Sunday, 27 July 2014

Swedish Utopia ©

Scandinavia is an incredibly well kept secret. As I entered the waterside café in Vaxholm, I felt as though I’d entered the Garden of Eden. The Swedish flag sailed in the gentle breeze and dark blue waters lapped all around. Tanned Swedes sat at white painted tables enjoying the languid Sunday sun as tree branches rustled overhead. Pear cider and a delicious strawberry confections completed the ensemble. "It's perfect!" I said, and so began a surreal experience. Tucked away from prying eyes, this café was as far from the madding crowd as you could ever imagine. Sailboats and yachts drifted past and the sunlight glinted off the waters. People spoke gently or not at all, tipping their faces to the sun in silence. And just when we thought it could get no better, the strumming of a guitar signalled a series of melodic acoustic numbers that melted seamlessly into the surrounds.

The Stockholm archipelago comprises an astonishing 24,000 islands, with the capital itself spread over 14. Tourists naturally head to the latter to enjoy the charms of this peaceful and classy urban space but a journey into the farther reaches of the mysterious navy waters reveals a haven of Swedish utopia. Board the Waxholmsbolaget on a sunny summer day (May to September) and take your place among Swedes heading to their holiday homes. The ferry stops several times, offering fleeting glimpses of storybook wooden houses with verandas and trailing flowers.

An hour into the journey, we disembarked at Vaxholm and did a quick lap of the main town. The sun was scorching and the colours of the houses seared in reds, pinks and yellows. We took shelter under the umbrellas of a small café and enjoyed some traditional Swedish meatballs, lingonberries, pickled beetroot and cider. Venturing back into the burning sun we passed locals, small businesses and telephone boxes that would not have looked out of place in an early 20th-century tale. The surrounds were so quintessentially perfect that my imagination ran wild as I wondered at the stories playing out behind the walls of the homes lining the gently inclining streets. We reached the harbour and people-watched, dodging energetic sea gulls and XS and XL dogs. Yachts circled blasting the dance music Sweden is known for, while others departed for isolated spots with the weekly shopping. We eventually moved on to a jetty jutting into the waters and spotted the beautiful café–garden that inspired this post.

The golden sunlight, impossibly beautiful Swedes and curious illusion of emptiness give Sweden something of a dreamlike quality. Strolling through the Djurgården island in central Stockholm on a Friday evening, there was not a soul to be founduntil we turned a corner and stumbled upon a glitzy nightclub. This archipelago is magic in the way it fuses urban life and nature so effortlessly. The people are polite, fluent in English and among the happiest in the world according to the OECD’s Better Life Index. One taxi driver suggested it was because Swedes had been spared the misfortunes to have befallen many other countries. Or because the people still make eye contact in the streets. Either way, it is surreal and fascinating.

Some experiences pass us by and vanish before ever forming memories while others remain in our minds in vivid colour. We may even realise mid-experience that it is something and absorb every detail, shoring up our memory bank for a rainy day.

With a cider in hand and the sun and sea at my back, last Sunday afternoon at Vaxholms Hembygdsgårds Café was the standout memory of a wonderful stay in Stockholm; a memory to light up a dark winter’s day with the welcome promise of Swedish utopia.

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Saturday, 17 May 2014

City of Lights ©

As I leave Paris the City of Light
I leave behind the light of these glorious summer days
When the sun burns away the traces of winter
And all is left is lazy park days
Refuge in the shade
And the light of those summer evenings
The twlight
When all is magic and maybes
The best time of day
I leave behind the twinkling Eiffel Tower
A beacon in the night
Reflections in the Seine
Of quayside life
And the light of an autumn day
Golden like the leaves
The muted shades of winter
When all is bright white
In Paris the City of Light

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Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Ones Left Behind ©

 Standing tall on Liverpool’s famous waterfront lies the majestic Royal Liver Building, crowned by two enormous birds. Legend has it that one of the Liver Birds looks out to sea keeping watch over its prosperity, while the other turns inland, a protector of the people. The mythical Liver Bird is the unlikely protagonist in myriad legends of romantic intrigue but to most, the lofty bird is the symbol of Liverpool. Erected in 1911, the birds have stood tall during triumph and disaster, the years stripping the shiny copper finish but not the immense 18-foot structure. A century on, the noble form of the birds silhouetted against the Liverpool skyline speaks of pride and resilience.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster. And with the new inquests underway, it’s once again making news headlines around the world. As the days go by, more and more personal tributes flood in, giving faces and identities to each of the 96. This does not make easy reading – 78 of those to die were under the age of 30 and many left spouses and young children behind. And yet it is wonderful to honour these people, taken before their time, in the pursuit of something they loved.

I hesitated before writing this post. This is my third Hillsborough tribute and I wasn’t sure I had anything new to say. However as the inquests began, I realized that my focus had shifted to the families of the 96, the survivors, and all those left behind. The story of the hundreds if not thousands of campaigners who have spent the past 25 years in pursuit of that most fundamental commodity: justice. As Hillsborough was not an accident. Hillsborough was a catalogue of errors, negligence and contempt resulting in carnage. But the disaster that took place on 15 April 1989 was sadly only the beginning of the tragedy. As the cover up which later emerged was so watertight and slick an operation that attempts to seek the truth were batted away with ease. The ordinary public took a sceptical stance – after all, what the families pleaded was so improbable, and the unjust reputation of football fans as drunken hooligans did nothing to strengthen the case. The senseless cruelty of loss was thus compounded by suspicion and damaging slurs.

On 19 April 1989, as that notorious headline first hit newsstands, the Anfield dawn was laced with the scent of a million flowers, lying in silent tribute. The visual impact of those scarves and flowers was startling. Kenny Dalglish claimed it was “the saddest and most beautiful” thing he had ever seen. A haunting show of solidarity in the face of blackness; a theme that would continue over the years. But if the families and campaigners had known of the long road ahead on that cold Wednesday morning, the hopelessness may have defeated them. For it would take 23 years for the light to break free.

15 April 1989: The worst stadium-related disaster in British history as (an eventual) 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death and hundreds more seriously injured.
19 April 1989: The sun publishes infamous front page article entitled ‘The Truth’, accusing fans of attacking and urinating on police officers and pick-pocketing the dead.
January 1990: The Taylor Report judged failure of police control to be the main reason for the disaster.
March 1991: A verdict of accidental death is returned at the inquests, ruling that all supporters were dead by 3.15 p.m. in spite of claims to the contrary.
August 1998: Home Secretary Jack Straw rules out a new inquiry, while the Hillsborough Family Support Group brings private manslaughter charges against the men in charge on that day: Chief Superintendent David Duckenfield and his deputy, Superintendent Bernard Murray.
July 2000: At the end of a six-week trial, Mr Murray is found not guilty of manslaughter while the jury fails to reach a verdict on Mr Duckenfield. The judge refuses a retrial, ruling that a fair trial for Mr Duckenfield would be impossible.


As one decade and then two crept by, the families were staunch in their fight for justice. But what about behind the scenes? How much happiness was lost? How much simple contentment was tinged with the bitterness of injustice? How many families buckled under the strain and how many survivors struggled with feelings of trauma and guilt? Cries of 'Justice for the 96' rose regularly from the stands and those in possession of the truth aired it with passion. And yet door after door was slammed in the faces of families and campaigners, key documents languished under a veil of deception and Tony Blair dismissed the case with the simple scrawl of 'what’s the point?' When the breakthrough came in 2012, the sense of triumph was overwhelming. Margaret Aspinall’s rousing, heartfelt speeches and Sheila Coleman’s impassioned words were as moving as they were awe-inspiring. And who could forget the steel in Anne Williams’ voice as she claimed, 'I will never go away'. Time sadly did run out for Anne who passed away last year, but not before she saw the light at the end of the tunnel. The bravery and sheer dignity shown by the Hillsborough families is incredible. They are an example to us all.


April 2009: The Hillsborough Independent Panel is set up following government minister Andy Burnham’s call for previously unreleased documents relating to the disaster to be released.
September 2012: After a long inquiry, the Hillsborough Independent Panel report finds that police orchestrated a cover-up, altered documents and blamed innocent supporters for the disaster. The document states that 41 lives could have been saved and absolves fans of any wrongdoing.
March 2014: New inquests into the disaster begin in Warrington. The inquests are expected to last nine months.

Hillsborough and the Justice campaign are examples of the darkness and light inherent to life. It is a saga that moves like nothing I have ever encountered. As a mourning Merseyside laid scarves and flowers, grown men sobbed. That people could die while part of something so joyful was perverse. Everybody knew somebody suffering at the hands of this unnecessary tragedy. And the years may have passed but the suffering did not. There was the devastation recorded in the newspapers and then the private devastation that was never aired. The type that keeps you awake in the dead of night and casts your life in grey. Too many tears have been shed in the hours since those cars, buses and trains set out for Sheffield. Tears of loss and abandonment. Tears of anger and frustration. Tears of wonder at the bravery shown by these exceptional people who would not give up.

The families of Hillsborough have long been admired on Merseyside. They were collectively named the Greatest Merseysider of All Time in a 2014 Liverpool Echo Poll; the annual memorial service is always packed to the rafters; and Justice for the 96 stickers can be found as far away as Australia as fans seek to spread the message. But since the revelations of September 2012, the world has stood in recognition. The Hillsborough charity single was the 2012 Christmas number one and Anne Williams was honoured at the 2013 BBC Sport’s Personality of the Year awards for her incredible commitment to uncovering the truth of what happened to her son Kevin. 'They're wearing me down,’ she had said. ‘But I'll wear them down before they wear me down’. And that she did.


It’s been a long road but the end is in sight. A spirit of optimism can be felt around Merseyside. The tide has turned and the truth is out. The 96 are being recognized as the men, women and children they were – a most basic right. And as we take our hats off to them, we turn to their mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, husbands, wives, sons, daughters, grandchildren, grandparents and friends and honour them too. The people who affirmed, 'we will never go away – until we find Justice for the 96'.


And as the salty tears of Hillsborough washed over the land, the Liver Birds stood tall, as did the city: strong, resilient, protectors of the people.

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Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Wanderlust ©

a strong desire to travel: a man consumed by wanderlust

What a great word that is. It has the spirit of adventure to it. Utter it and you can almost picture Christopher Columbus navigating high seas or the buccaneering Hiram Bingham storming his way through the dense Andean jungle. The French translation “envie de voyager” or “desire to travel” lacks the passion and poetry contained within that one word: wanderlust.

As a child I wasn’t consumed with a desire to see the world. In fact my world was the typically narrow one of a child and it was reading that I turned to to satisfy my appetite for adventure. Family holidays took place in Spain, Turkey and Greece in holiday resorts and the big wide world didn’t really exist for me. Until I heard of gap years that was. Back then, the gap year wasn’t too common and only for the fact that I stumbled across a copy of a gap year brochure, am I writing this now. But once the idea of visiting Argentina entered my head, I couldn’t really shake it. One thing led to another and before you knew it, I was in Heathrow airport with a horde of strangers at my side, passport in hand and a 24-hour journey to Andean Argentina ahead of me.

Let me stress that I was as far from the intrepid traveler as you could get. As a young 18 year-old, I had virtually no experience outside the classroom and the homes of family and friends. But over the next five months, something shifted in me. My youth and inexperience gave the trip a sharp and fleeting sweetness that I’ve been seeking ever since. It wasn’t plain sailing but somewhere between the bus rides to work, the newly formed friendships and my fledgling Spanish, I fell in love with Argentina. I learned to my surprise that I liked the tactile way the people would reach out to you. That I enjoyed being the centre of attention when it was kind-hearted and curious. That you didn’t have to earn friendship by being the funniest or the coolest – the people there offered it for free. I learned that all experiences are good experiences in the end. And finally, that passion and warmth are two of my favourite qualities in a person.

I returned to the UK a changed person with renewed interest in the world and a hefty dose of idealism that I’ve had to water down over the years. But those were my formative years and my opinions have remained essentially the same ever since. In the past ten years, my appetite for travel has taken me to France, Spain, Iceland, Portugal, Italy, Morocco, Switzerland, the USA, Belgium, Holland, Sweden and back to where it all started, but I’ve never quite managed to recapture the heady feelings of my early days in small-town Argentina.

These days I am consumed by wanderlust. I look out the window and imagine myself zooming down an American highway on the way somewhere… in this sense there’s a bittersweet edge to wanderlust – that idea of seeking ‘a great perhaps’, the rainbow’s gold. Or maybe it’s just that once you’ve whetted your appetite and experienced the freedom offered by extended travel, you realize the limitations of staying in one place. And yet the idea that homesickness cannot take up residence within one consumed by wanderlust is false. That is the great irony.

As I sit here now, my beloved passport is about to expire and so comes the end of an era. The gold crest on the cover is no more and the whole thing has the ragged, worn appearance of a well-loved teddy bear. One that you should throw away, but you can’t because of the memories. Those stamps represent a time when the number one concern was how many places we could fit into six weeks’ travel. A time where a passport was all you needed in life.

It may be that nothing will ever match Argentina 2004. Maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe once-in-a-lifetime trips are just that. But I’ll keep looking! I’ve got a lot of blank pages to fill.

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