Something Everyone Needs To See

I saw this on Twitter yesterday.

It is nothing at all like the sort of thing I usually post on this blog.
But I wanted it to reach the biggest possible audience.

The harsh reality of abandoning the Kurds to their fate in Syria.
Once brave allies against ISIS, now discarded like so much rubbish.

***Content warning. This short clip includes a dead child***

But I make no apologies for showing it.

Architectural admiration (8)

There hasn’t been a post in this series since February. I made a lot of notes for some more, but decided that they were all too familiar. Yes I had seen and admired them, but so have so many others. I needed to find some of the more unusual ones again, and that was proving to be more challenging. These posts are very time-consuming, involving lots of research, to ensure accuracy. This one alone has taken most of a day. On this occasion, I have included three mammoth architectural icons that I have never seen. This diversion from my usual discipline is inspired by the thought that I almost certainly never will see them, but some of you may well get the chance. I have separated them at the end of the post, for clarity.

Jardin Majorelle, Marrakesh, Morocco.

Very rarely, you visit a place where you would actually like to live. Perhaps not always in the country where you find it, but certainly in the actual place itself. Being able to own it, then move it to the perfect location, is a rewarding fantasy. French artist Jaques Majorelle created just such a place, in Marrakesh, Morocco, in the years between the two world wars. The modernist house and buildings are surrounded by acres of lush gardens, courtyards and fountains, and fine examples of cactus, and other exotic plants. His paintings are displayed inside, and much of the area is painted with the most vibrant shade of cobalt blue, of his own concoction. So distinctive, it has become known as ‘Majorelle Blue.’ Tiles and mosaics are used extensively, and the design is cleverly intended to make the best use of angles of sight, and to allow light to fall just where it is needed.

The house was bought by French fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent in 1980, and when he died in 2008, his ashes were scattered in the gardens. I can understand why he would have wanted that. There is also a museum of Berber art and textiles founded by Saint Laurent, and like the gardens, open to the public. If you ever visit that city, be sure not to miss this treat for the senses.

Eltham Palace, South London, UK.

Eltham is a sprawling suburb of south-east London, on the border with the county of Kent. Driving along its High Street, with the usual mix of estate agents, ‘phone shops, and chain stores, you would hardly be aware of the treasure that lies just behind it. This is definitely a house that I would love to live in, for so many reasons. Built as a moated manor house in 1296 for the Bishop of Durham, it was given over to the crown as a gift to Edward II, in 1305.

This house has such a connection with the history of the British Royal Family, and that of our country too, I am at a loss to understand why it is almost unknown to so many of us. It was one of the primary Royal residences for over two hundred years, and is the place where Henry VIII grew into manhood. However, life in Tudor England was all about being close to the River Thames, the main artery of travel, and because of this, Eltham fell out of use, with the palace at Greenwich coming into favour, due to its riverside location. After the English Civil War, and the restoration of Charles II, it was little more than a ruin, and was bequeathed by the King to John Shaw. All that remained was the Great Hall, and some of the original walls, and Shaw’s family held on to the property in this condition, until the end of the 19th Century.

In 1933, Stephen Courtauld bought the house. He was part of the rich industrial family that were famous art collectors, and founders of the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He built the current house, incorporating the restored Great Hall. The interior is an Art Deco wonderland, of untouched stylistic features and furniture from the mid-1930s, with a circular entrance hall/reception room that has an amazing ceiling, and beautiful wood-panelled walls. The gardens are delightful too, and since the building was taken over by English Heritage in 1992, it has been open to the public. This is a real gem, tucked away just a short train ride from Central London to Eltham Station, or easily accessible by car, using the main A2 or A20 roads from London to the coast. I urge you to make the effort.

The Gherkin, St Mary Axe, London, UK.

During the IRA bombing campaign against London, a huge bomb devastated the area in the City around the Baltic Exchange building, in 1992. Despite demands to retain the facade of the damaged building, it was declared unsafe, and soon demolished. There were many ideas put forward to replace it, with Sir Norman Foster, the distinguished British architect, gaining acceptance for his design, which was built from 2001, and officially opened in 2004.

The end result divided opinion, and it was soon nicknamed The Gherkin, relating to the shape of the small pickled cucumber. I always thought that it looked more like a bullet, and the retro-futuristic style appealed to me a great deal, like a rocket from the 1960s. Despite the circular appearance, all the glass is flat, and designed to create a pattern on the building. It is home to the Swiss Re insurance company, and a dozen or more other international companies. It also has restaurants, and a very impressive entrance lobby. On the top floor, which is the fortieth, there is a private dining room and bar for tenant’s use only, with impressive views. This building manages to appear smaller than it actually is, within the confines of that area in the congested city. But it is imposing, and can be seen from over twenty miles away.

Like my previous choice, Eltham Palace, it has attracted the attention of many film-makers, so you may well have seen it on screen.

Rochester Castle, Rochester, Kent, UK.

Built in the 11th Century, this imposing castle dominated the River Medway, and the main road from London. Despite the ravages of time, the imposing keep remains, and still looks formidable to this day. During its heyday, it was fought over many times, but saw little action after 1381, when it was all but destroyed during the famous Peasants’ Revolt.

During the late Victorian Age, it was opened as a park around the ruins, and it was not until relatively modern times that it was restored to its former glory by English Heritage, who now own the site. It is open to the public as an attraction, and continues to be well attended, and admired. Listed as a Grade 1 building of historical importance, it may be better known to anyone who has seen the film ‘Ironclad’ (2011), which was filmed in and around the castle.

These next examples are those that I have never seen, and for different reasons, probably never will. My admiration for them is no less diminished by this fact.

Ghengis Khan Equestrian Statue, Mongolia.

I have not seen this of course. It was built in 2008, funded by a Mongolian businessman who had made his fortune after the country’s independence. Determined to keep the name of his famous ancestor alive, he paid to have this statue erected, overlooking the steppes from where Ghengis began his conquest of the known world.

I saw it on TV recently, when Joanna Lumley visited it, on her Trans-Siberian tour. It may seem garish on first glance, but you have to consider how important a figure that Genghis Khan was to modern day inhabitants of Mongolia. His conquests exceeded those of Alexander The Great, and anything that the Roman Empire achieved.

During the Soviet years, he was all but erased from history, so it is fitting that such an edifice be erected to his memory. Some sixty miles from the large city of Ulan Bhator, this magnificent statue stands looking over the boundless plains of Mongolia. Visitors can access the viewing platform, on the top of the horse’s head, and gaze over plains unchanged since Ghengis rode across them. Simply marvellous.

The Motherland Calls, Volgograd, Russia.

When this amazing memorial to the battle of Stalingrad was opened in 1967, it was claimed to be the largest statue in the world. Volgograd is the modern name for Stalingrad, but the city is the same one that saw the terrible battle during the Second World war. A battle where the Germans were defeated, and indisputably changed the whole tide of the war, in favour of the allies.

The statue symbolises ‘Mother Russia’, sword in her hand, defending her nation from the invader. Despite numerous trips to the Soviet Union, I never got to see this, to my great regret.

Krak Des Chavaliers, , near Homs, Syria.

The recent tragic war in Syria has put the fate of this once magnificent castle in doubt. Perhaps the best preserved Medieval castle in the entire world, the Krak was originally developed by the order of the Knights Hospitaller in 1142, during the Crusades. They held it until it fell to the Saracens, in 1271. The huge castle complex is located in a dry desert area, and this helped to preserve the wonderful architecture over the centuries. At one time, it contained a garrison of over 2,000 knights, who used it to control a vast area of the country.

Until Syrian independence, the castle was controlled by the French in modern times, and they restored the castle to its former glory. Since 2011, the castle has been fought over by the Syrian rebels and government, suffering air attacks, and shelling. More recently, it has also been the site of fighting against Islamic State. So, it’s future is in doubt, and even if my circumstances changed, it is unlikely that I will ever see it.

So that’s my latest selection, including a few I have never seen. It may well be my last, as I have no wish to go over many other buildings and sites that so many others have seen. I hope that you can visit some, and find others to admire.

Too much News: Pistorius and the BBC

To readers outside the UK, I apologize in advance. This may be of little or no interest to you.

I am an avid watcher of TV News. Ever since dedicated news channels arrived in the UK, I have been a fan. I like to be aware of what is going on, and to keep up with world events, and home news. This is even more important since I retired, as I do not have the benefit of chatting with work colleagues, and the usual discussions and opinions that are the result of general conversation. I can think of many occasions when constant news updates are important, and even some where it is acceptable for the coverage to be uninterrupted, as happened with the events of 9/11 in New York.

At the moment, there are many things going on around the world, and here in the UK, that are of interest or concern to me. The ongoing war in Syria, which could destabilise the whole region. The situation in Ukraine, that could lead to a limited war in Europe. At home, we have the forthcoming EU Parliament elections, the economic problems, and issues over benefits, and the NHS. So, what do the BBC News broadcasts offer us? Unlimited coverage of the trial of a South African man, accused of killing his girlfriend. This trial, and the murder that preceded it, may have been of more than usual interest, as the accused is a well-known athelete, who has appeared in the Paralympic Games. Perhaps a short overview, followed by news of the eventual verdict, would have been in order. However, the court ruled that parts of the trial could be televised, and the BBC jumped on the bandwagon, becoming part of the media circus that wanted to show us these proceedings.

For those of you that know nothing of the Pistorius trial, here is a brief outline of the events. On Valentine’s Day, 2013, Pistorius and his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, were together in his house in Pretoria, the capital of South Africa. He shot her dead, as she hid in the shower, firing many times through the glass door. From the beginning, he admitted the shooting, but claimed that he believed that she was an intruder. Despite the fact that he realised she was not in bed, that an argument preceding the shooting was heard by witnesses, and that she could be heard screaming behind the shower, it never occurred to him to ask if it was her. He just shot through the glass. Surely one of the worst defences ever presented in a murder charge? It is so obvious that he killed her following some sort of jealous argument. Given that he had to put on prosthetic legs, get his pistol from the bedroom (all in the dark) and then shoot through the door of the shower cubicle, who could possibly believe that this was an accidental shooting, in fear of an intruder? If he was not a well-known athelete, and backed by substantial funds, this laughable case would have never been presented.

Trials in the UK are not allowed to be shown on television. Even photographs are not allowed, so we have long tolerated sketches of accused persons, and notable Judges, in our media here. From TV and Cinema, we are all well-aware how these trials proceed, and the technicalities that surround them. We are conversant with the system of defence following prosecution, how witnesses give evidence, and how juries make their deliberations. We do not need to see it played out in its entirety on TV news. It is just pointless. What makes the Pistorius trial even more ludicrous to show on news programmes, is the fact that he is not allowed to be shown. There is a delay in transmission as well, presumably to allow for ‘editing’. What we are left with, are views of the judge, the barristers, and an occasional witness who does not object to being televised. We hear the answers from the accused, as well as his crying and whining, but do not see him in the court. We are deprived of seeing for ourselves, being able to judge his sincerity, or otherwise.

Instead, we have a succession of journalists paraded before the camera, offering their interpretation of his behaviour, and their version of those parts of the trial we are unable to see. Pundits are wheeled on, to offer speculation, background detail, and such minutiae as how long a tea break will be, or what the accused had for lunch. I can see no justification for the tedious and blanket coverage¬† of this trial, other than the ‘excitement’ of being able to show events ‘live’ from a court. The BBC is a public service, funded by a licence fee which we all have to pay if we own a TV set, whether we want to or not. It should be more responsible with how it spends that money, and not waste it with this interminable coverage of a foreign trial, in a country thousands of miles away. For balance, I should add that Sky News also broadcasts exactly the same output, at the same time. But this is a satellite channel, and we do not have to pay for it.

Many of us, myself included, have written in to the BBC to complain. They defend their actions by stating that there is huge public interest in the case, borne out by visits to their website, and audience figures for the trial reports. What they conveniently forget to mention, is that if you turn on the news, or visit the website, this is the lead story at all times, so we have no other option but to unwittingly become part of those audience statistics.

The BBC was once an institution to be proud of. Compared to some other countries television, it still is, in some respects. Sadly, in seeking to be more populist, less intellectual, and to gather audience figures, it is now just playing the game of telling us what we need to see, instead of allowing us to make up our own minds. It needs to get back to reporting the news that is happening, instead of becoming part of the institution that creates news that they want us to watch.

I suspect that the film and TV rights have already been sold, and the book launch will quickly follow the verdict.


The Syrian Situation

Given that it seems we are days away from some sort of military intervention in Syria, I thought I would use this blog to urge everyone to protest about this. I am not asking you to camp outside Parliament, or to stand on the corner of your street with a placard.  Just send your MP an e mail, stating that as a constituent, you do not support this action. The details are easily found on the Internet, and those of you in the UK can easily discover not only who your MP is, but also their contact details.

Here is the e mail I sent to my MP just now. feel free to use it as a template. Let us try to avoid another Afghanistan, and further attacks on our citizens, at home and abroad. We have to stop believing the lies, and behaving like sheep. Enough is enough.

‘Dear Mr Freeman,
As one of your constituents, I am urging you to vote against any military intervention by the UK in Syria. I include in this any bombing, arming of rebels, and use of UK armed forces in any way whatsoever. After the shameful lies that took us into war with Iraq, and the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan, I find it inconceivable that we are even considering attacks on Syria, based on the spurious ‘evidence’ we have available.¬†
I hope that you do not want to be a part of a government that would use these tactics, purely to secure rights to oil, or to further de-stabilise the already delicate situation in this area. It is not our business to intervene in this civil conflict, irrespective of whether we prefer one side, or the other. We must learn the lessons of Vietnam and other conflicts where this happened.’
Thank You.
Pete Johnson, Beetley, Norfolk.




Foreign Wars

Just a short post, about a subject so huge, I could write about it until Doomsday. It is prompted by our recent decision (as a Country) to assist the French intervention in the civil war in Mali. I am old enough to remember when the USA sent ‘advisors’, and ‘trainers’ to South Vietnam, to help their struggling army against the Communist North. We all know how that turned out, I think.

First, we went into Iraq, for reasons so spurious, they later prompted an Inquiry, and even some arrests for perjury. Next, it was Afghanistan, once we found out that they were the people we really needed to have a crack at. After that, despite a huge commitment remaining in that Country, we went to help Libyan rebels. It wasn’t about the oil though, honest. Since then, we have been ‘assisting’ the Syrian rebels, against the Assad government, and now we have our eyes on Mali. I looked it up. No oil, but the third largest gold producer in Africa. That might be a clue.

We have been told that we need to cut back our Armed Forces by tens of thousands over the next few years. The total strength of all of them is now at one of its lowest numbers in modern history. We are barely able to defend these islands from attack, in the event of a conventional war. The economy faces a triple-dip recession. All of this, we are told, is true. If so, what the hell are we doing getting involved in more Foreign Wars? What started out as 40 trainers, is multiplying rapidly, as fast as dividing cells in a tumour.

When will we, as a Country, realise that we are only a bit-player on the World stage these days. The Empire is long gone, and nobody is scared of the British anymore.