Friday, 26 December 2008

Crunched

Oh dear, I've been a bad, bad blogger. September (and India) seems like such a long long time ago. I wish I could say I've been busy but like so many of us semi-unemployed I've been scrabbling together pennies from a bit of writing here and there, a range of bizarre temping "opportunities" and constructing as many ill-tempered complaint letters as humanly possible in the hope some will amount to physical goods. A pair of boots, £54 worth of rail vouchers and a bag of salt and vinegar crisps later, I'm convinced all the OAP spleen-venting was worth it, however a guaranteed income would be pretty nice.

Anyway, in an attempt to get back on the straight and narrow here's some doggerel that I contributed to feature in Venue earlier in the year. Written when the credit crunch was a bemusing topic of pub conversation rather than an ill that spelt 1.8m employed, please forgive the playful tone.


Thursday, 18 September 2008

Mr. Ambassador, you are really spoiling us

So I lost my purse and passport. Well, in fact they were probably stolen my one of two sneaky women with babies whilst I was on the bus. This sounds like an unlikely suggestion but apparently it is common for thieves to be women with babies in India, with even the Lonely Planet warning against these mothers.

After cancelling the cards (via the best of Dads), Lil and I ventured to the police station, anticipating an “uphill struggle” to quote the Rough Guide. Our expectations were swiftly met. Some kafuffle later, we were told that we’d have to go to a different station to make a statement as it didn’t fit into that police station’s area. So, off to a different station, where I had to give a statement to everyone from the cleaning lady to the Head of Police. The bureaucracy stereotype is so true. Forms are ridiculously meticulous, have to be filled out four times and have to be signed my twice as many people again. There were cops galore in the station, all curious about are relationship status and none fighting crime. It took a good three hours to get a police report, which I had to write three different versions of, each in a different room. The Police station was shabby chic indeed. All the signs were handwritten, mug shots sat next to celebrities on the peeling walls and all the clocks have been knicked from various institutions around Bangalore. You can just imagine the scene: “Hands up, we have a warrant”,
“But Officer, why the clock?”
“Shush, it’s evidence.”

The officers themselves were very kind, made us tea and smiled with glee when we let them flick through our copy of Grazia. The report is a piece of photocopies A4 with a few signatures on it; I really wouldn’t blame my insurance company for thinking I’d made the whole thing up.

Next stop the embassy. But wait, despite Bangalore’s gargantuan spread, the UK don’t camp out here, so off to Chennai (Madras) the capital of Tamil Nadu. We made the eight hour journey the following evening, in a bus that has come straight out of the 70s. The chairs were adorned with kitsch teapot patterned covers, and the curtains previous life had been on the set of a moustache-tastic B movie. After a witnessing a fight, some frightful undertaking and another passenger being biscuited (see Gulbarga’s post), we arrived in Chennai’s main bus station at 2am. Weary passengers were sleeping on every available floor space, so we had to tip-toe about not to disturb the unconscious bodies.

Checking into the hotel was more problematic than I’d expected. Our light luggage equated to “scanty baggage”, which frankly made me feel as though I was carrying a rucksack of thongs. Unsure as to whether we were being accused of being prostitutes or prime candidates for racking up the room service and doing a runner, the dispute was swiftly settled, like most, with a wadge of notes.

We left the hotel early the next morning in search of passport photos, and ATM and the UK High Commission. Finding all three was the ultimate test of our wits and nerves. After eventually discovering a shop that was open, I was photographed, photoshoped and issued with a new and improved version of myself. A fruitless search for a working ATM later, we were then faced with the challenge of getting a cabbie that would take us to the Commission. Place names, an address, and a map could not provide enough information for these poor drivers, so we were left to walk it, despite the urgency and increasing heat.

The Commission was a haven inside the busy city. The Commissioner’s assistant was the nicest women alive (I was tempted to call her ‘Aunty’ at one point), and instead of the disapproving looks I was expecting, I was met with condolences and smiles. I was somewhat disappointed that the nationality interview wasn’t finishing Monty Python quotes and coming up with suitable insults for the French, but I suppose she only had to take one look at my neon-white legs, peeling nose and sheepish grin before confirming my Britishness. I might as well have had a knotted handkerchief on my head. I was told that I’d be issued an emergency passport within the week and asked to fill out a customer service questionnaire, yes, another form. As I was leaving the receptionist had to call a security guard down from his office upstairs to switch the TV channel back to BBC, obviously an issue of national importance!

With no reason to stay in the bustle of Chennai, we legged it back to the station and caught the 1.30pm bus with seconds to spare. Returning to Bangalore certainly felt like a homecoming. This city drives me nuts, but for now at least, it’s home.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Bricks and Trees

This week we’ve visited Chikballapura to see how the construction of the orphanage is coming along, as well as talking to the villages about what they would like to see from the project. Demand for non-formal education and English lessons seem pretty high up on the agenda and it was really encouraging to hear that the community wanted this kind of support rather than merely hand-outs.

Kirana aim to make Brinn’s Nest as self-sufficient as possible so they are planning to use the land surrounding the building for a vast veg patch and orchard. This will also be a great way of teaching the children how to cultivate their own food as well as getting them involved in their environment.

On Sunday we visited Brinn’s nest with the whole of Christina’s family to plant some of the first trees in the orchard. Lil and I plunged two different varieties of mango in the soil, aptly chosen for us by Dominic. One variety possessed long, thin leaves and the other has shorter, curvier foliage. I hope I’ll be able to come back to taste its fruit.

Here’s some pics of the work in progress and the family getting down and dirty!

Monday, 1 September 2008

Mass-tastic

When asked if I wanted to go to mass at 5am in the morning, the answer would normally be a pretty solid ‘no’. But as the people who were asking were my lovely hostess Christina and her eager family, a hestitant ‘yes’ issued from my lips.

When the alarm went off at 4am, I dressed alone, as Lilith had chosen to sleep and face divine retribution, and wearily stumbled into the living room. Everyone but Christina and her sister Chandra was asleep. Even the nun was missing mass! Hoping that Jesus would give me some serious kudos for getting up so early, I got into the car somewhat disgruntled.

As it was a feast day we went to Bangalore’s biggest church, St. Mary’s Basilica. The city felt ghostly without its trademark traffic but the strange atmosphere was soon lost as we entered the busy basilica. Negotiating the crowd in full sari was pretty tricky for a newbie like myself, especially as many people went out of their way to have a good look at the rather graceless white girl.

Nowhere does religious kitsch like India. The church was adorned to the eyeballs with fairy lights and polyester flowers, whilst the plastic saints and gigantic neon iconography would have made Baz Lurhman blush.

First on the itinerary was what I affectionately call ‘danger praying’. Equipped with a wreath of flowers and a candle, you have to fight your way to the front of the chapel before the candle burns to the bottom, sets fire to the flowers and leaves your hand a molten mess. Further hazard is added by young children (also given candles) and Indian women’s traditionally long hair. I made it, just, to the front of the chapel, where my candle was swiftly put out by the hand of a fire-retardant priest and the flowers were offered to a sari-clad statue of the Virgin Mary.

Next up was the scrum for the Eucharist. Services were going on back to back in Kanada, Telegu and English and it didn’t seem to matter that we hadn’t listened to the mass, it was all about the prize. Hitching my sari up to my knees, I followed as Christina disappeared into the crowd at break-neck speed. We elbowed the less pious out of the way and eventually received our holy reward. How people think about Jesus during such sport is a bit of a mystery.

Looking back, I’m certain that my efforts were noticed. We’ve been in some near-death traffic situations since and every time we’ve survived. So far.

Sunday, 31 August 2008

Majestic Mysore

Yeah, we might have pissed off some monks, broken two tuk-tuks and got sunstroke but it made for great photos. Here’s some snaps from our weekend in historic Mysore; land of palaces, dusky hues and mausoleums to die for.




Friday, 29 August 2008

Life in the Slums

There are two types of slum in Bangalore city; those that are temporary and those that are not. The distinction is instantly recognisable by the materials used to make these tent-like abodes. The city’s short term economic migrants use plastic advertisements and carrier bags to shelter from the elements whereas the generations old shanty towns are made from leaf thatch roof, mud bricks and occasionally corrugated iron.

Much of Ruthlina’s time is spent undertaking social work, as she provides non-formal education and counselling for Bangalore’s poor and has established women’s saving groups in four of the city’s largest slums. We accompanied her on several of her visits to Bande slum to help her collect profiles on vulnerable children who are candidates for places at Brinn’s Nest. Bande slum exists because of its near proximity to a granite quarry. Nearly all the occupants of the slum, including women and children, are employed in backbreaking and dangerous quarry work. Accidents are frequent and there is little opportunity to break free from the cycle of poverty. Tuberculosis, worms and water-borne diseases are highly prevalent here. Only last month eight children died of something as common as chickenpox because they didn’t have adequate access to basic healthcare.

Despite their desperation, everyone we met welcomed us joyously into their homes. All were eager to share their stories as well as the little food they have. One woman, a widow, who thorough Ruthlina’s saving group had managed to acquire a few goats, made us sweet chai, using milk straight from a buffalo. Even success stories like hers were tainted with sadness. One of her goats was stolen by a much richer woman from the neighbouring village, and despite her appeals to the police, nothing has been done.

Castism plays a major role in much of the poverty we witnessed. The system means that it is incredibly difficult to better your situation, as well-paid jobs, education and even necessities like clean water and healthcare are denied to the low castes. The dalits or untouchables have little hope of improving their lives and are often forced to sell themselves and their children into bonded labour. They are seen as polluted, and are not allowed to even enter high caste villages, let alone use the same streams or wells. We too were accused of polluting high caste houses, just by walking through the village on our return from the slums. It is hard to imagine how the poverty like this will ever disappear whilst there is such mentality. This is not just social stigmatism; the system is both politically and religiously sanctified.

It would be unfair to say that the only problems that dalits face come from members of other castes. In India widows are regarded as social outcastes and are often particularly vulnerable. Most are sexually harassed by men with their own community (who are often themselves married) and problems with abandoned children and botched abortions are rife. One of the most disturbing points of our visit was when we met a young widow who was being continually raped by several men in her community. One of the men was there as she told us of her traumatic experience. He even had the nerve to philosophise that it ‘wasn’t natural’ for a woman to be alone and could ‘see it in her eyes’ that she wanted his company. I couldn’t look at him I was so furious.

Many of our visits have been more light-hearted. We taught ‘head, shoulders, knees and toes’ to the kids at the slum near Christina’s house, as their parents looked on horrified (as the photographs later showed). One of the boys from Bande slum delightedly entertained us with his pet parrot, some escapades on buffalo-back and by climbing a tree at the speed of light. Visiting the slums, sitting in peoples houses and listening to their problems is the first move towards breaking down castism. I just wish that it weren’t down to renegades like Ackhar to make these baby steps and that religious and political leaders supported rather than opposed her.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Our Home in Bangalore


Bangalore is not a city that you’d visit for fun. Despite the bars and nightlife, most tourists wisely choose to avoid the city, using it solely as a gateway to other Indian attractions. Karnataka’s capital boasts a population bigger than London but none of the infrastructure to support it. The massive industrial boom here, especially in the IT and business sectors, has meant that the city has shot up at an uncontrollable speed and is at present suffering from substantial growing pains. The traffic is insane and the narrow and potholed roads simply can’t cope. Economic migrants flock to the city by the bus-load, but cannot afford the steep living costs and so are forced to into the slums. The difference between these houses and the swanky offices of big business is made more pronounced by their proximity to each other. Unlike London, poverty is not restricted to certain areas of the city. Instead skyscrapers sit next to shanty towns and family homes next to the slums.

The reason Lilith and I have ventured to the “Garden City” is to research and carry out a project with a newly formed NGO here and to assess whether it will be compatible with the aims of Bristol student charity BVDA. For the next five weeks we’ll be staying with Christina, head of the NGO Kirana, and her family. Kirana, which means “ray of light”, works with underprivileged children from both the rural and urban slums of the Bangalore area. The Children growing up in the slums have very little access to education, electricity or clean water and face a future of bonded labour, performing dangerous quarry work. The trust is currently in the process of building a home in the village of Chikkballapura for the most vulnerable of these children. Our aim is to establish whether there is a project here for future BVDA volunteers and well as to give Kirana some assistance in getting off the ground.

Christina herself has just turned thirty and is a lively and modern Indian woman, with a permanent twinkle in her eye. Her husband Dominic is also quite unorthodox, helping with cleaning and cooking as well as man-tasks such as driving, hunting down the best fish (albeit from the market) and cockroach removal. He has a mop of dark, thick hair and a fine moustache. He is a man that knows that in a crisis only a ridiculously overpriced pizza will do. Their daughter Catty is confident beyond her four years and is at times a bit of a madam. She’s always full of beans and is a born entertainer.

Christina’s sister Ruthlina is also a semi-permanent feature of the household. Ten years senior to Christina, Ruthlina (who we fondly call ‘ackhar’ or ‘sister’) takes on the role of nagging but comic aunty, famous everywhere for her constant chattering. Ackhar is also a nun, but not in any traditional sense. She cares little for the church, doesn’t believe in an afterlife and holds the most progressive social and political views of anyone I’ve met in India. She’s smiley, plump and always full of energy. It doesn’t take much to see who Catty takes after. The last member of the close family is Leena, Christina’s niece. Having lost her father when she was a baby and her mother just two years ago, she splits her time equally between Christina’s house and the family home which she shares with her two elder brothers. Leena is a 21-year-old master’s student and so in many ways is our Indian equivalent. Far more innocent and romantic than most British 21 year olds, she doesn’t quite get our rather dry sense of humour but despite this has become our instant friend. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to emerge as an adult without ever having heard the Beatles, punk or anything better than poor quality pop.

The house is situated in the predominantly Christian suburb of Marianna Palaya, which is, rather accurately, called an urban village. Although the office blocks of central Bangalore loom in the distance, cows and goats wander freely and the roads are narrow and dusty. The house is only two years old, and is a beautiful concrete construction (contradiction as that might sound) complete with all mod-cons. A generator means that we hardly notice the frequent power cuts and the only sounds that can be heard are winds in the trees and the shouts of children from the nearby school. The roof provides views of the surrounding coconut trees, as well as the nearby slum and distant city.

We’ve already had an induction into Bollywood, been taught a few classical dance steps and had our hands hennaed by the talented Leena. After the first few days of being overfed to the point of discomfort, we’ve engaged in a food war as we try to keep our calorie intake to less than 3000 a day. The food is amazing; tasty flatbreads, sumptuous curries and the most inventive rice dishes I’ve ever seen, but at present there’s just far too much. Taking tips from Channel 4 documentaries on Anorexia, we’re utilizing distraction techniques, as well as smuggling biscuits to beggar children and receiving apples gratefully only to sneak them back into the bowl at a later date. Always choose a pomegranate over a banana; they take ages to eat (hopefully you won’t be given anything else in the meantime) and they’re not filling in the slightest. More seriously, it’s been pretty difficult to reconcile this kind of hospitality with the poverty that we see just outside our doorstep.

At times I feel quite trapped by the lack of freedom, both in what we are allowed to do as well as how much we eat, but I think I am getting a pretty accurate picture of how it is to grow up a young woman in modern India. Here women are children until they are married, and must make the transition more or less overnight. A combination of overwhelming hospitality and fear for our safety means that we are heavily dependent on Christina and her family. It will be interesting to see how this changes during our stay.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Fix Up, Look Shark

Arriving in Cochin felt like heaven compared to our rather traumatic departure from Colombo. Check in and customs were disorganised to say the least and it took us nearly two and a half hours to get through the system. In India we arrived to chirpy customs officials, smooth passport checks and a taxi system so efficient it even printed the cab’s number plate on our ticket. It had been raining so the coconut trees were glistening, as were the romantically retro white ‘Ambassador’ cars, an elegant Morris Minor type affair straight out of the 1940s.

Cochin is a large town that sprawls over several peninsulas and islands, each connected by rather ropey-looking ferries and a swish new toll bridge. Fort Cochin is the oldest part of the area and acts as little tourist enclave away from the hectic city across the waters. After being shown photos of our hotel proprietor’s grandchildren, we walked the short distance to Princess Street, the tourist hub of the sleepy district. Fort Cochin is famed for its delightfully chic cafes, and the first we visited, aptly named Teapot, was one of the best the town has to offer. The interior was a mix between colonial cool and shabby French farmhouse, and one wall was adorned with teapots of all shapes, sizes, material and colours. Even the tables were made out of old tea chests. We drank sweet, spicy chai from terracotta beakers and had our fill of creamy coconut curry and ‘death by chocolate’ cake.

We were due to leave Cochin the following evening so decided to head to Ernakulam Junction train station to book a sleeper train for our journey to Bangalore. We took a rather rickety ferry across the harbour, and on finding the station, proceeded to fill in the most comprehensive form imaginable. Quite why they needed my mother’s maiden name, occupation and distinguishing features to book a train seat, I’ll never understand.

That evening we dined at one of the many outdoor restaurants, but one of the few that sells alcohol. Our beers were served in white china, prohibition-style teapots, making us feel like we were not only the height of 1920s cool but dead sneaky with it. We were sat next to the restaurant’s tandoor with a perfect view of each naan being rolled, seasoned and being gently baked inside the hot, drum-shaped oven. Fresh fish, prawns and marinated chicken were also flung inside and left to sizzle away.

The next morning we strolled along the shore amongst giant Chinese fishing nets. These ancient contraptions yield a variety of different fish, which are all for sale still half alive from stalls that line the coast. We were made to promise five different salesmen that we’d be back at dinner to eat their fish, none of which we honoured. Lil got up close and personal with a little shark, much to the amusement of the surrounding fishermen.

Our next stop was the Dutch Palace, and home of the Cochin museum, just along the coast at Mattancherry. The palace was nothing to look at from the outside, but held some real gems inside. The highlight was a small room that was entirely decorated from scenes from the famous Hindu epic, the Ramayana. In this tale the heroic Rama, struggles against the odds to rescue his wife Sita, who has been captured by the demon kind Ravana. With the help of monkey god Hanuman, and some other colourful sidekicks, he pursues and slays Ravana and rescues his grateful lover. The paintings were exquisite. Each face was so expressive and costume so ornate that it felt as though the story was happening in that room. The rest of the building was rather typical of Indian museums; full of objects with explanations of varying quality. The disorganisation and inconsistency is no doubt due to their current revamp and when the additions have been made I’m sure it will make a very fine museum.

After a brief lunch back in Fort Cochin, we collected our bags and headed to Ernukalam station. I’ve never seen a train as long as the one we caught. Although slowed by our rucksacks, we had to walk for at least five minutes to reach our designated carriage. The blue leatherette seats were sparse but comfortable and would later unfold to create three bunk beds for the overnight leg of the journey. Chai-wallahs, jewellers and booksellers flashed their wares to customers, braking up the journey along with beggars, shady ne’er-do-wells and dancing children. It’s not difficult to see how the midnight’s children of Salman Rushdie’s novel of the same name formed in his imagination.

Some eleven hours later, we arrived in bustling Bangalore, tired but excited about the next leg of our two month trip.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Temples, Mountains and Holy Teeth

Traveling to Kandy was not quite as pleasant as our journey down the southwest coast. The Galle-Colombo leg was smooth enough but just like us, thousands of Sri Lankans were making the pilgrimage to mountainous Kandy for the Perahera. Three hours of sweaty jostling later, we arrived to be promptly searched as we left the railway station. I felt pretty sorry for all the commuters stuck behind the two farrang girls as our giant backpacks were rigorously checked and medication scrutinized. The atmosphere in Kandy couldn’t have been more different to soporific Galle. Traffic screeched past at break-neck speed, the air was heavy with pollution and we were constantly hassled by people wanting our business in some way or another. The number of tourists attending the Perahera has fallen dramatically this year, leaving many guides and shopkeepers desperate to make some money from the few that had ventured to Kandy. We soon tired of being followed down the street by rather threatening tuk tuk drivers, and our polite ‘No’s quickly morphed into more aggressive utterances.

The Perahera itself was truly spectacular. The ten day celebration comprises of a nightly procession, culminating in the Maligawa Tusker carrying the Buddha’s tooth through the city streets from the Temple of the Tooth to Adahanamaluwa. Today the tooth relic stays safely within the Temple and only a replica can be seen for the procession. The big man himself is accompanied by 70-100 other elephants, dressed in velvet clothes and adorned with fairy lights and flowers. They share the streets with a menagerie of whip-crackers, dancers, fire throwers, stilt men and musicians. All manner of bizarre trumpets and pipes were on display, as well as painted dances clad in feathers, bells, tassels, bright silks and, by the end, plenty of sweat! Nearly three hours later the procession had finished and we returned to our room exhausted, narrowly avoiding being followed home.

The oppressive atmosphere was starting to take its toll. The constants hassle of the previous day had turned us into quite the sceptics and made us suspicious of everyone we met. This was further amplified on our ill-advised trip to the bus station to find out bus times for our journey back to the airport via Negombo. When we finally found the correct bus stand, we were told that the bus waiting there was the last to Negombo that day and that we should get on it quickly. This outright lying in order to get our immediate business was just the icing on the cake. We struggled through the mayhem of the bus station (an area the size of a football pitch clogged with hooting buses, fumes and no order whatsoever) and found a suitably up-market hotel to do some investigating for us. Relieved in the knowledge that there were plenty more buses that day, we headed for the quiet solitude of the Temple of the Tooth. The outer chamber was ornately carved and painted with scenes from Siddhartha Gautama’s transformation into Buddha as well as a menagerie of Sri Lankan flora and fauna. Moving upstairs we approached the home of the tooth relic itself. The vestibule was a Russian doll affair of different sized boxes, with only the gold-plated outer case visible to the public. Nearby the Perahera elephant’s coats were being prepared for another night of the procession, as temple staff threaded lights into the embroidered cloth. In the temple complex the Maligawa Tusker was enjoying his daily bath, flashing his gold-plated tusks at a crowd of spectators.

Reluctant to leave the peace of the temple, we headed back to the guest house to hastily collect our bags before the journey to Negombo. The mountain views were absolutely stunning; little temples were nestled amongst the trees and iridescent lakes lined the valley floor. Pleasantly surprised that we survived the Schumacheresque negotiation of twisting roads, we arrived amongst the neon lights of Negombo. We swiftly headed to bed, ready to recharge for our 6am flight to Cochin.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Going Up

- Frequent Frisking: want some love? Then head to a security check point.

- Olive Green knee-high socks: lady policewomen take tips from Miu Miu.


Going Down

- Hail [Mary] a cab: tuk tuk drivers are just as erratic as their Thai counterparts; the roads, however, are far worse.

- “I don’t like cricket”: disappointed faces as I reveal my non existent sports knowledge.

- Hustle, hustle, hustle: M.I.A. doesn’t lie, everyone has hustle on their minds.

- Missing a chance to try Smak (a soft drink with a difference?)

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Adventures in Sri Lanka


After no sleep, some dubious plane food and a medical mishaps (swooning and ballooning), Lil and I finally set down on Sri Lankan soil. We had just five days to explore the country before moving on to India. Equipped only with a seriously outdated guide book and our jet lagged wits, we negotiated our way through taxi touts, money exchangers and other hustlers to locate a cab that wasn’t asking $85 and our kidneys to take us into Colombo. We had decided to follow the Foreign Office’s advice and head south, thus avoiding the near constant blasts in the country’s capital and the conflict in Tamil heartland of the north. Over a million people have been displaced by the conflict since the 1970s, and the escalation of violence between Sinhalese nationalists and the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) has dramatically influenced the country’s tourist industry. The military presence was immediately noticeable. Khaki-clad soldiers seemed to outnumber the airport staff and our journey to Colombo was punctuated by road blocks, searches and passport checks.

We were dropped at Colombo Fort railway station from which we were planning to head to Galle, a costal fort that had been a stronghold for Dutch, Portuguese and British colonists since the 1500s. With three hours to spare before our train’s arrival, we searched the station for a place to rest our sleep deprived bodies. The station café was our first port of call. The modest room was lit by light from high windows and the coloured fairy lights adorning a wonderfully gaudy image of the Buddha. We sat down to a coke, choosing not to indulge in the neon soft drink ‘Smak’, and drifted between exhausted silence and mild hysteria. Soon we acquired a fan club with a penchant for mimicry, so we moved to the ladies waiting room- a hangover from the railway’s colonial past. Safely in the maternal nest of this preening zone, we watched with interest as women rearranged their colourful saris and fixed their hair. The building itself possessed the faded glamour of run-down Victoriana, mixed with exotic foliage and bright modern alterations. Cats strayed casually on to the tracks, as did passengers, who, eager to get a seat, would race to the train to board it whilst it was still moving at some speed. The trains were heavy diesel-powered monsters, and despite their various states of cosmetic disrepair, looked like they would keep trudging on forever. Platforms were crowded with suits, vibrant saris and bizarre vehicles, such as steam powered three-wheelers loaded with chicks and vegetables. When our train pulled in there was a scramble, but we managed to find seats, thankful of somewhere to sit down for the next three hours. Inside the train, sellers of endless sugary delights made their way through the crowded carriages, each with their own song to advertise their wares.

The journey was spectacular. For the most part the track was some ten to twenty metres from the rough waves of the south-eastern coast. Children were playing cricket on the sands and well as splashing in the sea. Colourful boats were lying unused on the shore whilst others were just visible, bobbing on the distant horizon. The coast was also haunted by previous tragedy. Pre-tsunami houses were visible only by their ruined foundations and had been abandoned in favour of concrete bungalows some meters further away from the shore.

Arriving at Galle was a huge relief. The humidity had morphed my jetlag into pain in places I didn’t know could ache, top jaw and collar bones included. We found a guesthouse right by the rampart walls and so close to the sea that the noise of the waves infiltrated my rather aquatic dreams. Galle itself is sleepy little place. The Portuguese fort walls enclose the old town, which is made up of about 200 houses. The town’s architecture owes a great deal to the many nations that have controlled the area. It’s a strange mix of colonial splendour (dark wood fans, wicker steamers, and china tea cups) and the domes and intricate lattice work of the Middle East, due to the large influence of Arabic travellers and a substantial Muslim community.

The next day we strolled around Galle visiting the Mansion ‘Museum’ (rather a collection of nick-knacks owned by British grannies nationwide and a large gem shop), several churches the clock tower and government museum. No matter where you were in the town, there was always a sign pointing to the dubious Mansion Museum, usually in the wrong direction. The Dutch church was particularly beautiful. The whitewashed walls were covered with the names of the many foreigners who perished here whilst Galle was under foreign control. Many of the Dutch graves were carved with oddly stylised cartoons that, despite their age, could have come straight out of an issue of Le Gun. Death cheekily danced around podgy cherubs and was surrounded by all manner of strange creatures, each with faces like Mexican Sugar Skulls. The caretaker told us with delight that the stones were not just memorials to these foreigners but that their skeletons lay beneath each stone. The man showed rather too much delight to entice us to stay for longer

During a dinner of sweet aubergine curry, dhal and rice, we were informed that one of the most extravagant Sri Lankan festivals, the Esala Perahera, was taking place during our stay. On a whim we decided to move north to Kandy the next day, leaving peaceful Galle behind.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Gocco, Stock and Two Smoking Flashbulbs

Rarely do I get to obsess over Print Gocco, and hardly ever on one of the hippest magazine blogs about. Check out what BAD IDEA put up with, as I get excited over some of the Gocco work sent into the office and mourn the end of the road for this cult craftengine.

Also... click here to see my first attempt at Gocco printing earlier on in the year. Oh deer!

Artwork by Ella Tamplin-Wilson.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Dear Mr. Editor...


The blog has been a bit Latitude/BAD IDEA heavy this past fortnight, but I simply couldn't help posting this marvelous video of us doing our thing last weekend.

Check out the tune- it's almost as though it was written for us!

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

There's a New Mag in Town

This is not the post I had originally intended. Initially I had desired to rave about a new free mag Susology, that has appeared on the shelves, well surfaces, of London’s trendiest shops this week. There’s a glut of free publications at the moment, and although they vary in quality and independence, you can’t really grumble, they’re free after all. But this beauty, it delighted me. It was slick, stylish and most importantly the editorial was innovative and well written. Here's an approximation of my original ideas:

"Wow, this looks good. The paper’s such high quality; that beautiful matt stuff that oozes luxury. With articles on guerrilla gardening, Blek Le Rat, and skateboarding in China, they’re targeting the young hipster market, but the journalism isn’t too obvious. Actually, it’s rather good.

The editorial team have had some pretty smart ideas as well. They’ve commissioned some fantastic artwork, including stand alone pieces from Monorex and Le Gun. Each editor has created a soundtrack to the issue, which they’ve displayed as a double page spread of individually hand-written cassette tapes. It feels personal, and you start to see the magazine as a project, and a labour of love.

Damn it, they’re even championing creative writing, as each issue will feature the work of a blossoming new writer/poet. The layout and typography is so innovative that it makes The Face look as dated as Cross Stitch Monthly. And the tag line is perfect: 'All that we ask is that you pay attention.' I certainly am."

But then it hit me. No adverts. A free magazine, with no advertising? Impossible. So then I started digging. It turns out that Suso is actually a soft drink, and although there is absolutely no mention of the beverage in the magazine, I guess the company's aim is that the reader's newly made association between 'susology' and 'cool' will help to shift more stock.

I admit, I was disappointed. It's cunning branding, truly inventive, but almost too sly for me to feel comfortable with it. As soon as I associated Susology with a product, other than the magazine itself, I immediately became suspicious, doubted it's editorial independence and felt duped. My vision of a team of young, creative editors listening to some hefty tracks as they nurtured their baby into print was shattered.

This doesn't mean I don't think Susology is a quality read. I still maintain that the writing is excellent (especially the pieces from BAD IDEA's Jean Hannah Edelstein) and the art direction is really exciting. I'm just wary that it's trying to sell me something, especially as they were doing it without my knowledge and consent. I'd love to think that I was just being cynical and that the editorial team (also responsible for an edgy blog) were supported by a forward-thinking and somewhat philanthropic corporation. But with suspicions that the "independent" Art & Music Magazine recently bought by the Saatchi gallery may have actually belonged to Saatchi all along, it's difficult to know where a branding agency ends and an objective publication begins.

Whether you feel Suso's methods are pioneering or just plain devious, the articles themselves are definitely worth a look. They'll even send you one for free! Just email iwantyou@susology.com

Artwork by Oliver Hydes for Susology.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Blogger's Delight

Ahoy there! My contribution to the BAD IDEA blog is now available to read here.

Friday, 25 July 2008

Good things come to those who write

Voyeurs of the world unite. Here's a copy of Issue 6 of BAD IDEA's Latitude confessional magazine (edited by yours truly) to satisfy your sneaky desires. It was a dark shift that produced this zine. Alcohol and the cover of nightfall gave shape to admissions of the blackest kind. Get help guys, or at least write a sordid autobiography!

If you like this one, you can read the other five editions on www.badidea.co.uk. Keep your eye on the BAD IDEA blog for my account of the Saturday night shift. Fun times.








Thursday, 24 July 2008

Dirty Secrets @ Lattitude


The BAD IDEA team donned our wellies and bravest countenances for Suffolk’s Latitude festival last weekend. Sun-worshiping, band-stalking and boozing aside, we were there to produce a confessional magazine for the festival’s ne’er-do-well writers. The Printing Press pumped out six issues over the weekend, filled with the kookiest, crudest, and funniest confessions that were scribed. We didn't offer advice or absolution, just bloody hilarious reading matter!

As far as the punters are concerned, the Printing Press works like this. They place their writing in the machine’s IN tray, a speedy hand snatches it away, and a few hours later, their dirty secrets are published in the zine, which they lovingly collect from the OUT tray. Little do they know (ha ha!) that behind the scenes were a team of chain-smoking, sleep-deprived editors, a laptop, a photocopier and a giant stapler. As the cogs of the press turned, we swiftly selected the choicest submissions, edited them up, laid them out, and then printed and bound the magazine.

The rag’s reception was phenomenal. Contributors came back every couple of hours to check our progress and when a new issue came off the press (often hours late!), we had to do our best to prevent a small scale riot.

Bad Idea’s photo maestro Sebastian Meyer captured the magic of the press in these snaps. Check out more of his amazing work here: www.sebmeyer.com

Monday, 14 July 2008

BAD IDEA




Your faithful pseudo-hack and procrastinator extraordinaire ventures to the big smoke this week to begin a month's internship at BAD IDEA magazine. Check back for fuck-ups, commuter moans and maybe some insight into the making of one of the hottest mags on the market. A bad idea? I hope not.

FFI: www.badidea.co.uk

Thursday, 10 July 2008

The Story of India


Telling the tale of a country as ancient and massive as India is no easy feat. But distinguished TV historian and housewives’ crumpet, Michael Wood has succeeded in doing just that for his BBC series and book, The Story of India. Dressed in his trademark fuchsia shirt, Wood delighted the Chichester Festivities audience who came to hear him speak this week. The veteran travel broadcaster took an entranced audience through his favourite journey in India; the trip from the Kerala coast across the mountains to Tamil Nadu. His enthusiastic and sensuous descriptions were accompanied by his down to earth holiday snaps, taken during numerous trips he has made over the last three decades.

Wood’s narrative confidently married opulent descriptions of his Indian experience with details of the country's history and culture. He recounted dates, figures and names with such ease that his speech was more like a relaxed conversation rather than academic lecture. Enthusiastic at all times, most of the audience left with seriously itchy feet. Or maybe it was Michael rather than Mumbai that captured the predominantly female audience!

The book that accompanies the series delivers a portrait of the county in an equally fluid style. His text follows the very first nomadic inhabitants of the country all the way though to growth of India’s bustling cities. Wood’s rambling style of asides, anecdotes, myths, anthropological facts and vivid description make the book difficult to categorize but incredibly enjoyable. It flows like the monologue of an old friend. A pleasant journey indeed.

The Story of India is published by BBC Books, £8.99

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Lucha Libre

My pen's been a-wandering this week, straying from 'work' towards all manner of strange things. Too much Oddbox, methinks. Here's one of the places it ended up:



Thursday, 3 July 2008

Anthologenius


Ellie and I ventured into deepest, darkest Broadmead last Saturday night to witness the launch the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology. The book is a collection of the top twenty submissions from the Prize's first year. The winning story, 'The River' is a moving account of the relationship between a granddaughter, her grandfather and the third party in their lives, the nearby river. Here's what Rebecca had to say about receiving the prize.

"The whole experience was terrific. Someone told me I did a double-take when my name was called out. I felt as if I was a character inside one of my own stories. Or, as if I was in one of those dreams we sometimes have that make us feel comfortable and at peace when we wake up in the morning. And I had the chance to see my daughter’s face in the crowd, all aglow and smiling, and that was very special to me.

Because I love teaching creative writing, and because Bristol is full of creative people, I’m hoping that more people who want to write, but just need a hand to get started, will join my course and begin their own journey into fiction writing."

Congratulations to Rebecca and to the lovely Joe Melia, the champion behind this literary adventure. To read my interview with Joe click here.

(Unfortunately Ellie and I drank too many glasses of free wine and arrived at Mother's Ruin ruined.)

Monday, 30 June 2008

Interview with Irvine Welsh



Irvine Welsh really doesn't deserve his reputation as an awkward and hostile interviewee. I found him enthusiastic, thoughtful and clearly moved by the difficult research he has undertaken for his ninth novel, Crime. It was torturous turning a half hour conversation with this engaging writer into just 600 words. Here's my attempt.



Irvine Welsh Author of ‘Crime’ (Jonathan Cape Trade Paperback, £12.99)

What’s the book about?

Crime deals with an individual coming to terms with his past without any real support. The main character, Lennox, is isolated from his community, his colleagues, and he’s also eventually isolated from his fiancé. He’s forced to negotiate between rescuing a girl who he fears is being abused, and recovering from a breakdown provoked by horrific child murder case that he’s recently worked on.

What originally motivated you to tackle such challenging subject matter?
Because it was difficult. Like everybody else, I find paedophilia so harrowing and so hard to get my head around. I almost stopped twice. I was finding it too much. The first time was when I just finished the first draft and the whole Madeline McCann thing kicked off, and I just had to stop for six months and do something else. The case made the novel too real.

How do you feel about the media’s relationship with child abuse cases?
I think the media are so interested in paedophilia because it’s the one thing that unites everybody. It seems to be something that we can all agree on, as evil in its purest manifestation. It’s true there is something about reality TV and voyeuristic culture that’s very unsettling and disturbing. This is an issue that I wanted to flag up. But we are complicit in the kind of society that we create. You’ve got to see it as an empowering thing that we’ve created this world. We can change it and modify it for the better.

Ray Lennox is a secondary character in the novel ‘Filth’. Why did you decide to go back to this character?
In Filth Lennox is a quiet but sly and manipulative cop. I always thought he was a character that had secrets. I started thinking about his motivation for being in the police

The novel presents an ambivalent relationship with the police. Is this something that you share yourself?
The state is always going to be a necessary evil. Like any form of bureaucracy, it’s human and so it’s going to be flawed. If we lived in an ideal libertarian world, we’d all get on without any argument. We don’t, so we need cops to protect people. But then we also get the kind of police we deserve in the kind of society that we have. I’d happily see a time when we didn’t need a police force. I admire the work the police do, I couldn’t do it.

Crime is your ninth work of fiction, is writing getting easier or harder?
It’s different. The earlier books, like Trainspotting, were very much driven by my own experiences or the experiences of people around me. Whereas now I’m reaching out a bit more, I’m doing more research now. It becomes less about you and more about what you’re trying to write about.

Have you felt that you’ve had to be true to the testimonials of the sex abuse victims that you’ve met?
I think the thing about writing novels is that it’s a selfish thing. You try to tell the truth as you see it but it’s not always the truth for everyone. That’s the whole point of the novel. I found that all the victims’ experiences were very different. Some of the people I met and thought ‘how did you survive that?’ It was inspiring because they actually came through it all in a very positive way.

CRIME IS OUT ON 3RD JULY. IRVINE WELSH WILL TALKING ABOUT THE NOVEL AT BORDERS, QUEENS ROAD, 7 JULY, 7PM. FFI: http://www.blogger.com/WWW.IRVINEWELSH.NET

Bristol Comes Out to Play

I went to Southville on Thursday to meet two men passionate about wine. Chris Scholes and Mike Cardwell are the brains behind the Bristol Wine & Food Fair that will grace the harbourside next month. We're in for a treat.

“Food is the new rock’n’roll”, says Mike Cardwell with a smile. “There’s been a revolution in the nation’s eating and drinking habits and events like this have been at the forefront of that. So many people now are really interested in where their produce comes from. One of the most important things about the Wine & Food Fair is that people will be able to come down and chat with the experts behind the stalls. These are the people directly involved in the making of the produce or the specialist importers.”

“Most of us drink a glass of Chablis or Rioja and probably forget that it’s actually an art form” says Mike. “It’s a very tricky craft and getting it right is difficult. I actually picked Champagne grapes when I was a student. I remember cutting my fingers and the cold, damp mornings. It gave me an insight into what it’s like to actually be a grower and to work on a farm. You realise that, as humans are involved, there are so many variables that can go wrong. It makes the process exciting but very scary!”

“We’re also ex-traders. Four years ago you’d find us down in Glastonbury by the pyramid stage running a coffee and patisserie stand. So we’ve been through the mud together. Being a trader you get insider knowledge. You quickly recognise what makes a good event and what makes you happy. We want to give good service to our traders, our exhibiters and the public.”

The Wine & Food Fair is shaping up to be the culinary treat of the year, with a huge array of things to see, do and taste. “There’s going to be a Chef’s Theatre, where you can watch top level chefs in action and get great tips to impress your friends when they come round for a meal, says Mike’s equally enthusiastic business partner Chris Scholes. ”We’re also hosting eighteen tutored wine and cheese tastings. This is a chance for people to learn more about cheese and wines in a relaxed environment. They’ll be plenty of talks and demonstrations and everyone can also taste any of the 350 wines on sale for free.”

“There’s going to be some amazing chefs in the chefs’ theatre. I was taking to Mark Evans at Café Maitreya and he was telling me that he’s considering cooking a whole menu with flowers, that really blew me away. We’re talking about working chefs here, not people that just write columns. These are the people that toil away in the kitchens, serving up some fantastic food.”

“Our main message is keep it local,” Mike declares. “We’re all aware of our environment and food miles but also we recognise that there are a lot of people that earn their living through local fairs. It really is a lifeline for these producers because they can sell direct to the public thus taking a bigger share of the profits. It enables them to sustain their way of life and helps them continue bringing fantastic produce to our tables.”

“There’s been massive leaps in the quality of British wine in the last ten years” asserts Chris emphatically. “Some of the sparkling wine producers are even beating Champagne in wine tastings.”

Both Chris and Mike have wine flowing through their veins. “I lived in Italy until I was three,” says Mike, “so I was introduced to wine at a very young age. We’d just be given a little glass to sip with the rest of the family, and then spend the afternoon sleeping it off!”

“My dad was from Blackpool,” says Mike “so one of my earliest memories of food is him frying his black pudding for breakfast. He really loved his red wine. He was wine-maker as well. He was famous for his strawberry wine. It was ridiculously strong though, just a glass would make you really tidily!”

“Most of all we want to demystify wine, make it simple and fun” laughs Mike. “We want to encourage people to use their taste buds and senses. We like to think about the fair as Bristol coming out to play! There’s food and wine, so it’s a bit of a no-brainer really!”

EXPLORE THE BRISTOL WINE & FOOD FAIR AT BRISTOL HARBOURSIDE, 11-13 JULY. FFI:WWW.BRISTOLWINEANDFOODFAIR.CO.UK

Sunday, 29 June 2008

Venue Clippings Number Two

More cuttings from my first week at Venue Magazine. There's another 'Reply All' and 'On the Job' as well as my contribution to Venue's bumper camping special.


I spoke to author Jonathan Knight about his new book Cool Camping. Jonathan has pitched up at some of the UK's best campsites and has collected his favourites in this charming book. The photography is stunning as is his insightful and friendly prose style. We chatted about his top ten sites in the southwest and what made them especially memorable.









Another (slightly dull) 'Reply All' from Acker Bilk and a lovely smidgen of Jobs editorial courtesy of my housemate's dad Peter.

Venue Clippings Number One


Here's a 'Reply All' that I put together for Venue in my first week of work experience. Plenty more to come!

I also interviewed Andy Council in an attempt to spice up the jobs section with a bit of editorial.



Helicon hits the shops

The summer issue of Helicon hits the shops this week. It's on sale at Here Shop, Waterstones (Bristol Uni), Blackwells, Bristol University Student's Union, Cafe Kino, The Cube Cinema and Oppo. Buy it, go on.

Helicon is a chance for the creatives of Bristol Uni to show off their poetry, prose, features, photography and artwork. The quality of submissions has hit an all time high this issue, with some magical prose from Ed Morgan, hilarious limericks from Adam Hanna and even a Bristol dinosaur from Helicon's inspiring uncle, Andy Council. I've loved every paint-covered minute of my time as the magazine's arts editor. Goodbye little glossy, and good luck to next year's editorial team.

Here are some of the pages I designed for this term's Wonderland themed issue.