A while ago in India we passed a festival site. We knew we were approaching something from several kilometres away as a fair amount of debris was spread far and wide. Amazingly, several million pilgrims had attended during that day but by nightfall they were all gone – every single one on them. Back to their towns, villages, huts or, as happens too frequently in the sub-continent, a roadside somewhere. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Several million – gone in hours and nothing to show but some paper plates and Styrofoam cups.
On a Saturday afternoon it takes something like two hours to clear sixty thousand people out of the Emirates stadium after an Arsenal home game – less when they lose to West Ham.
But in Europe, that international symbol of cooperation, understanding and mutual back-smacking smugness, that can’t happen. Despite being around three times the area of India politicians of every country and any complection are telling us how difficult it is to absorb a number of refugees that is something around fifteen times smaller than that of the pilgrims who gathered at that festival. Our own Prime Minister, David Cameron, told us yesterday that ‘absorbing refugees would not help ease the international crisis’. Today after any human being with even a modicum of compassion was moved to heart-stopping despondency by the story and images of little Aylan Kurdi, he had the audacity to look painfully at an interviewer and express his earnest view that Britain is a ‘moral nationand we will fulfil our moral responsibilities’.
And tonight I hear that in Hungary refugees are being dealt with away from the glare of international media in an ‘operation zone’ because they are ‘a German problem’.
Politicians, eh? Well, forgive me for thinking that the whole lot of them are a bunch of self-serving, two-faced hypocrites whose only ‘moral obligation’ seems to be to themselves.
I think an allocation of 15000 refugees in each European country would disappear far faster than you could say ‘hari krishna’ and they’d be far more grateful than those Arsenal fans bemoaning the price of their season tickets. Why is it so hard to reach out and take care of these put-upon and unfortunate people? Have we really got to a point where it’s OK to let this happen and say it’s someone else’s problem?
A pox on politicians; may they rot in hell. God help us all.
I have a friend – we’ll call him Charlie – who, like me, takes his food very seriously. He also likes music a lot but being a chap of deep convictions he believes that the qualities of each are such that they are best indulged separately; put simply, he doesn’t like both at the same time. He tells me that when he wants to listen to music he’ll choose it carefully and enjoy listening to it. Conversely, when he eats he doesn’t want music disturbing his meal. I understand that and I agree with the view he takes, albeit less demonstratively [I am English after all and we tend to avoid making a fuss] if the combination is on the sensitive side. Charlie, however, is not given to compromise. So, to my increasing admiration as well as my continuous entertainment, the first thing he does on entering a restaurant softened by ambient music is to ask that it is immediately turned off. Of course, that doesn’t always go down well but he knows what he wants.
I’m a novice at this and not a wholly committed convert to Charlie’s cause but I’m not slow in having a word myself if the circumstances call for it. In my view the customer should decide as to whether he wants music while he eats and I’m not best pleased at having anything imposed on me in the belief that it will enhance my ‘customer experience’.
In Sicily we’ve been staying at a very new hotel – the Masseria della Volpein Noto, whichhas just opened. This restored farm has a breathtaking setting that brims with innovation and Italian design. But to return to Charlie’s territory – its restaurant has an outside area that soothes the souls of its clientele with quiet classical music that is discernible, if you want to listen, well-chosen and unobtrusive. It’s very subtle and I found it pleasant enough. I was taken aback, though, when I asked the waiter about it because his immediate response was ‘would you like me to switch it off?’ This hotel is new and had a few [relatively minor] teething troubles but, if it continues in this vein, it might just turn into that rare thing – a venue where guests’ actual preferences are put first.
In case you’re wondering – I didn’t ask that the music was turned off and the service, food and hotel were excellent.
We moved on to Tuscany, where we returned to Il Pellicanoat Porto Ercole. The hotel is rated very highly and here, where there are more staff than you can say ‘buon giorno’ to if you had all day, I did ask them to turn the music off. Il Pellicano rightly prides itself on its five-star luxury service and I have to confess that we were looked after very well. Staff here glide silently through the hotel in twos and threes with choreographed ease, nirvanic expressions on their faces; their sole purpose to make their guests’ visit memorable. Nonetheless, the restaurants and bar were polluted by the worst kind of ‘ambient’ music; tuneless, invasive, unidentifiable piped background noise that was more suited to a shopping mall food hall. An American one at that. Of more concern was that I couldn’t find anyone whowas actually responsible for it. No one knew what it was [my guess – an Art Farmer jazzy flugelhorn tribute selection, but I might be flattering it]; no-one knew who had chosen it; no-one knew why it was actually playing and, amazingly, no-one seemed to have authority to silence it. It was as if I had asked them to turn off all the lights in the foyer. A waiter made a valiant effort when I first complained and lowered the volume but only managed to change the track to a different version of the same stuff. When I reiterated that I would prefer it off completely he sadly advised that he would need to speak to his manager. Moving on to the black jackets didn’t help; my concerns received more smiles, some patronising hand-wringing and sympathetic understanding but the noise continued in tuneless irritation all evening. And all day. We ate outside the hotel after that.
It’s a funny thing, a hotel’s perception of service. In Il Pellicano service has reached a state of almost flawless perfection; eager faces and greetings at every turn, waves and smiles, immediate help with baggage or directions, earnest understanding of the guests’ needs and close attention to their every word [which I rather liked, actually]. It’s so perfect, in fact, that it’s become a well-oiled process that no one questions. So years of practice means that switching on the music in the morning has become a box that requires ticking. The operation is successful, but the patient dies; one night we had *spigola al sale. Staff buzzed around us, one bringing a serving table, another re-arranging ours and topping-up water glasses; our wine was relocated to make way for the food and yet another assistant brought roasted vegetables before re-arranging the table again. Under the paternal gaze of the maitre d’ the steaming dish was displayed and set before us, the salt ceremonially cracked and the fish lifted carefully off the bone, cutlery arcing like a conductor’s baton. But by the time this culinary two-step was complete both the dining plates and the vegetables were cold. And in the background the flugelhorn medley moved to double-articulation.
Now I’m certain that each person involved fulfilled their duties perfectly, yet the meal was actually a failure.
I hope that the Masseria della Volpe continues to put its guests’ preferences first and I’ll go back to find out. I know that Charlie, thankfully, will continue to keep restaurants thinking about what their customers want and not what conventionsuggests. As for me, I still can’t get that flugelhorn nonsense out of my head.
* This is a local speciality consisting of a whole sea bass baked in a herb-seasoned crust of sea salt.
A secretary supporting us in the office a while back took it upon himself to let us all know, each morning, that the day we were embarking upon had been given a special designation. This, I suspect, was his way of brightening our day with a moment of levity as we set about dealing with the usual succession of design issues, project delays and cost overruns. It meant that the first thing we’d see on our screens as we logged in was a message imploring us to smile because ‘today is national moustache day’ or urging us to endorse ‘international flat feet awareness day’. After being encouraged to provide twenty-four hours of moral support to the suffers of haemorrhoids, transgender single parents or the collection of fancy teapots I was forced, despite being an accommodating sort of chap, to call a halt to his daily well-meaning but unsettling nonsense. There are some things that I simply can’t take before coffee and I have an aversion to half-arsed good causes.
Those early-morning entreaties are history now but this week the memories were brought into sharp focus when I read that 19 November had been designated ‘World Toilet Day’ and found that its campaign slogan was ‘We can’t wait’. My initial reaction was to dismiss it as both unimportant and awkwardly pitched as my usual reaction to any ‘commemorative’ day is less than sympathetic, advocating as it usually does yet another example of questionable self-indulgence or unhealthy interest in an obscure subject. This month has already delivered us ‘button day’, ‘Origami day’ and, would you believe, ‘sandwich day’. But this one intrigued me and I found myself wondering who had thought it up and if there might even be a World Toilet Day Committee.
Well, it turns out that someone did think it up and there is – more or less – a committee. In 2001 someone called Jack Sim founded the World Toilet Organisation [WTO] through the World Toilet Summit. Now here is guy with an enthusiasm for restrooms, sanitation, the sustainable disposal of waste and all manner of things smelly that transcends the boundaries of normal curiosity. The WTO now has its own college – yes, it is called the World Toilet College but it isn’t about learning how to sit on the throne. It convenes an annual summit and has set in motion a campaign that is now supported internationally. The overriding issue, I read this week, remains the ubiquitous problem of open defecation. That didn’t come as news to someone who has travelled a fair bit in the third world and is on record as ranting about India developing a space program while almost half its population still sh*ts in the woods. What was surprising, though, was learning of other equally serious concerns that flow from it, so to speak.
Something like 2.5 billion people worldwide don’t have access to what we think of as a toilet and nearly half just defecate in the open. We ‘civilised’ people in the west tend not to think or, worse, speak about toilets and sanitation – aside, that is, from some services engineers I have worked with who took on a dreamy look as they discussed the intricacy of sewerage design. The implications for health, however, are obvious. In addition, there is also a correlation to be drawn between a lack of sanitation, failing education and violence towards women. I was blissfully unaware that menstruating girls in some parts of Africa avoided school where no facilities existed and that there were increased levels of violence and intimidation towards women in India where they had to find a place to defecate after dark. This is all a very long and frightening distance from the extensive range of novelty toilet seats you can buy on Amazon.
It seems to me that anything that raises the profile of this issue – even dedicating a day to the toilet – has to be worthwhile. So, instead of casting a wry smile at World Toilet Day I suggest you take a look at what they say at UN-Water. A huge improvement can be achieved with little effort; toilets that pay you to use them, biodegradable ‘Peepoo’ bags, composting toilets and – something in which I take a big interest – biogas generation can provide multiple environmental and social benefits where the will exists.
I wonder how much money has been spent this week on space in my newspaper, the colour supplement, pop-ups on web pages and unsolicited junk mail that encourages us to go out and get the latest smart phone. It’s working in Africa, where uptake is phenomenal*; in India, more people own a mobile phone than own a toilet. After all, the capability of apps in all manner of tasks just keeps increasing and there will soon be nothing your phone can’t do. Except, that is, to wipe your bum.
*John Evans’ article in TechCrunch can be found here.
At last; I’ve thrown out the oar. It’s been gathering dust and cobwebs in the shed ever since we moved here and, before that, it languished in the loft of the coach-house. I forget why I carried it out of a party at Hampton Wick as a cocky and irrepressible youth and have even less idea of how such a useless object – I’ve done enough boating to know you need two oars unless you’re a gondolier – took up space for so many years. I can’t remember now whose party it was so there’s no possibility of returning it but I wondered, just for a moment before I hurled it into the skip at the recycling centre, if someone, somewhere is hanging on to the other one in the hope of one day finding it’s partner at the back of their shed.
When I look back on 2014 I’ll think about the oar. I won’t think about the floor we relaid, the plasterboard we fitted in the loft room or the new partition we built and I’ve already expunged recollections of the painting and decorating. No, what I’ll remember in the year we fixed, closed and prepared to sell our farmhouse and move to a less encumbered life are the memories that the exercise evoked. The musty collection of boxes, old cupboards and dust-sheeted piles in the attic and those big storage boxes that we never open have been brushed-off, sorted and their contents assessed for moving, selling, recycling or, like the oar, dumping. Today I have busy accounts on e-bay and Gumtree; I know the local charity driver and enjoy first-name banter with the bloke at the Council dump. It’s been a long year.
This still incomplete exercise has taken me out of circulation for months at a time and it has manifested itself in a reverie of nostalgia that has frequently been overwhelming. The dust has been blown off old photos of the family and adventures abroad, model trains, a colour TV, school report cards, tape decks, a turntable, empty suitcases, an uncle’s stamp collection, parents albums, yellowing letters from colleagues to a twenty-something exile in the middle east, a baby chair, carpets, clothes racks, a darkroom kit. Under dust sheets my grandmother’s sideboard, my mother’s secret hoard of postcards from her boys, my old Etienne Aigner briefcase, Ikea’s coat stand and my grandfather’s ‘diddybox’, still holding a cache from the first world war that includes his new testament and a couple of bullets, are among the surprises. We’ve been hoarding junk with little value but a wealth of memories.
In the years we’ve been here we’ve made some good friends and lost touch with others; we’ve seen parents leave us, children born and youngsters grow to start their own families; we’ve agonised through divorces and danced at weddings. Memories of occasions down the years materialised as bits and pieces were turned over in the attic and as we sifted through curling photos younger versions of people we know smiled at us from long-forgotten dinner parties and lunches in the garden.
It’s come as something of a surprise to me that so much has accrued so going through this process has been cathartic and, to some extent, energising. It’s felt good to shed detritus that, in some cases, hasn’t seen the light of day for decades but it poses a difficult question – should one keep something just because of it’s association, because of the memories? Throwing out some junk this year made me feel I was committing wanton acts of disloyalty but how much do you keep, how long do you keep it and how much is enough to preserve a memory?
The first world war was the biggest event in my grandfather’s life. Not the most important – he survived Ypres and came home to marry and have three children – but it was something he wouldn’t forget. I can understand why some papers and a few small keepsakes were put into a box and allowed to gather dust under his stairs for seventy years. I don’t think he looked at it unless he was pestered by us grandchildren. Now that dusty box is mine and it’s been a joy – and a little sad – to recall my memories of him as his ‘diddybox’ reaches its centenary.
Today is Armistice Day and marks a hundred years since the start of the great war. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like to be ‘called up’ and shipped off to war. Rupert Brooke’s poem, written in 1915, captures something of that.
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
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.
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.
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.
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.