Entries in Personal Reflections (29)

Wednesday
Oct172012

ABRAHAM DARBY ACADEMY, AND A NEAR-DEATH EXPERIENCE

 Excuse this pic lying on its side.  If you were as tired as I am, you'd understand why I've given up trying to get it stand up straight.  This is me at Abraham Darby Academy in Telford today, talking to groups of Year Nines about my adventures in Belize.  The children were great.  They really listened and showed an interest.  Not only that, their school was amazing.  It was one of those fancy new academies, officially opened last week by Prince Edward.

I've been doing author visits for over twenty years and I've never been in a school like it.  According to the teachers, the official opening day was pretty amazing too, and so was Prince Edward, but not being a Royalist, I have to take their word for that. 

When I go into schools on my 'In the Trees' book tour, what I'm trying to get across  is that it's not just governments and multi-national companies who can make a difference  to the world.  Young people can too.  Young people from any background and any type of school.  I know what I'm talking about here, because I saw it happening in Belize.  I saw gap year projects really working, changing young people's lives as they worked to change the world around them.  

When I go into schools I look at the young people in front of me and say, 'In just a few years time, what I'm telling you about now could be happening to you. I'm not just talking about other people making a difference to the world around them.  I'm talking about you.'  

Well enough of that.  Onto the near-death experience.  It happened this morning before I left for Abraham Darby.  As I'd be in front of my first class at 8.30 am, I took our family dog, Biffo, for a very early morning walk.  It was still dark when I got down to the River Severn and started following the towing path.  I didn't think anything of that though, as I'd taken Biffo down there in the dark many times before. Nothing prepared me for a sudden, awful, heavy plopping sound in the river - which was definitely too loud to be made by a duck.

I rushed to the edge of the path, looked into the water.  Nothing to see.  I called Biffo's name.  No dog appeared. I called a few more times.  Still no dog appeared.  I looked around me, thinking maybe I'd made a mistake and he'd gone trotting off along the towing path.  No sign of him.  I looked again at the water, scanning all the way along the river to the railway bridge where things started getting choppy a hundred yards or so before the weir.  Still no dog.

I knew what had happened.  Biffo had sunk.  Like a stone he'd gone down and he wasn't coming back.  Before my eyes flashed the moments when I'd summon the family, one by one, to the phone to give them the bad news.  'I've drowned your dog...  This is all my fault...  I don't know how it happened...  He just disappeared...' 

Suddenly, like a cork, up Biffo popped, bedraggled, terrified, out of his depth and, though he tried valiantly to swim towards me, sweeping away.  I flung myself flat on the towing path and leaned over the edge.  If it hadn't been for the last few days' rain swelling the river, I never would have reached him.  I nearly didn't reach him either, and I'm still asking myself whether I'd have jumped in or what I would have done if Biffo reallly did sweep away. But just at the last moment I got him at the back of his ears.  Just a tiny wet hand's worth of fluff, but I clung on for dear life and hauled my dog out.

I don't know who was trembling more as we headed for home.  One thing's for sure.  We're never going down to the river in the dark again, even with Biffo on a lead.  Back home I dried him off, fed him and left him curled up on my bed.  I was still shaking slightly when I reached Abraham Darby three quarters of an hour later.  And Biffo was still on my bed when I returned home at the end of the day.  Drama over.  Here's a picture of our little darling.  Three cheers for me managing to get this photo right side up so that you can see Biffo smiling. No, it's not a snarl.  I said, 'Smile, Biffo,' and that was definitely his response.

Moral of story? Next time I do an author visit, get someone else to walk the dog. And next time I walk the dog, put him in a life jacket just in case.

 

Tuesday
Jul312012

IN PRAISE OF TEAM BELIZE, THE ENGLISH SHIRES & CLARIDGE'S

I have a story for you.  It involves my daughter Grace, who has a nasty habit - by which I mean she smokes.  Fag-breaking on a pavement outside the fashion house she used to work for in Poland Street, Soho, Grace forged a friendship with a Belizean whose office was in the same building. His surprise at her knowledge of his country was compounded by her mother having been there and written a book – one which he said he’d read, and had loved because it got under the skin of Belize - he said he could even smell it as he read.

One thing followed another, by which I mean that fashion followed literature, followed by Team Belize, who were coming to the Olympics for their fiftieth year [an amazing achievement for such a tiny nation] and at that point without a kit. Did Grace, working in fashion, and quite plainly a friend of Belize, know anyone who might help?

Grace’s partner, Luis Lopez-Smith, is Chief Designer for the sportswear brand, Head. You can put the rest together for yourselves.  Working independently, Luis has designed a kit which, now that the Olympics has started, is definitely making waves. Belize might have a tiny team, but when they go out with the other athletes for practice sessions, everybody wants to know where they come from and where they got that kit! Even the BBC have been asking, and Belize’s champion hurdler is being filmed in action this week for a Panorma documentary. 

Last Thursday saw the three of us - Grace, Luis, and myself - guests of the Belizean High Commission in London, attending a champagne tea party at Claridges where we were thanked for our contribution [mine slight to the point of being negligible, but it was still good to get a mention] to Belize’s Olympic effort.  Also on the guest list was Geoff Banks [see right, sorry for fuzzy quality - he's the man in the dark suit with the cast on his leg], who had designed Team Belize’s outfit for the Opening  Ceremony.  The difference between the two designers was that Geoff Banks was able to afford to take a whole team of designers out to Belize to get the feel for the country and measure up its athletes, whereas Luis strayed no further than Camberwell, working weekends and long evenings into the night on the kit, with no team to help him other than Grace.

But the results are stunning. In a week’s time, when the whole kit has been filmed and photographed, I’ll show you what I mean.  In the meantime, go on my Facebook Timeline and scroll down, if you want to see a picture of Belize’s Olympic kit. 

Tea at Claridges was everything you’d expect [sorry this pic is on its side - try as I might I can't get it to stand upright!]. Outside London baked, its roads clogged with Olympic BMWs escorting dignitaries from around the world from hotels to Olympic sites and back again.  Flags were everywhere. Patsy and Edina did their thing on Oxford Street but, though we were only round the corner, we missed it. 

We didn’t miss the atmosphere though.  I grew up in London, was born there and return from time to time, but I’ve never felt the place so alive, buzzing and heaving with excitement.  It was as much as I could do, early next day, to tear myself away. Arriving at Euston Station I felt as if I was leaving behind everything that mattered and the one-and-only place where anyone should be.

 But as the train rolled through the lovely English countryside, much to my surprise I found myself overwhelmed with relief.  It was quiet on the train and the landscape seemed calm and fragrant.  Something frenetic and all-consuming lay behind me and my train journey felt like an escape.  This was life again on the human scale.  Back in the shires, I could hear myself think.

The afternoon and early evening were spent at a wedding beside a beautiful lake. Afterwards, rolling through the soft green hills of Herefordshire and Shropshire, I tweeted ‘Amazing sunset over Shropshire hills. This is no stadium. It’s no Olympic Opening Ceremony but the real English countryside at its most beautiful.’  And it was.

I thought the Opening Ceremony was great. To have attended it would have been amazing, but even watching on my phone’s tiny screen - with intermittent reception - I could grasp the scale of what it was trying to achieve. That it included children’s literature surprised and delighted me. And that it started with the shires delighted me too.  

Friday
May042012

Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends - An Evening at the Step-by-Step Dance School, Northampton

We sit waiting to go in.  A big burly man next to me is buffing up his shoes.  The undersides have got to be like velvet, he says, if he wants to dance well in them.  We’re surrounded by kids, dads, girls in slashed jeans, mums with bottled water, dancers coming out of the studio, others on their way in, throwing off their cardigans and pulling up their leg warmers.  Above the studio door hangs a sign which says, 'Enter as Strangers, Leave as Friends'. 

I follow through into a light, long studio with a vaulted ceiling.   Already it's filling up with people shaking hands, hips, arms and legs.  The boards beneath their feet are bare and worn.  A glitter-ball hangs from a roof truss, strip-lighting is attached to a beam.

I seat myself on a red leather sofa facing a long wall of windows with sliding sashes, some of which are paned with frosted glass. I'm here as an observer, notebook in lap. I look around. On either side of me are electric fans. The wall to my left is decorated with flowers flocked black on white.  To my right is a wall full of mirror-glass, which most of the class is now facing [it's hard to do anything else].  

The lesson begins.  Andrezej's in charge.  Now everyone has limbered up, he wants them in two lines ready for the cha cha chaa. ‘Two, three, one...' he starts, clapping his hands. 'Cha cha chaa…’ He moves into the space between the lines, stamping his feet.  His pupils copy his steps until they have them right. ‘New York, New York…’ he says.  Or, at least, I think he does - given his accent and the din of all those feet I could have got that wrong. 'New York, and three… kick, three, cha cha chaa.'

The exercise ends with a kind of whoop from Andrezej.  I'm guessing this is a word, but can't figure out what. Everybody stamps on the floor.  They clap.  They laugh. ‘Now we’ll do it with music,’ Andrezej says. ‘Partner up.’

This afternoon I interviewed Kamila Domanska, twice World Ballroom Dancing Champion. When she was a child, Kamila would take practice classes four times a week, each one lasting hours at a time.  She loved to dance, but it often came with tears.  In her own classes nowadays, she tries to make dancing fun.  What she runs she describes as a ‘messy class’.  I wonder if this is a messy class.  Certainly I can see people having fun.

Another thing Kamila said was that dancing with music was different.  It changed the steps.  It changed everything.  And now I see this for myself.   People have partnered up and are starting to move round the dance-floor.  Their feet pound harder on the boards, their turns are sharper, their arms rise higher, their hips are wigglier - if you can allow for such a word - and there’s a new elegance in the way they hold their hands, necks and heads.      

Rain is lashing at the windows, but never mind the weather outside - there’s an English fire burning in Northampton tonight.  Before entering this studio, these were just a group of ordinary people inhabiting their own ordinary worlds.  But now, by the power of music and dance, they’re being transformed into something else.

And that’s even before the fairy-lights come on and the glitter-ball starts turning!  For a few short moments magic happens.  The lights, the music, the stamping, swirling dancers - 'Palais de Northampton' are the words that come into my head. And I'm not mocking here - on this rainy April evening, in every sense of what it means to be a palais, this is one.

The music stops.  The fairy-lights go off.  People reach for water bottles, pause to breathe, to readjust their shoes, to take a rest, hands on knees.  But Andrezej’s only just begun with them.  Already he’s counting again.  'One, two, three, four…'  Everybody hurries back into their rows, stamping out new steps as the music comes back on. A voice sings out, ‘Baby, baby, I’m in chains’  and it's the rhumba this time.  From where I’m sitting I can see a lot of posturing, heads and shoulders flung back, fancy footwork, thrusting  hips.  But then that's the rhumba for you.  See what it's doing.  'Four, and one, and two, and three…'

Between the rows is Andrezej, dancing with partners chosen, one after another, from the group.  Not for a moment does he stop talking.  ‘Four and one and two and three….' he cries.  'Turn and one and two and three… Four and one and back and three.  Four and one and walk and walk.’  

I watch his feet.  In fact, I watch everybody’s feet.  To a non-dancer like me, it’s baffling how they’re moving this way rather than that. It’s not even as if people are looking at each other to check out the little frilly turns at the ends of the steps.  How do they know to do that?  And how do they remember what to do next?

Everybody partners up again, and I'm relieved to see that at least one couple is experiencing the sort of difficulties that I would be if it were me. ‘If you can’t make your mind up, we’ll never get started...’ blasts out the song, but it's over already for this couple.  The girl has given up and is standing, arms folded, while the bloke soldiers on. He's really going for it, but he doesn’t have a clue. Two left feet on three right legs couldn't make a worse job of it.  Not only that, but his body is continually ahead of his legs, giving the impression that he’s about to fall over, and this general lack of gracefulness is compounded by the continual twisting of his head  to see  what everybody else is getting up to.

In contrast, a girl in front of me is dancing alone, but with real style.  She’s a slight girl with high-heeled sandals, long brown hair and lovely hand movements.  Everything about her is elegant - except her chewing-gum.  Beyond her is a girl with a golden bob of hair and silver shoes.  When the dance ends, she hugs her partner.  In fact, across the studio there are smiles all round. Even the man with the two left feet is smiling, and his partner has uncrossed her arms.

For a moment there’s clatter of voices.  Chatter breaks out.  People are drinking.  They’re laughing.  Then it’s time for the waltz.  One, two three, one, two, three...  A strange new softness creeps like sea mist across the studio.  Moving in unison to Andrezej’s voice, everybody waltzes up the room towards the mirror at the end, then down again. A girl with little blue socks, gold high-heels and a pony-tail goes gliding by.  She’s partnered by John Sullivan, who looks even taller in this dancing class than he does anywhere else. Behind him comes his mum who, from her every move, obviously loves to dance.  Behind her comes the girl who’s dancing alone, but she doesn’t seem to care; she’s lost in the dance.

Everybody here is making something beautiful out of something ordinary.  They arrived here on this dull Northampton evening bundled up in coats and the cares of their lives. And now those cares have been peeled off and cast aside. Even the couple who were struggled have been redeemed by the waltz.  I'm so impressed by their willingness to give it a go, making something beautiful out of patience and hard work.  

I'm impressed by everybody, to be frank.  Across the dance-floor, a tall, bald man in jeans and black t-shirt is dancing with a woman in a black-and-white skirt.  They’re not the most graceful dancers in the room, but there’s a power to the way they move, and a sense of togetherness that makes them absolutely watchable. But then everybody, it seems, has something special to bring to the dance.  ‘You mustn’t be afraid to show what your heart holds in the world of dance.’  That’s something else Kamila said this afternoon. And watching these dancers I begin to understand what she meant.

The evening ends with a jive. ‘Return to Sender’ sings a famous voice and everybody goes for it.  Everybody looks happy.  The glitter-ball is going round as if even the stars in their courses are joining in the dance. Everybody's got it - the rhythm, the swing, the steps that work best for them.  But suddenly, just when you feel that the dance could last for ever, it comes to an end.  The song is no more. Elvis has left the stadium, and people are breaking apart.  They’re ambling off.  The class is done, and another's waiting to come in.  People gather up their bags and water bottles, pull on their coats.  Time to go home.  Goodnight.  See you next week.  Good to meet you.  Come again.

 

The photo is copyright John Sullivan, seen dancing with Mel Osborne in the finals of Strictly Northampton, held in aid of MacMillan Cancer Support.

If you want to see Kamila Domanska dancing click HERE.