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Sunday, 2 August 2015

Which Way?

Sorry for the silence and I hope everyone's having a good summer!  I am in a very thoughtful mood at the moment and not feeling like writing,  but I'll be back soon.

The picture, by the way, was taken on the border of Italy and Slovenia, just outside Trieste.  I didn't have any idea where ANY of these destinations were, so of course it didn't matter which way I went!

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

Layers of Time and Dirty Dick's

Our daughter Vanessa called to see if we wanted to accompany her on a walk to research Spitalfields, in London.  The area is roughly around Liverpool St. mainline station and here is the view as you walk out of the station - a real mixture of old and new.

Vanessa is SO interesting to walk around with. She always spots the most unusual and interesting things. We'd had a stroll around this area about five years ago and were astounded to find it had changed a lot.

Although, well, some things haven't changed - Dirty Dick's pub for instance.  The pub is perfectly clean but Dirty Dick Bentley's story lives on. Two hundred years ago he was a rich young man, heir to a successful wine business, quite a dandy and engaged to be married.   He invited his friends over to meet his intended bride and laid on a splendid dinner, but she did not arrive, and instead, a messenger came with news of her sudden death.  Like Charles Dickens' Miss Havisham, Dirty Dick shut up the dining room, vowing to leave the food for the rats and mice. After this, he became reclusive and miserly.

The shop became ruinous and the upper parts were demolished in 1870, when the present pub was built.  Some of Dirty Dick's cobweb festooned vaults still remain beneath it though. And, if you are interested, the London Fortean Society  meet in the vaults each month to discuss strange happenings and ghostly phenomena. Does Dirty Dick haunt their meetings? Who knows .... but he is certainly immortalised in that old Irish song, "King of the Cannibal Islands" where the King's house was "like Dirty Dick's."

In fact, taking a longer perspective - half a century or so - Spitalfields does keep changing. Sometimes it's posh, sometimes it's slummy, and sometimes it's where everyone wants to be.  It just depends on fashion.  We have a slight family connection with it ourselves. A relative died not too long ago, at the age of nearly 104. She had been born and raised in Spitalfields during one of its slummy periods and she hated it so much she refused to talk about it for the rest of her life.  She was quite pleased to learn that the immigrants flocking there today are metropolitan trendies from all corners of the globe.   

And so we came to this property below.  In its heyday, the early 18th century, it was the home of Anna Maria Garthwaite, one of the pre-eminent textile designers of her period, who arrived in then-smart Spitalfields from Lincolnshire.  A hundred years later, her house was probably still fairly respectable, but a hundred years after that, a whole family might have lived in just one room of it in the most wretched conditions.  

Now, Spitalfields is so super-cool that this house has been preserved lovingly in its original state for use in films, media events and videos.

Another house nearby, 19 Princelet Street, belongs to a community trust. Also an ex-slum, it is just too fragile to open regularly to the public. It's quite like New York's brilliant Tenement Museum but is much less organised, and it also has had a Jewish synagogue in its basement, built over what was once the house's garden.    I attended one of 19 Princelet Street's rare open days a few years ago and found it particularly atmospheric, just because it hasn't yet been made completely safe for everyday visitor opening (although the trust is fund raising, and individuals can walk around safely).  When the immigrants arrived, and  tramped up the stairs carrying their bundles, they probably did worry that they'd fall through the floor.....

Well, our relative certainly did.

I could write a book about our walk around this area, but I'll just give you a few of the highlights. Below is the charnel house of St. Mary Magdalene, excavated very recently when Bishops Square was built above it.   The strange figure shown is NOT real, and human remains have been removed. This bone house was attached to the 13th century priory and hospital of St. Mary, and now you can view it through a glass floor near where city workers sit and eat their lunchtime sandwiches.

Before Spitalfields became cool, it was very drab, and frankly a bit scary, with lots of the huge old buildings converted into dingy, old fashioned offices and really squalid little flats and shops, and parts were almost deserted at night.  I remember once driving through in the car and noticing that it had so many beautiful old buildings and would be a great opportunity if we were into colonising neglected bits of London.   But apart from the fact we weren't, it would have made me very depressed to move there at that time.  It really was awful. 

However, its narrow, crumbling streets had for centuries offered a place of safety, friendly faces and familiar language for immigrants fleeing from persecution or famine.  In those days, most immigrants were from the Bangladeshi-Sylheti communities, and for a while, Brick Lane, the centre of the area, became the place to go for top class Indian food.   Down a side alley we found the remains of a beautiful wooden mural, now damaged and covered in graffiti. If you look carefully you can see the cultures of Britain and the Indian subcontinent mixed together.  

This is the red bus you can just see at the far end of the mural in the picture above. 

Here's one of the remnants of Banglatown, as it was called - a big, and definitely not beautiful, cash and carry store. 

Just to the left, you can see some street art on the wall. A better view is below. Street art is big in the area now, and I could have spent half the day photographing it.  You can't call it graffiti - a lot of time and work has gone into these strange images. 

Even the local pub has got in on the act, with a man made of beer bottle tops on the wall.

The area's dominated by Christ Church Spitalfields, designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor.  I'm not the only person to get a bit spooked by Hawksmoor's churches. There is always something a bit strange about the exteriors to me, off balance and weird (this facade is VERY narrow). And Peter Ackroyd wrote a very good and disturbing novel set in the area around this very church. 

On a sunny summer day it didn't look too creepy, though.. 

And inside, it is graceful and attractive. I noticed it had many memorial plaques to missionaries to the local Jews, who were one of the groups of immigrants who settled here.  I didn't approve, although I know times were different then  and they thought they were doing the right thing.  And I certainly didn't realise you could be a missionary without leaving your own home.

In one of the streest we found a metal street map showing "Historic Spitalfields." The background to the street map was created from mirrors.  It made the point that we, people on the streets,  are part of the ever changing scene of this bit of London.  

And then we went back to Dirty Dick's and caught a bus home. I've never seen a gay double decker bus before, so that was yet another new thing about Spitalfields, I guess!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Star Men .. and Sheffield

I'm back from Sheffield, where we went for just one day to see Nick's film.  And, well!  In my mind Sheffield had been a place of blackened stone and brick, with a certain gloomy period atmosphere. But when I got out of the station - wow!  Where were the tatty car park and derelict old buildings I remembered? Instead, a reflective wall of water, glimmering with colours, sweeping in a great curve up the hill.

dwindling to a quarter of the size at the other end - an ingenious optical illusion.

 On the hillside beyond, the windows of once notorious, now partly renovated Park Hill Estate glittered with jewel like colours.

Now Sheffield Hallam University buildings surround the station.  Not all of them are very beautiful but - they have tried.  We climbed the hill into town, following a mysterious mosaic channel which I suppose was meant to be filled with water - wonder why it wasn't?

it had a very fine plughole 

The place was hung with film festival banners, and we passed an outdoor screening of interesting vintage documentaries. Incidentally, that wasn't the only building I saw with a face painted on the side. Quite surreal. Wonder who he is. Some vintage Sheffield celebrity? Do you know?

And on the wall of a large ugly block a poem welcoming visitors to Sheffield by the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion. Great poem.  Click the link to read the text. 

I don't know what the rest of Sheffield is like,and secretly I would like to think that there is still a bit of grand, gloomy Victoriana somewhere, but I like a city that presents an artistic face to the world. There is a vibrancy, affluence and liveliness now that there certainly wasn't before.

So I'll come back and have a better look around, but, as I said yesterday, we were going to see a film featuring a relative,  Nick Woolf.  Nick is a retired astronomer, and fifty years ago, he took a road trip across the American southwest with some English friends, a couple of tents, a Union Jack and a wonderful old car.  That is him lurking on the left.

In those days, war-exhausted, impoverished Britain offered a great education but not much in the way of opportunities, and several of the young English astronomers on the road trip went on to have careers abroad, although a couple did become Cambridge professors. The others stayed in America, where the study of space was starting to take off in a big way.

In the documentatary Star Men, the survivors retraced their road-trip footsteps in a way both touching and quixotic, tackling alarming desert hikes and reflecting on how their work in  trying to unravel secrets of the infinite universe has shaped their views on the inner and outer life, what you know and what you'll never know.

I found the film a complete eye opener.  I'd really come to support Nick, but actually I have never been particularly excited by astronomy, so I'd probably never have seen this film if it hadn't been for him. Which would have been  my great loss, because I was absolutely gripped.  

Not only the stunning visual images -  in particular a time lapse sequence of countless stars whirling about remote Rainbow Bridge in wildest Utah  - go here for a mere still photograph  and then imagine it in motion.    I also loved the curious synchronised time-lapse swooping ballet as the elegant dishes of the Very Large Array at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory turned to invisible signals.  [credit]  Much of the film was set in an otherworldly desert landscape on the edge of human life. 

Most of all, the film's artistry helped me to see just what is so fascinating and compelling about the study of the stars. I feel I now have some understanding of why we do need to study them, consider them. To put ourselves in perspective, perhaps, to aspire to impossible tasks, to unravel enormous mysteries. 

All these thoughtful and intelligent men were full of ideas and curiosity, not least on the subject of death and endings, which, at their age, preoccupies them more and more. Even though they see themselves as mere specks in infinity, and even though they all have brains at least the size of Jupiter, I was interested to see that they hold very different views on religion.  

There was a discussion at the end of the film, Nick,(the tall one in the middle)  two of the other professors and the director, Alison Rose, went up before the audience for a  Q and A session.  Someone asked Nick what he thought of his portrayal in the film. "Well - it looks like me. It sounds like me," he said.  "And,actually - it is me."   What a tribute to Rose, I thought.   

I left the screening on a high, I appreciated the chance to see a documentary made with artistry,  passion, curiosity and respect for its subject.   No dumbing down, no flattery,and, if there were any pressures from politicians and bean-counters, Rose managed to keep them out of the film.  

Star Men will do various festivals and then come out on DVD.  I think its makers, Inigo Productions, are planning to offer it to the BBC.  The BBC is still the best place to try and show good work, so I hope it finds a home there.  And I have put in my diary to attend the Sheffield DocFest next year. Maybe I'll have the chance to see more of Sheffield then! 

Come to think of it, I would love to revisit the American southwest. I did quite a bit of work there in years gone by, and I miss those amazing landscapes. I envy those of you who can get out into them sometimes, to feel the desert wind and see the huge horizons.  

Monday, 8 June 2015

Thought Provoking???

I saw this huge oak tree the other evening in the grounds of an old country house in Suffolk, with late may-blossom in the background.

England can be so beautiful at this time of year.

I'm off to Sheffield to see a relative who is featured in a documentary film. (PS Here is the link, forgot to put it in before).  I'm told that it is quite thought provoking.  Not quite sure what to expect but it's years since I went to Sheffield, so at least I will be able to compare it as it is today with the way it was when I was a teenager in nearby Chesterfield.  I think it's fair to say that Shef will now be very different from the grimy yet characterful old place it was in those days!

As for the film, I will just have to wait and see..... "thought provoking" - what can that mean???

Tuesday, 26 May 2015


I appreciated all your comments on Palmyra.  Have you noticed that this amazing city has actually been written about quite a lot,  so it seems the eyes of the world are turned anxiously towards it, and its significance for all of us.  I'm just hoping, and also stopping myself from checking the news too much.

Over the last week I've been in Southern Spain, mostly away from the news,  thank goodness. It wasn't a travel writing assignment, because we were attending a big wedding.  That involved visiting an old, small but beautiful church in the mountains about Fuengirola, in Andalucia. Here's the view from the terrace outside the church, down to the sea.

Inside, the church had the kind of ornate golden altar that you often see in Spanish churches. Unusually  (I thought) the Virgin Mary was at the centre of the altar, not Jesus on the Cross - which is much more usual in Northern churches.

I wish I could post loads of photos about the wedding and people, and indeed the whole experience, but with so many people attending, there wasn't a hope of getting everyone's permission. So I am afraid I can't tell you about any of that - but I'll write about where we stayed because it was a very pleasant surprise. In fact, I liked it so much that we're dead set on returning later this year or next.

We were in the the town called Fuengirola, which is about 20 miles down the coast from Malaga by train, just past Torremolinos.  As many English people will know, this area, also known as the Costa Del Sol,  was for some years the centre of the package holiday business, and it became associated with the idea of tower block hotels and noisy bars.  I liked Malaga, but I'd never considered going down the coast.  So what a surprise it was to finally get there! And even more of one to find good restaurants, interesting shops,flowers, and a general air of brightness and cleanliness.

True, Fuengirola has a big beach, lots of bars and hotels, and quite a large expat community, too, so it is not the fishing village it was 50 years ago when our relatives' family bought their house there. But the apartment complex where we stayed was so pleasant and central, that I realised it would be a terrific place to go with a family and still be able to stay sane.  Kids would appreciate the little funfair on the beach and the various attractions, but it doesn't take long to drive out into the mountains beyond, the town itself is a good place to hang out and our apartment complex was just plain amazing.

It's probably nicer at this time of year than in high summer, not only because it's less busy but because so many of the streets are lined with jacaranda trees in full bloom. Their lilac-blue blossoms seem almost ethereal because the leaves of the trees mostly come out a bit after the blossoms, and you get this lavender colour as a sort of haze against the sky.

We stayed in a holiday complex very near the centre just to the right of the road above.  It's called Puebla Lucia, and is a mixture of apartments and houses, set around gardens which are obviously maintained by a perfectionist.
They were just immaculate. More meticulously cared for than even Kew Gardens, I'd say. They were divided into several different areas, with fountains and swimming pools.

I think the Pueblo Lucia complex has grown when the owners took over and converted existing apartment blocks, so there is a variety of flats, houses and studios, and we kept discovering new corners. There is also a bar and restaurant on site, although we didn't try them.

It's a few minutes walk from the train station and about another 10 minutes to the huge beach. That frankly is not my scene as it was already boiling hot and it's only May, and I just don't see the point of sitting in full sun for hours, even if the sea is nearby.  I wasn't that crazy on the children's funfair, family restaurants and all the other things English holidaymakers expect, either, although it was all clean and friendly enough.. 

Eating out is very cheap - in fact, everything seems ridiculously cheap from a British perspective (but then, we are not in the Euro).  We ate quite a bit in restaurants where there was very good fish of all kinds, as well as some unexpected dishes.  At first, we didn't quite know what to make of this, below, with the tomato in the middle. It's actually a fish pancake in a herb sauce. I was a bit dubious, but it turned out to be so delicious that everyone wanted one.  

We had breakfast each morning in the public market's cafe, where the twins (now almost toddling) were a star turn with the owners.   Then we'd buy fruit and veg for the day. I wish we could get great big  tomatoes like this in England.  Not that we can't get beefsteak tomatoes here, but after weeks of sitting in a chiller somewhere, they have usually lost all their taste by the time they get onto the supermarket shelves. 

Although of course part of the attraction for us was in having other people around, we were really sorry to leave our apartment, and intend to return.  This was the last sight of Spain, baking in the sunshine. 

Next time I visit, I'll  buy some Spanish tiles, bring them home and tile the inside of our back balcony with them.  Because, even allowing for the weather, I am already yearning for a bit more Spanish brightness and colour around the place.


Saturday, 16 May 2015


I was haflway through another post when I heard that Daesh (ISIS) was on the verge of entering Palmyra. And I have been able to think about little else.  In case you don't know, Palmyra's is a UNESCO world heritage site in Syria, and the Daesh barbarians want to bulldoze it just like they bulldozed the Iraqi site of Nimrod.  If I had not been to the Middle East,  I can't say I would have been as bothered as I am, because to be honest, I'm not that knowledgable about most of the ancient sites I've seen;  but believe me, some of the Middle Eastern sites are in a totally different league from anything you will find in the West.

So although I don't usually do long posts, forgive all these pictures. I want to show you what it was like when we went to Palmyra in February 2011, when many people thought the Syrian tourist industry was on the verge of opening up to more people.  As it was, there were few independent travellers, and we had Palmyra almost entirely to ourselves.

We stayed in an old colonial hotel dating from the 1930s,-  the only hotel which is actually in the midst of the ruins.  You could imagine it featuring in an Agatha Christie novel.   The idea was to see Palmyra as the sun rose, and so we got up before dawn and crept through the deserted entrance lobby and outside.

The darkness was lifting and before long the sky had turned a soft rose and violet colour as the moon dropped towards the horizon and the sky began to brighten..

 Very quickly, the first fierce light of the sun appeared, the Roman columns silhouetted against its vivid glow.

... lighting the buildings up in an orange glow and casting long shadows....

It is a true city, and stretches a long way, and a lot of it has survived the last couple of thousand years. 

The sun came up very fast, and the camels woke up

Everything seemed to glow. 

Very quickly, though, the light became bright and white.  There was complete silence.

It was extraordinary having the place almost to ourselves.

Above the city were strange towers.  The barren looking hills on which they stood were covered in tiny transparent flowers which almost glittered in the sun, but I found them impossible to photograph. As we slogged up the hills we were glad it was winter, and still quite cold in the early mornings. 

I did think of the people who built these great towers.

Down on the plain, the sun was getting brighter

You could go inside some of the buildings

There were signs of repairs going on, although nobody was doing the work. 

There were a few places along the road to Palmyra offering refreshments. The owner of the one we chose spoke perfect English. He had lived in England for some years, but returned to Palmyra, his hometown, with the idea of creating an authentic desert restaurant for the tourist trade he hoped would materialise.  

In early 2011, life seemed to be improving in Syria.  Assad was becoming more liberal and, as in Libya, some of the extraordinary ancient ruins were becoming more accessible to individual travellers.  The owner didn't want to charge us for the tea because he wasn't yet officially open - typical of Syrian hospitality.

There's a small unpretentious settlement some way from the ruins with eating places and shops, catering for what tourists there were - nearly all groups.  This was the view from our cafe window. 

The camels I think were supposed to give tourists rides - although there were almost no tourists.  Horses are a good way of getting around the site, since there are no roads. 

By the late afternoon, a handful of other travellers had turned up, although the city was still almost empty. Many people like to climb the mountain to the east of  Palmyra as evening comes on, to view the sunset over the plain.

In the dusty light of evening, some parts of of the landscape looks almost unreal.   Here are those towers.

The sun drops quickly, the desert goes pink again. In the distance are the date plantations.

A telecom mast on the mountain adds a touch of modernity.  About a dozen people were on the mountain, plus many Bedouin, desperate to sell trinkets. The Bedouin, desert dwellers, were the only people who pestered us to buy during our stay in Palmyra.  They are very poor. 

And so the sun disappeared, and that rose glow entered the sky again as night came on

We had a car and drove away from Palmyra then, across the desert.

I spotted this single joker card tucked in among the rocks in Palmyra. For me it sums up the present situation, when anything could happen. Syrian forces are bombing IS to try and stop it from getting into the city.  I do hope that luck is on the side of Palmyra.

As for my political rantings last week, I am quite happy with the results of the election, because I am profoundly grateful to live in a true parliamentary democracy with a stable government.

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