Sunday, October 23, 2016

Travelogue 721 – October 23
East London

The town is waking up. People resume their lives outside. They join the streets. They stand in queues. At the stop lights they line up. At the café counter they line up. I see my city first there at the café. They are chatting over their coffee like discoverers at the start of their journey.

I’m sitting by the windows. The light coming in is hardly dazzling. My computer screen is brighter. It’s a day that has begun with sunshine. But it is only the autumn sunshine, and some high haze is forming tentatively. This will be the light of winter.

The light was like this – diffuse and uncertain – as I travelled across London. I had started from Bath, and caught a morning train into Paddington. It was a lovely ride through the green landscape of southern England. At Paddington, I transferred to the Circle Line, and rode to Bank. There I caught the DLR train to London City Airport.

The DLR is the Docklands Light Railway. My line originates at Bank, in the heart of the old City of London, and it travels east through the intriguing territory called the Docklands. Just about every stop has some resonance to the name that makes me want to stop to explore. There’s Limehouse and Canary Wharf and Silvertown. From the Napoleonic Wars until World War II, these areas were among the busiest in London, site of a series of ports that were probably the biggest in the world, and site of related industries.

After the 1960s the ports fell rapidly into disuse. By 1980, most the ports were closed, and the Docklands were in economic free fall. The city of London initiated a series of redevelopment projects. One of the products of this attention is the booming area called Canary Wharf, where you now see skyscrapers as tall as any in England. This zone quickly became the second home to London’s finance sector, being only a few miles east of the first hub of finance, in the City, back there by the Bank Tube Station, where I began my ride on the DLR.

The Isle of Dogs is no isle, but it is bound on three sides by the River Thames, inside one of the biggest meanders in the river. It’s around this crazy loop in the river that the development of the Napoleonic docks began, starting to the west in Rotherhithe (from an Anglo-Saxon name for the place where they landed the cattle) and Limehouse, and then wrapping around the Isle of Dogs and extending east in the twentieth century.

It’s out east, among the remains of the last docks, that the City Airport was built in the 80s. From the train, I could see the Thames Barrier, great engineering feat of the new Elizabethan era, built in the 70s and 80s to control flooding on the Thames. Flooding has been a perennial curse for the city on the river, and this marvel of science seems to have solved it. I have tried to understand the principles of the design and failed, but I will say it makes a fascinating sight, those silver pods rising at intervals in a line all the way across the surface of the river. You sense the magnitude of the achievement, even if you don’t have the intelligence to explain it.

The airport itself was a product of the city’s regeneration project. It’s an odd little airport, with one runway and strict rules about the size of airliners it can admit. Every time I travel through here, I sense the relief. ‘It could have been Heathrow,’ everyone is thinking together. It’s a blessing that one of those smallish planes out there is flying directly to Rotterdam. Over the course of the morning, I had travelled almost as far across England as I would fly I the afternoon. The day advanced outside the enormous windows, feeble sunlight soaking into the madam of the runway. By the time it set, I would be home.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Travelogue 720 – October 22
Bath Melancholia

I’m unlocking the bicycle, fumbling with cold fingers. I pause to look up. Orion is high, and below him, the bright star of Sirius the Dog. I pause because I don’t get this pleasure often. I’m too busy these days. And I rarely get clear skies. And then there’s this benefit to the season, a chance at the stars. In summer, I’m never up early enough.

I’m breathing in the cold air, taking it in deeply. It feels cleansing. I’m have no evidence that cold air is cleaner than warm, but it sure feels that way in the lungs. It awakens and enlivens. I stand alone in the courtyard with my bike and the stars. Only two minutes on the clock, it’s a curative, a generous time, worth hours of anxiety.

The light was like this in Beechen Cliff Wood, climbing up the steep stairs at the end of the day, under deep cover from the high trees. The air was damp and close. I paused several times on the ascent to catch my breath. I wanted to breathe in the stillness and chill of the woods.

I had spent the afternoon in town, visiting familiar sites. I hadn’t been in Bath for years. There was a time I came often, stayed for weeks at a time. I stayed at Pey’s house on top of the cliff. Or I rented a room from Becky, who also lives on top of the hill. I visit with her just a minute this time, feeling some refuge in her warm personality. Her boy has a beard now!

I stopped in the Raven, my favourite pub. It’s down in the centre, down the narrow cobble-stone lane and underneath the limestone arch. The pub is known for their pies, the English type of pies, with meat inside. That’s upstairs, but I like sitting downstairs, where a series of wooden benches curls around the corner by the bar. I ordered a pint of bitter and I found my spot, tucked in behind the bar. There were a few regulars at the bar, chatting with the bartender. I read my new book.

I bought my new book at the Guildhall Market. They say there’s been a market on this site for eight hundred years. The current building dates back to the 1770s. The distinctive dome dates to the 1860s. The market overlooks the pretty Avon River. I had walked along the other side of the river to get to the centre, by the rugby field and the falls, and up onto the Pulteney Bridge, another eighteenth-century beauty, lined with shops.

I say new book, but it was a cheap used book, purchased at the book stall in the Guildhall Market. The same guy mans the stall as did years ago. They could be the same books on the shelves as last time I visited.

I picked up the second in Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. I’m slowly re-reading the whole Waugh catalogue. I find his desolate humour a consolation. And who doesn’t like comic writing set in war? Who doesn’t like reading about World War II? I have a theory that soon there will be more fictional characters set in World War II than there were real ones. But Waugh’s characters restore one’s faith in the capacity of humanity to fall far short of the ‘Band of Brothers’ type of exceptionalism.

A band of old men entered and lined themselves up along all the rest of the bench, launching into vigorous conversation in accents that suddenly I found challenging. I was unable to eavesdrop very successfully, and the book had lagged among the old men’s noise into a torpid stasis. I concentrated on my pint, and I reflected on the tricks that time plays.

I had grown accustomed to thinking of this town as a constant, a safe place and a touchstone, somewhere I visited among spells working on the changeable. It was a peaceful contrast to Ethiopia. But on this trip, I had sensed that something had changed. I could have pointed to specific changes in the landscape. Down by the train station, whole blocks had been cleared and rebuilt in a bland yellow complement to all the town’s old limestone, designed in clean lines with spacious malls to support large-scale shopping. But just as much of the town, or more, had remained the same. I had changed somehow.

Walking up the steps, I realized that this was what I most loved, the hills themselves. The town was sacred as an elaboration of these hills. When we said the town was ancient, we shared our love for the trees and the stone underneath. This was always the best of the English spirit, its communion with the elements. It was a seafaring nation, but its heart remained with the hills. The Dutch were the ones more in love with water, I think. But I’m still learning.

I swing one leg over the bike, and I’m on my way. The night is a quiet friend. It’s a cold friend. it’s like a friend who’s very much older. Its thoughts are its own. It cares in its own cold and distant way. I am fond of the cold night. I like seeing Orion at the start of winter.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Travelogue 719 – October 21
West London

The light was similar then. We’re deep into the fall now. The sun is always either coming or going. It’s slowly, slowly dawning now. I’m cycling in temperatures near freezing, happy to see the stars still. I’ve been thinking the sunny late summer might be translating into a cold winter. So far the mornings like this one are agreeing with me.

I’m into the last few days of fall break. I’m back in Holland. Morning doesn’t break before morning starts. I’m up, and I’m listening to Baby’s steady sleep. I study her peaceful face, watching for the fleeting smile of dreams. Every smile of hers makes me happy. I dress quickly, and I rush out into the chill. I take a minute for Orion, high in the sky at dawn and heralding winter.

The light was like this over the Thames. But it was evening. The sun, always in a hurry these days, was near setting. We couldn’t see it. Patrick and I were rushing through a brief shower toward shelter. The shower was a light one, but the drops were fat. It wasn’t like the misty showers of Holland. We stopped for a minute’s shelter underneath the Hammersmith Bridge, I decided the rain was more comforting. The underside of the bridge, layered in rows of old planks, was so low and close to our heads. The bridge is a Victorian beauty with its pretty, green turrets, a suspension bridge first built in 1827. It creaked and moaned underneath its traffic, and we hurried on.

It’s such a staid old bridge, so close to the river, so bourgeois in its bulkiness and its low centre of gravity. It’s odd that it would have become an attraction for the kind of dramatics that it has. It has been the target of IRA bombs on three separate occasions. In 1939, a man threw a suspicious-looking suitcase into the river, and the bomb blew water sixty feet into the air. In 1996, the detonator failed, and the bridge as saved. In 2000, the bridge was not so lucky. The explosion shut the bridge down for several years.

In 1919, a South African airman saved a drowning woman, only to die of tetanus for his efforts soon afterward. He’s commemorated by a plaque on the bridge’s handrail.

Nothing so dramatic lay in store for us. Even the rain had been mild with us. It dissipated by the time we were halfway through our first pints. We were sitting at a table in the front room, talking about faraway places, about places in Africa, where rain like this would have been an event. Outside the panes of the window, the clouds grew darker with night, and the commuters continued their procession, some on bicycles, passing on the pedestrian path beside the river.

We would re-join the traffic eventually, heading back under the heavy old bridge, groaning from its injuries, and then inland, away from the river, through areas of Hammersmith still blithely denying with its ambitious construction projects the post-Brexit mood of anxiety and caution. It was a well-to-do area, but isolated to the riverside. It didn’t take us long to reach Patrick’s humbler district further east. He lived on a road there that overlooked the Tube tracks into the centre of town. All day, the trains rattled by with admirable persistence.

He said that two luminaries had graced this street with residence. One was Gandhi himself, who had made his home in West London during his law studies in the 1890s. ‘Gandhi,’ I said with reverence. But Patrick seemed to take more pride in the other, whom I’d never I heard of, one Geoffrey de Havilland. The better educated among my readership will know he was the designer of the wooden Mosquito combat plane that terrorized the Germans during World War Two. Patrick painted him as a stubborn man of vision, and I pictured Patrick himself in a RAF uniform, blueprints in his powerful grip and jaw thrust forward.

Our heroism for the evening was restricted to venturing out to Patrick’s local for one more round. We sat comfortably in the back of the pub, and we discussed politics. It seemed some minister prominent in May’s government frequented this pub. Brexit and Trump easily dispatched, we turned to the Middle East, an area of expertise for Patrick and his girlfriend, who was a journalist. They explained the situation in Syria in lurid detail, and in lurid language. The situation was desperate; it excited passions. I was raised to heights of angst and then dropped into my pint of ale whole. Before I knew it, it was time to walk back to the flat. I would fall asleep to the roar of the insistent trains of London.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

Travelogue 718 – October 2

I run up the stairs. The steps are concrete. This stairwell is a brick echo chamber, a remnant of the old building that dates back to the ‘20s. The steps must be new, unbent by the footsteps in their grooves, uncracked by the torque of time. But the walls are vintage, eroded, salty, and still strong. Baby loves this stairwell. She leads me here on our daily walks. She shouts at the head of the stairs, listening with wide eyes to the echo.

It’s early Sunday morning. Baby is still asleep. I was on my way out when I realized I was going to need my jacket. It’s fall; it’s getting chilly. I have pulled the bike into the stairwell and left it at the bottom of the stairs. I didn’t lock it up, because the stairwell door at street level locks behind me.

At the top of three flights is the heavy door, made of thick planks of wood bound together with strips of iron. Once a day, Baby stands outside that door, pushing and looking up at me. She holds her arms up and wiggles her fingers. That means I should pick her up. We push the big door open together and her eyes grow wide. We enter into the echoing stairwell, and she turns quickly to watch the big door swing shut.

Once in a while, I take her all the way down the stairs and outside. I carry her to the canal. We talk about the silly ducks there. She stands in the uncut green grass by the water. She points at the tree branches above. Someone is coming, walking her dog, and I pick Baby up. Walking back home, I whisper to her about the silly ducks, and about the clouds, and about the doors and the windows, about the cars on the streets. I tell her we stay out of their way. See? We walk on the sidewalks and we’re safe.

Now I go to work on weekdays. I go to work at the college. She waves bye-bye, her expression vague, puzzled by the contradiction, the fun of the ritual but the coming absence of her playmate. I’m off to school, where I teach in front of classes of teenagers. In one class, we review presentation skills. There’s the problem of data. How do you describe life in numbers without being boring?

I introduce them to a fascinating site called Gapminder where you can view some number-crunching done in creative ways. One of the founders of this organization and site is an eccentric Swedish pubic heath expert. He wants us to re-define what we think of as the ‘developing world’. He demonstrates to us what he’s thinking in animated models of the data. In graphs measuring family size, income, child mortality and life span, he shows how things have changed. It isn’t 1950 anymore, he says, when all the world fell into two neat camps of haves and have-nots, divided by a wide gulf of cells on the graphs. The divide we have complacently accepted as fact resides in one fleeting arc drawn in history, most dramatic in the aftermath of the world wars.

Much has been said about how ineffectual charity is, but here we see pretty clearly how worldwide charity, that devoted to public health in particular, has changed history, providing a short cut for many parts of the world to reach standards of living we assume are a birth right.

The eccentric Swede talks about poverty and child mortality. He says the data shows that world population growth will only slow when we alleviate poverty. He has little figures to stand in for families in his video. He pushes over the figure of a child.

I am reminded how much I worry. Mortality is a bitter taste, impossible to wash away. Is that one reason it’s better to be a younger parent? There should be a minimum level in the reservoir of hope.

I’m thinking of Hannah again, the pretty, seven-year-old girl at the Mojo school, and the way she disappeared. Her mother felt helpless. She kept the girl at home. Without any medical attention, she slipped away. I shouted. Why didn’t she have me called? I was heart-broken.

I take Baby down the big stairs and she jumps up and down in my arms, indicating I should keep going. I carry her along the street, toward the park. I whisper to her, narrating what we see. I point out the speeding cars passing and tell her how we ought to cross the road. She sees the dogs of the leashes, and I say we should be careful.

I want to be fair. Life is about more than being safe. She has to indulge and enjoy her curiosity. I have to re-learn faith. The Swede delivers his lectures, year after year. He is older than I am. He believes that the numbers tell a hopeful story. I’m a student. I need new patience. I need new breath, new air to breathe. I pause before we head back upstairs. It’s like a prayer. She wiggles again. Let’s go!