Saturday, 6 February 2010

Rain

We are surrounded by mist, thunder, and the pleasant sound – for us who trust our roof – of rain pattering, occasionally drumming, on the tiles, flecking the windows, drops dribbling at random down the pane, water streaming from the gutters down the paths to the drains. I get up with a light heart to do easy routines – restarting the stove until it roars merrily, wearing my long raincoat to rescue a lineful of washing from the garden, spinning it and hanging it to dry on a frame by the stove, bringing in wood kept covered and dry and feeding the fire that is no longer smoking, cleaning a pan that had soaked overnight in the kitchen, making myself porridge topped with dark sugar and cream, and calling Lin to wake for a mug of coffee. There’s a Bal Masque for in the Agricultural Co-op tonight on the lower road. We’d seen chairs being delivered. Natasha showed us her costume as we chatted over the fence yesterday. Then on 14 February there will be Carnivali in the village.
Yesterday Lin and I started work filling in the staircase in preparation for closing it altogether from the room through which it passes which we are making into a bedroom. The room next to the kitchen is to be a downstairs dining room, conveniently next to the kitchen and cooler in hot weather.
* * *
Lee Southall at Handsworth Park has circulated a nice poster advertising one of my history tours of the Park on Sunday 21 March. I fear he and his colleagues are under terrific pressure to make and take big cuts in their budgets, and their own jobs. I've written to local councillors across Handsworth and Perry Barr:
Dear Councillors and friends
Handsworth Park under threat from new
proposals for re-organising Ranger Services
These proposed changes to the management of Birmingham’s treasured parks – in particular Handsworth Park - are very troubling, especially as they include reduction in the Ranger Services.
As someone involved in writing the history of Handsworth Park and, with many others, campaigning for its restoration since the 1980s, I learned a lot about the contribution of parks to city life – especially their indirect contribution to health and education and the resulting contribution to community safety. It did not take long for my researches to catch up with something that the public has long known, that you cannot realise the public good of parks without park keepers – now the Ranger Service. Crime, like fire, prevented is very difficult to measure, thus the peacekeeping role of the Rangers in all our parks cannot, in a time of desperate purse tightening, be accurately assessed against the cost to the city of their wages. That failure in accounting practice will bear very directly on all who have come to enjoy what for the last 10 years has seen a renaissance in public parks.
As an almost daily visitor to Handsworth park before and after the Rangers arrived about ten years ago I, and others in my position, can attest to the 1001 incidents that might have gone from petty to serious which have been nipped in the bud merely by the presence of a ranger patrolling, let alone their many direct interventions that have prevented crimes in the park. In addition, our Rangers, in liaison with teachers, local police and community support officers, have participated in a whole range of actions with schools designed to catch potential problems long before they become those that once allowed our public parks to deteriorate into spaces from which the larger public – young and old - were barred by crime and anti-social behaviour.
We hope very much that local councillors and our MPs will be able to come together to press for damage limitation, especially as it was understood as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the restoration of Handsworth Park that revenue for its continued maintenance and staffing was guaranteed for at least 10 years from the time of the grant. There are still still a few years to run, By cutting back on services especially the ranger service in Handsworth Park the Council may be acting contrary to its agreement with the Heritage Lottery Fund. Can councillors please make urgent enquiries this and make appropriate representations?
I would also appreciate knowing whether we must anticipate any collateral impact on the opening and managing of the new Victoria Jubilee Allotments next to Handsworth Park. Best wishes, Simon
* * *
My talk at the Durrell School about relations between the British and the Ionians in the 19th century went well mainly because an indulgent audience of friends put up with me struggling to cover more information than needed for a 20 minute talk about Lord High Commissioners and the British Protectorate. I managed to cover all but Gladstone, whose role was well filled in during questions by Richard Pine who'd invited me to do the talk. Despite my detours we had a good hour of discussion about character and motives of quite a few of the participants in that 48 year episode in which the Ionians hoped they'd got a Protectorate while the British, with notable exceptions (Nugent, Seaton, Gladstone) assumed they had a colonial possession, getting down to why the British were here in the first place and whether the British, when they left in 1864, were pushed or chose to jump, and the shrewd politics of the Ionian Radicals about whom I’ve learned so much from Eleni Calligas’ work
Slides for my talk - pause the film to read the small writing; click on the image to get full screen on YouTube
Paul came with Lula. There were at least two other Greeks in the audience, which was good, as well as Irish. I felt I’d traversed some mined ground unscathed with kind remarks from a full house on a chilly winter’s evening. The thing is the honour of being invited to give such a talk after being here only a few years. The subject gets richer as I learn more about it. On the way back to our car in the Spaniada we heard a Scops owl hooting right over our head in one of the trees that line the esplanade. Lin, to my relief, said “That wasn’t too bad. I could've kicked you when you went off on one of your diversions.”
Afterwards Richard took us for a meal. “Nothing special. Just basic” “Suits us” Lin sat in a corner by a shuttered window onto Theotoki Street. “That's where Lawrence Durrell used to sit” said Richard. A French tourist had once thrust a copy of Prospero's Cell through this window and asked the author to sign it. We had beef and potatoes, chicken and chips and the local red. “So what of the economy?” I asked.
Papandreou, having consulted with Samaras, spoke to the country on TV last night. ‘We are in for very tough times. We must all work together otherwise – the abyss.’” We realized the biggest cuts must be in the Hellenic public sector. “KKE won’t buy this. They have significant seats in parliament.” “So?” With a left unwilling to back a one nation response to the problems of the economy there'll be demonstrations. The EU watches; the Greek diaspora too. I mentioned my concern at the news that Birmingham City Council is to make big cuts in its Park Ranger Service. “Well they’ve done that in California...and without rangers the state might close Yosemite National Park”.
* * *
DEMOCRACY STREET AS SHARED SPACE
On main roads people drive fast, tailgate, overtake on bends and hoot to hurry up dawdlers, yet when Lin stops the car on Democracy Street, in a spot even narrower than the rest of the road through the village , above the steps down to our house so we can unload before she goes on to a parking space, other drivers who happen to come along – in either direction - will invariably wait politely. All along Democracy Street, as it winds through the village, drivers have learned just where to give way (wider spots we now know), wave another car on or proceed themselves, making judgements about width, sometimes folding in their mirrors to clear a wall, yet very seldom inconveniencing those on foot. Democracy Street, along with the narrow sinuous main streets of other villages is a shared space – an idea about roads being laboriously recovered in settings where for decades politicians and professionals have favoured the view that roads are for cars and sidewalks or pavements for those on foot – building in traffic lights and occasional crossing spaces to allow pedestrians to enter, at least briefly, a space separated off for people in cars. Thus it is on Corfu’s main roads and indeed on their pavements where despite prohibitions drivers, who would noisily resent a similar encroachment by walkers on their space, will often park their cars. In the middle of many villages here there are often no pavements. Network of narrow streets are often plaka’d to remind visitors that the space between houses are to be shared by everyone on foot, cycle, scooter, car, truck and bus; that indeed walkers are also ‘traffic’ - a word that in the years of the combustion engine has defaulted to exclude cyclists, horses, donkeys and people on foot, moving, sitting or leaning on walls. Everyone can own the street and it generally works, with opportunities for regular acts of civility as people negotiate their way through. Civility that is the essence of this process is largely abandoned on main roads. The human-to-human negotiation of Democracy Street is replaced by automatic regulation of the highway. It was long ago discovered that you can’t use eyes to engage politely with another human once both of you are likely to be passing each other above a certain speed – about 15mph maximum. Thus is the shared space of the village abandoned to the individualised space of the open road. Human eye and the repertoire of non-verbal language that lubricated social interaction was replaced by traffic lights, warning signs, designated crossings, barriers and remote surveillance by camera. What was worse, though it hasn’t happened in many villages here, is that the so-called ‘open road’ instead of just running between communities, was often forced through them, and motorised traffic was encouraged to speed through newly widened and straightened roads between demolished homes, getting their drivers more swiftly from A to B but blighting those settlements that lie between (see: community severance and shared space). * * * * Lin, unable to sleep in the early hours, rose and watched the dawn. That very bright light on the Albanian shore had been out for several days but is there again now.

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