Palmyra 2000

SYR006LMThe news is always bad from Syria these days. The newsworthiness of the conflict seems to fluctuate as we in the West become increasingly inured to a lexicon that includes words like barrel bombs, Isis, chlorine gas, jihadi, caliphates and air-strikes. It seems almost too much to take in as a distant observer let alone as one of those unfortunates who have to suffer and bleed day-in, day-out on the ground. Recently the attention has turned to historic sites rather than people, and now that Isis have reached Palmyra there is fear for the future of this beautiful and well-preserved historic city in the Syrian desert. Religious fundamentalists have a habit of gleefully destroying great works of art and architecture – for some reason, beauty and creativity are seen as an affront to their misguided theological nihilism – and Isis are no exception. Much as the destruction of something as unique as the great desert city over which Queen Zenobia once reigned is an abomination, it is not as egregious as the loss of a single innocent life. But, tragically, there have already been an uncountable number of deaths. Perhaps it is a sad reflection on the values of the West that, when all things are measured, an historic site – albeit something as extraordinary as Palmyra – is sometimes valued higher than that of human life?

SYR023LMI visited Syria, Lebanon and Jordan in 2000 – an inspirational trip  in which I saw a plethora of ancient sites and exciting modern cities, and encountered welcoming and friendly people wherever I went. What I see on television news today does not register with what I experienced back then, although sometimes the backdrop – Aleppo Citadel, for example, which now lies in ruins – is just about recognisable through the         debris and smoke. These photos – low resolution copies of slides – are those that I took early one April morning after staying overnight at Palmyra.

SYR024LMOver the years I have been lucky to visit several places of great historic value before they were later destroyed by savage acts of war: the sandstone cliff Buddhas at Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which I visited en-route to India in 1977; the World Trade Center in New York (visiting a friend who worked alone in a TV broadcast monitoring station at the very top of the building in 1986); the bazaar in Osh, Kyrgyzstan (in 2006 before it was largely burned to the ground by inter-ethnic rioting in 2010); Aleppo Citadel. I can only hope that Palmyra does not go the same way as these unique sites, reduced to just a memory that exists only in photographs and people’s minds.

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Wayland Wood

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Last month I posted on hanami in Japan; on how the fleeting beauty of cherry blossom captured the Japanese imagination and seemed to unite the country in an appreciation of the transitory nature of the seasons. I observed that we had no real equivalent in the West but on reflection that statement is not strictly true. In England, Wales and Ireland we have bluebell woods. IMG_1688

When I say in England, Wales and Ireland I am being necessarily precise. The Bluebells of Scotland celebrated in the popular folk song are actually harebells, a different plant altogether. The thing about bluebells is not the individual plant – lovely though it is – but their mass impression. Carpeting the dappled shade of a woodland floor, the dizzying effect is one of floral synergy – a sparkling wash of violet-blue, redolent of hyacinth (it belongs to same family) but more subtle, more evocative, more wild.IMG_1719

Some of the best bluebell woods can be found in England in tracts of ancient woodland that have stood, little changed, for millennia. I almost added ‘unmolested by man’ to the last sentence but that simply is not true: it is the hand of man that has made such woodland the ideal habitat for species like bluebells (hyacinthoides non-scripta), with management practices like coppicing maintaining woodland as a productive and ecologically diverse resource. Bluebells and other woodland species are, of course, an added bonus. IMG_1710

One remarkable stand of ancient woodland can be found in Norfolk on the edge of the Brecks. Wayland Wood is the place upon which the Babes in the Wood legend is based, its name perhaps a corruption of “Wailing Wood” (the fictitious babes appear on the town sign of nearby Watton), but, more likely, the name comes from “Waneland”, a Viking word for a place of worship. Place of worship seems appropriate: in the first week of May the understory of the wood is so covered with bluebells that the effect is one of wading through a fragrant floral lake. Wayland Wood is not a particularly large expanse of woodland – just 34 hectares – and the traffic on the main road that runs alongside its southern fringe is usually just about within earshot. Such a low-level background-level thrum is easily filtered out though, and the sound that predominates is a melodious chorus of robins, blackbirds and warblers that pipe (largely unseen) from the newly unfurled lime-green foliage of the trees.IMG_1745

It is hard to say exactly how old Wayland Wood is. It is, as all the best natural phenomena  are, recorded in the Domesday Book, and it is probable that the wood was already thousands of years old by the Saxon period. Now it is protected under the auspices of the Norfolk Wildlife Trust, a place where visitors come in early May to appreciate not just the bluebells but the impressive display of early purple orchids, wood anemones, yellow archangel, bugle and primroses. Its trees are magnificent too – coppiced hazel, oak, ash, and field maple, and multi-trunked hornbeam with silver-grey bark like elephant skin.IMG_1738

There is cherry too – bird-cherry (Prunus padus), a native British species with frothy white racemes of flowers that dangle over the woodland rides. This perhaps adds a little more weight to a hanami-type comparison. But if truth be told it is the bluebells that people come to see: seasonality, transient beauty, a fleeting flourish of blossom before summer leaf growth closes the woodland canopy. This is our nearest equivalent and, although such events do not attract the crowds of revellers that they do in Japan, it is encouraging to see that there is still some modest interest in such things in these materialistic, post-Utopian times.IMG_1679IMG_1715IMG_1704

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Hanami

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The Japanese have a word for it – hanami. The full meaning of hanami is difficult to translate accurately but in literal terms it means ‘flower viewing’ and normally refers to sakura, the blossom of cherry trees in spring.  Incorporated within this meaning is also the notion of transient beauty, the appreciation of something rare and fleeting that will not last for long. Hanami is a hugely important aspect of Japanese culture and the period between late March and early May – cherry blossom time, naturally – is the season in which it is practised.IMG_0417

A predictive blossom forecast is announced by the national weather bureau each year, with expected dates of first bloom and peak blossom made for the entire archipelago. The blossoming starts in Okinawa in the far south as early as February before moving like a slow-moving weather front northwards through the islands of Kyushu, Shikoku and Honshu to conclude in cooler Hokkaido in May. For a number of reasons that are mainly to do with micro-climates and urban heat bubbles, sakura in Tokyo arrives earlier than might be expected for such a northerly latitude, climaxing at the end of March and the first week of April.IMG_0455

The arrival of sakura is celebrated with gusto throughout Japan. In Tokyo, Ueno Park with its long avenues of cherry trees is a highly popular spot for hanami revellers, who assemble here with friends, family and work colleagues to sit in large groups beneath the trees to eat, drink and have fun. As it gets dark the paper lanterns that hang like bunting between the trees are switched on to create a delightful festival-like ambience.

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IMG_0595Another sakura epicentre in the Japanese capital is along the Meguro-gawa riverbank at Nakameguro in the south of the city. Here the branches of the cherry trees on either bank almost touch across the water, blocking out the sky with their delicate blossoms. Such is this neighbourhood’s popularity in late March that the bridges that cross the river become packed with Tokyoites armed with cameras and mobile phones. The bridges make the ideal location for group photos and, of course, selfies. They are also the place from which to witness that most exquisite manifestation of hanami: the fall and drift of white petals on dark water.

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IMG_0746We have no real equivalent in the West – certainly not in the United Kingdom. Winter snowdrop walks, spring daffodils and bluebell woods have, perhaps, some sort of equivalence but their draw is generally limited. But in Japan during the sakura season the appeal is almost universal, and you will find all walks of life – pensioners, teenagers, young families, office workers, labourers – standing side by side taking in the view and enjoying the convivial atmosphere, all united in the appreciation of the singular cultural phenomenon that is hanami.

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Rainy Day Kyoto

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A  rainy morning in Kyoto. The immediate reaction is one of disappointment – a damper on photographic aspirations for the day. But umbrellas have their own aesthetic charm, as do rain-washed streets and silvery skies. The kimono-clad young women who throng the streets of the old city do not seem at all phased by such inclement weather, so why should a camera-toting gaijin?

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Easter Eggs

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Easter, as well as its obvious Christian association, has strong connections with the giving and receiving of eggs in one form or another. In Britain, and in no doubt much of Western Europe and North America, we give chocolate eggs to children as a treat. With a bit a luck we might even receive one ourselves – a proprietary brand confection from a supermarket with packaging that often dwarfs the contents within resulting in disappointment.

In Eastern Europe, though, are Easter customs that reflect a far more personal approach. Egg-painting – that is the application of delicate geometric designs on real eggs – is a widespread tradition throughout the region. The tradition reaches its apogee of expression in the Hutsul region of western Ukraine where the creation of pysanky (painted eggs) is considered to be akin to religious art. The Hutsul practice is thought to be a pre-Christian, rites of spring tradition in origin, in which it was formerly believed that the continued creation of pysanky was necessary for the world to continue peacefully.

Nowhere has this tradition been more painstakingly documented than in the pysanky museum in Kolomiya, which has a collection of around 10,000 painted eggs. Such is the enthusiasm for the craft that part of the museum itself – the central ‘yolk’ that contains the reception, gift shop and two circular pysanky galleries – actually takes the form of a painted egg.

Happy Easter

nb: A longer feature on this quirky ovoid edifice appeared in hidden europe magazine back in 2008.

 

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Another Place

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To reach Another Place you have to start in Liverpool. At least that is what we did, taking a Crosby-bound number 53 bus from the city’s Queen Square terminus. Leaving the Victorian magnificence of the city centre behind, the route leads through the edgelands of north Liverpool, in sight of huge abandoned red-brick warehouses that fringe the wide silver Mersey below. Away from the revitalised city centre and the heritage revamping of Albert Dock, this is a zone of substandard housing and broken dreams; a place where most of the pubs are boarded up and semi-ruined now that the dockers who once would have drank in them no longer have wage packets to fritter. The whole area seems partly abandoned to buddleia and the memory of better days although, here and there, like red-brick phoenixes, are signs of identikit housing development: new-build semi-detached homes with small gardens and big aspirations.

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Things seem to degenerate at the southern fringe of Bootle where the principal pub lacks not only clientele but also a roof. Narrow Victorian terrace streets slope away from the main road, their grim countenance softened by the names of flowers: Daisy Street, Woodbine Street, Harebell Street, and even a Pansy Street, which is perhaps a problematic address for a burly Scouse docker. After passing through Bootle, whose main centre of social interaction appears to be a bar located in the lower storey of a massive concrete complex that looks like it has been transported wholesale from Bratislava or New Belgrade, things start to look up, socio-economically speaking. Waterloo, where we alight next to the Merseyrail station seems altogether more prosperous, with a handful of smart cafes and a long marine parade of white-painted houses equipped with dormer windows to peer over the dunes to the beach and sea beyond.

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At the end of South Road, the road gives way to a track past a man-made lake behind sand dunes. Oyster catchers, gulls and ducks have taken refuge here and have arranged themselves in tightly-packed groups to brace against the bitterly cold north-westerly wind blowing across the Irish Sea. Climbing slightly to reach the dunes and a coast path, the beach and sea are revealed. As are several of the one hundred life-sized cast iron sculptures that dot the foreshore here between Waterloo and Blundellsands, and which constitute the Antony Gormley landscape installation that is Another Place (although here they are more prosaically referred to as simply ‘The Iron Men’). It is a bright, if brutally windy, afternoon and there a few people about, strolling on the beach, walking their dogs, weaving nonchalantly between the iron men that punctuate the beach like sentinels.IMG_5249

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The Gormley figures (modelled on the artist himself) stretch as far as the eye can see, each one staring out to sea isolated from the others: a statement on the human condition that refutes the John Donne position that ‘no man is an island’. Here, it would appear, every man is. The beauty of the figures is that, seen from afar, it is sometimes hard to distinguish those which are iron from those which are human. Covered and uncovered by each successive tide, the installation clearly points towards the relationship that exists between man and nature. Perhaps, silhouetted against the backdrop of Liverpool Dock’s cranes, it also alludes to the historical connection that links man and the seafaring trade in these parts?IMG_5177IMG_5326IMG_5260IMG_5259

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All Shook Up

IMG_4261On a dismal February afternoon in Norwich, taking a walk is done as much for exercise as it is for any other more worthy or creative reason. The raw, grey day makes the city seem gloomy, uninviting even, but at least it is an opportunity to leave the house for a while and check if the world is still turning. Uncertain where to go – whether to explore new streets or let my feet follow repeated steps – I choose to follow a familiar route: down to the river then eastwards, crisscrossing by bridges the fluvial divide that separates the city’s southern half from Norwich Over the Water, its Anglo-Saxon core.

IMG_4247Low cloud and a dull pewter sky has already put a lid on what remains of the day. The thin gruel that is the late winter light seems to be sucked in by the black river water with just a ghost of a reflection. Such paucity of photons means that serious photography is out of the question. I venture past the Norwich School of Art where brightly lit Victorian windows silhouette busy students in the act of creation – painting, sketching, etching, shaping, cutting and pasting in earnest. On the river wall, a little further on, a legend is stencilled in bold upper case: ARTISTS SHOULD RETRIEVE AND LEARN TO ENJOY THE INNER SANCTUARY OF THEIR STUDIOS. Whether a piece of work itself or merely a well-placed instruction to would-be artists in unclear, but it seems like sound advice. Either way, there’s an avuncular tone to the words that suggests a concern about privilege and responsibility.

IMG_4251Further west along the river I had already witnessed daubing of a more untutored stripe: a graffito that taunted the efficacy of urban CCTV with the ironic legend: CAN’T CONTROL THE VANDAL, its capital letters redefining the acronym, alongside an anarchist declaration of SICK OF THE POLITRIX! This is both social comment and poetry of a sort. Mostly though, the urban graffiti is not political or culture-busting but just simple tagging – guerrilla spray painting that derives from some atavistic urge to mark territories and serves much the same purpose as a dog’s instinctive leg-cocking.

IMG_4308One of the most ubiquitous taggers is ‘Shook’, who if nothing else certainly gets around. Shook’s five-letter cipher can be seen all over the city – north and south, east and west, on walls and bridges, on fences and lampposts. I suspect that Shook has a bicycle. Or perhaps even a rail pass – I once even saw his tag on a wall approaching Cambridge station, well outside his usual homeboy patch. Shook, although enthusiastic and clearly determined, is no Banksy. True, he has no sanctuary to enjoy – the streets are his studio – but I wish he (I can only presume his gender) would exercise a little more imagination and realise that mere territoriality is not the be-all and end-all. Shook, it’s time to raise your game.

 

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Osh Bazaar

IMG_9760The first thing to know is that it isn’t in Osh. Rather, it is in the capital Bishkek. Why this bazaar shares the name of Kyrgyzstan’s second city is uncertain. Perhaps it’s because it is here that you come to look for a shared taxi ride south to Osh; or maybe it is something to do with the shout of the porters as they work their way through the crowd asking shoppers to move out of the way – “(b)osh, (b)osh”? No matter, there is no confusion when you get here as the bazaar’s name is spelled out in big red letters on the large arch that marks its entrance. In Cyrillic script OSH looks more like OW, but there’s no exclamation mark à la Devon’s Westward Ho!IMG_9761Osh Bazaar, just west of the city centre near the main bus station is Bishkek’s best known market, although not its largest – for that you need to travel just north of the city limits to Dordoi Bazaar where you’ll find thousands of stacked shipping containers serving as shops. Osh Bazaar is more traditional – no shipping containers, just hundreds of small shops and a couple of huge hangars that have stalls selling everything that you might imagine along with a few items that you might not. Mostly though, it is food and drink – fruit, vegetables, meat, dairy and baked goods. This is the place to come for Kyrgyz specialities like kumys (fermented horse milk) or kuruut (sour yoghurt balls) but pretty well anything can be found here with diligent searching. If it is angels’ tears or unicorn ham that you need then Osh Bazaar is probably your best bet in the city.IMG_9763My last visit was early last summer on a scorching day with temperatures nudging 40 degrees centigrade. Osh Bazaar has something of a reputation for dodgy plainclothes policemen who home in on obvious foreigners to ask for passports and the handing over of foreign currency ‘to count’. Perhaps it was just too hot to bother that day – or maybe I just looked like an ethnic Russian local (unlikely) – but there was no sign of them. Just heat-frazzled shoppers and exhausted stall holders dozing between customers.IMG_9737IMG_9756IMG_9753IMG_9748untitled

 

The third edition of my Bradt Kyrgyzstan guide will be published later this week.

 

 

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Murmuration

IMG_3939Norwich, mid January. At dusk over the past few weeks an avian spectacular has been witnessed taking place in the sky over St Stephen’s Street. As the daylight dwindles around the four o’clock mark a swirling murmuration of roosting starlings may often be seen in the sky above this busy city centre shopping street. There’s a pleasing degree of unpredictability to such behaviour, and some afternoons the starlings seem to be conspicuously absent, but as a rule the birds circumscribe a giddy figure eight in the sky above the old Norwich Union office block, Surrey Street bus station, the Marsh Insurance building and Queens Road.

IMG_3933For many of the shoppers and workers hurrying home on the bus this phenomena takes place virtually unnoticed. Even so, there are those who stop to look and wonder at such wild exuberance in what is to them a familiar and quotidian urban environment. While shopping is bought and buses are boarded in the street below the massed starlings dance above – a joyous ensemble piece that twists and turns like a single organism, choreographed by some sort of instinctive group consciousness. As the light fails the birds finally settle, with what seems like a collective spontaneous decision, on the roof of a disused office building where they will spend the night. Darkness falls: the spectacle is over for another day.

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True, this is not a particularly grand example of the murmuration phenomenon – perhaps just a thousand birds or so: it is hard to say – but beauty and wonder is relative and this modest display has a personal dimension in that it can even be glimpsed from the windows of my home. Such a spectacle within a stone’s throw of one’s own doorstep can only be seen as a gift.

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Whittlesea Straw Bear

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If you venture to Whittlesea, at the edge of the Fens near Peterborough, during the second weekend in January you cannot help but notice that strange straw animals and oddly attired people have taken over the streets of this small market town.  The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival was re-established in the town in 1980 after having been outlawed for over 70 years. Hitherto, the last sighting of a straw bear in these parts was in 1909 when the annual winter festival was stopped by local police because it was seen as a form of unwanted cadging from the public.
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No-one seems to know how far back the tradition goes but it was once the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress a ploughboy in a straw suit and parade him through the town. The ‘straw bear’, attended by a keeper, would dance for gifts of beer, money and tobacco that would be later enjoyed by the local ploughing fraternity who were always short of cash at this slack time of year.
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Similar winter traditions once existed elsewhere – in other parts of England and also in central Europe and Germany. There are clear connections, too, with ancient pre-Christian wild man traditions, and even similarities with some forms of West African tribal practices in which men are adorned in fetishistic animal or demon costumes. There’s also a plain link with agricultural fertility, and the desire for a bountiful harvest, as only the best quality straw from the previous year’s harvest is used to dress the bear, which is paraded around the town’s squares and taverns on the Saturday before the straw suit is taken from its occupier and ritually burned on the Sunday.

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Whilst clearly revivalist, the modern festival has a vigour and joie de vivre that is at odds with the sombre post-Christmas, mid-winter gloom that tends to characterise this time of year. Perhaps its joyous atmosphere has a lot to do with  the unselfconscious high spirits of the English whenever they get a chance to dress up in silly clothes and clown around. Such behaviour is aided and abetted by widespread music and dancing by brightly costumed dancing sides that go under exotic monikers like Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Old Glory and Ox Blood Molloy, Kemps Men Morris, Red Leicester, Pretty Grim and Black Pig Border Morris. The fact that all of the town’s pubs are open all day really does not hurt either.

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Some may find it contrived but, revivalist or not, there is something atavistic and primally English at work here. The good cheer and high spirits are infectious and it seems the easiest thing to instantly become part of this transient happy community. Whatever the precise truth of its historical tradition, the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival is a weekend of conviviality and broad smiles accompanied by daft dancing and the plentiful consumption of real ale. A time of gentle eccentricity, it is an occasion when, for once, it actually feels quite good to be English.

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