Category Archives: London Life

A midwinter ramble

WoodlandThis midwinter, I’m reading Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, along with the peerless landscape author Robert Macfarlane and thousands of others on Twitter (#TheDarkIsReading if you want to join in).

The children’s novel, which opens in a very English countryside, on the eve of midwinter’s day, is beloved of many but new to me. The opening chapter is a masterpiece of the uncanny, as ten-year-old Will Stanton notices ominous signs creeping into his familiar, domestic sphere.

Animals are suddenly afraid of him; his favourite rabbit startles away. Rooks wheel above him in the sky, a seething and unquiet mass, then swoop down to attack a strange, dishevelled old man. The farmer gives Will a mysterious gift and warns: “Tonight will be bad. And tomorrow will be beyond imagining.” A more chilling sentence is hard to imagine.

As Will’s family gathers for supper, the snow begins to fall. As one commenter on Twitter observed: “The snow settles. Everything else unsettles”.

This midwinter day in London is unsettlingly mild, although the white sky could presage snow in colder temperatures. Before starting work today, I set out to my local woodland, inspired by the book, for a midwinter ramble.

Ivy.jpgSydenham Hill woods was once part of the Great North Wood that covered this part of south London. It’s a domesticated suburban woodland now, but the backbone of the forest is still there; the soaring trunks of oak and hornbeam, straight and dark in the damp air, raising their bare canopies to the skies. Sombre holly hunches beneath (few scarlet berries this year), intertwined with glossy ivy.

I can hear birdsong – warbling blue tits and robins, fizzing starlings, the mournful coo of a wood pigeon.  More exotically, emerald parakeets squawk, newcomers to these English woods. Deeper in, I hear the insistent drill of a woodpecker, although I can’t spot him. The wood is alive with squirrels, bounding across the carpet of dead leaves and scuttling up tree trunks.

Alert for the uncanny, I notice cobwebs in the fissures of oak trunks, sudden showers of water from wet leaves, the soft mist shrouding the spire of St Stephens church, rising above the trees. I’m heading for the place where rooks gather.

They are there, a few of them, quietly perched among the bare branches, or taking a desultory look for worms on the grass verge. No swirling hordes, no swoops, no restless cawing. It’s quiet up here at the top of the hill. Traffic noise is muted, the mist softening the view towards London, where the glass towers of the city sometimes glitter in the morning sunshine.

Rooks

The shortest day, the longest night. There is no sense here of menace, of the rise of the dark. It’s a slightly melancholy day, a dim, muted day for working and reading. Back home, I’m glad to see the white lights on the Christmas tree, promising company and feasting to entice back the sun. Not long now. The dark may be rising, but the light will always return.

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Listening to Refugee Tales

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Rave in the nave, Kingston-on-Thames

I’m in a church in Kingston-on-Thames, dancing to the joyful sound of a steel band playing Bob Marley. The group I’m with laughs and claps, snaking in a conga-line around a politely-seated audience. I met these people only two days ago. How did I get here?

My story is simple: six months ago I saw a tweet about something called Refugee Tales. It sounded interesting; I went to the website and signed up. I more or less forgot about it until it was time to head for Runnymede (site of the signing of the Magna Carta) for the start of a winding walk along the Thames to Westminster.

For many of my fellow-walkers, this walk was part of a much longer journey, which started much further away, on other continents. Many of them had been through barely-imaginable hardships and dangers, and carried with them the grief of losing country, family, friends, the future they had planned. Their treatment on arrival in the UK was in some cases soul-destroying.

Except their souls had not been destroyed. Indeed, their souls were in fine shape, as witnessed by the laughter, singing and dancing all around me in that Kingston church.

Refugee Tales is a walk in solidarity with those held in indefinite detention by UK immigration services, while seeking refuge in this country.

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Reflecting in a garden in Walton-on-Thames

It’s a profound and simple way of offering a welcome and perhaps forging a path through what has become hostile territory, creating our own welcome for those who have been denied that basic human dignity. Some of the walkers were detention visitors; some were people who had themselves been held in detention. Some were supporters of the cause, or people like me who’d simply heard about the event and liked the sound of it.

We walked together along the river Thames, getting to know each other, hearing each others’ stories, enjoying the tranquil surroundings, the freedom that comes from making our way unimpeded, on foot, to our destination. We ate together, and after the evening’s events, unrolled sleeping bags to fall asleep together in church halls offering hospitality.

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Blue-shirted Refugee Walkers on the move

Patron of the charity, writer Ali Smith (one of my favourite authors) puts it beautifully, when she says: “The telling of stories is an act of profound hospitality.” She describes storytelling as an “ancient form of generosity” – and to emphasise the point, when she met us en-route, she read from the Odyssey, one of the oldest of old tales, describing how the lost and weary traveller was met with hospitality when shipwrecked on an island. There are many people shipwrecked on islands these days, including our own. The welcome is not always so generous.

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Ali Smith reads from The Odyssey

One of the many things I learned on the walk was that the UK is the only country in Europe to hold those seeking refuge in indefinite, arbitrary detention. It’s a flagrant denial of their humanity, and one that directly contravenes the rights set out in the 13th century Magna Carta, let alone the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Refugee Tales project is an offshoot of the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group, a tireless and dogged charity that visits, supports and campaigns on behalf of people being held at in detention at Gatwick by the immigration service.

As well as organising the walk, Refugee Tales engages writers including Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Helen Macdonald and Neel Mukherjee to work with detainees to write stories based on their experiences. The stories are collected in two volumes and are wonderful. They are even more electrifying when read aloud, by the writers or by actors, as they were during the evening events.

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Dinner over, time to chat

In Kingston, I had a chat over dinner with a gentle and courteous young man whose story was being told that evening. Later I tried to imagine how he had survived the shocking experiences relayed in his tale, and remained so gentle. The previous night, an amazing young man told us his harrowing life story directly.

Both of these men wanted, above all, to finish their studies and be able to work – one as a social worker, the other as a doctor. The UK is lucky to have people of this calibre in our country. It’s about time we stopped treating them like criminals.

The first step in recognising someone as a human being is to listen to their story. The second, perhaps, is to share your own. Stories break down the barriers between ‘them’ and ‘us’. Before you know it, you’re all part of the same gang, on the same journey.

If anything can save the human world, I think it will be stories.

To find out more about how you can help, see the website http://refugeetales.org/getinvolved/

 

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Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.
    Dunes

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No more cakes and ale: Emma Rice to leave Shakespeare’s Globe

Dream“Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?”

Shakespeare’s barb, aimed at the puritan Malvolio in Twelfth Night, seems an apposite response to the stuffed shirts at Shakespeare’s Globe. They have got rid of Emma Rice, the theatre’s first female director, for the crime of using lighting and sound effects, rather than sticking to their po-faced agenda of ‘authenticity’.

I’ve loved The Globe from its opening back in the nineties, when the equally exciting and innovative Mark Rylance launched the theatre. The fear was always that it would be a museum of Shakespeare, somewhere that tourists and bored school kids were taken while ‘doing’ our national poet. Rylance’s passion made it a thrilling venue, where you were never sure what you would see next. His experiments with authentic lighting, costumes and minimal staging felt new and radical at the time.

Dominic Dromgoole was a ‘safe pair of hands’ successor, although some of the Globe To Globe productions – inviting theatre troupes from around the world to perform the plays in their own language – were exciting, if perhaps less commercially successful. But it had been a while since I’d had such a vibrant theatrical experience as Emma Rice’s first production at The Globe, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (reviewed here).

I felt like I did the first time I fell in love with theatre. I laughed aloud, clapped till my hands hurt, hung on every word, cheered at the end. I was with a friend who had never seen Shakespeare before. She’d expected a difficult, maybe boring night out. We had a riot. This, I told her exuberantly, was why I love Shakespeare. He can take all the 21st century can throw at him, its carnival and excess and multiculturalism, and emerge all the better for it.

Well, he can. The audiences, which loved the play and packed the theatre, can too. Sadly, the Shakespeare’s Globe board can’t. It released a mealy-mouthed statement which acknowledged Rice’s enormous success – then added: “Following much deliberation and discussion, the Globe Board has concluded that from April 2018, the theatre programming should be structured around ‘shared light’ productions without designed sound and light rigging, which characterised a large body of The Globe’s work prior to Emma’s appointment.”

Confusingly, they continue: “As Emma has already so brilliantly and inventively demonstrated, the Globe remains committed to delighting audiences and engaging them in both Shakespeare’s work and the playhouse for which he wrote.” Delighting and engaging us by sacking the brilliant, inventive director who delighted and engaged us? Pull the other one.

The crazy thing about this is that Shakespeare was an innovator, an inventor of language who forged new types of drama, played in new types of theatre. Does anyone seriously think the man who wrote The Tempest would have chucked out the lighting rig, if he’d had access to one? He even wrote a speech (in Hamlet) criticising old-fashioned acting methods. If Shakespeare walked among us now, I bet you he’d be working with Emma Rice, not with the Globe’s board.

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Caught by the River Thames

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The Thames from Putney Bridge

The first Caught by the River Thames festival at Fulham Palace was conceived as “a cross between a vicar’s tea party and an Anti-Nazi League gig,” according to one of the organisers. So what washed up on the river bank?

There was a strong literary/nature writing theme to the weekend. Some of my favourite authors, including Iain Sinclair and Melissa Harrison, talked waterways, wilderness and seasons.

Sinclair spoke of the choice Londoners face between following the river upstream, to the riparian villages of Cookham and Swan Upping, or downriver to the ‘Heart of Darkness’ in the estuary. Conrad or Jerome K Jerome – two impossibly different visions of the Thames.

I loved Harrison’s description of how seasons in a temperate country like the UK help us understand and keep track of time – ‘The seasons are to time as a metronome is to music.’ The rhythm of the year, blackberries to bare branches, cherry blossom to courgette flowers, provides some reassurance of our place in the dizzying march of time.

More potential dizzying from Andy Hamilton, who kicked off Sunday with a masterclass in creating booze for free, talking us through his experiments in infusing, brewing and making alcoholic concoctions from the most amazing ingredients. I’m planning to have a go at his 18-botanical gin, made in half an hour during his talk, although I may give the kelp martini a miss.

Chill-out time meant a retreat to snooze under an apple tree in the bosky and beautiful  Walled Garden, complete with impressive vegetable patch, bee hives and spectacular dahlias.

There was music, as befits a festival, from the trippy North African Imarhan, to the final stomping session from headliners Super Furry Animals. I loved both of these, as well as the impressively funky Llareggub Brass Band and Ramones-wannabees Temples. I’m not a Beth Orton fan, though, and Saturday night’s doom rockers Low were not a high point for me either. My main disappointment was being unable to see poet/rapper Kate Tempest perform, as she’d been scheduled for a room far too small for the numbers who wanted to see her.

The unexpected highlight was watching music journalist Lauren Laverne interview the wildlife broadcaster and campaigner Chris Packham on the main stage, while we sat and basked in the blazing sunshine. The interview was surprisingly personal, given that several hundred people were watching, with Chris describing how his Asperger’s syndrome affected the way he perceived the natural world. He described his early forays into natural history, his forthright methods of getting a job at the BBC, and encouraged us not to run away if faced by a predator. I’ll remember that, next time I’m set upon by a baboon.

He also had a ‘rant’ about the plight of the hen harrier, asking us all to sign a petition to prompt a parliamentary debate about the detrimental effect of driven grouse moors on the numbers of these birds of prey. I’ll finish with a link to the petition – I signed when I got home. I hope you will consider doing so too: Ban Driven Grouse Shooting.

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Bees enjoying the dahlias

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Melissa Harrison

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Iain Sinclair

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