Author Archives: Rocinante's droppings

About Rocinante's droppings

I live in south London and work as a children’s book editor, which is just as lovely as it sounds. But I also do a bit of writing – mainly about my travels – and you can read it here. I have had two articles published by the Times online – both about my trip to Palestine. I also had a piece shortlisted for the annual Bradt/Independent on Sunday travel writing competition. Visit my blog at https://rocinantesdroppings.wordpress.com/

Namaste, Nepal!

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Tadasana (mountain pose): Stand tall with the feet together or slightly apart, all four corners of them pressing into the earth, drawing up through the inner arches. Firm the thighs and lift the knee caps. Imagine a thread of light travelling all the way up the spine and out through the crown of the head. Lengthen the tailbone towards the floor. Draw the shoulder blades down and back. Lift the top of the sternum and widen the collarbones. Let the arms hang alongside the body. Have the chin parallel with the floor and soften the eyes. Press the palms of the hands together at the heart. Namaste.

Views from Nagarkot

Views from Nagarkot

Of the fourteen mountains in the world that are taller than 8,000 metres, eight of them are in Nepal.

For my first weekend there, my friends took me to Nagarkot in the Kathmandu Valley – famous for its Everest views. Sitting out on the terrace that connected our Tibetan-themed rooms, I cooed over the setting sun flaming over distant and smoky-coloured hills. But my friends just shook their heads. The haze was obscuring the mountains; this, I was assured, was nothing.

I caught my first glimpse of a Himalayan peak on the initial night of my Annapurna circuit trek with Pokhara-based Purna Yoga. I was tramping across the muddy central courtyard of Australian Camp, hoping against hope that my soggy trekking clothes had dried, when I was held up by a group of Americans and Canadians, chins aloft. I followed the line of their gaze but all I could see were clouds sitting prettily atop the hills.

‘See – one peak,’ came our guide and yoga instructor Mahesh’s voice from behind me.

I looked again. A pinkish white cloud seemed to hover above the dark mass of the hills. I blinked. No, not a cloud.

‘A peak,’ Mahesh confirmed, smiling at my expression.

First proper peak-sighting from Australian Camp

First proper peak-sighting from Australian Camp

Following that, every morning of the trek, we were awoken by Mahesh or our heroic porter Dinesh, bearing sweet, milky Nepali tea and swirling the playing stick gently around a singing bowl (my iPhone alarm will never be the same again) at around 6 a.m., in time for us to watch the rising sun shining pinkly on the side of Annapurna South, Machapuchare or – on the last morning, after

Staggering mountain range viewed from a rainy car window

Staggering mountain range viewed from a rainy car window

we’d trekked up Panchassee Hill – Dhaulagiri.

When my flight back from Pokhara to Kathmandu was cancelled, I ended up travelling back to the capital in a private car. We had stopped in a small town outside the lakeside tourist city for the driver to fuel up and, settling in for a long journey, I was engrossed in my book. Suddenly, something in my peripheral vision caught my attention. Looking up, I realised that the windows on the left side of the car were entirely filled – bigger and closer and more awe-inspiring than I could have ever imagined – by a Himalayan massif. It was as startling and as alien-looking as a spacecraft. I found myself yabbering incoherently – much to the consternation of my driver – tears in my eyes.

This is my yoga journey through Nepal. . .

Downward-facing dog in Nagarkot

Downward-facing dog in Nagarkot

Adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog pose): From uttanasana (forward fold), step both feet to the back of the mat. Have them together or parallel. Plant the palms into the mat, drawing energy up through the arms. Melt the shoulder blades into the back and have the ears between the biceps, the neck in line with the rest of the spine. Draw the tailbone long and stretch through the hamstrings, working the heels towards the floor.

Nepali soldiers, the Gurkhas are famed for their fearlessness and military prowess

Nepali soldiers, the Gurkhas are famed for their fearlessness and military prowess. Many have been involved in the post-earthquake rescue operation

Virabhadransana 1 (warrior 1 pose): Step your left foot towards the back of the mat, six to eight feet from the front foot. Have the right foot facing forwards, the left angled slightly inwards, the arch of the left in line with the heel of the right. Plant the outside edge of the back foot firmly into the mat and draw up through the legs. Inhale and, on the exhalation, bend the front knee, working towards getting the front thigh parallel with the floor. Ensure the front knee is no further forwards than the ankle. Root strongly down through the legs and then lift the arms upwards, clasping the hands. Turn the face towards the hands. Repeat on the other side.

The pipal or bodhi (old fig) tree is famed as being the type under which Siddhartha Gautama – the original Buddha – achieved enlightenment. They are often meeting or resting points for local communities in Nepal

The pipal or bodhi (old fig) tree is famed as being the type under which Siddhartha Gautama – the original Buddha – achieved enlightenment. They are often meeting or resting points for local communities in Nepal

Vrksasana (tree pose): Stand up straight, feet together. Fix the gaze on a point on the floor ahead. Rooting down through the left foot, slowly take the weight off the right, drawing it up the left leg to rest on the left ankle, shin or thigh. If balance allows, lift the hands above the head.

Half man, half bird, Garuda is the vehicle and devotee of Vishnu. This is his statue in Durbar Square in Patan

Half man, half bird, Garuda is the vehicle and devotee of Vishnu. This is his statue in the UNESCO World Heritage Site Durbar Square in Patan. The square suffered major damage in the quakes

Garudasana (eagle pose): Start in tadasana. Bend the knees slightly, lift the left foot up and, balancing on right foot, cross the left thigh over the right. Hook the top of the foot behind the lower right calf and balance on the right foot. Stretch the arms straight forward, parallel to the floor. Cross them in front of torso so that the right arm is above the left, then bend elbows. Hook the right elbow into the crook of the left, and raise the forearms perpendicular to the floor, the backs of the hands facing each other. Press the right hand to the right and the left hand to the left, so that the palms are now facing each other. The thumb of the right hand should pass in front of the little finger of the left. Now press the palms together, lift the elbows, and stretch the fingers toward the ceiling. Repeat the pose with the arms and legs reversed.

Machhapuchchhre – or the Fish Tail – in the Annapurna range. This peak is believed to be sacred to Shiva and is therefore out of bounds for climbers

Machhapuchchhre – or the Fish Tail – in the Annapurna range. This peak is believed to be sacred to Shiva and is therefore out of bounds for climbers

Ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of the fishes pose): Sit with legs straight out in front. Bend knees, put feet on the floor, then slide left foot under the right leg to the outside of the right hip. Lie the outside of the left leg on the floor. Step the right foot over the left leg and stand it on the floor outside the left hip. The right knee will point directly up at the ceiling. Exhale and twist towards the inside of the right thigh. Press the right hand against the floor just behind the right buttock, and set the left upper arm on the outside of the right thigh near the knee. Pull the front torso and inner right thigh snugly together. Press the inner right foot into the floor and lengthen the front torso. Lengthen the tailbone into the floor. Turn the head to the right. With every inhalation, lift a little more through the sternum, pushing the fingers against the floor. Twist a little more with every exhalation. Return to the starting position and repeat to the left.

As we trekked, hundreds of butterflies cascaded down the hillsides all around us; beautiful to look at though apparently a pest for the local farmers

As we trekked, hundreds of butterflies cascaded down the hillsides all around us; beautiful to look at though a pest for the local farmers

Bahdha konasana (cobbler’s pose): Sit upright and bring the feet together. Holding onto the feet, bring the hips towards them. Open the feet outwards like the pages of a book so that the outside edges touch but the soles face upwards. Draw up through the spine and inhale. On the exhalation, use the muscles of the thighs and buttocks to squeeze the knees closer to the floor like butterfly wings. Repeat.

The cow is the national animal of Nepal. As in other Hindu-majority countries, the slaughter of cows and bulls in Nepal is completely banned

The cow is the national animal of Nepal. As in other Hindu-majority countries, the slaughter of cows and bulls in Nepal is completely banned

Gomukhasana (cow face pose): Sit upright with the legs straight out in front, then bend the knees and put the feet on the floor. Slide the left foot under the right knee to the outside of the right hip. Then cross the right leg over the left, stacking the right knee on top of the left, and bring the right foot to the outside of the left hip. Try to bring the heels equidistant from the hips. Sit evenly on the sitting bones. Inhale and stretch the right arm straight out to the right, parallel to the floor. Rotate the arm inwardly; the thumb will turn first towards the floor, then point behind, the palm facing the ceiling. Exhaling, sweep the arm behind the torso and tuck the forearm into the hollow of the lower back, working the forearm up the back until it is parallel with the spine. The back of the hand should be working towards being between the shoulder blades. Inhale and stretch the left arm straight forward, pointing toward the opposite wall, parallel to the floor. Turn the palm up and, with another inhalation, stretch the arm straight up towards the ceiling, palm turned back. Bend the elbow and reach down for the right hand. If possible, hook the right and left fingers. Lift the left elbow towards the ceiling and, from the back armpit, descend the right elbow toward the floor. Repeat with the opposite arm and leg configuration.

Viparita karani was a perfect post-trek way to stretch out the legs every day

Viparita karani in our tea house accommodation was a perfect post-trek way to stretch out the legs every day

Viparita karani (legs against the wall): Start sitting curled up sideways on the floor against a wall, with the bottom as close to the wall as possible. Roll over to bring the base of the spine flush against the wall and extend the legs upwards. Stay here and breathe.

A 400-year-old manuscript depicting the chakras in the Patan Museum

A 400-year-old manuscript depicting the chakras in the Patan Museum

Chakrasana (wheel pose – also known as urdhva dhanurasana: upward-facing bow): Lie down on the back with hands by the sides. Bend the knees and bring the heels as close to the buttocks as possible, keeping them wider than hip width apart. Raise the hands and bring them back next to the ears. Place the palms on the floor with the fingers pointing towards the shoulders. Lift the body up with the support of the palms and the feet. Rotate the head slightly, so that the gaze is towards the floor. Stretch the thighs and shoulders.

Making new friends on a walk from Nagarkot

Making new friends on a walk from Nagarkot

Balasana (child’s pose): Kneel on the floor, big toes touching, and bottom on heels. Separate the knees about as wide as the hips. Lay the torso between the thighs. Lengthen the tailbone away from the back of the pelvis while lifting the base of the skull away from the back of the neck. Lay the hands on the floor alongside the torso, palms up.

Savasana (corpse pose): Lie flat on the back on the floor, feet mat width apart, rolling gently outwards, arms away from the body, palms facing up. Allow the eyes to gently close and the breath to deepen. Bring the awareness to the breath. Listen to the breath. Listen to the heartbeat. Relax and let go.

 

After my surprise mountain-glimpses from the car on the way back to Kathmandu, when the time came for me to fly home, I was somewhat prepared. I had been unable to check-in online, and the queues at Kathmandu airport were monstrous, so I had to settle for whatever seat was remaining. But luckily the kind Nepali man travelling to the Gulf who was allocated the window seat in my row wanted to sit next to his friend so swapped with me. I sat with my face as close to the window as I could get it, and for the first half hour of the flight, watched peak after peak poking through the clouds, looking so near I imagined I could touch them.

Parting glimpse of the Himalayas

Parting glimpse of the Himalayas

As the world knows, on 25th April this year (less than four weeks after I got back from my trip), Nepal was hit by the biggest earthquake it has experienced in 83 years – measuring 7.8 on the magnitude scale. This was followed by multiple severe aftershocks, including one that registered at 7.3 on the 12th May. The initial earthquake has killed upwards of 8,000 people, and injured many more – according to latest figures. The 12th May quake triggered landslides and has injured around 2,300 people. I’m very lucky that my friends and the people I met and visited there are all safe. But I think of the tiny villages we passed through on the trek, the smiling villagers, the farmers in their fields, the children in their smart school uniforms calling ‘Namaste!’– all their lives now changed forever. As as the outpouring of international aid has appeared to recognise, even beyond the immediate tragedy, the toll of these last few devastating weeks will continue to be felt for years to come. It is hard to know what best to do to help, where the money can be put to most use. Below are a few suggestions.

Purna Yoga:

This is the company who organised my trek. Families of their staff have been badly hit by the quakes. They have set up a fund to support these families and their local communities, and details of this, as well as how they have been spending the money, can be found on their Facebook page.

https://www.facebook.com/nepalyogatrek

GIZ:

The organisation for which my Nepal-based friends work. They have set up a fund that will directly support the rebuilding of their Nepali staff members’ houses that were destroyed. The details are:

Account name: Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH

Account number: 504 089 10

Bankleitzahl:    504 000 00

oder

IBAN: DE29 5040 0000 0050 4089 10

BIC:    MARKDEFFXXX

 Reference:

„Spende Erdbeben Nepal Nationale Mitarbeiter GIZ“

https://www.giz.de/en/html/about_giz.html

Himalayan Disaster Relief Volunteer Group

An impressive community initiative that has done much necessary work since the earthquake. Their coordination efforts have been so effective that some bigger relief agencies are now working through them also. Here is an article about the efforts: http://www.wired.com/2015/05/nepal-earthquake-aid/

You Caring:

The organisation coordinating this campaign are well thought of and have done impressive work so far.

http://www.youcaring.com/emergency-fundraiser/relief-for-nepal-earthquake-victims/343686#.VUX6m-Dse_J.twitter

DZI Foundation: 

An NGO in Nepal that is doing good work in the aftermath of the earthquakes. It is run by an American who has lived in Nepal for 16 years. They have a lot of experience.

https://dzi.org/

Next Generation Nepal:

http://www.nextgenerationnepal.org/Donate_Online

MSF:

http://www.msf.org/country/nepal

A Snowy Walk in Wootton Fitzpaine

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With more flooding all around the country this week, here’s a more positive extreme-weather experience from the vaults. . .

We woke to find a white wilderness surrounding our little cottage. Filled with childish glee, we gulped back tea and threw on wellies, eager to be out. There had been snow in London that week, too, but it was nothing to this Narnia-like wonderland that awaited us.

Narnia

Narnia

The news had reported traffic chaos across South England, but in the tiny village of Wootton Fitzpaine in Dorset, just three miles north-east of Lyme Regis, all was still. We pointed our boots uphill and creaked over untouched snow towards Wootton Hill and Charmouth Forest. Snow lay in thick slices on gates and branches, and ours were the only footprints.

As we trudged towards the forest, the snow began to fall again, and we threw a few sly snowballs, reassured that the signs of our desecration would be quickly covered over again. Calling a ceasefire, we noticed some smaller tracks and looked up just in time to see a flash of copper against the white, as a glossy-coated fox disappeared into the trees. We followed him noisily and soon found ourselves floundering in snow that almost overwhelmed our wellies.

Snowy branches

Snowy branches

Locating what we took to be the path through the forest, we found our way barred by boughs weighted to the ground with snow. We clambered over these and deeper into the forest, where the silence was absolute, past columns of tall birch trees, their northerly flanks camouflaged in white while the opposite sides, hidden from the wind, were still bare.

Suddenly, we encountered a second pair of footprints; what looked like a man and a very large dog – perhaps even a bear, we surmised, our imaginations snow-dazzled. Something about these tracks struck us as confident, purposeful, and we followed them deeper into the forest. Here the trail became confused by hundreds of smaller tracks – birds, foxes, deer, and others unidentifiable to our city eyes.

We came across a digger, abandoned in a clearing and looking as though it hadn’t been used in years. Its corners and deep snow harvest provided a fitting ground for Round Two of the snowballing battles.

Rejoining the trail of our man and his bear-dog, as snow began to seep in through a puncture in my welly, we paused to glance at our ordnance survey map, in a bid to discover if we were even vaguely on our intended path.

But the white-out rendered everything strange and unfamiliar. We returned to following the tracks.

Whose footprints?

Whose footprints?

In another clearing, we built a small snowman, before numb hands and rumbling tummies urged us onwards again.

At an apparent dead-end we first began to doubt our guides, as their prints encouraged us to clamber through thick growth. Scratched and muddy, we emerged out of the forest at last and once again on a path of sorts, with fields belonging to farms surrounding us on all fronts. Peering again at our ordnance survey map, we discovered that the only possible route back seemed to take us across some of these fields. Keeping our gloved fingers crossed that any farmers and their dogs would take our trespass kindly, we stumbled on.

After having to retrace our footsteps several times owing to barbed wire, electric fences and unmapped streams, we finally arrived at the top of a hill, on what seemed to be a proper lane. For the first time in over four hours, we heard voices other than our own – children in a nearby field, sledding. Although, as we never saw them, it was hard to be certain.

Slipping in the sludgy remains of driven-over snow, we allowed the steep decline to tug our weary legs back towards home.

Lost in the snow

Lost in the snow

That night, our taxi driver into Lyme Regis cursed the state of the roads. “These lanes are atrocious!” he exclaimed repeatedly, bemoaning the lack of gritters off the main roads. We smiled out of the windows and into the dark hedgerows. The village is also without a post-office, a shop or a pub (and we never quite got up the courage to enter the village hall). A bus does call in Wootton Fitzpaine – but only once a week. Sentimental visitors that we were, the snow seemed just another tool in keeping the place isolated and to ourselves.

A Filipino Vantage Point

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English: Political map of the Cordillera Admin...Hidden just outside the mountain city of Baguio – summer capital of the Philippines – sits Tam-awan Village. An artists’ colony based around a cluster of the traditional dwellings of the Ifugao and Kalinga (two of the many tribes of the Cordillera region), Tam-awan was founded in 1998 and continues to attract the more intrepid visitors from all over the Philippines, and, indeed, the world.

Baguio hills

Blurry Baguio hills

Approaching from the winding mountain road, on a clear day you can see how the village earns its name, meaning ‘vantage point’ – the views stretch all the way over hazy slopes to the South China Sea.

Inside the complex, huts nestle on their stilts in the greenery, staggered up the steep hillsides from the entrance point. When we arrived, early one New Year’s Eve, all was quiet.

Our  booking seemed to have been lost, but the smiling girl in the office assured us that one of the huts was free. A glance around at the decidedly adult artwork and décor confirmed that ours was the ‘love bug hut’ – perhaps less traditional than the others, but certainly full of character.

Tam awan Village

The rest of the huts are built of dark polished pinewood and were transported from different parts of the Cordillera before being reconstructed. One enters through a small door, emerging in a room whose walls are low, but which is surprisingly spacious due to the pitched thatch roof. Two of the larger huts at Tam-awan are employed to display the eclectic artwork of the Filipino artists who use it as a base. As part of the village’s aim to preserve and promote Philippine culture, guests can also participate in workshops and see music and dance demonstrations.

Getting ready to head into the city that first night, we stumbled down stone steps, wrapped up against the evening chill and already steeped in the smell of wood smoke. We stopped off first in the café, whose blazing lights offered the only illumination in the otherwise pitch dark. There the music was of an altogether less ancient provenance. The staff sat round the videoke (karaoke) machine with beers: they ushered us in and plied us with longganisa (Filipino sausages) and ice cream. It was all we could do to resist the enthusiastically proffered microphone.

Mornings up in the village were cold but fresh (the showers, presumably supplied by the nearby spring, even more so); the mists rolling in from the mountains adding to the other-worldly feel of the place. Nonetheless, days started early, and even here there was no escape from the clamour of Philippine life. Just as the Tokay gecko finished its nocturnal football-rattle-and-hooter call, the videoke machine would spring back into full voice, distant buses would blare their horns and visitors to the village would arrive chattering animatedly.

Tam-awan feels a long way from the tropical beaches the Philippines are perhaps better known for, a long way from anywhere, in fact. It’s a very Filipino kind of sanctuary, and I’m not sure there’s a better.

Baguio City

Baguio City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

http://www.tam-awanvillage.com/

Up Close and Personal

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Checking out of our Zagreb hostel, my best friend and I chatted with the owners about the next stage of the journey we had been planning for much of our twenty-year friendship. On hearing that we were travelling on the overnight train to Split, they exchanged a glance.

‘You do know there’s a Zagreb v Split football game today? The Split fans will be going home on the same train.’

Split football team

Split

We brushed this off, smiling. On our first journey of this rail tour of Europe, gas had been pumped into our compartment and our valuables stolen while we were insensible. By comparison, a few boisterous football fans would be a reassuringly familiar experience.

We had met an Irish girl and a Finnish boy in the hostel and we all found a compartment together in plenty of time. The moon was already high over lovely Zagreb as we got comfortable, my three travel companions sitting across from me, I by the window. I read a little, distracting myself with daydreams of the Adriatic islands we would soon explore.

Five minutes before the scheduled departure time, the Split fans arrived. Zagreb had won; it appeared we would be journeying south with the losers. Still, spirits didn’t seem in the least dampened; soon the platform and carriages were overwhelmed with red and white checked flags and strips, the air thick with shouts, song and the unmistakable odours of beer and sweat.

The door to our compartment was yanked open and the two seats next to me quickly filled. All thoughts of pine-littered beaches were driven swiftly from my mind by the smell of my new immediate neighbour. Two weeks into our shoestring-financed trip and never one to prioritise hygiene over comfort, I had enjoyed a few shower-free days myself. But his was a stench that spoke of dedicated consumption of beer and garlic-infused meat products, with a hint of lucky-and-therefore-unwashable football kit and socks.

I watched wonderingly as the compartment’s five other occupants settled down to sleep, seemingly unfazed – or perhaps knocked out – by the stink. Curling my legs under me and leaning as far from my neighbour as possible, I pulled a scarf over my nose and closed my eyes.

As I focused on the rhythms of the train rattling towards the coast, I became aware of shuffling and grumbling beside me, followed a sudden pressure along the side of my body. Looking up, I discovered that my neighbour was now using my bottom as a pillow, his cheek resting against mine, arms draped over my lower back.

My exclamations of outrage went unheeded. He continued to snore gently. Attempts to shift him were in vain; unconsciousness had rendered his skinny body a dead weight. I had to content myself with scrunching even smaller, allowing his head to crash towards the cracked faux-leather of the seat.

As he snorted awake, I tried again to make myself comfortable. But moments later, the sequence of events was repeated. By the fourth time, my indignant protestations were reduced to bleats of despair.

The train was passing through black countryside by now, the compartment dark. Through the gloom I detected the Finnish boy opposite signalling to me. He mimed giving the offender a shove and pulling down the armrest between us. Of course! Sleep-deprivation and the fumes had addled my brain. There was a simple solution.

Clearly, subtlety wasn’t an option. I took a deep breath and heaved my reeking neighbour with all my strength. As he careened towards the drooling man to his left, I slammed the armrest down, threw myself against the window and feigned obliviousness to his splutterings. My personal space regained, the smell now seemed a minor concern. At last I felt sleep approach.

When the squeak of the armrest woke me minutes later, I felt no surprise. Sighing, I budged up to accommodate the weight of my bedfellow’s head, as it settled once more against me.

Split, Croatia Port

Split, Croatia Port (Photo credit: MacExposure)

While the wheezes and mumbles of the other travellers filled the compartment, my eyes found the peaceful reflection of my oldest friend in the window. I watched her familiar face until the lights at last grew closer together, and then began to fade entirely when dawn touched the cream and ochre buildings of Split.

As the train slowed, my neighbour suddenly lurched to his feet and staggered from the compartment, without so much as a backward glance in acknowledgement of the intimate night we had shared.

English: Train from Zagreb in Split station.

Train from Zagreb in Split station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only now did my best friend – who had warned me at the start of the trip that she could never sleep on public transport – begin to stir.

‘It’s so cold in here! I barely slept at all!’

I smiled fondly at her, serene in the knowledge that the first coffee of the day was on her.

Travels in Wonderland

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‘I could tell you my adventures – beginning from this morning, but it’s no use going back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.

All in a golden afternoon, a little boat rocks gently on the surface of the Thames at Folly Bridge, Oxford. Overhead, traffic trundles south over the stones, as it has done since the early nineteenth century. But in the shadows beneath, all is quiet, until a whisper – a child’s voice – seems to ripple across the silence.

English: Edith, Lorina & Alice Liddell: This w...

Edith, Lorina & Alice Liddell

When Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll) took the three young daughters of the Dean of Christ Church college – Lorina, Alice and Edith Liddell – for a boat trip down the Thames in 1862, it was not just the pretty riverbanks and countryside of Oxfordshire that they were exploring. The whole of Wonderland and the Looking-Glass country of Alice’s now famous adventures unfolded before them as they progressed slowly towards the village of Godstow.

Carroll wove his stories around the familiar sights of the city, and most especially of Christ Church, where the Liddell children grew up, and where he spent most of his adult life – around the neat croquet lawns and gardens, the ancient dusty corridors, and chessboard fields that formed the girls’ playground, and indeed that of Carroll himself. All these appear, but through a child’s eye view, in which concepts of time and size are as fluid as the river itself.

‘What a number of people there are in the carriage!’

The Dining Hall of Christ Church Oxford, dress...

The Dining Hall of Christ Church Oxford

As the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed them past the recently-built Oxford train station, and small hands trailed in the cool water, the girls might easily imagine Alice sitting primly aboard her Looking-Glass train, surrounded by strange and dream-like characters.

‘Well! After such a fall as this, I shall think nothing of tumbling down stairs!’

Was it the staircase at the back of Christ Church’s wood-panelled Great Hall (now known to twenty-first century children as the setting for newer magic by a famous boy wizard) that inspired the rabbit-hole-entry-point for Alice’s adventures? Or was it passing the heavy oak door that the famously tardy Dean used to get to the Senior Common Room that Carroll first glimpsed a disappearing white tail?

Portrait of Lewis Carroll: This was first publ...

Portrait of Lewis Carroll

‘Things flow about so here!’

The grocery shop where Alice and her sisters bought their sweets, just across the road from the college, and these days packed with tat for souvenir-seekers, was transformed at the mathematician-storyteller’s hands into The Old Sheep Shop of Through the Looking-Glass; the bleating shopkeeper into the old sheep herself. Even the shop’s frequent flooding due to its proximity to underground streams was written into the story, as Alice and the sheep suddenly find themselves bobbing along in a rowing boat.

While Carroll’s boat drifted by the men working noisily at Bossoms’ Boatyard that lazy July afternoon of 1862, other local Oxford characters also made an appearance. All of the original members of the Godstow party may be spied in Wonderland, dashing aimlessly round in the Caucus race, with Lorina Liddell as the Lory, Edith as the Eaglet and the Reverend Duckworth as the Duck. Dodgson himself can perhaps be detected in the Dodo.

English: original illustration (1865) by John ...

Original illustration (1865) by John Tenniel

John Tenniel’s original illustrations of the Mad Hatter bore a strong resemblance to the eccentric Oxford furniture dealer and inventor, Theophilius Carter. The girls would have recognised Carter, who often stood in the door of his shop on High Street with a top hat perched on the back of his head, and who had invented an Alarm Clock Bed that was displayed in London at the The Great Exhibition of 1851.

As the boat pulled in at Godstow, in view of the ruins of the abbey, the tour of Wonderland drew to a close with the afternoon. Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland three years later in 1865, with Through the Looking-Glass following it in 1871, and was quickly propelled from relative academic obscurity to international literary renown. Even Queen Victoria was an admirer. By this point, his relationship with the Liddells no longer seems to have been as close, for reasons that remain unclear. But when, as young women, the three sisters embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe, perhaps they might have been following the trail of an adventurous little girl who had been their childhood guide to the Wonderland of their home.

‘Ever drifting down the stream-

Lingering in the golden gleam-

Life, what is it but a dream?’

Godstow Nunnery

Godstow Nunnery

Al Green in the House – a guest post by John Clarke

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To make up for the long radio silence, I have a special treat for Rocinante readers today – a guest post by John Clarke, former writer and editor for The Times, now working at the Independent.

From the late 1990s onward, I managed to combine a production post at The Times with a dual career as a travel writer. I also managed to combine my two great loves, music and travel, with a series of trips, mainly to the States, but later elsewhere, too. I visited Cleveland for the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame; Chicago to find the blues; New Orleans for the annual jazz festival; Seattle to discover the roots of Jimi Hendrix (and visit Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s amazing Experience Music Project) and twice to Memphis, once to provide some background pieces for a series of concerts to be held at The Barbican and secondly to interview Wet Wet Wet singer Marti Pellow, who had wisely made the city his home. Further trips to Dubai for an unlikely rock festival and Finland for eye-opening accordion festival followed. My writing and travelling career ended, gloriously, with a visit to Jamaica that covered the Montego Bay Jazz and Blues festival, Bob Marley and, strange as it may seem, the songwriting career of Noël Coward.

I’d like, if I may, to take you back to my first visit to Memphis, perhaps my favourite American city. My driver and companion for the day (and most of the trip) was Tad Pierson, a graduate from the University of New Mexico, who drove me around in his 1955 Cadillac. But that, as they say, is another story. . .

Al Green

It was a Sunday morning, getting close to 11.30, and I was going to church, the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church, as it happened, at 787 Hale Road, Memphis. It wasn’t far, down Highway 51 South, past the graffiti-scrawled walls of Presley’s mansion at Graceland and then a right turn. It was a warm day and the car park outside the modern, white-painted church with its grey, sloping roof was filling up. Everyone had dressed up, too. Standards may have slipped elsewhere, but here it was Sunday best – pressed suits, ties, smart dresses, even the odd hat or two. We moved inside and sat a few benches from the front. If we were lucky, the church’s founder and pastor might be present. As it happened, we were. A side door opened and in he came with his assistant and two other church workers. The Reverend Al Green, the finest soul singer of his generation, and now church leader and pastoral father, was in the House.

He welcomed us warmly and then the choir began to sing. Imagine a gospel singer who had a strong enough voice to reach the back row of a concert hall with ease. Then take twelve of them, mainly women, and imagine the noise, the joyful thunder of praise and thanksgiving, they were able to create. It was an aural avalanche greeted by a congregation who weren’t prepared to sit there, meekly, and nod in approval. They joined in, they shouted, “Praise the Lord” and, “Great God almighty,” as the music swelled and rocked around them. One choir member, overcome with exultation and too large a dose of the Holy Spirit staggered back and had to be helped to her seat. The others carried on, seeking salvation in a wall of sound.

Then it was over and we were back in our wooden benches listening to the Rev Green. This was no tourist showcase. This was a proper, working church. Wearing his glasses, he read the notices, mentioned choir practice and Bible classes. Then there were prayers and readings, before he smiled and slowly took centre stage, except that this was no theatre. . .

He takes off his glasses. “Deep down in my heart I know that my God is real,” he says. Then he sings it. This is the voice that has sold millions of records worldwide, but there he is, three rows from you, giving a performance that is as heartfelt as any he’s given in the secular world. There’s a backup band to his left – guitar, drums, keyboards and his son on congas. They join in as the Rev Green reminisces about his rural upbringing. “We’re all so. . .”, he pauses, searching for a word, “instant today.” We all shout “hallelujah”. “We don’t know a real cake when we taste it.” More hallelujahs, some more singing and then the pastor spies a family of latecomers who have moved into the seats to the left of us. The mother is wearing a beige, Egyptian-style headdress. Her four daughters, including a set of identical twins, are all clad in dresses with large, zebra-like black and white stripes. “Look at Miller family,” he shouts. “Don’t they look good?” The last word is pronounced with such relish, it’s as if God’s favour has been specially granted to them. “Let’s have a big hand for the Miller family,” he says. We applaud them and praise the Lord.

He sings another line or two and then begin to preach in earnest, except that this is no solo effort. It’s a duologue between the preacher and his congregation. It’s the “call and response” ritual that moved from black churches into black music and went on to provide the soulful backbone of countless pieces of memorable music. “God came to me last night about 10.30,” he says (“God be praised”, “Tell it, father,” we hear). “He said: ‘I got the Word for you,’” (“Hallelujah”, “Great God Almighty”). “He told me to speak to you, and tell you that you can be saved” (“Thank the Lord”). The sermon continues. It’s like a piece of jazz improvisation, where a theme is suddenly taken up – “I’m fifty-eight and I’m God’s child, I’ve been in this business thirty-eight years” – before that topic is exhausted and we move on to pastures new. The words tumble out, inspirational, guiding and comforting.

Then at the climax, the very zenith of the sermon, he pauses. “Will the circle be unbroken,” he sings with a fervour and feel that I’ve never heard in any of his records. It’s a great American gospel song written in 1907 and recorded by everyone from the Staple Singers to the Dubliners, but I’ve never heard a version like this before. The choir and band join in, “By and by, by and by,” he continues in a God-given soulful croon. Then there’s a glorious upbeat and heart-lifting surge as he sings, “Is a better home awaiting, in the sky, in the sky.”

It’s Psalm 100 that tells us to “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” With the help of his choir, band and congregation, the Rev Al Green was fulfilling that command, faithfully and majestically.

It was a church service like no other I’ve ever been to. As we filtered out into the Memphis sunlight I managed to shake hands with the Rev Green. I smiled and could think of nothing to say but, “Thank you.” He smiled warmly back, “Be sure to come again.”

I haven’t yet. But one of these days.

http://www.algreenmusic.com/fullgospeltabernacle.html

London road-trips: The Walking (Night) Camper Van #4

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It’s been quite a while since we took a London road-trip. I’m sure by now you’re all familiar with the concept of the walking camper van – it’s time to introduce you to the walking night camper van. Think night bus, but with less vomit and inane conversation to contend with.*

As is the nature of night transportation, our route will deviate from the day-time one – it will no doubt be less direct, less convenient, but more jolly.

We’re starting from the Curzon cinema on King’s Road, just after midnight – mainly because that’s what suits me, and I’m the driver. Here’s the route:

King's Road to Lambeth Bridge

The playlist for today includes ‘King’s Road’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and ‘Hairdresser on Fire’ by Morrissey.

And here’s our passenger:

* There may still be some vomit and inane conversation to contend with.

Stop 1) Sloane Square

First we’ll turn left onto King’s Road and walk all the way down to Sloane Square. At this hour on a weekend night, the streets are filled with young, drunken Sloanies.

‘Zachary! Zachary! I’ve just spoken to Tabitha – they’re going to JuJu. Do you wanna go with?’

Dazzled by upturned shirt collars, long, tanned legs and sparkling teeth, it’s easy to be disoriented. But if you can drag your eyes away, the side streets of Chelsea are really very pretty – if in a highly-sanitised way – with their pastel-painted houses and Narnia lamp posts.

As the name would suggest, King’s Road’s gentile and expensive associations are not new. It originated as Charles II’s personal route to Kew, and it remained a private road until 1830.

Disembark here for smart bars, cafés and restaurants, if you’re feeling flush, or just a spot of night-time window shopping in the designer stores.

Stop 2) Pimlico

From Sloane Square we’ll turn down Lower Sloane Street and then take a left onto Pimlico Road. It’s instantly quieter, though there are still groups of people on their way home – or to the next stage of their night out.

Pimlico was built as a southern extension to Belgravia, but unlike its exclusive neighbour, its grand Regency buildings sit alongside social housing and humble newsagents. So close to the river, it is perhaps unsurprising that the land here was once marshy, until it was reclaimed in the early nineteenth century from soil excavated during the creation of St Katharine’s Dock.

English: Shop fronts in Pimlico Road Most of t...

Pimlico shops

At this part of Pimlico Road, the shops are all smart-looking design and antiques. When the road splits, we’ll take the right hand branch past The Orange Public House and Hotel – an attractive relic of an earlier age – and St Barnabas Church. On the left side of the road, Peabody buildings reach upwards, looking surprisingly French.

We’ll follow the road as it becomes Ebury Bridge Road, passing the junction for Victoria Station.

Disembark here for rail and coach connections with the rest of the country, although your options may be limited at this time of night.

Stop 3) Millbank

We’ll take the left hand branch of the fork in the road here and walk almost the whole length of Warwick Way. Towards the end, we’ll take a right onto Tachbrook Street – home to a vibrant market during the daytime – which we will walk the full length of to reach Pimlico Station.

Here we’ll cross over and take a left onto Bessborough Street which we’ll follow all the way to busy Vauxhall Bridge Road, which is part of the London Inner Ring Road.

We’ll cross straight over and take Causton Street (to the right of the Random House group building), following it round until we reach a right hand turn onto the quiet of Cureton Street. We follow this all the way round to the right until it reaches the red brick buildings of John Islip Street, which we turn left onto and walk all the way down. This road takes us behind the Tate Britain, which we can admire from the outside (it’s obviously closed at this hour).

Eventually this road turns into Dean Ryle Street, which again we follow all the way until it reaches Horseferry road. This road was named for a ferry which used to transport the Archbishop of Canterbury between Lambeth and Westminster Palaces, along roughly the same trajectory as Lambeth Bridge traces today. There is no one else on the bridge tonight, and it’s nice and quiet for somewhere so central.

Lambeth Bridge

Final Destination: Lambeth Bridge

A right turn here brings us to Lambeth Bridge itself, our final destination. Time for a cup of tea before bed.

Thank you for travelling on the walking night camper van. We would like to wish you a pleasant onward journey and look forward to seeing you again very soon