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Summer’s lease – thank you for the music

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Benny Andersson giving his best

Benny Andersson giving his best

Over the years we’ve been to some celebrated concerts at a country house not far from where we live in England; they are held in the park during the summer on the gently sloping lawns above restored Jacobean gardens. It’s a well-tried formula – a good Pinot, picnic snacks, portable camping chairs and umbrellas; sit back, enjoy the music, get a little mellow. Well, that’s the plan but if I’m honest it really only worked out like that for us once. Mostly it has been cold and dull and twice it rained so heavily that we chucked it in, wet through to our underwear, before the concert started.

I’m not the best supporter of summer concerts – if plans are being hatched my preparations centre on the logistics of managing waterproofs, rubber boots and sufficient weather protection to see that drinks remain hot and food dry. Not so Mission Control, who is optimistic to the point of distraction. Her approach involves chilling wine, selecting an appropriate table setting and choosing which open sandals to wear. You’d have thought by now she knew that it always rains at outdoor concerts and as for me, my days of believing that wet feet are a prerequisite of musical appreciation have gone the way of my kipper ties.  

As summer reached its height and it really began to look as if you could plan an outdoor event more than 24 hours in advance the summer open-air concert agenda became a topic of conversation. I was immediately faced with a dilemma. From a point somewhere back in the seventies I have been a fan of Abba although I wouldn’t have admitted that before Mama Mia! took off. The success of the show and movie together with near-universal appreciation of the music has made it more or less acceptable to ‘fess up to a fondness for badly-rhyming lyrics and a chequered sartorial history that included stacked shoes and flared trousers. In Sweden Abba are something more than national icons, perhaps because they seem so normal and, in a manner that is intrinsically Swedish, anti-celebrity. Mission Control exchanged a few words with Björn Ulvaeus as he was loading beer into his car in Stockholm once and another time, in a traffic jam outside the city, Anni-Frid Lynstad was stationary right alongside me and smiled and waved as I recognised her. Such humility, although I secretly wished it had been Agnetha Fältskog. [That’s the blond one.]

Benny Andersson appears these days with a motley band of troubadours known collectively as Benny Andersson’s Orkester – BAO for short – and with them two vocalists; Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg. The music they play is unashamedly popular and appeals to audiences, shall we say, of a mature and genteel disposition. It’s immensely popular – one song stayed in the charts for 278 weeks – but that disguises the fact that he’s a strong advocate for traditional folk music. For several reasons, but mostly because I like that they enjoy playing so much, I’ve been keen to see them for some time but our travel schedule and the brevity of their concert tour in Sweden – they play eight or so concerts a year – have minimised my chances. Added to that, most venues are a long way from where we stay and by the time we hear about a concert all the tickets are long gone. Frustrating, but what could you do? The concerts are in the open air and I’d expect it to rain anyway.

Helen Sjöholm  and accompaniment

Helen Sjöholm and accompaniment

Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

Helen Sjöholm and Tommy Körberg

And there was my dilemma; BAO were to play an open-air concert just up the road in Helsingborg and the weather was just about guaranteed to be good. No reason not to go, really – aside from the fact that it had been sold out for nine months. Would I rethink my aversion to open-air concerts, Mission Control asked?

I can’t recall if I did agree to soften my attitude but, a few days later and in blazing sunshine, I was at the VIP guest entrance at Sofiero Slott, chairs under one arm, a chilled Orvieto and an excellent picnic under the other. Quite how Mission Control managed to place us just below the stage and ahead of a few thousand people, some of whom had been queuing all day with tickets they had purchased months before, is a secret I’m asked not to divulge but there we were and there was Benny. Doing what he does best and smiling for the camera.

A bucket-list box ticked and how about that – it didn’t rain.

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Summer’s lease – what a state we’re in

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Red kite inspecting us

Red kite inspecting us

Golden eagles over the garden

Golden eagles over the garden

I felt the first icy grip of winter this week as I was wandering along the River Blackwater. Although it was bright and clear the temperature resolutely refused to move into double figures and I found myself reflecting on the warm, sunny days that 2013’s record-breaking summer eventually brought us. I’ve been walking the coastal marshes since I was a boy and, for me, they evoke the very essence of winter. The skies, big over the maze of winding channels and muted colours, were filled with hundreds of Brent Geese and golden plover; ducks and godwits; avocets; egrets and huge flocks of waders, panicked into a cacophony of whirring wings and alarm calls by a peregrine falcon. As background, robins and Cetti’s warblers sang in the shrubs behind the sea wall. Put simply, it was a spectacular experience.

The Essex coast doesn’t feel very different from when I first experienced it – a little more developed, a few more people, less wild perhaps – but essentially much the same. Change, though, is inexorable and often only noticed when we pause and take stock. Experiencing the sight and sound of those thousands of wintering birds was exhilarating but were there as many golden plover or redshank that held me in awe on my first visit there? Were the dunlin or geese as numerous?

In Sweden we’re privileged in living above a valley where golden eagles nest so it’s not unusual to see them – frequently with red kites – wheeling in languorous circles high over the garden. Last year a decision was taken to reduce disturbance in the valley and a project to reinvigorate the disused railway was abandoned, allowing the start of improvements to the landscape that reversed unsympathetic drainage in the grazing meadows. It was a bonus for an area that already has a rich ecology. The environment gets a very fair shout in Sweden, perhaps because it has the fourth lowest density of population in Europe or perhaps because there is less pressure on the land than in England. Whatever the reason, we’re used to big birds of prey in the sky and the thought that they might not be there one day doesn’t register as a possibility.     

Not so in the UK, where my summer was disrupted in late May by the publication of a report called The State of Nature. It’s a sobering document and requires a philosophical frame of mind – or a large Scotch – to read. It comprises collected overviews of twenty-five British conservation bodies that together provide an outline of the changing status of habitat and species in the United Kingdom and its Overseas Territories. It reports on the dire status of some species and highlights some of the successes that conservation can achieve. The headline conclusion, though, is that the UK’s wildlife has suffered a serious decline and is continuing to do so at a very alarming rate.

Egrets on the Blackwater

Egrets on the Blackwater

Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Wintering wading birds on the Blackwater

Reading the report raises conflicting emotions; on one hand the loss of habitat and once-familiar animals and birds is depressing whereas on the other, the gains are uplifting. Targeted conservation meant that a wintering flock of around fifty avocets graced the Blackwater margins, a bird that was once extinct as a UK breeding species. In sharp contrast, the losses of recent years are widespread and extensive – butterflies down by 72%, 40 million birds lost and 80% of lowland heath gone or degraded. The statistics paint a very disheartening picture. I rarely see House Sparrows these days yet they were ubiquitous when I was younger; recently, hedgehogs have declined by nearly 50% and could become extinct in some areas of the UK. The story is similar across a broad spectrum and one fears for less iconic species of plant or insect that lack popular appeal.

The State of Nature is upbeat and provides scope for optimism but it left me with a feeling of how little individuals can do in the face of such massive and apparently continuous loss. Anything, of course, is always better than nothing even if an individual contribution appears as insignificant as signing a petition or joining a conservation organisation.

Only this month and after fifteen years’ management of a site that contributed toward maintaining a viable population of Cirl Buntings in southern England the area has been deliberately degraded at the behest of the local NHS Trust so as to facilitate a housing development. I’m aghast that it can happen – you can read about it here – and yet not entirely surprised when considering the attitude adopted by a weak and unprincipled government that acts in a manner suggesting it is both in hock to business and detached from the long-term implications of its own ineptitude. A report from Wildlife and Countryside Link – *Nature Check 2013 – has looked at how the government is matching up to its promise to be the ‘greenest government ever’, as set out in the Prime Minister’s speech in May 2010. If you’ve caught my drift thus far you’ll know what conclusions are drawn.Red Kite, Golden Eagle, 

Next summer – when I hope it’ll be just as sunny – I’ll be checking the sky in Sweden to see how many young eagles fledge in our valley; in England I anticipate that I’ll be writing another rant as yet another misguided example of the government’s expediency comes to light. 

*Read a synopsis of the report in the Huffington Post here or read the full report here.

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013's record breaking summer

Blackbirds feeling the heat in 2013′s record breaking summer

Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

Brown hare enjoys the sunshine

 

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Summer’s lease – sing, dammit-it’s a tradition

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March in England was the coldest since 1962 and the second coldest since records began so April’s first warm, sunny days were very welcome. Ann and Lars were over from Denmark and even though it was still too cold to sit outside in comfort a visit to the east coast and the West Mersea Oyster Bar enabled us say thanks and goodbye to the native oyster season. This is becoming a tradition for Mission Control and me; the oysters are matchless and the fish and chips pretty good too, especially after a bracing walk along the Mersea seawall or beside the Blackwater.

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea

Black-headed gulls loafing at Mersea

Blackwater barges

Blackwater barges

Mudflats on the Blackwater

Mudflats on the Blackwater

I like traditions and believe they can have great value even if, in some respects, we’ve lost sight of what we are celebrating. Mark Twain reflected on it in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer when he wrote “The less there is to justify a traditional custom, the harder it is to get rid of it” and so it appears in real life.  In Sweden traditions are important; anything that attracts more than three people becomes a celebration and any celebration that’s repeated becomes a tradition. As a consequence, the calendar overflows with them and, not content with those they have, more are being added. We find our travel is often framed around one particular gathering or another.

We never miss Fettisdagen – Fat Tuesday – at the start of lent, where the tradition is celebrated with fastlagsbulle or semla – delicious buns filled with cream and almond paste. Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras is an old tradition with roots in the Middle Ages. It gets a ‘thumbs-up’ from me on the merits of these scrummy little treats alone but at the other end of the dental cavity scale the new kid on the block is Kanelbullens dag. This piece of nonsense, which was started in 1999, is a tribute to the cinnamon bun and while accepting that it’s a staple of any coffee morning in Sweden I wonder if it really justifies its own web page. In between Valborgsmässoafton, when the evil spirits are driven out and fertility is invoked with bonfires, singing and drinking and Kräftskiva, when we eat crayfish, sing more songs and get hideously drunk, bookend Midsommarafton, the most celebrated of Swedish traditions.

April’s weather was fine but cool although summer really started for us on 1 May, where the tradition of heralding the arrival of long, light evenings, deserted offices and phones switched to voice-mail, needs a bonfire. So a few days after the oyster season closed we were in Sweden celebrating Valborg or Walpurgis Night, as it’s known in England. The village turns out to light an enormous and – it has to be said – dangerous fire, sing folk songs and offer a few prayers for a plentiful bounty in the coming year. Actually, warding-off evil spirits and invoking fertility come a poor second to alcohol on these occasions so we were inside drinking elderberry flower and gin cocktails long before there was any danger of having to deal with first-degree burns.  The singing – as always – was led by our local patriarch Henry Ekelund, who has been warding-off evil spirits since he was born in the village over ninety years ago. It was clear and cold that evening; perfect for our fire but a night of contrasts. I recall hearing the first nightingale of the summer and seeing Henry’s wife, our beloved Signe, for the last time; she passed away shortly after.

My Swedish is little better than my knowledge of brain surgery but every year they give me song-sheets and every year I stumble through lyrics about buds bursting into leaf that I don’t quite understand while trying to carry tunes I don’t really know. The important thing, of course, is being there, sharing the occasion and contributing to the friendship and community spirit that pervades the evening. I’ve found it helps if you can hold your drink, too, so I practice at every opportunity. Rejoicing in the invention of the cinnamon bun seems a little silly by comparison.

Spring and early summer in Sweden can be a mixed blessing. Time spent in the wide open spaces and lengthening days are often tempered with a chill in the air. May was cold but with clearer weather, on balance, than in England so we ended up spending most of the month there, indulging ourselves in the richness of Sweden coming to life, anticipating a warm June and looking forward to the next celebration.

As a measure of how important the return of the long, light days are midsummer’s day was at one point considered a candidate for National Day. It’s always a very social occasion but dancing around the maypole, singing traditional songs and holding hands with people you’re normally only on nodding terms with doesn’t come easily to a bloke from London’s east end. Prodigious amounts of alcohol can be consumed but tales of drunken abandon and debauchery tend to mythologise a national treasure and are not entirely true. That being said, anyone with a modicum of concern for their liver will avoid the traditional celebration of Midsommarafton. Anecdotes involving alcohol tend to define the occasion, the essence of which was captured perfectly in Ikea’s German TV ad. It was banned on the grounds of implying inappropriate rectitude but, that aside, most celebrations are far less riotous. Nonetheless, each of Sweden’s traditions is observed with great seriousness.

As a foreigner I’m very happy to go with the flow but somehow, though, I don’t think I’ll ever get the hang of that singing.

The village invokes fertility

The village invokes fertility

Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire

Signe and Henry Ekelund and our magnificent fire

Visitors drop in

Visitors drop in

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Summer’s lease – I remember 2013

Early summer rapefield in Skåne

Early summer rape-field in Skåne

Sitting here looking out at the rain I still hold autumn as the season I enjoy most and anticipate its misty, scented days with enthusiasm. That doesn’t mean I wish the warmer weather away but it was only a short time ago, when someone asked me if I’d had a ‘good summer’, that it occurred to me the salad days were over. We were still basking in above-average temperatures then but further south in Europe last week I watched the year’s first snow appear on mountain tops and here, in southern Sweden, we had our first frost.

The summer of 2013 was, indeed, a good one but the manner in which we’ll remember it intrigues me; do we remember the sunny days and balmy evenings that the ‘best summer for seven years’ brought us or do we recall the events and occasions that collectively make a summer memorable? I can remember only one day this year when rain stopped play, but not that it was the best summer for ages; I recall the absence of yearning to get away and feel the sun on my face and also that the months between April and September were filled with being outside, enjoying long lunches in the garden and spending time in the countryside. So, yes, it was a good summer.

Anemone carpet Fyledalen in Skåne

Anemone carpet Fyledalen in Skåne

Because it was so pleasant and because we weren’t victims of sudden climatic depressions my travel was limited to what has become a pretty routine commute between Sweden and England. As sunny day followed sunny day from about May onward there was no desire to search abroad for a cool drink in dappled shade when it could be found at home. It seems, however, that many people felt the same way. Despite having made early plans to escape England’s normally disappointing weather holidaymakers began cancelling paid-for trips to warmer climes as an unusually high number of ‘medical’ emergencies occurred. The temperature soared; with it the annual pilgrimage to the beaches and Irish pubs of the Mediterranean diminished and insurance firms found they were dealing with an increasing level of ‘hot weather’ fraud.

Well, I guess you could blame the heat. People do funny things when they get hot but did the grave words from the superfluity of experts on You and Yours and The World at One contribute to all those claims? In order to avoid the dire consequences of the hot spell we were advised to listen to level three heat wave alerts on the radio, stay inside and – here’s the key – avoid unnecessary travel. We were also advised to draw the curtains and shade the room but I’m thinking that part went unheeded as most of the Nation was either lying on their backs in the garden or standing outside the pub with a pint.

I admit to having had one or two at the Axe and Compasses in Arkesden myself [both outside and inside] but as far as remembering the summer is concerned, it was certainly more about memorable occasions and less about a statistically high level of sunshine. And for the record, some aspects of these together with a few random thoughts, are set out in the following posts.

Paragliding at Ales Stenar above Kåseberga in Skåne

Paragliding at Ales Stenar above Kåseberga in Skåne

Wild flowers at Stenshuvud National Park in Skåne

Wild flowers at Stenshuvud National Park in Skåne

Thames barge rigging River Blackwater Essex

Thames barge rigging River Blackwater Essex

Maldon Essex

Maldon Essex

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The camera never lies…or does it?

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Thanks to the good guys at Photobots [find them here] and for the kind comments sent to me. I guess next time I should provide an image that hasn’t been altered but anyway, here’s the sparrowhawk again.

Fyledalen sparrowhawk

A sparrowhawk glides low through a sunlit clearing in Fyledalen southern Sweden.

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Beam me up, Rakesh

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Pristine forest near Thekkady

I like India a great deal and love travelling there but it’s been difficult to whip-up enthusiasm for my recent sojourn amongst friends and acquaintances. Despite everything the sub-continent has on offer a fear of flying is commonplace; one said that he’ll only go if he carries his own food and another that he feared he’d be injured in a traffic accident and die in a foreign land surrounded by flip-flops. On the other hand, birders warmed to reports of my seeing 125 species in two days – including the very hard-to-see Wynaad Laughingthrush – whilst justifying their own reservations on the absence of cornflakes. By and large, though, the mere mention of the place evokes visions of chaos and a foreboding of parting company with bowel control.

I readily agree that standards of hygiene and driving are not what many of us are used to but both dangers can be avoided with a little care. After many visits and a reasonable amount of immersion in the culture, I’ve never felt that either presented a terminal threat. No, the thing that distresses me each time I visit is India’s apparent inability – and this is putting it simply – to sort itself out. Poverty is still rife, infrastructure is inadequate or absent and the consequences of corruption are widespread but the thing that irks me most; the issue that has me ranting into my masala dosa and coconut chutney is the ever-increasing and ubiquitous spread of garbage. It doesn’t seem to matter where you are in India but all around you, in the streets, beside the buildings, lying in heaps and just getting under your feet is the detritus of 1.2 billion people. In Kerala alone an estimated 6000 tonnes is generated daily and most of it is apparently lying around.

It was alarming to find plastic in the dung of wild elephants and plastic bottles, paper plates and food wrappers deep in pristine evergreen forest. When I asked about it friends and even individuals involved in the management of national parks shrugged their shoulders at failed collection legislation and offered rueful excuses. Most blamed corrupt local government; local government apparently blames the State. In 2000 the Supreme Court of India issued a directive based on advice provided by the Centre for Science and Environment in Dehli. This called for all local governments to set up proper waste processing facilities by the end of 2003. Whilst several took some action the majority merely ignored both the directive and their garbage-strewn fiefdoms. In Kerala, NGOs and Community organizations such as Kudumbasrees* have been motivated with initiatives such as the ‘Clean Kerala Mission’ but despite success in some areas such as Paravur and Kozhikode [which was declared India's first litter-free city in 2004] the heaps of solid waste and their associated pollution continue to increase.  

Black-shouldered kite

Sundown in Kochi

I took to browsing ‘The Hindu’ while I was in there. The local English language newspaper is a serious publication and a good read, with a history going back some 130 years and a circulation of nearly 1.5 million. It reports on issues like the problem of garbage, fly-tipping and landfill disputes in a fair and balanced manner as well as other aspects of life in southern India; fascinating stories of Bollywood stars sat alongside vacuous promises from government officials and reports of yet more fatal road traffic accidents. The seriousness of the reporting and the depth of detail were seductive – from reading the accounts of how problems were being identified and how officialdom was dealing with them I was beginning to  think that there was real concern for getting to grips with the carpet of plastic bags and bottles. That was until another report caught my attention and I’ve been wondering about it ever since. There was positive and expansive news that India is progressing well with its planned mission to Mars. Yes, Mars. Out of the heaps on non-biodegradable waste and open sewers is emerging an orbiter that will be sent to Mars in October to survey the Martian atmosphere. In collaboration with NASA it will attempt to detect the presence of methane, which I found ironic given the mountains of waste generating it down here.

Try as I may I can’t understand why India, with its breathtaking cultural diversity but so many earth-bound problems, is spending billions on a space programme – and one that is hell-bent on exploring Mars, too – when so many of its populace have to crap on the ground that the water table is being polluted. Could it be possible that the search for methane is just a ruse and that this mission is really a disguised effort to find the ultimate landfill in the sky?

Space might be the Final Frontier but I hope by the time India’s base on Mars is in operation the Intergalactic Garbage Police are fully in control.

*Kudumbsree – this is a worthy initiative set up by the Keralan government in 1998 with the aim of eradicating poverty through the empowerment of women. Its literal meaning is ‘prosperity of the family’ and it enshrines microcredit, empowerment and entrepreneurship.

View inside the Biodome of India’s Mars base

 

 

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No problem Sir!

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Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Polished, waiting and ready to serve

Anyone who’s spent any time on the roads there will know that traffic in India is an absolute nightmare. Road discipline is patchy at best and the application of basic common sense breathtakingly absent; vehicles hurtle into blind bends or career towards each other in hoards down the centre of bumpy, narrow and fragmenting roads before lurching aside only to avoid a collision. For the remainder of the time they are, well, anywhere on the road but most frequently in the oncoming lane. Drivers continually sound their horns while ignoring road signs, line markings and speed limits; more worryingly, received knowledge is that any obstacles in the way – be they cows, people, cycles, carts or other vehicles – must be either ignored or passed, depending on what speed they are moving at. Crowds of pedestrians spill out into the roads due to badly parked vehicles and rubble-strewn verges, vying for space with innumerable ‘two-wheelers’ and seemingly suicidal truck and bus drivers – especially those ferrying pilgrims.

And most numerous of all, the ubiquitous auto-rickshaws – ‘tuk-tuks’ – weave in and out of the traffic trailing clouds of blue smoke and constantly tooting their horns to generate a of noise and chaos. Put simply; it’s bedlam. There are rules, of course, but as they are ignored with single-minded thoroughness by everyone, including the police, foreigners require a car and driver if they aren’t up for any of the public transport options that the sub-continent offers. And anyway, my days of sitting three to a seat with people that don’t use underwear were over years ago.

In Kerala this week we left the relative safety [and luxury] of the delightful and highly recommended surroundings of the Raviz for a few days in the forests of the Western Ghats, a mountainous region away from the humid coastal plain. Our driver, supplied by the genuinely helpful people at the hotel, was selected, I’m guessing, for his command of English rather than his ability to coordinate hand and eye movements but we didn’t know that at the time. Smiling and positive in the hotel coffee lounge where we were introduced, he readily agreed that our journey of some 160km would be a benign but wondrous adventure, punctuated with invaluable local knowledge, pearls of cultural insight and occasional roadside stops for fresh pineapple juice or opportunities to snap shimmering vistas. To each of my questions he smilingly replied, ‘no problem, Sir! I should have known better.

As we set off I asked him if he was clear about the journey, the route we’d take and so on – the kind of amiable banter that one enters into in order to bond with someone who will, after all, be an enforced travel companion for the next four or five hours. His response was to gaze serenely into the middle distance, raise a finger in assertion, and, with a gentle shake of his head, reply, ‘God will take us there’. That, I believe, and the accompanying whimsical smile, was meant to reassure us but my faith in divine intervention, frail at the best of times, had evaporated with the fumbling gear changes and sudden braking. A brief shadow of alarm passed over Mission Control’s face and, as our little car meandered erratically across the tarmac I was advised in the most unambiguous terms that I was expected to wrestle control of the vehicle from him in the event of a confrontation with a truck, overloaded two-wheeler or washed-out road.

From previous experience I know that driving in India can be somewhat eccentric and I’m not a nervous passenger but I was already fighting the urge to grab the wheel and drag the car back onto our side of the road, especially after a bus full of shrieking worshippers avoided us by so narrow a margin that the car was filled with an intoxicating aroma of incense, garlic and body-odour. Interspersed with changes in velocity and sudden lurches, our progress became increasingly hesitant and he clearly sensed something in my tone when I asked if he actually knew the way, especially after he’d stopped and engaged in animated conversations with several taxi drivers, a shopkeeper and, at one point, a cyclist who pointed back in the direction we’d come.

At that point the road was climbing through 2000m on hairpin bends alongside precipitous drops into forested ravines. We should have been about 15km from our destination and less than an hour from the hotel but we passed a road sign that informed us we still had over 60km to go – two hours at least. Rather than invoke a spiritual solution in the face of my polite irritation our driver, clear now that my patience had gone the way of the setting sun, merely refused to answer me when I asked where the hell we were and when the hell we’d reach the hotel. I clearly wouldn’t take silence for an answer and my persistence eventually elicited a slow, deep breath and the adoption of an appropriately formal tone before he replied with dignified resignation, ‘I have no absolutely no idea, sir.’ This was surprisingly disarming and took us both aback as this is the last thing you’d expect your driver to say when you are high in the mountains of a foreign land with darkness closing in and an unknown distance still to cover. After all, that was the only reason he was there.

Well, we eventually arrived and it was dark, some two hours later than planned and a mysteriously unaccounted-for 75km extra on the journey. 

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in India tells us in its latest statistical report [for 2011] that 140000 people were killed in road accidents during the year [cows, dogs and elephants are not mentioned] as the consequence of ‘one road accident every minute, and one road accident death in less than four minutes’. It also lists the causes of fatal accidents and, while acknowledging that the majority of these are due to the fault of the driver, a significant number – I calculate that to be around 20% – is due to other related causes that include issues with passengers.

I can’t find the data but I suspect a great many of these involve the driver being murdered.

Taking Mum shopping

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Road through Kollom

Just follow the signs, dummy

Brahmin bull in the road

Look out for pedestrians and monks

Another road hazard to be passed

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Flipping heck

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A new building site is rainbowed onto the Palm Jumeirah

A swaggering confidence surrounds us in Dubai; the hotels are full and traffic is once again forming long, impatient queues at intersections. They have even extended the Palm Jumeirah to make another building site. Slicked individuals with tottering, spike-heeled companions once again scent money in the air while in the background the evils of greed and self-interest are beginning to stir after the brief hiatus of global financial collapse. As 24-hour construction activity recommences and piles are driven throughout the night the crash of 2008 is being spoken of as a momentary blip in the progress of this phenomenal and fabulous city-state.

A few evenings ago we were at the opening of Design Days, a part of the Dubai Culture initiative whose patron is the Crown Prince. He was there, actually – but very briefly. The reception was set against a backdrop of the Burj Khalifa, with the shiny towers, lights, fountains and music of Downtown Dubai combining to produce a venue that is both opulent and impressive. Regardless of what one might think about the moral character of this place – and anyone who has read earlier posts will know that I sometimes have something to say about that – today’s Dubai is quite fantastic and developing the ambience of a major international city.

Dubai, embarking this week on the annual culture fest of Art Dubai, is of the moment and very much a place to see, drawbacks aside. But hard on the heels of the upturn and the irrepressible feeling of ‘we’re back!’ comes a familiar and odorous occupation – flipping. This is where high art flourishes because the denizens of Dubai have turned this distasteful practice into their very own version of it. Houses and apartments in projects that are nothing more than notions in computer generated imagery have been purchased before the construction has started with the clear expectation that they can be sold on at a profit as inflation jacks up the prices. That, in turn, is driving costs and rents higher and tenants are once again being pressurised into leaving accommodation so that unscrupulous landlords can install a higher-paying incumbent. The renting laws have been amended to afford some protection against this but in a land that is over-regulated and under-legislated money still rules so, in reality, nothing has really changed since 2008.

Cultural events like Design Days struggle to be anything other than passing entertainment [and a further opportunity to wear those shoes, of course] and in a place that has its mind on money most of the time they are soon forgotten as the next takes over the interest of the media. Reviewing the opening next day on ‘Dubai Eye’, the nearest thing Dubai has to a ‘serious’ radio station, the presenter was asked to recall what impressed him most. His answer was the Audi 7 that was placed, courtesy of a sponsor, at the rear of the exhibition. Astoundingly, nothing relating to the exhibits or artists was mentioned in the programme and that, in many ways, is Dubai in a nutshell.

I found several of the exhibits original, many innovative and all of some merit. In particular, the stainless and Core-10 steelwork of Helidon Xhixha was beautifully executed, an engaging and temporary installation by Andrea Mancuso and Emilia Serra was very original and kinetic pieces by Frederik Molenschot, Ritchie Riediger and Humans Since 1982 had huge potential.

Maybe to fully appreciate Dubai you don’t need to know about art, you just need to know what you like.

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Sicily – a last fling; Modica

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EtnaA blog ought to make a reasonable effort at being contemporaneous; this post isn’t – it’s more an excuse for posting some photographs. As soon as I’d left Sicily I was travelling again and a note closing the island adventure was put on the back burner. Our last flirtation – and perhaps a determining factor in ensuring a return visit – was the superb Modica, where antiquity and ambience provided a perfect counterpoint to the noise and pointless urgency of Dubai.

The long drive from Taormina to Palermo provided time to consider what Sicily had been for us. We were captivated but had been ambitious in attempting a brief glimpse of every part of the island; it was just too big and with each region having such a strong identity, pin-balling from one location to another had proven frustrating and self-defeating. The uncomfortable autostrada to Palermo – Sicily’s main route – was little better than we’d experienced elsewhere. We never quite got used to the bumps in the surface but, ruts aside, the journey wasn’t too unpleasant; lots of tunnels, Etna beyond the mountains on one side and misty views to the Aeolian Islands on the other. But Pollina and Sicily’s remaining forest were relegated to the bucket list as we’d arranged to meet Greg and Vibeke for dinner, who were flying to Palermo that evening for our few days together.

Along the way there was time for a nervous peek at Cefalù and its Romanesque cathedral. The coastal town is described as the ‘second most popular tourist destination’ in Sicily and the immediate impression as the view opens up across the bay goes some way to explaining why. Its picturesque setting and medieval profile, nestled in the lee of the rock from which its ancient Greek name and original settlement originate, suggest why all the tourists that weren’t in Taormina were here. Even the guidebooks offer gentle warnings about the crowds but mass tourism and narrow streets make for an uncomfortable marriage so you’d need to be tolerant of the hoi polloi to enjoy spending time there. The number of visitors dwindled significantly as the sun went down and there followed an enchanted hour when the streets quietened and became populated only with local residents. Most would have been of an age, I guess, that could recall an economy based on fishing and a life centred around the port and communal wash-houses; I wonder what they make of it all now.

In Taormina, where we’d enquired about our forthcoming evening in Palermo, Villa Belvedere had directed us to a restaurant where we and our friends could have a ‘real’ Sicilian dinner, free of tourists. It was called Frederick III and located way off the beaten track in a neighbourhood marked by seedy streets, darkened shop doorways and occasional eye-contact with a brooding picciotto. We were welcomed like old friends; an open bottle of wine was set on the table and replenished until we protested that we really had to leave. In between, animated conversation with the other customers punctuated with a variety of excellent fish dishes made every aspect of the evening memorable. It was interrupted only by the arrival of three suited men who sat briefly around a table at the far end of the room, engaged in a hushed conversation over a glass of vino bianco and left without eating or saying a word to anyone else. Maybe I’ve watched too much American television but I had the feeling, as they slipped silently into the night, that they worked in waste management and were about to make someone an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Palermo was regrettably a short visit so we limited our outings to walking the markets and visiting the superb Norman cathedral at Monreale, yet another site that deserved more time than we afforded it. Mission Control had found us bed and breakfast on the south coast at Selinunte so we drove through a vast expanse of olive groves, vineyards and rolling hills where EU funds were replacing trees with wind turbines. The Villa Sogno was ‘award-winning’ [there are a lot of award winners around these days, aren't there?] due to its high standards of accommodation and home-made food and, indeed, that’s exactly what we found. The manicured garden was set in a walled compound and it proved a tranquil place to swim and enjoy wine, cheese and salumi from the store in Selinunte; a pity, then, that our hosts dealt with the garbage – in a manner common in Sicily but by no means limited to it – by throwing it over the fence into the olive grove next door. Villa Sogno delivered on comfort and food but pleasant as that was, our hosts clearly had an eye on the next award as they were just a little too busy making it the best bed and breakfast in the region to tolerate, with any degree of enthusiasm, encumbrances such as guests.

Just down the road however, the little port of Marinella di Selinunte was far more welcoming. It was quiet in the off-season but relaxed and very pleasant without tourists to trouble the friendly residents. We ate one evening at a local hostelry with the unlikely name of ‘Boomerang’. It looked a little dubious but was busy and clearly very popular. No one managed to explain where the name came from but the fish – fried or grilled in more varieties than you could shake a stick at – was as fresh as it was unpretentious. This part of Sicily caters mostly for local visitors so development tends to be limited even if occasionally, er, illegal. The coast, archaeological sites and small towns are unencumbered by the hoards witnessed at Taormina and Cefalù, which was very pleasant.

Throughout our tour of Sicily we had been surprised by the number and variety of good quality wines that were produced. Some were very good indeed. Greg is something of an aficionado when it comes to matters oenological so in short time we were at the excellent Tenuta Gorghi Tondi, tasting some of the quality wine produced at this small, local casa vinicola. The south-west corner of Sicily and the Vallo di Mazara in particular is a principal area of viniculture and as a result the island produces about a sixth of Italy’s total.

Nearby Mazara del Vallo is described as being the town with the largest immigrant population of Arabic origin on the island, harking back to its roots when it was occupied by Arabs in 827;   it’s further south than Tangier and nearer to Tunis than it is to Rome or Naples. The centre of town is known as the Kasbah and it does have the feel of an Arab town even though there are remnants of several occupying cultures. And typically, while the Polpi in Umido might just have been the best we had in Sicily, the driving was certainly the worst – we saw two serious accidents as we parked.

We wanted to see Modica before we left Sicily; it would be the last stop so we drove the interesting and at times picturesque coastal road that would allow a pit-stop along the way at Agrigento and the Valle dei Templi. This is an impressive site and worth seeing but it’s popular and very much on the tourist bus route. That means crowds, souvenirs and expensive gelato but at least you can take comfort in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, from Japan or Korea will have captured your embarrassing image as you crouched in diaphoretic inquietude whilst trying for that one photograph of the Temple of Concordia that didn’t have a small crowd leaning against it.

The route from there, through Licata and Gela, before the land rises to the west of Ragusa and Modica, is a microcosm of the chaos and uneven distribution of wealth that’s prevalent on the island; a seemingly random pattern of new and unimproved roads, uncontrolled development, an occasional high-quality villa juxtaposed with a decrepit ruin, piles of rubble and garbage, agriculture that is, on the one hand, well-funded and thriving or, on the other, almost medieval in its lack of facility. It made one wonder how those people not on the Sicilian gravy-train could ever improve their lot. Ashleigh Brilliant had it about right when he wrote ‘I either want less corruption or more chance to participate in it’.

After winding our way up from the coastal plain and traversing the Ponte Irminio – 140m above the valley floor – Modica came into view, raking down the hillside in a breathtaking, Baroque backdrop. Not content with seducing us with its pastel splendour, the townspeople were preparing for an annual street race that had filled the centre with every living soul in the region. Our spritz on the crowded terrace along the Corso Umberto was taken amidst hoards of runners; young and old, experienced and novice. Teams in matching tee-shirts exchanged banter with shopkeepers and waiters while individuals in Lycra shorts – altogether more serious and focussed – worked their stretching routine. And in-between, coaches, water carriers, mothers, hangers-on, small children and dogs wandered between participants. We watched with growing enthusiasm as the motley throng sped easily or, in some cases, limped back and forth up the road, the event eventually being won by a very slim and very competent young woman. As the evening drew on the crowds were supplemented with students from the local university, filling the pavements, cafés and bars. We picked our way through the milieu for the essential visit to Modica’s famous chocolate shops and especially L’Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, where it’s made in a fashion said to date back to the Aztecs. Cadbury’s it isn’t and the shop is an experience in itself. Modica’s sense of self was further reinforced when we ordered dinner after the race; the offerings on the menu at Osteria dei Sapori Perduti were described in the local dialect, served with enthusiasm and were superb examples of local cuisine.

That was our last evening with Greg and Vibeke before spending a couple of nights in relative luxury at Donna Carmela before heading to Catania and the Emirates. Sicily had delivered. There were some aspects that irked us – the stripping of the native vegetation and loss of natural habitat [not unexpected after a couple of thousand years of cultivation, I guess, but still an issue]; the shooting; the corruption and the consequences of nepotistic and self-interested authorities. But there was so much more to savour – the history and the culture; in the broadest terms a friendly populace; a unique cuisine; a surprising variety of wine and, eventually, more birds than I’d expected to see with no ‘serious’ birding on the agenda; 109 species in all. Yes, we’ll be back.  

Aeolian islands Lipari and Vulcano

Cefalu

Cefalu Duomo

Cefalu laundry

Palermo market - gamberi-a secret artist-lamps and pesce

Palermo market - old buildings

Monreal duomo - apse of Christ Pantocrator

Monreale duomo - nave with ornate golden mosaics

Monreale duomo - mosaic detail

Monreale duomo - window

Selinunte olive plantation

Selinunte acropolis looking over the site of the port

Valle dei Mazara cherubs

Valle dei Templi

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Concordia

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno

Valle dei Templi - Temple of Juno detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio in Modica Alta

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio dome

Modica - housing in Modica Alta behind Duomo di San Giorgio

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio ceiling detail

Modica - cathedral of San Giorgio sundial - noon, average midday, time in Italy and signs of the zodiac

Modica - church of San Pietro in Modica Bassa

Modica - roofs

Modica - tiles

Modica - looking up to Modica Alta

Modica Alta

Modica - bicycle

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Dubai and Sicily – growing old gracefully

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Towers at Barsha adjoining Dubai Marina

Travelling in the weeks leading up to Christmas was interesting as it allowed informal cultural comparisons between Sicily and Dubai. Last month I was standing alongside the water at Dubai Marina, a spectacular and very impressive melange of towers, contemporary construction, neon light and retail outlets. It’s a new and artificial inlet that frequently appears as a backdrop in Dubai’s publicity and was created, I suspect, simply because it could be. At night the coffee-shops and cafés that border the promenade are filled with the conversation of the dispossessed and translocated of the Arab Spring and the air is apple-scented with the smoke of shisha. Nonetheless, it still manages to feel a lot less Middle Eastern than one might expect. The stainless steel and machined copings are as far removed as they could be from the worn quay faces of the harbours of Marsala and Mazara dell Vallo in the south-west of Sicily and the irony is that those towns also formed the bridgehead for an Arab influx that, unlike in Dubai, brought with it a culture and style of building that still characterises the region.

In Sicily you experience history and a built environment that has substance; a cultural background and a population that can trace its roots back to 800BC. In Dubai, the vista is one of a city-state that exudes such a redolence of newness and impermanence that one begins to doubt it might even be there on the next visit. In December the President announced that all homes in the northern Emirates less than twelve years old would be demolished and replaced with new and one anticipates that all the new buildings will be the same shape, same size and same colour. And probably similar to what you might see in Florida or on the Costa del Sol.

And so Dubai pushes on but is guilty of forgetting one or two minor details in its headlong rush to cement a permanent presence in the 21st century. Thirty years ago the buildings we designed took on a form that reflected the local climate and traditions while meeting the exacting standards that were used in the West. [Much to the chagrin, I might add, of finance departments in our clients’ offices that were trying to keep costs low]. With more questionable probity and a worrying reflection on the greed all too commonly seen here we have recently discovered – well, some of us knew already but it’s now in the public domain – that some of the material used in some of Dubai’s iconic towers isn’t fireproof. That’s bad news if you purchased an apartment off-plan and probably cause for some sleepless nights if you live above the first couple of floors. Talk now is of new fire regulations and improved vigilance but I wonder if my reverie at the Marina will prove prophetic – will they start taking the towers down when they’re twelve years old?