I am diminished

This week I am diminished, made smaller, because last Friday I helped to bury my friend.

This is a blog about travelling, and what are our lives if not the journeys we make from birth to death, passing through this world? What are our travellers’ tales if not accounts of memories of what we have encountered along our way through life?

Adrian was my oldest friend. I met him when I was about 10½ and he was just 11, and though we did not walk much together through the world, still we saw one another from time to time and compared notes. We’d had more contact lately, what with the Internet and Facebook, but even before – for thirty years, more – there were letters and the occasional phone call and a meeting now and again.

And now no more.

I met up with him most recently about two weeks before he died. He was in good health. OK, he was fatter around the middle and balder on top. The tall, slim, fair-haired boy from 1969 was gone, but which of us have not changed dramatically from our pre-pubertal selves? (I speak with the weight of many added kilos and, to be sure, a great deal more facial hair.) But he looked in good enough health.

True, he had a story to tell of great sadness in his recent life, of separation and divorce. But he was joyful too, talking about his daughter’s achievements and his own rediscovery of Buddhism after all these years.

We parted that mild, damp October evening promising to stay in touch and, on my part, with a plan forming for another visit to Brighton and another meeting in the not too distant future. Perhaps in the New Year.

I was in Florence when the news reached me that Adrian was dead. There was, it seems, no warning. On Sunday 1st November he’d visited a friend in Shoreham, and then gone for one of his long walks across the Downs, the rolling chalk hills that embrace Brighton and Hove. He’d come home to his room at the Brighton Buddhist Centre and there he’d suffered a heart attack caused by a blood clot, and died.

No one is an island, complete and self-sufficient. Everyone is a piece of a continent, a part of the whole. If a piece of earth is washed away by the sea, the whole of dry land becomes smaller in just the same way as it becomes smaller if a headland were lost, or a peninsula, or the garden of one of your friends, or your own. In the same way, the death of someone close, of a friend or a family member, may be felt more keenly, but truly anyone’s death diminishes me, because I am a part of the continent of mankind.

And Adrian has gone, and I am diminished.


Yes, you’re right, I have borrowed from John Donne – the Meditation XVII.

Now this bell tolling softly for another,
says to me, Thou must die.

Perchance he for whom this bell tolls may be so ill as that he knows not it tolls for him. And perchance I may think myself so much better than I am, as that they who are about me, and see my state, may have caused it to toll for me, and I know not that…
All mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated; God employs several translators; some pieces are translated by age, some by sickness, some by war, some by justice; but God’s hand is in every translation, and his hand shall bind up all our scattered leaves again, for that library where every book shall lie open to one another; as therefore the bell that rings to a sermon, calls not upon the preacher only, but upon the congregation to come; so this bell calls us all…
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee…

The photo of Adrian at the head of this is a selfie taken from his Facebook Page, behind is a school photo from 1971. The boy in focus, that’s Adrian.

In the sound recording the Buddhist prayer bell comes from a recording on Freesound.org by user Itsallhappening, for which many thanks. The sound of the sea is an ambient recording I made myself in Brighton.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Antiques

We’re still in Brighton.

Walk down from the Brighton Clock Tower towards the sea and take the first left. You are on Duke Street and entering the older part of Brighton. Not quite the oldest part, that is in the Lanes, but this is the first extension of the old fishing village that developed in the late 1700s.

The 'Victory'Walk on down Duke Street, noticing there is still one second-hand bookshop left – there used to be at least four, but it’s somehow comforting to see that one has hung on. You can see the “Victory” pub on the corner of Middle Street.

Duke of Duke's LaneTurn right down Middle Street, ignore the entrance to Duke’s Lane. It’s just the same tourist trap it always used to be. (Though, if you like, take a photo of the figure of the Duke on the first floor balcony. Someone has a sense of humour.)

The HippodromeMiddle Street has a kink in it as you pass the back wall of the infant school’s playground. Observe how the old Hippodrome is boarded up now and looks in need of serious redevelopment. Once an entertainment Mecca, now it’s just a waste of space. It probably has a preservation order on it but no one with the money who’s prepared to try a restoration. (Mind you, forty years ago it was still only a ghost of its former self. Bingo once weekly is all I remember.)

Friese-Greene's plaqueHere on the right is the narrow terraced house with the plaque to William Friese-Greene “the inventor of cinematography”. (The plaque lies.) Opposite is, now, the Coach House Restaurant. If they are open, go in and have a cup of coffee. If you can, sit in the front room, on the street, looking out onto Middle Street with Friese-Greene’s plaque in front of you and you’ll be in roughly the same place I occupied for a year during working hours between the summers of 1975 and 1976. If there’s no business in the restaurant (as there wasn’t the day I visited) you can engage the bored but patient young man who serves you with a story about what used to go on here, once upon a time.

The antique shop that wasWhen I left school and before I went off to university I took a year out. Nowadays I’m told this is standard practice and young people taking their gap year travel around the world, go on extreme journeys, get drunk (or high, or laid… or all three) in every continent they can and generally get all the adventurousness out of their systems before settling down to three, four or more years of serious academic study. At the tail end of the 70s it was more unusual, but I did know people who went to work on a kibbutz or spent a year teaching for Voluntary Service Overseas. Two years after me, my sister did voluntary work in Belfast with an organisation trying to bridge the gap between the warring communities there.

What I did was get a job.

It wasn’t entirely my own doing. My mother’s former boss, Mr Oliver, dabbled in antiques. Especially, he bought and occasionally sold antique clocks, and he’d previously given me a commission to research and write up an essay about the earliest clockmakers in Britain. Now he recommended me to one of his suppliers. Which was how I ended up working in an antiques shop on Middle Street.

The antique shop that was 2Capewell Antiques was owned and operated by an unlikely business partnership. One partner was Nicholas Mann who specialised in grandfather clocks, Properly called longcase clocks, they are floor-standing clocks operated by weights and a pendulum. It was Nick who was Mr Oliver’s supplier. Nick was a stocky, cheerful, curly-haired man. He had an easy smile and calculating eyes. I guess now he was in his early thirties, though I’ve always been a poor judge of age.

Nick lived in Wales where he had storage and a workshop, and drove around the country buying longcase clocks and taking them home to fix up. He dealt in other clocks and some pieces of furniture as well, but longcase clocks were his main interest. Every so often he would load up a van in Wales and drive all the way down to Brighton with new stock. Brighton was a magnet for European and American dealers and collectors.

There were usually about 30 of Nick’s clocks in the shop at any one time and one of my jobs every morning was to do the rounds, winding them up and setting them working. Usually I then went around and stopped them all, because – take it from me – 30 longcase clocks all chiming at more or less the same time on the hour every hour (not to mention the ones that also chimed on the quarters) is enough to drive you insane.

The other partner was the eponymous Phillip Capewell.

I don’t know for sure how he came into possession of the shop that had his name on it. I can’t believe it was by his own efforts. I’ve a vague memory of someone telling me his mother bought it for him. Or perhaps he’d once been more successful. By the time I came on the scene though, he was certainly not doing enough business on his own to keep the shop stocked and open. We always carried more of Nick’s stock than Phil’s. Phil needed his partner.

I think Phil must have been about the same age as Nick and like Nick, he was short and stocky, but where you could sense Nick was muscled under his skin, Phil was just dough all the way to the bone. He had a round puffy face with small blue eyes and straight blond hair. His small, pudgy hands were adorned with antique gold rings. He always wore at least two and one was a seal ring, a ring inset with a red intaglio that would once have been pressed into hot wax to create a raised image.

I’d never before ‒ and never since ‒ come across anyone with Phil’s body language. He used gestures almost as if he’d learned them consciously, but then in the middle of use he would seem to get tired of them and abruptly do something unexpected. For example, he would sometimes hold his chin in one hand in an attitude of thought, but then he would suddenly and quite savagely use his fingers to pinch the corners of his mouth together so his lips pursed out. Other times he would hold the palm of his hand against his cheek, again as if thinking, then sharply wipe the hand down and flick the fingers off his chin. Sometimes he would rub his hands together as if in glee, but I never got the impression he was doing it because he actually felt pleasure, it always seemed as if he was putting it on.

I thought of Phil as, basically, a knocker boy with pretensions. He certainly had the gift of the gab. I never saw him actually knocking on the door to talk people into selling him things. By this stage in his life he was buying from the real knocker boys. But he always had a story about anything he was trying to sell – usually a story about the previous owner. “He was a colonel in the Royal Sussex,” he’d say (though I knew the object was something he’d picked up in a flea market a week before). Sometimes he liked to present himself as a go-between. He was selling for the owner: “She’s a lovely old lady who’s fallen on hard times, poor soul.”

His story-telling overflowed into the rest of his life too. Whatever happened to him got inflated into a story, and he was the hero who came out on top. After I’d worked in the shop a few weeks and witnessed some of the incidents that Phil then turned into stories, I got to the point of taking anything that he said had happened to him with a very large pinch of salt.

If Phil had been the only person putting goods into the shop it would not only have been rather bare, it would also not have been an antiques shop, except maybe six or eight weeks out of the year. Most of the stuff he had on sale was better described as second-hand or, if I’m being generous, “vintage”. According to some of his friends, who dropped into the shop looking for Phil but stayed to chat with me if he wasn’t there, any really valuable pieces he bought he’d store in his flat rather than bring to the shop. I suspect he wasn’t getting them quite legally.

Phil didn’t come from Brighton. I’m fairly sure he came from the West Midlands, but he worked on trying to get people to think he came from London, preferably the East End. He couldn’t do the accent, but he loved trying out rhyming slang and new expressions. Especially, he loved to use slang expressions to talk about the value of things that he bought and sold, and the money that he made.

Except he didn’t talk about money, he talked about dosh. Most of his dosh he kept in readies, in rolls of notes in his pocket.
“It cost me a monkey,” he’d say, “but it’s worth a grubby hand.” (Meaning he paid £500 for something he thought he could sell for £1000.)
“I can get a grand for that but I only paid a string of ponies.” (£1000 but he only paid £250 – which is 10 ponies, 10 times £25.)
“He said it was worth a long ’un but it wasn’t even nifty.” (Worth £100 but not worth £50.)

It was from Phil I learned that there are only five types of wood.
“There’s oak, oak is good. There’s beech, beech is good too, but not as good as oak. There’s pine, pine is crap. And there’s mahogany, mahogany’s good.” Anything else was “fruit wood”.

I got more nuanced information from Nick when he was in the shop.
“This is sycamore, American. Not maple, it’s too light. Lovely wood. Look how dense the grain is. See these flecks? Sort of freckles? That’s typical sycamore.”
Then I would tease Phil by asking him “What wood is this?”
“Beech,” he’d say.
“Nick says it’s sycamore.”
And he’d wipe his hand down his cheek and flick his fingers and say, “Could be,” and change the subject or tell me to make him some tea.

I wonder where they are now, forty years on. I can’t see Nick as a pensioner. I imagine him still buying and selling his clocks. Whenever I catch an episode of one of those British reality TV shows about antiques, I half expect Nick to turn up as a dealer or even – why not – an expert. But Phil I can easily picture on a golf course somewhere in Spain, betting on the next putt. I wonder if he’s still using the same half-cockney slang for money or if he’s picked up some new words. Does he call a euro a “eurinal”?

I fear it’s likely.

Coda
I had written the above when I decided to go on line and see if I could track down Nick Mann or Phil Capewell, just to see if they’re still around and what became of them. I couldn’t find Nick. There are a surprisingly large number of people called Nicholas Mann, which is odd as it’s a schoolyard joke ‒ “Nicholas Mann’s a nickerless man!” You’d think parents would be more careful about the names they give their kids. However, Phillip Capewell was a different story.

Phil Capewell may or may not be playing golf in Spanish retirement just now, but in 2008 he was sent to prison for 5 years for receiving stolen antiques, at least according to this blog article that reproduces a report from the Brighton Argus. That photo, there at the top ‒ a Sussex police mugshot ‒ that’s definitely Phil. A receiver of stolen goods and the beneficiary of violent crime. Although I can remember Phill passing at least one unsavoury comment about sex, I don’t know how much credence to give to the accusations of paedophilia in the follow-up information below the news report. Still, what a pitiful excuse for a life.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

In the Soundcloud audio recording, the background sounds at the beginning and very end are ambient sounds of Duke Street and Middle Street that I recorded during my visit there in October 2015.

The Horta Museum

I’m standing outside the town house of Victor Horta on a Sunday afternoon. Even though it’s a Sunday afternoon, there is a small crowd of us waiting to be let in and we’re waiting because the house is full of visitors and the Horta Museum has to limit numbers. It’s a small house and there are a lot of eager visitors.

I tried to visit last week, but the people running the house wanted me to leave my camera in the reception. As I wasn’t prepared to do that, I postponed my visit instead. Now I’m back – no camera, but I have my trusty recording device – except I still haven’t learned how to use it properly and the 30 minutes or so of recording I made in the house is almost unusable. Oh well, better luck next time.

Art nouveau detailsArt Nouveau (or, if you prefer, Jugendstil) – you cannot escape it in Brussels. It’s in the stained glass of door lights and window panels, it’s in the intricate ribbons of balcony railings, it’s in the twisting forms of decorative house numbers and the willowy women featured in fresco facades. You even see it reproduced as graffiti, in the ironwork of some bus shelters and in the transfers decorating the doors of Brussels buses.

The man responsible for this – or at least the man who is credited with first introducing Art Nouveau into Brussels architecture – is Victor Horta. Whose town house I have just got into.

Excuse me while I pay the €8 entrance fee and buy a guidebook – €12.

Letters for HortaVictor Horta was born in 1861 into an artisanal-class family in Ghent. His father was a cobbler – a bespoke shoemaker perhaps, but still a working craftsman. The family must have had aspirations, though, and seen potential in their son. They paid for him first to attend music school to learn to play the violin. He was sent down for bad behaviour. Nothing daunted they tried again. The boy had once expressed an interest in building, so they paid for him to attend the Ghent Académie des Beaux-Arts to study architectural drawing. This time he behaved.

He completed his studies and, when he turned 17, left Ghent for Paris. Here he worked for an architect and designer in Montmartre. In Montmartre he was at the epicentre of modern art, and in 1878 in Paris he must have see the fantastic achievements of modern iron and glass technology on display at the Exposition Universelle. All of this would feed into his work and find an echo in his house, when he came to build it.

The house and Horta’s office and studio were built on adjoining plots in 1898 and Horta lived and worked here for 16 years until the Great War drove him from Belgium. When he returned after the war was over, he sold the house and studio separately and both buildings then seem to have led mundane lives as middle-class homes until 1961 when the municipality of Saint-Gilles bought the house. In 1963 it became the first listed Art Nouveau building in Brussels and in 1969 the first incarnation of the Horta Museum opened here.

Art Nouveau influenced doorSo, past the cash desk and leave the dining room on the right – it’s too full of people at present – and up the stairs to the first floor landing. This is an impressive space. The guidebook tells me it is equal in area to the space taken by the stairwell. It has windows opening on to the street at the front and no back wall separating it from the stairwell so the light from the street fills the space and reaches across to the dining room half a level down and at the back of the house. This space is made possible by using a iron frame – inspiration from the Paris Exhibition perhaps.

To one side are doors leading through to the reception room (with display cabinets) and Horta’s office – furnished now as a drawing room. The reception room and the office are in the studio, the building next door.

When the old studio came up for sale in 1971 it was also bought up by the Saint-Gilles municipality, and in 1989 plans began to be laid to restore the two buildings and turn them into a single museum. Plans that – according to the guide book – “will be completed in 2014”. Well, it’s 2015 now and the restoration is clearly not complete, but it’s pretty good.

Horta Metro graffiti womanI suppose that while some people in Brussels are proud of Victor Horta and his works, other are less impressed – perhaps just because there is so much Art Nouveau (and faux Art Nouveau) in the city. In the same period that Saint-Gilles was buying the Horta home and creating the first Horta Museum, the city of Brussels was undergoing the same rush of modernized brutalism that London, Stockholm and other European cities were also enjoying. Out with the old, in with the new – especially if the new was utilitarian, concrete and dense. Notably, Horta’s first public space, the Maison du Peuple/Volkshuis (commissioned by the Belgian Workers’ Party and opened in 1899), was demolished in 1965.

But the dedicated and determined staff of the Horta Museum and the Amis du Musée Horta (founded 1982) carried on and gradually the tide seems to have turned in their favour.

Most of the furniture in the house appears to have been sourced from other places or collections. Little is original to the house, although they have managed to track down a few pieces. I suppose Victor Horta sold off most of the furniture, or took it with him in 1919, but I’m guessing he didn’t take the fitted wardrobes in the second floor dressing room. Off the dressing room are a bath (with gas fired boiler and shower) and a toilet. I’d like to believe they’re original too. Also, in the bedroom, the urinal hidden in a bedside cupboard.

Art Nouveau house numberOne of the important influences on European Art Nouveau came from the English Arts and Crafts movement, and the Horta Museum includes wallpapers and furniture covering with a distinctly William Morris look about them. Another influence (and on the Arts and Crafts movement too) was oriental art, and the house is decorated with wall hangings, prints and objects from China and Japan, as well as for example modern woven silk wall coverings made to Horta’s original design.

Up the stairs again and we find the bedroom – suit really – designed for Horta’s only child, Simone. Her bedroom opens on to a roof terrace with views over the back garden and way across the roof-tops and gardens of the surrounding houses. The dressing room next door – also at the back of the house – has a sliding door that opens into a small greenhouse (with another door to the terrace).

This was the part of the house I most liked. Bright, light, green. I could live there. Across the stairwell at the front of the house is a guest room. Not bad, but not nearly as attractive.

The guidebook also describes the servants’ quarters. There is a separate servants’ staircase (which I glimpsed through one door left ajar), and there are kitchens and servants’ rooms too, but these were not open on my visit. Nor was Victor Horta’s studio with its high, wide windows which you can see from the street.

It seems the Horta Museum has acquired the building on the other side of Horta’s residence – nothing to do with the architect – and is gutting it preparatory to moving the reception, cloak room and bookshop there – and perhaps adding a lift for disabled visitors. I can’t say, but it seems to involve work on the servants’ area as well. Maybe I’ll pay another visit next year and see how far they’ve come.

There’s a lot more to say about Victor Horta, but I think I’ll draw a line under this piece now. It was fun to visit the Horta Museum – even if I couldn’t see all of it – and I would recommend it to anyone with half an interest in architecture or Art Nouveau. Open Tuesday to Sunday inclusive (except for public holidays) 14.00-17.30. It takes about half an hour. The home page promises “Guided tours by appointment, booked one week in advance… [in] French, English, Dutch, German and, possibly, Italian and Swedish.” But when I asked, buying my ticket, I was told there are guided tours only in French and Dutch. I don’t know how to interpret that.

Apparently you can also hire the dining room for private dinners or cocktails for €2,500. Don’t all rush at once now!

Horta metro station graffiti

Abbe Froidure Park in Autumn

I’m standing on Avenue Bruggmann, just outside the gates to a park which I discovered by sheer accident on Sunday…

Yes, well, clearly I’m not. This was an experiment to see whether I could dictate a text for Stops and Stories while out and about. Unfortunately, most of the time, I forgot that one key element of radio journalism is speaking into the microphone so that one’s potential audience can actually hear what one is saying. There are snatches of my recording I can use, but I think I’d better stick to writing this in the peace and quiet of my study.

However, imagine if you will that we are standing on a moderately busy suburban city street with houses of four or five stories, some with a narrow front, but still comfortable, others broader and quite impressive, almost mansions, but all pressed up against one another in an almost unbroken parade. A tram line runs down the middle of the street, there’s a church squeezed in among the houses over there to the right, and up the road on the left a little way, one of the mansions is doing service as the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba.

Abbe Froidure's Park SignAs you walk down this street towards the city, you pass on your right what appears to be the opening of a driveway leading to garages behind one of the more opulent of the buildings. The pillars of the gateway are a little intimidating, but you get a glimpse of a sanded drive and formally clipped green hedges and then you notice the plaque on the wall well above head height. “Parc Regional Abbe Froidure” it says. “Overture: 8h00.” Beneath are the long list of regulations (in French and Dutch) you have become familiar with seeing at the entrance to other Brussels parks.

And if you walk through the gateway and down the sanded path you come to railings, and past the railings…

you come into this tiny little charming park which is really tucked away and hidden.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Reading the Sunday paperI came across the park on Sunday while I was out taking photos of buildings in the area. It was a warm, sunny autumn day and the park was clearly being used by locals – walking dogs, sitting in the sun, reading a paper. There was a family playing with two small children in the little playground to one side. The colours, a mixture of autumn russet and summer green leaves, contrasted with the startling blue of the park furniture. I took a couple of photos, but then slipped out of the park to continue with my project for the day. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I thought.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Autumn coloursThat was a mistake. The following day I didn’t get out until late afternoon and the clouds had rolled in and the first shower of the week had fallen. More were to come. Consequently most of my photos from the park are not sunny and cheerful but dull and rain spotted, and my recordings too are a little damp and a little melancholy, but perhaps that suits Abbe Froidure’s park.

Here in the middle of the park — it’s a sort of quadrangle of these cobble stones that are so prevalent all over Brussels. Personally I think they’re horrible to walk on but they are attractive to look at I suppose and, er— It’s an odd combination really. There’s this cobbled surface which looks old, and then there are these blue benches which are very modern. Blue, um, trellises I suppose, fences which are being used to train vines to grow up, and then in the middle there’s this concrete block. Er, I’m going to guess that it’s part of — a — water — feature…

Abbe Froidure's Park - Blue corridor 2Do you hear how my voice slows down there? I could see the phrase “water feature” coming and I really didn’t want to say it and sound like an advert from a House and Garden magazine, but I couldn’t find a synonym quickly enough. Oh dear. Although, if you look at the illustration I think you’ll see — despite the gutter being clogged with fallen leaves and chestnuts — what I was trying to describe probably is intended to have water flowing along it.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Complex of seed headsThe park is completely enclosed within this block by the backs of houses and their garden walls, but just as there is a way in from Avenue Brugmann so there is a second entrance directly opposite into a little triangle of streets around a green space called Square Léon Jacquet.

There were fewer people in the park on my second visit. No doubt the weather played its part, but also it was a weekday. Still there were a couple of dog walkers, a couple of young men on a cigarette break together who left the park soon after I arrived, and a young woman who walked through, using the park as a short cut from Brugmann to Jacquet.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Cobbles and fallen leavesI sat down on one of the blue benches and tried to guess how the Abbe Froidure Park had come to be here. Although there are two or three mature trees – chestnuts and sycamores I think — the park itself is clearly not very old. Ten years, perhaps twenty. At first sight it looks as though it has been created by shaving pieces off the back gardens of the surrounding houses, but the more I looked at it and thought about it, the more I thought it must have existed as an empty space long before it was a park. The cobbles seem old, so perhaps it was a courtyard, perhaps a mews yard serving several of the houses around with stables for horses and carriages.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on roseWhat a temptation there must have been to use the land for building, but instead someone with sense decided to create this little oasis of peace. Beautiful. City planners British, American and Swedish, who advocate “densification” (förtätning), please note!

Later, at home I went searching for Abbe — Father Froidure. Why did he get this lovely little urban park?

Abbe Froidure's Park - Fallen leavesI still don’t know the full story, but I can report that Edouard Froidure was born in or near Ypres in 1899 and died in Brussels in 1971. A refugee and then a soldier in the Belgian army during the First World War, he became a priest in 1925 and in 1931 the vicar of the parish of St. Alène in Forest. (The park is on the very edge of the Brussels municipality of Forest.)

In 1933 he was involved in setting up a movement to enable young children among the urban poor to come out of the slums and spend time in the fresh air (in camps in the city’s larger parks) — “Les Stations de Plein Air”.

Abbe Froidure - photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure
Abbe Froidure – photo from the website of the Fédération Froidure

During the Second World War when Belgium was under occupation, he continued his activities on behalf of the children of Brussels and under cover of this worked with the Belgian resistance including to protect and save the lives of Jewish children. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 he was interned in concentration camps and ended up in Dachau. Liberated in 1945, he returned to Belgium and seems to have picked up where he left off.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Rain on vine leavesHe also worked with (and perhaps helped start) an organisation called “Les Petit Reins” — The Little Nothings — an organisation staffed by the unemployed and running charity shops and collecting, sorting and selling second-hand clothes.

Obviously the Abbe was a much loved man and a little park dedicated to his memory seems entirely appropriate.

Abbe Froidure's Park - Chestnuts


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

All the photos (except the portrait of Abbe Froidure) were made by me on Sunday 4th or Tuesday 6th October. All the ambient sounds used in the background of the recording were made by me in situ on Tuesday 6th. And as for my French pronunciation in the recording – I’m sorry!

Swimming

So far this year I have swum 34 km – a little over 21 miles. Not bad, especially as (what with the move and various illnesses) I didn’t get in the water until April and I’ve been swimming on just 31 days.

Swimming is wonderful exercise. The closest thing to weightlessness on earth, and you can strike superhero poses: Spiderman poised on the side of the pool-building ready to leap into the abyss; Superman flying through the air-water, arm outstretched, as you launch yourself into a crawl. And after, I feel so virtuous. Tired and virtuous. As though there was something morally good about swimming that other forms of exercise lack.

I’ve been trying to remember when I first learned to swim, but I find it’s like trying to remember when I learned to read. I can remember a time before I could swim, as I can remember a time before I could read, and I can remember a time after I could swim, as I can remember a time after I learned to read, but the actual learning process is gone. I suppose this means it happened (in both cases) early on and quite without drama.

I grew up by the sea, but I doubt that I learned to swim in the cold waters of the English Channel off the shingle beaches of Brighton. I remember we splashed around there in the summers, my sister and I, when the family walked down to the beach for a picnic. How we dived through the green breakers and wound ribbon seaweed around our arms and lay on the pebbles and let the surf break over us, but swimming – not so much. Still, I was comfortable in the water.

I suppose I first got that comfort when I was about two years old and we lived in Qatar. Mum has stories about paddling in the warm sea and having little fish come and play around one’s legs, but I have no memory of that. When I was about six we lived in Ghana, and there I remember playing in the sea and in the water at the mouth of a river. The sea was rough, with currents and an undertow, and my sister was almost lost when she was taken by a current, but fortunately another bather, a strong swimmer, dived into the water and saved her.

At the river mouth there was a bathing beach and a lifeguard who sat in a chair on a stand, high up so he could look out over the beach and the water. He kept up a constant stream of shouted directions and instructions telling people not to swim there, to stop splashing, to swim closer to the shore. I remember I thought he was an entertainment in himself, but I don’t really remember swimming.

And another memory from Ghana is climbing down into a half-drained swimming pool and sitting in deckchairs by the water filling the deep end that was just about deep enough to play in. But still, no swimming.

Then when I was about 9 or 10 years old and we were back in England, I remember school trips to the King Alfred Swimming Baths on the Hove seafront. By that time I could swim, at least in the shallows, though I didn’t dare to swim out of my depth. But I remember I used to take myself down into the deep end, hanging onto the side of the pool and with my feet on the ledge about a metre down. One day, in order to get around some other boys who were in the way and having a fight, I stepped off the ledge and swam, and suddenly realised I was swimming in the deep water and was very surprised. So by then I could swim.

It’s odd, but I don’t remember ever being taught. I must have been, surely?

I can remember someone demonstrating a stroke – the breaststroke perhaps – fully dressed and lying on a table. Or am I just remembering a scene from a farce or a film? I remember laughter. But I can’t remember swimming in the water with a teacher walking alongside shouting instructions, shouting encouragement, as I see and hear now when I’m swimming in the pool and school classes come in.

Although I always enjoyed swimming, it was not something I kept up as an adult. It was an occasional pleasure. What was difficult about it – what is still to some extent difficult – is the business of getting to the pool and getting changed. The memories come back of those school trips to the King Alfred. The stripping naked along with all the other boys, the teasing and the bullying, the smell of chlorine and the slap of wet towels, the hurry and the anxiety. It still comes back, though now it no longer gets too much in the way.

So, as I say, I didn’t keep it up. Just now and again a dip in a pool, some strokes in a lake, splashing about in the sea. And then I waded into a depression and suddenly swimming became a way out.

Swimmer illustrationOh, I don’t want to pretend it was just swimming, and I don’t want to pretend that it was a quick fix, but the swimming definitely helped. In the water, in the pool, pushing my way through the water, pulling myself, kicking myself from one end to the other, counting lengths, counting strokes, holding my breath and counting, counting so it was difficult to think of anything else. Difficult to dwell on failure, or misery, or melancholy, or the black night of the soul, or whatever you want to call it. And so, in a sense, I swam out of my depression.

And along the way I learned a better breaststroke, I improved my crawl, I rediscovered my backstroke. You wouldn’t watch me now for style, or speed, or even stamina, but nevertheless, I swim. Though I certainly see faster, more stylish swimmers every time I’m in the pool, I also see people who are just as clumsy as me – more so even. And I’m back at the pool two or three days a week, month after month.

To be sure there have been breaks. Come winter I fall ill. I get out of the habit. I miss a week, and the week becomes a month, and the month becomes a season, and any excuse is good enough. But for 17 years now I’ve always managed to get myself back into the swim of it. I don’t think I’ve missed swimming for a continuous stretch of more than about six months in all that time.

And so, here in Brussels, in Uccle, at the Piscine de Longchamp. Once I got over the initial hurdle of learning what the pool required (Lycra swimming trunks and a swimming cap), how much it cost (€4 for a visitor but €3.30 for a resident with an ID card), what I needed to take with me (a €2 coin to use in the locker). Once I got used to swimming a 33 m length, and figured out when it was best to go to the pool to avoid the school kids. Once I’d dealt with all that, it was easy enough to get back in the water and swim.

Now, here at the end of September, I’m wondering how many more swimming days I’ll manage to get in before the inevitable winter flu breaks my rhythm and sneezes me out of the pool to shiver and drip and feel generally sorry for myself until the spring comes around and I convince myself to get back in the water. How many more swimming days? Fingers crossed, quite a few.


If you liked that you might also like The pleasures of a morning swim, Ten letters for swimmers or Ten things in a public swimmingpool.

The illustration was made on my Samsung Galaxy tablet using an app called Artflow. Tidied up afterwards and subtly improved in Gimp on my main computer.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Soundcloud audio recording includes ambient sounds I recorded at the Longchamp Swimmingpool last week as well as a few minutes of sounds from the repository at Freesound. The intial and concluding splash comes from Kayyy, the sound of waves breaking on a beach comes from jakobthiesen and the open air swimmingpool ambience comes from Oneirophile. My thanks to all three.

The worst journey in the world

What is the worst journey you have ever made? Recent events, public and private, have got me thinking about my own worst journeys and the concept of a bad journey. (And I should point out that some of the following may not be for the squeamish — or for people eating a meal. For the same reason I shall eschew sound effects in the recording.)

In 1922 Apsley Cherry-Garrard published The Worst Journey in the World, a masterpiece of travel writing which I believe has never since been out of print. It is the account of the 1910-1913 Scott expedition to the Antarctic of which Cherry-Garrard was one of the survivors. That was a pretty dreadful journey, no question, but “the worst in the world”?

Good or bad, best or worst, these are subjective judgements. What’s good for you may not seem so great to me. What’s bad for me might seem a walk in the park next to Cherry-Garrard’s winter journey. I’ve not struggled through a screaming blizzard in the pitch black Antarctic night several tens of degrees below freezing in order to “acquire for science” (i.e. steal) some Emperor penguin eggs. I have not then failed to rescue my fellow explorers, leaving them to die of cold or starvation just a few kilometres away. I can agree, that must have been pretty bad. My worst journey doesn’t compare objectively, but it happened to me and subjectively it was so bad I still measure all my bad journeys against it.

It started well enough in the summer of 1995. The school year was over in Sweden and I’d been working in Poland, helping out on a training programme for Polish teachers of English, and was making my way back to England to visit my mother in Brighton. The weather was fine, the sun was warm and the fields and even the old industrial towns of Poland and eastern Germany were smiling. I took the train from Warsaw to Berlin where I broke my journey to be a tourist.

It was not quite five years since East and West had been reunited, just over five years since the fall of the Wall, and Berlin was filled both with reminders of the Cold War division and the rubble and reconstruction that was replacing them. I particularly remember taking the U-bahn to Potsdamer Platz (which had been one of the East German ghost stations), getting off and walking through what felt like a labyrinth of temporary passages and steps up to the surface to find myself in the middle of one massive building site. But I also walked through the Tiergarten, central Berlin’s fantastic park, and the summer sun filtered down through the leaves of the trees on the families spread on the grass with their one-time barbecues and picnic blankets and children playing. There was hope in the air.

That evening I ate a chicken dinner at a fast food restaurant near my hotel. As it happened, not a good choice. I wasn’t going to sleep long — my train was starting early — and I think being a bit nervous about missing the train kept me awake and interfered with any messages my stomach might have been sending me, because I don’t remember feeling sick until the train was underway.

It was one of those trains that pick up and drop off carriages en route. I think its final destination may have been Paris, but my carriage was going to the Hook of Holland where I had a ticket for the ferry to Harwich. It was a long journey through similar bucolic countryside and historic urban centres as the train from Warsaw, and all bathed in the same gentle June sunlight, but I was not in a state to enjoy it. Soon after we left Berlin my stomach started cramping and I found my way to the lavatory. This being a German train the lavatory was clean and functioning. I was to test it considerably during my journey, but it never failed me.

worst journey 2Although I started the journey in my seat, I ended it — certainly the last few hours — standing as close as possible to the lavatory, in the corridor by an open window, gulping fresh air and holding on to the wall hoping I wouldn’t fall, wouldn’t shit myself and that the train wouldn’t be delayed. I was so pleased when we arrived in Hook on time that I almost convinced myself I was feeling better and carried my bags from the station to the ferry terminal (not a great distance) with some confidence. After boarding the boat, however, I realised I was in a cold sweat and my legs were shaking. Seven hours at sea? I had my doubts.

I had recently agreed to my bank’s suggestion and invested in a Visa credit card. My first credit card. Oh, how I appreciated that! This was an afternoon crossing, so there were cabins available and I was able to book one — all for myself — and with a bathroom en suite. I spent the entire trip stripped to my underwear (when the fever was hot) or wrapped in a blanket (when the fever was cold), lying on the bunk or squatting on the toilet or (a new development) vomiting into the toilet bowl. To be honest, by now I really didn’t have much left in me to evacuate, but my body was determined to do its best.

It was now that I realised I was passing blood. I’m not sure when that started, but I remember observing it with a kind of detached resignation. I knew it wasn’t a good sign but I was beyond caring.

Before the ferry reached Harwich I took a shower, dressed and tried to make myself look as normal as possible. Importing a deadly pandemic virus into England? Me? Good heavens, no officer. Just a little under the weather.

But nobody was interested, so I boarded the London train. Where I was immediately reminded of the difference between German and British trains. This was at the very beginning of the disastrous privatisation programme that destroyed British Rail, but at this point the London-Harwich line was still part of the demoralised and deliberately underfunded though still state-owned Network South-East. The underfunding was reflected in the absence of electricity, water or toilet paper in the train’s lavatories. One of which I nevertheless took possession of.

Night was upon us. I have an abiding memory of the lights from one station after another strobing past through the frosted glass window and sporadically illuminating the interior of my smelly cell. I found hooks to hang my luggage on and I wiped off the toilet seat as best I could — it was fortunate I had packets of paper tissues bought on the boat. The toilet bowl, though encrusted, was empty. It was of the “not to be used while the train is standing still” variety — old-fashioned even in 1995 — the sort that opened to drop deposits on the tracks beneath. I locked the door, and I don’t remember anyone hammering to get in. So I coped, and the train eventually pulled into Liverpool Street station. Then all I had to do was get across London on the toilet-less Underground, catch a train to Brighton and finally take a taxi home to my mother’s. Two and a half hours, tops.

The following day Mum took me to visit her doctor who diagnosed dysentery, but not amoebic dysentery (which was good news). And then I was able to spend the next eight or so days recovering.

That was and remains my worst journey. I don’t think you’ll disagree with me that it was a pretty bad experience, but let’s reflect a little on what makes it nevertheless something less than a really bad journey; less than the worst journey in the world.

Although the journey itself was awful, much that surrounded it was rather good. It was a journey I had chosen to make, planned in comfort and organised myself. I was satisfied with my contribution in Poland, I enjoyed the journey from Warsaw, Berlin was interesting, I had tickets and credit to get me across Europe in relative comfort despite my illness, and a legal right to travel (despite my slightly feverish concern about being identified as the vector of a pandemic).

Above all, I had a home to run to and someone waiting for me who, while it might not have been the thing she most wanted to do, was still prepared to take me in, look after me and get me medical attention.

The Worst Journey?Apsley Cherry-Garrard had a worse time than me, no question. He ended up feeling at least partly responsible for the deaths of Scott and the other expedition members. Also those Emperor penguin eggs which it had been so important to collect that he’d given up more than three years of his life, turned out, when he returned, to be no longer of any scientific interest. Still, it was a journey he had wanted to take, he wasn’t forced to take it. The life he left behind he could pick up again when he returned and (as I think you can tell from his name) that life was not your common or garden lower class existence. (To be sure, the First World War came along and spoilt things, but that tragedy lies outside the scope of Cherry-Garrard’s journey, and outside the scope of point I’m trying to make.)

So let’s think of a journey that really could be described as the worst. Not only would the actual journey have to involve a series of horrible incidents, terrible travelling conditions, lack of water or food, exhaustion, illness and perhaps actual physical violence and/or convoluted bureaucratic hoop jumping. Not only would it involve surrendering yourself into the hands of strangers, perhaps professional smugglers, perhaps incompetent do-gooders, perhaps unscrupulous money grubbers. Not only would it have to have an element of moral peril: you yourself would have to put another person or people at risk, perhaps friends, perhaps relatives, perhaps the one person dearest of all.

More than this, the journey would have to be involuntary, not chosen for adventure but forced by circumstances, or chosen perhaps as the least worst of a series of bad options. And there would have to be an element of irony (this is a post-modern story it seems), so let’s imagine that journey’s end is in a country which is either directly or indirectly responsible for the circumstances at home precipitating your journey. And to add to the irony, let’s include the fact that all your life savings — a fraction of which would have bought you an airline ticket to fly you to your destination — must instead be spent on the journey you are taking by land and sea because the country to which you are fleeing (which may accept that you have a legitimate cause to seek asylum once you get there) has made it impossible for regular airlines to let you buy a ticket or board a plane so you could travel quickly and in safety.

And at the end, what? Not a homecoming. Not a welcome, not safety and security, but the coldness of strangers, hostility and mistrust — to such a degree that the dead lost along the way, the children drowned at sea, the mothers and fathers suffocated in the back of a lorry, the sisters crushed beneath the wheels of trains, the brothers frozen to death in the undercarriage of high flying passenger jets, all these seem to be happier for no longer having to suffer.

Now, that. That would be the worst journey in the world.

The worst of journeys


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Home but away

I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.

It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.

Where we are mentally is an open question.

Flying over GothenburgWe flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.

Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.

Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.

Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.

Caldera
Caldera
This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg.

Caldera - detail
Caldera – detail
Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone.

Points of view
Points of view
“Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.

I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.

Performance art in progressA woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.

Performance art in progress - audienceAnd back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?

She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.

Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.

That’s a long way, she says.

Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.

I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.

It’s a great city, he says. You should go.

I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.

That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.

Kristina Svensson's Facebook page
Kristina Svensson’s Facebook page
Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.

Collage of fourTrädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.

But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)

Mixed feelings
Mixed feelings

And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.

Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.

Performance art in progress - through the fountain
Performance art in progress – through the fountain

Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.