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!


29 Mar

I’ve always had this fear of dropping out of existence, of going into the void. It’s a fear I share with many other human beings but which we manage to keep secret most of the time. It’s called the fear of death. We don’t like to talk about it or even think of it, but it pops into one’s mind more and more as one gets older. What’s so bad about death? It’s an escape from all the problems and stresses of life. You could see it as everlasting freedom from worry and pain. But it also represents oblivion, a state where you are not conscious of your own existence. It’s when you cease to be. Once your body has perished your only chance of living on is in the minds of others who are still alive. Photos, belongings, writings, songs, and places that represent your shared experiences with them, can all trigger memories. Like a genie from a bottle, a departed person can be conjured back into existence , even if only for a few moments.
It’s strange therefore that some people are so careless with their memories of others. It is often a case of “out of sight, out of mind.” To forget is to put someone out of one’s mind, to cease to think of him or her. What concerns me is that this forgetting does not only take place after someone has died. We move house or move jobs and suddenly whole hosts of people who were our neighbours, colleagues or even “friends”, drop out of our lives because the regular point of contact is not there anymore. We may make an effort to keep in touch for a while but unless a person is an especially close friend, one we have bonded with, the connection will slowly wither away on the vine if not nourished by regular contact. How many times have you swapped addresses and email details with people who you have met and got on with on holiday, only to never see or have anything to do with them again. People get sucked back into their everyday lives, and if you are not part of that daily world, the danger is that you will be eventually forgotten.
I know I cannot be friends with everyone I meet and like. If my life is an island, there is only room for so many on the shore. Constantly trying to add people will end up with others being forced back into the sea. Time and energy constraints ensure that one will usually end up with a practical, manageable number of friends and acquaintances. (I’m talking about real friends in the flesh, not virtual “friends” on Facebook and other social media.) However, this does not stop me from feeling sad when a connection is dropped and abandoned. I know it sounds dramatic, but to me it is a kind of death. Being pushed out of another’s life is a big step towards being forgotten altogether. It’s sort of being consigned to oblivion. I have always been sensitive about rejection. I’ve been too sensitive, in fact, for my own good. Two or three times in my life I have been “dumped” by women I loved and who I thought loved me. It went from “I love you” and “I’ll always be there for you” to ” I don’t love you anymore” and “I never want to see you again!” It was hard to bear at the time. It was a kind of death. In that woman’s mind I would largely cease to exist. On one of those occasions, after being dropped by a lover, I wrote melodramatically in my diary, that “I felt like a discarded toy left in the corner of the playroom.” One can go from loving and caring about someone intensely, to not even knowing whether that same person is dead or alive. I have found this difficult to cope with but have had to accept this as a hard, realistic part of life. It’s what some people glibly describe as “moving on”, as if people are like places passed through on a long journey.
But death and time are the major reasons why most people are forgotten. They say that within two generations of passing away, in most cases, nobody will remember you. It’s as if your whole life has just been swallowed up into a vacuum and lost in time. At the moment (2014) the British nation is making a special effort to remember those who perished in the First World War. The last combatants from the UK have now all passed into history. I remember the very last British “Fighting Tommy”, Harry Patch, finally dying in 2009, aged 111. He was feted because of that war and because he was the final survivor. He had a high profile funeral covered by TV and press. However, what about the millions of other service men and women on all sides who died before him? They lie in well tended but largely forgotten graves or their bodies were never found because they were blown to bits. I recently wandered around a deserted graveyard in mid Northumberland ( Chevington cemetery near Acklington) which contains neat rows of gravestones of airmen who perished in accidents or in combat in the skies over North-East England during the Second World War. All of them were in their twenties. They came from: England, New Zealand, Poland and Australia. In another section were about 6 rows of German graves, again all desperately young men. It was a very poignant experience wandering amongst them, trying to imagine their lives and how they ended. I wonder how many of their present day relatives have their photos displayed on the mantelpiece or their belongings kept safe in a special place? They are now at least 4 generations back. Are they still actively remembered or have they disappeared into the mists of time? My friend Colin, who took me there, has a great interest in military history especially that of the RAF. He read to me from a book which described all the fatal air-crashes in Northumberland during the Battle of Britain. Spitfires accidently clipping each other while on a training flight and plunging into a field. Bombers returning from a mission in thick fog and crashing into a wood, or, in one case, demolishing a church. It was sad to be at the place where these tragedies occurred and to see the grave-stones of those concerned. But I couldn’t help wondering how many times, if any, these graves have been visited by those who knew or knew of them. Colin’s book was entitled “Almost Forgotten”. I think, except for a few history buffs and war researchers, we can safely omit the first word from that title.
Coincidentally, the Sunday Times of the previous weekend featured an article headlined : “Lying Cold and Alone.” The writer talked about a huge graveyard on the edge of Berlin- the Neur Garnisionsfriedhof cemetery ( Hope I got that spelling right.). It contained the graves of 7,200 young German soldiers who died in the First World War. The grave- stones were clean, and the grass around them was neatly mown. However the whole place was deserted and not a single flower was laid on any of the ranks of monuments. When the writer mentioned the name of the war cemetery to his Berliner friends, they had never even heard of it! It seems that the First World War is Germany’s forgotten war. Not much is being done to commemorate its centenary compared to the many events being planned in Britain and France. The main reason, apart from the sheer passage of time, is because the horrors subsequently perpetrated by Hitler and the Nazis in the Second World War have all but obliterated memories of the earlier conflict. Whatever the reason, the result is the same — all these people are now all but forgotten.
Shocking though it may seem, some people deliberately sabotage the memorabilia of their departed relatives. I recently saw a documentary ( “Hidden Histories — photographs” on BBC 4) which featured a dustman in Sussex who had accumulated a large collection of: photos, letters, medals and other personal documents from soldiers in the 1914-18 war that had simply been thrown away into the trash by the younger generations of their families. He had started his collection in the days before black bin bags so that when he emptied a bin he could clearly see its contents. Shocked by what he saw, he took one box of personal effects back to the house, thinking that the people had thrown its contents out in error. But when they opened the door they were irritated and clearly indicated to him that they wanted rid of the stuff. Maybe I am being over sentimental but I am shocked that precious mementoes of someone’s life can be deliberately consigned to the dust-bin. There again, I have heard several stories of recently deceased people’s belongings being sorted into three piles — stuff to be kept, stuff for the charity shop and stuff for the skip! Although I know one cannot keep everything just for the sake of it and it is important not to live in too much clutter, I still shudder at the thought of my relatives possibly binning my belonging after I’m gone, as if they’re wiping me out of existence. I know I’m being impractical. We cannot expect our surviving relatives to live like Miss Havershams in Great Expectations.
When I was in Vietnam I visited historical houses that contained shrines to the departed. This is because of the religion of ancestor worship. The dead are respected, honoured and remembered on a regular basis. I think this is a lovely tradition. It’s much preferable to throwing their belongings ( and memories of them) into the bin. In a previous blog I have mentioned about writing to leave a sort of legacy. I don’t think that famous politicians like Churchill, Thatcher or Blair should have a monopoly over this sort of thing. The recently departed and much loved ( or hated) Tony Benn has his entertaining and insightful diaries to perpetuate his memory. I write a diary too as well as producing this blog. I have also written my memoirs for what they’re worth!. It’s all ultra-egotistical I know. However I feel compelled to do it because I dread the thought of being forgotten and passing into oblivion. It’s a futile fight against the inevitable. I know I’ll lose. In a TV drama I have just watched ( “In Treatment” ) a character, who had just attended a funeral, commented “In the end there is only silence.” That sounds terrifying but it could also be thought of wonderfully peaceful! The point is that neither emotion is relevant because consciousness for the departed person has stopped. It comforts and consoles me to think there could be an alternative to the frightening finality of the above statement. It would run something like: “In the end there is only memory.” It cheers me to think that I might live on in the minds of others, at least for a while. ( Maybe a couple of generations if I’m lucky.)


5 Mar

We arrived at Antalya airport at midnight ( Turkish time) after a 4.5 hour flight from the UK. By the time we had queued for visas, queued for passport control, waited for our luggage to appear on the carousel, lined up to be ticked off and processed by our travel company rep., waited around in our allocated coach ( in a line of about 20), been driven to an unknown hotel on the far side of the city, queued at reception to sign in and get our keys, and finally got into our room, it was 2am! We were very tired. However, we had already been informed that we would get a wake-up call at 6am and would be on the road by 7-30am. We had no choice about this. We would have less than 4 hours sleep before a full day of sight seeing and travelling! Even these precious few hours were disturbed by a cock crowing at dawn and the early morning call to prayer from an uncomfortably close minaret!
This was not what we imagined when we first spotted an enticing ad for an incredibly cheap cultural tour of South West Turkey ( Lycia.). We had just looked at the price and the list of interesting-looking destinations and not thought too much about the tiring schedule we would have to follow to do all that in a week. Neither did we think too much about our lack of freedom. From now on, until we got back to England, we would have no say about: when we got up in the morning, where we would visit, how long we could stay at each place, how far we would drive, where and when we would eat and where we slept at night. So half the time it felt that we were on holiday but in the other half, it felt like we had been kidnapped! We had allowed ourselves to be taken prisoner by the Turkish Tourist Board, which had subsidised our low price, out of season trip — “In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great.”
I can see why they did it. They wanted to fill some of those hundreds of hotels, built for the summer sunworshippers but laying mostly empty in the winter off-season. They also wanted to try to diversify the type of tourist coming to Turkey. By advertising in middle class publications like “Homes and Antiques”, and the National Trust magazine they were aiming to attract visitors who were interested in visiting Turkey’s rich array of historical, classical sites rather than those just wishing to relax on a sun lounge or sip drinks by a pool. They spread this campaign all over Europe. In our whistle stop tour, we met groups of Danes, Swedes and Germans doing exactly the same thing. The whole operation seemed to be masterminded with military precision to avoid us swamping any one place at any one time. For instance, we had to leave Kusadasi at the early hour of 7-30 one morning.( rising at 6am!), not because we had an incredibly long drive, but because our group had been allocated an 8-30am slot at the local carpet cooperative. If we had had a much needed lie-in and a more leisurely breakfast we would have had to queue behind several other coach parties or missed our turn. Of course, we couldn’t just miss out the carpet making demonstration and the salesmen’s gentle hard-sell because when in Turkey, it’s compulsory to visit one of their most important traditional industries. At least it is when you’re being chaperoned around in a group. This particular establishment had helped to subsidise our trip so in return we were obliged to go and look at their wares. Groups of prospective customers were delivered to them by the coachload, but all in strict, pre-arranged order. Some people even bought carpets and rugs. ( They are delivered to your door in the UK within 6 weeks and all taxes and post and packaging costs are paid for by the Turkish Government.) We were also taken, on another day, to gold- jewellery, and leather workshops/showrooms. It was at these places that I realized that our guide and the tourist board did not regard a holiday as just a time when tourists could relax and enjoy themselves. Rather they regarded it as providing tourists with the opportunity to contribute to the Turkish economy, support Turkish craftsmen and women, and provide employment for local people. Our guide, who was very good by the way, gave the game away by constantly referring to us as being part of the tourist sector. We were contributors to the national coffers and so were encouraged to cough up at every opportunity. It was part of the deal.
Being on a package tour is not all bad though. Far from it. Everything is arranged for you so you don’t have to worry. In that sense it is stress free. So there are no concerns about getting lost, no language problems and no transport issues. Everything is worked out by local experts in advance and all that is left for you is to enjoy the sights and experiences that are being presented to you on a plate. So we didn’t experience that awful feeling of stress and disorientation when one arrives at a foreign airport and has to somehow figure how to get to the hotel somewhere out there in a strange town. That’s why so many people readily agree to being packaged. Whether one enjoys such a “holiday” or not is all a question of attitude. If you know you are going to be shepherded around in a group but realize that this is an easy way to see some fascinating places then the experience will be fine. If you resent and resist such an arrangement and yearn for some freedom, then you’re in for a frustrating time. Our group was a very good one, our guide and driver were excellent and the itinerary had numerous highlights, so in the end there were more pluses than minuses for me.
One of the first pluses was the wonderful scenery of Lycia on Turkey’s so-called “Turquoise Coast.” Pine and cedar clad mountains sweep down to the blue sea. The highest peaks were snow covered when we went in February. The coast is adorned with long white beaches, coves, islands and turquoise bays. Everywhere we went, we saw colourful orange and lemon groves and pomegranate plantations. Freshly squeezed juice was a readily available treat. As we drove west along the coast- hugging road on our first morning out of Antalya, mist still hung in the valleys and the bright sun in the vivid, blue sky made the Mediterranean sparkle.
However, it was the classical, archaeological sites that we had really come to see. Ancient Lycian rock -cut tombs ( 4th century BC) honeycombed a cliff face next to the extensive remains of a Roman Theatre at Myra. This Lycian necropolis has had temple- like tombs carved directly into the cliff face. Stone Roman reliefs of masks and faces lay strewn around after falling off the theatre during an earthquake. It’s an amazing historical site and all set amongst orchards of citrus fruits backed by overlapping hills. Later that day, after visiting the medieval church of St Nicholas in Demre, we found ourselves on a boat tour of beautiful Kekova bay, with more Lycian stone tombs littering the shore like upturned boats, a crusader’s castle dominating a hill, and long-haired goats scampering around. Wooded islands, distant mountains, remnants of a sunken city and the setting sun completed the idyllic scene. We viewed more lovely temple tombs the next day on a river trip from Dalyan past ancient Kaunos. The river was fringed by tall, swaying reeds and punctuated by rocky outcrops. Cormorants, egrets and heron fished in its waters and overhead a mysterious bird of prey soared on the thermals. That trip deposited us on an attractive beach which in the summer is roped off as this is where endangered loggerhead turtles come to lay their eggs. Apparently, there were plans to build a large hotel here to attract more tourists but this plan was stopped by an international environmental campaign on behalf of the turtles led by a brave British woman who still lives there, in her 90’s. When they hatch, the baby turtles are guided to the sea by the light of the moon. If the hotel had been erected, they would have been attracted to its electric lights instead, thus spelling disaster.
The two Roman highlights of our tour were world famous Ephesus and the lesser known Aphrodisias. Ephesus gets many more visiters because it is near the coastal, package- tour resort of Kusadasi and is close to an airport. Aphrodisias is inland, more remote and subsequently quieter. Ephesus used to be the third biggest Roman city in Turkey or Asia Minor as it was then called. It was originally a Greek city on the coast of what was then Ionia. It used to contain the Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World. Only a single truncated pillar remains today. In Roman times between 30,000 and 55,000 people lived here. It was sacked by marauding Goths, suffered from earthquakes, fires and floods, and eventually fell into terminal decline after its river silted up. It is still a special place to visit if you’re a history buff as I am. The most spectacular remains are the enormous theatre and the Library of Celsus, a large, 2-storey building reconstructed from the original materials. There are also 2 long, cobbled streets which helps one to imagine what it must have looked like to be here 2,000 years ago. After Pompeii it is the second best preserved ancient Roman city around the Mediterranean. It’s certainly very popular, being the second most visited place in Turkey after the Sultan’s Palace in Istanbul. As soon as we got off the coach we were besieged by guide book hawkers telling us their books were “as cheap as chips.” This made us laugh as did the stalls selling “Genuine Fake Watches.” It must be hell in the summer when the crowds pour in for their day of culture and the hot sun is blazing down on what is quite an open, exposed site. For us though, it was fairly quiet and cool.
It gave me a thrill to think that I was in an ancient city not only visited by Alexander the Great but also lived in at a later time by St Paul, who wrote one of his Epistles here. Also it is thought that the Apostle John wrote his Gospel at Ephesus. He was buried in the nearby town of Seljuk until Italian grave robbers took his body to Bari. All of this helped to make the Bible come alive for me much more than sitting in a church back in England.
Aphrodisias, the other Roman town was also founded in Greek times. It became a centre for the cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. The remains of her temple were turned into an early Christian church which is also now in ruins. This is another area affected by earthquakes and subsequent floods. The site had a monumental Roman double gateway, a small theatre, an odeon or council chamber and a large stadium. This stadium was the highlight for me. It seated 30,000 spectators in 30 rows of seats that went round in a very large oval. It staged: chariot races, gladiatorial combat, wild animal fights and, after the theatre had flooded, plays and musical events. It’s one of the best preserved Roman stadiums in the Mediterranean area. Aphrodisias was also a renowned centre for sculpture because of the quality of the marble in a nearby quarry. We saw excellent statues, busts and reliefs in the museum. It was strangely moving to be looking into the anguished eyes of a Barbarian woman, kneeling in defeat at the feet of the triumphant Roman Emperor. One thing those Romans didn’t suffer from was modesty! Yes, Aphrodisias was a definite highlight, sitting on a high plateau surrounded by snow capped mountains. It was also very quiet — just us and a bunch of Danes.
The world famous Pamukkale, which I had so much been looking forward to, was a massive disappointment though. It’s a small hill covered in white travertine ( hard chalk) terraces. These are formed by hot thermal water running down the hill in streams, cooling and setting hard to form a sort of solidified waterfall. It’s supposed to be a beautiful, natural phenomenon but for me it looked just like a slightly dirty ski slope. Maybe if I had got to walk to the top of it I would have seen more to impress me but by the time we arrived, late in the afternoon, it was nearly dusk and the upper path had been closed. So we stared at this World Heritage Site ( World Heritage anti-climax) from below and its reality did not meet my high expectations. Below it, they have built a lake where people can go in pedal boats shaped as giant swans. The whole place was a bit tacky with souvenir stalls and ice cream sellers juggling their cones to entertain the crowds. We joined in the tourist “fun” by having our photo taken with a Bactrian camel bedecked in gold and red finery. It’s not every day one gets to meet a 2-humped camel! Apparently, up to 3 million Russians visit Pamukkale every summer. I cannot really understand why. Maybe if I had got up on that top path I would have appreciated it more. The area is strewn with luxury hotels. Many of them have thermal baths including the one we stayed at. We wallowed in warm, bubbling water and looked up at the moon and stars. This area has many geo-thermal plants producing energy for the country. Their pipes snake off across the plateau.
So, once I got used to, and accepted the limitations that package tourism imposed, I enjoyed being kidnapped and whisked around this rugged but beautiful corner of Turkey. We packed in many memorable sights and experiences. Yes. we were led from one tourist attraction to the next without getting much of a chance to see the “real” Turkey, whatever that means. Sometimes it felt as if we existed in an artificial, tourist bubble. Yet, as I glanced out of the coach window I did sometimes glimpse non- tourist sights — a young female goat-herd sheltering with her flock under the shade of a clump of trees, men performing their ablutions before going into a mosque, rows and rows of polythene tunnels growing tomatoes and peppers, the hissing, steaming geo-thermal power plants. I also saw the concrete jungles built for the summer hordes on the coast. It was a fascinating and often exhilarating experience made all the more enjoyable by knowing that I could have a long rest back in the UK, once I had regained my freedom!


23 Feb

Last week I went on a journey into my teenage past. I watched the fourth Sean Connery/James Bond film: “You Only Live twice” on TV, made in 1967. I enjoyed the time travel immensely. It was a huge blast of sixties nostalgia. Yes, it was terribly dated, but that’s why I liked it so much. It was a product of its time and for me it summed up much that was exciting about that decade. This is especially so when I recall my first reaction to the early Bond films and subsequently to Ian Fleming’s spy novels that they were based on. They made a massive impact on the adolescent me.
The first 2 Bond films I saw were “Dr No” and “Goldfinger”, on a double bill at my local Odeon cinema. I was 15 at the time. Up to that point James Bond 007 and Ian Fleming had failed to make any significant impact upon me. I only went to the cinema that night to be with my mates. I was still largely an innocent, naïve child, living a quiet, sheltered life in a provincial town. Up to that point the highlight of my family’s life had been the weekly visit to the Methodist Sunday School and evening service at the chapel. But now, as my adolescent hormones started to kick in, I felt hungry for something different. Already, listening to pop music and watching football had caused more than a few ripples on the surface of my safe but mundane existence. Now, in one electrifying evening at the “flics” I was blasted into an adult world of: danger, suspense, thrills and spills, modern technology, politics, crime, foreign travel, exotic locations, glamour, girls and sex.( well strong hints of it anyway.) That’s no mean achievement for just 3 hours entertainment! My imagination was fired and suddenly life seemed to be full of enthralling possibilities.( even though many of them were to remain mere fantasies and I eventually became a teacher, not a spy.)) Life was no longer the boring, insular existence that I had thought it to be. The Bond films and novels were classic pieces of escapism and they exploded into my life at exactly the right moment — when I was just starting to feel trapped and in a rut. OK — one can criticise them now for their: casual violence, crude sexism and racial stereotyping, but, to the 15 year old version of me, never having had a girlfriend, never having travelled abroad, never having taken a risk or made any forays into the unknown, they represented tremendous EXCITEMENT.
So I went to see all the Bond films of the 60’s ( up to “Diamonds Are Forever” in 1971) and devoured all the novels and short stories, published by Pan in their cheap paperback form from the local market. They immersed me in an intriguing alternative world, almost a parallel universe compared to my everyday existence. Of course the violence and sex fascinated me, even though Fleming and the film’s producers were masters of the dot, dot, dot. Today, it all seems tame compared to what can be witnessed in many films or books. The violence, including killing, is sanitised, with little blood or drawn out suffering. “Sex” consists mainly of a bit of kissing but the context leaves plenty of opportunity for the imagination to take off. Tame it may seem, but at the time it opened my eyes to a world previously unseen and largely unimagined. On top of this agent 007 also introduced me to: espionage, international relations, the “Cold War”, the “Space Race”, modern technology, gambling, card games, fast cars, smoking ( though I never indulged), drinking and foreign cultures. Fleming’s books were not flat- out action thrillers, consisting mostly of car chases, fights, murders and explosions, like many of the more recent Bond films. Instead they often took their time to describe a sophisticated meal, an exotic cocktail or a complicated card game. They were also set in colourful locations, far away from the grey, damp cold of the austerity Britain of the 1950’s, the era when the first ones were written. Fleming wrote “Casino Royale” in 1952 when rationing in Britain was still a grim, post-war reality and “make do and mend” was still the motto of many. However he set it mainly on the French Riviera and wrote it in his tropical Jamaican retreat: “Goldeneye.” So from the start James Bond represented exoticism and escapism. Later books were to take his readers on armchair excursions to: Turkey and the Balkans ( “From Russia With Love”), Switzerland and the United States (“Goldfinger”), Haiti ( “Live and Let Die”), and Japan ( “You Only Live Twice”), to name but a few. In the film of “You Only Live Twice”, the one I recently viewed again, we see traditional Japanese costumes, ritualistic tea drinking, oriental massage, martial arts demonstrations and a prolonged village wedding ceremony. It’s not all frantic action. In “Live and let Die”, Fleming provides a long discussion about voodoo. It’s not all: crash, bang, wallop or wham, bam, thank-you maam! So, for me at 15, 16 17 and 18, James Bond was an educational, mind-opening experience as well as an adrenaline- filled adventure. Unfortunately in the books and the early films we get a strong whiff of the author’s rather unpleasant chauvinism towards other races as well as towards women. There are also homophobic passages which are unacceptable to the modern reader but which belonged to their time as homosexuality was still a crime in Britain up to 1967. Good or bad though, acceptable or unacceptable, all these Bond novel themes opened up important issues for me and provided valuable food for thought whether I agreed with Fleming/Bond or not. They instigated many a debate in my mind. For my adolescent self they were a godsend, providing hours of educational diversion as well as pure escapism.
As I saw the early films before I dipped into the books, James Bond has always meant Sean Connery for me.( I don’t count the comic film version of “Casino Royale” played by David Nivien.) As I read the novels, Connery provided the picture in my mind whenever “Bond” was mentioned. He seemed a perfect fit — strong, tall, muscular but also graceful and charming. People commented on his easy, laconic manner, sense of humour and supple movement. I believe my female friends when they tell me that the 1960’s Connery oozed sexual charisma. Despite his rough working class upbringing in Scotland he also skilfully portrayed the sophistication and upper class snobbery of Fleming’s character.( based partly upon Fleming himself.) Apparently, Ian Fleming did not immediately approve of the choice of Connery, as he didn’t match the character imagined in his head. However he was quickly converted and in a later book, ” On Her Majesty’s Secret Service”, he even wrote a potted Scottish/ Swiss biography that approximately matched Connery’s own. Fleming admitted that he had Sean Connery in his mind when he wrote his later Bond stories. He even made Bond slightly less cold and cruel in response to Connery’s injection of warmth and humour into the character in those early films. Thus the film company had a big problem when Connery tired of the role even though it had given him tremendous fame and success. After “Dr No”, “From Russia With Love”, “Goldfinger and “Thunderball”, Connery had to be persuaded to reprise the role in “You Only Live Twice” in 1967. He had ambition to be a more serious actor and did not want to end up being type-cast. However the experiment with George Lazenby in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” was a disappointment for many because of his lack of any acting ability and the wooden deliverance of his lines. Lazenby’s only previous claim to fame was being a model and appearing as the “Big Fry man” in the TV chocolate adverts. This was hardly much of a recommendation. It was hoped that his looks and muscularity would carry the day, but they didn’t! Lazenby also didn’t get on with Terence Hunt, the director and announced he would step down from the role even before the film was released. To me, it was a good adventure film which suffered because of the disappearance of Connery. This was not poor Lazenby’s fault. He might have even grown into the role if he had stuck around a bit longer. But he didn’t. So it was that Connery was persuaded to return to do “Diamonds are Forever” in 1971. To most of us Bond fans it was as if the real James Bond had returned to vanquish the imposter. Then however, Connery really did relinquish the role apart from an “unofficial”. off-franchise return in the early 1980’s in the non- Fleming story ” Never Say Never Again”. He probably needed the cash boost and the title is obviously a joke based on his broken resolution. By then however, Roger Moore was well established in the official role and to many younger people he was the “real” James Bond.
I have never accepted Roger Moore as James Bond, even though he was considered for the film role before Sean Connery. At the time Moore was too busy with his TV adventurer role “The Saint”. He didn’t land the part until 10 years later. I refused to go and see his Bond films but have watched bits of them on TV in the subsequent years. I find it difficult to take him seriously as an actor. He is very wooden and unconvincing. He copied Connery’s sense of humour in the role but played it as if the whole story was a joke rather than a serious thriller lightened by occasional humour. Anyway, by the 70’s when Moore took over the role, I was no longer a teenage fantasist. I was now married, in a full time job and from 1973, a father. You could say I had grown up and grown out of James Bond.
The whole James Bond thing has now become a money-spinning franchise. Ian Fleming died in 1964 but his most famous creation lived on, creating a life of its own. The main motivation for all this seems to be to make money. I believe it the second most lucrative film franchise of all time ( after Harry Potter.) The Fleming family and estate have commissioned several different authors to write subsequent Bond books and keep the money flowing in. Similarly the film producers didn’t stop once they had run out of original Fleming stories. They commissioned new script writers and kept raking in the profits. This lucrative franchise is still running of course and there seems no end to it. There have now been 25 different Bond films involving 7 actors in the lead role. Bond’s controller at MI6, “M”, has now changed from a man ( Bernard Lee) to a woman ( Judy Dench). That wouldn’t have happened in the sexist, pre-feminist 50’s and 60’s. I have found reasons to dislike and reject most of the “imposter” Bonds. Roger Moore- too wooden; Timothy Dalton — too short; Daniel Craig — also too short, too fair and with more than a hint of cauliflower ears! David Niven, back in the 50’s was too old and too jokey. I quite liked the Irish actor Pierce Brosnan . I went to his Bond movies in the 90’s when I was taking my own teenage son on cinema trips. Brosnan certainly looked the part and was a decent actor. However, I have largely remained a Sean Connery purist and have little or no interest in stories not written by Ian Fleming. James Bond is not like silly Dr Who. He cannot magically reincarnate himself just to suit the needs of the TV or film company. For me, James Bond belongs to the 1950’s and 60’s, the era in which he was created and in which his original stories are set. I feel it has been a mistake to have turned him into a Peter Pan like time- traveller, totally cut off from his roots. ( Except that the people who have done this are a lot richer than I ever will be.)
I feel it’s just plain greedy and silly to just keep continuing with a franchise which artistically, culturally and historically, has far out-lived its sell-by date. The current films have been reduced to formulaic action movies. What were once fresh ideas ( technological gadgetry, exotic locations, dramatic combat, glamorous seduction) are now so routine as to be stale clichés.
I suppose the biggest reason why I have been turned off the post- Connery Bond films is that I am not a hormone-charged, impressionable adolescent anymore. Sadly I have grown up and it takes a lot more than car-chases, spectacular explosions and glamorous women to get me interested in a film nowadays. I now expect a good, deep, interesting plot, authentic dialogue, realistic locations and skilled acting to draw me into a film. James Bond doesn’t do it for me anymore. But I do admit to more than a frisson of excitement when a be-suited 007 suddenly swung round, raised his Walther PPK and fired a single shot out of my TV, the screen quickly filling up with blood. Then came the deep bass guitar strings and strident, screaming brass of John Barry’s theme tune, followed by the dulcet tones of Nancy Sinatra singing : “You only live twice, or so it seems, one life for yourself and one for your dreams.” Suddenly I was back in the 60’s, where James Bond belongs. For 90 minutes it was great to be a teenager again!


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