Wednesday, February 17, 2010

'Another Day of Life' by Ryszard Kapuśiński

It was by chance that I found Ryszard Kapuśiński when looking through Amazon. With football’s African Cup of Nations (CAN) being in Angola, I was intrigued to find out more about the history of the country, especially in light of the Togolese football team being ambushed – my only previous interaction with anything Angolan was a Beyoncé wannabe, rapping in Portugese, on Nigerian TV being broadcast in Uganda.

I’ll spare you all of the details of the conflict itself, but understand that it was set against the backdrop of the cold war with three different rebel groups, the MPLA, the FNLA and UNITA, all vying to capture the capital, Luanda, by the time the Portugese officially withdrew on midnight of November 11th 1975.

Kapuśiński starts this short text from his hotel in Luanda and it is his focus on how everyday life is affected by the conflict that makes the text endearing. He describes how, in the absence of TV or radio, he uses the ships moored in the bay to tell him the likelihood of an FNLA attack as “when the bay emptied, [he] began preparing for the worst. [He] listened, trying to hear if the sound of artillery barrages were approaching”.

Again, instead of focussing on the war as a whole, he plays the role of a truer foreign correspondent, one with a heart, unlike the parodies seen in BBC’s Taking the Flak. In addition, the conflict and the fighting at the front, and the characters it involves, absorb him – one such example being Carlotta “who came with an automatic on her shoulder”. Carlotta, he goes on to say, “seemed beautiful. Why? Because that was the kind of mood we were in, because we needed it”.

The narrative was not what I expected. I was assuming that it would just be a collection of his reports from the front that he had sent back to
the offices of the Polish Press Agency; this is not the case. The text actually reads more like a very personal diary – travel writing with grit – that concentrates its energy on the humans caught up in war, rather than those making the war.

Not only is the text a useful narrative to hear from within the grander narrative of the Angolan conflict, with its Cubans, South Africans, Americans, CIA, Soviets and Portuguese, it is an essential guide to people’s lives, normal people’s lives, caught up in a struggle for daily existence.

By the end of his harrowing, and hungry, excursion to Angola, Kapuśiński simply says goodbye, brushes off his “mildewed suit” and puts on a tie, bound for Europe. A truly great text.

Welcome to Cape Town

Those inventive little rascals on my childhood estate in Warwick have been trying hard to forge an identity for the area of late. Although part of the Packmore Estate, the area around my parents' house often gets labelled as part of the 'Cape'.

The name relates to the estate built near to a part of the Grand Union Canal in Warwick that resembles the shape of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

Well, in an effort to bring a little bit of African exoticism to Warwick, the local gifted and talented students, armed with a tin of blue spray paint have been hard at work. In addition to writing the postcode 'CV34' everywhere, they have sprayed 'Cape Town' on the Packmore side of the Priory Park tunnel.

I look forward to July's Warwick Folk Festival perhaps having more of an African influence this year; Ladysmith Black Mambazo could do a number or two?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Down and Out at the Victoria and Albert Pub


Station concourses are, to my generation of semi-nomadic Londoners, an integral part of the fabric of life. We don’t necessarily have cars in London, we have family outside of London and we still pop home regularly to see our mates and families – again, outside of London. We also most likely live in shared houses, listen to iPods and drink and have sex too much.

We are at an inter-stage between actually having settled into an ‘adult life’ and lingering in a ‘student life’. I can check one thing off the list – having found the ideal woman – but the house and car will have to wait.

Back to the station concourses: I seem to spend half of my life on them. When caught at a station with time to waste and a few quid in the pocket one tends to gravitate towards a bar. I have done this now – as I write I am sat in the majestically named Victoria and Albert at Marylebone Station.

In spite of the fact that this place should be alive with tales of travelling bounding from wall to wall and should have a friendly and jovial host stood pulling pints behind the bar regaling all-comers with anecdotes of his own, it quite simply falls short on both counts.

The barstaff all wear name badges – always a bad sign. One of these barmen doesn’t even yet warrant the right to have a name; he is simply christened ‘Trainee’. The area around the bar is full, but rather than customers seeming relieved to be welcoming in the weekend, it instead resembles the trading floor of the New York commodity exchange.

Unscrupulous ‘banker-types’ wrestle each other to see who can thrust their money the most firmly into the face of good old Trainee who, invariably, gets it wrong and serves the most recent arrival to the hoard incompetently. When, finally, the money reaches the till you are more likely to be greeted with a grunt than a ‘thank you’.

It is this type of personality-void pub that will start to tar all other bars with a bad reputation. Pubs with personality exist in forgotten quarters the whole of London over, yet, to a nomad like me, I seldom get the chance to investigate such places and have to settle for a grunting scrum of relics from the stone age.

On a marginally different tack, one can’t help but feel sad about the fact that, in the right hands, such a pub could be filled with character and not just in the form of A2-sized photocopies of black and white pictures of Great Central steam locomotives, but with a tangible soul that welcomes travellers.

Lets hope that the lasting impression of the Great British pub, for those who pass through the doors of the Victoria and Albert, is not of this.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Watercolour Doodling II: Carbis Bay



This was the second of my doodlings. I actually did this around the end of May and it is an imagined view of St Ives in Cornwall. I had just been there on holiday with Jeannie and the view is one that can be seen from the St Ives Branchline.

The picture is simple and not really a finished article at all and represents me fiddling around with watercolour pencils and trying to blend colours a little bit. I can't remember whether the band of blue at the top is meant to be the sky or whether it was just me trying to find a good sea colour.

I revisited this picture just before painting my imagined view of Saint Lucia and decided to rub-out some of the pencil sketch-lines. Having done this I realised that, although not technically wonderful, the painting wasn't as bad as I had remembered.
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