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?
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