Posted by: njs44 | October 13, 2010


Today is the first day of the rest of your life. I am not sure who first said that phrase, but never can it have been more appropriate than it is today for the 33 miners who are, even as I write, being brought out of 69 days of captivity in the Chilean mine.

Like many people I have been following the rescue on the Internet. I keep coming back to it again, in between my normal activities. There is something compulsive about this, the story which has eclipsed everything else. What a triumph for good news! So often we complain that newspapers and TV only ever report sad, miserable, disasterous stories. People are only interested in tragedy. Well, this story above all others has shown how wrong this claim is. My favourite moment in any film has always been in The Railway Children when their father steps off the train and appears through the steam at the end of the platform. Well today’s real-life reuinions have that feeling multiplied many times.

Here is just a tiny snippet from the BBC live coverage, as it unfolded this morning. I need write no more – this speaks for itself.

0740: Extra health precautions are being taken for the oldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, as he prepares to enter the capsule deep underground. He is being fitted with a full-face oxygen mask as he has had some respiratory problems.

0752: Lilian Ramirez, the wife of Mario Gomez, walks over to the yellow gantry where she will soon meet the 63-year-old, who has been working in the mines since the age of 12. A few weeks ago, she told the media she had received a memorable letter from him. “He said he loves me. I’ve never received a letter like that from him – even when we were going out he wasn’t romantic.”

0758: Despite concerns about the health of Mario Gomez, the rescuers appear relaxed – laughing and joking, and taking pictures with his wife Liliana Ramirez. The wheel is continuing to turn, and a sense of anticipation is building.

0800: Veteran miner Mario Gomez becomes the ninth man safely pulled to the surface.

0802: Mario Gomez, 63, who was thinking of retiring in November, has now emerged from the mine. Emerging from the cage, he stuck two thumbs in the air and held up a Chilean flag.

0803: Mr Gomez, the oldest man in the mine, falls to his knees in prayer.

0805: “I have come back to life,” he says, quietly.

0811: Every time a miner emerges from the shaft alive, teams at South Africa’s mine rescue training site south of Johannesburg have been smiling with pride, says the BBC’s Karen Allen in the Carletonville gold mining area. “Watching those guys emerge safely feels like another day in paradise,” says one South African mine rescuer.

Posted by: njs44 | September 25, 2010

Green and pleasant London

The sun was shining and the sky a particularly brilliant, autumnal blue. It was much too good to stay indoors, so I googled things to do in London, and the Time Out site led me to this one which listed the various ‘community food-growing spaces’ which took part in this event.

So off I set for the Kings Cross Skip Garden.

King's Cross Skip Garden

St Pancras from Camley Street Park

Just a few steps from St Pancras International Station and I was in another world. Children come here to learn about growing things, and cooking as well in the Yurt-like tent. The site is tiny, but an awful lot of things grow here, including young minds. A volunteer who works there told me that apart from school parties it is also used by Young Offenders on Community Service. ‘Restorative Justice’ the lady said they call it. For people who would otherwise have no access to a garden it is surely most restorative place to be.

Then I set off along Camley Street to the Camley Street Natural Park. Have I blogged about this before? Never mind, it deserves another plug, although I hope it never gets too popular. This is a real oasis, in the heart of London, spitting distance from King’s Cross, and as I walked around today it felt as though I was in the heart of the countryside.


After this I ventured even further up Camley Street to the King’s Cross Orchard, as it is called. Here, at the side of a wharehouse belonging to the Alara wholefood company, the owner of the company, Alex Smith, and some of his employees have, over the past four years, developed a beautiful garden crammed full of all kinds of fruit trees, plants, flowers, herbs and several grape vines. I can’t describe how uplifting it was to see all this happening. As well as the gardens, there is a community plot where local people grow things, and in a tiny strip of land squeezed between the footpath and the neighbouring factory, an orchard of trees has been planted. A real legacy for future generations and a sign than not all businesses are about maximising profit and cutting costs. Here’s an extract from Alex’s blog on the subject of what he calls the Dream Farm:

It seems to be clear now that a mind created world is in danger of chopping off the very roots from which it has grown and for both to evolve into the future, the integration of both is required. This integration seems to be gathering pace everywhere and Kings Cross seems to be a good place for it to happen as well.
The dream is that this local weaving of basic food growing into the very fabric of the city will help catalyse internal personal development, improve individual physical bodies, develop new social structures and enhance local cultural life.
So far there are five separate food-growing spaces at Camley Street, a permaculture Forest Garden, a vineyard, a community orchard, community growing raised beds and a compost collection point. If you want free compost please just turn up. We do ask that you sign for it in the adjacent Alara factory.

I browsed around the Alara website when I got home and learnt more about this remarkable man and how he came to start his business.

The business started in a squat in Tolmers Square in Central London. This whole unique early Victorian, egg shaped Square, where Alara originated was due to be demolished to make way for a large office development. For a year before starting Alara I had been living in Tolmers Square with out using any money at all, as this seemed the only moral position to take to oppose this, for money, development.
In this no money period all heating and lighting came by burning wood from builders skips. Water came from the roof and washing was done in a wood fired sauna bath, built in the basement. Food was scavenged from New Covent Garden fruit and vegetable market, a dairy distribution centre by Regents Park and from spillage in a Natural Food Wholesaler, Community Foods that was also in Tolmers Square.
Life was a bit limited without money and, with someone else to consider it seemed serendipitous that, as I was walking in the square one day in 1975 I found two one pound notes in the gutter. The only money I had had during the previous year was a five-pound note given as a birthday present. This had been used to light the fire. Two pounds was the cost of vehicle entry to New Covent Garden Market. Using a friend’s Morris Minor pick up van I went to Covent Garden and filled the pick up truck with thrown away fruit and vegetables from the bins. These were sold from an empty dairy squatted on the entrance to Tolmers Square. Alara had started.
On the first day we took £2, and by the end of the week were taking anything up to £5 per day. The second week we bought wholemeal flour from Community Foods and started baking bread in the old gas oven that had been left behind in our squat. Soon we were buying bulk beans and rice and selling them in retail quantities. Turnover went up to £40 per day, and we tried to open a bank account. Even though we had money to deposit and did not need to borrow anything it took us two months to find a bank that would take our cash.
After almost a year we were evicted from this shop which was eventually renovated. We moved business premises to a new squat, right next door to where we were living, 19 Tolmers Square. It was here that we started to make muesli in a fifty-gallon plastic water tank, mixed with a huge oak spoon. Wholesale customers at Community came over to us to buy their bulk muesli.
After a year we were evicted by Camden Council, who knocked down the whole square and built a huge office development themselves. By this time however we had saved enough money to buy the tail end of a lease on a small shop in Cromer Street, behind Camden Town Hall. We ran this as a wholefood shop and mixed muesli in the basement, selling it in bulk to Community Foods. To get good prices we also bought in bulk from Community and delivered to other shops in the area.
In 1981 Alara moved from Cromer Street to bigger premises, Marchmont Street where we did more of the same. In 1983 the wholesale delivery service and muesli mixing moved to a small industrial unit behind Kings Cross.
We then moved to larger industrial premises in 1985, still behind Kings Cross, where we are to this day. During this time muesli production was becoming more and more important. Production was increasing as we were very early producers of the natural, no added sugar type muesli that was getting very popular. We were also developing new varieties for both Alara brand and own label. Our customer base expanded and included most of the natural food wholesalers in England and through them the natural food retailers, all of whom we are still serving. Muesli exports began to flourish.
In 1983 we started to make organic muesli, again one of the first manufacturers to do so in England. In 1988 we joined the Soil Association, who still certify our organic production. In 1995 we decided to concentrate on muesli and began a long restructuring process so that by 2000 Alara was just manufacturing muesli. In 2000 we also achieved BRC certification. Among the almost 200 varieties we now produce are Fair Trade muesli, Nut free muesli, Gluten free muesli and from 1999 the Alara brand Organic muesli range.
Our aim is to produce very high quality, tasty, healthy and innovative mueslis. Organic muesli is the natural way to fulfil this desire.

As if all this wasn’t enough, on the way back to St Pancras I stumbled upon St Pancras Old churchyard. Another beautiful green place in amongst all the buildings and traffic. I’ve lived in London for nearly 40 years and there is always so much more to discover about this green and pleasant place.

St Pancras Old Church

Posted by: njs44 | September 12, 2010

The sweet silver song of a lark

Further proof that I am getting old, when the Last Night of the Proms comes round earlier and earlier. I didn’t even manage to get to a single Prom this year. I didn’t even notice they were on. Where did the summer go?

Instead of watching the usual events on TV, I listened, instead, to BBC Radio Ulster. This was because Brian Finnegan, of whom I am a huge fan, was playing at Proms in the Park at Hillsborough Castle. Brian is a fabulous musician who plays an eclectic style of Irish Trad along with new fusions of World Music. His style is hard to define, and when asked on the programme to talk about Flook, the band he started and which recently folded, he described them as being not Irish Trad, and therefore able to cross boundaries, which a purely Tradition Irish band would not have been able to do.

So here are some links, for the curious, who want to hear what this Finnegan guy is all about.

This clip has two numbers from Brian’s recent album, The Ravishing Genius of Bones. Apparently the title of the album comes from a line of poetry written by Brian’s sister.

If that is too modern for you, try Night Ride to Armagh, here

There are plenty more on YouTube, but I need to get to the point of the title of this post.

Back to the Last Night of the Proms where, after all the usual stuff, the conductor did the clever trick, only possible in these days of simultaneous broadcasting, where he got the various crowds all over these isles, to sing together. The song he chose this year, and I believe this is a first on the Proms, was You’ll Never Walk Alone, from Carousel. What an inspired choice!

There are always problems with Jerusalem (lovely though it is) because it is too Anglo-centric. Land of Hope and Glory is scarcely better, with its implication that our nation is better than all the rest and that we should extend our power across the whole world. But this anthem, borrowed by Liverpool football fans, was reclaimed by people from all four corners of the British Isles last night. As they sang together (I use the term loosely, as the delay in transmission meant it was not a seamless join) I felt more uplifted than I am usually by the Last Night singing. Here were people from all walks of life, with different musical backgrounds, and different perspectives, all united in a song in which hope triumphs over all disasters.

This is not a song that the football fans can keep to themselves. It is now our song, the song of all of those who love music, and who want to look beyond nationalistic rivalries. Brian was so right, when he said that by not being and Irish band, Flook were able to work across boundaries. Music is the one language that we can all speak. Music has the power to communicate ideas that go beyond words. Music can unite everyone, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew. And, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can share this wonderful experience.

Posted by: njs44 | September 11, 2010

9 years on

Today is the 9th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. There have been many ways in which this anniversary has been remembered. One of the most poignant articles I have read on the subject was from today’s Guardian, written by Donna Marsh O’Connor, the mother of one of those killed in the World Trade Centre. She presents an account which is devoid of self-pity and free from any desire for revenge. She describes the first time she saw ‘Ground Zero’ as follows:

At the end of that morning the height of glory turned to three scenes that were not like hell on earth. Ground Zero, as it has come to be called, looked like nothing I could ever have imagined in my imaginings of hell. I remember the black mounds of earth and rubble, fires still burning a month later in multiple places, the smell of melted flesh mingled with fuel and everything that could possibly burn and all of this framed by the protruding black gothic spears of steel. And my baby girl somewhere in the pile of it all.

I remember thinking, as I looked upon it for the first time, that God and the devil were both crying at the horror only men could make.

We all ask, from time to time, ‘where is God?’ It is the fundamental question people ask at times of pain, suffering and disaster. If  people of faith cannot answer this question, then atheists will remain atheists and even people of faith will fall into despair. So it was with relief that I listened to the Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, answer the same question when it was put to him by Lisa Jardine in a recent BBC programme he made, The Case for God.

Sacks said that he thinks you can divide religions into three types. One group faces suffering with acceptance, saying it is the will of God. Another takes what he calls the consolation approach, where believers look forward to a time, in another life, perhaps, when wrongs will be put right. The third, and Judaism is this kind, is a religion of protest, a religion which protests stridently, argues fiercely against suffering, against tragedy. This is the faith of Job who challenges God, the faith of Jacob who wrestles with God, the faith of all those who stand up and are counted in the fight against all that is wrong. As Sacks puts it,

God is in the prophetic voice that is willing to challenge the crowd. God calls out to us to help him eliminate evil from the human heart.

So for me, God is in all of us who stand, horrified, at the sight of Ground Zero 9 years ago. God is in the parents who mourn, in the survivors who remember and also in those people who ask the question ‘why does God allow suffering?’ God cannot prevent suffering, but he can, and does, give us the will to overcome it, to fight it, to prevent it leading us to give up in the face of evil.

Jonathan Sacks can be seen, until the evening of Monday 13th September, at

Donna Marsh O’Connor’s article can be found at

Posted by: njs44 | September 9, 2010

African Sanctus

I wrote a while back, on July 19th, about the death of David Fanshawe, the composer of the African Sanctus. At the time I didn’t know that I was going to get another chance to sing in a performance of this astonishing work quite so soon. As it happens I took part in such a performance on Tuesday evening in Canterbury Cathedral. There are full details of this project on a website and I have just a few small observations about this event to record for posterity.

First and foremost it was the young people who took part who impressed me so much, closely followed by their amazing teachers, who went way above and beyond the call of duty in the hours they must have spent waiting around while nothing much seemed to be happening. Taking kids on a school trip is always hard work, but this outing was more demanding than most. When we arrived at 1.30pm the youngsters were already rehearsing. I am not sure what time they arrived, but the performance did not finish until 10pm and many of them had long journeys home afterwards. I found out later that they had been there since the day before, attending workshops to continue their preparations for the event.

The performance itself was extremely well received by the audience. The atmosphere in somewhere like Canterbury Cathedral is always going to be something special. As we filed in from the Chapter House the dimly lit cloisters were redolent with history. We stepped over the very stones where it is believed St Thomas a Becket was murdered. The choir consisted of over 300 youngsters from 16 schools, both Independent and state-funded, up and down the country. They had rehearsed during the previous year, and then just come back from their summer holidays in time to sing what is the most challenging work I have ever sung.

At the rehearsal things were not always as they should be. The amplification needed adjusting so that we could hear the soloist, the piano, the backing tape, and each other. Not everyone could see the conductor, Allan Clay. Those sitting in the side aisles had to have a second conductor to bring them in at the right place, no easy job this as they needed to watch the main conductor and keep in time with him. The sheer size of the Cathedral makes it a challenging place in which to sing. The sound you make seems to get swallowed up and it is hard to hear what those around you are doing.

There is, however, something about live performance that creates an experience that goes beyond anything that a studio, with all its special effects and auto-tuning devices, can produce. There were some magic moments which I hope those young people will remember and take home with them. The opening part of the Kyrie, the Muslim call to prayer, was particularly poignant in this Christian building. The sad Love Song, a piano solo which was normally performed by David Fanshawe himself, was played this time by Alison Manton and I felt that David was listening in particularly at that moment. What a responsibility for this music teacher from Shoreham Academy. Lastly, of course, there was the Our Father, which was encored at the end, as it had been in our Barnet performance, as a prayer.

The photos show the West end of the Cathedral and the Logo for this performance.

Posted by: njs44 | September 6, 2010

London (Part 2)

This is just an excuse to post some more pictures of some interesting parts of London. There will also be a competition, to identify one mystery picture. The prize is yet to be decided, but members of my immediate family, who know where I went the other day, are not eligible to enter.

The first picture is easy and needs no description (and no prizes for knowing!)

The second is a view from a little further away, looking across the river from St Thomas’ hospital and shows a modern fountain in the foreground.

The third is Somerset House, where they also do an interesting line in fountains.

The next picture is of Temple Bar, which has roamed all over the place, from Fleet Street to Theobalds Park, and now back to the entrance to Paternoster Square, near St Paul’s.

And inside the square are these sheep and their shepherd.

And, finally, the mystery picture. Which building has this on top?

Posted by: njs44 | September 1, 2010

London (part 1)

Being a tourist in your own city is interesting. I have so many pictures now that this will be part one of a series. Earlier this summer I, like many others, delighted in taking pictures of the Elephant Parade. Now that the elephants have all been sold, and moved to their permanent homes, I was wondering what I would find next to photograph. I had made it a habit to carry my camera with me whenever I went into London, which is how I came to get this picture, the first one I took of an elephant in the parade.

Since the elephants went (and I have managed to get a photograph of all 258 of them) I continued the habit of  keeping my camera in my bag so that I can snap interesting things as I come across them.

This is a view of the House of Lords taken from the Jewel Tower, which, I believe,  is the oldest surviving part of the Palace of Westminster.

Today, as I walked past the South Bank, I came across this wonderful piece of art work, and as there are only a few days left to visit it, I thought I’d better post at once.

The weblink is here and here are my pictures

Here is an extract from the blurb about this project

Project Morrinho is an ever-growing social project that originates from a miniature city hand-built by young people who live in the Pereira da Silva favela in Rio de Janeiro. This new work has been created in collaboration with young people from Stockwell Park Estate ion Lambeth, a borough with the largest Portuguese-speaking community in the UK.

The original Project Morrinho has become an inspiration to people around the world. It began when a 14-year-old boy moved to the favela and decided to play with bricks he found in his backyard to create buildings inspired by his new surroundings. Other children took notice and their new shared hobby grew to become a miniature replica of their community built into a hillside woodland where they played out imaginary adventures with toys. The fame of this miniature favela has steadily spread, along with the positive message it conveys about young people in areas normally synonymous with poverty and crime.

Young people from Stockwell Park Estate and Project Morrinho have worked intensively to discover differences and similarities about the environments in which they live, inspiring a joint landscape made up of 4,000 bricks depicting buildings, landmarks, playgrounds, parks and homes. Like the Rio favelas, Stockwell Park Estate’s thriving community centre and its aspiring young residents are often overshadowed by its reputation for drug-related crime and poverty. Project Morrinho has sought to share with Stockwell Park Estate how they can bring about positive change in their community.

Posted by: njs44 | August 30, 2010

Incredible Athletes

There are only 29 days left, as I write, to watch this amazing programme on 4oD, Inside Incredible Athletes. Don’t delay! This may well be the most inspiring, uplifting thing you will watch all year. Here’s the link:

There is no room for pity here, just sheer determination to be the best you can be. This is so far away from the tragedy school of disability, that you might even find yourself envying these disabled athletes. In fact ‘disabled’ is somehow the wrong word to use. They are fantastic examples of what can be achieved by people who do not take no for an answer, and who are blessed with a spectacular amount of drive and ambition.

The scientists who are studying the brains of these extraordinary people are learning new things all the time. It was great to see a Cambridge neuroscientist see MRI images he did not think were possible, when the visual area of a blind man’s brain ‘lit up’ as they played him various sounds. The plasticity of the brain has been talked about, by neuroscientists anyway, for some time, but here we could see this phenomenon demonstrated in all its glory.

For me there were many magic moments in this programme, but of all of them, the one I will pick out was when a former soldier, who had been blinded by a roadside bomb and had also suffered several other injuries, described himself as fortunate, because, in his own words, ‘some of my team came home in a box’. He was busy training for the blind football team – you need to watch the programme to see how that works.

It is two years, nearly to the day, to the start of the London Paralympics. I can’t wait to get tickets for that.

Posted by: njs44 | August 29, 2010

Seasons come, seasons go

It seems very autumnal here right now. With Spring having come so late this year it seems we are being short-changed by Autumn coming early. During this Spring I took a lot of photographs in my local park, recording Spring as it unfolded and there was one particular horse-chestnut tree that I used as a kind of marker of progress.

You can see the progress of this tree in the following pictures

The first picture was taken on March 26th when there were no leaves, no buds.

By April 14th there are discernible leaves.

Now it is April 23rd and you can see many more leaves.

The tree is in full bloom by May 23rd, this picture taken from a different direction, because of the angle of the sun in the late afternoon.

This picture was taken today, August 29th. You cannot see the conkers very well, so there’s a close-up below.

I will continue to monitor this tree as it changes colour during the autumn. What a lot of changes in just five months.

And how simple it is to put pictures into WordPress blogs. I should do it more often!

Posted by: njs44 | August 27, 2010


How rare it is these days to buy something from the person who made it. I was fortunate yesterday to visit a place where they make furniture, from start to finish. Benchmark Furniture is a small company in Berkshire which produces some very beautiful pieces, and the entire process takes place on this one site. We were shown the timbers piled up, drying. The planks still had the bark on the edges. There were some pieces of bog oak, carbon dated as 5,000 years old. There was the largest (as in longest) piece of oak the director of the company (who showed us round) had ever seen, which was used to make a table for an Oxford College. There were other pieces of timber at various stages of drying, seasoning, waiting to be made into tables, chairs, and other items.

The company is small, which has the advantage that the managers know everyone who works there. As he took us round, the boss stopped to talk to people, praising them for their work, thanking them for their efforts, enquiring about what they were doing, in a friendly, interested way. It seemed to me a wonderful model of what manufacturing should be. Craftsmanship, care, attention to detail, humanity – all things that are missing in so many areas of business these days.

We saw the places where the wood is treated, where upholstery is done, where they store discarded things, in the hopes of it being recyclable. We saw a huge order for the Library of a famous Public School just about to be despatched in time for the beginning of term. We sat on chairs, and sofas, stroked the lovely wood of tables and benches, drank in the atmosphere of a place where beautiful treasures are made.

And then, at the end of our tour, he showed us the 500-year-old Oak tree in the centre of the site. It is a living link with the source of their work, a link to the earth, a link to the past. There were saplings on sale, and I so wanted to buy one, but have nowhere to put it. Oak trees can grow very large, and I know my small back garden could not cope. I hope one day I will find somewhere to plant such a tree, and then I can go back and see the place again.

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