Birthdays have a way of focusing the mind. As the relentless march of time and the inevitable onslaught of middle age take their toll, past adventures provide a nostalgic distraction from the painful realisation that the chocolate cake isn’t the only thing that is rapidly disappearing. Thankfully, after over three decades of travelling around this planet, I seem to have acquired a lot of distractions…

It is fair to say that I have amassed a fair amount of ‘stuff’ over the years. Some of it was bartered, some of it was bought and some of it was just picked up…quite literally. I have geodes from burning sands of Arabia and rocks from the frozen heights of the Himalayas, and in a drawer somewhere I have a bag of Saharan sand that I am not quite sure what I am ever going to do with. Maybe I’ll just take it back to the desert one day and release it back into the wild. Every piece though has a story attached to it. Hell, after 30 years, some of it might even be worth something! Three of my favourite pieces though are truly priceless, not in monetary value, but in the memories and stories attached to them.

Sri Lanka Boat 1The first was given to me by a survivor of the 2004 Asian Tsunami. I was in Sri Lanka about 6 months after the Boxing Day tsunami, working with groups of volunteers helping with the rebuilding programme. I was based close to a small fishing village called Peraliya, which lay along the country’s southwestern coast. It had been one of the worst hit areas and the sense of loss and devastation still haunted the scattered remains of the village. The authorities claimed that 1,000 people had died here, but local aid workers and residents put the figure closer to 2,500. Many of its survivors still lived in tents or makeshift shelters and some, like Manjou, were crowded into small wooden shacks around which were gathered their few remaining possessions.

Manjou could probably have been described as one of the lucky ones – he had survived after all – but his story was to become an all too familiar lament during my time there. The first wave had deprived him of his home, his job and, tragically, his younger sister. The second wave hit whilst he and his two brothers were out looking for her. That was the last time he ever saw them. Manjou was swept two kilometres inland by the force of the water and by the time he returned to his village everything he had ever known was gone.

A qualified electrician, he had been reduced to spending his days making small wooden boats, which he sold to buy rice to feed what was left of his family. Over the course of six weeks I got to know Manjou quite well and regularly turned up at his shack with unwanted clothes and people eager to see his boats. He managed to sell every boat he ever made whilst I was there and on the day I left he presented me with this as a thank you. He wouldn’t accept any money for it and hugged me when I left. I never saw Manjou again. I wrote to him, but I never heard back. I hope he made it though.

Whale VertebraeThe second piece has probably had the longest journey. It came to me from the frozen wastes of the High Arctic, by way of an Inuit bone carver I met in Canada two years ago. Bob Kussy is one of the most remarkable characters that I have met in recent years. A man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Inuit history and culture, he was married to a quite extraordinary woman who, it turned out, is also one of Canada’s most celebrated Inuit artists and an ambassador of Inuit art and culture around the world. I went to visit Bob as part of a photo essay that I was working on with a photographer friend. I was looking for an insight into Inuit life in the Canadian Arctic. What I ended up with was an incredibly personal and insightful introduction to two generations of Inuit history and culture.

I also walked away with part of a whale’s spinal column…complete with polar bear teeth marks and lichen! Bob presented it to me as I was leaving, pulling it out of a bin under his workbench which contained what looked like a build your own whale kit.

DragonThe final piece is a walking stick that I picked up in a market in southern China nearly 20 years ago. It is probably the least expensive thing I have ever bought on my travels, and yet it probably generates the most comment from everyone who sees it. Ironically, I never even intended to buy it. I made the schoolboy error of making eye contact with its previous owner, a fatal mistake which resulted in a chase through the streets and a panicked offer to buy at a ridiculously low price. And suddenly I found myself the owner of a three and a half foot dragon!

I ended up sending it home by post from Hong Kong and was reunited with it, surprisingly, two years later. I think it cost me about £5 at the time and it still makes me smile every time I look at it. It has watched me disappear on countless adventures and its disapproving glare is usually the first thing I see when I walk back in again. Over the years it has become a sort of talisman, something that keeps drawing me back to those carefree days of adventure.

We have grown older together over the past two decades. Sadly, as the years pass, the dragon seems to be weathering the passage of time better than me. With a bit of luck though, it will still be giving me disapproving looks for a few more years yet…

BS 3One of the pivotal decades of the 20th Century, the 1980s brought Britain, Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War, the rise of greed and the fall of the unions. It was a decade of remarkable contrasts, that began with IRA hunger strikes and inner cities riots and ended with the invention of the World Wide Web. These were serious times, predating the arrival of Twitter and smart phones and the annoying banality of the ‘celebrity’ culture. Nuclear war was still a very real threat and the only bulwarks we had against Communism back then were Ronald Reagan and John Rambo!

During those early years I found myself living in Coventry, a city with a bad attitude and a pulsating ska soundtrack. This was the heyday of 2 Tone and bands like Madness, The Specials and Selector were making black suits and pork pie hats essential fashion accessories. Mods and skinheads were everywhere and street violence was at an all time high in the city. Meanwhile, around Britain, the inner cities were burning as copycat riots erupted across the urban landscape. And against this backdrop of inner city decay and urban fragmentation, The Specials released Ghost Town, one of the most iconic records of the decade. An anthem for a lost generation, it pretty much summed up the broken Britain of the early 1980s.

…It also gave me an idea…

At the time I was studying graphic design and was scratching around for an idea for a final year project that had some bite to it. One evening I happened upon a performance by John Cooper Clarke, a man described as…”a cross between Sid Vicious, Ken Dodd and Allen Ginsberg”. The ‘Bard of Salford’, he had an incredible talent for observation and regularly toured with the likes of the Sex Pistols, Elvis Costello, the Buzzcocks and Joy Division. His poetry was cynical, witty and very hard hitting and one piece in particular, Beasley Street, really captured the mood of the time.

That one poem became responsible for me spending weeks trawling through the urban underbelly of Coventry and Birmingham, hunting out the homeless and the desperate. I wandered the streets with a camera, searching out people and places that most folk tended to steer well clear of. On more than one occasion I found myself running through the streets, being chased by irate tramps and hungry dogs. By the end of those first few weeks I had rolls and rolls of black and white film and hundreds of still images, which I then spent even more weeks animating together to the Beasley Street soundtrackthe old fashioned way…25 frames a second!

…The only people with flash computers back then were NASA!

BS 2

That was over 30 years ago and many of the photos have rarely seen the light of day since. This was probably my first real attempt at any sort of serious photographic endeavour and a lot of the images reflect that. Their faults are many, but they do, I think, mirror the gritty reality of those early years. Looking back at them now though, it saddens me that the subsequent decades have seen little change for the better. Thatcher may be gone, but her legacy remains. Greed, apparently, is still good. Immigration and the Cold War are back with a vengeance…and Rambo, it seems, is still the only hope we have against the Russians!

BS 1

BS 4

BS 6

 

hist_theoldhamBeautiful and terrifying in equal measure, the sea can be an unforgiving mistress. The coastlines around the British Isles are littered with wrecks that have fallen prey to her unpredictable moods and these Islands are no stranger to the power of the sea’s unrelenting fury. The early part of the nineteenth century saw some 1,800 vessels a year being wrecked along our coasts. Death and the sea became an integral part of life amongst coastal communities, who could only watch helplessly as ships foundered in the boiling seas.

In 1824 that all changed…

That was the year that Sir William Hilary founded the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, later changed to the much racier, Royal National Lifeboat institution. This year marks the charity’s 190th anniversary and from its humble beginnings, amongst the treacherous waters off the Isle of Man, the RNLI today has around 1,000 lifeguards and 236 lifeboat stations dotted around the coasts of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Isles, rescuing on average some 22 people a day. In real terms that equates to more than 140,000 lives saved, countless vessels rescued and nearly two centuries of dedicated and selfless service by its volunteer crews.

(c) Manx National Heritage; Supplied by The Public Catalogue FoundationThe RNLI today has come a long way since the night of November 19, 1830, when a 60 year old William Hilary took to a lifeboat to rescue the crew of the St George. That night, in the fierce waters of the Irish Sea, the lifeboat lost its rudder and had six of its oars smashed. Its crew were washed overboard on more than one occasion and Hilary himself suffered six broken ribs and a shattered chest bone. But the crew of the St George were saved and the legacy that is the RNLI was born.

The words, ‘With Courage, Nothing is Impossible’, are inscribed on the RNLI memorial in Poole, Dorset. They are testimony to more than 800 lifeboat crew and others who have lost their lives endeavouring to save other at sea…And nearly two centuries on, the sight of the famous orange and blue livery crashing through the waves can still reduce even the most hardy sailor to tears of relief.

181218_352404161488855_1079631166_n

rnli-logohttp://rnli.org

LifeboatIt is nearly a year now since my dad died.

This morning I spoke to my mum, who is currently languishing in hospital recovering from the symptoms of a minor stroke and sporting a broken arm and a fractured cheek. It’s strange, but I really can’t remember when they lost their super powers and became mere mortals. A couple of years ago they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary and seemed unstoppable. Now one is gone and the other seems to have been badly beaten with a sock full of Kryptonite!

Few of us probably fully appreciate our parents until they are no longer there. Two years ago my parents had, between them, a combined life span of some 170 years. They had survived the Blitz as children on the streets of inner city Birmingham, struggled through the austerity years of postwar Britain and my dad had served in Palestine during the first ever Arab-Israeli conflict. I had never really considered them particularly remarkable though. To me they were just my parents and much about their lives before I emerged into the world was a mystery to me.

Pablo Picasso once said, “It takes a long time to become young”. I never really understood that until I sat down and really talked with my parents a couple of years ago. Only then did I realise that I had spent my entire life living with two virtual strangers. My dad had spent much of his life as a painter and decorator. What was he doing racing around Palestine being shot at by Arabs and Israelis and running a gauntlet of fire to deliver the barrack laundry in a 30-ton fire truck? And my mother…riding around in the blackout on the back of a motorbike…with a man who wasn’t my father! It was the most animated I had seen them both in years. My mum told me about sleeping in the Anderson shelters during the air raids and watching dog fights above the streets of Birmingham. I heard about their old dog, who could sense a German bomber from about two miles away and the night that a bomb broke the cuckoo clock. I even found out about their exciting honeymoon, spent getting their ration books changed!

We had never been a particularly close family. Both my grandfathers died when I was young, my mum’s two sisters emigrated to Australia as ‘Ten Pound Poms’ back in the 1960s and me and my brother never got on. Growing up, I never really felt any sort of affinity towards kin and kinship. I knew my grandparents owned a chip shop, but I never knew that my maternal grandfather was an ARP warden during the war. I always knew my mum’s older brother as ‘Uncle Stan’, but the image of him racing through bombed out rubble on his bike, chasing down crashed German fighters was a complete revelation to me.

One particularly engaging tale related to my mum’s grandmother, Granny Sutton, a lady that my mum obviously remembered with a great deal of affection. She lived in the small village of Shenstone, just outside Lichfield and was, by all accounts, a truly remarkable woman. Tiny in stature and dressed entirely in black, she lived with her disabled daughter in a little cottage next to the old village church. Almost blind, she nonetheless raised her daughter alone and kept the cottage and its surrounding garden immaculate. The old iron grate was always blackened, the red tiles practically shone and there wasn’t a weed to be found anywhere. All this in itself, whilst admirable, isn’t what made this little slice of family history so extraordinary though…

…What made Granny Sutton stand out was the fact that an entire U.S. Army base adopted her as their own!

At the proud instigation of my young mother and her brother, an American soldier turned up at her cottage one afternoon to pay a visit, to be greeted with the immortal words…”Ooo, got any gum chum?”. In spite of a serious deficit of teeth (by then she was in possession of a single, solitary tooth), my late, maternal great grandmother it seems had a penchant for chewing gum and was not backwards in coming forwards to ask for it. The soldier went on his way, suitably charmed, soon to be followed by others…along with a regular supply of gum, chocolate and anything else the old lady required. The Americans it seemed adored her. On the day that they left, a photo appeared in the local newspaper showing Granny Sutton standing next to a tank, bidding a fond farewell to her benefactors…and doubtless asking for a last stick of gum for old times sake.

Eventually she went completely blind, but that didn’t stop her visiting the local pub for her regular tot of whiskey and on the day she died she was just six weeks short of her 103 birthday.

We seem to spend so much of our lives these days looking beyond our immediate surroundings for inspiration, that sometimes I think we fail to value what is right there in front of us. In our attempts to constantly strive for more, we seem to have lost the true meaning of what it is to be human…

…just ordinary people, living some extraordinary lives.

img663After 14 long, painful and contentious years, the last voyage of the Solway Harvester is finally coming to an end. The boat’s sinking, in storm force winds off the Isle of Man on the late afternoon of the 11 January 2000, still remains the worst maritime disaster to ever occur in Manx waters. All seven crew were lost including two brothers and two 17 year old friends. The effect of the tragedy on the small Scottish community of Whithorn was profound, but what set this incident apart was what happened next.

Over the days and weeks that followed, the Isle of Man government went to extraordinary lengths to recover the boat and her crew. In the face of stiff opposition from the British government, the Manx Parliament set in motion a series of events that were to have emotive and far reaching consequences on both sides of the water. For weeks the island lay at the centre of a huge media circus, as a growing army of salvage crews, divers and support craft lay siege to the waters off the coast. Huge lifting cranes were brought in, the Royal Air Force conspired with the Manx government to help bring the families across in secret and a plan of almost military precision was undertaken to implement the job of raising the boat and recovering the crew.

Four years ago, photographer Phil Kneen and myself set out to document in words and pictures the circumstances behind the Solway Harvester’s tragic sinking. Our intention was to pay tribute to the extraordinary efforts that had been made to return the crew to their families and to highlight the human story behind the tragedy. To that end we attempted to tell it from the perspective of those most deeply affected. To let the people who had lived through those few emotive weeks tell the story in their own words.

That was how we found ourselves sat in a pub in Whithorn, on a crisp winter’s day in the late December of 2009. We had come to meet up with some of the families of the lost crew and, frankly, I think it was just sinking in what we had taken on. How do you ask someone about their dead son, or introduce yourself to a woman who was heavily pregnant when her husband drowned, and then look into the face of the nine year old boy who had never even met his father? Our first meeting was with the parents of Davy Lyons, a 17 year old lad who, at the time of his death, hadn’t even been big enough to join the army!

Over the course of that weekend we were to meet up with other families with similar tragic tales to tell. Two of the boys had been just 17, inseparable friends, who had a lifetime of experiences ahead of them. Another had been 22. A combined age of 56, all gone in a matter of minutes. From the time of the last known communication from the boat, to the time that the Solway Harvester’s emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) had been activated, just 18 minutes had passed. Most of the crew hadn’t even had time to get on deck.

It was in the early hours of the 10 January 2000 that the scallop dredger Solway Harvester slipped her moorings and pointed her bow south, heading towards the rich fishing grounds lying off the Isle of Man. Over the next 24 hours the weather in the Irish Sea began to deteriorate, as the water around the boat turned from a dark foreboding mass into a screaming cauldron that threatened to engulf them. With the storm growing worse, the decision was made to haul in the gear and make for the shelter of Ramsey Bay. It was the last journey they would ever make. At 17.47 on 11 January 2000, a polar orbiting satellite picked up the signal from the EPIRB, indicating that the boat had lost its battle with the growing storm and battering waves.

The winds by now had increased to severe gale force 9, gusting to storm force 10, and the search for the missing boat pitted man and machine against the unrelenting fury of the Irish Sea.

The conditions and the heavy rain made it increasingly difficult for the lifeboats, with visibility down to nothing and the heavy seas making life uncomfortable for the crews manning the searchlights. Over the next few hours Mother Nature’s unbridled power held sway, in spite of the best efforts of the Coastguard, the RNLI, the RAF and the Royal Navy. The boat and her seven man crew failed to materialise though and the rescue effort was finally abandoned at dusk on the evening of the 12 January, after the discovery of two unopened life-rafts had shattered any last vestiges of hope that the crew would be found alive.

It took three more days to locate the Solway Harvester and a further three weeks to recover her crew. The bodies were finally brought up on the 4 February 2000 and escorted into Douglas Bay to the haunting lament of a solitary piper. The families were waiting on the quayside that night and, as the bodies were placed on Victoria Pier, the final chords of Ellan Vannin drifted out across the harbour. It took another five months before the Solway Harvester finally made it into Ramsey. There were no pipers that day, just an eerie silence from the thousands who lined the harbour as the shattered wreck entered the bay.

Over the coming days the final chapter of this tragedy will be played out, as the last remnants of the Solway Harvester’s rusting hull is cut up and scrapped. The journey has been a long and painful one, due primarily to a drawn out and bitter legal dispute. Fourteen years ago the Isle of Man went against every previous maritime precedent, overcame countless bureaucratic obstacles and even faced down the British government to raise the Solway Harvester and recover her crew. It is a decision that not everyone agreed with at the time, but for the people of Whithorn and Garlieston it meant they could bury their sons and move on. And for that they will be externally grateful.

John Jolly was the father of Wesley, the youngest member of the Solway Harvester’s crew. I shall let him have the final say…

“If it hadn’t been for Donald Gelling and the Isle of Man we would have been facing a long fight. The British Government wasn’t interested; it wasn’t in their agenda. The Scottish Government as well. They think that’s where a fisherman should lie. In my mind there was only one fisherman on the boat that night and that was Craig, the rest were just there to try and make some money…My son wasn’t a fisherman.”

img668

To the memory of the crew of the Solway Harvester…Rest in Peace…

Photographs copyright Phil Kneen

2051 dementia_adventure_Final:2051 dementia_adventure_Final

On the 11 December the UK hosted a G8 Summit aimed at coordinating a global initiative on dementia. Words such as “ticking time bomb”, “tsunami” and “looming epidemic” have been banded around by politicians, reporters and medical experts alike, and probably with good reason. Today there are some 44 million people worldwide living with dementia in one form or another. Nearly a million of those live in the UK, a figure which equates in a cost to the country of some £23 billion a year. By 2050 the numbers worldwide are set to treble and there is a very real fear that some countries will simply be unable to cope. In a nutshell, dementia is gearing up to become the biggest health and care issue of a generation.

Dementia is a term that encompasses some 100 different diseases, of which Alzheimer’s is probably the most well recognised. Simply put, it describes the decline of the mental abilities, causing anyone living with it to lose the ability to function in ways that most of us take for granted – language, mental agility, memory, judgement etc. Sadly it is also incurable. It can however be controlled and recent evidence suggests that those struggling to cope with dementia can benefit greatly from a little outdoor activity and contact with nature. Two years ago I knew very little about dementia, its causes or its effects. That was until a friend approached me about putting together a trip on the Isle of Man for a dementia group. She and her husband had set up a community enterprise called Dementia Adventure, which was working to provide training, research and a refreshingly innovative approach to dementia care. Starting with short walks around the countryside of South East England, they had progressed on to sailing weekends and were now spreading their wings even farther with a trip across the Irish Sea…which was where I came in.

The brief was very specific – not too much walking, not too much intensive culture and just enough interest to keep it fresh. Now, for someone who up to that point had never even met anyone with dementia, this was to prove quite a challenge. In the end we went with boat trips and steam trains, coastal views, castles and award-winning ice cream. The trip proved to be a resounding success, in spite of driving rain, howling gales and a royal visit! What I found incredible though was the remarkable change that the week brought about in the group. Research has shown that regular contact with nature may be the strongest and most easily accessible therapy available in the treatment of dementia. Apparently it can enable individuals living with dementia to experience a ‘dampening down’ or even an absence of their dementia related symptoms. From what I saw during that short week, and judging by the smiles that were breaking out across previously confused faces, I could only concur.

David Cameron has described dementia as a disease that: “…steals lives, wrecks families and breaks hearts.” It is one of modern life’s cruellest diseases, failing to discriminate between sex, class or creed. But people with dementia don’t need to be locked away. They are not a danger. They are parents and grandparents, husbands and wives. They are no different from you and me, they just need a little more patience and a little more consideration. And if current projections are to be believed, then my timely introduction to the disease is going to be repeated amongst many more of us in the years ahead.

Two years on and Dementia Adventure are a multi award winning enterprise, with a growing international reputation and a continuing message of hope for the future. For more information check out their website at www.dementiaadventure.co.uk, or give Lucy or Neil a ring on 01245 230661.

To learn a little more about the health benefits associated with a more hands on approach towards dementia and the natural environment, take a look at their latest research on the subject, produced in conjunction with Natural England and the Woodland Trust: www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/enjoying/linkingpeople/outdoorsforall/g8-dementia-summit-feature.aspx

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 470 other followers