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


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).

Multicultural issues: France and Britain

‘We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams’.  (Jimmy Carter)


Some time ago I caught the midnight metro from the centre of Lyons.  The carriage was almost empty and I took a seat diagonally opposite a young, north African man.   I noticed that he was smoking and talking aloud to himself.  But he seemed in a world of his own and no problem – except that he was obviously quite drunk and distressed.

‘Identity’, he kept repeating, in French, ‘what’s my identity?  I have no identity’.

The rest of his words were in arabic and I didn’t understand them, although they appeared to be angry, rambling words – words that he spat out vehemently, before again repeating his lines about identity.  I stared out the window into the blackness of the metro tunnel and watched a platform appear in golden, glowing light.  No-one entered my carriage at this stop and we moved off again into darkness.

I then made a fatal mistake and glanced over at the young man – just at the moment when he looked towards me.  Our eyes met.

‘Never make eye contact with a crazy drunk’, I should have remembered.

Well, I had and as a result the young man pulled himself out of his seat and lumbered towards me.

‘What’s your identity? he demanded, arm resting on the seat in front of mine, cigarette between his fingers. ‘Your identity, what’s your identity?’

My response was to plead ignorance and explain, in English, that I didn’t understand.

‘Ah!  A traveller,’ he acknowledged as a snake might acknowledge a mouse accidentally entering his hole whilst licking his lips.

He eyed my day-sack (containing car papers, passport etc) lying  on my lap, and in a flash snatched it, turned round and made off down the aisle.  I leapt up and lunged after him, grabbed my bag and gave him a hearty push.  He fell across some seats and looked up at me in astonishment.  Then he was up, on his feet, giving my shins a kick.

‘You want to steal my bag ?’ I growled menacingly, ‘just try!’

He thought about this threat as the next metro station appeared.  The train came to a halt, doors slid open, and the young man swiftly made his exit.

End of story.


Believe me, I don’t write this as a personal tale of heroism – a few pints of dutch courage had definitely helped.  But what was most annoying was that this young man was north African.  Annoying, because I’d previously chosen to defend French muslims from racist comments.  Like several other English colleagues in France, I’d disliked hearing anti-muslim sentiments expressed by non-muslim French. Discussions on the banning of muslim headresses in schools,  as ‘proselytizing symbols of religion’,  were similarly difficult to accept.  I mean, nuns got away with wearing their headresses – and as for ‘proselytizing’; no-one says a thing about the Jehovas Witnesses stopping you in the street.  Hence, these rules did seem particularly, and unfairly, targetted at muslims.  Furthermore, as an English teacher I’d spent hours conversing with the occassional muslim student about Islam, and I’d appreciated their religious devotion and love of God.   Hence, I was prone to offer pro-muslim points-of-view whenever I heard them being verbally attacked.

‘Oh well!  There’s always one’, I decided, ‘just my bad luck, tonight.’

A few weeks later a friend was attacked and knocked unconscious by another north African guy, on the street, in central Lyons.

I then began to find north Africans in France just a little more difficult to defend.

Believe me, this goes against my grain:  I’m trained in anthropology – a study which appreciates the diversity of human experience from a humanitarian point of view.


I’m white.

That’s just a fact – rather like saying I’ve got brown eyes, a gap between my front teeth, a slight paunch and an in-growing toenail.  Yes, wouldn’t racism be strange if it was based on height rather than skin colour.  But it all amounts to the same thing:  ‘Ugh! I can’t stand tall people, they’re taking all our jobs.  They should be sent back to the land of tall people.’

I’m actually about 5 ft 9 inches – which isn’t that tall for a Brit.  But I’ve become a French Mediterranean dweller where people are generally shorter so I can blend in without feeling ‘different’.  That is, until I open my mouth!   Then a few seconds pass where I see the listener’s brain twist inside-out as it tries to deal with my anglo-franco accent.  Vraiment!  Yes!  I can almost hear the cogs turning as my London/Chateauneuf-sur-le-mer dialect is decoded; a process which  evidently involves substantial mental effort.

 ‘My French pronunciation can’t be that bad!’  I complain to my French wife.

‘It is!’  She simply replies.

So, the process of linguistic elimination continues; first by clearing me of having north African origin.  My physical, facial features help and I’m soon narrowed down to being some type of German, British or American creature.  No wonder the actual content of my words pass over their heads and when I’ve finished speaking French people look at me with a glazed:


Thankfully, my wife can interpret, with an apologetic smile, before leading me away as some curio she picked up on a foreign trip.

Apparently, multiculturalism is loosing ground in France.  At least, President Sarkozy has recently declared it:  ‘a failure’ .  For centuries, by contrast, the influx of other nationalities was not a problem.  Like most other European countries, France has grown as a consolidation of numerous peoples:  Romans, Celts, Franks, Germans, Spanish, Italians, Polish, Portuguese, Armenians…  many of these arrived during the twentieth century and now make up 25% of the French population (see here).   This is all part of a ‘French Universalism’, a leading ethos in forming the French Republic; ideologically similar to the American experience – about which former President Jimmy Carter stated:

We become not a melting pot but a beautiful mosaic. Different people, different
beliefs, different yearnings, different hopes, different dreams.  (see above)

But as our colonial crimes now come back to haunt us (the French in North Africa, the British almost everywhere), the influx of Maghrebians onto French soil has not gone down too well.  Integration is seen as a problem.  Many French people say that French and muslim cultures are too different – that Islam does not blend with Catholicism/French secularism, that arabic does not blend with french, that French/European identity does not blend with North African identity.  Indeed, far right politicians (e.g. Le Pen) build their parties on this issue:

The reason and the result is a viscious circle of growing distrust.  Indoctrinated youngsters learn from their elders and climb aboard the ‘anti-assimilation’/’I hate other cultures’ –  band-wagon.  Inexcusable behaviours result.  Jewish and muslim grave stones are desecrated –


  – whilst anger surges amoungst muslim youths and elders.  To translate some of the terms in the video below, we hear:

‘We need to kill the whites’.

‘Burn the French flag’.

‘God save us from the devil – that a Frenchman becomes a muslim convert’.

‘Let’s burn the church’.

In addition to seeing sexual and physical attacks in public, protectionism, church burglary, riots and car burning, and intense hate:

And so, Sarkozy’s declaration that multiculturalism is a failure may have some grounds.  Obviously, there are problems of social integration in France.

But does multiculturalism work in Britain – the ultimate global colonizer?  I would like to think so.  I would like to think that multiculturalism adds colour and diversity to British society.  Perhaps I’m too idealistic, but I do like the concept of a ‘family of man’, living in harmony, sharing backgrounds and life-views.  Wouldn’t life be boring if we were all the same?  Or even, in the words of one small boy, Pi Patel:

‘Why can’t I be a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim?‘   (Life of Pi.  Yann Martel)

Of course, Britain also has not been without it’s problems of racial intergration.  The late 1950s saw many attacks against in-coming Jamaicans.  Then the 1970s saw race riots targetted against in-coming Asian communities.   There was a major riot in London, 1985, centrered around a racial issue, in which one policeman (PC Blackelock) was decapitated.  More recently, in 2011, London exploded in several nights of violence resulting from the death of a muslim man by police.  However, these days British riots tend to be multicultural affairs and less racially motivated.   In the British context, the wheel has turned and social miscontent and aggression is now ‘collectively’ targetted against the authorities – as seen with 2010 student riots, 2011 London riots; admittedly, often exacerbated by anti-social youths committing violent acts just for ‘the fun of it’.


As a very young child in the early 1960s I shared my cot with a very young black boy of Jamaican origin.  I don’t know the exact reason why.  I guess his mother was unable to look after him at the time and my parents offered to help.  Possibly we fought in the cot over a toy or a milk bottle.  Possibly we kicked each other in the night.  But we got along just fine until his mother was able to have him back.  And maybe that’s why I’m now so open to the concept of multiculturalism.  In the late 1970s, many of my school mates in Leicester were Asian. It was just how it was. In Germany, in the early 1980s, I lived closely amoungst the German ‘gastarbëiter’ (foreign workers), sharing a room with two men from Bangaladash.  We got along just fine – once I got used to their incredibly hot curries!   Looking back on these experiences I can only say that they were ‘culturally enriching’ to the full.

These more optimistic sentiments of multiculturalism are expressed in this video clip below:


So, is this all a utopian dream?   Apparently, according to current Prime minister David Cameron, it is.

Certainly, this is not as harsh as Enoch Powell’s famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech (1968), which attacked British immigration policies and warned:

‘As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding; like the Roman, I seem to see “the River Tiber foaming with much blood’ .

Thankfully, his prediction never came to pass. Yet, with the arrival of millions of foreign nationals into British society the question of British identity has become increasingly discussed, debated and disputed.

Cameron’s speech is a recognition expression of ‘British identity and values’, which welcomes and integrates other values, whilst still retaining it’s own core values.  Where there is a clash of values, such as with regard to sexual discrimination or mistreatment, then there is a ‘British viewpoint’, as re-ified through legal and political institutions which have evolved over centuries and through the democratic process.  This ‘British viewpoint’, then, judges acceptability of ‘other’ values and practices within British social life.   Some values or practices may be declared unacceptable, despite our willingness to be multicultural and respect other customs.  Female circumcision is one example, forced marriages another.   ‘The truth of multiculturalism’, thusis that globalization is not a ‘free for all’.   There are cultures and customs to respect if we choose live within them.   This is what David Cameron wishes to re-affirm. 

The French wish to affirm a similar principle:  That there are certain codes of behaviour that unite French people.  That there is a French ‘way of life’ to which immigrants and ex-pats should subscribe in order to integrate.  That such integration involves accepting ethical standards which define a certain ‘French identity’.   And personally, I do accept French behavioural codes whilst living in France.  I drive on the right, regularly join the baker’s queue for my baguette, go to the restaurant more than the pub, take flowers for my hostess when invited to dinner, greet friends and neighbours with a kiss on both cheeks, and don’t indulge in the current British passion for binge-drinking and subsequent vomiting  – so it seems from news reports!  (Incidentally, neither do I do this in England).

On the other hand, I see no harm with halal fast-food outlets; the wearing of traditional costumes, and muslim mosques.  In Britain, through the process of de-colonialisation, peoples from around the globe have now come to settle.   It’s the ebb-and-flow counter re-action to British colonialism.  Now, after decades, that initial British public reaction has changed from a national protectionism to a national acceptance.  Consequently, Britain is a more varied and colourful land.  In fact, I miss this diversity in France.  I miss the curry sauce poured liberally over my chips; the samosa’s and Indian spicy mix from the deli.; the worldwide range of restaurants on the high street, the rastafarian blues’ clubs, and the Nottinghill Carnival.   I even miss the sound of Bollywood movies coming through an Indian  neighbour’s window.  But, for sure, I fully understand French mistrust of those muslims who not only wish to preserve their traditional customs, but also express distain for the (French) culture in which they live – sometimes very aggressively too, as described at the start and as seen in the video.

Perhaps France too should accept their colonial past in which they invaded north African lands.  Perhaps they should accept that importing Algerian workers who were cousins of Algerian rebels being fought in the Algerian war (1954-1962) would not make for a loyal muslim population (read here: approach 4).   Perhaps they should accept the influx of north Africans into France as a counter re-action to French colonialism.  Perhaps that could be a starting point of French/ north African reconciliation.  This takes time and courage; a ‘moving on’ from the past.  The benefits could be a positive multiculturalism of diversity and colour, whilst retaining a core sense of national identity.  

Has this been achieved in Britain?  David Cameron seems to question that it has.  For me, it depends on which article or newspaper I read.   Nevertheless, I aim to be optimistic and see the positive benefits of multiculturalism.  So – how  about this for a British/Indian/Afro-American multicultural blend, as seen on ‘Britain’s got Talent’?

This is multiculturalism at it’s best!   I hope the utopian dream has not been lost.


Writing this blog is simply a personal attempt to understand.

Rugby and Rodeo and Hunting.

Yet again the All Blacks show their superior rugby skills by blending brute force, or brutes’ force, with swift, dashing runs and daring tackles.  And, although their on-field charges; their power in the scrum, and their handling of the ball are truly dazzling, most memorable is the pre-match ‘haka‘ when the players call upon their ancient Maori gods to help them gain victory.

Ka mate, ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!         ’Tis death! ‘tis death!  ’Tis life! ‘tis life!   

Ka mate! ka mate! ka ora! ka ora!         ‘Tis death! ‘tis death!  ’Tis life! ‘tis life!  

Tēnei te tangata pūhuruhuru                 This is the hairy man

Nāna nei i tiki mai whakawhiti te rā    Who brought the sun & caused it to shine

Ā, upane! ka upane!                                  A step upward, another step upward

Ā, upane, ka upane,                                  A step upward, another step upward!

Whiti te ra!                                                 The Sun shines!


Which team does not invoke their gods before, or during, matches?   Just as Homeric heros relied upon the gods of Olympus to help them win battles, these days whole stadiums, with tens of thousands of raised voices, sing out to the gods in seeking supernatural assistance for their teams. The cultural form may be different, but the purpose is the same.  ‘How great thou art’, is a favourite song of supplication for Welsh rugby supporters who really know how to belt out a good hymn in the stands – as in the church on sundays.   Here’s another one:  Bread of heaven   – A Welsh haka, with all voices joined. 

But then, there’s the national anthem singing, with hearts and lungs raised to invoke the ‘National spirit’ – a re-ification, and sanctification of national and cultural identity.  This is the time for serious flag waving and earnest mascot displaying; offerings for the re-ified ‘national gods’.  In response, blessings are received as the national spirit infuses a team spirit into the players; including  such qualities as comraderie, courage, strength and skill. 

The match now begins and fifteen players furiously battle against fifteen players.  Many receive bloodied noses, even bruised and broken bones, to overcome and vanquish the opposing side.  Metaphorically, or perhaps not, together they are fighting the enemy.  In stretching the metaphor still further:  They are fighting a hunted beast- like a group of paleolithic hunters attacking a bison.  Herein lies the essence of rugby – if not of all team sports:  A group of men (or women!) working together armed with cunning and force; fighting for survival by throwing themselves into the melée; ready to be trampled upon, kicked and mauled.  Pushing bodies and souls beyond the limits they take on specific roles, and signal to each other with signs and shouts, amid the tumult of the struggle, to overcome and win the chase.  To me, rugby represents this raw, vibrant, battling nature of sport more than most.  It’s certainly not a delicate game!

Yes, in watching rugby, I see our pre-historic, archaic homo sapien ancestors stalking, hunting, and fighting woolly mammoths or bison in deadly duels of kill or be killed.  And looking at some particular rugby players, the pre-historic ressemblence is quite apparent!  See these two!

                                          Pre-historic ancestor or rugby player?

In fact, going back millions of years in time, such primordial hunting instincts were probably carried out by our primate ancestors.  Evidence of this is suggested by watching modern days chimpanzees chasing and catching their preys, whereby individual chimps take on specific roles and all closely operate together.  Watch here!

Returning to prehistoric homo sapiens hunters – quite possibly they also performed some type of ‘haka‘ to call upon their gods for protection and success.  Archaic homo sapiens, probably.  Neanderthal man, perhaps not.  They hadn’t intellectually advanced that far.  Nevertheless, it certainly was a dangerous activity and one in which injuries frequently led to loss of life.  Broken bones put one at a distinct disadvantage in the day-to-day struggles for survival, and if your tribes-folk cared not for your injuries, you were easy prey for the wolves.

The way to survive, of course, was to operate in a carefully managed team of hunting experts.  In such ‘teams’, all knew exactly their roles and all acted within a collective team ‘consciousness’ (‘spirit’) – being inherently aware of what their hunting-team mates were doing.  To achieve this took a higher degree of mental social skills and technical knowledge than earlier hominid ancestors, including Neanderthal man, had acquired.  In fact, without such advanced skills, Neanderthal man had an exceedingly tough time and hunting success came from pitting himself against the hunted beast with only the most basic of hunting weapons, and a very large reliance on good luck.  No wonder they died out!

In fact, recent fossil studies of neanderthal man have compared their ancient fossilized bones with those bones of modern day rodeo stars (see here).   It appears that broken bones incurred through pre-historic hunting, are very similar to bones broken by rodeo stars.  Hence parallels in the two activities have naturally been formed:  ‘Hunting involved dangerously close contact with large prey animals’.   This is true for both pre-historic hunting and rodeo.  Both are battles between man and beast, and both involve teams of men working closely, in harmony, together.   The only difference is that rodeo is a sport and the pre-historic hunting is a fight for survival – getting meat for the clan.   Archaic homo sapiens were more advanced than Neanderthal man and learnt more hunting tricks.  But life was still hard for them when out on a hunt, and injuries suffered could likewise prove fatal.

No, I’m not a fan of hunting or rodeo.  For me, they’re activities relating to humankind’s chthonic past and are anachronistic in today’s world.  Lovers of gore who attend bullfights, dog fights, cock fights etc. for an adrenaline buzz, are experiencing sentiments of the past.  Perhaps there are emotional remnants, such as the thrill of the hunt, the capture and the kill, remaining in our genetic make-up. But releasing such sentiments is more humane when channelled through organized and rule regulated sports.  Learning self-control is essential for any hunter or sportsman alike.  Hence, I wholly enjoy watching sports players freely engage in sporting combats against each other; be it tennis, badminton or football.  Thankfully, Caligua and the Roman arena, where slaves were trained to fight to the death and Christians were thrown to the lions for fun, have long disappeared – It’s just a shame that fighting with animals still exists.  As a caption with the image below says:

Each time the corrida goes ahead, humanity regresses.

Yes, these days we try to get our kicks in more humanitarian ways – without losing the excitement.   We’ve discovered the balance, and one such balance is rugby.

So – when I watch rugby, I see pre-historic man on the hunt.  It’s brutal and viscious, yet highly-skilled and highly-trained.  It’s a game of quick-thinking chess-like moves with spontaneous reflex reactions.  But it’s also a scrap of knees and elbows, fists and feet.  There’s flaying arms, grunts and groans, sweaty armpits, and pumping, piston-engine legs.  And there’s the blood-stained faces and bandaged heads.   But that’s rugby and that’s a pre-historic hunt.  Yes, it’s a little barbaric – but it’s also carefully controlled by a referee.  The result is a merging of nature and culture; the wild and the tamed; the raw and the cooked.

That’s rugby!

English moors

When I think of England I think of the moors, for often have I walked the boggy paths that trace winding trails through purple heather and browning bracken. Far from the hussle-bussle of surging city life, the moors offer such peaceful tranquility that the linnet’s song and the bumblebee’s hum can easily be discerned. And when I stand on a moorland high surveying the vales below, I pick out the solitary farms, and follow the meandering lines of dry-stone walls, and pause with my face to the wind.
Such peaceful harmony, however, is not always the painted picture. The writer’s pen and the artist’s brush often show moors to be dark, forboding places where thick fogs conceal sinister crimes. And when seen in shadow, sulking beneath low-hanging clouds, it’s easy to understand why. Then, it’s heaven help the unprepared walker caught out in torrential rains.
                                 As the old song goes:
                 ‘Tha’s gonna (you are going to) catch the death of cold
                  On Ilkley moor, bah t’at (without a hat) ’.
England’s moors stretch up through the land from Dartmoor, in the south-west, to the North Yorkshire moors. Although Somerset’s Exmoor gets my personal recommendation, due to it’s green-sided valleys where stags stand motionless in morning mists and wild horses casually drift, the moors of Derbyshire I know best having climbed their craggy plateaus and jumped their clear streams more times than I can remember.
Yes, when I think of England, I think of the moors.

The ‘Lake District’ and Gurning.

‘Beauty and The Beast’, –  with another crazy English custom!

Gurning involves looking as ugly as possible – which is particularly bizarre because the tradition comes from one of the most beautiful regions of the British Isles:  ‘The Lake Distict’.   This region is 400 kms north-west of London and is dazzling in its display of natural colour and landscape throughout the year.  This blog post begins with a look at ‘The Lake District’, then finishes with a discussion of ‘gurning’.


The Lake District:

Tall, towering, verdant mountainsides obscuring sun and skies; rising high and casting heavy shadows. 

Dark, sombre peaks lost in dark, stormy clouds. 
Triumphant, rounded peaks emerging sunlit, then disappearing once more into rolling blankets of mist.  Lost for the day. 

Clear blue morning skies.                                                                                                               

Freshness in the dew and the hedgerow twitters.  
Freshness in the vaporous breaths of dawn dog-walkers and early-start trekkers.  

A lamb gambols gaily as mother studiously grazes.  

A farmer drives his tractor with clods of mud falling from the wheels.

A kettle on the hob whistles tea.

Crystal clear, pebble-bottomed lakes, placid and serene, fringed with reeds and grasses, reflecting slowly wandering clouds drifting across gently
rippling waters…   

Colours blend, rich and pastel, bold and sublime.

Form and shape inter-twine upon the lakeland canvas.

Deep, scree-lined lakes of  still refective waters, scooped out of stoney mountainsides, dropping fathomless into cold, unplummed depths.   Aqueous mirrors of harmonious surrounds.

Sheep dotted meadowlands laced with winding stone walls; crumbling and falling. Tree clumps standing bold on  horizons against darkening, reddening, sunset skies.

Purple heather; golden bracken; green gorse. Scattered drops of wild flowers speckling roadsides with yellows, mauves and violets. Great florid arrays of  colour over-flowing thatched cottage window boxes sitting pretty on white-washed walls.

 Pencil-grey lines of lanes leading up mountain passes; twisting and turning beside looping streams lying curled along marshy valley floors. Well-trampled paths meandering upwards across hillsides dotted with backpacks  that imperceptibly progress.

On high, a breathless stillness.  A haunting crow’s caw.

Higher still, a lone buzzard circles in silence.

Down below, voles and field mice prudently hide their heads.

A wild vastness stretches forward across hill and valley, lake and forest. A craggy cliff; a meandering river; a hill-top tarn. The flat, silver sheen of a shiny, shimmering lake.

A trickling brook gargles and burbles over stones and pebbles, jumping joyfully on its descent.  A rushing stream chases and dives over boulders in its headlong rush to be first.

Spongey, pine needle-floored forests; dim and dank.  Sweet, musty smells of sticky sap. Spears of sunlight pierce through the dense growth, jabbing forward as spikey luminous shafts. Contorted, silhoetted forms of twisted trunk and bending branch.

Cold winds whip the ears and blast the face.  Fierce gusts  push, buffet,  scream and howl. Rain falls, hard and relentless, pounding into puddles and flooding the lanes.

Ragged, shale-scattered, moonscape plateaus, devoid of life and death.   No place for man, who comes then soon departs.   Faint, spectral images flitter in and out of  view.  Ghostly apparitions passing through a shadowy abyss.

Sink into the soft, moss-quilted, long-bladed grass beside a motionless lake and doze to the purring of the motor-boat chugging.  Feel the glow of radiant sun sweeping across your face with the gentlest touch of a caressing breeze.  Dangle your feet in the water, which tingle with the chill, then relax to lapping licks around ankles and toes.

Breath in.  Breath out.

Breathe  in –

‘The Lakes’.


Lakeland images:

Thanks to:   



Gurning, however, is the opposite of such beauty.  It takes place at ‘the crab fayre’ (old English spelling) in the village of Egremont.  Apparently the fair has been taking place since the thirteenth century and began when the local ‘Lord of Egremont’,  Thomas de Multon (1247-1294), started giving away ‘crab apples’ to his serfs.  This became a yearly event which was given ‘Royal Charter’ by King Henry III in 1267.

Through the centuries the event has been reported by newspapers under various titles.  In 1852 it was described as Grinn for tobacco, in 1884 it was more colloquially known as Grinning for ‘bacca.   In the twentieth century it became Gurning through a braffin and is now known as the World Gurning Competition.

Gurning itseld is all about pulling grotesque faces through a horse collar known as a ‘braffin‘.  The verb ‘to gurn’ actually means to ‘snarl like a dog, look savage, and distort the countenance’.   The origin of gurning is obscure.  It is reported to have originated from the mockery of the village idiot – the townsfolk would throw a horse’s collar over him and make him pull funny faces in exchange for a few pints of ale.  Another stories include when a drunken farmer arrived home to find a most discontented wife, he shouted “stop gurning, woman!” and thrust a horse collar over her head. (read more)

Every year, gurning experts come together to compete for the world championship.  Men and women compete for this much covetted title.  Yes, it’s taken very seriously!  Four times winner Peter Jackson has even had teeth taken out to make his face even uglier!

So, watch below to see gurning in an old BBC documentary.

So – is gurning a sport?

Stone Circles

Stone circles are ubiquitous:  There are over 900 stone circles in Britain. Most stay out of view, except to stone circle enthusiasts who drive off the main roads and walk across barren moors to find them, and perhaps it’s better that way. Lost in nature they retain their timelessness.

Stone circles are old: They are the oldest, man-made, architectural monuments in the world. In Britain most were erected between 3,500 and 2.500 B.C. That’s roughly 5,000 years ago, during the neolithic period and into the early bronze age. For global comparison, that’s sometime before the Egyptian pyramids were built, before writing was invented, and long before the Adam and Eve story was conceived. It’s also two millenia before Mycenae, Knossos and Troy; those ancient Greek palaces that some historians place at the ‘beginning of civilization’. Not sure I quite agree. Anyway, 5,000 years ago is well before the Celts arrived with their druidic religious leaders – so modern day druids can not really claim religious ownership of them. In fact, 5,000 years ago is actually the time between when horses were first ridden upon the Asian Steppes and the wheel was invented. In Britain it’s around the time when farming practices were first coming into vogue and settlements were replacing nomadism. That’s all really too long ago to imagine. But you can try if you like.

Stone circles are permanent. Well, they’re still here after having lasted longer than any other man-made architectural feature. They’ve survived invasions, wars, revolutions and epidemics. Forests have been cleared, rivers diverted, irrigation installed, flood plains drained, agricultural land developed and cities built – whilst the stones have stayed, still and silent. Permanent. Yes, and presumably that was the intention. Like graffitti with an indelible pen. Marks upon the landscape made in such a way that the marks never disappear. A marking of the landscape to indicate possession and ownership – concepts which arrived with farming and settlements. Why else did tumuli burials take on such importance if not to show that land belonged to certain people? Bury your dead to claim the land.  That’s how cemetries came about.

Stone circles are enigmatic: Religious monuments for moonlit ceremonies communing with the gods – or plain and simple burial grounds to dispose of the dead? Both or neither are possible. They may not all serve the same function. Cattle or sheep holding pens? Yes, that idea has been suggested, without being completely dismissed. It’s one way to keep an eye on your herds without them wandering off, being rustled, or attacked by wild beats. Tribal meeting places or tribal borders? Again, could be both. Inclusivity and exclusivity are created by any circle. Are you ‘inside’ or ‘out’?  For outsiders perhaps a tribal alliance would be a good idea – so why not throw a feast and invite the neighbours? A stone circle set apart from daily life settlements would be a perfect place to conduct such an affair. Are they then places to exchange goods or places to conduct sacrifices? Sometimes both, perhaps. Flint was then the all important material that was mined and crafted into tools and weapons to be used and ‘swapped’.  On the other hand, maybe such flint objects were simply ‘given’ in ‘friendship’, consolidating peaceful relations and assuring the passage of potential brides. Making and breaking alliances has been a political game from the beginning of time.  Astronomical calenders predicting solar eclipses, lunar phases and tides?  In those days such information was pretty useful to know in advance to determine exactly when the lambing season started or the salmon returned; when it’s was safe to take out the boat, or time to start sowing the grain.  Architectural objects of prestige for powerful chiefs? Art is rarely just for art’s sake. Politics, wealth and displays of power are normally involved somewhere too.

Stone circles are feats of human engineering: So, how much man-power was needed to haul these great stones into place? How did they drag enormous boulders miles across land and then stand them up on end? How were the societies organized that enabled these grandious efforts to be undertaken? How did these societies evolve to create such stupendous structures as Stonehenge? Who ordered their construction? Yes, on hillsides, under dark stormy clouds they may well be photogenic, but they also hold profound questions about early social organizations.

Stone circles are ‘spiritual’. Stop for a while, on a stone circle adorned hilltop, and breathe in with the wind. Appreciate the agelessness of your surrounds. You, the stones, and time, standing together in harmony. ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ Perceive the stone circle’s timeless permanancy. It becomes transcendental and you enter that transcendence – an ontological awareness beyond the mundane. That’s my ‘spiritual’ sentiment of stone circles, anyway. Damned difficult to express in words!

French food vs British food

I like French food.  It is tasty, expertly prepared and presented.  So, this is not a critique of French cooking.  Although, perhaps it deserves to be, for in my ten years of living in France I have heard that many derogatory remarks about English cooking (some in jest, some for real) that it could be time for a serious reposte.  But I’ll try and refrain from cross-channel swiping and keep negative comments to a minimum – if I can?

Now,  what I personally  don’t go in for is this arty-cuisine trend  of minimalism.  You know – the sort where you get a tiny dollup of food on your plate, surrounded by a curly trace of a sticky caramelized sauce, and it’s placed on the table before you as if the waiter is presenting a Monet!   Yes, food should look good, but  I don’t want to pay through the nose for it and then have to buy a sandwich on the way home.  I prefer a good nosh-up for my money.

I’m also, I should add, an Englishman who lives is France with a French partner.  Generally, when we have guests, I do the cooking of starters and main courses, whilst she excels in desserts.  I do cook French meals.  But I also cook English meals, various other national dishes and some home-creations that are well-beyond any nation-state categorizing.  No-one has complained about these yet and the plates are normally licked clean – metaphorically speaking!

A strong point to state from the start, in French cuisine’s favour, is the wealth of its regional variety.  This includes the bouillabaisse of Marseille, the quiche of Lorraine, the bourguignon of Bourgogne,  choucroute from Alsace, tartiflette of the alpine Haute Savoie,  truffes and foie gras of The Perigord,  cassoulet of the south-west, moules marinières and oysters of Brittany, tapenade or aïoli  from Provence…  and I haven’t even begun on the desserts, the cheeses and the wine!

So, if you are a food lover, ‘gourmand‘, or student of foreign cooking techniques – France should be on your list of places to visit. There’s no doubt about that.

But, since we’re getting things straight, contrary to popular French opinion, France is not the only place that can serve up a good meal.  This may surprise, or annoy, those who believe that France is ‘simply the best’ at everything from football to love-making, political debating to going on-strike, and perhaps they should stop reading now before I lay down some more truths about French food.

The first point to clear up is this word ‘gourmand‘.   A translation of this word doesn’t really exist in English, unless you accept ‘food-lover’, so we retain the French ‘gourmand’ to use where appropriate.‘  ‘Glutton‘ is not a synonym, although the line between a ‘gourmand’ and a ‘glutton’ is sometimes rather fine.  ‘Hedonistic culinary pleasure lover’, may be one way to put it and though hedonism is as old as any Dionysian orgy, I’m referring to its later arrival on the western european scene.  That would be mid-18th century when the catholic counter-reformation kicked in, in reaction to the austerity of protestantism (which declared pleasure to be a sin), and then revelled in excess.

You don’t agree?  Look, it’s simple.   Today, northern europeans and anglo-saxons on holiday visit monuments and museums, and climb mountains.  They take picnics with them and munch sandwiches whilst under attack from wasps, flies and midges.  Mediterraneans, and in particular the French, spend mornings studying menus outside restaurants, lunchtimes eating in restaurants, afternoons taking siestas to digest meals eaten in restaurants, and then evenings again eating and drinking in restaurants.  That’s the basic difference between the northern and southern european cultures: Abstention vs hedonism.   Two opposing concepts that  rest on protestant/catholic attitudes to pleasure.  Otherwise expressed:  This is baroque’s extravagant ostentation as seen in art, architecture, music and food contrasted against a restrained and temperate Calvinist frugality.

 1970s anglo-saxon hippy hedonism, by contrast, was frowned upon by the older and more staid members of anglo-saxon societies for being just that: Hedonistic.  To the French, it was already a norm.  Brigitte Bardot naked on the San Tropez beach?  So what?  ‘Elles sont belles, les filles’.  President François Mitterand having an extra-marital affair with a mistress?  So what? This isn’t England and that’s no Profumo affair-type scandal.  If a cardinal dies in a Parisien brothel (Jean Daniélou. 1974) – that’s no big deal.  French gastronomy being an eating orgy?  Of course it is.  That’s no crime.

Yet, within this contrast lies the British approach to food:  The protestant work ethic of valueing the hard-working (yet prudent), gardener (or allottment holder) who produces a good crop of fresh, organic vegetables fertilized by a well-maintained compost heap.  Calm, sensible presbyterians, methodists and quakers were not known for their exuberances.  Their outlooks were based on restraint.   Then, don’t forget, ‘Dig for Victory’ became a second world war slogan.  Everyone did, whilst all who could wield a scythe to harvest the wheatfields did that too.  And in these more modern times food is valued for its natural, earthy simplicity with reknowned English chefs from Mrs. Beaton to Delia Smith to Jamie Oliver placing emphasis upon fresh, wholesome food that doesn’t overly strain the household budget – just check out their cookbooks!

 So, over spending on culinary luxuries to impress guests is not, in fact,  as impressive to a Brit as a tender piece of British beef served with garden-picked peas and meaty gravy.  ‘Naughty, but nice’, a cream cake advert once stated, which quite nicely sums up the British feeling of guilt felt when enjoying food to such a degree that it becomes a veritable sensual delight.  ‘No sex, we’re British’.   Sexy saucy sauces are for the French!

Nevertheless, British culture has become increasingly cosmopolitan.  Today, a younger, experimental generation is rebelling against their older generations’ reserves.  Consequently, the guilt of indulging in life’s sensual and sensory pleasures has noticeably decreased as British food becomes more and more exotic.  Hence, the olden days regular meal of ‘meat and two veg’  has almost disappeared as every ethnic dish from pasta to paella, curry to chilli, souvlaki to sushi now fills up the British stomachs.  Us modern day Brits like our spices.  We have recipe books from around the world on our bookshelves.   And we have the ingredients at hand to knock up a guacamole dip or gazpacho soup in a jiffy.

This, then, is my second point to make.  Whilst the French may like to criticise English cooking, they’ve tasted little more of our culinary offerings than a Wimpy bar burger or some soggy fish-and-chips.   The equivalent is to compare the whole of French cooking with a wet, floppy crêpe, dripping in ‘première prix nutella’, bought at a quick snack stall at some mid-summer ‘fête foraine’.  That’s obviously not a fair comparison, is it?   So yes, by denigrating all British food as cheap and nasty these critical French miss the fact that traditional British recipes are as numerous as the French, and that in terms of being cosmopolitan, British cooking is streets ahead.

Streets ahead?  Yes!  You see, the French tend to feel that eating pasta, taboulé or couscous is being daringly exotic – which they’ll do only as long as the heat is taken out of the spice and the taste watered down.  But I’m afraid that’s about as far as most French people will go, in my experience anyway, for their delicate palates are not really designed for any more strongly flavoursome kick.  Hence, hot mexican chillis and spicy Indian madras’s are definitely out.  Just imagine giving them a vindaloo!

My third point is historical.  French food revolves around two poles.  There’s  the ‘haut-cuisine’ culinary pole with some of the best chefs in the world creating food fit for kings. This is the fine art of cooking being pushed to limits beyond the imaginations of most mere mortals.   Think of the excesses of the Chateau de Versailles with its fabulous fountains, mazes, paintings, ceiling frescos, and halls of mirrors – then translate that image into food.   That’s the pinnacle of French cooking.   We can drop the metaphor too and find this grandiosity in numerous Michelin three star restaurants dotted around France – if we’re willing to pay several hundred euros for a bite to eat!  In Britain, on the other hand, top chefs such as T.V stars Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, follow in the Mrs. Beaton/Delia Smith tradition.  They are ‘The People’s chefs’, creating practical, non-overly fancy dishes, and they own restaurants affordable to most – even if solely for the ‘special night out’.  In France, top chefs  are there for the aristocracy, celebrities, financiers and football players.  Do you take your special retirement trip, that you’ve saved all your life for, on a luxury cruise ship in the Caribbean – or do you visit the Paul Bocuse restaurant in Lyon?  I exaggerate to make my point.

But, coming back down to earth, the other pole to French cooking recalls a more humble reality.  Whilst the monarchs were swanning around their chateaux in all their finery and powder puffs, not to mention bankrupting the country by fighting foreign wars they couldn’t afford, the ‘common people’ were not enjoying life quite so much.  Just read ‘Les Miserables‘ (Victor Hugo) and you’ll get the idea.  Poverty was intense.  Survival a trial.  Intakes of nourriture to fend off the hunger pangs and stay alive came from any possible source available.  Hence snails and frog’s legs ended up on the plate whilst larger animals were stripped to the bone for their meat, fat and grisel.  Then their bones too were picked clean, not forgetting the marrow inside. Rabbit, hare, deer, boar.  These were treats when the gaming season was in.  Birds, and not just game birds, were eaten when caught in nets.  Many types of fish, including carp and pike that we English don’t at all go for, graced the evening dinner plate.

But read any account of food eaten in England from the same epoch (eg. Peter Ackroyd’s: London the biography) and you’ll much find the same thing:  Pigeons, thrushes, larks, eels, lampreys, pigs feet, cow-heels etc.  And I certainly remember my own (English) grandfather tucking into a plate of pigs trotters.  However, as England rose from the destitution and rationing of the second world war, such foodstruffs disappeared off the plate; for better or worse.  Perhaps this is due to the opening up of foreign trade and the entry of foreign produce into English shops?  I personally can’t say.   But on going shopping with my grandmother in 1992, I realized how few of the fruit and vegetables on display were unknown to her eg. red and green peppers, kiwi fruit.   I can’t speculate further on ‘the why’, perhaps someone else can explain, but it does seem apparent that many previous basic ‘survival foods’ have now gone from the English kitchen.

Nevertheless, in France, these foods have remained, to greater or less degree, depending on region and family income.  Here are some examples you might find in a French recipe book today.  Apparently, their traditional cuisine is still alive :

Horse meat.                                                             Tête de veau.

Can’t eat it myself.                                                 Perish the thought


snails:                                                                             Frog’s legs

slugs with a shell                                                         A bit like chicken   –

Not too bad with parsley/garlic butter                    but fiddly


Tripe                                                                        Brains in black butter

No thank-you.                                                      Think I’ll give that one a miss too.



And now we come to the depths of French cooking practice.  To those areas not often talked about.  First, ‘foie gras gavage’.  Foie gras, as any French person will tell you, is NOT a pâté.   Well – it is, to us English, or a ‘paste’ at least.  But to the French, foie gras stands in a class of it’s own.  To be sure, it is a smooth tasty delicacy – if you don’t think too much about how it is made.  And how it is made, is by shoving a tube down a goose’s neck through which you force feed it vast quantites of maize until it’s liver bursts and it dies in excruciating agony.  Then you eat its ‘fat liver’ i.e. ‘foie gras’.  The EU commission have threatened to ban this practice as barbaric, but it is so solidly entrenched into French new year’s celebrations that such a ban would cause another French revolution.  If you have a stomach to watch this process and want to see the truth of where foie gras comes from – see below.

And a more in-depth documentary (in French) can be seen here – if you want the complete truth and really want to be sickened.

And if that doesn’t put you off French food altogether, which is not really my intent ( honestly), watch the correct way to eat ‘ortolan’.  This is a small song-bird, a ‘bunting’ to be exact, that was much favoured by François Mitterand.  It’s consumption is now banned, but it can still be obtained if you know where.  See the film.

I do re-iterate though, that my aim with this blog is not to slander French food.  As I said at the beginning – I like it.  The best ‘gigot d’agneau’ (lamb’s leg) I’ve ever eaten was in a French restaurant in Lyon.  It was just so, so tender and I can almost taste it’s succulence now.   I guess I’m trying to re-address a balance whilst comparing differences between French and British cuisine.   But of course, if any ex-pat English colleagues feel the need for ammunition to respond to French criticisms of our national food, maybe I’ve supplied some of that too.   Use it.

 Now it’s time for me to eat.  A good plate of bangers and mash beckons!

English Steam Trains

There’s nothing quite like the sound of pistons pumping, wheels turning, steam bellowing, and steam engines straining hard upon the track to pull carriages onwards and upwards.  There’s nothing quite like the deep, gut-churning throbbing of coke-burning boilers applying power to pull the coaches down the track – not forgetting the black soot on boilermen’s faces, smeared grubby with sweat in shovelling tons of the black gold with their work-hardened hands.

Contrast, then, in the clip below,  the chirping bird.  Sweet melody breaking through the rural tranquility providing contrast to the smoke-bellowing beast.

It’s a majestic beast, oozing individual personality – for no two steam engines are exactly the same.  A  wondrous beast, lovingly crafted with pride and passion; built with men’s oily hands; with skill and technical know-how, with hours-and-hours of long, dedicated, hard work.

Together, bird and beast, we hear the 19th century:  This was the age when technological innovation spread across England, linking towns with villages, coal mines with factories and ports, making travel and transport times far quicker than the canal systems and muddy country tracks had previously done.  The age when mechanical might came into its own.

Watch and listen:

But then came tarmaced roads which could deliver people and goods speedily from door-to-door.  And as a result rail travel began to decline and the British railway system began to lose money (£104M in 1962).   A report was commissioned seeking solutions.   It was a report whose conclusion signaled the need for a great rationalisation of British Rail, for small, local branches serving small village communities were costing the country millions by not being used.   Hence, from 1963 to 1970,  Dr. Richard Beeching, chairman of British Rail, announced the closures of numerous branch lines.   And wherever the Beeching axe fell, Britain moved more definitively away from 19th century rural regionalism and more into the 20th century’s ethos of modernity, economic accountability, and central administration.

The 19th century was now dead and buried.  The steam train era was over,  being replaced by the diesal train and electrification.   In fact, although complete electrification was recommended in a 1981 report as being financially ‘worthwhile‘, this still has not completely come to pass.  Privatitization of the railways during the 1990s led to profit-margin-determined, short-term views for the development of British railways, and investment for this long-term project fell short.

Renovation of old steam engine projects began in the mid-1980s.   Old rail-hands, remembering ‘the old times’, retired, and  their days of nostalgic reminiscences began.  The old steam trains were then slowly located rusting away in branch line sidings having created homes amidst brambles and nettles for myriads of creepy-crawlies besides fields where rabbits scampered and bounded.  But these ‘old-timers’ knew how to restore the battered, dying old engines.  They came from another age in which all that was not new was not thrown away.   And so began the restoration of the old mechanical beasts that had been so hastily discarded when the diesal age had arrived.  The old timers then taught new, younger railway enthusiasts their old skills and the rusting old trains were slowly restored to their former glories.

Several branch lines too, yes – those closed by Dr.Beeching, were then re-opened, upon whose lines the restored magnificent engines can now run.  And today,  the little branch line stations are run by voluteers, with interests far removed from considerations of profits and bottom-lines, who keep the platform signs painted, plant flowers in rail-side gardens, and dress up in station guard uniforms to proudly announce the arrival of the old steam trains when they come rolling in.

Bishop’s Lydeard station is a classic and perfect example.  The line from here runs to Minehead and the coast.  Well worth the visit and well worth the trip!