Traveller's tales

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Sudan

I left Heathrow Airport on a balmy (for me) evening in mid April - 17C max - and landed nine hours later in a Khartoum that was in the middle of a sandstorm (I forget the word for sandstorm - my great friend and colleague, Dr. Abulrahman Darkazali, an Arabic teacher here at the university, tells me the Arabic word is asifa ramliyyah, but I remember 'haboob' being uttered as the door of the plane opened.)

One of my pals thought they had left one of the engines running, and was dismayed to learn it wasn't heat from a Rolls Royce Spey engine, but the heat of the morning, 42C.

If you have only experienced the heat from the French Riviera or the Costa Del Sol, landing in mid April in Khartoum can come as something of a shock, I can tell you.

The sandstorm keeps the temperature down, but the mercury soons shoots up the thermometer once the storm dies down. I planned a walk to Omdurman later that afternoon, to see the Whirling Dervishes. I soon thought the better of doing that and found a hundred yard walk to the nearest drink stand as much as I could manage on the first afternoon of my nine months in Sudan.

Not having a return ticket, I had to get used to that heat, which I did, and found the Sudan a tremendous experience - which is a word people use when they haven't enjoyed absolutely everything. I enjoyed most of my time there though.

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Last day of the Pennine Way

If you go into the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm and ask to see the Pennine Way register of people old Wainwright bought a drink for, you'll find my name - Robert Fielding.

Getting there - 270 miles and 14 days from Edale was and still is one of the highlights of my life, and it would be if you did it too. As Wainwright - the writer of great guide books on the English hills, and now sadly no longer with us, I think, says, "Give up on the Pennine Way and you'll be giving up on things from now on." I didn't give up and I don't, if you get my meaning.

Stamina is a vastly underestimated attribute - not just for marathon walks and tests of physical endurance and the like, but for anything you care to mention.

Writing a book takes a lot of stamina - teaching English does too. Give the Pennine Way a try some time in your life. You will enjoy it, after you've suffered from sore feet and the like.

The rewards of your achievements are great; your own personal feelings of worth are hugely increased by doing something well and seeing it through to the end.

Simple hedonism is for simple types - real people go for things that build character, rather than merely leaving a sweet taste in the mouth, as was said in that wonderfullly tragic film, 'House of Sand and Fog' starring Ben Kingsley, who delivered that line.

Start your life on the better way, it might be the one less trodden, but like Robert Frost, you will be changed by it, and it will make all the difference.

Sorry for preaching and going on a bit. I mean well, I do assure you.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Pennine Way - Day 1

Setting out on a walk that you know is going to hurt is a momentous occasion - though it didn't feel very momentous at the time for me and my pal, Tim Shaw.

The sun is shining, it's the middle of June, we are fit and we're ready for anything that the Pennine Way can throw at us.

Getting used to a heavy rhucksack takes some doing, but you soon get into it and forget about it. It's there, a slight pain in your shoulders at first but then that goes and you're left with legs that ache a bit after the first few miles up on to Kinder Scout.

Me and Tim know this part well - we should do - we tramp these hills every weekend - but usually with a lighter pack on our backs. Underfoot is the same though - heavy.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: The Pennine Way

Tan Hill Inn: the highest watering hole in England, had burnt down just before Tim Shaw and myself reached it on our way up the country from Edale to Kirk Yetholm, back in 1974.

Fortunately for us thirsty hikers, the landlord had erected a lean to with a small bar, a couple of tables and a radiator next to the burn out pub.

We steamed our way through the evening and then fell into our little Black's Tinker (Does anyone out remember those tents?) just outside.

I remember a hard day over the moors to the Tees valley the day after - hangover and all. We went past High Birk Hat farm, which was later made famous by the tales of Hannah Hauxwell, who probably farmed the lonely place at the time me and Tim were trudging through.

Funny thing, I can recall every day of that 2-week adventure, even though we did it more than 30 years ago. I have trouble remembering what I had for lunch most days - that's the onset of Anno Domini for you!

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Eating foreign food

That’s no big deal these days – most of us eat foreign food every day of our lives.
Vindaloo curry on Saturday, (but always - roast beef and Yorkshire pod on Sunday) pizza on Monday, chop-sue on Monday – that kind of thing.

Where foreign food really does taste foreign is in the country it’s cooked in – the one where the locals eat it like the English eat roast beef and Yorkshire pod – abroad!

First of all, you can’t recognize one single item on the menu, if there is such a thing – so then you ask, and, failing to understand the reply, you go up to where the food is on show or being prepared and point at something that you think might be edible.

Appearance is everything – if it doesn’t look right, if it looks slithery or slippery, if it’s the wrong color – the odds are that you won’t choose to eat it.

And that goes for the restaurant or café you pick. I was horrified by a restaurant my friends elected to use in the first few days of my time in Khartoum, Sudan. However, some months down the road, I unknowingly chose the same place to eat it, commenting, “This place looks nice.”

Appearances and what you get used to are both important; tourists compare what’s on offer where they are holidaying with the kind of places they eat in back home – a lot go hungry for just this reason.

Getting used to eating out, means getting used to the different dishes out there, and the surroundings in which you are going to eat in.

You can easily walk out of a restaurant before you’ve really sat down at a table, but once you’ve ordered, that’s it – you’re obliged to try to eat what is put in front of you.

Now, if it’s under or overcooked, you can send it back – change it for something else, and I suppose you can always do that if you really don’t want to eat something, but it’s more embarrassing and difficult if you’ve already eaten half of whatever it is you’re trying to return.

On a more local level, once you’ve put something in your mouth, it can be quite embarrassing to have to remove it in front of the others at the table. There are ways to do this, and I was thinking how to do just that when this photo was taken.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Hasn't it all changed?

Well, of course things ‘ave changed. Everything does – that’s the only thing that’s constant – change!

And so it is with people, houses, pubs, factories, offices (called ‘Business parks these days), even bus services have changed.

In and around Delph, pubs are turning into Chinese restaurants (Cross Keys) or Indian restaurants (Rose and Crown). I don’t say it’s a bad thing – far from it, but it is a change.

I remember when large parts of Manchester were being demolished – the pubs were always left standing – islands of refreshment in the midst of a sea of dereliction.

And shops – they’re changing too – website addresses emblazoned across the bottoms of windows – strange and inviting names – ‘Bay Leaf Restaurant’ – ‘Christoria Beauty Clinic’.

The oldest cooperative in Britain- craft shop, cobbler, café, picture framers – all under the same roof with the same door into the High Street – six businesses on three floors – since 1979.

Houses – more of ‘em – smarter, brighter stonework – window frames and doors made from clean hardwood or anodised aluminium alloy.

Buses – double-deckers only rarely – single-deckers mostly – and minibuses; mountain goats climbing out of Delph, up Stoneswood Road with names of their destinations on the front – Friezland Church – by a circuitous route – it would have to be, wouldn’t it?

Factories, or should I say former factories – some falling down – others like Lumb Mill (once the home of Compoflex from Asa Lees’s after the fire) – now split into so many units – all sorts of thriving enterprises – carpet stores and the like but sadly little in the way of manufacturing now.

A few things hardly change though – Jim Taylor out mowing t’bottom meadow before he stops for a brew at Thurston Clough Farm (Jim’s as fit as he was thirty years ago by the look of him) – Mrs. Taylor brewing up indoors - not quite everything changes, does it?

Robert L. Fielding

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Air-conditioned bowling

‘Phew’, I hear you say, ‘it’s too hot for me!’ And it is warm – certainly, but let’s not complain too much lest…

Instead, let’s do like ‘Christians in Sport’ who meet every Tuesday morning between 9.30am and 11.30am for tea, coffee, a chat and a game or two of Short Mat (45 feet) Bowling – without the air conditioning though – that was just wishful thinking on my part.

Passing Zion Methodists Chuch in Lees yesterday morning, I noticed that ‘Tea and Coffee Are Now Being Served’ and popped in for a brew. Met by Harry Steele and Dorothy Brierley (formerly of the Chronicle) and who run the sessions, I was quickly and warmly greeted by all the players, plus the ladies making the tea.

On a strip of green ‘felt’ (6 by 45 feet), pairs of bowlers battled it out without succumbing to sunstroke – with the characteristic loud cheers of the group winning. Age is no barrier, and nor is being partially sighted as one lady playing was.

The Reverend Kofe Ansah, a native of Ghana and born on a Friday – hence his name – told me that his church facilities are in continual demand – Mothers and Toddlers on Monday – Wives’ Meeting later that evening – Chiball exercises Tuesday, plus Short Mat Bowling, of course, an Age Concern organised dinner for the elderly on Wednesday – table tennis on Thursday and Karate Friday, with the hall hired out for things like Hoe Downs and the May Queen Festival at other times.

So, rain or shine, hot or cold, winter or summer, people come from far and near to enjoy the company of others, the exercise and the fun and games – oh, and the tea and coffee too. See you there next Tuesday folks.

Robert L. Fielding

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: "I used to work there, I did!"

Walking along by the canal – the cut – from Wade Lock in Uppermill (how long is it since that bit went through a pipe?) to the Diggle end of the Standedge Tunnel – the highest, deepest, longest tunnel in England, and built at a staggering cost (for then) of £128, 804 (about the cost of the average semi-detached), I noted the icons of a bygone age.

A set of railway signals near the Ward Lane bridge, the sheds, wharehouses and former machine shops of Dobcross Loom Works, now and for a long time WH Shaw’s – pallet makers – and the locks, embankments and bridges of the Huddersfield Narrow Canal – Saddleworth’s former sustainers, lifelines and connections with the markets for its products; wool and machinery for turning raw material into fine cloth, and from there to Weaver to Wearer in Yorkshire Street.

Along the canal towpath – icons of a quite different age – anglers – people walking dogs – people just out walking, like me – an age of leisure activities – the Brownhill Visitors’ Centre, longboats lined up to be towed in eights through the tunnel to Marsden, and the other way, through Greenfield, Mossley and Stalybridge, linked to the Peak Forest Canal via Portland Basin in Ashton Under Lyne, and on to Buxworth and Whalley Bridge.

But work here still goes on – for some – hillsides covered with grazing sheep – a small Canine Centre in a small corner off the canal, upholstery firms, car body lads, and firms that fit window systems operating out of Warth and Ellis Mills – and the Diggle Hotel bar staff working away to serve the ever growing crowd at the front enjoying a lunchtime in the sun.

Robert L. Fielding

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: 'Smile, you're on candid camera!'

What is it about the camera that either irritates or is pandered to? Half of the world spends its time trying to get into the spotlight, and the other, more famous portion spend their time trying to avoid it or else suing for damages when they can’t.

On holidays, the camera is one of the most useful things to take along, after a bucket and spade, sticking plaster, a tube of Germolene, tablets for the squits and sticking plaster (I mentioned that twice, didn’t I?)

A roll of film is handy too, but, since the advent of the digital camera, film gets in the way. You can’t delete film – you take a photo in Blackpool in July and see it the following April when you get around to getting it developed.

With a digital camera, on the other hand, there is no film - no waiting – instant gratification or instant mortification. In the event of the latter, you can always delete, which I guess I should have done with this photo – or so one of us in the family opines.

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: The sounds of summer

A glorious day – a glorious weekend in fact – mid July and looking promising – fingers crossed, eh?

The sounds of the summer are all around – sheep plaintively insistent on the green hillsides of Diglea – a dog barking (probably at the sheep) – rooks cawing in the tall trees that are giving welcome shade – the odd car and a passing tractor (work still goes on for some even if it is Sunday lunchtime)

And another sound – equally familiar though unhappily less frequent – typical of a village green in the north of England – an echo from Whit Friday – a brass band tuning up. Meltham & Meltham Mills (1846) about to entertain a crowd sunning itself outside the Diggle Hotel.

Two Australian lasses tucking into roast beef and Yorkshire pudding – a chap who remembers following the band of the Salvation Army on its way down to the Citadel on Union Street when he was a little lad back in the 1920s – toddlers with their Mums and Dads – babes in arms, Grandmas and Granddads enjoying the somewhat rare sunshine, keeping safely in the shade of the tall sycamores with the rooks cawing accompaniment to the band about to begin.

Stuart Fawcett – a grand chap – a band chap – the band’s jovial, knowledgeable conductor, sharing a joke with the junior members of the band, watching him to give them the sign to start blowing.

Stu recalls when he was a jig borer at Brook Motors in Huddersfield, and when, in Meltham, if you didn’t work for David Brown Tractors you probably didn’t work at all.

Cheerful Phil Beck selling raffle tickets in aid of the band. He sold me a roll and then never called my numbers at the end – cheers, Phil – really!

Young soloists – a cornet player probably doing her A-Levels – a lad with spiky hair – a wizard on the drums, and the heavyweights – euphonium players – trombonists on the back row, ready to boom their base barreltones when the conductor nods banging out An American Trilogy and Mephistopheles especially for me at the end. The melodious tones that go entirely with the views up the valley to moorlands flecked with sheep and lumps of millstone grit – punctuated now and then with the train to Huddersfield as it plunges into the blackness of nearby Standedge Tunnel.

Then it’s over and Stuart and his pals, all much appreciated in the usual way, packing up with a wave and a thank you. A grand day out.

Robert L. Fielding

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Bad language

Please don’t throw hotel guests down the stairs their towels!

Holidays abroad are always fun – they give you a complete change in almost everything – culture – food- drink- temperature, and language – the English language.

As far as the lingo used by the natives wherever you are, the best you can hope for in 2 weeks in ‘iki bira, lutfen’ or ‘tuvalet nerde?’ but you will certainly have problems with English now and then – not the Queen’s variety but theirs.

Don’t get me wrong, I congratulate any foreigner for even attempting my language in the country of their own - you come to Oldham and try to get anybody to speak so much as one syllable of Spanish, Italian or Greek!

The spoken variety of English is fine – after all, we have the non-linguistic clues that accompany most utterances. A man clutching his posterior is hardly likely to be asking for directions for the nearest Post Office, is he – and it works both ways. You ask for whatever it is you want by standing in front of it and pointing at it.

It is the written variety that causes the non-plussed look on the face of the quest.

Take the simple word ‘mere’ , instantly understood in the phrase ‘a mere acquaintance’ - ‘just a friend’ but much more puzzling in the phrase ‘shaving mere’ as in the instructions – ‘Please don’t cut yourself- use the shaving mere!’

Similarly, ‘lays’ seems like an unusual word, but is quite common as the opposite of ‘gemmen’ and found over the doors of respective facilities.

Next come the instructions in your hotel room – again in a variety of written English guaranteed to prevent you from getting to sleep.

Take for instance, ‘If you do not require heat in your room, control yourself!’ or ‘In case of fire, alarm the landlady!’ – who can sleep staring at them?

In the foyer – the ‘fire ‘ we get asked; ‘Please leave your values with us!’ – and finally, as Dennis Norden is fond of saying, ‘If this is your first visit to Moscow, you are welcome to it!’

Robert Leslie Fielding

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Nostalgia

Wandering nearer to home – around the haunts of my misspent youth – pubs and such – well, trying to, with all the non-stop traffic along the High Street of one of my favourite villages hindering my progress like it never seemed to do back in the days – and nights when I took two forward and one back on my way home after closing time.

Now it’s all Ye Olde Tea Shoppes and Estate Agents with windows full of overpriced des res’s, but it is a lot prettier than I remember it on my way to school, walking past fields and spaces between houses – patches of spare land – now mostly and sadly built on. Rarer than plutonium are spare patches of land in Saddleworth these days, and probably just as costly too.

Cash points in the gable ends of almshouses – it’s just a metaphor dear - former mills made up into so many nice flats – and me wondering where that good second hand bookshop went to.

Slices of pizza and a coffee to go instead of the Milk Bar in The Square – remember? You must do if you’re my age.

And nice sunny weather for a change, giving everything and everybody a summery look at last – shoppers looking up and smiling at other shoppers rather than looking down at the pavement to avoid getting their feet wet.

Shops with their doors open – rays of sunlight speckled with dust and pollen and me with time on my hands – time to crane my neck in the manner of lovers of books everywhere – a nice helpful bloke looking after his daughter’s shop while she ‘s at a Book Fair in Huddersfield looking for more books to fill her shelves.

And sandwiches and cups of tea – folks chatting on forms in lovely, flowery St Chads.

No, nostalgia’s not what it used to be – but it will be one day!

Robert L. Fielding

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Sand

Cavorting half naked on the beach, diving into white-horsed breakers, swimming out to crowded platforms – all wonderful – the perfect memories of a beautiful summer holiday by the sea. Afterwards comes the inevitable crinkly fingers and toes from staying in the water too long or the slight shiver that gives you the same message or the ever so slight feeling of being a bit mucky that contact with salt and sand gives.

A nice hot shower, lots of shower gel and shampoo and a huge, perfectly dry bath towel are all you need to get over whatever it is you were feeling – apart from the unpleasant feeling of having had too much exposure to the old currant bun, as my Dad used to say.

Now comes the relaxing feeling that putting on a clean white cotton shirt and a nice light pair of trousers gives you. Now you feel the day is complete. Now you feel able to do justice to a plate of fish or a kebab or a juicy steak.

If like we do though, you prefer camping on lonely beaches without facilities like showers and airing cupboards, you will know that that most ubiquitous substance – sand – will conspire against the comforts just referred to.

Unlike its more fertile cousin – soil – sand is suggestive of relaxation on beaches, but like soil, which we call ‘dirt’ when it turns up in a place we’d rather not have it, sand can sometimes be a nuisance.

Sand invades swiftly and is loathe to depart once ensconced. It is the most regular and democratic substance known to man – after water, diamond and air. Its angle of repose is uniform whether in the deserts of Sudan, or under the scorching sun of a Nevada sky.

This homogeneity – this lack of imaginative behaviour – is due to its basic structure – which I will call its grittiness. Chemically speaking, sand is a rich and concentrated cocktail of all manner of abrasive substances, each of which is guaranteed to make you itch – chiefly, I suppose, silica, quartz, and a liberal peppering of whatever happens to be the indigenous rock of the area.

The sands of the Bay of Naples are black, reflecting the volcanic origins of much of what lies beneath that fertile and green crescent of sunshine. But it is its gritty nature that impedes our comfort once we have left the beach.

In between your toes, under the collar of your shirt, or between a piece of lettuce and a piece of cucumber in an otherwise delicious and refreshing sandwich, it is most unwelcome.

Unlike soil though, which you recall we sometimes call ‘dirt’ when it annoys us, we have no negative word for sand. Is this lack due to our associating sand with fondly remembered holidays, or is it because most of us landlubbers rarely see it, except on building sites and in egg timers?
Robert Fielding

Diary of a genetically unmodified traveller: Flying

By ‘travelling’, I mean the act of moving yourself and your belongings – a couple of plastic suitcases and a holdall - from A to B, as opposed to sitting around in departure lounges waiting for connecting flights.

I have long been aware of the fact – since I grew to be a six-footer – that shin bones could have been better designed to take into account our seemingly genetic need to travel.

Unfortunately, nothing in the double helix covers this most human of traits – to be uncomfortable in seats that are marginally just too close together for comfort.

Plane makers never consider people with my leg length when life’s seating plan is being worked out.

The incentive to cram as many seats as possible into the cabin of a 747/37/27 or anything bigger than a Cessner is the greater number of passengers that can be made uncomfortable for the duration of the flight to Bodrum, and the increase in revenues from being able to sell more tickets per gallon of aviation fuel.

As far as genetics is concerned, all that has happened is that either technology – the nuts and bolts and microprocessor stuff – has long outstripped the specifications of the DNA of travellers or else it hasn’t caught up – I favour the latter.

All this leads me to the kind of adage my grandmother was fond of; ‘If God had meant us to smoke’, she used to say as I was lighting up, ‘we would have had chimneys fitted.’

My variation is, ‘If God had meant us to travel by plane or bus, we would have been kitted out with a set of second (reverse) knees, or we would have been born pygmies or dwarfs.’ (No offence to either, by the way)

The fact – the sad fact – that we are neither double kneed nor short (most of us) means, doesn’t it, that it would be better for us if we stayed home and satisfied our wander lust by watching holiday programmes on TV rather than trying it out for ourselves and suffering in the process.

I will certainly bear that in mind prior to my next holiday – but for now, alas, it’s too late; I am half way through this year’s ordeal of modern flight – see you in Bodrum.

Robert L Fielding

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