Archive for January, 2012
The thought of the 75-year-old actor Brian Blessed on a narrowboat is one that should immediately bring a smile to your face. It certainly did for me. In my mind’s eye he sits there like a thespian Captain Haddock, roaring with ebullient laughter. And British Waterways, who have got Blessed on-board (so to speak) to publicise a new campaign to attract volunteers, are hoping that once you have stopped chuckling, you will be inspired to volunteer as a lock keeper.
As a child, Blessed explains, he spent many happy hours by the canals, “exploring on my bike and looking for wildlife”. Now he is keen that we all “do what we can to help protect them for our next generations”.
The canal network is being transferred to the charity sector, under the newly-formed Canal & River Trust. This means that there are now 61 locks in need of volunteers, everywhere from Bradford to Bath. In return for one day per week, you receive full training, a uniform, and the opportunity to become part of an ancient and colourful tradition. According to Ed Moss, the Trust’s national volunteering manager, the role of a lock keeper is “the most symbolic on the waterways”. It’s a perfect hobby, he says, for people who like working outdoors, meeting a wide range of people, and trying their hand at something different.
So, one glorious winter’s morning I head down to the City Road Lock in Islington, on the Regent’s Canal (which celebrates its 200th birthday this year). There I am met by two rugged lock keepers, Paul Crowhurst, a retired fireman, and Mark Loveday, an ex-Royal Marine (it’s the uniforms, Crowhurst explains).
There is also a handsome narrowboat bobbing in the waters, skippered by an old sea dog whom I initially mistake for Brian Blessed (why do all captains have beards?). Dog walkers bumble along the towpath. The only sign that we are in London is a dead pigeon in the canal. Continue reading on the Telegraph website
Given the stagnancy of the housing market and the paucity of credit, first-time buyers are having a tougher time than ever. Gemma Morris, 23, and her partner Paddy McBride, 27, are looking to develop their first property. “We feel we need guidance,” says Gemma. “Otherwise we wouldn’t be brave enough to take the plunge.”
Thankfully, Gemma has a rather special mother. Sylvia, 69, who has four children (Gemma is the youngest) and six grandchildren, has developed and sold nine properties over the past 30 years – and shows no sign of stopping. She is currently looking for her next renovation project, and has put her three-bedroom home in Lightwater, Surrey, up for sale. Dilapidated when she bought it, it now has an extension on the front and a mews-style house at the back. The property, which Sylvia bought for £345,000, is on the market for £675,000 (astonmead.com; 01344 209000).
“People think I’m mad,” says Sylvia. “My husband Kenny, who died in 2006, would come back from work to find I’d knocked a wall down. You could say I’ve got the renovation bug.” Continue reading on the Telegraph website
As Burns night draws closer, Scots everywhere are getting ready to lift a dram in honour of the bard. However, another literary great is also having an anniversary this year, as India marks the 150th anniversary of great poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Like Robert Burns, Tagore became an icon of his native culture. A poet, philosopher, musician, writer and educationalist he was explicitly inspired by Burns, and his own well-known song ‘Purano shei diner kotha’ (Memories Of The Good Old Days) was an Indian response to Auld Lang Syne.
In celebration of Scotland’s connections with India, award-winning Scottish Indian chef Tony Singh – known for his fresh and innovative approach to food – has created a fusion menu blending some of Scotland’s best produce with authentic Indian spices.
“As a Scot myself and a lover of all things food and drink, Burns Night is a date on the calendar I always look forward to,” says Tony. “As I also raise my glass to Rabindranath Tagore, it seemed appropriate to design a Burns menu which combines the two gastranomical traditions.”
Scots and Indians, he argues, have much in common. “We both love a tipple and a good laugh,” he says, “and haggis has always had a spice to it.”
Nine decades ago, on February 2 1922, Ulysses was born. It arrived in a handsome turquoise cover, its face embossed in gold. (At least, it did in Paris. In the UK it remained banned for a further fourteen years, on account of a masturbation scene.)
Over the years, this iconic Modernist text has been written about and written about. But one of its most important lines is not often enough discussed. It occurs in Episode 3, Proteus: “remember your epiphanies on green oval leaves, deeply deep, copies to be sent if you died to all the great libraries of the world.”
By the time he scrawled those words, James Joyce had long been working to claim the term “epiphany” on behalf of secular literature. Hitherto, the word had an ancient, and predominantly religious, history. It has its genesis in ancient Greece (ἐpιfάνeιa), where it was used beautifully to refer to the first glimmer of dawn, the first sight of the enemy in battle, or the first vision of a god. It became Judaised in 2 Maccabees, when it was used to describe the God of Israel, and was Christianised in 2 Timothy, where it mainly referred to the Second Coming; thereafter it came to describe the personal realisation that Christ was the Son of God. In AD 361, the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus used the word for the first time to refer to a Christian feast (epiphanion). In the centuries that followed it was mainly used in connection to a variety of Christian festivals, which were celebrated differently, and at different times, by the different Churches.
Joyce, however – an atheist with profoundly Catholic roots (which he described as “black magic”) – felt that the term could more usefully be applied in a humanist context. Each of his Dubliners stories is structured around a central epiphany. Moreover, his less widely read autobiographical novel, Stephen Hero, contains an explicit exposition. Epiphany, Joyce writes, means “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself.” It is for the “man of letters” to “record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments.”
(Several years prior to writing this passage, Joyce himself had begun to create a group of seventy-one fleeting, disembodied epiphanies, ranging in content from the supoernatural to the mundane. Forty of these survive in manuscript form, and are collected at the American Universities of Cornell and Buffalo; they were reprinted in the early nineties by Faber.)
My family and I live at the top of a short but very steep hill. Bowling down it on an eco-friendly Dutch cargo bike – a 2.6m-long pushbike that can seat up to four small children in a box at the front – was surprisingly easy. I had expected the weight of my four-year-old daughter and two-year-old twins to make the bike difficult to handle, but in the event it was smooth and responsive.
Now, however, I had to cycle back up. The sweat beading on my brow, I gritted my teeth and nosed the bicycle, laden with the three children, up the hill. As the gradient began to increase, some neighbours went past in their car and paused to ask what on earth I was doing. “Sorry,” I yelled, “can’t stop!” And made a mental note to apologise later.
The hill was getting steeper and already my legs were burning. But then I pressed a button on the handlebars, the electric motor kicked in, and 40 per cent of the load was taken away. The remainder of the hill was a breeze. As I reached the crest, I glanced back; my neighbours were staring at me, open-mouthed. To them, I looked like a superman.
Saturday morning, and I’m in a sports hall in the shadow of Wembley Stadium. Two dozen grown men are swooping round an oval track on four-wheel roller skates, barging their opponents to the floor. Meet the Southern Discomfort men’s roller derby team. Buoyed by their first international game — last October they played the Quad Guards from Toulouse, whom they “beat handsomely” — they are now preparing for the biggest game of their careers. Against women.
“The girls have experience on their side, and will be a much better functioning machine,” one of the team’s organisers, a Johnny Depp lookalike going by the name of Kinky Stuntz (real name Matthew Heales), told me over a pre-training full English breakfast in the nearby bikers’ haunt, the Ace Cafe. “They have a lower centre of gravity, so they can absorb the knocks without going down. And they can hit pretty hard too.” Just how hard remains to be seen.
Roller derby, a full-contact game featuring two teams of five skaters, is one of the fastest-growing sports in the world. The rules are notoriously complicated. The bout is split into two-minute “jams”, during which each team nominates a “jammer”, who — wearing a helmet emblazoned with a star — tries to lap the opposition, gaining one point for each opponent they lap. The rest of the skaters try to block those on the opposing side while allowing their own jammer through.
Huge in 1950s America, when it attracted crowds of thousands, roller derby became over-commercialised in the 1960s and died out. Then, in 2000, it was resurrected in Texas by the feminist punk counterculture. There are now 1,135 teams worldwide, spanning every inhabited continent, with 73 in Britain.
This tough new generation of skaters wear Gothic clothes, paint their faces like horror-film extras, and take on outlandish alter egos like “Fishnet Stalker” and “Attila the Nun”. Bouts take place to blaring heavy metal music and frequently result in injury. The game has an anti-corporate “DIY” spirit, open to everyone, regardless of athletic ability. Last December, the England team came third in the first ever Roller Derby World Cup, in Toronto.
Crucially, modern roller derby is all about third-wave feminist girl power, where women present themselves as a dominant force, sexually in control. Until now, the sport has been strictly women-only, with men restricted to refereeing and coaching. One popular joke is that the only difference between a rollergirl and a lesbian is two drinks. But things are starting to change. The bout I’m to witness between Southern Discomfort and the London Rockin’ Rollers, one of the top British women’s teams, marks the first time in Britain that women have lined up against men.
This has provoked a vigorous debate. Derby Girl, a popular blogger, is an outspoken critic of men’s roller derby (or, as it is known pejoratively, “merby”, or “dangle derby”). “Why do we have to share everything we have worked so hard for?” she writes. “I think it’s time to be tough about this one, ladies.” Kinky Stuntz sees things differently: “It’s not like we’re coming here to take over their house. We just want to live in it with them.”
Back at the men’s training session, an older-looking man is adjusting his skates. Someone tells me his name is Gerry Atrick. “Nah,” he says, “I’m Class-A Slug.” Is he worried about playing a full-contact sport against the fairer sex? “Bloody worried,” he says. “We’re in a no-win situation. If we try and play our physical game, we’ll look like bullies. But if we hold back, we’ll lose. When one of us goes down, there’ll be a massive cheer. When one of them goes down, there’ll be a massive boo.”
The bout takes place the following week in a boxing hall in Bethnal Green, east London. Class-A Slug’s worries have got the better of him: he doesn’t turn up. The men get together for a pep talk; many are smoking nervously. The captain, a heavy-set man by the name of Henry the Sk8th, makes a Henry V-style speech, but it’s tempered with caution. There’s a fine line between playing to win and being seen as bullies. “Don’t do anything silly,” he says. “We don’t want to see any girls with broken legs.” He pauses. “And watch their tits.” Then they yell a war cry intended to inspire gallantry: “Don’t be a douche!”
In the women’s changing rooms, an Asian skater called Flash Bang Wallop scrawls “You skate like a boy” across her cheeks. The captain, an imposing woman in a golden helmet and face paint called Mighty Mighty Bash (an England international, whose real name is Ashley Bonham), is talking tactics. “Get your bums in their faces,” she says. “Make them uncomfortable and put the boot in. But try not to hit them in the goolies.” A debate about their opponents’ testicles ensues. Being a female-only sport, the crown jewels fall within the “legal hitting zone”. But this might not be in the spirit of the game.
“I’m not bothered,” says Murder Urs, a deceptively diminutive mother of several children. “I like beating up boys. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. If something breaks, it breaks.” She then joins in the warm-ups, which feature instructions like “Push your bra strap towards the sky!”
The women have mixed feelings about playing men. “We have to do it,” says Jack Attack, a tattooist who has painted her face like a skeleton. “Otherwise we’re just as bad as them.” It would be sexist, she explains, to deny men the opportunity to compete. Betty Swollox, 26, a cheery admin assistant, agrees. “The whole point is not to discriminate against anyone, whatever their sexuality, gender or whatever,” she explains. “My boyfriend plays for them. He’s not getting special treatment. He is going down.” Loud laughter.
Purrfect Catastrophe, a 40-year-old biologist from University College London, is more circumspect. “I just hope it won’t get to the point where the men overtake the women,” she says. “All the other sports are dominated by men. This is the only thing we’ve got, and it’s something we want to own.”
It is time. The skaters take to the track, and after the 300-strong spectators have been whipped up with some gurning and gyrating, the game begins. Immediately, there is an upset: a willowy and slightly satanic chap called Reaper, who used to be a figure skater, turns the women inside out and laps 10 of their skaters before they’ve even got organised. The largely pro-women crowd falls silent. At the end of the first jam, the score is 11-0 to the men. Southern Discomfort are jubilant.
Then the women hit back. The skeleton-painted Jack Attack leads the charge, with support from the pint-sized Lady Lazarus and a girl called Red N Roll, who sports white face paint with scarlet tears. The second jam ends 20-11 to the women. The men look bewildered.
The hits get harder. People are falling now, men and women. Several blokes are sent to the sin bin for fouls
In the next few jams, the women’s superior experience starts to show. Through a series of fluid set pieces they widen their lead. The hits get harder. People are falling now, men and women. Several blokes are sent to the sin bin for fouls.
Class-A Slug’s prediction of boos and cheers proves inaccurate; painful wipeouts on both sides are met indiscriminately with an enthusiastic cry of “Ooooor” from the crowd.
The women hit their stride and proceed at a blistering pace. A tiny girl called Deadly Devito wows the crowd by slipping through one of her team-mates’ legs.
At half-time, the score is 117-52 to the women. The men are falling apart. Von Bitch, a senior female skater with half her face painted red, is triumphant. “The boys are losing it,” she says breathlessly. “They’re hitting much harder, forgetting who they’re playing. Women still rule roller derby.”
In the men’s changing room, the atmosphere is subdued. A sweat-sodden man called Noise Tank, who is lying on the floor, says that the men are being penalised unfairly. Reaper mumbles that he had “grossly underestimated the girls”. As the team heads out for the second half, Henry the Sk8th tries to lift their spirits. “Remember to have some fun,” he says. This, however, proves difficult. The women are unstoppable, and Southern Discomfort put in some desperate challenges. Three men are sent off in quick succession for “recklessness”. The crowd goes wild.
After that, the contest turns into a massacre. The final score: 219-104 to the women. The men are gracious but dejected. “That was painful,” says Reaper. “I just feel incredibly tired.” Has he any final thoughts? He considers. “You know,” he says, “the girls are just really good.” Up against other men, these guys were impressive. A rematch with the French is anticipated for the spring, which they hope will revive their confidence. Nevertheless, nobody can deny that roller derby remains a woman’s game — for now.