May 29, 2007

There are parts of Philly that are familiar (I have been in and out of here since 1997) and attractive – for all the reasons you would expect them to be. Here the Declaration of Independence was signed, Benjamin Franklin and his cronies hung out and where the nations capital was seated for a period of time. So there is the old brick, Roman colonnade sense of history to the place which I find appealing. Around about are smaller historical towns that convey that rustic historicity as well. Even the more modern skyline is distinctive and well balanced and sufficiently unique among skyscraper cities for it to stand out the moment you see it – including in the TV series Cold Case where this city sets the backdrop for those stories. And here are the famous boatsheds, the equally famous universities, Hymies deli (what sort of name is that?) Warmdaddys and the fractured bell.

But… There is also a grittier side of Philly that I also like. The city sits beside the Delaware River which is a major industrial artery which seethes with shipping. There is no sense here of any pleasure craft pursuits here – though I maybe wrong. Oil and other heavy industry line the banks of the river. Power stations. Steel fabrication. Skeletal bridges such as the Walt Whitman and the Benjamin Franklin. The amazing naval Reserve Basin with warships mothballed, including the USS America, and any number of hulls being ripped down. All this activity in the midst of a more refined banking and historical centre. I think the mix makes for a more lively city. A snapshot of the Delaware River as we clear Philly and turn towards Dallas.

21 May 2007

Crossing Paths Over Canada

May 22, 2007

An extremely disconcerting view from an aircraft window is the full frontal view of a 747 heading your way. In the freezing cold air over Canada, on the way from London to Chicago I was watching our contrail shadow creep across the forests and lakes and was somewhat mesmerised by it when I lifted my gaze to find myself looking at a 747 blowing its own massive contrail. By the time I had grabbed the camera, powered it on and gotten the shot it was moving well below and past us. The crossing speeds were phenomenally fast and unfortunately that head on view was lost very quickly. Lost in the detail is the fact that it was a KAL flight, probably boring in from Korea and heading south to New York or somewhere similar. I grabbed a shot of the plane but also of our crossing shadows. In this photo the top frame catches the KAL flight. In the bottom frame the KAL shadow cuts from top to bottom. It is very faint but is about half way along our shadow which runs from right to left. Kind of neat but disconcerting at how quickly those aircraft were crossing. And that 1000’ of vertical separation did not feel like it for a heart-stopping moment.


May 22, 2007

A clear spring day. Sunday morning and in this part of the hemisphere the sun has been up since before 5am. It now glances white light off the American Airlines 777 sitting beside us. It is a marked change to the inbound flight last week when the day was overcast and the feeling of depression was only exacerbated by the abruptness and churlishness of the airport staff who conducted themselves in the finest “British Rail” service which was legendary in the pre privatised world we know today for its appalling indifference.

This used to be the busiest airport in the world. It still may be. Certainly the experience of not having enough gates for the aircraft arriving here underscores that claim. When I was a kid the closest airstrip was a sharply inclined strip of grass which ran to the top of a small knoll (used by an agricultural pilot sowing super phosphate) the notion that an airport handled an aircraft a minute was nigh on incomprehensible. So it is with some satisfaction and irony that I note the guy loading this aircraft sitting down on the luggage escalator and taking it easy. It is Sunday morning after all. Heathrow or not.

Things That Alert You to the Passage of Time

May 22, 2007

Your son rings you and tells you he is getting married.

  • The new jet fighter announced by the government when you joined the military are now in a wind-down program and replacement types have been approved.
  • New employees have birth dates after the date you joined the workforce.
  • The very latest Main Battle Tank (MBT) in secret development when you joined the military is now sitting in a museum, with enthusiasts keeping it alive.
Here it is here. The British Challenger MBT boasted all sorts of innovation but especially the revolutionary CHOBHAM armour (now used by the US Abrams MBT). That it sits in a museum is fair enough given a second generation Challenger is in use. But it does only seem like yesterday that it was being introduced into service.


May 22, 2007

In my early teens I devoured a series of books which followed the fortunes of a new infantry officer in the British Army as he joined his regiment and then found himself engaged in various scrapes in Europe. Boys Own stuff. I cannot remember who he was nor are the story lines at my fingertips. But I do recall the military town of Aldershot figuring in his training at some point and the place has remained linked in my mind to the British Army ever since. If however there was any romanticism attached to the place as a result of those books such sentiment was sadly tempered this weekend. The town does not wear its military history at all. Sitting in the main street drinking coffee the view, conversation and experience is a grey one. A country town slum would be kind. The plumage of colour I took from the books, if ever true, is non existent. The occasional building hints at some history but military barracks are utilitarian in function and most now reflect that in their design. The best I could find that gave any hint of military heritage was the comparatively young officers mess of the Queens Own Gurkha Transport Regiment. I am sure there is history more tucked away but the town hides it very well.

I Was an RSM in the Scottish Blagoons

May 22, 2007

On a train from Liverpool to London and a short while after leaving Lime Street we pull into a suburban station. Into the carriage climbed a wild eyed man in his late forties, mop of hair coiffed back onto his collar, rings in his ears, spare tire around his waist and shirt hanging out. Stumbling as if the train was in motion. With his missus. Looking for a seat. Which he never took but on which he propped his case. She took a seat and roused at the lively “Billy” who proceed to swear his way up and down the carriage as he made conversation. Nothing violent at all – more in the vein o f another Scottish comedian called Billy. They fuelled themselves up with more vodka and proceeded to keep us entertained for a large portion of the trip. When they discovered they had missed their stop they simply laughed.

In fact the couple were a perpetual laugh machine. He had the dry wit of a Glaswegian and the swearing to match. Not in an offensive way (most of the time) but she was alternating between scolding him for swearing and bursting into giggles. Which only encouraged him some more. He refused to sit down and paraded up and down the aisle provoking and prodding with his wit to get responses from us. Her giggles only fuelled him on. Both of these folk were in their late forties but were giving the inner child free rein. Despite this she was concerned at one point that they might get kicked off ‘again”. It tempered his madness very little. Turns out he was a truck driver who drove all over Europe but had lost his license due to drink driving. Was a little over three weeks from having it reinstated. He was going to have to work very hard to be sober in time to pick it up.

There are numerous highlights from that trip which are almost impossible to translate onto the page. One gem went thus: in a moment of complete seriousness he informed us he was a former Regimental Sergeant Major of the Scottish Blagoons. Hissed out three or four times as he very earnestly strained to get his drunken tongue around the words. But the “you had to be there moment” was the moment Billy’s heart stopped when one of the women sitting opposite us informed him she was a vicar. The tone of the trip changed, the swearing vanished (though it was still noisy) and Billy set about convincing her he was not a bad person. Somehow atoning for all the madness that had gone on before – especially given he had just been telling her he could bring any woman to the best orgasm she ever had (in the background his missus was decrying his claims, amidst much giggling). Later, as we disembarked we complimented the vicar on how well she handled Billy. She fessed up to being a prison chaplain, so Billy was no challenge at all.

An Angelic Skirt Lifter

May 22, 2007

“The Cathedral” in Brussels is understood to be the cathedral in the Grand Place Square. It is covered in intricate statues and carvings, all in fantastic detail. Row upon row of carvings that make up hundreds of characters that adorn the façade. A couple of characters caught my eye. One looking demure, the other coyly lifting her hem to reveal the petticoats underneath. At one level you might imagine that the artist was expressing his sense of humour. And that is certainly one level of interpretation that can be made of these two carvings. At another, more serious and prosaic level they need to be understood in the medieval context in which they were carved – as an instructional instrument. The clue to that is the woman on the right who wears a helmet, carries a shield, holds a lamp, and who has a character under her feet pointing at a book. As if to remind the illiterate that the Bible is the source of guidance on those weapons of spiritual warfare that she is holding. Her offsider is holding her hand over her mouth, is lifting her skirt and the character at her feet looks like a roguish monk. An instructional contrast of how to behave and live – wanton versus virtuous. While all that might be true, the wanton character was the one that caught my eye and which still seems to have a humourous streak to it. Maybe that says more about me than the artist.


May 21, 2007

The poppy flower brightens the trackside vegetation and livens up the borders of the wheat fields where the plough has not scarified them out of the ground. They blur past me as I gaze across gently rolling fields from the train taking me to Waterloo. The freshness of the red helps you understand how it has become a symbol of the great battlefields of the Great War. They bloom around Waterloo as well. Not the Waterloo of Canada, Britain or the US. But the original from which our vernacular says “he met his Waterloo” and to whom we refer being Napoleon. For here he and his aspirations for a European republic centred on France were dashed in bloody fields the likes of which were not seen for another generation in places like Gettysburg. Today a modern military type would describe the gently rolling fields as ideal tank country. Plenty of dead ground. Good line of sight. Little natural obstruction. In 1815 it was ideal cavalry country but that same ground and its cavalry qualities were disastrous to the exposed soldier and their wounded and mutilated bodies covered swathes of ground and filled numerous ditches to overflowing.

Visiting the site (it is a short train ride from Brussels) requires more than the couple of hours I had to explore the headquarters of Wellington, climb the memorial mound or spend a few minutes in the Panorama rotunda (from which this photo is taken). But it was enough to be reminded that we have never done a good job of learning from one generation to the next the appalling cost war imposes on our communities.

17 May 2007

Old St Catherine

May 21, 2007

How old is the church of St Catherine? Very old is my guess. In a town full of old things, its age stands out. Old enough to have the fine detail of its relief carvings weathered to rounded edges and their definition blurred. Angels and saints, soldiers and devils, Mary and child all returning to dust as grain by grain they are washed to the cobblestones below. The fenced off walls are shelter now to groups of homeless people who have broken through the fence and settled their noisy nests in the sandstone vaults exposed to the square. At least the church does what it was called to do – extend its hand to the poor and the downtrodden. For this neglected old cathedral you could say its hand is outstretched while its eyes are sightless.

Around the square are new maples, ice cream shops, trendy little restaurants, a few bars – one in which I currently prop – and Flemish style buildings most recently refurbished. Getting here through the outlying city blocks was a traverse of nations and cultures. Africans spilling out of the “Little Castle, a place of refugee application. Pakistani soft-drink sellers. Aged Belgian men walking their pugs. Muslim women of indeterminate origin (other than from the generic “Middle East”) with their scampering children, Korean family selling car deodorisers from the sidewalk, Chinese hairdresser, beggar on a stool still elegant in his beret and doing what he can to maintain his dignity.

16 May 2007

Belgians in Brussels

May 21, 2007

There is a roughness to the population which is quite striking. It almost verges on the skinhead look. Unkempt and dark. Not that there is any sense of threat. It is just the dress of the youth. Dark and oppressive. Aggressive even. But it seems this is the Soho of Brussels so I should not be surprised. Indeed, there is something vibrant about it as well. Art shops, bookshops, music, paint, stamps, postcards, small bars, gay bars, sidewalk cafes, street theatre, huge murals, on walls, (Tintin and Snowy descending a flight of stairs on one), rubbish piled high, despite the seeming constantly working fleet of trash trucks, more dog turds, and now drifting rain. Bald headed bearded elderly homeless men drift around. Japanese tourists ogle past, mouth open in perpetual surprise. Shaven young Lebanese lads bolt up the street to the nearest night club. Of which there are dozens. So too jazz and blues clubs. Surprising. In fact I am missing a Jazz marathon by a week. Shame really. Unshaven, beanie, long locks drifts past the window. Is this drabness and darkness what the Belgians exported to the Congo all those years ago? Their colonial reputation was not very flash to say the least.

I am parked in Tavern Le Dylans and a mix of French blues and jazz is belting out of the sound system. It is getting dark. People are drifting around outside. Tyres slick and hiss along in the wet. A muslim mother pushes past with pram and two kids. More jacketed youths rush past. Three “homies” shuffle along, arm in arm. Women with dirty brown faces, ripped and ragged brown dresses. Bare feet. But laughing. And with flowers in their matted hair. It is a strange town but there is no question I could come to like it. If the sun ever came out that would improve impressions somewhat.

15 May 2007

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