Always a new treasure to be discovered
in this secret garden of a city,
in this living labyrinth of a life.

deep pink thrift flowers with a scatter of wildflowers and a clean sandstone wall

Archivist’s Garden, Register House, Edinburgh, Scotland
21st May 2018


We sailed south to get here but as I wander about I have the uncanny sense that we’ve come further north. Maybe it’s all the whiteness. The large harbour where we’re moored is full of white boats – packed ranks of them, all gleaming, from the shiny power boats and sleek yachts to the large ferries, and even the fishing boats – a stark change from the rustbuckets lurching around Scotland. The docks themselves, an extensive network of floating wooden walkways, are weathered to a silvery grey. Ashore too, paleness dominates. The pavements are an almost-white concrete, and all the large buildings around the harbour are pale: the minimalist white stone library and concert hall, the light grey hotels and apartment blocks, the huge white silos further along on the industrial waterfront. They form crisp negative silhouettes against the dark mountains which surround the city, which, in turn, form their own silhouettes against the now cloudy white sky, silhouettes scooped here and there with bright patches of snow.

It’s all so clean and so linear – a true Arctic city scene. Many of the streets and buildings are fronted and roofed in plate glass, further reflecting all the cold brightness. It’s an impersonal-looking city in many ways, unlike the smaller wooden towns we’ve been in so far. Yet I feel at home here, in its spaciousness, in its lucent absence of colour – human as well as architectural. Elsewhere, the cool indifference of much Norwegian social contact has been disconcerting. Here it forms part of a sense of human space, a sense of a people neatly and graciously spread out, and I feel peaceful. There is room here, on the bleached wooden docks, on the wide glassed streets. Pale, clear room.

Especially in this room, on the first floor of the Bodø Bibliotek. The room is a distillation of the city itself, spaciously arranged and immaculately white. The floors are lined with warm wood but everything else – the walls and bookshelves, the tables and chairs – is white. Almost everywhere I look I see clean whiteness and I can look everywhere because the entire sea-facing wall is made of huge panes of glass. From the outside, the glass looked bluish but from in here it’s invisible, and in the uneffusive afternoon light there’s a sense of continuity, as if the glass is not holding things in but letting things out. I feel as if I’m outside as well as inside, my sight lines extending out smoothly to the street and the harbour and, beyond, to the grey south-west line of the sea.

I walk up the softly side-lit stairs to the upper floor and into its central atrium. It’s glass-walled all around and open to the sky, with a pale grey stone floor upon which, unexpectedly yet perfectly, sits a massive grey boulder. Its immense weight anchors the ascending height: I understand why they put it here. This is the heart of the building, the high centre.

I put my hand on the boulder and listen. The city is quiet from here and I notice that I am too – unusually so. The library is doing its work, lending me its patient grace and clarity, its sheer and simple form. I turn my attention inward for a moment and find my mind, normally a fairly cluttered chamber, has become a large transparent room, sparsely furnished, its low hum of chatter like an audible silence. The thoughts within it are spacious, elevated and calm. They drift outwards from this open room, over the pale glass-vaulted city, over the snow-lined peaks and out into the ever-enveloping opaque white sky.

clean white stone building with tall blue windows on pale concrete pavements which seem to reflect the grey sky overhead

Bodø, Nordland, Norway
26th June 2017


tiny yellow maple leaf sitting upside down on a large yellow maple leaf in the morning sun

Yellow is an undemanding colour, less emotive than red, yet no less intense. It comes to meet you, levelly, entering you somewhere beneath your turbulent heart. You let it in and sit with it and you find that, wherever you have been, you now have a place to come to. Like a sheltered patch in a city park beneath a sugar maple carpeted with russet and yellow leaves. You don’t gather up handfuls of them, the way you would if they were red, but just sit and watch the shafts of sunlight illuminating them intermittently, softly picking out their curled points and broad palms. This is where you are now. It’s a fine autumn morning in the north and nothing else is required.

Queen’s Park, Glasgow, Scotland
18th October 2016

Queen’s Park

A frost meadow lies between the spreading oak trees and the slim birches, great palmfuls of leaves papering over the dew-sharpened blades, each of which is itself furred by myriad tiny hairs of frost, glittering in the first light, sun upon sword upon sward.

frosted oak leaf held in shadows of frosted blades of grass all gently illuminated by pale low sunshine

Queen’s Park, Glasgow, Scotland
23rd February 2016


Perth is a snowdrop festival: between the roots of trees in gardens, in the cracked courtyard of a derelict hotel and all along the banks of the Tay they gather, keeping company with the congregations of patchily-plumed black-headed gulls, which swoop and flutter over the river and its offerings of soggy bread.

The snowdrops are shy, or coy, hanging their heads delicately, while the crocuses burst rudely through beside them, pungent purple buds bulging skywards like proud phalluses. I try to prise one open but they’re holding their petals tightly closed, keeping their egg-yolk yellow insides stiffly guarded for now.

One small bunch of daffodils has come out, however – strangely early as they haven’t begun to open anywhere else on the river banks, nor were any open in warmer South Wales when we left yesterday morning on St David’s Day. They stand about nonchalantly in their frilly jaune abandon. And wee kids are out too in bright yellow vests, giggling at the gulls while they’re being shepherded about, enjoying a fluorescent florescence of their own. It’s all happening here. The season curls its yellow lip and coils, waiting to spring.

small clutch of daffodils with yellow-vested children in distance behind

Perth, Scotland
2nd March 2015


There’s a lot of vegetation in the quieter districts of Tokyo and, since the streets aren’t named, and since most of the buildings look similar, I rely on the plants to navigate and find my way around. They become familiar: the pink flowering tree, the green fluffy maple with its leaves like a thousand tiny hands, the tall red-turning hedge, the pale green conifer with soft feathered claws hanging.

The trees are distinctive here, thankfully, and exotic. And they seem to grow to suit their district. Twisted Japanese-looking pines predominate in the small stone household courtyards, often pruned and wrapped into bonsai-like shapes, but in the backstreets of the bustling bright district of Shimbashi, I found a shrine complex where the trees rose almost as high and straight as the skyscrapers surrounding it.

The numerous trees in Tokyo are a pleasant surprise to me. The other surprise is the multitude of hidden shrines, tucked away in the corners of parks, in back alleys, between skyscrapers, behind trees. They’re little pockets of peacefulness and I seek out their solace regularly. I feel strangely reverent and slightly magical in their presence, as if I’ve slipped back in time a little and can become part of the ceremony and power of the shrine. It’s a simple ritual: offer a coin, make a prayer, toll the bell, clap your hands, twice (to wake up the gods), then bow and quietly depart, having washed your hands and mouth in the spring water fountain before entry. Old rites of purification and desire.

And then I can return, when I must, to the crazy Tokyo – to the long downtown streets lined with neon rainbows of high-rises, or to the weaving maze of backstreets, crammed with tiny restaurants and micro-bars, bathed in the softer glow of paper lanterns and a haze of smoke and cooking smells.

I walk and resist, walk and resist, enjoying the myriad lights of the outdoor Tokyo, until I am lured by necessity into the network of metro stations and malls, where I force myself to submit. Then I drift hopelessly along the fluorescent platforms and passageways, with their shining shops and beckoning kiosks and high female voice-overs which explain and apologise and cajole. No electricity is spared here. And I could become part of it, become just another pixel in the smooth lighted buzz… but every few minutes I’m jolted out of my synthetic reverie by another taut announcement, with its childish melody chiming loudly along beside it.

Ah, Tokyo. It panics and charms me by turns, and I can’t wait to get out.

paper lanterns and red lights

Tokyo, Japan
29th September 2014