London’s Little Scandinavia

I was recently invited to attend a Sunday church service and I jumped at the chance! Not, I confess, because I’d had a spiritual reawakening. I was simply curious to visit this place of worship in one of my favourite areas of London. You see the church was Norwegian and the area was Rotherhithe, which from now on will be London’s ‘Little Scandinavia’ to me.

Several years ago I lived in this historic south London Thameside area and became very fond of the ancient pubs (including the Mayflower where the Pilgrim Fathers originally set sail from – sorry Plymouth but they actually started their journey from here), cobbled alleyways and general Dickensian feel. I traversed Brunel’s incredible engineering feat in the form of a tunnel under the Thames (which incidentally now hosts atmospheric underground concerts, as well as wonderful garden parties during the summer) and I regularly cycled or walked along by the river.

But I was blissfully ignorant of the area’s Scandinavian connection, other than a vague awareness of there being a Swedish Seaman’s Mission somewhere in the vicinity. Sadly the historic Mission closed before I was able to visit it, but it turns out that it wasn’t the only Nordic place of worship in the area, as the Norwegian Church and Seaman’s Mission (also known as St. Olave’s Church) is still conducting services, as is the Finnish church.

As Rotherhithe’s major port status has crumbled since Rotterdam stole its thunder, I would be forgiven for assuming that there isn’t much call for a Norweigan Seaman’s Mission anymore, so I thought I had better pay the place a visit sooner rather than later. Then I received an invitation by the wonderful organisation SharedCity (www.sharedcity.co.uk), which helps Londonders to visit the world without leaving town through their cultural tours, to join them at a service. It was the last impetus I needed to do something sacred with my Sunday for a change.

On the morning that I visited, the St Olave’s church service was being recorded for Norwegian radio, so it was a strict phones off policy (which meant no discreet photos of the service to share). But I can report that it was a beautiful hour-long affair, and that not being able to understand a word being said didn’t diminish my enjoyment of it. In fact familiar hymns such as Amazing Grace sounded angelic when sung by the choir in Norwegian, and when a celloist and opera singer ‘entertained’ us from the gallery during the blessing I was in celestial heaven.

As if that wasn’t enough, the after-service refreshments weren’t confined to mere tea and biscuits. Instead, you could indulge in a full-on Sunday lunch of Scandinavian meatballs with all the trimmings, including generous dollops of lingonberry sauce, followed by delicious cakes. This generous and delicious lunch was included as part of the SharedCity tour and was followed by a friendly talk exclusively for its participants, by the priest, who incidentally looked like he had stepped out of the Norwegian band Aha! (and anyone who remembers them will know that that is definitely a good thing!) He explained how the Mission came about and how it still thrives. They basically have an open door policy and are so so much more than just a place to worship. In fact the building was deliberately constructed back in 1927 to include a relaxation area to read or eat in. This was in order to attract the visiting seamen from Scandinavia there instead of the many bars and brothels.

After the beautiful service, a delicious lunch and an interesting talk I felt well set for the week ahead. But wait, there was more! A jazz band would now entertain us. Apparently non-sacramental afternoon entertainment is the norm. I was beginning to like St. Olave’s more and more with every passing minute. In fact I would have been happy just to visit the beautiful historic building for the architectural enjoyment alone but I came away having felt part of the Norwegian community for a few hours and I felt very blessed as a result. I wasn’t sure that their Finnish neighbours would be able to top that.

Actually the Finnish church was full of surprises too. Admittedly it was a more modern building, though still attractive in its own minimalist, tasteful, Scandinavian way. But the trick up its sleeve was that it had its very own sauna! Yes, that’s right! And anyone can come and use it; there is just one rule – clothes are not allowed. (Well actually there is another rule – you can only use it alone or with other members of the same sex  -but still, it’s not often that church-goers are asked to politely requested to strip).

Of course the sauna is not compulsory, but it is a very popular feature. This is because apparently every home in Finland has one, so to come and live in England and not have access to a sauna is a bit like being told that you lovely new home is missing a bathroom. I was told, during the interesting talk for SharedCity visitors, that it is very much the norm for the Fins to partake in a sauna at the end of the day as a kind of demarcation between work time and relaxation. A bit like the English tradition of going down the pub I guess, but a bit healthier.

Saunas aside, the Finnish church is also home to a very well-stocked Scandinavian food store and a pleasant cafe, with indoor and outdoor seating. I was impressed enough by this, so the unexpected concert by the Swedish children’s choir was an unnecessary addition. But it was lovely and I certainly left feeling very elated.

In fact all in all I spent a very pleasant few hours in an oft overlooked area of London. So, Ikea eat your heart out – this is my Sunday Scandinavian pastime from now on!

SharedCity conduct several tours around London where you can immerse yourself in different cultures ranging from South Indian to Italian to Latin American. The three hour ‘Norway & Finland’ tour costs £25, which includes the Norwegian lunch. I strongly recommend trying one of their tours, particular as a pertinent reminder that it is London’s multiculturism that helps make it such a vibrant, fascinating and popular city!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Margate Gems

This week I was invited to photograph Margate for the local tourist board, while joining them on a whistletop ‘fam tour’ of the town. I like to think I know Margate well, as I divide my time between my flat here and London. But I have to admit that most of the places we visited had previously been off my radar. I can now say that I’ve ventured down the shell grotto (a cave decorated with shells ‘recently’ discovered in 1835 but no-one knows why the shells are there and who put them there); stepped inside the beautiful Tudor House, which I have previously only admired from the outside; done time in a prison cell – now Margate History museum, and hopped on-board the bus cafe at The Old Kent Market.

I’ve come away now knowing that the shell grotto has a fantastic gift shop; that Tudor House was nearly demolished by the council because they didn’t know what historic gem was quietly lying underneath a rough plastered facade (a lesson for us all perhaps…); the Old Kent Market bakes lovely huge teacakes on the premises, that are effectively Hot Cross Buns but without the cross. (So you don’t have to wait until Easter to eat them); the History Museum is housed in a former gaol and is really large and that Helen Shapiro, who sang at the Winter Gardens, was actually Columbian (a random fact gleaned from the history museum).

I also got to have a private tour of Dreamland amusement park on the first anniversary of its new incarnation (sadly the rides were not operating during my visit – I guess only the Royals get that kind of private tour) and discovered that the park is now free to visit (you just have to pay for the rides).

I also got to see the latest exhibition at the Turner Contemporary gallery, which is basically centred on all things round; and popped into a few shops and bars including the lovely Morgans, which I returned to later on so that I could enjoy the sunshine from their beautiful seaview terrace.

Next week I’ll be joining them on another fam trip and photographing the local Kent villages. I can’t wait!

Nice to Know You

It’s virtually impossible to do a blog post on Nice in France without some kind of pun in the title! And in truth I have been getting to know Nice, in spite of the somewhat inclement weather.

My first day was one of those hazy, muggy, dreary, drizzly days. Not with the dramatic kind of rain that suddenly gives way to bright sunshine offset against black skies and maybe even a rainbow for good measure, like a ‘forgive me’ card for having been a bit mean. No, the only pleasure I enjoyed was that lovely essence of damp honeysuckle and roses. Which is great, but unfortunately not something you can photograph! So my late morning traverse up the hillside to look down on the bay – which sounds more interesting than it actually was as it mostly involved just crossing from one side of the windy road to the other, dodging cars careering around the corners – resulted in something so ‘blah’ that I didn’t even bother getting the camera out.

After lunch I decided to give it another shot – at sea level – by walking to the old town and port. My guidebook warned me this would take around an hour, but I had a cunning plan. I would hire one of the ‘Velo Bleu’ bikes from their starting blocks by the sea. This was a bold move by me as I’m a bit nervous about the (so-called) ‘Boris bikes’  back home, but I told myself this would be so easy in comparison – the terrain was flat and I couldn’t possibly get lost when all I had to do was keep the sea to my right. So, I registered my bank card, got my bike and was good to go.

Except now it was raining! But that didn’t matter – a little rain wouldn’t hurt me. Well, actually it could, because I saw not one but two people come a cropper by skidding on the wet surface. I hadn’t realised I was partaking in a dangerous sport….But somehow I made it to the port in one piece and was now ready to lose the bike so that I could explore the old town. I was even feeling very smug because this had all been achieved in less than half an hour, which meant my journey was gratis. Well it would have been, except I couldn’t get the docking screen to switch on to register the bike being returned and lock the bike. I tried every free docking slot but to no avail. So, I had no choice but to get back in the saddle and try another dock – except that didn’t work either. Or the next one. By this point I was practically back to where I started from and wondering just what it was I was getting so terribly wrong. Eventually I swallowed my pride and phoned the help number, and was informed that the docks don’t generally work when it’s raining, only on sunny days! As if I wasn’t being punished enough by the weather, it wouldn’t even let me ride a bleeding bike!

I could see that the woman on the end of the phone was trying to get rid of me because firstly I was a problem she couldn’t resolve and secondly she was tired of trying to give me instructions in her broken English. So, when I saw another person crazy enough to hire one of the bikes I chased him down and asked him how I was supposed to return mine. “Come with me” I’ll take you to a dock that works” he beckoned. And so we peddled together through the old town of Nice and I began thinking how this would be a great start to a romantic novel, until I was rudely interrupted by him swearing upon our arrival at the chosen docking station: “Merde! These aren’t working either!” He then went on to instruct me to just lock it up, note the number and write to them, before disappearing into the drizzle.

So, my bleeding bleu bike was unceremoniously abandoned and my bank card is depleting with every hour because there seems to be no means of writing to them (the form doesn’t work, nor do the texts and there is no email address).

Apart from that hanging over me, things got better the next day when the blue bike was replaced with blue skies. So I promenaded along the sea front, climbed a hill to a park for some great views and revisited the port and the old town on foot. I also had a rendezvous with my French partner who just happened to be passing through Nice on route to the Cannes film festival, where I join him tomorrow. Well you can’t be in France without enjoying a bit of French romance!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aperativo break at the Venice Carnival

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I wasn’t able to make it to the Venice Carnival this year as I’m in a play and can’t miss the rehearsals. So, I’m post photos from previous years instead.

I love the expression on the gentleman’s face on the left. He doesn’t look too happy. Maybe his wig is itching him, or he’s wishing he was drinking an Aperol Spritz like his companion. I felt a bit like a time traveller watching them both anyhow – was it really the 21st century?!!! The wonderful thing about Venice is that the backdrop looks so historic, and there are no cars, so once people step into period costume you really can start to believe that you have stepped back in time.

A lazy afternoon in India

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After a bit of a hiatus I’m back! I’ve had a few distractions since being back in London, but here’s hoping that I’ll get into the rhythm of posting again, as I have a vast archive of pictures still to get through that should really see the light of day, otherwise what’s the point of taking them?

I’m honoured that people have still been visiting my blog over the past few months, in spite of the absence of new posts. According to my stats I had nearly 500 viewings yesterday alone. So I figured that if people could be bothered to visit the site even when there wasn’t anything new to see, well then I should really start re-earning this attention by posting some fresh material!

So, I’m starting with an Indian picture. There is a nice serenity to this scene, shot in Madhya Pradesh I think. I feel at peace whenever I look at it. I remember it was late-afternoon at the time and still very hot. So everyone’s pace, including the dog’s, was very relaxed. I’m not sure why it seems to work in black and white – maybe because the cow was white, but it just does, for me anyhow.

A picture tells a thousand words

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I’m not a big fan of busy pictures. I think my images are generally hallmarked by their simplicity and order. But sometimes even a complicated picture can have great composition – like this one. Every person or animal just seems to fit into its own space; nothing seems to be competing with each other. And so I like it. Maybe it also comforts me because it reminds me of a biblical scene – of the animals sitting around the baby in the manger. Except in this case, instead of something being conjured up for an audience, it is real – the animals and humans actually are together in total harmony.

The whole scene looks so perfect that it is like I have played director and staged the shot, but of course I didn’t. I did hang out at this little chai shop for many a morning, so maybe that’s why everything came together. In fact it was one of my favourite places in which to sit, because there was always so much going on. It was located on a kind of crossroads (like the Times Square or Piccadilly Circus of Varanasi) right next to a temple. Which is why the cows seemed so at home there I guess, because they would be given offerings and always treated with kindness.

I remember when the biggest bull I have ever seen came by and the local people gathered around to care for its feet. He just patiently stood there, picking up his huge hooves and soaking up their attention as gentle as a lamb. It was one of those sights that stay with you forever and makes me realise that you needn’t be scared of anything, big or small, so long as you meet it with love and compassion.

I love the scene so much because it contains so much that I remember about India: the chai stalls; the people reading newspapers; the spiritual men; the animals all around you; and that sense of peaceful harmony in spite of the cacophony all around you. It’s an essence of India that I hope I never forget.

Spotted in the streets of Kathmandu

Looking back at the photos I took in Kathmandu, it’s incredible how prominent the big soft drink companies are – in particular Coca Cola and Pepsi. Much more so than in India where the country’s own drinks such as Thumbs Up still rule. I wonder how many of the people can actually afford to drink these expensive foreign drinks and whether it’s more a case of getting their buildings painted for free if they let the companies use them as a kind of billboard.

Meetings and greetings in Madhya Pradesh

 

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Regular followers of my blog will know that I was fortunate enough to stay in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh during my time in India last year. It was one of the most peaceful times of my life – calmer even than being out at sea on a sailboat. I loved waking up early and going for strolls in the first light when the air was still blessedly fresh and cool. Fortunately everyone else had the same idea, and the local folks were happy to stop and chat (or smile when my limited Hindi ran dry) on their way back from the village pump or on their way to work in the fields. Often they would happily let me photograph them too.

The oxymoron is that I seemingly witnessed joy and poverty in equal measures each day on my walks. I’m not saying that these people are happy because they are poor, but maybe they don’t yearn for things that they have never known. When I witnessed the sense of peace and contentment all around me I felt sure that an influx of material goods would not make them any happier. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to move away from subsistence living – for none of the children to have swollen bellies, wear tattered rags or peer at me through infected eyes. And maybe having electricity to run a fan and keep themselves cool during the intense summer heat or light a bulb or two once the sun went down would not spoil their lovely, kind, generous natures either.

But unfortunately it often seems to be all or nothing in India. And so these folks will keep getting by – with that shrug of acceptance bordering on cheerfulness – in spite of their daily struggles, because of that inner calm within that seems to stem from their beautiful surroundings, family, and the close-knit community that they live in.

Colours and shadows

 

DSCF3510-4It was a glorious evening earlier so I took a quick stroll along the South Bank to practise some camera settings – in a bid to get those colours even more vibrant, and those shadows even more intense. It was probably hit and miss, but if you don’t try these things out you don’t develop.

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Siblings in the doorway

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This wasn’t the easiest photograph to take because the boy is in the shadows while his sister stands in a stream of light flooding in through the doorway. But there was something about their expressions – a mixture of mournfulness and faint fascination; their seemingly subconscious holding of hands, and the beauty of the light catching their faces and clothes, that compelled me to capture them.

I admit to having had a fascination with this little girl, so she popped up in a few of my photographs that day (even though I was really supposed to be photographing the final stages of a wedding). I have previously published another one which I’m repeating here, along with some others that I’m rather partial to:

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I think that there is a poignancy to such a beautiful young thing in a poor Indian village wearing her misplaced party dress. She will doubtlessly wear it every day until it becomes even more worn and faded than it is now. It is one of those cruel Cinderella twists in this strange upside down world – that the girl who looks so beautiful, even in a raggedly old party dress, is the one that will probably never get to go to the ball.

The blue chai cafe

 

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This colourful cafe was spotted in the warren of streets forming the old town of Varanasi. Aside from the framing of the woman in the doorway and the nice details such as the steaming kettle, it’s the vivid red and blue colours that make this picture so appealing to me.

Of course I wish now that I could have taken it with my new Fujifilm camera that brings out the colours so well. But we can’t redo what is done; we can only strive to keep moving forward and developing our craft through new tools and honed  skills.

 

Preparing lunch

 

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This photo was taken in a small village in Madhya Pradesh. I formed a quick bond with this lovely young lady who a few minutes earlier had been having a lot of fun with my camera. In fact, although I don’t think she had ever handled one before, she took probably my all-time favourite photograph of myself, seen below. I’m looking a bit dishevelled because I’d been travelling all day along dusty roads, but I think that she captured how happy and carefree I was feeling at the time.

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Of course, being a woman in India, she soon had to return to her household chores which involved helping to prepare lunch. She is actually of the Brahman (highest) caste, which Westerners often wrongly assume means that she is of a wealthy family. Actually the Brahman caste do not chase after riches – they pursue spiritual or scholarly careers and eschew things that can be considered luxuries. They eat a simple vegetarian diet and, as can be seen from this photograph, run a modest household with barely any more furniture than maybe a simple bed (without mattress or bedding), which would probably be shared with other family members.

This was still one of the luckier households in the village in that they had electricity. But that amounted to nothing during the inevitable daily power shortages, which always seemed to occur during the hottest time. Much of my time spent there involved trying to nap with the rest of the clan in the intense pre-monsoon heat; which was seemingly the only way of making it through those mettle-testing hot and humid hours.

I love the light in this image (thanks to the lack of windows in the house) and how she seems to come out of the darkness. I also love the serene expression on her face. If you look carefully you will see that she is using an intriguing slicer for chopping the vegetables, something that I have never seen outside of India but is a great invention which slices things in seconds with seemingly little effort. Everything that is being prepared will have been bought that day as fridges are still a rarity outside the very wealthiest of households. In fact what she is preparing is probably a special exception because of having guests to stay. Fresh salad ingredients such as cucumber were rarely seen in my experience beyond the tourist restaurants. I was an honoured guest, but a humbled one too, thanks to the warm hospitality that was proffered in this simple but seemingly happy home.

 

 

Pretty in Pink

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It can be annoying whenever the school holidays came around and all those tourists swell London in even greater numbers than the norm. Right now the South Bank is swamped – it took me five minutes just to get onto the steps for Tower Bridge yesterday, such was the sea of people. This year the crowds seem even more dense – which is shouldn’t be surprising as London has recently been declared the world’s most visited city and as I happen to live in one of the top tourist places within said-city.

 But the funny thing is that it used to bother me but not anymore. I don’t know if it’s because my photographer’s eye has developed, or because the sunshine is having a calming effect on me, but I just see one photo opportunity after another.

I love the fact that the tourists look so different to the Londoners – whether they have come from just a few miles away or from across the world, they just stand out as not being one of us. They bring a sense of innocence and charm with them, as if they are slightly bewildered by this big city and overwhelmed by it, but in a positive way. (Because, let’s face it – London is an amazing city!) I particularly enjoy seeing the children in their colourful summer clothes and funky sunglasses – if they happen to be clutching an ice cream I’m in heaven!

I found the sight of this little girl pointing to her choice at the ‘SNOG’ frozen yogurt bus rather endearing. At first I was frustrated that her presumed mother was standing so close and I couldn’t crop her out. But then looking back at the photo I realized that she added something to the scene – a motherly protection perhaps, and maybe a subtle prediction of what the future holds if this little girl enjoys too many frozen delights!