Friday, 28 September 2012

Kathmandu: A city awaiting disaster

I had my latest blogpost all planned. It was going to be about how fascinated I used to be when I was little by the names of fantastical-sounding places like Timbuktu, Kathmandu, Ougadougou, and Limpopo. I would talk about how I'd assumed that they weren't real places at all, given their wild and wonderful nomenclature, but were instead literary creations like Narnia or Shangri-La. Then I would blither on about how I wanted to confirm their existence for myself to prove they were real by visiting them, and that's why I now find myself in Kathmandu. But that was before this morning.

This morning, while everyone back in London was still fast asleep, a little plane filled with British and Chinese tourists bound for the Himalayas, and staffed by Nepalese cabin crew, crashed mere minutes out of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. Still to be confirmed, the likely cause was the collision of the plane with a large bird, possibly an eagle. Moments later the plane caught fire and the pilot attempted an emergency landing in an open patch of land by the Manohara River, not far from a slum area on the outskirts of the city. But by the time it hit the ground locals could do nothing more than watch in horror as the plane burnt in front of them. Fire crews took some time to arrive on the scene, and no one could approach the plane in the meanwhile due to the heat coming off the blaze. Everyone on board died.

And that is really why I am here. Not because the name of the place sounds exotic and magical, not even because I love to travel and explore new places. I am here in the city to work with humanitarian and development organisations trying to sure up this mountainous country; trying to make it more resilient to the disasters which happen all too often here and with all too grim effects. 

I knew very little of Nepal before I landed here. I knew there were mountains and temples and yaks and prayer flags.  I had been told it was rather similar to India. And it's true, it is quite similar. But over the past few days I have found myself more enchanted with Nepal than India. Even Kathmandu, described by the Nepali guy sat next to me as we descended into the city's international airport as 'not very nice, very dirty, many people', is oddly charming, despite the odd pong of raw sewage and terrifying traffic. Sure, the water here positively fizzes with evil bacterial energy and walking down the road is an exercise in human survival/stupidity.  And yes, electric wires hang like charged knots of spaghetti on groaning pylons or simply nailed to the side of a residential block covered in vast structural cracks.  But there are no ubiquitous skyscrapers, no branches of Starbucks.  The mid-rise buildings are painted jolly candy shades of blue, orange and pink.  Whilst there is clearly a tourist industry it feels less commercially exploitative; Nepal is a pretty cheap holiday destination.  The reception here is warm without the slightly threatening over-commitment to service I encountered in India earlier this year.  Hotel or restaurant staff do not look deeply affronted when you inform them that really, you don't need anything at all, you're just fine, thanks. 

Nepalis must be some of the smiliest people I have ever had the delight to meet. Which is remarkable when you think that they live in a country with appallingly low levels of healthcare, where women are still regarded as somewhat inferior to men, and where an enormous, destructive earthquake is many years overdue in the most populated region, a heaving concentration of poorly engineered buildings and infrastructure and human life.  This is a country waiting for 'the big one'.  Should an earthquake of a significant magnitude hit the Kathmandu Valley, the ensuing disaster could rival Haiti in terms of lives lost and damage caused.  And the country knows this. 

The government of Nepal - still in a state of limbo following the Maoist uprising that ended mere years ago, and a complete lack of a national parliament and constitution - is placing huge importance on disaster preparedness and risk reduction.  This week I had a meeting in a building that, ironically, looked deeply un-earthquake-proof, where the Ministry of Home Affairs outlined how it was not only creating policy (even if actually implementing it was rather a challenge) but actively supporting the development of practical actions, with a range of partners including numerous Red Cross societies, NGOs and UN agencies.  Nepal may not be entirely ready when disaster strikes but at least it is aware, and desperately trying to make itself safer.

This morning's plane crash was horrific - a tragic, pointless waste of 19 lives. Coming so soon after last week's avalanche on Mount Manaslu - another fatal event within the country - the crash marks a very sad week for Nepal's tourism industry, and the country's iconic mountains. But much as the vast snow-capped peaks loom over the country, so too does the threat of an even larger disaster. And the million or so people living in Nepal's capital city live daily with this uncomfortable spectre. Kathmandu may be the most dangerous place I've ever been. 

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Tales from my neighbourhood - 'Born and Bred: Stories of Holloway Road'

I came to live in Holloway, rather as I did to London, by accident.  But now after two years in this North London area I realise I got lucky when I moved here.  I have the Heath within reach, a hundred and one handy little shops in which one can find anything from SCART leads to flower pots to mouse-traps, plenty of decent pubs and coffee shops.  But the thing that Holloway really has going for it is its people.  Despite being one of the smallest boroughs in the city, Islington is densely packed with a diverse population.  We residents comprise numerous ethnicities, ages, household structures, and income brackets.  Many of us are newcomers to the area, often first-time buyers who find their cash goes further in Holloway than in the neighbouring areas of Kentish Town, Camden and Highbury.      
But a large part of Holloway's population has spent most of its life along the Holloway Road; these people are true North Londoners.  They are Born and Bred, the subjects of a new book and exhibition launched recently by local arts charity, The Rowan Arts Project.  'Born and Bred: Stories of Holloway Road' is a collection of oral histories and photographs, telling the tales of 51 Holloway residents.  Whilst many of the project's participants were truly born and bred along the Road, a number were born in other London areas, but later relocated to Holloway.  Regardless of where their lives began, the participants display a real sense of attachment to this place, a fondness for the area where they run their businesses and make their homes.  Many speak of the remarkable people and the strong sense of community, which for me defines the area I call home.  
From market stall-holders to musicians, to estate agents and designers, Holloway emerges as a place of hard work, but also social strength and artistic inspiration.  The Born and Bred project illuminates the diversity of life along the buzzing Holloway Road, so frequently overlooked as a grotty thoroughfare with its dodgy-looking pubs and endless fried chicken purveyors.  It provides an insight into real inner city London life, where houses are not abandoned at weekends for holiday cottages on the coast, or vast swathes of office buildings stand empty when workers commute out to their suburban homes.  Here is London, 24/7, and these are the people who live it.
To find out more about exhibition and hear the interviews with the project's participants, visit Stories of Holloway Road for more details.  The Born and Bred exhibition is on display at The Old Fire Station, 84 Mayton Street, until the end of the year.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

'London Clock': A day in the life of a city, by the London Literary Project

I wrote a tiny something for the London Literary Project, the self-proclaimed 'Champions of Flash Fiction.'  Their latest initiative is called 'London Clock', and compiles a literary day in London, minute by minute, of short poems or snatches of prose by London-based writers or writers inspired by the city. The project is a very clever idea, and I'm delighted to be involved.
My piece is inspired by 08:11, Saturday morning, a time when the city is waking up.  It's small, maybe not exactly perfectly formed, but it's here.

Monday, 10 September 2012

The end of it all: The Paralympic closing ceremony, London 2012

It began with green and pleasant lands, and uplifting clashes of light and sound.  And it ended with fire and mighty machines, in the 'Festival of the Flame'.  Book-ending the London 2012 Olympic Games, was an extraordinary pair of ceremonies. After a fortnight that saw the world's 'super-humans' take to the Olympic stage, and the first sold-out Paralympic Games in its history, the Paralympic Closing Ceremony finally brought London 2012 to an end last night.

Yesterday's ceremony saw 'dreamers' blown, quite literally, out of the stadium, up into the sky by creepy-looking goblins on bikes with vast wind machines on the front, as fire streamed into the stadium.  As drums pounded and bodies teemed on the central stage, some of the athletes who had performed over the past two weeks displayed their strength and skill once more; dragging carts and scaling vast ladders.  The props of this closing ceremony were very steampunk chic - stripped back, artfully aged and mechanical artefacts that looked a little bit mystical.  Calling on the seasons and the power of the elements, amputee Corporal Rory Mackenzie, acting as MC for the Festival of the Flame, heralded into the stadium flame-throwers, fire-dancers and yet more fantastical machines. Armoured mega-beatles rolled around the stadium, stalked by glittering and menacing crows on stilts.  But what did they all mean?
A cyclist tows a fiery friend in the Festival of the Flame (courtesy: The Australian)
Artistic director, Kim Gavin, had instructed viewers not to look for too much meaning in the ceremony (a cunning get-out clause in the face of potential criticism, the cynic in me thought); there was no narrative.  Just troops of black-clad foot-soldiers, brandishing flaming torches, metal creatures ablaze, enormous cogs turning and turning, and a green tractor pulling the world's largest grasshopper.  Like a wild-looking figurehead on one trailer stood Vivienne Westwood, with a face-painted Clockwork Orange eye, red hair flying.  As all the crafts began to gather around the central stage, the stadium began to look like a parking lot for floats at a village fete.  

Alas, as this ceremony was being broadcast by Channel 4, proceedings were paused sporadically for advert breaks, no doubt costing the Olympic and Paralympic sponsors millions.  This gave the ceremony an oddly jerky quality that the seamless BBC Opening ceremony fortunately lacked.  We arrived back in the stadium after one such break right into the middle of an award ceremony, which was a little confusing; weren't we done with all the medals by now?  I was pleased to see that following these presentations due respect was also paid to the staggeringly positive and cheery volunteers - the Gamesmakers - who have been such a key part of the Games.

And then Coldplay appeared on the central stage, and I slightly lost the will to watch.  (With the sound on mute however it was bearable, and I rather liked Rihanna boarding the stage from the prow of a steampunk barge.)  More and more dancers flew up into the sky above the stage, grasping clusters of lights like human Chinese lanterns floating off into the night on their invisible wires.  The melancholy music of the British rock band did however serve to illustrate just how genuinely sad much of the city feels about the end of these extraordinary weeks.  These weeks of excitement and surprise, of feeling even a tiny part of 'our greatest team', Team GB.  Even those of us who struggle to be proud of our city at times cannot deny that London totally nailed the Olympics.  We are great at coordinating massive, televised sporting events.  We are brilliant at cheering for people as they face momentous challenges, of which most of us could never even conceive.  Most crucially, and hopefully for the future, we are open to be inspired, and we are always able to welcome a new hero.  I hope that when the Games are gone, and by the time the spotlight is on Rio, that this can be our Olympic legacy - an admiration of hard work and effort, and a recognition that it really is the taking part in something amazing that counts.

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Accidental Eats: The perfect muso brunch, Made in Camden

Camden was buzzing as I picked my way between the tourists and teenagers, with their accompanying parents standing awkwardly in front of the stands of cannabis leaf t-shirts and platform boots covered in studs.  Shop-keepers lurked among their wares, ducking under awnings to keep out of the surprisingly strong September sunshine.  Higher than the awnings, a huge green dragon with LED-filled nostrils stuck onto the facade of one shop glared down at the crowds.  Up and over the bridge by the lock, I wriggled in and out between tiny shorts and sundresses, spying surely the hottest woman in London, dressed head to toe in black satin and lace, with copious petticoats and even a bustle; an ornate black lace parasol keeping the harmful rays off her carefully cultivated translucent complexion.

Once past the cluster of markets, I whisked along Camden High Street, heading up towards Chalk Farm and Camden's famous Roundhouse.  A former engine shed, this odd-shaped building is one of the finest music venues in the city.  For this month of September, the Roundhouse is hosting the iTunes festival, putting on free gigs by artists such as Emeli Sande, Noel Gallagher, Alicia Keyes and Muse.  As I reached the Roundhouse, a gaggle of slightly scruffy-looking music fans were already camped outside the building, coraled by metal fences awaiting the day's gig.

But my destination was no concert hall or intimate studio, instead I was headed for Made In Camden, the eatery on the ground floor of the Roundhouse.  I had been invited to an impromptu brunch with blogging chum, Cool on Demand, who confessed that since her review of the place, she'd been back 4 or 5 times.  Clearly this place had made an impression on her - this was somewhere I had to check out.  I will confess however, that once I arrived, there was not a lot of time for soaking up the atmosphere, as we merrily gabbled away about anything and everything, pausing only to draw breath to order our breakfasts.
As a first time diner, the menu provides quite the dilemma - what to have?  Made in Camden's brunch offerings provide a good balance of tempting sweet and savoury options, to cater to the pickiest of breakfasters.  I eventually plumped for the almond pancakes with apricot compote (compote that was actually three tastily preserved apricots, rather than compote per se), with a side of grill-fresh streaky bacon.  My companion, far more familiar with the menu than I, made a much swifter decision, opting for brioche french toast with berry compote and dollops of mascarpone, which she declared excellent.  However she did mournfully declare that the portion was only about 60% the size of her first taste of this favourite dish.  Alas, service was not with a dazzling smile or remarkably swift (with the exception of a woman at a table next to us who arrived very late for breakfast but received her balsamic mushrooms on toast within mere minutes of ordering), but this is London.  We're not a city known for our friendly service.  And yesterday morning, after a brutally hot early morning run for me and an equally sweaty Bikram yoga session for my fellow bruncher, it was simply enough that there were pancakes and french toast.

When my companion nipped to the loo I took a look around me.  The space itself feels not unpleasantly like a very upmarket canteen. A bar hugs one wall, and slightly 'educational establishment'-esque chairs and tables are ranked in neat lines, each topped with a tiny vase of fresh flowers.  Cutting through the centre of the space is a long wall, covered in a multi-coloured collage of gig posters.  There's no forgetting where you are here, or what's going on just next door.  Reappearing, my brunching companion reported that you could hear whoever was playing the Roundhouse later that day tuning up through the wall. But don't for one second think you could lurk by the toilets to hear a gig...a bouncer was apparently stationed down there to keep diners moving along. You've had your brunch now bugger off!    And so, feeling rather full, we did.  But I imagine we'll both be back...
Made in Camden on Urbanspoon

Monday, 3 September 2012

Savile Row: The Golden Mile of Tailoring

Last weekend I was having one of those slightly hungover, shattered Sundays, when, embracing my comfortable sofa and the entertaining charms of Youtube, I stumbled across a television series, about a very particular street in London.  I never saw 'Savile Row' when it was first broadcast back in 2009, but the three-part BBC documentary series explores the changing nature of this Mayfair address; the home of bespoke men's tailoring within the city.  Bear with me if you think that this doesn't sound particularly gripping.  The series follows a shift in the character of 'the golden mile of tailoring', and the tension between the long-established, thoroughly British firms such as Gieves & Hawkes and Chester Barrie, and the American jeanswear brand, Abercrombie & Fitch - they of the tanned and toned, half-naked doormen, designed to lure in shoppers in search of denim and y-shirts.  (Now you're more interested, aren't you?)

Savile Row, W1, formed part of my regular commute in to and out of work when I lived in South West London. Probably my favourite part, in fact.  Hopping off a bus on Piccadilly I would wind my way up through Mayfair to Soho, walking through a sleepy Burlington Arcade, to emerge into Mayfair, right next to the bottom end of Savile Row. Savile Row was then one of my possible routes up onto Regent Street, usually nicely empty by the time I reached it early in the morning, save for a few delivery-men wheeling trollies of plastic-wrapped clothes into the enormous shops waiting to open. Walking along the Row on these early mornings, I used to feel very much part of the old London, the London of vast Palladian mansions, and top hats and waistcoats worn because it was the done thing rather than because you were off to a fancy wedding.  From the pavement you can see up into show-rooms displaying suits, shirts and neckware, and down below into the workshops and ateliers where measurements are noted, cloth is marked and cut, and exquisite hand-made suits take shape.

With many of the tailors on the street having a 100+ year presence here, and others a royal warrant of appointment, the industry in this area is somewhat traditional, particularly in its approach to promotion and advertising, which appears to be kept to a minimum.  To shout about one's skills, or even simply what one does, is seen as vulgar along Savile Row. No Savile Row tailor would ever advertise their wares on the side of a bus. Perish the thought!  Unlike mass-producers of garments with their globally-distant factories (ahem, Abercrombie & Fitch), Savile Row tailors create and sell their wares within the close confines of this single street, often within a single building. Why then, did this giant American firm set up shop here, alongside this most traditional of apparel industries?  And what effect would it have upon the independent firms?

The documentary series examined the effect, highlighting worries about increasing rents, and the ejecting of the old firms from their sole premises.  Property freeholders amended leases to require that any tenants had to be practising tailors, desperately trying to protect this local industry.  There were concerns that the classy clientele might be put off by the crowds of teens queueing round the block to buy t-shirts.  I have witnessed the Abercombie fans for myself, and when walking through Mayfair have encountered foreign teenagers who barely spoke a word of English but who would nonetheless stop me in the street to demand 'Where Abercombie Fitch?'.

The financial crisis of the last few years has hit Savile Row as hard as it has hit other luxury goods manufacturers.  A two and a half thousand pound suit - the most modest of Row tailoring - is even more of an unaffordable nice-to-have now.  But last time I checked the tailors remained firmly established on Savile Row, dressing new generations of the same families it has dressed for many, many years.  But who knows how much longer they will be able to hold on...

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