Visit to Edinburgh

Post nightshift, dragging ourselves out of bed on a few hours sleep, traveling to Edinburgh via train on a rainy Thursday afternoon probably didn’t seem like the greatest of ideas to either of us. Getting on the wrong train because sleepy brains probably seemed like a portent of things to come. But arriving in the city after a couple of beers and seeing the Christmas market was still going, and the lights, and the sights and the sounds lifting moods and put smiles on tired faces.

I was stuck for what to get my girlfriend for Christmas but I’m a firm believer in collecting memories not things, so a trip north of the border seemed like a good idea. Arriving Thursday night we dropped off bags and then headed out into the city for food and a Ghost Tour. By a stroke of fluke genius we were the only two on our tour and had the guide all to ourselves. We passed other much larger tours all umbrellas and shouts in Greyfriars Kirkyard, and never had to struggle to hear what was being said or jostle for position. The guide was a fun young guy dressed as Dr. Robert Knox and he took us on a quick overground tour before we headed into the underground vaults. I’ve never been a believer in spirits or spooks but I enjoy the sinister stories and the ‘feel’ of these underground places. My companion, however, is sensitive to these things and found the sensations underground to be troubling. It was creepy, it was spooky, and knowing you’re stood in a place where a family were tortured and murdered to garner a witch’s confession was sobering and atmospheric. From there we toured a few of the pubs on the Royal Mile and took in some ‘traditional’ Scottish music – and some not so traditional gin & tonics and pints of beer.

Friday morning and after a late start we tackled Arthur’s Seat. It’s been on my to-do list since I first visited Edinburgh; an ancient, extinct volcano which was active some 355 million years ago. The climb was reasonably easy, and the only real challenge was avoiding as much mud as possible and managing to not slip and be dumped unceremoniously onto one’s bottom. The views from the top are spectacular with the entire city arrayed below and the Firth of Forth clearly visible to the north. We didn’t pause long; it gets chilly at the top in early January, but had plenty of time to snap a string of photos.

Despite the inclement weather, slippery surfaces, and ‘quieter’ time of the year, there were plenty of people at the top of the hill. Students, families, kids, dog walkers, and the odd Japanese tourist. It’s seemed like just about anyone could clamber up it’s well-worn paths, as the mini-skirt-clad (clearly not a local) visitor testified.

We walked back down in a different direction and took a slow walk around Holyrood Park drinking in the views and fresh air. It always pleases me to find these kind of open spaces in the middle of urban sprawl – and with it’s history, pretty scenery, waterways and wildlife, Holyrood didn’t disappoint.

I just wish we’d had more time, but a late start and a busy evening planned, and grumbling bellies conspired against us and we called for an Uber to return us to Edinburgh Centre.

Friday night I had tickets booked for us to see Shrek at the Edinburgh Playhouse. We arrived in a bit of a rush and managed to grab a beer before heading to our seats in the front row. Close enough to see the sheet music perched upon the keyboard of the band leader. Shrek was brilliant. Donkey was endearing. Lord Farquaad was a riot. Shrek lost none of it’s magic in transition from screen to stage and my girl said it was better than The Lion King on Broadway. It was a heartwarming, funny, feel-good romp and highly recommended.

Saturday morning we were both a wee bit worse for wear so opted to don our virtual anoraks and tour the city on a sightseeing bus. We stopped off at the National Museum of Scotland for a look about and a slice of cake. Time was running away from us though, and by the time we got back to Princes Street and made our way to St. Andrews Square, we discovered the ice rink just too late. It was time to head home.

Edinburgh, you were outstanding. We shall be back.

 

 

On the telly.

I’ve been on the telly a few times due to work. Interceptors, Reported Missing, just a couple of real tv shows where I’ve popped up; usually against my will. Fairly certain I’ve been on the news once or twice too; again as a result of the job that I do.

But those ‘appearances’ were nothing compared to what happened in November 2017. But to understand the story we have to go back further. On 22nd May 2017 a homemade bomb was detonated at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester by an Islamist terrorist. Twenty three people were killed and 500 injured. Innocents, children, people enjoying a music concert. Slaughtered in the name of a vile ideology.

In June 2017 a benefit concert was held and I was asked to go and assist at the venue along with my colleagues. One of the enduring images from the concert was that of the Dancing Policeman. An ordinary British bobby who captured the hearts of millions by dancing with a group of kids; survivors of the original concert attack. That man is someone I’ve worked closely with for the last four years. He’s never sought the limelight and always just wanted to do the best he could.

In October 2017 he was approached by ITV and asked if he – and some willing colleagues – would be willing to take part in a TV Christmas special called A Night For The Emergency Services. Would he, and ten of his colleagues be willing to travel to London in order to perform live on stage with dance troupe Diversity?

Of course! So the deal was done. In November we travelled to London and spent two days practicing a routine at ITV Studios. It was hard work. None of us dancers and few of us any natural rhythm. On the Sunday night; exhausted and in front of a live audience and TV cameras we performed the routine for a final time. The entire experience a blur. This was not what we were used to.

A Night For The Emergency Services aired last night at 9pm on ITV1. The feedback has been mostly positive. “Well done for doing it, but you can’t dance for toffee.”

As true as that may be, this is an experience which will stick with all of us who took part for a long time. And it ticked a box for me; I was on the telly.

Berlin

Berlin, October 2017. It’s a city which still captures the imagination of historians, involved as it was in World War II, The Third Reich, and the Holocaust. Earlier this year I had the opportunity to visit Auschwitz as part of a weekend in Krakow. I wrote about that back in April. It seemed natural to add Berlin to the destinations of interest. If Auschwitz stands as a memorial to the end of Jewish struggle in Europe, Berlin is certainly the epicentre of that struggle’s beginning.

We jetted in on a Friday afternoon and made our way to our hotel at Alexanderplatz, right in the centre of the city. Directly opposite our hotel is the famous Fernsehturm (TV Tower). We never got the chance to go up the tower, but our hotel had a viewing platform some 150 metres up affording beautiful views of the city. Everything seems so different when viewed from above.

Our first night was really a finding your feet exercise, and we spent too much time getting about from Alexanderplatz to Potsdamer Platz (and back again) looking for the famous Berlin nightlife. Eventually we ended up in a surreal re-used industrial area of bars and clubs, and got to sample the Berlin club scene. I’m no clubber and definitely felt like a fish out of water in a warehouse/garage frequented by kids in scruffs and noise which, to those with younger ears, must pass for music. We didn’t last long in this strange venue, and soon retired to find a currywurst and a taxi back to the hotel.

Saturday we started early and tackled the main tourist areas of Berlin. The Reichstag, Bradenburg Gate, Berlin Wall. Before being drawn to the Spy Museum and finally the Topography of Terror, the old Gestapo Headquarters. Berlin seems like a city in a permanent state of apology; A city of honest, pragmatic apology. “I feel I must apologise for the conduct of my nation in the war,” to borrow from Harry Enfield’s Jurgen. You didn’t have to travel far to happen upon some monument to the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s against any number of different people’s. There was no shame in these tributes and exhibits. They said quite clearly, “it happened, we accept it happened, we don’t want to forget it, but we’re sorry.”

And everywhere pieces of the Berlin Wall stand. Some in place where they stood from first erection, others moved and replanted in parks and on lawns, others tucked against the sides of buildings, each a testament to one of the darkest times in modern European history, a divided Germany. It’s this division which gives Berlin it’s flavour. it doesn’t feel like a modern western european city. It’s edges are rough, it’s shadows are eerie. The influences of the east and of communism still lay over the city. It’s not with any sense of foreboding, but rather lends a further dimension to it’s urban areas. It just felt dark. I wish I could phrase the feeling Berlin caused adequately, but it’s perhaps something to be experienced rather than read about. Like describing the feeling of concrete; words do not do justice. You have to run your fingertips over the surface and feel it for yourself.

Saturday night, all cultured out, we searched for some nightlife more in keeping with our middle-aged minds and bodies. Our taxi driver recommended a club to us called ‘Matrix Club’ and it didn’t disappoint. The one thing that sticks with me is how safe it felt. We were searched and ID’d on the way in, and the place was rammed from roof to floor with people young and old, groups, couples, individual guys looking for action. There was cages where dancers impressed with hot bodies and athletic movements. Despite all that, despite the size, the people, the music, the lack of light, it just felt safe. We partied until 4am. And it was only the threat of losing Sunday to hangovers and sleep that we eventually left that place and headed back to our hotel.

Sunday can be summed up quite simply as The Jewish Museum. A tribute to the history of Jews in Europe, and a commemoration to the victims of the Final Solution. Set across multiple levels and in multiple buildings, the museum is designed to expose you – psychologically rather then physically – to the fate of Europe’s Jews during the Second World War. I want to impress upon you the importance of this place. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t easy. It’s designed to make you think but you’re never too sure how it wants you to think, and perhaps each person’s experience of the museum will be different. We were there for several hours, immersed in history; The journey through the time-line of Europe’s Jews providing an insight into what happened in the 20th century. Jewish persecution began hundreds of years previously.

I wrote of Auschwitz:

“I believe that everyone should visit Auschwitz at some point in their lives. It needs to be a lesson that everyone is made aware of so that we do all we can to ensure such horrors never happen again.”

And this applies to Berlin, and the museum too. Go to the city, feel it, don’t just see it. And go to the Jewish museum. Understand why we, collectively as the human race, allowed such horrors and travesties to occur. With the emergence of the Far Right, and the rise of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Golden Dawn in Greece and any number of other extremist parties and personalities, it’s vitally important we do not forget. That’s the only way to prevent it from happening again.

Restoring an old rotten garden bench

When I moved into this house in 2004 I inherited an old garden bench from a now forgotten family member. It sat in the yard here for years, slowly succumbing to the elements. England isn’t known for it’s gentle weather. Over time this bench of wrought iron and wood became rusty and rotten. It reached the point where it couldn’t be sat on. The slats too wasted to support the weight of even the smallest of people. A long time ago I decided that I needed to fix the bench. Restore it to it’s former glory. So that’s what I did.

It took longer than it should. I’ve never been one to fixate on a task. I’m too lazy to set deadlines. Things get done when things get done.

First step was to take the old bench and strip all the old rotten wood off, reducing it down to the iron components. Once complete the iron was painted black and new wood sourced and cut to size. Holes were drilled in the wood and new bolts purchased to secure everything together. The result is from this:

to this:

Auschwitz

Just last week it was my privilege to accompany a lovely young lady to Poland for a few days of sightseeing. On the last day we were there we took a trip to the concentration and extermination camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau. I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect. I had been told by people who had been before to anticipate an eerie experience. “There’s no life there” was a typical warning, and very general gist of commentary from the people who had been before me; or who had spoken to others that had been. I’d heard that no birds visit the place where over a million men, women and children were murdered. It’d be wrong to say I was ‘looking forward’ to the experience, but I was anticipating an experience which I would never forget. That’s exactly what I got.

The temperature hovered around freezing when we arrived at Auschwitz-1 and we were taken for a short tour around the camp, into and out of the buildings. There, we saw exhibited, the horrors of the place. Photos of the arrival of prisoners who were then selected for either labour or death. Rows upon rows of shoes taken from men, women and children. The pots and pans and other household items which people brought with them to the camp; under the impression they were to begin a new life. And human hair. Bails of human hair. Which was shorn from the victims of the Nazi’s for use in wartime and textile industries.

I think that was what impacted upon me most from the main camp; that human beings were as sheep or cattle, to be killed and have their component parts rendered down into raw materials to be used as we would use the leather or wool from livestock. Does anything say dehumanised as much as treating people as we would animals?

Before we left this place we were taken to an ammunition bunker which had been converted into a gas chamber. This is one of the first places used to kill people using poisoned gas at Auschwitz. We stood inside and I looked up at the vent where, just decades previously, others would have looked to see granules of Zyklon B poured in. It was chilling. The impact lessened only by the other people on the tour sharing this space. Some were visibly impacted by being in such a place.

From here were took a short ride to Auschwitz 2-Birkenau. Unlike Auschwitz 1, which was a converted barracks, Birkenau was a purpose built linchpin of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’. A place designed and purpose-built for the extermination of Jews and others deemed unsuitable to exist in the Third Reich. It’s a space quite unlike any other. Most structures beyond the reception building either demolished or destroyed. The few remaining wooden buildings could be visited and showcased the conditions people like you and me were kept in. Seven hundred in a building big enough – by modern standards – to house a family of four. Sleeping on triple-bunks with seven or eight people on each level. Staying alive through harsh winters and freezing temperatures only as a result of shared body heat. We saw the area where the trains pulled in and the SS went through the selection process on new arrivals. People either selected to work – if they had relevant skills – or sentenced to immediate death in the gas chambers.

As we walked up the train lines towards the monument between two of the gas chamber / crematorium ruins, my companion turned to me and reiterated the words I’d heard about Auschwitz many times. “There is no life here. No birds fly.” At this I looked to my left and saw three small birds take flight; black shapes across the grey skies, between the stark ruins, towards the sparse trees. There was life.

And then, as we retraced our steps towards the reception building, I saw an image which shall remain my most abiding memory. Two Hasidic Jews, no more than seventeen or eighteen years old, walking along the railway tracks which conveyed so many of their kin to their deaths. Their younger siblings played games of balance along those same tracks. Those young people, along with the three small birds I saw were, to me, symbols of life returning from death. Of hope coming from hate. I’ll remember that image and that feeling for as long as I live. I left Auschwitz Birkenau, not sullen, but uplifted. Not with feelings of melancholy, instead with an understanding of humanities capacity to change for the better.

I believe that everyone should visit Auschwitz at some point in their lives. It needs to be a lesson that everyone is made aware of so that we do all we can to ensure such horrors never happen again.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ – George Santayana

Holy Island of Lindisfarne

Lindisfarne, Holy Island as the sun went down on a Saturday late afternoon in January. I don’t think I ever experienced such peace. A silence fell across the place, looking out over the water towards the mainland. I’m not religious. I wouldn’t even dare to consider myself spiritual, but there was something quite special about that moment. No traffic noise, no kids shouting, not even the sound of sea birds to disturb the tranquility of that place and time.

Click here to view the photo album of my trip: Lindisfarne. January 2017.

I put Lindisfarne on my 40 at 40 list because I’d seen photos of the scenery, the castle, the views. I wanted to go and see this for myself. There was no other reason than that. I know of St. Cuthbert, I know of the significance of the place, but that’s not what it was about for me.

Friday evening I spoke to CS about taking a road trip. I looked at the tidal times for crossing the causeway and it was clear from midday until 8pm. Providence? Perhaps. We set off Saturday morning aiming to arrive after midday. I think now that it would have been cool to arrive earlier and see the causeway under water, watch the sea give way to tarmac, and our path clear. The day was unnaturally warm for January, cloudy but dry. Perfect conditions for exploring.

I’m told that Holy Island is ‘manic’ in the summer; that we’d have been swimming in tourists. We were pleased we’d come when it was quiet. Our walk around the island, past the (closed) castle, along the rocky shore, into the lime kilns and along the lonely coast was disturbed by just a handful of people. I loved that. I don’t like places ‘ruined by tourists’ (the irony of that statement is not lost on me) or to have to dodge around people or tolerate noisy children. Especially somewhere like that. I think going in the summer would have been a dismal experience, even with bright sunshine and warmer temperatures. Experiences are impaired by those also experiencing.

We completed our circuit of the island, getting lost and disorientated by the dunes at one point, and then headed back towards the village and the Priory – which was also sadly closing just as we arrived.

But then I suppose that’s the issue with spontaneous trips. No planning, just going off and doing. You’re not always going to get it right. Although to tell you the truth, I’d rather do it my way than be thrust into expected patterns of behaviour.

We stopped at the Manor House Hotel for a quick bite before going up to the lookout tower to watch the sun set. It was a fitting way to end the day. No noise, no people, no words said, just a shared moment. Calm, peace, solitude. Looking out over the water you could feel the significance of the islands.

img_4974Click to view full size.

The Rocky Horror Show

“On the way to visit an old college professor, two clean cut kids, Brad Majors and his fiancée Janet Weiss, run into tyre trouble and seek help at the site of a light down the road. It’s coming from the Frankenstein place, where Dr Frank’n’furter is in the midst of one of his maniacal experiments…”

The weekend got off to a great start with a trip to the theatre to see Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show. I’ll admit, not all of the entires on the ‘challenge’ are all that challenging. Some are up there just because it’s something I want to do. This is the latter. I adore Rocky Horror. It is one of my favourite things ever. I’ve seen the stage show eight times so far; three times this year alone. One of the standout points of Rocky Horror is the audience participation and dressing up aspect. I had never had the desire guts to dress up before. That had to change this time. My previous experiences of audience participation had been shouting ASSHOLE! after the narrator mentions Brad Majors, and SLUT! after he refers to Janet. That too had to change.

Costume wise we decided to go as Brad and Janet following their disrobing at the hands of Riff Raff and others. Prepare yourselves:

It’s the massive pants, isn’t it?

Hey, I never said it was going to be pretty, but dressing up certainly made the experience richer – even if it took a little bit of dutch courage. Others also dressed up wanted to get photos with us; there was a spirit of camaraderie. Lots of laughs. Quite a lot of drinks too.

Throughout the show there are times where the audience is encouraged (that’s might not be the right choice of word) to shout out, engaging with the performers. The narrator speaks, ‘It’s true there were dark storm clouds.’ Yours truly shouts out, ‘DESCRIBE YOUR BALLS!’ He continues, ‘Heavy, black and pendulous.’ Just before Riff Raff first speaks to Brad and Janet my companion shouts, ‘WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE LIONEL RICHIE SONG?’ Riff Raff answers; ‘Hello’.

Maybe it’s one of those you had to be there things. If so, I encourage you to book to go see this awesome musical.

If you’re that way inclined you can also watch the stage show on YouTube:

You can visit the official website here: http://rockyhorror.co.uk