Occupy London

On a trip to London I stopped off at St Paul’s to take a look at Occupy London. The first thing that struck me was how well laid out the tents are, how clean the area is. The encampment is well away from the steps to St Paul’s itself and does not block the way for people who want to attend church services or walk between the tents and Paternoster Square itself (where the London Stock Exchange is based).

In the Information Tent I asked one of the protesters how it was going: “This isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. We’re here for the long haul.” There weren’t many protesters around and most of the tents were empty – many protesters join them in the evenings and at weekends.They were expecting the City to take the case to the High Court to have them evicted and a few days later this is exactly what happened.

Here are some shots I took of the protest camp:

The entrance to Paternoster Square (through the white arch in the picture above) is barricaded off so they can’t occupy the area in front of the Stock Exchange as it’s private land.

What is the point of the occupation and what good does it do?

The Occupy movement is a challenge and a reminder of what we have lost sight of in a society all but bankrupted by the actions of our banks. Our politics have failed us: reaction to the financial crisis has been limited to lots of hand-ringing and political rhetoric, but little action. We are angry and frustrated that we are in this financial situation, but feel powerless to do anything about it. Occupy has no solutions. It is posing questions: does it have to be this way? Is there a better way? How do we engage with each other to find alternative solutions? Occupy asks how we can create a fairer society with greater social justice.      These may be idealistic questions but they make a lot more sense that the cynicism and short termism of most of our current politics.

As we made our way out of the encampment towards St Paul’s tube station, we were passed by a well dressed middle-aged couple, the man in City suit and the woman in a fur coat. “They need to grow up!”, she said, looking at the sea of tents. It seems to me that the process of engagement and dialogue is going to take a long time.

Keeping the Winter goblins at bay- an old Greek Christmas belief

It was my last Greek lesson before Christmas and Maria, my tutor, was telling me about Christmas in Greece.

“During Christmas the Kallikantzaroi [evil goblins] are attracted by the smell of the food we cook at Christmas, especially the delicious, sweet smells. They live under ground all the rest of the year, sawing through the roots of the world tree trying to destroy it. People try to stop them coming into their homes.  While they are away the roots of the world tree heal over, so at the end of Christmas they have to go back under ground and start their sawing all over again.”

My eyes are wide open at these old folk beliefs.

“Do you have anything like this in England?”, she asks.

“Erm…not really”, I reply, thinking how pale our English beliefs seem in comparison.

Panegyri in Gavalokhori – celebrating a Cretan Patronal Festival

Giorgis Manolioudis playing the laouto

“Do you think we came a bit too early?”

We look round the small open air restaurant at the expanse of empty tables. It’s now 10.00pm and we are sitting in a tiny square shaded by an an enormous plane tree in the village of Gavalakhori, near Chania. We have already eaten dinner as we arrived early at 9.00 to get a table and have also had a couple of drinks. On our way in the chef was tending his barbecue, a litre water bottle in hand full of what looked like watered down red wine. During the evening he has several re-fills from the kitchen. Thirsty work this barbecuing – especially in this heat. It’s still in the mid-twenties after the fierce heat of the Cretan day.

We are waiting for the celebration of the village panegyri to start. We first came to the village three days ago to look at the Venetians wells on its edge and then stopped to explore the village itself. It’s small and quiet, but it has some interesting old buildings, including the ruins of a Turkish apothecary and a very modern museum of country life . It was a lady in the women’s co-operative shop that told us about the panegyri. It was only later that we found out what this was: a celebration of the village patronal festival for the Panagia, the All Holy One (a Greek Orthodox title for the Virgin Mary).

The village is renowned for the quality of the lace that used to be made here, a tradition started over 100 years ago when local women were taught by a nun how to do it. Today most of the old lacemakers have passed away. One of the survivors is an old lady in her eighties who was recently put into the village home for the elderly. She hated it so much that she ran away and is now living rough behind the village church. Apparently when you call her on her mobile she answers with “Hello, it’s not me.”

At one end of the square is a small stage draped in black with big speakers on either side. Soon five musicians start tuning up, a guitarist, three players of the laouto (a cross between the lute and the mandolin) and a player of the distinctive Cretan lyra (a teardrop shaped three-stringed instrument played with a bow). One of the group’s laouto players, Giorgis Manolioudis, is also the vocalist. They obviously perform all over Crete as we see their posters everywhere. Here’s a sample of their music recorded on my son’s iPhone.


The restaurant owner has taken on additional staff for the evening and keeps a close eye on what’s happening, greeting people as they arrive and ensuring that the waiters are kept on their toes.

It’s not until gone 11.00 that people start to turn up and past 12.00 when the more well-healed locals arrive. Why do they eat so late? Do they have a snack to keep them going before they come out? There seems to be a complete cross-section of ages and social classes: Mr Bigs with their glamorous wives, family groups, friends and neighbours, tables of lads of army age. At a table to the left of the stage a man in combat trousers and black T-shirt sits alone, but judging from the way people greet him and keep sending drinks to his table, he’s obviously someone who inspires respect. Probably the local policeman we conclude.

A bald man in white shirt and dark trousers moves between the tables, flirting with the younger women and performing a party trick of downing a small tumbler of neat vodka off the back of his hand. I lose count after 6 and he shows no sign of having drunk so much.

Gradually the tempo and noise levels increase, as the playing and songs become more impassioned. Cretan folk music sounds Middle Eastern when you first hear it and is not immediately appealing. However, as we found, it grows on you especially in the atmosphere of the panegyri.

It’s past 1.00 before the dancing gets started. In a curled chain in front of the stage and segregated into men and women, the dancers start slowly and gracefully, moving to left then right with a small kick. The leader with his arm in the air, the tail of the chain with one hand behind he back. As the music progresses the movement becomes more energetic and wilder. As we leave at gone 2.00, it’s mainly the young people still on the floor.

The next day we pop back to buy some local honey – thyme at this season of the year – and stop for lunch in a small taverna on the main road. The panegyri taverna is closed up today and no one can tell us what time the panegyri finished. From the corner of my eye I notice the barbecue chef from last night sitting on his own smoking and nursing a Greek coffee. Yes, it was a very enjoyable evening.

Planting orchards in Belarus

It’s quarter to four on a bitterly cold afternoon in early November 2007, the sun is low on the horizon and my wife and I are standing on the frozen, snow-specked earth of a fledgling orchard in the village of Golovchitsy, southern Belarus. In the slanting rays of the setting sun, we walk round the orchard talking to our local partner, Vladimir Nikolayevich Khlopok (pictured right), who manages it. As we do so, I struggle to take some photographs.with my frozen fingers. ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ I wonder, not for the first time on this trip, as the cold eats into my bones.

Belarus is an independent country of some 10 million people between Russia and Poland, created by the break up of the Soviet Union in 1991. Governed by Aleksandr Lukashenko, an old Communist-style authoritarian leader, it is marooned in a Soviet past with a central planned economy and torn between a close affinity to its Slav brother to the east and the attractions of EU membership. On top of this, it has had to cope with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster that occurred in April 1986 that has contaminated land and affected the health of its population – a legacy that will live on for many years to come.

Our link with Belarus goes back 17 years and, like many things in life, happened purely by chance. Eleven year old Tatiana came into our lives in September 1991. She was one of a group of 30 children from the Chernobyl-affected area of Belarus invited to Somerset for a month’s recuperation, fresh air and uncontaminated food. Over the years we kept in touch with her and her family, we invited her back to stay with us and we visited the family home.

Something about that very first connection ignited an abiding interest in this part of the world. Many of the host families from that first visit became the core of a registered charity, focused on children’s recuperative visits and provision of basic medical aid to hospitals in the areas the children come from.

After several years’ involvement, we felt that it was like applying a sticking plaster: providing temporary relief, but not tackling the root causes. So we started to look at more sustainable projects that could have a more far-reaching impact on villages and communities. Initially, we encouraged families to grow vegetables in polytunnels and sell their excess produce in local markets.

Then we were invited to work with the local council in the small town of Narovlya, on the edge of the Chernobyl exclusion zone, less than 40 miles from the site of the nuclear reactor. Just outside the town in a small village called Golovchitsy there is a co-operative based on an old estate that once belonged to an absentee Polish landowner. Could we help the village to regenerate its orchard?

The park, with its impressive gates and wide entrance alley, still stands and is remarkable for the variety of trees found there, unusual in a landscape dominated by graceful birches, solid firs and pine trees.

The estate house dating back to 1820 is still there too (another unusual feature as many were burnt down during the Revolution) and now used as the local hospital. But it is the scale of the old orchards that impresses. The Polish landowner planted 8,000 fruit trees, partly to provide pectin to the sweet factory in Narovlya. Now the trees stand barren and gently decaying, a constant reminder of more productive and congenial time.

This project was intended to be self-sustaining within 5 years. They have an old fruit storage building which was in need of repair and we hoped that they would be able to do this for themselves from the income they generated from the sale of fruit. In addition they were interested in exploring the production of added value products (eg juices and jams).

I’d like to report that it was a great sucess, but unfortunately it all went wrong. In spite of our input, they didn’t take care of the trees properly; people from the village stole some of them to sell for drink; frustratingly, our requests for pictures and updates went unanswered. Who are we to judge? We don’t have to live the harsh lives these people are forced to live. Would we be any different?

Cider making in Somerset – the traditional way

Stoke Red, Tom Putt, Dabinett, Somerset Streak – just some of the old apple varieties that were used to make cider in the traditional way in Westbury-sub-Mendip. Over two Sundays in October our friends, Mick and Buffy, invited family, friends and local people to bring apples and join them in making cider.

The communal effort was essential to help with all stages of this labour-intensive process. First we had to wash the apples in a large bath to remove surface muck.

With each successive bag of apples emptied into it, the bath was crowded with dramatic reds, scarlets, greens and delicate yellows.

Willing hands of all ages set to, rolling and washing the apples in the darkening water and then lifting them for inspection before putting them in wire trays to drain.

We fed the washed apples into the top of the ‘scratter’ to be cut and squashed into small pieces. Turning the wheel requires a lot of effort, but there was no shortage of volunteers to take a turn.

The apple pieces fall through to a trough at the bottom of the scratter from which they are then shovelled onto the press where a team of helpers created the ‘lissoms’ (layers) each about 8”-1ft deep.

Over the course of each day seven layers are formed in all, each smaller than the one beneath it, to create the ‘cheese’ (the multi-layered cake from which the apple juice is pressed). Between each layer of the cheese stalks of corn are laid to help the juice drain through and stabilise the layers. The press is slightly angled so that the juice runs off into a plastic bucket to be transferred to an old spirit cask for the fermentation.

For many taking part this was their first experience of these old methods, a fascinating glimpse into the past made all the more real by actually taking part in the process. From time to time we tasted the juice fresh off the press and marvelled at its sweetness. We also tasted Mick and Buffy’s previous year’s cider to give us a sense of what it was we were about.