I’m thinking of you

 In memoriam  Arthur James Wm. Wells, 1896 – 1915poppy 1915-2015

01 I'm thinking of you

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.

20150215_125508Arthur 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:

The Erithian header

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.

03 James, Annie and Stanley 1919

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



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.

doc5718628 AJW grave

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[1], 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’.[2] 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.[3]

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.

poppy 1915-2015

[1] The Three Emperors: Three Cousins, Three Empires and the Road to World War One by Miranda Carter
Fig Tree, 584 pp, £25.00, September 2009, ISBN 978 0 670 91556 9

[2] The World of Yesterday, pg. 226

[3] Above the battle, introduction


Daumaille Disemboguement

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.’[1]

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.

[1] 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)

Brazing Bromptons in Brentford

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

On a memoir written by a dear friend

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.

Week One in Ouaga

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.

2010 in review

The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads This blog is doing awesome!.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 2,400 times in 2010. That’s about 6 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 6 new posts, growing the total archive of this blog to 42 posts. There were 23 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 10mb. That’s about 2 pictures per month.

The busiest day of the year was January 7th with 58 views. The most popular post that day was Lovely Londoners!.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were facebook.com, earth-policy.org, thersa.org, zebbakes.wordpress.com, and mail.live.com.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for michael wells, michael wells facebook, michael wells actor, mike wells facebook, and michael wells hands.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Lovely Londoners! April 2009


About December 2008


There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown May 2010
1 comment


Storytelling with Christian Salmon in London April 2010


Mark Alexander Smith, 25 February 1960 – 2 November 2009 November 2009

In praise of public services

It is a wonderful thing to live in a civilised country, in which the needs of the most vulnerable in society are met by public institutions and paid for out of the public purse.

Micheline (not her real name, but she is real and this is a true story) was sleeping rough in a little square in Victoria. She would find clean cardboard boxes every evening and bed down between 11 pm and 5 am. In the morning she would wash and groom herself for 50p in one of those automatic public loos. She likes to keep clean and tidy. During the day, map in hand, she would walk the city, going as far as Brixton, Peckham and even Lewisham, sometimes pushing the supermarket trolley in which she kept her possessions. In the evening she would return to her comfortable little square not far from Victoria station. Sometimes people at the bus stop would give her a little money. She would buy Sainsbury’s own brand products to feed herself as they were cheap.

After over a year on the streets, Micheline was picked up by the police and placed in a psychiatric hospital under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act. The law stipulates that a mentally disordered person “may be detained for a period not exceeding 28 days beginning with the day on which he is admitted, but shall not be detained after the expiration of that period unless before it has expired he has become liable to be detained by virtue of a subsequent application, order or direction under the following provisions of the Act.”

Micheline had been admitted compulsorily to a psychiatric hospital in Victoria, near where she had been staying. She is charming, looks after herself, is quite chic in a simple way, particularly to an English eye. This is perhaps because she is French Caribbean, from Guadeloupe. She had taken the Eurostar from Paris to London in May 2009, to re-visit the city she loved, which she had first visited as an au pair in 1985, the year her parents died. She was quite confused and evasive about her parents, natural or foster, and always changed subject when asked about them, as if the best way of dealing with her grief was to dismiss it airily in a cloud of vagueness.

The 28 days of detention were nearly up, so the hospital had to present her to a Mental Health tribunal to assess whether she should be released or whether she should be further detained. Was she at risk to herself or to others? Was she able to look after herself? Did she have family or friends who could take care of her? Did she have enough money in her pocket to buy a train ticket back to Paris? Was she in a fit mental state to be allowed back on the streets of London without supervision? All these questions were asked with great kindness and humanity by the system, by the National Health Service, the police and the judiciary; in short by the bureaucracy that we have built up in Britain to take care of the poor, the destitute and the feeble-minded.

My involvement in Micheline’s London adventure came about as I took on an assignment as a Public Service Interpreter, engaged by the legal aid solicitors who had been appointed to represent her at the Mental Health Tribunal. As the solicitors do not speak French and Micheline does not speak much English, there is money available to pay for an interpreter. It was a bit less than £100 for the morning, which comes from the tax-payer, but the value added in terms of care and consideration and civilisation seems to me incommensurable. Arriving at the hospital at 8.30 am I met the external psychiatrist who had come to assess Micheline. It has to be a doctor who is not connected to the hospital in which the patient is detained. I interpreted her interview with Micheline. Then came the solicitor, a young English Nigerian woman, bright as a spark, articulate and committed. She went through the medical reports with Micheline, explained her rights to her and how the tribunal would be conducted. Accompanied by a nurse from her ward, we all went downstairs to the room used for the hearing. Also present were the hospital psychiatrist, the social worker and three member panel of the tribunal itself, all external independent people: the above-mentioned psychiatrist, a lay person and the judge, who chaired the hearing.

I interpreted for Micheline, both into and from French and left with her after she had spoken. She wished to speak first and not to stay and hear the outcome. I don’t know what decision was made; whether she is still in hospital or not.

The point of this post is simply to say that if we want this place in which we live to remain as civilised as it is, then we have to pay for it. I believe the best way is to pay for it out of public money. Tax-payers are getting value for money. Let’s not cut spending in public services, let’s raise enough taxes from the great wealth of this nation to pay for our fantastic public services. Amen!

The Tale of Two Pee

Look after the pennies and the pounds look after themselves, so goes the saying.  Well, the two pence from Citibank have been a source of great amusement to me. And I have a feeling that they have cost everybody involved quite a lot more in time and money. The cashier at NatWest who credited the cheque to my account yesterday had a laugh when I told her the story.

I meant to write a blog post book review of John Lanchester’s  Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, so perhaps this will do the job indirectly instead. John Lanchester’s book is about the crazy financial mess we all got into. He starts with a description of what serious, old-fashioned people-facing banks used to do, then explores the Icelandic bank crash and explains how and why our liberal capitalist system has gone so badly wrong.

My tuppence worth backs his analysis up completely.

I returned to England five years ago and was advised by a financial advisor friend to get a credit card for my credit rating, in case I wished to buy property. I did, but with rising prices there was no way that I could afford the most modest property in London. Having lived abroad for twenty years, mainly in France, where personal overdrafts are illegal and the attitude to credit is quite different and more stringently regulated, I had never had a credit card. Not having debt is BAD, said my financial advisor, so I phoned up my bank and they sent me a MasterCard, with a reasonable credit limit. I used it occasionally, but always paid it off so as not to incur any interest charges.

In the summer of 2008, I was going on holiday to Bulgaria, flying with easyJet from Stansted. At the airport, I was accosted by a friendly Liverpudlian lady who offered me an easyJet credit card, which would earn me lots of free air miles, she said. I was reluctant at first, but was in a good mood at the prospect of a holiday in the sun and she was so friendly. She told me that she had promised to take her daughter on a shopping spree to Primark if her daughter cleaned the house while she was out working, i.e. flogging people like me credit cards. So I relented and signed the forms and sure enough, a fancy orange easyJet Citi bank MasterCard arrived in the post. I used it once or twice and they gave me a credit limit of £6,000 immediately. I sometimes day-dreamed about spending that amount all in one go and seeing what happened, but I’m not really a gambler.

A few air miles accrued, but I preferred to use my other cards, as this one was a hassle to pay off. In November 2009, I received a letter from Citi informing me that they were discontinuing the easyJet MasterCard, but that I would be transferred to a Citi Platinum MasterCard. I could redeem my points or convert them to cash by phoning them up. I got through to a nice lady at a call centre in India who looked at my points and told me that I had lost most of them, as they had expired. However, what was left was worth two pence. We had a laugh about it, but money is money and she credited the 2p to my balance.

A while later my Platinum card arrived. It was silver plastic, really, but nonetheless. Wow, how about that?! Platinum credit, thank you very much. I must say I felt *BIG* wandering around town with a Platinum credit card in my wallet and six grand to splash out.

But bubbles, as they say, burst.

In April this year, I received another letter from Citi telling me that they had transferred their card services to a third party, that I was not included in the transfer and that therefore they were unilaterally closing my account and cancelling the card! So platinum dreams turned to dust.

But the people at Citi bank are good and honest and sent me the cheque for two pence, which is now safely (I hope) in my real bank account.

Whatever the moral of this story, it does seem rather a silly saga of time wasted… Will it affect my credit rating I wonder and if so will that make any difference?

There is no such thing as big society… why we should listen to Mr Brown

No, it’s not what you might think… Today is election day in the UK, so I hurried back from Brussels and made it to the polling station in good time. This blog post is not about the British general election, but in many senses our election should be about the issues raised here.

Last evening at the European Parliament in Brussels, Lester Brown, the veteran environmentalist, was launching his latest book, Plan B 4.0, Mobilizing to Save Civilization, which gives a scary account of how far down the road of environmental hooliganism we have gone, yet he remains optimistic that there is scope for action. He was hosted by sun-glassed Estonian MEP, Indrek Tarand.

Lester Brown is credited with pioneering the concept of sustainable development, which has become such a buzzword in the green – and not so green – policy environment. At the talk yesterday, he reckoned that ‘food may be the weakest link’ and raised the spectre of food wars when the food bubbles burst. If countries – which presently rely on over pumping (non replenish-able) water for their food production – run out of water, what are they going to do to feed the people?  Into the mix add the notion that the melting ice sheets and shrinking mountain glaciers are going to raise the sea level and inundate low-lying rice lands and agriculturally rich river deltas, then the number of hungry people with no place to grow food is going to increase. Lester Brown estimates that there are now one billion hungry humans on our planet.

Consider that China is number one producer of wheat, followed by India and then the United States in third place. When the Chinese ask the Americans to share their grain and the latter are not so keen, the former are going to use their collateral in American bonds as leverage. Should be interesting to see what happens then.

Lester Brown’s four point Plan B 4.0 advocates:

1. Cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2020.

2. Limiting the human population to a maximum of 8 billion people.

3. Eradicating poverty.

4. Nurturing the global economy’s natural support systems.

I haven’t read the book yet, so hope I am not doing it an injustice here, but I couldn’t help feeling pessimistic about our collective capacity to change quickly enough to avert disaster for future generations.  According to many, perhaps most commentators, the Copenhagen Climate Conference was a failure. The big reason is that our national and international organisations are ineffectual and only serve the vested interests of a relatively small range of stakeholders.  We do not have a big global society that perceives itself as a homogeneous community with a sufficient identity of shared interests to effect coordinated change. I hope that the optimists prove us pessimists wrong, that it is not too late to mobilise to save civilisation.