Back from his Orkney hols, Digby Ponder gets in touch with his e-mail mates ... as well as with his feelings
Wednesday 24 April 18.10.23

Dear Rudy. The weary journey from the far north of these isles is behind me, and I have returned a more reflective and stronger man, I hope. The sense of betrayal is as keen as when I left. To form a personal relationship and exchange confidences with someone who turns out to be a university research project is not a great boost for the ego. Despite your reassurances about the "integrity of American collegiate institutions", I am far from confident that some of the fruitiest portions of my discourses with Arianna will not find their way into some bestseller entitled "Smut On The Net", or something similar. And believe me, the lads down at Flames (the Crouch End cybercafe that is to cafe culture what Julia Carling is to discretion) would be bound to buy the book, identify the victim and email him relentlessly.

I travelled with Nadine to the Orkney Islands sadly disillusioned with the world of high technology and superhighways, of nets and webs, of dots and cos. On the train up to Glasgow, I read all about this guy they think is the Unabomber - the ex-Harvard maths professor who spent 25 years alone in a shack in Montana, cycling into town every now and again to post bombs to American universities. Maybe, I thought, this is the way for me. Throw off all the encumbrances of "civilisation" and live in the wild hunting rabbits - your only contact with the outside world to receive the occasional postal order from your family and to send sophisticated explosive devices to people you don't like.

Romantic? Yes, perhaps. Anarchic? Certainly. Realistic? Alas, no. A week as a guest of Mrs McSwegan's Quayside Hotel, Kirkwall, has been more than sufficient to convince me that Britain is no place for a return to nature. The Orcadian wind whistled through the shabby bedroom, dampening the lumpy quilt (have they never heard of duvets?) and blowing out the matches lit to ignite the prehistoric gas fire. Porridge la McSwegan was obviously concocted from the same material as the quilt, the coffee left over from some wartime store of substitute stuff, made up of woodshavings and seaweed.

Finally, if Ted Kaczynski hadn't frozen or starved to death before making a single bomb under the aegis of Mrs McSwegan, her unswerving attention to the smallest detail of her guests' behaviour ("Is that you in the bathroom, Mr Ponder?" "Is there something wrong with your egg, Mr Ponder?" and so on) would have caught him out. "That's an interesting package ye have there - all those wee wires, and addressed to the University of Strathclyde, too. Now what would that be about?" Before you could say "hoots", the local Hamish Macbeths would have the Quayside locked in a vice of steel.

There have been two more consequences of my Orkney sojourn. The first is to do with my novel. For months I have been struggling with "Wild Man, Wild Horses". I still think that the idea of the man facing the elemental forces of the earth and thereby discovering himself is both marketable and - almost more important - essentially true (even if it is not always obvious here in Crouch End). But I've come to the conclusion that the Old West is now overwritten and better done by Americans.

I have been impressed recently by the new snow and ice genre. Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, Snow Falling on Cedars, Kolymsky Heights all deal with the extreme conditions to be found in the colder parts of the earth: Greenland, Siberia and (why not?) our very own Orkneys? A man struggling with a hostile environment. My working title is "Call of the Wild". What do you think?

The second is to convince me that my days with Nadine are numbered. Despite her many admirable qualities - loyalty, an almost obsessive cleanliness, good taste - there is something missing. There is a lack of spiritual dimension to our relationship. And the sex isn't great. Sharing that damp bed should have been an adventure of sorts, but not with Nadine.

As always, the question is how the deed is to be accomplished. Somewhere on the Net you can be sure that there will be a whole newsgroup devoted to how to dump the little lady. I'll let you know how I get on.

Sig Dig

Wednesday 24 April 23.41.28

Rudy. Julia Carling? Oh, never mind. I keep forgetting how parochial you Americans are. And who the hell was Jack London? Never mind, I'll think of a different title.

Yes, you're right, Arianna was a chastening experience and I'm not in a hurry to import a new woman into my life. But Nadine and I are at the end of our journey. Yours, a sad but determined Digby.