Monday, December 30, 2013

In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

Cover image © PanMacmillan
I believe that reading a novel that is part of a series, having not read any of the preceding books, is a little like jumping into an ice-cold plunge pool. It has the potential to leave you feeling a sense of shock and bewilderment, but equally can have some benefits. I'm not sure into which category this novel falls.

In a Dry Season (1999) is the tenth in a series of novels by Peter Robinson focussing on Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks. Being a little late to the DCI Banks party, and never having watched the television adaptations being broadcast on ITV, by the time of this novel, the protagonist has separated from his wife, has a somewhat dubious reputation with women and his career as a detective is grinding to a halt.

The action commences when, during a period a drought, a reservoir dries up revealing the remains of a deserted village that had been submerged following the building of a damn after the Second World War. A young boy, making the most of the adventures to be found around the remnants of Hobb's End, stumbles upon a human skeleton buried in the outbuilding of a cottage.

Presumably seeing it as a chance to punish Banks for previous indiscretions and insubordination, Chief Constable 'Jimmy' Riddle, sends him, along with DS Annie Cabbot, to investigate what seems like a rather a dead investigation. What at first seems like a story based on raking over relics of the past in fact becomes more and more alive and encroaches into the present day leading to the rather dramatic conclusion.

The novel revolves around two narratives: the first omniscient narrative follows the action of the present day as Banks and Cabbot investigate and get to know each other; the second is the first person narrative of Gwen Shackleton and follows the life of Hobb's End from 1941 to 1945. The interplay between the two narratives works well to keep the momentum of the story pacey and allows the plot to develop numerous potential conclusions.

All in all, I would happily read another book in this series should the situation ever arise again. Indeed, the only reason I read this novel was to review whether or not to use it with my A Level Language and Literature class. Generally, the storyline is engaging, although a few strange deviations to include current romances and reminiscences of drug addict neighbours I feel the book could have done without, but possibly make more sense to those who've read more of the series.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

From Russia With Love by Ian Fleming

Continuing my summer tradition of a James Bond novel on the beach, this year on Anse des Sables in Vieux Fort, Saint Lucia, is something I look forward to with relish. Under a palm tree, with rum near to hand and an expanse of turquoise sea in front of me, I read From Russia With Love (1957) – the fifth book in the James Bond series.

Despite the modern reputation Ian Fleming’s novels enjoy, in 1956 he wasn’t satisfied that they were commercially successful enough. With this in mind From Russia With Love saw Bond at a crossroads and the writer's approach demonstrates this.

In a slight departure from previous Bond novels, the first part of the novel deals exclusively with SMERSH formulating a plan to strike the Secret Service’s top man, James Bond. The reader is drawn into the meticulous construction of an airtight plan – the target, the beautiful bait, the exotic location, the risk of scandal and the right man for the execution.

The characters working for SMERSH seem even more extreme than usual too. We meet ‘Red’ Grant, a deadly man with an almost werewolfesque, supernatural drive desire to kill during a full moon and Rosa Klebb a woman described as a “neuter” whose need for sex with men and women “was nothing more than an itch.” As the plan to trap Bond using the beautiful and innocent Tatiana Romanova moves forward, you begin to believe that Ian Fleming was seriously considering the untimely demise of his protagonist. 

With the planning over, around a third of the way into the novel, we move into part two – ominously entitled ‘The Execution.’ Increasingly we gain momentary insights into a different Bond. We see him in his home, we see him frightened during a few minutes of turbulence on a plane journey and we see him taken in by a SMERSH trap to lure him to Istanbul. This is not the sickeningly suave Bond of the movies, but a believable and fallible character

Istanbul seems like the perfect place for the action of the novel to truly begin. Fleming writes that for Bond “Istanbul had given him the impression of a town where, with the night, horror creeps out of the stones. It seemed to him a town the centuries had so drenched in blood and violence that, when daylight went out, the ghosts of its dead were its only population.”

Reading under the dappled light of a palm tree, Saint Lucia.
The action really picks up after Bond and Miss Romanova’s departure from Istanbul aboard the Orient Express bound for Paris, accompanied by the lively Darko Kerim, a local agent. Once more the sensation of entrapment means that the reader is never really sure of how long it will be until someone makes a move, mirroring, in many ways, the global tensions of the Cold War.

The novel, as well as developing Bond’s character from the previous novels and leaving the audience with an epic cliff-hanger ending, makes a number of observations of the world at the time of writing. A number of references are made to Britain’s loss of influence and power on the global political stage, something that many political commentators continue to comment upon today.

All in all, From Russia With Love is a good read, and, despite wishing that I was reading one of the Caribbean-based novels on the beach rather than one set over in Europe, it is definitely the most tense, if not always the most action-packed, of the first five novels in the James Bond series.

Thursday, December 05, 2013

Autumnal Sunset Over Hammersmith


Autumnal sunsets over cities have the power to stir my soul, like mountains and oceans do. After another busy day of talking non-stop to colleagues, teaching classes of students, conducting one-to-ones, and jumping over a variety of obstacles thrown in my direction, I looked out of the window of the classroom I was working in.

It is Wednesday 4th December 2013, and to the east I can see the bright orange reflection of the sunset shining back off the blue-tinted glass of the Empress State Building on the Earl's Court and West Brompton border. The radiance of it leads me to leave the room I am in - there are no classes at this time - and I head to my favourite place in the building. The roof.

Stood on the roof, three storeys up, my thoughts a million miles away, I breathe in the cold early evening air to the background noise of Hammersmith. The sirens fail to crash through and break my peace of mind and the light shining off the glass seems to rebound and silently fight off the faint lines of clouds in the sky.

The song in my mind is 'Fanshawe' by El Ten Eleven. This view and these stolen moments surveying all of West London are what will make leaving this place so hard when the time comes.

video

Saturday, November 02, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Zondag Zonneschijn en Tot Ziens!

View from Willemskade, looking towards Erasmusbrug, with Noordereiland beneath.
Alright, if you insist on booking a trip to mainland Europe to take place during February then you expect grey skies, clouds pregnant with impending snow storms and ice-cold temperatures. To this realisation I am willing to concede, but I do like a surprise.

It is Sunday 17th February and the sun is shining in the cold winter air and there are but a few wisps of cloud in the vast blue sky.

Accompanied by Emma and Pia, I head to breakfast at the Bizar again. It seems I really can’t get enough of rubbing my clean-living ways into the faces of the two other teachers. Envy doesn’t really rear its head as they tuck into more duizend-gaten-flensje. The joke is once more on the guy with the gluten allergy who has no other option on the menu.

After breakfast I have my first real mission of the day. I need to head off to the station and buy a ticket for my Italian student. She’s heading to Rome for the half-term and is flying directly from Amsterdam Schipol a good few hours before the rest of the group’s flight to London is due to leave.

I wander around the corner to Rotterdam Centraal. Although still in places a bit of building site, the vastness and cleanliness of the station makes my local station, Walthamstow Central, look like a rural halt - Ironically, both are owned by the Nederlandse Spoorwegen. European rail travel is something quite alien to me, so I find the atmosphere, the ebbs and the flows of people very intriguing, and no one seems to be in a rush.

In the ticket office I try my broken Dutch on the sales assistant. I start, “Ik wil een ticket naar Amsterdam Schipol.” The woman frowns at me slightly, before replying in English, “On the fast or slow train?” The frown, I later discover when I get to that point on my Michel Thomas Total Dutch CD, is because I demanded a ticket using ‘I want’ rather than asking for one using the more polite “mag ik” (literally, ‘may I’). At least I tried.

This awkward encounter over, I buy a disposable chipkaart (like a disposable oyster card) and head back on the number 7 tram to 59a Witte de Withstraat, there to organise the annual ‘where are the keys’ pantomime starring the students.

As I arrive, the students’ production is in full swing. There are: spare beds in the wrong rooms, empty Coke bottles in every possible storage space, the faint odour of day-old shawama, clothes all over the floor, and, in a variation on the usual formula, all the keys are present, but none of them are in the rooms they are designed to open the doors for.

Art on Witte de Withstraat: "Suddenly, when I just want to kiss my nipple..."
A little while later, the students head off into town to go shopping around Oude Binnenweg, Pia and Emma head off the Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition in the Kunsthal and I take the number 2 tram to Wilhelminaplein. 

Once there I get off the tram, heading over the Spoorweghavenbrug along Stieltjesstraat, over the Koninginnebrug and onto Noordereiland (lit: North Island).

Noordreiland, a manmade island completed in the 1870s following the construction of the Koningshaven, is today home to around 3,600 residents. To an outsider like myself, looks like a nice place to live. In some ways it is very separate from the rest of the city, being as it is an island, yet, with the Koninginnebrug and the Willemsbrug connecting it to the mainland, there is a sense that the island is still very much a part of Rotterdam.

After taking my now obligatory photographs of De Hef, I board the tram from Laan op Zuid and to Willemsplein. After basking in the sunshine beating down, relatively speaking, on Willemskade, and capturing a few panoramic shots of Erasmusbrug and the Kop van Zuid, I turn the corner onto Veerkade and head into a bar/restaurant called Loos (pronounced a bit like “lows”).

Here I ‘demand’ a coffee and wait for Pia and Emma to arrive, killing time by looking up words in my recently acquired dictionaries. When they appear, after some typically amateurish usage of Google Maps by the pair, we take some time to reflect on the trip. The students have been well behaved. Good, There has been some sunshine. Good. We had the chance to discover some ‘new’ areas. Very good. 

The vibe seems a little flat though. There’s no doubt that organising the trip has been more difficult this year than in previous years. Money is increasingly an issue for cross-curricular trips. Perhaps our mood is reflecting the very real possibility that this could be our last visit with the students, or maybe it’s something else.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Stil in Amsterdam

Looking beneath a series of seven bridges along Leidsegracht, Amsterdam.
Maybe I’m becoming softer in my old age, but for some inexplicable reason I’ve allowed everyone to have a lie in. I regularly enjoy infuriating my colleagues and students with my ‘morning person’ ways. Today, though, I need a lie-in too.

It is Saturday 16th February 2013 and I am assembling the things I need for the day ahead. Although nowhere near as cold as this time last year, it is still very nippy. The upside of this is that I can leave my sun lotion, sunglasses, swimming trunks and towel at the hotel and travel light. With my trusty satchel sorted, the slightly hyperactive students gathered and a grumpy Pia woken up, we board the bus for the brief trip down the A4 to Amsterdam.

With the opportunity for a little quiet time lying ahead, we first embark on a boat ride around the labyrinthine canals of Amsterdam. Whilst taking in the information of talking guide – all of which I have forgotten by the time of writing this – I can’t help but wonder how anyone could ever have navigated the canals. At every corner there is a bridge, after that bridge three other bridges that you could possibly head through, and beyond them… you get the picture.

An hour later, having weaved our way around through the murky waters, we’re back at Damrak. I brief the students on where they can and can’t head, all of the exciting places they could explore, so they thank me and head to KFC. At this point I wave goodbye to Pia and Emma, cross over the bustling Prins Hendrikkade, and jump on the number 9 tram.

A few minutes later, after trundling down a few busy roads, the tram enters into, what is for me, unchartered territory. I hear the name ‘Waterlooplein’ come out of the scratchy speakers and hop off, finding myself in the curious Waterloopleinmarkt.

Originally another canal, the market area was filled-in during 1882 and the predominantly Jewish merchants from two neighbouring street markets were directed to move to the newly reclaimed square. In 1893 the market started taking place six days a week, with the market closed on a Saturday for the Sabbath. Following the Nazi occupation during World War II the Jewish link was mainly lost, but to this day a daily flea market takes place there.

One of the more striking aspects of Waterloopleinmarkt is the complete diversity of the goods and wares sold on each of the market stalls. Against the background scents of cooking food, some stalls have old records, some second-hand shoes, some have old ornaments and one stall, being run by an Arab man, has the most comprehensive variety of old cameras I’ve ever seen.

A stall of vintage cameras, Waterlooplienmarkt, Amsterdam.
I take a sneaky photo. A more polite Chinese tourist asks to take a photo of the stall only to be refused permission. I smile, say “shukran” and shuffle off.

Away from the crowds, I find a little silence. I cross a canal onto the narrow Staalstraat, stopping to take a picture along Groenburgwal, before continuing right onto Kloveniersburgwal towards the Nieuwmarkt.

I grab a bite to eat and head off, cutting through the red light district, in the vague direction of Dam Square. 

As I am heading down a side street, and passing a slightly seedy looking brothel, a group of my students seem to appear from nowhere. “Sir!” they shout, “what are you doing here?”

Cue a piece of physical street theatre, perhaps inspired by an Ealing Comedy, entitled ‘Confessions of an English Teacher.’ As the students shout and point, I jokingly pretend to hide my identity behind my coat. Cue the arrival of a group Far Eastern tourists passing-by who cheer and laugh along at the bizarre tableau presented before them. After a few seconds of hilarity, although it felt like a few minutes, we resume our usual roles and head on our respective ways.

It dawns on me that I have been wandering in perfect silence for the best part of two hours by the time I get back to Dam Square. With time running out before the bus is due to arrive and escort us back to Witte de Withstraat, I head to Kloverstraat to buy two important books: an English-Nederlands dictionary and a Nederlands-Engels dictionary. Tonight I'll do some studying.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Cycling: Not All Glamour

Bits and bobs everywhere on the pavement. Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

I enjoy my cycle commute to work. I've progressed from being a twice a week, fair-weather cyclist, to being a four days a week, almost all-weather cyclist. My fitness has improved, I have lost a fair amount of weight and I arrive to work most mornings buzzing on endorphins.

I've recently had a full service at Caballo on Chatsworth Road in Hackney. My bike, named Sasha, is running like a dream. Along with new brakes and a full strip-down, clean and rebuild, I've had a new rear cassette with a 11-28T range.

There was one thing I didn't change though: my tyres. With 2,500km on the Garmin, the rear tyre was looking a little worse for wear, but I had my eyes on a set of Specialized Roubaix tyres. As if fate decreed, riding full pelt up Shaftesbury Avenue, a popping sound came from my rear wheel.

In the oppressive heat and with sweat dripping from everywhere, I was forced to pull off the road, park up on the pavement, and set about replacing the inner tube. After removing the wheel, taking off the tyre, and pulling out the damaged inner tube, I assembled everything to put it all back together again. Could I get the tyre back on the rim though? Could I heck. My frustration was immense.

I am still unsure why it took so long to do something that I've been able to do since the age of ten, and that I've previously be able to replace in three minutes. 

After a brief pause, filthy with the grime of the London pavements on my knees, it finally all went back together. Thankfully with a CO2 pump, the tyre was inflated in no time. I made it home in a record slow time of 1hr 40mins.

Note: I have now replaced my tyres!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Oude en Nieuwe Plaatsen

New and old seem to meet in the most unusual places in Rotterdam.
With education budgets ever-tightening in the UK and The Netherlands, this year’s trip has had to be done with even less money than before. One benefit of this has meant making the students self-cater at breakfast, albeit under the auspices of learning ‘good life skills’.

It is Friday 15th February 2013 and I’m having a gezond ontbijt [healthy breakfast] from the menu at the Bazar restaurant. The healthy breakfast consists of mild Turkish yoghurt, fruit salad, honey and a glass of fresh orange juice. I add to this a couple of coffees. My colleagues Emma and Pia are tucking into a duizend-gaten-flensje [thousand holes pancake] adorned with a variety of sweet things. 

Both of them eye my healthy breakfast. Should they have gone for this option? Don’t be stupid. Of course not. That’s the kind of breakfast a guy with a gluten allergy would be forced to acquiesce to. Well, either way, I enjoyed it and after coffee number two I am buzzing like a bumble bee and ready to go.

Whilst Emma and Pia are charged with the duty of ensuring our fifteen dozing students are awake and ready to roll, I am dispatched to Eendrachtsplein to purchase Metro tickets. En route, I remind myself of some of the words I need: “Ik wil zeventien ‘disposable’ chipkaartjes.” Hmmm... not being sure of how to say ‘disposable’ I just hope that I can blag it.

As it turns out, when I get to Eendrachtsplein Metro station, there are no members of staff, instead they have a couple of machines. Luckily for me, the machines speak English and so any awkward moments with a Dutch-speaking station master are avoided. However, what is not avoided is the queue of harried looking commuters behind me waiting whilst I make seventeen chipcard purchases.

With the students duly shepherded through the hazy sunshine of the Rotterdam morning, we board the C line train bound for Hoogvliet. 

In keeping with trying to be more independent this year, having learnt the ropes last year, we opt to navigate ourselves towards the Einstein Lyceum. At this point Pia removes something resembling an astronomical chart and a set of compasses from her $500 Prada handbag. She talks of an enchanted maze with frozen streams and ponds for obstacles, where artic hares bound through the snow and hide behind trees. I decide we’ll stick to the main road and we head along Kouwenaardseweg, take a right on to Endenhout, before following the road round on to Middenbaan Zuid.

Once at the Einstein Lyceum, we are reunited with familiar faces: Ilse, Kevin, Barry and Laura. Since our last visit there have been a number of changes, such as the arrival of a new Principal, but our welcome is warmer than ever.

Another teacher, Jenny, has arranged for our students to spend a little time learning about Dutch culture from one of her classes. The wonderful thing being that whilst my students are finding out something new, her students are practicing their use of conversational English for an assessment. I, on the other hand, take the opportunity to speak my unique pidgin language Nederengels – Dutch grammar and simple verbs mixed with English nouns and adjectives that ironically translates as ‘down/low English’.

My students are left in the care of their Dutch counterparts for a tour of the school whilst the teachers pause for a cup of tea. After a while it is clear that a number of them have disappeared. Attaching myself to a group heading out of the main building, I find that they are taking part in an impromptu volleyball match in the sports hall. The teams are all mixed, boys and girls, Dutch and English, and as they laugh and joke their way through their never-ending match, it is clear to see how much they have in common.

After a lunch that consists of typically Dutch food such as broodje kroket and some Indonesian delicacies the names of which escape me, we head back to Hoogvliet station, with Barry as our guide, and take the D Line to Rijnhaven.

A new home? Looking down Atjehstraat, Katendrecht, Rotterdam.
We congregate outside the station and Barry explains that we’re going for a little walk into a different district of Rotterdam, called Katendrecht. At this point Pia’s face drops. Walking? When did she sign up for walking? At first I am unaware of what she’s thinking as I’m too busy getting Ilse to help correct my ‘ij’ phoneme in Dutch, before being told off by Emma for talking whilst Barry is.

By the time Pia finally catches my attention it’s already too late as the group is walking down Brede Hilledijk. Emma asks me a few questions about where we are going. I’m happy to have no answers and follow Barry’s lead, stopping just long enough to convince the students that we’re all going to climb up a ladder on the side of a building on Silostraat.

Walking further into Katendrecht, along Veerlaan, turning left onto Atjehstraat and then right towards Delistraat, you feel as if you’re in a very different Rotterdam. According to Barry, the area was once infamous as a place for drunkenness, debauchery, and prostitution. Following some serious renovation, the area resembles some of the quieter streets of Brooklyn and has found a place in my heart. Should I ever up-sticks and head to The Netherlands, I think this is where I’d live.

With Pia lost somewhere in the distance and our group having wandered up Sumatraweg, along Tolhuislaan past the latest batch of houses to be renovated and along the banks of the Nieuwe Maas, we cross over Rijnhavenbrug onto the Kop van Zuid and enter the warmth of the Hotel New York.

The Kop van Zuid, with its metal, glass and its overall appearance of sleek modernity towers over and nearly smothers the Hotel New York, but the character of this relatively modest red brick building from 1901 overpowers all of its newer neighbours. Built in the Jugendstil architectural style, the building was once the head office of the Holland-America Line, the shipping company that many people used to escape Europe for a new life in the United States of America.

Nowadays, the building is an exceptionally smart hotel and restaurant, an illusion briefly shattered by the arrival of our boisterous Anglo-Dutch crowd of students and staff, albeit minus Pia. From the looks that some of the customers are giving our group it is as if they are worried we will start swinging from the giant chandeliers or hanging from the intricate wrought ironwork. Of course this isn't the case and we settle down quickly.

Eventually Pia arrives in a cloud of steam, emotional at having been deserted in an area “known for drugs and prostitution” and threatens to shatter the peace. I point out to her that things have changed since Katendrecht's darker days, before Barry tells us he went to a gig in a bar there where everyone, including the band, got naked. At this news she starts to scream blue murder until the waitress puts a hot chocolate on the table in front of her and a fragile serenity is restored.

After a while, with everyone suitably worn-out, we disperse, trusting the students to navigate themselves northwards, back over the Erasmusbrug to 59a Witte de Withstraat, and waving goodbye to our Dutch counterparts, who head southwards towards Hoogvliet.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Lazing on a Sunny Afternoon, Dreaming of Cricket

A batsman plays a quick shot towards point, Springfield Park, Hackney.
At this time of year the sound of a weary red leather ball cracking off the face of a beaten-up old cricket bat would usually fill my Sunday afternoons. Playing for The Swinging Googlies Cricket Club – albeit very badly – is one of the highlights of my summer weekends. 

Now well into June, having missed The Googlies’ first and only match so far this season, I am beginning to get some serious cricketing-related withdrawal. With the match that I should have been playing in today cancelled due to inclement weather, I am likely to start outwardly showing signs of mania soon. 

On Sunday 2nd June 2013 I at least got to see some others playing whilst I sunbathed in Springfield Park, Hackney. From a little research I have found the teams playing were The Coach and Horses C.C. hosting Shakespeare C.C. in a friendly – I am unsure who was who, but I think the fielding team were the Coach and Horses due to the 'home support' they were getting. 

One thing is for sure, Springfield Park is visually more stunning that The Googlies’ home pitch in Long Ditton, southwest London, but right now I’d settle for a game in a car park. Here’s to hoping that the weather holds this coming weekend.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Het Withstraat Dagboek: Welkom Terug!

De Hef, or Koningshavenbrug, seen from Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
I have a problem. It’s a problem that I have had for a number of years and constantly threatens to get in the way of my travelling to destinations near or far. This problem is being a last minute packer.

It is Thursday 14th February and as a result of finishing my packing at midnight, and my taxi to Heathrow arriving at 3am, I feel as if someone has stitched-shut my eyelids. The driver patiently asks me where to pick up my colleague Pia, and I respond saying I haven’t got a clue. Luckily, as we drive though Walthamstow’s empty streets the waving figure of Pia’s mum flags down the taxi before we go straight past.

At this early hour, there are already many certainties about Pia: that I will be ‘tagged’ in a Facebook update, that as a result of coffee deprivation she won’t be able to converse effectively and that she’s likely to become very insulting at short notice.

Upon arrival at Heathrow, I guide Pia through the doors and towards the already sizeable group of waiting students. Unbeknown to Pia, I make a couple of classified hand gestures in the vague direction of some male students who stumble over themselves to join the queue at Caffè Nero. They have understood the potential volatility of the woman and act swiftly to prevent a disaster.

With the potential for eruption averted, the remaining few students drift into the terminal. As with last year’s group, they are the typical west London mixture that I think I would be unable to survive without. Represented in the ethnic make-up of the group of fourteen students are: Somalia, Italy, Iraq, the Caribbean, Singapore, Iran, Eastern Europe, America and of course the UK. Added to staff group is Emma, who comes in as a last minute substitute for Julian – oh, she’s English.

A bag search, a portion of porridge and short flight later, we arrive Amsterdam Schiphol where I head off in search of our minibus in the pick-up zone. Armed with my increasing knowledge of Dutch I introduce myself to a number of confused bus drivers before finding the correct one.

“Hallo! Ik ben Tomás uit William Morris, Engeland,” I begin, “Is dit onze bus?”

“Ja! Je spreekt Nederlands, hè?” She begins, before launching into a series of sentences in fluent Dutch that I cannot even begin to comprehend. A minute later she stops and stares at me.

“Erm… goed,” I respond, scratching my head and smiling nervously before heading going to get the rest of the group.

As we roll along the A4, bound for Rotterdam, the weather becomes increasing wintry. Small snowflakes hit the windscreen and I am happy about it. This is the icy, semi-arctic, romanticised vision of The Netherlands that I hold in my mind’s eye. After last year, without snow, ice and a bitter chill in the air I feel that it can't be a proper visit to Rotterdam. My increasing excitement is matched only by the increasing annoyance of the students who begin to despair at the sight of the ever-whitening landscape.

Upon arrival at 59a Witte de Withstraat, I repeat my earlier mistake whilst checking the group into our accommodation. Sensing my slight confusion, the proprietor makes use of an assortment of props and gesticulations to explain herself to me. Consequently, words such as keuken (kitchen), sleutel (key) and slaapkamer (bedroom)suddenly leap into my vocabulary.

After an hour or two to settle in, buy a stock of rooibos tea and relax, it’s time to set off in the direction of the Nederlands Fotomuseum on the Kop van Zuid. This walk of just under two kilometres shouldn’t be too taxing and as we amble along Schiedamsedijk, with the light snow falling, it feels almost festive. This changes though.

Looking up at the main pylon of the Erasmusbrug, Rotterdam.
As we start the slight incline towards the Erasmusbrug the snow starts to feel more like small shards of ice and as we walk further, coming from behind the shelter of the buildings that overlook Willemsplein, the wind hurls these icy needles against our collective faces and the pace of the group slows substantially.

Finally reaching the warmth of the museum around twenty minutes later, we are such a sorry sight that the tour guide can’t help but smile sympathetically at the ménage of crazed looking British tourists presented before him. The students aren’t impressed and even my silliest, most self-deprecating jokes fail to raise a chuckle.

Here our group splits in two: one group heads of with Pia and Emma to do a photography workshop; my smaller second group heads off with a guide to look at the most recent installation and exhibition.

This year the installation is The Sound of Silence by Alfredo Jaar and it is immediately striking. From the outside you see an aluminium cube with a blinding wall of light, outwardly representing either a flash bulb on a camera or possibly a light-box, but it is what is inside that is most profound.

Inside the cube, padded with black material to stop the reflection of any light, a video projection tells the story of Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist. Carter became a household name in 1993 following the widespread publication of a photo showing a starving girl during a famine in Sudan – the most shocking aspect of the photo being the presence of a vulture in the background, seemingly waiting to pounce.

For the first six minutes the installation tells the story through simple text, before suddenly a blinding flash fills the darkened box. At this point, as if to add to the drama and tension, one student squeals, a few others gasp and one of my tutees calls, “Allahu akbar!” 

The students leave the installation in silence and sit. The guide asks them a few questions to initiate a discussion and to my amazement the students, all of whom don’t study photography or any form of art, begin to discuss the impact of the piece in great detail. In fact they talk so much that the guide, who is desperate to cover the whole museum with us, struggles to get them to move.

With the afternoon already turning to evening, the group reunites and heads back towards Witte de Withstraat. The weather has calmed down a little, but is still being less than amusing. This is just the impetus I need to research the tram routes as they rattle by.

This evening we will head to Bazar, the Middle Eastern inspired fully-halal restaurant further up Witte de Withstraat and with a little luck we’ll all get an early night before we head to Hoogvliet tomorrow. Although with a hyperactive bunch of 16-19 year olds, this is not always the case.

Monday, June 03, 2013

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

Cover image © Virago Press.
I have often been unsure about where in the grand scheme of all things literary Maya Angelou fits. Last August, whilst considering my teaching options for AS Level literature, the decision was reached to switch from teaching Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection The World’s Wife to Angelou’s collection And Still I Rise.

In the absence of the ubiquitous York Notes to provide information on the poetry, it made sense to read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings not only to shed some light on the context of the poetry, but to answer a nagging question: who is Maya Angelou?

Caged Bird is the 1969 autobiography of Angelou’s early years in the small town of Stamps, Arkansas, in the USA, through to the age of seventeen. As soon as you learn that she is living with her paternal grandmother, Momma, you realise that her family history is bound to be laced with complexities and confusion. A recurrent theme is the pervading sense of abandonment felt by Maya and her older brother Bailey at the hands of her parents and the lack of a sense of belonging that goes along with that.

Being set in 1930s and onwards, in a Southern US state, means it is inevitable that racism should play a part in the story. Although Momma seems atypical as she is a respected black female businesswoman in this small, racially segregated community, the presence of discrimination slowly makes its way into the young Angelou’s conscious. Incidents ranging from having to hide her Uncle Willie under vegetables to hide him from a Ku Klux Klan posse, to a ‘powhitetrash’ girl flashing her pubic hair at Momma, and to more subtle forms of racism such as a white employer insisting on calling her ‘Mary’ instead of ‘Marguerite’.

As the autobiography progresses, as does the turbulence in Angelou’s life and you begin to realise it is exactly that which makes her such an appealing human being to read about. From the graphic descriptions of her rape at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend, Mr Freeman, to driving her father home from Mexico when he was too drunk to do so himself, and all the way up to her first sexual encounters, the reader is often shocked, confused and enraged – for a variety of reasons.

I am not a fan of autobiographies, but there is something strangely compelling about this one. There are moments where I wish she’d said more – for example during her time living rough in California and when she gains employment as San Francisco’s first black streetcar conductor. Equally, there will be parts where some readers wish she’d said less.

In all, Caged Bird is a must for anyone interested in an historical first-hand account of a young black American female beginning to make sense of a world which seemingly does not value her presence. If, like me, you are more interested in humanity in general, it is an equally worthwhile read.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Wood Farm Brewery, Warwickshire

'Sunshine on a rainy day' bringing an end to any potential 'irony'.
In the words of Alanis Morissette, the situation was distinctly 'ironic'. The rain was falling from the sky by the bucketload, and a minor gale blowing, as I arrived at Wood Farm, a small brewery outside Rugby in Warwickshire.

It is Saturday 11th May and Page, one of the heroes of January's London-Brighton bike ride, is getting hitched to Siobhan.

Once the clouds had cleared, sometime around 7pm, the sunshine made a brief cameo just long enough to take a couple of lovely pictures. All the better considerings the guests to this wedding party, myself included, were camping! After the tents were pitched, it was into the main marquee for a night of live music, dancing and merriment.

Any comments about Page not being able to organise the proverbial were allayed and the wedding went smoothly.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Bakiga Window Vol. II - Taufiq Islamic School - Part Two

"Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim..." Pupils recite a surah at Taufiq Islamic School.
After what has been undoubtedly the most difficult trip to Uganda I’ve ever taken part in, our last day in Kabale has finally come around. The previous morning’s work went a long way towards cleansing the bad memories of more turbulent moments on this visit.

It is Wednesday 11th April 2012 and I am walking down Johnstone Road towards Taufiq Islamic Primary School, for our second morning of activities. The sun has already ripped through the perennial sheet of mist and the dull whines of boda-bodas are already filling the air.

In contrast to yesterday’s welcome, we arrive to a silent yard. A solitary boy in the green and white hooped uniform peers from around the side of the mosque before shuffling off in a cloud of dust. All we need now is the stereotypical tumbleweed of an American Western film to roll across in front of us.

As we near the main school building Lule appears from within and accosts us. I ask him, “What have you done with all the children?”

His reply comes punctuated with his typical chuckle as, “They are waiting for you in assembly.”

He leads my small group of students and staff around the side of the mosque to where the ‘temporary’ wooden classrooms stand, and, sure enough, covering the dusty red yard like an expertly-woven Persian rug of emerald and cream, all the pupils of Taufiq stand awaiting our arrival.

With an extra day of familiarity between us the usual scenario of half of the pupils, especially the younger ones, starting to cry is avoided. One Somali student, who seems to have grown very popular amongst the pupils, is welcomed like a homecoming hero by many of the braver ones.

In the absence of a microphone, and from the height of our assembly ‘stage’, I introduce my students, pointing out for the benefit of all listening, who is a Muslim. As it dawns on the audience of children and adults from the local community that my group of bazungu aren’t actually that white and/or Christian – as many expect UK citizens to be – broad smiles wash across their faces.

Next comes the singing of the Ugandan national anthem, of which I know the words and choose to join in:
Oh Uganda! may God uphold thee,
We lay our futures in thy hands.
United, Free,
For Liberty,
Together we’ll always stand.
Following on from this some of the younger students demonstrate their knowledge of Islam for us by saying, “Bismillah ir-rahman ir-rahim alhamdullilah hir-rabbil alamin…” before reciting a short surah from the Qu’ran.

Pupils hard at work, writing letters to the UK.
After a short break for the pupils of Taufiq to run around and talk to my students some more, we start on a letter writing task. Each Taufiq pupil, after a little guidance from my students, begins to write a short letter of introduction to a primary school pupil in the UK. The hope is, that until a more formal arrangement can be made involving the All Our Children (UK) charity, this could help to find a partner school for them.

Whilst they work, I take time to talk to Lule. This time his trademark chuckle is put by the wayside as we discuss the school’s finances. He shows me a list of students who are orphaned and then copies of individual files of the students, each with a photo attached.

The reality is, especially with the increases in living costs in Uganda, that his school is running low on funds to support the education of orphans. Indeed one of the biggest contributors to the financial upkeep of the school are the members of the local Muslim community, many of whom have very little money of their own.

As the letter-writing classes end, many of my students gather round and start to discuss the situation. We know that we don’t necessarily have any money of our own to help the school with, but we talk about how we could try and make small differences in other ways.

One immediate idea is raising money to redecorate the dormitories and hang mosquito nets. This would not only reduce the likelihood of pupils contracting malaria, but could also eradicate the costs incurred when a pupil needs treatment. Other students start discussing the idea of collecting resources at their mosques in the UK. Things such pens and paper, or at least the money for pens and paper. All small steps, but things that could be useful in the meantime.


By way of Epilogue

As we say our goodbyes on last time, we all have a lot of thinking to do. I feel satisfied that we have been able to finally connect with Taufiq Primary School and that we will be able to move our relationship forward, but my students’ concerns and passion to do more to help leaves me thinking we have so much to do.

Similarly, a part of me wonders whether, after all of the behind the scenes wrangling this year, I need a break from visiting Uganda. Am I actually affecting change? Does what I am a part of actually make a difference to anyone?

Deep inside, I know that I keep coming back because I’m not ready to give up on any of the projects I’m involved in and regardless of the personalities, within my own group of adults, this whole project is really about my students and the pupils in Kabale.

- Tomás Ó Ceallaigh. Kabale. April 2012

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Bakiga Window Vol. II: Taufiq Islamic School - Part One

Looking through the window of the mosque, in Kabale.
It is a perennial frustration of mine that during every visit to Uganda, the more involved I become in the organisation of the trip, the less time I actually have to work on projects with people I meet there. With the small dust particles of free time that I have had over the years, I have been starting to build trust and friendship with a few members of Kabale's Muslim community.

It is Tuesday 10th April 2012 and I am sheltering from the heat of the morning sun in the mosque by Taufiq Islamic Primary School. With me I have nearly all of my students and a handful of staff interested in finding out more about a part of Kabale that lies off most kizungu radars.

Having met with the head teacher, Lule, earlier in the week, we had arranged that during my group’s final two mornings in Kabale we would come to Taufiq to find out more about day-to-day life there. We also arranged to do a couple of fun lessons for the pupils as a break from their exam revision.

We scheduled our arrival for the children’s morning break, and as we crossed over the Kabale-Kisoro Road, you could see a ripple of excitement permeating through the schoolyard. As more and more green-hooped jumpers came running from all directions, my students’ hearts seemed to melt at the cuteness of the whole situation. 

A sizeable number of our travelling group this year are Muslims, and indeed some have already become minor celebrities amongst the children and adults of the Muslim community after attending Salat al-Fajr at the mosque – the dawn congregational prayer.

Lule, hearing the excitement and commotion from his pupils outside, appears from the main office and comes to greet us. The breadth of the smile on his face openly reveals his genuine pleasure in having our company. Yusif, the chair of the PTA, who greets us with equal warmth, joins us and we start that typically Ugandan custom of signing the visitors’ book.

After a quick discussion about our programme for the morning, we embark on a tour of the premises. Having only had a brief tour by myself in the past, it was nice to be shown everywhere, meet a number of the teachers, pupils and families, and for other members of my travelling party to see this mysterious school that I am always talking about, but many knew nothing about.

My students were intrigued by two things: firstly, the fact that there were boarding facilities at a primary school with three bunk high beds; and secondly, the fact that there were little or no mosquito nets for the boarders. With this in mind, my students were already beginning to come up with a master plan for the visit in 2013 to deal with this.

A girl spies on the strange visitors outside the dining room.
Those pupils of the school who were brave enough, slowly started to congregate behind our group. Our greetings of, ‘as-salaam alaykum,’ were all met with shy responses of, ‘wa alaykum as-salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh’ as they came to investigate their strange bazungu visitors. My Muslim students couldn't contain how cute they found the whole situation. As a result, it was only a matter of minutes before the primary school children had ‘adopted’ my sixth form students and insisted on conducting their own versions of the guided tour of the school, much to the amusement of the Lule and myself.

The school is essentially made up of three parts at present: the main building, a series of rooms that open outwards around a secure central courtyard; a number of wooden classrooms built from the trees that once occupied the space; and the mosque, a large whitewashed hall with a small minaret striped with green.

The educational programme at the school, Lule tells me, follows the Uganda national curriculum for primary schools with the addition of rudimentary Arabic and Qu’ran lesson. This becomes clear as we see many diligent students holding on to various revision books for the mock tests that seem to be going on at all primary schools at the moment.

After tearing my students away from cuteness of the Taufiq children, we have a quick meeting to run over what we were going to do next. Breaking ourselves into groups, we each head to a different class from P4 to P7 and ask the students to create a storyboard of the different parts of their school day. Limiting them to just four frames to explain their whole day caused many a conflict!

The majority of storyboards included Salat al-Fajr or Salat al-Isha, most mentioned reading their Qu’ran or revising for school, a few even mentioned brushing their teeth – before realising this only left a small amount of space to explain everything else they did in their busy little lives.

The children were fully engrossed in their storyboards until it was time for us to head off. Some didn’t want to stop their work despite their teachers telling them they needed to go and eat. Others didn’t want my students to leave them and were only satisfied with our departure when they realised that we’d be back the following morning.

Ma’a salama. We'll be back at 10 o'clock tomorrow.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Beach Huts, Southwold, Suffolk

Sleeping beach huts on Southwold Beach, Suffolk.
Safely back from my annual visit to Rotterdam, my parents invited me to spend a few days with them in a small holiday cottage in Southwold, Suffolk. Give or take driving through Newmarket a few years back when studying at Anglia Ruskin University, I'd never really seen much of the county.

Southwold itself is a beautiful seaside resort which happens to be the home of Adnams, a well known brewery, which means that for a small place there are a healthy number of pubs - suddenly Dad's choice of location made sense.

On the early afternoon of Wednesday 20th February Jeannie and myself took a walk to the Harbour Inn to meet my parents for lunch. The pub was just under two miles away from Grace Cottage, where we were staying. This gave me the opportunity to take some pictures of the sea.

On our way towards the see we also spotted Georgie Glen from Waterloo Road humming happily to herself on the High Street.

Southwold is lovely, photogenic and friendly in the iciness of February, so one can only imagine how nice it is in the warmth of summer.

Friday, February 22, 2013

London to Brighton: Part Three - Countryside nr. Gatwick to Brighton Pier

Heading up Turners Hill

If we were in Uganda, with the sun at the angle it was by around 10am, we would be baking to a crisp. As it was, at 10am, we were crossing the county border into West Sussex and despite the sun beating down on us, it was still pretty cold. 

After a brief flirtation with an A road, we started a three mile decent towards the foot of Turner’s Hill. With the others tailing off into the distance slightly, I tried to build up some decent momentum with which to attack the climb.

The hill is a category 5 climb, but seemed very different to Marlpit Hill earlier on in the day. Maybe it was the fact that the blood was circulating more freely around my body now, but I seemed to make reasonably light work of the half-mile climb. Before I knew it, I was at the village green at the top of the hill and the ‘half-way jitters’ had not even had chance to appear. Maybe I am getting better at climbing.

The sign on the village green in Turners Hill.
Page followed up the hill about three minutes behind, with Jonesy around five minutes further back, creating a healthy traffic jam as he went. At this point, the peloton paused for a few minutes. Jonesy hit the corner shop, and evidently feeling that his luck was in, now that we were only 20 miles from the finish, decided to buy Lucozade, sweets and three lottery tickets.


Time for a Puncture

Back on the road for a few miles, riding through water from melting snow that was running down the road in icy rivers, and reflecting on the good health of our bikes seemed to bring about the inevitable. Just as we were about to begin the descent out of Ardingly, Page, who was at the head of the peloton, shouted and pulled over. He had the dubious honour of having the first puncture of the day.

Of course, any kind of mechanical procedure gives everybody the chance to die laughing at the number of sexual innuendoes that can arise. With Jonesy running around still singing the wrong words to ‘Clique’ and me stood there looking smug because my bike was doing well, Page set about fixing the puncture which, give or take a small issue with his pump, he did quite quickly.

Three miles later, outside Lindfield, Jonesy, who’d fallen to back of the peloton again, shouted. Admittedly, I thought maybe he’d forgotten how to use his pedals again, but he too had got a puncture. Cue five more minutes of bad singing, innuendo and disapproving looks from some elderly locals who were clearly concerned about the proximity of our bikes to a flowerbed.

Moving off once more, with some blatant attempts by Page to jinx my bike and only one incident involving Jonesy falling sideways off his bike in front of a car whilst stationary, we made good progress towards our final challenge; Ditchling Beacon.


Ditchling Beacon to Brighton

Around six miles from our intended finish line of Brighton Pier, Ditchling Beacon poses more than a challenge to most casual cyclists. It is considered a category 4 climb by Strava and MapMyRide and is a climb of around a 1.7 miles (including the road that leads to it), at an average grade of approximately 9%, a maximum grade of 16.4%, and a total elevation gain of around 450 ft.

We gathered at the start of the lead-up road. Our bikes were generally intact, although Sasha’s chain guard was dead so I snapped it off. We had a quick strategic chat about the mound of chalk shrouded in thick woods that sat mockingly in front of us. Taking in the sheer height of the hill momentarily made our hearts sink, but with a few words of mutual encouragement we set off.

Our basic rule: every man for himself, but however many times you had to stop, you must ride the whole hill. I went off ahead, wary of being caught on a narrow road behind slower cyclists. Page, cursing his gears slipped into second place, with Jonesy bouncing along at the back.

The effect of the gradient started to kick in after around 200 metres. There was a noticeable difference between this an previous hills we'd climbed and the tops of my quads started to burn like crazy. I turned to look behind me and I could no longer see the others. At this point I was still moving forward at a reasonable speed. 

Just when I was into a rhythm, the road hit a bit of a hairpin and switched back on itself. A few hundred metres later and my whole body felt like it was on fire. I had to stop for a minute to remove my woolly hat and bike helmet after which I dug-in and carried on.

Around 1200 metres in, the trees to the side of the road started to thin out and a view over the Sussex countryside unfolded into the distance. Unfortunately, I found that looking at the view caused me to wobble and I chose to keep my head down and carry on with the climb. Finally, I emerged from the trees and the top of the climb came into view. I stood on the pedals to finish and aimed for a small mound of chalk by the side of the road to sit and wait. 

My legs ache. My lungs hurt. I feel so hot that I fear I may combust. I wait for the others whilst taking in the view. Sure enough my iPhone 3GS decides to protest against my taking photos of the view, so I sit and wait. After a few minutes I move to a better vantage point and stand there, cheering like a madman, as first Page and then Jonesy come into view.

We now knew that it was pretty much all downhill from here. Setting off after a brief regroup, past the snow that still adorned the tops of the hills, the edges of Brighton came into view.

A little cold, but a whole lot more smug, on Brighton Pier.
Whizzing downhill, clocking 40 mph in the process, the countryside gave way to houses, buses and cars, and after a brief pause at a final few traffic lights, Brighton Pier came into view. Completely ignoring all road markings, we cut pretty much straight across the roundabout to be greeted by Page’s fiancé Siobhan. We had made it.

Our feat may not have been as epic as a Grand Tour race, but this was my Tour de France, Jonesy's Giro d’Italia and Page's Vuelta a España. We’d endured rain, sleet, icy head winds, a couple of punctures, some cases a distinct lack of preparation and in the process raised around £400 pounds for All Our Children (UK).

A final reason to be smug was that Sasha, by Specialized Allez 2013, had survived unscathed and without a puncture en route.

On a personal note, I’d like to thank: Vassilia, Tavia, Jenny, Fay, Naz, Celia, Reuben, Jana, Phil, Ebunola, Niamh, Tackela, Pia, Minie, Jas, Emma, Siobhan, Zahra, Diane, Page’s workmates and my family for their donations to the cause. Also thanks to the anonymous donors - you know who you are. Your money will make a difference not only to my students, but to children in southwestern Uganda too. In addition to this I’d obviously like to thank the Team Ayohcee members, Simon Page and Chris Jones, for their hard work on the day - there were times I didn't think we'd make it.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

King's Cross Station, London

The roof of the new departures concourse at Kings Cross Station.
You might not think that a railway station would make the most interesting photographic subject, but I can safely say they can. The new departures concourse at King's Cross railway station in London has been completed for nearly a year now, but I very rarely have any reason to be in the area and so this interesting work of architecture had slipped from my mind.

On Saturday 9th February I happened to appear from the Victoria Line straight into the new concourse - more by accident than design. I had seen pictures of it on BBC London News on the opening night, but standing beneath this flow of illuminated ironwork I was awestruck by its beauty. 

Indeed, it is described by Keiran Long as "like some kind of reverse waterfall, a white steel grid that swoops up from the ground and cascades over your head towards 16 perimeter columns in a flurry of 1,200 solid and 1,012 glass triangular panels."

The picture was taken using an iPhone 5, before being cropped and ran through a filter using Instagram. For more information about the redevelopment work around King's Cross, visit: http://www.networkrail.co.uk/aspx/6288.aspx

Saturday, February 09, 2013

London to Brighton: Part Two - Wallington to Smallfield Road, nr. Gatwick

Marlpit Hill and a Lady Feeding Ducks

After exiting Wallington and needing to stretch my legs, I decided to head off a little into the distance, before a long decent down to Coulsdon Station. Page zipped along closely behind, with Jonesy beginning to recover from his initial dip in energy.

Just through the viaduct carrying the A23 and the old Southern Railway mainline to Brighton we faced our first major hurdle. It came in the form of Marlpit Hill, a category 5 climb up a silent suburban street. A major challenge that, once overcome, would mean we had finally escaped the clutches of London and would be out in open country.
Sasha waits by the duck pond in Coulsdon, Surrey.
Feeling confident, I set off, once more slightly ahead of the other two. Page, complaining about his gear ratios – he rides a motorbike so knows a little about this technical stuff – decided to hang back a little as he didn’t think he’d be able to go as fast up the hill. Jonesy, still a little befuddled by the gears on a road bike when compared to an MTB held further back.

The hill had nothing by way of a build up, instead it just began and sustained the same gradient for 0.9 miles. After my usual psychological jitters about half-way up, that feeling of doubt where you feel the hill may never end, or worse that you might suddenly stop going up and start rolling uncontrollably backwards, I just put my head down, undid the straps on my bike helmet and dug deep for the remain 500 metres or so. With my legs beginning to feel the burn, I stopped a few metres beyond the summit of the climb and waited by a small pond.

As I dismounted, panting like a madman, a lady appeared and started explaining to me that there was a duck in the pond that shouldn’t be there – subsequent research has failed to find out the identity of the duck. In my slightly knackered stated, I just about managed to mumble something about calling the RSPB which satisfied the lady to the extent that she left me alone and wandered off to feed the ducks.

After a pause of a minute or two, Page appeared over the brow of the hill. We stood and waited, beginning to wonder whether Jonesy had got off and started to push, or whether he’d collapsed in a heap halfway up the hill. 

Just as I was about to walk to the brow of the hill and see where he was, Jonesy appeared, red in the face, bouncing out of the saddle due to riding in his easiest gear, and to a chorus of cheering and support from Page and myself. He managed to roll his increasingly dirty Cannondale CAAD10 to a halt by the pond before hopping off and bouncing around with cramp.

After five minutes of respite, we got moving once more, but not before Jonesy, losing his balance whilst getting back on his bike, had grabbed on to Page bringing the pair of them crashing to the ground. The ducks seemed unimpressed by the commotion and even the sea cadet walking by on the other side of the road seemed unmoved, as I stood there dying of laughter.


Out into Open Country

The next five or six miles simply flew by as we passed through Old Coulsdon, bisected Coulsdon Common avoiding the epic puddles, darted off the main road, along the winding Roffe’s Lane and through Grub’s Wood. 

Once out of the other side of the little woods we started to roll down the sharp decent of Whitehill Lane. My confidence in Sasha – my Specialized Allez 2013 named for Beyoncé’s alter ego Sasha Fierce – meant that after a 100 metres or so of braking, I let go of the brakes, started to pedal, and, with water streaming from my eyes, the Garmin registered around 32 mph. Our reward was to be spat out of the woods at what felt like great speed onto a bridge over the M25 motorway. Free at last.

Page leading the peloton forward, followed by Jonesy, just coming up to half way.
The mood in the peloton had suddenly lifted, as had the threat of imminent rain. The endorphins were clearly kicking in as I decided to start singing ‘Clique’ by Kanye West. A decision that I later regretted as Jonesy, mistaking the lyrics slightly and singing things I couldn’t repeat in the polite company of my dear readers, continued to sing the song for the duration of the ride.

The peloton, with Page keeping good speed and Jonesy revived, snaked its way around the country lanes, passing through Bletchingly and a number of anonymous hamlets, and with the sun rising across the fields as we rolled along a B-road, my Garmin beeped. We had reached the halfway point and suddenly Brighton felt that little bit closer – although the challenge of Turners Hill and the category 4 climb of Ditchling Beacon still lay ahead.

⇐ Part One: The Mall to WallingtonPart Three: Countryside to Brighton Pier ⇒

It's still not quite too late to donate to the cause if you wish. Visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ayohcee to find out more.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

London to Brighton: Part One - The Mall to Wallington

Best Laid Schemes...

I have been bitten by the road cycling bug. It is as simple as that. I bought a £600 Specialized Allez 2013 road bike shortly after the Olympics with four simple cycling goals: get fitter, get faster, go longer and stay alive.

The decision to ride my bike from London to Brighton on 19th January arose as a result of needing to lead by example. With my students struggling with inspiration and motivation to start their fundraising projects for this year’s trip to Uganda, I figured I would show them how it was done.

My idea was simple: set up a fundraising page on BT MyDonate supporting All Our Children (UK), say that I am going to ride from The Mall, outside Buckingham Palace, and ride, via the countryside, to Brighton on the south coast, with a fundraising target of £100 for the event.

The snow came, the ride was delayed, but at least it looked pretty.
Before I knew it, I had amassed £300 of sponsorship and had some riding support in the form of two old school mates from my time at Aylesford School, Warwick, namely Simon Page and Chris 'Jonesy' Jones. 

Of course, "the best laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley" and sure enough on Friday 18th January all of England and Wales was covered in a thick layer of snow. Cue a one-week delay where no training could be done. Our new start time would be 6am on Sunday 27th January.

After what seemed like not enough sleep, the 5 o’clock alarm was ringing on my phone playing Bob Marley's 'Sun is Shining'. I got up, staggered to the spare bedroom to wake Jonesy, and looked through the window to see the rain lashing down against the parked cars. So much for Marley's sunshine.

To try and counter the rain, waterproof jackets were dinned and a little invention used to protect our feet. Using a roll of cling-film, we wrapped our footwear and secured the film with sticky tape. I couldn’t imagine Team Sky doing this, and looking a little ramshackle, but with some protection for our toes, we set off, in the driving rain, towards the start point to meet Page.


The Mall to Wallington

With the rain coming down at a seemingly impossible angle, Jonesy and myself arrived having already completed an 8-mile journey from Walthamstow to the Mall. Although warm within our jackets, the rain was already beginning to take its chilly toll upon our not so waterproof cycling trousers.

Flashing in the distance, or rather his bike lights flashing in the distance, Page could be seen doing circuits around the Victoria Memorial, like a hamster in a wheel, presumably to keep warm. With a quick shake of hands, we set off, only a few minutes late, along the vast, wet expanse of the Mall, towards Trafalgar Square.

Stopping at the junction of the Mall and Trafalgar Square, a performance in itself for Jonesy who’d not quite got the hang of using his clip-in cycle shoes, we paused briefly to acknowledge the fact we were passing Uganda House and remember the reason we were even partaking in this cold, rainy madness in the first place – helping my students to get involved in an education partnership with a school in south-western Uganda.

Turning the corner, heading along Whitehall and past Big Ben we encountered what would become our biggest bugbear on this journey: an epic headwind. The ferocity of the wind became apparent the closer we got to the Thames as it battered us intermittently before we turned left onto Chelsea Bridge, crossing the immeasurable body of inky water beneath us, and headed to the relative shelter of Battersea.

Winding through the early morning London streets brought a regular smile to my face as we passed the bemused faces of the walk-of-shamers and Sunday-morning workers waiting at bus stops more in hope than expectation for a bus to arrive. What must they have thought of the sight of this sodden peloton rolling along the hitherto deserted roads?

Instagramming whilst riding, not advised and attempted only when on empty streets.
We rolled on regardless, chatting about funny incidents, and not so funny incidents, at work and home. Stories of being in the wrong part of London at the wrong time. Discussions about how you don’t have to be crazy to ride through central London in rush hour. Life seemed sweet as the relatively flat roads of Clapham, Balham and Tooting came and went.

It was shortly after Mitcham that we had our first real hitch. Jonesy seemed to be struggling, Page had slowed down, and me, being in full-on Tour de France mode, had ridden on unaware. We had a regroup by Mitcham Junction station. Jonesy said his saddle seemed a tad too low and he was taking to much pressure on his quads. A quick adjustment was made and off we went again.

A little further down the road, crossing the rail bridge at Hackbridge, Jonesy yet again disappeared. After a wait of a few minutes, Jonesy reappeared in the distance and caught up. It was clear that he was struggling, not only with energy levels, but also to get used to his brand-new, £1,200 Cannondale CAAD 10 road bike. I handed him an energy gel and figured it was best to keep him rolling to get the gel working.

Ten minutes later, and with the peloton crawling at a somewhat less than Olympic pace of 8 mph up Woodcote Road in Wallington, I was concerned we’d never get to Brighton by nightfall, let alone in less than 5 hours riding. Jonesy was out of energy and we hadn’t even reached our first ‘categorised’ hill climb of Marlpit Lane, Coulsdon.

With our peloton only as strong as its weakest man, and as the rain cleared and the sun rose over the houses, it was all looking like coming to an ignominious end in the sleeping suburbs of south London.

It's not quite too late to donate to the cause if you wish. Visit https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/ayohcee to find out more.
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