Football Practice

Beneath a grumbling grey sky of clotted clouds with no silver linings, stands a wet, puddle-dashed school forecourt. Earlier, childrens’ playtime squeals had enlivened the forcourt. Now it stands empty, the childrens voices have all gone. Dreary weather. Dull, dingy and damp.

Alone, on concrete steps leading to a portacabin classroom, sits Billy, impervious to the cold and damp seeping through the seat of his trousers and the drizzle hanging in the air in fine silvery threads. He swings his legs over the edge of the steps, banging his heels against the rising side-wall. He slides a hand through the raindrops clinging to the rusty step-rail making a stream of orange rainwater flow over his palms, under his coat cuff, down to his elbows. He’s waiting; just hanging around.

Twenty minutes ago, Billy had watched other school children drag their feet across the tarmac, in singles, twos and three, with school bags slung around their necks, disappearing through the school gates towards home. He had heard their voices descend from the loud cacophony of a released herd, to the murmur of a swarm dissipating into the distance. Then all were gone, leaving him alone on the steps; under the formless, grey sky, swinging his legs.

Billy’s fingers struggle to fully open the zip on his school bag, a task made more difficult by the cold and wet. It’s stuck, half-open, half closed, and has been for two weeks so that books risk getting rained on, or scattered when the bag is flung across the floor, as boys often do. He gives up, reaches inside, and brings out a can of coke. Pulling back the ring, he cracks it ope and feels the sugary sweet liquid glide down his throat with a lip-smacking ‘ahh’. Then he just sits, can in hand, looking out across the empty school forecourt: Watching and waiting; just hanging around.

Football studs clack like horses hooves on cobbles, echoing in the rain. Boy’s skinny white legs emerge from a side-door and mingle in the overcast gloom; some with socks pulled up high, others with socks crumpled down – and two boys with one sock up and one sock down. Shorts, crispy clean, are pulled up tight around waists. Football tops, plain or striped, with collars raised and sleeves stretched down over hands. The boys wait, milling round, chatting, jumping in the puddles, pushing each other in the backs, click-clacking their studs on the hard concrete schoolyard.

Billy watches and sups on his can of coke.

A new clicking of studs, fast and determined, beat fast across the undercover paving slabs like the splattering of Chinese fire-crackers. The sound stops in front of the boys. The boys stand still and silently face a portly teacher, whose bloated stomach indicates more football matches watched than played. His eyes are dark, his eyebrows too, panning across the boys in inspection. Holding their attention, without saying a word, he quietly observes. The boys wait, each one feeling the teacher’s eyes focus upon him in particular.

‘Let’s go, boys,’ he then shouts, his instruction heard well beyond the distant school gate.

He throws a pile of team vests onto the ground; some red, some green, whilst holding tightly onto a brown leather football tucked securely under his arm and gripping hard a net sack of white balls in his hand. The boys dart down, scrabbling and fighting over the vests, until they pick out their favoured team colours, which they quickly throw over their heads to ensure places in their preferred teams.

‘Jackson – you take green today!’ orders the sports teacher. ‘Miller, you’re with the reds.’

‘But sir…’

‘No buts, unless you want to spend your time in the changing room – and Latimer and Hutchins, you’re both in goal today.’

Both Latimer and Hutchins turn round quickly, as if to complain, and then think better of it as their eyes meet those of the teacher’s. They glance at each other, in empathic resignation, and throw on their tops with visibly reduced enthusiasm.

He passes the net sack of white balls to Adesh Patel.

‘Here, boy. You can carry this.’

Now attired, the group is divided: Two bunches of boys facing across a space in between them. The teacher bounces the ball on the concrete. The boys eye it hungrily, all wanting to give it a kick. He raises his whistle to his lips. The boys wait for the signal – they know the routine. He drags out the pause – just to keep them waiting. The boys eye each other, elbows at the ready – ready, like startled herons, to flap their wings and take flight.


The drumming sound of studs pounding on concrete begins in earnest as the pack takes off in one, great, swooping mass. They stampede, more like a herd of bison than a flock of birds, heading for a gap at the end of the schoolyard between the girls’ toilets and the newly built teaching block. Passing through, they’re on the grass where the clacking of clattering studs deadens, becoming mute. The teacher leads the race in his black, woollen track suit, his whistle swinging to-and-fro upon its ribbon and occasionally smacking him on the nose. He drops the ball and gives it one almighty kick. This spurs the boys on faster. A few pass him to run on ahead, whilst the rest of the pack follows up from behind. The race is on.

Billy watches them go.

They arrive at the pitch and collapse at the side-lines, holding their sides and gasping for breath, clumped together in a neat semi-circle around their sports master. His cheeks are aglow, for he’s puffing too, and his thick quiff of black hair falls over his eyes. He brushes it aside, sweeping it back over his head, and surveys the boys before him. His boys. His team. He’ll make champions of them, yet.

Billy sits alone on the portacabin steps looking across the empty school forecourt like he’s waiting in the rain, on an empty platform, for a delayed train. He’s seen the boys sweep in-and-out like an express arriving and pausing to pick up passengers before rushing off in a hurry on a signal from a station master’s whistle, with noise and light and lover’s farewells and slamming of doors, until a silent nothingness returns. The boys had gone off to play football in one vast pack, sweeping in-and-out of the schoolyard like a dying rush of wind sucked out of the station, leaving Billy alone on the steps, banging his heels.

‘Great game at lunch’, he recollects, whilst sipping on his can of coke, ‘though hard and sweaty too. Of course, not like the games down the park on the long-summer evenings where we play till it’s dark and the ball can no longer be seen. But at lunchtime today, playing football in the schoolyard… Wow! Yeah! That was a battle! What sublime skills we produced… such crafty manoeuvres and swift passes down the line. And that lovely movement that developed from a couple of clever one-twos, and my quick back-flick, followed by Barry’s body-swaying dribble before passing to the Pete in the centre, who slid it deftly over the line. Yeah, that was true class!

Billy shifts his bottom on the steps and stares down at a scab on his knee showing through a hole in his trousers. He picks at it, his dirty fingernail prising the scab away from the flesh and it begins to seep blood. But now that he’s started, it’s hard to leave it alone and soon he’s staring down a pink-stained hole and examining a hard piece of dried scab between his fingers. He flicks it away, slings his school bag over his shoulder, slides under the railing and off the step. Normally he goes round to Pete’s after school, with Barry, and sometimes Nicholas, and they all squat on the floor together in front of the tele, with fruit juice and biscuits, watching cartoons, until Pete’s dad and brother come home from work. Then he starts out on his walk back home. But not today: Pete, Barry and Nicholas are playing football with the other boys on the school football pitch.

Billy can hear the sports master’s whistle blowing in the distance, like the whistle of the distant train disappearing into a tunnel. He hears the sports master’s loud voice floating in the air shouting instructions; harsh, yet softened by the light rain. Really, he should go home or his mum will start to worry. But instead, Billy turns in the direction of the sport’s master’s whistle and walks towards the gap between the girls’ toilets and the newly built teaching block.

On the pitch, two hundred yards away, Billy can see the boys running up-and-down between the goal-posts, passing the white balls between them, with the sports master standing square in the centre, legs astride and the brown leather ball at his feet.

‘Come on, Tyler,’ he shouts to a straggler, ‘d’you think you’re here for an afternoon stroll?’

Billy leans against a pillar and watches, knowing that Tyler is the plumpest lad on the team. The poor lad runs like a walrus, shifting his great weight forward in wild lunges, arms flailing and legs struggling to support him; especially by the time they reach the fourth up-and-down. He finally finishes, the sports master close behind him, and flops down to the ground coughing and wheezing. Then it’s press-ups time, with the sports master again shouting encouragements and again poor Tyler again having trouble to hold up his weight. Billy smiles: He does thirty of these at home in his bedroom every morning, and night, plus fifty sit-ups. Yet, Tyler collapses to the ground after only five.

Now the boys are standing in a semi-circle around the sports master, boots muddied with splashes patterning those clean white shorts. The sports master is gesticulating, arms and hands swinging right-and-left as he explains the finer points of football tactics. Right-hand held vertical, driving forward in attack; left-hand sweeping in for support, now fingertips pressed together, knuckles out, to show the line of defence and pinpointing the best position for the goalie. Not so far removed from a directors’ board meeting discussing business strategy, exploring openings in the market and attacks against competitors.

Further instructions ensue from the sports master. He nominates Jackson and Miller as captains and the boys line up in their teams; green and red. The sports master blows his whistle and the boys enter the pitch, with Jackson and Miller deciding who plays in defence, mid-field, and on the wing. They, of course, put themselves in attack. The sports master carefully places the ball on the centre spot and draws the two captains before him. Billy can see them huddling together with the other boys spread out all over the field. The sports master produces a coin and tosses it high. Then it’s being examined on the ground, heads or tails, deciding who should kick off the game. It’s decided. Miller won the toss. Billy hears a sharp whistle peep and the match begins.

The ball passes backward, then forward, and then sideward. Then one boy decides to dribble it alone and gets entangled in three defenders. He loses the ball and it’s booted up the field into space. Six boys all run to retrieve it, pushing and shoving. It’s knocked free from the mêlée and a seventh boy kicks it the other way back up the pitch. Now Bill’s friend Barry has got the ball. He’s trying to be clever and dummy his way round Jackson. But he fails. Jackson intercepts, takes the ball and boots the ball back to his goalkeeper. His team mates hold their hands up in despair at a lost opportunity, with an unmarked boy right over on the wing signalling: ‘Why didn’t you pass it to me?’

Billy too shakes his head, equally wondering, and picks up his school bag to walk closer to the pitch. The ground is soft, once the schoolyard concrete is left, and there are many muddy patches where hoards of boots often pass. To the right is an area of flooding: It always gets waterlogged down there at this time of year. Fortunately, the football pitch is on slightly higher ground. He tries to keep his school shoes away from the mud, but soon feels clods sticking to his soles. He’ll clean them off later before his mum sees.

Billy places his school bag down at the side-line; near the half-way line. The boys don’t notice his approach. He puts his hands in his duffle-coat pockets, fondles his prize conkers which earlier won him several games in the schoolyard contests, and begins to watch the match. Nicholas has now got the ball. He’s on the other team to Pete and Barry, and he’s looking around in panic for someone to pass it to since he’s coming under attack. No-one comes. His team mates just shout at him from a distance, especially Ian Norton who always hangs around the goal.

‘Over here, ‘he screams from fifty yards away, ‘on me ‘ead’.

Nicholas, in despair, kicks the ball into touch, just five yards down from Billy.


The whistle blows and the sports master comes running.

‘What d’you do that for, boy?’ he demands.

‘I had no-one to pass it to, sir.’ Nicholas replies.

‘Well, you should have passed earlier and now you’ve lost the ball. Jackson – your throw in.’

Jackson runs off the pitch and scoops up the ball, nodding to Billy, who he now notices. Billy nods back. Pete notices him too and waves from his position in defence. Billy waves back. The sports master glances over to Billy.

‘What you hanging around for, boy?’ he shouts, ‘Shouldn’t you be getting yourself off home?’

‘Yes, Sir.’ Billy replies.

The sportsmaster turns his back to Billy and raises his whistle to his lips to resume the game. The throw-in is taken. The ball is back on the pitch and Billy’s presence on the side-line is forgotten.

Billy stays and watches for ten minutes, silently wishing he was playing too. He naturally supports the red team, for that was the side of Pete and Barry, and he feels their excitement when they near the green goal. Equally, he feels their anxiety when the ball comes close to the goal of the reds. The ball flies left, and then the ball flies right. The boys charge up the field in chase, and then the boys flee back down the field in defence. Now it’s rolling fast towards the red goal, with Jackson just behind. Keith Hutchins, the goalie, stands up from his cross-legged position on the goal-line and sticks his gloved-hands out into the air.

‘Come out! Come out!’ shouts the sports master hurtling down the pitch towards the goal.

Keith Hutchins doesn’t come out, but stands stock still on his goal-line, smack-bang in the middle as the attacker approaches. He looks uncertain, bent forward, hands out in front, swaying to the left, swaying to the right. Jackson draws nearer with the ball at his feet. Keith Hutchins trembles. Jackson shoots the ball hard and smacks it into the net at the top-right corner. Keith Hutchins pauses, then dives down to the left.

‘Hutchins! You idiot! I told you to come out!’ shouts the sports master.

Keith Hutchins looks sheepish and retrieves the ball from the back of the net. The goal scorer runs towards his team mates, arms in the air, issuing forth a great whelp of delight. He’s hugged, back-slapped and has his hair ruffled. Then the reds all retreat to their side of the centre line for the game to re-commence. One-nil.

Billy picks up his sports bag. He’s seen enough. He wanders round the edge of the pitch to behind Keith Hutchins’s goal where a ball has slipped through the back of the net. He puts down his bag and taps the ball between his feet then knocks it high into the air. As it falls, he lets it bounce down from head to knee and back to foot, where he holds it at rest, before letting it drop and firing it into the back of the net.

‘Hey, you boy!’ he hears the sportsmaster scream, ‘leave that ball alone and get yourself off home!’

‘It slipped through the net, Sir. I’m just passing it back’, replies Billy

‘I’ll give you ‘slipped through the net’, boy. Now hoppit! Go home!’

‘Yes, Sir.’

Billy turns his back to the pitch and wanders back towards the schoolyard with the cries and shouts slowly dimming in his ears. He’s churning the game over in his mind thinking, ‘that Andrew Jackson, now he’s a good player, but why Mark Tyler’s on the team – I’ll never know.’

He crosses the schoolyard and reaches the drive just as a red mini rolls down. It’s Mr. Slater, his art teacher. The car stops beside Billy. Mr. Slater winds down the window and leans out:

‘Not gone home, yet, Billy?’ he asks.

‘No, Sir.’ says Billy.

‘So, why are you still hanging around here?’

‘I went to watch the football, Sir,’ answers Billy.

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr Slater looks at Billy. Billy looks away.

‘You play football, Billy?’ Mr. Slater asks, softly.

‘Yes, Sir – with my friends down the park.’

‘But not with the school team?’

‘No Sir.’

‘Oh. I see.’

Mr. Slater looks thoughtfully at Billy. He’s a young man, though a middle-aged man to Billy, and takes a real concern in all the school kids – even if they do joke about the way he manages to fit his lanky six-foot frame inside his tiny, red mini.

‘Why don’t you play with the team, Billy, if you like football so much?’ he asks.

‘Dunno, Sir.’ Billy replies, ‘guess I’m not good enough.’

‘Oh. I see.’ says Mr. Slater.

He retracts his head; pulls his arms back through the open window, and settles himself back in his seat, placing both hands on the steering wheel. He turns his head a last time towards Billy:

‘O.k. Well, get yourself home then Billy, and see you tomorrow.’ he says.

‘Yes, Sir.’ replies Billy.

Mr. Slater drives off with a wave and a quick toot-toot.

Billy continues alone along down the drive. At the school gate, he can still hear the sports master’s voice yelling out instructions and peeping his whistle, but even that dies out after he crosses the road and walks up the path opposite the school that passes between two rows of back gardens. He lives in a house at the end, on the left. They have tall side-wall there, rising above the garage to include their recent bedroom extension. Facing the path, it’s just perfect for kicking a ball against.

Arriving home he throws his schoolbag onto the floor under the kitchen table. That’s where it normally lives, until his mother screams at him to take it upstairs to him room. He looks around for his mother, then down at his shoes, and the muddy marks they’ve made on the kitchen floor. But mother’s nowhere to be seen, just his sister watching television on the living room sofa with a schoolbook open across her knees and felt tip pens spread out over the cushions, so he wipes the muddy marks off the floor with a sponge, and dabs a little at his shoes before going back out into the drizzly rain.

He finds his football in a flowerbed nestled beneath a rose-bush, just half-an-inch from an enormous, brutal spike. Gingerly he lifts the ball out, kneading it to check for a puncture. It’s fine. He exits the garden, by the side gate, and kicks the ball hard against the wall. It bounces back, directly to his feet. Again-and-again he kicks that ball, loosing himself in his sport. He hears the crowd cheer his stupendous passes; hears their gasps as his shots fly just over the crossbar, hears their roars of appreciation as he fires the ball perfectly into the back of the net.

The red brick wall is wide and large and every shot fired at it is shot straight back. A gentle tap, a lobbed high ball, a rocket blaster – all are returned. Impassable and unbreachable, the wall stands before him, impenetrable, blocking out the sky; perfect for his solitary game. No goal needed, no defenders to stand in his way no schoolmaster’s whistle to blow him offside. He kicks the ball hard again, imagining Keith Hutchins standing there in goal as he blasts the ball past his head. The ball returns, he skilfully traps it, turns on his heels, dribbles a few yards, turns and shoots – GoOAL!

Billy continues shooting at the wall until the light begins to fades. He sees his mother return home, who scolds him for ruining his school shoes and tells him to come in straightaway to get washed in time for tea. His brother arrives home on his bike having cycled back from secondary school. Billy asks him to kick the ball with him after tea. But he’s too old and serious now for such silly games and anyway, mother over-hears and says a definitive –

‘No!’ with her arms tightly folded across her chest, ‘your brother has homework to do and you still haven’t cleaned your dirty shoes.’

‘But mum..’

‘Do as your mother says,’ he hears his father growl from the hallway, which instantly stops any further complaints.

Never mind, tomorrow, he knows, the boys will be back in the schoolyard and at the weekend they’ll be down at the park. They’ll practice shooting and headers – him, Pete, Barry and Nicholas – and if they’re in luck they’ll take on other local lads in a game. And if they can’t make it, he’ll play solo with the brick wall as the opponent’s defence.

As it happens, his friends can’t join him at the weekend for they have a football match to play against another school. So, Billy keeps shooting at the wall; that hard, unbreachable, red brick wall, all weekend, until the sun goes down.

In fact, even when Billy’s school friends also become too old and serious for such silly games, he keeps shooting at that wall. And even when school days are long over, he keeps shooting at that wall. He has a stream of temporary jobs in warehouses, factories and pubs, but they don’t stop him shooting at that wall, aiming higher, but never breaking through. Even after he marries, and two years later gets divorced, he keeps shooting at that wall; that damned wall that blocks any progress, that continually stands in his way.

For a while Billy’s shots become more ferocious, as if trying to break down the wall. He grows angry at the wall and throws his whole weight behind the ball to belt it as hard as he can. But still it stands. Then he ignores it, hoping it will dissipate into thin air allowing him to pass through. But still it stands. So he studies it, analyzing its form and structure, trying to find its weak point to allow him to pass through. But still it stands. Looking for answers he monitors his brother and his friends, Barry, Pete and Nicholas, who have all long dispensed with the wall and moved into the realms of professional married men attending board meetings designing strategies and discussing production plans. But still the wall stands and still he keeps shooting at it; until, finally, accepting defeat, he gives up.

Billy sits alone on the bus station steps, swinging his legs over the side and poking a finger through a hole in his trouser leg to pick at a scabby knee. It’s a dull, dreary day with a grey, formless sky and a faint drizzle hangs in the air in fine silvery threads. He sits, idly watching and waiting; just hanging around. He reaches into a bag at his side and brings out a can of strong lager. Pulling back the ring, he cracks it open and feels the potent liquid glide down his throat with a lip-smacking ‘ahh’.


Neolithic Martigues

The Nerthe range of hills stretches west fom Marseille. and shows evidence of human occupation way back into mesolithic days.  Here, at ‘Font-aux-pigeons’, a large  overhanging cliff providing shelter and protection, 300 mesolithic dwellers were encamped around 6,000-5,000 B.C.  They were hunter-gatherers with highly developed toolkits including large stone choppers for animal butchering and skinning to small micro-liths (plus bone) of awls and burins for the making of clothes.

The range of hills comes to an end above Martigues as they look down the Etang-de-Berre.  This small site at Mourre-du-Bouef was once inhabited around 4-5 millenium B.C.   By mesolithic hunter-gatherers or neolithic farmers?  Probably a blend of both.  Revolutionary anatolian agricultural techniques (re-sowing part of what you reap) had not yet swept this way.  But they soon would – to change the world.  They would arrive either by incoming migrants, or by cultural dispersal and infusion.  Therein lies a particular archeological debate.  Anyway, here, above Martigues, selective harvesting, plus the rearing of sheep and goats, was probably already engaged in.

Hill tops were safe places to set up camp.  Attackers could be seen from afar.  They were also good places to survey animal movements, either searching for prey or water, or following migration trails.  This was still a good while before the coming of the Celts and before the first site at Martigues was built on the banks of the Etang-de-Berre at ‘Tholon’.  At this time, coming down to the shores of the etang, for fish and shell-fish, was a risky business.  Wild animals and unfriendly neighbours were also in the area and could possibly attack.  Of course, the etang was slightly smaller in those days.  Waters were still rising after the last ice-age, which had trapped huge water resources in the northern ice caps.  Their retreat was a process that lasted several thousand years.   But by the neolithic period, beginning around the 4th millenium B.C.,  levels were not so different than they are today.


Several other neolithic sites in the area concurrently existed e.g.  the sites at Collet-Redon and Ponteau nestling on the plains.  They are each separated by several kilometres, which perhaps explains the separation needed to share out the natural resources between the communities.  Today, evidence of their existences can be found as a jumble of stones, the remains of foundation walls, semi-hidden amongst gorse and within a woody grove.  A lot of imagination, and archeological analysis, is required to picture the lives and hardships of the people who first gathered those stones and from them, created their lodgings.

The Celts arrived early first millenium and set up their own neolithic bases, rearing sheep and planting seed.  Protection continued to be an important consideration.  In choosing this rocky peninsular at Tamaris, overlooking the Mediterranean sea, the ‘Avatiques‘ who lived here chose well:


In fact, this is my favourite site.  The peninsular juts out into the Mediterranean – literally translated as:  ‘Middle of the earth’.  This may be a sea, and not an ocean, but it is still very large.  However, with a little imagination one can face east towards Italy and beyond, or west towards Spain, or south across the wide expanse towards north Africa and imagine the flimsy sailing boats of antiquity struggling against the waves and currents.  Sometimes they were shipwrecked, leaving their hulls and cargo deep beneath the waters.   Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans, Iberians, Carthaginians… sailing the seas for trade and exploration.


A hillside in today’s town of St. Pierre-les-Martigues was another good site for a settlement, being shaded amoungst trees, and built on rocky slopes.  Ramparts fortified the site, dated around the 6th century B.C. , making it an ‘oppidum‘ .   Like Tamaris, this site was also inhabited by the Avatiques.  Presumably, then, the threat came from pre-Celtic neolithic dwellers of the region – or possibly the Greeks.  My knowledge here is a little shakey!


The Greeks arrived mid 7th century BC and found a charming spot the other side of Martigues at St. Blaise.   This site stands on a hill top plateau, amoungst pine trees and is situated between two peaceful etangs. This idyllic site too had previously been occupied by Celts, but the Greeks ‘kind of took it over’ and it grew and grew, finally becoming a town encompassing 40 hectares.  Stone to build the site was chiselled out from the rock along the coast and transported inland.  Similarly was stone acquired to built the site of Marseille, 40 kms to the west.  The ancient chisel marks are still evident on close inspection.


A group of inhabitants moved out towards the shores of the Etang-du-Berre.  This is the site of Tholon, now under renovation.  It was the first site settled in Martigues.  Then ‘L’ile’ (the ‘island’) too became inhabited and grew in size and importance.  From here, the history of the town of Martigues truly begins.


Then the Romans arrived, stretching out across the south of France, creating a new Roman province (Provence), before stretching north and finally subdueing the Gauls.  In Martigues they dug out the swampy land between the Etang and the Mediterranean, making the first navigable canal.  Further north at Glanum they took over an impressive Celtic site over looked by the ‘Les Alpilles’ range of hills.  The site had been here since the 7th century B.C. when it was constructed around a water well where the Celtic god ‘Glan’ was said to live, along with his benevolant companions – ‘the Glanic mothers‘.  For a while, under the Greeks, it became Hellenistic.  It then became Roman under Emperor Augustus.


Festival fun in Provence.

It may not be possible to count all the festivals, carnivals, craft fairs, street parties, outdoor music events, firework shows, marching parades and processions, historical re-enactments, and corridas, in all the town, villages and communes of Provence … there are just so many.  So, whilst India is normally credited with being the country having the most festivals, in terms of density per square mile, Provence must be a good contender for that title.

I was informed of this, though in not quite so many words, by my friend Hubert Tabutiaux.  Hubert has photographed numerous Provence festivals and he exhibits them on his internet blog.  This is a perfect visual guide to the region and to the many events taking place there throughout the year.  Anyone planning a trip to Provence should consult his site in advance.

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Summer is the time for most festivals, but the partying season really begins back in February, the month containing that religious period of abstinence known as lent.  Traditionally, only vegetarian meals are eaten during this time. Meat (‘carō’ in Latin; ‘carne’ Italian, as in ‘carnivore’ and ‘carnal’) is tabooed. Etymologically,carnival’ thus signifies the occasion when meat is taken off the meal time menu.

In our gregorian calendar, lent begins on ‘Ash Wednesday’. The day before is ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (‘pancake day’ in England), whose date varies from 3 February to 9 March depending on lunar movements.   Shrove Tuesday takes its name from the old English term ‘to shrive’, meaning ‘to confess sins and receive absolution’. Lent, this period of fasting and reflection, then lasts for forty days until Easter.

But astronomy and religious origins apart, it is difficult to think of ‘Shrove Tuesday’ without reference to the great ‘Mardi Gras(‘Fat Tuesday’) celebrations in New Orleans or Rio de Janeiro – festivals and feasts taking place before the (‘lent’) fast.

In Martigues, my current home town in France, carnival day kicks off the summer season towards the end of March, not a month earlier as it perhaps should.  Ok.  So, dating precision has been thrown to the wind here to assure us of a few extra degrees of warm sunshine.  But then, further north still, London’s Notting Hill carnival (Europe’s largest) is put off even longer to take place on August Bank Holiday (Aug. 26th and 27th – in 2012). And why not?  Wet and windy carnivals are no fun.

And so, at the end of march, the Martigues’ streets become alive with cacophonic noise and disorderly ceremony as crazily-costumed carnival performers shuffle through a tunnel of neck-straining, photo-snapping observers.  Along the plantain-shaded avenue of ‘Jonquieres’; over the canal’s swing-bridge onto ‘L’ile’ (the island); across the following blue bridge and into the third town section of ‘Ferrieres’, then onto the town hall – with ‘oom-pa pah’s’ and big bass drums thumping out competing, often contradictory, beats; and with phalanxes of tambourine thwackers, handbell rattlers, castanet clackers, maracas shakers, congo and bongos drummers, shaking it to the left, shaking it to the right, samba style, as they dance slowly on through the watching crowds in their fancy dress innovations.

One can not attend such events without being stupefied by the colour and design of the costumes.  Nor, if one takes time to reflect, can one help but be astounded by the amount of work that goes into their creations.  For months, behind the scenes, cloth is being cut and sown, masks are being crafted and painted, headdresses of all shapes and sizes are being assembled, floats are being decorated, musicians are being instructed… etcetera and etcetera, by myriads of volunteers working late into the night to ensure success on the big day when it finally comes.

This enormous social effort involves hundreds of unpaid ‘man-hours’. There is no direct economic reward for peoples labour.  Rather, the reward is in the delight of all ‘pulling together’ to produce a spectacle for all to enjoy; spectators and performers.  When the events are historical re-enactments the attention to the minutest detail is exemplary.  Here, ‘authenticity’ is the key word and is striven for with materials, tools and techniques, for ‘processual history’ (another key term meaning actually ‘doing it’) is the means by which past cultures are better understood.  Hence not only costumes are reproduced, but also traditional crafts are displayed in being actively undertaken; food and drink is consumed which follow old times recipes; music and theatre is performed as our ancestors once did it, and, of course, the crowd-pulling battles are re-played with swords and shields, or spears and pikes, and smoke-bellowing canons to capture the thrill and the fright, of battles that have always occurred (sadly) since time began.

A further aspect to consider, if one takes the time to reflect, is that these occurrences (festivals, carnivals, fêtes etc) are non-hierarchical.  Sure, in role-playing scenes kings, serfs and servants may be chosen, but not to uphold some ‘real-time’ social hierarchy.  On the contrary, the underlying principle is one of social co-operation and reifying community spirit.


Those stunning Hawaiian cloaks (‘ahu’ulas) of half-a-million bird feathers, once made for royalty; those immense Egyptian pyramids and European medieval cathedrals; that China Wall, those Roman roads and aqueducts (the list is endless)…all served the establishment of hierarchical religio-political structures of power.  Not carnivals and festivals, though.  These are events of ‘the people’, for ‘the people’.

In fact, historically, both State and Church have held ambivalent sentiments regarding secular carnivals and festivals.  The State perhaps has worried about the policing of such affairs and for whose benefit they are being held – if not the state’s (see here).  Meanwhile, the church has often been suspicious of any ceremonial or ritual activity not under its control; ask any late Roman/middle-ages pagan (eg. see here , or here).  Famously, in Venice, to overcome feelings of oppression imposed by the Catholic Church, the wearing of masks began in order to guard anonymity and allow gambling, homosexuality and prostitution to take place without fear of condemnation. Here, in Martigues, with its strong Italian links (many Italians moved here as the town industrialized), and against its backdrop of Italian architectural styles, a Venetian carnival takes place once a year.  With beautiful costumes and masks the wearers (190 in 2012!) parade around town slowly, ostentatiously, flirtatiously; with eyes blackened behind the masks and keeping mute to hide their ages, nationalities and genders.  The people inside the costumes and behind the masks do not exist.  Only their exterior, flamboyant, exhibitionistic selves are seen, in public, swanking around town like proud peacocks.

On a economic/political note, Martigues has a communist town council.  That’s not uncommon down here. Taxation in France, like anywhere I guess, is a complex and sometimes contentious issue. Some money goes north to central government for redistribution and some is retained by the local council.  Actually, quite a lot is retained by the local council – especially the money obtained from taxing local industry and the ports; which adds up to a tidy sum.  But, in keeping with communist ideals, the inhabitants of Martigues do receive benefits from this revenue.  Free local bus and library service, for example, plus a wealth of summertime events such as mentioned in this blog.

Two major firework shows, within a week of each other, light up the skies in July – not to mention the smaller ones taking place on local beaches.

France’s ‘fête de la musique’ is now internationally renowned as an event taking place throughout the country, but throngs do flock to Martigues for the event where they can enjoy fairground rides, bars and restaurants, and the town itself.


Then, in mid-summer, the town invites traditional folk musicians from around the world to perform at its annual ‘Festival de Martigues’.  Just to give an example, the festival in 2012 included musicians from Cuba, Papua New Guinea, the Philipines, Ireland, Russia and a forty-strong male voice choir from Wales!   Some events are for ticket holders and held in a temporary stadium built along a canal, other events are held on the streets and are free.

But Martigues is only one example of the many.  Perhaps, due to its finances, it holds more festivals than others, but not a weekend goes by (in summer) where somewhere, something exciting is going on.

Last weekend, my friend Hubert invited me to a festival in ‘Pernes-les-fontains. It was superb!  The whole town, from young-to-old, took to the streets in old-style period costume of one hundred years ago: Stone masons, blacksmiths, farriers, policemen, serving maids, washer-women, wheat-threshers, cyclists (on ancient racing bikes, penny-farthing and motorbikes), drapers, post-office workers, mid-wives, shop keepers, babies in prams, boys chasing girls, grandfathers looking hot and bothered… Everybody, it seemed, from the town, was involved in some way, however small, however central.  Social co-operation and the display of the community spirit at its utmost.  Despite the humungous crowds, I was over-whelmingly impressed.

There are still many more Provence festivals for me to see and experience, and perhaps Hubert will lead me to some of these. I know there’s several lavender festivals, wine festivals, and the summertime transhumance festivals (celebrating an old custom of the leading of sheep from valley floors to mountainsides) that I would still like to see.  Plus, I still haven’t seen the gypsy festival at St.Maries-de-la-Mer… or the one in Arles to crown the new Arlesienne queen… or the truffle festival in Uzès.   There’s just so many…!

Alternatively, like anyone reading this and interested in Provence, I can visit Hubert’s site and find a good festival to visit that way.  Here it is again, in case you forgot:

Hubert’s Photos of Provence

Thanks, Hubert.


A Love Poem

A Five-Minute Affair

I met a girl today;

Or rather our eyes did

And lingered together across a crowded bar.

And though not a word was spoken or said,

Our unthought thoughts were easily read.


Eyes searched eyes,

Through smoke-filled dim light,

Holding fast their gaze with a passion.

And though not a word was said or spoken,

I dared not look away lest the spell be broken.


A girl of fields and forests,

She seemed to me,

Of dew-dropped flowers in a meadow.

And though not a sound passed from our lips,

We stared, as lovers, between two passing ships.


Dark was her hair,

Darker still were her eyes;

Enthralling, entrancing, engaging.

And though her lips passed not a sound,

We spent that moment – eternally bound.


The juke-box blare,

The pool balls’ clunks,

Even happy, laughing voices went unnoticed.

For whilst nothing was uttered and nothing was heard,

Heart strings fluttered like fluttering birds.


Then it was over,

For with a friend’s gentle prod,

She finished up her drink and was gone.

And though it was nothing, nothing at all,

I leant back empty, alone on my stool.

Religious – to be or not to be

Having once been told that I sit on a fence, concerning religion, by a christian for whom, like an on/off switch, you either are religious or not, this has stayed with me over the years.  And being in Italy recently, where I was declared as being anglican simply because I was English, and where my Italian was not good enough to explain that actually I was quite irreligous but that as a social phenomena, and with a strong religious family background, I found religious practices quite interesting,  I therefore let myself be pigeon-holed as being, indeed, anglican.  But I’m not anglican.  In fact, I’m not sure how I would pigeon-hole myself in terms of religion and I don’t see why I should.  It’s a bit like appreciating a good game of football, but not supporting any one side.  My appreciation is of the skill and strategy of the players, not on some totemic affinity with individual teams.

Sitting-on-the-fence can sound indecisive, or worse, fearing to take a plunge in committing to beliefs.  Maybe that’s true, or because my beliefs need to be founded on something more rationally solid than religious beliefs tend to be, without negating the experiential factor.  You can challenge that comment if you like.   Anyway, not wishing to diverge, the view is clearer and more objective when sitting on the fence.  And you soon find there are many other fences to sit on too – as many as you like, in fact.  Why limit yourself?  You can jump down on to either side of these fences, if you wish to dabble in any ritual; inhale their intoxicating fervours; join in with singing out praises, meditate in prayer upon life’s mysteries – before returning to day-jobs.  Irreverent?  Not really.  My ‘sitting on the fence’ is of a reflexive type, possibly as a ‘multi-perspectivist’:   That’s just a phrase I stole from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz.  But I like it.  So, no, I don’t purposefully go out looking for religious activities to take part in just for the fun of it.  Honestly.  But if I come across them on my life’s travels, I’ll watch them, with interest, from a non-judgemental, sitting-on-the-fence viewpoint.  Why? You might ask – apart from being a good spot to take photos and play at being a social anthropologist?

Example:  In 1953 this statue of the Madonna, then on the wall in a poor couple’s house in Syracuse, Sicily, began to weep.  It continued for three days over which time many people visited and many were cured of a whole range of ailments from blindness to lameness.  The Vatican, under Pope Pius X11 declared it a miracle.  The statuette is now enshrined at the ‘Santuario Madonna Delle Lacrima’ where people come from all over the world for blessing.   Irrational belief?  More tactful, in Syracuse, to show interest and reserve judgement.

In fact, considering ‘truths’ about religion is generally a case of reserving judgement, in my case anyway.  And over the years I’ve absorbed an endless, life-long stream of experience (from church services to pagan rituals), reading analysis, discussion and debate (from pub bars to university anthropology lectures), to help form my thoughts whenever the question arises; which is actually quite rare these days.  Sure, I’ve been swayed over the passing decades, by reasoning, sentiment and appreciation of others personal histories, both for and against religious practices.  When I hear christian creationists ignore any of the understandings science has brought to life on our planet; or see on television other ‘fundamentalists’ chanting fanatically on mass, I prefer to remain distinctly apart from religious ideologies.  But when I gaze out to sea on a clear moonlit night, with the stars displayed above across the dark celestial canopy;  or when I enter ‘hallowed’ ground such as Stonehenge, Westminster Abbey, or some ancient Greek temple perched on a Mediterannean cliff-edge, I am touched by a sense of ‘eternal peace’.   And this you may choose to call ‘religiosity’.   But it doesn’t make me ‘religious’.

A few years ago I overheard a conversation between an christian and an aetheist.  I mention no names.  The aetheist was telling the christian that their beliefs were culturally determined (an american brand of christianity) and that if she had been an Indian she would have been a Hindu, a Saudi – a Muslim, a Chinese – a buddhist etc.  What he forgot to include was that if she had been a scientist, like him, working in western business practices, she may also have been an aetheist.  My point being that if you take the cultural determinism approach, it works both ways; for the christian and the aetheist.

I don’t hold with that.  Individual choice exists.  Culture is not the ultimate determinant of our beliefs.  The individual/society dualism has long been explored by sociologists with human action (‘agency’) placed at many points along the line between the two.  Others may call this the ‘creative zone’, where ‘self’ interacts with society, reporting upon it, manipulating it, using it, symbolizing it, attacking it etc.   Recall , for example, that many, many Germans living under Hitler’s National Socialism did actually oppose it, and died for their beliefs.  We are not all blindly-following, docile sheep obeying dominant discourses à la Michel Foucault (or ‘soma addicts’ in Aldoux Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’) ; but sentient, reflexive, human beings .   And relating these ideas/theories to my own personal existence is a continuous theme within my own reading and developing perception of ‘self’.  ‘Becoming’, rather than ‘being’, is a slow process taken through life and one I enjoy taking.  I therefore prefer to reflect upon these ideas, perhaps even integrate them into my existence, but not to dogmatically rest upon one particular outlook.  Change, as both Heraclitus and Lao Tzu said millenia ago, is the natural flow of life.  One can become a Hindu in bible-belt America or a Christian in Saudi, if one’s personal beliefs can withstand the cultural forces being applied to conform to the general trend.  People do.  It’s called being individual.

A couple of decades ago I attended a religious function.  It was a big affair in Sheffield’s town hall, packed out with (5,000?) christians.  This was the last of five days exploring the works of Jesus and the speaker, an american evangelist, spoke about using the power of the Holy Spirit to perform miracles.  Then there was a hush as he invoked the Spirit to descend.  A woman from the choir behind screamed (apparently possessed by demons; so the evangelist said), and people started fainting.  Sitting watching, I was obviously bemused by it all, for a lady came and asked if she could say the Lord’s prayer with me.  I agreed to this and we did this together, myself feeling other hands rest on my shoulders and head as we recited the words.  Then the lady cried, ‘halleluja, you are now in the kingdom of heaven.’  I politely thanked her and she moved on.  I then wandered around a while, seeing many praying groups with hands in the air crying out ‘hallelujas’… and left.

Interesting?  Yes.  And powerful too. But not really my thing.  I went to the pub.

Recently I attended another religious frenzy.  This was at the San Sebastian festival at Palazzola Accreide in Sicily.  Basically, a mass was first held to the saint, then everyone left the church to stand in a square at the bottom of the church steps (again 5,000?).  The church doors were then closed, all lights extinguished, and darkness descended.  Then the doors burst open with great bursts of light and fireworks, and  a statue of the saint was carried out of the church, down the steps and around the town in procession.  The crowd went wild with ‘hosannas and hallelujas’.  Saint Sebastian was resurrected!

Interesting?  Absolutely.   Thrilling even.  But only as an observer.  I (we) left and went to a restaurant.

In fact, the power of the crowd at such events can not be under-estimated.  Call it ‘collective conscience’ if you like, and I guess it’s the same when caught up in a good football crowd or any other mass gathering.  Indeed, sometimes it can appear downright frightening, as with observing youtube clips of those mass Hitler or North Korean or KKK rallies.  Or those muslim effigy/flag burning crowds baying for blood and death.  Perhaps on a less frightening scale, Billy Graham (american evangelist) rallies too have drummed up incredible intensities of emotions with rhetoric declaring the approach of armaggedon, the forthcoming plagues, and the need to repent if you don’t want to suffer the consquence of eternity in hell.

But my personal sense of individuality doesn’t go for all that – I saw Billy Graham three times at Sheffield’s Brammal Lane football stadium to check him out.  In fact, as in the Sheffield town hall occassion, I personally fight against the persuasive power of the crowd.  My individual beliefs are not to be dictated to, preached to, or coerced.  They simply evolve, reflexively, through my life-time as I grow older.  And yes, I do listen and read extensively to the opinions of others which inspire and provoke my thoughts.

Undoubtedly, religion is a power.  And it is very easy to concentrate on the negative consequences of this power.  I dread to ascribe a number, if at all possible, to the millions (or billions?), who have been killed in its name.  Perhaps, like ‘clean’ nuclear power, it would be better to leave religion well alone for the damage it can, and has, wreaked, in mankind’s hands – although apologies and acceptences of past errors are long time coming by those who hold the batons of such power.

But religion, whether ‘true’ or not, can also (again like nuclear power) be a power for the good.  Many charitable works have been undertaken through religious organizations and many lives have been improved through acceptence of ‘ religious faith’.  Religion has helped build and unify communities (e.g. in frontier zones of the US and Australia).  Religion has been instrumental in encouraging acts of reconciliation between broken communities (e.g. Northern Ireland).  Religion has helped many to cope with fear and persecution (e.g. from evil dictatorships to Guantanamo Bay).  Religion has got people through those ‘hard times’ (e.g. life in early industrial Britain).  Religious sentiment has produced some of the most remarkable monuments in the world (architectural, literature, music and the arts).  Religion has given meaning and humanity to lives, broken or not.

Which is all quite remarkable for something fundamentally based on ‘faith’, rather than any strict code of rational thought.  And therein (I feel) also lies, sadly, its susceptability to being abused.  No proof – just rhetoric, drama, theatrics…and ‘faith’.  And with little accountability of the leaders.  Sorry, but how often have child-abusing priests been quietly hushed up?  How often do muslim imams rant against the sins of western capitalization whose knowledge of the ins-and-outs of 21st century macro/micro economics is based on reading a 7th century Koran.  How often are appraisals carried out on church leaders, as they are with school teachers, to inform them when ‘acts of worship’ and/or sermons need ‘tightening up’ –  I personally remember one particular priest being defrocked for leading his flock astray (see here).  Interesting tale, which I mention only to illustrate the potential dangers of holding religious power and not being held accountable.  Finally he was, following media revelation. In most other professions accountability to (earthly) superiors is almost a daily affair.

So yes, once ‘myth’ turned a corner and became ‘religious truth’, old stories (that had been employed for aeons to illustrate certain ‘ontological’ notions relating to human existence and its emergence from an earlier chthonic state), changed in function and became politicized.  The process parallels, in its evolutionary aspect, Thomas Kuhn‘s changing scientific paradigms.  However, changing religious paradigms came to incorporate the manipulation of power over citizens and subjects .  So, all those Indoeuropean and early Mediterranean stories relating to ‘cultural heros’ (who could transverse cosmological domains between the heavens, the earth and the underworld)  emerging from caves, and having rhetorical powers of magical speech to bring life and culture to the darkness of ignorance), became, in time, and as communities grew into towns and cities, tales of cultural inclusion, or exclusion.  For if you believed this version, you belonged to this group of believers.  If you didn’t you and you preferred that version, you were excluded; even stoned or burnt as a heretical outsider.

And there were several Indoeuropean/Mediterranean versions too, from the Norse, to the Celtic, the Egyptian, the Greek, the Judeo-Christian, the Muslim… each with several, minor, regional variations.  All, however, having so much in common, that they seem to spring from a common Indoeuropean source of several thousand years ago – just as one ‘Sir William Jones’ (Sanskrit scholar and linguist) once first noted about all european, and several asian, languages.  The distinction between teleological and regeneration-themed religious outooks came sometime later,  splitting Celtic and Indian theologies from the Greek, Judeo-Christian and Muslim. How some mythological versions then became so politicized is the story of emerging civilisations and disputes involved to keep hold of power – over neighbours and one’s own people; as the story of the Popes and the Holy Roman Empire illustrates so well.   And somewhere along the line, explaining human arrival from chthonic origins by way of sweet little bedtime stories, or campfire tales, was discarded and exchanged for usage in international power games.  Crazy world!

Actually, regeneration-based religions (e.g. druidic and pagan religions worshipping the cyclical aspect of nature) have blended and merged with teleological outlooks.   The two are not mutually exclusive.  ‘Resurrection’ and ‘born again’ concepts are central to Christianity, which is strongly teleological in leading towards an ‘end days’ theology resulting in an  eternal paradise.  Cybele worship (of Anatolian origin and once the official religion of the Roman empire), in which Cybele resurrected her son Attis as a pine tree, rests on the historical boundary between nature regeneration and person (man-God) resurrection.  Interesting how the teleological outlook began to be adopted at the same time as writing and the setting down of records, began.

With writing, firstly done by merchants to keep tallies of stock transactions and scribes for the recording of king lists (e.g Sumerian), flexible, oral traditions passed into fixed, definitive accounts.  Myths changed form too, becoming creative detailed accounts (e.g. Gilgamesh) rather than simply accounting for cosmologies and creations, and  providing reasons for human suffering (theodicies).  They became historical accounts of peoples, thereby creating time-lines.  And once these were laid down, a future-line too could be envisaged.  Not just by examining animal entrails to predict an occuence in the near future, but also  by introducing a messianic notion.  Of course.  Many myths previously detailed a cultural hero bringing humanity out of ignorance, so a new  cultural hero would lead humanity into the next stage.  Hence, whereas backward looking myths explained human origins as stemming from the uncivilized and savege ‘heart of darkness’ (to employ  the Joseph Conrad/ ‘Apocalypse Now’ metaphor), there now became a future stage of human development attainable by following certain messianic leaders.  Not a physical or intellectual development, but a ‘spiritual’ development, beyond the ‘age of reason’, paralleling the way music and art leads us to ‘higher’ (or ‘different’) planes. 

Salvation and redemption, is the key within the Christian religion, by confessing sins and acknowledging Jesus as that Messianic leader.  In Islam it is reached by following the prophet Mohammed and their five pillar of wisdom (praying five times a day, fasting at Ramadan, monotheism, charity, undergoing a Hajj pilgrimmage to Mecca).  But there have been other ways too.  Post-second world war ‘Cargo cults’ of the south Pacific took believers forward by copying the observable behaviours of American military personal stationed there, such as taping away on boxes like they’d observed Americans do on type-writers.  Alternatively, in dollar-led America, for some it has become by actually ‘buying’ steps up the ladder of enlightenment from the Church of Scientology.   As I said – crazy world!

 So yes (fast-forwarding back to modernity), give me that ‘ol’ time religion’ and keep the faith alive and burning – that’s the key, particularly when done through action and ritual activity.  This is also important where ‘spiritual growth’ and ‘personal development’ are seen to go hand-in-hand (I guess for many they do), and where religious institutions work to survive like any business or political institution.  So yes, put on  good show, power out the church organ, ring our the bells, parade through the streets in glowing Hare Krishna gowns, speak out with silver tongues of first-class salesmen*, bow heads to the floor in acts of submission five times a day, hold hands in fellowship, chant the chants (gregorian, buddhist, pagan), dance around the wickerman, consult the oracles, enter shamanistic trances, perform ritual offerings… anything active and participatory to keep the faith alive; anything communitarian, anything dealing with the profundities of human spirit and experience.  And in the right hands, it can be a good thing.  I can see that.  Sharing and supporting each other through the joys and trials of life, emotionally, symbolically, or ritually, is part of our humanity.  But in the wrong hands, as with nuclear power, it can be terribly destructive.  We have seen that too.

(*No, I don’t wish to be cynical, for I appreciate the emotional, or ‘existential’ depth, religion gives to many in their lives. But those rich tv evangelists…ugh!)

 So, blind faith?  So what if it is?  Too much rationality in life can be boring and anyway, my faith in the safety of air flight is also a little blind.  OK.  Maybe not a fair comparison, for scientific rationale can not be applied to examining religion as it is to air flight.  But all those rationalizing – ‘Does God exist?’ type questions, go round and round in circles, as they have done since the days of Aristotle… or Aquinus…(and probably millenia before that), and I don’t blame anyone for just getting on with their beliefs; with faith rather than rationale.   Sure, Stephen Hawkins and Richard Dawkins don’t believe in God: One’s an astro-physicist, the other a biologist, and that’s their choices made within their chosen realms of thought.  But they could believe in God if they wanted to deify the ‘wow’ of experiencing the universe, or give it some ‘cosmic meaning’.

Still – I do think theologians and philosophers could give more appreciation to the findings of scientists regarding origins of the universe – also to those paleo-archeologists and neuro-anthropologists (et al) coming to terms with the origins of ‘mind and consciousness’.  I’m not completely sure why some (not all!) such thinkers tend to feel that their mental perambulations are superior, or automatically more correct.  In areas where science still struggles to find answers, such as ‘why’ the big bang occured, or ‘how’ organic ‘life’ emerged from a collection of inorganic molecules, a window opens for such theologians and philosophers to posit non-scientific answers and try to maintain their positions as ‘thinkers’ of credibility.  (example: see here.  Dawkins debates with Rowan Williams, the arch-bishop of Canterbury).  Without disregarding their religious wisdoms, which I personally find especially pertinent in such social areas as moralities and ethics, perhaps religious leaders should acknowledge more our scientific understandings, even if most lay people are not able to understand their technicalities, and if unable to  understand all the technicalities (who can?) – simply accept, with ‘faith’, scientistific theorizing.   That should not be so difficult.  Scientific ‘truths’ are, by definition and practice, more determined than theological ‘truths’, and having ‘faith’ in non-scientific points of view is something religious believers do quite readily do!

And so, the great debate between religon and science continues.  Not necessarily because ‘truth’ is still being determined, but because the credibility of the purporters of ‘truth’ is continuously on the line.  The more science advances into the realms once held  by religion, the more religious sympathizers retreat into non-determinative notions.  Therein lies the rub.

In brief: Scientific rationality is a choice, debated with rationale.  Faith is not to be debated with the same tools, and I leave it to those who have it.

My choice is to be curious, to question, and to muse upon certain issues.  Yes, there are so many strands of thought in the world that many life-times would be needed to consider them all.  Doesn’t that make life fascinating?  It does for me.

Why Travel?

 So – there’s this guy, a member of the Travelers Century Club and a friend of the family, who has travelled extensively around the world visiting more than 270 countries. I recently asked him whether he could summarize ‘in a nutshell’ what he thinks ‘makes people tick’.  Admittedly, that was asking a bit much,  for how can a simple one-liner sum up the entire human race?  Yet I felt that his insight, after so much travel, might shine particular light on ‘the human condition’.   A week later I received a reply, saying:  ‘The need to survive’.

I reflected upon this reply, seeing how it fitted in with my past anthropology studies – in particular Bronislaw Malinowski who believed that culture, by definition, itself was a survival mechanism designed to fulfil ‘Man’s’ biological needs. I’m not sure that’s exactly what my family friend meant, but he seemed somewhere in the same zone.  Anyway, I  then fell upon various internet sites discussing travelling per se. Why travel? That was a question occassionally raised. It took me back to my family friend who once stated in a newspaper article:

‘I guess a little part of me says: I’ve been there, done that, sent the postcard, smelled the coffee, worn the T-shirt. That’s how I am.‘ (Financial Times. 2010)

I can go along with that, along with getting the photo.  But now, with a little digging and browsing, I see that this question has been examined not only by bloggers, but by anthropology academics too.  The following is thus an attempted resumé of some ideas floating around this question:


Worldwide, a billion tourists are predicted for 2012, generating nearly 1 trillion dollars .

Travel is big business and it’s growing.



A trillion dollars!  That’s an awful lot of bucks!  I could buy a million super yachts for that – or a billion Skodas.

A billion tourists! That’s a huge amount of people needing an awful lot of ships, planes, coaches and trains to move them around – as well as an unimaginable quantity of pillows in an enormous number of hotels to put them all up.   But do they constitutes a cultural unity in any way?  Can they be defined as a single group holding certain values and behaviours in common?  Despite different motivations, is the urge to travel a universal human trait, something deeply embedded within our Homo sapiens psyche?  These are just some starting point questions; let’s see where this leads:


Firstly, traveller or tourist? What’s the difference?  ‘Travellers’ – as cultural inter-actionists vs ‘tourists’ – as passive cultural consumers?  Do you agree with that?  Or maybe that’s too simplified, ignoring intermediate categories?  Ok.  So, how about stating that voluntary aid workers, eco-tourists,  overseas holiday camp leaders, student exchange visitors, and global trotting language teachers etc. veer towards the more active end of the travel spectrum, whilst seekers of  ‘sun, sea and sex’ clog up the other end – as they do in the Spanish resorts; now little more than giant nightclubs encouraging the young to get drunk, high, laid, and vomit (see here).  And between these two extremes are the independant explorers travelling just for ‘the hell of it’ and the ‘culture vultures’ soaking up the grand architectural works; historical monuments; art, sculptures, music, and theatrical performances, on show around the world.   How does that sound?  Yes, I agree – categories blurr and overlap.


Moving on:  Chris Guillebeau, on his site (see here), is quite clear in stating his ‘whys’ we travel:

Because when you leave behind the familiar, you’re changed by the foreign.

– Because comfort zones become constricting zones over time.

– Because the world was meant to be experienced, not imagined.

– Because you’ll meet people who are different than you.

And his article has elicited numerous supportive responses.  I cite a few:

“It’s that desire to expand, expand, expand and not grow complacent.”

– “Travel inspires me through art, architecture and landscape.”

– “Going to a café next door can be a travelling experience.”

 – “Getting lost can help you find yourself.”

I agree, feeling that there is no single answer to why people travel.  But I’ll add a few more responses of my own –  all of which may be encountered at different times in our lives.  Presumably reasons why we travel change as we age.  Young people setting off on long ‘gap-year’ trips with rucksacks and shoe-string guide books, differ from the older, retired voyagers who prefer something more sedate:

1. Simple curiosity: The grass is greener, fresher, and different – elsewhere.

2. Flying the nest: Experiencing independence.  Was certainly true for me at 19 years old.

3. Adventure: Experiencing life to the full. Travel’s a buzz!  Exploration a thrill!

4. Becoming ‘exotic’ by entering the ‘exotic other’: Even David Beckham had his ‘sarang’ wearing moment.

5. Understanding ‘self’ by being in different settings: Existential awareness building and testing.

6. Genuine interest in other cultures: Fascinating – the food, music, architecture, countryside, people etc.  

7. Competitiveness: Traveling one-upmanship in ticking off destinations visited. Maybe, for some?

8. In our blood: An inherent survival mechanism we’ve never lost.

9. Getting away from it all: Blissful breaks from work, beat the winter blues, visit a friend overseas.

10. Business: The professional travellers, sports people, musicians etc.


Having drawn up this list I now find two underlying elements.  The experiential and the cultural – which seems pretty evident since we’re discussing travel.  But I’m stressing the personal and individual experience, even if we travel as part of a group.  For Spanish resort young clubbers (12,000 Brits per year in Magaluf alone) it’s reportedly (see here, again)  an unrestrained, individual rite of passage into adulthood.  For the more sedate coach loads touring the sites, cities, and stunning views, it’s the ‘spiritual pilgrimmage’ element.  Then again, let’s not forget the package tourists managing to fit in an organized cultural fix at least once within their yearly routines, mainly to towns with a beach and a few ‘local dish’ restaurants – and the more distant voyagers getting their kicks from completely disappearing off the screen of westernized life.  The travel/tourism experience is personal and individual for them too (by changing their time/space identities), in different doses.

This underlying element, to spice it up, I’ll call ‘living on the edge’ – in referring to the risks we take in going outside our normal, known, safe environments.  Sure, we take precautions and may not stray too far off the well-trodden tourist tracks, but the enticement to explore just round the corner and view the unknown is, to varying degrees, at heart of the travel impulse. We can’t ignore the heart-flutters that accompany travel curiosity – remember how it killed the cat?

Yes, if there is one thing that unites the one billion tourists and travelers it’s this ‘living on the edge’ factor.  Who does not feel that tingle of excitement in going off to a foreign land?  The professional, perhaps, for whom flying is more akin to commuting.  But for the rest of us, the adrenaline flows as we approach an airport, mentally preparing to fly.  It does for me anyway.   Then, as the plane takes off and we enter the blue skies above to look down upon white, fluffy clouds below, the horizon is far, far distant.  Yet, we are heading towards that horizon, and beyond!

Actually, not being a well-seasoned flier, myself, taking a plane has not reached the level of the mundane like that of taking a bus or a train.  And I’d venture to suggest that’s  true for the global majority.  In fact, I suggest that the flying experience, for the majority, isn’t that far removed from a religious experience.  It’s certainly an efficient means of transferring us into an ‘anti-structure’ (‘liminoidal’) time and place beyond our ordinary working lives.  Ok. I’m employing an anthropological concept here (Turner.V. 1967) to define ritual transition zones and the experience (eg. rites of passage, for Turner) of passing through them. But traveling, in the sense that it changes our outlooks and appreciations of the world, too can be considered as a ritual passage.  Perhaps the word ‘pilgrimmage‘ does best join the two concepts (religion and travel), and though seeped in sacred sentiment, in a secular context, by observing the routes to the ski resorts and beaches blocked by traffic in winter and summer, I see that the term has particular poignancy.

Travel, as Turner discusses with ritual process, feels tinged with danger.  Rationality tells us flying is the safest way to travel, but the heart beats faster as we board the plane because it’s taking us away.  Religious experience too requires daunting steps into unknowns – perhaps a slight fear of facing supernatural forces or coming close to an Absolute deity.  The only difference is that religious experience requires not a scientific rationality, but irrational ‘leaps of faith’ – whilst employing enculturally infused ‘awe’ for their efficacity.  However, in both contexts, there are hostesses/priestesses and the pilots/religious leaders organizing the event and guiding us every step of the way as we leave our known, comfortable, safe existences to explore other domains.   And thankfully so, for we can feel our safety more assured with their guidance.  And when we reach the other end, having transited an experiential reality, we arrive at a different place than from where we started – either spiritually or geographically/culturally.   For religious observers, spiritual enlightenment is the first step of a long, lifetime journey.   For travellers the flight out is just the beginning of a cultural journey from which one  changed.  And I’d say the same for tourists, to lesser extents.

Yes, of course, these days package tour trips to sunny resorts usually involve staying in hotels surrounded by familiar voices and other homeland cultural artefacts – from the bars and restaurant food, to the TV on the wall.  And they are far less adventurous than Himalayan trekking.  But then, not everyone is ready to go the whole hog in absorbing a completely new and different cultural experience.  So, in this travel context, home comforts are retained.  And anyway, who doesn’t enjoy the special treatment awarded by hotel staff or airline crew waiting on us hand-and-foot.  Indeed, perhaps some people travel solely for that reason:  To be pampered. And why not?  After a year’s hard graft at work we deserve it – although the commercialization of travel (tourism) with troops of holiday-makers swarming around the markets and complaining about the heat, the flies, the food, and the locals – can be rather annoying; as Monty-Python once explained (see here: from 2:00).     Yes, just a touch of adventurism, from a safe ‘experiential’ distance, may be prefereable to jumping in, feet first, and completely submerging oneself in a very different, even bizarre, culture.  Each to their own.  We’re not all Blashford-Snells!

‘Living on the edge’:   Adventure, to whatever degree we chose to take it.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Dabbling with the unknown and potential dangers, whilst retaining varying degrees of comfort and security.  ‘Living on the edge’:  Exploring social marginal zones – safely, in large tour groups from where we can observe, or as solitary integrating outsiders; welcomed in, but still outsiders nonetheless.  Yes, as a travel experience, marginal status itself can be a buzz.  Accepted within a new social group as outsiders we become the exotic and hence treated differently, even reverentially, than those belonging to that group.  Of course, cultural faux-pas are then easy to make and dealing with that risk, and their consequences, is elemental to ‘living on the edge’.  But with experience we learn to avoid them, or blunder through them, like unsocialized children, through fun, tom-foolery, and social conviviality, thereby presenting no danger, ourselves, as invitees, to our hosts.

             (image borrowed from travel tale site – see here)

Of course, marginalization of ethnic minorities into new cultures presents a whole different experience and discussion.  As travellers, or tourists, our inclusion into new cultures is transient.  Ex-pats and refugees (economic or persecuted) go through periods of exclusion and integration.  That is a different lived reality, or a perceived different lived reality anyway.  And that’s a different story.

The polemic to this discussion, though, is that whilst we bask in the sun, check out the local markets, dine on exotic cuisines, and view the sights, simmering under the superficiality of fabricated life is the effect tourism has on local communities: That is to say, how the influx of tourists and capital may change the infrastructure and politics of communities.  It does, you know.

Or, to anthropologize the process:  How the influx of tourists looking for the authentic ‘other’ changes the meaning of ‘authenticity’ itself.   In other words, how tourism in today’s postmodern world involves observing ‘creations of authenticity’, wherein false representations of local affairs (events put on as side-shows for the tourists) transform local communities in such a way that these fabrications become the realities.  This process is referred to as the ‘coca-colonization‘ of native ways of life, which, interestingly, also induces bilingualism, as locals take up jobs in the home tourist industry (waiters, tour guides etc).  Furthermore, the influx of visitors, whilst not always appreciated by locals, is more appreciated by those ‘milking’ the trade, finding work within tourism, and gaining in income and social status.  Hence, socio-cultural change is effected, but not necessarily in a bad way.  (Rapport, N & Overring, J.  2007)

For the good?  Well, when coastal dwellers are banned from there own beaches, fishing communitied denied traditional access to coral reefs, pastoralists expelled from traditional grazing areas, agriculturalists ejected from their lands for hotel construction, water resources depleted by tourist demands, when inquisitive eyes become intrusive, when western ways (drug use, prostitution etc) are emulated to induce a ‘polluted’ moral degredation, when locals complain of ‘apartheid’ (themselves becoming second-class citizens)… then resentment can flourish and tourism seen as a curse not for the good. Worse still when locals see their traditional cultures commercialized and degraded.   For the good?  Well, when local economies are revitalized and flourish due to the tourist industry – yes, then for the good. It can be a positive element when controlled.  Obviously it’s a political question. (MacClancey, J. 2002).

Yes, today’s postmodern world is increasingly synthetic and tourism plays a large role in this – for better or worse.  Cultures blend and merge through a borrowing, adapting, and mixing of symbolic forms which are globally spread and enter into our own cultures as daily seen images and designs; especially in advertising.  Don’t you just love those multiple Shiva arms emblazoned on a silver pendant?  It will look cool to wear that at some multi-cultural festival.   Yes, global heterogeneity is revelled in for its creative potential; even if the symbolisms are then lost as the aesthetics components alone are swiped or subverted.  But what the hell?  Sod the deeper meanings and just get off on the designs – man!   Those aboriginal dream-time designs look great on t-shirts, just as the didgeridoo goes great with a thumping electric bass.  And don’t those Amazonian Indians with their nose piercings and perokeet headresses, when adorning environmental posters, subliminally help eco-warriors ‘save the rain-forest’ campaigns. So let’s not consider our carbon footprint left in the skies as we jet off to the jungle, or the life-changing events imposed on ‘native others’ by joining a ‘first contact’ tourist trip turning tribes into tourist attractions? (see here).  Such considerations would be frightfully boring and frightfully uncool.


Don’t get me wrong!  Personally I’m all for global exploration – when it involves a sharing of humanity and learning from our fellow ‘Man’, however distant (geographically and conceptually) he (or she) may be.   Yes, it’s enriching, mind-broadening and even mind-blowing.   Done ethically, it helps break down cultural barriers and those sterotypical concepts of ‘otherness’, so that ‘others’ become not so distinct and different from ‘us’.   The same, but different, shall we say?   Like a granny smiths and a golden delicious apple?  And I’m all for protecting the planet and its indigenous cultures by whatever means.   And when the tourism industry helps bring health, wealth and happiness to places where disease, poverty and distress exist, then surely tourism is a good thing – isn’t it?

So no – I don’t wish to sound too cynical.  Who doesn’t enjoy jetting off to a foreign destination to get away from the daily grind, if only once a year – or less?  But consider the question of who benefits most from all this tourist trade that’s now generating, annually, a trillion dollars.  Consider whose standard of living is substantially improved?  African villagers?  Pacific island atoll dwellers? Burmese highlanders?  Bedouins?  Inuits?  City traders?  Hotel owneres? Directors of travels agencies – in the west?  Corrupt native officials?  Ah, now we’re getting the picture and can see where a touch of cynism may creep in.  Our innate urge to travel is making some people very rich as much of that trillion dollars finds its way back to western pockets.   I leave it at that, although maybe someone would like to respond?

Just a few personal reflections before I jump on a plane to my own summer holiday Xanadu. And as usual, personally speaking, the act of writing is my route to gaining a deeper understanding – even if no-one should read my words.


Macclancey, J (ed)   2002       Chicago      Exotic no more: Anthropology on the Front Lines

Rapport, N & Overring, J  2007   Routledge   Social & Cultural Anthropology:  The Key Concepts

Turner, V   1967      Cornwell     The Forest of Symbols:  Aspects of Ndembu Ritual


Teaching Business English

I was surprised recently when an application form for a prestigious language company asked what specialist areas of business english I had taught.  ‘Fair question’, you might say, what’s the problem?  Well, the problem is that on the application form there were only four lines on which to enter responses and I have now taught Business English for twelve years.

‘I don’t get it’ – I hear, ‘just note down financial, sales & marketing, industry, and logistics english.’

In fact, that’s what I did, whilst noting in my ‘supporting statement’ that I considered each and every one of my business english students to have specialist needs.  Blanket bombing these students with general areas of business english as found in most pedagogique books does not, to my mind anyway, tackle precise needs.  In fact, it simply shows writers of english learning materials to be over-generalists.  Understandably, they do this in order to reach larger markets for their books, without really hitting the ‘individual needs’ nails on the head.

I give some examples:

In my experience it is possible to be teaching english to those working in pharma-covigilance preparing files to present to a committee (eg. the FDA) to gain a vaccine patent (or to a rival company’s lawyer preparing to appeal against that decision), whilst in the same day teaching english to someone selling his company’s high precision machine tools.  Alternatively, I could be teaching english to specialists working in the aluminium or steel industry preparing to present their production processes at a conference, or to financers juggling with CDOs and credit default swaps.  Maybe I’m helping forwarding agents communicate with customs, shipping agents and transport companies, or IT geeks setting up new data base management systems.  I could even be teaching english to sports lecturers preparing to give lectures in english on the neurological aspects of sport which involves a high component of statistical analysis, or english to designers of high-tech tv broadcasting equipment preparing to attend a trade-fair to market their products on the international stage.

Yes, I could go on.  As I said, I’ve got twelve years of similar teaching experience and all these teaching situations have been personally experienced.  This is just a small sample.  And the reality is that a lot of time is spent scouring the internet sites, including TEFL sites, finding specific materials to match specific needs – and much time is spent designing such material myself.

Facilitators, we should be, absolutely, but I’m not too sure all the authors of TEFL materials have yet taken that on board.  However, I do appreciate that this more detailed approach is coming – about time!  There are now newly published books designed for ‘logistics’, ‘oil and petrol industry’, ‘law’, ‘aviation industry’,   ‘maritime industry’ etc. , and a breath of fresh air they are too. (see here!)  Personally, I find them much more useful than the ‘general business’ books, and for the moments of ‘light chat’ or ‘small talk’, similarly, I try and let the student (s) direct which way the conversations go, with prompts, be it towards cooking, football, the weather, or holidays.  And I’m sure most other business english teachers do the same.

There, I’ve got it off my chest.  But that’s ok because I know very few people are actually going to read this and if anyone does who is not a business english teacher- well, perhaps it gives a bit of an insight into the reality of teaching business english as experienced on a day-to-day basis.


Iran and Middle Eastern Politics

As concerns about Iran working towards nuclear capability sweep the news, Neil MacGregor of the British Museum presents another perspective: The 2600 year old story of the Cyrus cylinder and it’s significance for today’s middle eastern politics.

I put this on my blog simply because I believe it essential for us in the west to have a greater understanding of –  ‘The Iranians’.

This have certainly widened my understanding and appreciation of Iranian culture.  At a time when global politics can seem to be hanging by a thread, surely that can only be a good thing?

Offa’s Dyke Hike

Pandy lies on the ‘Offa’s Dyke’ – an ancient border between England and Wales which was contructed to keep the warring English and Welsh tribes apart.  ‘Offa’ was once King of Mercia (757-796 A.D), and Mercia is an ancient area once comprising most of central England.  In marrying off his daughters, Offa united England and became its first overall king.  He then had extensive influence, including continental contacts with Charlemagne and the Pope.  However, the Vikings soon began arriving on the English shores and upset Offa’s hopes of greater European Union.  That would have to wait another 1300 years – at least!


Today, Offa’s Dyke is a long distance footpath running between Chepstow in the south to Prestatyn in the north.  That is to say,  from sea-to-sea along the Welsh/English border.  On route, it wends its way through fields and woods, over stiles, up hill, and along ridges.  It is a rambler’s delight.  I walked the eighteen miles from Pandy to Hay-on-Wye one grey, drizzly day, several years ago, sweating  buckets as I  climbed uphill, then getting drenched in a continuous downpour for the last five miles of the ridge.  That was after spending a day (and night!) getting to the start point by an assortment of public transport and camping in a field behind a pub.

 My tent stood alone in the pub field, whilst surrounded by sheep who seemed rather bemused by its presence.  That is, until they caught me looking at them.  Then they guiltily averted their eyes to concentrate on the tufts of grass they were muching instead.  I’d placed the tent in a shady corner of the field where beech trees overhung a small brook. Quite lovely, I thought.  I’d even placed the tent opening towards the brook; facing away from the field, pub and road behind me.  And looking across the gently trickling waters, I picked out a track slowly curling up a steep slope ahead and followed it’s twisting path as it rose and rose; onwards and upwards.

     ‘Tomorrow,’ I thought, ‘tomorrow I’ll start early’.

I turned and faced the other way, looking past the pub at the field’s end.  It wasn’t an especially attractive pub, but it was functional and I’d call in later.  Beyond the pub, across the road, were more sheep, munching more grass, in more fields. It was all so delightfully and quintessetially Welsh.  Just the sound of my brook trickling and the sheep studiously munching.  It was that quiet.  Sloping vales of green, green grass – in fields framed by dry stone walls.  And more sheep.  Sheep in big flouncy fleeces growing dirty-grey.  Young sheep, observant, with ears alert and protruding.  Little lambs sticking close to mums, heading-butting stomachs as they take a drink.  Sheep baa-ing and bleating, and always looking worried.   You can see that in the whites of their eyes watching you while they munch. Heads down, eyes up.  Munch, munch, munch…

Further to the right, however, stood a striking vision of doom.

‘Good heavens.  I would look worried munching all day beneath that’, I thought.

A dark, foreboding form blocked out the sun.  It also blocked out the sky and cast a dark shadow over the munching sheep.  It was a huge, monstrous black mass, itself kept in shadow by one dark, menacing cloud hovering over it’s summit.  Its name, I shortly discovered, was Skirrid Hill.   And it was deeply cleft- as if an incensed god had axed it in two.  I shivered and felt a cold chill, despite standing in the sun.


But the hill also had an attraction:  The attraction of danger and peril, death and doom.  So, like a docile, hypnotised zombie being pulled towards it (or like Frodo approching Mordor!) I left my tent and walked across my field, past the pub, along the road and up a side-lane;  slowly being drawn beneath its shadow.

At the top of the side-lane stood another pub.  But this pub was evidently much older than the one at the bottom of the lane being a  traditional, country pub built with large, chunky stone blocks.  Outside hung the pub sign:  The Skirrid Inn.  The sign imitated the black hill beyond and into its cleft was struck a bold bolt of lightning.

‘I’ve found Mordor!’ I decided.  ‘Surely, Tolkein must have visited ?


Entering inside, the pub was cool and dim.  It was also empty:  An empty large hall-sized room operating as a bar.  Bulky oak dominated – on ceiling joists, cumbersome tables, weighty chairs, warped floorboards; a staircase spiralling upstairs with a forearm-sized banister, and solid sidedoors with oak patterned grain, lines and knots. Cast-iron too was evident – as great iron handles and locks on the side-doors, as the black curling railing on the spiralling staircase, as fireplace tools standing beside a great hearth that was sure to give a roaring blaze on colder days.

A barmaid appeared, silently, as a ghost in a haunted house, and I ordered a beer (a traditional ‘real ale’).  Asking about the pub, the barmaid instantly handed me a brochure which mysteriously appeared in her hands.  I took it over to a table, with my beer, and sat down on a roughly-hewn bench whose back rose up against the wall.  Then I read the brochure which explained that the pub was the oldest pub in Wales (first recorded in 1110 A.D.); that it was one of the most haunted places in the U.K., and that it had been used during the ‘bloody assizes’ conducted by the infamous ‘Hanging Judge Jeffries’.


Historical interlude:

Following the death of Oliver Cromwell (1656), Charles II was ‘restored’ to the throne.  The political classes then split.  On one side were the protestant ‘Whigs’, who distrusted Catholicism and preferred parliamentary power to the monarchy.  On the other were the ‘Tories’, who favoured the Anglican church, were hostile to Protestant dissenters, and preferred monarchical power to the parliament.

Charles II died and was succeeded by Catholic James II, whose catholic inclination certainly rocked the boat! Rebellions arose, particularly in S.W England.  The largest of these was staged by the Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate brother to Charles II.   So, James II sends Judge Jeffries to deal with the problem, which meant arresting the rebels for treason.  The resulting trials becoming known as the ‘Bloody Assizes’ in which hundred were arrested, tried and executed.  The Duke of Monmouth was executed in 1685 (decapitation).

In fact, James II played a bad hand.  As Judge Jeffries carried out his trials and executions, order was brutally restored.  Hence Catholicism’s foothold in England strengthened. But this alienated the Whigs beyond breaking point.  In consequence, they requested that James II’s daughter (Mary) and her Dutch husband (Protestant William of Orange) come to England and jointly take the throne.    The people of England supported the whigs, including the military, and the request was granted.   James II was dethroned and William crowned king.

Hanging Judge Jeffries’ held court sessions upstairs above the public bar of this Skirrid Inn.  If the accused were found guilty, the condemmed were kept in a small, downstairs cell (the barmaid showed me the room) before being hanged in the morning (the barmaid showed me the notches in the oak beams made by hangman’s ropes).


The beer was great, the history – chilling, and the barmaid turned out to be both friendly and informative.  Not a 17th century phantom at all.  In fact, I took a second beer with her before heading back down the lane to my tent.

Next morning, with the dew still wet on the grass and the sun still low, I packed up my tent, hoisted my rucksack, traversed the brook, and set off up the hill towards Hay-on-Wye.   ‘Skirrid Hill’ now stood behind me, slowly shrinking in size as my feet plodded forward.  The initial climb was steep and soon I was sweating profusely whilst panting like a dog.  Legs and lungs ached as I pushed ever upwards, higher and higher, counting steps to mark progress.   In reality, the ascent is only a few hundred metres.  But with a 35 kg rucksack on my back, I felt every single one.  Each metre was gained with a straining of sinew, a stretching of tendons, a torturing of muscle, and a cursing of joints.  I was learning the hard way that I was out of shape!

The summit was achieved before mid-morning.  I slumped down on a grassy verge and took a well-earned rest.  Finally my heart stopped pounding and calmness in my breathing resumed.  I could then appreciate exactly where I was.  Larks warbled above and from a pathside spinny – thrushes chirped.  But besides them – I was virtually alone.  Virtually, for I espied some military men gathered amidst the gorse a hundred metres away.  Soon they also espied me and slipped silently away like disturbed deer.  I guessed they were SAS men on training from nearby Hereford.

Continuing on, the route now eased.  The following twelve miles would be along the high (Hatterall) ridge, flat and easy going.  And that was how it was as the miles slipped by.  But what a view !  For mile after mile patchwork plains below stretched out towards hazy horizons; towards Gloucestershire on one side and the shapely Welsh ‘Black Mountains’ on the other.  And yes, they looked ‘black’. Again I was reminded of Tolkein and the black, ominous mountain of Mordor in the distance to which Frodo had headed.


Finally the Ridge ended, abruptly, and dropped for several hundred feet.  This is ‘Hay Bluff’, a site enjoyed by hand-glider enthusiasts who come here to take advantage of the rising thermals.  I watched them float for a while, slipping off my rucksack and sitting on a spikey clump of heather.   Then it was time to move on.  So,  finding a path down, I stepped over the edge and began my descent. And this time it was my calves that complained bitterly.  I could feel then stiffening up and knew they’d be hell tomorrow.  But I still had a few miles to go to find a camp site in Hay-on-Wye and I hadn’t even reached the bottom yet.  March on, tired legs.  March on…

On reaching the bottom it started to rain.  As a light spray, at first, then growing in force with huge water droplets falling straight down and splatting into puddles.  I knew the final few miles would be less pleasant.

I arrived in Hay-on-Wye:  A small, market town known for its second-hand bookshops.  There are many – small,  large, specialist, and general, indoors and outdoors, with thousands of old, rare, popular, contemporary, obscure, fiction, non-fiction, hardbacked and  paperbacked tomes on display for any discerning bookworm.  Outside, signs like pub signs hang above the shop doorways.  These occasionally mislead thirsty drinkers who stumble in looking for a bar and find instead a silent hush of book-lovers standing between aisles with noses between book covers.

I first made the same mistake and then found a pub which served hot meals.  I entered, leaving my soggy walking smock and dripping rucksack near the entrance.   I then received the most welcome mug of tea;  trout, peas and chips; open-fire warmth, and pint of fruity ale that I’d ever had; along with the information that there was a campsite just a mile out of town.

The following morning it looked as if rain was settling in for a while.  So, packing away the tent again, this time soaking wet, I decided to make a run for home and returned first by bus to Hereford, then by train to Oxford.


(None of the photos are mine – only the words.  All from google images, helping me revisit this corner of England).