Saturday, April 25, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura: The Way Home

Pictures of aeroplanes aren't fun, so here's some fabric in Kabale Market.
Wednesday 1st April - 11.30pm

With the plane finally in the air around 9.30pm, the opportunity to relax finally came about. I was sat in the middle aisle of seats on a row with Raman and Fabio; behind me were Suweyda, Hannah and Idil.

It was interesting to talk to Suweyda and hear about how she is currently getting on at college. She made quite an impression on my student teacher, Nimah, and I last year. She had a most impressive aptitude for being late to lessons on a Monday morning and somehow getting away with it by using ‘Puss-in-Boots’ eyes in the style of the character from Shrek.

Aside from her school life, she couldn’t help but talk about recent events in the news concerning aviation, namely the crash of the German Wings flight over the Alps.

As she was going through the amateur dramatics of ‘what if it happens to us’ scenarios, a white woman with a Southern African cut in with, “you’ve just about as much chance of being hit whilst crossing the road.” 

Of course the woman was right, but there is nothing quite like a bit of Crucible-style hysteria to spark a teenager into life from time to time.

I got talking to the woman who, it turns out, was Zimbabwean. I go into my usual preamble about never having been, but that my father had lived as a boy in Zambia and had visited the country then known as Rhodesia.

After being raised in Zimbabwe and then having kids there she eventually decided to follow in her daughter’s footsteps and move to the UK. She has now been living in the Scotland for 10 years.

Dozing against the woman was a youngish child. Her grandson. For the duration of our conversation the boy didn’t move once, despite him using his grandmother’s side as a pillow. 

They were travelling for a visit to family members who the little one had yet to meet. She was, for the most part, positive about her return and the Zimbabwe that was awaited her.

“When you’re in the town, Kwekwe, it could be like you are in any other town in Southern Africa,” she started. “It’s just when you head out into the countryside that the situation can become more dangerous or edgy. But, in many ways, that is like anywhere in the world.”

I asked her how stable the economy was now for your average Zimbabwean and whether the Zimbabwean dollar was coming back soon.

“Well, we have some dollar bills for use just in Zimbabwe,” she replies, “but it’s still effectively the US dollar. 

“As for the economy, let’s put it this way: if you want a whole 200 box of cigarettes you’re talking about paying the same price as a single pack in the UK, but something like a flat-screen TV is up to $1000 at times.”

“Really?” I ask a little shocked. “Isn’t it typical that, despite the state of the economy, you can still kill yourself by smoking yourself to oblivion?”

“Yes, but at least there aren’t queues for bread any more,” she says.

I’m enjoying our chat about Zimbabwe when the drinks trolley comes along and blocks our conversation. When the trolley finally disappears, she goes back to reading her book and I contemplate getting some sleep, if only Suweyda would stop trying to discuss aviation disasters.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura: Running for Departures

A focused approach to packing is the foundation of a good trip.
Wednesday 1st April 2015 - 9.30pm

Having Parents’ Evening for the toughest year group isn’t the ideal preparation for flying out anywhere let alone Uganda. Only my relative experience in making this journey allowed me to be as calm as I was.

At 6.05pm I finished talking to the last parent only for my lift, a science teacher at my new workplace, to get drawn into discussion with another parent. I took this opportunity to change out of my work clothes and pack her car ready for the trip to the airport.

By 6.15pm we were on the road and making moderate progress over the Hammersmith flyover and through the west London evening traffic. As a newcomer to Fulham Cross, it was nice talking to a member of staff who’d been there for twenty or so years. Having just switched workplace, twenty years’ service seems a long way off, and a rather unrealistic target.

The rest of the group had gone through the check-in procedure by the time that I arrived at Heathrow and check-in was closing within the hour. Give or take the ‘streamlining’ of Terminal 2, whereby you do most of the work yourself – printing baggage labels and scanning passports – before you queue up and someone sends your bags off to the plane, the process was smooth, if a little edgy time-wise.

I finally caught up with the group near the gate after spotting the golden glint of Jen’s hair. They’d all had the time to eat and amble through the duty free; I arrived at the gate a little flustered, out of breath and hungry, having had just enough time to purchase two Fantas, a new Moleskine notebook and a packet of crisps.

The group were all there; familiar faces and newer ones. Former students of mine: Khadija, Amal and Suweyda; new William Morris students: Abirna, Sina, Idil, Huda, Hannah and Molly. Making up the staff contingent were: Tash, Jas, Jen, Raman, Fabio, Tamera and friend of [the All Our Children chairperson] Liz’s called Sarah.

Getting to the airport on time for the 9pm flight was a job in itself, but having successfully got this far the enkuto eratukura or ‘red roads’ of Uganda seemed so much closer.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt

Cover image © Penguin.
To celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Penguin books, the publisher has released a selection of 80 ‘Little Black Classics’ for a tiny 80p each. After being greeted by a wall of them in the Islington Green branch of Waterstones, I was sold on the concept and bought a load.

The first book to catch my attention was The Voyage of Sir Francis Drake Around the Whole Globe by Richard Hakluyt. The book contains two narratives of maritime journeys.

The eponymous account tells the story of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the world between 1577 and 1580. The story that is told, in many respects, is void of any great detail, but it is apparent that what you’re in fact reading is a form of propaganda extolling the virtues of English maritime exploration and belittling the Spanish at every opportunity. 

Ultimately, the whole circumnavigation of the globe takes meagre twenty or so pages, and, other than providing a few interesting details about coconuts and the colonisation of Nova Albion (a settlement in modern-day California), it is over too soon.

Perhaps more interesting, mainly for the extra detail it affords the modern reader, is the snappily titled Prosperous voyage of the worshipful Thomas Candish of Trimley in the County of Suffolk Esquire, into the South Sea, and thence round about the circumference of the whole earth, begun in the year of our Lord 1586, and finished 1588.

Thomas Cavendish was a privateer, a sort of state-approved pirate, who was granted permission by the Crown to attack enemy ships and colonies. His voyage was the first to purposefully try and follow the  earlier journey of Drake.

Hakluyt’s accounts of his captain's interactions with various indigenous peoples in South America, skirmishes with Spanish colonists and then trading during a stay in Java are perhaps the most engaging moments in what is another whirlwind story of round the world travel.

The detailed moments of description do evoke a sense of excitement for the maritime and global discovery of the past; descriptions such as: 
“There are also in this garden fig-trees which bear continually, also pompions, melons, cucumbers, radishes, rosemary, and thyme, with many other herbs and fruits. At the other end of the house there is also another orchard, where grow oranges sweet and sour, lemons, pomegranates, and limes, with divers other fruits.”
It is hard to imagine a time where there were genuinely parts of the earth that were only partially discovered and barely understood, and what Hakluyt does, albeit with great brevity, is bring that moment to life.

For more information about Richard Hakluyt visit: http://www.hakluyt.com/

Saturday, January 24, 2015

When Saturday Comes: Leyton Orient

Match ticket and programme from Leyton Orient.
The professionals make falling off their bikes look so easy. The reality is hours of pain, blood and tears in Accident and Emergency, being told that you've fractured your cheekbone, need stitches and might have knackered your already knackered wrist. 

It’s Saturday 10th February and, clearly sensing I needed to get out, my friend and fellow cyclist Jonesy has made his way over to E17. As a complete spur of the moment thing, we decide to head down to the Matchroom Stadium on Brisbane Road in Leyton to watch Orient take on Fleetwood Town.

It's been a while since I last saw a live match in a ground (the last time possibly being Aston Villa vs. Charlton) and so I assumed that all teams, regardless of position in the English football league pyramid, require some form of advanced booking. I spend around twenty minutes on the ticket hotline listening to a pre-recorded East End woman telling me my call is important to her before I give up. 

We hop on the 158 bus for a few stops, wander down a few residential streets and find what would likely be non-existent at a premier league ground: a cash turnstile! For a princely £25, and a bit of manual effort getting through the vintage turnstiles, we've managed to bag two seats next to each other in the East Stand, just about on the halfway line.

Leyton Orient was originally founded in 1881 as Eagle Cricket Club, becoming Orient Football Club in 1888. Various permutations of the Orient name have been used over the years and it was only as late as 1987 that the name Leyton Orient was finally settled upon.

View towards the South Stand at Brisbane Road.
Despite being one of the oldest clubs in England, Orient's successes have been modest. They managed just one season in the top flight in 1962-63 and their furthest progress in the FA Cup is a semi-final defeat to Arsenal in 1978.

Orient's stadium at Brisbane Road has largely been rebuilt over recent years, with the exception of the East Stand. The East Stand was initially opened in 1957 and had some extra work done 1962 to extend the capacity further.

The moment you've fought with the rusty-looking old-fashioned turnstile you step back into a world that existed before all football stadia became a heap of soulless glass, plastic and concrete. The floor is wooden, there are roof supports in the way of some views of the pitch and there's only one tiny bar in the stand – but I love it.

The match itself was a reasonably tense affair, with small flurries of end-to-end action in the washed-out wintry sunshine. In reality, Fleetwood Town had the best of the chances in the first half and both Jonesy and myself began to feel the frustration of the regular Orient fans.

At half-time there was a bit of a scrum to get to the bar and the net result of it was missing the first few minutes of the second half – and subsequently the only goal of the game. Fleetwood Town’s Gareth Evans scored straight from the restart securing a 1-0 away victory for his side. Orient had a bucket load of chances in the second half, but all to no avail.

In the words of Orient’s defender, Scott Cuthbert, “We switched off and it was an easy goal for them and that's disappointing for us. It was one of those days – it was massively frustrating.”

So we may have missed the only goal of the game, but when the final whistle went, it was easy to make an escape onto a 158 bus and get home to the warmth once more.

Brisbane Road is well worth a visit. The intimacy of the setting and the seating’s proximity to pitch is simply something you wouldn’t get in a good many football grounds these days. I’ll hopefully be back again before too long.

For more information about Leyton Orient visit: http://www.leytonorient.com/

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 Cycling Year in Review


Those who know me well, or who follow me on Twitter, will know that 2014 has been a tough year for me in cycling terms.

It started well, completing the March Strava Gran Fondo by cycling overnight from Warwick to Walthamstow with my old schoolmate Jonesy, written up as 'In the Dead of Night' on this blog. As well as being a tough physical and mental challenge for a pair of relatively new road cyclists, it was also a good way to raise around £600 for the charity All Our Children.

Also, just for the sheer fun of it, I finished the May Strava Gran Fondo. This route entailed riding from Walthamstow to Box Hill and completing a reasonably-sized loop, before cycling back into the City. It was my first time riding around Surrey, and Leith Hill and Whitedowns are the toughest hills I have climbed thus far.

Coming to a bit of a fitness peak around about June, just in time for the Wiggle French Revolution, was a highlight. There is no better feeling than zipping up hills on a simple £650 road bike knowing that you weigh a good 90kg and dropping a load of people in the process. A rolling course all based in the Pas de Calais area of northern France with a few tough climbs, mixed with a stiff head wind for the last 25km, put last years' efforts in the New Forest to shame.

A slightly mangled, but very painful wrist.
Infamously, though, I came a cropper on my way from the ferry back to the car park in Dover, when another cyclist decided to stop suddenly at a green traffic light. Cue a fractured wrist and a saga that lasted from the 15th June until finally being given the all clear on 22nd December following a few CT scans.

My 'comeback' sportive on 15th August, after a couple of months of on-off training on the turbo trainer, was the intriguing and unique 'White Roads Classic'. A much smaller affair than a Wiggle sportive, but much more personal.

In reality, the comeback was far from smooth. The train from Paddington to Streatley was delayed meaning that a group of five of us arrived around 45 minutes after the majority of riders had departed. All being of different riding abilities, we cycled off at different rates meaning the majority of the first third of the ride was cycled in a showery solitude.

With the help of a small group of riders, all willing to take a bit of a turn at the front, I managed to save some energy and by the last third of the event I had started to catch some of the main group of starters. Once more, Sasha's reliability meant that I was able to navigate sections of rough chalk road without any mechanical trouble. Thankfully, with my weakened wrist, a friendly follow cyclist helped me to patch up the one slow puncture I did have. Overall, it wasn't the fastest ride, but I managed to complete it.

Starting a new job in September, but still on the other side of London, it meant that I was able to continue to build stamina and burn off the last of the blubber gained during my injury. Although unable to fit in another big really big ride, the year ended with me getting back to a much better state of fitness, albeit with a dull ache in my left wrist.

Let's hope that 2015 means more kilometres and hopefully staying upright on the bike.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Herinnering aan Holland

Inside the Africa room at Bizar, Rotterdam.
Thinking of Holland, I see broad rivers ever-flowing towards the sea. I hear the low rumble of a Humber barge beating a hasty retreat to the sea, or the rattle of a tram trundling over the points at a junction. I feel the brisk February air tingling against my frozen white skin.

It's October 2013 and I find myself in Rotterdam, without any students. My girlfriend, perhaps seeing that I need to practice my Dutch, decided to book a semi-surprise trip to Rotterdam, a place she's heard a lot about, but never actually visited.

After a brief stop in Brussels to switch from the Eurostar to the Thalys train, discovering in the process a lovely health food shop selling Belgian-style gluten free chocolate biscuits, my first major input into the trip was to book a room at the Bazar Rotterdam.

In typical fashion, and without any encouragement from me, the hotel have placed me in one of their 'Africa' rooms, much to the annoyance of my proudly Caribbean girlfriend who doesn't want everyone to put two and two together and get 'African'.

The room is brightly decorated and the bed, set into a recess in the raised floor, is big enough to fit extras - although thats not my kind of holiday! Being used to the arty nature of Witte de Withstraat is perhaps little preparation for the very kitsch nature of the Bazar's accommodation, but after a quick midday nap and watching Streetcrime UK with a Dutch voiceover, the refulgent colour scheme grows on you.

A mid-afternoon shower hits Rotterdam and the streets clear of people and quickly darken. The small glimmers of autumnal light get lost in the raindrops as we walk to Loos on Westplein opposite Veerhaven. 

In amongst the throng of after-work drinkers we find a table adjacent to a reading table where three middle-aged men study every last word in the day's papers. Remembering my faux pas of saying 'ik wil [I want]' instead of the more polite 'mag ik [may I]' last time I was in Loos, I stumble through an order of a bottle of wine and a plate of eyeball-tickling cheese served with mustard.

After an hour or so the rain has lifted slightly, and after a loop around towards the Nieuwe Maas, we walk along a sodden Scheepstimmermanslaan, over the junction to Eendrachtsweg, before turning back up into the trendiness that is Witte de Withstraat. With very little deliberation, we head into Bazar for a massive sharing platter of food before retiring upstairs for sleep.

❦ 

Ships moored in the Havenmuseum, Rotterdam.
The next morning, the rain has kept itself locked up in the heavens. After the healthy option breakfast of fruits and thick set Turkish yoghurt, we head out walking towards the city centre. With it being a quiet Wednesday morning, the city seems really sleepy, and we eventually start walking in the direction of Erasmusbrug.

The light is cutting through the sky at an angle that is typical for this time of year, resulting in a faint haze filling the air. From beneath the mists appears a range of old working ships moored at the Havenmuseum in Leuvehaven, displaying a good deal of Rotterdam's old maritime history. In the quiet of the morning, only the sounds of two old men tinkering with bits of old engine can be heard. 

A walk along the side of Scheepmakershaven brings us to the small Wijnbrug, which is slowly rising to let a small maintenance boat pass by. Passing under the road, but remaining alongside Wijnhaven, eventually we reach Oudehaven.

Here you are momentarily taken away from the spacious modernity of Rotterdam and a fusion of old and new takes place in a small, cosy space similar to parts of Amsterdam. Although, it is worth saying, that the Kubuswoningen [lit: cube houses], give the area the unmistakably feel of Rotterdam.

Later that evening, after getting a call from Ilse, one of the partner teachers from the WMSF-Einstein Lyceum Project, we head over to Charlois at the end of the number 2 tramline. By now the autumnal evening has drawn in and darkness has fallen over the grassy Kromme Zandweg tram stop. In one direction the outline of an illuminated windmoelen; from the other direction, out of the darkness, appear Ilse and her partner Jaap.

We discover that the accommodation that Jaap has arranged for us that evening is in one of his artists’ spaces. In this instance it is a small, prefabricated building dating from after World War II, adjacent to the tram stop. The house is one of many lined up in uniform lines almost like squat little soldiers standing to attention on a military parade.

After dropping our possessions off, and bringing the ancient heater to life, we head out along Boergoensevliet. Jaap, in his distinctly un-Rotterdam accent, tells us about the diversity of people living in Charlois and it reminds me of a more sedate Walthamstow. Turning at left onto Wolphaertsbocht, we find the quiet Spanish/Portuguese restaurant called Quinta.

Here, we chat and eat mountain of food. We discuss the differences between rents, work and everyday life in Walthamstow and Charlois, and, although our hosts can be occasionally a little derisory about their area, I feel that I quite like it here. I am also acutely aware of the fact that I fall in love with nearly everywhere I go. 

In amongst the courses, we chat to the waitress who is too shy to speak in English. 'Mijn Engels is heel slecht,' she points out. Ilse manages to convince her that the reason my Dutch replies sound so strange is because I’m really only fluent in Afrikaans and therefore my grammar is different.

This sets the tone for the rest of the night as we are joined by two of Ilse and Jaap’s friends, and, after paying the bill and confessing about not being an Afrikaner, we head round the corner for a little more wine and conversation until late.


Rotterdam, simply put, is perhaps never going to match Venice or Paris as a holiday destination, but for a short break it is a great little getaway. Furthermore, if you are desperately in need of expanding your Dutch vocabulary and testing it out on unwitting members of the public, it’s the perfect environment in which to do so, made all the better by great company.

Thinking back, now I realise that I just need to convince my new boss to let me bring a group of Year 11s here in 2015.


Denkend aan Holland
zie ik breede rivieren
traag door oneindig
laagland gaan...

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong by David Walsh

Cover image © Simon & Schuster UK.
Being on holiday on a Caribbean island for four weeks provides ample time for getting some reading in. Anse des Sables in Saint Lucia provided a great backdrop for reading about one man’s manipulation of Le Tour de France for so many years.

In Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong, David Walsh introduces us to the depths of Lance Armstrong’s cheating in various races and chiefly his record-breaking seven Tour de France wins. Furthermore, he demonstrates that despite Armstrong’s name becoming synonymous with cheating in cycling recently, he cheated with plenty of help from others.

Seven Deadly Sins is as much the story of Walsh as it is of Armstrong’s deception, especially as the two stories seemingly become more enmeshed as time goes on. 

The book doesn’t just take aim at Armstrong; Irish cycling heros Sean Kelly and Stephan Roche also come in for criticism. Walsh talks about the rattling of pills in the back pocket of Kelly’s jersey in his early days as a sports writers and purposefully downplaying the incident as he’d been hired as Kelly’s biographer.

What plays out in the book is a complex chess game between a number of protagonists and antagonists. Walsh, Pierre Ballester, disgruntled former members of the US Postal team and an increasingly small number of journalists on one side, and the might of Armstrong, his collaborators and the believers of his miracle comeback on the other side.

Cue countless tales of lawsuits, threats, clandestine meetings and the majority of the sporting world deceived. It is testament to Walsh’s bloody-mindedness that he didn’t give up the chase and even managed to find time to challenge Roche’s ‘cleanliness’ as a former Grand Tour winner.

Ultimately, we know how this story ends; in a pretty unapologetic interview conducted by Oprah Winfrey in which Armstrong’s primary defence seems to be that, ‘well, everyone else was at it, but we just did it better.’

Well worth a read for cycling fanatics, people who love a little real-life sporting drama, or those who love investigative journalism. One thing's for sure, Walsh is a good writer and is able to tell what could be quite a dry tale in a very exciting way.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

On the Beach in East Tilbury, Essex

A view up the "beach" at East Tilbury, near to Coalhouse Fort.
The best thing about road cycling as a pastime is that you can literally put a pin into a map and cycle to most places - within obvious limitations

I had little else to do on warm but hazy Saturday 17th May and so I decided I was going to ride to a 'beach' somewhere towards the Thames estuary. It was a month or two after returning from Uganda and I hadn't done any 'big rides' since riding overnight from Walthamstow to Warwick in March.

The conditions were: as I was riding alone, I needed ready access to a station should I have a breakdown; there had to be something of at least mediocre interest at my destination; and that I should be able to cycle there primarily on B roads.

Sasha, the radar station and the marshy foreshore in East Tilbury.
As things turned out, with the magic of Strava and Garmin, I ended up in East Tilbury, Essex. Granted, the village is pretty with a few pubs, and plenty of clapboard buildings, but the highlight was Coalhouse Fort and an old radar installation down on the shoreline.

The fort, in its current incarnation, was built as paranoia over a potential invasion from the French was reaching new levels in the government. It also played a role during both World Wars before closing in the 1950s. Now it is run by volunteers and sits at the end of a surprisingly pretty riverside path which heads towards Grays.

One word of warning though. As I was down on the beach with Sasha, my Specialized Allez, watching a large ship go by, I thought all was calm. Around two minutes later, however, the bow-wave from the ship finally reached the shore, and the water quickly became ferocious. Fortunately, only one water bottle was lost in the watery escapade.

For more about Coalhouse Fort visit: http://www.coalhousefort.co.uk/

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Keuken Sessie II

Quiet before/after the storm: A morning stroll around Veerhaven, Rotterdam.
The clock is ticking. The airport transfer bus is clearly not going to arrive. The students are beginning to suspect that something is amiss. What do you do? You call the first four taxis you can… so what if one of them is a six-door funeral limousine.

It is Sunday 16th February and we’re racing to Amsterdam Schipol, spread across four cars, all for €150 a go. It was just last night that I was considering how well we’d done to come in nearly €600 under budget for the trip.

The previous evening, in my efforts to ensure that the students who hadn’t broken curfew were rewarded for their good behaviour, I not only allowed them to go all out on food, but took some of them on the water taxi across the Nieuwe Maas.

The Kop van Zuid being as quiet as it is on a Sunday night and as self-contained as it is, meant that it was perfect for a post-dinner evening stroll, admiring the multitudinous lights reflecting on the calm surface of the Rijnhaven. For every drop of silence, the students were more than able to make up for it in volume.

Pia, dreading the prospect of the walk back from the opposite bank of the river, has retired to bed, evidently still traumatised by the alleged drunken passenger experience on the rail replacement bus earlier in Gouda.

As we finish walking past the wine bars, the four students, none of whom have ever drank alcohol, stare in through the large glass windows, puzzled by the attraction of spending your time and money on such things. I don’t really offer much by way of explantion, and leave them to their own musings on the subject.

When we reach the small riverside area opposite Wilheminaplein tram stop, the students stop to take pictures. Out of nowhere, a woman declaring herself to be a half-Dutch and half-Italian artist stops and asks to take our picture. Curiously she also starts talking about eggs, before getting rather stroppy when the request for a photograph is politely declined by the students. 

Following her surly departure, the students, with the exception of the Dutch-Somali girl, moan all of the way over Erasmusbrug, declaring that they thought I was going to allow our artist friend to abduct them and hold them hostage. Such active imaginations.

We arrive back to the hostel to discover that World War III has broken out between The Couple and The Twins. It is clear that sometimes on school trips, three days is the limit that most students can tolerate each other for. After wading my way through the expletive-laden prelude to the story, I am still really none the wiser about the cause of the strife. With everyone awake, except for the miraculous sleeping Georgian girl and Pia, there is a risk that everyone will get involved and wind the situation up.

There is clearly only one thing for it: the guitar. 

After about an hour, in which most of the belligerents and their allies have had their truth and reconciliation discussion in the privacy of one of the dorms, with both parties agreeing to disagree, but also to shut up and give everyone a bit of peace, the majority of the students congregate in the communal kitchen. 

The Nigerian boy brings down his laptop to look up guitar chords and lyrics. Others make tea. Some are in PJs and others looking like they’re heading out clubbing. In no time at all the group are singing, shouting and forgetting any of the issues from earlier.

From time to time other guests from the hostel come and marvel at the sight of this diverse group of youngsters singing like there’s no tomorrow, all drunk on nothing more than herbal tea and Chocomel. Some guests join in and others make a cheese sandwich and make for the exit pretty sharpish.

Punctuating the singing with funny stories and reflections of the past few days, the time runs quickly by. The teacher in me decides that at 4am the party needs to be broken up, although the teenager within has been happy to let the students have their fun.

 

The next morning, Sunday morning, there is a very slow start to the day. Unaware of the panicked dash for the airport that is yet to come later this afternoon, I wander around Veerhaven before breakfast.

As one by one the students trickle down the stairs and into the common room, something hits me – and it’s not Pia for a change.

Even though I’ve not filled in any application forms as yet, I know that in my heart of hearts I won’t be these students’ teacher next year. Some will have left to start University, but I am sure that I will have left as well. 

The only question is whether I’ll still be Hammersmith and Fulham, or whether I will have moved to a school in East London. One thing that is definite though is that, for now, from hijabis gone wild to Julian's dancing, Jas' late night arrival and Pia's fictional acrobatics, one of the most enjoyable chapters of my career so far has come to an end.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Waar Zijn Jullie?

Westersingel: one direct road to the station and easy to get lost on... apparently.
The wonderful thing about Rotterdam is that so much of the city centre, from the Nieuwe Maas to Centraal station, and beyond, is built on a grid system. This, to most mortals, makes navigating the streets a breeze, but to students? 

It is Saturday 15th April, the sun is shining and feels warm, but we’re all waiting on a street corner. Amazingly, in the half a mile walk from Albert Heijn by the Vaasteland tram stop to Rotterdam Centraal, The Couple have gone missing – building on the curfew-breaking performance of the previous evening.

In my inimitable style, and channelling my inner Julian, I am remaining calm about things. I attempt to call both halves of The Couple, but to no avail. I’ll be honest, although it destroys my idealised version of Rotterdam being permanently covered in snow, I am enjoying the sunshine.

Unfortunately, Pia isn’t quite as polite about the situation. The fuse was lit following the reporting of last night’s curfew breaking at breakfast time. The fuse had half burned as a result of being invited to walk to Centraal station, rather then getting The Twins' favourite #7 tram. This disappearing act by The Couple has tipped her over the edge.

Before her string of [mild] expletives threatens to get the sixteen survivors of the walk arrested for the Dutch equivalent of a Section 5 public order offence, I hand over the train tickets to her and ask the Eritrean and Grenadian to escort her on to the next train to Amsterdam. I ring ahead and let Kevin and Dennis know that Pia is arriving in thirty minutes and to have a fire extinguisher at hand – failing that a coffee will do.

I get a #7 tram back in the general direction of Hostel Room. As I near the Witte de Withstraat stop my phone rings. It’s The Couple. Managing to sustain my sunny disposition I tell them to wait there, using my journey to plot something harsh and evil to say, but I don’t have it in me.

When I find them, their version of events seems to hinge firstly on taking too long in Albert Heijn, not realising that everyone was wandering in the general direction of the main station. They then seem to have gone underground at Eendrachtsplein, realised they don’t know how to buy a ticket, so walked to the Beurs Metro station, and then back to Eendrachstplein once more for good measure, before finally returning to the hostel.

We eventually end up catching a train one hour after the rest of the group and when we arrive in Amsterdam, the rest of the group have gone hunting for lunch and ended up at KFC... as usual. Pia has given them all the slip and headed to ‘t Nieuwe Kafé on Dam Square.

After her second koffie it is clear that Pia’s blood pressure has returned to normal. She disappears off in search of plants of a legal variety, the curfew breakers head off towards the shops, the Twins head off to presumably ride on a few trams, and Kevin, Dennis and I lead a small group for a ‘cultural walking tour.’

We head along Damstraat, crossing one canal, before turning left onto Oudezijds Achterburgwal, passing a number of dens of ill repute – in my students’ eyes at least. As ever, the realities of the sex trade and the cannabis cafés, or ‘coffee shops’, come as a shock when compared with the myths that surround both aspects of Amsterdam life in the eyes of your average British 17-year-old.

Our group of students, consisting of some of the better-behaved students, huddle closely together as we pass women in the windows. As we cross onto Molensteeg and head along Zeedijk towards the Nieuwmarkt, they want to stop and talk. As a group of young females it is hard for them to understand why it is that a sex trade of any sorts can actually be allowed to happen so openly. Kevin and Dennis explain a little about how, with it being regulated the way it is, at least it appears to be superficially safer, however much they may agree with the girls’ sentiments.

Reclining on an afternoon boat ride in Amsterdam.
We continue away from the red light district and towards Waterloopleinmarkt. It is a classified by FourSquare as a flea market and is full of interesting artefacts and trinkets, from swords, to cameras, to clothes. Kevin, Dennis and I can only stand back and watch as the girls look at and scrutinise every stall, engage every stallholder in conversation and start throwing their Euros around.

With stomachs beginning to rumble once more, we stop off for some vlaamse frite on our way back to Dam Square where we meet Pia in possession of some Class A tulip bulbs for her mother.

When the group is together once more, we go on a boat tour of the canals. The students are clearly suffering after last night’s antics and take the opportunity to sleep for the vast majority of the trip – much to the delight of the other customers who seemed unimpressed with our loud arrival on the 5pm sailing.

Dinner is booked for 9pm at the Indian restaurant, Lulu, next door to our hostel, so Pia and I decide we should get going as soon as our tour is over, much to the dismay of The Couple who want to go shopping. We stop, look at each other, shake our heads and turn towards the station.

It transpires that this decision to leave straight away was wise. After realising that our tickets are only valid on the slow train, and after some dancing from platform to platform, we board the double-decker train, only for it to terminate some 25 minutes later in nowheresville. 

With my Dutch being tested to the limit, I just about work out that there are engineering works, but have no idea what to do next. Luckily for all of us, some of our Muslim girls have struck up a conversation with a Dutch hijabi who guides us in the vague direction of a rail replacement bus. At this point I get separated from the rest of the group and onto a different bus.

When we arrive in Gouda, around twenty minutes later, angry Pia is back. Apparently a racist drunkard has been running amok on their bus, talking about Nazis and the like. Fortunately, Pia is a blue belt in karate and so was able to use some of her special moves to repel his racism, but, in doing so, her sense of humour had taken a massive hit. The students seemed to have found the whole episode rather exciting though.

When we roll into Rotterdam Centraal, hideously late for dinner, I grant The Twins their wish and we all take the tram back towards the hostel. After some careful negotiation, the restaurateur lets us in, by this time an hour late for our booking, but has to split us over three tables. 

I look at our remaining money for the trip. Our finances are looking good and so we go all out for dinner, diving into three courses of excellent food at Lulu and the party is only just getting started.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin.
Once more the summer James Bond novel tradition is resurrected. This year, with the beaches of the Asturias and Cantabria regions of Spain as my backdrop, and the promise of chorizo and sidra in the evenings to come, I set about reading Doctor No (1958) by Ian Fleming – the sixth novel in the Bond series.

At the end of the previous novel, From Russia With Love, we are left with a serious doubt about whether Bond has survived. Having brought about the demise of SMERSH’s latest plot, he is poisoned and the reader is unsure about what will have become of him.

Obviously, he survives thanks to some quick thinking and good luck. As part of his recuperation a slightly grumpy M decides that the warm climes of Jamaica will suit Bond where he is to clear up the small mystery of a couple of Secret Service operatives seemingly eloping and abandoning their station. Added to this is a fire at a bird reserve on Crab Key, an island off the Jamaican mainland, which an American pressure group seems keen to have investigated.

Bond is convinced he’s ready for real action, but goes along with M’s decision sensing there may be more to these stories, even if it does mean having to ditch his beloved Baretta gun in favour of something new.

From the instant that Bond gets close to Jamaica, Fleming’s ability to evoke the region shines through. The references to sea grapes, soursop, bougainvillea, and star-apples help to furnish the scenery in addition to more detailed description:
“Bond watched the big green turtle-backed island grow on the horizon and the water below him turn from the dark blue of the Cuba Deep to the azure if the inshore shoals… The scattered dice of small-holdings showed on the slopes and in the clearings in the jungle, and the setting sun flashed gold on the bright worms of tumbling rivers and streams… Bond’s heart lifted with the beauty of one of the most fertile islands in the world.”
Upon arrival he is met by Quarrel, a Cayman Islander who had first appeared in Live and Let Die and a somewhat suspicious female paparazzo from the local newspaper. The same paparazzo, Annabel Chung, appears later that evening as Bond is picking Quarrel’s brains over the mysterious Crab Key island and its owner Dr No. Taking no chances they choose to interrogate her, but get very little information – something that serves only to heighten their suspicions about Dr No and the disappearance of the Secret Service operatives.

Bond and Quarrel resolve to escape Kingston and head to the more remote Beau Desert plantation in order to train and plan a night time voyage to Crab Key. Initially they plan just to do a brief recon of the island, but find themselves getting drawn into things much quicker than expected following the arrival of one of the most famous Bond girls, Honeychile Rider. Her arrival is one of the more memorable moments of the film adaptation when the beautiful Ursula Andress emerges from the sea with a knife in her bikini - although Honey is naked in the novel.

Needless to say, her arrival, along with Bond and Quarrel's, has been spotted and it's only a matter of time before Dr No’s mixed race Chinese and black henchmen are after them.

Reading Doctor No on the beach in Santander, Spain.
Having visited the Caribbean for the first time last year, to the small island of Saint Lucia in the Windward Islands group, reading this book definitely brought back elements of that tropical island landscape, even if culturally the Jamaica of Doctor No and modern day Saint Lucia are culturally and socially rather distinct from one another.

At times I wish that Bond would hang about on the beach a bit more, or take a walk through the dense forest, or even take a boat out to a reef by daylight, just so that Fleming can continue to describe the scenery of his second home with the passion he does.

That aside, the plot pushes the boundaries of what is sensible at times, as all of the Bond Novels do, but perhaps to a greater extent here. The action seems so plausible until we reach Dr No’s lair, deep underground on Crab Key.

Added to this, a modern reader will be troubled by references to ‘chigroes’ (a portmanteau of Chinese and negro) and ‘niggerheads’ (I think a partially submerged dark rock under the surface of the water) whilst reading. Such ignorant language could easily detract from the skills of an author who is clearly much more gifted with language that such expressions would seem to imply.

Simon Winder, author of The Man Who Saved Britain: A Personal Journey into the Disturbing World of James Bond, and who also contributes the introduction to the Penguin edition, says it so well:
Dr No is definitely Fleming at his peak, even when he turns silly, and Dr No is perhaps his most attractively crazy villain. It is probably also the only novel in any language where the hero’s penis is directly threatened not just by a centipede’s jaws, but by a giant squid’s tenticle too. Fifty years after it was written it remains – even with all its racism, snobbery and chaotic plotting – a book that can read over and over again with immense pleasure.”
I’m inclined to agree with Winder. Bond seems at his best towards the end of the novel, even if Fleming’s plot choices aren’t, but overall Doctor No is well up there with action of the preceding novels.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Cover image © Penguin Classics
A few years back, my father went through a phase of reading a newspaper that was giving away free DVDs. For a few weekends the DVDs were all old Alfred Hitchcock films, and included the original 1935 version of ‘The 39 Steps’ starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. I decided to get my hands on a copy of the novel on which the film was based.

Following on from my trend of reading James Bond novels, The 39 Steps by John Buchan is, in many ways, a precursor to those novels. The flipping between fast-paced action and moments of tension, all set against a backdrop of espionage and counter-espionage, is very reminiscent of The Cold War world of Ian Fleming’s character.

The novel follows Richard Hannay, a man living in London, struggling to get into the rhythm of life there after having been based in Rhodesia for a period of time. 

The action starts when Hannay is approached by an American gentleman, later identifying himself as Franklin P. Scudder, who states that there is a conspiracy to assassinate Karolides, the Greek premier, during an upcoming visit to London. He also reveals a plot by a German spy ring called Black Stone who intend to steal military information prior to the outbreak of war in Europe.

Hannay offers to hide Scudder in his flat, but to little avail. Scudder is murdered, and, fearing for his own life, Hannay decides to escape for remotest Scotland. So with “a well-used tweed suit, a pair of strong nailed boots, and a flannel shirt with a collar,” along with “fifty pounds … in sovereigns in a belt which [he] had brought back from Rhodesia” and Scudders pocket-book filled with notes and cipher, he heads to London St Pancras, having consulted his Bradshaw’s Guide.

Needless to say, his attempts to evade the attention of the malevolent German spy ring fail and both the local police and a German plane pursue him – the most familiar features of the story for lovers of the early Hitchcock film adaptation.

This story, in the same manner as Ian Fleming’s bond series around thirty years later, is wildly fantastical at times, but the author describes it in his dedication as a “shocker” – “the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.” 

Probabilities aside, the plot is excellently thought-out and the writing so exact and direct that you never get a sense that he is padding out the novel. Furthermore, Hannay is a very old school hero – a gentleman, educated and well travelled – and is actually likeable in a way that sometimes James Bond could only dream of being, despite the occasional similarities between them.

Published during 1915, when the First World War was still young, the novel was said to have been appreciated by soldiers in the trenches with one officer writing to Buchan stating: “The story is greatly appreciated in the midst of mud and rain and shells, and all that could make trench life depressing.”

Overall, this novel is worth a read. Those who have watched the films will see some similarities, but may also appreciate the more serious nature of the original Hannay compared to Hitchcock’s more comedic interpretation.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Keuken Sessie #1

Red lights shining off the wet surface on Scheepstimmermanslaan, Rotterdam.
As the dusky light descends over Rotterdam, I am woken from my late afternoon slumber by squally rain hammering against the small window pane of the droom room. When I look out of the window a little while later, the darkened city streets have been laced with rain, there smooth surfaces reflecting the lights like a perfect mirror glass.

It is still Friday 14th February 2014 and we’re preparing to go out for our evening meal. After yesterday’s stamppot, we’ve opted for the slightly more popular idea of heading to the Bazar on Witte de Withstraat for a meaty halal feast beneath the beautiful Middle Eastern light fittings.

We stroll along the rain soaked streets with the student group representing every possible point on the spectrums of both happiness and excitement. Pia is also being a bit on the slow side. Having moved out of the Maritime Hotel this afternoon and into the Love room at the hostel, she has clearly been sleeping deeply for three hours, despite me not even making her walk for miles this year.

We arrive at Bazar and get directed downstairs to the basement for the first time ever. The rationale is simple; it is Valentine’s Day and the management don’t want our posse ruining the many romantic meals taking place around the building. I can’t really blame them as a thousand cameras and iPhones emerge from pockets and the ubiquitous ‘I’m at a restaurant with my friends’ selfies start getting taken. The noise is phenomenal and at times unbearable – heads turn, and with a look of resignation, turn back.

After the meal we dismiss the group and set a curfew, ground rules, a perimeter and one group, made up of a Nigerian boy, a Somali boy, the Triplets (three girls who seem inseparable) and the Couple dart out of the door quickly. The six of them are dressed like the cast from either Saturday Night Fever or maybe just some 1970s B-movie. Its all white jackets, big lapels, leather and roll-necks. The Twins make their excuses and go tram-spotting or memorising the routes somewhere. 

One group of students decides to stay back for Pia and me. After finishing our coffees, we head towards Schiedamsedijk, making a ridiculous amount of noise as we progress past the old working boats in Leuvehaven bobbing in the darkness. We reach Erasmusbrug, take a few more photos and then wander along Willemskade in the direction of the hostel.

On the way I hint to the students, albeit accidentally, that I might leave work this year. The Eritrean, Senegalese and Grenadian all immediately raise objections, saying “But who’s gonna bring us back next year?” I don’t really have an answer for them, but reassure them by telling them that it is not definite – this despite downloading an application form for another school that morning

After an hour or so of relaxing at the hostel, playing table football, and winding each other up, I decide to do a headcount. Pia, also known as ‘The Incredible Sleeping Woman’, has already hit the hay and I conduct my duties alone. It becomes clear that we are missing our group of Saturday Night Fever impersonators. I keep a vigil at the top of the stairs, watching the comings and goings through the front door with a small gang of students, all of whom seem angrier about the curfew-breaking than I am. Braids are flicked, teeth are kissed, and expletives uttered.

Eventually, around 1am we give up our watch and retire to the kitchen, realising that we’re causing a noisy fire hazard on the stairs. The kitchen is located right at the bottom of the building and is for the communal use of all hostel guests, although we do a pretty good job of colonising it. We talk about anything and everything. It is an opportunity to hear the hopes, dreams and fears the students have about their futures, both in an immediate and longer-term sense.

Bazar: a favourite eatery and a regular on the Rotterdam itinerary.
On a whim, I go and check the boys' room for any sign of the curfew-breakers. Sure enough, as I knock the door, I hear a rustling sound, followed by worried whispering and eventually the Nigerian boy opens the door, revealing a series of six ever-whitening faces.

The story, as it transpires, involved taking a taxi to the ‘Turkish area’ of town (wherever that is), before being caught out by their tram passes expiring at midnight (already after curfew), the girl from the Couple being unable to walk and thus having to be carried home as no taxi would take them (surely an over-dramatisation) and nearly getting into an altercation with a random member of the public (the most likely part of the story).

I go through the usual list of teacher clichés: “disappointment”, “let yourselves down”, and “thought you had more respect for me”. I then leave them to think about what they’ve done and hear the expression “I’ve never seen Tom pissed off before” come from inside the room.

Returning to the kitchen, someone has had the idea to get one of the beaten-up guitars from the lounge area. None of the students can play it and so I take it, playing whatever comes to mind. Songs by Rihanna, Beyoncé and my Ed Sheeran/Passenger-inspired acoustic version of Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’ go down well, with everyone singing along as if they were at a drunken session in a small bar.

At two separate points the Somali boy and Nigerian boy come to offer their apologies, with the latter offering a freestyle over ‘No Diggity’ and a can of Chocomel as compensation. The group who kept vigil grudgingly accept the apology on my behalf as I continue playing.

At around 3am I decide to pull the plug, suggesting that everyone gets an early night – a bit of a contradiction at 3am. Tomorrow morning we head to Amsterdam on the train. With a little protestation, the students skulk off to bed, I head back to the droom room and fall sleep within thirty seconds, can of Chocomel in hand.

Friday, June 13, 2014

In the Dead of Night

In the dead of night, moonlit country lanes are nothing more than a grey ribbon floating between the silhouetted branches of trees, tied at each end to orange orbs surrounding sleeping villages and towns. In the dead of night only your bike’s wheels whir as conversation dries up, the Garmin registers one mile intervals with ever decreasing frequency and any rattling sound goes increasingly unnoticed.

When you have undertaken a sponsored ride, like London to Brighton, in order to raise money for your students you realise that, in order to get money again, you have to try something bigger the following year. So it was, inspired by the feat of four Dutch riders, I decided on a simple concept: ride from my current home in Walthamstow, London to my hometown of Warwick on a Saturday in March, in one go, overnight, starting at 10pm and arriving in time for breakfast.

Two lights, two bidons, waiting for departure at 10pm in Walthamstow, London.
The response was overwhelming. Not only was enough money raised to help two deserving west London students take part in the college's visit to Uganda, but enough money was also raised to pay sponsorship for a couple of Ugandan students through the charity All Our Children. There was no going back now.

Armed with as many bicycle lights as possible, a backpack full of food, bidons of electrolyte drink, additional layers of clothing, spares, multi-tools and the route pre-loaded onto our Garmin GPS devices, we headed out of Walthamstow along the Lea Bridge Road, navigating the traffic around Clapton and Finsbury Park, ascending Crouch Hill and onto the Archway Road.

At this point, humanity is a strange blur of orange streetlights, red brake lights, white headlights, girls in short skirts and heels, men in their new shirts from River Island, all sinuously moving around me and my long-suffering cycling buddy Jonesy as we moved through Finchley and Barnet. The passing-by of cars at speed is the primary soundtrack between moments of ludicrous singing and chit-chat.

After Barnet, our route takes us down a dark road before reaching a footbridge that lifts us over the A1 Barnet by-pass and suddenly civilisation deserts us at 27km into our ride. Heading up Holmshill Lane, lights cutting weakly through the darkness ahead, I look back to see central London and what looks like the BT Tower – all just a bubble of light in the distance.

Looking forward once more is the reality of the night ahead; a night of weaving through gently undulating country lanes, lit intermittently by the bright moon in the clear March sky.

There is no doubt that the moment you leave the ‘pollution bubble’ of London, the temperature plummets. Every effort up the smallest of climbs is met with a cloud of warm vapour rushing from your mouth with every exhalation of breath on the way into Shenley and then London Colney.

Reaching St Albans around midnight means we are greeted by zig-zagging students, revellers and pensioners making their ways from the pub to home, or from bar to club, or maybe just in search of a kebab shop. Despite their noise, and our incongruity to the rest of the surrounding nightlife, we continue on, kicked out of St Albans at speed and out into the blackness of night once more.

No glamour: At the side of a roundabout near Buckingham at around 3am.
There are no cars now and there is none of the traffic of life. The climbs around the edge of the Chilterns, with their views over towards Luton, are conducted in silence. Legs are hurting by now and there is the need to refuel at some point after another terrifying and chilly decent down a hill into the murkiness, with every dip in the road unsighted and the awful scratching sound of Sasha’s rear wheel bearings becoming louder and louder, despite another service at Caballo earlier that week – once more the mechanic trying his best to resuscitate the damaged rear wheel.

In the near silence, the Garmin GPS device seems to fall silent and stay static. A strange mania rises up in my mind between the hours of 2am and 3am whereby, every time I look down to see the miles covered and the miles remaining, the distance seems not to have moved foward at all. At first this is just mildly concerning, but eventually I begin pressing the scroll button just to check that the battery is still alive.

After a pause on the edge of Buckingham, resting at the side of a roundabout on the bypass, I give myself a silent rebuke for my stupidity and continue on, resolving not to look at my Garmin except on the approach to a road junction to avoid getting lost.

Destroyed: Jonesy looking distressed at the roadside in Buckinghamshire.
Jonesy is a broken man. The endless miles of metronomically tapping out a rhythm on the pedals in the cold of the night have left him almost for dead psychologically. Whereas my demons concern a fear of my chain snapping or of a GPS unit that counts backwards, Jonesy’s demons revolve around hydration and warmth.

Around seven and half hours in, the sky has begun to lighten and over the barren fields the sun is threatening to come up. By the time of reaching the small village of Cropredy, it is peering over the hedgerows as the road starts to climb higher for one last time, building up to the beacon at Burton Dassett with eventually the sunlight flooding across the flat Warwickshire countryside in front of us. The end is literally in sight.

After a small amount of rolling along flat country lanes, overtaking tractors taking hay to the fields for livestock and waving to sensible cyclists emerging for a morning ride, we reach Royal Leamington Spa and then Warwick. We're out of liquid, out of energy gels and glad to back on home turf.

A reward: Sun rising on the approach to Burton Dassett.
Jones is too far gone for any breakfast and limps off to his aunt’s. I ride flat out for the last half a mile, using every last bit of remaining energy to reach my parents’ house where the food is already cooking.

Whilst waiting for breakfast my father tries to show me photos of a recent trip to Malta, but I am completely unable to provide any meaningful response. I eat. I sleep. I eat again. And then I sleep again safe in the knowledge that at least in the dead of this night I won't be rattling down a rural road for eight hours.

For the Strava workout data: http://www.strava.com/activities/121054317
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