Monday, 20 May 2013


I have now moved to a grown-up website, so won't be publishing here anymore. The new address is Come on over, won't you?

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

The Cruciform Shadow

You will see both the beginning and the end of the war in Nuremberg.

The beginning lies in the Dokumentationzentrum museum and Reichsparteitagsgelände in the south east, where the Nazi party rallies were held prior to the war. This is one of the places where the Second World War truly began – where the hatred was fomented, the crowds whipped into frenzy, where the poison was injected into the mass consciousness.

In Triumph of the Will – the film that immortalised the 1934 rally, and one of the great examples of Nazi propaganda - an early scene depicts the shadow of Hitler’s plane flying over the rooftops of Nuremberg. The plane is low and there are human figures visible on the streets below, great columns of soldiers marching through the town. The cruciform shadow alights upon them briefly, in a twisted blessing as they march toward the as yet unseen destination of the Reichsparteitagsgelände. Here the Nazis could place themselves fully on show for the first time, having taken power the year before. Here Hitler could safely stand in the back of his open-topped car and receive the salutes, as the Jugend und Arbeiter und Soldaten marched past, in the few short years before he unleashed them on the world.

How anyone witnessing this statement of intent could not have realised the path they were being led down, I do not know.

Today the site is still intact and stands as testament against what sprung from that particular patch of earth. The Dokumentationzentrum itself chronicles the rise and fall of the Partei and the nation that spawned it. It is strange to look at the familiar images of the Nazi night parades, and to know that it is just outside this building that these pictures were shot, that just outside the endless lines of Aryan manhood paraded down the Grosse Strasse. Their footfalls are still so very audible, 80 years on.

If any place is haunted, this is it. Not haunted in the same way as Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen with the millions of emaciated, abused victims. Haunted rather with the mists and eddies of a warped philosophy which started here and radiated outward to infect the world. It is a little like the infection of Chernobyl – the closer one gets to the concrete wreckage of the exclusion zone, the greater the danger of the invisible radiation.

To walk around the site itself is to realise that nothing lasts forever.

The Grosse Strasse, a long, wide stretch of road that was used as a parade route has a carpark at one end. This appeals to me - the overlay of indifference, of disdain upon one of the great symbols of the Nazi machine - to simply cover it up with almost the ultimate icon of 21st century banality, a carpark.

So this is your 1000-year Reich?

But this feeling is tempered with one of affront, that such a great evil can be forgotten, can be bypassed. Should this nation not remember – be made to remember every day - what their parents and grandparents were responsible for, what was spawned here? Should they ever be allowed the luxury of forgetting?
The end of the war – and an antidote to the insanity - lies across town, a couple of miles north west, in the Palace of Justice on Bärenschanzstrasse .

In Courtroom 600, the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi War Criminals took place almost immediately after the war ended, in November 1945. Walking into Courtroom 600 is a little like walking into a church. It is a place of quietude, a place of reverence. The room itself is very familiar, particularly the judges benches and the defendants section. Goering, Hess, Donitz, Raeder, Jodl, von Papen, Keitel, Streicher, von Ribbentrop, Speer.

All of them sat here, in this room - answerable at last, terrifying in their resemblance to the rest of humanity, lines of white helmeted US Marines behind them. The world showed it’s superiority by allowing them this trial, rather than just lining them up against a wall and gunning them down. Instead, they could listen to translated evidence, they conversed with their lawyers, who acted according to legal precepts that had never been required before, and had only been constructed in the preceding months. They were allowed access to civility, to fairness, to the humanistic behaviour that they had so carefully designed out of their version of humanity.
After all the death, the mayhem, after the reordered geography, after the destruction of cities and entire communities, this is where it ends, with the trials of the criminals that could be captured in time; and the subsequent judgments upon their underlings. The leaders finally held responsible for the decisions they made from their offices and HQs in the field, that led to the deaths of millions; the underlings finally held to account for the decisions they made face to face with their victims, that led to the deaths of individuals.

It is this trial, this room, that formed the blueprint for future International Courts of Justice, that despite their fallibilities, are filled with good people attempting to set right the worst of our collective natures.

It is right to stand in this room and give thanks to what happened here; it is right to pause and remember what they did, and those they did it to.

It is here that Nuremberg begins to redeem itself.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Between Scylla and Charybdis

I want to know again the school boy, who stared at the map and wished – but never truly believed – that he could come here, who thought the toe of the Italian boot must be a strange place to be, and funny that people might actually go there, live there. I want to know that boy again, who might be able to zoom down into the map and see this car, half-filled with his older-self, winding its way along the E45 toward Villa San Giovanni.

The Straits of Messina
This last part of the highway is a constant contrast from dark to light, and back again. Tunnels have been bored through the rock of the precipitous mountains that our vehicle clings to, and appear every kilometre or so on the journey back down to sea-level. As we come out of the final one, the sun is blocked by the mountains rising sharply to the left.

Suddenly - the sun shining on it as it comes into view around a corner - Sicily looms into our lives. It is so close to the mainland, the promontory of the island curving around Italy’s toe – supposedly within range of an ancient arrow fired from the opposite shore. We know each other now.

Messina, Sicily

We come down to the edge of the water, and wait for the ferry to carry us safely between Scylla and Charybdis, to the shore opposite. As we cross, I take the rainbow touching down where the whirlpool of Charybdis should be, to be a good sign.

There is moisture in the air, and the heavy clouds hang low, close enough to touch. God’s fingers shine through, variously upon the city opposite, the ocean itself, and the ships crossing it. The rain starts to come down, a cleansing rain, the last rain we see until the day before we leave the island. Decks are swabbed, gutters cleared of garbage. Roof tiles are slick, windows cleaned, tear-stained cheeks run clear, tarmac polished – Sicilia is positively gleaming as we approach.

Our ferry pulls in to the ancient city of Messina, and as we are about to get into our car again, I look to the mainland and connect back with the boy, to ensure he is watching. Hopefully he can see his future-self placing a foot on the island, and finally he might believe.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Is Not a Restaurant

He looks us in the eye, a smile on his face.

“No,” he says. “Is not a restaurant.”

We don’t understand – there are chairs, tables, food quite plainly being served to customers.

We found this dark but inviting restaurant – or whatever it is – by accident, on our way to the funicular that rappels up and down Mount Urgull in San Sebastian, and want to see if it might be worth coming back.

“Is a private club, for local pelota team.”

 “Oh! Oh, sorry!” we say, realising our mistake and backing out of the place.

“No, No – come in! Stay! You are welcome. Come in!”

We look at each other a moment, a silent agreement passing between us. “Umm. OK – thanks!”

He shows us into a plain dining room. Every eye turns to us, some a little mistrustful, but I suspect a mistrust based on shyness. A curse apparently not borne by our guide.

We are very far from hungry, as we have just eaten, sitting in the sun and the white heat outside. We are expecting a coffee, maybe a slice of cake.

Instead, we are given another entire meal. A full, 3-course meal that would have lasted two very hungry people the entire day. For us, it’s our second meal in 10 minutes, and by the time I get to dessert I am literally in pain, my stomach stretched to the very edge.

But I cannot refuse, because the hospitality shown to us,  two strangers who walked in off the street and interrupted a private gathering, is so unexpected, so overwhelming.

His name is Gregorio and he is magnetic, charming. He tells us about the community we’ve walked into, the sport of pelota. He asks about us, why we are here. We thank him again for inviting us in, and he explains that “the world does not know the Basques, so it is good idea for the Basques to be very welcoming to the world”. 

We finish, thank Gregorio effusively one last time and say good bye. As we leave we mention to one of the women who fed us how touched we are that Gregorio invited us into this place.

“Gregorio is beautiful man” she says.  

We keep that beauty with us as we step out of that cool, dark place into the afternoon's heat and carry on our way.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Gargle, Spit, Wipe

We used to call it the Murder House.

They’d pile us onto school buses, 20 or 30 children at a time and take us there a couple of times a year. I remember pulling into the lavish grounds of this place with the misleadingly festive name of “Holly Lea”. I used to get it mixed up with “the land called Honah Lee” in the song by Peter, Paul & Mary. Strange to think that such a gay song could be written about a place as dark as this.

We’d edge out of the bus and into what seemed to me at the time an expansive hall filled with row upon row of dental chairs, each paired with a drill and a spit basin. We’d walk in - we unfortunate few - to be confronted by a dental nurse dressed like some dark, vengeful nun beckoning us each into a chair. My memory may not be the clearest on this but they truly seemed to be dressed in stiff, starched wimples, a malevolent version of that worn by TV's "The Flying Nun".  This makes me question whether it was these pseudo-nuns, or actual, real-life nuns themselves, that made me scared of nuns.

Little legs would have to clamber up into the seat and a tissue would be attached to a stainless steel chain by clasps that resembled the vicious mandibles of some tiny, bitey rodent. This was then placed around the neck of the patient to catch dribble and blood and tears. I remember being fascinated, in a tunnel-visioned, panicked kind of way, by the small tap that sent water whirlpooling around the stark white basin and down the plug hole.

This was the world of the autoclave.

If one was lucky the nurse might have a fetching pair of eyes to get innocently lost in, that would gaze kindly over the mask. But there was no denying that at some point very soon things would start to get painful. She would start poking around in your mouth with sharp instruments that seemed to get stuck in little gaps and holes, squirt water or air on to sensitive teeth, and scratch and scrape disapprovingly. 

Once, my nurse affixed to my tooth a gate, an unwieldy instrument that consisted of a little steel belt that could be tightened as needed in order to isolate the tooth that required work. It was uncomfortable but only slightly, painfully so.  The supervising matron came to check on this trainee's work. Evidently dissatisfied, she tightened the belt around my tooth another two or three full turns, until it dug painfully into my gum which – obligingly - started to bleed. I couldn't help but think that that last turn was simply because she could see the tears welling in my eyes.

And the drilling starts. Not the modern, high-speed drill, preceded by a pain-eliminating injection experienced in today’s modern dentistry. No, no. This is a foot-pedal, belt-driven drill, slow, vibrating through the skull as it glances off teeth, as it chips through enamel, making its way to the excruciating core of things. And there, sometimes, it would get stuck, grinding slowly to a halt. She would try and rev the thing, in an effort to pry it loose, which so often would only make things worse. Like some great tunneling borer, she would then throw the drill into reverse and wiggle it as it worked its way backwards and out. Shock, pain, terror are described vocally by the patient in a strangulated, choking noise as he almost drowns in the pooling water and saliva that she has not been able to clear.

Gargle, spit, wipe.

The appointment over, the innocent is told to climb down, legs shaking and barely able to hold him up. Palms soaked with sweat, a dull ache in the jaw, he thanks her in his tiny, breaking voice - a form of Stockholm Syndrome having overcome him, grateful to his jailer for finally releasing him.

And they would huddle together on the bus back to school, silent, pale, staring out the window, shocked – but knowing they were free for another six month stretch.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

A London Monday

Wandering around London during work hours is like going to the country. I marvel at the freedom of movement, the freedom of access that I have, when I occupy the city when everyone else is at work. Stress levels, down. The pushiness and desperation as everyone struggles to get to where they think they need to be, gone. You can see the horizon. You can stop suddenly in the middle of the footpath without someone running into the back of you.

Small concerns granted, but notable in comparison to a normal day of trying to maintain your own course, as others - many others - try to maintain theirs.

I arrive at the gym this morning at about 8:55. By 9.30, the place has emptied. Myself and the other person still there are outnumbered by the personal trainers about 3 to 1, as they wait for their first appointments.

No waiting for a weight machine; no fighting for a space on the yoga mats. Everything comes to me as I require it. I can stretch, heave, pull and push without fear of elbowing or being elbowed, without kicking or being kicked.

Post-gym I walk up to Borough Market, a favourite London spot, set next to the picturesque Southwark Cathedral. We had come here the weekend just past, the place seething with people. The queues are long on a Saturday, and you have to be protective of your food and drink, in case it gets jostled out of your hand. A seat of any kind is a small miracle, and an impossibility on a wet day when everybody needs shelter.

Today, a Monday morning, something completely different. I walk through the market to get to Monmouth Coffee. It is practically deserted, the stall holders setting up for their day. One of them even says hello; I laugh as the baker shoos a hopeful pigeon away from her goods. I am able to make contact with people – able to say hello; able to meet their eye. I could not do this on the weekend, as the interactions are so fleeting and fraught in the crush.

I can breathe again. I don’t have to queue, or fight, or feel defensive or protective. I don’t trip over hidden prams and wheelie luggage that become visible only when you are right upon them. At the cafe, I even find a seat at a table, where I rather enjoy my pastry and filter coffee. I sit and read for 30 minutes, without feeling rushed to vacate my seat for the next customer.

I finish – in my own time - and head back out onto a quiet street, into the briskly cold but sunny London morning, my breath hanging in the air.

Monday, 26 November 2012

The Old Boys

Sicily 2012 - on the road to the
Golla della Alcantara
There are about half a dozen of them, sitting around the table, playing cards clutched in wrinkled hands. Another three or four watch from the side-lines or standing behind. There seems no concern that anyone might be cheating by communicating a hand to another player.

We’ve had to disturb one of them, the café owner, because we’re looking for a coffee ourselves. He’s very friendly, but he also wants to get back out there with his friends, we are a distraction. He keeps looking past us, out the door to where they are all sitting, he might be missing something.

They are not unique to this place. You’ll find them everywhere - anywhere with sun to shine on their backs, and shade to cool them; close to a source of fairly regular coffee, or perhaps something stronger; where they don’t mind strangers looking on, and where they can ignore them completely.

I can’t understand a word they are saying, but by the body language and outbursts of laughter, I can see they are pretty much just a regular group of boys, enjoying each other’s company; a filthy joke here and there; laughing expansively at the expense of one of their companions. And they laugh so hard because they know that at any moment, the focus of this humour can turn and gaze them full in the face.

Sicily 2012 - just outside the
Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo 
I suspect their wives might just be glad they’re getting out of the house.

Old people and markets seem to become a cliché of the tourist photographers portfolio - I have quite a few in mine. They express colour, and wisdom, age, freshness, life at its opposite speeds, it’s opposite ends. Surely, there is nothing new to document?

But - maybe there is, if you’re very lucky. A look, a gesture, an interaction.  

Occasionally, an eye expressing an entire history stares directly down the camera lens at you, challenging. I am not a tourist attraction, son.

In a park in Trogir, Croatia 2011
You’ll see them around the world these old boys – maybe the same ones, international, geriatric playboys, following summer around and making their money by playing cards, or a lucrative game of boules.

It’s taken them 65 years or more to recognise that this is what they should be doing with their lives – sitting around in the sun, doing nothing, just talking, being with friends. While the rest of us look on, commenting that we should be doing exactly that.

Then taking a couple of photos, turning away and carrying on, as we were.