I managed to take this picture after throwing myself over a hedge into Green Park, walking to the far corner where the eight-foot security fence turned into an eight-foot piece of wire-mesh and shooting over the heads of about a hundred other gawpers, flag-wavers and security guards.
The picture is of a procession, after it has processed. In the background is Buckingham Palace, from the side and slightly behind. It was sort of like watching a play from the wings: I got to see the actors trooping off and a bit of the stage set. That’s all.
And I wasn’t alone. There were thousands fenced into Green Park with me and thousands more not even being allowed into Green Park (as we weren’t, hence the hedge-jumping). The best view any of us could hope for was in Tesco’s, where they were showing the coverage on TV screens.
We were a security risk.
The Royal Wedding was sadly not an opportunity for the people of Great Britain and friends from all over the world to come together and have a big party.
It was an opportunity for the police to cordon us, obstruct us and – even – to raid our homes in pre-emptive anti-protest strikes. Several social centres were raided the night before the Royal Wedding, including the Ratstar social centre in Camberwell.
But the people who were hurt most by this clamp-down (I didn’t care) were the very people who Kate and William would have liked to have seen lining the streets.
We saw young families trooping around the perimeter of the Green Park fence, forlornly asking the security guards, ‘when is the gate going to open?’ and getting only a terse shake of the head in response. There were children peering through tiny screw-holes in the fence, looking at the vast expanse of park on the other side – and seeing only a thin ribbon of spectators there to enjoy the show. Even at that patch of wire-mesh fencing we were told, ‘the only thing you can do from here is exit.’
Not even all those who camped overnight managed to get in.
Two and a half weeks ago, on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, another political activist was assassinated: the founder of the Jenin Freedom Theatre in Palestine, Juliano Mer-Khamis.
Juliano Mer-Khamis (29 May 1958 – 4 April 2011)
Juliano was the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab Israeli father and always declared that he was both 100% Jewish and 100% Palestinian.
His mother, Arna, fought in the Palmach during the first Arab-Israeli war, but turned her back on Zionism and became a peace activist. Juliano himself enlisted as a paratrooper in the IDF, but was thrown out for refusing an order to force a Palestinian man from his car.
In Israel, Juliano identified himself as a Palestinian; in Palestine, as a Jew. This was typical of his brave and confrontational character.
He was a “beautiful and energetic man” who, according to his friend and colleague Stephan, was dancing on the tables the night before his assassination to celebrate the première of his latest project. Juliano had intense passions, exemplified by his love of food: a cup of olive oil for breakfast and a glass of Black Label at night.
The Freedom Theatre
Edward Said urged upon us the importance of narrating the Palestinian story, and that’s exactly what Juliano did through his films, his plays and the Freedom Theatre in Jenin.
Juliano’s ambition for the Freedom Theatre was to “give these children a piece of normality.” The theatre didn’t only tackle political inequality, but also women’s rights and religious intolerance and the theatre quickly became a centre for liberal thought in Jenin. The theatre works on three levels: theory, art and (political) action.
As an example, Juliano’s recent production of Alice in Wonderland managed to tackle women’s liberation, free will and resistance as well as putting on a great show. Juliano made Alice a Palestinian girl who is forced to marry by her family and seeks refuge in Wonderland.
According to Juliano, “art and politics are one,” and his attitude was: “you can’t free the land without freeing the mind.” That made Juliano himself a cultural freedom fighter.
The tragedy of Juliano’s life is that he was well aware of his vulnerability, but naïve “to the point of fantasy,” according to his friend Ala. He confided to him: “I will only leave Jenin with a bullet in my head…” Three years ago he gave this extraordinary interview on Israeli television:
Juliano wouldn’t have wanted to be called a martyr of freedom, but that is what he was.
Juliano was shot down by a Palestinian from Jenin, the very people he was struggling for. Juliano’s colleague at the theatre, Ala, talked about how this betrayal had damaged his unconditional affection for the camp. He said he was like a father who is angry at his eldest son for fighting with his youngest. Nevertheless, he will cover them both with the same blanket at night and give them the same kiss. “I kiss you Juli,” Ala said before breaking down in tears at the memory of his friend.
The ongoing threat
Juliano was shot not because of his failure, but because of his success. The Israeli press might be wallowing in schadenfreude, celebrating the fact that a Palestinian peace activist was killed by a fellow Palestinian, but Juliano’s Israeli friend Uli doesn’t remember that discourse in the press after former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin was killed by a Jew.
However, the Freedom Theatre today is very weak. They have some support in Israel, some support in Palestine and some support abroad, but it is fragmented and threatened on all sides. When Juliano’s body was carried away, students from the theatre lined the streets and applauded – but Jenin refugee camp wasn’t with them. The threat to the theatre remains.
This salsa is ridiculously easy. It won’t take more than about five minutes and will leave your lips tingling, but not your tonsils.
Makes 300g of salsa.
1 400g can of plum tomatoes.
2 green chillies.
1/3 of an onion.
1 handful of fresh coriander.
1 squeeze of a lemon.
The total cost of these ingredients is about a £1*. This is cheaper than supermarket salsa, tastes better and doesn’t have Xanthan Gum in it. Whatever that is.
Sieve or colander (optional).
Drain the can of tomatoes. You can use a sieve or a colander or just pour the juice out of the can. It will look like you’re losing a heck of a lot of product. Don’t panic, just drain those plums! Now throw them into the bowl.
Chop the stalks off your chillies. Take out some of the seeds and pith while you’re there. Throw into the bowl.
Chop off a third of an onion. Throw into the bowl.
Grab a handful of fresh coriander. Throw into the bowl.
Chop a lemon in half and squeeze some into the bowl.
Blend the ingredients until they are salsafied! If you don’t have a proper blender then just mash and chop with your hands and your knife. Salsa should be pretty rough anyway – you’re not making a soup here.
You can always modify to taste with garlic, salt or chocolate. I won’t shout at you.
* You will have to buy a whole onion and a whole lemon. Save them for next time.
Egypt? It’s near Stoke Poges, a delightful village near Burnham Beeches and a lovely little cycle from London.
It was well worth the pilgrimage too, not only for the beautiful woodland or for the wonderfully displaced North African country, but also for a certain stained glass window in Stoke Poges church. I learnt of this window from Wikipedia when I was researching a talk I gave last year on the history of the bicycle. Apparently, there was a window of an angel, stark naked, riding a bicycle.
So I pedalled to the church, wheeled my respectful way down the winding path through the cemetery, leant my bike up against the porch and, full of anticipation, pushed open the heavy wooden door.
Now, I was expecting to see a huge window with a glorious winged angel dazzling the congregation with his dangling member straddling a Raleigh six-speed. So it was with increasing frustration that I circled the small church two, three times, without seeing anything remotely resembling an angel of heaven on a bike.
Then I found this:
This is a small inset picture in a window installed to celebrate the lives lost in World War II. And it’s not so much an angel as a cherub, I’d say. Far from being glorious, it seems a little inappropriate. I’d like to know the thought process behind this one.
We want something nice to remember the 450,000 souls who died in the most horrific war in human history…
I know – a cherub on a hobby-horse blowing a trumpet!
Whatever the thinking behind it was, one thing is certain: Wikipedia is wrong.
This is what Wikipedia originally told me about the window:
There are several early but unverifiable claims for the invention of bicycle-like machines. The earliest comes from an illustration found in a church window in Stoke Poges, installed in the 16th century, showing a naked angel on a bicycle-like device…*
Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the Second World War was a twentieth century event.
This is a valuable lesson I think.
1. Don’t believe everything you’re told. Sometimes they’re wrong. Sometimes you do know better.
2. Check the facts for yourself. Go there. Verify the angel.
It reminds me of the British in Palestine, 1917-1948. A lot of government policy was set in London by people who had never been to Palestine (which then comprised the current territory of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories). Their policy formation was based on idealistic dreams, unrealistic ambitions and sectarian politics. They often ignored the advice of the people on the ground in Palestine.
The administrators, soldiers and civilians in Palestine itself, faced with the day-to-day troubles, were practical and realistic in their suggestions. But they were ignored by people who thought they knew better – but who knew nothing.
I think this is one of the most important lessons of travel. How can I talk about Iran when I’ve never been there? Any talk that blew out of my mouth would be nothing more than so much hot air. How can I talk about a church window in Stoke Poges when I’ve never been there?
The more I travel, the more wary I become of talking about places I haven’t been – or of listening to other people who haven’t been either, no matter what their professional qualifications are. You can find the inaccurate angel-window story repeated endlessly across the internet, mindlessly regurgitated by people who’ve never been to Stoke Poges.
So I urge you: verify the angel!
* There are a couple of things here. Apparently the glass of the window was recycled (ho ho!) and a part of it has been dated to 1643. Which is the 17th century of course. The internet seems to be in some dispute about whether it is the bicycle part which is from 1643 or not. Either way, Wikipedia is wrong.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to go on more than 60 holidays, both in the UK and abroad. In the course of all that to-ing and fro-ing I’ve been to 33 different countries. I’ve also taken 77 aeroplane flights.
But finally – after going through 77 passport controls, 77 customs halls, 77 departure lounges, 77 immigration queues, 77 more customs halls, 77 baggage carousels and 77 arrival halls – I’ve realised one thing: flights aren’t holidays.
You could be forgiving for thinking that they are. There’s something almost second class about going on holiday in the UK – so that only leaves Abroad. And everyone flies to Abroad (except the odd booze-cruise, obviously).
But why does everyone fly to Abroad?
There are some obvious and not-so-obvious answers to that question.
1. It’s quicker to fly.
Obviously. But there are two aspects to the speed:
a. Not everyone has the time to take the leisurely travel option, even if they wanted to. We only get two weeks’ holiday a year and we want to spend as much of that on a beach as possible.
b. Travel is horrible, so the less time spent in transit the better, even if it’s as traumatic as flying.
2. It’s cheaper to fly.
It really is, incredibly. Even if you cycle the whole way and swim the Channel with your bike strapped to your 48″ chest – you’ll still spend way more on food during your Ironman expedition to Magaluf than you would have done on a Ryanair return.
One way to Bordeaux by bike cost me near enough £240 in calorific fuel. The Ryanair flight back was £60.
3. Because everyone flies to Abroad.
Huh? Everyone flies because everyone flies? Yeah. That’s right. I’m saying that we don’t even think about it. Imagination disengages at the point of picking up the Thompson brochure. We think about the destination, not about how to get there.
But, but, but my friends!
1. Flying is only quicker if you are travelling long distances.
And travel is only miserable if you’re cooped up in Ryanair-sized cattle-pens and subjected to intrusive and very dull immigration procedures.
2. Flying is only cheaper if you are travelling long distances.
And, even then, only if you forget that my ten days’ cycling was so much more than transit – it was a wild-eyed sun-blaze of fun.
3. Flights aren’t holidays!
If there’s one thing I learnt while I was slogging over the hills of Normandy on my way to Bordeaux – or while I was standing around on the side of a road in Glasgow trying to get a lift to Ben Nevis – or while I was trudging through the snow, sixteen hours into an eighteen hour walk home for Christmas – it’s that flights aren’t holidays!
In fact, the less flighty the holiday, the better. Less flight means less stress, less queuing, less being treated like cattle – and, therefore, more fun, more unique – and more holiday!
And this should be a cause of optimism for everyone.
If we don’t have to fly to Abroad, then the world of holiday is blown wide open to us. It means that holiday isn’t a two-week stress-ball carbon-guilt flight – it could be a trip down to your local shops. Why can’t that be a holiday?
A holiday for everyday
This morning, for example, I went on a holiday right near my house.
I didn’t mean to go on holiday. I was just on a walk, a fairly standard constitutional walk around the local fields that I do all the time – and then, suddenly, I decided to go on holiday. I climbed through some hawthorn shrubs, over a wall and onto a disused railway. It was hot and sunny, so I took off my shirt and walked down the tracks, basking in the sun.
I was somewhere I’d never been before and tanning. How is that not a holiday?
Rejoice! Forget flying; holiday today!
But there’s more!
(The environmental bit tacked onto the end to make me look ethical.)
If we needed any more encouragement to ditch recycled air, carry-on luggage limitations and ear-popping madness, then it’s surely got to be the thought of our carbon footprint. In the last 28 years, I’ve ejaculated 28 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, thanks to my use of aeroplane transportation. And I don’t mind admitting that it was mindless. I flew because I didn’t think twice. If I wanted to go to France, I bought a plane ticket.
That changed in 2009. I wanted to go to France, so I bought a plane ticket. But the flight was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and I couldn’t go. I still wanted to go, but suddenly flying didn’t seem worth it. I wanted more from my travel. So I cycled.