A Day to Remember…

Today’s post is a short fiction, due to my being out of the country for a couple of weeks. I hope it breaches the hiatus…

A Day to Remember
It was rare for Shirley and Brian to visit London these days, but it was a special birthday for Shirley, who’d expressed a desire to see ‘Phantom’ and managed to drag Brian along this time; Brian, who was not fond of shows and would have preferred to have visited the museums or Kew Gardens.
Deciding to make the most of their day, the couple bought a newspaper for him and a magazine for her before settling themselves into a seat with a table on the train, where on glancing at the headline on the front of his paper, Brian read, ‘World Summit to be Hit by Protest’. He frowned.
“Looks like we’ve chosen a bad day to visit. There’s to be some sort of demonstration. Let’s hope the transport system isn’t affected.”
Shirley looked up from the article she was reading about William and Kate’s likely choice of baby names.
“Well I don’t suppose they’ll be going where we’re going, will they? They’ll all go to Trafalgar Square, or wherever it is they gather up for these protests, not Oxford Street shops and the theatres.”
While they had coffee, Brian studied his map of the London Underground. As he was so much more adept at finding his way around than she, Shirley left all the navigating to her husband, who prided himself on his ability to understand maps and directions. He’d been persuaded to further indulge his wife by accompanying her to various department stores, despite his innate aversion to such establishments, although he harboured a secret hope that she would not want to linger too long in Selfridges, John Lewis and Debenhams.
“What exactly is it you want to buy?” he’d asked her, prior to setting off, but her motives had been as unfocused as usual.
“Oh nothing special,” she’d told him. “I just want to look.”
He’d kept his exasperation in check, owing to the celebratory nature of the occasion, but nevertheless the next couple of hours until lunch stretched ahead like a wide yawn; a boredom endurance test when he’d be trailing around after her while she flitted from one display to another in a kind of random exploration of merchandise.
A successful negotiation of the tube saw them surface at Oxford Circus, where throngs of purposeful pedestrians surrounded them, buffeting them as they stood to get their bearings. Shirley’s face bore a momentary, wide-eyed look of panic.
“Brian, we must have got mixed up in the Summit protest!”
“No love. It’s just busy. It’s always like this. You haven’t been up here for a few years.”
He took her arm and propelled her in the direction of John Lewis, holding tight to her elbow while they tackled the barrage of oncoming pedestrian traffic that surged towards them like a tidal wave. Having gained the sanctuary of the store, Shirley appeared to rally and Brian was obliged to follow in her wake as she floor-hopped her way from bedding to kitchenware, from toys to lingerie.
At one thirty, by which time Brian’s stomach was growling starvation warnings, they decided to look for a lunch venue, choosing to walk up Regent Street towards Piccadilly Circus on the grounds that it was quieter and easier to travel along, besides which there would be a more salubrious selection of restaurants and cafes around Wardour Street and Leicester Square, where the theatre crowds were catered for.
There was a slight altercation at Piccadilly Circus. Brian favoured a pie and a pint in the dark, gloomy and comfortable, olde worlde interior of The Captain’s Cabin, whereas Shirley hankered after the more opulent and upmarket decor of The Criterion. It was while they stood on the steps under the statue of Eros in a dither of procrastination that the young man approached them, gesturing towards the London Underground map that Brian clutched in his hand.
“Excuse me, but could I borrow your map a moment?” he said.
Shirley looked him up and down in a rapid appraisal, taking in his dark eyes, his neat, dark hair, his pale grey tee shirt with a surfing logo and the dark blue rucksack slung over one shoulder. He must be a student, she decided, perhaps he was doing some travelling before taking up a college place. She smiled encouragement, thinking of their own son, James, who’d taken a gap year to Australia a few years ago. Beside her she could see Brian’s shoulders straightening in preparation for the directions he was about to give the young man.
“Where are you trying to get to?” he asked him
“I’m heading for Trafalgar Square.”
The student’s face was inscrutable, like the Mona Lisa in that painting. Shirley and Brian had been to Paris last spring and visited The Louvre.
“Was it the National Gallery you wanted? It might not be the best day, you know. There’s a big demonstration going on there today; huge crowds. Tomorrow could be better!”
A small, tolerant smile tweaked the corner of his lips.
“Please,” he said, holding out his hand for the map. Brian kept hold of it, leaning towards the young man and pointing.
“We are here, Piccadilly Circus. You go down and take the Bakerloo Line to Charing Cross. That’ll be your nearest to Trafalgar Square. OK?”
“Thank you.”
He turned and they watched as he crossed the road and disappeared down into the subway.
Forty minutes later the pair was seated at a table in The Captain’s Cabin when they heard the sound, and followed others out on to the pavement to look for a cause. After a few moments it was followed by the disquieting shriek of sirens as the emergency vehicles forged their way through the streets. A stricken look passed between the two.

Next morning they switched on the television news to see an image they recognised. It was the unmistakeable face of the lovely young man. Hussein Omar, he was called; the suicide bomber of Trafalgar Square.

Next week-Eastern travel tales…

Sacrilege

NZ Queenstown

We travelled to New Zealand in the autumn of 2011 when the Rugby World Cup was scheduled to be held there. This was to be our retirement treat-a three month stonker of a trip that also encompassed Australia [where I have cousins] and a small add-on of a stay in Hong Kong on the way home.

The thrill of such an enormous piece of travel was tempered, initially by having our flight from Heathrow cancelled by Quantas for no reason we could discern. This meant that our onward flights from Brisbane were scuppered, messing up our arrival to Christchurch, New Zealand and losing us a night of accommodation.

2011 was also the year of Christchurch’s catastrophic earthquake, which was heartbreaking in itself, besides disrupting the Rugby matches and venues involved.

After a tortuous and exhausting series of flights we arrived to Christchurch’s small airport. In the arrivals hall we staggered to the information desk and were directed out into the sunshine of the afternoon, where a kindly driver took our bags and we slumped into the back of his car to be taken to the hotel. I felt I’d stepped into a warm bath.

Even in my almost comatose state I was thrilled to see the verges and green spaces which were lined with nodding daffodils-a novelty for we northern hemisphere-ites in autumn.

NZ Xch

Although our hotel was a forest of steel ceiling supports and those roads that had not been blocked off were cracked with fissures the hotel staff welcomed us in.

Having slept we explored our area, Hagley Park and looked at the quake-damaged centre of town. The park hosted an exhibition of the proposed rebuilding of Christchurch.

A couple of days later we collected our rental camper-van, which was exquisitely equipped and set off to explore beautiful, pristine South Island on a gentle, meandering road that followed the railway track and took us through small communities, past stunning scenery and into wonderful camp sites.

Throughout this time I don’t think I ever stopped smiling. People were unerringly kind, the ease of travel unprecedented. In spite of the terrible earthquake we were welcomed. Even the creatures were friendly.

NZ ducks

The rugby games were like huge, joyous parties with dancing displays, music, dressing up and buzzing atmosphere. I lost count of the number of times we engaged with those around us, laughing, conversing and getting hugged.

In between matches we went sightseeing-following the beautiful, wild south coast road to stunning Milford Sound, viewing penguins and snow-capped mountains and scoffing New Zealand pies and scones from the dairies. Then we turned north via Kaikoura, went whale-watching and walked in glorious Abel Tasman National Park before taking the ferry to North Island.

In Wellington the camp site was full so the local rugby club accommodated us, throwing open their showers and their clubroom and even offering us a curry sauce to go with the chicken we’d bought to cook. We visited the amazing hot springs and geysers at Rotarua, 90 Mile Beach, Coromandel, the gigantic Kauri pines.

The trip remains, to this day my favourite to date. If asked I don’t hesitate to say that New Zealand is my favourite of all the destinations we’ve visited for the reasons I’ve detailed and so much more.

What has happened there is heart-breaking. This most beautiful and idyllic of countries has been sullied for it’s innocent beauty.

If you peddle hate posts on social media; if you keep recycling jingoistic, populist, right-wing propaganda; if you keep screeching about ‘taking back control’ and closing borders, building walls to keep people out and showing hate to other races and religions you are perpetuating acts of violence and terrorism.

Enough said.

 

 

 

History Lessons

What will be said, in the future, about the events of the twenty first century?

We still read, write and discuss wars and atrocities of the past. It is constantly said that the ghastly horrors of The Holocaust should never be allowed to happen again. We think that we’ve made progress and we’ve moved on. There are historical novels detailing civil wars, world wars, unspeakable acts perpetrated by countries against others, individuals against their own nations, extremist religious groups against innocent fellow countrymen, random acts of cruelty and subjugation. Movies are made-sometimes heroic, sometimes merely grisly.

Getting towards the later part of life leads to a lot of reflection, which can be irritating for younger generations but is inevitable. They’ll be doing it, too when the time comes.

I remember how horrified and frightened my mother was at the end of her life by the news that an Australian nurse working in Saudi Arabia had received the punitive sentence of some extreme number of lashes. It was more than twenty years ago. Supposing she were around today to learn that dozens of children and teenagers have had their lives and the lives of their families destroyed by a random, pointless deed?

I also remember that Offspring 2 was at uni in London during the events of the July 2007 tube and bus bombings. I was at work on that day and only discovered during a coffee break that the atrocity had occurred. I remember the feeling of terror and foreboding as I tried to reach her by phone and the powerful waves of relief as I finally heard her voice. She’d missed the events by an eyelash, returning to fetch forgotten keys and then attempting to catch a later train. She was stranded but alive. It seemed all that mattered then.

How easy it is to say, ‘We will not be cowed. We will not be threatened and forced to change how we live!’ These are the words of those untouched by the violence and loss.

But the lives of those whose children or parents are lost or maimed have been changed for ever.

There is less of my life in front than behind now. My concerns are more for those generations below mine; with how their lives will pan out and a part of me wants to know how it will be for them in the future. Looking at history in terms of human nature I think it unlikely that there will ever be true ‘peace on Earth’. More probable is the likelihood that climate change will have escalated and usurped human nature in terms of threats.

But what will be learned in history? Because the world seems incapable of learning anything from history so far…

 

Thoughts in the Aftermath…

We are in one of those grim periods following an Islamic terrorist related incident, when the news is laden with endless analysis, eye witness interviews, past incidents of a similar nature recalled and the same, frightening, inevitable images relayed repeatedly on our screens.

Will our children and grandchildren and their descendants ever know a time without threats, suspicion, random acts of violence and hate?

Those of us who were born in the fifties, in the aftermath of the Second World War experienced childhoods of peace but relative austerity. There wasn’t a great deal to go around. In the countryside where I grew up our parents cultivated gardens, kept hens, made things last. We were not hungry or deprived, neither were we unhappy. As children we knew nothing of the hardship, terror and atrocity that the war had created, perhaps because of the resolve our parents had to look forward and put all the horror of war behind them.

The random acts of terrorism that democratic countries are experiencing in our times cannot be compared to those wars. A war in the old-fashioned sense would have a conclusion, however many years it lasted. The Jihadist incursions into Syria and Iraq are on the run as they are routed from their strongholds and this can only mean relief and freedom for the oppressed people they have bullied for so long. But the success of the armies fighting them in these far away, Middle Eastern countries does not mean that the extremists will have disappeared or can somehow filter back into conventional, peaceful, happy life. Because whatever it is that is eating away at them will not go away.

I don’t believe that the perpetrator of the Westminster attack was a normal, balanced human being. While IS may have claimed the incident as a successful strike by one of their ‘soldiers’ this man was no more than a dysfunctional, disaffected petty criminal, whose life had been one of disappointment and disillusion. Such spiritually impoverished people are easily deceived into believing in some kind of cause, however distorted and hate-ridden it may be and can turn to extremism as a release for their built-up frustrations.

Sadly, as the war in the Middle East grinds slowly to a conclusion it is likely that we’ll see more isolated attacks by unstable, lone aggressors. But while the violence is devastating and life-changing for any victims involved the perpetrators must be regarded as sick individuals who’ve grasped at a distant, evil organisation and deluded themselves into thinking they belong, rather than elevated members of some dystopian group.

We should take heart from the images we’ve seen of random pedestrians running to aid those who were hurt with no regard for their own safety, for the selfless courage of the policeman who gave his life to protect others and from the stoical adherence to ‘life goes on’ that Londoners have shown.

Most people are good. That is what matters.

Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

Parents-All you need is Love

Facebook has a lot to answer for. Worst at this time of year, there is a deluge of those brief [or lengthy] homilies paying tribute to loved ones, alive or deceased, although more often deceased. I’m not knocking this. If such tributes help the bereaved to feel better that is fine by me. You have to assume that folks posting up these ready-made eulogies had/have close relationships with their parent/offspring/best friend and now they miss them. Fair enough.

I can’t help feeling curious, however about the composers of these tracts. Are they paid to write them? Or do they sit at their computers thinking up heart-tugging sayings and finding photographs of misty sunsets to accompany their writings out of the goodness of their hearts? Are they, perhaps cast-offs from greetings card manufacturers who’ve gone out of business now that paper is turning to digital?

Anyway, it is good to find that parent/child relationships are strong enough for such offerings to be utilised on a regular basis. Myself, as an adult I had an uneasy relationship with my parents, whose disapproval of some of my lifestyle choices eclipsed the affections they held when I was younger. This was sad but had the beneficial effect of teaching me a strong lesson regarding my own offspring, whose choices, whatever I may think, are their own.

Last week America had its own taste of terrorism when a couple who’d become radicalised went on a shooting spree, gunning down fourteen innocent workers at a disability centre in San Bernardino. Sadly these incidents no longer surprise or even shock us in the way that ‘9/11’ did. They have become all too common, all too frequent. The attack was, of course devastating and horrific for the injured and the bereaved, as well as those who had the unenviable task of dealing with it all.

But amongst the horrifying, stupid destruction of life, one overwhelming, distressing issue stood out for me. They idiotic, foolish perpetrators of this horror were not only a married couple, they also had a tiny, helpless six-month-old baby daughter. Film of their apartment shows the interior filled with baby items; toys, soft animals, a cot, tins of baby milk. They did not mistreat the infant. She was not abandoned. She was well cared for. She must have been loved. They took her to family members and left her in their care. Then they gathered their arsenal of weapons and went off to kill as many fellow humans as they could before getting themselves executed.

Someone has to care for and bring up their child. One day she will want to know who her parents were. She will want to know how they died and why; the truth. This is her legacy. This is what her mother left her, the fact that she so loathed her fellow human beings she wanted to kill them. This was a human mother without even as much instinctive love for her baby as a wild animal, and this is what I find the hardest to understand or accept.

Cut to the Chase!

What do you suppose is the biggest threat to planet Earth? It’s a tricky question. Perhaps it can be answered by calculating the relative proportions of news coverage devoted to various global menaces.
Many would say terrorism, and it would be a fair answer, judging by newspaper headlines and daily bulletins. Who couldn’t fail to be frightened by the actions of those who hold life so cheaply? We identify with those who are held hostage and look on in horror as they are shown kneeling at the mercy of their captors and aware of the appalling fate that awaits them. Just when everyone is reeling from suicide bombings some new ghastly and shocking strategy is developed to horrify the infidels.
Then there is disease. Ebola is racing like a bushfire in West Africa, threatening to spread into the wider world. Even if it is to be contained some other, terrifying disease will take over and need to be subdued.
And what about resistance to antibiotics? This could constitute the biggest scare humanity has known since the wonder drug that is penicillin was invented.
Wars? Famine? Financial meltdowns? There are plenty of world disasters to choose from. But to me the single most compelling, the most threatening and insidious peril is climate change-overwhelming all other dangers like an eclipse.
Take Australia. The country is suffering from ever hotter and drier summers, rendering increasingly more of the land uninhabitable as fires and soaring temperatures become the norm. A similar picture is painted in parts of Africa. In other areas of the world flooding and torrential rains have made life untenable as people seek ever more inventive ways to survive. In the future populations will need to move into the parts of the planet that can be lived in comfortably [http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/28/climate-change-has-arrived-global-warming-icecaps-deserts].
This summer, whilst on our travels we met several couples who had travelled north from their southern Spanish retirement idylls to seek cooler conditions further north [in the South of France]. One couple explained that around their hilltop villa near Cadiz the temperature was too hot [in the 50s] to go outside and uncomfortable inside with the air conditioning unit going full throttle. It must be prohibitive to fuel such air conditioning-what of those who cannot afford the cost?
And what of those who cannot afford to move, make alterations or adapt? They are the unlucky ones; those who had the misfortune to be born in countries bearing the brunt of the climate changes.
Meanwhile we are all sleepwalking into an uncertain future as we bomb each other to smithereens and wring our hands over financial recession. What idiots humans are!