When Past Meets Present. Or Is It The Other Way Around?

Regular readers to my blog will have noticed that there was no post last week. It was remiss of me not to warn you.  I can only put it down to the excitement of heading up north to visit a friend in Filey.  But as with all badly planned, spur-of-the-moment adventures (well mine anyway) Filey isn’t where I ended up.

It had been a bleary moment at the end of a hectic day when I saw this photo on an online hotel booking site and nothing less was going to do for my three day excursion. This monumental structure was perched on a cliff top overlooking the sea looking every bit a Bond movie set location.  Not the smartest holiday location for the mobility challenged and I should have perhaps done my homework before booking, but I was captivated.


My chosen location? The Grand Hotel. One of the largest, and certainly the most impressive looking hotels in the North, there is little doubt that The Grand dominates the skyline of Scarborough’s South Bay below.  On that point alone I was nervous about hitting the ‘book’ button.  But naturally a risk-taker and fascinated by The Grand’s history and design I figured I would know little about it if the hotel was to plunge into the sea while I slept in my bed.

Now a Grade II listed building The Grand was originally designed and built by architect Cuthbert Brodrick in 1867 and was typical of its time.  With four towers to represent the seasons, 12 floors for the months of the year, 52 chimneys symbolise the weeks, and 365 bedrooms, one for each day of the year, it was easy to see why some described it as “immense architectural extravaganza” on the one hand and a “an ugly Victorian pile worthy only of demolition” on the other (A Sense of Style, Bryan Perrett, 1991).

In its heyday, which was arguably during Victorian times, The Grand focused on providing health and wellbeing for the establishment’s well-to-do clientele who came to relax in the seawater tubs – a relatively new pastime for the British who didn’t generally go on seaside holidays then. Nowadays, the hotel caters towards the budget end of the spectrum and despite a recent seven million pound facelift there was still clearly work to be done.  But at thirty-five quid a night I was prepared to forgive the shabby furniture, pealing wall paper and stained carpets and the fact that every time I got in the lift I had no idea where I was going.

A mass of contradiction The Grand befuddled me from beginning to end, possessing an aura of dignity, affluence, privilege and unadulterated arrogance in an attempt to conceal its holiday camp management operandi.  Did it work? Probably not, but it seemed to me that The Grand would have almost certainly have been demolished had Butlins not  stepped in and turned it into the ‘pack-em-in’ commercial venture it is today.

imagesFor a dizzy daydreamer like myself it wasn’t difficult to imagine the splendour of The Grand’s good times, but it would have been nice if I hadn’t hadn’t needed a days wheel in the hot sun and two luke warm pints to do so.

The Story Behind the Photo

Cambodia 2006 042

Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2006

Whenever I go on an overseas programme visit I can usually find a spare day (although there aren’t many) to see something I wouldn’t normally see if I was on a regular holiday.  I wouldn’t call it sightseeing because in my line of work most of the places I tend to visit aren’t exactly on the tourist trail. Poverty isn’t particularly photogenic.

One programme visit took me to the southeastern country of Cambodia.  I was particularly fired up about this trip because when I was growing up the civil war in Cambodia was my first real sense of a world that was going wrong. I was 11 years old and the BBC News was full of the human suffering at the hands of Khmer Rouge. Cambodia existed under a  dictatorship and as such political opposition, religious leaders, artists, writers, business people, in fact anyone who was from the educated middle-classes, suddenly became enemies of the new communist state and were killed in special execution centres.

The most notorious of these centres was the Tuol Sleng in Cambodia’s captial Phnom Penh.  Formally a university, Tuol Sleng alone was said to have imprisioned as many as 17,000 men, women and children during the regime’s four years in power, and it was here that Vulthi, ADD Cambodia’s Project Manager asked if he could take me.

A survivor of one of the work camps himself Vulthi took me on a somber tour of the cells and torture rooms housing vivid photos and paintings of the rooms inhabitants. Vulthi didn’t attempt to sanitize the realities of what happened there, nor was he overly emotional or morbid with his recollections.  He just told it like it was. But there was no need because I could see for myself how it was.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Cambodia

Every cell I entered was left exactly as it had been found.  The empty metal-framed bed draped with handcuffs that had chained the occupant to it until they died of starvation or were set alight by their jailers before fleeing on liberation day. And as if to reassure me that what I was looking at was genuine, on the wall a poster sized photograph of the same room on the day the Vietnamese troops stormed the jail.

Two things struck me about that visit to Tuol Sleng: One was the emptiness of the museum. It clearly wasn’t popular with the tourists. The other was Vulthi’s willingness to share memories of a painful childhood without any trace of bitterness.

Unlike the Holorcaust, which I find hard to relate to because it didn’t happen in my lifetime, the turbulent years of the Khmer Rouge is something I shared with this gentle, forgiving man, albeit at a distance.  As someone who wasn’t held captive by the past Vulthi embodied everything I aspired to be and I was grateful for the time we spent together at Tuol Sleng as it put the news stories into context for me in a way that no tourist was ever going to get, even if they did muster up the courage to visit it.

What’s self-esteem got to do with it?

Lock Ness, Scotland

Lock Ness, Scotland

I don’t know why it is exactly, but I have found that the people with the healthiest self-esteem make the greatest friends, lovers and partners. I’m not talking about arrogant people, believe me I know enough of them. I’m talking about people who know they are both good and bad yet believe at the deepest level they are really good for people.

It’s a life changing moment when somebody wakes up to this reality, when they realize they were created so other people could enjoy them, not just endure them. Again, I’m not talking about arrogant people.

One of the most gratifying conversations I had recently was with a mate who was commenting on how I dealt with a problem she had shared. I wont tell you what the problem was  because it’s not relevant to my point, but my friend said she had appreciated the measured, grounded way I responded to her which didn’t dismiss her problem as being silly or trivial (which she felt it was) but I had appeared to understand her anxieties without telling her what to do. Really?!

Now that was pretty unsettling to hear I have to say. No one has EVER described me as grounded or measured.  I was far more used to hearing adjectives like ‘flighty’, ‘impulsive’ and ‘too directive’. So I found myself wondering what had changed in me that people are now picking up a different vibe?

Well I guess time and a slow dawning that the words of Psalm 139 – which were pointed out to me by a loving, Heavenly Father many years ago at a time when I needed some advice that was measured and grounded myself – had slowly seeped into my inner consciousness and increased my own self-esteem enough to know that I could actually be quite good for people.

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.” (Psalm 139: 13-16)

I guess what I’m trying to say here is, if our identity (who we know ourselves to be) gets broken, it affects our ability to connect with other people. And I wonder if in reality we are not all a lot better for each other than we think we are, but we just haven’t recognised it yet.

It is fair to say that in a lifetime we are not going to become perfect people, but I wonder how many of us are holding back on relationships because we think we have nothing to offer them that will make their lives better. I know I have felt that, and in some circumstance I still can think like that, but then I have to remind myself that my perception of me isn’t often what others see, no matter how well I think I know myself.

What do you do on a Sunday morning?

Syadnara, Syria

The Monastery of St Sergius in Maaloula, Syria, 2006

I go to church. Yeah, so what? Now there’s an understandable response because for most, even church goers, ‘going to church’ (said through pursed lips and clenching ones fingers together) doesn’t mean much.

My school days were impregnated with traditional church activities. School assembly every weekday morning and trips to the on-site chapel twice on a Sunday, with Sunday School sandwiched in between. I hated every bit of it. Who’s business was it but my own what happened to my soul? Yet for twelve years of my life the battle for my soul seemed to be the business of everyone else’s but mine. It mattered little whether it was the disciplinarians of the Methodist boarding school establishment or the free-spirited Happy-Clappies who attempted to make church ‘fun’ once the disciplinarians had retired, there was little doubt that my soul was for the taking. But what direction it would go was anyone’s guess as I wasn’t much into rules.

When it was eventually won neither group had anything to do with it. It was just me and a quiet, gentle voice saying, “Stick with Me and everything will be alright.”
“That’s fine,” I said, “Just don’t make me go to church.”

Don’t get me wrong, I like church, but in its right place. And for me, ‘in its right place’ isn’t always in a building with a spire, or a school hall or even in a drafty barn, where a lot of the free-spirited, happy-clappies decamp to in the summer. For me church is wherever I find myself and for the most part it’s not on a Sunday.

Years ago I used to help out at a breakfast drop-in centre for asylum seekers in Hammersmith, west London. It was run by a Shaftesbury Society Mission and while they had a church service of sorts mid-week, most of its work was outside the building in one of the poorest parts of the borough. Coffee, croissants and endless form filling was the primary purpose for my being there it seemed. Breakfast was hectic, tragic, frustrating and occasionally rewarding. Sadly, many seeking asylum in the UK rarely get it, but at our breakfast drop-in, when they did it was cause for great celebration.

None of us who helped out knew anything about how to navigate the Home Office asylum systems, but Hammersmith was a ghetto for those let out of the detention centres, but not quiet let into Britain and they were on the church’s doorstep. Housed in dilapidated tenement buildings with food stamps and whatever they had brought with them, those arriving to our shores had little or no knowledge of spoken English let alone written, yet they were expected to complete endless paper trails that kept them dangling for years.

In Hammersmith there was a need and it was right in front of us. I suspect if we looked really hard we’d find similar needs in our own towns. Its a challenge stepping outside the traditional church boundary, but it could be fun.

The Road from Rootless

How did your journey start? It doesn’t have to have any spiritual basis, but I suspect if you do look at life as an unfolding journey there will, at some level, be something outside of your own though patterns that has influenced where you now find yourself. Obviously for some this question is unlikely to have a satisfactory answer because the journey itself may be tragically short, but for a good few the journey will take a life-time and will be punctuated by a number of pitstops to check over the map, refuel and switch direction if need be. That is, if your life has followed a similar pattern to mine.

More often than not those pitstops are memorable events. They don’t have to be particularly significant, but we remember them because they represent a shift in direction, or the way we think about something, which then ultimately has an impact on decisions we eventually make.

Being born to Jordanian parents, but brought up in England was not particularly significant or noteworthy for me until I actually went to Jordan and was forced to engage with a culture that I discovered I was totally at odds with.

I was 21 years old, white, British, spoke without any sort of accent and until that point was living an uneventful life in South London. However, returning from that maiden trip into the unknown I realised that life had shifted couple of gears. It wasn’t instant, like speeding off at a green light, but a dawning that something wasn’t quite right and I wasn’t who I thought I was.

Was that the beginning of ‘a call’? Most calls I knew then, and still know of now, usually start and end with a nun and almost always involve some sort of risk taking. But what if the call is just a feeling – a restlessness that you can’t quite capture or pin down? I had returned from Jordan feeling isolated and rootless and that was it.  There were no words written in sand. Neither was there an audible voice prophesying the next 50 years of my life.  Yet, there is no denying the sense that something or someone was calling to me and I resented it. I know that sounds a little ungrateful, but I was young, strong willed and didn’t want to follow any other rules but my own.

Looking back I wonder what all the fuss was about. I hadn’t been asked to put on a habit or sail east (that came many years later – well not the habit bit), God had just said, “You want roots, I’ll give you roots.”  Weird. I had no idea what that meant and to be honest I wasn’t that fussed about what He said next either, “Just trust and obey me.” It all seemed a bit too random for me, but I had no other choice. Stay rootless or stick with the journey.

Jacaranda Tree, Zambia

Jacaranda Tree, Kabwe, Zambia

No Blog as such this week…

For a number of reasons, not least the Wimbledon Finals, I have decided not to do an official blog this week.  Instead I thought I’d let this week’s articles in both the Oxford Times AND the Oxford Mail Online do the job for me.  It’s not that I’m lazy Blogger by any means, I just thought a double dose of, what one reader referred to my blog as, “the last words of Chairman Mao”, (thank you Wendy Ferrell from Surrey) would be pushing the boundaries of reader commitment.

Normal service will resume next week.

(click on the photo to read full article)


The Birth of a Book

I’m not a natural writer. English never came easily when I was a school as it required far too much sitting around staring at a blank page. Well it did in my case anyway. But I didn’t let that small detail stop me from writing my first book Road to Damascus, which as many of you will know, tells the true story of me and my sister, Suzan, and how after 25 years of separation we eventually found each other.

Book complete, published and available for purchase, regular readers to this Blog will also know that from time to time I make reference to various parts of the book but as yet have said little of how it came into being.  Something one reader made pains to point out to me a couple of weeks ago.

Well it all started way back in 2000 when I was making one of my rare visits to see Suzan in Damascus, Syria. She was poorly and told me almost as soon as I got off the plane that she didn’t have long to live.  Not true of course, but how could I know, I hardly knew her.

In the fifteen years that we had been known to each other I had visited Damascus just six times. In fact Suzan was only going to hospital to have her gall bladder removed and I guess wanted to prepared me for the worst. Having a gall bladder removed may not be a big deal by western experiences, but as I alluded in my five week series Tales from a Syrian Hospital earlier this year, undergoing surgery in a cash-strapped, Middle East country was an entirely different story.

Having survived the operation and discharged home, Suzan could do nothing but to lie on her bed and gab, something she was good at, but usually it only amounted to family gossip. However, when she said, “I want to tell you my story”, my ears pricked up.  A strange response perhaps for sisters who should know everything about each other’s lives. But the truth was we didn’t know each other at all.

Until the day that Suzan started to talk into my tape recorder I had no idea the hardship she endured as she was growing up in Syria after our father died, and Suzan had no idea what it was like for me growing up in children’s home in England.  Our lives were so very different it was hard to see how we could possibly connect.

Although our father’s passing changed little for me – I would most likely have gone into residential care of some sort because that is all there was in sixties Britain if you were disabled – for Suzan the culture shock was huge and something I had not fully engaged with in the fleeting times we spent together.

Arriving home and thanking God for another safe ruturn I put the tapes in a battered brown case and forgot all about them.

Ten years later, as the Arab Spring approached, Suzan asked me, “Have you finished our book?” I replied, “What book?” and then I remembered the tapes.  A few months after that civil unrest began in Damascus.  Living in leafy Oxfordshire it was hard to imagine what it must have been like for Suzan.  As unrest turned into civil war, communication became impossible and again Suzan and I were separated with no contact for a year. I had no idea if Suzan had survived the shelling in Damascus but I wanted to keep my promise so started writing in ernest.

Syria is still suffering in the wake of the Arab Spring and Suzan is finally living in the US with her children… and we have our book.

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Suzan and Me, Damascus 1995

“Happy as Larry”: but who was Larry?


Larry Foley, image borrowed from the       National Library of Australia

While I promise not to go into a great long monologue on the emotional state of Larry, the phrase, which I use fairly regularly myself, did spark a train of thought during a discussion with  friends last week on the origins of phrases that now have become part of their’s and mine, and most of the English speaking world’s, everyday language.

Do we ever stop to think about where they came from, or who said it first, and why they stuck? Possibly not, and if we did we’d be pretty boring because there are a lot of them, as I found when I started to trawl through the internet looking for them.

Well apparently Larry was, according to one source (The Phrase Finder), an Australian boxer called Larry Foley (1847 – 1917). Foley was so successful he never lost a fight. He retired at the age of 32 and collected a prize of £1,000 for his final fight. So, I guess he would have been pretty pleased with himself for having survived a brutal and, at the time, illegal sport long enough to spend his winnings.  Not long after that the phrase was first cited by the New Zealand writer G. L. Meredith, “We would be as happy as Larry if it were not for the rats”.

Fear not I am not going to switch career and study ‘Etymology’ and bore you rigid with these every week, but I have realised that over the years my casual use of well known phrases has rendered me ignorant of the meaning or folklore behind them.  I say folklore because few have a cast iron points of reference that confirm the original source. Most just being jolly good guesses.  

For example ,”Night, night, sleep tight”, anyone know where that came from? No me neither, but I am reliably told that it was first cited in 1866 by the diarist Susan Bradford Eppes who was wishing a sound and safe sleep for her diary when she wrote:

“All is ready and we leave as soon as breakfast is over. Goodbye little Diary.    ‘Sleep tight and wake bright,’ for I will need you when I return.”

Well I can certainly identify with that one.  My diary, or  journal as I prefer to call it these days, was the last thing I put away at night when I was at school and I would generally end my input with, “Going to sleep now, night”, as if I was speaking to a real person.  More often than not it got taken away from me if I was caught writing after lights out. But in that last year when I was trying frantically to record the disconnect rants of a pubescent teenager, my page-a-day (often only quarter filled) did become my closest ally.

But in all truth,  “Night, night, sleep tight”, which was regularly spoken over me as the light was being put out in the dormitory had, to my mind, a more sinister edge.  Perhaps it was because I was afraid of the dark back then and the second bit of the phrase, “Don’t let the bed bugs bite”, added about 100 years later, suddenly turned what was supposed to be a blessing, into a curse.

Art with the capital “F”


The Painter’s Studio (L’Atelier du peintre): A Real Allegory of a Seven Year Phase in my Artistic and Moral Life, by Gustave Courbet, 1855 (oil on canvas)

When I was at art school, in what seems like a lifetime ago now, I used to attend a history of art class on a Friday morning.  It was held in a huge tiered lecture theatre in the most inaccessible part of Newcastle’s School of Art and Design.  Yet every week I transversed the building site that was the car park and bumped up the broken kerb to the back door (which I usually found locked) that led to the lecture theatre just because I was captivated by the stories behind the many paintings in the slides projected onto the screen.

One particular memorable Friday we spent the entire two hour lecture discussing this painting by Gustave Courbet, Ll’Atelier du peinter (The Painter’s Studio), and I found myself asking just before falling on the sword poised beneath me, “Is knowing that the shadowy figure at the back of the studio (which you can’t actually make out at all), who is meant to represent the art collector, Alfred Bruyas, an anti-government agitator, who’s wife (also in the painting) is having an affair with Courbet, going to make me a better artist?” Probably not but the last bit was quite interesting.

I loved art school for that very reason.  It was full of trivia and inconsequential nonsense that meant nothing to anyone else except the artist. But I guess that’s were the “F” word comes in because if you can get a few generations excited about inconsequential nonsense and make a buck or two as well so much the better. And therein comes the second reason why I loved art school, because going was the first real two finger salute I’d made to the education mafia who said I would never make a living from art so go learn to type.  And of course they were right, but who cared. I was doing something that gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning, and believe me I had had a good few years of not wanting to do that.

So if the hugely enthusiastic, Peter Pan-like figure of my art school days wanted to impress upon me that the white cat playing in front of Courbet represented independence, freedom and the creation of a French Republic I was happy to believe him regardless of whether common sense and logic told me that it was just a sweet, little cat playing.

From the Cradle to the Grave

The place where I grew up doesn’t exist anymore.  It was bulldozed earlier this year and on its foundations is sprouting a new configuration of bricks and mortar that I’m not entirely comfortable with, but will continue to watch with interest as it develops all the same.

In 1968 when I was transported through its gates “Penhurst” was a residential institution for an assortment of children for whom normal life was not a given.  However, that didn’t stop the school’s headmaster regularly reminding me,“There is no such thing as normal Jazz,” if he heard me use the words, “normal children”.  A truly insightful attempt to correct my thinking that was only going to materialise with the benefit of maturity.  But given that none of the children housed within Penhurst’s boundaries had normal working bodies, you’d think that some allowances would have been made if we didn’t quite make the connection.

Located in a secluded part of Chipping Norton, Penhurst Residential School was made up of a collection of single storey dwellings: a school, a workshop, the chapel, a Scout hut, and a hospital as well as my own family group, Grenfell. However, at the heart of what my mother once described as “a little village”, screaming ‘institution’, was The Big House.


The Big House: The only part of Penhurst to survive the bulldozer

As long as I can remember that was its name: The Big House, a four storey Victorian mansion, and while being large, impractical, and very likely not fit for purpose as an appropriate residential setting for the mobility challenged it did provide a magical haven to which I could escape.  Grenfell had been the only family group to be relocated from it to a newly built, self contained block in 1970 in a bid to prepare for the more seriously disabled children that would eventually be admitted when the long stay children’s hospitals shut their doors.  While we children enjoyed the light, spacious rooms of Grenfell’s new and modern surroundings the other four family groups continued to occupy the various large day rooms and dormitories, sleeping up to eight, in the Big House completed with rickety lift, secret corridors (or so I imagined), windowless attics and it own supply of ghosts.  Suffice to say the Big House contained all that was denied me in Grenfell and I spent as much time as I was allowed up there hanging out with friends who were considered far too much of a bad influence on me to live with.

I wasn’t surprised when I was told that Penhurst was to cease operation as a special education facility.  Mainstreaming had taken hold and disabled children were no longer being sent to isolated institutions miles from their families.  But to discover that it was being sold to private developers and turned into a posh retirement complex was a slap in the face to my childhood memories.  While at one end of life’s laundry genetic counseling, terminations and various normalising surgery means that congenital childhood disability in the UK is decreasing, but at the other end of it people are living longer and are playing as hard as ever in a bid to out live their own life expectancy.

Penhurst has gone from one extreme to the other in a matter of months. It will be a nasty turn of fate if I find myself back there.  But there again I don’t believe in fate.