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Corregidor: Isle of War and Beauty

5 Feb


As the ferry pulls in to a pine-fringed cove of ivory-coloured sand, I find it hard to imagine Corregidor Island as the scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific theatre of World War II. A strategic outpost guarding Manila from sea invasion since the 1500s, Corregidor was attacked from the opposite direction by the Japanese in early 1942. General Douglas Macarthur, commander of the US Army Forces in the Far East, was forced to flee the island by PT boat to Australia, famously vowing ‘I shall return’. In two days, a 75,000-strong Japanese army fought their way past 45 pieces of heavy artillery and overwhelmed 13,000 US and Filipino soldiers. Three years later, MacArthur made good on his promise and liberated the island in a daring air and sea assault that turned out to be even bloodier than the first Battle of Corregidor. The US victory was to prove decisive in ending the war in Asia.

When we reach land, I’m ushered into a charmingly retro tour bus that resembles a wartime tram and away we go into the depths of the jungle. We pass the grey, spectral ruins of barracks and mess halls, some held up by shaky foundations either damaged by shelling or worn thin by age. As we drive, our tour guide holds up a selection of items he’s found strewn around Corregidor, amongst them a Japanese bayonet, a Coca-Cola bottle from 1912 and US and Filipino currency dating back 150 years.

We stop at Battery Way, an emplacement of mortars that still have bullet holes in them, despite a thick and recently applied coat of paint. Our guide tells me to look down the barrel of one of the guns. I do so and see a bomb nestling in the base. ‘That’s still live,’ says the guide, ‘but it is probably harmless.’ I back away with a fake smile.

A delicious lunch of pork adobo and pancit canton (flour noodles with vegetables and seafood) is served on the Spanish-style veranda of the Corregidor Inn. It’s possible to stay the night at the Inn and use it as a base for activities such as kayaking, ziplining and all-terrain vehicle driving.

Our next stop is the moving Pacific War Memorial and its 40 foot-tall abstract sculpture representing the eternal flame. The rotunda features stone-etched memorials to those who died in every conflict the Philippines has been involved in, including the often under-reported Spanish-American War of 1898 when the US wrested control of the archipelago from the Spanish Empire.


For many, Corregidor’s piéce de resistance is the Malinta Tunnel complex, that in its heyday housed a field hospital, an electric tram system, shops, storerooms and General MacArthur’s  operational headquarters. The American and Filipino garrison made its last stand against the Japanese inside Malinta and just a few months before that Manuel Quezon was sworn in here for his second term as President of the semi-autonomous Philippine Commonwealth. Although a close friend of MacArthur’s and a supporter of the US presence in his country, Quezon is reported to have exploded with anger after listening to a speech by President Roosevelt about the war in Europe and shouted, ‘How typical of America to writhe in anguish at the fate of a distant cousin, Europe, while a daughter, the Philippines, is being raped in the back room!’

With the aid of torches, we make our way through the curve-arched main tunnel and peer into alcoves containing life-size metal models of soldiers, engineers, doctors, nurses, MacArthur himself and his second-in-command General Jonathan Wainwright. Normally there’s an audiovisual presentation detailing the history of Malinta, but for technical reasons it isn’t available right now.

I am suitably sobered as we emerge from the tunnel and ride the tour bus back to the ferry port. All in all, Corregidor is a captivating insight into a momentous event in history and a poignant tribute to the thousands of young men who died in the most destructive war of all time.

Press contacts: Chit Afuang (chit@itsmorefuninthephilippines.co.uk)

Sun Cruises (suncruises@magsaysay.com.ph)

(Originally published in Globetrotter, January 2015)

Why Africans are falling in love with the Philippines

18 Jan


After recent visits to Africa and Asia, it is clear to me that the two continents are growing ever closer. In Ghana, I met so many Chinese, whether overseeing a building site in Kumasi, dining in a five star hotel on Cape Coast or playing roulette in an Accra casino. In Côte d’Ivoire, I found young people to be obsessed with Japanese manga and Korean horror films. During that same trip, I heard that, in Southern Africa, kids rarely miss an episode of their favourite telenovellas from the Philippines.

A few months later, I was in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, and surprised to find Africans everywhere: Kenyans, Nigerians, South Africans, Egyptians, Moroccans, and Senegalese. I had lived in Manila in 2009-10 and couldn’t recall seeing a single African at that time, although I did meet a number of Filipino intellectuals who loved the novels of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka and other African literary luminaries.

Underlying this cultural exchange is economics. According to Bloomberg, trade between Africa and Asia is set to rise from around $300bn at present to over $1.5 trillion by 2020. Already thousands are migrating in both directions for work, study and travel. Now the third fastest-growing economy in Asia, the Philippines has enjoyed an almost 50% increase in trade with Africa over the last two years. In the 2010 census, 2,573 people from African countries were resident in the country and now the figure is thought to be closer to 3,000.

While in Manila, I wanted to understand how African expats take to Philippine society. What sort of work do they do? How well have they assimilated? What are the differences and similarities between where they have come from and where they are now?

Japhet E. Miano Kariuki is a Kenyan consultant who encourages foreign investment in the Philippines. I asked him what professional opportunities there are for Africans here:

“When recruiters look to my continent, they see a wealth of underused talent: guys with master’s degrees in business or engineering except they’re driving a taxi! It makes sense to bring them to the Philippines where everyone will benefit from their expertise. The recent growth in business process outsourcing (BPO) here has created a demand for French speakers, so now you have people coming from all the Francophone African nations.”

But isn’t there the danger of brain-drain, with Africa losing the skilled workers it so badly needs for its own development? Japhet thinks not, especially if you look at the evidence of the continent’s “amazing growth. In Kenya right now, there is a new government and a new constitution, and a lot of new investment. My friends tell me that if I went back to Nairobi now, I wouldn’t recognise it.”

Furthermore, migrant labour is a two-way street. “There are many OFWs [Overseas Filipino Workers] who go to Africa with transferable skills related to the main industries there: health care, the service sector, mining and agriculture.”


Doing business

Moreover, Japhet advises a growing number of Filipino companies about doing business in Africa. His job is easy because “China and Japan have paved the way” and there are many similarities between Africans and Filipinos.

“We all speak English (mostly), are committed to our faith and are very family-oriented. We share an attitude to life: we stay optimistic and overcome whatever challenges when trying to integrate into Philippine life. When he moved to Manila in 2011 to manage a call centre, South African Chris Bezuidenhout immediately felt at home. The people are polite “almost to the point of pain” and take pride even in dead-end jobs and miserable living conditions. “These guys in the slums are always sweeping the areas in front of their shacks. When you look around the streets, there is not a soda can, not a cigarette butt anywhere.”

On his first New Year’s Eve in Manila, Chris took a taxi into one such slum whereupon the residents complimented the basketball jersey he was wearing and invited him to spend the night drinking wine from an empty yoghurt cup.

“That was probably the best New Year’s Eve I have ever had,” he says wistfully. “There aren’t a lot of cities around the world where a foreigner can go into a deprived area and say, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ and end up partying with the locals.”

A 26-year-old Egyptian national, Yasmine Mahmoud, has had a more ambivalent experience. While she finds the Philippines “generally easy-going and inter-faith”, her Muslim beliefs have posed problems. Manila restaurant menus are dominated by pork and even meat-free dishes are typically cooked in pork fat. Fortunately, Yasmine has found a handful of eateries that will prepare her food in vegetable

However, what she calls “prejudice about Islam” has had a more significant impact. A human resources expert by training, she was once denied a job simply because of her religion. “The bosses told me that they had enough Muslims from Mindanao [a southern region of the Philippines riven with Islamist separatist tensions] and they didn’t want any more.”

She isn’t bitter about the episode because “the problem is more to do with ignorance than discrimination … When I tell people I am an Arab, they either think I am from one of the Arabian Gulf countries. I tell them I am an Egyptian, I have nothing to do with the Gulf, I only share the language with them – or they think I am a terrorist because of what they have seen on CNN.”

Mercifully, not everyone she meets is so unsympathetic. People over the age of 30 are more likely to ask her respectful questions about her background.

Japhet has been on the receiving end of such curiosity, with people wanting to touch his hair and asking him why, as an African, he speaks English. By contrast, Chris once met a taxi driver who knew a great deal about his native land. “He just started reeling off historical facts about the Boer War and the apartheid era. I thought to myself, ‘How the hell does a taxi driver know all this?’”

How do Filipino attitudes to work compare with home? When Sharon Walilika relocated from Nairobi to teach English in Manila, she found the atmosphere effervescent. “Here people like to have fun in the office – they joke and laugh – whereas back home everyone is so serious. I don’t know where we got that from – is it a British thing?”

Filipinos, she believes, are more collectively-minded too. “They all go to work together and then they all go out together afterwards. When it’s someone’s birthday or someone is leaving, everyone celebrates that in the office. It’s kind of sweet, but after a while I just wanted to go my separate way.”


Community spirit

For Yasmine, this community spirit informs all communication within a workplace. “If an individual has an issue, it becomes everyone’s issue because employees are so close to each other. If you say something to one person and they don’t appreciate it, the message will get out to the whole team. They will respond to you as a group, even if you only addressed that one person originally. They will come and say to you, ‘We don’t like this or that.’”

Chris never ceases to be impressed by the work ethic of his employees. “In South Africa there might be a bus or taxi strike and half the labour force can’t get to work. In Manila, even while a typhoon is raging, people will come in to work wearing flip-flops and shorts and then get changed into smart clothes. That kind of dedication I put down to the fact that you’ve got a population of almost 100 million and everyone’s got a university degree, even the guys who work in McDonald’s. Everyone is so educated that competition for jobs is stiff.”

High-quality, affordable, and delivered in excellent English, Philippine education is another magnet for Africans. The BBC reports that applications for foreign student visas trebled between 2012 and 2013. Aside from teaching English, Sharon is doing a master’s degree in nursing at the Adventist University of the Philippines and finds it “really good … the teachers are friendly and easy-going. When I first came here, there were five African students and now there are dozens. It’s usually a lot cheaper to fly here and study than to do it at home.”

Similarly, Yasmine tells me about a friend – also from Egypt – who saved himself several thousand dollars by studying for his MBA in the Philippines. When I question the transferability of her nursing qualification, Sharon tells me that international standards are upheld by requiring every Kenyan who trains in the Philippines to pass local board exams before they can practise nursing back home.

Manila’s traffic jams and wild roads are infamous, and I wonder how Chris copes with riding a motorcycle here. “While the traffic looks crazy, there is actually a logic to it, a rhythm. Foreigners joke about Filipino drivers being the worst in the world. On the contrary, they are the most helpful in the world. They will move over and make room for me when I ride by. In three years, I haven’t seen a major accident in this city, only bumper bashings. The traffic doesn’t move fast enough for there to be fatalities. Nor will you ever hear people shouting or hooting their horns.”

When Sharon wants a break from the hustle of the city, she drives to the “beautiful hill station of Baguio where the temperature is cool and the air is clean”. It gives her fond childhood memories of the Rift Valley area in Kenya.

The expats I spoke to all seem very content with life in the Philippines. They enjoy a higher standard of living and are gaining invaluable professional or educational advantages. Japhet and Chris are definitely here for the long-haul. As Chris says, “originally I had a vague plan to come to Manila for a couple of years and then move on to Australia. Now I have fallen in love with this place. I would be happy to stay for another decade if not longer.” A ringing endorsement indeed.

Originally published at: http://newafricanmagazine.com/africans-falling-love-philippines/3/#sthash.jkXiXRAH.dpuf

Fine Ivorian Fare (originally published in B Spirit Magazine)

4 Sep

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Few countries around the world have more scrumptious local dishes than Côte d’Ivoire. Writer/editor Tom Sykes has tried most of them…

Around the world Côte d’Ivoire is known for its Afrobeat and reggae music, its raunchy mapouka dance routine and its world-class footballers like Didier Drogba and Yaya Touré. However, few outside the country are aware of its delectable cuisine, which fuses French fine dining with traditional African ingredients and techniques. More than anyone else, Ivorians abide by George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism: ‘There is no love sincerer than the love of food.’ 

The hearty casserole known as Sauce Claire has a distinctively sweet-sour yet briny flavour that’s derived from slow-cooked aubergines, shrimp paste and fish scales. It’s best complemented by foutou (cassava dumplings), whose slightly sweet undertone comes from the small amount of plantains pounded into the mix.

Côte d’Ivoire’s other favourite stew is Sauce Graine, a rich and warming concoction of garlic, onions, tomatoes, chilli and palm tree grains. The vital ingredients, though, are kable, an indigenous aromatic leaf and akpi, an African spice that not only thickens the sauce but adds a smoky, barbecued dimension to the flavour.

Sauce Graine is so versatile it works with chicken breast, beef thighs and white fish. My preference is to mix it with agouti, a jungle rodent and Ivorian delicacy. When I first tried it, I was so surprised by its gamy aftertaste and tender texture that I wondered if the chef had decided that my foreign stomach wasn’t strong enough for this very local bushmeat and given me duck instead. But an Ivorian friend tasted the meal and confirmed that it was indeed agouti. In Côte d’Ivoire’s maquis (al fresco restaurants), Sauce Graine is often served with alloco (plantains pan-fried with onions, chilli and salt).

Like Moroccan tagine or Indian biryani, kedjenou owes its full-bodied and intense flavour to hours of cooking in a sealed pot, preferably over a wood fire. Healthy doses of ginger, fresh chilli and black pepper make this one for spice fans.

The literal translation of poisson braisé – “braised fish” – hardly does justice to the beauty of this dainty. Back in the late 1800s, French colonisers brought with them a very Gallic marinade – lemon juice, garlic, parsley, onions and tomatoes – and got delicious results when they rubbed it into perch, capitaine and other local catches, before putting them on the grill and wolfing them down with helpings of attieké (a cous-cous-like side dish made from cassava shavings).

Originally published here:


Blokosso: Where Angels Dare to Tread

20 Mar

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The Ebrié tribespeople of Côte d’Ivoîre traditionally believe that the land is protected by the ghosts of their ancestors and a large pantheon of deities. Historically, ritual offerings of human blood, spider’s webs, gunpowder and alcohol were made to such figures as Nyangka, the god of the earth. Although these days tribal values have broadly been supplanted by Islam and Christianity, Ebriés still retain a healthy respect for the spirit world and its influence on the material world.

Once an important Ebrié village, now an attractive district of Côte d’Ivoîre’s capital city Abidjan, Blokosso (sometimes called Blockhauss) is widely regarded as sacred territory ruled over by the spirit of an eminent king. The power and ubiquity of this belief is such that, during the Ivoîrian Civil War, neither the rebels nor the government forces would go anywhere near Blokosso. It was a surreal sight: while the rest of Abidjan was bombed and burned, Blokosso’s hovels, churches and maquis restaurants remained intact. Death might come from a bullet, so soldiers on both sides reasoned, but a far worse fate would befall anyone who damaged the property of the sovereign in the sky.
This is not to say that Blokosso has never had its troubles. After the economic failure of the late 1980s during which the number of citizens living below the poverty line trebled, Ivoîrian politicians began to exploit ethnic and religious divisions in society. Although in the 1960s and 1970s people from Burkina Faso and other nearby countries had been invited to work on Côte d’Ivoîre’s cocoa plantations, in the 1990s laws were passed to rescind the basic rights (such as suffrage) of these migrants and their offspring. Indeed, the man who is currently the President of the nation, Alassane Ouattara, was originally barred from standing for office due to his Burkinabé extraction.
Such tensions visited Blokosso in 2001. According to a Human Rights Watch report, at least six people were killed when armed apparatchiks of the RDR party attacked the district for its apparent support of FPI leader Laurent Gbagbo, who had just won a contested presidential election. Eyewitnesses saw men with machetes cutting the throat of a Guinean café owner and locals lying on the ground, their heads smashed with boulders. It seems that for one frenzied day only, Ivoîrians stopped caring about the consequences of damaging this holy domain.

These days violence is a rare occurrence in Blokosso. Arriving there myself on an overcast July day, I find it to be a gritty yet friendly working class community, the kind of place that wealthy visitors to Abidjan never see, confined as they are to a shiny micro-world of shopping malls and deluxe hotels. Such malls and hotels are staffed by poor people – some from Blokosso – who themselves are invisible to the wealthy because they travel to and from work on buses rather than in private cars and serve behind the counter rather than buying products on the other side of it.

Other Blokossans run businesses in the district itself. Fans and refrigerators are arranged outside a shack with a corrugated iron roof, prices written in felt tip on a piece of card nailed to one of the beams. Lebanese men sell sachets of Milo hot chocolate and packs of Hollywood chewing gum through the prison-style bars of a prefab convenience store. Sheltering under big black parasols, teenagers vend mobile phone top-up cards to passers-by. Taller concrete buildings painted yellow and indigo house pharmacies and photo booths. On the roadside, women in flowing dresses carry all kinds of objects on their scarved heads: small pieces of furniture, buckets of shrimps, sacks of fruit. They take it slow and easy, never breaking a sweat.

Lucky to earn enough for food each day, life is hard for these local entrepreneurs. But rather than nurse grievances, they show solidarity with their neighbours and warmth towards outsiders. I realise that I must look like the ultimate outsider to them: a chubby, sun-burned Westerner taking notes and photos of every corner of the neighbourhood. When I go into the fine-smelling Boulangerie Sibopa de Blokosso, the owner smiles, takes a little bow and says, ‘Bonjour monsieur. Enchanté.’ As my mouth waters over hot, fresh croissants, brioche and pains au chocolat, other customers treat me with the same degree of respect. In fact, everyone else I meet in Blokosso – from kids playing football on the street to elderly passengers in a shared taxi – exhibits the kind of placid decorum that disappeared from most Western cities a long time ago.

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The mood changes as soon as the sun goes down. Taking a seat in the open-air, speakeasy-style Sex Boss Bar (the name sounds more salacious than what actually goes on inside it), I hear the babble and the laughter grow as the men sink Flag beers and the women Smirnoff Ices. Waiters slam down bowls of steaming Sauce Claire, a slow-cooked chicken casserole that owes its rich yet tangy taste to a distinctively African spice called akpi; Sauce Graine, an aromatic stew made with palm tree grains; and cassava and plantain dumplings known as foutou.

As soon as it’s dark, the stereo starts playing a polyrhythmic Afrobeat song by Magic System, one of Côte d’Ivoîre’s biggest bands. The lyrics, so someone tells me, are about Ivoîrian men who marry European women and are shocked when they are expected to do household chores they were brought up to believe were the responsibility of females.

It isn’t long before girls in the Sex Boss Bar are bending over and shaking their behinds in a dance style called the Mapouka, which the Ivoîrian government tried to ban in 1998 in case it corrupted the youth. The Mapouka has since mutated into what the non-African world now calls “twerking”. One of the dancers grabs my sleeve and points to the floor.

‘I can’t dance,’ I protest. ‘I don’t know how.’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ she says. ‘Just do what you feel.’

Knowing that I’d need a lot more beer to find the courage to join her, I stay in my seat while two women in skin-tight clothing howl with joy and dance the Mapouka around me. I begin to feel like even more of an outsider, more of a square than ever before in my life. But I’m happy enough to listen to the music and watch the others do as they feel.

Early next morning, feeling a little worse for wear, I take the tugboat ferry to Blokosso across the Lagoon Ebrié. Spreading 300 kilometres across the eastern part of Côte d’Ivoîre and all the way up to the border with Ghana, the Lagoon is protected from the rough swells of the ocean by a large coastal landform. From the boat I watch the sun rise over Abidjan’s attractive skyline, its rays sparkling against the iconic Hotel Ivoîre and the ornate metalwork of Félix Houphouët-Boigny Stadium. The beauty of the sight belies the environmental damage being done to the Lagoon itself, which for time immemorial has provided Blokossans with abundant fish and seafood. As the Francophone magazine Jeune Afrique reports, wastewater, household rubbish and scrap metal are regularly dumped in the water, causing a hazardous build-up of sediment. Twenty years ago, the Lagoon was sanitary enough for people to practise watersports on it. Only the brave or foolish would dare do that now. However, in March of last year, the government decided to act. It began a collaboration with the Eco Africa NGO to clean up 125 acres of the Lagoon over the next four years. So far the project appears to have been successful.

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Once ashore at Blokosso, I breakfast in the Maquis la Pirogue des Grandes, a humble, unpainted brick restaurant serving real food to real Ivoîrians. Its locally-caught tilapia and capitain fish are charcoal grilled to perfection, dressed in garlic butter and accompanied by tomato and onion salad, attiéké (a cous-cous-like dish made from grated, fermented cassava) and alloco (fried plantain chips). The Maquis’ piѐce de resistance, though, is agouti, a field rat served in a creamy gravy that tastes like a cross between venison and suckling pig. Other kinds of bushmeat available include hedgehog, snake and jungle rabbit. Along with these traditional African delicacies, you can order French favourites that were introduced during the colonial era: rare steaks, fresh salads and juicy brochettes of snail, chicken and beef. Overall, the Maquis is doing a good job of contributing to Côte d’Ivoîre’s reputation as one Africa’s gastronomic centres.

All the dishes at the Maquis – and many other products sold in Blokosso – are surprisingly cheap compared to the more touristy areas of Abidjan. Those Ivoîrian commentators who have been complaining about the rising cost of living (some goods and services are near enough Western prices now) ought to spend some time – and some money – in Blokosso.
The colourful Fête de Generation (Generation Festival) takes place in Blokosso every August. It is a crucial rite of passage for young Ebrié men and women who must prove that their generation is qualified to lead the village into the future. In the past when the Ebriés were constantly at war with the sixty or so other tribes in the region, aspiring warriors would lead the new generation through the streets of Blokosso, overcoming obstacles such as snakes with their fighting skills and avoiding hidden traps with the assistance of shamen.

Conceptions of age and lineage are particularly important to Ebriés. In a somewhat scientific manner, each generation is sub-divided into four units: Gnando, Tchagba, Dougbo and Blessoué. Children born within fifteen years of one other belong to the same generation and are expected to treat each other as brothers and sisters whether they are blood-related or not. A generational cycle elapses after the passing of four generations (or sixty years).
The modern day Festival is more symbolic than it was in the past. After weeks of painstaking rehearsal, young Blokossans dance from one end of the district to the other, metaphorically progressing from childhood to adulthood. Men are selected as warriors according to their bravery and intelligence, but they are expected to lead the dance rather than to fight. Women put on their finest clothes and jewellery and take presents to the homes of these titular warriors.

The preoccupation with war is perhaps appropriate for a tribe that, in the eighteenth century, was violently forced out to the West African coast by the Ashanti people of what is now central Ghana. In fact, it was this ignominious defeat that gave the Ebriés their name, as it means “filthy” or “humiliated” in the Abouré language. Before that they were known, more flatteringly, as Achan, meaning “chosen ones”.

A century before the French colonisers built Abidjan, the first wave of Ebrié immigrants settled along the shores of what was soon to be known as the Lagoon Ebrié and established villages like Blokosso. Aside from fishing in the Lagoon, Ebriés became subsistence farmers, growing the sorts of plants the French would later export as lucrative cash crops: cocoa, coffee, rubber and sweet potatoes. If contemporary Ebriés are welcoming toward strangers such as me, their forebears were too. Over the years, Baoulés and Dioula tribespeople from other parts of Côte d’Ivoîre as well as Mossis from Burkina Faso have moved in to Ebrié lands and integrated peacefully with the locals.
At present, Ebriés are to be found living in and around Abidjan, the Lagoon Region and the subprefectures of Bingerville and Dabou. There are thought to be 57 Ebrié villages, 27 of them in the vicinity of the capital. Around 0.7 % of the population of Côte d’Ivoîre are Ebrié.

While the Generation Festival has always been a vital element of Ebrié identity, other facets of tribal life have changed significantly. In the early 1960s, the American sociologist William Kornblum was living in Blokosso when the community had its first ever experience of burglary committed by outsiders. “It was not the goods themselves that they missed, for these could be replaced,” Kornblum recalls. “It was a loss of a way of life, a social world, that they lamented.”

From that moment on, Blokosso could no longer regard itself as an isolated fishing village based on clan ties and communitarian principles. In a short time it had been swallowed up by a vast modern city driven by relentless commerce and technology. Ebriés were suddenly under pressure to buy consumer goods and sell their produce at Abidjan’s markets. Hitherto unknown concepts such as greed, envy and profligacy infected the community. There were more incidents of robbery. Monsieur Joseph, a community leader who was despairing over his wives’ jealousy of one another’s possessions, led prayers to ancestral spirits asking for help in confronting this scary new world.

Whether these prayers were answered or not, the attitude of Ebriés ever since has been one of acceptance and adaptation. They now tend to work in the service sector rather than in fishing and agriculture, and have witnessed the palm forests and plantations around them morph into business centres, apartment blocks and chic restaurants. They have stepped into modernity, but they have not lost sight of the past.

Who’s Who Entries

9 May

PIDDLECHRISTMAS, Bootjack Luders Portico M.Sc. (Catamenic Field Study), M.D., Ph.D.(Astrothuctic Soundwave Models); born 10th October 1879, Folkestone; son of Roderick Piddlechristmas and Cecilia Vex; married Fratella Feynman-Heisenberg 1907 who died in scientific experiment 1908; educated Royal Catling School, Trinity College, Cambridge, Vienna Institute of Cataplasmic Empirics, Midhurst Academy of Screaming; served in the King’s Light Theoretical Physicists Corps 1914-18; journalist with Natural Philosophy Tomorrow magazine (1919-21); Emeritus Professor of Nanoaudiometazilchoelectrics at Imperial College, London since 1921; musicological overseer of Aether Flyer since 1928; hon. fellow of Trinity since 1923; fellow of the Royal Society since 1923. Publications : Bucky Blasted Pigeon Ramp Theory: An Introduction (1911), I Ride A Quantum Noah Across This Newton’s Flood: The Collected Columns (1921), An Appraisal of Curious Innovations in Melodious Conveyance (1925, joint editor with Jean-Baptiste Bung-Bung-Solifaux). Leisure interests: practical eugenics, toolsheds, clotted cream enemas. Clubs: Neutron’s of Mayfair, The Pretty Nurse Ravishment Club of Knightsbridge.

FOSSETT, Henry Clodhopper ‘Cranky’; born 3rd July 1885, Skipton, educated at The Peregrine Antimony Workhouse; son of Nigel Fossett and Fanny Bukharin; apprentice to Sturmfleisser’s of Leeds, manufacturers of counterfeit zeppelin ladders 1898-1901; senior organiser for the Pom-Pom Piston Worker’s Union 1901-14; military engineer in the Eighth Potato Rocket Bombardiers 1914-18; surprise chimney delegate to the founding of the Third International 1919; technician for Professor Piddlechristmas’ multiversal deci-fractioning experiments 1920-28; member of Aether Flyer since 1928. Leisure interests: horse racing, revolutionary socialism, gruel-sniffing. Clubs: Flinch Hill Working Men’s Club.

FRAGMENT, The Hon. Theseus Flobgriffin Michaelmas Chiringhey Evinrude Plumharvester Dave; born 3rd December 1897, Guildford, educated St Shoosh and Don’t Tell School for Young Boys, Dunfermline, Eiderdown College, Oxford (sent down for conspicuously smack-corpsing and flid-diddling, 1916); son of Sir Emlyn Fragment and Fulgencia Saxe-Coburg-Gotha; irrepressible sass-rake, boon frisker and roué since 1918; nightclub baritenor and coin operated pokeyrump-trumpeteer since 1921; member of Aether Flyer since 1928. Leisure interests: fencing, cocktails, snobbery, regular and sometimes frequent insertion of Betty Hawking into his left nostril, routinely alternating elevenses, Sundays, Thursdays and Whitsun.Clubs: Park Lane Shame Chamber, The Highbury Shiver Collective, The Cradle of Health, Chelsea.

HARMONY, Kelvin Broadus ‘Doc’; born April 15th 1889, Whitechapel, London, educated at the Borstal Wing of Wandsworth Prison; parentage unknown; purveyor of psychotropic elixirs and tonics for the listless auctioneer and petrified housewife since 1899; renowned in parts of lower Bethnal Green for fistfight promenading, exercising the decorum corrupting powers of havoc whistling, peacock feather strewn rile-harbouring and knock-latency tempered force-mayhem galing; owner of The Aether Club since 1923 after adjacent excavations were pinned wholly on then partner S. E. Groves (lead singer with the Poor Mime Bandits) whose subsequent jail stretch yogi awaits the great black cap and gown in the sky; member of Aether Flyer since 1928.  Leisure interests: rock-boxing, crapple-cleaving, day-trips to the Court of Appeal, going to Hades in a blue rinse bother wagon. Clubs: The League of Rotters, Forks Out and Barking, Foster’s Mickey Lacing Bazaar.

Clifton Rock

7 Mar

Clifton Rock

George vowed not to be grumpy today. He had something to look forward to. But his good mood only lasted till he reached the breakfast table. ‘Feel like a foreigner in my own bloody country,’ he groaned into the Mail on Sunday. He looked to the bust of Queen Victoria on the mantelpiece and felt better.

‘What time does the station open, dear?’ asked his wife Audrey, bringing him a bacon sandwich and herself a mango.

George scowled at her choice. ‘You’re not used to that stuff, love. It might give you the runs.’

A statuesque black man wearing only boxer shorts passed through the room.

‘Who the bloody hell was that?’ whispered George, cowering in his seat.

‘Must be a… friend of Sarah’s,’ said Audrey, nibbling a spoonful of mango. ‘Excuse me?’ she called after the man. ‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

‘Well I wish she wouldn’t treat this house like some bordello,’ said George.

‘Give her a break, dear. He might be her boyfriend. Could be good for her after all she’s been through.’

‘Yes yes, that’s probably what he’s been telling her too.’ George shook his head. ‘But why doesn’t she go for someone less…’

Their son Tim ambled in, yawning and fuzzy-haired. He lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes.

‘Uh-oh,’ said George. ‘The great scholar graces us with his presence.’

Audrey raised her eyebrows to her husband. ‘Dear, when did you say the station opened?’

‘Fancy coming to see some real history, son?’ said George.

Tim brought a mango to the table and sat down. ‘You mean unlike that fake stuff I’m doing my degree in?’

George rolled his eyes. ‘Postcolonial postmodern post-this and post-that. Whatever happened to good hard facts? Did you know, son, that the railway extends five hundred metres from Clifton to almost next door to this very house? Isn’t that fascinating?’

‘Yeah, Dad, fascinating.’

‘Would anyone like a cup of tea?’ asked Audrey with a sudden smile.

George got awkwardly to his feet. ‘Well I’d best be off.’

‘How is uni, love?’ asked Audrey of her son.

‘Costing me most of my pension,’ said George, picking up his National Trust walking stick.

‘It’s fine, Mum,’ said Tim.

‘I saw Sarah’s… friend earlier,’ said Audrey, ‘and, well, wondered if you’d got yourself a girlfriend yet?’

Tim looked away.

Everyone fell silent as the black man passed through the room again. For a brief moment Tim and the black man made eye contact.

George didn’t know what to make of this. He patted Victoria’s crown for reassurance.


The steep walk up Hinton Lane was tiring. George stopped halfway to take a painkiller for his arthritis. When he reached the Top Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway, his heart was pounding more from excitement than from the trek. A bearded guide spoke slowly to a queue of Chinese tourists. George joined it, looking at his watch with impatience.

Once inside, he peered through the gloom into musty corridors and rubble-filled offices, at the stained brickwork of the auditorium and the grazed iron of the tracks. The guide rejoiced in the past. The world’s only four-track funicular railway created by Victorian sweat. A vital artery of local life surging through the cliffs. In its heyday, whisking thousands between chic Clifton and the bustle of the river. By 1940, defending the realm with an air raid shelter and emergency radio unit. George flushed with pride. He wanted to tell a Chinese tourist how great it was to be a Brit and a Bristolian.

The queue shuffled into the pump room. This had once housed the ‘water balance’ machinery that had been the driving force of the railway. On the ground George noticed a loose rock with a weird blue glow to it. He waited for the queue to move out and placed the rock in his breast pocket. It felt warm and stirring against his heart. He thought about the railway some more. It came from a golden age when the word ‘British’ was synonymous with strength, excellence, hard work. What an age to have lived through.

On the way home, the pain in George’s leg returned. But he didn’t stop for another painkiller. He lifted his walking stick, stiffened his back and marched.

Nearing Hotwell Road, he felt increasingly bewildered. He frowned at the cars whizzing past, at an aeroplane in the sky, at a teenager on a mobile phone. ‘Egad,’ he muttered to himself.

He entered the house and bowed to the bust of Victoria. Audrey was sitting at the table reading. ‘How was the railway station, dear?’

George scrutinised her book. ‘By Jove, wife, what is that?’

‘A book.’

‘A book authored by a… female?’ He let out a stentorian laugh. ‘The very notion is absurd. The fairer sex is congenitally incapable of any act of philological composition. That is empirically proven. This must be a wheeze of some variety, and there is no room for japery in this house. I shall do you the honour of disposing of it forthwith.’ George snatched it with forefinger and thumb and tossed it in the bin.

‘But I love Danielle Steel!’ peeped Audrey, putting her fist to her mouth.

Music sounded from the student flat next door.

George put his fingers in his ears. ‘That recalls some godless racket from the colonies, the kind of egregious din the martial races tortured us with back in Lahore, ‘82.’

‘Are you feeling all right, George?’ asked Audrey. ‘Fancy a cup of tea?’

Tim appeared at the front door. He was wearing cycling gloves. ‘Hi Dad.’

‘Dad?’ barked George. ‘Dad? Henceforth you shall address me as ‘father’ or ‘sir’, confound you! Respect for one’s paterfamilias is essential to a young man’s hardihood and discipline, lest he degenerate into some idle jollux, rummy old cove, or worse – Yorkshireman.’

Tim removed his glasses. ‘Are you playing some sort of joke on us? It’s not April Fool’s Day is it?’

‘No dear,’ said Audrey.

‘I am not, at any rate, a ludibrious fellow,’ said George.

Tim looked hopefully to his mother. Audrey got up without looking at either man. ‘George, if you could stop all this messing about, there’s something Tim would like to tell you.’

George approached his son with a self-assured nod. ‘Is this so, boy? I trust it is good, sturdy news, as you would not trouble a gentleman of my wit and standing with a mere trifle. Are you going up to Cambridge to read Mods and Greats or Divinity perchance?’

‘No Dad, I’m already at UWE, remember?’

‘Or perhaps you have enlisted with the Royal Engineers to help annex the Dark Continent for Queen and country? Come on, boy, spit it out.’

Tim was about to when Sarah entered. Her dreadlocks bounced against her camouflage vest. ‘What’s all this hassle about? I can hear you all from my room.’

‘Sarah, child-’ began George.

‘What do you mean ‘child’? I’m twenty-four years old.’

‘Do not ejaculate in such a discourteous fashion, child.’

Sarah sniggered. ‘Why are you talking like some olden days person? Have you been drinking?’

Audrey spoke up. ‘Sarah, dear, you know your dad hasn’t touched the stuff for years.’

‘Well maybe he went back to it,’ hissed Sarah. ‘They say retirement is boring.’

George tightened his grip on the walking stick. ‘Blast your slanders, child! Do not forget that I have long been a stalwart of the temperance movement.’

‘But seriously, Dad, have you fucking flipped?’

‘Why, your mouth is like the Randall Road Sewer and your mien that of some velvet-tipping harlot of ill fame! On the contrary, child, it would seem that you are suffering from feminine hysteria. Melancholia too, perhaps. I advise laudanum or heathen tinctures from the Orient, but failing that, a restorative spell in Bedlam. There is one Dr Featheringstone based therein whose progressive methodologies involving the Padded Rotary Chair come highly recommended by both The Lancet and the governor of Newgate Prison.’

‘What are you trying to say, Dad? Are you talking about my depression?’

‘Don’t say horrid things to Sarah, dear,’ said Audrey.

George’s eyes zipped about in shock. He raised his stick at each family member in turn. Tim started hyperventilating. Audrey took a step back. Sarah stayed where she was.

‘What is this?’ said George. ‘Mutiny? Mine own blood going socialist on me, possessed by frightful hobgoblins? Do you want me to thrash the lot of you? Gluttons for punishment all, eh?’

‘Wanker,’ said Sarah under her breath.

‘Please, dear,’ squeaked Audrey. ‘Put your stick down, this is getting out of hand. And Tim really does have something to tell you. It’s very important.’

Tim was bright red, his breath still escaping him.

‘Well hurry and enunciate, boy! And do not bore me with trivia.’

Tim caught his breath and took it in deep. He squared up to his dad, eyeball to eyeball. ‘How about this for trivia, Dad? I’m gay. Got that? I’m gay.’ He turned to his sister and mother and shouted with the hysteria of relief. ‘I’m gay! I’m gay!’

Audrey raised her eyebrows and smiled faintly. Sarah grinned with pride. ‘At last, little brother, standing up for yourself!’

George frowned. ‘So you declare that you are happy. There is nothing so queer about that-’

Tim screamed in his dad’s ear. ‘I’m homosexual! Got that? A bugger! I spent all night with my black boyfriend’s penis up my arse and I loved it and there’s nothing you can do about it ‘cos I’m free and you don’t rule my life!’ George opened his mouth to speak, but Tim’s rant wasn’t over. ‘And I don’t know what all this Victorian bollocks is about, but if you ever bothered to read something other than pub quiz primers you’d know how fucking miserable that period was, how this country exploited half the world, how women and children were treated like animals, how hypocrisy was elevated to an art form, and, and, and…’

With his free hand, George brandished the rock from his pocket. His family gasped at its blue glow. ‘Backgammon player!’ George howled and swung the rock down towards Tim’s head. Tim dodged and snatched the rock.

‘Give that back, you opium-addled mandrake!’ shouted George.

‘What the hell is this?’ said Tim, turning the rock over in his gloves, staring at its blueness.

George whacked Tim on the backside with the walking stick. ‘Take that for demurring the authority of your patriarch!’

‘Right, I’m calling the police,’ said Sarah.

‘You’re mental!’ shouted Tim at his dad. He ran out the door, down the steps and into Hotwell Road. George gave chase with shrieks of ‘Churl! Hobbledehoy! Workshy affiliate of the back-stair classes!’ Neighbours rushed to doors and windows.

Tim dropped the rock onto the pavement and jumped up and down on it. By the time George was a walking stick-length away, the rock had turned to dust, its blue glow gone.

George collapsed, eyes rolling as he fell.


Some hours later, George awoke in the Bristol Royal Infirmary. His family flanked the bed, cheeks sore from tears.

Audrey fell upon her husband, hugging him for dear life. ‘Oh George, you’re awake, you’re all right! The doctor thought you’d gone into a coma.’

‘Well I feel all right,’ said George. ‘Bit groggy. How did I get here?’

‘Do you remember what happened before you blacked out?’ asked Tim, touching the spot where his dad had hit him.

‘No, son. I was in the station and I took this rock as a souvenir. Then… well, nothing.’

The doctor came in to check George’s pulse and blood pressure. The doctor asked some questions about where he lived and what year it was. George answered them correctly and was free to go.

Back at the house, his family explained what had happened, the things he’d said and done. ‘You were, like, possessed, Dad,’ said Sarah.

George didn’t believe them. This was a wind-up. But then the police visited and confirmed his odd behaviour. They said that the matter was now in Tim’s hands; he could press charges for assault if he wanted. Tim chose not to. George felt an incredible sense of shame which he couldn’t shake off. He was also scared for his health; ranting and raving and collapsing in the street wasn’t healthy. Not for a man of advancing years.

He admitted all this to Audrey the next morning at breakfast.

‘Perhaps you need to make some life changes, dear,’ she suggested. She brought him a mango instead of a bacon sandwich. He enjoyed it. That surprised him.

‘I was wondering, dear,’ said Audrey. ‘We should invite Tim’s friend Deon to dinner at the weekend.’

George began to scowl, but thought again. ‘All right, we’ll… we’ll give that a try.’

Tim rushed into the room and sat down. He was shaking. ‘We don’t know how that rock works! What if I’ve been… infected by it? I held it in my hands.’

Audrey touched his shoulder. ‘But you smashed the silly thing up, dear. And you were wearing gloves. I’m sure they would protect you.’

‘I don’t know. I should avoid anything Victorian for a while. Might trigger a Dad moment. No costume dramas, no flowery wallpaper, nothing designed by “the Little Giant”.’

‘That’ll be hard in Bristol, dear.’

‘I’ll tell you what,’ said George. ‘This’ll do us both good.’ He picked up the bust of Queen Victoria and took it out to the bin next to the sealed Bottom Station of the Clifton Rocks Railway.

First published in Hidden Bristol (Tangent Books), 2011.