Thursday 21 August 2014

A Quiet Philadelphia Quaker

Today, in my occasional (very occasional, but I'm trying to improve) series on lady travellers, please meet Elizabeth Gray Vining - and Crown Prince (now Emperor) Akihito.

1946.  World War II had been over for less than a year and Japan was occupied by Allied troops, led by the Americans under General Douglas McArthur.  The Emperor decided (or had it decided for him) that his son, the Crown Prince, should learn English.

Picture the scene.

One morning late in May Samuel Marble, now President of Wilmington College, Ohio, who was then organising the [Friends'] Committee's relief project for Japan, came in to talk to me about an appeal we were preparing.  After we had finished the business in hand he turned to me and said without preamble, 'Would you consider having your name suggested as tutor to the Crown Prince of Japan?'  

Elizabeth Gray Vining was 'a quiet Philadelphia Quaker', a librarian and children's author, who was left  widowed when her husband was killed in a car crash.  The committee appointed to find a tutor for the Crown Prince had already determined that the right candidate would be a woman, a Christian, and someone with no prior knowledge of Japan, 'since she was to teach by the direct method entirely in English'.  They also determined that this non-Japanese speaking, Christian woman should be about 50.  Apart from the age requirement (she was only 44), Elizabeth Vining fit the bill.  Despite initial protestations, in October 1946, Mrs Vining arrived in Japan.

Her book, 'Windows for the Crown Prince', describes her first impressions of Japan, the extraordinary experience of getting to know the Imperial Family, lessons with the Crown Prince (and later on with some of his siblings and classmates).  It also describes the occupation and the rebuilding of Japan - including the war crimes tribunals.

My favourite aspect of the book are Mrs Vining's descriptions of Japan - both for the interest of learning about life there under the occupation and also for reading about the culture and landscape.  One passage particularly stayed with me, where she writes about her first night in Tokyo.

As I lay in bed waiting for sleep, I heard the sound of wooden clogs in the street outside, a clip-clop that made me realise more keenly than any other one thing that now I was actually in Japan.  Clip-clop, clip-clop, lightly yet with a little drag, the wooden gets passed along the lane and died away.  Later in the night I felt my first earthquake, a tiny tremor from the earth's centre like the flicker of a fish's tail - a catfish, the Japanese say, moving its whiskers.  In the morning the rain was gone and I woke to a dazzling blue and gold October day.  From the flat roof on top of the house I could see Mount Fuji, ethereal in the distance, white-shawled against the blue sky.

I, too, have lain awake on my first night in a new country, waiting for sleep.  I have noticed every noise that marked the new place as different, aware of things that would later become part of a familiar soundscape.  Not scared, but very aware; not yet ready to relax into my surroundings.  And then I have woken up to dazzling skies and views and felt my wings spreading … though I've never had to prepare to meet an Emperor.

Reading the book I did occasionally wonder if Mrs Vining were fatally naive or had just drunk the Kool Aid - her account of General McArthur is, well, imagine 'gushy' as rendered by a quiet Philadelphia Quaker.  But she was clearly aware of her role, as much goodwill ambassador as tutor, and she deserved her praise.  The Emperor is supposed to have said, 'If ever anything I did has been a success it was asking Mrs Vining to come here.'

On balance, I think Mrs Vining's own summary of her extraordinary task is the best.

I had been asked to open windows on to a wider world for the Crown Prince.  I had tried, but who can say to what extent I had succeeded?  But certainly many windows had been opened for me - and perhaps through me for others - both on Japan itself and on that ancient, ceremonious, hidden world within the Moat.  Through windows, whichever way they face, comes light, and light, I thought, is good.

Elizabeth Gray Vining's obituary is here.

If you'd like to read 'Windows for the Crown Prince', second hand copies can be found online. Edmund de Waal, in one of my favourite books, 'The Hare with the Amber Eyes', references its sequel, 'Return to Japan' - so if my recommendation isn't enough … 

Wednesday 20 August 2014


For all you fans of Borgen out there, here's me on the steps of Christiansborg Palce in Copenhagen, doing my best to channel Birgitte Nyborg (should I have gone for the crinkled-nose smile?)

Monday 18 August 2014


The trip to Arranmore marked a first for me: the first time I stayed overnight on one of the islands.  Now, in consequence, I have a new hint.  Do you likewise.  There is nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of the sea on an island and waking up to the views and the quiet.  On Sunday morning I walked along the beach to the pier and the abandoned lifeboat station - it was the absolute epitome of serenity.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Around Arranmore

If you're wondering what there is to do on an Irish island, the answer, most often, is walk around and look at the scenery.  One of the most striking things about the scenery on Arranmore is the contrast between the east and west sides of the island.  The sheltered east side is almost lush (or certainly lush in comparison) with trees, bright flowers - and bright paint.  The west side, exposed to the Atlantic and with nothing between it and America, is wilder, more rugged.  I can confirm this, because we walked all the way around the island, 14km in total.  We followed Slí Árainn Mhór or the Arranmore Loop from Aphort at the south-eastern end of the island, walking clockwise till we came back to where we started - with a brief detour to Phil Bán's Pub.

Wednesday 13 August 2014

The Two Faces of Boa Island

A brief detour from Arranmore Island to Boa Island, from offshore to inland.  Boa Island is on Lough Erne and no ferry is required to get there: it's connected by bridge to the mainland and, if you weren't paying attention, you might not even know you were on an island.  We made a detour in search of some very special inhabitants.

These are pre-Christian stone figures.  Nobody knows exactly what they represent or why they have two faces or why they appear to be clutching their nether regions like small children in need of a toilet.  Of course there are plenty of theories … but I'm less interested in the theories and more interested in the fact that they're still there, thousands of years later, nestled in the corner of a tiny graveyard on Boa Island.

Monday 11 August 2014

The Arranmore Ferry

Last week I was catching up on a backlog of summer trips.  Now for a slightly more recent excursion.

At the beginning of August, I visited island #5 in my island hopping project to visit all of Ireland's inhabited offshore islands. Arranmore Island off the south coast of Donegal is among the largest of the islands and has one of the biggest island populations.  (Arranmore - in Irish, Oileán Árainn Mhór - not to be confused with Inis Mór Árainn, the biggest of the Aran Islands off the Galway coast, though their names are very like.)  Like many of the islands, Arranmore is a Gaeltacht and Irish is still the main language of many of the islanders.  

Unlike Tory, which I visited last summer, Arranmore is a mere stone's throw from the mainland: ten minutes in a fast ferry from the village of Burtonport.  And when we left on a Friday evening, the sun came out to gild the voyage.  We could have been sailing to a Greek island - almost.  

The ferry isn't big, but it can take cars and, since we were staying for the weekend, we elected to bring the car with us.  I'm just glad that it wasn't my responsibility to reverse the car up the little ramp and on to the deck…  Still, that done, we made our way up on deck for the short crossing.  I think that ferry boats like this are a big part of my fascination with island life.  

The wind turbine of Burtonport

 The ferry passes through a sheltered channel cutting through a group of islands: Rutland Island, Edernish, Inis Coo.  You can see the route of the ferry on the map:

There are some beautiful holiday homes on the islands - which are only accessible by private boat.

Two ferry companies make the trip back and forth: the red Arranmore Ferry company and the blue Arranmore Fast Ferry Service .

Very soon after leaving Burtonport, you arrive at Leabgarrow, the village of the island.

One final note on the ferry.  Though Arranmore has many, many things in its favour, there are limited options for evening meals.  So on the Saturday night, we took advantage of the fast, friendly, scenic ferry to hop back to Burtonport for dinner, before returning to the island for bed!

Friday 8 August 2014

Port Eliot

I'm actually making some progress on my Life List this year.  A recent half tick was this one:

74. Go to Port Eliot and Flat Lake

Both Port Eliot and Flat Lake are books/music/food/whimsy festivals set in the grounds of stately homes, one in Cornwall, the other in County Monaghan.  Given my fondness for books/music/food/whimsy - not to mention stately homes - you can imagine why I would want to sign up.  Sadly, the full tick wasn't possible in 2014 as Flat Lake is on hiatus and there are conflicting rumours about whether it will, in fact, return.  

Port Eliot Festival took a break last year but returned in triumph on a hot, hot weekend at the end of July. And I went with the lovely Mary, Emily and Freya (the average age of the party was 18 3/4 … ) to sample its delights.  For the full experience, I suspect you really would want to camp, but we viewed this as an opportunity to dip our toes in the water.

So what did we sample?

Sadly, the day got off to a slightly rocky start owing to some chaos concerning the ticket sellers at the entrance and a very long queue for coffee (really bad combination of queues) but picked up afterwards.  I went to hear Rachel Cooke discuss her recent book 'Her Brilliant Career' about professional women in the fifties (great stories, only quibble after reading book is that it's more preoccupied with their personal lives than their work) while the little girls had their face painted.  

We watched Sam Clark of Moro (one of my favourite restaurants in London) give a demonstration, 

then had lunch from the Morito tent.  Grilled lamb chops with a kind of fattoush-y salad.  Yum YUM.  (It was about this point, though, that my phone died so photos from this point are courtesy of Mary - which is why there are more than usual of your correspondent.)

After lunch we had floral crowns made for us in the Wardrobe Department area of the festival in the walled garden.

There was a queue, but it was so worth it, not just for the beautiful crowns, but for the charm and grace (after a long, hot day on their feet) of milliner Piers Atkinson and his crew.

Later there were ice creams, swims in the lake/inlet/estuary (never did work out exactly which), 

a talk in the Idler Academy tent from David Bramwell, author of 'The Number 9 Bus to Utopia', which was mostly about the Damanhur community in the Alps, which I was CONVINCED was made up - but apparently not.  Cramazing.

I had a sunset swim,

followed by an elderflower bellini, followed by great music from Ben Watt (formerly of Everything But the Girl) in the church.  

And then we drove home in the still-hot dark.

Even Lou Reed might concede it was a perfect day.

Thursday 7 August 2014

Five Go Cycling

I can't help it: five people go for a cycling excursion in Devon with some decoratively retro Pashley bikes - of course my mind was going to turn to Enid Blyton.  The five people in question being my small goddaughter, her even smaller sister, her parents and myself.  My (rented, sadly) bike was lipstick red and it had a basket and a bell.  Oh yes.

Our route took us from Darts Farm (much more than a farm shop, more like a rustic mall) just outside Exeter, along the estuary to Exmouth.

Not being the most coordinated person in the world, taking photos while cycling proved to be a bit ambitious, so apart from these actions shots of Emily, 

mostly I took photos while safely stationary.

Oh, but it was glorious.  The smell of the sea, the smell of the trees, the smell of the wildflowers, the wind in our hair, the prrrring of the bicycle bells.

No ginger beer (or tongue sandwiches, praise the Lord), but we did have gin and ginger ale when we got home - The Famous Five - The Later Years.  Ripping.

Wednesday 6 August 2014

Caledonian Sleeper

In the spirit of what seems to be catch up week on the blog, here are some photos from the Caledonian sleeper between London and Glasgow.  The train leaves Euston just before midnight and arrives in Glasgow around 7am.  If you're a sound sleeper, you might get six hours' sleep - and certainly the process of getting on and off the train beats the stress of processing at the airport, not to mention you depart from and arrive to the centre of the city.

The accommodation isn't fancy but it's clean, the staff are friendly and the bar has an excellent selection of single malts.

Here are some photos taken around 6am from the window of my compartment, just before the steward brought me a cup of tea and a piece of shortbread.

It's not quite the glamour of rail travel we yearn for (which is probably more informed by Poirot TV adaptations than reality) but it's a pretty civilised way to travel.

Monday 4 August 2014

The Layers of Thessaloniki

When I was in Thessaloniki at the end of June, one of the highlights of the visit was a walking tour of the city.  Our guide was called Romulus (yes, really) and in just a few hours he helped us at least to begin to make sense of the layers and layers of the city's history.

Often archaeological sites put me in mind of Shelley's Ozymandias - 'Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! - a reminder of impermanence, that our grandest monuments and most beautiful buildings will one day crumble.  But sometime they are a reminder of endurance: despite wars and weather and wear, fragments of the past survive and are made new.  Thessaloniki is an excellent example of the latter - but before we get to the evidence, first a brief history.

Thessaloniki means 'Thessalian victory', and the city is named for the half-sister of Alexander the Great, Princess Thessalonike.  I touched on this here, but it is a city that has endured a great deal and yet has survived.  An important city under Alexander, Thessaloniki then became an administrative capital of one of the four quarters of the Roman Empire.  (I'm skipping a few centuries here: this is the highlights tour.)  After the fall of Rome, Thessaloniki was, perhaps, even more powerful within the Byzantine Empire, second only to Constantinople.  From the 15th century, the city was ruled by the Ottomans and became the proverbial melting pot - home to Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews.  It wasn't until 1912 that the city was claimed by Greece and during World War I became a base for the Allied Powers.  The old city was devastated by fire in 1917 - and, adding to the huge upheaval, came the population exchange between Greece and Turkey in 1923. Given that Thessaloniki seems to have suffered everything a city can suffer, you won't be surprised to hear that during World War II it was attacked by the Italians and invaded by the Germans, resulting in the deportation and death of most of the city's Jewish population.  And yet - despite all of this, despite the Greek Civil War, despite the recent economic crisis - Thessaloniki is still there, still beautiful.

Walking through Thessaloniki, you begin to distinguish evidence of different centuries.  Starting with the 21st century at the harbour,

through the 20th in the Art Deco apartment buildings and hotels,

not to mention the former stock exchange.

Stepping into the market you could be in anytime over the past hundred years or so,

but the churches are unmistakably Byzantine.

And - not looking incongruous at all - is this Byzantine-style former mosque.

In the crypt of St Demetrius' Basilica is the place where the saint is supposed to have been martyred,

but which also contains inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew.

Digging deep gets to some of the oldest layers: here is the palace of Galerius, one of the Roman rulers of Thessaloniki.

Those boxes scratched on the stone are, quite possibly, the remnants of a game played by slaves to pass the time while they waited for their masters.

Galerius also had an arch constructed - which, known as the Kamara, is still a popular meeting meeting place for Thessalonikans.

And here is the Rotunda - which captures the city's adaptable nature.  Built possibly as Galerius' mausoleum, or a pantheon, it has since done service as a mosque and a church and a concert hall (a couple of those at the same time.)

So there you have it: Thessaloniki, city of layers.  

And if it all seems a little exhausting, you could do worse than to do as we did after our walking tour - take yourself to one of the city's pastry shops and dive into the sticky layers of some baklava.