Natural disasters, by their very nature, don’t distinguish between religious, economic or cultural boundaries. They will happily lay waste to whatever lies in their path, whether it be a remote rural village, a presidential palace or a nuclear power station.

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…It’s what happens next that defines them.

IMG_2451Over the past two decades, I have found myself following Mother Nature’s destructive course around the world. I was in Sri Lanka after the devastating Christmas tsunami of 2004 and in Haiti just a few weeks after one of the worst earthquakes in living memory had destroyed Port au Prince, leaving over 200,000 dead and a further 1.5 million people homeless.

Both these rate amongst the top ten deadliest natural disasters of the past 100 years.

Nepal’s two recent earthquakes, by comparison, come quite a way down the list. Their longer lasting effects though will affect far more lives as the weeks and months unfold. Next month sees the arrival of the summer monsoons, when landslides, leeches and heavy rains will inevitably affect the relief efforts and cause even more problems for the thousands left without adequate shelter or the most basic of provisions. The rains will contaminate the water supplies and bring with them water-borne diseases, poor sanitation and intolerable conditions.

When Hurricane Katrina hit the United States in 2005, she was described as one of the deadliest storms in history, causing widespread destruction and loss of life across great swathes of Louisiana, New Orleans and America’s Gulf Coast. The 2011 tsunami that hit the northeastern coast of Japan brought with it nuclear meltdown and damages estimated at over $300 billion dollars. Years later, both Japan and the United States, two of the richest countries on the planet, are still dealing with the aftermath of those destructive forces of nature. What hope then for Nepal?

One of the poorest countries in the world, Nepal’s infrastructure is devastated. Heavily reliant on tourism, her World Heritage sites lie in ruins and her lucrative trekking and climbing routes have been decimated by avalanches and mudslides. Welcome and essential as the current outpourings of sympathy and aid are, I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the world moves on to the next sound bite. It has been five years since the Haiti earthquake and many of the scars still remain amongst the shattered ruins of the country’s capital. At the time of the disaster, the country was swamped by relief agencies. Everyone wanted to get in on the act. Today, the NGOs and the investors have long gone and the tented refugee camps have been replaced by sprawling squatter camps on the outskirts of the city. Many Haitians are in a worse situation now than they were before the earthquake, and this is a country that, at the time, was the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

I remember the day I took this photograph.

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We had been stopped at a road block and I remember asking my driver about the significance of the flags fluttering amongst the twisted wreckage. It seemed incongruous somehow that this one building should stand out amongst a seemingly endless landscape of indiscriminate destruction. He informed me that it had been a maternity hospital. On the day of the earthquake there had been 125 women and children in there.

…They were still inside.

For some reason this one image has always summed up the sheer hopelessness of Haiti’s plight for me. The relief agencies had taken the time to place flags in the rubble, but none of them had had the time or the resources to recover the dead from inside. Over the coming days I was to see far worse sights amongst the slums and refugee camps of Port au Prince, but somehow my thoughts always returned to this one emotive image.

Five years on, it still exerts a powerful hold.

…I just hope Nepal’s story has a happier ending.

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At around 11.00 am, on the morning of May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania broke through a thick blanket of fog. In the distant lay the indistinct smudge of the Irish coast. The world’s largest passenger liner at the time, the Lusitania had some 2,000 people on board, making the crossing from New York to Liverpool. It was to be her last journey.

At about 14.00 that same afternoon, she was struck by a torpedo from a German U-boat and sank within 18 minutes. Her last message gave her position as 10 miles south of Old Kinsale, off the southeastern coast of Ireland. It would take another two hours before the first steamer could reach the scene.

About three miles to the north east of the Lusitania’s final position was a small Manx fishing boat, the Wanderer. She had been fishing for mackerel in the calm waters of the Irish Sea, when her crew had seen the Lusitania suddenly list in the water. Undeterred by the possible dangers from the lurking U-boat, the Wanderer raced for the stricken vessel, arriving on scene in time to pluck 160 people from the water. The first casualty they took on board was a two month old baby, but hundreds more lay dead around them. Over the next two hours the crew did what they could for the survivors. The boat was filled to overflowing and, in spite of the dangers to themselves, the crew also took two full lifeboats in tow. The skipper of the boat, William Ball, in a letter that he later wrote to the Wanderer’s owner, described the scene with typical Manx pragmatism…

“…We picked up the first boats a quarter of a mile inside of where she sunk, and there we got four boat loads put aboard us, We couldn’t take any more, as we had 160 – men, women, and children. In addition, we had two boats in tow, full of passengers, We were the only boat there for two hours, then the patrol boats came out from Queenstown. We had a busy time making tea for them…and all our milk and tea is gone and a lot of clothes as well…and the bottle of whisky we had leaving home.”

The Wanderer finally managed to hand her pitiful cargo over to the Admiralty tug, Flying Fish, who took the survivors on to Queenstown, in southern Ireland. In total, nearly 1,200 people lost their lives that day, but the sinking went on to have far reaching consequences for Germany. In firing on a non-military ship without warning, she had breached international law (in spite of the fact that it is believed that the British had been flouting the rules by carrying war munitions). The outrage across the Atlantic in America helped to shift public opinion and went on to be instrumental in America’s eventual entry into the war two years later.

As for the Wanderer, well little remains of her role in the events of Friday, May 7. The Manchester Manx Society organised for the men to receive specially struck medals to mark their pivotal role in the events, but the only permanent reminder of what happened is a plaque adorning a wall in their home town of Peel. The boat itself continued to fish the waters of the Irish Sea until the 1930s, eventually ending her days in Ireland, all but forgotten except for a few letters home and a plaque on a wall in a small fishing port on the western coast of the Isle of Man.

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On the 3 May 2015, the Isle of Man will mark the centenary of the sinking with a commemoration service and a flotilla of boats, which will be led out by the Peel Lifeboat to the haunting lament of a lone piper. For more details see – http://www.thewanderer100.com.

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Easter is nearly upon us. For many this means little more than a surplus of hot cross buns, a nausea-fuelled orgy of chocolate eggs and a chance to spend some time trawling through the aisles of the local DIY stores. Personally, it will signal the end of a self-imposed chocolate fast that has seen me enduring cold turkey since the beginning of Lent.There are, of course, many out there who still observe its more traditional meaning and a mission of mercy on the lifeboat this week – to deliver a bishop and a cross to a small fishing port on the south-west coast of the Isle of Man – did make me momentarily reflect on what Easter still means to many people around the world.

It also reminded me of a surreal Easter that I once spent in the town of Aksum, in northern Ethiopia…

Having travelled across the country in a bus, sat sandwiched between a nervous chicken and an old man cradling a Kalashnikov, I had arrived in Aksum just in time for the Easter celebrations, an important time for the Orthodox Christians. Of the numerous religious festivals practiced by the Ethiopians the two most important are Timkat and Easter and, whilst Timkat is certainly the more colourful, Easter has always required a more committed approach to worship. The Orthodox Easter is known as Fasika and marks the end of a fast that lasts some 55 days, during which time no animal product at all can be consumed. Suffice to say, the end of Easter in Ethiopia is something of a blood bath, when the streets quite literally run with gore and animals and vegetarians alike tend to keep a low profile.

The town itself was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places on earth. Lying at the heart of an empire that stretched along the Red Sea coast to present day Djibouti and deep into southwestern Arabia, at its height it rivalled the empires of Rome, China and Persia and nurtured a civilisation that far outstripped its neighbours. It was from here that Christianity spread its way into the rest of Ethiopia.

…It is also the final resting place of the ‘lost’ Ark of the Covenant!

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The stuff of legend and conjecture, sought by everyone from the Knights Templar to Indiana Jones, this most holy of relics today resides in a small, unassuming concrete chapel sandwiched between Aksum’s two cathedrals. Lying beneath a decaying green roof, watched over by a solitary monk, there are few here who will publicly deny its presence. This sacred relic is central to the entire Orthodox faith, with every church, no matter how large or small, housing a replica known as the Tabot within its sanctuary. Little wonder then that there is still an unshakeable belief amongst its people that the Ark of the Covenant is indeed within their midst.

Strangely, this deeply ingrained religious fervour had more than a passing effect on me. I even managed to drag myself into the pre dawn light one morning, to bear witness to a remarkable procession. Hundreds of white robed figures, their faces bathed in the almost ethereal glow of candlelight, walked through the surprisingly crowded streets. At their centre, a group of monks carried a box, about the size of a small tea chest, within which lay, allegedly, the hallowed symbol of their faith. A part of me truly wanted to believe that this small unremarkable box, just a few feet away from me, contained the most sacred of all religious artefacts…the words of God himself.

It was during this rare (and temporary) episode of religious enlightenment that I found myself purchasing a grubby scroll from a wandering street trader. Written in Ge’ez, a language that can trace its origins back to the ancient Arabian texts of 6th century BC, this aged roll of pigskin represented a tradition that has long disappeared from western art. A mix of talismanic art, religious prayer and illuminated manuscript, these gospel scrolls were believed to provide protective and healing powers. Inscribed with prayers, spells and charms, they were commissioned by individuals for a range of reasons, from warding off evil spirits, to curing sterility and restoring health. Ironically they were tolerated by the Ethiopian Church, in spite of their obvious connections to more pagan practices, because of their inclusion of religious imagery and exerts from the gospels.

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These scrolls were specifically tailored to the physical and spiritual characteristics of the client and even the selection and sacrifice of the specific animal was overseen by an ordained cleric, who would then wash the client in the animal’s blood. Three strips of parchment were then made from the skin of the animal and stitched together, to form a single scroll equal in height to the owner. The direct physical connection with its owner was meant to enhance the power of the scroll’s magic. I have no idea who my scroll was originally made for, or indeed what the words or religious iconography mean. If its size is anything to go by though its original owner was nearly six and a half foot tall, so I am guessing that he didn’t need it to ward off a neighbourhood bully!

IMG_2471The Easter ceremonies in Aksum carried on throughout the following days and the town reverberated to the sound of singing. As midnight approached and Easter Sunday drew nearer, drums began to sound throughout the town, accompanied by a hypnotic chanting that seemed to permeate every nook and cranny. Not wanting to miss out, I made my way down to one of the smaller churches, drawn by the incessant sound of the drums. It was filled to overflowing, every piece of floor space taken up by prostrate figures, beggars and young children who, seemingly oblivious to the goings on around them, were content to spend the few remaining hours of the fast dreaming of the feasting to come.

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Robert Frank, the American photographer and filmmaker once said, “The eye should learn to listen before it looks”.

In our soundbite world of social media and disposable imagery, I think many of us have lost sight of this simple fact these days. We will happily snap away at things with our mobiles, without really appreciating the subject matter. Modern life, it seems, doesn’t exist for many unless it comes via Facebook, Youtube or the latest iPhone apps.

In the last couple of months I have had to trawl my way through over a century of family archives, ranging from birth certificates and wedding memorabilia to boxes of old photographs. Amongst these historical gems I found a few intriguing snapshots of a simpler age; a time before selfies and Twitter feeds, when the creation of a photo required some time and effort from all involved.Mum

Someone once described the photograph as a door into the past. Amongst old biscuit tins and dusty cupboards I found doors aplenty; doors that opened up onto corridors stretching back to the turn of the last century. Many of the faces that stared back at me were complete strangers, inhabitants of a sepia-toned world of starched collars and cloche hats, without a selfie-stick between them.

Normally I can’t be bothered with more than a passing glance at the usual plethora of Instagram pics that assail us on a daily basis, but give me a dog-eared photo of someone’s Auntie Mabel on her wedding day in 1927 and I am hooked. Old photos, by their very nature, seem to acquire an allure and a fascination that is sadly missing in their digital offspring today.

I want to know more about these people, but sadly there is no one left to ask…

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On May 6, 1959, six Hopi Indians travelled to the United Nations building in New York, They had come to warn the world of the approach of a cataclysmic struggle between the forces of good and evil.

…They were told to put it in writing.

I came across this sobering message whilst clearing out some old books recently. It was in an appropriately titled gem, called “God’s Chosen People of America”, by a woman with the magnificent name of Zula Marion Clegg Brinkerhoff…Yes, really. I remember being given it by an old Mormon about 20 years ago, whilst I was working as a wrangler on a horse ranch in Utah.

Now, I will be the first to admit that this is not my usual choice of light reading and, much as I am open to other belief systems and cultures, I do tend to take, with a large pinch of salt, prophecies about the end of the world and the demise of the human race. Let’s face it, you don’t need to be Nostradamus to see that we are hurtling towards our own destruction with a sense of purpose that would make even the Almighty prick up his ears like a startled meerkat! I was however intrigued enough by the picture of the aforementioned Mrs Brinkerhoff to start picking over her musings: any woman who is prepared to pose in an Indian headdress and beaded top, whilst wearing a pair of natty 1950s glasses, deserves some respect.

It would appear that the Hopi’s visit to New York in the late 1950s was then followed up by the Six Nations of the Iroquois, who, twenty years later, produced a document called, “A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Hau De No Say See Address to the Western World”. In it they stated that mankind was facing a question of its very survival. Western Civilisation, it seemed, was heading towards its own doom.

For centuries, the American Indian has been dismissed as a savage. Popular culture for years viewed them with a mixture of condescension, incomprehension and contempt. Since Christopher Columbus initiated the extermination of the Taino people on the island of Hispaniola 500 years ago, civilised society has vainly held itself up as advanced and developed, whilst branding the tribal peoples as backwards and primitive.

The history of the Americas has seen the inexorable spread of progress overwhelm the Indians. Many tribes and cultures were decimated, even obliterated, by the avaricious onslaught of the Europeans. But in recent years there has, apparently, been a revival of the old traditions and a renewed effort to recover sacred tribal land. The tribes are gathering once more, in readiness for the day of purification, when the Great Spirit will return to lead them to salvation and they will once more take their rightful place in the great scheme of things. The ancient prophesies have foretold it and those same ancient prophesies are beginning to bear fruit, as we head ever further down the slippery slope of corporate greed, political corruption and climatic change.

The beliefs of the American Indians are ancient, even primordial, reflecting a unified understanding of the cosmos that is both physical and spiritual. Nature, the landscape, the cultural traditions, all are an inseparable part of an integrated spiritual way of life. To them, there is no clear division between the spiritual and the material worlds, they exist in a natural harmony that is manifest in nature itself. They believe that it is our role to mediate between these worlds, to maintain the balance and order of the cosmos.

Many of their ceremonies and rituals reflect this view. Their songs and chants form part of a liturgical cycle that mirrors the belief in this universal parity. The purification rites of the sweat lodge reiterate the elemental and ceremonial aspects of the cosmos – stone, fire, wood, air, water and earth. Their Sun Dance is based on the concept of sacrifice, just as many of the rituals of the Vedic, Christian and Judaic religions. To them it is a means of manifesting the blessings of the creator on the earth.

This of course conflicts with the predominantly scientific and materialistic view of the modern world, which has no room for the ‘heathen idolatry’ and ‘show dancing’ of pagan rituals. It would appear that what we have failed to realise though, is that what the American Indians have to tell us speaks directly to the fractious world in which we live today. Our modern crises – social, economic, ecological and religious – are a direct result of our flawed vision of progress and a self deluding myth of our own superiority. To quote from the Hau De No Say See:

“…The air is foul, the waters poisoned, the trees dying, the animals disappearing…Our ancient teachings warned us that if man interfered with the natural laws, these things would come to be. When the last of the natural way of life is gone, all hope for human survival will be gone with it…”

The modern world has, for too long, lacked the depth to understand the concepts of the sacredness of nature and the hierarchy of being. Only now are we beginning to realise the consequences of that denial; a fractured, secularised society, hell bent on destruction. It is not too difficult to see it all around us. We are stripping the land, fouling the seas and poisoning the very air we breathe. Global warming, ozone depletion, de-forestation, pollution, famine and the senseless destruction of our natural world are all symptoms of that self same flawed vision of progress that is such a dominant factor in our modern lives.

The prophecies speak of the end times as a pivotal moment when the sacred ways have been overcome and mankind is living in a fragmented and secular world. The Hopi have waited and watched for centuries for the portents to be fulfilled. Their ancient prophecies told of the coming of the white man, of his technology and his wars. They told of a gourd of ashes that would be dropped from the sky, destroying everything in sight. They foretold of terrible storms and earthquakes, tornadoes and floods. Of climatic changes, famine and pestilence.

Essentially, the American Indians believed in four distinct ages or cycles: Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron. The Golden Age was seen as one of serenity and harmony, when mankind still lived at one with the cosmos. The Iron Age meanwhile was seen as one of fragmentation and ecological destruction. We are currently living in the last days of that age now…our time cycle all but complete. The Sioux equate it with the sacred buffalo, which in ancient times stood proud and sturdy on four legs but which today balances precariously on just one leg!

Native American traditions represent a rich and important part of our human inheritance. In an increasingly cynical world, maybe their beliefs and myths do offer some solutions to many of the problems we face today. I don’t for one moment advocate that we all hold hands and sings songs to the trees, but you don’t have to be some tree-hugging hippy to see that the healing of the earth and the healing of the human spirit have become one and the same thing these days.

Maybe we should listen to them, before it is too late…It’s what Zula would have wanted…

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Train_SnapseedThe first wave hit at 0758 that morning. There was no warning, no chance to run, not even a chance to say goodbye. It tore through buildings, trees and lives with equal savagery. The train had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, ripped from the tracks by a ten-metre wall of water that had hit the coast at some 800 kilometres per hour.  Nearly 1500 people lost their lives on the train that day.

Six months later I stood before the mangled wreckage of what had once been the Galle-Colombo express, now a twisted and permanent reminder of the Asian Tsunami that had rocked the world on 26 December 2004. An unstoppable and unquenchable wall of water, it had ripped apart the lives of millions, from the western coast of Thailand, to the shores of Somalia in eastern Africa. The human tragedy had been incalculable. Estimates…

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Originally posted on there and back again...:

Pere-NoelBefore you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting some corpulent old pensioner down your chimney this Christmas. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy beard and jolly demeanour, Santa, it would seem, has been spending his downtime with some seriously dubious characters…

Growing up on the mean streets of Birmingham, I was always led to believe that the worst that was likely to befall an errant child over Christmas was a possible substitution of coal for that shiny wrapped present under the tree. To the best of my knowledge though, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! Little wonder Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of literature…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!

Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of…

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