The Chameleon (Easter Bethlehem 1987)

Hussein peered across at the chameleon. He hadn’t noticed him there at first. It had been basking in the heat of the Israeli noon day sun. Unlike Hussein who had sought the shade from under the branches of an ancient gnarled olive tree, which was conspicuous as being the only sign of life in the desert. He had been trying to red from his school books, but his mind had begun to wander.
It was only when the creature had blinked, that Hussein had realised it was there. He suddenly remembered the old widow, who lived three doors down from his home. She had said a chameleon like Judas had denounced Jesus.
Hussein couldn’t imagine how such a laconic disinterested little creature could have accomplished such a catastrophic deed. Did it change colour suddenly for no apparent reason as Jesus had walked past? Or had he quickly darted into a crevice and peeped out at the Roman soldiers who had gone stampeding along, looking for Jesus? May be it had just blinked as this chameleon had at Hussein. Just how had it denounced him?
Then he pondered, once it had given Jesus away, by whatever means open to a chameleon, did it feel guilty after the deed? Did the chameleon have the ability to feel pain and guilt and all the range of emotions that a human feels?
Hussein grabbed a stick from under the olive tree and with childish inquisitiveness poked the chameleon. Its eyes bulged momentarily and then it froze as if in fear. But then Hussein decided it wasn’t in terror at all, it was just that the creature was too lazy to move. The sun had made him so soporific it just couldn’t be bothered. Which considering his reputed dislike of Jesus, the indifference to the stick seemed rather odd.
The second time he poked him with the stick, the chameleon gulped and his eyes bulged again for a moment longer. Its skin slowly transposed itself from sandy yellow through to khaki, to sage green and to a bright acid green and then back to yellow.
Eventually the chameleon moved away almost as if he was extricating himself from a treacle spillage, slowly disappearing into the harsh landscape with total ease.
Hussein sat for a little while longer. He was bored. School had been closed for a week because of the riots. At first it had been fun, playing in the streets of Bethlehem with his friends. But it hadn’t taken his quick mind long to become wearied by the monotony of having very little to do.
Now as he sat under the tree, he wished the riots would stop and the authorities would open the schools again.
He decided to go into Bethlehem. In the distance on another hill, Hussein could see a dark speck moving through the terrain. As he stared out at the shimmering heat haze, he thought maybe it was a solitary goat, separated from its herd. He stood and watched the specs progress.
At one stage it looked like a big black raven. But after a few more minutes Hussein could see, it was just a man dressed in black, probably one of the many priests on his way to church. It was Easter weekend and Bethlehem would be very busy.
The silence of the landscape was punctuated by the harsh bray of a donkey. Painfully and slowly the cacophony filled the air. The noise became louder and more laboured as the black figure approached.
Hussein looked around him, trying to see where the donkey was. But there was nothing, except him and the black figure.
He waited for the priest to catch up with him. The donkey stopped his uproar and the desert was still and silent again.
The man looked down at the boy with intense dark eyes. Finally asking “Have you got some water?”
Hussein shook his head, “But if we go down into the town. I am sure one of the priests in the church will give you water – come with me.”
Hussein searched his memory for who this man was. A fleeting image of a newspaper cutting on the bedroom wall, before Israeli soldiers had peppered the room with gunfire came and then went again.
They reached the town of Bethlehem. They walked passed a cafe. Excitable exchanges of words hung in the air like the scent of jasmine.
“They’ll never catch him this time…”
“If they do he won’t go back to that prison again……”
“Crucify him, that’s what they will do, just like his namesake…….”
“But how will they know what he looks like, he must have changed his appearance by now…..”
“Yes like a chameleon……”
Hussein and the stranger continued down through Manager square up towards the Nativity Church. At the Church when Hussein looked round the stranger had gone, he shrugged his shoulders and
ran off back up the hill towards his home.
An Israeli jeep came down the same road. The driver slammed his brakes on and screeched to a halt in cloud of dust. Hussein noticed the head of the chameleon peer out from the crevice in the wall. The same bulging eyes as the one earlier, but this one was slightly bigger in size.
As the jeep pulled away, Hussein heard over their radio,“Abraham, we have found Jesus. Repeat Abraham we have found Jesus. The chameleon is caught.”                            Hussein’s eyes widened in amazement, suddenly the newspaper clipping became clear in his mind. He carried on walking a bit faster towards his home. Jesus, the hero of the Intifada! The great hope of the Palestinian people. Surely they hadn’t caught him? No, it was a mistake.
Outside his home, he leant against the wall to catch his breath. In the distance, he heard a shot and then three more.
He stared at the wall, and there was the chameleon. This time it closed just one eye, Hussein saw it wink. Then came the realisation of what had happened. It was true a chameleon had denounced Jesus with just the blink of an eye.

The Road to Morocco

In the film of the same title, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope after being stowaways on a boat become shipwrecked. Stranded on a beach they manage to hitch a ride on a passing camel into a city only to be sold into slavery to a beautiful princess, Dorothy Lamour. They sing their way round with such lyrics as

We’re off on the road to Morocco
This camel is tough on the spine (hit me with a band-aid, Dad)
Where they’re going, why we’re going, how can we be sure
I’ll lay you eight to five that we’ll meet Dorothy Lamour
(Yeah, get in line)

For those who have never watched the film you can tell it’s a lighthearted romp, that doesn’t hold many real insights about the country of Morocco.

So my road trip to Morocco should be plain sailing I am guessing. I have no plans to ride a camel so my spine should be sound by the end. Except that, I am not flying there and I have no real plans other than an 8-hour bus journey from London to Paris on Sunday for the start of my journey.

Buddha said, “It is better to travel well then to arrive.” This is something I have been thinking of recently. Now in the days of cheap flights no one really gets that sense of adventure that a trip would have created a mere 60 years ago.

Do we travel well in life? Or on our holidays? I guess some would say yes we do. But flying in plane for me is not travelling well. It’s travelling fast. That is not the same.

One of the most romantic ways to travel used to be by train. Could I get myself through France, down across Spain and then across to Morocco? I had been very confident that yes I could do that, no problem. Sitting staring out of the window watching the world go by. Writing my new novel up and just chilling, sounded ideal.

Robert Louis Stevenson said, “There are no foreign lands it is only the traveller who is foreign.” Today with social media transporting all of us to the same room as a friend in a hotel anywhere in the world, has our perception of travelling become reduced to just a click of a mouse?

Have we all become the same? Are the people of one place now the same as another? What once differentiated people of one place to another, their culture, has it all just become one huge blob of humanity wrapped in plastic, metal, and called progress?

Does anyone really explore a different land? Can a writer like myself find inspiration on the road to Morocco? Or to be more precise on the trains to Morocco?

And sadly could I heal my fragile soul? For when I leave on Sunday, I am leaving in the dark, emotionally damaged, feeling like I am swirling around in a maelstrom of madness like a planet exploding into the blackness of an outer galaxy . The drugs don’t work, the counselling has left me angrier then soothed. I don’t like the person I have become. Can the real Lena Walton please stand up?

Many years ago, I started travelling to see new places, a world different from my little home town of Epsom.  It was for excitement, a new adventure every time. Could I now at 55 have that same thrill of just diving into the unknown?

Paris is my first leg of the journey, and my final leg will be Tangiers. The city made home by one of my favourite writers Paul Bowles. He lived for 52 years in Tangiers. It is where he penned the classic Sheltering Sky, beautifully transported to the screen by Bertolucci.

One line of the novel that seems pertinent to me as embark on my trip. “How fragile we are under the sheltering sky. Behind the sheltering sky is a vast dark universe, and we’re just so small.”

I have lost my way and perhaps a journey into the unknown will bring me back to where I want to be.

But I am already running ahead of myself. My first stop will be Paris. I will not delve into the millions of clichés that have been written about this city. I will merely agree with Audrey Hepburn – “Paris is always a good idea!”

See you in Paris!

How Box Hill got its name – and how I got the bug!

The glory of Lebanon will come to you. The juniper,the box-tree and the cypress together. To beautify the place of my sanctuary and I will make the place of my feet glorious.” Isaiah 60: 13

In spring time, when walking out on Box Hill there is a strange pungent smell emanating across the landscape. Many, myself included liken it to the smell of cat’s urine. The smell is actually from the Box trees, which give the hill its name.

Personally, I like the smell from these trees. Especially when I have been away travelling to foreign climes. It reminds me that I am home. For many however it is not the most pleasant of smells to experience whilst hiking out on the hill.

The Box is considered a sombre tree and is plant often associated with funeral wreaths. For many years, it was handed to mourners to throw onto the coffin at funerals.

However, for the vast majority of people in the UK its better known in a more cultivated form for its use as garden hedges and in topiary and decorative shrubs. The Romans introduced the plant because of both its hardiness in winter and the ease in which it could be shaped to suit the needs of gardeners.

Today, 40% of Britain’s wild box trees grow here. However, it was not always the case. Back in 1797, the owner of the hill and the surrounding lands was a Baronet. A man with more names than the average family tree, Sir Henry Paulet St John Mildmay. He had the bright idea of making money by selling off all the Box trees on the hill.

This was not such a daft idea because at that time the demand for Box trees was quite high.  Box trees have the heaviest wood of native trees in the UK. It will not float in water. (Except when green as sapling). Over the years it has been used in the production of boxes, musical instruments (the recorder), woodblock printing, chess pieces, carvings and one of the most interesting of all, the propellers of the famous WWII fighter plane the spitfire were made from Box wood.

When Sir Henry sold the trees off, by 1815 they had they had virtually disappeared from the hill. During the First World War, boxwood was cut for use in munitions. They still cling to the steep west-facing chalk slopes overlooking the River Mole today in the 21st century.

Their leaves range from medium green in colour to a very dark green in spring. Both male and female flowers grow on the same tree. The blossoms are small creamy white to yellow-green and it is then that the sweet fragrance of cat’s urine becomes prevalent and the surrounding hills are heavy with the smell of feral creatures. It comes as no surprise to know that parts of the tree are poisonous.

During the winter months, the evergreen trees waxy dark green leaves are one of the main contributors to the continual splash of green colour across the slopes.

Often when walking down the chalk slopes I would encounter a rather unusual bug that ranged in colour from lime green through to black and red resembling a squashed beetle. Over the years I came to realise, it was usually found on the slopes where the box-tree grew and sometimes I would find them in my home.

This I have now found out is the Box Hill Bug – a strange-looking bug almost triangular in shape that was at one stage only recorded here on the hill. However, it has also been found in France. Its name of course because it feeds on the leaves of the Box trees. I noticed quite often they are black and scarlet in colour and appear to fly but I think this is more a case of them catapulting themselves from leaf to leaf or blade of grass to blade of grass.

I have lived up on this hill for 15 years I and I am amazed to find out just how many unique species of fauna and flora we have here on the hill. For a tree that has long been associated with death the Box tree seem to be a haven for life and to see such a rare species of bug thriving on its branches is good indeed.

Although I am not so sure about the little creatures wandering around my living room! Unusual as they are.

Next week I go in search of the Ash Black Slug – England’s largest slug and the Purse Web Spider the UK’s only native tarantula both residents of the hill.

Last bus to Aley

“The bus continued to climb up through the hills of Lebanon. So high that the shore line of Beirut City disappeared in a shimmering haze of heat and petrol fumes. It then became apparent to me that as the city vanished from my sight, that I was nearer to the border of Syria then to the Port of Beirut.

Lena D Walton Beirut Bus June 2018

For a tourist interested in Crusader History in the Middle East, Sidon (Saida) seemed an ideal destination for me to visit. Situated on the Mediterranean coast south of Beirut, I was reassured by my hotel that for someone travelling on their own it was relatively easy to get to by local bus. One bus to what is called Cola Intersection and then another bus from there to Sidon. I was further encouraged by the knowledge that Sidon had not one but two crusader castles – Sidon Sea Castle and Castle of St Louis.

I became quickly distracted before we had left Beirut by the appearance on the left side of the bus by the Palestinian Refugee camp known as Chatila. I had not been prepared for it being so much part of the city of Beirut. I had not been prepared for the glaring but invisible line that differentiated this community from the rest of the neighbourhood. I had not been prepared for seeing a place that had hit the headlines so many times in the west for the repeated destruction and massacre of the group of people that lived in what were meant to be temporary homes. A nation displaced since the creation of the Zionist state of Israel.

Driving past, the bus slowly fought through the traffic and we headed along the coast. I took a last glance at the camp and then the bust veered away towards the south.

Sidon was once a Phoenician city famed for its glass and purple dye.  Named after the grandson of Noah you can guess just how old this city’s heritage is. Mentioned in the Bible – Matthew – “Then Jesus departed thence, into the coasts of Tyre and Si-don”, also praised by Homer, and one modern claim to fame being the birthplace of former President Rafiq Hariri.

When the Crusaders arrived in Lebanon they built the Sea Castle at Sidon on the ruins of the Phoenician Temple.

Probably a lesser known snippet of information is that Tibauld Gaudin, the Treasurer of the legendry Knights Templar order was residing at Sidon when he learned that the remaining knights from the defeat by the Mamelukes in April 1291 in Acre, ( Now in modern day Israel)  had elected him the new Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar.

The order in total disarray retreated to their Sea Castle, where it took only a further three months for the Mamelukes lead by emir Shujai to enter and destroy the Crusader castle. Within a year Tibauld was dead and the last and probably the most famous Grand Master of the Knights Templar was elected, Jacques de Molay.

Whilst clambering over the remains of the castle I am once again catapulted to more recent events. In 1982 the Lebanese Militia occupied the Sea Castle. And in 1985 the Lebanese Army occupied St Louis.

But Sidon for many people both In Lebanon and for those who followed the tragedy of the invasion by Israel of Lebanon in the West will be remembered as the city where the Israeli army ferociously attacked and killed  unarmed civilians.  Even supporters of their Zionist country could not but have reservations about just how a community could be massacred and still those who ordered the massacre be in such denial. The interesting thing is at this point the Israeli government tried to censor any Western journalist’s reports of this crime, and one of the places they would regularly escort journalist to was the Sea Castle and the nearby souks, which had survived the bombardment.  As if by showing the relics of the Crusader past they could hide behind the ancient stones the horrific actions of the present.

As I walked through the Souks of Sidon I veered off the path and found myself staring at what looked at first like a laundry. Lines of washing hung across old decaying buildings. As I ventured further I found myself outside the entrance to what was obviously a Jewish building. The Star of David was etched just visible above the entrance. I had found the once Jewish Quarter of Sidon.

All traces of the Jewish occupants had vanished. The synagogue and its environs now housed Palestinian refugees. There were children as usual playing in the streets. There were all the ubiquitous signs of poverty but the washing strung up on the lines in the blistering sun suggested running water was available.

I stood hesitating for a moment, once again, like Chatila I had not expected this. How close to they were living their lives to the Lebanese people. Palestinians are not accorded the same rights as the citizens of Lebanon and I assumed there would be barriers between their homes and the citizen’s homes but of course there were none.

Suddenly I had a flash of memory of my first contact with the local gypsy community in Epsom as a child. Caravans with lurcher dogs tied up outside barking at us kids walking past. And washing laid across hedges and hanging on makeshift washing lines. And it dawned on me the only barriers that we make are ones made in our heads and within the invisible rules of society.

Walking back towards the Souk I saw a building slightly less in disarray then the previous ones and saw on the side of one wall a swastika. Was this still the reason why the world looked away from the plight of the Palestinians? Our collective guilt at the Holocaust still entrenched in our psyche?  Was that why we looked away at the massacre at Chatila and the refugee camp at Ein Halweh just north of Sidon?

We had looked away in 1940 -1945 not believing. We looked away in 1982 not wanting to believe.  Today in 2018 we see across the border from this little country to Syria and again we didn’t see it all coming did we? Or perhaps we did and looked away again. For, “Though every prospect pleases. And only man is vile.” Bishop Reginald Heber.

I strolled back through the Souks a refreshing change to those in Turkey and Egypt, no one hassled me. Was it that so few tourists visited still or was it really a true Souk where people shopped and drank coffee and men played backgammon? And then I remembered Damascus and the silence as we walked through that Souk with the same lack of harassment and wondered was this again the calm before the storm?

My last stop before the bus back to Beirut was the Rotary Club. Once called the Government Rest House it is situated right by the Sea Castle and from there drinking a cold bear I got my last few photos of the castle.

The bus took the same route back to Chola Intersection. We passed once again Chatila and this time I noticed on the one street corner near to the invisible line a police sentry box. No not like the one in Dr Who – this was a waist high concrete block with a small canopy to protect the armed police man from the sun. I can only assume that these were dotted around the boundaries of the camp.

I had been told by the hotel, that it was a number 15 that would take me to and from Chola, along the corniche and past Pidgeon Rocks where I had aimed to jump off the bus to see the sunset on the Mediterranean.

I jumped on the number 15 and sat behind the driver, he and his friend paid me little attention as they were in a chat on the mobile with a girlfriend. The bus filled up and we drove away, back past the camp and then up one of hills of Beirut.

I thought this was odd but did not think too much of it at first. Perhaps it was like my local number 21 bus at home stopping everywhere and taking far longer than the crow would flying. We climbed higher and higher, at some places the bus was struggling with the bends in the road. Still I thought nothing of it. The names of the villages meant nothing to me, why would they? But then one caught my attention- Aley.

I found it on my map and saw that we were miles away from Beirut. The last sight of that city had been 10 minutes before. Just as we had climbed another bend. More people got off and less people got on.

Up to this point I had been happy to go along for the ride. But my limited history of the area made me think I should not now be here on the bus. Aley was a Druze town and was also another place that saw conflict during the war with Israel.  The Druze were and still are a bit of an anomaly within the Middle East, neither Christian nor Muslim but still Arabic people. They have their own unique cultural identity.

The Palestinian Fatwah men who lived in the surrounding villages had put up a certain amount of resistance to the Israeli march towards Beirut. Finally they were defeated it seemed but that was perhaps not the right word for armed Palestinians later opened fire on an Israeli army convoy and killed 6 Israeli soldiers and wounded another 22.

I felt it was time to call a halt to my tour through the bandit villages, home to the new PLO and freedom fighters and get myself back down to the Corniche and the prospect of my last cold beer of the day.

My first attempt at communicating since boarding the bus seemed futile. Neither the driver nor his friend spoke much English. ”Where are we and where are we going?” elicited the sight of the two of them staring at each other as if they had forgotten I was on the bus.

I pointed at the map. “I think I am on the wrong bus. I want to be in Beirut.”

The driver’s face creased in to a worried frown. He spoke to his friend, his friend jumped off the bus to return with two friends on mopeds. I thought initially the idea was I would convey where I needed to be and they would explain how I could get there.

But Immediately I spoke and said, “I’m on the wrong bus.”, the two boys burst in to laughter, presumably repeating to the driver my famous last words to them, before they sped off.

“I was told number 15 bus.” I said. Pointing at the window were the number 15 was clearly displayed. We all stared at the number as if suddenly by magic it would solve my situation and they could get rid of this crazy woman quickly.

They both shrugged their shoulders, and then pointed down the side of the number were Arabic writing presumably displayed the actual places this bus was driving to. Later I was to establish that all the bus had number 15 on them. It was not the number but the name of the village that was important.

The three of us sat in silence for a few minutes and then the driver had a light bulb moment. He drove further up to the outskirts of Aley to a crossroads, where a police man was inspecting the boot of a car that had a family of about 15 sitting in. Alongside the car was a bus, words were exchanged, and I was told in very short words. “1$ to Beirut.” Quite frankly if he has said 50$ I would have said yes.

I climbed out of the number 15 I was on and climbed into another number 15. We drove down what was now familiar territory to me back through the village of Aley where the new PLO had held up such a fight against Lieutenant Sharon in 1982 and I found myself back into the chaos of Chola Intersection where I got into a red service taxi back to the corniche and a cold beer.

So in one day I had covered the Crusaders, the Palestinians, the Jews, the Druze and the wonders of the number 15 bus that can just about get you anywhere you want to go in Lebanon, or not where you want to go in my case.

The Flame Trees of Beirut

“It was like being bitten by a beautiful dragon fly whose wings were of such splendour that the victim did not even feel the nip in the flesh.” Robert Fisk – Pity the Nation Lebanon At War.

 

My first impression of Beirut was how much like Haifa in Israel it looked. The city tumbling down from the surrounding hills, buildings almost falling into the sparkling blue of the Mediterranean Sea.

Beirut was so much like Haifa that in the days preceding Israel’s aerial bombing of the city in 1982 the pilots used Haifa to practice its raids using that city as its dummy for the real thing.

The bombing of Lebanon by Israel and the subsequent slaughter of innocent Palestinian refugees in the camps by the Lebanese Phalanges shocked the outside world. Reporters and photographers sent harrowing scenes back verbally and visually that the west could not fully comprehend. And perhaps we could never understand.

The country continued over the years to be a hot spot for conflict and its capital  bombed to oblivion meant the hedonist city of Beirut was a place no longer on the tourist trail. My constant trips to Israel meant that even when peace was restored I could not visit.

And those that did visit said the city was destroyed, buildings left abandoned, bombed, burnt and razed to the ground. And of course the kidnappings and hostages all added to the reputation of Lebanon not being a place for your average traveller.

In the 21st Century, a country that had in Biblical times provided the cedar trees for Solomon’s Temple to be built in Jerusalem now had the monumental task of rebuilding its capital from the rubble.

And of course that is the first thing I noticed on my walk around the city, just how many abandoned buildings there were. And it was difficult to establish with any confidence which conflict had caused their destruction.

The hotel where I stayed near the famous Corniche abutted onto a cluster of such buildings. One hidden behind the veil of a huge overgrown flame tree was possibly from the Ottoman times, the wrought iron bars on the windows had rusted beyond repair.

The flame tree hiding the building was blooming later then many in Beirut. Probably because it was in virtual shade from the surrounding buildings. Over the week the leaves turned from pastel yellow, to orange and vibrant red.

Behind this ghostly beauty was an old apartment block. Three storeys high, it too had all the signs of being abandoned in a rush. Wooden slats on all the glassless windows had been virtually bleached white by years of sun and wind. One home at the top had geraniums growing from the window box. Spots of red like blood splayed across the peeling paint of the wall.

At dusk bats would flitter through the open doors and windows, flapping up into the balmy evening air. Sometimes they would fly close to where I stood on my balcony. Harmless little creatures, surviving in a place that once saw an aerial attack of a far worse and deadly kind.

I wondered did all of the occupants of the building make it out alive, running away before the attacks, or did they stay and endure hoping to survive? And what happened to them? Where did they go? Where are they now? What kind of life do they and their families have now?

Another building which appeared empty was an office block. The age of the building suggested that perhaps this was abandoned in a more recent conflict. It still had all the glass in the windows intact. Curtains hung yellow and dusty in some rooms. But at night there was always one room illuminated. Had someone set up home there? Electricity was obviously still connected, and perhaps running water. Was he security, or was he just someone who lived where he knew he would be left in peace?

Buildings like these are dotted all around Beirut. Some like the Holiday Inn have gaping holes in them from where the firing burst open the walls. The concrete edifice that the local calls The Blob, peppered with shell fire and bullet holes. Buildings left to ruin alongside the new rebuilds.

For many the re- building of Beirut is a great thing but I couldn’t but help think as they rebuilt the city, they were trying to re write their history, just like Haifa in Israel, slowly creating a sanitised city devoid of all the trapping of humanity. By my hotel there were old Arabic shops alongside a new air conditioned super market that sold new trendy products.

Many places I walked I felt I could have been in Brighton in England. The Arabic past not obliterated but absorbed by a Western conception of how the city should be. The souks of Beirut are now pristine tents set up in St Georges Bay selling designer items, pretty shiny things with no trace of the country’s heritage in their makeup.

There were on days when I have to confess I took a bus just to go to the outskirts of the refugee camp at Sabra. Just to look across that invisible line to see where a nation of persecuted and oppressed people lived. Just to remind myself I was in a country situated in the Middle East, between Syria and Israel.  That God forbid I wasn’t in Brighton.

This was the city where Israel in an attempt to obliterate a nation of people helped the Lebanese Phalanges in the slaughter of innocent children, women and old men. Have they chosen to forget?

By the end of my week in Beirut workers were putting the finishing touches on a new shiny tower block that overlooked the Corniche. Potted Palm Trees were being placed strategically along the entrance to the building. Yes I know what you are all thinking Potted Palm Trees in the Middle East!

I was vaguely reassured by the site of an old bombed out wreck of building next to it, plants that had gone wild and were slowly escaping down the balcony to freedom.

 

Next week Miss Walton gets accidently kidnapped by two bus drivers and taken up into the hills of Lebanon!

The Epsom Suffragette.

When I was nine years old or perhaps older, I went on a school trip. We did not go very far in those days for a day trip just meant a few hours out of the classroom.

I am assuming it was to the Bourne Hall museum in Ewell, for I do not recall another museum in the area. And I do remember waving to black cab drivers who waved back and tooted, so I was in the vicinity of my home town of Epsom of that I was sure.

Once in the museum, the teacher, a young Scottish woman gave us a list of Do’s and Don’ts.

I ignored them, we  had never connected as pupil and teacher and so I saw absolute no reason to listen to her now in the confines of the museum.

My eye was drawn to some old black and white photos, enlarged and framed on a wall, just before the entrance to the main exhibit, the subject of which escapes me. I marched with purpose to the photos. One in particular caught my attention. As a precocious reader I could immediately make sense of the words below the bottom of the frame, typed in black on a white card, “Derby Day 1913”.

The photo was clearly a snap shot of race day on Epsom Downs, yet something was decidedly wrong about this event. Or the event of that particular race day. The black and white photo captured something that only happened once in the history of the race.

The body of a horse lay on the ground and two crumpled bodies of what looked like people sprawled alongside the animal. One, if you peered really closely was in a white dress. Male or female was not apparent but horses were racing past their bodies, perhaps trying to avoid trampling them or just so fired up by the race they did not know what was laid in front of them like some un holy sacrifice.

Of course now Derby Day 1913 is well-known, for this was the day Emily Davison sacrificed herself to the Suffragette movement. A hundred and five years on and Emily Davison is big news.

Eventually my teacher dragged me away from the photo, muttering about, “Why do you always have to make things difficult. Why don’t you listen to me? I am your teacher.”

I am safely assured I did not reply with, “Because you don’t like me. And I don’t like you. And you always try to make Caroline the star of the classroom.” But I did think it, I know of that.

The photo stuck in my head throughout the rest of the day trip, three hours out of the classroom. If you are wondering what the exhibit was that we had come to visit, I am sorry I will have to disappoint you for I do not remember. I can only say I know it was not King Henry VIII and Nonesuch Park. For that day trip we had a whole day out of the classroom and went to the park. And I know everything about King Henry and Nonesuch and indeed Elizabeth his daughter.

Back to the suffragettes. You would have thought being born and bred in Epsom that as a child we would have heard more about the tragedy of Derby Day 1913. But we didn’t. Emily Davison, was it appeared written out of the history books both locally and politically.

Once my father had recovered from the news that I had tried to drown Caroline – one of my classroom, not friends, in the Bourne Hall springs, he did answer my question about Derby Day 2013.

“A young woman ran in front of the Kings horse he was called Anmer and, Emily, she died.”

“Why?”

“Because the horse trampled on her.”

“No, why did she run out in front of a horse?”

“She was a member of a group of women, who were demanding the vote for women.”

It was here that I realised something. As a nine-old, or thereabouts, in 1973 women had the vote.

But back in 1913 women had felt they needed to kill themselves to obtain their right to vote.

I did not think about this for many years. Then whilst studying in 6th form college I began to learn about social revolutions. The French Revolution and the Russian Revolution. Oh boy did I love social revolutions.

And one girl who I had formed a friendship of sorts said to me. “That woman who threw herself under the Kings horse at the Epsom Derby, she was part of a social revolution.”

Here was someone else who had heard of that woman. Spoke of her in a historical context, as part of a movement that changed the social world of women, not just here but globally.

But the Suffragette movement saw still not really talked about and very few history books in my school or college had any mention of the women who ultimately changed the rights of women and their standing in society.

It is only now in 2018 at the age of 54, that I have seriously thought about Emily Davison.

For many years the few historical sources have described her death as a suicide. Suggesting that she was not of sound mind. Perhaps this was true, no one will ever really know. But her actions revealed the strength of feeling by many women at not being treated fairly or equal by the male counterparts.

If today someone was to ask, “If you were born in the 1900’s, what would you have become?”

I know without much thought the answer, “I would have been a part of the Suffragette movement.”

Before those who don’t know me start rolling their eyes round and round in disbelief, and saying “Oh please, seriously.”

Those that do know me are almost shouting, “Yes and if she had been part of that movement, women would have had the vote way before the end of WWI.”

Would I have tied myself to the railings of Parliament? Fight with the local constabulary? Thrown bricks through the posh houses in town? Tried to blow up houses where local MP’s lived? Hell yeah, why not?

Would I have starved myself whilst in prison? To be force-fed gruel? I may have baulked at the tube being forced down my throat, but to be fair I was force fed porridge as a child once, so I am sure I would have survived.

Interestingly enough other women aided the force-feeding of the suffragist women. One poster of the movement shows three women holding down a struggling woman so a tube could be pushed down her throat.

But as to stepping in front of a horse running full pelt across the Epsom downs, (owned by the King is actually for me irrelevant,) they run flipping fast! I have to say we all have our limits. I have a great love and respect for horses so I would have to say no, no chance of me running in front of one whilst it’s running in the Epsom Derby. Or to be fair any race of any description that involved horses.

I would have hoped that once I had fought for the vote for women excluding the race at Epsom, that the fighting spirit in me would have carried me into war. I would have become the 1st woman to fly a spitfire in battle.

But, it is here that my imagination runs away with me, it happens when I put an ink pen across paper. I am not a product of that era, I was born in 1963, the time of free love and the sexual revolution.

So fast forward over 100 years to the world we women live in today.  One of the things that seems to be written about the suffragists just recently is the request to have them pardoned.

What are we having them pardoned for? Their fighting spirit? Why are we pardoning them for this? Do you think those ladies, some who lost their children to adoption for that fight, want to be excused? Hell NO! It is a cop-out. So do we then pretend they were not beaten, imprisoned and denigrated by society?

These women are the reason why all women today can vote. And for that, I am grateful.

My first vote was when Margaret Thatcher came into power. My father and my mother did not question me or persuade me who and which party to vote for and I did not tell them who I voted for. But I voted! My right as a woman.

I thank the Suffragette ladies that their suffering means I can vote. I do get annoyed when young women say they didn’t vote.

But the ones I get really annoyed with are the women who say, in a really simpering voice, “I don’t vote, my husband votes for both us.”

Seriously what was the point?

A woman died under the Kings horse and you come up with that crap!

I thank the ladies of the Suffragette movement. I vote every time I get the option. Because of them I can be whatever I want to be.  Perhaps in another time and another place fighter pilot may have been a reality, perhaps intrepid explorer may have been an option.

Stories are now coming out about the brave lives many of the women of the suffragette movement went on to live. In fact I am sure one of them went on to fight in WW2 – not in a spitfire but she fought none the less. Hardly surprising for they were brave and had a fighting spirit that today many young women, do not have.

But in the 21st Century celebrations – don’t pardon the Women of the Suffragette movement, congratulate them, respect them and salute them!  They I am sure would be right pissed off if you told them, “You are pardoned.”

In 2018 my thoughts will be of my father who as a London cabbie, “worked” the derby.

Derby Day is always a day for me to remember him driving up and down Ashley Road in that black snake of cabs.

I will perhaps, as I drive across the downs think of those that have gone and remember a woman nearly written out of history that is now back on the front page!

I will always vote and will always encourage young women to vote.  Please do not say, “Oh they (the political parties) are all the same, for it is in your power to change the course of your political and social history.”

Women died for you, they starved for you, they tied themselves to railings for you and they fought for you.

Please don’t say, “Oh I can’t be bothered.” Even if you turn up and vote by spoiling your paper, you should.

 

 

The boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.

Phillipe’s grandfather Pierre had been buried one year, but Elodie his grandmother could still be heard sobbing at night in her room.

Phillipe grieved for his grandfather, but he knew it was not the same as the grief his grandmother was going through. Yes he had been an important character in Phillipe’s life but not for 65 years. Elodie was now without her soul mate after 65 years together.

One day he came up with an idea to try and cheer his grandmother up. He would take her back to the city where they had met and fell in love. The city made famous by the star crossed lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, Casablanca.

At first when he mentioned it to his family, they were doubtful, especially his wife Peggy. “How will that help her? She has not been back there in over 50 years. How can you taking an old frail lady to Casablanca help her with her grief?”

Phillipe thought about it for a moment and then said, “The memories will bring her some joy if nothing else.”

His father was doubtful too, “Casablanca, it’s not the city she grew up in. She won’t remember it. But maybe just a trip away will do her some good.”

When Phillipe suggested the journey to Elodie, he was sure he saw for the first time in a year a sparkle in her eyes. “Yes, yes I would like that. Casablanca, that’s where I met your grandfather. He was so handsome in his army uniform. The Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” A dreamy look had now crept across her face.

His grandparents story had although not been as stormy as the lovers in the film Casablanca, it was fit for a film with the same title.

They had met in 1953, France had just deposed the Sultan Mohammed. It was to be a time of change for the country of Morocco. The evening after they met Pierre was sent by the French to Algiers. But he came back to Casablanca for Elodie. And eventually after living in France they came to England.

When Phillipe began to make plans for the trip he encountered the first stumbling block. He was looking for a suitable hotel and was thinking somewhere need the boulevard where his grandparents first met. He typed the name into google and nothing came up, not in Casablanca anyway.

He frowned, Elodie had been so adamant about the name. Perhaps after independence, street names were changed. Perhaps it was now a more Moroccan sounding name.

He asked Elodie exactly where was the boulevard. And she became vague, In the Ville, near the port, near the park, close to the square. Phillipe was more confused than ever, it sounded by his grandmothers’ description near to everywhere but close to nowhere.

Not to be defeated Phillipe wrote by email to the Casablanca tourist board. Their reply although polite, was pretty final. “There was and never has been such a road called the Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc. We do have the Boulevard Mohammed V, Boulevard Victor Hugo, Boulevard Des Almohades and Boulevard Moulay Youssef.”

Phillipe decided they would just go and maybe once there it would all become clear. He even thought that perhaps it was something to do with Mohammed V, perhaps he had an aviary of white birds and they all died so the name of the road was changed. Or perhaps it’s one of the streets with the art deco buildings the white buildings that looked like tiered wedding cakes.

At the last minute Phillipe’s nephew Jonathan asked if he could come. “I want to trace my roots.” He sagaciously said. Phillipe smiled at the thought. At the age of 11 he was sure the boys’ roots were not yet that deep to be traced too far. But he would enjoy his company anyway.

So with high hopes of making his grandmothers days just a little bit more bearable, Phillipe, Peggy, Elodie and Jonathan flew to Casablanca.

Phillipe was surprised at how French it all looked. Not really Moroccan at all. Cafes just like you would find in Paris were everywhere, all with groups of men sitting outside chatting and smoking. There were not he noticed that many women in the café’s and remembered how his grandfather had said once. “This is a man’s domain, no woman would have the nerve to go in one of those places.”

Peggy would though, thought Phillipe and smiled. How things change.

They had booked their hotel near the medina  and it was from here that Phillipe hoped his grandmother would begin to remember things and places. He tried not to be too disappointed when as they drove in the taxi from the airport into Casablanca, Elodie had said, with a total look of bemusement on her face, “What City is this? This is not Casablanca.”

Peggy had looked across to her husband and had softly said, “I told you so.”

The receptionist in the hotel had given them a map and directions to some of the main sites. She told them also that the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe” was under rejuvenation. Phillipe thanked her and they strolled round to the nearest café. Peggy and Elodie had a few tuts and cold stares but other than that they were left alone.

Phillipe spent many hours in café’s asking the waiters and the customers did they know of the “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.” And each time a shake of the head and a shrug of the shoulders and the affirmative, “Non”.

One night they went to eat at “Ricks Place”. That ironically did exist. A place from a film about a man and a woman, neither of which really lived, loved or existed. Yet Ricks place was there in bricks and mortar. And yet the place of his grandparent’s first meeting, two people who had lived, loved and existed was still as elusive as a genie from the lamp.

Elodie did recognise a few places and mentioned how the Place Mohamed V did not have a fountain the last time she had been there. They sat feeding pigeons just as evening was coming on and the fountain suddenly lit up and music began to play. For the first time in ages Phillipe saw his grandmother smile. The trip was worth it he mused if only for that precious moment.

They were coming to the end of their trip and Phillipe had resigned himself to failing on finding the Boulevard de l’oisseau blanc. When suddenly Jonathan, who had been on his phone shouted out, “I know where it is. I have found it. Come on, follow me.”

There was a few minutes of furious activity where coats and hats were found and Elodie was unceremoniously taken out of the hotel back onto the street. And the three of them followed Jonathan, who was now in a rush. “Slow down Jonathan. Elodie can’t walk that fast she is old and frail. Slow down.” Peggy admonished.

Jonathan slowed his rush marginally but then speeding on ahead again, then stopping for the three of them to catch him up. Phillipe noticed they were heading towards the “Parc de la Ligue Arabe”. There was boarding up showing how the Park would look after the rejuvenation. A picture which showed animals suggested there would be some kind of zoo.

Jonathan then stopped at the beginning of a road, a place called Boulevard Moulay Youssef. An avenue that cut through the park lined with a few café’s. Phillipe was confused. It was a street made less ordinary by the avenue being lined with trees. Parked cars all the way along, suggested just another street in the city, nothing unusual. He could see the bulldozers and piles of earth further down and the entrance to the park blocked. But then it became apparent to him. How had he been so stupid? Of course it was now immediately obvious.

As Jonathan led Elodie under the first few trees, there was a sudden activity up in the higher green branches. A flapping of wings and a collective squawking. And then there rose into the air a flight of white Ibis.

Elodie was already back in 1953. She was now dragging Jonathan under the trees. She was smiling and her hands reached up in the air. Phillipe could hear her saying. “See here this café along here that was where I met him. He was so handsome in his uniform.  His hair so dark. His eyes laughing and gay.”

Phillipe saw the birds hovering in the early morning air. As they flew the sun caught the tips of their white wings and they burnished copper and gold. He thought it was the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

But then when he looked at Elodie he saw something more beautiful, his grandmother was happy. If only for a few minutes that would stay with him for his lifetime. Her face transformed with joy and the memories that were now flooding back to her. He watched as she led Jonathan his young nephew down the, “Boulevard de l’oiseau blanc.”