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The year is barely a month old, but already the peace and goodwill of festive cheer has been replaced by anger, suspicion and fear. Across the globe, nations are closing ranks against the tide of economic, political and human misfortune heading their way. As the refugee crisis in Europe threatens to overwhelm the European Union, the once open door policies of member states are being firmly shut in the faces of the thousands fleeing the conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Sweden is threatening to send some 80,000 back, whilst neighbouring Denmark has recently passed legislation to take valuables off asylum seekers, in a move that has been compared by some to the Nazi treatment of the Jews in the 1930s. In Germany meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s previously applauded open stance on immigration is now coming under pressure from opponents and allies alike, following the disturbances in Cologne on New Year’s Eve. And in the United States, Donald Trump is leading the Republican Presidential race on a political platform of hate and ignorance.

And what of the English? Well, it has to said that there is an underlying sense of smug self-satisfaction amongst certain members of society. With Europe shutting up shop and America heading for a political meltdown in the electoral debates to come, the likes of Britain First and the EDL are clambering aboard the St. George bandwagon in their haste to fly the flag. These are people who steadfastly refuse to accept Syrian refugees, mainly on the grounds, it seems, that they will obviously come over here and abuse our women and blow up our babies. They proudly drape themselves in the flag of St George and expostulate the very Englishness of their origins.

This does of course beggar the question as to which antecedents they are holding up as English. Is it their Anglo-Saxon ancestry that they are so proud of, or their Viking blood? Or perhaps they are more favoured towards the gallic charms of the Normans, who defeated Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England, in 1066. Truth be told, we Brits are a race of mongrels, as is much of Europe and America. The movement of peoples and labour has been central to our societies for millennia and I know Arabs, Indians, Jews and Gentiles who are just as English as you and I.

One person who I can categorically state isn’t English though is Saint George. Prepare yourselves Britain First, but the man whose virtues you so love to flaunt is in fact…Syrian! Yes, the patron saint of England was born in Syria Palaestina (Palestine) in AD280, when the region was part of the Roman Empire. So, in a delicious twist of irony, if St George rocked up at Calais today, having made the long and arduous journey from the Middle East to the shores of his adopted homeland, the chances are he would be refused entry!

As winter takes hold, the plight of the refugees will only get worse and with the arrival of spring, the influx of asylum seekers threatens to turn this into one of the worst human tragedies of recent times. I have no answer, I wish I did. I can understand the desperation of the refugees searching for a better life, as well as the fear and trepidation that their arrival is causing amongst member states. As a species we should help, it is what makes us human. But it seems that national priorities and an almost primal instinct for survival is starting to take control.

Hopefully compassion and compromise will prevail. If not, then the politics of hate will, tragically, win.

Rare-Exports-620x350The season is nearly upon us, when people everywhere cast their troubles aside and embrace the holy trinity of crass commercialism, wanton greed and an unfathomable urge to allow some beardy, work-shy pensioner into their homes. We may be about to bomb the shit out of Syria, in another vain attempt to justify a lack of empathy with our fellow humans, but that isn’t going to stand in the way of spending countless billions on an array of unnecessary crap that will be out of date by Easter…Yes, it’s nearly Christmas.

But before you get too carried away with the mince pies and brandy, you may want to reconsider the idea of letting the corpulent old gent down your chimney this year. Don’t be fooled by the fluffy white beard and jolly demeanour – Santa is not the jovial bringer of joy and Christmas cheer that we were brought up to believe…

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, cannibalism, kidnapping and the harassment of livestock was never mentioned! It is little wonder that Santa spends his time holed up in some remote and frozen corner of legend…the man is a magnet for the dregs of medieval folklore!

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Take the Krampus for example, a bloodthirsty and slightly unhinged member of the entourage who, if you were lucky, would dish out medieval beatings with a birch rod. This was when he wasn’t kidnapping children in a burlap sack and throwing them in the river. This less than festive behaviour proved too much even for the Catholic Church – the people who brought you the Spanish Inquisition! – and the Krampus was outlawed in the 1800s. Undeterred, Santa turned to Belsnickel, who accompanied him across the Rhineland and the Dutch communities of Pennsylvania, ‘coercing’ naughty children into being good. Ragged and disheveled, the Belsnickel would roam the wilds of German-speaking Europe, handing out beatings, cakes and sweets. Now if that isn’t sending out mixed messages, I don’t know what is!…I mean, how much coercing did the children of southwestern Germany need?!

belgique-pc3a8re-fouettardNot to be outdone by their Teutonic neighbours, Santa’s French franchise turned up with their very own Gallic enforcer, in the form of La Pere Fouettard (The Whipping Father), a suitably gastronomic bully whose impressive resume included kidnapping, murder and cannibalism. Then there is Black Peter, a Moor of somewhat dubious antecedents, who apparently arrived by boat from Spain every year with Sinterklass, only to be sent down Dutch chimneys to leave presents and, in some cases, kidnap bad children and take them back to Spain for punishment. Slave, servant or demon, Peter’s somewhat cavalier attitude towards progressive childcare, along with the sensitive matter of his racial stereotyping, has seen him in more enlightened times transformed into a chimney sweep. Political correctness wouldn’t seem to have mellowed his penchant for child kidnapping though.

My personal favourites are the Yulemen from Iceland. Numbering thirteen in all, these mischievous creatures are relative newcomers to Santa’s malevolent horde, having worked their way up through the ranks of Icelandic medieval folklore. They first arrived on the scene back in the 1930s and over the intervening decades have been portrayed as everything from loveable rogues and annoying miscreants, to child-eating demons who hang around with a particularly large and obnoxious black cat. The offspring of a wizened old crone called Grýla, for the most part they seem to spend their time these days leaving gifts in children’s shoes, hassling sheep and peering in through windows to see what is worth stealing. A far cry from their glory days as the bogey men of Icelandic folklore, when tales of their deeds were even outlawed by Iceland’s usually less than sensitive Danish overlords.

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So, still want to leave Santa that mince pie? Personally I would be more inclined towards laying a few man traps around the house. And kids, when Santa asks whether you’ve been naughty or nice, you might want to give some serious consideration to your answer…

Granny Sutton - 2Just before she died, my mother told me the story of her great grandmother, a remarkable woman by all accounts who lived to the grand old age of 102. She lived in the small village of Shenstone, just outside Lichfield and, judging by the warmth with which she told the story, my mum obviously remembered her with a great deal of affection.

Granny Sutton, for that was her name, was tiny in stature, spent her days dressed entirely in black and lived in a small cottage next to the old church. Almost blind, she nonetheless managed to raise a disabled daughter on her own and kept the cottage and its garden immaculate.

…Oh yes, and she also succeeded in getting herself adopted by an entire U.S. Army base!

At the proud instigation of my young mother and her brother, an American soldier from the nearby camp 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), Granny Sutton it seems had a liking 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, seemingly, anything else the old lady required. At the time, my mum mentioned a photograph that she remembered seeing in a local paper, of her gran standing next to a tank. I think she really wanted to see that picture again one last time and I spent an age trying to track it down, but to no avail.

And there this story would have ended, but for a fortuitous meeting one day last summer. I found myself talking to a genial old chap from Lichfield and mentioned in passing Granny Sutton and the elusive photo. He was as intrigued as I had been and left promising to “…see what he could do”. About a month ago I received an envelope in the post. Inside it was an article copied from a local paper recounting the sad demise of Mrs Lucy Sutton of Ivy Cottage, Shenstone. The envelope also contained a very grainy photograph of my great great grandmother standing next to a Daimler Scout Car. At the time she was 102 years old, had never been to a cinema and was reported to say that she had “…never seen anything like it before in my life”.

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Sadly my mum never got to see the photo…after a lifetime of remembering it, she missed it by six months. As for Granny Sutton, well she died on the 15 April, 1945, just six weeks short of her 103 birthday. Apparently she still pottered in her garden right up to the end and used to pay regular visits to the local pub for her medicinal tot of whiskey, which according to my mum she never paid for. I’m sorry I never got to meet Granny Sutton…any woman who can scam free whiskey and a regular supply of blackmarket chocolate from the United States Army would have been a formidable weapon in any small child’s arsenal.

…I’m glad I got to see the photograph though.

FullSizeRenderLying in the heart of India’s snow-capped Garhwal Himalayas sits a doorway into another world. Here, along the western rim of the Nandi Devi Sanctuary, south of the Tibetan border, a high mountain pass offers us mere mortals a chance to gaze across a landscape crafted by the gods themselves…

…OK, maybe that was a bit excessive. Obviously the whole gods and other worlds bit was a touch flowery…but the doorway was true…well figuratively speaking anyway. The Kuari Pass sits amongst some of the most majestic scenery anywhere in the Indian Himalayas and from its lofty heights some of the region’s most breathtaking peaks are arrayed before you in a stupendous arc of snow and ice. From up here, the towering giants of Nandi Devi, Dunagiri and Trishul stand against a brooding sky in all their snow-capped glory.

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I had intended to write a whole piece about the journey…About how we had followed a trail first blazed in 1905 by Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of India..About how we had negotiated our way through urine soaked railway stations and along suicidal Indian roads…About how we had survived an almost biblical storm and ended up in a tented camp with full en suite facilities and an infinity pool of somewhat dubious content.

But to be honest, I can’t be bothered. So here’s some pretty pictures instead…

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Pondicherry_Panorama_1Languishing beside the shores of the Bay of Bengal, Pondicherry is a city juggling the colourful chaos of twenty-first century India with the reminders of a French colonial heritage that is still very much in evidence along its quiet, bougainvillea-lined back streets. Home to the internationally famed Sri Aurobindo Ashram and the New Age charms of Auroville, the city today presents visitors with an engaging mix of Tamil tradition, Gallic chic and Indian energy. But I wasn’t here for the sea air or the meditative calm. I wasn’t even here to engage with the ubiquitous motorbikes carrying extended families about their daily business. I had been sent to help two groups of volunteers build a school…a very special school.

The origins of the Satya Special School go back to 2003, when the story came to light of a disabled girl of 13, who was tied to a chair and locked in a badly ventilated room for eight hours a day. But this wasn’t the case of a wicked mother who took it upon herself to lock her child away from the prying eyes of an unsympathetic world. This was a case of a hard working woman who had no means of support and was forced to work all day to support herself and her daughter, forcing her to leave the girl a prisoner in her own home.

Sadly this is not a rare exception in India, the plight of the disabled across this vast country is mirrored by the case of this young girl and her mother. Children and adults alike are ignored and abused. There are estimated to be anywhere between 40 and 80 million people in India with some form of disability, with the poorest members of society worst affected due to limited resources and a lack of access to care services, education and employment. Fuelled by a desire to ‘reach the unreached’, Satya was set up to serve as an integrated centre for rehabilitation in Pondicherry, providing free rehabilitation services to the underprivileged and working tirelessly to alleviate the social stigma attached to these individuals and their families. Currently they cater for nearly 440 children with special needs, working in five different centre and operating a mobile therapy unit that covers some 44 rural communities and helps over 124 disabled children.

Their message is a simple one…”We will not change you for the world, but the world for you…”

The project that I was out here to work on was spearheaded by two remarkable women…Ms Bindu Modi, a leading child counsellor with a masters in clinical psychology and Ms Chitra Shah, a qualified social worker specialising in family and child welfare. In a country where women are often treated as second-class citizens, these two inspiring ladies were a positive beacon of hope.

IMG_0178Located in the small village of Kodathur, about an hour’s drive from Pondicherry, the project was to be a new rehabilitation centre catering for up to 100 children. The village lay close to the site of a chemical factory that had been less than circumspect with its safety measures, resulting in a high instance of disabled births amongst the population. Chitra had been approached by one of the village elders, who had heard about her work with Satya, and asked if they would be interested in building a school on a site close to the village. The land was donated for free and, once funding was in place for the materials, the go ahead was given to begin the build.

And this is where I came in…or rather the two groups of volunteers from Santander and Bodyshop, who had raised the funds and were now in-country looking to put their office-based skills to good use. Under the watchful eye of myself, a local construction supervisor and a team of Indian masons and labours, we set them to work digging foundations, sifting sands, rendering walls and moving enough bricks to construct the Tower of Babel! In temperatures topping 40 Celsius, they laboured in the heat of the Indian sun. They shed blood, sweat and tears and went home with more blisters than they had probably ever had in their lives.

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In a Hollywood movie, the final scene would have shown them wheeling and walking the kids into gleaming new classrooms, with walls adorned with gaily painted murals. Real life isn’t quite so choreographed though and truth be told, what they left behind still looked a lot like a building site. However, the work put in has pushed the project along massively and the projected finish date is now sometime in January of next year.

IMG_0177Aside from than that though, they have left behind more than just the bricks and mortar. They have left behind hope, and a realisation that the plight of the disabled in India is no longer something to be locked away in a dark, airless room, but rather something that communities can embrace and become a part of. Attitudes are changing, and we certainly saw evidence of that during our time there. We worked alongside fathers who’s children would be attending the centre. We saw with our own eyes the progress being made through physiotherapy, occupational therapy and the adaptation of dance, music and art therapy.

…And we saw the smiles of the children.

My part in this journey is over for now and my input, it has to be said, has been minimal, but as someone wiser than I once said…”Take small steps every day and one day you will get there”…

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Satya’s work will continue. They will carry on trying to improve the quality of life through education, health care and rehabilitation. Their vision, to change the current fragmented system of rehabilitation and care will, hopefully, continue to change the lives of the physically and intellectually challenged for the better. And their belief in charity through dignity will, I hope, continue to eradicate the stigma attached to the disabled.

If you want to read more about Satya Special School, have a look at their website…

http://www.satyaspecialschool.org

FullSizeRender copyWhen I had suggested going for a Chinese for my birthday, this wasn’t quite what I had in mind. I pressed my nose against the glass and peered out. Thirty-thousand feet below me, beyond the inky darkness, Central Russia lay slumbering beneath a blanket of stars.

I was heading for Beijing…and dinner with a duck!

Back then, Beijing was still a city of a million bicycles. Tourism was still very much in its infancy and the sparkling glass towers of the twenty-first century were nothing more than an architect’s wet dream. The sight of a gweilo on the streets of the Chinese capital was cause for excited gesticulating in those days and I can still remember causing a major bicycle pile-up by simply stopping to look at a map at a road junction.

For centuries this enigmatic city had lain at the heart of the Chinese universe. It was the sun around which the empire revolved. Established as a capital by Kublai Khan in 1264, today it still holds sway over the vast landmass that makes up the Peoples Republic of China, its directives as much a mystery to the peoples of its outlying provinces as they are to us. This was a sprawling mass of glass, concrete and humanity, hiding within it some of the finest examples of Imperial splendour anywhere in Asia.

Away from these glass towers and wide boulevards, Beijing is riddled with a wonderfully confusing network of dark alleyways (hutongs), which snake and twist away from its central core. Crammed to overflowing with produce, people and livestock, these narrow backstreets provide an endless cacophony of noise, colour and smells. I remember wandering past stalls and carts creaking under the weight of all manner of exotic oddities. At my feet, bags and buckets thrashed about wildly, their occupants, a bewildering mix of frogs, snakes and fish, all apparently desperate to add to the general melee and confusion. I allowed myself to be swept along on a wave of humanity; a ceaseless river where, as a space became available, it was immediately filled…by a cart, a bicycle, a person. I flowed along with it, a stranger in an even stranger land.

I rarely feel much affinity with cities. To me they are just crowded and dirty and serve only as a means of escaping to more interesting places. Beijing back then was somehow different though. I can remember sitting in the late afternoon sunshine, soaking up the vast expanse of Tiananmen Square, whilst all around me families were making the most of the rapidly disappearing summer. Amongst the stone memorials to past and present empires, children played and laughed and above my head huge kites of dragons and eagles swooped and twisted in a colourful dance across the sky. My plan had been to stay and watch the flag lowering ceremony at sunset, but the overwhelming mass of humanity flooding into the square made me think again. I left the square to the growing masses and headed for my date with a duck.

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The Chinese love to eat. In fact, there is very little they won’t consume. Everything from a starfish on a stick to a plateful of jellyfish, is fair game once the Chinese gastric juices get flowing. Peking duck though is probably the capital’s most famous culinary offering. Not for the faint-hearted, the unfortunate duck is first force fed a diet of grain and soybean paste to fatten it up. Then it is lacquered with molasses, pumped with air, filled with boiling water, dried and finally roasted over a fruitwood fire. At some stage during this process one would hope that it is also killed. The whole process may appear a touch barbaric, especially if you are a duck, but the end result, I can assure you, is delicious. I feasted on duck soup, tender strips of duck with plum sauce and crepes, fortune cookies and Chinese beer, although I am pretty sure that the last two were not directly attributable to the duck.

The following morning found me creeping out of my hotel and into the waking city just as the sun was beginning to rise. Early mornings in Beijing are a time for the good citizens of the city to indulge their passions, before beginning the rigours of the day, and I was headed for Tiantin Park in search of culture, excitement and ballroom dancing! It was a strangely discordant collection of sights and sounds that greeted me as I entered the park. Even at this hour it was full of people. Old men strolled past, deep in conversation, their hands tightly gripping bamboo cages that echoed to the warbling tones of solitary songbirds. Beside me an old man went through the unhurried trance-like forms of Tai Chi, his sword reflecting the morning sun as it cut a gentle curve through the still air. Next to him, middle aged couples dipped and spun to the distorted strains of a waltz. Suddenly the air was filled with the screeching wails of Chinese Opera and all around me the park seemed to come alive with movement and noise. Shaken from my reverie I moved off to explore.

FullSizeRenderTiantin means Temple of Heaven and the park itself is widely regarded by many as the perfection of Ming architecture. It was conceived as the meeting point of heaven and earth and for 500 years was the heart of imperial ceremony and symbolism. Once considered sacred ground it would have meant certain death to enter. Nowadays the price is slightly less exacting at just a few yuan. Set in an area of some 270 hectares, the Temple of Heaven is a bewildering array of colour and symbolism.

The four gates that lead into the park are set on the four compass points and the structures within are a numerologists dream. The temple buildings are all circular and set onto square bases, deriving from the ancient Chinese belief that heaven was round and the earth square. The centrepiece of the whole complex is the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests, a magnificent structure mounted on a three-tiered marble terrace and topped by three blue tiled roofs. It was to this majestic structure that the Emperor came to pray for the coming harvests and seek divine approval for the coming year.

FullSizeRender[1]For a city that suffered such wanton destruction at the hands of the Japanese, the Kuomintang and the Communists, it is surprising how much of its imperial past still remains. In the 1940s there were 8000 temples in old Peking, by the 1960s these had been reduced to just 150. Little wonder then that the likes of the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace get so many visitors. I headed next for the Lama Temple though which, according to my guidebook, was not only the most colourful temple in Beijing, but also the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist temple in China. Originally the former domicile of the Emperor Yong Zheng, it became a temple, as was the custom, upon his improved social status. In 1744 it was converted into a lamasery, becoming the residence for large numbers of monks from Mongolia and Tibet. Miraculously it survived the Cultural Revolution intact and today serves as an active Tibetan Buddhist Centre, although that is a somewhat contentious title given China’s policy towards Tibet.

Politics aside though and irrespective of any religious authenticity, the Lama Temple cannot be faulted as an aesthetic experience. Everything about it is a visual delight; its gardens, its frescoes, its tapestries and the heavy smell of incense, all lend a magical quality to the place. At its heart sits an 18 metre high statue of the Maitreya Buddha, sculpted from a single piece of sandalwood and clothed in yellow satin. The walls too are a work of art, covered with the erotic couplings of the Nandikesvaras, copulating figures that earned the lamasery its reputation as China’s most illustrious sex manual, one regularly used to educate the sons of the emperor himself.

IMG_2219I ended up spending the better part of a week in Beijing, exploring its treasures and losing myself amongst its alleys and backstreets. On the surface it is a city like many others, drab and dirty, a seething mass of humanity. But within its vast boulevards and crammed hutongs it hides a breathtaking array of beauty, reminders of an age of opulence and splendour at odds with its communist doctrines.

It is a living paradox today, especially with the onslaught of China’s new Imperial age and its headlong rush to embrace the trappings and trinkets of the twenty-first century. Let us hope that these remnants of its golden epoch are not entirely forgotten in its new empire.

Well, it’s that time again! For the next two weeks the usually somnolent landscapes of the Isle of Man will be infused with a surfeit of testosterone, as thousands of bikes descend on the island for the 2015 Isle of Man TT Races. Not for the faint-hearted, the 37.73 mile long circuit is an adrenaline-filled mix of unyielding drystone walls, unforgiving bends and the occasional suicidal rabbit, making it probably the most dangerous road race anywhere in the world.

But don’t just take my word for it…

Over a hundred years old, the TT was born in a time when English suffragettes were storming the British parliament and Tzar Nicholas II still occupied the imperial Russian throne. During its 108 year history only three events have interrupted it – two world wars and an outbreak of foot and mouth – and, in spite of the best efforts of some to get it banned, it is still here, still thriving and still getting faster.

Last year, New Zealander Bruce Anstey, produced an average lap speed of 132.298 mph…over 212 kilometres per hour…average! He managed to complete the 37 mile course in a little over 17.06 minutes. And that is just one lap people. During the course of the Superbike race, they will do that six times, covering over 226 miles in a little over one hour and 45 minutes. That equates to travelling from London to York…along a body numbing collection of roads that will throw bends, curves, cambers and manhole covers at you…and that’s before you even get onto the mountain course!

In an age of ‘nanny’ states and EU health and safety mandates, the Isle of Man TT continues to buck the trend it started in 1904, when the government passed a road traffic act allowing racing on the public roads. No one would dispute that the TT is dangerous, it is, but then so is crossing the road and, as far as I am aware, European legislation hasn’t tried to ban that yet…

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