Hi…Hi…HIFA!

 

Last week was the social highlight of Harare’s year, with the Harare International Festival of Art (HIFA, in other words).  For any Scots out there, think Edinburgh fringe set in St Andrews.  For anyone else, read on…

HIFA is literally what the name says it is – 1 week celebrating every form of art from all around the world, in shows from 11am to 11pm, mixing the best of African and International artists.  Music, dance, theatre, comedy, craft stalls, circus tricks, and everything in between – I ended up seeing more music shows than anything else, but it was still a very eclectic mix.  The opening night showcased the biggest names in African music, including Oliver Mtukudzi, who is Zimbabwe’s most renowned and internationally recognised musician with a following across the continent; I then ended up at a jazz and blues show, a classical concert performed by an orchestra from South Africa, and an a cappella performance by a group from Tennessee covering Beatles songs (in the middle of Africa – it was as surreal as it sounds, but a great show for all that!).

Over the years, HIFA has become an annual event, avidly looked forward to by Zimbabweans and expats alike, and its importance far exceeds the artistic output.  HIFA has become for Zimbabweans an expression of something really positive in the midst of a country that has its fair share of trouble, a chance to showcase Zimbabwe’s best and attract positive international interest and engagement.  In 2016, however, HIFA was cancelled, and for the intervening months, rumour after rumour swirled around as to whether HIFA 2017 would go ahead, and what that meant for future years.  If the rumour mill is correct (and it usually is, in Harare – everyone knows everyone, so it’s hard to hide anything!), then this year’s event was touch and go for a long time, run on a shoestring with ‘staff’ working unpaid as volunteers for months to keep it going, but it was without a doubt a success in the end, and show after show promised to return for HIFA 2018.

I hope it does return next year, even if I won’t be here to see it again.  In some ways, HIFA highlights the inequality in Zimbabwe – the shows aren’t expensive at all, but even at $8-$10 a ticket, they remain out of reach of the poorer strata of Harare society, let alone those in rural areas.  Time and again, you run into people you know at one show after another- because those who can afford tickets are a much smaller group than the 14 million strong population of Zimbabwe.  But despite this, HIFA showcases the best of Zimbabwean culture, African culture, and international culture, in a fun, family-friendly, safe and cosmopolitan atmosphere; and in a world where so many nations are turning inward, HIFA was deliberately outward looking.  The theme was ‘Africa rising’ – born out of economic growth, the catchphrase now comes to sum up a much wider movement; a notion of pan-African solidarity; of Africa rising to take its place in the world; of Africa embracing the values of good governance, justice, democracy that the West (temporarily?) turned its back on last year.  Undoubtedly, Africa has a long way to go still in achieving those ideals, let alone championing them, and nowhere is that more true than in Zimbabwe; but HIFA 2017 embodied and voiced an eminently positive message of how much Africa does have to offer, besides being a celebration of culture.

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

One month in: impressions of Zimbabwe

This would perhaps more accurately be titled ‘Impressions of Harare’, as I have only been out of the capital a couple of times, and because I have been told far too many times that Harare is a bubble.  I suspect there is a fair amount of truth in that, because so far, my impression of Zimbabwe is not really matching general expectations.

My sense is that the general impression of Zimbabwe outside of Africa (and possibly within it) is that of a bit of a basket case of a country; a country that is pretty unsafe, with a lot of political violence; where gangs of thugs roam around appropriating farms; and where the economy has crashed and burnt with massive hyper-inflation.  Add to that a general sense that its a sub-Saharan African country and therefore must of course be poverty-stricken and undeveloped.

In one sense, that isn’t an unjustified view.  Zimbabwe definitely does have significant poverty; there is a history of political violence, generally around election times; farms were taken over and run to ruin by gangs of thugs.  The economy did crash and burn in the second-highest period of hyper-inflation the world has ever seen (no, I have not yet seen a $100 trillion bill, the largest bank note ever printed, but I did see a $50 billion one the other day – selling for $7 in the local market, which makes it worth considerably more now  as a souvenir than its purchasing power when it was printed!), and the current state isn’t that much better – Zimbabwe has effectively 4 currencies at the moment, only one of which is a real currency (the US$).  Add in the fact that that one is rapidly running out, that two of the others are ever-increasing supplies of monopoly money and the fourth doesn’t exist outside of a computer screen, and it starts to become obvious why if you want to study creative accounting, you should come here.

But in another sense, it massively under-values Zimbabwe.  Despite the history of political violence, Zimbabweans are an incredibly peaceful people, who just get on with things and find a way round the trouble.  It comes across as one of the safest and most welcoming places I’ve ever been.  Despite the poverty, the people here are generally educated, skilled and happy to speak out – even about politics.  Despite the economic turmoil, currently you can buy just about everything here you can anywhere else in the developed world – there’s certainly far fewer food items that I can’t find here than there were in Turkey.  Zimbabwe is almost the only place outside of the UK that I have ever been able to find mincemeat (the exception is New Zealand, where rather than two whole shelves of it in the supermarket (the case here), I went round every supermarket in Dunedin trying to explain to increasingly bemused shop assistants what I was looking for before I finally got one who said ‘Oh, you mean Old English Fruit Mince’.  Try saying ‘I’m looking for mincemeat, that’s not minced meat but mincemeat, which isn’t meat at all but is mincemeat not minced meat’ out loud and you’ll see why I had issues).  Despite the bad reputation and press, there are so many things to see and do here, both as a tourist and as someone living here.

So far, most of my experience has been the latter.  Someone once told me that when moving abroad, the most important thing is just to say ‘yes’ to everything, regardless of whether you feel like it or not, because then people remember to keep you on the invite list for the future.  Wise advice, for all it has sometimes meant I ended up doing things I never thought I would.  Take last Saturday, when the afternoon’s activity consisted of lawn bowls – and yes, it was alongside 4 other lanes of people all 3 times our age and 5 times better at lawn bowls than us.  But it actually ended up being a huge amount of fun, and a lovely relaxed, sunny afternoon.  I’ve also ended up climbing at a local quarry several times, learnt to cook Shona food (local Zimbabwean cuisine.  Whether I have retained what I learnt is another thing entirely), been on ambles round various traditional markets, ended up at a thoroughly international ‘taste the nations’ evening (think speed-eating rather than speed-dating, with about 50 different dishes), and spent an afternoon talking to local sculptors on a craft estate.  Most of which would probably be considered much more of a ‘normal’ lifestyle than might be expected to fit in with the bad rep Zimbabwe has!

Perhaps that is more typical of Harare than Zimbabwe as a whole, but my ventures far outside Harare have been limited so far, and fairly atypical.  More to follow…

(…so atypical I’m sorely tempted to offer a flight ticket out to visit to anyone who can correctly guess first time where my first proper ventures outside of Harare were to…)

 

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Heading south: Harare beckons

Clearly my New Year’s resolution last year held up for a thoroughly long time!  Let’s see if I can do better this year.  In time, I shall try and update this with a summary of all the travels I did across the Middle East and the Balkans last year, but for now, I’m heading a bit further south – to sub-Saharan Africa and Zimbabwe in particular.

Having arrived out here on Monday, my first impressions of Zimbabwe and Harare are that it is laid-back, green and very wet.  Arriving in the middle of the rainy season, I wasn’t expecting it to be dry – but nor was I quite expecting 6 days straight when it simply didn’t stop raining.  Bar 3 hours yesterday, when I managed to get out of Harare for a walk in nearby Ngomo Kurira, it has literally rained ever since I arrived.  Chatting to someone this morning who has lived in Harare all his life, he said the last time he could remember rain like this was in 1972.

On the plus side, the rain is desperately needed after several years of drought, and it is a good thing for agriculture.  On the negative, this level of rain is (literally) wreaking havoc with the roads, which are visibly deteriorating day by day.  It is no longer a case of trying to avoid potholes when driving; it is just a case of go straight over them and hope the suspension holds out (which it often does not, as is evidenced by the number of abandoned cars littering the roads…).

A bigger plus however is how green everything is.  After living in some of the biggest and most urban cities in the world, coming to a city where barely a single building is over two stories and everywhere has gardens is a lovely change.  Add to that the fact that all the gardens and the surrounding countryside are in full bloom, and it is easy to understand how fertile the land is here.  No wonder Zimbabwe was once able to be the bread basket of Africa.

The atmosphere out here is also so different.  Despite the challenges Zimbabwe faces politically and economically, everyone smiles widely at everything, and there is none of the hectic rushing around that characterises so many big cities.  Several people have told me that in Zimbabwe, you gain time and you gain space, and I can already see why.  In one sense, horizons in Zimbabwe are narrower, with opportunities much more limited here than in many countries; but physically, they seem much wider.  The rolling hills visible from Ngomo Kurira seem to stretch on endlessly, and the rock carvings hidden at the base of the cliff just scratch the surface of the culture and history that underlies modern-day Zimbabwe.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Istanbul in the New Year

So, 4 years on, and I’ve decided to re-start this blog.  Perhaps because I am once again living abroad; perhaps because the title, ‘ramblings of an itinerant’ once again seems apt (and I shall leave it to your judgement whether ‘ramblings’ refers to travels, words, or both!); perhaps just in a vain attempt to actually fulfil a New Year’s Resolution for once!

Istanbul is a fascinating city to live in; you come to expect the unexpected.  There is always something different around another corner; no one day is ever quite the same.  Walking home today, and my usual grey concrete commute between the construction site on one side and the double-laned, double-layered flyover on the other was brightened up by a whole host of colourful classic cars parked along the road – complete with the usual mix of inhabitants, from the virtually empty ones through to the ones packed with the kitchen sink and the giant teddy bear tied on the roof (no joke!).

Certainly Brits, and I assume some other nationalities as well, tend to have a view of Turkey as perpetually sunny and warm.  Not true, so let me disabuse you of that notion right now.  I’ve seen more snow in the last 3 weeks in Turkey than I have in the last 3 years in the UK.  And the public transport network copes much better with it here as well…  But the weather can still change just as much as in the UK – ice, snow and -10 at the start of the week, and now sunny and warm enough to walk around without a coat by the end of the week.  Long may it last, although I suspect we may not be done with the snow for the year just yet…

There are hidden treasures in unexpected places inside as well.  Yesterday I went to the Panoramic 1453 museum, and to Chora Church (alternatively known as the Kariye museum).  The Panoramic museum takes you along a fairly standard one-way system around the museum, with some rather random and slightly-irrelevant pictures on the walls (apparently they had some meaning and purpose, but despite the helpful English text below, I couldn’t really see the connection between the picture and the text on many occasions!), until you come to a black-walled spiral staircase up.  Progress up it, and it opens out into a huge dome, entirely painted with an amazing mural of the battle for Constantinople and the moment the Ottomans broke through the walls, which completely encircles you.  Look out at the mural and not behind you to the staircase, and the lifelike, detailed painting ensures it takes very little imagination at all to picture oneself actually there; to want to duck out of the way of the Greek fire cannonballs; to want to dodge to one side to avoid the oncoming cavalry.  The museum is worth visiting for this mural alone – which is perhaps a good thing, as the text and prints adorning the rest of the museum are not that impressive.  For an exercise in historiography and the extent to which the perspective of the author influences it though, they are fascinating – snippets included “The Christian people that were sick and tired of the tyranny of their autocratic rulers preferred the Ottoman dominance” and “Unlike many other wor[l]d conqueror, he [Mehmet the Conqueror] was capable and wilful for planning and constructing a great civilisation.  Conquest did not mean seizing the city, it also meant revival.  Upon the conquest, the magnificent lustre of Rome, once disappeared, was rejuvenated in radiance.”  Neither of these quite correlates with the Western view of the fall of Constantinople as one of the greatest tragedies of medieval Europe; nor is the talk of revival and the preference of the Christians for Ottoman rulers quite what I would have expected them to think given the number of churches that were turned into mosques over the course of the next century.

One of those churches is the Chora Church, although in Chora, the treasures inside it survived in much better condition than in many similar churches.  Chora contains some of the best preserved mosaics in Turkey, and they are truly stunning,  Stupidly, I’d left my camera behind, so the photos here are all taken with a rather sub-standard phone camera, but I shall definitely go back!  The mosaics tell the story of much of the Bible, including the infancy narratives of Christ and many of the gospel stories of his miracles, but also Catholic traditions around Mary, and are beautifully executed and presented, covering the ceilings and much of the walls of the church.  Those without mosaics are covered in equally impressive frescos, and the whole effect is a stunning little gem, and well worth the detour out of the usual tourist hotspot of Sultanahmet.

My lovely commute...

My lovely commute…

In Chora Church

In Chora Church

Frescos in Chora Church

Frescos in Chora Church

The Resurrection fresco - also known as 'the Harrowing of Hell' - Jesus pulls Adam and Eve from their graves while trampling Satan and the gates of hell underfoot

The Resurrection fresco – also known as ‘the Harrowing of Hell’ – Jesus pulls Adam and Eve from their graves while trampling Satan and the gates of hell underfoot

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mosaics in Chora Church

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Mural of the fall of Constantinople

Snow in Istanbul...

Snow in Istanbul…

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

San Francisco

One of the (many) lovely things about travelling is that every so often, you get unexpected bonuses.  I came back to California to stay with my Nepali family in the Bay area, but without even remotely planning it – I didn’t find out until I was already here – I managed to land myself in the Bay area over the weekend in which the Golden Gate Bridge celebrated its 75th anniversary.  Consequently, there were a lot of related events going on in San Francisco, culminating in a glorious firework display over and off the bridge itself that Shilu, Alok and I went to.

I’ve been to San Francisco before, although it wasn’t until my third attempt that I finally managed to see the Golden Gate Bridge – it has a rather unfortunate tendency to be shrouded in fog.  I’ve now been to the bridge a total of 5 times I think, and seen it on 3 occasions – once I got it fog free, I’ve been lucky ever since, and that was definitely appreciated as far as the fireworks went!  They were spectacular – huge displays from the far side of the bridge, off the two towers of the bridge, and then it opened and closed with curtains of golden and then coloured rain streaming off the length of the bridge and forming a river that flowed into the water below.  Quite the most impressive location in which I’ve seen a firework display!  It was also a real festival atmosphere – you had to claim a spot and then stake it out to get a good view – thankfully we found one, stood on some tussocks to one side of the path!  But with literally thousands and thousands of people around, claiming your spot was very necessary.  I was also very thankful that I have become such an expert at planning and negotiating public transport – every bus we took was packed tighter than sardines in a tin, but at least we got on one every time, which was more than most people managed.  When 50,000 people try and get on a bus that takes maybe 60-70 at most, the odds aren’t that great!

I did make it to a number of new places in San Francisco as well as the sights that I have seen before.  The view from the Twin Peaks at night was awesome, right out across San Francisco and then the Bay itself to the towns on the other side, all lit up from the city lights and looking picturesque.  Unfortunately, it was also blowing a howling gale (San Francisco is windy at the best of times, and when you are stood on top of the highest point in the city, which is devoid of both tall vegetation or buildings, that does not qualify as the best of times) and pretty chilly (again, San Francisco is renowned more for its fog than its tropical climate – it is perfectly normal for the temperature in San Francisco to be 30-40F degrees lower than those of the surrounding towns only 5-10 miles away), so I was shivering far too hard to succeed in taking any non-blurry photographs!

I had much better luck at the Palace of Fine Arts, which is a beautiful spot.  Originally built to house the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in 1915 which displayed over 5000 pieces of artwork, the architect had a brainwave and realised that in California, to be an architectural wonder, a building simply had to compliment the vegetation which will grow so easily and verdantly in the area.  The end result was the Palace of Fine Arts, a ‘building’ that was intended to resemble a Roman ruin and which perfectly sets off and is highlighted by all the landscaping that went alongside it.  It is a world away from the busy townhouses of San Francisco’s hilly urban districts, even though it sits right next to them, and has an almost ethereal feeling, especially when viewed, as we did, in the twilight.  It is also extremely photogenic, as shown in its prominence in a number of movies – I happened to recognise it from ‘The Bachelor’, but it has been used as the backdrop for a multitude of scenes in other movies as well.

Alongside the views, scenery and festivals I also saw a more cultural (and historical!) side to San Francisco and the Bay area.  We tried to visit the Mission San Francisco de Assisi in the Mission District, but were too late to enter inside.  We did still get a chance to admire the mission building – the oldest building in San Francisco – from the outside, along with its newer basilica next door, but getting inside another mission had to wait until we were back in Fremont, in the south of the Bay area, where Shilu and I went to see the Mission San Jose.

Ultimately, the chain of missions that stretches up the Californian coast was intended as a tool of Spanish colonisation – for the government, they had a political purpose in staking a claim to the land and so helping stave off perceived Russian and British threats; for the Franciscan monks, they provided bases from which to evangelise and ‘civilise’ the Indians; and in the 18th Century, religion and politics was inextricably linked in the Spanish mindset.  Given that poor European sanitation practices and unsustainable uses of the land destroyed the Indian culture that had happily coexisted with nature for centuries before that, not to mention the havoc that European diseases wreaked on the Indian population, the claim that they brought ‘civilisation’ is hard to agree with.  Indian resistance to Spanish conquest and unrest at the missions is well-documented.  On the other hand, many Indians were also curious to learn from these new men, to understand their new technologies and strange habits, appreciative of the new consumerables that trading with the Spanish brought them, and as the large numbers of inhabitants shows (nearly 2000 were living at Mission San Jose by 1830, just over 30 years after its beginning in 1797), many did choose to become a part of mission life.  In part, that was forced by the devastation of their traditional villages which left them little choice, but equally, as the informative little museum at Mission San Jose makes clear, many did genuinely choose to believe in the religion the missionaries introduced to them, and came to make a new way of life in the mission.

At Mission San Jose, one important influence in this choice was music, which perhaps explains why the Spanish-Indian relations at Mission San Jose were more cordial than and harmonious than at many of the missions.  An intrinsic part of both Spanish and Indian cultures, and it was the Spanish music as much as the trading opportunities and simple curiosity that drew the Ohlone Indians to the mission.  For the Franciscans, the Indians love of music and dancing, something one priest described as ‘visible prayers’, was something that they could easily incorporate into religious services which already had significant worship elements, and this overlap led to the Ohlone musicians becoming very well-known and respected.  It was also indicative of the cultural importance of the missions: beyond being religious centres, they were also cultural, social and political ones.  Mission San Jose included barracks and a guard house, farms, ranches, workshops, craft studios, several mills, a soap factory and a tannery, and became one of the most successful and prosperous missions in California.  Named in honour of Saint Joseph, it predates the town of the same name (hence its location in Fremont rather than San Jose) and was the 14th of the 21 missions the Spanish set up.

Going round the mission in Fremont was fascinating both for the insight into life there that the museum gives, but also because many of the artifacts they displayed from the time were ones that Shilu recognised from Nepal.  Half a world and 200 years apart, and yet the similarities were remarkable.  She has commented before that things, movements, beliefs, etc that I describe as coming from history, she thinks of as in the present – but it is one thing to discuss it, and another to see it.  Where have I ever used a pestle and mortar outside of a chemistry lab?  I haven’t.  When have I either done or seen ploughing harnesses being put around the neck of a horse?  Outside of the movies, I haven’t.  And yet the vestments, statues, the organ, even gravestones in the cemetery – they were all normal to me, whereas to Shilu, who couldn’t remember if she had ever been inside a church before, they were totally foreign.

The mission in San Francisco I found out much less about, but I still got a decent experience of the area around it – known as Mission District – by walking around.  It retains a distinctly Latino flavour, and the early Spanish influence is evident throughout, from the tail end of the Mexican carnival which I caught through to the craft stalls that line the pavement and the street art that adorns many of the walls and buildings.  The area is renowned for its murals, in fact, and in particular one little street called Balmy Alley, which has 6ft high – or more – murals the entire length of the alley, on both sides.

Balmy Alley is fascinating both for the variety of the paintings it displays and for the messages they portray.  The art includes art deco, landscape, religious, portrait, new age, and numerous other styles; the messages are deep and profound, the paintings demonstrating an awareness of social injustice and making a protest that should not be ignored.  One painting was the artist’s tribute to his mother who had died of AIDS and a cry to do something about the disease.  Another told the story of a woman from El Salvador who had fled the fighting there, yet found life in California just as difficult because of the distance from home, family, country, and especially the young son she had left behind.  Even as we walked down it, another group of people were busy painting a new mural depicting the social effects of the financial crisis as ordinary people lost their homes.

My personal favourite was one which showed a group of people each with one fist raised in a demand for justice, even as two larger figures stood at either side of the painting, one with a hand upraised and open from which a chain had just fallen, and the other with the chain still clasped in his hand as he tore it away.  The chain was broken in the centre by a bunch of peace lilies, and a third shadowy figure stood beside the one who still held the chain, her head in hands in sorrow at the cost that the war had imposed on the people.  The backdrop of the scene was a mountain range and beautiful scenery, and the clothing was also recognisable to Shilu, Alok and I: the people in the painting were Nepalese, the demand for justice is still being cried out, and the broken chains represent the peace that has come with the end of the civil war in 2006, but a peace that is still fragile, that could still fall apart, as the remaining presence of the chain in the painting suggests.  The crying woman represents the sorrow that is throughout the countryside after the death of over 13,000 people since 1996.  A country blessed with a beautiful landscape and beautiful people; but a country torn apart by the sufferings of war.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Flights of Fancy

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings.
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of: wheeled and soared and swung.
High in the sunlit silence hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious burning blue,
I’ve topped the windswept heights with easy grace,
Where never lark or even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.”

John Gillespie Magee Jr’s poem ‘High Flight’ is inscribed on the back of the memorial to the astronauts of the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger in Arlington, but I think it probably aptly describes how many of the personalities whose stories are told in the Air and Space Museum must have felt.  Barely 60 years separated man first flying from the landing on the moon; less than a lifetime, and yet a change out of all proportion.  To alter a particularly relevant quote, it was one small blink for man, yet one giant reach for mankind, and seeing the planes and space equipment on show at the museum brings it home.

For much of history, man has been interested in the idea of flight – simply looking at Greek myths such as that of Icarus, who flew so close to the sun that the beeswax holding the feathers on his wings together melted, causing him to fall, is enough to illustrate that.  But except for Leonardo Da Vinci, whose work was largely lost until very recently, few serious attempts to get man in the air were made until the 1800s.  Not until Sir George Cayley put together systems for lift, propulsion and control did anyone apply scientific methods to the conception of flight, and following this, various experiments – with varying degrees of success – were made with man-carrying gliders in the latter 1800s.

Onto the scene in the late 1890s came two brothers whose names are now familiar throughout the world: Wilbur and Orville Wright.  Wilbur was the steady, conscientious elder brother; Orville the optimistic, enthusiastic and curious younger brother.  Originally the brothers worked together in a printshop, although this wound down as the 1890s progressed; they also ran a bicycle repair and manufacturing shop, and this proved an invaluable base for their work on aeroplanes.  Not only were the principles of balance and aerodynamics very similar, but the bicycle was also a controllable but inherently unstable machine, and this knowledge gave the brothers the confidence to continue when others had seen the swiftness and unpredictability of air currents and given up.

The brothers followed Cayley’s lead in identifying the three main areas that needed to be successful for a machine to fly, and then focused on control and balance first as they figured this was the most intractable problem.  For three consecutive years, from 1900-1902, they spent each autumn down at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina experimenting with a glider; in 1902, they finally succeeded in producing a glider that was not only controllable but also generated sufficient lift.  In the process, they once again followed Cayley’s lead in taking a scientific approach and recording all their experiments and the data they generated; they also unintentionally invented the wind tunnel, developing the best wing design for lift on a contraption Orville built from old hacksaw blades and bicycle spokes.  This piece of home-grown ingenuity has ended up becoming a key part of aeronautical engineering ever since.

The 1902 glider broke all records for the Wright brothers, becoming by far the most sophisticated flying machine anyone had yet built, and they filed a patent application for it at the end of the year.  It also gave them significant practice in the air. Less than 6 weeks into 1903, they had an engine for it thanks to Charlie Taylor, a mechanic the Wrights had hired to help in their bicycle shop, and who produced what all the engineering firms had said was impossible: an engine powerful enough to propel the aircraft, but light enough to not outweigh the lift generated by the wings.  Despite this, however, the Wrights made it to Kitty Hawk later than usual in 1903: it was 17th December before they made their famous flight.  By the end of the day, they had succeeded in demonstrating that controlled, sustained, powered flight was possible – what a Christmas present!

By 1905, the Wrights routinely flew for several minutes at a time and could change direction at will.  Flight progressed fast after that: by 1909, Louis Blériot had flown across the English Channel; the military had picked up on the importance of the aircraft in plenty of time for WWI; in 1818, the US Post started flying the mail.  The belief in the viability of air travel is perhaps shown most convincingly by this, as despite a number of hiccups, the service actually continued.  The printers made an error with the first air mail stamps, printing the ‘Jenny’ (the aeroplane used to carry the mail) upside-down on the stamp; the first scheduled mail service then returned without the mail, after one pilot got lost then damaged his plane when he landed to ask for directions; and when post office pilots staged a walkout, the entire service would have collapsed without the army pilots volunteering to take over flying the routes for what turned out to be the next year.

The records continued to fall.  In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic; Amelia Earhart repeated his feat in 1932, becoming the first woman and only the second person to accomplish it; in 1930, Amy Johnson became the first woman to fly solo from the UK to Australia.  The first round-the-world flight was accomplished by two pairs of pilots from the US Army Air Service in 1924; Wiley Post then became the first to do it solo in 1933. 1933 also saw the first flight over Mt Everest, which cleared the summit by the large margin of only 30 metres; and in 1926 and 1929, Richard Bryd became the first person to fly over the north and south poles respectively.

The records obscure the fact that flying in the early days was an extremely risky business.  Ten pilots before Amelia Earhart had died trying to repeat Charles Lindbergh’s trans-Atlantic solo flight.  In 1937, Earhart herself would become a victim when she disappeared without trace while flying between New Guinea and Howland Island in the Pacific while trying to circumnavigate the globe.  The pilots who first flew the US Army Air Service planes around the world were so restricted for weight that they flew without either parachutes or life preservers (interestingly, they did take the stuffed monkeys that a hotel manager in LA had presented them with before they left, promising to pay each pilot $50 if he returned his monkey mascot safely.  You do have to wonder about their priorities…).  It is hard to imagine now, though, when we sit on our air-conditioned, waitered, cushioned, cattle class shuttles back and forth and moan about the lack of leg room, just what these early pilots went through.  Few runways existed, so the planes usually landed on water – often within the harbour, and consequently on an obstacle course littered with small ships.  The Chicago, one of the two army planes that flew around the world, suffered a failed fuel pump while flying across the Atlantic: faced with the choice of ditching in iceberg infested waters or hand pumping the gasoline, Leslie Arnold chose the latter – for an exhausting three hours.  The same flight saw low cloud forcing the pilots to fly so close to the water that dodging icebergs became an operational necessity.  The Titanic failed to avoid the icebergs when sailing at 25mph.  The Chicago was doing 90mph.

On a slightly lighter note, the pilots also had to put up with being refused service at restaurants in Indochina: the waiter refused to accept either lack of luggage space or naval protocol (which allowed the pilots to borrow only their naval colleagues trousers and shirts, not their jackets) as an excuse for turning up to dine in improper attire, and consequently refused to serve them.  Other attitudes were less amusing: the woman pilots were known as ‘Ladybirds’, ‘Angels’, or ‘Sweethearts of the Air’, and their cross-country race as the ‘Powder Puff Derby’; but as Amelia Earhart commented, they were still trying to get themselves simply called ‘pilots’.  Bessie Coleman, the first African-American to get her pilots license in 1921, had to do so in France (after first learning French) as no-one would train an African-American in the US.

With the advent of WWII, aeronautical engineering made several more advances, and with the V1s and V2s Germany became the first country to invent a pilotless missile – the forerunner to the ballistic missiles of today.  They also developed rocket propulsion, which set the scene for the crossing of the next boundary: outer space and space exploration.  Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space in April 1961; the Americans had followed less than a month later as part of Project Mercury, which aimed to assess how well men coped in space and how easily they could be recovered upon return.  Project Gemini in 1965-6 followed, which focused on spacecraft rendezvous and the possibility of prolonged space stays; and Apollo followed Gemini in 1969-72 with the aim of putting man on the moon.  The first Apollo mission in 1967 was a disaster, hence the delay in the programme, when a ground test saw fire spread through a command module killing three astronauts.  In 1968, Apollo first orbited the moon, and in July 1969, the ‘Eagle’ finally ‘landed’, in Armstrong’s famous words, as he and Buzz Aldrin spent two hours walking around with what must be the most unusual backdrop ever.  In 66 years, man had gone from being unable to leave solid ground to walking on the moon. Truly indeed, man had ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’, ‘topped the windswept heights’, and ‘trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space’.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Memorials, monuments, museums and messages

DC is actually surprising small for a nation’s capital, especially given the size of other American cities.  One of the random things that struck me was also how short it was – barely a building there rises over 6 storeys, and Washington’s obelisk memorial sticks out (quite literally like a sore thumb) from every direction.  Coming from Manhattan, where it would have been dwarfed into total insignificance by the multitude of skyscrapers, this made a pleasant change!  DC is also pretty walkable – all the main sights, which are almost entirely either monuments, memorials or museums, lie on the National Mall, which, contrary to what might be a reasonable assumption, is not a shopping centre but a triangle of supposedly green space stretching between the Capitol Building, the White House, and Lincoln’s memorial.  I say supposedly, because while I was there most of it was under construction and consequently looked exactly like a building site – how grass can be under construction I’m not entirely sure, but apparently it can…

I spent one day in the museums, in particular the Air and Space Museum, but I’ll leave the details of those for another post – this one will be quite long enough as it is!  But wonderfully, DCs multitude of museums are almost entirely free of admission charges, which is great after the extortionate prices much of the rest of the country charges (admittedly I may be biased as I come from a country where museums are free, but still…).  The Capitol Building is a huge edifice of white stone that I’m sure will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen a news broadcast – mind you, edifices of white stone seem to be quite in vogue on the National Mall, and indeed in DC in general.  The White House says it in the name; Jefferson has a huge white megalith in the style of a Roman temple, only outdone by Lincoln’s equally extravagant one; Washingon’s obelisk is the same monotone.  The WWII memorial is a bit more decorative and artistic, but still cut from the same cloth, and even Martin Luther King has a giant white statue, although the surrounding semicircle of quotes by him is silver writing on a dark grey background.  Maybe it is un-PC to say it, but I find it somewhat ironic that the most iconic figure in the black civil rights movement has a memorial made entirely out of white stone.

Quite the most interesting memorial artistically (in my opinion anyway!) is FDR’s, which covers 7.5 acres and is built from brown stone.  Not only are several of his quotes inscribed on it as well, but other statues and engravings illustrate the quotes as you walk through his years as President, from the Depression and the New Deal to WWII and ending with his dream – even if he never saw its fulfilment – of the United Nations.

I also spent a day not technically in DC, but just over the state border in Virginia.  Given that Arlington Cemetery is walking distance from the National Mall, however, and given its importance as a national site of remembrance for a country in which DC is the only truly national city (all the others have state allegiance as well, something the history of Arlington makes particularly clear), it still feels part of DC.

Originally, Arlington was an estate, and one owned by someone who was no less than the stepson of George Washington himself, and raised as the nation’s first presidential son.  He built the house of Arlington on the estate in part as a memorial to the only father he had ever known, and it then passed to his only surviving child, Mary, and her husband Robert E. Lee.  But for the advent of the Civil War in April 1861 and Lee’s subsequent decision, Arlington would probably still be a house and estate.

Arlington occupies a key strategic position high up on a hill overlooking Washington DC and less than 2 miles from the White House, but geographically and politically a part of Virginia rather than DC.  When the Civil War broke out, Virginia was one of the first states to secede from the Union, and Lee, as a Colonel in the US Army, was asked by the President to take command of the 75,000 strong army Lincoln was raising to crush the rebellion.  Given the family heritage and influence on Lee, he might have been expected to accept, but instead he declared in a letter resigning from the army after 32 years of service that despite all his ‘devotion to the Union’ and ‘feelings of loyalty and duty as an American citizen’, he could ‘not raise his hand against his relatives, his children, his home’.  Despite Lee’s enduring dislike of secession and belief in the Union, and his amenability to the ending of slavery, he went on to become the most successful general the Confederate troops had, one described by a Union colonel as “head and shoulders above any other in audacity”, and his acquisition of leadership of the Confederate troops in 1862 not only hauled them back from the brink of defeat, but prolonged the Civil War by another 3 years.  Ultimately, even Lee couldn’t change the outcome, but I still found it an interesting story.

When Lee resigned his commission, his family had to leave their Arlington home and seek refuge deeper in Virginia with friends and family.  Union soldiers realised the strategic value of the land and occupied it, using the estate as a refuge for freed slaves – Freedmen’s Village became a village which helped freed slaves make the transition from slavery to citizenship.  In turn, these slaves were moved on, and by 1865 the village had as well, following the decision in the previous year to start burying troops in the grounds of the estate as burial space became both increasingly scarce and increasingly necessary.

Today, over 300,000 soldiers are buried in the cemetery, as well as sailors, airmen, politicians and victims of other national incidents.  After the reinterring of the 229 victims of the USS Maine, and the placing of the USS Maine’s mast by their plot in 1915, the cemetery began to take on an increasing symbolic importance in the national consciousness, and today it is the focus of all Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day (Remembrance Day) celebrations.  The cemetery is remarkably broad in its focus: while the vast majority of the gravestones are military personnel, almost all of whom are men, the cemetery contains memorials honouring the sacrifices of many, many others.  The monument which unfailingly captures your attention as you approach Arlington, and the biggest of all bar the main amphitheatre, is dedicated to the contributions of all the servicewomen who have fought from WWI onwards; others commemorate nurses; black servicemen; military chaplains; Americans who fought in the Canadian armed forces during WWI & II as they volunteered before America entered the wars; astronauts who have died in space shuttle accidents; those who died at Pearl Harbour; the victims of the Lockerbie bombing; the Pentagon victims on 9/11; journalists who have died while reporting on conflicts, etc.  All bear inscriptions telling the story of those they commemorate or those who lie buried within, and it presents a very personal dimension to it.

As ever, there is a tomb dedicated to the Unknown Soldier, which contains the bodies of an unknown American soldier from WWI, WWII and the Korean War.  Something very moving is also displayed in the visitors centre at the entrance to the cemetery: it is a quilt, but a quilt put together to honour the fallen.  There are 50 square patches in it, all containing a military shirt with the photo of a young boy’s head emerging from the neck of the shirt.  The 50 squares each have the name of one of the 50 states written above them, and underneath each is the name of the boy in the photograph.  Each boy came from that state, grew up to join the military, and ended up dying in service in the years since 9/11. Along both sides of the squares are snippets of comments about the personalities of each of the boys/men, and the crosses that divide the squares carry a hidden message in their colours: ‘a destiny for valor’.  Each corner carries a different religious symbol, and along the top border of the quilt is printed the simple words, ‘Without a witness, they will all disappear’.  The idea is that these 50 faces represent others, all the others, who have died in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that we ought to remember and honour their sacrifice – for without these, they too will become unknown bodies and names ‘known only to God’ as those in the tomb of the unknown soldier are, and the same tragedies will be repeated again and again and again.

Six different Presidents also lie buried here, including JFK, who has the distinction of having the most visited grave in the cemetery.  An interesting story about his funeral is presented in the visitor centre: I can’t imagine most people’s first reaction upon hearing the news of their President’s assassination would be to go and get a haircut, but it is what Keith Clark did – because he was the US Army Band Sergeant at Arlington, and realised that if JFK was interred there then he would be called upon to play ‘Taps’.  His preparedness came in handy: he was indeed called upon, and ended up unintentionally playing one of the most appropriate missed notes in history.  The cold temperature not going down very well with his bugle, he cracked the note that accompanied ‘sun’ (“Day is done, gone the sun, from the lake, from the hills, from the sky. All is well, safely rest, God is nigh” are the words to Taps for anyone who is unfamiliar with it), but so apt was it, coming in the guise of a musical stifled sob, that many thought it was deliberate.  In the following weeks, many other buglers at Arlington missed the same note.

Wandering around, Arlington is a very odd mix of cemetery, memorial, museum, and park, and it adds to the very interesting insight DC’s memorials present into the American mentality.  FDR, Martin Luther King, JFK – all their memorials have quotes inscribed around the walls, and all point to social, worldwide justice.  As Martin Luther King stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  That is one of the quotes on his memorial.  FDR’s and JFK’s have similar themes, but there are others that sit more uncomfortably, and point beyond the idea of social justice to a belief that America has been charged with a sense of destiny to bring that social justice to the world.  One of the quotes inscribed on the WWII memorial is by General George Marshall: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognised throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other”.

At the time and in the place he was writing, perhaps it is appropriate.  Certainly at the end of WWII, the stars and stripes was recognised as a symbol of freedom, and American soldiers were warmly welcomed as liberators into many countries of occupied Europe.  It is also certainly true that it represents overwhelming force – the US military budget is not only the biggest in the world, but greater than that of the next 17 countries combined.  At the end of WWII, it would be hard to dispute that having the symbol of freedom and liberty as the greatest force was a good thing.  But today, that ‘determination’ combined with the ‘overwhelming force’ leaves a niggling doubt in my mind, and I suspect I am not alone.  The subconscious message I received from DC’s memorials and Arlington cemetery was that of a country which not only rightly honours the bravery and devotion of citizens who have given their lives in the course of their duties, but which is almost defiantly proud of their sacrifice and of their country’s military history and presence; of a country so determined that their sacrifice shall not be in vain that it sticks rigidly to the same path, and so is boldly insistent that the military way is the best way of solving problems; and of a country that believes it has a God-given calling to bring the values it upholds to everywhere else in the world.

In many ways, that is laudable, and I sympathise with the intentions behind what America is trying to do.  I also take the point that someone once made to me: that everyone who wants to bring the US down a peg or two, and gets irritated at America thinking it can rule the world and impose its will everywhere, has not given much thought to what would happen if America was pulled down a peg or two and a vacuum left for another country to fulfil.  In all likelihood that vacuum would be filled by one with a much worse human rights record and without the proud legacy of freedom and liberty that America has.  But at the same time, trying to impose those values on other countries and other places all too often does not work – humans are contrary beings, and have a tendency to dislike and reject things that are forced on them regardless of how beneficial those things may be.  Democracy is not something that can be forcibly imposed; if it doesn’t grow and develop of its own accord, then it will not survive the withdrawal of the imposer, because it is only as strong as the roots it can put down in a society, only as strong as those in that society want it to be.  One only has to look at the problems the US has had in Afghanistan and Iraq to see the truth in that, not to mention the disastrous attempts at peacekeeping in Somalia in 1993, or various other examples.  I am sure that the intentions and the motives behind the sentiments I can see expressed in the memorials of the National Mall and Arlington cemetery are meant well.  As the webpage for the Lost Heroes Art Quilt states, their intention is explicitly to ‘honor the memories’ of the fallen and it asks those who visit the site to leave politics at the door.  But some of the memorials in DC and in Arlington present a slightly different view – a view that almost glorifies the sacrifices these men and women have made over the years; a view that is totally convinced of the rightness of its actions and determined that everyone else should see that too; and I cannot quite rid the niggling doubt that the manner in which those are expressed in the world will bring America only increased resentment abroad and increased white marker stones at Arlington.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment