Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Cover image © Icon Books.
It was well timed, but I finished reading a book about moving to Denmark in pursuit of happiness shortly after the Brexit vote came in. I’d actually put the book to one side for a while, but inspired by the maelstrom of stupidity following June 23rd’s vote, I decided I needed to carry one. 

It had been noted by number of people, but over the last few years I've grown increasingly interested in moving somewhere like Denmark. Indeed, after a couple of occasions visiting my friends Matt and Signe in Copenhagen, I feel like this isn't simply a pipe dream.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell was actually bought for me as a Christmas gift by a colleague with a Norwegian partner. We had had a couple of conversations about my growing love of Scandinavia and so, clearly having remembered some of our chats at break time, she definitely won the award for 'Best Thought-Out Gift' last year.

The book tells the tale of the author, a former editor for Marie Claire magazine, moving to Denmark when her husband, humorously named Lego Man, gets a job working for Lego (obviously). 

The book is structured as a diary focusing on how, month by month, Russell and her husband adapt to Danish life. Each month has a different focus whereby another aspect of living like a true Dane in the world’s happiest country is the subject – kanelsnegles, feminism, language, culture, immigration, work-life balance and, most importantly, something that has now become important in my life, hygge.

Gratuitious Copenhagen photo: Slotsholmen, København. (instagram.com/ayohcee/)
A book about moving to a new country in order to achieve a happier way of life, albeit one in Europe, could very easily become something of a pseudo-spiritual load of nonsense or an overly-emotional bucket of sentiment devoid of any imagination. What is safe to say is that Russell’s book is completely the opposite of this. 

In fact, it is her excellent research of the subject matter, honest humour and willingness to mock herself and Lego man that carry the story forward. It’s almost a perfect lesson in the Fail Forward philosophy – in other words, don’t be ashamed to say you’ve made a hash of things and move on from it.

There are a variety of incidents, both touching and humorous, that keep the momentum of the book going, with the learning process being helped along by a cast of similarly amusingly-titled characters: American Man, the Viking, Helena C and friendly neighbour.

What Helen Russell does is make the step of moving to Denmark sound eminently achievable. Whether  or not I follow in her footsteps over the next few years we’ll have to wait and see, but, after reading this book and the result of the Brexit vote, it’s definitely one step closer.

You can find out more about Helen Russell here, her freelance work for The Guardian here, or follow her on Twitter as: @MsHelenRussell.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Le Petit Enfer de Calais

Usually my best friend, my Garmin didn't like the rain it would seem: Calais, France.
Warm-up rides completed, overnight accommodation in Folkestone booked and a smooth journey to southeast Kent completed, things were looking good for our second attempt at the French Revolution bike ride.

Two years before we had participated in the same event on a near-identical route and had completed it in around 4 hours and 45 minutes (including stoppages at feed stations, Jonesy’s detour into a maize field and a twenty-mile fight with a headwind), only for me to break my wrist whilst riding back to the car park. This year we were hoping for less trouble – obviously this wasn’t ever going to be the case.

Upon arrival at the Port of Dover, all however many hundred riders were required to join one queue in order to show their passport to a solitary French immigration officer. Whilst cars, spread across a number of lanes whizzed through, it took us the best part of two hours from the car park to the boat’s departure. Obviously the event was happening post-Paris attacks and during the European Football Championships, but it wasn’t ideal that 800 people should all be using one booth.

When the ride officially started, the frustrations of many riders could be seen. The fast men were blasting away with double- and triple-overtake manoeuvres happening on the road between the port and the town. Jonesy, cautious after his illness over Christmas, requested we take it easy.

After clearing Calais town and the mildly perilous tramway tracks, he told me to set the speed at 18mph and took my back wheel. We invariably started overtaking large numbers of riders and, as I was feeling back on form, we ratcheted the pace up a bit.

A number of riders of similar ability saw our pace and joined on the back. Before long we had a chain of around twenty riders hanging on to our wheels – a very satisfying feeling, even if it was quite tough work for me.

As the houses gave way to open fields and a view of the English Channel and we reached the bottom of the Cap Blanc Nez, I kept the tempo up with Jonesy following for a bit, but the rest of the chain had disappeared.

Coming back together on the other side of the hill, Jonesy seemed to be in good shape as a few spots of rain started to fall. It was nothing to worry about at the time and before long we were at the first feed station in Fiennes.

At this point the heavens opened and the rain, whipped up by the wind coming off the English Channel, started coming in sideways. I put my lightweight (read, useless) rain cape on, and Jonesy soldiered on having decided in favour of a long-sleeved jersey anyway.

Far from relenting, the rain intensified over the next ten miles through Hermelighen, Boursin and Wierre-Effroy. It was tough concentrating on the climbs as riders started to slow to a crawl. I twice found myself having to stop after losing my balance and riding on the muddy verge, much to own amusement as I failed to clip back in or regain momentum.

What was even worse, were the descents down the many undulations of the Nord Pas de Calais. The rain, coming in at the speed it was, felt like needles being jabbed in to my face and eyes making it hard to see and focus. Furthermore, it was impractical to wear my sunglasses for protection as the skies had ominously darkened.

Soaking wet, muddy and feeling a little worse for wear. Near Calais, France.
It was, on one such descent where a left turn was to be made at the bottom, that Jonesy came unstuck. He managed to slow his Bianchi down sufficiently, or so he thought, to take the corner cleanly, but touched one of the painted white lines as he steered.

He lost grip with the front wheel, somehow came unclipped and the bike slid forward from beneath him and he landed on his shoulder and backside heavily. As I took evasive action, two other riders, one of whom had just had an identical accident, helped him out of the road. He was in a lot of pain and had a serious cramp in his right leg.

For around ten minutes, we stood at the side of the road weighing up the options. Jonesy was in a lot of pain, but had seemingly avoided any breakages and if he was bleeding the rain was washing it away quicker than it could well up anywhere. There was some swelling on his left hand and shoulder blade which made it harder to brake and change gears, but, after deliberating, the course was set for a slow ride to the next feed station where we would assess the situation. The biggest damage seemed to be to his legendary descending skills.

The rain didn’t give up and it was beginning to feel cold too.

We arrived at the second feed station in Offrethun feeling somewhat beaten up and chilly. Jonesy’s damage was a bit more visible now as we joined a group of riders huddled under a mechanic’s awning.

There were 40 kilometres left. Jonesy decided to carry on, but at this point my Garmin decided it wasn’t going to and deleted all my data for the ride. For me, this was the final straw and I did well to not lose my temper and throw the thing into a field. It was Jonesy’s turn to encourage and so I just acquiesced to just swearing under my breath for around fifteen minutes.

With me in a furious mood already, to my additional annoyance, whilst launching one of my trademark dashes up one of my favourite little climbs outside the small village of Bazinghen, I punctured. I decided to get as far as I could before stopping to do a windswept, rain soaked repair. At this point, we couldn’t help but burst into laughter at how ridiculous a pair we must have looked and sounded.

As things transpired, around 15 kilometres from the finish, on the penultimate climb of the event, the clouds cleared, our moods lifted further, and we both dug deep for the final climb out of Escalles for the final ascent of Cap Blanc Nez. So much so, in fact, that both of us found the energy and motivation to smash our previous best times – in my case by around 40 seconds.

With some fuel clearly still in the tank, we rapidly descended the other side of Cap Blanc Nez, and powered back into Calais, passing many an early pace-setter on the way. We crossed the line in a time marginally quicker than our first attempt in 2014, but still missed out on a ‘Silver’ award time.


After the event, whilst on the ferry eating a meal of steak and chips, we continued to laugh off all of the annoyances of earlier – border controls, rain, crashes, Garmins and punctures.

Jonesy, in more pain and knackered, slept for the rest of the sailing after popping some ibuprofen. Let’s face it: with all write-ups like this where I moan about everything, it never stops us from doing it all over again.

What is left of the Strava data can be found here: https://www.strava.com/activities/607573403

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On The Beach, Bognor Regis

The view of the English Channel from the beach in Bognor Regis.
One annual trip by the Year 9 girls of Fulham Cross is a bit like a right of passage. It is the last of the off-timetable days that they'll have in Key Stage 3 and it's a fitting end to their time in lower school.

On Friday 13th May 2016, three bus loads of hyperactive girls were dispatched in the direction of Bognor Regis once more. As with last year, the girls had a carousel of activities in the morning focusing on coastal defences, poetry and seaside history. When the afternoon came, following on from fish and chips, it was time to let them loose on the beach.

Whilst they ran around like crazy, I of course decided it was Instagram time. The weather being markedly better than last year, I was able to take a few pictures that really brought out the blue-green of the sea and the yellows of the shingle. 

On a day like this, a trip to Bognor Regis is well worth the sunburn.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Climb by Chris Froome

Cover image © Penguin Books.
I work in an English department at a secondary school so, naturally, my boss likes to buy all of his members of staff at book for Christmas. Having a little time to think about it, he chose the best thing possible for his cycling-obsessed English teacher; The Climb by Chris Froome.

In a manner similar to other sports autobiographies, The Climb is actually ghostwritten by the journalist of Lance Armstrong-hunting fame, David Walsh. The inimitable style of the Irish journalist is evident throughout the book, but it is easy to overlook this and believe that the words written are probably quite close to what Chris Froome would probably say.

Although my Head of Department tells me that the decision was purely based on Froome's sporting merit, he was quietly smug about the fact that the majority of Chris Froome's childhood was actually spent in Kenya. The East Africa connection, for me, is obviously something that I find difficult to ignore and, perhaps, has inspired me to want to take my beloved Sasha on a trip to Uganda one April.

Froome's story starts in Kenya in a reasonably affluent expatriate area of the capital Nairobi. The area, Karen, is named after Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. We learn that Froome's childhood was far from consistently comfortable. At a young age his parents became divorced and this meant that homelife, by the standards of regular white members of the Karen population, was actually one of relative scarcity. As time moves forward, this results in Froome splitting his time between Kenya and South Africa.

The first first section, in many ways, is the most interesting part. Froome rapidly grows up from being a strange mzungu who spends his time watching bike mechanics fixing bikes to meeting David Kinjah, the leader of the Safari Simbaz cycling team and the man who would help to push his cycling career forward. One words is mentioned or hinted at throughout the book: obsession.

In many ways, this section of The Climb also helps to answer my constant question: Why did Froome ultimately decide to represent Great Britain over Kenya in the end? One big answer: omnishambles

The story that unfolds of Julius Mwangi, the chief of the Kenyan Cycling Federation, who is presented in the book as having all of the organisational skills of a rock. The first frustration for Froome seems to have been even getting recognised as a potential addition to the Kenyan cycling team, despite the fact that Mwangi's office had been receiving his results in the time period leading up to the 2006 Tour of Egypt.

When the team finally had their visa applications signed by Mwangi so that they could actually participate in the event, during the race he disappears in the support car meaning that when Michael Muthai finally succumbed to dehydration, he was just left at the side of the road. Fortunately, he survived by digging a hole in the sand and was eventually picked up by a Polish team member hours later. During the race, Mwangi, it transpired, had gone sightseeing around Cairo.

This, needless to say, wasn't the final act of silliness from the Kenyan Cycling Federation. It comes as no surprise that, when Froome is approached by a Team GB representative at the end of the Commonwealth Games road race in Melbourne, he jumped at the chance to join their development system.

The book, as far as ghostwritten autobiographies goes, is very interesting, sustained my interest well until and takes us to the end of his first Tour de France victory. There are moments of the same cringeworthy lexical choices that Walsh uses in Inside Team Sky, but there are many poignant moments that are described with subtlety and beauty that more than make up for it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Dagenham and Redbridge

The match day programme and tickets. Which was more expensive though?
Dagenham and Redbridge. I remember seeing their name appear, albeit heavily abbreviated, on the videprinter on BBC’s Grandstand as a child. Teams like ‘The Daggers’ to a boy raised in the Midlands were a little bit mystical; much like Rushden and Diamonds, Stalybridge Celtic and indeed my current local team Leyton Orient.

Having discussed my idea to get around a few London grounds (and I know I’m stretching that criteria a bit with the recent trip to Southend United) with my friends Gareth, Dave and Keith, we had been mulling over the idea of a trip to Dagenham for a while. Eventually we settled on the visit of Yeovil Town on Saturday 27th February 2016.

The biggest shock of the whole experience was actually to happen about a week before the match. When I called to reserve six tickets, helped by the operative on the phone to choose the most ‘lively’ area of the ground, I was mortified by the price. 

“So, that’s six tickets in the terraced stand on Saturday,” the booking office operator started, “and it will come to £15 plus a booking fee.”

“Each?” I asked getting my bank card out.

“No, sir, that’s the total.”

At this I could only laugh. I’d just spent that much on a bowl of Nachos in a Fulham pub, yet for the same price you could get you and five of your mates into a football match. [Note: two of our group dropped out beforehand which is why only four of us are mentioned.]

The history of Dagenham and Redbridge is a mildly winding one. The club, officially speaking, came into being in 1992 following a merger between Dagenham FC and Redbridge Forest FC. This was roughly two years before I would even take an interest in football; an awakening brought about by Jack Charlton’s Ireland team beating Italy 1-0. 

The club, though, can trace its history, via various lineages (Ilford, Leytonstone and even Walthamstow Avenue), all the way back to 1881. The club’s website explains that the previous clubs “had proud histories as amateur clubs in the past but due to dwindling attendances, had fallen on hard times.”

Travelling at first on the C2C from Fenchurch Street to Barking, and then switching onto the District line to Dagenham East, we had a bit of time to assess how The Daggers’ season was unfolding. Keith and Dave, in role as chief researchers, informed us that times were again not great. The club were in the relegation zone and a few points away from safety. They needed to beat Yeovil, who were just above them, to have any chance of fighting relegation to the National League – which will always be known as the Conference to me!

Exiting Dagenham East station, we took a left and wandered along towards Victoria Road. The area is reminiscent of the Foleshill Road in Coventry and is a residential-industrial edgeland. It’s not a pretty area, but turning onto Victoria Road there is something quite warming to the soul about seeing this small stadium nestled in between houses and an industrial estate.

Victoria Road, or the Chigwell Constuction Stadium as it is currently known for sponsorship reasons, has existed as a football stadium since 1917 and originally hosted matches for a local works side. Dagenham FC moved there in 1955, making a few improvements to the pitch and stands over the intervening years. It wasn’t until Redbridge FC moved in during 1990 that any further improvements took place.

Currently there are two seated stands, an open terrace and a covered terrace. For today’s match, I chose tickets for the North Stand that runs along the side of the pitch. It’s a small, cramped affair and, conscious of our heights, Dave, Keith and I elected to stand towards the back of the terrace to prevent upsetting any locals.

View from the North Stand as Dagenham and Redbridge have a rare moment in attack.
When the match started, it didn’t take long to realise why The Daggers were propping up the table. They struggled to string many passes together and it wasn't long before supporters in the terraces, some of whom seem to be wearing West Ham beanie hats, were getting on the players' backs in all the colours of the English language.

Yeovil, attacking the goal in front of the Bury Road End, the open terrace, slowly started pinning The Daggers’ defence back. No one in a red and blue shirt seemed to be willing to commit to a challenge and at half time we were amazed that they hadn’t conceded a goal.

Early in the second half, with the incessant chorus of “Everywhere We Go” coming from the Yeovil Town fans getting louder, Brandon Goodship scored the game’s only goal. In typical fashion, I was busy talking to Dave and looking the opposite direction when the goal went in, meaning the only clue I had about a goal being scored were the deafening boos of The Daggers’ fans.

As an Aston Villa fan, I could completely empathise with the feeling of complete helplessness of seeing your team concede and then capitulate on a weekly basis. I kept those thoughts to myself though.

All in all, as we made our way out of the side gate, feeling ridiculously cold away from the huddled masses of the North Stand, we reflected that, although the game was for the most part dire, it could have been worse.

“I would say that wasn’t the worst game of football I've ever seen,” Gareth declared.

“Really?” I asked.

“It was better than that match at Barnet,” Gareth comments by way of a veiled compliment of The Daggers' playing prowess, before adding: “but only just.”

In reality, having watched Aston Villa against Wycombe Wanderers on TV in January, I would say that it was perhaps the worst game in my recent memory, but only just.

Aside from all this, the fans were friendly, the atmosphere on the terraces (until the goal) was lively  and the experience was worth it to check another ground off the list. Oh, and remember, we did only pay £2.50 each.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Enkuto Eratukura #13: The Accidental Sheikh

Shadows cast upon the reddened ground in Kabale, Uganda.
Friday 10th April 2015 - 2pm 

It is a wonder that, in a town the size of Kabale, that there are still any areas of it that are yet to be discovered. Already on this trip I had found a few new back routes through Bugongi, had been to New Foundation Primary School for the first time and had caught a fleeting glimpse of Peter’s new school off the main road to Katuna.

Today, the group were heading to the hitherto unknown Ndorwa Muslim Secondary School after Tash and I had spoken to Peter earlier that week. I also needed to make a solo trip back to New Foundation to meet with Jonan and James for our feedback meeting.

I decided to hitch a lift in a pickup truck that we had been using all week, and to hop out and walk the remaining quarter of a mile from Ndorwa to New Foundation.

I arrived to be greeted by the expected chants from the younger children and found Jonan in a side office working away at something official looking. In his usual warm manner, he shook my hand and sent a runner to get James, the teacher we had observed the day before.

James, looking rather concerned about what was to happen, met us in the head teacher’s office following the conclusion of his lesson. I immediately set about allaying his fears about coaching, saying that, if anything, it was Jonan and I who were being tested.

After around twenty minutes we established that, although his planning was impeccable, he was working too hard in the classroom and was a little like a goalkeeper, standing in front of the blackboard, whilst fielding shots from all over the room, remaining almost rooted to the spot. I showed him a small diagram of who had been saying what and where he had moved to.

We decided that, as a way forward, he was to plan his next lesson with P5 to ensure that he made the students do more of the work, and to ensure that a few ‘passengers’ within the classroom were picked up on their lack of engagement by him circulating the classroom. He still looked a little uncertain about all this coaching business, but, at the end of our meeting, James left wearing a smile and we resolved to meet early the following week.

❦ 

I wandered back along the Katuna Road towards the town, staring enviously into the bike maintenance workshops, and passing the small vegetable sellers’ stalls and tiny shops at the roadside.

I was met the gates of Ndorwa by a serious looking guard who, I dare say, didn’t like the look of me until I mentioned Peter’s name and his face became a little less severe.

Once inside, it was clear that a difference existed between this small government funded school and our oldest partner school of Kigezi. The buildings were modest in their size and arranged around a neatly kept quadrangle with the obligatory Ugandan flag. Most of the students here were funded chiefly by USE money.

Most of our girls were talking to their Ugandan counterparts in the library, going through aspects of the curriculum and showing off their Arabic skills. Due to the impending mock exams, the library was full to the brim with groups of students revising, or at least paying lip service to revising, in every nook and cranny of the room.

As lunchtime approached, those who were intending to attend Jumu’ah prayers headed towards the on-site prayer room. Here, Tash, along with a few of the non-Muslim girls, met with us outside the makeshift masjid.

At this point, two teachers came over and introduced themselves. One was called Muhammad and the other Suleiman. They were exceptionally happy to see me and I assumed that it was because Peter, in his inimitable style, had been ‘bigging me up’ to his colleagues.

‘Thomas, we really like your scarf,’ Suleiman started off, pointing to my kaffiyeh.

‘Well, thank you. It was a gift from a Somali friend of mine,’ I replied. I am impressed at how I’m getting better at taking any sort of compliment.

‘Somalia? You have travelled to Arabia though?’ Muhammad asked.

‘No. I would love to though. Maybe to visit Mecca or Medina,’ I responded, ‘but as things stand I don’t think I’d be let in.’ 

At this point Muhammad looks at Suleiman with a slightly puzzled look, but asks, ‘You are here for our jumu’ah prayers today though?’

‘Well, I’m helping to escort the girls. I’m sort of in loco mahram. Maybe I can come in though?’

At this point a 100 shilling coin drops and Suleiman starts to laugh uncontrollably. Muhammad doesn’t get the joke. I too suddenly clock what was going on.

In between fits of the giggles Suleiman reached out and touched my kaffiyeh

‘We thought you were a sheikh,’ he said and continued laughing.

After establishing that I was indeed just a kafir, albeit one sympathetic to Islam, I was told that I should attend the prayers, much to the amusement of the students who had, in the intervening minutes, found material to be used as hijabs for the two non-Muslim girls so that they could attend too.

Suleiman guided me through wudu, the correct way of cleaning oneself prior to prayer or worship in Islam. I followed through the very specific order involving, amongst other things: washing your hands and arms, washing your face, cleaning your feet, cleaning your beard (if you have one) and rubbing water over your hair – even if it ruins your quiff.

A senior student started the proceedings off with the khutbat al-jum'a, a sermon preaching a particular message. In this case the khutbat al-jum'a focused on how we should all take personal responsibility for our actions. Quite skilfully, our preacher seemed to code-switch effortlessly between English, Arabic and Rukiga whilst delivered his message.

Towards the end of the sermon everyone rose to their feet and, as I tried to sneak out of the way, I was hauled back into one of the lines of worshippers. I muttered politely to the young man next to me, stating that I didn’t know what I was expected to do. But this isn’t a good enough excuse. I am told, ‘just copy what I am doing and saying.’

Allahu akbar…

At the end of the prayer, I was, in my role as the accidental sheikh, greeted politely by the other young men in the room and they were eager to talk more about why we are in Kabale. In the intense heat of the Ugandan sunshine, I guided some of them to where our group were congregated and introduced them to the students I’d travelled with.

At this point, Khadija, struck by a moment of curiosity, asked to see the girls’ dormitories and the head teacher led a group of us to take a look. As with almost every other feature of the school, these are a simple affair, furnished sparsely with wooden bunk beds in near darkness and a few personal effects of the students.

Khadija’s sharp eyes were instantly drawn to the lack of mosquito nets over the beds and, being so close to a water course that winds through the middle of Kabale, shrouded by tall trees, this is hotbed for malaria, the most regular cause of sickness amongst the boarders.

She looks at me with the same face she used to use when she wanted a homework extension and asked, ‘Can we do something for them?’

The instant chorus of responses was a resounding ‘yes.’

Later that evening, a small group of us put together around £80 of English money to deck out the girls’ dorm with nets. It may have been a small gesture, but one that was appreciated by the school and the girls who board there.

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Southend United

Matchday tickets for Southend United. I arrived too late for a programme though.
I wouldn’t call myself a regular at Leyton Orient's Brisbane Road, but I have now been to around seven matches over the last two seasons and enjoy my spot near to the half-way line in the East Stand. During a brief spell of convalescence in Chelsea, Jonesy decided that it was time to try another ground.

With it being the closest ground to Jonesy’s house, on Saturday 23rd January we headed over to Roots Hall, the home of Southend United to see them take on Coventry City. 

Worryingly, the night before the match, a colleague of mine had been telling me about how Southend United had moved to a stadium outside of town. Visions of a Ricoh Arena style ground, surrounded by a Tesco Extra and giant car park flashed into my mind, but, as our taxi got closer to the stadium, it was clear this wasn’t the case.

As with most things, getting there wasn’t easy. The prospect of rail replacement buses saw me hop off at Pitsea station to be picked up. For a few moments, in the shadow of the flyover, the washed-out damp air and people trudging acquiescently onto blue busses, I thought I’d been dropped off on the set of a Shaun of the Dead sequel. Thankfully, I was extracted by car and just got stuck in a traffic jam instead, making it to the ground two minutes before kick-off. 

Roots Hall sits nestled in the side of a hill off Victoria Avenue, just a short walk from the town centre. Its unique location and the general appearance really captures the imagination, reminiscent, in the best way possible, of the stadia of yesteryear. After the fear that we may be heading to modern stadium, it was a relief to see a true football league soul still in existence.

Construction of the stadium started in 1952, although the first match did not take place there until 1955. The ground was originally, not too dissimilarly to the Emirates Stadium, built upon a piece of wasteland used for dumping rubbish. Prior to this Southend United had played matches in a stadium actually designed for greyhound racing, but felt a moved was needed as the dog track surrounding the pitch was not conducive for football fans.

The stand that we had seats in, the East stand, was built as a terrace at the same time as the rest of the stadium but was extended in 1966 to ensure that the stand ran the full length of the pitch. It wasn’t converted to seating until much later and towards the back of the stand, some of the older folding seats are still evident and add another air of nostalgia to the ground.

Walking out into the seating of the East stand, moving slowly closer and closer to the pitch, one thing that really does hit you is how narrow the front rows of seats really are meaning that, in order for us to gain access to our seats, which for some reason Jonesy had organised to be in the front row, it meant squeezing past a lot of slightly disgruntled looking regular supporters, removing a small child from my seat and asking an old man to go back to the seat he should be sat in. Once settled though, we were well within earshot of Phil Brown, one of the more forthright managers in the modern game.

When the match finally got underway, the difference in the quality of football was surprisingly large compared to what I’m used to at Leyton Orient. The fluidity of the passing, the ability of players avoid bunching, and the incisiveness of the Southend United attack, meant that it felt like watch Argentina, comparatively speaking.

Spot the ball: The wintry sun sets over Roots Hall, Southend.
The match was not great for Coventry City. After a period of sustained pressure in the washed-out wintry Southend sunset, the Sky Blues’ defence was breached by the Shrimpers’ Payne on 24 minutes. A mere 7 minutes later, Barnett doubled the lead which brought about a second playing of DJ Otzi’s song ‘Hey Baby’ over the PA system. 

After the halftime entertainment of a lady singing ‘Uptown Funk’ on the pitch, flanked by cheerleaders, the players re-emerged for more. The match got much feistier and soon the Shrimpers’ Gary Deegan was red carded for a meaty challenge.

This didn’t really help the Sky Blues as it should have, and, on 61 minutes, a clumsy challenge from the Coventry City ‘keeper gifted Southend United a penalty. Barnett duly dispatched it for his second goal. A slow exodus of Sky Blues fans began and good old DJ Otzi reappeared on the sound system; “oooh, aaah.”

After the game we retreated to the Spread Eagle where there was a positive vibe amongst the happy home fans, relishing their substantial home win. 

Although Jonesy perhaps isn’t as nostalgic about old stadia as I am (he is, after all, an Arsenal fan of the ‘Invincibles’ and now Emirates periods), we did take a moment to reflect on the fact that, even if there are many, many advantages to Southend United moving to a completely new ground at Fossetts Farm, it would be a real shame for the football league to lose another stadium full of soul like Roots Hall.

Friday, January 01, 2016

2015 Cycling Year in Review


I [infamously] signed off last year's cycling review with the words "Let's hope that 2015 means more kilometres and hopefully staying upright on the bike."

I'll kill any suspense now: I failed on both counts.

Around six days after publishing that statement, as I rounded the corner from St Dunstan's Road onto Magravine Road in Hammersmith, I realised that a Christmas tree had been dumped in the road. Travelling at around 14mph, I braked with the front and tried to take a tighter line whilst cornering. The front wheel lost grip and hit the ground. Hit it hard.

Thankfully, an off-duty orthopaedics doctor was travelling in the car behind me. He helped me up and walked me to the hospital a mere 500 metres down the road where I was told about my list of injuries: a fractured cheekbone, broken thumb (on the same side I'd damaged last year), a cut requiring stitches above my eye and a badly bloodied lip.

What I am perhaps most thankful about was the fact that the off-duty doctor persuaded me to not ride home. I was ready to carry on, but wasn't quite aware of how severely I was bleeding. What this did mean was that I wouldn't get back on the bike until February 22nd.

Starting off, as with last time, I began by riding around the road track at the Lee Valley Velodrome. I managed about an hour in the driving rain and incessant wind before abandoning.

Buoyed by this first ride, I attempted something a little further with Jonesy at the beginning of March. This ride took us riding along the seafront in Southend, heading down country lanes, over a fair few mud tracks, getting lost on private farmland and eventually going along the top of a metre wide sea defence wall - inventing the Dijkritje concept in the process.

In April I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a Eastman bike for the day and to use it to get around Kabale in Uganda. An experience I couldn't record on Strava, but that I will be repeating in 2016, despite the heckling of one local man of "omuzungu, you are driving a bike."

Riding an old Eastman bike back to the hotel in Kabale, Uganda.
By May I was commuting regularly again and had used the velodrome road circuit for a little more traffic-free training. My fitness, although still not great, was improving and by June, in the warmer weather, most of the pain in my left side was gone.

July and August brought the biggest excitement of the year. Not only did I head off the Saint Lucia for five weeks, I took the ever-reliable Sasha with me. The first ride was the toughest, riding alone in searingly hot conditions with exercise-proof SPF50+ on, but, after a few messages to the Chairperson of the Saint Lucia Cycling Association, I soon had myself a cycling partner - the 2012 National Champion Fidel Mangal.

Riding around the hills of Blanchard and Desruisseaux, then along the edge of the Atlantic and through Vieux Fort, with someone much fitter than me, provided me with a good chance to really push myself. Having brought out no energy gels or electrolyte drink to the Caribbean, I got by with a water/salt/sugar solution and coconut water, stopping every so often for either a banana or watermelon. It seemed to work. 

In September, the post-Caribbean bounce saw me cycle over 800km in a month for the first time since joining Strava. On top of that, I beat a personal best up London's toughest climb, Swains Lane.

Sasha takes a rest against a palm tree on the beach at Laborie, Saint Lucia.
Finally, after one last dijkritje for the year, Jonesy and I decided to head north for our first Sportive of the year (and also our last) in home territory; Warwick for the Snowball Spinner.

After a pleasant journey northwards on Saturday, the weather started to take a turn for the worse that afternoon and a warning was issued by the Met Office for rain and gusts of wind up to 60mph the following day. The event organisers were concerned and sent an email saying the event may be cancelled.

As things turned out, the event went ahead, but everyone was forced to take the Standard route to ensure the course was cleared by 1.30pm, the time the 'big' weather was due to hit.

The route was very quiet with what seemed like many people choosing not to participate. On a better day it would be an attractive circuit, but, given the intense westerly head wind and intermittent rain, it wasn't that fun compared to previous events - although we were cheered through Snitterfield by my mother and girlfriend

We arrived back feeling cold, collected our medals, cleaned our bikes and headed to meet our 'fans' in the Cape of Good Hope pub.

At this point, based on last year's blog post, I'll make no predictions or comments about 2016. Let's just see what the road holds.

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Tinder Box by Hans Christian Andersen

Cover image © Penguin.
Last year in Copenhagen, sat outside a restaurant on Ryesgade in the cold, I asked a local literature graduate what the Danish version of Charles Dickens might be. The one name that came up, after a few minutes deliberation, was Hans Christian Andersen. The whole group of Danes agreed.

To me, the idea of someone who writes fairy stories, being comparable with someone like Charles Dickens, seemed ludicrous. One year later, upon returning to Copenhagen, I decided to bring a copy of Andersen’s The Tinder Box, released by Penguin as part of the recent 80th anniversary collection of short texts.

In the eponymous tale, a soldier, on his way back from war, meets a witch who asks him to go into a tree to find a magic tinderbox. Whilst in there, he enters three rooms all guarded by dogs of increasing size; the final dog having “eyes the size of the rundetaarn”, a famous landmark in Copenhagen. Each dog is guards coins of increasing value and so, eventually, the Soldier fills his pockets with as many gold coins as possible.

Upon leaving the hollow tree, the witch asks for the tinderbox to be handed over. The soldier, naturally inquisitive about why she is so desperate for it, decides to decapitate her when she doesn’t give him an answer.

The Soldier then heads into the city where he adorns himself with fine clothes and new lodgings, becoming a popular character in social circles. He learns of a myth that says that there is a Princess, locked in a tower, who it is said will marry a common soldier. 

Eventually his money runs out and, in desperation, he strikes the tinderbox into life and discovers that he is able to call upon the three dogs to do his bidding. He sets about wining the Princess' heart. It isn't long before the King and Queen learn that the things are not what they seem with the Princess, and set about finding the man intent on capturing their daughter's heart.

H.C. Andersen's former residence at Nyhavn 67, Copenhagen.
The fairytale, although short, is an interesting piece of work. It has a conversational style that is capable of speaking to young children, but undertones of class conflict that talk directly to a more socially conscious adult. Indeed, it is thought that the story shows Han Christian Andersen as feeling torn between classes; at once having the desire to cut himself off from the poverty of his own past, whilst wanting to eliminate those who ruled over him.

This moral and class-conscious subtext continues in the other tales included in this collection. In Little Claus you have two morally flawed characters, but a overriding sense of the little guy overcoming the big guy; The Princess and the Pea seems to be a comment on refinement and sensitivity; and then The Tin Soldier, as Joan G. Haarh puts it, “symbolising Andersen's feelings of inadequacy with women, [and] his passive acceptance of bourgeois class attitudes.”

Taking a few minutes to read a couple of these stories brings the history of Copenhagen’s narrow streets to life. In the same way Dickens’ characters, in some ways, narrate a period of London’s social development, Andersen’s tales tell a tale of the tensions of social mobility during the Danish Golden Age.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Sunrise on Dawes Road, Fulham

A rare moment of quiet looking towards the sunrise on Dawes Road, Fulham.
Since leaving my last place of work, I've missed being able to go onto the roof in the morning and taking occasional pictures of the sunrise. Now that I'm half a mile down the road, and the roof here is out of bounds to staff and students, I have to rely on more fleeting moments to capture my favourite time of day.

On Friday 9th October I headed into work a little earlier as we were taking the Year 7 girls on a visit to Walton Firs for team building. As I was heading past the end of Dawes Road, the sunrise illuminated the practically traffic-free street a vibrant orange. The sunrise was a sign of the crisp and chilly morning ahead. 

As I don't teach a Year 7 class this academic year, it was interesting to meet the new intake of characters at the start of their secondary school journey.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Hallowe'en Party by Agatha Christie

Cover image © HarperCollins.
The good thing about Agatha Christie is that there seems to be a book for every possible season, location or eventuality. With the sudden coming on of autumn in the UK, with the yellowing leaves falling and a crispy chill rising in the air, one of her later novels, Hallowe'en Party (1969), seemed to fit the bill perfectly.

This isn't your normal Halloween story though. Instead it seems like quite a typical Agatha Christie mystery, but with the simple fact that it all begins with what should be an innocuous game of bobbing for apples on Halloween. In fact, there is nothing more supernatural than the presence of a local woman who plays the part of the witch at the party.

The novel starts when crime novelist Ariadne Oliver, one time friend of Hercule Poirot, is staying with her friend, Judith Butler, in Woodleigh Common and is twittering away whilst all of the others are preparing for a children’s Halloween party.

During the preparation, a slightly annoying and arrogant teen, Joyce, declares that she has witnessed a murder. Naturally, no one is inclined to believe her considering her reputation for telling lies, or should that be, embellishing the truth.

Later that evening, whilst most of the children are in a different room with the snapdragon, Joyce is drowned in a galvanized iron bucket used for apple bobbing in the library.

Convinced that there must be more to this mystery than meets the eye, and in a mild state of hysteria, Mrs Oliver contacts Poirot at his London flat. What unfolds is a story that has a certain degree of complexity that not only deals with the immediate aftermath of the murder of Joyce, but also links to a couple of dark episodes from Woodleigh Common’s more recent past.

The story draws on many typical themes and characters of the English country mystery: a suspect final will and testament, a few outsiders (the nature of whose personalities are unknown), a mysterious disappearance, and a tightly knit community where everyone knows, and is possibly involved in, everyone else’s business.

Perhaps symptomatic of the times, and what makes this an interesting read, is that the novel seems to have a very different set of concerns to those of some of the earlier Poirot novels. The concerns of a modern world catching up with an aging author maybe.

References are made, at various points of the narrative, to: homosexuality, madness, care in the community of those with psychological problems, social deviance, and the loss of society’s moral compass amongst juveniles. It’s hard to decipher what Christie’s opinion is on the more permissive society of the 1960s, but you get the sense it might not be wholly positive.

Ariadne Oliver, playing the function of the detective's sidekick throughout the novel, is definitely not as entertaining a character as Hastings, but could be considered as the nearest thing to Christie actually writing herself into one of her novels, albeit satirically. As far as supporting characters go, she also definitely lacks the nouse of Jason Rafiel, who assists Miss Marple in A Caribbean Mystery.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen: a very atmospheric Halloween experience.

Halloween Party is twisty enough to keep the ‘little grey cells’ warm and doesn’t necessarily unfold in the manner one would predict, but maybe lacks the atmosphere and precision of her earlier novels. As The Toronto Daily Star put it, back in 1969, “Poirot seems weary and so does the book.” Robert Barnard, perhaps more bluntly says, “It is littered with loose ends, unrealised characters, and maintains only a marginal hold on the reader's interest.”

Overall, as mysteries go, it is a decent read, but not as tense as its name might suggest, or as this reader had hoped for.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #12: Progress and Paint Marks

"Abazungu": Arriving under the watchful eye of a quartet of children.
Thursday 9th April 2015 - 9.30pm

Today was the day for me take the lead in a teaching and learning project. 

During Monday’s meeting, I had planned to try and work with Jonan, the head teacher at New Foundation Primary School on the Katuna Road in Kabale. The focus was to be on the coaching model that I had been using since moving to Fulham Cross, all with the aim of trying to improve the quality of teaching.

I had also arranged for Suweyda to run an Art session with a different class whilst I was with Jonan. 

Along with Huda, Molly and Sina, we headed over in a special hire to be greeted by a tidal wave of children chanting “abazungu” rhythmically at us through the gaps in the wooden fence.

New Foundation has a sprawling site set back from the recently re-laid road to the border with Rwanda. At regular intervals, large trucks, flanked by boda-bodas, would cough and splutter their way along, mingling their urban fumes with the early morning whisps of soft eucalyptus wood smoke from small fires that usually lend the area a more rural feel.

After some preliminary discussions, and the obligatory signing of the visitors’ book, I headed off to class P5 with Jonan and sat at the back of teacher James’ English class.

Sat with a good vantage over the whole classroom, it was clear that there was a large discrepancy between the ages of the students enrolled in P5. Some students were the expected age, but there were also a group of boys clearly in their mid-teens.

Often, if there are problems for a family in raising funds for scholastic equipment and uniform, there can be a delay in students starting their education despite the fact that Universal Primary Education means that all students, theoretically, have a place at any state primary school. Furthermore, pressures within a family may mean that a child is expected to work or support their family somehow. There are no attendance officers calling home to investigate.

Either way, this reality, where free education still isn’t necessarily free, can result in gaps in a child’s education meaning it isn’t that unusual for a 14-year-old to end up at the back of a primary school class.

As the school has been working with members of All Our Children over the years, namely Grigorios, the lesson that James had prepared was in fact quite inventive and involved group work techniques and role-play, both often absent in such large classes. It meant that, in my seventh visit, I was in many ways seeing the strongest student engagement in the learning environment to date.

After twenty minutes, keen not to cause James to panic about being too closely scrutinised, I suggested to Jonan that we left the room, thanking the teacher on the way out.

Whilst James continued his lesson, I talked Jonan through the basics of the GROW coaching model. It was safe to say that his natural enthusiasm for developing his small school meant that he was receptive to everything we discussed. Most importantly to me, he seemed to really enjoy the fact that coaching is best used as a constructive, rather than critical, approach to staff development – not a tool for monitoring or performance management.

Working with a consultant at Fulham Cross, I have worked on developing how I use my questioning to help coachees to deconstruct their own teaching, rather than me trying to impart my eight years of ‘wisdom’. With this is mind, I ran through a few scenarios with Jonan modelling the digging deeper approach of gently probing questions. We set a date for the feedback with James to take place shortly after morning break the following day.

Conscious that I had left Suweyda in charge of an art project with a large group of children usually run by teacher with nearly 20 years’ experience, I went over to investigate what was happening on the playing field. 

Expecting to see paint and paper strewn everywhere and the four WMSF students cowering in the corner, I was pleasantly surprised to find a hive of purposeful industry with only a few paint marks visible on hijabs and abayahs

Across the width of the field a line was hung up and all the various prints that the students had been working on for the last hour or so were pegged on it to dry. Every imaginable shape and design was attempted: Africa, Uganda, cars, Ankore cattle, houses and accidental back-to-front writing.

With the sun beginning to break out from behind the thick Kabale mist, and lunchtime beckoning, we said our goodbyes and headed back to the road to where our taxi driver had recently returned. 

Late that afternoon we got involved in what is fast becoming an annual custom: throwing the WMSF girls into mixed basketball teams with the well-drilled and well-trained girls of Kigezi High School. This year, the match was a closely run thing between the two teams and the reluctant west London ladies soon let the adrenaline take over and put up a good showing despite their fatigue from a busy morning. The coach even offered to sign a few of them, but couldn’t guarantee meeting their wage demands.

The night was a quiet one, spent at the hotel, with a few rounds of Waragi and tonic shared along with some improvised music courtesy of Tamera.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Like a Wilting Flamboyant

Looking down from Blanchard towards the Atlantic Sea, Saint Lucia.
On Thursday 17th September 2015 I took a group of girls from Year 9 to the First Story Young Writers' Festival at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University. The First Story project partners schools with a published writer who then leads a group of students in creating an anthology.

The event saw poetry performances from Caroline Bird, Anthony Anaxagorou and Andy Craven-Griffiths (who all instantly gained new fans), a lunchtime Q&A with Sally Green and an afternoon workshop to develop their creativity.

Alongside this, the teachers are also given the opportunity to attend a workshop to get new inspiration for teaching creative writing. The session I attended was led by Dan Powell, who introduced a technique of free-writing whereby a word is called out, every thirty seconds or so, and has to be woven into whatever you're writing.

Here is my attempt, evoking memories of Saint Lucia.
[This poem has been removed whilst it is entered into a competition]

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Enkuto Eratukura #11: Conversations in Bugongi

Mist, fading sunshine and lens flare over the trees of Bugongi, Kabale.

Wednesday 8th April 2015 - 5pm

When lunch at Kigezi High School was over, I led the group down the precipitous hillside path, across the playing fields between the cows, and into the Bugongi area of Kabale. 

This area is still one that I know very little about, yet, every morning, it is the part of Kabale that I see emerging first from the mist as I look over my balcony at Green Hills Hotel. 

Its relatively enigmatic status, to your average mzungu at least, means that as an area I had no real judgement of the place, just the general assumption that this quater may be less well off than other areas of the town. Indeed, this was my first observation of the place in 2009 when William Blake’s mind came to my mind. 

I sent the group off towards the town in order to visit Royal Supermarket and I departed in a different direction to rendezvous with Liz to head to Phionah’s house along the Bugongi Road.

There are many small traders along the side of the road: ‘pork joints’, small bars and shops selling various oddments. Children were wandering along as they headed home. Boda-bodas rattled past over the rough red road, darting in between the slower moving bicycles and pedestrians. Livestock meandered aimlessy and freely amongst the myriad pathways and byways of the area. 

We reached a slightly newer row of shops and from behind a corrugate iron gate Phionah emerged. 

A few years back, Phionah had had to seriously face the prospect of being unable to attend University. As a result of not having been able to pay a certain administrative fee, money her parents didn’t have, she wasn’t allowed to have the official transcript of her Senior 6 results. Without this information, no university would accept her. 

In the end Liz, frustrated with the lunacy of the situation, paid off the fees meaning that she was finally accepted onto a nursing course at uni. 

A few years of studying and an internship later, Phionah now resides in Kampala along with a dentist and a pharmacist in a shared house – surely a perfect polyclinic waiting to happen

Her parents’ house was in a small compound set behind the row of shops and away from the road, although not the general noise of Bugongi. 

The house was dark, but comfortably furnished. We were introduced briefly to her mother who then returned to kitchen to talk to a younger member of the family. In true Ugandan style, Phionah had gone all-out to accommodate us; Fresh bananas, butter, bread and Nescafé coffee are all laid-out in front of us. 

We talked a lot about health and naturally, as is often the case in sub-Saharan Africa, the conversation turned to HIV/AIDS. 

“There are still many people being infected in Uganda,” Phionah answered to Liz’s question about the prevalence of new cases of AIDS in the country. “As time has gone on, the government has made anti-retrovirals (ARVs) available for free to those infected by HIV/AIDS.” 

“So why haven’t the numbers of people being infected fallen?” I asked. 

“Maybe people are getting too relaxed about the risks of infection. Perhaps, in the knowledge that there are ARVs available, some people just think to themselves, ‘It’s okay. If I get infected, then I can take ARVs and be okay’.” 

What is clear is that the detrimental effect socially on everyday life and family life is profound, with or without ARVs. 

“If one parent gets infected and the other one doesn’t then the relationship can be over,” Phionah continued. “Even though the partner may have been faithful, the trust can easily go as soon as one partner is diagnosed.” 

“The worst case scenario is that a woman is left alone with her child and with very little social support.” 

After finishing our coffee and bananas we made to leave. As we were doing so, we were greeted at the gate by a smartly dressed, softly-spoken gentleman, Enock; Phionah’s father. He was a jovial fellow and couldn’t help but beam with pride as Liz talked about his daughter’s successes in her nurse training. 

The noise from the Pentecostal Church next door had been slowly rising over the last few hours, but, just as we were leaving, the power cuts and the pastor was left voiceless. Liz raised a wry smile. 

Primary school children were heading home in throngs now and Liz, Phionnah and I were swept along in the unending flow of small life calling out ‘abazungu’ as they went. Phionah found it all rather amusing. 

We walked a little way before taking a right and then a left down a narrow alleyway. The alley lead past some smaller houses before gently descending. 

The path had been heavily eroded and more closely resembled an ephemeral river than a walkway. 

We emerged from the narrow path and into a small valley covered in tall eucalyptus trees. Here a small stream flowed into a concrete channel designed to facilitate water collection. 

After walking over a slender log doubling as a bridge, we started to ascend the other side. We climbed up a slippery red mud path, reaching the level of the tree tops and finally stepped out of this small green oasis and found ourselves at the gate of Green Hills. 


Shortly after our return to the United Kingdom we received the unfortunate news that Phionah’s father, Enock, had passed away on the 16th April. My one meeting with him, although brief, was enough for me to see that he was a gentle character who had a genuine abundance of pride in his daughter’s achievements.
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