Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Wiggle New Forest 100: Part Two - Godshill to Finish

Godshill to Bashley

Upon leaving the first feed station in Godshill, we head out along the Southampton Road. Here, the landscape is much more agricultural and fields seem to head off into the distance over the well-kept hedgerows. A little top-up of air in the new Specialized Roubaix tyres has given my bike a bit of extra zip, especially when combined with the handful of jelly beans I’ve just eaten.

The view looking over the endless heathland with wild horses.
After a mile or so, we take a left onto the narrow Blissford Road and continue rolling along at a sociable 35kmh. We continue onto Abbots Well Road and the landscape begins to change again. Firstly, the neat fields lose their uniform hedges, then the fields turn to open heathland, the road begins to rise a little, before we come to a small switchback that carries the road upwards in a sudden burst. 

At the top of the mini-climb we’re greeted by the sight of a dead horse. Jones has started to flag a little on the climbs and with his head down in a determined fashion makes it to the top without even noticing the carcass lying half across the road. “Horse? What horse matey?” is Jones’ only comment on the matter. 

After this brief flirtation with the forest, a bit more rolling around the edges is required before we cross over a dried up ford, take a sharp left, and head back into the trees once more. The smooth tarmac and a sudden increase in the number of riders around us encourages us to up the speed and before long we’re really blasting through the countryside, albeit a little wary of any potential dead horses on the road.

Another brief climb and it is clear that Jones is struggling a little, but is more than making up for it when descending and on the flats, returning the favour of my earlier turn on the front nicely.

Now, riding through a forest on an autumnal day is quite a peaceful affair. An occasional conversation with another rider, the sound of the air rushing by or the noise of an animal in a field is the only thing to break the silence. 

Suddenly, a cry from a few hundred metres back reverberates along the Bolderwood Arboretum Ornamental Drive (a bit of a moutful). For a moment I wobble as I wonder what it was. Jones has stuck his head down and is going for it. I turn when I hear what sounds like a swarm of severely irritated hornets getting nearer. I shout to Jones to move over just in the nick of time as a small peloton of riders clad in club colours (I think) very similar to those of Team Sky go whirring past in a chorus of noisy freewheels.

Following a brief dip into the outskirts of Brockenhurst, we head back into the countryside and continue on through the forest before arriving at the second feed station.


Bashley to the Finish 

In Bashley, Jones is still looking quite spritely, possibly as a result of all of the fig rolls he’s been consuming. I’m generally still feeling quite good and stock up on jelly beans and bananas - being a coeliac the cakes and fig rolls don’t look too appealing to me. Either way, feeling refreshed, we head off.

A few miles along the Sway road, we run into traffic. A melee of riders and cars and vans all seem to be grinding to a halt. After three more miles of slow going we take a left onto a small lane after the village of Sway. We soon realise the cause of the disruption - a tractor pulling a trailer of horse manure.

Some of the braver riders use the, ahem, slipstream of the tractor as it chugs along at 15kph, but I suggest we stay well back having watched one too many episodes of Last of the Summer Wine in my life. To rapturous applause and the collective sigh of relief from the 100 trapped cyclists, the tractor pulls over and the riders jostle themselves back into order. The faster riders disappearing into the distance. The slow riders tootling along looking at the wild animals. The middling riders, like me, ratchet up the pace a little.

Trying my hardest to look like a serious cyclist heading towards Bolderwood.
We weave along a little, with the occasional event photographer popping up like a meerkat from the bracken, and we get to the B3054; a high and exposed road that rumbles over heathland. Jones starts to tire a little more. I’m getting a fantastic tow off a group of riders riding in formation and get dragged along until I reach Boldre and realise Jones has disappeared. 

He eventually catches up and is complaining of cramps in his legs. I try and convince him to get into a harder gear and lower his cadence, but he won’t hear any of it as he gets on his stubborn mountain bike head. A few miles later he comes to a halt and I begin to panic about our overall time. A couple of friendly cyclists stop by to see if he’s okay before departing whilst making sympathetic noises.

We get going again, but it is slow going. I resume my role as super-domestique and provide a tow, but Jones is struggling to hold on to my back wheel even at 20kph. I issue him with a few more energy gels and try and coax him along the road.

Realising we have around twenty minutes until our chances of getting a ‘silver’ time award disappear, Jones digs deep one last time after a frustrating thirty minutes of slow cycling. As we pass a small red brick cottage on a bend on the B3055 Jones comes alive and starts trundling along at a livelier 40kph.

His burst of life over, I resume my place in front and drag him, and a small train of riders, along the Lyndhurst Road. The tarmac comes to an end after the gates to the event venue and we race over the loose dirt track to the finish line, separated by a single second on the timing sheets. 

After crossing the line, receiving a medal and contemplating food, we sort ourselves out and head back towards London, stopping at McDonalds on the way. The event was well organised, we were better prepared than the Brighton ride and we’re feeling happy with ourselves.

Our first organised sportive has been a success, and after an anxious wait for the official timing sheets, we find on the Monday that we have done just enough for a silver time on their classification. By a matter of seconds. But then we never do anything the simple way.

⇐ Part One: Lyndhurst to Godshill ❘

My ride activity data can be found on Strava here: http://www.strava.com/activities/87350025
My Strava profile can be found here: http://www.strava.com/athletes/1271231

Friday, January 03, 2014

Wiggle New Forest 100: Part One - Lyndhurst to Godshill

Late Starters

Some things in life are certainties. Some things in life are less certain. Some are a combination. You can, for example, be certain that where Mr Jones is concerned, you can never be 100% certain of anything.

In preparation for my first organised cycling event, accompanied by my increasingly cycling-mad friend Jonesy, I had done plenty. I’d been training up and around Epping Forest in all weathers on a route that takes you up three different climbs twice. I had been averaging around 200km a week and had given myself a three-day rest period prior to the Wiggle New Forest 100 on Sunday 6th October

Bikes loaded and ready for a midnight dash a New Forest Holiday Inn.
As it was, as Jonesy arrived in his gleaming 'pearlescent blue' Audi at 10.30pm in Walthamstow, ready for the drive to our hotel just outside of Southampton the night before our 8.30am start, I could feel the preparation slipping through my fingers. After around four hours sleep in a reasonably comfortable Holiday Inn, we headed towards New Park Farm on the outskirts of Lyndhurst, stopping off en route for breakfast at McDonalds. 

As we neared the event’s starting point, the steady line of cars pulling into the grounds began to play havoc with our collective adrenalines and we began nervously laughing at what we were getting ourselves into. There was time for registration, a quick check of the bikes, a quick read through of all the good luck messages and we headed off to the start line, still laughing like a pair of schoolgirls.


Lyndhurst to Godshill

Finally calm after around twenty minutes of laughing, we finally get towards the front of the queue for the start line. We are penned-in in groups of around twenty to thirty riders and given a quick safety briefing. At this point I must admit I am worried at my lack of practice clipping in and out with my new cycle shoes. Before I have chance to remember what I'm doing, we’re off.

The group snakes out of the grounds slowly and onto the main A337 road northwards. The slow rise of Clay Hill appears and already the riders are beginning to shuffle themselves into varying strength groups. A group of riders with super-expensive equipment flies past, Jonesy moves tentatively up the line of riders, and I get bored with the lot of them and push on, bringing Jonesy and a group of braver riders with me.

Just after Lyndhurst, the first mini-hill arrives by Emery Down. The hill is a small affair akin to Crouch Hill in north London. Jonesy and I go full pelt up the hill with others seemingly taking it a lot easier. Either we’re overdoing it, or they’re being overly cautious.

Sasha in the hazy sunrise, awaiting the start of the sportive.
Hitting 43kmh on the decent, we begin to get the sensation of being on a giant countryside rollercoaster, a series of small undulations keeping the momentum of the riders going.

A little after the village of Bartley, the road slowly starts to climb over the next 7km. Admittedly its not the steepest of inclines with only a few moments where the gradient hits the 5% mark, but given the trouble with any form of incline that Jonesy had in January it is a relief to see him keep up the pace. As we approached the little sting towards the end of Furzley Lane I shoot off, Jonesy not far behind and a fair few of the earlier starters are caught and overtaken.

Then it is out into open moorland for a while. Taking my role as super-domestique seriously, I take the lead, allowing Jonesy a tow, and every so often pass him an energy gel from my supply and bark at him to take it. 

The lush greenery along the Roger Penny Way seemed without limits. For a while it is as if we’ve veered off course with very few signs of life except the occasional wild horse. Even after a while there are no towns to blot the view, only occasional cars passing by in the opposite direction, and the occasional club rider overtaking at high speed.

After what seems like only a short period of time, around 30km in, we reach the first feeding station in the village of Godshill. We’re feeling good and feeling like our target of a ‘silver’ time of less than five hours to complete the 111km route is within our reach.

❘ Part Two: Godshill to Finish ⇒


My ride activity data can be found on Strava here: http://www.strava.com/activities/87350025
My Strava profile can be found here: http://www.strava.com/athletes/1271231

Monday, December 30, 2013

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

Cover image © PanMacmillan
I believe that reading a novel that is part of a series, having not read any of the preceding books, is a little like jumping into an ice-cold plunge pool. It has the potential to leave you feeling a sense of shock and bewilderment, but equally can have some benefits. I'm not sure into which category this novel falls.

In a Dry Season (1999) is the tenth in a series of novels by Peter Robinson focussing on Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Being a little late to the DCI Banks party, and never having watched the television adaptations being broadcast on ITV, by the time of this novel, the protagonist has separated from his wife, has a somewhat dubious reputation with women and his career as a detective is grinding to a halt.

The action commences when, during a period a drought, a reservoir dries up revealing the remains of a deserted village that had been submerged following the building of a damn after the Second World War. A young boy, making the most of the adventures to be found around the remnants of Hobb's End, stumbles upon a human skeleton buried in the outbuilding of a cottage.

Presumably seeing it as a chance to punish Banks for previous indiscretions and insubordination, Chief Constable 'Jimmy' Riddle, sends him, along with DS Annie Cabbot, to investigate what seems like a rather a dead investigation. What at first seems like a story based on raking over relics of the past in fact becomes more and more alive and encroaches into the present day leading to the rather dramatic conclusion.

The novel revolves around two narratives: the first omniscient narrative follows the action of the present day as Banks and Cabbot investigate and get to know each other; the second is the first person narrative of Gwen Shackleton and follows the life of Hobb's End from 1941 to 1945. The interplay between the two narratives works well to keep the momentum of the story pacey and allows the plot to develop numerous potential conclusions.

All in all, I would happily read another book in this series should the situation ever arise again. Indeed, the only reason I read this novel was to review whether or not to use it with my A Level Language and Literature class. Generally, the storyline is engaging, although a few strange deviations to include current romances and reminiscences of drug addict neighbours I feel the book could have done without, but possibly make more sense to those who've read more of the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Continuing my summer tradition of a James Bond novel on the beach, this year on Anse des Sables in Vieux Fort, St Lucia, is something I look forward to with relish. Under a palm tree, with rum near to hand and an expanse of turquoise sea in front of me, I read From Russia With Love (1957) – the fifth book in the James Bond series.

Despite the modern reputation Ian Fleming’s novels enjoy, in 1956 he wasn’t satisfied that they were commercially successful enough. With this in mind From Russia With Love saw Bond at a crossroads and the writer's approach demonstrates this.

In a slight departure from previous Bond novels, the first part of the novel deals exclusively with SMERSH formulating a plan to strike the Secret Service’s top man, James Bond. The reader is drawn into the meticulous construction of an airtight plan – the target, the beautiful bait, the exotic location, the risk of scandal and the right man for the execution.

The characters working for SMERSH seem even more extreme than usual too. We meet ‘Red’ Grant, a deadly man with an almost werewolfesque, supernatural drive desire to kill during a full moon and Rosa Klebb a woman described as a “neuter” whose need for sex with men and women “was nothing more than an itch.” As the plan to trap Bond using the beautiful and innocent Tatiana Romanova moves forward, you begin to believe that Ian Fleming was seriously considering the untimely demise of his protagonist. 

With the planning over, around a third of the way into the novel, we move into part two – ominously entitled ‘The Execution.’ Increasingly we gain momentary insights into a different Bond. We see him in his home, we see him frightened during a few minutes of turbulence on a plane journey and we see him taken in by a SMERSH trap to lure him to Istanbul. This is not the sickeningly suave Bond of the movies, but a believable and fallible character

Istanbul seems like the perfect place for the action of the novel to truly begin. Fleming writes that for Bond “Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”

Reading under the dappled light of a palm tree, St Lucia.
The action really picks up after Bond and Miss Romanova’s departure from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express bound for Paris, accompanied by the lively Darko Kerim, a local agent. Once more the sensation of entrapment means that the reader is never really sure of how long it will be until someone makes a move, mirroring, in many ways, the global tensions of the Cold War.

The novel, as well as developing Bond’s character from the previous novels and leaving the audience with an epic cliff-hanger ending, makes a number of observations of the world at the time of writing. A number of references are made to Britain’s loss of influence and power on the global political stage, something that many political commentators continue to comment upon today.

All in all, From Russia With Love is a good read and despite wishing that I was reading one of the Caribbean-based novels on the beach, rather than one set over in Europe, it is definitely the most tense, if not always the most action-packed, of the first five novels in the James Bond series.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Autumnal Sunset Over Hammersmith


Autumnal sunsets over cities have the power to stir my soul, like mountains and oceans do. After another busy day of talking non-stop to colleagues, teaching classes of students, conducting one-to-ones, and jumping over a variety of obstacles thrown in my direction, I looked out of the window of the classroom I was working in.

It is Wednesday 4th December 2013, and to the east I can see the bright orange reflection of the sunset shining back off the blue-tinted glass of the Empress State Building on the Earl's Court and West Brompton border. The radiance of it leads me to leave the room I am in - there are no classes at this time - and I head to my favourite place in the building. The roof.

Stood on the roof, three storeys up, my thoughts a million miles away, I breathe in the cold early evening air to the background noise of Hammersmith. The sirens fail to crash through and break my peace of mind and the light shining off the glass seems to rebound and silently fight off the faint lines of clouds in the sky.

The song in my mind is 'Fanshawe' by El Ten Eleven. This view and these stolen moments surveying all of West London are what will make leaving this place so hard when the time comes.

video

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Zondag Zonneschijn en Tot Ziens!

View from Willemskade, looking towards Erasmusbrug, with Noordereiland beneath.
Alright, if you insist on booking a trip to mainland Europe to take place during February then you expect grey skies, clouds pregnant with impending snow storms and ice-cold temperatures. To this realisation I am willing to concede, but I do like a surprise.

It is Sunday 17th February and the sun is shining in the cold winter air and there are but a few wisps of cloud in the vast blue sky.

Accompanied by Emma and Pia, I head to breakfast at the Bizar again. It seems I really can’t get enough of rubbing my clean-living ways into the faces of the two other teachers. Envy doesn’t really rear its head as they tuck into more duizend-gaten-flensje. The joke is once more on the guy with the gluten allergy who has no other option on the menu.

After breakfast I have my first real mission of the day. I need to head off to the station and buy a ticket for my Italian student. She’s heading to Rome for the half-term and is flying directly from Amsterdam Schipol a good few hours before the rest of the group’s flight to London is due to leave.

I wander around the corner to Rotterdam Centraal. Although still in places a bit of building site, the vastness and cleanliness of the station makes my local station, Walthamstow Central, look like a rural halt - Ironically, both are owned by the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. European rail travel is something quite alien to me, so I find the atmosphere, the ebbs and the flows of people very intriguing, and no one seems to be in a rush.

In the ticket office I try my broken Dutch on the sales assistant. I start, “Ik wil een ticket naar Amsterdam Schipol.” The woman frowns at me slightly, before replying in English, “On the fast or slow train?” The frown, I later discover when I get to that point on my Michel Thomas Total Dutch CD, is because I demanded a ticket using ‘I want’ rather than asking for one using the more polite “mag ik” (literally, ‘may I’). At least I tried.

This awkward encounter over, I buy a disposable chipkaart (like a disposable oyster card) and head back on the number 7 tram to 59a Witte de Withstraat, there to organise the annual ‘where are the keys’ pantomime starring the students.

As I arrive, the students’ production is in full swing. There are: spare beds in the wrong rooms, empty Coke bottles in every possible storage space, the faint odour of day-old shawama, clothes all over the floor, and, in a variation on the usual formula, all the keys are present, but none of them are in the rooms they are designed to open the doors for.

Art on Witte de Withstraat: "Suddenly, when I just want to kiss my nipple..."
A little while later, the students head off into town to go shopping around Oude Binnenweg, Pia and Emma head off the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in the Kunsthal and I take the number 2 tram to Wilhelminaplein. 

Once there I get off the tram, heading over the Spoorweghavenbrug along Stieltjesstraat, over the Koninginnebrug and onto Noordereiland (lit: North Island).

Noordreiland, a manmade island completed in the 1870s following the construction of the Koningshaven, is today home to around 3,600 residents. To an outsider like myself, looks like a nice place to live. In some ways it is very separate from the rest of the city, being as it is an island, yet, with the Koninginnebrug and the Willemsbrug connecting it to the mainland, there is a sense that the island is still very much a part of Rotterdam.

After taking my now obligatory photographs of De Hef, I board the tram from Laan op Zuid and to Willemsplein. After basking in the sunshine beating down, relatively speaking, on Willemskade, and capturing a few panoramic shots of Erasmusbrug and the Kop van Zuid, I turn the corner onto Veerkade and head into a bar/restaurant called Loos (pronounced a bit like “lows”).

Here I ‘demand’ a coffee and wait for Pia and Emma to arrive, killing time by looking up words in my recently acquired dictionaries. When they appear, after some typically amateurish usage of Google Maps by the pair, we take some time to reflect on the trip. The students have been well behaved. Good, There has been some sunshine. Good. We had the chance to discover some ‘new’ areas. Very good. 

The vibe seems a little flat though. There’s no doubt that organising the trip has been more difficult this year than in previous years. Money is increasingly an issue for cross-curricular trips. Perhaps our mood is reflecting the very real possibility that this could be our last visit with the students, or maybe it’s something else.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Stil in Amsterdam

Looking beneath a series of seven bridges along Leidsegracht, Amsterdam.
Maybe I’m becoming softer in my old age, but for some inexplicable reason I’ve allowed everyone to have a lie in. I regularly enjoy infuriating my colleagues and students with my ‘morning person’ ways. Today, though, I need a lie-in too.

It is Saturday 16th February 2013 and I am assembling the things I need for the day ahead. Although nowhere near as cold as this time last year, it is still very nippy. The upside of this is that I can leave my sun lotion, sunglasses, swimming trunks and towel at the hotel and travel light. With my trusty satchel sorted, the slightly hyperactive students gathered and a grumpy Pia woken up, we board the bus for the brief trip down the A4 to Amsterdam.

With the opportunity for a little quiet time lying ahead, we first embark on a boat ride around the labyrinthine canals of Amsterdam. Whilst taking in the information of talking guide – all of which I have forgotten by the time of writing this – I can’t help but wonder how anyone could ever have navigated the canals. At every corner there is a bridge, after that bridge three other bridges that you could possibly head through, and beyond them… you get the picture.

An hour later, having weaved our way around through the murky waters, we’re back at Damrak. I brief the students on where they can and can’t head, all of the exciting places they could explore, so they thank me and head to KFC. At this point I wave goodbye to Pia and Emma, cross over the bustling Prins Hendrikkade, and jump on the number 9 tram.

A few minutes later, after trundling down a few busy roads, the tram enters into, what is for me, unchartered territory. I hear the name ‘Waterlooplein’ come out of the scratchy speakers and hop off, finding myself in the curious Waterloopleinmarkt.

Originally another canal, the market area was filled-in during 1882 and the predominantly Jewish merchants from two neighbouring street markets were directed to move to the newly reclaimed square. In 1893 the market started taking place six days a week, with the market closed on a Saturday for the Sabbath. Following the Nazi occupation during World War II the Jewish link was mainly lost, but to this day a daily flea market takes place there.

One of the more striking aspects of Waterloopleinmarkt is the complete diversity of the goods and wares sold on each of the market stalls. Against the background scents of cooking food, some stalls have old records, some second-hand shoes, some have old ornaments and one stall, being run by an Arab man, has the most comprehensive variety of old cameras I’ve ever seen.

A stall of vintage cameras, Waterlooplienmarkt, Amsterdam.
I take a sneaky photo. A more polite Chinese tourist asks to take a photo of the stall only to be refused permission. I smile, say “shukran” and shuffle off.

Away from the crowds, I find a little silence. I cross a canal onto the narrow Staalstraat, stopping to take a picture along Groenburgwal, before continuing right onto Kloveniersburgwal towards the Nieuwmarkt.

I grab a bite to eat and head off, cutting through the red light district, in the vague direction of Dam Square. 

As I am heading down a side street, and passing a slightly seedy looking brothel, a group of my students seem to appear from nowhere. “Sir!” they shout, “what are you doing here?”

Cue a piece of physical street theatre, perhaps inspired by an Ealing Comedy, entitled ‘Confessions of an English Teacher.’ As the students shout and point, I jokingly pretend to hide my identity behind my coat. Cue the arrival of a group Far Eastern tourists passing-by who cheer and laugh along at the bizarre tableau presented before them. After a few seconds of hilarity, although it felt like a few minutes, we resume our usual roles and head on our respective ways.

It dawns on me that I have been wandering in perfect silence for the best part of two hours by the time I get back to Dam Square. With time running out before the bus is due to arrive and escort us back to Witte de Withstraat, I head to Kloverstraat to buy two important books: an English-Nederlands dictionary and a Nederlands-Engels dictionary. Tonight I'll do some studying.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cycling: Not All Glamour

Bits and bobs everywhere on the pavement. Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

I enjoy my cycle commute to work. I've progressed from being a twice a week, fair-weather cyclist, to being a four days a week, almost all-weather cyclist. My fitness has improved, I have lost a fair amount of weight and I arrive to work most mornings buzzing on endorphins.

I've recently had a full service at Caballo on Chatsworth Road in Hackney. My bike, named Sasha, is running like a dream. Along with new brakes and a full strip-down, clean and rebuild, I've had a new rear cassette with a 11-28T range.

There was one thing I didn't change though: my tyres. With 2,500km on the Garmin, the rear tyre was looking a little worse for wear, but I had my eyes on a set of Specialized Roubaix tyres. As if fate decreed, riding full pelt up Shaftesbury Avenue, a popping sound came from my rear wheel.

In the oppressive heat and with sweat dripping from everywhere, I was forced to pull off the road, park up on the pavement, and set about replacing the inner tube. After removing the wheel, taking off the tyre, and pulling out the damaged inner tube, I assembled everything to put it all back together again. Could I get the tyre back on the rim though? Could I heck. My frustration was immense.

I am still unsure why it took so long to do something that I've been able to do since the age of ten, and that I've previously be able to replace in three minutes. 

After a brief pause, filthy with the grime of the London pavements on my knees, it finally all went back together. Thankfully with a CO2 pump, the tyre was inflated in no time. I made it home in a record slow time of 1hr 40mins.

Note: I have now replaced my tyres!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Oude en Nieuwe Plaatsen

New and old seem to meet in the most unusual places in Rotterdam.
With education budgets ever-tightening in the UK and The Netherlands, this year’s trip has had to be done with even less money than before. One benefit of this has meant making the students self-cater at breakfast, albeit under the auspices of learning ‘good life skills’.

It is Friday 15th February 2013 and I’m having a gezond ontbijt [healthy breakfast] from the menu at the Bazar restaurant. The healthy breakfast consists of mild Turkish yoghurt, fruit salad, honey and a glass of fresh orange juice. I add to this a couple of coffees. My colleagues Emma and Pia are tucking into a duizend-gaten-flensje [thousand holes pancake] adorned with a variety of sweet things. 

Both of them eye my healthy breakfast. Should they have gone for this option? Don’t be stupid. Of course not. That’s the kind of breakfast a guy with a gluten allergy would be forced to acquiesce to. Well, either way, I enjoyed it and after coffee number two I am buzzing like a bumble bee and ready to go.

Whilst Emma and Pia are charged with the duty of ensuring our fifteen dozing students are awake and ready to roll, I am dispatched to Eendrachtsplein to purchase Metro tickets. En route, I remind myself of some of the words I need: “Ik wil zeventien ‘disposable’ chipkaartjes.” Hmmm... not being sure of how to say ‘disposable’ I just hope that I can blag it.

As it turns out, when I get to Eendrachtsplein Metro station, there are no members of staff, instead they have a couple of machines. Luckily for me, the machines speak English and so any awkward moments with a Dutch-speaking station master are avoided. However, what is not avoided is the queue of harried looking commuters behind me waiting whilst I make seventeen chipcard purchases.

With the students duly shepherded through the hazy sunshine of the Rotterdam morning, we board the C line train bound for Hoogvliet. 

In keeping with trying to be more independent this year, having learnt the ropes last year, we opt to navigate ourselves towards the Einstein Lyceum. At this point Pia removes something resembling an astronomical chart and a set of compasses from her $500 Prada handbag. She talks of an enchanted maze with frozen streams and ponds for obstacles, where artic hares bound through the snow and hide behind trees. I decide we’ll stick to the main road and we head along Kouwenaardseweg, take a right on to Endenhout, before following the road round on to Middenbaan Zuid.

Once at the Einstein Lyceum, we are reunited with familiar faces: Ilse, Kevin, Barry and Laura. Since our last visit there have been a number of changes, such as the arrival of a new Principal, but our welcome is warmer than ever.

Another teacher, Jenny, has arranged for our students to spend a little time learning about Dutch culture from one of her classes. The wonderful thing being that whilst my students are finding out something new, her students are practicing their use of conversational English for an assessment. I, on the other hand, take the opportunity to speak my unique pidgin language Nederengels – Dutch grammar and simple verbs mixed with English nouns and adjectives that ironically translates as ‘down/low English’.

My students are left in the care of their Dutch counterparts for a tour of the school whilst the teachers pause for a cup of tea. After a while it is clear that a number of them have disappeared. Attaching myself to a group heading out of the main building, I find that they are taking part in an impromptu volleyball match in the sports hall. The teams are all mixed, boys and girls, Dutch and English, and as they laugh and joke their way through their never-ending match, it is clear to see how much they have in common.

After a lunch that consists of typically Dutch food such as broodje kroket and some Indonesian delicacies the names of which escape me, we head back to Hoogvliet station, with Barry as our guide, and take the D Line to Rijnhaven.

A new home? Looking down Atjehstraat, Katendrecht, Rotterdam.
We congregate outside the station and Barry explains that we’re going for a little walk into a different district of Rotterdam, called Katendrecht. At this point Pia’s face drops. Walking? When did she sign up for walking? At first I am unaware of what she’s thinking as I’m too busy getting Ilse to help correct my ‘ij’ phoneme in Dutch, before being told off by Emma for talking whilst Barry is.

By the time Pia finally catches my attention it’s already too late as the group is walking down Brede Hilledijk. Emma asks me a few questions about where we are going. I’m happy to have no answers and follow Barry’s lead, stopping just long enough to convince the students that we’re all going to climb up a ladder on the side of a building on Silostraat.

Walking further into Katendrecht, along Veerlaan, turning left onto Atjehstraat and then right towards Delistraat, you feel as if you’re in a very different Rotterdam. According to Barry, the area was once infamous as a place for drunkenness, debauchery, and prostitution. Following some serious renovation, the area resembles some of the quieter streets of Brooklyn and has found a place in my heart. Should I ever up-sticks and head to The Netherlands, I think this is where I’d live.

With Pia lost somewhere in the distance and our group having wandered up Sumatraweg, along Tolhuislaan past the latest batch of houses to be renovated and along the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, we cross over Rijnhavenbrug onto the Kop van Zuid and enter the warmth of the Hotel New York.

The Kop van Zuid, with its metal, glass and its overall appearance of sleek modernity towers over and nearly smothers the Hotel New York, but the character of this relatively modest red brick building from 1901 overpowers all of its newer neighbours. Built in the Jugendstil architectural style, the building was once the head office of the Holland-America Line, the shipping company that many people used to escape Europe for a new life in the United States of America.

Nowadays, the building is an exceptionally smart hotel and restaurant, an illusion briefly shattered by the arrival of our boisterous Anglo-Dutch crowd of students and staff, albeit minus Pia. From the looks that some of the customers are giving our group it is as if they are worried we will start swinging from the giant chandeliers or hanging from the intricate wrought ironwork. Of course this isn't the case and we settle down quickly.

Eventually Pia arrives in a cloud of steam, emotional at having been deserted in an area “known for drugs and prostitution” and threatens to shatter the peace. I point out to her that things have changed since Katendrecht's darker days, before Barry tells us he went to a gig in a bar there where everyone, including the band, got naked. At this news she starts to scream blue murder until the waitress puts a hot chocolate on the table in front of her and a fragile serenity is restored.

After a while, with everyone suitably worn-out, we disperse, trusting the students to navigate themselves northwards, back over the Erasmusbrug to 59a Witte de Withstraat, and waving goodbye to our Dutch counterparts, who head southwards towards Hoogvliet.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon, Dreaming of Cricket

A batsman plays a quick shot towards point, Springfield Park, Hackney.
At this time of year the sound of a weary red leather ball cracking off the face of a beaten-up old cricket bat would usually fill my Sunday afternoons. Playing for The Swinging Googlies Cricket Club – albeit very badly – is one of the highlights of my summer weekends. 

Now well into June, having missed The Googlies’ first and only match so far this season, I am beginning to get some serious cricketing-related withdrawal. With the match that I should have been playing in today cancelled due to inclement weather, I am likely to start outwardly showing signs of mania soon. 

On Sunday 2nd June 2013 I at least got to see some others playing whilst I sunbathed in Springfield Park, Hackney. From a little research I have found the teams playing were The Coach and Horses C.C. hosting Shakespeare C.C. in a friendly – I am unsure who was who, but I think the fielding team were the Coach and Horses due to the 'home support' they were getting. 

One thing is for sure, Springfield Park is visually more stunning that The Googlies’ home pitch in Long Ditton, southwest London, but right now I’d settle for a game in a car park. Here’s to hoping that the weather holds this coming weekend.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Welkom Terug!

De Hef, or Koningshavenbrug, seen from Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
I have a problem. It’s a problem that I have had for a number of years and constantly threatens to get in the way of my travelling to destinations near or far. This problem is being a last minute packer.

It is Thursday 14th February and as a result of finishing my packing at midnight, and my taxi to Heathrow arriving at 3am, I feel as if someone has stitched-shut my eyelids. The driver patiently asks me where to pick up my colleague Pia, and I respond saying I haven’t got a clue. Luckily, as we drive though Walthamstow’s empty streets the waving figure of Pia’s mum flags down the taxi before we go straight past.

At this early hour, there are already many certainties about Pia: that I will be ‘tagged’ in a Facebook update, that as a result of coffee deprivation she won’t be able to converse effectively and that she’s likely to become very insulting at short notice.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, I guide Pia through the doors and towards the already sizeable group of waiting students. Unbeknown to Pia, I make a couple of classified hand gestures in the vague direction of some male students who stumble over themselves to join the queue at Caffè Nero. They have understood the potential volatility of the woman and act swiftly to prevent a disaster.

With the potential for eruption averted, the remaining few students drift into the terminal. As with last year’s group, they are the typical west London mixture that I think I would be unable to survive without. Represented in the ethnic make-up of the group of fourteen students are: Somalia, Italy, Iraq, the Caribbean, Singapore, Iran, Eastern Europe, America and of course the UK. Added to staff group is Emma, who comes in as a last minute substitute for Julian – oh, she’s English.

A bag search, a portion of porridge and short flight later, we arrive Amsterdam Schiphol where I head off in search of our minibus in the pick-up zone. Armed with my increasing knowledge of Dutch I introduce myself to a number of confused bus drivers before finding the correct one.

“Hallo! Ik ben Tomás uit William Morris, Engeland,” I begin, “Is dit onze bus?”

“Ja! Je spreekt Nederlands, hè?” She begins, before launching into a series of sentences in fluent Dutch that I cannot even begin to comprehend. A minute later she stops and stares at me.

“Erm… goed,” I respond, scratching my head and smiling nervously before heading going to get the rest of the group.

As we roll along the A4, bound for Rotterdam, the weather becomes increasing wintry. Small snowflakes hit the windscreen and I am happy about it. This is the icy, semi-arctic, romanticised vision of The Netherlands that I hold in my mind’s eye. After last year, without snow, ice and a bitter chill in the air I feel that it can't be a proper visit to Rotterdam. My increasing excitement is matched only by the increasing annoyance of the students who begin to despair at the sight of the ever-whitening landscape.

Upon arrival at 59a Witte de Withstraat, I repeat my earlier mistake whilst checking the group into our accommodation. Sensing my slight confusion, the proprietor makes use of an assortment of props and gesticulations to explain herself to me. Consequently, words such as keuken (kitchen), sleutel (key) and slaapkamer (bedroom)suddenly leap into my vocabulary.

After an hour or two to settle in, buy a stock of rooibos tea and relax, it’s time to set off in the direction of the Nederlands Fotomuseum on the Kop van Zuid. This walk of just under two kilometres shouldn’t be too taxing and as we amble along Schiedamsedijk, with the light snow falling, it feels almost festive. This changes though.

Looking up at the main pylon of the Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
As we start the slight incline towards the Erasmusbrug the snow starts to feel more like small shards of ice and as we walk further, coming from behind the shelter of the buildings that overlook Willemsplein, the wind hurls these icy needles against our collective faces and the pace of the group slows substantially.

Finally reaching the warmth of the museum around twenty minutes later, we are such a sorry sight that the tour guide can’t help but smile sympathetically at the ménage of crazed looking British tourists presented before him. The students aren’t impressed and even my silliest, most self-deprecating jokes fail to raise a chuckle.

Here our group splits in two: one group heads of with Pia and Emma to do a photography workshop; my smaller second group heads off with a guide to look at the most recent installation and exhibition.

This year the installation is The Sound of Silence by Alfredo Jaar and it is immediately striking. From the outside you see an aluminium cube with a blinding wall of light, outwardly representing either a flash bulb on a camera or possibly a light-box, but it is what is inside that is most profound.

Inside the cube, padded with black material to stop the reflection of any light, a video projection tells the story of Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist. Carter became a household name in 1993 following the widespread publication of a photo showing a starving girl during a famine in Sudan – the most shocking aspect of the photo being the presence of a vulture in the background, seemingly waiting to pounce.

For the first six minutes the installation tells the story through simple text, before suddenly a blinding flash fills the darkened box. At this point, as if to add to the drama and tension, one student squeals, a few others gasp and one of my tutees calls, “Allahu akbar!” 

The students leave the installation in silence and sit. The guide asks them a few questions to initiate a discussion and to my amazement the students, all of whom don’t study photography or any form of art, begin to discuss the impact of the piece in great detail. In fact they talk so much that the guide, who is desperate to cover the whole museum with us, struggles to get them to move.

With the afternoon already turning to evening, the group reunites and heads back towards Witte de Withstraat. The weather has calmed down a little, but is still being less than amusing. This is just the impetus I need to research the tram routes as they rattle by.

This evening we will head to Bazar, the Middle Eastern inspired fully-halal restaurant further up Witte de Withstraat and with a little luck we’ll all get an early night before we head to Hoogvliet tomorrow. Although with a hyperactive bunch of 16-19 year olds, this is not always the case.

Monday, June 03, 2013

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Cover image © Virago Press.
I have often been unsure about where in the grand scheme of all things literary Maya Angelou fits. Last August, whilst considering my teaching options for AS Level literature, the decision was reached to switch from teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife to Angelou’s collection And Still I Rise.

In the absence of the ubiquitous York Notes to provide information on the poetry, it made sense to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only to shed some light on the context of the poetry, but to answer a nagging question: who is Maya Angelou?

Caged Bird is the 1969 autobiography of Angelou’s early years in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the USA, through to the age of seventeen. As soon as you learn that she is living with her paternal grandmother, Momma, you realise that her family history is bound to be laced with complexities and confusion. A recurrent theme is the pervading sense of abandonment felt by Maya and her older brother Bailey at the hands of her parents and the lack of a sense of belonging that goes along with that.

Being set in 1930s and onwards, in a Southern US state, means it is inevitable that racism should play a part in the story. Although Momma seems atypical as she is a respected black female businesswoman in this small, racially segregated community, the presence of discrimination slowly makes its way into the young Angelou’s conscious. Incidents ranging from having to hide her Uncle Willie under vegetables to hide him from a Ku Klux Klan posse, to a ‘powhitetrash’ girl flashing her pubic hair at Momma, and to more subtle forms of racism such as a white employer insisting on calling her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Marguerite’.

As the autobiography progresses, as does the turbulence in Angelou’s life and you begin to realise it is exactly that which makes her such an appealing human being to read about. From the graphic descriptions of her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, to driving her father home from Mexico when he was too drunk to do so himself, and all the way up to her first sexual encounters, the reader is often shocked, confused and enraged – for a variety of reasons.

I am not a fan of autobiographies, but there is something strangely compelling about this one. There are moments where I wish she’d said more – for example during her time living rough in California and when she gains employment as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. Equally, there will be parts where some readers wish she’d said less.

In all, Caged Bird is a must for anyone interested in an historical first-hand account of a young black American female beginning to make sense of a world which seemingly does not value her presence. If, like me, you are more interested in humanity in general, it is an equally worthwhile read.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wood Farm Brewery, Warwickshire

'Sunshine on a rainy day' bringing an end to any potential 'irony'.
In the words of Alanis Morissette, the situation was distinctly 'ironic'. The rain was falling from the sky by the bucketload, and a minor gale blowing, as I arrived at Wood Farm, a small brewery outside Rugby in Warwickshire.

It is Saturday 11th May and Page, one of the heroes of January's London-Brighton bike ride, is getting hitched to Siobhan.

Once the clouds had cleared, sometime around 7pm, the sunshine made a brief cameo just long enough to take a couple of lovely pictures. All the better considerings the guests to this wedding party, myself included, were camping! After the tents were pitched, it was into the main marquee for a night of live music, dancing and merriment.

Any comments about Page not being able to organise the proverbial were allayed and the wedding went smoothly.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bakiga Window Vol. II - Taufiq Islamic School - Part Two

"Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim..." Pupils recite a surah at Taufiq Islamic School.
After what has been undoubtedly the most difficult trip to Uganda I’ve ever taken part in, our last day in Kabale has finally come around. The previous morning’s work went a long way towards cleansing the bad memories of more turbulent moments on this visit.

It is Wednesday 11th April and I am walking down Johnstone Road towards Taufiq Islamic Primary School, for our second morning of activities. The sun has already ripped through the perennial sheet of mist and the dull whines of boda-bodas are already filling the air.

In contrast to yesterday’s welcome, we arrive to a silent yard. A solitary boy in the green and white hooped uniform peers from around the side of the mosque before shuffling off in a cloud of dust. All we need now is the stereotypical tumbleweed of an American Western film to roll across in front of us.

As we near the main school building Lule appears from within and accosts us. I ask him, “What have you done with all the children?”

His reply comes punctuated with his typical chuckle as, “They are waiting for you in assembly.”

He leads my small group of students and staff around the side of the mosque to where the ‘temporary’ wooden classrooms stand, and, sure enough, covering the dusty red yard like an expertly-woven Persian rug of emerald and cream, all the pupils of Taufiq stand awaiting our arrival.

With an extra day of familiarity between us the usual scenario of half of the pupils, especially the younger ones, starting to cry is avoided. One Somali student, who seems to have grown very popular amongst the pupils, is welcomed like a homecoming hero by many of the braver ones.

In the absence of a microphone, and from the height of our assembly ‘stage’, I introduce my students, pointing out for the benefit of all listening, who is a Muslim. As it dawns on the audience of children and adults from the local community that my group of bazungu aren’t actually that white and/or Christian – as many expect UK citizens to be – broad smiles wash across their faces.

Next comes the singing of the Ugandan national anthem, of which I know the words and choose to join in:
Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our futures in thy hands.
United, Free,
For Liberty,
Together we’ll always stand.
Following on from this some of the younger students demonstrate their knowledge of Islam for us by saying, “Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim alhamdullilah hir-rabbil alamin…” before reciting a short surah from the Qu’ran.

Pupils hard at work, writing letters to the UK.
After a short break for the pupils of Taufiq to run around and talk to my students some more, we start on a letter writing task. Each Taufiq pupil, after a little guidance from my students, begins to write a short letter of introduction to a primary school pupil in the UK. The hope is, that until a more formal arrangement can be made involving the All Our Children (UK) charity, this could help to find a partner school for them.

Whilst they work, I take time to talk to Lule. This time his trademark chuckle is put by the wayside as we discuss the school’s finances. He shows me a list of students who are orphaned and then copies of individual files of the students, each with a photo attached.

The reality is, especially with the increases in living costs in Uganda, that his school is running low on funds to support the education of orphans. Indeed one of the biggest contributors to the financial upkeep of the school are the members of the local Muslim community, many of whom have very little money of their own.

As the letter-writing classes end, many of my students gather round and start to discuss the situation. We know that we don’t necessarily have any money of our own to help the school with, but we talk about how we could try and make small differences in other ways.

One immediate idea is raising money to redecorate the dormitories and hang mosquito nets. This would not only reduce the likelihood of pupils contracting malaria, but could also eradicate the costs incurred when a pupil needs treatment. Other students start discussing the idea of collecting resources at their mosques in the UK. Things such pens and paper, or at least the money for pens and paper. All small steps, but things that could be useful in the meantime.


By way of Epilogue

As we say our goodbyes on last time, we all have a lot of thinking to do. I feel satisfied that we have been able to finally connect with Taufiq Primary School and that we will be able to move our relationship forward, but my students’ concerns and passion to do more to help leaves me thinking we have so much to do.

Similarly, a part of me wonders whether, after all of the behind the scenes wrangling this year, I need a break from visiting Uganda. Am I actually affecting change? Does what I am a part of actually make a difference to anyone?

Deep inside, I know that I keep coming back because I’m not ready to give up on any of the projects I’m involved in and regardless of the personalities, within my own group of adults, this whole project is really about my students and the pupils in Kabale.

- Tomás Ó Ceallaigh. Kabale. April 2012
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