Saturday, 19 March 2016

All the world's a Globe

The London I used to know from my youthful ramblings, twenty - goodness me, is it really twenty? - years ago is, slowly but surely, giving way to a polished, sandblasted, homogenised version of its former self. For example the old Globe Inn in Borough Market (which, to be honest, I never went in twenty years ago, because it looked far too scary) has literally been sandblasted to a bright London-brick yellow, which looks both clean and yet also pretend, like a film set's painted plaster wall, masquerading as the real thing.

This is a little ironic, I suppose, as I recall coming across the filming of the first Bridget Jones film, which was being made here in 2000, and discovering that a completely fake set of railway stairs had been inserted under the arches beside the pub (in the flat above which is where Bridget Jones lived, in the film). Even then, the fake stairs had art-department painted bird droppings and graffiti to make it look authentic. At the same time I am reluctant to be unduly critical of the motivation to reclaim or repurpose otherwise near no-go areas for general use.

This area, for example, used to be grotty, smell of rotting food waste from the market, and be best walked through at a reasonably swift pace after dark. It's just that the edges have been  knocked off, smoothed over, and sanitised. It seems improbable that the "characters" of old - Jeffrey Bernard, Peter O'Toole and the like - would thrive in this cleaner, gentrified, non-smoking version of London, but then perhaps their time was an anomaly - a symptom of their own post-WWII era.

I get the sense that there's a tussle going on, between the forces of regeneration and the original residents and users of the space. During the week, between 2 a.m. to 8 a.m., Borough Market is still, as its name suggests, a real wholesale market, selling fruit and vegetables, as it has done since at least 1276 (or maybe since 1014, according to the market itself, "and probably much earlier").

From Wednesday to Saturday, however, it also becomes home to stallholders, selling a wide range of food and drink from across the country and abroad (inevitably, there are a lot of "artisan" products and producers), and it is a destination in its own right for foodies and visitors after interesting tastes. Quite what the early morning vendors make of the later tenants, I don't know, but it would be interesting to see the handover between the two.

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Kenya dig it?

A couple of years ago, along with about a dozen other supporters, I visited Kajuki, a small village in Kenya, to see the work of a small UK charity called St Peter's Lifeline (to which I would urge you to donate. Visit: The charity supports the work of St Peter's primary school and community through education, micro finance, empowering girls, feeding programmes, clean water, sanitation and the prevention of disease. The community was extremely poor, with repeated periods of drought hitting its agricultural economy hard, but the people we met were, almost without exception, hard working, positive and optimistic.

We spent several days travelling around the area, seeing the work of the schools, anti-FGM campaigners and micro-finance groups, all of which was immensely impressive and deeply moving. At the end of a week, we were waved off by the community in the same way that we had been greeted, with a typically dazzling display of warmth and hospitality, and a farewell performance of singing and dancing. It had been intense but wonderful and we left the community bearing gifts and very powerful memories. It had been arranged long in advance that, after seeing the work of the charity, and contributing to it by our visit, we would spend another few days on safari, seeing the wildlife of Kenya.

We arrived at Sweetwaters Serena Camp on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a massive safari park and wildlife preserve, after a long and dusty drive along the Meru-Nairobi Highway. The camp itself was essentially an open-air hotel with large tents instead of rooms, arranged around an old colonial farm building. The drive itself was fascinating, with the dry and dusty roads around Kajuki gradually giving way to lush verdant meadows, north of Mount Kenya. Watching as it slipped past, I was reminded strangely of driving through Somerset in England, although on a somewhat grander scale. Further on, there were the vast greenhouses beside the road that provide other countries with cut flowers and out of season vegetables, and we mulled over the pros and cons of a poor country that can struggle to feed its people using precious water and resources to grow food for others.

The Camp felt like an alien world; geographically close to the people we had spent time with, but it was an international and luxurious hotel that felt a million miles away. Around us were holiday-makers from all over the world, for whom this would, by and large, be their only experience of the country, and as we regrouped at breakfast and dinner, eating well cooked international cuisine, I could see that most of my group were equally dazed by the contrast with where we had just come from. Its very easy to sound po-faced about insensitive tourists, and I wouldn't want to pretend to have been much more than that myself, but it was hard not to feel that it was unjust, such abundance so close to people who had become friends, and who, in contrast, had so little.

We were here to see the animals, though, and as we were driven out into the Conservancy, it was hard not to get caught up in the search for wildlife. The first drive was a little underwhelming, only seeing an elephant at some distance, and then a herd of zebra. Later, when we went out again, we saw giraffes, and then, trundling slowly down a dusty side track, came almost literally face to face with the glorious lioness shown above. We were standing up in the safari truck, and she felt close enough to touch. There's something intangibly thrilling about making eye contact with such a powerful wild animal, and after taking a few pictures, I just watched her as she watched us. I found myself narrowing my eyes at her, an instinctive greeting towards cats, and felt, just for a moment, that we understood each other.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Hogwarts Express yourself

The interweb is a wonderful thing. This may sound like a trite observation, and that's predominantly because it is; it's a fantastically trite observation, but that doesn't, I'm pleased to report, stop it being true. Of course, there are bad parts of the internet, areas that upset, offend, humiliate and degrade, but then there are other areas that go at least some way towards making up for the rest.

I only bring this up because it has come to my attention that a recent post about a visit to the National Railway Museum in York was astonishingly - almost bafflingly - popular with you good folk out there in the interwebsphere. Particularly, for some reason, readers in Poland. Witam moi polscy przyjaciele! Anyway, it occurred to me that it might be interesting to test whether it was steam trains in particular that appealed, or something else and, while about it, I thought I'd throw some Harry Potter into the  mix, too. Cynical, you say? Well, yes, possibly, but what is a body to do?

Anyway, the current reason that I have decided the interweb is, at times, a wonderful thing is the fact that, without it, I doubt I would have found out so much about Hogwarts Castle, the steam train on display at the Warner Bros. Studios, Leavesden (otherwise, and possibly more widely, known as the "Harry Potter Studio Tour"). I visited the Studios last year, and was absolutely bowled over by the entire experience; the scale and detail of the sets, salvaged from the film series, the quality of the invention, and he craftsmanship and imagination on display.

Even for people who are not interested in the Harry Potter films, per se, the experience is nevertheless absolutely overwhelming. I have long held a slightly obsessive interest in film studios (did you know, for example, that Google Streetview lets you take a walk around Pinewood and Shepperton Studios? You should check it out.) and the Warner Bros. Studios more than lived up to my potentially unrealistic expectations.

Leaving one section of the tour, visitors enter into a recreation of King's Cross, complete with an honest to goodness, large as life, real steam engine, Hogwarts Castle. This engine is the actual one from the films (unlike the recreations on display at the theme parks), emits smoke and the sound of a steam whistle, and is as physically imposing as some of the engines in the National Railway Museum. Although Hogwarts Castle is a real steam engine, however, as befits that fact that this is an artificial film world, neither the steam nor the sounds that come from it are the real thing, but are special effect recreations to evoke the appropriate atmosphere.

What I have recently learned from the interweb, and which started this post oh so long ago, is that Hogwarts Castle, as perhaps befits a feature player in a film, is not the engine's real name. In real life, Hogwarts Castle is the GWR 4900 Class 5972 Olton Hall, and I gather that steam enthusiasts regard the fact that a "Hall" plays the part of a "Castle" to be wryly amusing. Oh, the interweb, you do spoil us, sometimes.