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Archive for February, 2011

A dawn run in Florence, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.’

The Westin Excelsior stands on Florence’s Piazza Ognissanti, the River Arno on one side, Botticelli’s tomb in the Chiesa di San Salvatore on the other, and in the basement, a gym. Not finding gyms a tonic, I ignored it. But after a greedy wedding party week something was needed.

The something was a small map next to my complimentary bedside chocolate. It showed two runs through Florence, 5km and 8km, chosen by Runner’s World magazine. I drew the 8km route on to a bigger map (the original one was too small to read while running on the spot, lost) and set off at 6.45am on a Saturday.

Florence was chilly but fantastically empty. Along the narrow Via Ognissanti on skinny Florentine pavements, over the carless crossroads of Piazza Goldoni, down the shuttered Via della Vigna Nuova and into the Piazza Della Repubblica’s deserted canyon.

The flat streets made a good speed simple. The emptiness gave time to glimpse the city without falling over: the grimily gorgeous Duomo cathedral; green and white Santa Croce church sedate behind its Piazza. Ha, this was easy!

But then I crossed the Arno. Four hairpin bends staggered uphill. ‘Running’, I breathed like an asthmatic cart horse. Then the top, the open Piazzale Michelangelo and ecstasy after agony: Florence, laid out at dawn, the Duomo a liner ploughing through a terracotta sea, village lights on the slopes beyond.

A pleasing jog down hillside steps then a longer, almost rural uphill run. The narrow Via di Belvedere, between the old, biscotti-brown city wall and fields, rose straight up. No moderating bends, just gradient. But at the peak, under Forte di Belvedere’s walls, the pink-skied panorama again.

The run down, past waking houses bedded into the slope, came out near the Ponte Vecchio. Keeping to the Arno’s quieter south side, and energized by no hills, I crossed the Ponte alla Carraia and attempted a sprint to the Westin. Wary of sweating all over the elegant lobby, I caught my breath outside: a run to pump the heart and lift the soul.

14 January 2006

Beer and breakfast in Smithfield, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman.’

It was 6.45am on a cool, blue-skied morning in the City of London. As the financial markets woke up, Smithfield Market quietened down. Butchers tidied sausages, chops and football-sized jars of pickle on trestle tables. White-overalled porters in health-and-safety trilbies trundled meat to vans. It was time for the pub.

Opposite the market’s purple and green Gate 16 is the Cock Tavern, open to all from 6am. It is a comfortable, basement pub: low ceiling, wooden floor, long curving bar, cream walls hung with black and white market photographs and traders’ red and gold signs – M.L. Offals Ltd, G. & E. Meat Ltd.

Butchers talked loudly at the bar or slim tables, relaxing after a hard day’s night. One strode in, burly, shaven-headed and looking, in his shorts and knee-length smock, like a Bruegel yeoman. Quieter City types sat over alcohol-free breakfasts.

With worrying ease, I drank a 7.00 am pint of Wells Bombardier bitter and read the lengthy menu. The breakfasts, and many and varied lunchtime steaks, are the work of Carmen Leslie, the tavern’s chef for 38 years.

How about grilled kippers, or smoked haddock and a poached egg? Why not compile your own breakfast: Welsh rarebit, bubble and squeak, and a liver and bacon sandwich? Or go traditional, with the Smithfield or Old English?

Steering clear of the Cowboy (beans, more beans and bacon) I chose the Cock Tavern, the priciest at £6.95: liver, kidneys, sausage, bacon, black pudding, tomato, beans and a fried egg.

It arrived crammed on an oval plate like a small range of hills. All the meat had made the short journey from the market and was delicious: thick, tangy bacon; smoothly peppery liver; smoky black pudding and, best of all, tongue-itchingly spicy kidneys.

The fruity Bombardier suited the food well. It took more beer and a cup of coffee before my breakfast was all gone. Outside, the streets were busy with wide-eyed commuters. I headed against them, ready for bed.

22 October 2005

Bespoke snuff in Exeter, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us.’

Walk into McGahey The Tobacconist in Exeter and you are swaddled in the sweet smell of Bovey Honey, Lustleigh Velvet, Zeal Champagne and dozens more loose tobaccos. Their fat glass jars jostle with pipe displays, ranked lighters and cigarettes.

Judges from the nearby Crown Court buy their snuff here and that is why I have come. Like them, I need a pollution-free tobacco hit in an increasingly non-smoking world. Martin (grandson of the original McGahey), who looks pleasingly like the bearded Jack Tar on Player’s Navy Cut packets, will advise on creating my own unique snuff blend.

He brings out the range: McChrystal’s of Leicester; Gawith Hoggarth; rectangular tins from Germany; round tins of Wilsons of Sharrow, whose snuff mill near Sheffield is still powered by water-wheel. They should make the blend, recommends Martin.

We take a spiral staircase down to the basement and sit in leather armchairs by a walk-in humidor. Four pots like beefy gun cartridges sit on the table between us. Each bears the italics of Fribourg and Treyer, the late-lamented Haymarket tobacconist whose snuffs Wilsons now makes.

Martin opens them one by one. High Dry Toast: fine, pale, pungent. Seville: coarser, orange-scented, “a good brain tingle”. Princes: peaty, moist, powerful. And Beau Brummell’s favourite, the dark, elegant Old Paris. But these, we decide, are too complex a base for a blend. So Martin suggests the simpler, smooth Wilsons of Sharrow SP. We agree on oil of May blossom blended in for freshness, and lemon for bite.

The order is placed that afternoon and four days later it arrives at my home in a green and gold-labelled McGahey tub. Opened, its citric scent has spring lurking underneath. I place two chestnut pinches on the back of my hand and inhale. My eyes water and nose tingles. The snuff, my snuff, ambles into the sinuses, then spreads potently out. The world seems brighter, my mind sharper and there is not a wisp of smoke anywhere.

13 November 2004

Pilsner, circa 1842, in Pilsen, The FT Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘…the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea.’

We walked through high wooden doors and along a wide, sloping tunnel, British beer lovers dipping into Czech history. Above ground sprawled the Pilsner Urquell Brewery: huge copper vats like upturned champagne glasses; tiled, Art Nouveau meeting rooms; the sampling room, where tasters clear their palates between sips with bread and cheese.

No nation reveres its beer like the Czechs. Old brands such as Pilsner Urquell and Budvar are potent symbols, constants of a Czechness that endured the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Nazi occupation and Communism. Ninety nine per cent of the beer Czechs drink is Czech.

Our thirsty party was on a purists’ mission. Pilsner Urquell, the first pilsner, was created in 1842 by Josef Groll, a genius headhunted by the burghers of Pilsen and “the rudest man in Bavaria” (to quote his father).

But since the 1930s, yeast has been filtered out before bottling. We were to drink unfiltered Urquell; the original pilsner in its original form, still made in small batches for comparison’s sake and, you can’t help feeling, love.

The tunnel branched, the arms leading into a five-mile network of arched, white-walled cellars, their sandstone floors grooved for rolling barrels. At the end of a branch line, we came to the place: twelve, six-ft. high wooden vats of Pilsner Urquell in its original form fermenting against a wall.

From a platform, we caught glimpses of the beer under mountainous yellowish froth, like cumulus over a dark sea. We followed the pipes to the next cellar and stood dwarfed between double banks of oak barrels, each six ft. in diameter, containing unfiltered Pilsner Urquell, quietly maturing. The cellar man selected a batch he felt was ready. He firmly knocked a spiked tap into the barrel. We queued up, trying not to push.

In the glass it was a clouded gold, pale fragments of yeast floating within, the head thick but loose. The taste was sublime: elegantly light but rich, the bitterness rounded, velvety as stout but with the body of ale, the unfiltered yeast giving it punch – beer circa 1842. We murmured delightedly, and drank more.

23 July 2005

Inside a Cabman’s Shelter, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘It was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny.’

The Knightsbridge Cabmen’s Shelter stands isolated in the middle of Brompton Road. Built in 1875, its green panelled walls and steep felted roof suggest a park-keeper’s refuge, as do the panels’ florid latticework and its crowning dovecote-like chimney. The windows are frosted, and while the un-Knowledged may buy drinks and snacks from a hatch the interior is strictly for cabbies. Like all 13 surviving shelters, it is Grade II listed.

Captain GC Armstrong of St John’s Wood conceived cabmen’s shelters in 1874. The drivers could keep out of the elements and, as importantly, the pub. Booze-free shelters serving tea, coffee and bread and butter, with an attendant to cook food the cabbies brought in, would keep London’s cabs literally on the straight and narrow.

The first was opened in 1875 in St John’s Wood (handily for Captain Armstrong) by Arthur Kinnaird MP before a crowd of 100. Rules for customers stipulated no swearing and the publishers of The Graphic, Aunt Judy’s Magazine, Fun and The Animal World provided seemly reading matter gratis.

By 1908 there were 47 shelters, each costing £200. The Duke of Westminster provided Piccadilly’s shelter, but who was Mrs Braithwaite, the benefactor behind the one in Hobart’s Place? Or Miss Roget, who financed the Knightsbridge Shelter? Subverting the ban on alcohol, cabbies gave the shelters pub-like names. Knightsbridge is The Bell and Horns. St John’s Wood, near Lord’s, is The Nursery End.

With the coming of congestion, one-way systems and parking meters, the shelters went into decline but soldiered on with T&GWU and GLC help. When the GLC folded, the bacon bap was passed to the Heritage of London Trust, which has underwritten the renovation of all but two of the shelters, at £25,000 each.

They take on the characteristics of the areas they are in. The Sloane Street Shelter gleams like a designer emporium. The Kensington Gardens trees overhanging The All Nations have left the roof rustically bowed and mossy. The handwritten cardboard signs on the Embankment Shelter mirror the begging signs of Embankment’s down-and-outs.

But what are they like inside? The Bell and Horns was decorated with Christmas lights the cold night I crossed to the middle of the Brompton Road. Cabs were parked on the rank down the centre of road but no sound came from within. I opened the door.

Inside, it was warm and bright but there was no Tardis effect, the shelters really are tiny. Two benches ran along the white walls behind two long, thin formica tables with hinged leaves for squeezing into your place. Two people could pass in the central aisle, if they turned sideways. At the far end the owners bustled in aprons between a cooker, fridge and packed shelves of sliced bread and chutney. Cabbies were tucking into supper. They glanced up at me. The tall, dark-haired proprietress turned with a polite but sharp look.


“Is this just for cabbies or can anyone …”

“Just for cabbies.”

I asked if it was true the shelters had names and a curly-haired cabbie explained. Another mentioned that Peter Raymond of the Cabmen’s Shelter Fund and T&GWU had helped the shelters survive. The proprietress brushed past to serve someone, annoyed. I didn’t belong and, with a “Merry Christmas,” squeezed out.

22 February 2004

‘Children’ column on baby slings, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy.’

Lawrence is too fat for the baby sling now. Each of his legs is like a haggis on top of a black pudding. Yet as he wobbles on his rug or staggers about with his Douglas Bader gait, there is something magnificent about his size, like Sidney Greenstreet or the King of Tonga. A cheery soul, he carries the weight well. And without the sling, I am saved a sore neck, the danger that one of his flopping feet will kick me in the testicles and other, subtler pains.

Because like those stickers that say ‘Baby On Board’, a sling on a man seems like a boast. “Look at me!” it says. “Not only am I fertile, I am also a Good Father. I share the load of Parenting in a Sensitive manner and am generally Concerned.” Of course it isn’t usually a boast, just some bloke trying to be helpful. And helpfulness is in demand. My wife and I work from home and share the parenting, so I need to do my bit as a part-time househusband, or Mary-Ann as my Lancastrian parents would say.

Mary-Anning waits for no man: Lawrence is one, his sisters Rosemary and Rachael, three and six. When it’s my wife’s turn to earn the money for nappies, potatoes and Silk Cut Ultra Low (so mild that inhaling is a form of exercise) there are bottoms to wipe, playgrounds to visit and prams to be pushed. But at least there are no slings to be worn.

My first tussle with one came with Rachael. It took only half an hour to turn the straps, pads, harnesses, clips, loops, buckles and press studs into something almost like the drawing in the instructions. And only 15 minutes more to take it off and put it on the right way round. Just 20 minutes later, Rachael was slotted into it. Having checked that she could breathe, that her arms were comfy, that she could breathe, that her legs were through the right holes and that she could breathe, we set off.

So, I thought, this is what it’s like being pregnant. It’s quite easy. A little unbalanced perhaps. There’s a slight worry that you might bash the baby into things if you turn round too quickly. And a feeling that if you fell over backwards, you wouldn’t be able to get up, but nothing too difficult. Before guilt got the better of me, I even found I could tilt my head backwards and have a cigarette, the smoke floating in our wake.

It was fun. Nervous fun (suppose I fell forward, she’d be squashed) but fun. Look, there was a man pushing a pram. Ha! How primitive! More important, how uncaring, abandoning his baby to a cold embrace of nylon, plastic and metal. Would it feel loved and safe? Where was the bonding, the pride? At Cafe Nero, even the black-clad folk perched over their espressos and novels seemed delighted by the sight of Baby and Sling Dad. The effect on the pretty girls behind the counter was remarkable. “Ooo,” they went and “Aaa”. “What a Sensitive, Caring man,” their smiles seemed to say. “Fertile too.”

I spotted other Sling Dads on our travels. One sat in a cafe quaffing cappuccino, a muslin square over the baby’s head to protect it from croissant flakes. Another lounged outside a pub, the muslin over the baby’s head to catch drips from the father’s pint. They were on the Tube, buses, restaurants. Their babies of course were uglier than Rachael, but I was not alone.

That was before my first pain in the neck and the months of trying to avoid flopping feet. There was no sudden revelation, no stranger shouting, “Oi, you with the sling. You look like a git!” Just a creeping feeling that, in a world full of babies, maybe Rachael, the sling and me weren’t that interesting.

Anyway, my wife looked better in it and she’d been pregnant, so she was good at pain. She pottered about the kitchen in the sling, filling bottles. Strode around the shops in it. Beavered at the computer in it. So now, if I want to feel Concerned, I need only smell the odour seeping from Lawrence’s nappy.

13 September 2003

‘Children’ column on autumn, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘He sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose.’

“Urngh!” Lawrence points down at the pavement. His face shows almost incredulous delight, his 18 month old mind stunned by his find: a leaf. He bends down, grasps about and slowly picks it up, then holds his trophy out as we walk. “Urngh!” Again he stops – another leaf. Lawrence grapples it off the wet paving stone and clutches it with the first. Trips to the corner shop are taking a while this Autumn. (Although not as long as when the shopkeeper decided I was Rowan Atkinson, and kept asking for my autograph.)

Lawrence finds the oversized communal garden next to our undersized flat even more exciting. Leaves gusted along the grass have him chuckling in wonder and stamping his feet. He starts to run with them before remembering he can’t really run. The wind tearing at the plane trees makes him laugh as much as his own wind. He ploughs smiling through knee-high drifts of leaves.

Last year he was too swaddled to notice Autumn, so all this is new. When it is too wet to go out, he presses his face against the French windows, watching the show. Or a hand has to be held against his forehead as he bangs it on the floor in rage at being kept from it all.

For his older sisters Rachael and Rosemary, Autumn means bigger puddles to stamp through until their socks are grey, and more fallen branches to trail inside and leave like an art installation over the dining room floor. Autumn brings better mud too. It is easier for them to mould and clings better to the “treasure stones” they dig up with twigs from the garden path. Then there are conkers.

When Rachael was three, we found some lying in ones and twos in a quiet alley behind mansion blocks. Their horseback polish and hedgehog shells seemed incongruous, suggesting cart tracks and copses. Rachael liked their different shapes and colours and how they were snug to hold, fitting neatly into her fist. When Rosemary was old enough, she took to them too. Like everything, conkers became a battlefield for their wills. They may be too young for the vicious miss hits of the game conkers, but conkers supply other grounds for scrapping.

Coming home from school in September, we stopped to pick a fat crop scattered over a back street. While Lawrence sat in his push chair sucking at the drink dispenser that is his runny nose, Rosemary and Rachael scrambled about claiming conkers, boasting to each other. They decorated an old Corn Pops box to keep them in. Rachael painted a tree and a horse on her side. Rosemary, annoyed by her older sister’s skill, went for impact, streaking her side with as many colours as she could. They painted a face on the cream-grey disc of each conker and ranged them neatly along the mantelpiece. “I’ve painted more than Rosemary,” said Rachael.

After supper, with the garden made bigger and spooky by night, they tool up for a Torchlight Walk. Rosemary goes for the sleek silver torch. Rachael favours the hefty black rubber one. I get the pink Tweenie number.

Outside, Rosemary warbles and shivers pretending to be scared. Rachael presses the giddy button and rushes ahead, beam waving wildly. They dance the spotlights up tree trunks and swoop them around the top branches. Black silent bushes and the searching beams make hide and seek more intense. In football they run with their own floodlight. Playing Dizzy (“You spin round and round and the first one to fall over is the loser,” says Rosemary) their beams arc across the trees and lawn. Neighbours peer from windows into the night, wondering what all the fuss is about.

16 November 2003

‘Children’ column on cars, The Independent On Sunday

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!’”

We need a car made from some thick rubber substance. Ground-in, saliva-clogged biscuit bits could be peeled off seats. Sick stains and ‘accidents’ could be hosed down. Spilt juice, crisp grease and the adhesive produced by half-sucked Haribo could be wiped away. Best of all, every few weeks the car could be turned inside out and rapidly shaken over a skip, emptying out shredded comics, furry fruit, grimy stickers, crushed water bottles and all the little rockeries of crumbs.

This detritus doesn’t only look rough. A few years ago I gave a lift to a trendy-booted, childless young account exec and a middle-aged art director. As soon as they got in, the account exec said, “Urgh what’s that smell?” I had no idea what he was talking about. The art director – who has three children – politely mumbled, “You forget the smell that children make.” This was when Georgina and I had only one child.

With three, the smell (presumably) is worse. Certainly just getting into the car is trickier. Rachel and Rosemary lark about, hopping between the front and back, turning the lights on and off. Lawrence is no longer fooled by, “Isn’t it exciting! We’re going to Homebase!” He squawks and punches, torso stiff, as he’s harnessed into his corner throne, the rigid German boots he wears to straighten his rubbery feet kicking inches from your temple.

Rosemary sits next to him, hands folded, not needing toys. The peculiar details of the passing world entertain her enough, that and the pleasure of noting the random, stressy errors in her parents’ speech. “You said Rachel instead of Rosemary.” “You said Saddam instead of supper.” Rachel sits next to the door, playing school or demanding we arbitrate in border disputes.

The car brings them small excitements. For Rosemary there is the glamorous thrill of driving up the ramp onto Sainsbury’s roof-top car park. The tilt of Lawrence’s car seat gives him a better chance to spot and name his beloved flags (“Na-na!”), planes (“Na-na!”) and trees (“Na-na!”). The journey home from Rachel’s school offers a scintillating choice: the nail-biting drama of driving extremely slowly towards red lights so the car never actually stops; or the covert ingenuity of taking switchbacks and obscure roads so we avoid traffic lights altogether.

Excitement disappears on the long motorway trips, North West to my tribal homelands, North to Georgina’s. Unable to speed the journey or map-read our progress, the intense pitch the children live at causes the hours to stretch into a tedium grey enough to make them weep. The car becomes their mobile half-home: cramped playroom, a dining room where they can’t leave the table and an awkward bedroom. They shove and bash each other territorially in sleep.

Travelling by day gives them chance for revenge. As babies, they protested against the sun-glazed boredom by waiting until we were just past the half-way break, then filling their nappies to straining point, challenging you to bear the smell for 100 miles. Once potty-rained, they’d protest by asking for the loo as soon as we got on the motorway.

There is baby rage too. Many hours were lost on one Scottish holiday giving Rachel puppet shows to stop her ranting. Glens and lochs slipped past unnoticed as dolls talking in funny voices were danced along the top of the front passenger seat (although, unlike our niece, our raging children have never struggled from their straps on the motorway, crawled forward and tried to put the handbrake on).

Night travel means they sleep longer at least. The car quietens, traffic thins, sweets can be eaten without trying to hide the fact from them. This is how it is all supposed to be you think: the children peaceful and secure; the parents calmly guiding them onwards. We arrive red-eyed and needing bed. The children wake, refreshed and ready to play.

29 February 2004

The Auschwitz schooltrip, The Daily Telegraph Magazine

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘They enter Auschwitz I, Miss Martin pushing the empty wheelchair over stony ground.’

Tuesday, 8.15 a.m. In a Gatwick departure lounge 35 teenagers wait for flight BA2774 to Krakow. The boys stand around in trainers; the girls sit, legs stretched out in boots. This afternoon they will visit Krakow and the Wieliczka salt mine, then tomorrow, Auschwitz.

In 1991 the Holocaust became part of the GCSE History syllabus; schoolchildren study it from Year 9. It is also often studied as part of religion and citizenship, and for the past two years the government has paid for two pupils per secondary school to visit Auschwitz. The Holocaust Educational Trust runs the visits, for up to 90 pairs of pupils a time.

Sandhurst Comprehensive in Berkshire is different. It organises its own annual Auschwitz trip for as many Year 11, 15 and 16-year-old volunteers as want to go, the culmination of a Holocaust citizenship programme that begins in Year 10. There have been seven trips so far, led by assistant head teacher Sam Hunt, 40.  Last year she was honoured with an Anne Frank Award for her work in schools on behalf of the Holocaust Educational Trust.

Volunteers are rarely turned down. Hunt says, “The most troubled people can get the most out of it.” Apart from its educational and memorial value, the trip promotes the message ‘Don’t be a bystander – stand up to bigotry and bullying’ and acts as a catalyst: in the past, returning pupils have established a school Amnesty International branch, worked with the Jewish disabled charity Norwood Ravenswood, and raised thousands of pounds for the Rwandan genocide survivors charity Surf. Supporting Miss Hunt on this year’s trip are Helen Starr, 29, the Head of Religious Studies, English teacher Kylie Hobbs, 24, Citizenship co-ordinator Vicky Martin, 25, and Martin Surrell, 52, a senior education adviser.

The flight is called. A wheelchair appears for Hollie Ball, which she rejects (as she will for the entire trip). Despite having cerebral palsy, which makes walking difficult, Hollie walks off arm-in-arm with friends. On the flight, magazines and chatter pass between pupils. I ask one, Lana Clarke if she is nervous. “I don’t know what to think,” she says.

There is an overcast sky as Sandhurst’s coach glides through wooded hills towards Krakow. Helena Ellison explains why she has come. “I like to see what has happened in our world to make it how it is,” she says. “Like the power of Hitler. He put the Jews into concentration camps. You can’t treat people like that because of their religion. We are all equal.”

Ben Partner says, “I thought it would be a good experience, knowing what Auschwitz is like.” Is he apprehensive? “Kind of, because it’s, like, a big thing.” Stephen Parkinson is, too. “Loads of people died there. I’ve never done anything like this before.”

“Keep to the pavements, please,” Miss Hunt calls. The pupils are among the peeling pastel walls of Kazimierz, Krakow’s former ghetto, gaining a sense of pre-war Jewish culture: the pillared Torah ark and carved wooden decoration of the Remu’h Synagogue, where the boys tentatively put on yarmulkes (“Settle it on the back where the hair gel isn’t,” Miss Starr advises); Kazimierz’s former hub, Szeroka Street, where pupils study a black memorial stone to the 65,000 local Jews killed in the Second World War.

The group is joined by the Israeli historian Gideon Greif. A leading authority on Auschwitz and a friend of Miss Hunt’s, Greif, 57, is researching in Poland. He will guide the trip, a reassuring presence, outlining in his thoughtful baritone the sweep of the Holocaust and, at Auschwitz, detailing the intimate reality. Miss Hunt gives him a laudatory introduction, and Greif praises her back. “We love her!” one of the children shouts.

At the Wieliczka salt mine, pupils walk through dazzling chapels carved from the rock by miners over centuries. The mine’s tunnels can feel claustrophobic, its stairways vertiginous. Miss Starr takes the hand of the nervous Natalie Cooper. Daniel Banham, towering and stubbled, looks after Catherine Wagland. Ascending in the rattling lift, Natalie hugs Catherine. It sets the pattern for Auschwitz.

The coach approaches the friendly, functional Krakow Novotel. A pupil shouts, “There’s another coach, there might be some hotties! Oh they’re adults. Never mind.” After supper, pupils and teachers meet outside their rooms, the pupils’ bright pyjamas and dressing gowns transforming the formal, brown-carpeted corridor. Miss Hunt reminds them to get a decent sleep and not to watch “dodgy channels”. Small cards are handed out bearing the words of the Anne Frank Declaration. They are for the following day, which, Miss Hunt warns, will be draining.

Wednesday, 9.35 a.m.  The coach heads west from Krakow through undulating, hedgeless fields to Oswiecim, the town Germans called Auschwitz. At an avenue of high trees Miss Hunt stands, facing the pupils. “You are going to visit the site where an estimated one and a half million people were murdered. I want you to think, ‘What does it mean to me as an individual, and how I behave towards other human beings?’ We will be with you throughout, we are not going to leave you.”

She announces the itinerary: in the morning, Auschwitz I, the site of slave labour barracks and the camp’s first gas chamber; in the afternoon, Auschwitz II (Birkenau), opened in 1942 to house slave labourers and vast gas chambers; in the evening, Oswiecim Youth Meeting Centre.

As they see the orderly brick barracks of Auschwitz I from the coach, the students quieten. Parties of Euro youth crowd the 1950s reception building. Sandhurst’s teachers marshal their pupils through the melee and out. There, fifty yards on, is the Auschwitz gate, its mocking sign, Albrict Mach Frei (Work makes you free).

Gideon Greif puts his hands together as if praying. He emphasises that not only Jews were killed here but mentions that, as a Jew, “The fact that I am standing here is a mistake of the Germans.” No one laughs. “Now we shall proceed.” They enter Auschwitz I, Miss Martin pushing the empty wheelchair over stony ground.

The wide, long barrack rooms that housed slave labourers now hold Holocaust exhibits. Greif describes how trainloads of Jews were selected on arrival for either gassing (“around 75 per cent”), slave labour or – particularly in the case of twins – for experiments. Twins Melissa and Georgia Laurie are at the front, attentive. The pupils still stand with teenage languor but their faces have changed. Stephen looks at a picture of children being led to the gas chambers with melancholy eyes.

Greif leads the group from barrack to barrack to look at simple displays of devastating intensity. The whole side of one room is a glass cabinet of human hair banked in grey clouds. Hollie, Hannah Oakford and Miss Martin quietly begin to cry. Throughout the day, whenever someone cries, someone else comforts them. Behind the crowd, Sam Wade walks slowly up and down, head lowered, only glancing sideways at the hair.

The displays continue: a mound of spectacles like wire wool; a room of tangled crutches and false limbs; a massive cabinet piled with suitcases, their owners’ names diligently scripted on. In a corridor between tumbled mountains of shoes, Miss Hunt holds a weeping girl. In a room detailing experiments, by a display of baby clothes – a white pinafore with stitched flowers, a sturdy pair of first shoes – Holly Jervis sobs, hand to her mouth. The pupils emerge into daylight, stunned.

Greif points out the villa where the camp commandant Rudolf Hoess lived with his wife and children. Two hundred feet beyond is Auschwitz’s first gas chamber. It is squat, faced in grey cement, with a stubby chimney. The pupils file in, staying close. The chamber is cramped, industrial, the walls dark and ceiling low. In the next room are waist-high, open-mouthed ovens for burning the dead.

Walking towards the coach, I ask Sam Wade why he wouldn’t look at the displays. “I just wanted to pray,” he says. “I’m a Christian so I went to the back and prayed. I prayed that the families could almost forgive the Germans.” Pupils file past towering weeping willows. Ian Roper sits on a kerb. He looks shattered. What he has seen is “too hard to put into words”.

At Birkenau there is no reception area, just the original long gatehouse with one arch for vehicles, one for trains. A barbed-wire fence more than a mile long runs across the front of the camp. There is an indelible stillness.

Up in the gatehouse, the children look across the plain of Birkenau in late-afternoon sun: acre upon acre of slave labourers’ huts, vast barbed-wire enclosures where stood yet more huts and, beyond, the birch trees that gave Birkenau its name, where the gas chambers stood.

Miss Hunt lays flowers on the railway tracks and, although a Christian, silently says Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer for the dead. Greif leads the pupils to a wooden hut. Along the sides are densely ranked wooden bunks, wide enough for two people but which held five or six; down the middle is a low concrete latrine with 67 holes. “There was no privacy, no water to clean yourself,” Greif explains. “Some work squads could only go once every 10 days.” The girls look sick.

It is growing cold, and the sun is beginning to set. The pupils walk alongside the railway track and reach ‘the ramp’, halfway between the distant gatehouse and birches. “This is the exact place where the selection took place,” Greif says. They turn and peer about, trying to take it in, then walk towards the birches.

In late 1944, the SS blew up Birkenau’s gas chambers to try and hide their crimes from the advancing Soviet Army. The pupils gather at the remnants of Gas Chamber Three, now a long brick-lined trench with steps down. A question for Greif comes from the twilight: “How many people could get in?” “Over 2,000 in the gas chamber, it was 50m long,” he replies. “There were railings here to help old people get down.”

Kelsey Palmer and Melissa, one of the Laurie twins, walk through the birches. Melissa speaks quietly, with great expression, “Very emotional to see life being taken away. And the German Nazis trying to take away their traditions was very sad. And the experiments I found unbearable to learn about.”

The group reaches ‘the sauna’, where slave labourers were processed. Each pupil chooses someone from a display of family photographs of Holocaust victims and lights a candle in their memory. They sign a visitors book (‘You will never be forgotten. Ian, England’).

When night falls the pupils’ torches light their way back through the birches to the far side of Gas Chamber Two, while the teachers prepare a remembrance ceremony. Chamber Two is now slabs of buckled, fractured concrete above the basement pit. Melissa stands, floods the Chamber with the silver light of her camera flash, and moves on. An inscription stone reads: ‘To the memory of the men, women and children who fell here in the Nazi Holocaust. Here lie their ashes. May they rest in peace.’

The teachers and Greif stand, their backs to Chamber Two. The pupils sit facing them. A train whistles in the night. The teachers give readings on the themes of remembrance, belief, hope, and unity against evil. Greif finishes with a Jewish prayer for Holocaust victims that ends, “May they rest in peace and let us say, amen.”

Miss Hunt begins the Anne Frank Declaration: “Because prejudice and hatred harm us all, I declare that I will stand up for what is right…” – some pupils join in, others search for their cards with torches – “… and speak out against what is unfair and wrong. I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves.” All are now making the declaration. “I will strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference, in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life.”

The pupils light candles, then walk silently along the dark railway track to the gatehouse. On the coach, Georgia Laurie talks about the almost symbolic figures she chose from the sauna photographs: “I think they were brother and sister. There are a series of pictures of them as babies, as toddlers, as children, growing up at different events like birthday parties, the park. It was a perfectly ordinary child’s life and all of the men and women and children killed at Auschwitz, they all went through that childhood.”

The pupils need a treat. Miss Hunt announces, “It’s been a privilege and I’d like to thank you for the sensitivity you have shown.” Pause. “How would you fancy a stop in Lidl?” There are whoops and applause. The pupils hurry from the coach to the bright lights of the shop. “Get out of the alcohol aisle!” Miss Hobbs shouts. Danielle Mercieca puts a bag of Teddy’s Hit biscuits on the checkout. “They are still children, but they want to be old,” observes Miss Starr, stationed firmly by the cigarettes.

The International Youth Meeting Centre in Oswiecim was set up in 1986 as a forum for education and reconciliation. It is a relaxed place of high-beamed ceilings and tiled floors. Between mouthfuls of rich soup, the pupils fill the dining hall with noise.

After supper, I talk to Hollie Ball about the trip. Why she won’t use the wheelchair? She speaks quickly, emphatically. “Everyone else had to walk, so I thought I should. I’m an individual but with a wheelchair, equal to everyone else. If I wasn’t here with my friends I would have to use my wheelchair. They support me. They realise without asking me.”

How hard had Auschwitz been, given the Nazis’ treatment of disabled people? “That’s the most difficult part of it, to accept that,” Hollie says. “Mr Greif said they used to have to crawl, without their legs. I’m not that disabled really but I wouldn’t want – they wouldn’t want – to be seen differently. And yet they were.”

In the hectic meeting hall, I talk to some of the boys. What affected them most? For Ben it was the barbed wire: “That was quite traumatic because once in, they knew they were stuck.”

“All the shoes – when you see the possessions it makes it more personal, you see the names on the bags” says Ross Pollendine.

Stephen’s eyes widen in emphasis: “The suitcases,” he says, “they labelled them so carefully, because the Nazis told them they’d get them back. It was mean, tricking them.”

Tom Tyson says quietly, “It was quite disgusting, the colour of the hair, because it makes you realise how old some of them were.”

An expertly raw Jewish folk band ends the evening with music that swoops between melancholy and joy.

Back at the Novotel, Cristal Cole and Linda Gabriel talk over the day in the calm lobby. “I feel quite privileged to have seen it,” Linda says. “We can tell everyone how horrible it is.” Could Auschwitz ever be forgiven, I ask. “I don’t think so,” she says slowly. “The people involved, like the commandant, they lived there and saw it every day”, says Cristal. “They had their kids there,” says Linda.

Thursday, 8.30 a.m. As the pupils check out of the hotel, Greif, looking drained, leans against the reception desk. What does he try to achieve as a guide? “To get not sympathy but empathy, for the suffering of the Jews. Not only the murder. The humiliation, the soul suffering. To make them understand.” Most of his family escaped Europe before the war, but not all. “In 1943 my great-aunt was deported to Auschwitz and murdered.”

The pupils stand in the lobby, bags piled up, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to Farnaz Ladani, 16 today. Miss Hunt says some last words: “I’m getting old now, I know, it doesn’t look it, but you are the new generation. I would ask you to make an active contribution to the world, to make it the one you want to live in. Be the change that you want to see in the world. Thank you for coming on this visit.”

22 January 2009

How HMP Edinburgh sweetens porridge, The FT Weekend

Posted on February 25, 2011 by adminLeave a comment

‘Krol, 45, is stocky, with watchful eyes, shaven head and thick, strong hands. “I do the anti-bullying presentation.’”

The prisoner reception area of HMP Edinburgh has cream walls and a grey linoleum floor. Here, in rooms leading off a corridor to the inner prison door, prisoners are searched, processed and change into prison clothes.

Prison Officer Stuart Wright, 44, stands in the corridor, thick-set and amiable, a faded Saltire tattoo on his wide right forearm, and on his immaculate black tie a red enamelled Butler Trust badge.

The Trust was established in 1985, in memory of the reforming Home Secretary ‘Rab’ Butler (1957-62) to promote positive regimes in UK prisons. Its annual awards mark exceptional work by prison staff and volunteers. The badge is Wright’s third award, and his second for the new inmate induction course he has run at Edinburgh since 2003.

Wright is helped by ‘peer supporters’ – long-term inmates such as Jack Walker. A 58-year-old with swept-back hair and a cultured, confident manner, Walker ‘meets and greets’ prisoners.

“We were the first establishment in Scotland to have a peer supporter in reception,” says Wright, speaking in an office off the corridor. “There’d never been an individual who pulls you aside, goes ‘Look, it’s not all bad.’ ”

Walker says, “If you have a group of YOs [young offenders] coming through, trying to control them can be quite difficult. They’ve been in court all day so they are bored, hyper. They want to prove they are number-one guys. You’ve got to somehow get their attention. And the ones holding back, you’ve got to look out for them.”

Wright says, nodding towards the quietly whistling Walker, “They’re more inclined to listen to these guys because they are fellow prisoners.”

The five-day course itself starts on Monday mornings. Different intakes have different temperaments. “I don’t know what I’m going into,” says Wright. “But I have the peer supporters with me. I’ll give the [new inmates] a run-down of the programme. Cup of tea, bit of banter, then get down to the work.” That includes presentations on the prison’s approach to bullying, racism and skills training, but the course also tries to make arrivals reassess their lives.

“I’ll say to individuals,” says Wright, “ ‘Why do you take drugs?’ ‘I’m bored.’ ‘Why’re you bored?’ ‘Cause I don’t work.’ ‘Why don’t you work?’ ‘Got no skills.’ ‘OK, if we can furnish you with skills, when you go into the big wide world, you’re more employable, you get a job, you’re not going to be bored.’”

“We’re saying to them,” says Walker, “ ‘If you don’t help yourself, where are you going to be? You’ll be back in here.’ ”

We head for the course, walking between modern, three-storey ‘halls’ (cell wings) with pitched roofs like giant semis. The empty Pentland Hills shine beyond razor-wired fences.

Outside the course room, a poster shows a clock inscribed with ‘Doing time? Time for a change?’ Inside, walls are covered in noticeboards (‘The Journey’, ‘Weekly News’), posters (‘Bullies Come In All Colours’) and encouragement (‘Unlock A Positive Future’). The sun shines in through white, angled floor-to-ceiling bars. Fourteen young inmates in prison sweatshirts and polo shirts sit or lounge around a horseshoe of tables.

Wright sits to one side. Prison Officer Anne Gibb sits at the front, across from Charlie Woolard, a tall, thin, young peer supporter. Gibb, blonde and in her early 40s, talks about alcohol, how it can mess up lives, the programmes that can help. She asks how many have drink problems. Half a dozen arms creep up. Gibb is friendly but firm, stirring day-dreamers with “Hello-oh?”

As Wright had said, the inmates listen up when Walker gives his presentation, with managerial ease, on punishment. He gets them to talk about tagging and bail. Walker asks, “Should the victim of an offence be offered the opportunity of confronting the offender?” There is a guilty, thoughtful pause. “What, for a fight?”, jokes an inmate. Wright: “Behave yourself.”

Afterwards, new inmates give me their views on the course: “It reminds you what is available”; “better than the last one I was at [at another prison]”; “you’ll at least have a head-start when you walk out of here.” A lean, black-haired inmate dissents. “It can work for some people, say they’ve got the motive, they’ve got roots. Nothing would work for me.”

Wright, fatherly, pulls his chair next to him and says, “The problem is, the gentleman concerned is good enough but needs support.” Wright looks at him. “We’ve got to keep chipping away. He’s just a young man.” The prisoner shrugs, nods. Another adds, “It’s not going to do harm, is it?”

The course over for the day, I talk to Charlie Woolard and another peer supporter, Gordon Krol. Krol, 45, is stocky, with watchful eyes, shaven head and thick, strong hands. “I do the anti-bullying presentation. A lot of kids come in here petrified, but you can relax them, make sure they know the situation. When I’ve done the presentation, you see a big change in the guys’ faces.”

Peer supporters’ work goes beyond the course. “We pick up on guys who are very depressed in the hall,” says Krol. “We have a blather with them. If they’re suicidal, they’re not going to say it to the officers. But we will.”

It is rewarding work. “It makes me feel I’m doing some good here,” says Woolard. “I’m the same as them; I’m a prisoner but if someone needs help, I’ll try and sort it out.”

Wright is not naive. He says, “You get people who want to be peer supporters but they have an ulterior motive. If people want to do it, I’ll follow them for about a month, let them settle in, see what they’ve been up to.”

It was peer supporters who nominated Wright for the recent award. But perhaps his most impressive testament is this: since the course started, five peer supporters, including Walker, have turned down places at open prisons. They stayed on, to help the new arrivals.

17 August 2007

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