Category Archives: Cambridge

The French Take Over Cambridge

(SCROLL DOWN FOR PHOTOS)

Taking bicycles to Cambridge is a bit like taking tea to Yorkshire.  Cambridge is Britain’s number one cycling city with two-thirds of its residents regularly getting about on two wheels.  Surprising then that thousands turned out to welcome the Tour de France cyclists depart for their third leg from the historical town today.  I had come all the way from Spain to watch (long story) and although it was a mere nano-second when the peloton passed me – my fascination was with the French-ness of it all.

I first heard about Le Tour’s Cambridge stage many months ago as we began developing an art project involving recycle bicycle parts – which has come to fruition this week.  One of our first contacts were the Alliance Francaise in Cambridge who insisted that Cambridge wouldn’t know what hit it.  The take over started at the weekend, when the AF and a wealth of French businesses hosted an array of stalls at Le Big Weekend on Parkers.  Cheese, bread, olives and every French dish you can imagine was available. We tried to buy a drink in English and where met with a stubborn display of French. It had begun.

Early this morning a lady in clipped English offered me a free croissant and coffee from a stall set up outside a quaint English church.  No tea and cake in sight.  Croissants continued to be a theme, as did sticking “le” in front of anything.  But most impressive where the Gendarmerie, who I observed shouting instructions the British “tour makers” and French officials on bright red fold up cycles barking into walkie talkies.  I stood next to a menagerie of French media crew and their motorcycles.  Clad in denim and leather the all male group brazenly smoked roll up cigarettes, greeted each other with double kisses.  It was a real culture shock for many onlookers, but I loved it.  There was a real confidence in the air.

First came the “caravan” which I am assured by those that know the tour well is a traditional and perhaps even a little tongue-in-cheek affair.  It was slick and corporate, as a bizarre set of   sponsors paraded their shiny cars along the route. There was less free Haribo and Bic lighters than I expected, and Carrefour merely waved, but plenty of people caught boxes of air borne Yorkshire tea.  A car with a giant bag of McCain oven chips was followed by a Sheffield Hallam University Landrover. An old couple next to me shook their head in disbelief, but the middle-aged man in lycra on the other side was delighted with the spectacle.  The day after-all was his.

The Gendarmerie returned in force and lined their bikes up in a neat row out side the Catholic church and took photos on their smart phones.  French officials took their photos with the Cambridge police and their “funny hats”.

And then the cyclists went past, and it was all over.

France has had its moment in Cambridge – and they certainly proved they can put on a show.  As a nomad, I have to admire their ability to put down and then pick up camp in a matter of hours.  I’m not sure the tour will have inspired yet MORE of Cambridge to cycle, but it has generated a new admiration for the French I am sure – and many can go home and have a nice cup of Yorkshire tea.

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This Is England

I thought I would share an article I wrote for The Guardian (which never got published!).  Travel blog seemed like a good place for “This Is England”

Baffled tourists and gangs of bemused foreign language students looked on in confusion as the English Defence League marched through the streets of the quintessential English city of Cambridge on Saturday.

Cambridge welcomes over four million tourists every year, providing over £350 million for the local economy.  Foreign students come there in their thousands to study the English language or undergraduate courses at the world famous University.  The University boast students from 120 different countries and has educated at least 25 heads of foreign government (and 15 of our own).  Diversity and multi-culturalism is not only part of the place – it is the city’s bread and butter.

The English Defence League may have sat uncomfortably amongst punts and bicycles, as their shouts of “these streets are our streets” met with the blank looks of academics and city folk, but there was perhaps something more disturbing at play.  A counter demonstration had been brewing on social networks calling for the people of Cambridge to Unite Against Fascism.  Insults began flying long before the event and the EDL had been labelled as “sad, fat, losers” by Facebook combatants.

A quick conversation with some of the EDL demonstrators in Cambridge revealed an angry bunch of people, many of them had served in Britain’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Some had seen friends and family killed.  They shouted their support for the military along with their hatred for Muslims, but the overwhelming feeling was of being let down by the system.  Many were tattooed, drunk and offensive, but a great deal more were simply sad, angry and hurt.  Having listened to some of their grievances, something felt very wrong about witnessing the great brains of Cambridge, and the likes of Charlie Veitch – famed Love Police activist – shouting abuse at them across a heavily policed cordon.  Charlie used a megaphone to point out their ignorance and scoffed at their inability to read – humiliating them to the applause of the privialeged middle-classes of Cambridge.  The argument of “united-Cambridge” was suddenly weakened into what appeared to be the age-old Town versus Gown dispute.  A class war.  Even Charlie agreed that the war in Afghanistan may play some part in the way people are feeling, so perhaps we stopped wasting time and public money of petty demonstrations (over 600 police were drafted into Cambridge for the event) and turned superior Cambridge brains into looking at the route causes of extreme behaviour.

One can be proud of multi-cultural Cambridge, but not of it’s quintessential snobbery and it’s inherent dismissal of anyone with a different point of view.  The smart people would be listening and coming up with smart solutions not shouting.

The Great Unfinished Work

Unfinished Work

It goes against the grain – sharing this with you.  I am not sure what drives artists and writers to share their creation with others.  It makes me uncomfortable even.  Painting, blogging, writing, communicating – can feel self obsessive, indulgent, and arrogant.  But there.  Us creatives are caught up in this cruel net of intense sensitivity combined with a bizarre desire to present ourselves – exposing our raw vulnerability.

Since my mother’s sudden death on 23rd February I have been painting the picture above.  Shivering, smoking too many Marlborough Lights in my tiny makeshift studio at the back of my garage.  Dipping my brush into my green tea instead of my accelerating medium – I have painted with more energy and meaning than ever before.  The portrait of Atwar Bahjat (herself lost to this world on 22 February) has kept me company in my state (seen peeking behind the picture above).  What goes against the grain, is that I am sharing this painting with you unfinished (fellow artists will know this pain).  Like the vital life of my mother – there is a sense of there being much more to do yet.  Aspiration.  Potential.  Incompleteness.   But today, 40 years since my mum gave birth to me – I share this with you.  The painting I have started begins to describe how I feel my mum’s spirit left her to unite with nature around her.

Over the past few weeks I have felt the love and support of so many.  Those at my side on a daily basis, renewed contact from those afar, and the moving sentiment from strangers.  My virtual blogging friends told me to “just write” whatever comes to mind, whatever you can – so this blog posting, like the painting has been in the making since the end of February.  The delete key has been my friend and my enemy as I have lost many a word in my daily re-edit of this text.  But as with everything – I guess this remains unfinished.

Last week I wrote: “I have been barely able to string a sentence let alone compile a blog posting.   And I seem to be in decline…..”

The week before: “The death of someone close changes everything.  I am (so I’m told), going through some fairly normal processes, which is reassuring but doesn’t make the tears any less real….”

And in the days directly after her death: “…it makes you question who you are, why you do what you do and it lures you into unusual, testing behaviour and thought like some unhinged life coach”.

I find it utterly uncanny that three days before my mother was killed in a car crash I posted about the insight into life that I had gained from a “safe driving” course I had attended.  I know she read it.  I know she wasn’t going too fast.   And I also know that my slowing down and inward look has hastened (if it is possible to speed up decelerating then I’m the one to do it).

I managed to squeeze out a tribute to my mum to be read out at her funeral – but it’s a nasty trick to play on a writer – to ask them to carry out this, the most precious of tasks at a time of utter turmoil.  I have pasted it at the end of this posting for those that knew my mum that have requested sight of these written words and maybe for those that didn’t know her.

So I end with another image (I have a feeling my blog postings may become more visual as time goes on).  My mum was a great artist but I was honoured when her art tutor gave to me two paintings she had barely begun.  They sit on top of my book shelves between two of my paintings of Sri Lanka (where we had many good times together).  In a strange way one of my most treasured of her creations.  The Great Unfinished Work.

The Great Unfinished Work

Tribute

“It’s hard not to feel desperately sad about what has happened.  But today we celebrate Marguerite’s life by remembering some of the good things about her time with us.  And we don’t have to look far.

Marguerite’s mother, Olive, could not isolate a SINGLE memory.  No one moment stood out as being special – because as she said “I ONLY HAVE happy memories”.  We didn’t just GLIMPSE humour, compassion, sensitivity and love with Marguerite – it was ALWAYS there.  A constant.  Everyone is this room will have shared smiles, and been touched by her serenity and generosity – she was there as support to many of us, not just by listening, but with gestures – a card, an email or text, or a thoughtful gift (she always seemed to get that right).  She was a best friend to so many of us (Caroline says she was “far more than simply a mother to me”).

Marguerite left a strong legacy: the creativity that surrounds Dudley every day; Caroline, the daughter she was so proud of (who inherited Marguerite’s artistic gift); and three exceptional grandchildren – Daisy, Billy and Vincent, who think Grandma was the coolest grandma ever (what other grandma could would give a Fatface hoodie for Christmas?)  And of course a legacy of many, many friends who have been inspired by her; anyone who knew Marguerite, knew her as a friend and she had a unique way of making everyone feel special.  But perhaps her greatest legacy is in her art (which in many ways was inherited from her own parents – her father, Bernard, was a master oil painter of landscapes and, in particular, of trees).

Marguerite started her working life as a fashion artist in London in the swinging sixties – and her sense of style never left her.  Her attention to how she looked was never superficial – it was careful, delicate, colourful and harmonious. By the 1970s, she was decorating and designing furniture hand-made by Dudley.  But over the past decade she dedicated her creativity to canvas, and in the paintings she leaves behind we know that every brush stroke (or tooth brush stroke!) was delighted in and enjoyed.  It was the process of painting that she loved as much as the final product.

Her style has been described as “hauntingly beautiful,” a description perhaps that could be attributed to Marguerite herself.  You may have read this most unusual press report of the traffic accident – “There is always a sense of playfulness in her compositions – lines dance, interact and separate across the surface evoking energy and vitality”. She even managed to impress her colour on an otherwise tragic news item.

And Marguerite had a thirst for learning more and perfecting her craft.  She studied History of Art with the Open University and never stopped attending classes in life drawing, felt-making, portraiture, enamelling and painting – exhibiting regularly in galleries in the Bristol area.

She also had a love of the written word – and of sharing the written word – she often arrived to stay with Caroline bearing a bag full of recommended reads.  In her working life she surrounded herself with books – at the Cheltenham Road Library, Bristol University and the legal library at Burgess Salmon.

A few years ago Marguerite moved to Pilton.  If Dudley was her soulmate, then Wenlock Edge was her Soul-place.  With a tranquil place to paint and some inspiring views you might imagine she would settle down to life at a slower pace – but instead she employed energy and vitality like never before; together with Dudley, she threw herself into transforming her home and garden with the gentle loveliness she was so good at.  She continued with art classes, tried yoga at the village hall, explored the area – and even took in the Glastonbury festival, where she could have been found dancing with her hands in the air to the Wombats at the main stage.

If you understand Marguerite’s way of creating you will understand her love of the natural world around her.  And “world” is right – she drew inspiration from her time in Sri Lanka and even the Maldives – as much as she did from experiences in France and Italy and the physical world close to home. This was expressed not just through her paintings, but in how she lived her life.  Her love of animals and nature guided her.  Whether playing on the beach with her brother Tony (and Sherry the dog) on family holidays in Cornwall, or giggling as she climbed up Glastonbury Tor, she was never far from nature.  It wasn’t so much awe as inspiration – drawn from everything that grows, everything that lived around her; her garden was phenomenal.  From a silver birch tree, to the love of a good cat – she had room for us all.

Today we are sad for our loss – but not for her life.  She lived creatively, beautifully and peacefully.  We celebrate what she gave us.”