot card reading as easily as you can a haircut, I’ve got to know several people who subscribe to the idea that the universe will provide you with what you ask for.

I met Mikka WWOOFing at the yoga retreat. He told me that he’d travelled for two and a half years in Asia without spending any money. I asked how he did it and he said sometimes he slept outdoors and sometimes people offered him a bed for the night. He was just as happy sleeping under a tree as he was in a five star hotel.

I don’t see myself happily bedding down for the night on a park bench, but I could carry on doing what I’m doing now, working on someone’s property in exchange for a room and board, for a long long time. This is not, however, an infinitely sustainable lifestyle. As well as having to pay for transport costs to get from one location to another, there are certain luxuries that I can’t live without, like coffee and cake in a nice café from time to time.

Mikka said that the trick is to say, yes, I’d really like a coffee but I’m only to have one if the universe provides it for me. Then, when that coffee comes your way, it’s the best coffee you’ve ever tasted. I can’t help but wonder how often the universe does provide you with coffee and would I be able to wait that long for it?

Since I’ve been here I’ve seen two examples of the universe providing. A couple of weeks ago, Ostii was making ice-cream with his Champion Juicer. The juicer was broken and unless you held it in a certain way, part of it would spin round when it wasn’t supposed to. Half way through, Ostii must have let go of the spinning part and it smashed the glass collecting bowl. He flipped out, of course, because it’s very frustrating to lose a bowl of ice-cream after you’ve spent a long time carefully feeding frozen fruit through a juicer while holding an errant mechanical part in position. Only a few hours later, we saw a Champion Juicer in a garage sale for $40. Those things normally cost a couple hundred dollars second hand.

Last week Ostii remarked to a friend that he wished he had some more hardwood for the work he is doing on his house. He’s really into sustainable building and is renovating using reclaimed materials as far as possible. This means he can’t just drive down to the hardware store for an oak beam every time he needs one. The friend advised him to be patient and the universe would provide him with hardwood.

Sure enough, a few days later Ostii got a tip off about a building site where there were piles of used timber that were going to be taken to the dump. Mikka and I went with him to load as much as we could into a trailer.

I don’t believe that the universe is some kind of ancient, wish-granting superpower, but all the same, I became quite enthusiastic about the idea of asking it for stuff. I made a list of things I want over the next few months: a room and a job in Melbourne, a group of nice people with a car that I can travel with.

Just having a clear idea about what I want has made me be more proactive about getting it. I guess this is how the universe provides. It’s not magic at all. Ostii might not even have noticed the $40 Champion Juicer if his hadn’t smashed a bowl that morning. He only got the tip off about the timber because he mentioned to a builder friend of his that he needed some. Knowing what you want means you are more likely to look out for it.

A few days ago we were unloading the reclaimed timber from the trailer when Ostii cut his leg on a bit of corrugated metal that was nailed on to one of the wooden beams. I wish that I could say it was lucky I was there to help; I am a trained first aider, after all. But unfortunately the sight of blood makes me feel faint and I had to sit in the next room with my head between my knees while Ostii cleaned himself up. The wound needed five stitches in the end.

It’s not that I believe that the universe is some kind of ancient superpower, but for me this whole incident has somewhat taken the shine off the idea of asking it for stuff.

Notes from the Continent

I spent New Year 2010 in Brussels and had a fantastic time eating waffles and mussels and drinking Belgian beer. I love European cities and Brussels is a particularly attractive one. Jean Cocteau said that the Grand-Place is the most beautiful square in the world. During the festive period the square came alive in the evenings with the Town Hall sound and light show. It made me laugh every time I saw it, this austere building blinged up with flashing lights and blaring out Christmas tunes. I tried filming it with my mobile phone but the resulting video was rubbish. Luckily there is a much better quality video on youtube courtesy of orbitox1.

It’s probably a grass-is-greener situation but while I was in Brussels I couldn’t help but regret that I don’t live on the continent anymore. I miss speaking another language, colourful old towns and reliable public transport. I miss being able to hop on an overnight train to almost any other European destination at a moment’s notice. I miss carnivals and festivals that we don’t have in the UK. I’ll tell you what I don’t miss though: those piddly little cups of tea you get in continental cafes. I’m sorry but I like my tea in a pot. A big one. And it has to be bitter so that you feel justified in pouring in liberal quantities of milk. And another thing I can do without is the freezing temperatures in winter. Sure it gets cold in Scotland, especially with all the snow we’ve had recently, but it’s never so bad that I have to wear thermal longjohns under my jeans and two pairs of socks.

Tea and temperature aside, one thing a Brit abroad can’t fail to notice is how uptight we are compared to our European counterparts. I remember shortly after moving to Switzerland being horrified that people I’d only just met wanted to kiss me on the cheek by way of a greeting. And I developed a serious crink in the neck from staring at the ceiling in communal changing rooms until I finally got used to the unabashedly naked people milling around me. While we were in Brussels my travel companion and I went to a bookshop cafe and I was shocked when he took a book off the shelf to read while he drank his coffee with no intention of buying it. “We’re not in the UK anymore,” he said. “Look, everybody’s doing it.” And sure enough when I looked around I saw – quelle horreur! – that every coffee splattered, crumb scattered table had a pile of pristine new books on it. Each customer had a cup in one hand, a book in the other, covers bent back with no regard for the spine. But even though everyone else was doing it, and the people who worked in the bookshop seemed completely unfazed by this poor treatment of their wares, I could not bear to bring a book that didn’t belong to me within such close proximity a cup of tea, even if it was only a piddly European cup, so I took out my notebook and wrote for a while instead about the appalingly relaxed attitude of the Europeans towards brand new books.

Home Sweet Home

Sorry about my recent absence from the blogosphere. Over the last few weeks I have been very busy getting settled into my new flat. Now that it is beginning to feel like home (and now that my internet connection has been set up), I am ready to rejoin the world.

It’s a very quirky flat, but I like it. The bathroom is triangular, which I think is fun. My guests say optimistically, “It’s a great use of space!” None of the doors close properly – something to do with subsidence – and you can see that someone has sawn a wedge off the bottom of the living room door and glued it to the top to try to make the door sit neatly in its frame. It still scrapes across the floorboards when you try to close it. The uneven floor means the bookshelf in my bedroom is tipped slightly forward, as though it is about to spit all my books out onto the carpet. I find it amusing. An irritated bookshelf that can’t stand the volumes stuffed in its face.

I love the area I’ve moved to. My new addiction is browsing in charity shops. There are loads on the street adjacent to mine. I’ve bought books, clothes, bags and the aforementioned bookshelf, all on the cheap. My local library is five minutes walk away, the cinema four-and-a-half. I haven’t figured out where the nearest gym is yet, but I’ll do it soon. Probably. And now that I’ve worked out the routes of the buses that stop on my street, I’ve been able to explore more of the city.

All in all, I’m feeling very comfortable here and am excited about getting back into a writing routine. Further posts about my writing life will be published here soon.