Sorry but just got email tonight due to internet problems. I don’t have too much to say except the Karzai govt is now under a bit of pressure to clean up its act from the US and money is involved so some changes will be happening like the anti-corruption task force that is to be implemented. Even if they won’t be effective it will start some processes that hopefully blossom further down the track unless it becomes too effective and ends up like their Indonesian counterparts.
The weather here has become very cold and the snow is yet to arrive. Kabul has changed from a dust bowl to a mud bowl as winter sets in. There are still repercussions from the UN guest-house attack and big restrictions on movement for UN staff. A lot have left and more to follow. Most contracting agencies have tightened up their security which I find funny as the risk has always been there - but when its comes to private companies if they need to spend money they will only spend when they have to and that could be too late.
Today is the first day of Eid; well there are two - one after Ramadan and one now. I think this is Eid Furtar (will have to google to get correct spelling). In this Eid, people buy cows or sheep and slaughter them for the feast. It is about helping the less well- off and usually people with money help others without.
I really think some sort of soup kitchen or social welfare would be hugely beneficial for both the West and the people here. The cost would be minimal and the benefits huge!
It is always hard to see the poor people on the streets of Kabul eking out a living while some corrupt person is running around in a civilian hummer.
I have to go to bed now - I am working everyday with no days off and it is taking a toll on me, I can’t wait for my next break in Feb.
Soon-young sat on the bed of her Auckland homestay bedroom and gazed bleakly around. What was the matter with her? Why couldn’t she buck up and enjoy herself? Like a heavy-smoker emerging from an unsuccessful session of hypnosis, she noticed that she was unconsciously batting and patting her lips with her fingers as though putting soft sticky rice grains onto a fragile square of dried seaweed.
Get a grip, Soon-young, baby. You’ll be head-banging next. She squirmed to get comfortable but it was a half-hearted effort. She knew she couldn’t. Not when all she wanted to do was drag her mattress onto the floor and lie down there. Close to the ground. Close to the earth. At the right height. Not stuck up here in mid-air suspended like a low-flying dying bird, a sick creature caught half-way between heaven and earth and not able to breathe in either. She wanted her beautiful silk padded quilt with its lovely colours of blue and yellow and pink. Its delicate slender cranes decorating the corners and high-stepping around its leaf-green borders. Keeping it and her together. Soft and gentle but warm. She was so cold. Would she ever be warm again?
This was crazy. It just wasn’t working. Why on earth had she been so keen to come here? Why hadn’t she gone to Los Angeles like her father had wanted?
Holding back the tears, she glanced around the small room. It wasn’t disgusting. It was bleak, empty and ordinary. And it was unfamiliar. Outside the sash-window of the old Grey Lynn villa, an over-grown privet hedge grew, fed by petrol fumes and second-hand sunlight. It beat a desultory pattern against the glass pane. She had read somewhere that its white flowers were noxious to anyone with allergy-tendencies or anyone prone to asthma.
Once spring came and this shitty old wooden house warmed up, that ugly, misshapen hedge would grow flowers that would make her chest constrict. She knew that August was the coldest month in Auckland (which she had already privately renamed ‘Suckland’.)
No one in Suckland seemed to notice the cold. There was virtually no heating inside the houses. This one anyway. From what she could gather, central heating was rare in New Zealand. Apart from shops and libraries. Consequently she had been spending as much time as possible in the centrally-heated libraries and the large department stores.
Even her Korean-owned private English school was very Mickey Mouse. For the first couple of days of the new term, the heating had been on. Then nothing. The principal had apologised and said there was a malfunction and it would be fixed as soon as they knew what was causing it. Since then, no heating and no repair men.
If she had dared, she would have crawled under her thin duvet and attempted to get warm, but she intuitively knew that would be frowned upon. During the first few days when she had gone into her room, she had automatically closed the door behind her. However each afternoon or evening when she returned from her English school, her bedroom door was wide open. She had heard her homestay mother mutter in a mumble something which sounded vaguely like, ‘no secrets here, dear.’
Oh god, she was probably coming in, going through her things. Soon-young felt sick at the thought of those large rough freckled white hands fingering her possessions, her pure silk pyjamas with their matching white dressing gown
She was over-reacting, the woman was far too busy to waste time poking around in her homestay’s bedroom for god’s sake! Soon-young felt uncomfortable here, in this house. She had no idea she would feel like this. So bereft. So alone. This worried, anxious feeling was so unexpected. She was unprepared for it.
For the past couple of months, she had been so excited about coming that the weeks had flown by. As a goodbye present before she left Seoul, her father had taken her on a trip to Italy and Los Angeles, ostensibly to source new clients.
She knew that that one day her father hoped she would go into the business too. That was why he was so keen for her to learn English. His was good but he emphasised that what was expected these days, was perfect English, especially if you were in the animation business as they were, even though with their English clients, they were not involved in the scripting end of the business. They dealt purely with the animation side of things. But what if his animated feature film took off and became popular outside Korea? Outside of Asia?
So far, Soon-young hadn’t been keen to make a real commitment to her father’s business. As a child, she had loved hanging round, watching the cartoon characters take shape, move and come to life. She would sit at the big desk beside her father, drawing with her own set of felt pens. A huge set that she was very proud of. It didn’t just have red, yellow, blue and green - but ten shades of each. One of the first things she ever learnt, probably before she learnt to blow her nose, wipe her bum properly or tie her shoe laces, was to put the tops back tight on her felts.
But now she was older she knew it wasn’t what she wanted to do. She didn’t want to sit in front of a computer all day. She appreciated that her father had taken a Korean myth, a centuries-old story that her ancestors had told each other, and turned it into a film. It was a great achievement. Eventually she might be tempted into researching stories and bringing the ancient characters to life in a modern context, but she wasn’t interested in the technology. It didn’t fascinate her like it did her father.
She wanted to understand the bigger issues of life, not be constrained in the confines of the cartoon animation business. It was the ideology of people that fascinated and intrigued her.
She wanted to delve into the nature and origin of ideas. The body of ideas that reflect the beliefs and interests of a nation. A set of beliefs by which a society orders reality so that it makes sense. She also wanted to study the use of ideograms to communicate ideas - in a way, this connected up with the cartoon world.
There were clues to decipher. Everywhere. She felt the Korean National flag was a good clue. The circle in the centre of the flag divided into two equal parts. Not by a straight line, but by a curved Hawaiian wave. The upper red section representing the positive cosmic forces of Yang. The lower blue section representing the negative cosmic forces of Yin. The two forces together uniting the concepts of continual movement, balance and harmony that characterise the sphere of infinity.
Soon-young knew that the basic premise of yin and yang was that they were two complementary principles of philosophy and that their interaction was thought to maintain the harmony of the universe and to influence everything within it. Therefore for Korea to emblazon it upon their national flag could only be a grand thing. A good thing. A hopeful thing. They weren’t announcing to the world how many states they had or that they thought the sun belonged to them as a birthright. Instead they were proclaiming harmony. And by virtue of that proclamation, they had to be upholding it.
Wasn’t that what everyone wanted? Not riches, power, sex or possessions - but harmony?
No chance, sweetheart. Dream on. Name one famous person who sought harmony, who wasn’t a drop-out religious weirdo, freak? Had Kim Il-sung been into harmony? Was Bill Gates into harmony? Was Bill Clinton? Were all powerful, successful Americans called Bill? Were all Koreans called Kim?
What if it actually represents the earth. The world! What if the top half is the sky and the bottom half is the land or the sea. So, in fact, they are not restraining their domain to 52 states or four countries, but they are in fact saying the whole world is theirs?
That’s nonsense. Total nonsense. Besides there’s more to the flag than that. The circle is surrounded by four symbols - one in each of the four corners. They each have three lines that symbolise one of the four universal elements - heaven, earth, fire and water. The flag contains everything we need to live.
And what about the people who always fuck it up?
People are only the sum of their parts: water, earth (and all the minerals contained therein), fire (electricity, those electrical impulses with which our nervous system kick-starts us into life)
And our souls?
The souls must be represented by the symbol for heaven - the three unbroken lines. Perhaps?
That flag had been officially used for the first time in 1950. All her life and all her father’s adult life. After the end of the second World War, when there was peace. And hope. And before the beginning of the Korean War mess which she had inherited, and which might never be resolved in her lifetime.
It was a sobering thought knowing that there were other people in the world who were the same as you, except that they were opposed to your ideology. Opposed enough to be prepared to fight you. To kill you. Even though they were the same people. The same race. Could you kill your own people without hating them? Koreans had. They weren’t the only race that had. The French had once. A couple of hundred years ago. The Irish had, with the English and Scottish in there stirring them along. Did you need to hate to kill? Or was there another motivation as strong? Stronger? Did you need an evil component as a catalyst? An Iago?
They had studied Shakespeare’s Othello at school and she now knew that the Iagos of the world were the worst kind of men. The ‘betrayer’ who schemed and plotted - not from hatred or from need but because they could - like the scorpion who stung the frog when the frog was ferrying him on his back across the river. Even though the scorpion died as a result, he had to do it, because that’s what scorpions do. They sting. “It’s in my nature,” said the scorpion to the frog when he asked him “even though now we will both drown.”
What Soon-young wanted to find out was how the scorpions could be prevented from causing further damage. If not prevented, recognised by their genes so that they could not ascend to positions of power where they could do immense damage, where they could cause countries to declare war on each other and maim thousands of innocent people and make thousands more kill one another.
Soon-young had come to the conclusion that if as much time and money was spent on researching peace as was spent on researching genetically modified food or on national defence, the world might have a future.
Since she had visited America she couldn’t comprehend why the Americans had fought in her country. They weren’t even vaguely interested in anything Korean. Most Americans had only the vaguest idea where it was. They certainly didn’t come to Korea for holidays like they went to Rome and Florence and Venice in their droves. So why had they been so concerned about Korea in the fifties? Why they had interfered?
Once the Korean war had ended, her country had picked itself up. She learnt the figures in school. From 1962 to 1994, Korea’s gross national product increased from US$2.3.billion to US$376.9 billion, and by then, Korea’s shipbuilding industry already ranked second in the world. By 1995, Korea had one of the highest growth rates of any country in the world.
If there had been no war - how much more successful might they have become? She knew that over the centuries the Korean people had taught the Japanese many skills. So, today, instead of Korea being one of the world’s top ten economies, perhaps they could have been one of the world’s top five! Her country had not always been backward. It was an old country with an old civilisation.
When Korea took its own future in hand, stepped out from under the yoke of oppressors, things happened. A huge step for Korean mankind had been in 1443 when King Sejong had commissioned all the bright young men of the day (“Assembled Worthies”) as they were called, to study the sound system of the Korean language in order to devise a Korean alphabet. They did and they came up with a written alphabet of 28 letters. Thus solving the problem of the country’s illiteracy. Up till then only the ruling class studied and read. And they only studied and read Chinese!
The Korean alphabet had been carefully assembled and did not only consist of commonly used signs. It was laid on top of a philosophic premise or cosmological principles. These consisted of the five elements - water, wood, fire, metal and soil. And so the king and his assistants, those bright young things, related the speech organs to the Five Agents.
Soon-young tried to imagine the scenes that must have taken place. The giggling, experimenting and demonstrating as they sussed out the sounds and which part of the vocal anatomy made what.
The ground rules were relatively straight-forward. The shape of the letters was designed to represent the shapes of the speech organs; the throat, the molar, the teeth, the tongue, the incisor and the lips. And the speech organs were mated up with the Five Agents according to their obvious similarities: The throat is water because it is deep and moist: the molar is wood because it is uneven and extended; the tongue is fire because it is pointed and moving; the incisor is metal because it is hard and cutting and the lips are soil because they are squarish and yet joined. And just as water and fire are regarded as the prime movers. So were the throat and tongue sounds considered to be the main instigators in the speech world. The throat was regarded as the articulator and the tongue as the differentiator of speech sounds. Everything had a place. The harmony was established. Absolute. It might be considered quaint nowadays but in the fifteenth century, it made a huge difference to the Korean people. It liberated them.
Soon-young had been liberated when she travelled with her father. Liberated from childhood into adulthood.
She fell in love with Italy. It was so splendid. So lavishly opulent.
She delighted in the fountains of marble with water splashing over carved naked limbs. She loved the sound of the Italian language, Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo, Venus di Milo, Sandro Botticelli. molto bene, caro mio . She wished she was learning Italian instead of English and she desperately wished she was living in Rome or Florence instead of here in Suckland.
Why hadn’t she stayed? She had been so happy there.
She couldn’t remember where she had got the idea from to come to NZ. But it had been her idea. No one had forced her. After she and her father had returned home to Seoul, she had been counting off the days. Figuratively, literally. She made a big calendar on her wall and each day she crossed off another square.
Her mother reminded her that she used to do that when she was little. Except that then, ten times a day she would ask “how many days now till my birthday?” Until finally, her mother showed her how to use her little chubby brown fingers to figure it out. “One” and one finger would tap on her white lacy tights, embroidered with silver flying horses; “two” and down would tap the next finger. And then her father would come home and throw her up in the air. One. Two. Three. Again! Again!
It was all so simple then. Then all she had wanted for her birthday was a red fan with a golden handle with gold thread wound around the edges. She would take out her black and gold abacus and move one bead over to the over side like her mother had showed her. How many days left now?
In Italy, she had read as much as she could about Leonardo da Vinci. She had become infatuated with him, as though he was a long-lost relative. A kindred spirit. He was a giant among men. A superman. A superbrain. A cosmic cranium. Centuries ahead of his time. What would happen if he was alive nowadays? Would anyone pay attention, listen to his theories his thoughts and ideas?
Her father had planned this trip so that he and she could spend time together. She was his oldest child. He was interested in what she wanted to do with her life. He wanted to know. One day sitting outside in a beautiful piazza, her father encouraged her to explain to him what she was thinking of doing.
The day was flawless. Perfect. It was hard to concentrate. To pin herself down, especially when she herself didn’t really know what she wanted to do. Not exactly.
So her sweet father asked her if she would at least consider a career in the film animation business. That was when she had explained that she didn’t know what she wanted to be. To do. Yet. Not totally. Not for sure. Not for her whole life. She knew that she was lucky that her parents considered it important for her, as a woman, to have a career. Not just to rule over the kitchen. Or the household in general, as many well-off Korean women did.
In many Korean households still, the kitchen had remained the domain of the woman. Some even went as far as to say that it was bad luck for the men to go into the kitchen. A myth that was very convenient. A myth some of the more worldly wives, including Soon-young’s mother thought had been rather carefully cultivated by the fast-living, dirty stop-out husbands who were hopelessly addicted to their “sing-alongs” and their adult movies. Those cunning karaoke-hooked husbands did nothing to dispel that particular myth! The more they could stay out of the kitchen the better. It was their culture. The way they did things. The way the old folk would have wanted things done. It was a premise they wanted to preserve. Nothing should be changed.
So she was very aware that she was lucky to be brought up in a family that wasn’t hide-bound with old traditions. That was prepared to examine their lives and initiate changes. Somewhere there had to be a place for her. A place where she could think and act and create solutions that would enhance the harmony of people’s lives. But more than that, she didn’t know.
In the sun-strewn ancient Italian market square, framed by fine handsome buildings and spiced up by the promenading sexy men and exquisite sensuous women, her father was talking to her. Asking her questions. Important questions about her life and what she planned to do with it. Soon-young concentrated harder and tried to listen and make sense of the words, which were landing in the air in front of her and bouncing off in unexpected directions like carefree neurons looking for a new nervous system.
All the same she didn’t know what she wanted to become. She was grateful for the opportunity to be able to choose. She considered his questions carefully. So far, she had merely been eliminating what she did not want to do. She didn’t want to study medicine. Law. Commerce or finance. Or any kind of business really. She was more interested in the why and how. Why had it happened? How was it possible? How could things change? Why should they?
She’d been to Los Angeles before, a couple of times when she was a young impressionable teenager. Going back at eighteen, she had felt like a grown-up. A young woman, a world apart from the scatty creature that she had once been. It was great to wander down Melrose Place again, catch the vibes of the switched on, clued-up young Americans. Wander round Aardvark and buy an old baseball jacket for her little brother and a superb white sequined cardigan that might have been owned by Audrey Hepburn, for god’s sake, for herself.
She bought a book in a fusty, second-hand bookshop on VeniceBeach. She had gone there to see the Californian surf, watch the roller skaters and the crazy street performers; have lunch at one of the restaurants on the boardwalk.
In the restaurant, she opened up the book. It was called “The Wonder Book of Children of all Nations” published in 1917 by Ward, Lock & Co. Limited, London, Melbourne and Toronto.
The front cover was cheerful and jolly. A little boy in a white sailor suit, holding onto a large union jack stood on a globe of the world. Around him were nine other little children - one black girl in western clothes, a little Dutch boy and girl in clogs , a little American Indian in a chief’s full head-dress, some unidentifiable Austro-Hungarian types, a very proper little English girl holding a doll and a Japanese woman-midget with a baby on her back. Someone had scratched out the English boy’s left eye. Soon-young was tempted to put out his right one as well, especially after she read page 194, where it said, “Korea is now under the protection of Japan and its schools are rapidly adapting themselves to new conditions.”
Pigs. Ignorant pigs.
‘Listen to this, Dad, is this right? “The Koreans more than any other Eastern nation have welcomed Christianity; sometimes there are Bible-classes with more than a thousand members.” That must be where the Rev. Moon got his ideas from.’
‘I don’t know where the Rev Moon got his ideas from but he could buy and sell us a thousand times over.
‘A thousand times! Dad, what planet are you on? The Moon empire is a multi-billion dollar empire. And most of it is made from gun money.
Mr Lee looked round somewhat anxiously, ‘You’re really getting carried away, Soon-young. I know not everybody likes the way he’s used his charisma to gain power but I wasn’t aware he was involved in guns.’
‘Dad he’s a gun manufacturer! We should stay an extra couple of days, catch a plane down to their Kahr arms factory in Worcester, Massachusetts. I’d like to see his set-up.’
Soon-young, what has got into you? You’re young. Beautiful. You’re in America. I was sure there were a hundred places you’d want to go to in America that we wouldn’t have time for, but I never guessed that a gun factory would be one of them!’
So can we go?
‘Sweetheart, I’ve got to get back. The story boards will be piling up for my approval. I’ve got a tight schedule set up. There’s no room for me to deviate.’
They both sat in silence for a moment and then Soon-young said, ‘I felt really at home in Italy. There may not be another Korean living there. But it felt right.’
‘You realise not all Italians are Leonardo da Vinci’s, don’t you?’
‘Of course I do. But here in the States, amongst our liberators, I don’t feel at all at ease.’
‘Soon-young, you don’t have to take on the cares of the world. You should be enjoying yourself.
‘I know. And I do want to have fun. I’m only eighteen for god’s sake. But I also want to find out what makes people tick. Why countries make the decisions they do. Is it need? Is it geography? Is it greed? Do you realise that the Rev Moon bought a Manhattan recording studio for one son? The one who fancies himself as a heavy metal rock musician. He bought two horse farms for the ones who were in the Korean Olympic equestrian teams. Now he’s set up this son who’s into firearms. I read somewhere that he’s even bought the Auto-Ordnance Corporation. They make those Thompson sub-machine guns that the mob made famous, for god’s sake.’
‘How do you know all this?’
‘Dad, some of my friends are already planning their Moon marriages, so I started finding out what I could. I was revolted at my friends’ stupidity and at Rev Moon’s hypocrisy. The workers in his factories have strict sales targets to meet. They’re all hyped up so as not to displease the “True Father”.
Now she was in New Zealand and it had not been providing any answers. Not so far. What it had been doing, was draining her with its negativity. She kept telling herself that once spring came, things would be easier. She would feel better. It was always like that. Every year. The winter drained your energy. Sapped your strength and then the spring came and breathed life into the ground so that the seeds sprouted and the new leaves and the first tender flowers took away the harsh bleakness.
But first she had to get warm. This was ridiculous. There were draughts everywhere. Every window. Every door. She had heard about New Zealand’s hot pools and had assumed that they would use all that thermal activity to heat their houses like they did in Korea.
Like they had been doing there for centuries. Unless of course they were part of the poor, the underprivileged. Her grandmother had told her that they had been heating their houses in Korea with their hot flat stones since before the Three Kingdoms period. More than two thousand years ago. Yet these Kiwis hadn’t figured it out yet.
It didn’t snow in Auckland. They didn’t have to wait until spring slowly melted the ice. The temperature didn’t get to minus ten like it did in Seoul. The streets and the cars weren’t covered with a dusting of powered snow. No Siberian freeze had descended on Auckland like it did on the Korean peninsula for six months. No spring thaw that lasted for two months or whirls of golden dust that descended from the Gobi desert before the spring showers start. Why couldn’t they keep their houses warm?
Her “stay” had got off to a bad start. The first night, she was tired from the flight and straining to understand what her homestay mum and dad were saying to her. Straining to understand their accent, which was stronger than she had expected. She had her electronic translator, but she had forgotten to bring it to the table and it seemed rude to interrupt the dinner to go and find it. Besides she couldn’t even string together the words that would be required to make that simple request. A couple of times she tried but she was interrupted each time. She felt exhausted.
Dinner was a nightmare. They had cooked a roast. Specially for her. They didn’t often cook a roast these days. Too much trouble. And they were far too busy. But for her first night, they had cooked a roast dinner with all the trimmings. Roast potato. Roast pumpkin. Roast parsnip. It was so dry and hard. So tough to chew. She couldn’t get it down. It stayed in her mouth, hid amongst her teeth and the top of her mouth and her tongue. Closing and clogging and coating her voice so the sound couldn’t get out. It was congealed in cold shiny fat, stuck to the roof of her mouth. Attached like a fresh coat of varnish. She would never get it off. This old shoe roast. This dried tree roast. This dried deer antler roast. On her plate the fat settled and hardened like the look in the homestay woman’s eyes. They asked her lots of questions and she had no juice with which to talk and no inspiration with which to think. She mumbled and stuttered and died. She was eating bats’ wings with leather linings. Her throat seemed filled with dried burnt moths whose rough hairy corpses were stock-piling inside her and she couldn’t swallow. She couldn’t breathe. They were all jammed up in her throat alongside all the English words that she had had such high hopes of using and parading and melting hearts with. Now she was reduced to a cross, silent, dumbed-down Korean girl with nothing to say for herself and no appreciation. Obviously! Just look at the waste! Of the trouble taken to prepare her a real New Zealand roast.
She yearned for cool raw slices of pale creamy fish, onto which she would spoon hot sweet Korean chilli paste sauce, the colour of melted-down ancient rubies mixed three to one, with precious black sapphires. She would carefully wrap the fish in fresh dark green sesame leaves before biting into them with her sharp young teeth. Rounded white pearls biting into the deep green parcel. She needed a bowl of friendly comforting noodles with slices of mushroom and brown glistening seaweed that slipped into her mouth and down her gullet like a bridegroom greeting his brand new wife. She was a vampire desperate for a fix of curly boiled squid that contained her childhood memories of rock-pools and sea shells. Only then she could stop feeling dehydrated, dry and tainted. She would bloom and unfurl like a new leaf in a spring rainstorm. The salty, juicy wet food would revitalise her. Not dry her out like a worm that has been stranded on the concrete. Like a stranded mermaid, she’d swum in and too late discovered there was no room to turn around in this small suburban house. No room to manoeuvre her beautiful tail without damaging it irrevocably, without knocking off many of its silvery iridescent scales. This place was so narrow. It was a tunnel from which she couldn’t escape. A tube that would hold her tight and contain her but it would be impossible for her to grow inside it. There was no room. No room to turn. No room to escape.
Soon-young was homesick in her homestay house. She was numb and nauseous. These bossy, cocky, dry and fluidless people sucked out her will so that she could only follow like a sheep. Not function or flower.
Touted as ‘ the most spectacular fireworks display in London’, the fireworks show at AlexandraPalace. Muswell Hill, a couple of weeks ago was something I couldn't resist, so accompanied by a group of fun-loving chums, we headed off on the uphill trek to AlexandraPalacePark.
The fireworks were indeed spectacular and enhanced by stirring space-themed music which included The Planets and the Doctor Who theme in full blast, drew plenty of "Oohs and Aahs" from the crowds who had turned up in their thousands.
But when the fleeting thrills from the fireworks had died away, the huge, remaining back-drop, illuminated by search lights, was spectacular in its own way, as it has been for 136 years.
It is the magnificent Alexandra Palace, or ‘Ally Pally’ as it is affectionately known (a name allegedly coined by Gracie Fields), built by the Victorians as a ‘palace of entertainment ‘ for the people, and having survived two major fires - one only sixteen days after it's unveiling, and the other in 1980 (disrupting a beer festival!) it remains a true ‘palace of entertainment.’
It offers a superb panoramic view of most of East and Central London, and on a clear day you can see most of the major landmarks - the triple towers of CanaryWharf, The British Telecom Tower, St Paul's Cathedral , the Millennium Dome and the London Eye.
All very breath-taking
With its towering, red-blinking transmission mast, the Pally is another building which has a place in the history of BBC broadcasting and buildings.
The BBC never actually owned any of Ally Pally, but in 1935, the Corporation leased the eastern part of the building, and from rooms originally designed as banqueting halls, created two studios, A and B. from which the world's very first high definition television transmissions were made. One of the first presenters, Elizabeth Cowell, introduced those pioneering transmissions with the words
"This is direct television from AlexandraPalace."
I'm sure her announcements were made with perfect modulated vowels. Can't you just hear them?
For the next 20 years, the studios at the ‘palace’ were the home of BBC television, broadcasting such iconic programmes as the sci-fi thriller, the Quatermass Experiment and such early ‘soap operas’ as The Grove Family.
Broadcasts were only interrupted by the Second World War, when the transmitter was switched off throughout the war to prevent the German air force from using the tower as a navigational aid.(As it turned out, the transmitter was instrumental in jamming the Luftwaffe's radio navigation system.)
When broadcasting resumed at the end of the war, it was clear that studios A and B were just not big enough, so production was moved to Lime Grove, Shepherds Bush, and later to Television Centre. One of the Ally Pally studios was retained exclusively as the base for BBC News , and the other for early experiments in colour TV. The first U.K. colour television transmissions came from there.
Up until 1969, Ally Pally was still in use for news broadcasts and then with the launch of that great institution, the Open University, a band of academics moved in to take over the studios for their Open University programmes. Having completed an OU degree myself in the 1980s, I remember these programmes well; they were usually fronted by long-haired, whiskered academic men wearing fair isle tank tops or tweedy sports jackets.
The BBC's lease expired in 1981, and the Open University programme-makers and the whiskered academics with their mandatory horn-rimmed specs moved onto Milton Keynes.
A blue plaque now marks the place where television was born.
But does radio feature at all in Ally Pally history?
Yes it does - that same transmitter mast is still in use and was one of the first transmitters which launched Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) only 15 years ago in 1995.
Apparently at 130feet, the mast was too high and was damaging the building. As a listed structure, the mast couldn't be altered, but the ingenious BBC engineers surrounded the mast with fibre glass, and hey presto - the first DAB signals were relayed.
Doctor Who fans will know that Ally Pally made a brilliant setting for the 2006 Doctor Who story, The Idiot's Lantern and there in the climax, dominating the Ally Pally skyline, loomed our transmission mast.
Sadly, the studios have long since been de-commissioned, and are in a very poor state of disrepair. The original BBC cameras and recording equipment now have a home at the wonderful National Museum of Film and Photography in Bradford.
The Alexandra Palace Trust, custodians of a collection of broadcasting memorabilia, has aspirations to open a museum in the derelict space which was once studios A and B.
But broadcasting is only one element in the wealth of the Pally's history. The splendid old Victorian theatre, originally seating 3,000 has also been neglected and sadly is rarely seen by the public. Having been ‘dark’ for over 70 years, it opened for a few performances again in 2004. However, for safety reasons, the theatre could only be licensed for an audience of no more than 200, and costly renovations would be required to restore the theatre to even a shadow of its former glory.
Although some of the main areas have been re-furbished, such as the magnificent Palm Court - a vast atrium filled with gigantic exotic plants and sculptures which leads into The Great Hall, an exhibition centre with hospitality suites, it is sad to see such beautiful old buildings falling into decay because of lack of funding.
There is a Save Ally Pally Campaign Group which seems to do sterling work in maintaining what they can of the Pally's cultural history; two years ago the campaigners even managed to take on the might of developers who had plans costing £55 million to turn the Pally into a luxury hotel and casinos.
The campaign leader, in asking the courts to reject the plans, said "This is A People's Palace, not a Caesar's Palace"
I am about to become a Save Ally Pally Campaigner.
Mary Kalemkerian, BBC Head of programmes, Radio 7
(count me in too, reminds me of the ‘Friends of the Civic’ and the lovely Eric in Auckland. The Editor)
And so to London for a week to hang out with my daughter Sara and 10 month old grandson Reggie.
Monday we all go to Covent Garden and after a ramble around I take Reggie into Zara where he promptly falls asleep in the changing room. Such a little man already. Then we meet Sara and Tom Baxter for tea in a pretty cafe and watch some buskers playing Vivaldi and then notice a small gallery showing Chagalls so we have a look at them, what a treat and then we go to the RA for the Anish Kapoor exhibition. I have seen his huge wax pieces before but it was quite something to see them installed in the galleries of the RA and to watch the hallowed walls being spattered in red wax. Reggie laughed with glee and we thought it was marvellous too.
Tuesday morning and Sara has gone to Sir John Mortimer’s memorial service at Southwark Cathedral and I am in grandmother mode looking after Reggie for a few hours all on my own, a first for us all. We have a great time together until it comes to nappy changing and then it is a battle of wills as I try to hold him still long enough to do the business and he escapes and I am chasing him with babywipes all round the room and he is not pleased. I know, I know, he is just a baby and I am considerably bigger but somehow he has the advantage!!! Eventually we are sorted, he clean and dry and dressed and I somewhat dishevelled, but victorious. We have a lot of fun banging the piano and ‘bundling’ on the sofa. Lunch is a great success as well. Sara comes home, the Memorial was beautiful, Jon, her Dad composed a special piece for the occasion and the speeches were moving and funny. He was such a remarkable man.
Wednesday and off to Clerkenwell for an exhibition curated by our friend Susi Arbuthnot featuring three local Dordogne artisans. Peter Cutting, (aka Peter the Potter) ceramicist, Geoffrey Image, (aka Pinkie) oeuvres metalliques and John Mitchell, wood turner extraordinaire. It was great to see their work in a different context, excellently displayed in a gallery in the big city. The work was very interesting, both Peter and Geoffrey having radically departed from their more usual styles, and there were several red dots which proved that it’s always worth taking a chance.
Sara, Reggie and I had lunch close by at a place called the Modern Pantry on St. Johns Square, very relaxed and pleasant with long communual tables and even a high chair.The food was exceptional and unusual. Worth a visit if you happen to be in Clerkenwell.
Thursday a relaxing day at home. Jason, Reggie’s Dad comes home after a week in a cottage in Norfolk working on his play. Sara and I go to the movies to see the new Cohen brothers’ film, A Serious Man. The Swiss Cottage audience find it hilarious. I only find some of it funny, I feel that there are only caricatures not characters and it makes me uncomfortable.
Friday a visit to Ainsworth the homeopathic pharmacy on New Cavendish St. for a chat with the head pharmacist about the H1N1 vaccine. There has been a flurry of scary reporting on the BBC regarding the necessity of giving it to children from 6 months old up to 5 years. A good friend and her 13 month old daughter are extremely ill with it, so what to do? He gives us plenty of background information, for example, that although the US, UK and most of EU banned the use of mercury in vaccinations about 20 years ago, one of the vaccines being used in UK does contain said mercury. Mercury is not good. Also, his own son and daughter-in-law, both medical doctors gave their baby Tamiflu and it was desperately sick for 3 weeks. Of course, being a homeopath he is very anti the pharma conglomerates. We leave with much to mull over.
Then over to Notting Hill for a walk around the shops, all a bit straight and proper now, and then to lunch with an old friend.
Saturday a family visit. Late breakfast with the cousins, lots of fun with the children and catch-up with the grown ups and after that pop into Selfridges, fight the shopping hoardes and then back to Camden. I catch a superb arts programme on TV with Waldemar Janusczak called Ugly Beauty and Jason cooks us a lovely dinner, some lively chat and then to bed.
Sunday, I say my goodbyes until the next time and Sara gives me a lift to the coach stop on Finchley Road and I get to Luton in good time to catch my flight back to Bordeaux.
The weather here has changed remarkably since I went on leave. While the days can still be quite hot like 15 degrees Celsius, the nights are freezing and there has been ice around in the morning. The hills in the distance have new snow on them and the locals expect the snow to reach Kabul in around three weeks.
There is such a huge difference between summer and winter here with summer temps reaching around 48* Celsius and winter down to -26* Celsius. There are people who are already feeling the cold and the worst is yet to come. One person I spoke to says that around 500-700 people die in Kabul every winter due to the cold.
I do wonder though why some people do not seem that prepared for the winter as it happens every year and the lack of warm clothes is surprising. Maybe they usually hibernate in their homes. And the availability of jobs and need to work through winter is relatively new, maybe they just don’t have the warm clothes that you would expect them to have.
Well today is the inauguration of President Karzai. Security is very tight as you would expect, yesterday a number of VIPs left Kabul and The US Secretary of State (Mrs Clinton) flew in. Roads were closed from 6pm last night and today most intersections are blocked. This is having a big impact on the population as there has not been any info passed onto the locals. So people can’t move around town and even go home.
Karzai will start his anti-corruption committee which will help to pacify the west and will not achieve much. I’m sure they will use it as a tool to target some people they don’t like. A poll was released just the other day which states that most people blame poverty on the war and lack of progress. It has been stated in the past that the Taliban will pay you $25US for firing a rocket at ISAF forces. That may seem like peanuts but when you have nothing you can do a lot for your family with that money.
This leads me to an idea which I had last night: what if they implemented some sort of social welfare scheme. It could be run/managed by ISAF forces. They talk about winning the hearts and minds of the local Afghan population. What better way than to hand out money to the poor people who need it. If the ISAF forces are controlling it they will soon be seen as very friendly. Of course this would be a prime target for the Taliban as it would be eroding their grip on the population. But once the population switch allegiances you would be able to get more intelligence on the Taliban, and in turn target them militarily and even better draw people away from supporting them.
It would be cheaper than throwing away money to the corrupt officials at the top who have made their empires from the billions that the Russians and now the West have ‘invested’ in Afghanistan. And the impact would be huge in improving the lives of the local population which would then have an impact on reducing attacks on military forces.
I don’t think however the US would approve of such a socialist idea. Money for nothing, God forbid!
Well it is time to go, the helicopters have been working overtime and surprisingly no attacks today. I thought that at least a rocket or two, as there were 8 fired two nights ago and an suicide attack on some troops too but nothing today touch wood!
The native fat-tailed sheep are grazing on garbage. Above, a street vendor with his nut-roasting machine.
On Tuesday this week, there were several hundred friends, family and admirers of Sir John Mortimer's work gathered together in the splendour of Southwark Cathedral at a memorial service to celebrate the life of the great playwright, novelist and barrister. I felt very privileged to attend such an occasion.
The readings and music selected for the service were perfect, reflecting so many elements of Sir John's life and work. The first reading was an extract from The Summer of a Dormouse, read by Edward Fox, followed by Edward's son, Freddie Fox, reading extracts from In Other Words and Where There's a Will. Other readers included Sir Derek Jacobi, also reading from The Summer of a Dormouse. Joss Ackland read the lesson, from Ecclesiastes, 12. Patricia Hodge read from Where There's aWill , and Jeremy Irons read Afterwards by Thomas Hardy.
The sun beamed through the cathedral windows and the beautiful music from flute, piano and strings, combined with the power, richness and clarity of the actors' voices reading the words of Sir John Mortimer, was moving, heart-warming and uplifting. The main address was given by Neil Kinnock who said (amongst many other lovely things he revealed about the man he called 'the magnificent Mortimer' )
" He illuminated our lives.. he lit up our times. ... the defence rests, but his soul goes strolling on".
The bells of Southwark Cathedral rang out clearly and loudly at the end of the service as applause from the hundreds of attendees swelled in appreciation of a remarkable man.
Readings and dramatisations of John Mortimer's work feature regularly on Radio 7, and I'm delighted to let you know that, starting on 21st December, you can hear the first of 13 radio dramatisations starring one of his best-loved characters, ‘that crumpled champion of the common man - the immortal Rumpole of the Bailey,’
What a treat.
The grief Mr Lee was carrying for his daughter could not be contained. If he opened his mouth too much, it would gush out. Ringing his wife was the hardest thing he had ever done. As he said “Soon-young is dead. Our daughter is dead,” his heart exploded. He felt the bomb go off in his mind and he was whacked. He buckled. He nearly dropped the phone. His wife was screaming with a high-pitched scream that broke all the crystal in the Kremlin; that imploded and shattered three thousand year old pottery across the length and breadth of Japan and splintered every light bulb in Grand Central Station.
In Korea, his wife’s scream froze the hairs on the back of the necks of the entire population of Seoul. People stopped what they were doing and felt a shiver run over them as though a master race from Mars had invaded earth and was about to slit the throat of every person with one terrible ruthless cruel slice.
Mr Lee was carrying that scream with him wherever he went. When he lay down to sleep in the bed in his hotel room, he closed his eyes and immediately the scream opened them again.
His body was racked with it. It played his nerves like a Chinese orchestra of disharmonious yee woos being played by the inmates at the lunatics’ ball.
Every day he went to Jem’s building and waited across the road in the student cafe on the corner. Once he was seated at a table, he pretended to read a newspaper or a book.
Today was his third day there. Each time he bought a coffee or a diet coke, he tipped the young waitress $5. That was cool and now she kept an eye out in case he wanted anything. She had sussed that he only wanted to sit at one particular table because once when he went up to the counter for a refill and somebody else sat down there, Mr Lee went and stood outside, leaving his coffee undrunk on the counter. After that, she told him just to wave her over and she would bring him what he needed. She wasn’t meant to serve the customers, they were meant to queue up at the counter but what the fuck, no one else was tipping her $5.
When the cafe closed, Mr Lee sat outside Jem’s building in a rental car. It wasn’t a busy street and no one seemed to take any notice of him. He didn’t know what he planned to do or why he was waiting. He knew he had to see Jem. Talk to him. Kill him. He didn’t know. All he knew was the scream and that his heart had been pulverised, pulped and shredded and that his daughter was dead and his life was meaningless. He had to find out why this had happened. There had to be a reason, otherwise what was the point? He waited and waited.
Mr Lee had paid a local Auckland-Korean to check Jem out. He told the guy Jem’s name and that he lived in the building where his daughter’s body had been found. The police had told Mr Lee that Jem had found his daughter’s body but he was not a suspect. He was a young New Zealand artist who had just returned from a successful exhibition of his work in a Paris gallery. He also exhibited in a gallery in Auckland.
Mr Lee’s guy found the address for him and Mr Lee visited the Auckland gallery and looked at Jem’s work. He told the owner that he liked it very much and was thinking of investing in one, maybe more. She gave him a set of Jem’s slides to encourage a sale. On the wall of the gallery there was an article, describing Jem’s triumph in Paris. There was a photo of Jem. Mr Lee asked the owner if he might have a copy, to his surprise she agreed.
At the cafe when he wasn’t pretending to read his newspaper, he took out Jem’s slides and held them up to the sunlight. He could tell they were good. Even though he hated Jem, he thought they were beautiful. He knew Jem was young and he had expected bold cartoon characters in bright colours with black lines around them doing lots of dirty things to each other and to Bambi and Jackie Kennedy and so on. These were nothing like that.
These were works of art made by a man who was born with an angel on his shoulder and music in his veins. Not the breath of the devil on his lips. Could a man like that kill his daughter? He gazed into the deep blue panoramas, the swelling curves of the rocks and the wind disturbing the seagulls’ wings and he tried to gauge if that man could kill. Every now and then he took out the photo of Jem and gazed at it.
He read all the back issues of the daily newspaper and cut out and kept the articles about his dead daughter. About five that morning when he was stiff and delusional he drove round the block, back to his hotel and asked the concierge to blow up the picture of Jem. Yawning, the concierge took the article. He was about to go off duty in an hour and was pretty fucked. He didn’t make a judgement call as to what an odd request it was. Besides it was a quiet time of his shift and he might as well stretch his legs before they went to sleep on him.
Mr Lee took the large photocopy of Jem and placed it inside his case in his hotel room. On the top. Before he returned to the cafe he went to the hotel’s twenty- four hour restaurant and quickly ate a large bowl of laksa. It had looked good but as he chewed and swallowed, it did not taste of fresh, flesh-pink salmon, succulent, tasty Bluff oysters seeped in creamy coconut milk. It tasted of boiled string, wads of wet newspapers, lifeless left-over damp kitchen cloths.
He paid his bill and walked back to the little cafe. It was seven a.m. Only two hours since he had left the quiet back street. The rental car was now parked in the hotel car park.
He would have preferred to have checked into a small family hotel but there did not seem to be any in the centre of Auckland. Just huge, expensive buildings with shonky modern architecture in which the glittery expanse of public foyer bore no resemblance to the tiny cramped bedrooms contained inside the expensive facade.
Staying in a large hotel probably guaranteed him some anonymity. He wasn’t sure yet if he needed to be anonymous. He wasn’t sure if he would kill Jem. He knew he would never be sure of anything again. Inside him a tiny dot was all that remained of the original man.
He needed the little personal services that the young waitress was providing if he were to keep sane.
He knew that she now put her trays of clean forks and knives and containers of paper napkins on his table. Saving a place for him. Saving his table by the window, covering the surface, so no one would sit there even when the café filled up, because it looked like a work space. Then when Mr Lee arrived she quickly cleared it all away leaving the table empty for him.
Mr Lee was on his third cup of coffee for the day when he saw Jem leave his building. He recognised him immediately from the photo. His reflexes went onto red alert, his breathing quickened but his exterior demeanour did not change. He left a $5 note on the table by the window and walked off down the street after Jem.
The evening before, he had bought some typical Kiwi clothes to replace the American-inspired checks and pastels he was wearing when he arrived. Now he was dressed in jeans and a dark green T-shirt and a pair of Dirty Dog shades. Only his expensive immaculate Reeboks gave him away as not being a real Kiwi. Mr Lee hoped that he blended. He did.
But what he wanted to wear, what Mr Lee really wanted to wear was a long black robe, covering him from head to toe. He wanted to cover his head with it, cover his face with it, lie down on the earth in it and sink slowly down into the soil. Deep down and disappear.