Sunday, 31 May 2015

Do you take your kids to art galleries?

As you know, I've been in Madrid - and I spent much of the time in the art galleries. Some of the world's most precious paintings were there - so I spent hours gazing at some magnificent pieces.

I shared much of the space with other tourists, of course. And with children.

I've been to the National Gallery and watched families try to introduce children to paintings. Some looked obediently; a minority actually stared for a couple of minutes and then needed a wee. I recall taking my own children - we didn't last long. Within minutes one was hungry, another hit her sister, while a fourth asked loudly why that lady has no clothes on ... it was my idea of dreadful and I rarely tried again.

But here, in Madrid, I saw groups of schoolchildren and they were enthralled. Even little ones - they can't have been much more than four - were sitting and listening as a curator talked about the picture and asked what they could see, and then helped them to look again and look again until every brush-stroke had been thought about. And then they were off to another painting.

I suspect that the tinies only looked at three or four pictures, and the more difficult pieces were left for older children. But even adolescents (except for a couple of lads who wanted only to gawp at the nudes) were engrossed - and able to engage with pieces that I found difficult to look at or understand. Having been taken to art galleries since they were small they understood the discipline needed to look, and think, and notice what an artist was trying to achieve and how he or she did it.

And so I have thought again. Maybe my failure to engage my children with art was due to my own incompetence at talking about the pictures and helping them to look closely at them. I can no longer blame their immaturity.

Shall I try again, with grandchildren? And you - do you take children to art galleries?

Sunday, 24 May 2015

When pictures say more than words.

I've been to Madrid. A spur of the moment thing and I've only been home for a couple of days so there has been little time for thought-collecting.

But, amid the Rioja and the flamenco and the general jollity I saw a picture than will - and should - haunt me for ever.

I saw Guernica:

The huge painting by Picasso painted after the Luftwaffe bombed the Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War.

It is an image we all know - reprinted whenever Picasso or Spanish history creeps into the frame. Yet it is about so much more than Picasso, or Spain. But printed images, or reproduced online can never reproduce the impact of seeing this painting on a wall.

It is a brutal depiction of what war does to people - people like you and me, and to our children. It's savagery goes far beyond words.

I don't usually step on political toes but this time I shall. For all those who would leave refugees at sea in the Mediterranean or the Andaman Ocean should stand in front of this picture for an hour. All those who drop bombs on those who worship a different god or have a different skin colour should stand in front of this picture for an hour. All those who would condemn the many to punish the terrible behaviour of the few.

I'm not saying that there are never times when we should stand our ground. But we should never do so without knowing - really knowing - that this is what war feels like.

Sunday, 17 May 2015


Two weeks ago I took a diversion from posting my photos from the Far East to discuss the tragedy in Nepal. Here are my final set of photos - from Singapore - not because Nepal is mended or I have given up writing about her, but because I promised I'd do this ages ago!

It has taken me three visits to work out why I struggle in Singapore, but I think I've got it now. It's a city in which it almost impossible to find somewhere to think. There are museums, and parks, but still it feels as if the city wants me to spend money and if I'm not doing that I'm wasting my time. It wants me to be reactive - while I want to be reflective. Which is why we don't do well together.

Having said that, Singapore does what it does very well. For instance, there's not one broken light bulb on this bridge:

And not all the shopping is in air-conditioned shopping malls - I love the markets in Chinatown, with their sacks of nuts and spices, traders calling their wares, street food wafting tantalising smells on the corners.

Can you guess what these are? (The answer is at the bottom of this blog)

In my efforts to escape from the razzmatazz, I went to the Gardens by the Bay. They are accessed through a shopping mall and a swish hotel, but once you are there the grounds are lovely and there are some reclusive corners that are free!!

And there are two main 'domes' - the construction recognisable to anyone who has been to the Eden Project in Cornwall. The Flower Dome weaves flowers from the Mediterranean, deserts and the Far East with Chinese decorations - it is all a bit over the top but the colours are lovely.

The Cloud Dome replicates the flora of a Cloud Forest. Visitors are whisked up 100 feet, and then wander down a walkway that winds down a central structure covered with plants from high in the South American mountains. It's impossible to capture the size of it all - but this will give you an idea. And it finished with a film about climate change and how we all need to conserve resources, which felt a bit contradictory to me in the light of Singapore's commitment to consumerism.

And hidden among all the greenery are wooden statues and totems. I'm afraid these two made me laugh as I had a sudden image of them peeing in the bushes. Oh well, there are worse ways to misbehave.

(And on the stall in the Chinese market - they are jams!)

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Putting Nepal together again.

I can hear you sighing already. I'm not going on about Nepal again, am I - well yes, I am.

From some of the news coverage you might assume that everyone in Nepal is sitting about waiting for rescue. And indeed there are thousands - probably tens of thousands or more - in huge need. They are traumatised by the loss of homes, of family members, of everything they had dreamed of for their futures.

And then there are those who still have homes, who aren't waiting for the government or aid agencies, who are buying up what food and water and supplies they can, packing it into trucks and sending it as far into the mountains as they can.

Those of you who have read Over the Hill or Hidden Tiger will know of Tika. He was my guide in Nepal and North India. Whenever I think of him I smile - for his giggles saw me through some alarming times. When a man with a gun in Lucknow patted the ground and invited me to sit beside him and I lied and lied and lied about a husband waiting in the hotel for me, Tika was convulsed with laughter beside me. When I had spent hours in a taxi coming down the Siddhartha Highway after a cyclone, he was beside himself.

He was in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck. Within a day or two he had made it home to Pokhara, and had begun to organise relief efforts. He helped to mobilise anyone fit enough to help. Food, blankets, medicines - trucks were loaded and dispatched. While waiting for their return they continued to gather goods from local people.

Friends of mine can see a picture or two on Facebook here - scroll down and you'll find more about what he's been up to.

And for those who can't do that, here's a picture showing a fraction of the goodies he's gathered, to send up to Gorkha:

This is a glimpse of things the Nepalis are doing for themselves. It's not enough, of course. The rest, surely, is up to the rest of us.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Just another earthquake.

It's over a week since Nepal was rocked to its foundations. That first flush of horror has passed. The journalists are beginning to pack their bags. It is no longer 'new'.

I will not claim that this disaster is worse than any other. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides: they all leave people - real people like you and me - living in tents and begging for water. But I can talk about Nepal because it is a country I know and love.

A bit about the history - Nepal has never been invaded, because it has no resources that anyone else is interested in plundering. No oil. No gold no diamonds no uranium. (Or if it has, it is hidden so deep inside the mountains that no one knows). But this means no investment. Few foreign governments help impoverished countries unless there is something in it for them. In addition, the administration is still practising democracy after years of Maoist insurgency and the end of the monarchy so all organisations are a bit hit and miss.

On top of that they have welcomed refugees from Tibet and Kashmir - without making a performance of it. So there's no Farage-equivalent bleating about foreigners.

The lack of rural employment means that many men from the countryside have left to work in Kathmandu or the cities of north India or the Middle East, leaving the women to run small farms. Many villages are largely comprised of women, children and older people, all working their socks off to get by. They live in tiny cottages that cling to the mountainside:

The only way to reach some of these villages is paths like this:

And some are so remote that it takes several days trekking to reach them.

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, the young men are crowded in tiny, often insanitary, apartments. If there are regulations regarding construction they don't reach streets like this one:

In the middle of all this Nepali chaos is the wonderful Durbur Square, with its temples and palaces and space for people to wander. It is Kathmandu's Trafalgar Square and Westminster Abbey and St Paul's and  Borough Market all rolled into one. There are small shops set into the walls:

And magnificent temples where the faithful go to pray.

I cannot bear to use the past tense for all this. I know so much of it is rubble. That these brave, generous, impoverished people are still living in the streets, dependent on the generosity of you and I.

The men will rebuilt their homes and their temples. The women in the villages will till their misshapen fields. They will send their children to school.

While we can only sit back and feel helpless.