Lesley Anne Rose

Writer & Artistic Producer


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Paris 19 – 23 January 2017 : Inauguration of the 45th President of the United States 

I hadn’t intended to march.

In the weeks leading to Trump’s inauguration day I’d asked myself repeatedly how to mark a moment. A moment in time. A moment in history. A moment when before becomes after. A moment to be afraid, angry, excited, confused, empowered. Do you throw yourself into such a moment? Run and hide from it? Or simply stay still and watch?

I hadn’t intended to march. I’d intended to be alone.

Months before the news of the US election result hit the world hard, a friend sent me a link to the Wikipedia page for the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup – the mass arrest of Jews in Paris by the French police on 16 and 17 July 1942. A moment in history named after the Velodrome d’Hiver where the Jews were held after being rounded up, before being carted off to Auschwitz, most never to see the streets of Paris, or anywhere else, again. When I heard the news I recalled the email and decided to make a small, simple, peaceful, solitary gesture to history on inauguration day at the memorial for the 13,000 Jews, including over 4,000 children, who were rounded up because of the beliefs they put their faith in. I wanted nothing to do with mass protests or marches, preferring time alone to reflect, lay flowers on the past, come to terms with the present and make plans for a better future.

I hadn’t indented to march. I intended to walk.

Paris sign

On the morning of Friday 20 January 2017 I left my hotel in the 14th arrondissement and set off on foot for the memorial, walking aimlessly at first, getting lost numerous times. Well meaning Parisians tried to help, but still I ended up taking the long way round through St Germain, the stomping ground of preference for Satre, Simone de Beauvoir and Picasso, until eventfully I found my bearings and turned west towards the Eiffel Tower – looking like a painted stage set against a hazy ice blue winter sky.  I was aiming for an unassuming park, steps away from the Tower and Bik-Hakeim metro station.  A thin strip of landscaped concrete on the Quai de Grenelle, sandwiched between the busy main road and the Seine.

After two hours of walking I found the park and paused to draw a cold breath in a sub zero Paris before taking in the memorial and the moment. It was smaller than I expected, positioned at the far end of the park away from the Eiffel Tower and overlooked by many buildings yet to be built when those it’s dedicated to were alive. I perched on a cold stone ledge and contemplated the line of rigid lamp posts and bare winter trees that drew all eyes to a collection of small, life like statues arranged on a curve of stone recreating a strip of the long demolished cycling track of the Velodrome d’Hiver.  Despite negative temperatures, the low winter sun warmed my face and shone onto the tip of my pencil as I took down notes – adding a halo to blunt lead, blank page and my thoughts.

Noises of the busy main street – car horns, mopeds, police sirens – flooded in from one side, a jogger ran past on the other and a cold breeze rustled through bare branches and plastic rubbish bags. Underneath it all, the silence of the Seine and the smell of a city used to moments in time. The chill of the stone ledge seeped inside me and eventually I stood to walk the short distance to the memorial, too cold to contemplate any more.

I hadn’t intended to march. I intended to be still.

Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup memorial

Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup memorial

The statues – a pregnant woman, an old man, children – are small, but the emotion carved into them is vast.  I think of the moment their lives changed and try to understand how it happened and face inside of me the part of us that allows, stays silent and is sometimes complicit. I’m overwhelmed with a sadness that takes me by surprise. The horror, confusion, terror and fear of the past suddenly seem real, immediate and of the moment. I stoop to lay a bouquet of nine white roses at the base of the statue. Roses bought in a supermarket in the shadow of both UNESCO and the European Space Agency. I send love to the past that UNESCO protects and the desire to experience new horizons that propels us into space. I think of a man waiting to place his hands on two bibles held by his wife and make a promise to a country and the world.  A man who invests his faith in walls and who, a week later on Holocaust Memorial Day, would impose travel bans on those whose beliefs differed from his.

The wind is now bitter and I can stand still no longer.  I pay last respects, take last photographs and turn to face the sun and the Eiffel Tower. As I walk towards the 324 metre high symbol of France – the most visited paid for monument in the world – my shadow falls behind me and I see the promise of spring waiting inside the barren branches of the surrounding trees. The world has already changed and I turn back no more.

I hadn’t indented to march. I intended to watch.

Excuse me. Do you mind if I ask about Brexit?

A bookseller on the side of the Seine asked as I paused en route to Notre Dame to buy some prints from his stall. The bookseller, who is also the artist responsible for the prints of Paris landmarks lit by an impossibly large full moon which I’m about to buy, tells me of his travels to Scotland, his English wife and his children who have duel nationality. “Lucky them” I say. “You are always welcome here” he assures me as he hands me my prints. I believe him and in a warm moment on a bitterly cold day I believe there truly is more that unites than divides us.

Place St Michel

Place St Michel

I thank the bookseller for his pictures and sentiments then aim for the nearest Starbucks on Blvd Saint Michel – the central route through the Latin Quarter, synonymous with student uprisings, activism and massacres – to get warm, take my time over a large tea and make use of their free wi-fi to watch Trump being sworn in via a low res constantly buffering live video through my iPhone. I think of everyone I know and care about wherever they are in the world.  I think of the triumph of the American Dream witnessed in mile zero of a Europe defining nation that went forth and conquered, and all those who rose up, and continue to rise up, for their rights on the pavement beneath me.

I can hardly hear the words he speaks for the first time as the most powerful man in the world. I look around the top floor of the Starbucks I’m huddled in a street view corner of, to see if anyone else is marking the moment, but no one is. It’s dark by the time it’s over. I’ve seen and heard enough and decide to head back to my hotel, skirting the edge of the Jardin de Luxembourg, buying a hot baguette and half bottle of cheap white wine en route, both of which I consume in bed later that night while watching CNN, the only English speaking channel available on the TV in my small room. A room shaken every couple minutes by the metro as its trains rumble along tracks running beneath the building. I watch as the Trump family, now the first family, arrive at the White House for the first time. I write some late night, half drunken ramblings in a notebook before falling into a restless, dreamless sleep. The day and the moment both over.

I hadn’t indented to march. I intended to go underground.

Napoleon's Tomb

Napoleon’s Tomb

The next morning, after a self conscious solitary breakfast in the hotel dining room, I navigated a short cut through the back streets of the 14th arrondissement to the Paris Catacombs – a small part of the miles of underground tunnels buried beneath the city along with the remains around six million people. Underground was the only place I wanted to be. But when I arrived in good time at the Place Denfert-Rochereau and the entrance to the Catacombs, I’m met by a locked gate and notice declaring them closed until early February. I was thrown. My plans for the day in pieces. And all I could think of on the spur of a very cold moment was to visit Napoleon’s tomb instead which, although very much above ground, was still a reminder that no matter how big, rich and powerful we are in life, we take nothing with us at the end of it and leave only bones behind. I turned away from the Catacombs and descended into the Denfert-Rochereau metro station to head for the Hôtel des Invalides created by Louis XIV – the Sun King.

Amour, Musée de I’Armée

Amour, Musée de I’Armée

The golden dome of the Les Invalides complex is resplendent in the winter sun, but quiet. I’m asked to unzip my coat on entering to prove to the police, who are all smiles and au revior when I left, that I was not a suicide bomber. Only a cold tourist packed with layers of scarfs and a thick jumper not explosives. Once inside the historic weapons of mass destruction and countless suites of amour through the ages carefully displayed in the Musée de I’Armée soon bore me. As I gazed upon Napoleon’s gigantic tomb in pride of place in the Dôme church, contemplating what else I had time to do with the day, I remembered the last Facebook post I’d flicked past at breakfast that morning. A post calling for women across the world to join marches of protests.  I realised the start of the march in Paris, both in time and place, were close by and decided to take a quick look while working out what else to do with rest of the day.

I hadn’t intended to march. I intended to take photographs.

I caught the metro in the wrong direction and nearly didn’t turn back. Then a woman’s face reflected in the window next to me unexpectedly reminded me of an old friend I’d lost touch with years ago. We used to write together in cafes over strong coffee and share plans to change the world alongside stories of boyfriends and dreams that always seemed to backfire. For her sake, wherever she was in the world now, and who we were then, I decided to turn round. When I finally caught the right metro the train trundled slowly through Bik-Harkeim station en route to the Trocadero where the march was due to start. As it passed above the park of the memorial of the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup before crossing the Seine, I saw the flowers I’d laid the day before, lying untouched as I’d left them.

Paris : Women's March

Paris : Women’s March

I knew it was busy before I reached the station exit. I could feel the growing number of people gathering against the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower. I heard English, French and American accents in the chants rose and fell declaring that “love trumps hate”. I emerged into a growing crowd of mainly women, but many men. Their mood confident, their banners both angry and funny.

Is this your first march?

It was, but the older man who asked the question was speaking to a young woman nearby, not to me. “You’ll never forget it,” he claimed. More gathered.  An old man selling brightly coloured whistles, which could be heard all around, stood solid in an ever shifting crowd. Car horns from passing traffic blare support, many cheer, are there hundreds or thousands? It’s hard to tell. People climb lamp posts to take pictures. The moment, the vista, the history in the making set against a bright winter Paris city scape too photogenic to be real.

I hadn’t intended to march. I intended to keep warm.

Paris Women's March crossing the Seine

Paris Women’s March crossing the Seine

I’d grown cold again by the time the march began. Slowly at first, the crowd became a line as protestors formed order out of chaos and began to march. The day was too late by now to do anything else so I walked on the edge of a river of people heading towards the Seine, hoping the movement would make me warm again. The marchers are happy, united, angry and colourful and, as we wind a slow carnivalesque way across the Pont d’Léna, a small group form a brass band and play as we cross the river, their instruments glittering in the winter sun along with Eiffel’s tower above us. I think I see the bookseller I bought prints from the day before in the crowd. But maybe I’m mistaken. He holds high a banner claiming he is there for his mother, his wife and his daughter. The march turns right, marshalled by the police along the Ave de la Bourdonnais and I lose sight of him.

By this time I’m very cold. I walk as fast as I can on the edge of the march, half in half out. Then suddenly everyone stops. I have no idea why and to my surprise I find myself at the front along with a hard core of protestors whose chants are loud, heartfelt and amplified through hand help microphones. Journalists swarm into the street to take head on photographs. I seize the moment and join them, unsure how I ended up there, but determined to make the most of the photo opportunity. Suddenly a young woman in cut off denim shorts, thick black tights and wild red hair chanting loudly appears in my peripheral vision and I see myself her age writing in cafes, swapping dreams with my long lost friend. Some part of my past wakes up and I step back into the crowd next to her and begin to chant. Sometimes in English, sometimes in French. Sometimes I understand the words, sometimes I don’t.

Men of quality you have nothing to fear from equality.

I’m glad in that moment that I turned away from an afternoon of contemplating history frozen in glass cabinets, to be part of it in the making on the streets of Paris.

Women's March

Women’s March

The march moves on again, turning right into the Avenue de la Motte-Picquet and the Jardin du Champ du Mars that lead to the foot of the Effiel Tower. I step aside preferring to be at the back now and to watch from a distance as the march pours into its final destination. I stand near the chaperoning police, whose modern day amour is destined in decades to come to stand upright and empty in the glass cabinets of the Musée de I’Armée, like the day becoming part of a stationary history. The temperature drops a notch. I’m too cold to stay any longer and like many others begin to drift away into a blinding low winter sun whose light bounces off a woman clad in amour fashioned from tin foil, styled after Louis XIV’s. I think of the Sun King and Napoleon, lonely in his tomb, and wonder what each of us who marched today are going to do next to make the world a more equal place.

I hadn’t intended to march. I’d intended time off.

Back at my hotel I huddled in front of a fake fire in the reception. Desperate to thaw out. I posted photos of the day onto Facebook and flickered through those of friends who had marched in other cities. I feel detached, yet part of something all at the same time and am not quite ready to retreat to the solitude of my room. As the ‘living flames’ of burning gas warm away the stubborn cold inside me, an article on quantum physics catches my eye in the endless stream of social media I’m ideally scrolling through.

Time as we measure it and know it, doesn’t really exist.

The article boldly claims before detailing how particles behave and how our choice in the moment affects what has already happened in the past. In a moment of reflection that only the bigger perspective of history and a warm fire on a cold winter evening can provide I contemplate the past two days and the past and the present of a city and a person. I wonder if any of my actions had made any kind of difference to any time, or lack of it, at all.

Women's March banner

Women’s March banner

In that moment I found myself forgiving those who did nothing in 1942 and those who thought they were doing the right thing then and now. And believe, if only for a moment, that the open hand of friendship can release the clenched fist of hatred and that inside all of us at any one moment we carry the past, present and future and the potential to live in, be part of and influence all three at once. The hotel rocks as a metro train passes beneath it and the world moves on again.  I stand to leave the warmth of the fire to head to warmth of my bed and all the possibilities of the next day and a future inside of me I was beginning to remember.

© Lesley Anne Rose 2017

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Nashville: 21 April 2016: the day Prince died

Whatever you do, don’t be afraid of it. Don’t let history down
Sam Phillips, the man credited with inventing rock ‘n’ roll

I was waiting for a bus in the foyer of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in downtown Nashville, making use of their free wifi, when the news came through to my phone. Push notification after push notification from various media channels confirmed each others’ announcements.

I turned to the woman next to me. I had to tell someone, it couldn’t be real until I’d spoken it out loud. ‘Prince is dead’ I announced. I’m not sure I believed it myself at that point. There was little conviction in my voice. Me and the woman, whose name I never found out, shared a moment of disbelief, before scanning our respective social media channels and favoured news apps to find out more.

“How are you today?” My question to the Customer Services Assistant at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
“Blessed”. Her response.

Tour bus to RCA's Studio B

Tour bus to RCA’s Studio B

I love sharing moments like this with random strangers and the way big news connects lives that otherwise would pass each other by. The bus we, and a bunch of other visitors, were waiting for was a tour bus headed to RCA’s legendary Studio B, a short distance from the Museum, but part of the visitor experience on offer for those wanting to travel the whole Country Music nine yards. Who’d come this far and not want to stand on the sweet spot where Elvis recorded many of his iconic songs and the Everly Brothers, Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and countless others made famous the ‘Nashville Sound’?

As we waited for the bus, and the tragic news confirmed itself to be true, the woman and I swapped stories and our respective reasons for being in Nashville on this fateful day. She’d driven from Ottawa in Canada travelling on her own ‘with her music’. I told her my tale of Elvis and my journey in the footsteps of his ancestor Andrew Presley who emigrated from Lonmay in north east Scotland to North Carolina in 1745. ‘I have ancestors from a tiny town in north east Scotland’ she declared. She had plans to travel there soon, to walk the land part of her once called home. Her mother had never been able to make the trip, so she was going for her. In the time it took for the bus to arrive we shared our plans and reasons for respective journeys across generations and geography, and the joys or otherwise of travelling alone, as well as the need for music to get you through the miles.

I wouldn’t want to drive it.” The woman standing beside me as I photographed Elvis’ gold Cadillac.

Elvis' gold Cadillac - the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville

Elvis’ gold Cadillac – the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, Nashville

We’d both just explored the main Museum and both wowed at Elvis’ gold Cadillac, one of over 100 Cadillacs he bought in his lifetime, which now travels nowhere and sits on display besides his equally famous gold piano. We’d both followed the story of the music the Museum celebrates, brought over the Atlantic by emigrating Scots such as Andrew Presley and the woman’s ancestor, along with countless others. Music that journeyed west with them, the road I was fresh from travelling. The one that lead from North Carolina’s wide windswept coast inland to the Great Smoky Mountains and into Tennessee. Their fiddles and folk songs meeting and merging with music from black communities and the church. Proving time and again that music has the power to unite, give voice to shared hopes, make sacred common ground and break through barriers of race, religion and hatred. This is a music that tells stories and, for those like me turning to the past to understand the present, it breaks open emotional pathways through time and space, keeping the spirits of the dead alive, as well as the living company through long dark nights and long distance journeys.

I have one real gift and that gift is to look another person in the eye and be able to tell if he has anything to contribute, and if he does, I have the additional gift to free him from whatever is restraining him.” Sam Phillips

As the Museum’s detailed displays illustrate, the music may constantly evolve, but its spirit remains unchanged and it was the belief that music, more specifically rock ‘n’ roll, had the power to unite that inspired legendary music producer Samuel Cornelius Phillips. And it was the temporary exhibition celebrating his life and work – Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: the Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips  – that inspired me the most. This exhibition was also my first encounter with flying saucers on this trip, but that’s for another blog post.

Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: the Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips souvenir mug

Flyin’ Saucers Rock & Roll: the Cosmic Genius of Sam Phillips souvenir mug

Maybe it’s because I’m also a producer that I was so moved by the exhibition, the life of the man behind it, the talent he gave voice to and all he hoped to and did achieve. As I write I’m nursing a cup of tea brewed in a starry mug, a souvenir of the exhibition bought in the Museum’s gift shop. I was so moved by what I experienced, I knew I needed to be reminded of it all when back home and working my way through everything I planned to create from the trip.

As the first to record Elvis, Phillips is famous for declaring to his wife Becky after he cut the would be king’s first record, that he felt “nothing would ever be quite the same again”. History’s confirmed his producer’s instinct to be spot on, an instinct that for him was constantly searching for everything he believed existed in the soul of mankind and that music could communicate.

They bought whatever musical skills they had learned, and they just let out all the emotion that they’d kept inside themselves. All the suffering, all the anger, all the dignity and passion that had beaten down in them, they bought it all to the music”.
Sam Phillips

The exhibition celebrating Phillips’ cosmic genius taught me on the day that Prince died that being a good producer is about seeking  ‘perfect imperfection’ and that our job is to be ‘the champion of something that could be. The champion of all artists’ I was reminded of what all good producers already know, that following your own dreams is integral to championing the dreams of others. A belief he proved time and again from recording black artists who, in his words, ‘had no place else to go’, to establishing WHER-AM in 1955, the first ‘all girl’ radio station staffed almost entirely by women from managers to DJs.

Despite his innate understanding that the world would never be the same again once Elvis was unleashed upon it, Phillips always claimed that his search for the ultimate ‘perfect imperfection’ wasn’t fulfilled by the King of Rock ’n’ Roll. It was the impassioned voice of black blues singer Howlin’ Wolf, born Chester Arthur Burnet in 1910 in White Station Mississippi.  In Wolf he claimed he finally found the place ‘where the soul of a man never dies’. It was this sentiment, and the recent news of Prince’s untimely death that I held close to me when the tour bus to Studio B finally arrived and the journey through one of the most hallowed grounds of music began.

Sign to RCA's Studio B

Sign to RCA’s Studio B

Built in 1957, the Studio played an integral role in cementing Nashville’s identity and reputation and as a music city. It’s simply nothing short of a privilege to experience the space where the real people behind the legends recorded the work that made them and the city famous.

Elvis, our tour guide and local primary school teacher told us, always used to enter the Studio through the back door. As the rest of tour trundled past I hung back to sneak a look through into the small rear car park and imagined Elvis arriving, late at night like he always did, ready to record through the night and into the early hours of the following day. Elvis installed the studio lights himself in the pursuit of the perfect ambiance in which to work. I imagined their red, blue and green tones burning low or sometimes turned off completely, and his unmistakable voice signing into the darkness of the Studio and surrounding night.

Before our time in this small building, famous for its huge history, ended our tour guide come primary school teacher shared the story of its closure. In 1976 RCA decided to shut Studio B and picked the fateful date of August 17 1977, which, in one of those heart stopping  coincidences, turned out to be the day after Elvis died. We all paused after being shared this story and paid our silent respects to the building and the man whose lives were joined at the historical hip, and the sweet spot where the soul of a man never dies.

'x' marks the sweet spot at Studio B

‘x’ marks the sweet spot at Studio B

The tour ended where it began back at the Museum and as we disembarked the bus and the next round of tourists clambered on, the sky over downtown Nashville clouded over. The air became suddenly heavy with the metallic smell of warm rain as the weather front that had just drowned out Texas passed by Tennessee. I lost sight of the woman I’d talked with earlier and headed back into the heart of downtown, en route passing by the Museum’s Walk of Fame where Elvis’ plaque rests between Little Richard and Trace Adkins. On the bar lined blocks of central downtown a rendition of Purple Rain called out across the city from Jimmy Buffet’s. I stopped outside to listen and for the second time that afternoon pay my silent respects.

Superstition urges us never to start a journey on a full moon. But I was well into this one by now and felt safe enough later that night when a large golden full moon rose over the city as I sat by the window in my motel room typing up my notes from the day. I paused over a quote I’d written down while walking numerous times around the Sam Phillips exhibition, I’d underlined it twice in my notebook.

I did things that I didn’t know I could do. I felt I could do them, but didn’t know at the time. I just had faith I was doing the right thing.” Sam Phillips

Mural downtown Memphis - the next stop on the my trip.

Mural downtown Memphis – the next stop on my trip.

I stopped typing, held aloft the bottle of beer I was half way through and toasted Sam, Elvis and of course Prince for achieving all the things they thought they couldn’t do and leaving a trail of inspiration for us to follow. Then I finished typing up my notes, knocked back the rest of my beer, closed down my computer and packed my bags. The next day I was heading to Memphis. By now I was more than ready for Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Studios and Elvis’ more famous pink Cadillac – two of the many things waiting for me in their hallowed hometown and the next stop on my journey west.

This blog post forms part of my wider Travels With Elvis project.

 


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Grand Canyon May 2016

‘You live like this, sheltered, in a delicate world, and you believe you are living. Then you read a book, or you take a trip, and you discover that you are not living, that you are hibernating….
And then some shock treatment takes place, a person, a book, a song, and it awakens them and saves them from death’
Anais Nin, The Diary of Anais Nin, Vol 1: 1931 – 1934

So as dust settles on my Travels With Elvis trip, I’m starting to pull together the meaning of it all and ideas for the work that will be created out of it. And along the way share some stories, incidents, inspirations and work in progress.

Believe it or not my trip wasn’t all about Elvis. An equal inspiration was Elvis’ ancestor Andrew Presley, who emigrated from Lomnay in north-east Scotland in 1745 to North Carolina. The journey from emigrant to super star in a handful of generations is the embodiment of the American Dream, a dream of growth, individual pioneers and the never ending journey west. A dream perfect for its time, but one that even Adam Smith said could not last.

So as the planet and all the species who live here start to collapse around us, and a realization that the pursuit of individual wealth doesn’t bring inner peace, like many I’m starting to seek alternatives dreams to nail my colours to.

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Deer, Grand Canyon National Park 

At no point on my trip was this impressed upon me more than at the edge of the Grand Canyon. En route to the cliff edge along a trail far away from the tourist hot spots, a wild deer crossed my path, turned round and looked me straight in the eye. The deer was huge and powerful, while I was ineffectual if it took a dislike to me. Yes it’s obvious, but on that isolated track facing off a large wild animal I understood my place and felt small and accused of not doing enough, or stepping up, in trying to make a difference and to stop the planet being destroyed.

Nothing prepares anyone for the enormity, the eternity and power of the Grand Canyon and when I finally got to the edge I discovered I’d stumbled into a private family gathering who were scattering the ashes of a favourite old relative over the sheer cliffs at our feet and into the rusty red and golden abyss below. Yes we all know life is short, but at moments like this it shrinks even more.

I moved away from their private celebration of life and walked further down the cliff edge. And while I could still hear the many recollections of memories and anecdotes of the life now in ashes, I could no longer see them or they me. In the privacy of this spot I took out my dashboard Elvis whose picture I was taking wherever I went.  I balanced him on tree by the edge of the Canyon to get a prime shot and I suddenly realised I wanted to bury him here too. Lay him to rest in peace and dignity, in a landscape as epic and as legendary as he was. Or rather I wanted to bury the dream he stood for because the planet can’t sustain a dream of growth and our spirits can’t sustain the duality and inequality of haves and have nots and the fear based beliefs and political rhetoric that prop it up. And as borders and boundaries are challenged, broken through and demand redefining, our creaking economies can no longer afford the massive spend on defense programmes to protect it.

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Car bumper sticker, Grand Canyon National Park 

After a long time staring into the unreal and overpowering enormity of the Canyon, I turned away from the cliff edge back to the trail that brought me, Elvis and the American Dream here. In doing so the first thing I saw was a car bumper sticker demanding ‘we the people, not we the wealthy’. As I stood taking in the message I heard behind me a moment being marked and the last remains of a life released into a physical and metaphysical eternity. I said a prayer to the known life whose last moments I had been privileged to share, put the dash board Elvis into my pocket and headed back through the forest. Our journey together was still far from over, but neither of us would ever be the same again.


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To Travel Write or Not to Travel Write

Crescent Beach, Bequia

Crescent Beach, Bequia

Perhaps the greatest social change since the Second World War is the way citizens from the free nations travel as never before in history.
Martha Gellhorn

When I was growing up I used to cycle past a complex of old people’s flats to get to the park. In one ground floor flat an old lady always sat in a cumbersome armchair in front of large French windows which overlooked the path that lead from my house, through the cemetery, past her flat, to the park. Every day she would wave as I cycled by, her face lit up and I always waved back.

Is this old age? I used to think. Is this what I have to look to forward to? Growing up in a small seaside town crammed with residential care homes, the future looked bleak and immobile and I believed from an early age that the only way to survive old age, and its cumbersome armchairs, was a supply of memories from a life lived to the full.

I came of age in the age of Thatcher, the age before yuppies disgraced themselves and rich pickings blinded those who worked hard, asked no questions and burnt out decades before their pensions matured. When the promises of the 80s turned into the broken dreams of the 90s, I took to the road in search of a different path.

Now, 21 years after cashing in my pension and buying a ticket out of town, I’m a fully fledged travel writer, committed to the unbeaten track. And, as a mark of respect for the old lady in the armchair and what she impressed upon me at an early age, I’m keen to encourage all would be travellers and potential travel writers, to stop planning and start travelling – whether this means walking a different route to work each day or taking time out to travel the world the long way round.

There are many reasons why we travel and many reasons why we write – but why write about our travels?

From a purely financial perspective, travel writing can fund your trips. And if this is your aim then options include writing or updating travel guidebooks. However, this is far from an easy ticket. You might get a fee and, if you’re lucky, some expenses paid, but it’s no free holiday. It’s hard, often painstaking work, which allows little time to chill and scant editorial space to wax lyrical about your impressions of a place.

Travel articles allow more creative freedom. They are also a good way to sell yourself to guidebook publishers who’ll often want to see something in print before trusting you to write for them. This often means writing for free in the first instance just to get published or even creating your own travel blog.

Also once you’ve written or updated an existing guidebook, there’s extra cash to be made by selling features to magazines and newspapers on the places you’ve just visited. Having written a guidebook you’ll have instant credibility when trying to sell your work and your information will be bang up to date. All the time taking into consideration that it’s often easier to sell travel to publications that are about anything but – such as food and drink magazines. Also remember you’re an expert on your own home town, so don’t think you have to travel the world to have something interesting to say about a place. Which leads to the importance of getting an angle and saying something new and different and interesting.

However, if facts bog you down, make it up and write fiction. Keep notes on your travels – your experiences, impressions, the people you meet, the things you see – recording all the bad as well as the good. Because often the tales most want read involve danger, disease, delay and discomfort. Record everything and transform your experiences into poetry, short stories, novels, radio plays and even film scripts and in doing so guide people’s imaginations to new places.

Having said all that, fame, fortune and freebies aren’t the only reason to travel write. The most valuable souvenir from any trip is often a personal journal that records an internal as well as an external journey. These are written purely for yourself – for those times when visiting the memories of all the places you’ve been is all the travelling you can do.

Whatever the reason you want to venture away from the well trodden path, and whatever the reasons are you want to write about your journey, do both. One day when I cycled to the park the old lady wasn’t there anymore. I knew she’d gone travelling and I knew she wasn’t coming back.


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Hellfire & the Heartbreakers: Gainesville, Florida, USA

Gainesville, an appealing city in Florida’s central north, set world headlines on fire in 2011 when Terry Jones, pastor of the Dove World Outreach Centre, a small nondenominational Christian church, threatened to burn copies of the Koran.

Charismatic Christians aside, a trip to Gainesville is not a trip into the heartland of the American right wing.  It is, however, an easy trip from Orlando and a city hailed by many of one of the best places to live in North America.  Those visitors who do travel the 112 miles north from Orlando will discover a city that offers a winning combination of inexpensive cultural attractions, easy opportunities to encounter Florida’s rich outdoors and a slice of the Sunshine State’s historical charm at its most authentic.

Gainesville is home to one of America’s largest universities – the University of Florida – and the city’s main cultural attractions focus around the university’s Cultural Plaza. At its heart stands the Florida Museum of Natural History whose first class permanent exhibits transport visitors on a journey through Neolithic history, diverse ecology and native species. The star exhibit is the Wall of Wings – a showcase of thousands of specimens of butterflies and moths. While the adjacent Harn Museum of Art is “dedicated to promoting the power of the arts to inspire and educate people and enrich their lives” and houses world class collections of African, Asian and contemporary art and photography.

Born and raised in Gainesville, Tom Petty once worked as a grounds man at the university and fans still gravitate towards the ogeechee lime near Phelps Laboratory – planted by the man himself and known today as the “Tom Petty Tree’.  The morbidly inclined also pay homage to Beaty Towers. According to a legend Petty denies, the suicide of a female student at this university residence was the inspiration behind the Heartbreaker’s classic American Girl.

Gainesville promotes itself as the city where nature and culture meet and the first stop for any nature seeking tourist has to be the Morningside Nature Center on the east side of town. Here deep, towering longleaf pine woodlands are home to the Living History Museum which faithfully recreates south Florida farming life late 19th century style, complete with historic breeds and freshly baked cookies.  For a walk on Florida’s wild side, head ten miles south to the Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park a sweeping 21,000-acre nature preserve where wild horses, deer, bison and the ubiquitous alligator roam. Closer to downtown, the Kanapaha Botanical Gardens offer a labyrinth of exotic gardens, abundant wildlife and meandering trails alongside the unlikely highlight of giant lily pads.

Attractions aside, Gainesville’s sedate downtown oozes old fashioned charm and pristine restoration, which the student population enlivens with an upbeat vibe. This vibe has strong links back to the 1960s and East Coast hippy culture.   To indulge in a flavour of Gainesville’s hippy heart, which still faintly beats beneath its historic downtown, head to Satchel’s where “every pizza is a work of art”. More a way of life than a restaurant, Satchel’s invites visitors to explore Lightnin’ Salvage – the onsite junk museum – before savouring the best pizza in town inside an old camper van.

The Magnolia Plantation

The Magnolia Plantation

Or take time to chat with Joe and Cindy Montalto, owners of The Magnolia Plantation bed and breakfast, a rambling French Second Empire mansion nestled deep within Gainesville’s hushed back streets.  Twenty years ago the Montaltos painstakingly restored this dignified beauty to the prime that years of hippy habitation had stripped away.  According to the Montaltos, middle aged women with nostalgia in their eyes are known to come calling, all seeking a glimpse into one of the mansion’s many rooms where years ago they kissed their virginities goodbye.

It’s a genuine shame that many visitors to Florida never discover Gainesville.   Anyone who does take time to explore beyond the state’s theme parks and beaches will discover that Gainesville has far more to shout about than a headline grabbing pastor would have us believe.

Secret Tip
The mile-long Solar Walk on Gainesville’s NW 8th Avenue features monuments to the planets in the solar system. All are made from recycled materials and show the planets to scale both in size and distance from the sun.

More Information  
Visitor Information:  Visit Gainesville 
Where to eat: Satchel’s Pizza, 1800 NE 23rd Avenue, tel: 352 335 7272, www.satchelspizza.com 
Where to stay:  The Magnolia Plantation, 309 SE 7th Street, tel: 352 375 6653 www.magnoliabnb.com 


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Bequia – a whaler’s legacy

Princess Margaret beach, Bequia

Princess Margaret beach, Bequia

Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine islands, typifies tourist expectations of life in the Caribbean. Rather atypically, however, Bequia is also one of the few places in the world authorized by the International Whaling Commission to hunt humpback whales. But the question: “To whale or not to whale” is a contentious one.

Bequia, a Carib word meaning “Island of Clouds”, is an ideal Caribbean destination for independent travellers. Its size masks its richness; a mere seven square miles might not appear to warrant a long stay, yet the combination of breathtaking beaches, stunning scenery, friendly inhabitants, vibrant culture and a rich seafaring history make visitors reluctant to leave. Bequia is best approached from the sea, offering close-up views of the more inaccessible parts of the island. Between February and April ferries share the ocean with migrating humpback whales and all eyes turn seawards.

Image provided by Natural World Safaris

Image provided by Natural World Safaris
www.naturalworldsafaris.com

Bequia lies on the migration path of humpback whales and whaling was once big business on the island. Even as the sugar plantations were booming, American whaling ships were making regular trips to the waters around the island to harvest humpback and sperm whales. Many local men enlisted on these boats, in search of money and adventure. One such daring adventurer was William Thomas Wallace, a plantation owner who left Bequia in 1860 to become a whaler. On his return, Wallace bought two second-hand Yankee whaleboats and, in 1875, established the island’s first shore-based whaling station at Friendship Bay on Bequia’s north west coast.

Despite initial failings, and fierce rivalries between fisheries, whaling eventually thrived on the island and pumped essential funds into the economy as plantations dwindled after emancipation. By the mid 1920s, technologically advanced Norwegian whalers based in Grenada had initiated the large-scale slaughter of humpbacks, seriously depleting the whale population and causing the closure of many local fisheries.

Today, whaling on Bequia is preserved in recognition of its status as a subsistence fishery. Islanders are permitted to harvest two whales per year using time-honoured methods, such as handheld harpoons and wooden boats – which at 25ft long are less than half the size of an average humpback. Each February, the whaling season begins with the blessing of the boats in Friendship Bay and, while the fishermen are not successful every year, the landing of a whale is still cause for celebration.

old whaling boats, Bequia

old whaling boats, Bequia

However, not all islanders agree with continuing what many consider a cruel practice in the name of tradition. Handheld harpoons rarely kill instantly, with whales taking between half an hour and two hours to succumb to their wounds, all the time emitting a mournful cry.

The present debate notwithstanding, it’s worth taking time to explore the Athneal Petit Museum, on the north west tip of the island near the village of La Pompe. This celebration of Bequia’s whaling history is dedicated to local hero and whaler Athneal Olliverre, who once harpooned a whale directly in the heart, killing it instantly.

Now lovingly looked after by Athneal’s nephew Harold – a one time whaler himself – this small shrine-like museum contains a fascinating collection of artefacts, pictures, press cuttings and even a signed photograph of Clint Eastwood – one of Athneal’s biggest fans – all preserving this crucial part of Bequia’s history.

Harold at the Athneal Petit Museum, Bequia

Harold at the Athneal Petit Museum, Bequia

Yet, by far the best thing the museum offers is stunning views over the Grenadine waters which Harold, and many others, still scrutinize for signs of an animal that once put food on the islanders’ tables and today embodies a history that many Bequians are proud of.

A version of this article was published in Rough Guide’s Rough News in 2002.

 


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one turtle at a time

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

sea turtle hatchlings, Old Hegg, Bequia

Sea turtles have been swimming the world’s oceans since dinosaurs walked the land. Now all seven species of these ancient and enduring creatures are endangered, some critically. As threats to their survival increase – such as pollution, poaching, fishing, and coastal development – so turtle numbers have decreased by an alarming ninety per cent over the past decade.

The vast distances turtles migrate complicate their conservation at an international level. Leatherbacks, for example, swim the waters of the Caribbean, Newfoundland, and the British Isles. However, attempts to save them at a local level are increasing, and visitors to the Grenadine islands in the southern Caribbean have several opportunities to witness and participate in their conservation at a grassroots level.

Although they spend vast amounts of time in water, the behaviour of turtles while at sea is the least understood of all marine animals. Capable of great longevity, turtles are in no hurry to reproduce. When, after many years of floating in the sea, a female does come ashore to nest, each egg she lays has a one-in-a-thousand chance of reaching maturity.

Old Hegg  turtle sanctuary on Bequia, the largest of St Vincent’s Grenadine islands, works to increase these odds by helping the hatchlings through their early vulnerable years. Situated on the stunning Park Beach on the north east coast of Bequia, Old Hegg was founded in 1995 by Orton “Brother” King, a retired professional skin diver, whose dedication and passion over the years has saved the lives of countless hawksbill turtles – distinguished by their beak-like mouths.

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

growing turtles, Old Hegg, Bequia

Turtles usually nest at night, laying around a hundred eggs at a time. Many are dug up by dogs or poachers and many more destroyed by eroding sand. Those that do survive take 50 to 70 days to hatch. Baby turtles always emerge at night when there are less predators around and, guided by the light of the moon, they head for the sea.

It is at this critical point that Old Hegg staff step in to carefully collect the hatchlings as they emerge. They will then feed and protect them at the sanctuary for three years before releasing them into sea, by which time their chances of survival are significantly increased. Year round, visitors to Old Hegg can see around two hundred turtles of various sizes and ages at any one time. Visit during the winter and, if you’re lucky, you’ll see big bowls filled with recent hatchlings – so tiny they fit into the palm of your hand.

Even if a turtle reaches maturity, its struggle for survival is far from over. Kido Ecological Research Station, on the north west coast of Carriacou – a Grenadine that forms part of the nation of Grenada – works with schools, local communities, and visitors to conserve turtles of all ages in this region.

From March to September, visitors and Kido volunteers patrol Carriacou’s beaches at night to measure and tag female turtles, conceal and mark their nests, and simply watch these amazing creatures while they are out of the sea.

Kido’s commitment to protecting turtles does not end there. They save countless from the cooking pot by buying them at local markets. After tagging, the saved turtles they are released back into the ocean, with the understanding of local fisherman that if caught again they will be recorded and released.

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

turtles saved from the cooking pot by Kido staff

The work of organisations such as Kido and Old Hegg is helping to stabilise turtle populations. Visiting Bequia and Carriacou and getting up close to these ancient creatures, whether they are nesting or resting, is a rewarding and fascinating experience. And each visit, through support and the injection of tourist money, contributes and supports local efforts to create a future for sea turtles, rather than condemning them to follow the dinosaurs into extinction.

A version of this article was first published in Caribbean Beat  in 2006

There are a number of ways to help save sea turtles:

  • Don’t buy products made from turtle shells.
  • Avoid eating dishes containing turtle meat or buying it.
  • When visiting beaches where turtles nest, walk close to the sea to prevent the sand above their nests from compacting and making it hard for new born baby turtles to dig their way out.
  • Turtles mistake plastic bags for jelly fish and try to eat them, don’t throw any into the sea or leave them on the beach.
  • If you come across a turtle while it’s nesting, don’t approach it.  Keep a distance of 15 metres and don’t shine any bright lights at it.  If disturbed or disorientated the female will return to the sea before she has laid and dump all of her eggs into the ocean.
    The seven species of sea turtle are:

  • Loggerhead
  • Green
  • Hawksbill
  • Kemp Ridley
  • Olive Ridley
  • Flatback
  • Leatherback