Saturday, November 17, 2012

Bow Riverside, River Lee Navigation, East London

The footbridge at Bow Riverside on the River Lee Navigation, near to the Bow Interchange.
It was on Saturday 20th October, a somewhat murky afternoon, that Jeannie, Alison and myself decided to walk the towpath of the Lee Navigation from Hackney Marshes to Limehouse Basin. The Lee Navigation itself is a canalised section of the River Lea and forms a part of a complicated network of rivers, cuttings, overflows channels and streams - one of which runs past the rear of my flat - that dominate the geography of the local area.

About 3½ miles into the walk, with the rain beginning to fall, we reached the point where the Lee Navigation meets Bow Back River. 

I immediately fell in love with the relatively new bridge that crosses the river at this point. I think what fascinated me about it wasn't so much the angular design of it, but more the way in which it blended perfectly into this strange urban-rural hinterland - or 'edgeland' as some have called such landscapes.

The navigable river, with its old trees and foliage on the banks, gives the walker a sense of seclusion from the urban environment around them, yet the warehouses and brownfield sites just a few metres further away on either side of them remind them that they're still in a built-up and industrialised area. A strange feeling indeed.

This crossing of wood and metal, with it's rusted looking fenders that protect not just the bridge, but the planted reed-beds in which wildlife can thrive, seems to bridge the gap between urban and rural perfectly.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: The New Class

Senior 1D take in the delights of the active and passive voice.
With their distinct lack of formal school clothes, and their inherent naughtiness, the Senior 1 classes stand out against the otherwise uniformity of the student body at Kigezi High School. It is not long into their first year in senior classes and their new uniforms are yet to arrive.

It is Tuesday 3rd April 2012 and I am sat at the back of class S1D as they embark on an English language lesson. The subject that Penninah, their teacher, has chosen for today’s class is ‘the active and passive voice’.

The topic itself may not be fascinating, but to observe these students taking their first tentative steps into senior education is amazing. In the UK, I am often amazed at my students forgetting the basics of English language, so to see group of twelve-year-olds getting their teeth into such a subject is strikes me as being an admirable undertaking.

Casting your eyes about the classroom it is clear to see who is already assuming which role within the class. To the front of the class a short boy, with comparatively long hair, seems to be staking his claim to the title of 'class boffin'. For every question that Teacher Penninah asks, his hand shoots up into the air, often to be followed with a look of disappointment when he is overlooked in favour of someone else to provide the answer.

Learning objectives on the board.
Towards the left hand side of the room, a slender girl with a bright yellow blouse, drifts, mentally at least, into and out of the room. She appears to be nominating herself for the position of class daydreamer. It is barely past break time, but already she seems to be dreaming of lunchtime, dreaming of a cold Coke, or thinking about almost anything else.

The extent of her daydreaming is evident when I stroll over to her desk midway through the lesson and see that she hasn’t written down a single thing that the teacher has said.

The nearer to the back your eyes move, the cheekier the students become. Two girls, seemingly interviewing for the job of class gossips, spend the majority of the time that the teacher has her back turned looking over their shoulders at a boy sat on the opposite side of the room. They look, whisper into each other’s ears, point at something and then giggle almost silently.

Usually being the person at the front of the class, armed with the board marker, I miss this small pantomime. I'd like to think of myself as a reasonably attentive teacher, but, unless you have those fabled eyes in the back of your head, how could ever bear witness to all these shenanigans? 

Regardless of the disappointment, in spite of the daydreamers and the apathy of the gossips, the teacher ploughs on with active and passive voices in a cloud of chalk dust. Did the fire destroy the house, or was the house destroyed by the fire? Most take a wild guess, some scratch their heads, one puts his hand up.

Even though I have visited Kigezi High School four times now, this is my first time in S1. From the amount of time that I have spent with S5 and S6 classes, it is clear to see that this ragtag bunch of children, in their brightly coloured clothes, have got a long way to go before they are the finished Kigezi product. 

When I return in a year, those who remain will be turned out in pristine uniforms and the cheekiness will have started to ebb away from the classroom, but hopefully not so the enthusiasm. For now, there is a fair amount of growing up for these young boarders and day scholars to do.

Monday, November 05, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Splinters in the Air

A timber merchant in Kabale, not far from the Kisoro Road.
Walking to the bottom of hill on Johnstone Road, turning into the area off Bugongi Road, past the bar advertising Pork and Beer in simple painted letters, and away from the tarmac of the main streets used to fill me with a little fear. Now, in the morning mist, I see a hive of activity and get a glimpse of different facet of Ugandan life. 

It is Thursday 5th April 2012 and I have taken a stroll with my colleague Jas through an area of Kabale that I have often passed by and seldom explored over the years. Indeed, in my first visit to Kabale in 2009, in the best traditions of bazungu in Africa for the first time, I labelled the area somewhat ignorantly the ‘Poor Quarter’. Although many of my reflections from that time are generally accurate, if under-informed, there is a lot more to this district than my over-simplification of these streets as being ‘Poor’ – this mzungu has learnt and is still learning at least.

Away from the dawn chorus of boda-bodas, and the chanting of the children from Taufiq Islamic School who vaguely recognise the mzungu in the straw hat and his muhindi friend, an abundance of carpenters’ workshops and timber merchants begin to appear from the sides of the roads, and from between the shops and houses. 

Momentarily, the ubiquity of the red earth on the roads is muted by the fine shavings of freshly planed wood and the steamy morning air is punctured by the scent of splinters newly separated from sawn trees. The town takes on a different beat here as the music of man-made tools taming the products of mother earth resounds around the narrow streets.

Without any sign of a plan to an outsider passing by, the men cut, trim and shape the fresh supplies of timber into furniture that seems to far surpass the love and quality of the flat-packed furniture that I am so reliant upon at home. Perhaps in our rush to have everything in an instant in the UK, we haven’t got the time to wait a day or two for someone to make it from scratch. If we did, it would be labelled as ‘bespoke’ and an extra £250 would surely go on the price tag.

Over the course of twenty minutes, drawers, desks, beds, sofa frames and bookshelves emerge from the flurries of activity beneath the ramshackle shelter of tin roofs. Customers come and go, arguing and haggling a more favourable deal, going through a ritual of becoming the carpenters’ enemy for a moment, before parting like brothers.

Meanwhile, a man – a youth really – whom we recognise as being part of a group of bazungu missionaries working in the schools run by the Diocese of Kigezi, spots us and stops to chat. 

If we thought that we looked incongruous, this fellow with his pale skin slowly roasting under the sun, neatly ironed shirt, pressed trousers, tie and polished shoes really stands out. He shares a few tips with us as to where to eat in the area – apparently if you compliment this one guy’s chips he’ll give you a free coke. It being a bit early, we decide to not to test this theory for now and he heads off on his way, realising that he is running a bit behind schedule to take the P3 class out for PE.

Walking along a little further, heading towards the Kigezi High School playing fields, we pass more workshops and rarely pass a building where there is no activity. There is seemingly a business everywhere you turn; ranging from the relatively grand scale of the carpentry workshops to sole women, babies on their backs, frying freshly prepared food outside the front of their buildings to be sold to hungry workers.

Far from being a place to fear, this is a place to live and to explore further.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Austerity Olympics by Janie Hampton

Cover image © Aurum Press.
Having moved to one of London’s Olympic boroughs during the 2012 Olympics, it has been hard to escape London 2012 fever. Indeed, it has even affected me and I am now the proud owner of a road bike in my vain attempt to be like Bradley Wiggins. 

With the infection still coursing through my veins, I stumbled upon Janie Hampton’s The Austerity Olympics: When the Games Came to London in 1948 whilst wandering through a Waterstones in Cardiff. 

The book tells a tale of striking contrasts and remarkable similarities with the 2012 games. Sebastian Coe, who was seemingly everywhere before, during and after London 2012, sets the tone in his foreword to the book, stating, “That London managed to stage the 1948 Olympic Games so soon after the Second World War is remarkable enough.” 

The most heart-warming thing about this book is in its tales of a much simpler time. A time where amongst the bomb damage of the WWII, young boys would sit looking wistful outside a stadium in the hope that someone would get them in. A time when the athletes had to bring their own towels and British men’s team got a pair of complimentary underpants. Despite this the press then were just as cynical and prone to a spot of doom-mongering before the event started as their modern counterparts!

From the annals of Olympic history, Janie Hampton brings to life a world getting back on its feet and rejecting the fascist fervour and the failed Aryan idealism of the previous games in Berlin, 1936. This was a time where amateurism meant just that (in most cases) and consequently the world trained its eyes on athletic ‘housewives’ such as The Netherlands’ Fanny Blankers-Koen – although only 10% of the athletes competing in 1948 were women

A good deal of the book is given over to the behind the scenes action as well as the action on the track and field, in the pool, ring or velodrome. We hear about the athletes' rations of a cheese sandwich, apple and a boiled egg, amusingly accompanied by a photo of two female athletes, one Argentinean, one Austrian, inspecting their lunch with bemused expressions. It is perhaps not surprising then to read that different nations brought extra food with them.

Also interesting is the politicking that went on behind the scenes. The world after WWII looked a lot different and some nations were notable in their absence. Germany was one of these nations, along with Japan, who were diplomatically not included. There is a poignant reminder that many athletes who competed in 1936 were no not longer around to compete in 1948, some having died in Nazi concentration camps. Add to this that Israel didn’t get an invite, as they didn’t yet have an Olympic committee, and Ireland kept falling out over the insistence of the Organising Committee of referring to them as Éire.

Overall, prhaps the best thing about Austerity Olympics is that it manages to piece together a very complex tapestry of divergent individuals’ narratives, and a mountain of factual information, and make it genuinely engaging at the same time. Switching between microscopic focus and looking at the bigger picture means that the tales are never boring. 

A great read for the post-Olympic hangover.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Iglesia de San Pedro, Gijón, Spain

The church of San Pedro, overlooking Gijón's long bay, in the Asturias region of Spain. 
On the last Saturday of September, I was fortunate enough to be strolling along the long sweeping sands of Gijón's largest beach. My friend was getting married in the Iglesia de San Pedro later in the day and consequently an area of Spain I had perviously no knowledge of was opened up to me.

The wedding was simply fantastic. The ceremony started at around 8pm and the festivities, for me at least, finished around 4.30am. There was great food, great wine and even better company, all from the beautiful art deco setting of the yacht club on Avenue de La Salle that overlooks the bay.

Gijón is a gem of a place, with its sidrería's, fantastic and reasonably-priced seafood, and generally laid-back vibe. On the strength of this short three-day visit I am sure to be returning there - frankly I think I could happily live there!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Airbnb: Where Hospitality Meets Social Media

Earlier this year, I was privileged enough to get an invite from a close friend to attend his wedding in Gijón, in the north of Spain. He’s a private kind of guy, so let’s just say he’s an Englishman and his bride to be is Spanish and leave it at that.

I’m not a rich man, so wisely I booked all of the different components of the trip in stages: first stage, beg my boss for a day off work during term time; second stage, book the flights; third stage, book the transfers from the airport in Santander to Gijón; finally, book the accommodation for me and Jeannie.

Other than the obvious disappointment that my tight budget meant I had to book a flight with Ryanair – an experience I won’t be repeating any time soon – most of the components were booked easily and at a reasonably cost, but I was struggling to find suitable accommodation.

Drinking in the atmosphere at a local sidrería.
Doing what I often do, I turned to the internet and to Google to see what I could find. Almost purely by accident I came across the website of Airbnb. 

According to their website, Airbnb was founded in 2008 and is based in San Fransisco, USA. Its concept is to match up people who need a room somewhere for a couple of nights, or however long, with people who have a room to spare. They currently claim to have over 200,000 listings worldwide, spread over 26,000 cities in 192 different countries.

So, frustrated with the lack of interesting, affordable, middle-of-the-road hotels on offer when using Trivago, I put what I wanted and when I wanted it into Airbnb and up came a few suitable options. All of them were in ideal locations close to both the main beach and the church of San Pedro, where my friend was to be married.

The process of booking on Airbnb is perhaps a little longer than using something like Trivago or Booking.com. Initially, you are advised to send a request to a number of different hosts, because, as most hosts are just normal people not hoteliers, availability can vary greatly.

After sending a request to few suitable hosts, we settled upon a flat owned by a lady called Leticia. Her flat being located the closest to the church and the beach – it also looked the nicest in the pictures.

Once booked, and prior to our arrival, we exchanged contact details (email and WhatsApp) and discussed arrival times and directions. As the timings were tight between our flight’s arrival time in Santander and the time it takes for the airport bus to get into town, the Alsa coach we book from Santander isn’t due into Gijón until 22.15. Luckily this isn’t a problem for our host. 

I am not sure if all hosts are as accommodating and organised as Leticia, but even when our bus arrived thirty minutes late, she delayed her going out for dinner just to make sure we were properly welcomed. 

Our room was easily double the size of your average hotel room, and was around half the price. It was furnished in a simple, minimalist fashion, but with lots of nice touches like a table in the bay window looking out over the street, a small sofa, and loads of helpful guides to the local area. In essence it was almost like a self-contained studio flat. 

It was perfect for our needs. We dumped our bags and within a few minutes we were already drinking in a nearby sidrería.

The whole process of finding, booking and checking-in was surprisingly simple. Our host was unobtrusive, and our stay in Gijón was comfortable, without breaking the bank.

When the opportunity arises in future, Airbnb may well be a first port of call rather than a last resort.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: The World at the Border

A view of the border looking momentarily sedate, Uganda.
I think that border crossings in East Africa have a lot in common with central London railway termini. A complete cross-section of society, in reality a miniature society in itself, seems to exist around the sequence of barriers and guards delineating the invisible divide between two nations.

It is Sunday 1st April 2012 and we’re crossing from Gatuna on the Rwandese side of the border, to Katuna on the Ugandan side of the border. The sun is trying to break through the clouds, and is finally beginning to win its battle over darkness.

After the drive from Kigali, the border provides us with our first sighting of bazungu in a few days. My students, seemingly forgetting that they are foreigners here, start pointing and staring at the small group of tourists – they're apparently feeling at home after just a couple of days. 

The bazungu we see look slightly worn out and in need of a wash after travelling on a coach from Kampala. I overhear one of them discussing that they should have travelled to Kigali via Tanzania. It sounds like many years later the roads through Mbarara and Ntungamo haven’t got any better. They grudgingly shuffle over to the window at the Rwandan border control and their faces drop as they realise that they need to fill in yet another visitors' card.

Our group, ignoring instructions to wait together, begin to snake their way across no man’s land towards the Ugandan side of the border. This is a land populated by trucks that look too large for the twisty roads of northern Rwanda or too clean for the deep potholes of southern Uganda. In between the trucks, like oversized meerkats, a menagerie of currency hawkers, beggars and bored looking truck drivers spring up to observe our incongruity to the setting.

Of the different members of the menagerie, the hawkers are the most forward. The braver ones will attempt to truculently thrust handfuls of Ugandan shillings into the unsuspecting hands of my students. The others will trail the group for the five hundred-metre road crossing across the base of a marshy valley, until the point of entering Ugandan jurisdiction. Having built a good relationship with a muhindi in Kabale, any rate that the hawkers could offer would be insignificant by comparison and I shepherd the students away from any poor exchanges.

The glory of arriving on the Ugandan side of the border is the immediate contrast with the regimentation and order of the Rwandese. Gone are the orderly lines of vehicles, the clearly marked out official buildings and the neat line of forex offices. Instead there are cars all over the place competing with Horizon intercity buses and articulated trucks, vendors milling around in-between the gridlocked traffic and a free-for-all at the immigration office. A fed up border guard, armed with a baton, attempts to keep order, but the look on his face betrays the fact that he’d obviously rather be anywhere else.

In the queue, whilst juggling pens, visitors’ cards and trying to recall passport numbers, I begin to reminisce with Ugandans about a simpler time. Sounding like elderly, world-weary travellers, we talk of how much quicker the whole process of crossing the border used to be before the Ugandan government brought in the fingerprint sensing equipment. In this instance, modern technology hasn’t made life easier.

Finally in the office, a familiar face greets me from behind the counter. The passport official looks up and says, “hello again!” He seemingly remembers my Irish passport, and cowboy hat, and asks, “so is this your third or fourth time?” I reply that it is in fact my fourth time in his country. He jokes, “I thought so. No matter how hard we try, we can’t stop you coming back,” and a broad smile breaks across his face.

Standing on the veranda outside the office I look across to where an enormous green, white, yellow and red bus has pulled up. Off it jump a number of old faces from Kigezi High School. It looks like we’re home again.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Brompton Cemetery, Kensington and Chelsea, London

A headstone, amongst the tasteful foliage, in Brompton Cemetery, London.
In a busy, sprawling metropolis like London, people are always trying to find a little something somewhere to hide away from the world, often just for a few minutes of quiet. One such place that I chanced upon recently is Brompton Cemetery in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, west London.

The cemetery was consecrated in 1840 by the Bishop of London and features long Italianate colonnades, a chapel, bell tower and catacombs, all to recreate the feel of an open-air cathedral. Indeed, when viewed from above on a satellite map, the outline of the shape is clear to see.

To the sides of the main colonnades run two paths. Walking along one of these smaller paths, the sense of seclusion from life in the capital is profound. From in-between the headstones and monuments grows an abundance of vibrant green bracken and other foliage, making the path seem isolated, even from the other pathways inside the cemetery.

In addition to being an escape from the noise of city life, the cemetery is a treasure trove of history and intrigue. According to the website of the Friends of Brompton Cemetery, a few of the names of Beatrix Potter’s characters are said to have been inspired by some of those buried there and the father of the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, John Wisden, is also interred there.

Despite the gothic feel to grounds, and how packed with tombstones the grounds already are, I was surprised to find out that Brompton Cemetery is a still working cemetery and accepts new interments. Bromption Cemetery is well worth a visit, whether to rest or to wander around  although you wouldn't want to get locked in after dark!

The Brompton Cemetery is managed by The Royal Parks and more information can be found here: www.royalparks.org.uk/parks/brompton-cemetery/. The Friends of Brompton Cemetery organise regular talks, tours and events. For more information: www.brompton-cemetery.org/.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

On The Beach by Nevil Shute

Cover image © Vintage.
Those who know me well will know that I seldom act on book recommendations made by family or friends and that I often judge a book by a cover. Luckily, when my mother recommended On The Beach by Nevil Shute, after I had told her that I’d recently read H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, I found the book reissued with a great cover.

Published in 1957, On The Beach tells the story of a small group of people in Australia in the post-Apocalyptic world of 1963. World War III has been and gone with territories in the northern hemisphere having destroyed each other with hydrogen and cobalt bombs. Those who had survived the direct attacks were then  eventually wiped-out by the slow movement southwards of the radioactive fallout cloud.

The novel mainly centres on the lives of five individuals. Peter Holmes lives with his wife Mary and their baby Jessica. Peter works for the Australian Navy and despite their lack of functioning ships, is called back to work to act as a liaison officer on the American submarine USS Scorpion, which due to the USA's demise, is under Australian command. Here Peter meets Dwight Towers, the captain of the submarine, and introduces him to Mary’s friend Moira Davidson. Finally, Moira’s distant relation, John Osborne is employed to monitor radioactivity levels on the submarine in between restoring a Ferrari racing car.

When radio signals are received from somewhere near Seattle, Dwight, Peter and the rest of the USS Scorpion’s crew must set sail to see whether there really is life remaining in the northern hemisphere. John Osborne, working for the Australian government, travels with them to see whether a professor’s hypothesis of the radioactivity reducing quicker than expected is actually true. It could be the last chance for humankind. 

All the time, reports of the radioactive cloud moving further south come through from Australia’s Northern Territory, then Queensland, Salisbury (Harare), Montevideo and Melbourne.

In many ways, Nevil Shute’s apocalypse is the calmest imaginable and perhaps how I would like it all to end – should it ever come to that. There is none of the Hollywood-style mass-hysteria in On The Beach, but rather the tension is felt in the nature of the characters' relationships with each other. 

Will the men on the submarine return, before the radioactive cloud reaches Melbourne? Will Moira and Dwight’s relationship flourish? Will everyone get to finish off their small, but important, jobs before the end comes? What will become of Jessica if Mary and Peter die first?

As you read the novel, you are aware of the author’s feelings on nuclear weapons and the selfish attitudes of the larger countries in the world. Even though it is one of the newcomers to the nuclear-armed party who starts the war, it is the larger global powers that allow their own paranoia and interests to subsequently wreak havoc on the world. 

As is the case with today’s geopolitical world, it is always seems to be the innocent bystanders who are affected – the whole southern hemisphere in this case.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

London Pleasure Gardens, Pontoon Dock

Sun beginning to set over Pontoon Dock with Canary Wharf in the distance.

Since July of this year I have been experiencing something of a renaissance in relation to my opinion of London. A couple of well-timed documentaries focussing on elements of London's social and architectural history have really caught my attention and have already inspired me to go off in search of some of the hidden gems I knew little about before. My recent move to Walthamstow in east London is likely to encourage this trend.

On Saturday 21st July 2012, me and Jeannie headed out east to a place called Pontoon Dock for the BT River of Music Africa Stage. The weather was great with sun beating down from the direction of the City. The music was of course fantastic and featured Angelique Kidjo, Hugh Masakela and Baaba Maal.

Shortly after Angelique Kidjo's set, we took a wander around the grounds of the short-lived London Pleasure Gardens where the concert was being hosted. The sun was still very warm, but had mellowed in brightness and was reflecting beautifully off the still water of the former dockyard, with the silhouette of Canary Wharf providing a pleasant backdrop in the distance.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: A Sanctuary in a Storm

A lovely orange flower in the garden of the Memorial Centre.
I think that it is an oft-repeated mistake by bazungu to consider a canvas the scale of Africa, let alone East Africa, as being coloured by sweeping, broad brushstrokes. The result of such an error is that you can so easily miss the hidden nuances that exist below the bold primary colours.

It is Saturday 31st March 2012 and I have paused for a moment by a cascade of orange flowers in the gardens of the Genocide Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda. The air is warm and heavy and just how I like it.

From early this morning it has rained incessantly and has served as a timely baptism for this year’s group of students, dispelling the myths about the African continent being one big dust bowl early on. Just before we departed for the memorial centre, the sight of them huddled around in their waterproof coats, carrying faces filled with shock, was priceless.

Our arrival at the Memorial Centre provides the group with the opportunity to disperse and to learn about the events of April 1994 and the build up to the nationwide outpouring of hate and violence. Having visited the museum a few times, I take the opportunity to wander around the gardens outside.

Nestling part the way up a hill, looking out over a steep valley towards the hustle and bustle of the Avenue de la Gendarmerie, and almost completely hidden by trees from the Rwandese modernity of the Kigali City Tower, the gardens provide a perfect sanctuary for reflection.

The first garden in the sequence, Kigali.
Away from the mass graves and the wall of names of the victims, the genocide is represented in a series of three separate water gardens, reflecting the different stages that Rwandese society went through.

The first garden has a circular pool, with a few ceramic caricatures carrying plants. Crucially, these caricatures stand on opposite sides of the pool, facing away from each other with a small mountain of rocks making it impossible for the figures, should they ever turn around, to physically see each other.

Moving up the hill slightly, the second garden sees the figures, still not looking at each other, stood around a pool made up of sharp sides, exaggerating the sense of division and conflict. It is clear to see that where the first garden demonstrated the lack of mutual understanding that had been allowed to build and fester between the different ethnic groups, the second garden represents the actual Genocide of 1994.

Finally, and resting at the top of the slope, there is the last garden; a circular pool with the figures looking inwards representing reconciliation and a return to a peaceful and trusting society. Surely the position of this garden being the highest up the hill emphasise that understanding and peace not only conquers all, but is the most essential component of Rwanda’s post-Genocide revival.

As I amble slowly back towards the entrance to the gardens, I come across a couple of my students. From their questions it is clear that they are struggling to connect the events of April 1994 with the new East African metropolis that is sprawling its way across the mille collines that give Rwanda its nickname. After all, this country’s rebirth is without doubt amazing.

I explain to them that where we are stood is a small place in a massive continent, and sometimes what we see of Africa in the western media doesn’t reflect the much richer, sometimes violent, but more recently beautiful tapestry you can witness first hand. They are learning already.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming

Cover image © Penguin.
As has become a tradition over the last three summers, I always read at least one James Bond novel during the summer break from work. This summer was no exception. With the beach at Villefranche-sur-Mer as my deckchair and yachts floating on the Mediterranean Sea as my backdrop, I started the fourth novel in the series, Diamonds Are Forever (1956).

The story begins in the nighttime darkness of rural French Guinea, ten miles north of Liberia, and 5 miles from the border with Sierra Leone, and hints very early on that this story is going to be one that carries Bond across vast distances. Out of the night sky comes a helicopter, landing on a makeshift helipad to facilitate the exchange of a few precious rocks.

Back in London, Bond has been tasked by M, after a tip-off from Special Branch, to explore a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’ that is taking Sierra Leonean diamonds to America, by way of Europe. Central to his mission is the necessity to discover the identity of who is at the top of this pipeline.

Bond manages to get himself into the network of smugglers by posing as a country house burglar when meeting the formidable Tiffany Case, one the key operatives in the pipeline. Case, a character hardened by traumatic experiences in her youth, doesn’t appear to suffer fools and seems resistant to Bond’s initial attempts at flirting. Furthermore, in the underworld of gang life, nobody trusts anyone, not least the new guy.

Bond successfully completes his smuggling mission and delivers the goods to the amusingly-named Shady Tree, but from here the mission is only just beginning. After discovering that the pipeline is run by a group called The Spangled Mob, a gang managed by brothers Jack and Seraffimo Spang, Bond continues to go deeper into the pipeline. He agrees to do a little more work for them, but when too little is happening, Bond starts to make things happen, forcing the gang’s hand in the way he knows best – in a casino.

The story moves from New York, to Las Vegas, to Saratoga, to a deserted ‘Wild West’ town, to New York, to London and back to Freetown, Sierra Leone, in the air, by road and on the seas - the locations move as fast as the rest of the action and add to the tale’s sense of breakneck speed.

Along the way there is opulence, bribery, depravity, violence, love and danger, all lining the path to the truth about the diamond smuggling racket and the mysterious ABC who lies behind it all.

Undoubtedly, Ian Fleming, in Diamonds Are Forever, manages suspense in a much more intriguing way than before by not focusing it all on Bond. We know that Bond will survive, he is after-all the Secret Service’s best man, but we are never quite sure of how his fledgling relationship with Tiffany Case will end. At various points of the novel she seems to be a goner, yet she escapes; but can the same be said of her relationship with Bond as her frostiness towards him begins to thaw?

“Death is forever. But so are Diamonds.” Can the same be said of love?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Nuruddin Farah @ Southbank Centre

My copy of Crossbones, signed by the author.
Nuruddin Farah is someone who has only recently come onto my literary radar. I was gripped with the savage honesty with which he portrayed the struggles of a female in late-fifties and early-sixties Somalia through the eyes of the simple nomad girl, Ebla, in From a Crooked Rib.

Once again, the blessing of living in London meant that mid-week there was the opportunity to see him speak about his latest book Crossbones and about Somalia in general as part of the Africa Utopia season at the Southbank Centre. Even though I originally missed the advert for the talk, my eagle-eyed friend Nasri Adam of Safara Trust informed me of it in the nick of time.

Sat patiently with Nasri, her colleague Elizabeth, and a diverse audience composed of many colours, creeds and nationalities, Farah’s entrance seemed so unassuming for a man who blatantly confronts the injustices of his own culture and the injustices inflicted upon his culture by outsiders.

Our chair for the talk, Maya Jaggi, introduced Farah as a writer who went against the prevalent trends of African writing in the 1970s by not focussing his writing on nationhood, but on the minutiae of his culture. She also reiterated that of the eleven novels he has written, all have been set within Somali communities, despite the amount of globetrotting that he has undertaken.

When Farah first speaks, it is to read an extract from Crossbones, a novel based in modern-day Somalia and focussed around an 11-year-old Al-Shabaab recruit called ‘Young Thing’. The extract he chooses to read sees Young Thing forced to shoot an old man who he had been trying to hide from the rest of the Al-Shabaab militia. 

It is difficult to listen to and throws up a number of moral questions over the dilemma that Young Thing finds himself in, yet it is all done in the typical manner of Farah that exposes the everyday struggle of ordinary people within various pockets of Somalia society. It is clear to see that it is not only Al-Shabaab’s conduct that he is challenging, but he is trying to challenge the reader on a number of levels too. What would we do in that situation? What is the ultimate root cause of this situation?

This theme of suspicion and of deceit is something that Farah picks up again during his discussion with Maya Jaggi. He talks about the high volume of lies that have been able to germinate in Somali society, exacerbated by the fragmentation that has come about after many years of conflict. He talks of no singular group within Somalia, and the Somali communities of neighbouring countries, being privy to a complete picture of the truth behind the conflict there. He adds that “Somalis have begun to believe the lies” created by opposing groups who only have self-interest at heart.

Turning his attention to piracy, a principle thread in Crossbones and the subject matter of most of the news we receive in the West about Somalia, Farah holds a good deal of scepticism. After visiting the small town of Eyl, he questions the idea that pirates, from a village of 3,000 people (presumably meaning the small coastal settlement outside of Eyl), using only 12 by 5 foot wooden boats, are able to know the movements of the world’s most advance shipping vessels. Of the millions of dollars allegedly flowing into the town he says, “I have been to Eyl, the so-called ‘Piracy Capital,’ and there hasn’t been any new buildings built and no one is driving fancy cars.”

One thing that is particularly warming about what Farah has to say relates to the relative peace of Mogadishu at this present moment – I say relative because there are still numerous reports of attacks within the Somali capital. When he speaks of being able to walk from place to place in the city without the need for guards for the first time in years, he beams from ear to ear.

Once, Farah says, the former Somali dictator Mohamed Siad Barre, used to criticise him for providing a commentary on Somalia from the comfort of exile in the western world, but he dismisses the idea that he was ever out of touch with Somalia. In a soft, yet emphatic voice, Farah declares, “I eat Somali. Sleep Somali. I live with the dust of Somalia in my eyes.” He continues that “I feel relaxed anywhere in the continent [of Africa] and feel even more relaxed in Somalia.”

So is there hope for the future of Somalia? The overriding impression that Farah gives is that there is, but that Somalis must be the masters of their own destinies. After all, he asks, what difference was a five-hour conference with David Cameron likely to achieve after so many years of instability?

Farah is definitely one component of the machinery of change for Somalia. His attempts to bring an honest and critical narrative of his country and culture to a global stage come across as a genuine and heartfelt effort to tackle the “lies”. He wants Somalia to move forward and appreciates that he doesn’t have all the answers for doing so. That must be left to the future generations.

Monday, July 02, 2012

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Jebena, Cini, Bunna!

Dawn in Addis Ababa. Walking from the plane to the terminal building.
The captain’s voice, lilting with a slight American inflection, crackles over the intercom and thanks us for travelling with Ethiopian Airways. The students, most of whom have slept solidly throughout the journey, look groggily around with the realisation that we are in Africa.

It is the crack of dawn on Friday 30th March 2012 and I’ve arrived, accompanied by a group of thirty-one others, in Addis Ababa. The air is still cold, by African standards, but is getting warmer as the minutes pass by.

Once again we are in Addis to change planes; the first leg of the journey having brought us from Heathrow, and the second taking us from here to Kigali, Rwanda. Unfortunately, such journey itineraries seldom match up perfectly and we have a four-hour wait ahead of us.

It is something of a cruel trick that Ethiopian Airways play on us annually as we are led to the smaller of the two terminal buildings, away from the spacious glass and steel, air-conditioned luxury of the newer building, to look at Africa from behind a window. As a result, the feeling that you are truly in Africa becomes suspended as you watch the vibrant orange hues of the early morning sun wash rapidly over the landscape outside.

There is one thing that redeems this situation for me every year though; the coffee ladies.

Paul, Jas and I separate ourselves from the main group and head towards the corner of the terminal. Here we make ourselves as comfortable as possible, sitting on the small wooden stools that surround our host’s podium, her legs about level with head height, and thus perfect for the control of overstimulated coffee drinkers.

She asks us how many cups we want, before setting about roasting the greyish-green coffee beans over a small coal fire, laden with frankincense. A few minutes later, emerging from the fragrant cloud that has enveloped us, are blackened beans. Next the roasted beans are crushed by our host in front of us using a pestle and mortar type implement called a mukecha.

Our host pours bunna from a jebena into a cini.
Finally, after being mixed with water and brewed in a jebena (an ornate, kettle-like ceramic pot), the coffee is poured from height by our host into the small, handleless cini cups. Mixed with brown sugar and accompanied with fresh popcorn, the airport behind us melts away.

Facing away from the hustle and bustle of this cramped little airport terminal, time seems to rush by in the silvery haze of the incense smoke. The three of us engage in increasingly lively conversations ranging from our looking forward to the real arrival in Africa in a few hours’ time, to the quite simply inane – perhaps there is more of the latter at this time of the day.

Needless to say, this rich, flavoursome, earthy coffee is very strong and four cups later our senses are beyond alert. Every speck of dust blown across the floor seems to attract my attention. I decide the best plan is to sleep for a small while to allow my mind to slow back down to its usual pace.

When we take our leave, our host, at the end of our two-hour besiegement of her coffee stand, seems to us like a long lost friend and almost appears sad to see us go, but it’s for the better. This relationship can't carry on this way.

Either way, we haven’t yet arrived at our destination, but this small prelude has piqued our curiosity for our impending arrival in Kigali later today.

Friday, June 29, 2012

York Watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens

The York Watergate, Victoria Embankment Gardens, London.
Recently I caught the end of a BBC documentary called 'The Bridges that Built London' presented by Dan Cruickshank. Quite simply the documentary reaffirmed my love for London and in particular the rich history that flows through every street, alleyway and building, all leading to Father Thames.

One part that really interested my revolved around the The York Watergate. This watergate, built in 1626, once directly bordered the Thames, but following Joseph Bazalgette's construction of the Victoria Embankment between 1865 and 1870 it became marooned a few hundred metres from the current bank of the Thames.

After learning this, I went looking for the watergate when walking back from a training session in central London. Its historical use is obvious when you see the shell details over the gateway, hinting at a more maritime past.

The watergate is located in what is now Victoria Embankment Gardens. The gardens are open all year round. For more information: http://www.westminster.gov.uk/...parksandopenspaces/veg/

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Zopa and Social Lending


In a manner not unlike most former university students, my finances suffer from a number of perennial hangovers. Firstly, there is the student loan that we’ll all be paying of ad infinitum; secondly is the all the money we spent on our student overdrafts and credit cards with their foolishly high limits of the early noughties.

Initially, back in 2007, when aged 23 and quite miserable working my first proper job after university, my finances were a disaster. I was employed in Croydon and commuting from Farnham five days a week as a lecturer. The wages, travel costs and rent just did not add up and I found myself floundering. Luckily for me my bank were able to help, albeit with an interest rate on a loan that reflected my poor credit status, but I was grateful they helped at all.

After my one-year contract in Croydon finished, I moved to my current job in Hammersmith. My finances looked up thanks to much lower transport costs, much better wages and living shared accommodation. This meant that in 2010 I was able to go back to my bank, with a better credit rating and renegotiate a slightly lower interest rate of around 18.7% whilst getting rid of a little more debt I’d acquired at university.

Fast forward to June 2012. I am still in the same job in Hammersmith, albeit with more responsibilities than before, but with the wages reflecting this. I am paying slightly more rent to live in Teddington than when I lived in South Wimbledon, and travel cost have stayed around the same for me.

Having checked with a few of the free credit ratings agencies, my score seemed to be ‘good’. Not excellent, average, or poor, but simply ‘good’. This, I assumed, would mean that in my final move to consolidate the last of my leftover student debt – a student overdraft with a different bank – would be easy.

Over the course of 2011 and 2012, I had been receiving almost two-monthly phone calls from my bank about how they could give me a much better rate on my loan if I wanted to refinance it. Having last refinanced in 2010, I thought it best to put off any such decision and said, ‘no thanks.’

When I was called again around May by someone proclaiming themselves to be my ‘Personal Accounts Manager’ – who is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman so maybe not so ‘personal’ – I went along with it, explaining my desire to consolidate the last of my student debts. Imagine my amazement then, bearing in mind my ‘good’ rating when I was quoted an ‘improved’ interest rate of around 27.9% on a 5-year loan for £8,500. The interest alone would tack on the best part of £2000 or more to the total and the monthly repayments could be around £230.

I was left scratching my head for alternatives, but it appeared that there weren’t many open to me, but this wasn’t the case.

On June 8th a story appeared on the BBC’s website entitled ‘Peer-to-peer lending on the internet hits £250m’ and the first name that appeared in the story was Zopa

I decided to have a look around the internet for references to Zopa. Living in the age that we do it is very easy to be suspicious of anything on the internet and I, for one, try to pride myself on being net-savvy. My girlfriend was naturally suspicious, but after finding references to Zopa from a number of reputable sources I decided to give it a go.

Zopa has taken its place as being the number one social lending site because it is just that: social. The lenders are real people, not banks, as are the borrowers. It works by lenders paying money into their Zopa account, choosing what category of risk they are willing to take with their money when lending, and choosing an interest rate on their lending. This provides lenders with potentially much more profitable returns on their money than a savings account with a bank might offer, and there are a number of safety devices in place to protect lenders.

Coming to Zopa as a borrower, I was reassured to some extent by the manner in which they conducted an initial ‘light-touch’ credit check prior to giving me a quote, but they do stress that a credit rating must be good in order to get a loan. As it was, they were able to offer £10,000 at 8.4% over five years, with repayments at around £204 per month, so I went ahead with the application.

This wasn’t the only thing that they are able to offer though. Along with being able to repay the full balance whenever you want, you are also free to pay into your loan whenever you want without any additional fees. Although this wouldn’t reduce the length of your loan, it would reduce the monthly repayments.

With credit checks done, a copy of my bank statement in PDF format emailed to Zopa head office and a couple of phone conversations with a polite member of staff, it was a matter of only 48 hours until the funds were disbursed. I was able to pay off the balance of my old loan, saving around £1000 on interest payments in the process and feel satisfied that Zopa are on my side as a borrower.

Subsequent to taking out the loan with Zopa, I have also raised my concerns with my current bank’s complaints department about the discrepancy between the rate I was quoted by them and the rate I was given by Zopa. I was particularly concerned that many years of loyalty and improvements in my credit score seemed to count for so little. 

There complaints manager, who in part missed the point of my complaint, said that the rate I was given was ‘indicative only’ and may be subject to change following a full credit check. I ask, when they have all of my details in front of them, why base their indicative rates on numbers plucked out of the sky? Why not look at loyal customers’ records first, or even use the ‘light-touch’ credit check strategy employed by Zopa before quoting unrealistic amounts? Who is going to risk the somewhat ironic potential damage of a failed credit check for a rate of 27%? Furthermore, I still wonder whether they would have matched 8.4% anyway!

It’s early days for my relationship with Zopa, but I am hoping that this refreshing alternative to dealing with banks really begins to catch on. 

Important: There are a number of social lenders currently in the marketplace, and borrowers and lenders should always shop around for what is best for them. Social lending in the form of peer-to-peer lending is available in a number of countries ranging from the US and UK to South Africa. Edited December 2016 to reflect the company's new branding.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Shard

The Shard, or Shard London Bridge, nearing completion, in the London dusk.
One of the perks of living in London is there is always plenty to do. After watching a midweek open-air performance of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest near City Hall, Jeannie and I passed by the Shard.

At this time of the night the light had already left the streets, but at the top of the shard, in its nearly complete state, there was still plenty of daylight left to reflect off the steel and glass rising up over the south side of the Thames.

With this particular filter on the Instagram app, there was something reminiscent of the early 1970s colour photographs of the World Trade Center as it was being constructed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: De Rivier is Bevrozen, maar Onze Harten Zijn Warm

A humber barge makes its way through the ice on the Neuiwe Maas.
It was always somewhat inevitable that last night’s party would last until the wee small hours. Even though everyone was back in time for curfew, this didn’t bring an end to the festivities. 

It is Sunday 12th February and 59a Witte de Withstraat is alive with the packing of bags, shouting of names and the scurrying of people to and from the breakfast room at Werelds. As ever I am just as bad as the students for leaving packing to the last minute whilst Pia, Julian and Jas stand around looking smug having done the bulk of it last night.

Last night’s partying was mild really and went without any reproach from any of us teachers. The students were sober and where we could keep an eye on them, so it seemed only fair to let them listen to music and talk loudly.

Having been called to a room under the pretence of a student being ill Julian, Pia and I were all also presented with gifts by the students who jumped noisily from cupboards, closets and the like – wine in the case of Julian and me, with Pia getting a sachet of Capri-Sun orange juice. When retiring to our apartments it seemed to be only a very short amount of time that had passed before 3am crept up on us like a dozy rattlesnake.

This morning holds the prospect of more freezing cold temperatures this time sampled from aboard a boat on the Nieuwe Maas. With the students assembled and looking a little bit dishevelled, we skid our way up Witte de Withstraat. In a flush of adventurousness we slip down William Boothlaan, a quiet sidestreet, along Schiedamse Vest past an Orthodox church, across the deserted Westzeedijk Vasteland dual carriageway and into the Scheepvaartkwartier (literally: Shipping Quarter).

The silence of the street and the frost hanging in the air bring to mind personal imaginings of Siberia and I muse momentarily on the fact that this is how a Sunday should be. Quiet. Relaxed. A million miles away from the 24/7 rampant consumerism that grips all quarters of modern London. Perfect. 

Having taken a shortcut between two buildings I arrive in the bare open expanse of Willemsplein ahead of the rest of the group with only a chilly looking tram for company. In front of me is a boat bobbing around on the semi-frozen fringe of the Neiuwe Maas, resting against the side of Willemskade (lit: William’s Quay).

The rest of the group finally catch up and we have a few minutes to pose for pictures on a podium covered in artificial grass, set against the concrete, glass and steel backdrops of the Tulip Hotel and the SNS Bank offices.

On board the boat, called the James Cook, the whole group heads to the top deck, as a long Humber barge chugs sluggishly by, pushing miniature icebergs out of the way in a manner that would easily make the Titanic envious. The students drape themselves over each other, posing for pictures again whilst attempting to shield as much of their faces from the cold.

As the boat moves off, one by one the students come and ask whether we can cancel our tickets home. Some even confess to having prayed for us to become stranded by snow meaning an extension to our stay in Rotterdam – at this point, little did they know that a snowstorm would hit Amsterdam Schipol upon our arrival and the following day a suspect package would be left in the toilets.

With the gentle humming of the James Cook’s engine lulling the students into a state of calm, the four of us staff members reflect on what has been a highly successful trip. No tantrums, no tears, no trials, although Pia can be hard work if she’s left too long without coffee. Either way, the students that we brought with us come from a variety of social groups, yet they have bonded excellently.

Waking from her sleepy stupor, our noisy Iraqi girl declares: “a week ago I wouldn’t have even spoken to any of you, or even said ‘hi’ to you in the corridor. No I feel that we are more than friends, we’re like a family.” In so doing she wipes a solitary tear from her eye and draw rapturous applause from her audience, who amazingly aren’t bored of her making speeches every two hours.

All that remains for us to do is to wave goodbye to the Erasmusbrug as it pierces the cloud-laden sky, to board the big orange coach, to endure a litany of emotional songs from Beyoncé’s back-catalogue and to board our slightly delayed plane.

This trip to Rotterdam, although brief when compared to my annual visits to Uganda, leaves all of us with a wealth of positivity and affection for The Netherlands. We’ll be sure to come back again next year and to visit people who we now consider our friends and a place we now consider to be like a second home.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Brighton II: A Rusty Winch

An idle winch spends its retirement sat on Brighton beach in Sussex.
After taking some considerable time eating lunch on Jubilee Monday at Terre a Terre, Alison, Consola, Jeannie and I, went for a stroll along the seafront at Brighton. Whilst the girls went into the Brighton Fishing Museum, I went looking for something rusty to photograph.

I found an old winch, presumably once used to pull the fishing boats ashore, sitting on the beach as a testament to Brighton's once busy fishing industry.

Using the Instagram app once more, I selected a filter that darkened the grey clouds in the sky, but kept the real subject of the photo light.

For more information about the Brighton Fishing Museum, visit: http://www.brightonfishingmuseum.org.uk/

Monday, June 11, 2012

Brighton: from Inside Terre à Terre

The view from inside Terre à Terre, Brighton, looking out through the skylight.
During the four-day Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations, a small quartet of us took the train down to Brighton for lunch and some sea air. Alison, a friend of Jeannie's and subsequently of mine, led us to the vegetarian and coeliac-friendly Terre à Terre on East Street in Brighton for lunch.

The weather had spent most of Monday looking decidedly moody, but in the middle of lunch the clouds cleared and sunlight came flooding through the skylight.

The photo was taken using the Instagram app for iPhone. The filtering effect was designed to washout some of the colour and give the cleanliness of the white and blue an effect like a 1970s Swedish design photobook I once flicked through.

Terre à Terre comes with my highest recommendation. For more information: http://www.terreaterre.co.uk/

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Grass is Singing by Doris Lessing

Cover image © HarperCollins.
After watching a couple of films, Chocolat (1988) and White Material (2009), directed by Claire Denis, a French director who spent part of her childhood in colonial West Africa, I went in search of more information about the films' settings. In doing so, I discovered an interview with the director saying that the latter was inspired by Doris Lessing’s The Grass is Singing.

The novel is set in rural, 1940s Rhodesia, although confusingly the setting is referred to as ‘South Africa’ throughout. Lessing said in an interview that there wasn’t “very much difference between the Rhodesian experience and the South African experience,” although, “The Grass is Singing is very Rhodesian because it was based on the life of the district which I was brought up in.”

The focus of the novel is on Mary Turner, whom we discover at the outset of the novel has been murdered at the hands of her houseboy, Moses. The first chapter deals with the people of the district’s response to the murder and discusses the idea of whether or not they were ‘poor whites’ – a difficult concept for the racially segregated society presented to deal with.

Furthermore, in the opening exchanges, the moral and racial complexity of her murder is hinted in “the way they pitied Dick Turner [her husband] with a fine fierce indignation against Mary as if she were something unpleasant and unclean". 

The narrative then moves backwards to start to unpick Mary’s character. She is initially presented as an emotionally isolated character whose life has seemingly begun to pass her by without prospect of marriage, children, or any form of long-term plan to become a 'real' Southern African woman. One evening, she hears a group of her friends mocking her for still being a spinster, and, bowing to pressure, she hastily marries struggling Rhodesian farmer, Dick.

Having lived most of her adult life in an urban setting, with only fellow whites around her, she struggles to fit into a rural society that feels so alien to her. The reliance on black ‘native’ labour to run the farm and the invasive presence of the other whites in the district community both go against the fiercely independent spirit that she has built up during her spinsterhood.

The inherent racism in Mary’s character comes to the fore once she moves the farm and can be shocking to a modern reader. Either way, it greatly juxtaposes with the productive, albeit still exploitative, relationship Dick shares with African farm workers.

During the few bouts of illness that Dick suffers, Mary takes the reigns of the farm. The change from her usually mundane life reinvigorates her, but when Dick recovers, she slips back to her normal life and eventually into a state of depression and vulnerability. It is at this time that a worker, Moses, assumes the role of a houseboy as she becomes increasingly dependent on him. The reader knows how this arrangement is destined to end from the first page of the novel.

The novel is a close examination of many of white colonial society’s great fears, most notably the corruption of the white community’s ‘purity’ and thus cohesion. Many characters take on allegorical roles during the novel: neighbouring farmer Charlie Slatter becomes the embodiment of white colonial society, Dick the hardworking white farmer, Mary someone who transgresses the norms of colonial society, and Moses the threat posed to the colonial society by 'natives'.

Lessing is undoubtedly trying to address what she saw as an unjust society, whereby white males believed themselves to possess all of the power, but critics have argued that this isn’t enough. Some say that Lessing perpetuates the colonial stereotypes: Mary, the character ‘corrupted’ by a black man, dies; Moses, a black African man, is presented as a criminal. Whether one agrees with either perspective is down to the individual reader.

The Grass is Singing is a fantastic novel, one that raises many more questions than it answers about colonial society and is a must-read for anyone with an interest in the representation of Southern African society pre-Independence.

This review owes a great deal to the scholarly work of Bridget Grogan in her article "(Im)purity, Danger and the Body in Doris Lessing's The Grass is Singing" published in English Studies in Africa (v. 54 p31-42). This article helped to clarify my personal confusion over exact location and some of the more complicated allegorical meanings of the text. 

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Onze Laatste Maaltijd in Rotterdam

The Arab-inspired lighting inside the Bazar restaurant in Rotterdam.
Refreshed from an afternoon nap, I find Rotterdam exactly as I left it: peaceful, chilly and with a layer of ice or snow covering everything outside of the large windows of No. 59a Witte de Withstraat.

It is the evening of Saturday 11th February and after a day of wandering around Amsterdam everyone has retired to their rooms prior to this evening’s meal. Pia and I wait patiently as Julian, who is ‘being mother’, makes tea in a saucepan on the small stove in the corner of the room.

As it dawns on Julian that there is the opportunity to watch the first half of the rugby match between Italy and England on TV, Pia suddenly does a death-defying backflip over the sofa, forward rolls out of the door, jumps over the banisters and hides in her room – all without spilling a drop of her tea, or a crumb of her biscuit. Obviously she’s not much of a rugby fan.

By the time we leave 59a, Julian is wondering why he bothered watching the match as England head in at half-time losing 12-6. Interestingly, he uses the collective pronoun ‘we’ throughout the match trying to include me in his misery. Does he not know that I’m Irish?

Bazar restaurant, Rotterdam.
After collecting most of the students together in the hallway, minus the usual quartet of girls, we ice-skate over the road and head up the slight incline of Witte de Withstraat a little way. In a matter of minutes we reach a fascinating Middle Eastern restaurant called ‘Bazar’.

The silence of the street is immediately shattered as you enter the building. It is apparent that the streets of Rotterdam are so quiet because everybody is in this restaurant. The arabesque lights hanging from the ceiling, coupled with the rowdy hubbub of noise from all quarters lends an air of authenticity to the place as we are led to our table for twenty-four people.

The meal provides us all with a great chance to start reflecting on what is essentially a very short trip, but one that seems to have had a profound impact on all of the students. All the talk is about the welcoming nature of the Dutch students, about the friendliness of the general public and how relaxed the pace of life seems in Rotterdam – especially when compared to what they’re used to in London.

It is apparent that escaping their bubbles, their west London comfort zones, has come as a great relief. An experience that reassures everyone that there is life outside of Zones 2 and 3 of the Transport for London tube map, and that there is an existence away from college, or Hammersmith, or the UK. Philosophising aside, it has quite simply been a fantastic few days.

We are brought out of our reminiscences of the recent past with the arrival of the food. It is a mixture of the different Bizar Bazar platters – meat, fish and vegetarian, and thankfully for my students all halal. Luckily for me, a meat platter is placed directly in front of me and after an Islamic blessing of the table, we dig in. The meat platter includes a mixed grill shish kebab with lamb, chicken and turkey, a Persian style stew of lamb, all served with rice, fried potatoes, yoghurt, sauces and salad. 

The food is wholesome, flavoursome and moreish, although the size of the portions leaves most people sated, that is with one exception. An Iraqi student, that same one who has spent the last three days greeting everyone she passes on the streets, succeeds in demolishing everything put before her. And most of everyone else’s leftovers too! 

Naturally, after eating and digesting, the students want to escape back to the house or go exploring, away from the ‘grown-ups’. We inform them that we’ve generously extended their curfew by 45 minutes for good behaviour, before plotting our next move.
De Witte Aap, Rotterdam.

After a brief conference in the nippy night air, Julian, Jas, Pia and I all walk back down the street to De Witte Aap (The White Monkey) bar. It’s a small place, but we wrestle our way to a seat and raise a toast to a great trip. Time moves on and Ilse joins us just in time for the bar to go through Transformers-style metamorphosis, with the seats turning into a DJ booth and the seating area becoming a dancing podium – exit Pia in a similarly dramatic fashion to earlier.

With Pia gone, Julian starts to dance in the style of Bruce Grobbelaar and the rest of us join in, except for Jas, who’s obvious far too cool or far too old to do so.

The curfew approaches, so we turn into pumpkins and roll uphill to 59a having said our final goodbyes to Ilse. To our astonishment, all of the students are accounted for and have managed to return to the house with ten minutes to spare. 

Tomorrow we leave Rotterdam, but it appears that nobody wants to and no one is in a rush to get to sleep any time soon.
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