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Picture this. (abstract)

Two of the photos that didn’t make the final cut for my last post were these rather dull shots of the sun reflecting on the surface of a lake.

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What I’d been after was a nice clean reflection of the sun, along with some clouds, but the water was not still enough so I rejected it.

However, today I was mucking about with my various filters and effects and I had an idea.
Why not make some “art” out of my junk photos?

So here are the results of a considerable time spent on my trusty phone, digitally manipulating and generally “fiddling with” those two pictures, hopefully transformed into something a little more artistic.
A couple of the more starkly coloured ones have a whiff of Giger about them.

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While the rest are of a rather more psychedelic nature, almost resembling cosmic deep space photography.

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There, that’s my recycling done for the day.

Moral of the story: There’s beauty in everything if you look hard enough. (or something)

 
2 Comments

Posted by on April 15, 2014 in Arts, Photography, Picture this.

 

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Picture this. Springtime by the river…

We are once again on dog sitting duty, this time for a King Charles spaniel called Ollie, while his owners are swanning around Venice in a gondola for a week.

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Combined with a gorgeous sunny spring day, this was the perfect excuse to get out and take some photos, walking Ollie down to our favourite wildfowl reserve and then making our way down the small river tributary (I believe it’s the Caen) that leads into the Taw estuary.

The Tarka Trail offers sweeping views out across the Taw wetlands, along the flat fields of the river valley between Chivenor and Braunton…

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…the wild flowers proliferate in the hedgerows, the buzzing of insects and bird song fills the air, spring sunshine bathes everything in warmth, and new growth is visible everywhere..

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…and of course I can never resist a bridge.

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Follow the river under the bridge at Wrafton, along the gorse-lined path that overlooks more of the flatlands on the estuary..

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…and you reach a landscape of marooned boats, stranded by the low tide..

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…the peace only broken by a rescue helicopter from the nearby Marine base flying training exercises.

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Retracing our steps, we crossed the Tarka Trail and made our way upstream passing more spring flowers, (and another stone bridge) in the dappled shade beneath the trees lining the riverbank.

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A very pleasant way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

I’m writing this as the sun prepares to set on the weekend, but I’m going to cheat a little and end on shot of a sunset that I took at home earlier in the week, just in case tonight’s isn’t quite so good.

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If you enjoy accompanying us on our sojourns into the beautiful countryside of the West Country, then I’m sure you will be equally at home in the company of restlessjo (Johanna Bradley) on one of her Monday Walks.
Here is her latest post.
Why not join her on…

A Saltburn Stroll.

 

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The persistence of memory…

If you spend any time on the internet (which you obviously do if you’re reading this) then there’s a good chance that you’ve seen any number of slightly flippant, jokey posts about how we bemoan the minor inconveniences of our lives, ironically comparing them to the far greater ones of those far less fortunate than ourselves, often tagged as #firstworldproblems.
It isn’t a fad that I’m interested in following, as it strikes me as being a way of pretending to care about things, just so we can let other people know how terrible it is that we didn’t get our morning cappuccino exactly the way we liked it, or that we were just too late to snap up those Kate Bush tickets we so desperately wanted, all the while secretly hoping that someone will fail to see the irony and commiserate with how our comfortable, carefully insulated lives have taken a turn for the mildly irritating.

We all have problems.
Mine are currently……..well, you don’t want to know and I can’t say I blame you, I’m sure you have plenty of your own.
And I’m equally sure that to you they seem like insurmountable obstacles in the path of your existence, but at the same time you realise that, sooner or later they will work themselves out and you’ll be able to return to the relative ease of your comfy first world lives just like I will, our memory’s ability to relegate life’s little hiccups to the recycle bin of enforced amnesia once more coming to our collective rescue.

There are others who are not so lucky however, those who we do remember, and we remember because we consider it our duty to do so.
This post is about just a few of them.

You would need to be living in a box to have missed the fact that 2014 is the anniversary of the outbreak of World War One, or The Great War as it was called, before the curse of hindsight required us to number mankind’s episodes of inhuman folly, like some sort of horrific sequel in the continuing franchise of stupidity and senseless waste.
Like all good historical epics there are many small stories of huge heroism, many of them largely overlooked by history itself until a poignant reminder brings them to our attention, and this is one of those stories.

As a teenager I was lucky enough to visit the Thievpal war graves cemetery at Vallois Bayonne in France, site of vicious fighting in the battles for the Somme and resting place of many hundreds of soldiers, a deeply affecting place that has stayed with me ever since.
One of the extraordinary tales that has recently been brought to light is that of Joel Halliwell, a lance-corporal in the Lancaster Fusiliers who was awarded Britain’s greatest military honour for outstanding gallantry.

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During a blistering German attack in 1918 Halliwell took it upon himself to launch a one man rescue mission, his challenge being to recover wounded comrades who had been stranded in no-man’s-land.
Having captured a stray fallen German soldier’s horse he rode the terrified animal out onto the battlefield, criss-crossed with heavy machine gun fire, and bodily lifted a badly injured member of his battalion across it’s back, returning to the British lines, saving the man’s life in a show of incredible bravery that could very well have cost him his own.
But this wasn’t enough for Joel.
Over the course of the next few hours he made another nine sorties into the terrifying hell of mud, blood, mortar rounds, corpses and barbed wire, bringing back eight more “other ranks” and one officer, all of whom survived to return home when hostilities ceased.
Not only that, having secured the safety of his fellow soldiers – forced to abandon his efforts only when the horse collapsed from exhaustion – he walked over two miles in order to bring the wounded men water, earning himself the Victoria Cross at the age of 37.
Returning to England after the war, Joel Halliwell lived until 1956, although sadly his brother Tom, also fighting on the Somme, died of wounds he received serving his country in 1916.

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(A recent episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow programme not only presented Joel’s daughter, granddaughter and great-granddaughter with a replica of the VC medal that he earned in battle, they also located Tom’s grave, finally allowing the family to lay a tribute to their lost hero, in the corner of a foreign field in which he lay down his life)

But not all of the events that have an anniversary this year are quite so honourable.
Twenty years ago, in April 1994, just 100 days of terror and unbelievably brutal violence meant that the chaotic and deeply divided country of Rwanda soon became one of the most horrifically tortured areas on the planet.

Even though the vast majority of Rwandans in the 1990′s (some 85%) were from the Hutu tribe, the dominant monarchy in the country was made up of members from the ruling Tutsis.
As far back as the late fifties the Hutus overthrew their Tutsi overlords, chasing large numbers of them over the border into Uganda. However, the Tutsis regrouped and returned to take back their kingdom by force in 1990, leading to fierce fighting which continued until an uneasy peace was agreed three years later.
The peace treaty didn’t last long though, because only a few months afterwards a plane carrying the Hutu president and his Burundi counterpart (also a Hutu) was shot down.
Even today, some believe that the deaths of the two presidents was a plot by the Hutu themselves, designed to give them an excuse to persecute the Tutsis, who they publicly blamed for the supposed treachery.
Whatever the case, the Hutu promptly began a campaign of organised violence and appalling atrocities against the returning Tutsis, eventually resulting in the deaths of a staggering 800,000 people, many of them women and children.

Someone who witnessed the tragic events that lead to those 100 days of terrifying infamy was Lindsey Hilsum, international editor of Channel 4 News and veteran of many war zone reports.
This week she told of how she was in Rwanda for the very first days of what would become one of the worst genocidal atrocities in modern times.
I first thought that I would quote from the piece she did on the programme yesterday, but I don’t think I could do her justice. So please watch this short clip of her, relating the heartbreaking story of her experiences in the war-torn hell that she lived through. For I truly believe that only by hearing first-hand how these events shaped the history of a nation on the brink of its own destruction can we hope to understand the inhumanity of which we are capable, and by doing so, making sure we can somehow prevent it happening again.

I’m aware that this isn’t an easy thing to hear, and neither should it be, because if it was then it would only show that we are already lost, along with our empathy for those who perished at the hands of their countrymen, their neighbours and in some cases, their own families.

The final thing I wish to address in this post, and one that I consider to be a stain on our own national conscience, is the decision by our government to allow the faceless murderers of hundreds of innocent civilians to go free after the years of grief and pain they caused so many families.
I am of course speaking of the odious Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill, which will let terrorists of both sides in the long running, bloody and senseless slaughter of “The Troubles” walk away from their crimes without so much as a slap on the wrist.
It seems unbelievably cowardly and callous to simply wipe the slate clean on decades of violence and pain, purely for the sake of political expedience.
I offer no solution to this, neither do I profess any great understanding of how better to handle the situation, but I cannot see that adding to the bitterness and pain of an already blighted generation can do anything other than reignite the hatred and division that brought about so much loss to begin with.

The only thing that any of us can offer is the persistence of memory, the continued pledge that we will remember, in the hope that somehow we can avoid this sort of repetition of history in our future.

 
13 Comments

Posted by on April 10, 2014 in Blogging, News, Social comment, TV

 

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Rainbow warriors…

[Today's post was written in collaboration with Mr Adam Pain from the excellent blog, A World Of Pain. Check it out for articulate and acerbic wit, searching insight and more.]

I doubt even the inhabitants of Camden Town in London could name too many historic events that have occurred in their Bohemian neighbourhood – but today that changed significantly, in a blaze of technicolored publicity. Mind you, this is Camden we’re talking about. The strength of some of the skunk on the streets these days has probably rendered a good percentage of Camden’s most notorious residents barely able to remember all of their vowels.

At one minute past midnight this morning, Sean Adl-Tabatabai and Sinclair Gray Treadway made history by being (probably) the very first same-sex couple to get married in the UK. They tied the knot in Camden Town Hall, one of many couples around the country who rushed to be among the first to take advantage of new legislation, passed last year in the House of Commons by 400 votes to 175, allowing gay and lesbian couples full married rights under UK law for the first time.
(Watch Sean and Sinclair’s historic ceremony here.)

That we have taken such a ridiculous length of time to reach this stage in our social evolution is somewhat bewildering. I mean, given that the (even then, long overdue) Sexual Offences Act finally decriminalised homosexuality in 1967 – and therefore society in general was presumably at least vaguely aware that behaviour among some consenting adults which was previously considered “unnatural” or “unacceptable” was to be viewed with a new tolerance – why has it taken another 47 years to allow those same accepted members of society the same rights as the rest of “us”?

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Insert inappropriate “Getting it up” gag here.

Religion, of course, is largely the answer to that.
But theological arguments briefly aside, the fact that the simple act of legally recognising a loving relationship is seen as such a huge milestone in our social history only serves to highlight the continuing prejudice and persecution of the LGBT community in general.

For example, two other less edifying stories that have picked up attention from a media attuned to the controversial or salacious, both feature the sort of comic-horror hate figure who regularly make the news such a jaw-dropping spectacle.

There has been worldwide condemnation of Uganda’s record on gay rights abuses, (sentences range from seven years imprisonment to torture and death) but less well known is the part played by American evangelist and candidate for Governor of Massachusetts, Scott Lively, in influencing it. He’s a complete charmer, in case you hadn’t guessed.

Lively travelled to Uganda on a lecture tour, his extreme views on homosexuality coming to the attention of the government, keen for any new “evidence” to strengthen their case for more draconian laws to be introduced.

He claims to be on a crusade to “protect civilisation from homosexuality”, something he believes is bent on a mission to “defeat marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity”. That’s an astonishing opinion, given the Greek’s input in actual creating civilisation and their inconveniently liberal views on homosexuality.
Although, bear in mind that this is from the same man who claims to have invented a “Gay Scale” which lists various levels of gayness, all the way up to Monster and Super Macho, the two categories that he says are most commonly occupied by serial killers, paedophiles and, interestingly, Nazis. They just sound like Nintendo bonus characters to me.
His justification for this, believe it or not, is that;

“only homosexuals would have the personality traits required to run the gas chambers”

WHAT?! What did he say?!
Yep, he said that.
He also said that the Rwandan genocide, over the border from Uganda, was instigated by a Gay Conspiracy.
Not only that, when confronted with the question of Barak Obama’s condemnation of Uganda’s mistreatment of its LGBT citizens, he said;
“I think Mr Obama may well be a homosexual himself, he’s certainly a radical homosexualist”
by which made up term he apparently means that;
“He (Obama) is lending the weight of his office to a movement that’s goal is to overthrow the Judean/Christian sexual ethic and replace it with the gay ethic of sexual anarchy”

This of course fails to take into consideration that many of those dreadful gay people are produced by previously untainted, straight Christian couples, presumably as a punishment for some unspecified sin.

Lucky for us, we have Scott Lively to protect civilisation.

And this man is running for Governor?!

If he gets elected, set a stopwatch – because the precedent set by similar bigoted, evangelical bigmouths isn’t exactly encouraging. Who else reckons it will be no more than eighteen months, before this sociopathic hypocrite turns up with his ratty little tail between his legs, having been ‘scooped’ by the National Enquirer? Photographed in a seedy motel, wearing nothing but ass-less chaps and a Ronald Reagan mask, riding a bored looking rent boy like a rodeo veteran. 

Finally we have the demise of someone who will hopefully completely fail to leave even an unpleasant greasy stain on the pages of history to record his existence, the founder of odious hate-mongers and pseudo-religious nutjobs, The Westboro Baptist Church, Fred Phelps.

The “church”, whose mission it is to picket US soldiers’ funerals waving placards displaying such slogans as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags” have asked for respect to be paid to their founding father, his daughter Shirley saying;
“It would be in extremely poor taste if someone were to protest my father’s funeral just because they disagreed with him. Everyone is entitled to respect in death. What monster would go out of their way to upset my family when we’re grieving?”

I’m sorry, what?

That would have been like Ed Gein’s family attempting to ban leather jackets outside his funeral, out of a feigned respect for the American tannery industry.

Oh hang on, I’m forgetting what a decent fellow ol’ Fred was when he was at home with his family, maybe we should leave the last moving words to his grieving daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper;
“My father was a great man who did no harm to anyone. So what if he beat his own wife and children? Doesn’t any good, loving father do that?”

Well, quite.

Especially if your paternal role models are all to be found languishing in the desert five thousand years ago, delirious from communicable disease, starvation, heat exhaustion and all that smiting in God’s all loving name.

Only one song seems suitably apt to play out this post I think.
Take it away Tom…

PLAY VIDEO

 
8 Comments

Posted by on March 29, 2014 in Humour, Music, News, Social comment

 

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Dying for a good tune…

My mind works in an odd way sometimes.
Well ok, most of the time, but sometimes I notice it.

The one downside to the nostalgia I’ve been wallowing in for the last few weeks, thanks to the Facebook page largely populated by those of us who went to the same school, is discovering the number of people who are no longer with us.
I mentioned in a previous post how shocked I was that so many people I knew as a teenager have passed away in the intervening years since school, and the roll call of deceased classmates continues to grow.

Now, this got me thinking about funerals.
Not a very cheery subject for a blog post, I’ll give you that, but bear with me.
Funerals are obviously not occasions to enjoy exactly, but a good percentage of the ones I’ve been to are designed as a celebration of the life of whoever is lying quietly at the front, the absolute centre of attention for the very last time.

And with that focus of attention comes some measure of responsibility.
This is your final big moment, you want to give all those folks that have travelled from far and wide something to remember you by.

Fanatical as I am about it, I think music should play a big part in proceedings and it’s up to you to make sure you pick the right soundtrack.

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But by what criteria should a decent funeral song be judged?
Do you pick a syrupy ballad that’s guaranteed to drag wracking sobs from the assembled mourners, go for something a bit more uplifting, a jolly sing-along to cheer people up, or just stick to a sombre drone and let them sort their emotions out for themselves?

I know Robbie Williams has untold millions of fans, but the apparently endless final curtain calls that have been enhanced by him crooning Angels over the end credits suggests a certain lack of imagination on the behalf of whoever assembled the playlist for the big day. (See also: My Way, We’ll Meet Again, My Heart Will Go On, Wind Beneath My Wings, You’ll Never Walk Alone)
The music for your last exit should be chosen by you, for your audience.

At the funeral of a close friend a few years ago, we entered the crematorium to the dirty riffing intro of Welcome to the Jungle by Guns ‘N’ Roses and left, as her magnificent wicker coffin disappeared, to the stomping pomp rock of We Will Rock You by Queen.
Lots of smiles at that funeral, setting the mood for a somewhat rowdy wake, a gloriously nostalgic celebration of Lori, someone whose character was as huge and outrageous as the music she picked for her swan song.

So, what would you pick as the tune that brought the curtain down on your final performance?
Would it be a song whose lyrics were applicable in some way to how you lived your life, or one which had some resonance with you personally?
Or maybe you’d choose something purely on the strength of its entertainment value to the ones who’d come to see you off?
I can’t see there’d be too many sad faces at a memorial service with the Muppet Show theme as the closing number, can you?

Better still, you could always pick something which only you found funny. After all, there’s no rule saying you have to have a musical track. Imagine the satisfaction of breathing your last, secretly knowing that as your coffin vanished behind the curtain, the carefully unlabeled CD, supplied by you for the solemn moment, would be played and Derek and Clive* would be unleashed on the congregation.

I’d like to think that my current favourite choice for my own retirement from humanity is sufficiently odd to be unpredictable for those who might try and guess it (assuming they’re not reading this and have long memories, that is) and yet recognisable enough to some that it will provide that all-important nostalgia kick.
And it will be timed so the assembled throng have to listen to the whole song too, otherwise what’s the point?

There are any number of songs I could have picked, but I have no special wish to pick an arbitrary Favourite Track Of All Time, like some sort of blockbuster’s closing theme tune.
I’m not even that interested in picking one that most symbolises me as a person, whatever that strange cacophony may sound like.

The song I did pick (see link below) is one that will divide the audience, I suspect.
It’s pretty much a love-it-or-hate-it type of record, and for all I know it’s used at many funerals a week, all around the country, but I doubt it.
Although it’s not a vintage classic, or even by a famous band, and it’s far from my favourite ever song, I’ve always thought it has a rather nice pathos to it that would particularly suit the emotionally charged atmosphere of a funeral. (The date referred to at the start has no special significance, before you ask)
Plus, I’ve never been shy of doling out the occasional spot of advice myself…

So picture the scene; as you raise your eyes to the non-denominational stained glass window of the crematorium and then back to the slowly retreating, budget price casket, the speakers crackle and:

                                 Ladies and Gentlemen…

Aaaaaannnd…..Cut.

(* – contains very strong language. But you know that, because you didn’t read this bit in time.)

 
12 Comments

Posted by on March 28, 2014 in aardvark, Humour, Music, Personal anecdote

 

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The stupidity of bureaucracy – The life and tragic death of Alois Dvorzac…

Every now and then a news story comes along that makes me angry.
They aren’t all massive, sensational stories about genocides, child murders, ignorant racist thugs or institutional human rights abuses either.
Some of them are about the small horrors, the ones which fall through the gaps in our busy attention spans, the stories that barely register on the radar of a society more interested in the dalliances of pop stars and the contents of Fat Cats’ bonus packages.

In other words, the very personal tales of everyday neglect and insensitivity that quietly chip away at my faith in human nature.

Born in Maribor, Slovenia in 1928, Alois Dvorzac was not a prize winning scientist or famous war hero, he wouldn’t go on to invent a cure for cancer or discover a new galaxy, he was just an ordinary man with a commitment to his country who wished to live an ordinary life.

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Alois’ father died when he was two years old, but despite this he had a reasonably happy childhood, even allowing for the German occupation, growing up in a large house with his mother and three sisters. He did well at school, receiving glowing plaudits from his teachers in every subject (his report cards all stamped “sehr gut” by the Nazi authorities) and going on to teach himself English in his own time whilst at university in the capital, Ljubljana. His mother and sisters were very proud as he was the first in his family to attend higher education.

So far, so normal. But as the war was ending he joined the Slovenian partisans, marking him out to the occupying forces as someone for them to keep an eye on.
When the Germans withdrew after the war, Dvorzac became increasingly disillusioned with the ruling communist system and made the difficult decision to relocate to the West, planning on escaping the oppressive dictatorship that had replaced the old regime by travelling across Europe and attempting to make a life for himself in the far off promised land of Canada.
One of his few surviving relatives, his cousin Zlatka Hoceevar who still lives in Alois’ childhood home, said recently that;

“…the political system crushed talented people. Those that stayed here, had their wings clipped.”

By this time Alois had met and married Dana, the woman who would become his one constant companion and love of his life, the one who would accompany him on his long journey to freedom and happiness on a strange new continent, so far from everything they had previously known.
They traveled overland, spent a short time in Austria (the one and only time in his life that Alois Dvorzac could be even remotely considered an “illegal alien”) eventually arriving in Canada, where he and his bride soon became naturalized citizens and settled down to make a new life for themselves.

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Alois used his love of science and mathematics to help him make a successful career as an engineer, carving out a comfortable existence for himself and his beloved Dana in the self-imposed exile they had chosen, sadly losing contact with family and friends in his homeland, something which he would later come to regret, but tragically never manage to reconcile.

They never had children of their own, but you only have to see the look of devotion on their faces in this photo, taken shortly before Dana died a few years ago, to see how happy they had become in their life together.

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Now alone in his adopted country and beginning to suffer the onset of Alzheimer’s, Alois finally decided last year that he would make the long trip back to Slovenia, to reconnect with his family there and possibly settle in his native country for the remainder of his life.
So he got on a plane in Canada, bound for the home he left so long ago, no doubt dreaming of an emotional reunion with those he’d left behind.

On landing at Gatwick airport for a connecting flight however, he found himself detained by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) on some sort of technicality.
We still don’t know what prompted the bureaucracy-bound officials to single him out. Was it the fact that he hadn’t got the right documentation? Was it simply that, suffering from an episode of confusion brought on by his illness, he wasn’t able to explain his situation to airport authorities’ satisfaction?
What we do know is that this quietly dignified man, having survived the wartime Nazi occupation, the communist rule of his beloved Slovenia and a life-changing journey of thousands of miles across the globe, ended up incarcerated at the UKBA Immigration Removal Centre at Harmondsworth in London on January 23rd 2013.

Examined by an independent doctor whilst at the facility, 84 year-old Dvorzac was declared “Vulnerable, frail and unfit for detention” and despite that doctor’s evaluation, the UKBA refused to release him, giving no adequate explanation as to why he was being held.
Indeed, when the doctor requested her supervisor to intervene on his behalf, they were told by the Border Agency that they “would not make that information available as it is none of your business”

Alois Dvorzac was kept in a lonely government holding cell, for much of the time handcuffed and chained to his bed until, alone and frightened two weeks later, struggling to breathe and without even the comfort of his loved ones around him, his heart finally gave out and he died, never to complete his final journey home.

The Canadian High Commission, contacted by the doctor who examined him, had only this to say on hearing of his tragic demise;

“We take the well-being of our citizens very seriously and look forward to the outcome of the investigation of the prisons and probation ombudsman into the circumstances surrounding Mr Dvorzac’s death. To protect the privacy of the individual concerned, further comments on this case cannot be provided.”

The UK Border Agency have released a weasel-worded statement that reads;

“The recent report by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Prisons on Harmondsworth made it clear that performance by the contractor running the centre has been below the high standard expected.

“It made a number of recommendations that we are taking forward and we are scrutinising our contractor’s performance closely. Clear instructions have been issued to staff making clear that restraint should only happen where absolutely necessary.”

When I saw this story on the news this week, I could only think of what I would feel if this had been one of my relatives, how enraged I would be at the brutal treatment of a man whose only crime was to  dream of a better life, somewhere a world away from all that he had known.

If this is how we treat those in society who merely strive to enrich their lives, no matter what the odds stacked against them, whether they live in foreign lands under the yoke of oppression or are simply passing through our own supposedly free country, then I think it’s about time we looked long and hard at the way our society determines who benefits from that freedom.
Because until we do, tragic cases like that of Alois Dvorzac will continue to appear in quickly-forgotten corners of the news media, a sign that we are unwilling to learn the lessons from history that we should have learnt many years ago.

 
14 Comments

Posted by on March 23, 2014 in News, Social comment

 

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A Beacon in the darkness…

In a previous post I explored some of the less cheerful experiences I had at school, but as I spend more and more time perusing the new Facebook page set up to celebrate life and memories from my old home town of Crowborough, the more the fun times I spent in that sprawling comprehensive in the heart of Sussex come flooding back.

I began life at Beacon school a little late.
Not very late, only about five minutes I think, but that was enough for me to enter the (to me at least) enormous and bewildering campus when everyone else had already been sheparded away into classes or, in the case of first years like me, to the main hall for registration.

As I hurried around the corner of the concrete and glass edifice of the Tower Block I collided with what at first sight appeared to be a bamboo tweed giant, who looked down her nose at me from about eight feet up and said in an imperious voice; “Walk, don’t run. You should be in assembly, boy” and proceeded to give me directions.
I stammered my thanks and hurried away. Walking, not running.
I later discovered I had just met Miss Vokins, but as she and I had very little to do with each other for the following six years, we shall leave her there and enter my first year at Beacon.

When I finally caught up with my classmates I found I’d been allocated a tutor group that was located in a prefab behind the main hall, bordered on two sides by sports fields and well away from the gaze of all but the nosiest of teachers.
It was a science classroom.

Our tutor was of the young trendy type, with the boundless enthusiasm of the recent training college graduate, as yet untarnished by the cynicism produced by having to deal with the likes of us day in, day out.
His name was Mr Sharratt and he was very good entertainment indeed.

For a start, there was a good story about his time at training school which went something along the lines of;
Due to a previous injury to nerves in part of one hand, he had no feeling in a couple of fingers and had once inadvertently set fire to his own hand as he held a test tube over a flame without due care and attention while giving a chemistry lecture.
And he could be persuaded to do pretty much anything in science class.

Like the time we convinced him it was a good idea to see what the result would be when a lump of highly reactive sodium metal, roughly four times the recommended size, was dropped from some six inches above the surface of a glass tank full of water.
The result was that the lump sank to the bottom, stuck there like an angry, fizzing limpet for a few seconds and then, with a loud explosion of gas that threatened to crack the tank, shot to the surface and went careering back and forth across the surface of the water, almost reaching escape velocity and filling the whole room with possibly lethal fumes, causing the lab to be evacuated.

Or the time we did the “Custard powder bomb” experiment, whereby a lit candle is placed in a custard powder tin, the lid replaced and a small quantity of custard powder is puffed into the sealed tin via a pipe, the resultant combustion being just enough to blow the lid off.
However, if you get your teacher to really pack that pipe with custard powder, and you can also talk him into placing four candles in the tin, then what you have is a massive explosion that propels the lid off the tin so hard that it embeds itself in the ceiling.

And I’m sure you’ve all tried the water rocket experiment at some point, the one that demonstrates how water can’t be compressed (or something) and involves pumping air into a plastic washing-up liquid bottle half-full of water, ideally launching it a few feet along the lab bench into the sink.
Except when we did it, the top of the bottle had somehow become jammed in very hard indeed and by the time enough pressure had been accumulated to launch the bottle rocket, it shot the entire length of the room and smashed the toughened wired glass window of the fire exit.

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And scientific experiments weren’t restricted to the classroom either.
There was a bit of a fad for “recreational explosives” shall we say, the sort made from vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and a small plastic pop bottle, or small handfuls of potassium permanganate, smuggled out of chemistry lessons and mixed with gelatin in a meat paste jar.
(DON’T try this at home, kids)
Many a desk mysteriously had the bottom blown out of it by amateur chemists honing their demolition skills.
We really were rather ingenious, I’m sure our teachers would have been secretly proud that we’d been paying such close attention.
Although minor furniture damage paled into insignificance with the furore surrounding the theft from the chemical store of a whole bottle of the aforementioned highly reactive sodium.

The entire year, maybe even the whole school, were given a stern talking to in hastily arranged assemblies with mass detentions threatened if nobody owned up.
That was until the missing hazardous material was allegedly discovered in the attic of a school master’s house, where it had been hidden by his son in collusion with a co-conspirator.

Oops. Awkward.

It wasn’t until later on in my time at Beacon however, that the most notorious event of my time there occurred.
That was the scandalous, almost surreal experience of The Beacon Riots.

I have no idea now, if I’m perfectly honest, what kicked it all off, although I suspect it had something to do with several policemen chasing a couple of glue sniffing skinheads across the playground in the middle of a school day not long before, or the fact that there was an especially large contingent of that particular tribe at Beacon back then, with the added bonus that a teacher had been seen enthusiastically putting the boot in after the fleeing glue sniffer had been subdued beneath a heap of struggling coppers.

Whatever the cause, the result was a thrilling explosion of chaos and anarchy amongst the pupils, some of whom locked themselves in The Pens – fenced-in tennis courts bordering the playground – in solidarity with….something or other, and anyway, yeah, like, fuck the system.
Other rebel fighters laid siege to the sixth form block, the inhabitants of which retaliated with water bombs, intellectual abuse and Chaucer quotes (possibly).
But most exciting of all, whilst staff foot soldiers were attempting to enforce some sort of order on proceedings with loud-hailers and middle class self-importance, several high ranking officers – housemasters and above – were chased, yes chased by a small mob of the ringleaders into the main office, where they barricaded themselves for the duration of hostilities.

It seems amazing, now that I think back, that there wasn’t more of a backlash from that day of iconoclastic chaos, but from what I remember (and I’m open to correction from anyone else with a better memory) very few sanctions were imposed on the student body in general and only the instigators of the revolution were executed expelled or suspended.

My own particular contribution to the fight against the powers that be was more restricted to being a general smartass, something which regularly got me detention, visits to infuriated house masters’ offices, report cards that said things like, “will do very well if only he’d stop talking and listen for a change”, and uncannily well-aimed blackboard erasers flung my way.
Having said all that, some of the staff obviously saw something in me worth saving and the likes of the fabulous Jeff Lee, English and drama teacher extraordinaire and invaluable mentor during my teenage thespian days; Dick Kempson, another English teacher who also acted as our chaperone and driver when our briefly-famous theatre group performed at the Edinburgh Fringe; and Mr Watson, the French teacher responsible for me still being able to get by in basic conversations whenever I visit France (quite apart from being a bloody good shot with a blackboard rubber or piece of chalk), all of them made those days in class that much more bearable.

Funnily enough, one of the memories that most amuses me doesn’t involve classes, other pupils, or even any intention on my part to cause mischief, just an unfortunate accident of technology:
In the lazy summer limbo period between finishing studying and taking exams, we were allowed a certain amount of freedom to persue non-academic interests in and around the school (I spent some of this time producing a mini drama festival) and one of the duties I took on was helping out in the audio/visual control room, which amongst other things recorded and broadcast the educational TV programmes used in lessons.

There were four video recorders in the room, three that were used to transmit and one purely for recording. There was also a small library of movies on tape, including Nicholas Roeg’s ’70s psychedelic sci-fi masterpiece, The Man Who Fell To Earth.
One day when I had nothing better to do, I thought I’d watch David Bowie louche-ing it up as the titular alien, but the spare machine was recording a programme at the time so I elected to use one of the two currently unused broadcast machines instead. I mean, what harm could it possibly do, right?
I was still comfortably engrossed in the action when the phone loudly interrupted my viewing pleasure;
- Hello, A/V room.
- {slightly panicky female voice} Hello! Um, I’m supposed to have booked a programme about dinosaurs, why are there naked people covered in slime on my television?
- I’m sorry, there must be a problem with the recording, I’ll sort it out immediately.
- I should think so too, honestly!

Needless to say, my job as budding TV producer ended there and then.

It is possibly rather self-indulgent of me to think anyone will be interested in reading the nostalgic reminiscences of a non-descript teenager’s days in a perfectly ordinary comprehensive school, but I’ve enjoyed reliving them and sometimes it’s good to write just for yourself for a change.

But if as a result of reading this, you find yourself revisiting memories of school with some affection for the days we were so keen to escape at the time, then I shall consider my job here done.

Wait for it.

Ok, you can go.

Walk, don’t run…

[This post is dedicated to all ex-pupils of Beacon, especially those in the Crowborough Memories Facebook group. Thank you for all the good times]

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Blogging, Films, Humour, Personal anecdote

 

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