The Home Secretary, Theresa May, has argued in a speech staking out her position on Brexit that, although she is in favour of the UK’s remaining in the European Union, it should withdraw from the E…
I’m thinking of you, Card sent home by great-uncle Arthur
One hundred years ago, my grand-father’s only brother died in the mud in Flanders. He was 19 years old when he fell on 17 December 1915. We can imagine what Christmas must have been like for his parents and fourteen year old brother.
Arthur James William Wells was the elder son of James Joseph Wells, a foreman at Erith Docks on the river Thames and Annie, née Saunders (‘Lovely and ‘ot, Daisy’, which is what she used to say to my grandmother at Sunday lunch). My grandfather, Stanley Lewis Wells, was four years younger (1901-1984), too young to go to the Great War that claimed his elder brother and too old for the Second World War, which saw his elder son, Arthur Lewis Wells (born 1923), my father, in uniform. Granddad named my father and my uncle James (1930-1995) after his lost brother and father.
My father still has my grandfather’s copy of The Erithian, the magazine of the Erith County School from May 1916, which has an obituary of great-uncle Arthur:
Once again it is our sad duty to record the loss of one of our Old Boys, the fourth to lay down his life for his King and country. Arthur Wells was one of the best sportsmen we have ever known and naturally he was one of the first to enlist on the outbreak of war. His love of danger and excitement led him to join the Hussars, and he went through his training as a cavalryman. He would certainly have been one of the best had he ever had the opportunity of showing how well he had profited by his training. But the way in which warfare developed made the cavalry arm of the Service of very little immediate utility, and he was drafted into the 3rd Batt. King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, with whom he was serving when he met his death a short while ago.
Though only in his twentieth year, his splendid physique made him a notable figure in any company. A natural athlete, he excelled in whatever branch of sport he took up, and was one of the best footballers – he played full-back – and beyond doubt the best cricketer the School has produced. He might have reached high honours in either of these games had he been spared to us. But far finer than his playing abilities was the truly sporting spirit in which he played. A mean action or an unfair advantage never entered the mind of Arthur Wells. He was indeed a true, manly Englishman, than which nothing finer can be said of him. We deplore his loss, both for our own and for his country’s sake.
He entered the School in September 1908, and left to start work at Messrs. Cory’s Engineering Works, Erith, in December, 1911. His School career, though not of remarkable brilliance, was in every sense one to be proud of, and his sterling worth endeared him to fellow pupils and staff alike. He was one of the most valued members of the Green House, for whom he always did yeoman service, and his housemates felt with special keenness the sadness of his loss.
Photograph of great-granddad James, great-grandma Annie and granddad Stanley, Belgium 1919.
The only time my great-grand-parents, James and Annie left England, was in 1919, when they followed their son from the outskirts of London and travelled to Poperinge, not far from Ypres on the Belgian side of the border with France. There they visited his grave at the Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery.
In 2000, I moved to Brussels to work for the European Union. It had been a long held ambition, motivated by my upbringing and the family memories passed down of the disruption, loss and fear that the two world wars had wreaked. International reconciliation and understanding was essential to rebuild shattered Europe. Growing up in the 1960s, the European ideal of hope and shared destiny was exciting and comforting. My elder sister learned German and went on Christian youth work camps in Germany in the late 1960s, inviting her international friends one Christmas to our house in Wimbledon. My younger sister and I revelled in being spoilt by these lovely Dutch, French and German students who spoke fascinating languages. In 1971 the introduction of decimal currency in the UK and then our accession to the European Economic Community in 1973 were historic landmarks that had a profound impact on my generation, helping us to integrate with our European neighbours, providing opportunities to travel freely across the continent (the Western part, at least) that had been denied to my parents’ and grandparents’ generations in their youth. In 1979 I went to live and work in France for the first time, as an English language assistant in a provincial secondary school. Being a foreigner, I was only allowed a bank account in convertible Francs and the only money I could deposit in it was my salary.
I read French at university and went to live and work in Paris after graduation and spent some 15 years there. It was as translator that I moved to Brussels and there that I acquired my first television set and my first car. The television was important. In Brussels I was able to watch the BBC and in July 2000 was very moved by a report on the commemoration ceremony of the massacre of the Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica. The wives, mothers and daughters of the men who had been victims of Europe’s worst massacre since World War II struck me with their dignity and determination, but I also felt viscerally puzzled as to why they would want to visit the mass graves that were the locus of their grief and suffering. It was the visit to pay my respects to great-uncle Arthur that helped me understand.
The car was not so important, but useful. Paul and Philip, two English friends living in Brussels, accompanied me one Sunday on the drive to Poperinge in Western Flanders near the French border. Without too much trouble we found the Military Cemetery at Lijssenthoek. Beautifully looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, the rows of white gravestones commemorate some 10,000 burials. Unable to locate my great-uncle’s grave, I returned to the monumental red-brick gatehouse, designed by Sir Reginald Blomfield, where I found a little alcove cupboard, closed by a neat metal door. Inside was a ledger with the names of the fallen and a plan of the cemetery. Turning the pages to the letter W, I soon found the entry, which has since been digitised and made available online, for WELLS, ARTHUR JAMES. It made me shudder to read:
In Memory of
ARTHUR JAMES WELLS
23597, 6th Bn., King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry who died on 17 December 1915 Age 19
Son of James J. and Annie E. Wells, of 23, Thanet Rd., Erith, Kent.
Thanet Road in Erith is just around the corner from Lesney Park Road where my father was born, where my grand-parents lived when I was little and where we held the reception after Uncle James’s funeral in 1995. Connecting those streets on the slope rising up from the Thames to this flat field in Flanders, it all suddenly became so real; it wasn’t a story read in a book, but this 19-year old boy, who looked in photographs just like my father, was family, buried in the ground here. When I located the headstone I had another shudder, as the inscription read, AJ WELLS, the same initials as my eldest brother, Andrew Joseph. I felt for granddad, what feelings must have gone through him when he stood here in 1919, eighty-one years earlier. Then I began to understand, with all due proportion and respect, why the Bosnian women visited the mass graves at Srebrenica; the dead create a connection with place. I had family buried in Belgium.
Rupert Brooke, the young poet who wrote The Solider, an evocative poem about the First World War, death and place, also died that same year, in 1915.
If I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
There’s some corner of a foreign field / That is for ever England. This place, this cemetery in Flanders was and is part of my family story. Standing there with my two friends I felt glad and grateful that my parents’ generation had put the war behind them and created an environment in which I was free to travel and work and enjoy life in the European Union of then 15 Member States. Indeed, I was working for a Frenchman, whose boss in turn was German and my colleagues in the ‘minestrone’ translation department were a jolly mixture of all the nationalities.
A family story
Our European history is a family story and it is still essential that we remember the tens of millions of our family members, like my great-uncle Arthur, whose lives were claimed by an ultimately useless, futile war. Their untimely deaths were the result of the international political elites’ failure to communicate and cooperate, what Christopher Clark has called ‘sleepwalking’ (The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914). Today, we need to be mindful of history when we consider our relationship with our friends and neighbours in Europe and wary of the mythologizing of independence. Our European story is a family story that goes back hundreds of years, so much so that by the 19th Century the crowned heads of Europe were closely-related members of the same family. Christopher Clark reminds us, in a London Review of Books article, of the kinship links between Nicky, Willy and George, respectively, the Russian Czar, German Kaiser and British king.
By the turn of the 20th century, the genealogical web of Europe’s reigning families had thickened almost to the point of fusion. Wilhelm II and George V were both grandsons of Queen Victoria. Tsar Nicholas II’s wife, Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, was Victoria’s granddaughter. The mothers of George V and Nicholas II were sisters from the house of Denmark. Wilhelm and Nicholas II were both great-great-grandsons of Tsar Paul I. The Kaiser’s great-great-aunt, Charlotte of Prussia, was the Tsar’s grandmother. Viewed from this perspective, the outbreak of war in 1914 looks rather like the culmination of a family feud.
At the beginning of the 20th century, however, not everybody was asleep to the dangers of war. In ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir written and published shortly before his suicide in exile in 1942 during World War II, Stefan Zweig describes his friendship with the French writer, pacifist and 1915 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Romain Rolland. For Zweig, Rolland was the ‘man who would be the conscience of Europe in its time of crisis’. Rolland wrote an anti-war manifesto Above the Battle (Au-dessus de la Mêlée), moved to Switzerland where he worked for the Red Cross in Geneva and pleaded for international reconciliation.
Rolland is one of the many who believe, […], that the spiritual forces that are important and ought to prevail are the international ones; that co-operation, not war, is the right destiny of nations; and that all that is valuable in each people may be maintained in and by friendly intercourse with the others. The war between these two ideals is the greater war that lies behind the present conflict.
In 2015, one hundred years after great-uncle Arthur died in the mud in Flanders, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, and the President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Peter Maurer issued a warning that the world is at a turning point and appealed for urgent and concrete action to address human suffering and insecurity.
Rest in peace, Arthur James William Wells. Gone, but not forgotten.
Thanks for posting, very interesting and useful.
NUBSLI members this morning received leaked information about Capita’s charges under the Ministry of Justice contract. It reveals that Sign Language Interpreters, as usual, are talked about as being expensive yet do not receive anywhere near the money that is being charged for their services. A quick breakdown below…
A half day job with 1 hour travel each way
Capita charge: £172.80 minimum charge + £80.00 Travel time
Interpreter’s fee: Less than half this amount (using Clarion and Sign Solutions rates outside of London).
Interpreters have been taking a pay cut under this contract for years and not getting travel time/expenses resulting in chaos. I am not the only interpreter I know that refuses to work under this contract due the dodgy practices of the contractors and its sub-contractors.
And I will not work for less than NUBSLI fees guidance. With information like this leak, it is…
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Reading books is a good way to learn new words. No, I’m not being disingenuous, but one of the wonderful things for those of us who have been brought up with the English language, and encouraged as we have been by international trade and travel, is that we have helped ourselves to words from other languages along the way, even when we have our own. That means we have lots and lots of words in English and they can be used to describe all kinds of things. I have just spent a week in the Cotentin, reading books in my house there. A little background (pour la petite histoire / for the little story, as the French would say) Cotentin and Coutances (where there is a beautiful cathedral), the Roman city of Constantia, were named after Constantine Chlorus, father of the first Christian Roman Emperor, Saint Constantine, who remodelled Byzantium, the New Rome into Constantinople, our present-day Istanbul. Words and names morph across space and time, but their ancestry is still traceable, interesting and often very entertaining to discover.
As a translator and a traveller myself, I was delighted and enchanted by ‘Is that a fish in your ear?’ a fascinating journey through the origins, history and philosophy of translation, a comprehensive story of how human beings move from one language to another. Its author, David Bellos, is an academic and translator, particularly well-known for his rendition of ‘Life, a User’s Manual’ (La Vie, mode d’emploi) by the French writer, Georges Perec. Of Polish-Jewish origins, Perec’s father died in combat in the Second World War and his mother in Auschwitz. That heritage perhaps informed Perec’s motivation to produce a TV documentary and book about Ellis Island, the American gateway in New York harbour to a new life of liberty and prosperity for tens of millions of desperate 19th century Europeans. One of the ‘lost in translation’ stories from the Ellis Island book I particularly like is about language, names and identity. The immigrants arriving at Ellis Island were subject to admission procedures to determine their suitability as putative American citizens and would give American-sounding names to make it easier for the arrival inspectors to register them. As Perec recounts,
‘One old Russian Jew was advised to pick a truly American name, one that the immigration authorities would have no difficulty in transcribing. He asked the advice of an employee in the baggage room who suggested Rockefeller. The old Jew kept repeating “Rockefeller, Rockefeller” to be sure he’d remember. But several hours later, when the immigration officer asked him his name, he had forgotten it and answered in Yiddish, “Schon vergessen” – “I’ve already forgotten.” And so he was registered with the truly American name of John Ferguson.’
The winding histories of individual etymologies remind me that a friend of a friend of mine in Paris was called Gonzague de Rocquefeuil, scion of a French family whose Huguenot branch morphed into the American Rockefellers…
David Bellos devotes a chapter to the ‘axiom of effability’, an explanation of the theory that ‘what can’t be said, can’t be translated’, in other words, a universalist humanist approach which contends that any society with language can communicate and exchange meaningfully with any other society with another language. What we have in common as humans is more than what sets us apart.
Having scratched Bellos’s fish out of my ear, I picked up another great travel and language book ‘A Time of Gifts’ by Patrick Leigh Fermor, an account of his journey on foot from the Hook of Holland to Hungary on his way to Constantinople; so he didn’t go via the Cotentin or Coutances (see above!). The journey was undertaken from December 1933 to April 1934, but written up from memory and diaries in 1977. The 18-year Paddy old had been expelled from school, his last report describing him as “a dangerous mixture of sophistication and recklessness.” By that time, however, he had learned a lot of Latin, French and German, the latter was to improve while he travelled down the Rhine and the Danube and he was well-versed in and inquisitive about literature, art and the relationship of architecture to geography and what we would now call anthropology. How had the different peoples in Europe transposed their dream worlds into language and beautiful buildings? Although the book was written with the hindsight of maturity it nevertheless conveys the enthusiastic curiosity of youth and the innocence that was still possible in the early 1930s before the ravages of war nearly wiped European civilisation off the map.
‘A Time of Gifts’ is the first book I have read in quite a while that required consultation of a dictionary or rather – one of the wonders of the age – the internet on my smart-phone. Fermor’s style is enthusiastically verbose, florid and can be quite technical. He uses many words borrowed from other languages, the rather archaic ‘imberb’ for ‘beardless’ (from French and Latin), ‘gyre of flakes’ (gyre from the Greek, as in gyratory or circular). Among the new words I had never come across were ‘pargeting’, an architectural term to describe decorative, sculpted external plasterwork, particularly in East Anglia, the undisputedly Latinate ‘irrefragable’ and the particularly relevant and topical ‘disembogue’ as it relates to the title of this post and the story I will tell below. Towards the end of Fermor’s journey he describes an encounter with some Magyar horsemen in the marches of Hungary and Slovakia where the Váh river ‘disembogues’ or flows into the Danube. My curiosity awoken, I checked my hard copy Oxford English Dictionary on Historical Principles and found that it has been in use in English since the end of the 16th century and is derived from the Spanish desembocar, which means ‘to come out of the mouth of’, so for a river to discharge into another river or out to sea: ‘The Danube disembogues into the Euxine (Black Sea) by seven mouths’ Goldsmith and in polluted 18th century London Alexander Pope’s Dunciad has a rather insalubrious diving contest:
…by Bridewell all descend,
(As morning prayer, and flagellation end)
To where Fleet-ditch with disemboguing streams
Rolls the large tribute of dead dogs to Thames,
The king of dikes! than whom no sluice of mud
With deeper sable blots the silver flood.
‘Here strip, my children! here at once leap in,
Here prove who best can dash through thick and thin,
And who the most in love of dirt excel,
Or dark dexterity of groping well.
Who flings most filth, and wide pollutes around
The stream, be his the weekly journals bound;
A pig of lead to him who dives the best;
A peck of coals a-piece shall glad the rest.’
But let’s leave the mud-slinging Fleet street hacks of 18th century London and return to to me sitting in my comfy settee in the Cotentin reading about Paddy Fermor walking towards Constantinople encountering many interesting people, towns, rivers, alcoholic beverages and describing them with a rich variety of vocabulary.
A little more background… When I bought my house over ten years ago, a Ukrainian friend of mine in Paris, Lilia, wanted to know straight away if I had water on the land; for Ukrainian peasants, a plot of land with no water to irrigate fruit and vegetables is next to useless. Yes, I assured her, not only did I have several springs on my land, I even had a lavoir, a little stone-lined pond, that old Mother Maria Delacour, the previous owner, had used to wash her clothes. The lavoir is murky and full of frogs, perhaps snakes, too and lots of other fauna and flora. It constantly has water, fed no doubt by an underground spring. A little stream flows out of it and through a ditch across my land, where it gradually dries out, before disemboguing (Yes!!) into the lane which curves round the perimeter of my estate (well, field is a better description really). That is how things have been for the most part. However, as anyone who has spent any time in Northern France or England in the last couple of years knows, it has been raining nearly non-stop and the ground water levels are very high. More background in the village. Some years ago, the local parish council decided to tube the ditch which runs along the road around my land in order to widen the road for my neighbours who live in the Bas du Village (the nether end), whereas I am in the Haut du Village (the upper end of town, far more rarefied, n’est-ce pas?!). When they did this, the stream across my land must have been dry, as no sump was built to connect it to the municipal culvert . Now in these most aqueous times the stream from my lavoir runs across the land and disembogues into the lane and runs across the roadway in a constant drizzle, apparently much to the discontentment of my nether neighbours. Luckily another neighbour from the upper village and a local councillor warned me that the Mayor was on the case. Apparently he was intending to ask me to undertake expensive earthworks to redirect the stream on my land. Forewarned is forearmed, so I successfully engaged in some local diplomacy by inviting the delightful Daniel, Deputy-Mayor, for coffee and to show him around my land and to convince him that it was the municipality’s responsibility to deliver the denizens of the lower village from my disboguement. So I hope that my stream will soon disappear through ‘caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea’ and the waters and spirits of Daumaille will be calmed and the devilish dangers of disemboguement will disappear.
 Ellis Island and the People of America (with Robert Bober), trans. by Harry Mathews (New York: New Press, 1995). (Récits d’Ellis Island. Histoires d’errance et d’espoir (INA/Éditions du Sorbier, 1980, en collaboration avec Robert Bober)
Welcome to the alliterative first paragraph of this blog post about the Brilliant British Brand of Brompton bicycles, Brazed in Brentford. My Brother Tom, who first sold me a Brompton when I lived in Brussels, is a Brompton dealer in the West of Wild Woolly Wales. He was one of the founders of Brixton Cycles, who also sell Bromptons.
If you are reading this post and are anywhere West of Port Talbot, head over to Cardigan, where you will find New Image Bicycles and Tom will be happy to sell you a Brompton from Brentford, which incidentally are all painted in Cardiff, Cymru. For those who liked the West Woolly W-ness of the Welsh aspect of these Words, there is added pleasure in the knowledge that Brompton Wheels are built in Wolverhampton and that our family name is Wells and that I was born in Wimbledon! Wow or What!!!!???!!!!! Waffle, whatever…
Seriously, though, Tom and I headed to Brentford last Thursday for a dealers’ day at Brompton and were shown round the factory there, nestled in between the M4 roaring its way out of London and the Thames glistening by Kew Bridge, a stone’s throw away. We were welcomed by Phil and Ross of the marketing department, who showed us around the factory and explained the manufacture and assembly process. It was fascinating to watch the individual parts being hand-brazed with great skill and care. The brainchild of engineer-designer, Andrew Ritchie, the original Brompton design has changed relatively little since its launch in the 1970s, but the manufacturing process has been refined and refined, so the folding bicycle you buy now is a piece of high-quality living sculpture. And that’s why Bromptons are such amazing machines, as they bring together key aspects of art and life for the 21stcentury urban human. And they can also be put to the test in more rural environments, such as the Shetlands, where Joe Sheffer and Alastair Humphreys intrepidly cycled and canoed around the islands.
If you are half-way interested in art and design, the Brompton folding bicycle is a miracle of ingenuity, grace and playfulness. Tom sold me my first red Brompton about 10 years ago when I lived in Brussels. It went from Cardigan to London in the boot of a car, then unfolded and took me to Waterloo, folded and in a bag on the Eurostar to Brussels. On one of the several occasions I took it on the train from Brussels to Paris, as I unfolded it on the platform at the Gare du Nord and cycled away a little boy exclaimed joyously to his mother: “Regarde, maman! Le vélo magique!’’ Yes, indeed, Bromptons are magical, because like magic, they give you the freedom to go where you want, when you want and in great style and comfort. And they touch on the mythical magic of cycling that has been captured and expressed by authors such as Flann O’Brien in The Third Policeman or Paul Fournel in Besoin de Vélo (Need for the Bike). An important part of the Brompton magic is the folding action, something essential, you would agree, for a folding bicycle. At the end of our dealer day, Katharine organised a Brompton folding competition, to see how quickly we could fold a Brompton to its transportable position. The winners came in at about 16 seconds, so I felt my honour was safe at 17 seconds. One of the Brompton boys showed us what it was really about by folding his in 8 seconds! Quicker than saying Abracadabra or waving a magic wand!
We also had a fascinating talk from Steve, the chief engineer, who made me realise what a dual challenge designing a folding bike is, from the safety and efficiency perspectives. When you ride a bicycle, it is easy to forget what high-tech machines they are, in terms of converting human energy into speed and direction. Cycling in London my average speed is faster than a car, a bus and sometimes even a tube or a train and at the same time my bicycle is a strong, safe and reliable vehicle that takes incredible physical punishment. Add to that the requirement that this functionality must be provided in a form that will fold down into the size of a small piece of luggage that will stow away easily on a train or in a small car boot, then you really are talking magic. The reliability of the Brompton manufacturing process is underpinned by a conservative warranty and quality control policy which ensure that the bikes are built to last a life-time.
Tom was interested in the work Brompton are doing to produce a production line electric Brompton. He is missing a leg and sometimes uses his Brompton as a kind of funky wheel-chair, so an electric version would be even funkier in hilly Cardiganshire. It’s going to be quite a challenge as they want an electric model to be retrofittable, so it may be quicker to buy a custom-built electric Brompton in New York!
After occasional hiccups in the manufacturing and delivery process, Bromptons are now comfortably producing 30,000 folding bicycles a year in Brentford, which are sold for the most part in the UK, Germany, Benelux, South Korea, Spain and France. They may not be as cheap as a conventional bicycle, but they are incredibly practical, have fantastic accessories that make you want to buy them all (watch out for the tool-kit that fits snugly inside one of the tubes!) and you can take them with you wherever you go. No problem for city-dwellers with no outside space to park a big bike, your Brompton will sit quietly in a corner in the tiniest flat.
One last word, the Brompton is named after the Brompton or London Oratory on Brompton Road in Central London, where Andrew Ritchie lived and designed the first prototypes. New to the Brompton Range, they have added the sartorial splendour of the Oratory Jacket, which I am saving up to buy. Like the bicycle, the jacket combines elegance with cycling functionality and will mean that you can arrive smart and dry at any occasion. Style, life and art all together; what is there not to love about a Brompton…
More photographs of our Brompton dealers’ day on my Facebook profile here.
For all your cycling needs in West Wales, be sure to visit:
New Image Bicycles and Bike Hire
29-30, Pendre, Cardigan, Ceredigion SA43 1LA
Telephone: 01239 621275
The mother of a friend of mine used to say that if you don’t know where you’re going, it’s good to know where you’ve come from. My understanding of what she meant was that a sense of family, heritage and values shapes identity and gives us strength in the face of uncertainty.
‘The Legacy’ by David Sil is a tribute to the grandmother he adored as a small child and whose memory he has always cherished. Not only is this book a beautifully-crafted depiction of a child’s awareness of authentic love and affection, but also a compelling story with a fascinating, unexpected twist, adorned with a thread of philosophical pearls in the form of his grand-mother’s Maxims. She was undoubtedly a formidable presence whose strength of character, elegance and uncompromising confidence come across almost palpably in the pages of his book, yet we only see her through his child’s eyes. One can imagine that he has inherited her penetrating gaze, which can inspire both disquiet and intense affection, her love of the most exquisite precious jewels and the elegance of a natural stylist, for whom life and art are facets of the same skilfully polished stone.
A ray of sunlight, shining through his student lodging’s window, illuminating a fine cut crystal perfume phial, a memento from his grandmother, points him to other hidden treasures that she bequeathed him.
At a friend’s dinner party in Islington the other week, I was talking to the actor, Michael Pennington, starring shortly at a screen near you as the veteran Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, alongside Meryl Streep in the film about Margaret Thatcher. Michael, whom I first met in Moscow a few years ago, was telling me about a book he was reading, which included the tale of Mungo Park, the late eighteenth century Scottish surgeon and explorer, who travelled up the Gambia to trace the Niger River, which was then uncharted by Europeans. I thought it would be a good book to take on my trip to Burkina Faso, in West Africa. Park’s ‘Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa performed under Direction and Patronage of the African Association in the Years 1795, 1796 and 1797’ is a compelling, well-written publishing success that prefigured classic travelogues such as Toqueville’s ‘Democracy in America’ (1835) and Custine’s ‘Letters from Russia’ (1839). Park did not pass through what is now Burkina Faso, but his journey took him through several of the country’s neighbours, which are clockwise: Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
The grey lizard on my balcony wall is keeping me company. He looks like an old man, cocking his yellow head from side to side and staring at me in laconic inquisitiveness.
Reading Mungo Park two centuries later in a place not far from where he travelled, it is striking to note the persistence of stereotypes about the peoples he met: Black Africans, Arabs, Christians and Muslims and the contrast with the physical challenges of his courageous voyage into the unknown in comparison to my early 21st century woes of intermittent electricity and internet provision and having to spend three hours earlier this week at Airtel’s head office in downtown Ouagadougou (yes, three whole hours, can you believe?!!) to get a Blackberry configured correctly so that my colleague can receive dedicated email… (Despite the air-conditioning and the comfy sofa, it was hell!). Mungo Park’s trials and tribulations were somewhat greater, not least because he suffered imprisonment at the hands of a despotic Moorish leader called Ali. He did not, however, lose his sense of humour while in captivity, as witnessed by the following passage:
The curiosity of the Moorish ladies had been very troublesome to me ever since my arrival at Benown; and on the evening of the 25th [March 1796](whether from the instigation of others, or impelled by their own ungovernable curiosity, or merely out of frolic, I cannot affirm), a party of them came into my hut, and gave me plainly to understand that the object of their visit was to ascertain, by actual inspection, whether the rite of circumcision extended to the Nazarenes (Christians) as well as to the followers of Mahomet. The reader will easily judge of my surprise at this unexpected declaration, and in order to avoid the proposed scrutiny I thought it best to treat the business jocularly. I observed to them that it was not customary in my country to give ocular demonstration in such cases before so many beautiful women; but that if all of them would retire except the young lady to whom I pointed (selecting the youngest and handsomest) I would satisfy her curiosity. The ladies enjoyed the jest, and went away laughing heartily; and the young damsel herself, to whom I had given the preference (though she did not avail herself of the privilege of inspection) seemed no way displeased at the compliment, for she soon afterwards sent me some meal and milk for my supper.
I arrived in Ouagadougou last Monday 4 April on an Air France flight from Paris. The airport has not changed much since August 1984, when I was here last time around on a cheap charter from Lyons, arriving shortly after the country’s new president, Captain Thomas Sankara, had changed the country’s name from Upper Volta, after the river, to Burkina Faso, which means the Land of Men of Integrity. My first niece Sophie had just been born and my grandfather had just died. I was travelling with two Togolese friends on my way to Lomé (the capital of Togo) from where we would continue to Cotonou (economic capital of Benin) to another friend’s wedding.
Waiting for me at the airport this time were Amy, an American colleague, who I’ve come to help set up our office here (www.developmentmedia.net) and Sylvie, our Burkinabe consultant, who is expecting her first child any day soon. The cycle of a generation: birth, life and death, child, parent and grand-parent and birth again.
Since I last came to Burkina the population has doubled from about 7 to 15 million, yet the country still has one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world. That’s what we’re here for; to use targeted mass media (particularly radio) campaigns to convey culturally-appropriate, relevant health information to young mothers and their families and friends which can effectively help them to keep more children alive and healthy for longer. And we aim to prove, in association with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, that we can do this is in a scientific manner that can be reproduced around the world.
Burkina Faso is a dry, land-locked country where the living is hard. Its main resource is its people who bear the hardships and challenges with fortitude and perseverance. Political and social stability in recent weeks have been somewhat troubled by military misbehaviour and civilian unrest, which may reflect the underlying thirst for freedom and democracy, that the people here can see is perhaps being quenched in North Africa, just over the Sahara. To the south the tragedy of the Ivory Coast feels close to hand, as Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognised President-elect, like millions of Ivoirians, has Burkinabe ancestry and this is a major factor in the conflict.
But Burkina Faso also feels pretty much like many other places where the resentment of the masses – and increasingly the educated middle classes – is building up against an oligarchy of the planetary super-rich who have appropriated a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth to the detriment of the global poor. Check out David Runciman’s article Offshore in the latest issue of the London Review Review of Books. He writes of the American economy:
The real beneficiaries of the explosion in income for top earners since the 1970s has been not the top 1 per cent but the top 0.1 per cent of the general population. Since 1974, the share of national income of the top 0.1 per cent of Americans has grown from 2.7 to 12.3 per cent of the total, a truly mind-boggling level of redistribution from the have-nots to the haves.
The figures might be different from country to country, but from the richest to the poorest country (pretty much where I am sitting today), it feels like we live in one world, in which the super-rich are getting richer, the middle classes are increasingly squeezed and the poor are getting poorer. Is it time to reverse the trend?
Here endeth the Lesson of Swithun after his first week in Ouagadougou this Sunday 10 April 2011.