Native Americans-Myths, Memories and Questions.

9 Oct

I got a big surprise when I arrived at Denver International Airport on a recent trip to the USA. The corridor and entrance area were decorated with large photographic portraits of Native Americans ( formerly known as Red Indians), and in the background played Native American traditional music. It reminded me of the “Sacred Spirit ” albums I used to listen to in the 90’s. It was all very confusing. Wasn’t this the same country that less than 150 years before had practised a policy of near genocide against the Native American tribes, taken over their lands and attempted to wipe out their way of life? Wasn’t this the same country that had forced the surviving Native Americans to live on reservations as if they were animals in a zoo? It was all very mysterious. Had modern Americans experienced a massive change of heart and developed a new found respect for the first inhabitants of their continent? Did they regret the atrocities and injustices of the recent past and now want to make amends?
A visit of just over 2 weeks and a bit of background reading cannot provide pat answers to these difficult questions. All I can do is throw a few observations and opinions into the mix. All I can do is raise a few points to consider.
I’ve always been interested in American history and the stories of the so-called “Wild West”. Many of them are myths of course and it is difficult trying to untangle fact from fiction. As I kid I was given a “Billy the Kid” album every Christmas. It didn’t occur to me for a long while that this publication was actually glamorising the exploits of a cold-blooded murderer. Being just a child I eagerly lapped up the exciting adventures from a time and place so different to my own. As well as cowboys, I also learnt about famous “Indian” chiefs such as Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Cochise and Geronimo. I didn’t at first think about the morality of it all. I never stopped to think why the “white men” and “red men” were fighting or about who was “right” and who was “wrong”. I just loved the adventure and the exoticism of these larger than life characters. All this was reinforced by television and the cinema. The first programme I ever saw was “The Lone Ranger”, the adventures of a masked cowboy tackling the bad guys with the help of his faithful “Indian” friend, Tonto. There followed other TV westerns such as :”The Range Rider”, “Rawhide”, “Wagon Train” and “Bonanza” to name but a few. Westerns were a very popular genre. Movie films such as “Stage Coach”, “High Noon” and “How the West Was Won” greatly reinforced this Hollywood idea of the “Wild West” and 19th century American history. The bad guys were often : bank robbers, cattle rustlers or murderers but when “Indians” appeared they were often portrayed as “baddies” too. Whooping “Indians” in fearsome war-paint would swarm down off a ridge to attack a wagon train or a stage coach, threatening the lives of innocent white men, women and children. Native Americans were depicted as wild, murderous fiends who posed a serious threat to peace and civilisation. The U.S. Cavalry was shown as a force for the good, trying to bring the “savages” to heal and restore law and order to the west.
This view of the American west persisted for a long time, until in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, revisionist historians, authors and film makers started to challenge the accepted notions. They began to look at the story from the Native American point of view. Films such a “Little Big Man ” ( based on the Thomas Berger novel), “Soldier Blue” and Kevin Costner’s “Dances With Wolves” started to present a very different picture of events and the actions of cowboys, “Indians” and cavalry soldiers. Native Americans were now depicted as victims rather than perpetrators of aggression. They all told heart-wrenching stories of atrocities and massacres directed against the native people. The Sioux (or Lakotas), Cheyenne, Apaches and the rest, were now presented as dignified people with sophisticated cultures rather than as sub-human savages. It was an important sea-change in attitude. A new perspective had emerged at last. The story of the American West, it seemed. was much more complicated than previously thought. It presented many subtle shades of grey rather than simplistic black and white. It was an emotional journey for me, leaving behind my childish notions and realising the terrible truth. I remember crying at the end of “Little Big Man” and I am not often prone to tears.
The clincher for me was reading Dee Brown’s history of the American West from the “Indian” point of view: “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” It’s a very difficult but very important read in my opinion. People have asked me why I choose to read about deeply upsetting things that have happened in the past which I can do nothing about. I know I cannot change history, but perhaps by learning about the mistakes and tragedies of the past I can make a small contribution to trying to prevent them from being repeated in the future. Also, I feel it is a sign of respect for all the people who have struggled and suffered, to learn about and acknowledge their lives. I think it’s important to remember people even though I have never met them. That’s why I feel compelled to read about the World Wars, the Holocaust, the Middle East crisis, The Cold War and so on. Lots of people seem to agree with me. Why else are the First World War battlefields and cemeteries places of “pilgrimage” for many? Why is there invariably a queue outside the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam or crowds of people wanting to see the 9/11 monument in New York? Dee Brown details in eloquent, heart-rending prose the full tragic fate of the Native American tribes — the theft of their lands, the murders and massacres, the constantly broken treaties, the death marches, the poverty and starvation, the slaughter of the buffalo ( depended upon by the plains “Indians”) the destruction of their culture and their whole way of life. It finishes with the massacre at Wounded Knee on December 29th, 1890, when a band of Minneconjou Sioux, including women and children, were gunned down by the 7th cavalry while taking part in a religious ceremony known as a ghost dance. It’s a very sobering read.
So I got to learn about and understand a much fuller picture of the history of the American West than I had gleaned from childhood comics, annuals and TV shows. It has been one of the reasons why I have been reluctant to visit modern USA although I know its present citizens cannot be held responsible for what happened in their country’s past. I remember being made to feel very uncomfortable at a concert in Manchester by Buffy St Marie around the year 1970. It was at a time when I was really getting into American popular music and was looking forward to experiencing a performance by an artist with such a thrilling voice and such powerful songs.( e.g. “The Universal Soldier.) However, many of the audience, including my girlfriend and I, ended up squirming in our seats when we were subjected to a sustained lecture on racism, prejudice, discrimination and injustice aimed at the Native Americans. I think Buffy St Marie is a Cree.
I know this story of the persecution of a minority by a more powerful majority has been repeated throughout the world and across the centuries. It is not just an American thing. The treatment of the Aborigines in Australia has been abominable and racist attitudes still persist today, I believe. Going back in time, the English have not exactly been peaceful towards the Welsh, Scots and Irish. Atrocities and injustices litter the history of the British Isles. I have just finished watching a TV history of the reign of King Edward 1 — the “Hammer of the Scots” ( and the Welsh). It didn’t make for easy viewing even though it was about events way back in medieval times. Then there are all the abominations of the British Empire, the French Empire, the earlier Spanish Empire and all the other Empires one can think of. Empire building gets across the message that “Might is Right”. It’s the politics of the school- yard bully and is sadly a common occurrence all over the world today. Tragically, when wave after wave of European settlers followed in the wake of Columbus and came to colonise the “New World”, the writing was on the wall for all the native inhabitants who had been living relatively peacefully there for many centuries.
So why the possible change of attitude? It’s easier to be magnanimous to one’s enemy after he or she has been crushed. Maybe many American are genuinely sorry for what their ancestors did. Now the Native Americans are no longer a threat to the acquisition of land and resources, their customs, art, religion and culture can be properly appreciated and respected. Was this what was happening at Denver airport? Well to a certain extent the answer is “yes”, I think. Apparently, the site of the airport was originally a native American burial ground. Therefore the Mayor of Denver met with tribal elders to gain permission for the building to go ahead. I don’t know how much choice they really had, but at least they were being respected and their opinions sought. The spirits of the dead were appeased by removing them to another specially consecrated site. The airport was built on a tepee tent design to further placate the spirits. A native American exhibition called “The Spirit of the People” has been installed at the airport. It tells the story of native Americans in the Colorado area. Tribal images and stories are displayed along with 31 large-scale photographs of contemporary American “Indians”. This is what I saw and what surprised me so much as I wended my way to the passport queue.
All through my trip through north-west and south west United States I kept asking the questions -“Are todays Native Americans or First Nation Americans treated fairly and equally?” and “Has history been re-written to tell both sides of the story of the American West and the so called Indian wars?” They are impossible questions to answer fully. But I did notice some encouraging signs that the balance is being redressed. For instance, in South Dakota, the Mount Rushmore Monument to the four white Presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Lincoln, is now being balanced by an even bigger mountain monument to chief Crazy Horse, just 17 miles away in another part of the Black Hills. The Crazy Horse monument, begun in 1948, is far from finished. When it is completed it will probably be the largest sculpture in the world. It has been created by Korczali Ziolkowski and his family. Korczali himself died in 1982 but the work has been continued by his wife ( now also deceased) and children. When finished it will show the Sioux leader astride his horse, pointing to the horizon, stating:” My lands are where my dead lie buried.” The monument was commissioned by Henry Standing Bear, a Lakota elder, who declared:” My fellow chiefs and I would like the white man to now the red man has got heroes too.” The Crazy Horse centre also includes an extensive and impressive native America cultural centre and gift shop.
In fact, everywhere we travelled we came across Native American jewellery, arts and crafts for sale. Much of it is of a high quality. My wife Chris bought a coral necklace and some beautiful earrings. I bought a lovely little badger fetish from a native American crafts shop in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The native America arts and crafts were very popular with our group. But this raises another awkward question. ” Have the native American people been rehabilitated to a certain extent because they are good for tourism?” If the horrors of the past can be brushed under the carpet then the native American tribes can present an exotic and fascinating alternative to mainstream USA. Again, the question is impossible to answer but is worth a thought or two. When we visited Monument Valley in southern Utah we went on a spectacular 4×4 ride to see the huge sandstone buttes and mesas at close quarter. Our driver and guide was Mike Chee, a local Navajo “Indian.” This is because the main part of the valley is on Navajo reservation land. Tourism obviously plays a big, important part in the Navajo economy. The place was heaving with visitors, all spending dollars at the Navajo shop and restaurant as well as on the bumpy, dusty guided tours around the iconic monuments. However it was slightly sad, in my opinion, that Mike felt he had to sing us a couple of Navajo chant-like songs. It was interesting and entertaining but I think maybe his main aim was to enhance his tips. The songs had been largely stripped of their cultural context or significance and were now merely novelty entertainment for visitors. It reminded me slightly of Sitting Bull, the great Lakota Sioux leader who, in his later years was reduced to entertaining the crowds in Buffalo Bill Cody’s travelling Wild West Show. It was a long way from his warriors’ great victory over George Custer’s 7th cavalry at the Battle of the Little Big Horn in the summer of 1876.
We visited the site of that famous battle. It is now called the Little Big Horn Battlefield National Memorial in southern Montana. For a long time it had been known as the Custer Battlefield National Memorial. This was because the myth of General George Custer’s glorious and heroic Last Stand had been perpetuated by his widow, Libby, the US press, countless paintings and books and many films such as “They Died with their Boots on.” The myth was that Custer and his vastly outnumbered men fought bravely and with total discipline against a savage horde of Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho “Indians.” Custer with his long,flowing blond locks was an American hero who fought gallantly to the end against evil redskins who were threatening civilisation. What actually happened however, was that Custer and his 700 men attacked the greatest plains Indian camp in history without bothering to check out the strength of the “enemy” first. The Sioux, Cheyenne and their allies had gathered together in peace for safety and only wanted to be left alone to live their traditional nomadic, hunting lives. Obviously they fought back when the soldiers came charging into their camp intent on killing as many “Indians” as possible. The cavalry had a record of attacking native American camps, killing women, children and old people as well as warriors. when asked why the US soldiers killed little “Indian” children, a common answer was “nits grow into lice.” Custer had gained a reputation as an Indian hunter and was heavily implicated in the massacre of a large village of southern Cheyenne. Now he was attacking another “Indian” camp but had bitten off far more than he could chew. Custer himself and the soldiers under his direct command were wiped out in well under an hour. One native American witness said they were killed in about the time it would take a hungry man to eat his dinner! Other native reports tell of soldiers panicking, taking their own lives or shooting each other in suicide pacts. Another detachment of cavalry under Major Reno was heavily depleted but hung on in a desperate defensive position until rescue eventually came after the great Sioux/Cheyenne camp had moved on.
Thus a more rounded story of Little Big Horn is told these days. Both sides of the story are known. The battlefield site now has a memorial to the native Americans who died as well as the soldiers of the 7th cavalry. Red marker stones now show where Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors fell, standing alongside white markers showing where cavalry soldiers perished. The book shop and exhibition also represent both sides of the story.
It is here where the tale of the battle becomes grey rather than convenient black and white. It seems native American warriors fought and died on both sides. Crow and Arikara scouts perished with Custer and his men. Their lands had been taken by the Sioux and they saw cooperating with the white man as the best way of getting it back. In fact, the battlefield site is on the present day Crow Reservation and we were shown around by a female Crow guide. The “Indian” scouts are now honoured in the memorial. So now the full, messy story is told instead of the grossly simplistic myth of “Custer’s Last Stand.” This, more than anything else I saw, persuaded me that native Americans are now being treated with more dignity and respect. It seems they are no longer officially vilified. They are no longer described as “lice”. Similar respect for the native American way of life was shown at “Tatanka” near Deadwood, a visitor’s centre owned by Kevin Costner and dedicated to the days when the plains “Indians” hunted the buffalo in peace. We were given a very interesting talk by Phil Redbird, a Lakota Sioux and we learnt a lot about a way of life which existed before the invasion of the white settlers.
I think attitudes to native America peoples have changed. By how much it is impossible to say. Myths have been busted and a new respect is being shown, at least in official circles. But is this only because the native Indians have mostly given up their old way of life and learnt the ways of the white man? Possibly the surprising display at Denver Airport wasn’t so misleading after-all. Hopefully, modern Native Americans have a better chance of making their way in life although I couldn’t help noticing that the reservation lands we passed through in Utah and Arizona looked arid and of very poor quality. I wonder what the real story is? I cannot help recalling the ironic “joke” that Mike Chee told while showing us around his Navajo land –” Question – How did the Navajo get to live in this place? Answer — They made a reservation!”


28 Sep

I’ve been putting off going back to America for many years, upset by its aggressive foreign policy and its seemingly rampant gun culture. Over the decades, I’ve lost count of the countries the Americans have invaded or bombed and the horrific mass shootings in their schools, malls, cinemas and any other public space one can think of.
I first visited the States in the early 90’s to take my son, Ian, to the Florida theme parks – Disneyland, Universal Studios, Sea World and the like. They were great but seemed to represent a fantasy world rather than the real America. Our experience got more authentic when we drove on the Florida Turnpike from Orlando down to Fort Lauderdale and Miami. We sampled the laid-back beach culture, the pastel coloured Art Deco hotels and the Latin-flavoured melting pot of cultures. I remember the shiny diners with the Michelle Pfeiffer style waitresses ( in my dreams) offering endless refills from their coffee pots held high. I remember the swaying palms, the blue skies, the blazing sun, the big, brown pelicans perched around the marina, the dramatic clusters of skyscapers, the tropical storms, the “Have a nice days” and the sudden change of expression when a tip failed to please. It was fascinating and highly enjoyable. Ian must have enjoyed it too for he later returned to study at Miami University as part of his American Studies degree.
However, that’s a long time ago in a pre-digital, pre-Internet age ( at least for me.) This year, 2014, I finally had the time, the money and the inclination to return over the “pond.” I felt I had to go soon before I got too old and too decrepit for long-haul flights. Of course, I’d actually been to America many times in the past decades, the America of all those Westerns, road-movies, rom-coms and film-noir on the silver screen. Then there was the America immortalised in thousands of pop, rock and blues songs that have formed much of the soundtrack of my life. America has also invaded my own country, the UK, through its malls, out of town/car orientated shopping centres, fast food chains, coffee shops and even Drive Thru’s. On top of all this is the America of Silicon valley, the Internet, social networking, smart phones and all the bewildering paraphernalia of the communications revolution. In many ways it has been as if I was in America already, the UK often being described as its 51st State. But not even all that can compare with the real thing — the real American experience. No amount of High Definition can adequately prepare one for the immensity and grandeur of the landscapes and the incredible variety of wild life.. Suddenly, it seemed incredible that I had only been once.
So it was that in September, my wife, Chris and I found ourselves on a near 10 hour flight from London to Denver, Colorado, the “Mile High City.” Faced with the myriad of attractions that such a vast country has to offer, it was a daunting task deciding where to go. The lure of New York City was almost irresistible as were the attractions of San Francisco and California on the opposite coast. Many people visit the fascinating cities and attractions of the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards, but omit the huge mass of land in between. Jonathan Raban in his travel book ” Hunting for Mr Heartbreak”, writes about the “fly-over States”. How many people visit Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle in the west and then at some other time: New York, Washington DC or Boston in the east, but miss out the vast continent that lies in between? Wyoming, Montana or Utah, despite their incredible natural wonders, are only worth a brief glimpse through the clouds before in-flight entertainment on the back of the seat in front re-grabs the attention.
I decided that the most compelling parts of the USA had to be: the Great Plains, the great high Deserts and the great Rocky Mountain ranges made famous in countless Hollywood westerns. I wanted to visit the America of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. I wanted to find out more about : Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane, Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse and Geronimo. I yearned to see that little house on the prairie, visualise the wagon trains of the recent past trundling along the Oregon trail, witness the scenic wonders of Yellowstone Park, Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. So it was that we did an epic road trip through: Colorado, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Arizona and finally Nevada, starting in Denver and ending up on Las Vegas.
The experience was spectacular and memorable. If I had to sum up my impressions of North West and South West USA in one word, that word would be “BIG”. I saw big skies, big landscapes, and big buildings ( in the cities). I ate big meals and encountered a lot of big people. As a supposed writer, I know I shouldn’t be over-using one adjective. In subsequent paragraphs, please feel free to substitute : “huge”, “immense”, “vast”,” gigantic” or “enormous” whenever you feel like it. The sheer size of everything was simply awe-inspiring and is the most indelible impression left with me. No wonder many Americans don’t even own a passport. They might think — “Why travel abroad when America offers just about everything?” What they are short of, in my opinion, is history and a rich artistic culture. The USA is a very young nation and still struggles with its sense of identity. Thus there is a lot of saluting the flag and singing the national anthem. However the States offer natural wonders in abundance. The great rolling plains seem endless. The mountains are towering and formidable. We got neck ache staring up at the huge, sheer cliffs of Zion Canyon and suffered temporary vertigo gazing into the chasm of the Grand Canyon.
The American people were unstintingly friendly and gregarious. There was no hint of that aggressive stance their country often presents to the world. It was great meeting American people even though we got off to a slightly sinister start by being photographed and finger-printed by an unsmiling passport officer at Denver. Everyone else we met made up for that bad start. I’m glad I overcame my prejudices and went to see all those wonderful sights. Chris and I always felt safe — we didn’t see one gun or meet one threatening person. One gets a warped impression if one only judges a place on the TV news. Every country has its problems and contradictions, but the natural splendours and wild life I witnessed swept away any lingering doubts. I was bowled over and glad that I had at last returned to the USA.

38,000 feet Above Lake Winnepeg.

24 Sep

It’s twenty minutes past midnight but the sun is still streaming through the window. In fact my neighbour has just had to pull the blind down. All my friends and relatives back in Britain will be tucked up in bed as their day is over and night has fallen. However, my day just seems to go on and on. I am travelling backwards in time, constantly chasing the sun and escaping the moon.
I’m flying westwards to Denver, Colorado. It’s another “holiday of a lifetime” that I have been lucky enough to indulge in since retirement. The plane is full of silver-haired retirees like myself. We are getting in our long-haul journeys while we can. Our watches tell us we are in the small hours, but it’s only early evening local time. A surreal situation has emerged. Our minds are still active but our bodies are weary. The long journey is messing with our internal clocks.
The inside of the aircraft cabin is dominated by the unrelenting drone of the engines. I have been trapped here for 7 hours with another near 3 hours still to go. If I allow myself to think about it, I might well have a panic attack. I instruct myself to stay calm and breathe steadily. I’m distracted by looking down on to the white Canadian clouds, momentarily recalling Joni Mitchell recalling “life’s illusions.” Every now and then I get up to flex my legs and waggle my toes to try to avoid getting a DVT. My mouth feels stale and my body very tired. I started this endless day clean-shaven and fresh, but now I sport the sandpaper cheeks of unwelcome designer stubble.
It should be the middle of the night but I’ve just been served a sandwich and a cup of tea. It’s bizarre. Now I’ve been given a scone, a small pot of cream and some jam which is squeezed out of a tiny tube. I try to eat and drink while cramped in my seat. The electronic screen in front of me says we are flying over Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba at 38,000 feet. It’s not often one gets to say that!

Sicily’s Secret Corner.

15 Jul

One of the great things about travel is that there is always somewhere or something new to discover. The World is supposed to be shrinking fast, what with the internet, mobile phones and the rise and rise of social networking. However there are still many new places to find out about and new “secrets” to unearth. A recent family get- together in south-east Sicily was a case in point. Until recently, mention Sicily to me and I would have conjured up images of hot sun, dusty towns, poverty, corruption and Mafia godfathers hiding behind their shades. I might also have thrown in a fiery, erupting Mount Etna and the sparkling Mediterranean. I would never have thought of a string of outstanding 18th century Baroque towns listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. But like I said, that’s travel for you!
We travelled to the Val di Noto region in the south east corner of the island. In January, 1693, the whole of this area was devastated by a massive earthquake plus a follow-up tsunami. There were 60,000 victims ( about half the population) and the area destroyed covered 5,600 square kms. 45 towns and cities were razed to the ground. The reaction of the locals was not to reconstruct what had stood before, but to built completely new cities in the Baroque style, fashionable at that time. It was a wonderful late flowering of Sicilian Baroque, the last hurrah for the baroque movement in Europe. Eight of these cities are now World Heritage Sites because of the uniqueness and completeness of their style. They were all built in a busy 50 year period which led to their centres presenting a wonderfully homogeneous and harmonious architectural picture. If one screens out the cars, telegraph wires and mobile phones, a visit to Ragusa, Modica, Noto or any of their sister baroque cities, is like travelling back 250 years into the mid- 18th century. All that is missing are the powdered wigs and sedan chairs.
We didn’t visit all 8 towns and cities on the UNESCO list. That would have been too tiring, especially under the hot, summer sun. It would also have been inappropriate for a mostly relaxing family vacation that included 2 very young children. However, I did get to explore : Ragusa Ibla, Scicli and Modica as well as Comiso which is not on the official list but still contains several interesting, historical churches and palaces which give its centre a distinctly Baroque air. I keep stressing that this area is still a semi- secret but this may not remain so for too much longer as Ryanair and others have just begun cheap flights to the newly opened Comiso airport ( an ex NATO base) and the region is featured on the popular television series: “Inspector Montalbano.” Information boards featuring the cult, bald Italian detective are already springing up in various filming locations for fans on the Montalbano trail. Luckily for those like me who enjoy a quiet holiday, Montalbano mania has not quite reached Harry Potter heights so the secret is safe for the time being.
South east Sicily is a region of high, rolling hills topped by rocky outcrops. They are criss-crossed by dry stone walls and speckled with carob, almond and olive trees. The hills are punctuated by deep valleys spanned by dizzyingly high bridges. The lower land is very fertile and heavily market- gardened with miles of plastic tunnels, green houses and irrigation pipes, nurturing: peppers, tomatoes, grape vines, aubergines, courgettes and the like. The little towns and villages are indeed quite dusty, but are enlivened by vivid splashes of colour from bougainvillea, azalea and other flowering shrubs ( pink, purple, white, red and orange.) We also spotted flowering cacti, groves of lemon trees, palms and bananas. For most of our visit we stayed in a rustic villa between Scicli and Sampiere near the coast. Every evening, as the sun dipped, the palms, lemon trees and spiky cacti in the garden, slowly turned into dark silhouettes and the sky would fill with swooping swallows and fluttering bats. A low chorus of cicadas would strike up, occasionally interrupted by the loud hoot of an owl or the squeaky call of a gecko. It made a nice change from North Yorkshire!
Before arriving at the villa, my wife, Chris, and I stayed in Ragusa, one of the aforementioned baroque towns. Ragusa is actually 2 towns separated by a deep ravine spanned by 3 bridges. After the earthquake of 1693, the town was rebuilt on higher ground in baroque style, its streets based on a grid system. This upper town is now known as Ragusa Superiore and has some fine buildings. However the real gem is Ragusa Ibla, lower down on the other side of the gorge. This is on the site of the original town and was rebuilt by its citizens following the old, medieval layout. It clings to a rocky outcrop with spectacular views all around. Ibla is a charming maze of narrow streets, stepped alleys, little piazzas and secluded courtyards. It is largely pedestrianized and is a delight to wander around. A jumble of glowing limestone streets clings to the hillside. Ibla features 14 World heritage buildings in an area of less than one square kilometre. As one climbs up and down the narrow streets and stone staircases, there is a parade of great views — pan-tiled roofs, bell towers, domes and fancy facades. We explored it at our leisure, trying to slip into the slow pace of life that is a Sicilian characteristic. Everything was quiet. We slipped in and out of sun and shadows. Washing hung from the many fancy balconies. Gargoyle like faces grinned down at us and the ornate, wrought- iron fences sprouted delicate metal flowers. Beautiful creamy-yellow swallowtail butterflies danced figure-of-eight patterns in the blue sky. The scent of blossom was in the air and greeny-brown lizards raced in and out of cracks in the stone walls.
Sicilian baroque architecture is famous for its exuberant and theatrical style. Churches and palaces are richly ornamented with sculpture featuring grotesque, grinning faces and putti ( chubby male children similar to cherubs.) It features graceful convex or concave curves, eye-catching use of light and shade ( perfect for the sunny climate), grand staircases and ornate balconies. The prime example of this in Ragusa Ibla is the Duomo of San Giorgio which stands like a striking wedding cake at the top of a sloping piazza split by six palms. It’s a masterpiece of Sicilian baroque by Rosario Gagliardi and took forty years to build. later, it was a bit of reverse culture shock to visit a “normal” town, mainly consisting of modern apartment blocks and not featuring anything from the 18th century at all. Only when we left it did we realize that we had been temporarily “lost” in a sort of secret world,largely cut off from 21st century realities.
Ragusa is up and coming as a tourist destination. The old centre of Ibla has been restored thanks to EU money. There are now little boutique hotels and a generous sprinkling of cafes and restaurants. It even has a corny little tourist “train” complete with a multi-lingual recorded commentary. However, it was fairly quiet, even in late June when we went. Outside August it is little visited. Many of the houses are still neglected or derelict reflecting the unemployment and poverty that the area has suffered. It mostly remains a Sicilian secret.
Modica, like Ragusa, consists of 2 urban centres, rebuilt after the late 17th century earthquake. The older centre ( the Storico Alto) is perched high on the rocky top of a steep hill. Again like Ragusa, upper and lower Modica has 2 competing cathedrals ( duomos). St Georges Cathedral, the one we visited, has an impressive wine-glass shaped stone staircase leading up to the main entrance. ( Just like its sister cathedral in Ragusa Ibla.) In the past the worshippers must have thought they were ascending into heaven. It’s another fantastic, curvy confection of towers, domes, pillars and statues, all topped by a soaring belfry. It is approached on either side by two steep, winding sets of staircases and is fronted by a broad terrace which commands grand views of the lower town and valley far below. Inside, the Duomo is rich in silver work and paintings and features a Spanish style, high baroque alter which survived the quake.
Sicily was ruled for many years by the Kings of Spain as part of the Crown of Aragon. It has also in its long history been invaded and/or conquered by the Ancient Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Saracens and the Normans. One legacy of the Spanish rule is chocolate. Modica is famous throughout Italy for its chocolate and is full of little chocolate shops where one can sample a host of different, delicious flavours from little bowls, spread out along the counter. Chocolate making is now a revered 400 year old tradition. Cacao (Spanish for cocoa?) from South America, was brought to Sicily by the Spaniards. Modica specialises in making granulous chocolate with exotic flavours such as chilli pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, jasmine and orange. The recipes and methods descend directly from the Aztecs.
Modica is delightful jumble of old buildings, clinging higgledy-piggledy to a steep hillside. It is another 18th century, baroque paradise. It descends into a deep gorge spanned by the 300 metres high Guerrieri bridge. We explored it in the hot sun, when only mad dogs and Englishmen were about, but the tightly packed buildings gave plenty of shade and we could always retreat into a cool café for a refreshing granita.(sweet flavoured crushed ice drink).
Scicli was our nearest town and we ended up there several times. It’s a very confusing place to drive through and we ended up going down one way streets the wrong away, attracting much angry gesticulation from the locals. Even the sat- nav failed to fathom-out the one way system. It’s old baroque town is not as concentrated as Ragusa or Modica. A sprinkle of extravagant churches and the odd palace are scattered around. The main focus is the large Piazza Italia with its pavement cafes and gardens. At one end is a fancy baroque church while at the other is an old cinema from the 1930s or 40s. It reminded me straight away of the old picture house in the Italian cult film “Cinema Paradiso”, sitting as it is in the same sort of hot, southern Italian, backwater town. Scicli nestles in yet another gorge, overlooked by a towering limestone mass upon which the large disused church of San Matteo stands. There are also very old cave dwellings up there but it was too hot and too tiring to go climbing.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive travelogue of Sicily. You can read the Rough Guide or Lonely Planet for that. There are many outstanding attractions that we missed out. We did get to see some ancient Greek temples at Arigento but never made it to Siracusa. Taormina, Mount Etna or Palermo. Holidays are for relaxing and being together as well as sight seeing and we had a great time doing just that. It just means I will have to return to Sicily to see some of the things I missed.
We spent the last day of our holiday in Comiso as it was a stone’s throw from the airport. We didn’t have high expectations of it but it proved to be a delight. We stayed at a lovely guest house on an old piazza. The view from our balcony included a baroque church, the keep of a 16th century Aragonese castle and another old theatre/cinema. The hospitality at the guest house was outstanding as it was in our place in Ragusa and at the villa. Sicilians are famous for their wonderful hospitality. We wondered round the narrow streets of the old town and visited an extravagantly decorated baroque church. In the evening, we watched groups of old people playing bridge in the floodlit cloisters of a religious building, now turned into the public gallery. We also saw a wedding with both the bride and groom wearing white and the guests showering them with rice instead of confetti. They descended the church steps on a white carpet and eventually drove off in a bright red sports car. We also saw anti-fascist monuments in a park reminding us of a dark chapter in Italy’s more recent history.
On the morning of our last full day in Sicily we sat in the old piazza waiting to check in to our nearby Comiso guest house. The setting was very atmospheric and picturesque. Opposite us was the aforementioned Spanish castle keep, while behind us, a steep flight of steps climbed up to a large baroque church. Worshippers quietly came and went. Old men stood or sat on street corners, chewing the fat and watching the world go by. Hundreds of dark swallows, out to catch their breakfast, soared and swirled around in a fabulous, acrobatic flying display. Who needs the Red Arrows? It was a lovely relaxing start to our last day.
Finally we were back at the tiny airport of Comiso which has its own piece of history. It is adjoined by an eerie ghost town — empty streets, boarded up houses and even an abandoned cinema. Nearby were rusting, menacing coils of barbed wire and aggressive keep out signs. This used to be an American run NATO airbase which housed land- launched cruise missiles in the 1980s.( it reminded me of the faslane military base on the west coast of Scotland, being completely out of keeping with the surrounding area.) A big peace camp used to surround it manned by women from Italy, Europe and further afield. It was modelled on the similar anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common in England. The deadly missiles were removed in 1987 after a treaty was signed by the United States and the Soviet Union. After that both the military and the peace camps were disbanded and the place drifted steadily into obscurity until Ryanair discovered it and put it back on the map.
Our trip to this still mostly secret region of Sicily was a revelation in many ways. Every trip to a previously unvisited destination is. One can read and plan to the nth degree but one can never really be prepared for the surprising reality of a place. I saw enough to make me want to return for more. The history, the landscapes, the architecture, the hospitality, the relaxing pace of life, the eccentric driving ( sometimed decidedly dangerous), the sunny weather and the food ( despite me being a vegetarian), all combined to make this a fascinating visit. I didn’t see the famous volcano but did experience the consequences of another major seismic activity over 300 years ago — a string of dazzling Baroque towns in a little known corner of Europe. It was a very good trip.

Reflections on the 70th Anniversary of D Day.

12 Jun

Last Friday, June 6th, 2014, it was impossible to switch on the telly in Britain without being assailed by news footage of the 70th Anniversary Commemorations of D Day. The events in Normandy, in 1944, received saturation coverage in the media. Anyone who is anyone seemed to have been there, from Obama to Putin, taking in Hollande, Merkel and Cameron and many others on the way. Even our 88 year old Queen made a special effort to be there, along with prominent members of her family, many of them regaled in fancy dress. I wonder where and how Prince Charles earned that splendid array of medals that adorned his pseudo military uniform? I know people who centred their holidays around D Day, going on cruises and tours that took in the invasion beaches, the military cemeteries, the monuments and everything else connected with that momentous event. Others have purchased “D Day 70″ pins, pens and coffee cups or even Spitfire cufflinks. ( courtesy of the British legion and others.)However, as I witnessed all the: ceremonies, marches, wreath laying, commemorative services and grandiose speeches, I experienced very mixed feelings indeed.
First of all, I couldn’t help noticing the massive irony that this commemoration ( celebration?) of a major development in one war ( the Second World War), took place in the middle of a whole series of events marking the centennial anniversary of another, earlier conflict: the First World War. Wasn’t the latter supposed to be the war to end all wars? What happened? Some of the tours laid on for war tourists even mixed up the 2 wars in their itineraries. There must have been much potential for confusion. One day, the tourists would be at Ypres or on the Somme, remembering the tragic sacrifices of millions of soldiers in the 1914-1918 conflict. Then on the next day they would be Arramonches, thinking about the equally tragic sacrifices made by another unlucky generation of soldiers on D Day and in the rest of the 1939-1945 conflict. Linking the 2 wars together, it appears that millions gave up their lives in the first configuration not to achieve lasting peace but to gain a mere 20 years of peace in Europe. What a terrible waste! ( the result of a punitive and vindictive peace treaty at Versailles, that sowed the seeds of the next conflict.) Yet I didn’t notice any speeches highlighting the sheer folly of war. Rather they concentrated on its supposed glories. Soldiers on both sides were extremely brave and it is only right to remember them and salute their supreme sacrifice. It is right to call them heroes. Yet they could also be regarded as luckless pawns in a lethal power game played out by their leaders. How much did Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, Hirohito or Hitler really care about the soldiers, sailors and airmen ( and women) they had thrown into the fray? They cared very little I suspect. The same goes for the millions of civilians whose lives were destroyed or ruined by that terrible war.
Another thing that I am very uncomfortable about is that in Britain in particular, the Second World War, including D Day has become an important part of the entertainment industry. I have already mentioned the numerous war tours that people go on for their vacations. Then there are the countless films, television programmes, DVDs, shows, books and magazines that have been produced about World War 2. Even though it finished nearly 70 years ago, it sometimes seems as if it was happening only yesterday. Every time England play Germany in a football match for instance, the war is instantly resurrected in the tabloid media with the Germans being casually referred to as the enemy and named Fritz or the Hun. It’s good not to forget, but do we need to be constantly reminded of a horrific conflict that happened 3 generations ago against a foe that is now our ally and close trading partner? I think this constant harping back to the past is a hindrance to the UK moving forward and fully embracing its place in a modern, peaceful Europe.
Despite all this, I do think it’s extremely important to show our respect and gratitude to the tens of thousands who risked or gave up their lives on our behalf. I have taken school children on educational visits to wartime sites such as Arramonches, where the Mulberry Harbour was constructed, or Pointe du Hoc, a headland between Omaha and Juno beaches where the American soldiers landed. It was a chilling and sobering experience to see the German bunkers and pill-boxes on top of the cliffs and imagine the American servicemen being mown down by machine gun fire as they attempted to climb up. Similarly I have been greatly moved by visits to British, American and German military cemeteries in northern France. One child commented on the tender ages of many of the fallen and seeing the German graves made her realise that the so called “enemy” were human beings too. Thus I do agree with the sentiments behind the 70th anniversary commemorations if not with the over the top way they have been conducted.
One common justification for commemorating and celebrating our participation in World War 2 was that it was a “just war.” Surely this was a straightforward fight against an evil dictator, Hitler, and his vile, totalitarian Nazi regime, the Third Reich. The Nazis invaded other countries, killed millions, pillaged and destroyed property,took away fundamental freedoms, set up slave-labour and death camps and ruined innumerable lives. What could be wrong in commemorating our struggle and ultimate victory against such despicable monsters? What is wrong with being proud to be the “good guys” who fought and defeated the “bad guys”? Unfortunately I think this is all a rather dangerous simplification.
First of all there is the inconvenient fact that both the British and the French were partly fighting to defend their worldwide empires. For instance both these countries came into disastrous contact with the Japanese in the far east because they had already taken over Asian countries such as India, Burma, Malaya and Indo China, depriving these people of their independence and stripping them of their valuable resources. Was this a case of the good guys fighting for peoples’ freedom from tyranny? I don’t think so. The same applies to their colonies in Africa and the Middle East. Here they were fighting for their own vested interests rather than for the benefit of the local populations. The British and the French even indirectly fought each other when they were supposed to be allies in the cause of the good. For example, in the 1940s the British plotted against French interests in Syria and the French supported Jewish terrorists who were killing British soldiers in Palestine. All this was happening at the very time of the launching of Operation Overlord on D Day in 1944. So the overall cause of the Allies was hardly clear cut. Indeed it was a very shady affair indeed.
Then we come to the very problematic case of the Soviet Union, which started the Second World War as a friend of Hitler’s Germany and ended it on the side of the Western allies following the Nazi invasion of Russia in 1941. If we were the good guys fighting to free Europe from Nazi tyranny, how did we end up getting into bed with Joseph Stalin, who ran an equally terrifying, totalitarian regime in the USSR and ended up violently conquering or controlling most of eastern Europe? How ironic and shameful that Britain entered the war to defend Poland’s independence, but finished it by allowing another dictator to take over and control that very same country. It seems that Churchill, in a summit in Moscow, suggested that Stalin could control Poland, the Baltic states and other east European countries in exchange for the British having control over Greece. (Churchill was still fixated with the need to protect the trade routes to India via the Suez canal, which is of course near to Greece.) Stalin couldn’t believe his luck and readily agreed. This arrangement was rubber stamped by Roosevelt and/or Truman at subsequent allied summits in Tehran and Yalta. Such was the fate of millions of people sealed by a trio of “great” statesman. Apparently, Churchill demonstrated what would happen to Poland using three match-sticks. The lands in the east would be swallowed up by the Soviet Union. He demonstrated this by taking 2 match-sticks away. The Poles would then be compensated by getting German lands to their west. Churchill showed this by putting the 2 match-sticks down on the table again but further to the left. The whole of Poland would thus move to the west. Stalin smiled and quickly agreed. So the worthy cause that Britain had entered the war against Germany for –ie to fight for Poland’s liberty, — was now abandoned This was all done without bothering to consult the Poles themselves, even though the Polish Government in exile was based in London. The Poles were betrayed by their so-called allies in the interests of power politics. In the end, even the part of Poland that remained free of direct Soviet conquest was still taken over by a hardline Communist regime that took its orders from Moscow. The same thing happened in Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Yugoslavia, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. For the people of these countries, plus the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania,the Second World War didn’t really end until the fall of the USSR in 1989.
D Day is rightly celebrated as a turning point in the Second World War. Now the Nazis stopped advancing and began their long retreat back to Berlin. So was it all good news in Europe from there on in? Unfortunately this interpretation just looks at events from the point of view of the Western allies. OK — France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Denmark and Norway were thankfully freed from Nazi tyranny. That was obviously very good news for all concerned. However the picture of the last years of the European war does not look quite so rosy if one studies what happened in the east . The Baltic states and Poland suffered their third brutal invasion in just 5 or 6 years. First the Soviet Red Army had invaded, protected by the notorious Nazi-Soviet non- aggression pact. Thousands were killed or deported to the Gulags of Siberia. Horrific massacres took place such as the murder of 21,000 Polish army officers at Katyn. Then these poor countries were invaded and conquered a second time, by the Nazis, who treated them just as poorly. Finally they were re-invaded and taken over by the Red Army on its murderous march towards Berlin. Any non- communists were thought of as the enemy of the USSR and treated just like the Germans. For the long suffering people of eastern Europe, D Day was not a harbinger of hope but just a continuation of despair. Apparently, General Dwight D Eisenhower, the Western Allies’ supreme commander, ordered his forces to advance very slowly towards Berlin in order to save American lives. It seems that he cynically decided to let the Soviets and the Germans slug it out as he presumably regarded Russian and German lives as less important than American and British ones. This deliberately slow advance allowed the Red Army to wreak havoc in Eastern Europe. Mass murder, widespread looting, wanton destruction and mass rape was the result, particularly when the Russian soldiers got to Germany. No Germans, particularly the women, were safe. It is a horrific tale, completely uninfluenced by the events of D Day and the Allied invasion of the west. Once the Soviets entered a country, they or their local communist stooges didn’t let it have any democracy or freedom for 4 long decades until 1989.
So D Day was a great and important event. Many very brave allied soldiers lost their lives in order to clear western Europe of evil Nazi rule. It must have been terrifying landing on the beaches and being sprayed by German bullets. Many soldiers sacrificed their lives to bring freedom to millions of people. However, it is dangerous to over-simplify and over romanticise that day. For many people in eastern Europe the battle of Stalingrad was far more significant. Once the German advance into Russia had been stopped, the Red Army could be unleashed on its murderous and savage advance towards Berlin. D day was not important for the people of Poland, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and many others. For them it did not signify the start of their road to freedom, but rather a continuation of totalitarian control and captivity. Their fate had already been sealed by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt in their cynical summits. Similarly in the colonies of the British and French Empires, Allied victory in the war against Germany and Japan merely swapped one controlling power for another. Freedom was not on the agenda.
It is a shame that the media and the world’s leaders have chosen to present us with a highly selective version of what actually happened in the Second World War and have exaggerated the importance and significance of D Day. As is often the case, the real picture is not black and white but a particularly murky shade of grey.

First Stirrings of Wanderlust.

25 May

I started travelling very early. As a child in the 1950’s I went all round the World, crossing oceans and continents, learning the name of every capital city I encountered and becoming familiar with many a currency. Yes, I admit it, I was an avid stamp collector! I inherited my dad’s bulging stamp album which not only enabled me to wander around the globe but also allowed me to journey into the past. The Germany section for instance, was full of Nazi swastikas and the British part spanned over a century, right back to a proud row of Penny Reds, each displaying Queen Victoria’s head.
Love of travel, or wanderlust, begins in the mind. It’s prompted by curiosity and a thirst for knowledge. It’s a constant yearning to move from the known into the unknown — a voyage of discovery. Books, music, TV programmes, films, and in my case, a stamp collection, can bring the wider world into our living rooms. We can all be armchair travellers without the need for passports.
I was lucky because my father worked for British Railways. He was a stoker then an engine driver. So, although we were far from wealthy, our family was able to go on 5 free rail journeys a year and as many third priced trips as we desired. We could roam the entire country, as far as the rail network could take us. The immediate post-war era also saw the introduction of legislation that gave ordinary, working people the right to have a couple of weeks paid holiday every year. Previously, people up to and including the 1930’s never had that right or privilege. Leisure travel had been the preserve of the rich. Thanks to this legislation, we were part of a first wave of families who enjoyed an annual vacation. Our family visited a seaside resort every year — buckets and spades, sand castles, paddling in the sea, jumping the waves, strolling along the promenade, sunbathing in deck chairs, licking ices creams and scoffing fish, chips and mushy peas. It was all recorded on my dad’s trusty Kodak box camera which churned out black and white holiday snaps to go in the album.
On our holidays, we did all the traditional British seaside activities, staying in “boarding houses” ( B and B’s) and later on caravan parks. Probably the most exciting feature of the holiday though was the journey itself. We packed our suitcases and travelled by bus or taxi to the station. There, a steam train would noisily arrive to pluck us off the platform and dramatically whisk us far away from all that was familiar. It was a great adventure, a journey into the unknown. It might seem tame now, but for a child in the fifties, before the age of budget airlines, this train journey to unknown corners of the country, counted as a thrilling experience. It was a definite highlight of the year.
Inevitably, these regular train journeys and my dad’s job as an engine driver, led to me becoming a train spotter. This was very popular in the 1950’s and 60’s despite its “nerdy” reputation these days. This led me to yet more travel, both real and vicarious. I went to Doncaster, York, Bristol, Crewe and Carlisle to spot locomotives from different regions. Back at home, as I sat on a grassy bank just outside our local station, my thoughts ran riot with questions. Where was that express heading to? Where had it come from? How long did the journey take? Some trains were given exotic sounding names which further triggered my imagination. As “The Flying Scotsman” raced by, my mind travelled to Scotland, a country I had never visited in real life. What was it like? Did all the men wear kilts and play the bagpipes? What would I find if I was one of the passengers disembarking at Edinburgh Waverley station? Going the other way, speeding south, I imagined stepping out into London, the country’s glamorous capital. Living in the Derbyshire sticks I had no experience of big, bustling cities. My parents didn’t do city breaks, preferring instead the relaxation and bracing air of the coast.
So I got off to a good start in the world of travel. My wanderlust was activated at an early stage. I thank my parents and especially my dad for this. Once I got to school, history and geography lessons increased and intensified my fascination with far away places, in the past and the present. I remember doing a project in primary school, aged 8 or 9, about how a bar of milk chocolate is made. I sent off for information from Cadburys, the Milk Marketing Board and Tate and Lisle. My research took me on a fascinating journey to the British countryside, the sugar cane plantations of the West Indies and the tropical rain forest region of Ghana in West Africa. My appetite was whetted and not just for chocolate!
The most significant cause of my life-long wanderlust however, was probably a negative one. As I entered adolescence I got increasingly frustrated by the backwater status of the town I lived in, and the insularity of many of its people. They seemed content to stay there all their lives, to remain amongst the familiar and not seek out the new. This insularity and lack of adventure seemed to apply to many members of my own family, especially those in the elder generations. I was born in New Whittington, which was just one small part of Chesterfield, a medium sized north midlands town. Numerous relatives on my mum’s side also lived in this tiny geographical area. At one point, several of my relations lived in the same street. Numerous uncles, aunties, cousins, great uncles and great aunts lived within a stone’s throw of my maternal grandparents’ house. They worked in the local mines or in the iron and steel works and seemingly had no pressing reason to move away. It was still the age of the extended family. We all lived in close proximity to each other, in a village atmosphere where everybody knew everybody else. A stranger would have stuck out like a sore thumb. I suppose it was reassuring and comforting to have family members so close. My parents moved out of New Whittington once they acquired their own house. However, they only went about 3 or 4 miles down the road! Even today, they live just a few miles from where they were born.
This perceived lack of adventure frustrated me very much when I was a teenager. It was almost as if we were still living in medieval times when most ordinary folk did not travel more than one day’s walk from their village in their entire lives! ( Unless conscripted to fight and maybe die for the glorification of their monarch in France.) Most people around me were content to stay well within their comfort zones. They seemed happy to stay in the town where they and their parents ( and probably their grandparents) were born, and visit just a small number of “safe” places not too far away. I really appreciated the yearly holidays my parents took me on, but after 15 years or so, I started to tire of the traditional seaside resort. We went to different places: Blackpool, Scarborough, Great Yarmouth, Margate, Weymouth, but they all served up roughly the same ingredients and they gradually all began to merge into one. I was desperate to visit different sorts of places. I wanted to see big cities and to experience moors, hills, lakes and mountains. In the end, our annual seaside holidays were like slipping on a comfortable but restricting strait-jacket. I wanted to go to different types of places and have contrasting experiences.
Most of all, I wanted to visit other countries — all those exotic places just across the English Channel. What was it like to listen to a different language, eat different foods, see different architecture and observe a different life-style? The prospect of travelling abroad was not frightening for me but very exciting.
My parents must have sensed my growing restlessness and frustration because they kindly paid for me to go on a school trip to the south of France. This was a wonderful opportunity for me. Thus it was that at 16 years old, I finally got off this island to discover something of the world beyond. We crossed the channel, travelled to Paris and then took the night train south to Biarritz, in south west France. I was: awe-struck by the mountain scenery of the Pyrenees, fascinated by the pavement cafes, horrified by the Basque version of a bull fight, immersed in the lyrical babble of the French language and had coffee and croissants for breakfast. I ate the biggest, juiciest peaches I had ever seen, saw the strange Basque game of pelote and smelt a lot of garlic.( an alien experience for me in 1966.) It was like a locked door suddenly bursting open and revealing a whole new world beyond. That school trip to France was : exhausting, disorientating and at times, nerve-wracking. But, at the same time, it was full of wonderful surprises, new, exhilarating experiences and fantastic scenery. It dramatically showed me that there was much more to life than my home town of Chesterfield. It revealed the thrill of the new.
Two years later, I saved up my paper-round money to go with a friend to Adriatic Italy. We travelled through Belgium, Germany and Austria by coach. It was a long but memorable journey. I remember waking up in the splendid scenery of the Bavarian Alps and finding I was deaf. The altitude had made my ears pop! It was the beginning of a life time of travelling and exploring, the seeking out of new sights, sounds and experiences. My life-long wanderlust was up and running.

Looking For Hartlepool.

19 Apr

The plan was simple. Go to an old town, get a map and/or a heritage trail and have an interesting day exploring. My friend, Ian, and I had done this twice before at the northern towns of Darlington and Thirsk. Now it was the turn of Hartlepool, stuck out on the north-east coast. We had already been to visit the interesting Historic Quayside and the fantastic floating battleship, the Trincomalee, built in Bombay in 1817. Now we had returned to look at the actual town. But where was it? We wandered around the area near to the railway station but couldn’t find anything that resembled a busy shopping street, a market square or a central business district. We looked for crowds of people but couldn’t see any. It was all very confusing. On my previous visit, I had asked a railway employee at the station where to find the old, historical centre of the town and she seemed to indicate that there wasn’t one. She pointed us in the direction of the Historic Quay which is really just a tourist attraction rather than part of the real town. Where then was Hartlepool? Surely there was more to it than a few supermarkets, a collection of roundabouts, some busy dual carriageways and an indoor shopping mall? Churchill once described Russia as “a mystery wrapped up in an enigma.” Had we now stumbled across the same phenomenon on the County Durham coast?
The mystery took a while to unravel. First of all we discovered that there are actually two Hartlepools. The main town where one arrives is really the former West Hartlepool, a new town created in the 19th century to cater for the mass of people who flocked in to work in the docks, shipyards, workshops and factories of the Industrial Revolution. Old Hartlepool, sometimes called the Heugh or the Headland, is an ancient fishing settlement on a peninsula, sticking out into the North Sea, as much as 2 miles from the main town. The two Hartlepools officially joined together in 1967, but to all intents and purposes they are still separate. We walked from one to the other, expecting a short stroll but discovering it was quite a hoof along a busy road. We took the bus back! Once there, it was like entering another world, isolated and hidden on its headland and largely bypassed by modern times.
This original Hartlepool was once thought to be an isolated, tidal island covered with a thick forest. Large number of deer used to wander there and congregate at pools to drink. The medieval name for a stag or a deer in general is “hart”. Thus we get the derivation of the place name: hart-le -pool or deer in the pool. The Anglo Saxon name that probably preceded this was “Hart Eu” or Stag Island. This too referred to the large number of deer in that area or possibly to the fact that the magnesium limestone headland roughly resembled the shape of a stag’s head. In the 8th century the Venerable Bede recorded the place as “Heopru” – the place where harts drink. During 19th century excavations in an adjacent marshy area known as “the Slake”, trunks of trees from the ancient forest were found embedded in the clay, along with antlers and teeth from a large number of deer. Thus it’s not surprising that such an abundancy of game plus the fish in the sea, attracted people to live in the area from early times. This ancient version of Hartlepool is now long gone, its remnants buried beneath the ground.
As we neared the old settlement, the main road and most of the traffic veered off to the north and we entered the quiet of the Heugh. A curving promenade looks out to sea with great views up and down the coastline. A serpentine pier snakes out into the waves, crowned by a lighthouse. We saw a dozen ships all queuing to get into nearby Teesport. Further south we saw the wind farm off the coast of Redcar, the puthering, belching iron and steel works, and beyond them the cliffs, headlands and hills of Cleveland where I now live. The views are extensive and spectacular. At first it’s First World War History that leaps to the fore as one walks on to the headland. Not one but two large artillery batteries point out to sea. They were fired in anger when 3 German battle Cruises appeared off the coast in 1914 and subjected east coast towns from Hartlepool to Scarborough to a murderous barrage of 1150 shells. Hartlepool’s guns replied in kind and succeeded in damaging one of the enemy ships. However, 117 local citizens, men, women and children, died in the onslaught, little known early victims of the First World War. The whole story is told in the town’s museum, and in the Heugh Battery Museum on the headland. That era, although only a century ago, has now slipped into history, but I suspect there will be special commemorative ceremonies in Hartlepool of a war which most of the country believes was exclusively fought overseas.
I find that the best way to discover a town is through its history. By uncovering this, layer by layer, one slowly gets to understood the essence of the place, the things that make it unique. What makes the search confusing however is that these layers don’t appear in neat, chronological order. You encounter a mish-mash of different ages and you then have to try to make sense of them. But that’s part of the fascination. For instance, no sooner had Ian and I digested the 20th Century warfare stuff, than we encountered a sea wall begun in the late 14th century and a large Norman church from the late 12th century in a commanding position on the headland. So we had travelled back to medieval times. In fact, features on the south doorway of St Hilda’s Church show decoration from an even earlier Norman Church built by William the Conqueror’s local Lord, Robert de Brus.( One of his close descendants, Robert the Bruce, became King of Scotland after the Battle of Bannockburn.) St Hilda’s is a Grade 1 listed building and considered a gem of the Early English period of church architecture.
St Hilda’s Church is built on the site of an earlier monastery constructed in Anglo-Saxon times around the 7th Century AD. It was a dual monastery for both monks and nuns, who nonetheless led separate lives. Interestingly, in this age of women’s rights and sex equality, this religious institution was initially run by a nun, St Heu. She was later replaced as Abbess by Saint Hilda who later founded the Monastery Abbey at Whitby, just down the coast. Hilda gained her sainthood because she was associated with healing miracles. So it’s strange but fascinating to imagine that Hartlepool, mainly known these days for its docks and its ( declining) industries, was once a religious centre. In fact pilgrims travelled there from all over Britain and Ireland. They came by boat, taking advantage of the natural harbour just south of the headland. The monastery was finally abandoned during political troubles in the late 8th century when the Anglo Saxon Kingdom of Northumbria fell into decline. Viking raiders may have had a hand in the closure as well.
We came looking for one Hartlepool and found that there were many, all stacked up on top of each other. When workmen were clearing the ground to build houses in 1833, at the height of the Industrial Revolution, they discovered an Anglo-Saxon graveyard with burials unusually arranged in rows. Thus 2 eras of the town’s history suddenly came face to face across the centuries. Some of the grave stones were inscribed with names and crosses which dated the burial ground to the 8th century. Two more Anglo- Saxon cemeteries were subsequently excavated in the later 20th century, one by television’s “Time Team.” It’s not every town that can claim a strong Anglo-Saxon ancestry. Metal work, jewellery and decorations for book covers were also discovered from those times.
Walking round the headland today, one sees buildings mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many are grade II listed buildings. There are lovely terraces and quiet squares. Some houses are painted in attractive pastel colours. More modern housing is dotted here and there as the place is not just a museum or a time warp. Afterall people need somewhere to live. This area of old Hartlepool also features a couple of grand Victorian buildings put up in the industrial heyday of the town. A very large Baptist Chapel dominates the top of Church Street. Sadly it looks empty and neglected. The era of mass church attendance is now over. Then, just below St Hilda’s, on Church square, is the Old Public Library built in 1903. It’s a grand, red brick construction with fancy ornamentation. it has Dutch style gables and delicate decoration. It later served as a Maritime Museum and is now Council offices. A move to demolish it was thankfully abandoned after a public outcry.
Thus we discovered Old Hartlepool and we found it to be a fascinating mixture of historical periods, both above and below the surface. However, we still hadn’t solved the mystery of where the current Hartlepool town centre actually is. When the bus arrived to whisk us back to what we now know used to be West Hartlepool, I thought up the “clever” ruse of asking the bus driver. Surely he would know. So, as I presented my pass, I asked him if he was going back to the “town centre.” He replied that he could drop us off near the Asda. He defined “town centre” as being the same as an out of town supermarket. The plot thickened. We were beginning to think that Hartlepool didn’t have a central business area at all. The bus deposited us just past the Asda. As we got off we naturally followed the main flow of our fellow passengers who turned right. Then it dawned on us. Suddenly the mystery of Hartlepool’s missing centre was solved. They were all heading for Middleton Grange Shopping Centre. The traditional cluster of shopping streets and squares had been replaced by one massive, late 20th Century mall! Everything was under that one huge roof. We entered it, desperate for the loo and then looking for somewhere to grab a coffee and a sandwich. All the chain stores were there and the chain restaurants and the chain coffee shops. They all fitted into neat boxes spread across two floors. People milled around and queued at the ubiquitous McDonalds, sheltered from the elements and soothed by the background sound of canned muzak. I don’t really like malls even though I recognise that they are comfortable and convenient places for retail therapy. The trouble is that they all look very similar. Once inside the mall, one could be anywhere in the UK. The Middleton Grange Shopping Centre is a clone of many other centres that I have visited up and down the country. It didn’t really have any distinctive features except one interesting mural that had been commissioned to show the town’s rich and varied history.
Therefore, the mystery was at last solved. We had found the heart of Hartlepool. A giant shopping mall has descended upon the old town centre like an alien space craft. The actual old shopping streets, I found out later, were centred on Lynn Street, a bit further east, near the railway and bus stations. I have seen black and white photos of: bustling street life, rows of distinctive shops and double decker trams trundling up and down. All that world was wiped out sometime in the last quarter of the 20th century. The old shops, banks, cafes etc were demolished to make way for modern housing. The tram-lines were pulled up. Older housing was also knocked down to make way for the modern mall. I read one sad entry on an Internet site about the building of the new shopping complex — a woman noted that the house and the terraced street where she lived was destroyed to make way for the new centre. She must get a funny, maybe nostalgic feeling every time she goes shopping. The current indoor shopping centre, opened in the early 90’s replaced an earlier, late 60’s pedestrian precinct made in the much-derided concrete “brutalist” style. One can imagine the pride in this ultra modern development quickly fading as the concrete became cracked and stained. However, I’d better end my attack on modern architecture before you begin to think I’ve turned into Prince Charles. Just by coincidence, the original modern shopping complex was officially opened by his sister, Princess Anne in May, 1970.
After a rest and repast, we went out into the proper streets, still searching for remnants of the real Hartlepool. The heyday of Hartlepool was in the 19th and first half of the 20th century. It had already become important in later medieval times as the official port of the County Palatine of Durham.( The extensive area controlled by the powerful Bishop of Durham on behalf of the monarch.) It was one of the busiest ports on the east coast. In the 1820’s a railway was brought in to connect the town to the Durham collieries. Hartlepool thus developed into an important coal port. The old Victoria Dock was joined by 3 other docks in the 1840’s and 1850’s as the industrial new town of West Hartlepool expanded rapidly. Shipyards, timber yards and sawmills were opened. A new railway connected the town with Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. Fresh fish from the Hartlepool docks could be transported quickly to the northern cities and towns, increasing the town’s trade and wealth. West Hartlepool grew quickly to over- shadow its neighbour on the headland. By 1900 it was the fourth busiest port in the country and the two Hartlepools had a joint population of around 75000. The 4 different shipyards built nearly 2000 ships between 1836 and 1963.
During this boom period for West Hartlepool, numerous grand public buildings, hotels, churches and shops were constructed. They reflected the wealth and status of the town at that time. However, as in many other places across Britain, the town’s traditional industries went into a deep and long decline following the Second World War. Economic hardship followed and the town is still struggling to reinvent itself for the 21st century. So, as we walked around, it was sad to see some of these grand buildings, standing forlorn and empty, shorn of their original purpose. They are like beached whales washed up by the inevitable tide of time. A large Greek temple-type building stands empty and semi derelict, many of its windows smashed by vandals. This used to be the main Methodist Chapel ( 1871-73), in Victoria Street. Hartlepool it seems was at one time a hot-bed of non-conformist worship. John Wesley apparently preached there several times. The ex Methodist Chapel is a grade II listed building and after it closed was converted into a night club! Wesley must have been turning in his grave! Now it’s empty again waiting for planning permission to convert it into a hotel, restaurant and bar. Next to it stands the equally large and impressive, red brick Grand Hotel. It is in the style of a fancy French chateau. It is still open and run by the Best Western group, although the rumours are that they are trying to sell it. The old showpiece Binns department store is now a one floor Wilkinson’s and in bad need of restoration. Another beached “whale” is Hartlepool’s Cooperative Society building built in 1913 -15. It features a distinctive dome and magnificent white stonework. It looked empty and abandoned. It’s hidden behind the Middleton Grange Centre next to the still working Cameron’s brewery. Two unusual and impressive Victorian churches also punctuate the Hartlepool skyline. They have distinctive towers with small spires attached to them. One, Christchurch, is now the town’s art gallery and information centre.
Various other Victorian or early 20th century buildings are strewn around but no longer make a cohesive whole as I’m sure they once did. Their time has passed and they still stand only because of our relatively recent conservation laws.
Looking for Hartlepool is like looking for pieces of a large jigsaw. Many pieces are unfortunately missing. The picture is further complicated by the fact that Hartlepool is in fact many jigsaws from many different eras. Pieces from different pictures are now mixed up haphazardly. It takes a special effort to try to piece it all together. This has been what this blog has tried to do!


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