Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Gunners Barracks

From the shelter of the terrace, I see a lizard. A thin sliver of a creature, he darts along the stone wall in stop-motion, basks in the sunlight, than darts along further.

I focus on the scene behind him, behind the wall: open water, yet land to my left, land to my right and land ahead. I am looking from the north to the south of an enormous harbour, with all its headlands and peninsulae; ferries, yachts, dinghies and cruise ships; beaches and pools; skyscrapers and harbourfront pads; forests and bushland. This is Sydney.

I turn back to our table. Tea is served. As a present, we have been given afternoon tea at Gunners’ Barracks, and what a treat this is: from panna cotta to salmon sandwiches, from samosas to scones, everything is unveiled before our eyes. The service is outstanding, the silver is spotless, and the view: priceless. Not even the threat of a kleptomaniacal kookaburra can spoil this moment.

With not a cloud in the sky, the harbour is buzzing. On the water, the Circular Quay to Manly ferries pass one another before us. A sailing teaching class weave around one another in the distance. Water taxis and speed boats streak the deep blue with white. The tourist jet boat zigzags the bays, thrilling (and drenching) its passengers. A sea plane comes in to land. Everywhere there is movement and life.


We walk further into Middle Head, to the National Park at its tip. Here, at the fore of Military Road are concrete bunkers. From 1801 to the 1960s, this was the site of military fortifications – look outs and cannons and disappearing guns, tunnels and gun pits and faux ‘Tiger Cages’ used to train those deployed to Vietnam – reinforced and remodelled over time to guard Sydney from whatever threat it might encounter.

We dip into the shade of the bunkers, wandering through concrete avenues below the ground. Rusting metal studs jut from the ceiling in one; more modern Japanese graffiti is found on another, untranslated, on the very settlement maintained to once keep the Japanese out. (An objective it failed to do when three Ko-hyoteki midget submarines entered the harbour in 1942, culminating in the sinking of the HMAS Kuttabul.)

With little time to explore, and no tour guides on hand, we can only glimpse at the rich stories that underpin these walls. On this normal, yet beautiful headland, a far from normal piece of history lies just beneath the surface.

The lizard returns. It moves so fast, yet so briefly, so as to appear to exist either here or there, but never in a place in between. It occurs to me that this is a normal sight for anybody living in a hot climate - a lizard, basking in the sun - but for me, a Brit, this is not normal. I realise that in all that I have written, whenever I have commented on something under an assumption of irregularity, my reader, whose background or address may be very different to my own, might consider it regular. This is, after all, the Internet, available in homes everywhere. What does that mean of my reaction to such normal, yet not normal, things?

I have time to neither ponder this half-considered thought nor process how this beautiful headland is more than meets the eye, how normal can be anything but. I have not time to be troubled by what is and what is not regular, for the view has enchanted me once more.

I pour another cup of Darjeeling.

I look out from the terrace.

I bask in the sunshine.

I think: 'this’ll do'.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

St Albans, again

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so pleased that we’ve managed to get you here on time. I wish you all a pleasant day and look forward to seeing you this evening on your journey home.”

St Albans stopped being my home. Work, however, continued to take me there daily.

Every morning, and every evening, there would be James, the platform announcer.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home two minutes late this evening. It jolly well matters. Rest assured I will not rest until I have found out why we have failed you this evening, because you really do matter. If you are boarding the train here, I wish you a pleasant onward journey, and I shall see you all, bright and early, in the morning.”

The following morning, there he would be.

“Good morning everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. I’m very sorry about the weather today. I have a few umbrellas here should you need one, they were going spare in lost property. I do hope that, despite the weather, you have a wonderful day.”

Day in day out, there would be James, standing among his people.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as Shakespeare wrote: ‘One touch of nature makes the whole world kin”. As we await the 1750 to Bedford on this platform, we, too, are all connected. The train is only half a mile away, but the system is saying it is delayed by around 10 minutes. I’m ever so sorry.
I’m trying my hardest to understand why this might be, I don't like to keep you waiting.”

And with each message, more and more on the platform would smile, though his colleagues rolled their eyes. James, peering over his round frame glasses, swamped by his luminous First Capital Connect jacket and hidden beneath his train driver’s hat, would pore over the information screen, scrabbling for helpful information to share with those waiting to go home.

At last, the train arrived.

“Good evening everybody, this is James. I’m so sorry we’ve got you home ten minutes late this evening. I’m not sure what has happened, our systems promised they would get you here sooner. Please believe me when I say that this really does matter. If you can forgive us, I look forward to seeing you again tomorrow.”

And that he would. James, whose previous job as a butler had tasked him with anticipating all requests for help before they were made, strove daily to assist all passengers, and to do so with charm. A former alcoholic, he had found meaning in spreading politeness.

It was not long before he had an apprentice.

“Good evening everybody, this is Tom. Welcome to St Albans station. It is a pleasure to meet you all, and I hope you have a wonderful evening. Please do not hesitate to ask my colleagues or I should you need any assistance.”

And then the franchises changed. The carriages sported new logos, and the artwork around stations was replaced. Routes on the network changed. Giant businesses negotiated with government, and eye-watering numbers were circulated in trade press: 273 million passengers, government to pay £8.9 billion, expected returns of £12.4 billion. Despite the promises, of station improvements, of free wi-fi, of new trains, of better connections and of more seats, more services and greater capacity, trains were delayed on the very first day of franchise handover. On that very day in St Albans, as passengers finally arrived, frustrated, late and in need of a gentleman to welcome them and carry their troubles…

…James was not there.

Neither was he there in the evening, nor the next day, nor any day after that. I asked after him, and was told he had been moved on.

Journeys, no longer bookended by a doddery platform announcer whose declarations ensured a rickety train system could be, however fleetingly, forgiven for its failings, became a faceless routine. No longer was it bearable to squeeze on as the final sardine in a bumpy tin can. Trains were still late, but now an unemotive automated recording attempted to apologise instead. The tedious commute became, simply, a tedious commute.

One evening, I took a train in the other direction. Passing through the middle of London, bound for the airport, I chanced upon a familiar figure followed by a familiar voice.

“Good evening everybody, this is James, and can I say how lovely it is to see you all. Welcome to Farringdon station. I’m so pleased that we’ve got you here two minutes early this evening. I wish you all a wonderful evening, wherever you may be heading.”

Knowing that James is still out there, making passengers smile, the journey to St Albans is no longer a chore.


See also: The train dispatcher who defines what it means to be a gentleman

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

St Brelade

We sat, staring across the beach and out to sea. The sky was grey, the sand a dark brown, and the sea was slate. Trees on the distant headland flashed their greens as they swayed in the wind, until they fell victim to a mist that was slowly, but unrelentingly, swallowing the world. Swimmers, too, were swallowed, as standup paddleboarders faded to grey and a lone yacht retreated into the gloom. All around the landscape became saturated but for the merest wisps of colour: the yellow of a tennis ball, thrown for a Springer Spaniel — splish! into the waves — and the artificial red of the strawberry syrup on our ice creams.

A man walked across the scene, some distance ahead of his Highland Terrier. The terrier, it seemed, had grander plans in mind than a mere walk, for beneath the sand he dreamed of treasure. Like a dog possessed he found his spot, and now hemustdigHeMustDigHEMUSTDIG, sand spraying aft as the hole before him deepened. No man could lead him astray from his objective.

To our right, a greyhound sat and waited for his new best friend: a toddler. The child waddled and stumbled as her legs, so new to walking, searched for traction in the sand. Eventually she succeeded and reached the dog, who, after a brief cuddle, rose and found a new resting place, just metres away. Events repeated. By these means the greyhound encouraged the child on this adventure, across a beach that was disappearing.

Over time the mist receded: first the top of the headland reappeared, a foreboding hovering presence in the sky before its base was later revealed. Public on the beach, swimmers, paddleboarders and colour slowly returned to view. As we left we saw the footprints of those who had walked, undetected, through the haze: paw prints, bird tracks and a set of footprints belonging to an adult. Alongside them, as if they had walked hand in hand, were further footprints, of a child.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Building on the Corner

The ‘Building on the Corner’ has been empty for some time. Nobody wants to buy it. Nobody wants to demolish it. Inside, there is nothing of material worth. Instead, there is darkness.

In the small wood-decked lobby, a lady hands us a slip of paper each. These are passes granting entry into the building beyond, just as visitors in 1940 would have been given. Had this been 1940, we could only have been here for two reasons: to post a name into a box — to spy on your neighbour, who would then be hunted; or to search for someone who had been hunted and was now missing — or to answer a summons, to voluntarily answer the call of the hunter. Here, in 2014, that threat has gone, and we are here only because it is important to do so. We have stepped inside the former home of the SSR People’s Commissariat of Internal Affairs, the Cheka — you may know it from any of its many other names over the years: the Committee for State Security, the NKVD, the People’s Commissariat of National Security or, simply, the KGB.


Latvia, 1918. After freedom from centuries of russification, and freedom from German occupation in World War I, there is, at last, independence.

No sooner is there independence, there is occupation. Vladimir Lenin, having locked his opponents outside of the Tauride Palace and declared Soviet rule of Russia in their absence, now sets his sights on the Baltics. From one direction the Germans advance, from the other the Bolsheviks. Riga, the capital of a proud, neutral nation, sits in the middle, awaiting its fate. The Soviets take the city, among their troops even Latvians themselves fight. Estonia now fends back the Germans: Latvia fights off the Soviets. In 1920, at last, there really is independence.

But now begins the semi-benevolent dictatorship of Kārlis Ulmanis. Elected democratically, he dissolves Parliament and illegally detains other elected officials and military personnel. And yet, education standards rise, illiteracy drops and national wealth soars. Amongst the darkness: progress.

Independence does not last, and it fails because Moscow has decided it should. The Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact is signed, a supposed non-aggression pact that is secretly a land grabbing exercise. ‘Spheres of influence’ in Eastern Europe are partitioned on paper between the Soviets and the Nazis. Finland is first to fall, but fights back hard: the Molotov cocktail is born, in defiance of the Soviet foreign minister who so casually decided Finland should belong to Russia. Finland’s success is deceptively reassuring, and Latvia is unprepared for when Stalin comes knocking. And so, in June 1940, Latvia’s ‘Year of Terror’ begins.


The neoclassical apartment building on the corner of Brīvības ielā and Stabu ielā was designed by Aleksandrs Vanags, and was once lavishly decorated. The doorways alone were considered by many to be works of art. But just twenty eight years into its history, in the Year of Terror, this ornate construction became home to the secret police.

We step through from the lobby proper, past steel bars. Here, there is no sign of any decoration. The walls are covered in plain wood panelling, the corridors intimidatingly narrow and labyrinthine, and the corners are blind: a visitor's fate around each corner remains hidden until it is too late. All character to the building has been concealed, and all stimulation stripped away.

We enter a large room, bereft of features, save the museum exhibit that has been installed — yet as interesting as the signs and notices are, the true museum is the building itself. On one side another room juts off, housing what might once have been a kitchen, with at least a sink. Now, a projector presents people revealing memories, but the walls speak aloud too: chipped pale blue and white tiles peppered with rust stains. It is cold and it is emotionally sterile.

Below our feet are prison cells. We do not get to see them, for our visit is late in the day and, having missed the English language tour, we are unable to see the building alone. Likewise, the apartments above our heads that became interrogation rooms are out of bounds. We are left, instead, with the details on display.

This was a hive of oppression. On receiving a summons, the residents of Riga would have to go to the corner entrance to register and meet investigators. When they left — if they ever did — they did so as different people. If they failed to answer a summons, they would be arrested anyway. Even if they were not summoned, the slightest slight against the regime would lead to arrest. The wrong surname could lead to arrest. The Cheka ruled by fear.

Arrests were done silently, families not told of their loved one’s fates. Detainees were at once stripped and placed in isolation before eventually being transferred to a cell. The heating remained on full, even in the height of summer, and lamps kept cells lit for 24 hours a day. Poorly ventilated and overcrowded cells were equipped only with a bucket for ablutions. Inmates were allowed 15 minutes of fresh air every ten days. Unsuccessful interrogation led, once again, to isolation. Bit by bit, the mental strength of detainees would be chipped away.

We leave the main hall and follow the signs to the exit. The route takes us into a corridor with three small rooms coming off of it. It is silent today in the museum. Here, there are no windows, and there is no light. Suddenly, over a loudspeaker, a pistol is cocked then fired, right into the soul I have been told to imagine kneeling before me.


During the Year of Terror, 22,000–23,000 people were executed. In June 1941, 14,424 Latvians were deported to inland Soviet territories, 6,081 of whom were executed or died en route. As the Year of Terror came to an end, the Cheka evacuated its prisoners to Russia — those unable to be transported were executed. Nobody knows how many people were killed in the Building on the Corner, but when it was liberated in July 1941, evidence of 94 shots and 240 expended cartridges were left behind.

And who should it be that liberated the Latvian people from such oppression? Nazi Germany. Darkness, it seems, is never simple.

With the eyes of Europe upon it as a Capital of Culture for 2014, Riga has had the courage to open the corner entrance of the Building on the Corner for the first time in years. But, as the exhibition now draws to a close, questions arise. What do you do with such a powerful symbol, once left to oblivion, its horrors now awoken? Should you destroy the very thing that reminds you daily of those horrors? What do you do when that same reminder is so powerful, and the horrors are so important, that that reminder becomes a part of the fabric of a nation's character?

Riga has a problem. What to do with the Building on the Corner, and the darkness that lies within?

Stūra māja ("The Building on the Corner") is open as part of Riga 2014 until October 19th. Upstairs exhibitions and the cellar tour cost 5 Euro. Main exhibition free.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014


At thirty thousand feet above the ground, my heart breaks.


I am not built for Business Class. The gentleman to my left, wearing shirt and suit and sipping Scotch, frantically types emails to remote colleagues, running his hotel empire from the skies. En route to Singapore, he had embarked fresh from a meeting and is heading straight to another. His body language is deliberate; his emails are succinct. He is a professional businessman: he is to be taken seriously. Meanwhile, I have found the buttons that make the seats go up and down.

And despite the perks of business travel — the myriad films, television programmes, radio stations, music albums and even interactive language classes; the four course meals and fine dining; and that ultimate luxury, a bed on an aeroplane — I fail to conform. I do not want to sit and watch a screen. I do not want to sit and do business. I want to know the stories of those travelling. I want to know what is taking them to where they are going. I want to know their businesses, and how they fit in to this world. But most of all, I want to see what is going on outside that window.

It is mid-afternoon, and not a cloud can be seen in the sky. Out there, through my tiny portal from this irrelevant flying metal tube, is the red centre of the entire Australian subcontinent. Dust and spinifex dominate for hundreds of miles. Barely a human scratch can be seen on this scorched surface. The Great Dividing Range and the plains beyond have disappeared, the ground has morphed from yellow-green to yellow, and now the rust colour is kicking in. Giant old river networks stretch across this desolate place, their long evaporated waters leaving behind bleached scratches and scars, deceased capillaries of a once pulsating lung.

We fly so quickly, yet the landscape passes so slowly. I turn back to my screen, lower my seat once more and watch my film. Yet whereas in any other context this otherwise decent picture would keep my attention, I, like the titular hundred-year old man who was to climb out of a window and disappear, am desperate for a story, for an adventure. The seat motor whirs as I lift again to peer out on to the world below. My neighbour ignores me, and orders a refill of Scotch.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. A road! Houses! A grid based system so far from anywhere, on the shores of a salty lake relic. What possesses such souls to live in a desperate place like this? What draws them here? What sustains them?

The town passes. I return to my film. It is not long before the window is my theatre stage once more.

Lines, perfectly straight, pattern a ground that has quite suddenly become a much stronger red. We are over the red spot in the centre of the continent: the Simpson Desert, an erg or sand sea. For hundreds of miles, in all directions, nature has been practising with set squares. Her winds have whipped up the sand into perfect dunes, untouched by man. Her flaming carmine palette flaunts her ores, so lucrative to this mining nation.

Suddenly a sizeable town. It can only be Alice. I am flying above Alice Springs — Uluru might be visible from the other side of the plane! My face is wedged against the window. My attention is rapt.

It is at this moment that my heart begins to ache.

It has not even been a full day since my three-year old niece, fresh from her bedtime story, had been found defying her parent's instructions to go to sleep. After much singing heard over the monitor hidden in her room, her mother had gone to investigate, while I sat in their living room, glowing with pride from having been personally selected to read to her one last time before I flew home. Her mother returned to describe how my niece, far from sleepy, was pressed up against the window, enraptured by the traffic on the street below, by the lights and the sights of this corner of the city. She had been desperate to know all that was going on below, just as I am now, thirty-three thousand feet above and many hundreds of miles west from that moment, heading much further away.

My hardened soul had been melted. The in-laws I so rarely get to see had welcomed me in, loved me, cared for me, entertained me and accepted me in a way I had not been expecting. It had been so comfortable and had felt so right to be one of their clan for a few days. I had been uncle to the greatest niece and a miracle nephew. I had been brother to the most loving of people.

Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Desert. Dust. Spinifex. Ocean. Volcano. Night time.


Image sources: 1 2 3

Sunday, 27 July 2014

King George Square

I'D had a day of wandering. Partly, this was to fill time, to make the most of a rare free day before business began. Mostly, however, it was to fend off jet lag, for I had arrived at 7am after a day of flights on the back of a full working day, with little sleep in between.

I packed it in. First there was the music emanating from the West Side, next the story of the kuril and the elephant, the dinosaurs, the Nepalese pagoda and finally the lizards of the botanic gardens. I was all ready to head back to my hotel, when I heard it.

"ABC. Easy as 123."

Except... this was no Jackson 5 song. As far as I recall, the Jackson 5 version did not include such words as 'boycott' or 'Israel'. I walked towards the sound. There, in the shadow of a cafe whose logo is of Batman, the masked vigilante, a speaker rallied masses to boycott Israel.

No matter your feelings, expertise or interpretation, sometimes a sight is truly stronger than words, certainly stronger than words I can think of. The sight of 1000 people, including children, marching in solidarity with Gaza through the streets of Brisbane, is one I shall never forget.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Frankfurt am Main

Baggage carts flit wild with their dollies pulled behind while tugs lug the jumbos and the jets. Lufthansa is the the Lord of all around, yet other airlines shake their tail feathers with pride, competing colours amidst the countless planes that line up end to end, ready for the skies. Trolleys zip between them all, keeping the queue from failing, keeping the airport machine moving. In the distance, a giant hulk of metal touches down, ready to be serviced, confident that all will bow before him.

I look up. Ukraine have just missed a shot on goal, their blue livery a flash of colour between the whites of England. It had been a spark of excitement in an otherwise disappointing game. The lone man at our gate sits down, disappointed. It is just him and us, three in all, watching the people, the football, and the patterns of the vehicles as they perform so dutifully outside.

Small and nimble luggage carts 
zigzag past the fuel trucks; vans follow secret tracks that intersect the thoroughfare, a thoroughfare occupied by wide and brutish flat things, wobbling moving stairwells and a bendy sluggish apron bus; trailers of catering trucks move up and down while belt loaders lift the weights of all the baggage loads from those nimble, zippy luggage carts. In the distance, a giant hulk of metal roars, ready to tear a hole in the sky on its journey to lands far away.

It is unnervingly quiet at our gate. It is still just three people, and departure is imminent. The score remains 0-0. O
utside, everything is moving to a secret rhythm. 

Planes land. Planes take off. Planes taxi and are swarmed by mechanical pilot fish: tugs and ramps, carts and vans, caterers, refuelers, container loaders, conveyor belt loaders and solid states. All around are invisible roads, crossing one another to keep the machines moving, to keep everything ticking. Everywhere there is movement: everyone busy. It is a logistical dream! A vehicular ballet! Another set of engines roar.

A call is made on the radio. Our gate has changed. 
We have to run.

Wednesday, 21 May 2014


High above the city, fortifications tell of a wicked tale: a castle built out of love for a country — a love of Catalonia — yet taken by rounds of kings, tyrants and dictators: built by Catalan rebels, taken by Philip IV, garrisoned by forces of an unsupported king, successively stormed, re-occupied, demolished, retaken, defeated and rebuilt to become a home for first political, then judicial, repression. For every insurrection by the people of the city, the castle would be used to bombard them. Cannons were installed: cannons that fired down on the public below. The terror was indiscriminate. Hundreds died. 40,000 fled. At last the castle passed from military hands, but into the hands of torturers. A time of mass detentions, starvation, show trials and immediate executions began; prisoners numbered into the thousands; tribunals for treason, espionage, defeatism, sabotage and anti-fascism were the hallmarks of what became a memorial to Franco. “The city”, they say, “was subjugated by the mountain”.

And yet, on this day, the sun shines. Bright flowers spring forth between cracks in the ramparts, purple and green bursting through the dust; a worker ant wanders across the path over the bastion, clutching the leaf litter with which she will build a new home but frequently being blown back by, what is for her, a ferocious wind; a tourist poses in a summery dress beneath a cherry blossom, unaware of the dark cloud that hangs inside the castle chambers; in what was the Santa Eulàlia moat, long since turfed over, archers practise their craft — I witness a perfect bullseye; and on the roof, a couple embrace with the entire city beneath their feet.

Four Vickers 152.4/50 model 1923 battery cannons sit silent, looking out over the coast they were installed to defend and terrify. Signs of damage are evident on these enormous symbols of violence, but their damage was not caused by violence — slowly, they are being attacked by graffiti: a peace sign on one, “PROUD” written on another; and declarations of love scatter the inside of them all — Laura for Peter, Sergio for Loli, Ron for Mörgane, Dani for Enri, Javi for Ana. These weapons of war rust, their olive drab disappearing to the red-brown metallic residue, but the names of lovers, friends and explorers etched into the metalwork remain.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Place Saint-Sulpice

Stood beside the fountains, in the shadow of a roaring stone lion, I watch.

A gentleman sits at the farthest tip of a bench. He wears a pale blue and white striped shirt beneath a black trench coat, stone coloured trousers and brown sandals. He has very little hair, but a bushy grey moustache, and he stares in contemplation into the middle distance. He flicks baguette crumbs from his coat and trousers to the floor, stands, then takes his contemplation elsewhere.

A tourist thumbs through an A-Z, stopping at Île de la Cité. She studies the page thoroughly.

Two cyclists, a couple, arrive on hired bicycles. They stop, dismount and stare at the grand façade of the church across the square. Having shown their appreciation, they mount their vehicles and depart.

Two ladies prepare to take photographs, one with a camera, the other posing, pretending to hold in her palm one of the stone columns from the church’s double colonnade. The camera flashes. They inspect the picture, laugh and resume their positions. Several flashes follow, each with the lady’s palm in a slightly different position. They inspect the new pictures. Satisfied, they laugh once more, then embrace.

A man leans against a bollard, cigarette in hand, earphones in his ears.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves of the church, three or four storeys above the square. Slowly it falls, a tiny moment of movement dwarfed by the immovable grand eighteenth century stone building behind. At the last moment the bird lifts its wings, converting the fall into a glide. It reaches the ground, where it has spied breadcrumbs.

And then, chaos.

Suddenly, a hundred other pigeons swoop in. Unsighted mere seconds before, the air is rife with birdlife, eager to share the spoils of the solitary breadcrumbs. Some tussle and fight, others jostle for position. Some are quick to give up. It is not long before all have returned to their distant perches and calm returns.

A lady walks past with her dog, both neatly presented.

A homeless man sleeps with his back against the church door.

A lady sits on a bench, waiting. Another sits, talking on her phone.

Teenagers sit on the church steps, smoking and texting. One rises, armed. With one fell swoop, the bread arcs through the sky, out into the square.

A single pigeon descends from the eaves.

Chaos, however fleeting, returns.

Lunchtime continues in Place Saint-Sulpice.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Churchyard

AFTER a ten mile walk along the river, it was time for a rest. I turned the corner past the church, saw a bench, and took a moment to recoup my energy. That’s when I heard him.

“Hello again,” he said.


“I saw… didn’t I meet you earlier?”

This he hadn’t, for I had been miles away building bridges, traversing rivers and exploring woodlands. Undeterred, he decided to join me on the bench. His head was shaven, his face battered by years of smoking and hardship; dried blood patches dotted his cheeks and neck after shaving with a blunt razor. He wore a dark blue padded coat, with tips of other clothing protruding from beneath, compressed and limp from being worn for days.

“I’ve got to be honest with you,” he said. “Can I be honest with you?”

I nodded.

“I mean… you won’t tell anyone?”

 Desperation was apparent in his eyes.

“Of course not,” I reassured him.

“You know, I haven’t got a home. I… I left my shelter two days ago, didn’t know where to go.”

This was horrible, of course. Where was he sleeping now, I asked?

“I… I slept in a field last night. I woke up at 7 o’clock. It was cold. This is between us? You promise you won’t tell anyone?”

Once again I reassured him. I saw no reason, particularly given his appearance, to disbelieve him. He certainly looked like he had slept rough the night before.

“Someone gave me this…”

Shakily, he reached into his inside coat pocket. With some effort he eventually handed me a piece of paper, a print out from the website of a homelessness charity based in Watford. Slowly, he explained.

“I wondered… what you thought? Should, should I go there? I mean, I’ve got to tell you something — I left my last shelter two days ago, now I’m sleeping outside. I just got desperate, yeah? I couldn’t take it anymore, I felt like I was… trapped. Every time I went outside they told me off, told me I had to stay in my room.”

His speech was slow, affected perhaps by the cold of the night before and years of chequered history.

“I’m forty six. I can’t live like that. Why can’t I be free? Why can’t I go outside and… try to be something? They can’t make me stay in there.”

I agreed the centre in Watford sounded like a good idea. He smiled.

“You’re the first person to speak to me. Everyone else is so rude, they… they won’t listen to me. This city is bad for me. I’ve got to get out.”

He paused.

“What’s your name?”

“Simon,” I replied.

“You’re a good man, Simon. My name’s Pete.”

“That’s my name. I’m called Pete too.”

A second voice had joined to our left, on an adjacent bench. Here was a man in his twenties, wearing jeans, a sweaty old black polo shirt beneath an open black jacket, cropped black hair and scruffy beard, cigarette in hand. His face bore the hallmarks of a friendly soul, yet weathered and aged before his time. He had just joined us on the nearby bench, having been kicked out of the church (where he had been sleeping against the radiators) because of a funeral.

And then a peculiar thing happened. With me as witness, the two Petes became friends. The younger Pete had spent 16 years moving between foster homes, then homeless shelters, churned around by the system – he understood completely what the older Pete was experiencing and offered advice from a place of experience but great wisdom.

Older Pete recounted, several times more, his woes.

“Can I be honest with you? You… you’re not going to tell anyone is you? I… I don’t want to go back.”

“I don’t tell nobody nothing,” assured younger Pete. I nodded also.

“I just left the home a few days ago. They made me feel like a prisoner. I slept in a field last night. I woke up freezing. I can’t go on like this. I got to find a new start, get away from this city.”

Young Pete more than understood.

“One shelter they lock the doors on you at 8,” he recounted. “They turn everything off by 10. You’ve just got to waste the time in the dark until breakfast the next morning, then they kick you out into the cold for the day. That’s all your life is allowed to be.”

“I’ve got to be honest with you… wait, what’s your name?”

“Pete, just like you mate.”

“Pete, yeah.”

He threw the same question to me.


“Simon. Simon Says!” Younger Pete giggled. “Simon, Simon, Simon. Didn’t I meet you earlier?”

“Not me,” I replied. 

“I met a Simon today. He was with my mate Dan. Dan the Man. ‘Simon Says’, that’s how I remembered his name.”

Younger Pete giggled: older Pete interrupted.

“I don’t know what to do.”

Younger Pete recounted his varying sheltered and couch surfing experiences, recalling the locations and names of suitable shelters older Pete might like to try. He spoke of strategies for protecting your possessions when there’s nowhere to hide them. And slowly, but surely, he lifted older Pete’s spirits, giving him hope and, most importantly, a plan. Older Pete should go to London, they decided, to Shelter in Kings Cross. There he could have a new start, and would be allowed to pick himself up.

Younger Pete’s story was torrid and convoluted. He had three younger brothers, each brought up by his parents. Yet he was thrown to the fostering system, with only his grandfather still in contact. He loved his grandfather. They’d even been to the Royal Albert Hall together, to see Katherine Jenkins. Somehow, however, he was now sleeping rough, banned from various shelters for being “a bull in a china shop”.

He giggled. “You know that expression, don’t you? ‘Bull in a china shop’? They kept me locked up when I’d done nothing wrong. Every man snaps eventually when they do that.”

Younger Pete, just like older Pete, just wanted to be treated like a human. He’d acquired scars striving to achieve it.

Older Pete looked worried once more.

“London. They… they won’t turn me away?”

“Not unless you cause problems,” he was reassured. “You got nothing to worry about.”

“What was your name again?”

“Pete, just like yours mate. We’m in this together.”

“Pete, yeah. I… I’ve got something I need to tell you. You won’t tell anyone will you? I… I run away from my last home. I slept last night in a field.”

“Nobody can keep you locked up if you’ve done nothing wrong. Don’t you worry. Kings Cross is where you need to go. Get the train to St Pancras, and it’s just over the road.”

“Kings Cross. Yeah. London. You think I’ll be safe there?” A pause. “So I get the train to Watford…”

“No, no, St Pancras. Kings Cross is just over the road. It’s called Shelter. Big red logo. That’s right isn’t it?”

They turned to me, I nodded, speaking as positively as I could about Shelter and its work.

“What was your name again?”

And on it went: the forgetfulness, the nervousness and the camaraderie. By the time I left, younger Pete had become a mentor and father figure to older Pete. A plan for them to go to Kings Cross (not Watford, eventually) together was afoot. I wished them well and offered to help with a train fare.

And then they were gone.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Wootton Wawen

I sat on the floor, legs hanging over the edge of the northbound platform. It felt like the loneliest train station in England. The sun shone, the sheep in the field next door enjoyed their plentiful supply of grass, and all was quiet. There were no waiting passengers. There were no ticket machines. There were no train times scrolling on screen, no recorded messages warning of unattended luggage, for there were neither screens nor speakers. A few houses opposite the line sat with their windows open: no train noise was expected.

It was thirty minutes before a train came. I could see it from miles away, the station elevated above the nearest lane, the line flat and featureless. Arcing slowly towards me, the train was an alien mechanical creature in a quiet pocket of countryside. It took a few minutes to approach, and I rose as it came nearer, startled by the spectacle. It arrived. It beeped its horn. And it didn’t stop.

Its successor an hour later would not stop either: trains don’t stop at Wootton Wawen on Sundays. They barely stop on weekdays either, except by request. One must flag the train down, or stay stranded on the platform for eternity, alone.

Silence fell once more.

Soon bored with playing on the line, I descended the ramp and passed under the railway bridge towards the village. I passed villagers walking dogs, but nobody said hello.

A parish noticeboard listed village meetings, contained police notices and advertised a local bee keeping association. Some hikers were gearing up in the pub car park opposite, but they, too, failed to say hello.

I crossed the main road that bisects the village, taking countless vehicles from Stratford-upon-Avon to Henley-in-Arden without stopping to look around. Opposite, a field rose up to a beautiful church, with lichen-covered stone walls, adorned with set-back buttresses and a tower, all decked with a castellated parapet. A red-roofed adjunct, the Lady Chapel, provided colour to the scene, along with the daffodils and forget-me-nots that lined the footpath. The church sign introduced St Peter’s as the oldest church in Warwickshire, and implored passing readers to “THINK GOD”, with a crucifix printed inside the O. The church sat atop the tallest hill in the village, surrounded by gravestones and a lone, nervous horse. Many of the graves were old and worn, names only half legible: memories long forgotten. A dog walker passed. He raised his head to greet me, then changed his mind.

On I walked, through the cemetery and into a country lane, shortly — and unexpectedly — arriving in a very different world. Just minutes from a 1300-year old site of worship, its current physical form dating to the sixteenth century, were hundreds of static caravans: an entire community residing in metal homes, each a car’s width from their neighbours. Row upon row of mobile homes, long since grounded, were crammed into the tightest of areas. Neighbours here, I thought, must know every little detail of one another’s lives. Attempts had been made to forge unique identities, of course, with miniscule gardens tenderly attended and landscaped, trellises sealing the structures in place, and there were more porcelain statues per square metre than I seek to ever see again — some had opted for animals, others cherubs. The proximity of each structure and the manicured nature of each decorative feature served only to make it ever more unreal, like a residential Disneyworld but without the rides. The community felt intensely private and I felt uncomfortable walking though. I strongly suspected I was being watched.

A mallard crossed the road, enchanted by a porcelain bird guarding one of the homes. It approached and quacked in interest, awaited patiently for a response, then left dejected, the statue having failed to reciprocate affections.

I descended the hill to receive yet another shock: I was in the grounds of a stately home. Wootton Hall, it transpired, was a stately home with its own trailer park and, at the time I was visiting, a caravan trade fair. I later learnt that the home was saved from demolition in the 1950s when it was purchased by Bill Allen, who founded Allen’s Caravans and constructed the mobile home park, in doing so revitalizing the community. It was a truly bizarre fusion of styles.

I reached the edge of the grounds, a stream marking the perimeter of the trailer park and leading in one direction into private woodland, towards a weir in the other. People passed. Still nobody said hello.

Handmade signs lined the path, containing ever more menacing messages. Dog mess, it would seem, had irked certain residents.

Dogs must be kept on leads, they said.
Dog mess must be picked up and disposed of, they said.
Repeat offenders would be reprimanded, they said.
Not picking up dog mess is ILLEGAL, they said.
Despite warnings, they said, dogs were “STILL FOULING THESE GROUNDS!”
“ACTION WILL BE TAKEN”, they said.

By the end of this ever-maniacal laminated tirade, not even cats were safe to roam unattended.

It was time, I strongly felt, to leave. So I returned, past the lovely church; past more dog walkers and hikers, still not saying hello; across the busy road, under the bridge and back up the ramp to sit, once again, on the platform of the loneliest station in England.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

St Albans

The sun has been shining today. After weeks of rain the sun shines, and the skies are blue. So today I sat, enchanted by this sun, on our balcony, book in one hand and cup of tea in the other, lost once more in the travels of Vasily Grossman. He was at a wedding, a time of decadence in a far from decadent setting — rural, mountainous, Soviet Armenia, where everything was made of grey stone: mountain bones, as Grossman puts it. Life there was tough, for it is hard to grow crops and rear animals on stone; houses were chiselled out of the landscape and possessions were few. Here were a couple born in hardship, to move to a tiny — stone — single room marital home with but one window, the bride leaving her family and village for another. And yet, there were feasts, there was music, there was joy.

I looked up.

We live in a brand new, rented flat. It is warm, dry, in easy reach of shops, roads, rail. The whole development, a village unto itself, was built for young twentysomethings to live in at night and commute to London by day. It is nestled within greater St Albans, a city of some considerable wealth. Money here — although alas, not for us — is rife. And yet.

And yet here I was, alone in the sunshine, reading of comparative poverty, in a silent world. An occasional car might pass and an occasional train might chug along, but between them was silence. In this world of red bricks and marketing suites, of artificial landscaping, not a soul was stirring. This is a land where people commute on week days, and leave in search of activity on weekends. A few stayed indoors: I could see washing hanging from one flat, vibrant red flowers on the kitchen sideboard of another. But hundreds of other flats remained quiet. This environment, an artificial human construct built for the convenience of humans, was absent of human life. But the cloudless skies, enriched by the vibrant sun, were alive indeed.

In the distance, from the pointed roof of an office complex, a race began. Starting with just one, then another, birds launched themselves into the air, quickly forming a flock. The flock swooped from side to side, up and down, rolling. A little gull flew over our balcony, an infant in early, exploratory flight. Soon it was being chased by a sibling, then another. Others patrolled overhead, following invisible yet established perimeters. Then none could be seen, hidden behind the buildings, and all was still once more. After only seconds their silhouettes returned, punctuating the sky: the patrols and the swoops and the chases. A human world, but where nature provided the life.

little gull, modified, by Ómar Runólfsson