Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Saturday, 24 September 2016

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Thursday, 25 February 2016

24 Hours in New Plymouth

In December, I went to New Zealand. For a day. My destination was New Plymouth. Here are some things that I found.

The Wind Wand in New Plymouth
Source: The Wind Wand in New Plymouth by Jarod Carruthers on Flickr, reproduced without modification under Creative Commons licence
New Plymouth is the home of the Len Lye Centre, a gallery devoted to the works of the kinetic sculptor. On the coastal esplanade flaps the 45 metre high Wind Wand; inside, his metal, moving, shimmering Fountains. I had walked in with no clue as to the name Len Lye - I walked out realising I had seen these works before, in the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, UK, years ago. I had even blogged about it at the time. I had come half way around the world, not knowing what I would find, and I found a link to the place I had called my home until so recently, a home I had shared with...

...two dear friends, who moved to New Zealand three years ago and who I hadn't seen since. Hot footing to a new adventure, unsure where it would take them, they've since laid foundations both metaphorically and literally in New Plymouth. My crazy, long haul, short-lived visit was to see them, and I'm very glad I did. It was a joy to see them happy. It was a joy to be shown around somewhere entirely new by people who love the space they are in. It was a joy to be the first guest...

... in their brand new Tiny House. At just 18 square metres of intricately designed floor space, their home is snug, yet it contains all that they could ever need, deliberately and cleverly designed to have a minimal ecological footprint. 'The Nest', and their adjacent Tiny Home for guests called The Matchbox (available to rent here), are not the only signs that New Plymouth cherishes its outdoors - we cycled all day, first through the large urban Pukekura Park, which was preparing for a Festival of Lights, then miles along a coastal path that leads nowhere, except to allow people to get out and enjoy a coastline lesser visited by backpackers, with iron-rich black sand beaches...

 ...and underappreciated surf. We threw pebbles out to sea and collected driftwood. There may even have been a penguin sighting (we're not sure, it was small and far away). In evening we climbed Paritutu Rock...

...from the top of which we could see seals swimming, waves crashing and the town turning in for the night, yet also incoming thunderclouds and, despite longing looks all day, not a sign of Mount Taranaki, whose peak would not peek from behind the distant murk. With the weather now closing in, it was time to descend and spend the evening with my friends' family, who have also moved to New Plymouth. Family, it seems, is drawn here - and New Plymouth is perfect for family: catering for events, a healthy lifestyle, and even a free zoo for children (and grown up children). Family need not be related either: throughout the day my friends bumped into their friends, who were immediately welcoming; later in the day, two street cleaners came to say hello as we paused from our bike ride, for no reason other than they had seen us earlier in the day exploring Pukekura and the zoo, and wondered whether we were having a nice time.

We finished the evening watching telly and laughing.

And then I flew home.

Friday, 1 January 2016

Ipswich | République

In October, we visited Ipswich.

An English country town in East Anglia, Ipswich has seen better days. On the one hand it has a stunning marina (where we were staying), full of yachts with fancy names such as Ostrica, Calva and Waratah, and even a dhow, and surrounded by trendy restaurants, new buildings for the local university and fashionable and expensive apartments overlooking the water, as well as the old Customs House and supporting maritime infrastructure. Furthermore, it is a town endowed with much history, from a fifteenth century ‘Ancient House’, the Great White Horse Hotel (now a Cotswolds and a Starbucks), and thirteen ornate medieval churches scattered within the town’s more modern buildings. On the other hand, many of those ornate churches are in desperate need of repair (one condemned as vegetation infiltrates its now collapsing structure), and Ipswich's High Street is full of pound shops, bookmakers, charity shops and empty units. This is not to say that we did not like it - far from it - merely that there is no ignoring that the town has rough edges.

The town proved to be quite a conversation starter. As we explored we discussed why English towns have a habit of rejuvenating only pockets of their amenities, when there is so much else they could celebrate and demonstrate. Why in Ipswich, for example, is the money being spent in the marina area and not to preserve either the historic monuments in disrepair (which other less fortunate towns would have killed for), or to preserve the economics of the High Street, to bring people back to the town? We wondered whether the characteristics of Ipswich - a struggling high street, a history that has seen better days, minimal ethnic diversity, a town without a marketing department to maintain a glowing global image - are indicative of life outside of the affluent English cities (namely London), and consequently whether London, as the capital of the United Kingdom, is truly representative of the country as a whole. (My own opinion is that it is a country unto itself). This led to an unanswerable question – where should the capital really be? Does a town like Ipswich, with its highlights and lowlights, represent Britain more accurately than London? Would an historically affluent but more provincial city like Bath be a better fit? If Manchester, Leeds or Hull were to assume the role of capital, would the people of the South West, Scottish Borders and of Powys feel represented? Could one of the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish cities successfully assume the role and succeed in representing everybody? And if it’s not possible to choose a place that represents all of the people of these isles, then what is it that binds us together at all, other than geography and a history of conquering one another? What, put simply, is Britishness?

The following day we visited Sutton Hoo, the site of one of the greatest Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds and not far from Ipswich. It was here that Rædwald, King of East Anglia and de facto King of England, was buried in 620 AD, accompanied by his treasure and inside a 90 foot boat. The National Trust property features a museum, explaining the significance of the myriad finds here, and also the history, as we know it, of the British people. The maps on display are telling: as the Roman Empire left in the fifth century, great migrations began: Angles came from Northern Germany and Denmark, Saxons from Germany, Franks from France, Jutes from Denmark, Swedes from Sweden and others, through the heart of Europe and the many cultures therein, came from as far away as Greece, Cyprus and Egypt. Meanwhile, those already present in these isles, native populations who had lived alongside the Romans, were pushed west into Devon, Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Little is known about who these people were, but it is they that the maps call the ‘British’, not the Anglo-Saxon realm that was forming to the East. And not even this eastern realm was one coherent whole, subdivided as it was into the tribal kingdoms of West, South and East Saxon, Mercia, Northumbria, Deira, Lindsey, Hwicce, East Anglia and Kent. At what point did we become one? Again we asked: what, put simply, is Britishness?

Around the time of our Ipswich weekend, the UK government agreed to take a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5 years, amidst the worst refugee crisis Europe has ever seen. Inevitably, the ‘Britishness’ and ‘British values’ debate was rife in the public domain, with certain voices shouting that Britishness, or Britain, would be diluted by accepting all or any of these foreigners. Such voices neglected that most fundamental of values: to help those in need. Such voices seemed oblivious to the fact that, one could conclude from historical influx and efflux of different cultures, and from considering the differences in peoples even now in different corners of the country, that there is no one such thing as being British, that this is a land of different cultures, even among those with the same skin colour. For all of our differences, and even though the countries within our 'United' Kingdom argue for and against independence from the current governance structure, we coexist on friendly terms, and have much to benefit from each other's company. We are a land that has historically welcomed new friends from afar, and have been enriched in so doing.

In November, we visited Paris.

On November 7th, we arose fresh off the Eurostar and Metro at Place de la République, a public square near the Canal St Martin (and crucially, from our point of view, close to our favourite gluten free patisserie). Mere hours after leaving London, we were immediately confronted with the very sight our government had been trying to ignore, here in plain sight: refugees. République is the site of a refugee camp, or perhaps refugee protest, with people sleeping rough and banners proclaiming the human rights of those disenfranchised. It was a stark sight and a stark statement: here there is no ignoring what is happening across Europe; here there are people in need.

One week later, I was flying in to Paris again when gunmen and bombers targeted the Bataclan Theatre, the Stade de France and other locations in the city, many of them near République (where we were no longer staying, by chance). Those events are not my story to tell: it is not important what we did that weekend (we listened to the sirens, and we wept with the city). Instead, that is a story for Parisians, of the nation of France, and also of the refugees. Yet certain voices around the world seized the opportunity to use the Paris ISIS attacks to justify tightening borders from those innocently caught in the migrant crisis, single-handedly failing (or refusing) to understand that the likes of ISIS, the likes of the Paris attackers, are the very people the refugees are fleeing.

On the Sunday evening, as I was leaving Paris once more, people from all over the city gathered in Place de la République, the very place where help for refugees is called for daily, to stand in solidarity.


There is no neat conclusion to this piece. There is no way to successfully pull together the two threads of this narrative (I know, I've been trying to write this for weeks). In 2015, bad things happened, both in the news and personally, and what pulled people through in both situations was people - family and strangers - helping those in need in whatever way they could. So I start 2016 with a thought: what if we stopped pretending to conform to an inaccurate identity (whatever that might be for whoever might be reading this), stopped hiding behind it, and sought to be more like family with one another?