Thursday, February 16, 2017

Københavnske Dagbog: The Colours of Djibouti @ Davids Samling

Djibouti 12 by Peter Bonnén displayed at Davids Samling's Collection.
When I arrived at the Copenhagen Backpackers Hostel, one of the first things that caught my eye was a leaflet for an exhibition called Djiboutis Farver or The Colours of Djibouti in English. The picture on the front was of a wall with a small window cut into it, the bottom half a dirty salmon and the top a washed out baby blue.

The name of the venue, and the leaflet, had slipped out of my mind until my friend Signe said over lunch, “I really want to visit the Islamic art museum.”

I asked her where it was and what it was called, looking for a chance to build on my exploration of Essaouira’s Museum in the summer. She made a noise that sounded a bit like, “dad’s salmon.” Then she spelled it out and it was the same place that I had been looking at the leaflet for.


After chasing the changing of guards around town for a bit and having a coffee in the Grønlands Repræsentation, I wandered towards the innocuous entrance to the Davids Samling Collection, opposite the Kongens Have or King’s Garden. 

Downstairs there is a collection of European artwork, but I bypassed this to see the Peter Bonnén exhibition first.

The photography centres on what is essentially something very ordinary; the painted walls and doors of houses and commercial buildings in Djibouti, a small country in northeast Africa with colonial ties to France and cultural ties to its neighbours, Somalia and Ethiopia.

What makes his works interesting is encapsulated in the photographer's introduction to the gallery. Bonnén states that when he used to attempt to paint in his younger years, he found his works becoming more and more monochrome. Even today he says, “I am not that good at colours.”

When Bonnén visited Djibouti, with its mass of foreign soldiers to combat piracy and the chaos of the market when a delivery of khat from Ethiopia arrives, he “found the colours and the colour combinations that [he] had always sought.”

Indeed, what his photographs are representative of are something quite idiosyncratic and document how “the colours of the houses and doors everywhere [he] looked were so surrealistic that they sang.” This was a perfect explanation for the collection, and especially for my personal favourite Djibouti 12.

Having taken the time to absorb the colours of every single image I saw, I walked upstairs to where the another, permanent treasure trove lay in wait. 

The Djiboutis Farver exhibition is at the Davids Samling Collection until 16th April 2017. More information can be found at https://www.davidmus.dk/en/.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: The Koutoubia Mosque and Hotel La Mamounia

The Koutoubia Mosque and its imposing minaret, early on a Friday morning.
I didn’t really feel that Marrakech and I had got off on the right foot. This morning, after a really good night’s sleep, I had resolved to have a calm day, take in a few sights, and limit my spending to 200dh.

Perhaps most excitingly, it was my first Jumu’ah spent in a Muslim country. The day already had the feel of a Sunday morning in a Christian country and when I finally got out of bed the hostel was very quiet. By 8.30, there were only two others on the roof terrace.

Breakfast was, as expected, a bit of a bread fest, but there are also the options of cake, yoghurt, coffee, atay, pancakes, all accompanied by the worlds sweetest and thickest apricot jam.

I took my time eating and made the most of the sun’s mild temper to write the previous days misadventures into my notebook, accompanied by a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a pair of sparrows who insisted on monitoring my every move lest I drop a crumb.

I also reflected on how humourless I had been the day before. Plenty of people go travelling alone, but, as it’s something that I had never done before, it seemed like the lack of any sense of order hit me hard. Today I realised that I simply had to find a rhythm to my day.

After studying the Marrakech Lonely Planet guidebook, handily stolen from the library at my workplace on the last day of term, I made a modest itinerary for the morning: Koutoubia Mosque followed by a wander around the gardens of La Mamounia, a large hotel by the medina walls.


The minaret of the Koutoubia Mosque is the defining architechuaral feature of Marrakesh’s medina.

Mid-morning on Jumu’ah, the square in front of the mosque was quiet, save for the traffic rushing in small waves along the junction of the Rue Mouahidine and Rue Ibn Khaldoun. 

In front of the mosque was the small white-washed tomb of Lalla Zohra, whose history it's hard to pin down. Some sources told me she was is considered a saint, others I spoke to said she was the daughter of a liberated slave. I found it strange that there would a tomb or mausoleum to a potential saint, and a female one at that, so openly placed at the side of the road – especially when this could be considered as a form of idolatry under Islamic law. It wasn't the only instance of such a thing I would find in Marrakech.

Turning back to the main building, to say that minaret dominates the landscape is an understatement and somehow seems to cheapen it. It was built in the 12th Century and is one of the oldest buildings left in the medina as well as one of the tallest. One taxi driver, a Paris Saint Germain fan called Hassan, confidently informed me, “You can see that tower for 40 kilometres in every direction.” I didn’t test whether this was the truth, but I could well imagine that it would be.

In many ways, the bottom of the minaret is quite plain, but the intricacy of the design increases the further up you look. 

It starts with some carving into the masonry around the window spaces; further up there are lines of blue painted into geometric patterns; some small castellation; a smaller part at the top where the muezzin would call the adhan has both blue and red details, a variant of the fleur-de-lys in the stonework, and at the top four golden orbs, one of which being supposedly a penance payment from a sultan’s wife for breaking her fast during ramadan.


Even the secluded areas of La Mamounia's gardens are palatial.
After this, I made the short but rather hot walk through Parc Lalla Hasna to La Mamounia. 

Nearing the end of the park, the scale of the hotel becomes evident, but you can’t truly appreciate its architectural splendour until you’re safely through the security gate.

Emerging from a well-manicured garden full of trees with large branches, the entrance to the hotel looks more like modern reworking of the Alhambra in Seville, Spain. Not a square inch of the entrance is free from either zelij – the typically Moroccan mosaic patterning – or carved and sculpted stucco or masonry, with designs so complex that only my camera was able to do it any real justice.

The hotel opened to travellers in 1923, but has a history that stretches back much further than this. The gardens were gifted to Prince Al Mamoun in the 18th Century and the palatial theme is continued throughout the premises. Indeed, the hotel’s website claims that Winston Churchill once remarked to Franklin D. Roosevelt that it was “one of the most beautiful places in the world.”

Inside, the floors and walls were made of what seemed like polished black marble interlaced with gold highlights. Along the sides were small water features with the ubiquitous zelij sorrounding them, gently flowing as I made my incongruous (read: linen trousers, light blue T-shirt and sandals) passage through the lobby towards the blazing light of the terrace that overlooked the gardens.

I sat myself down with Ian Fleming’s For Your Eyes Only, feeling a little bit like James Bond as a waitress in a gold and white abayah took my order. Whilst the couple on the table next me, a Canadian woman and her partner from Kent, went for a late-morning mojito, I opted for second pot of atay, that came accompanied by three small pastries.

Whilst finishing my atay, I read a bit more of my novel and then some of the rather arty in-house magazine. Ironically enough the articles include one about a house that was used for fiming in the recent James Bond movie Spectre in Morocco and an article on atay, which really was becoming a running theme of my stay.

In Mouna Lahrech’s article Fifty Shades of Green, she took aim at mint tea, claiming that it wasn't really that Moroccan. She says, “Moroccan tea was originally a British idea” and that green tea was “introduced in the mid-19th century by the British who were looking for a market for their exports of different green tea varieties.” She also can’t stand the slurping noise that you’re supposed to make whilst drinking it.

Just as I was beginning to despair as my entire notion of one of Morocco’s essential components was beginning to crumble, she went on to write that what Moroccans did with the basic ingredient of green tea is what makes it special. Indeed, the addition of mint and other regional variations of ingredients is what “created a beverage that would accompany life’s most beautiful moments for an entire country” – although she still prefers coffee.

With my faith in the Moroccan integrity of atay restored, I set off on a stroll around the gardens. Now, having recently agreed with my father in an argument about the overuse of football pitches as a means for measuring area, I will avoid doing so, but you get the implicature; the gardens were vast.

Within the boundaries of the garden, which push up against the inside wall of the medina, there were countless cacti of every shape and size imaginable, rows of date palms piercing the cloudless Marrakshi sky, lush green lawns standing in counterpoint to the reddish sands that surround the city and even a 'water bed' – a flower bed filled with lilly pads, flowers and bulrushes. In amongst this there was evena terrapin swimming blithely amongst a couple of small fish.

To add to the magnificence, a small seating area, or so it seemed at first, in fact opened out into a small riad style courtyard with a symmetrical balance of columns, alcoves and soft azure zelij, all finished off with an artistically overflowing fountain in the centre.

Considering that it was just the garden to a hotel, it took me nearly forty-five minutes to navigate and I managed to get mildly lost before emerging near the pool bar. I could only guess at what the price difference must be between my room at Equity Point and La Mamounia.

For the afternoon I had planned to visit Le Jardin Majorelle, the one time residence of Yves Saint Laurent, but when I got back to the AC of my cheap, but comfortable, dorm room after a lunch of kefta tagine and yet more atay, I fell asleep for the majority of the afternoon.

Lessons Learned
  • Waking up early and getting out whilst the sun is a bit cooler is a good idea at this time of year.
  • Not every Moroccan actually likes to drink mint tea, and some will actually print this opinion openly.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Walk-on Roles

The smaller of the two riads that make up Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
That evening I paused for while on the top terrace of the Argana to drink more atay. In the orange half-light of dusk, Jemaa el-Fnaa, with the adhan for Maghrib prayer being called from the Koutoubia mosque and a wave of other smaller mosques following suit, was transformed into something almost otherworldly. 

Whilst locals dashed to the multitudinous mosques squirreled away down every narrow passage of the medina, and tourists lazily continued their sun-beaten wanderings, I took out my red Moleskine notebook and thought about the assortment of people I was beginning to unearth in the hostel.


Arriving in my shared dorm room at Equity Point Hostel that afternoon, there was, who I assumed to be, an American couple canoodling on the bottom bunk of one the beds. Upon reflection, she sounded more American than him, and I suspect that he may be in possession of one of those Americanised accents that many young Europeans have when speaking English.

Feeling a little guilty for breaking up their 'moment', I asked them which of the bunks was free. The guy had his own bed, but was now sharing with her. I realised that their relative youth and slender frames would make this possible, along with the fact that they were next to the air conditioning. There was one other bed with a neatly folded pair of green swimming trunks laid on top of it.

After a few minutes, another dorm mate arrived: enter, Grouchy Frenchman. He was around forty years old, was in possession of a portly belly and wore a trilby hat.

Gathering their stuff together, American Guy asked me, “Would you like the door left open?” 

Before I had chance to reply, Grouchy interjected. “Non!” he cut in, “fermé la porte because the AC will otherwise not work!” He then continued to mumble something under his breath that sounded very grumpy and exceedingly French.

American Guy looked awkwardly at me and retired backwards out of the door, as if edging slowly away from an angry dog. I was worried that they may have had a 'cultural difference' already and imagined my peaceful night’s sleep ebbing away over multilingual invectives. 

I tried, albeit falteringly, to engage Grouchy in a little small talk about the weather, failed miserably and decided to sleep off the early afternoon’s unplanned ramblings


Later on, I was already beginning to feel a little less isolated, a little livelier and my annoyance over being fleeced by guides was fading.

Outside of dorm 108 at the hostel, set on the ground floor of two interconnected riad style courtyards, was a swimming pool. This was a definite draw for this hostel when compared to others I had researched in the medina

When I had fully awoken, Grouchy was in the pool swimming some short lengths – I was half-trying to avoid being in his company as he really behaved like a localised cloud of doom. Luckily, the moment the big toe on my left foot hit the water, he jumped out and I had the water, and the last remaining spot of sunshine in the courtyard, to myself.

A short while later, a young Dutchman in his second year at University got in. We talked a bit about where he’d been around Morocco now that his trip was drawing to a close.

He had actually come into Morocco via Spain with his two friends, and had worked his way down the country by coach: Tangier, Rabat, Fez, “But avoid Casablanca whatever you do!” he said. I didn't enquire why.

He was studying Business Administration and wanted a future career in logistics management. Not overly exciting, but at least it didn’t have to pay anything near to what his UK counterparts have to pay in terms of tuition fees. In fact, even with reduced government funding in Dutch Universities, he was still only paying €2000 he said.


Looking down at the pool and dorm 108 at Equity Point Hostel, Marrakech.
After returning from Argana, I lay on the roof terrace of the hostel staring up at a whole load of empty nothingness. The sun had long gone down, but the warmth still permeated the air and I was fighting off the urge to ask myself for the tenth time: “What the hell are you doing here alone?”

I had been beginning to think that travelling to Morocco, alone or otherwise, might be a young person’s game; young Dutchman and his mates, giggling hordes of young French women in abayahs bought from the souk and the canoodling American-sounding couple all stood as stark counterpoints to me and Grouchy Frenchman.

Sat crossed-legged on the one of three semi-circular seats was an American woman in her late 30s and an Irishman in his late 20s. Clearly they hadn’t been travelling together, but they were having a major existential heart to heart about where they were in life – lolling around on the planet somewhere between lost and listless.

It seemed the woman was trying to escape the fallout of a relationship breakdown in New York and was now trying to find some peace, albeit by disturbing the peace of the Irishman. His responses seemed to hint that he may have just been humouring her and her woes, but he seemed to be sharing a bit of his recent challenges too.

She was having her very own 'Eat Pray Love' moment, but in a manner that was desperate for someone to overhear it all. I was curious as to whether everyone here around my age would be on the run from something.

Heading back downstairs, I went into the dorm to find another new arrival: Théo.

As I walked in, I casually said, “y’alright!”

He leapt up, looked at me in shock and said “yes” with a heavy French accent. At first, when I saw his eyes I was concerned that he may be under the influence of something very strong; there was something wild about the way his eyes appeared. A few minutes later, I realised what it was about him – he just had a really strong prescription in his glasses and the lenses magnified his eyes rather spectacularly.

We stumbled through a Franglais conversation about Africa for half an hour or so. As he disappeared into the en suite, Grouchy Frenchman shuffled back into the room after what seemed like his twentieth swim of the day. He grumbled something about the AC again. This time Théo bore the brunt of the mumbling, I ignored him and the Americans lay feigning sleep.

I didn’t know what to expect from staying in a hostel, especially as a thirty-something, but what I found on the first night was that it is just a bit like an alternate version of Big Brother, peopled by a cast of equally divergent characters. Your prize may be that elusive inner peace, your motivation may be to get discovered, or may just be to discover yourself, but it’s generally all harmless fun.

Lessons Learned
  • Argana is the ideal people watching spot at Maghrib prayer time in Jemaa el-Fnaa – unless you’re meant to be praying.
  • Always shut the door if you have the AC switched on and a Grouchy roommate.
  • Embrace the strangeness of any potential roommates. You are probably equally as weird to them – or they be long-sighted.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Atay Maghrebi: Lost and Found in Marrakech

A beautiful labyrinth that should be respected: Marrakech, Morocco.
I arrived in Marrakech in late July 2016 too tired to deal with humanity. I’d slept for about one hour and fifteen minutes overnight and only caught two 45-minute bursts of sleep on the tightly packed Ryanair plane.

Anyone who knows me knows one thing about how I travel: I prepare well, but pack last minute. Last evening I had decided it would be better to go to Women’s Equality Party event in Islington with a friend, visit a bar and then head home at 1am. Not very wise.

Despite being a little worried about being alone a long way from home, I stepped off the transfer taxi on Boulevard Fatima Zahra. It wasn’t able to get up the tight streets of the medina, and with the relatively light backpack that represented my worldly possessions for the next two weeks, I started to walk under the gateway.

A youngish man with sleepy eyes, dressed in a shiny blue djellaba and pink crocs called out to me, “Equity Point?”

“Yes,” I mumbled.

“It is just here,” he said with sincerity, “I’ll show you.”

“It’s okay. I’ll be fine from here.”

“No. I’ll show you,” he insisted.

The perfect trap; he was already locked on and leading the way. A trap very neatly sprung.

At this point I had no dirhams, so hastily came up with a plan to offload a €10 note. After a confusing conversation with the unimpressed guide, which involved looking at a forex app, I ended up paying him around €5 for his services and I left with around 50 dirhams in change. It is fair to say that both of us felt a little ripped-off, but neither party was in the mood for an argument.

❦ 

It was still too early to check-in, so I dropped-off my bags at the Hostel and went in search of a padlock, an ATM and lunch.

At the end of Boulevard Fatima Zahra, a short walk outside of the medina, I came to a slender three-storey café-restaurant called Café Kif-Kif. Here I ordered a kefta tagine – meatballs in a rich, mildly spiced, red sauce with two fried eggs on top. To wash it down I had a pot of the essential Moroccan drink, atay (mint tea), to mock the already intensifying heat.

The food was served in the traditional clay Moroccan cooking pot that gives the dish its name, the tagine. It was both incredibly tasty and obscenely photogenic. I resisted the temptation to Instagram it, opting to annoy a few Whatsapp contacts with the image of my lunch instead.

After whiling away a little time people watching, talking in bad French and amazed at the ferocity of a niqaab-wearing, motorcycle-riding woman shouting at a shop owner, I headed off in the direction of Jemaa el-Fnaa with a view to looping back the hostel via a back route to check in properly.

Passing through the square, which at this time was quiet save for a couple of snake charmers and the juice bars, I managed to miss the turning back through the souks and ended up walking in the vague direction of the tanneries.

The narrow alleyway leading to Equity Point Hostel: Marrakech, Morocco.
A few guide books had suggested that visiting a tannery is an interesting thing to do, so when a Berber guide said he’d show me one, I thought, “why not.”

As it was a Thursday afternoon, the tannery workers were packing up early. My tiredness crept back suddenly, and I ended up feeling like I was essentially walking around some rancid concrete troughs, literally full of crap, holding a sprig of mint to my nose and looking to see how many other tourists were being duped into a grand tour. I just wasn't awake enough to appreciate it.

This wasn’t everything though; having to exit through a leather shop meant I had to dodge a sales pitch for my least favourite form of material.

After some gentle persuasion (basically me saying: ‘I don’t bloody like leather and I’m not carrying a carpet around Morocco for the next two weeks like a substandard Aladdin impersonator’), I thought I’d escaped. No such luck – my guide reappeared and demanded his 200 dirhams fee. I’d fallen into the trap of not negotiating a price up front - again.

I thought back to a conversation on the plane with a Belgian man who’d said, “They call tourists walking cash machines.” He wasn’t wrong, but like any tourist location, simple mistakes like not agreeing a fee up front had been my undoing – along with an unhealthy lack of sleep.

Following another unplanned outlay of dirhams and some poor directions from a youth, I wandered off in the wrong direction and did so epically. Stopping to check Google Maps, I realised that I had somehow arrived outside the city walls near Bab Aylan to the east of the medina. I was lost, irritated, tired and disappointed that my usually faultless inner navigation skills had let me down.

I took another moment to get my bearings and I told myself to calm down. After all, it didn’t matter if I was lost. I had enough money to get wherever I needed and was perfectly safe.

One abortive attempt at flagging down a taxi nearly resulted in another tannery tour, but I thankfully managed to stop another taxi.

Saying a quick bismillah under his breath, the driver circumnavigated the perimeter wall of the medina for twenty-five minutes, taking me back to where I’d started my erroneous wanderings around three hours before.

I shuffled back down a more familiar alleyway to the hostel and finally checked in.

Lessons Learned:
  • Get some sleep before you arrive.
  • Always negotiate a price before you do anything, however unnatural you may find it.
  • Slow down; there's no need to rush into anything and take your time before diving down an unknown alleyway.

Monday, January 02, 2017

The Soundtrack to My 2016

There are, of course, a million expressions, phrases and clichés about the power of music to trigger memories and take you back to certain places you’d either forgotten or perhaps hoped to have forgetten. For any number of reasons 2016 was a strange year for the world and for me personally. As much as I agree with Russell Kane’s ‘Kaneing’ on how one day’s difference in the calendar won’t change the world, I am glad to be hitting the metaphorical reset button.

That said, there are a group of songs that have spent a substantial time getting played on my Apple Music account over the previous 12 months – some of them are from 2016, some older, but I have only discovered them in 2016.

Aicha by Cheb Khaled

When I arrived in Essaouira, Morocco and had found my way to the Atlantic Hostel, I was looking forward to heading to the beach, eating seafood and continuing to slowly burn my skin. What I didn’t account for in Morocco’s ‘windy city’ (as the older of two Khalids at the hostel called it) was the weather; rain and thick Londonesque fog.

On the second night, with the mood on the roof terrace a little sedate thanks to the cold fog, the chef, Couscous, declared he was preparing food for everyone. Great news. I’d had a day of eating next to nothing thanks to a fault with the all the ATM in the medina.

Around twenty minutes into a meal of couscous, vegetables and lamb, with everyone still being a bit low-key, Couscous played a song I’d never heard before that was greeted with a rousing singalong from a group of French, Algerian and Moroccan travellers.

I later found out it was Algerian singer Cheb Khaled’s 1996 song Aicha and I’ve pretty much been unable to get the song out of my head ever since, however appalling my students say my French pronunciation may be.



Up&Up by Coldplay

Since Viva La Vida I had paid little or no attention to Coldplay. One day on the Underground I saw a colourful poster for their album A Head Full of Dreams. Visually and lyrically the first couple of singles seemed a bit too ‘Gap Year’ for a 32 year old, but were catchy enough and the album played a part in keeping me upbeat about my impending travels to Morocco alone.

The highlights of the album appear at the end in the form of Army of One and Up&Up. A few days after first listening to the album, a student said, “the new Coldplay video just dropped. Can we watch it?” With crazy visuals, its chorus singalong that includes Beyoncé and a guitar solo from Noel Gallagher and a message of positivity, I found it hard not to overplay it. 





Consequence of Love by Gregory Porter

Although I had heard of Gregory Porter and even watched an interview with him on Sunday Brunch one weekend, I’d not listened to any of his music. One Sunday, driving somewhere in Essex, Jonesy put on the album Take Me to the Alley. I was struck by the warmth of Porter’s vocals and the excellent musicianship of his band.

In reality, I could have picked any song from the album to be on this list, but I went for the sentimentality of Consequence of Love. The strength of the songwriting and the slow soulful , but safe dissonance of his brand of jazz lends the music a nocturnal feel, like a late show at Ronnie Scott’s in Soho. This is perfect music for the very end of a long day, regardless of your mood or temperament.



If I had a Gun… by Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds

After the break-up of Oasis, I hadn’t really given either Gallagher brother much attention. I had bought Beady Eye’s first album, but had only heard a couple of the High Flying Birds' songs.

As 2016 rolled on, the fallout of the EU Referendum had swept the UK, there was a lack of clarity over the next steps, Donald Trump’s election campaign seemed to have all the momentum, life was rubbish and the world seemed a mess.

I noticed a song on Noel Gallagher’s 2011 album that had, as its title at least, a sentiment I shared: If I had a Gun…

Of course, after listening to it, you realise that it is a love song (of sorts) and seems to carry with it a message of hope for a heartbreak to end, set against a typically Noel Gallagher musical backdrop. This is why we should always look out for an ellipsis. 




The rest… 
There were of course plenty of songs that played a part in 2016 for me. A more complete playlist can be found on Apple Music here. It includes: OneRepublic, who I'd seen in concert at the Apple Music Festival, Coldplay at their most poetic (Midnight), a song that will forever haunt Yusuf (Escape aka The Pina Colada Song), a song that will forever remind me of the comedy of late night motorcycle taxi rides in Kigali (Drake – Hotline Bling) and the happy return of Empire of the Sun (High and Low).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup by J.L. Carr

Cover image © Penguin/TfL.
The 2015/16 football season in the England was perhaps the perfect year for a reissue of this book. It was the year that, against all odds and logic, unfancied Leicester City went on to win the English Premier League – it was also the season my team, Aston Villa, got relegated but we won’t dwell on that.

Coupled to this, most football supporters love an underdog story and many would confess to having cheered on teams like Bradford in their cup victory over Chelsea in the early rounds of the FA Cup in 2015. Of course, provided it’s not our team on the receiving end of the giant killing, we don’t mind.

How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the FA Cup, published in 1975, is so much more than just a novella on an underdog team winning; it is also a much more interesting painting of rural society and how England was changing in the 1970s, seen through the eyes of J.L Carr.

The novella is narrated by Joe Gidner, a listless twenty-something who writes messages for the inside of greetings cards, rents a room in the schoolmaster Alex Slingsby's house and assists him in the care of his disabled wife. The only thing that seems to provide him with any sense of purpose is his role as the secretary of the local amateur football team.

The village is described as having a “popn 547, height above sea‑level in the Dry Season, 32 feet” which perhaps hints at some quite remote fenland location of Lincolnshire, although the exact location is never really revealed. The description of the wintry countryside adds to this sense of remoteness from the modern world: “Mud, fog, dripping trees, blackness, floods, mighty rushing winds under doors that don’t fit, damp hassocks, sticking organ keys, stone floors and that dreadful smell of decay.”

The storyline is peopled by an odd assortment of characters with a great selection of names, but all eminently believable for someone who has lived in the countryside. For example: Mr Fangfoss, a prosperous farmer and the chairman of the team by virtue of the fact that he is in charge of almost everything else; Dr Kossuth, an Hungarian émigré whose analytical mind is able to distil a system for winning games following a trip to Leicester City’s old home of Filbert Street; and Ginchy Trigger whose hyperbolic reportage on the team’s progress provides a verbose indication that football is actually involved in the story.

Armed with Dr Kossuth’s postulations on football, a couple of ex-pros (one of whom had a short stint at Aston Villa) and the vicar (amongst others), they take on a number of local teams before the bigger tasks of Leeds United and Manchester United as the rounds progress.
All this leads towards their unlikely victory against even unlikelier opponents Glasgow Rangers in the final – although strange, up to 1886/87 it wasn’t unusual for Scottish teams to appear in the FA Cup.

Along the way, some of the more telling moments occur that in many ways relate directly to the world as we know it now. The media scrum that descends on the village in the lead up to the final, making an instant celebrity of the polygamous Fangfoss because of his outrageously bigoted opinions, seems reminiscent of how the modern media love to pick up random members of the public, shove them mockingly in front of the camera before spitting them into oblivion again.

Following their team’s victory in the FA Cup Final, things seem to fall apart in the village. Some characters move on with life, others don't. Slingsby's wife dies and our narrator, who had finally built himself a sense of purpose, makes his move on Ginchy Trigger, only to find he’s missed his opportunity. Their moment in the sun over, there is no hope to relive those lost moments, and maybe they are best left as memories.

In many ways this is one of the saddest novellas I’ve ever read, but I would wholeheartedly recommend reading it. It is a tale full of truths and is a fitting tribute to those who grind away with amateur clubs in the quieter recesses of our nation.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Racing Club Warwick

Match ticket and programme for Racing Club Warwick.
I’ve been spending a little bit of time over the last couple of football seasons visiting a few grounds around the southeast of England. After a conversation with an old schoolmate, Bendz, I realised that it was time to go home.

I’d wanted to watch a cup match of some description for a while and identified the Saturday 10th September as the ideal time to visit Townsend Meadow – the home of Racing Club Warwick of the Midland Football League Division 1 (the 10th tier of English football's pyramid). Their match was agains Coventry United in the First Qualifying Round of the FA Vase, the amateur equivalent of the FA Cup.

After some conversation with my parents, who still live in my hometown Warwick, we established that the last time that I’d been to watch The Racers was back in the early nineties. They had been playing against a team in red, the name of which was long lost to both them and me. In fact, I was likely still attending first school at the time and it was probably the first live football match I had ever watched.

The timing of the match wasn’t great as the new academic had just begun and I had a million things to do for work, but, having planned it weeks in advance, I was actually quite excited to see where The Racers were at these days. I caught a Saturday morning train from Marylebone and arranged to meet Bendz in the early afternoon.

The journey from the endless rooftops of northwest London, through the deep emerald undulations of the Chilterns and Oxfordshire, into relative flat expanses of Warwickshire, was painted with the weather of the coming Autumn. The skies were grey and the train passed through many rain showers en route.

After a quick brunch at my parents’, Bendz and I walked up the path through Priory Park in search of a pre-match drink. Part-way down West Street, on our old route to Aylesford School, we found the gem that is The Old Post Office – possibly the cosiest pub in Warwick with a massive range of drinks on offer and a perfect shelter from the murky weather.

Racing Club Warwick started life in 1919 as Saltisford Rovers. They moved to their current ground in the 1960s and changed their name in 1970 to reflect their proximity to Warwick Racecourse. They joined the Midland Football Combination and were champions in 1988. By far their most famous former player is Ben Foster, the current West Bromwich Albion goalkeeper, who got his first professional contract with stoke in 2001 and has also played for Manchester United and England.

Upon reaching Townsend Meadow, we were uncertain of where the entrance was until we saw a small crowd of people near a new-looking pathway. Sure enough, the path led to a new turnstile shed.

“This is all new!” I exclaimed to the ticket-seller as I paid my £5 for entry and 50p for the programme.

A gentleman in a Racing Club Warwick polo shirt, standing the other side of the turnstile, replied, “well, if you think this is good, wait until you walk around the corner of this building.”

Sure enough, rounding what I think was the old changing room, the ground looked so much smarter and a new stand, complete with yellow and black seats and perplex dugouts, had been constructed in place of a much older stand.

“Well, this has changed!” I said.

“When were you last here?” the gentleman asked.

“My parents tell me about 20 years ago at least,” I replied, wondering whether the gentleman would see me as some sort of deserter for having left it so long. Then I remembered this was a community club where friendliness is key.

He went on to explain how a change in committee and some additional funding was the catalyst for the developments, which also included new changing facilities and a paved netball court near the entrance to the clubhouse.

We had just enough time before the start of the match to get a drink, check the team list displayed on the sandwich board outside the bar and head to the stands for kick-off.

Unfortunately for The Racers it started badly. We’d hardly sat down before Ben Mackey had slotted home a neat shot to make it 1-0 to Coventry United. He then went on to score twice again before half time, despite a few hopeful moments from The Racers.

Jordan McKenzie prepares to come on in place of Jamie Smith.
This was all too much for one old gentleman behind us who proceeded to provide a Midlands-accented commentary of doom and gloom. It was amusing to listen to and even funnier when his stock phrases (“don’t give it to him” and “oh, not him again”) preambled the run up to The Racers being awarded a penalty early in the second half.

Jamie Smith duly slotted the penalty home, but The Racers never looked close to closing the deficit further, even though they had a few more opportunities as time ran on. Coventry United, from the Midland Football League Premier Division (the 9th tier of English football) seemed to be in control over their rivals for most of the second half.

The skies were still darkening and the sizeable travelling support were getting reasonably vocal as few wayward challenges felled their players. Their invectives, though, were nothing compared to the bouts of swearing issued from the mouth of the Coventry United manager. Amusingly, he had most of his protestations shrugged off by the female referee's assistant on the nearside touchline. One wag in the stands reminded him that his team were winning 3-1 after all!

After a chat with the same gentleman from earlier, I found out that Mackey, the player who had seemingly destroyed The Racers singlehandedly, once played for them in the mid-noughties. The voice behind us in the stands could be heard saying, “well, for £300 a week he bloody should be scoring goals.”

The match ended in a 1-3 defeat for Racing Club Warwick and their potential journey to Wembley was derailed before it had even left the sidings.

The tiny stands on either side of the pitch emptied quickly following a round of applause for both teams. The main gate onto Hampton Road was swung open and we wandered back towards the town square.

Far from having a sense of disappointment, we felt like we'd stumbled on a lost gem in heading to Townsend Meadow – although Bendz seemed sad about not being able to buy a Racers scarf.

In an age of arrogant professionals and overpriced football matches, visiting Racing Club Warwick at the start of the 2016/17 season served to remind us what this game is really about: a sense of community spirit, underpinned by real supporters who genuinely love the sport. The Racers may be a long way off every emulating the likes of the Class of ‘92’s Salford City, but the spirit of the team and their supporters far surpasses many of their professional counterparts.

You can follow Racing Club Warwick's progress via Twitter on @RCWFC or online at http://www.rcwfc.co.uk/. For more about The Old Post Office pub, visit: @OldPOWarwick

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell

Cover image © Icon Books.
It was well timed, but I finished reading a book about moving to Denmark in pursuit of happiness shortly after the Brexit vote came in. I’d actually put the book to one side for a while, but inspired by the maelstrom of stupidity following June 23rd’s vote, I decided I needed to carry one. 

It had been noted by number of people, but over the last few years I've grown increasingly interested in moving somewhere like Denmark. Indeed, after a couple of occasions visiting my friends Matt and Signe in Copenhagen, I feel like this isn't simply a pipe dream.

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell was actually bought for me as a Christmas gift by a colleague with a Norwegian partner. We had had a couple of conversations about my growing love of Scandinavia and so, clearly having remembered some of our chats at break time, she definitely won the award for 'Best Thought-Out Gift' last year.

The book tells the tale of the author, a former editor for Marie Claire magazine, moving to Denmark when her husband, humorously named Lego Man, gets a job working for Lego (obviously). 

The book is structured as a diary focusing on how, month by month, Russell and her husband adapt to Danish life. Each month has a different focus whereby another aspect of living like a true Dane in the world’s happiest country is the subject – kanelsnegles, feminism, language, culture, immigration, work-life balance and, most importantly, something that has now become important in my life, hygge.

Gratuitious Copenhagen photo: Slotsholmen, København. (instagram.com/ayohcee/)
A book about moving to a new country in order to achieve a happier way of life, albeit one in Europe, could very easily become something of a pseudo-spiritual load of nonsense or an overly-emotional bucket of sentiment devoid of any imagination. What is safe to say is that Russell’s book is completely the opposite of this. 

In fact, it is her excellent research of the subject matter, honest humour and willingness to mock herself and Lego man that carry the story forward. It’s almost a perfect lesson in the Fail Forward philosophy – in other words, don’t be ashamed to say you’ve made a hash of things and move on from it.

There are a variety of incidents, both touching and humorous, that keep the momentum of the book going, with the learning process being helped along by a cast of similarly amusingly-titled characters: American Man, the Viking, Helena C and friendly neighbour.

What Helen Russell does is make the step of moving to Denmark sound eminently achievable. Whether  or not I follow in her footsteps over the next few years we’ll have to wait and see, but, after reading this book and the result of the Brexit vote, it’s definitely one step closer.

You can find out more about Helen Russell here, her freelance work for The Guardian here, or follow her on Twitter as: @MsHelenRussell.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Le Petit Enfer de Calais

Usually my best friend, my Garmin didn't like the rain it would seem: Calais, France.
Warm-up rides completed, overnight accommodation in Folkestone booked and a smooth journey to southeast Kent completed, things were looking good for our second attempt at the French Revolution bike ride.

Two years before we had participated in the same event on a near-identical route and had completed it in around 4 hours and 45 minutes (including stoppages at feed stations, Jonesy’s detour into a maize field and a twenty-mile fight with a headwind), only for me to break my wrist whilst riding back to the car park. This year we were hoping for less trouble – obviously this wasn’t ever going to be the case.

Upon arrival at the Port of Dover, all however many hundred riders were required to join one queue in order to show their passport to a solitary French immigration officer. Whilst cars, spread across a number of lanes whizzed through, it took us the best part of two hours from the car park to the boat’s departure. Obviously the event was happening post-Paris attacks and during the European Football Championships, but it wasn’t ideal that 800 people should all be using one booth.

When the ride officially started, the frustrations of many riders could be seen. The fast men were blasting away with double- and triple-overtake manoeuvres happening on the road between the port and the town. Jonesy, cautious after his illness over Christmas, requested we take it easy.

After clearing Calais town and the mildly perilous tramway tracks, he told me to set the speed at 18mph and took my back wheel. We invariably started overtaking large numbers of riders and, as I was feeling back on form, we ratcheted the pace up a bit.

A number of riders of similar ability saw our pace and joined on the back. Before long we had a chain of around twenty riders hanging on to our wheels – a very satisfying feeling, even if it was quite tough work for me.

As the houses gave way to open fields and a view of the English Channel and we reached the bottom of the Cap Blanc Nez, I kept the tempo up with Jonesy following for a bit, but the rest of the chain had disappeared.

Coming back together on the other side of the hill, Jonesy seemed to be in good shape as a few spots of rain started to fall. It was nothing to worry about at the time and before long we were at the first feed station in Fiennes.

At this point the heavens opened and the rain, whipped up by the wind coming off the English Channel, started coming in sideways. I put my lightweight (read, useless) rain cape on, and Jonesy soldiered on having decided in favour of a long-sleeved jersey anyway.

Far from relenting, the rain intensified over the next ten miles through Hermelighen, Boursin and Wierre-Effroy. It was tough concentrating on the climbs as riders started to slow to a crawl. I twice found myself having to stop after losing my balance and riding on the muddy verge, much to own amusement as I failed to clip back in or regain momentum.

What was even worse, were the descents down the many undulations of the Nord Pas de Calais. The rain, coming in at the speed it was, felt like needles being jabbed in to my face and eyes making it hard to see and focus. Furthermore, it was impractical to wear my sunglasses for protection as the skies had ominously darkened.

Soaking wet, muddy and feeling a little worse for wear. Near Calais, France.
It was, on one such descent where a left turn was to be made at the bottom, that Jonesy came unstuck. He managed to slow his Bianchi down sufficiently, or so he thought, to take the corner cleanly, but touched one of the painted white lines as he steered.

He lost grip with the front wheel, somehow came unclipped and the bike slid forward from beneath him and he landed on his shoulder and backside heavily. As I took evasive action, two other riders, one of whom had just had an identical accident, helped him out of the road. He was in a lot of pain and had a serious cramp in his right leg.

For around ten minutes, we stood at the side of the road weighing up the options. Jonesy was in a lot of pain, but had seemingly avoided any breakages and if he was bleeding the rain was washing it away quicker than it could well up anywhere. There was some swelling on his left hand and shoulder blade which made it harder to brake and change gears, but, after deliberating, the course was set for a slow ride to the next feed station where we would assess the situation. The biggest damage seemed to be to his legendary descending skills.

The rain didn’t give up and it was beginning to feel cold too.

We arrived at the second feed station in Offrethun feeling somewhat beaten up and chilly. Jonesy’s damage was a bit more visible now as we joined a group of riders huddled under a mechanic’s awning.

There were 40 kilometres left. Jonesy decided to carry on, but at this point my Garmin decided it wasn’t going to and deleted all my data for the ride. For me, this was the final straw and I did well to not lose my temper and throw the thing into a field. It was Jonesy’s turn to encourage and so I just acquiesced to just swearing under my breath for around fifteen minutes.

With me in a furious mood already, to my additional annoyance, whilst launching one of my trademark dashes up one of my favourite little climbs outside the small village of Bazinghen, I punctured. I decided to get as far as I could before stopping to do a windswept, rain soaked repair. At this point, we couldn’t help but burst into laughter at how ridiculous a pair we must have looked and sounded.

As things transpired, around 15 kilometres from the finish, on the penultimate climb of the event, the clouds cleared, our moods lifted further, and we both dug deep for the final climb out of Escalles for the final ascent of Cap Blanc Nez. So much so, in fact, that both of us found the energy and motivation to smash our previous best times – in my case by around 40 seconds.

With some fuel clearly still in the tank, we rapidly descended the other side of Cap Blanc Nez, and powered back into Calais, passing many an early pace-setter on the way. We crossed the line in a time marginally quicker than our first attempt in 2014, but still missed out on a ‘Silver’ award time.


After the event, whilst on the ferry eating a meal of steak and chips, we continued to laugh off all of the annoyances of earlier – border controls, rain, crashes, Garmins and punctures.

Jonesy, in more pain and knackered, slept for the rest of the sailing after popping some ibuprofen. Let’s face it: with all write-ups like this where I moan about everything, it never stops us from doing it all over again.

What is left of the Strava data can be found here: https://www.strava.com/activities/607573403

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

On The Beach, Bognor Regis

The view of the English Channel from the beach in Bognor Regis.
One annual trip by the Year 9 girls of Fulham Cross is a bit like a right of passage. It is the last of the off-timetable days that they'll have in Key Stage 3 and it's a fitting end to their time in lower school.

On Friday 13th May 2016, three bus loads of hyperactive girls were dispatched in the direction of Bognor Regis once more. As with last year, the girls had a carousel of activities in the morning focusing on coastal defences, poetry and seaside history. When the afternoon came, following on from fish and chips, it was time to let them loose on the beach.

Whilst they ran around like crazy, I of course decided it was Instagram time. The weather being markedly better than last year, I was able to take a few pictures that really brought out the blue-green of the sea and the yellows of the shingle. 

On a day like this, a trip to Bognor Regis is well worth the sunburn.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Climb by Chris Froome

Cover image © Penguin Books.
I work in an English department at a secondary school so, naturally, my boss likes to buy all of his members of staff at book for Christmas. Having a little time to think about it, he chose the best thing possible for his cycling-obsessed English teacher; The Climb by Chris Froome.

In a manner similar to other sports autobiographies, The Climb is actually ghostwritten by the journalist of Lance Armstrong-hunting fame, David Walsh. The inimitable style of the Irish journalist is evident throughout the book, but it is easy to overlook this and believe that the words written are probably quite close to what Chris Froome would probably say.

Although my Head of Department tells me that the decision was purely based on Froome's sporting merit, he was quietly smug about the fact that the majority of Chris Froome's childhood was actually spent in Kenya. The East Africa connection, for me, is obviously something that I find difficult to ignore and, perhaps, has inspired me to want to take my beloved Sasha on a trip to Uganda one April.

Froome's story starts in Kenya in a reasonably affluent expatriate area of the capital Nairobi. The area, Karen, is named after Karen Blixen of Out of Africa fame. We learn that Froome's childhood was far from consistently comfortable. At a young age his parents became divorced and this meant that homelife, by the standards of regular white members of the Karen population, was actually one of relative scarcity. As time moves forward, this results in Froome splitting his time between Kenya and South Africa.

The first first section, in many ways, is the most interesting part. Froome rapidly grows up from being a strange mzungu who spends his time watching bike mechanics fixing bikes to meeting David Kinjah, the leader of the Safari Simbaz cycling team and the man who would help to push his cycling career forward. One words is mentioned or hinted at throughout the book: obsession.

In many ways, this section of The Climb also helps to answer my constant question: Why did Froome ultimately decide to represent Great Britain over Kenya in the end? One big answer: omnishambles

The story that unfolds of Julius Mwangi, the chief of the Kenyan Cycling Federation, who is presented in the book as having all of the organisational skills of a rock. The first frustration for Froome seems to have been even getting recognised as a potential addition to the Kenyan cycling team, despite the fact that Mwangi's office had been receiving his results in the time period leading up to the 2006 Tour of Egypt.

When the team finally had their visa applications signed by Mwangi so that they could actually participate in the event, during the race he disappears in the support car meaning that when Michael Muthai finally succumbed to dehydration, he was just left at the side of the road. Fortunately, he survived by digging a hole in the sand and was eventually picked up by a Polish team member hours later. During the race, Mwangi, it transpired, had gone sightseeing around Cairo.

This, needless to say, wasn't the final act of silliness from the Kenyan Cycling Federation. It comes as no surprise that, when Froome is approached by a Team GB representative at the end of the Commonwealth Games road race in Melbourne, he jumped at the chance to join their development system.

The book, as far as ghostwritten autobiographies goes, is very interesting, sustained my interest well until and takes us to the end of his first Tour de France victory. There are moments of the same cringeworthy lexical choices that Walsh uses in Inside Team Sky, but there are many poignant moments that are described with subtlety and beauty that more than make up for it.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Living for the Weekend: Dagenham and Redbridge

The match day programme and tickets. Which was more expensive though?
Dagenham and Redbridge. I remember seeing their name appear, albeit heavily abbreviated, on the videprinter on BBC’s Grandstand as a child. Teams like ‘The Daggers’ to a boy raised in the Midlands were a little bit mystical; much like Rushden and Diamonds, Stalybridge Celtic and indeed my current local team Leyton Orient.

Having discussed my idea to get around a few London grounds (and I know I’m stretching that criteria a bit with the recent trip to Southend United) with my friends Gareth, Dave and Keith, we had been mulling over the idea of a trip to Dagenham for a while. Eventually we settled on the visit of Yeovil Town on Saturday 27th February 2016.

The biggest shock of the whole experience was actually to happen about a week before the match. When I called to reserve six tickets, helped by the operative on the phone to choose the most ‘lively’ area of the ground, I was mortified by the price. 

“So, that’s six tickets in the terraced stand on Saturday,” the booking office operator started, “and it will come to £15 plus a booking fee.”

“Each?” I asked getting my bank card out.

“No, sir, that’s the total.”

At this I could only laugh. I’d just spent that much on a bowl of Nachos in a Fulham pub, yet for the same price you could get you and five of your mates into a football match. [Note: two of our group dropped out beforehand which is why only four of us are mentioned.]

The history of Dagenham and Redbridge is a mildly winding one. The club, officially speaking, came into being in 1992 following a merger between Dagenham FC and Redbridge Forest FC. This was roughly two years before I would even take an interest in football; an awakening brought about by Jack Charlton’s Ireland team beating Italy 1-0. 

The club, though, can trace its history, via various lineages (Ilford, Leytonstone and even Walthamstow Avenue), all the way back to 1881. The club’s website explains that the previous clubs “had proud histories as amateur clubs in the past but due to dwindling attendances, had fallen on hard times.”

Travelling at first on the C2C from Fenchurch Street to Barking, and then switching onto the District line to Dagenham East, we had a bit of time to assess how The Daggers’ season was unfolding. Keith and Dave, in role as chief researchers, informed us that times were again not great. The club were in the relegation zone and a few points away from safety. They needed to beat Yeovil, who were just above them, to have any chance of fighting relegation to the National League – which will always be known as the Conference to me!

Exiting Dagenham East station, we took a left and wandered along towards Victoria Road. The area is reminiscent of the Foleshill Road in Coventry and is a residential-industrial edgeland. It’s not a pretty area, but turning onto Victoria Road there is something quite warming to the soul about seeing this small stadium nestled in between houses and an industrial estate.

Victoria Road, or the Chigwell Constuction Stadium as it is currently known for sponsorship reasons, has existed as a football stadium since 1917 and originally hosted matches for a local works side. Dagenham FC moved there in 1955, making a few improvements to the pitch and stands over the intervening years. It wasn’t until Redbridge FC moved in during 1990 that any further improvements took place.

Currently there are two seated stands, an open terrace and a covered terrace. For today’s match, I chose tickets for the North Stand that runs along the side of the pitch. It’s a small, cramped affair and, conscious of our heights, Dave, Keith and I elected to stand towards the back of the terrace to prevent upsetting any locals.

View from the North Stand as Dagenham and Redbridge have a rare moment in attack.
When the match started, it didn’t take long to realise why The Daggers were propping up the table. They struggled to string many passes together and it wasn't long before supporters in the terraces, some of whom seem to be wearing West Ham beanie hats, were getting on the players' backs in all the colours of the English language.

Yeovil, attacking the goal in front of the Bury Road End, the open terrace, slowly started pinning The Daggers’ defence back. No one in a red and blue shirt seemed to be willing to commit to a challenge and at half time we were amazed that they hadn’t conceded a goal.

Early in the second half, with the incessant chorus of “Everywhere We Go” coming from the Yeovil Town fans getting louder, Brandon Goodship scored the game’s only goal. In typical fashion, I was busy talking to Dave and looking the opposite direction when the goal went in, meaning the only clue I had about a goal being scored were the deafening boos of The Daggers’ fans.

As an Aston Villa fan, I could completely empathise with the feeling of complete helplessness of seeing your team concede and then capitulate on a weekly basis. I kept those thoughts to myself though.

All in all, as we made our way out of the side gate, feeling ridiculously cold away from the huddled masses of the North Stand, we reflected that, although the game was for the most part dire, it could have been worse.

“I would say that wasn’t the worst game of football I've ever seen,” Gareth declared.

“Really?” I asked.

“It was better than that match at Barnet,” Gareth comments by way of a veiled compliment of The Daggers' playing prowess, before adding: “but only just.”

In reality, having watched Aston Villa against Wycombe Wanderers on TV in January, I would say that it was perhaps the worst game in my recent memory, but only just.

Aside from all this, the fans were friendly, the atmosphere on the terraces (until the goal) was lively  and the experience was worth it to check another ground off the list. Oh, and remember, we did only pay £2.50 each.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Enkuto Eratukura #13: The Accidental Sheikh

Shadows cast upon the reddened ground in Kabale, Uganda.
Friday 10th April 2015 - 2pm 

It is a wonder that, in a town the size of Kabale, that there are still any areas of it that are yet to be discovered. Already on this trip I had found a few new back routes through Bugongi, had been to New Foundation Primary School for the first time and had caught a fleeting glimpse of Peter’s new school off the main road to Katuna.

Today, the group were heading to the hitherto unknown Ndorwa Muslim Secondary School after Tash and I had spoken to Peter earlier that week. I also needed to make a solo trip back to New Foundation to meet with Jonan and James for our feedback meeting.

I decided to hitch a lift in a pickup truck that we had been using all week, and to hop out and walk the remaining quarter of a mile from Ndorwa to New Foundation.

I arrived to be greeted by the expected chants from the younger children and found Jonan in a side office working away at something official looking. In his usual warm manner, he shook my hand and sent a runner to get James, the teacher we had observed the day before.

James, looking rather concerned about what was to happen, met us in the head teacher’s office following the conclusion of his lesson. I immediately set about allaying his fears about coaching, saying that, if anything, it was Jonan and I who were being tested.

After around twenty minutes we established that, although his planning was impeccable, he was working too hard in the classroom and was a little like a goalkeeper, standing in front of the blackboard, whilst fielding shots from all over the room, remaining almost rooted to the spot. I showed him a small diagram of who had been saying what and where he had moved to.

We decided that, as a way forward, he was to plan his next lesson with P5 to ensure that he made the students do more of the work, and to ensure that a few ‘passengers’ within the classroom were picked up on their lack of engagement by him circulating the classroom. He still looked a little uncertain about all this coaching business, but, at the end of our meeting, James left wearing a smile and we resolved to meet early the following week.

❦ 

I wandered back along the Katuna Road towards the town, staring enviously into the bike maintenance workshops, and passing the small vegetable sellers’ stalls and tiny shops at the roadside.

I was met the gates of Ndorwa by a serious looking guard who, I dare say, didn’t like the look of me until I mentioned Peter’s name and his face became a little less severe.

Once inside, it was clear that a difference existed between this small government funded school and our oldest partner school of Kigezi. The buildings were modest in their size and arranged around a neatly kept quadrangle with the obligatory Ugandan flag. Most of the students here were funded chiefly by USE money.

Most of our girls were talking to their Ugandan counterparts in the library, going through aspects of the curriculum and showing off their Arabic skills. Due to the impending mock exams, the library was full to the brim with groups of students revising, or at least paying lip service to revising, in every nook and cranny of the room.

As lunchtime approached, those who were intending to attend Jumu’ah prayers headed towards the on-site prayer room. Here, Tash, along with a few of the non-Muslim girls, met with us outside the makeshift masjid.

At this point, two teachers came over and introduced themselves. One was called Muhammad and the other Suleiman. They were exceptionally happy to see me and I assumed that it was because Peter, in his inimitable style, had been ‘bigging me up’ to his colleagues.

‘Thomas, we really like your scarf,’ Suleiman started off, pointing to my kaffiyeh.

‘Well, thank you. It was a gift from a Somali friend of mine,’ I replied. I am impressed at how I’m getting better at taking any sort of compliment.

‘Somalia? You have travelled to Arabia though?’ Muhammad asked.

‘No. I would love to though. Maybe to visit Mecca or Medina,’ I responded, ‘but as things stand I don’t think I’d be let in.’ 

At this point Muhammad looks at Suleiman with a slightly puzzled look, but asks, ‘You are here for our jumu’ah prayers today though?’

‘Well, I’m helping to escort the girls. I’m sort of in loco mahram. Maybe I can come in though?’

At this point a 100 shilling coin drops and Suleiman starts to laugh uncontrollably. Muhammad doesn’t get the joke. I too suddenly clock what was going on.

In between fits of the giggles Suleiman reached out and touched my kaffiyeh

‘We thought you were a sheikh,’ he said and continued laughing.

After establishing that I was indeed just a kafir, albeit one sympathetic to Islam, I was told that I should attend the prayers, much to the amusement of the students who had, in the intervening minutes, found material to be used as hijabs for the two non-Muslim girls so that they could attend too.

Suleiman guided me through wudu, the correct way of cleaning oneself prior to prayer or worship in Islam. I followed through the very specific order involving, amongst other things: washing your hands and arms, washing your face, cleaning your feet, cleaning your beard (if you have one) and rubbing water over your hair – even if it ruins your quiff.

A senior student started the proceedings off with the khutbat al-jum'a, a sermon preaching a particular message. In this case the khutbat al-jum'a focused on how we should all take personal responsibility for our actions. Quite skilfully, our preacher seemed to code-switch effortlessly between English, Arabic and Rukiga whilst delivered his message.

Towards the end of the sermon everyone rose to their feet and, as I tried to sneak out of the way, I was hauled back into one of the lines of worshippers. I muttered politely to the young man next to me, stating that I didn’t know what I was expected to do. But this isn’t a good enough excuse. I am told, ‘just copy what I am doing and saying.’

Allahu akbar…

At the end of the prayer, I was, in my role as the accidental sheikh, greeted politely by the other young men in the room and they were eager to talk more about why we are in Kabale. In the intense heat of the Ugandan sunshine, I guided some of them to where our group were congregated and introduced them to the students I’d travelled with.

At this point, Khadija, struck by a moment of curiosity, asked to see the girls’ dormitories and the head teacher led a group of us to take a look. As with almost every other feature of the school, these are a simple affair, furnished sparsely with wooden bunk beds in near darkness and a few personal effects of the students.

Khadija’s sharp eyes were instantly drawn to the lack of mosquito nets over the beds and, being so close to a water course that winds through the middle of Kabale, shrouded by tall trees, this is hotbed for malaria, the most regular cause of sickness amongst the boarders.

She looks at me with the same face she used to use when she wanted a homework extension and asked, ‘Can we do something for them?’

The instant chorus of responses was a resounding ‘yes.’

Later that evening, a small group of us put together around £80 of English money to deck out the girls’ dorm with nets. It may have been a small gesture, but one that was appreciated by the school and the girls who board there.
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