There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Thursday, 31 January 2013

Banyan Trees

I have only just finished the post on Ho Chi Minh City, though we were there in April last year - writing these posts does take some time.

I decided to leave out a picture of of the banyan tree outside the Jade Emperor Pagoda because it missed the entrance to the temple, but as I made that decision I realised that I have several photographs of banyan trees taken in a number of different countries. Banyans are photogenic, exotic (at least to the European eye) and stand still, which makes them easier subjects than birds and butterflies. I am not their only admirer, the Banyan is the national tree of India and appears on the Indonesian coat of arms.

The Indonesian coat of arms with a banyan tree in the top right quarter
The banyan is a member of the fig family. It starts life as an epiphyte, its seeds germinating in the crevices of a host tree or building. What makes the Banyan remarkable is its way of sending roots down towards the ground from its branches; sometimes these roots re-engage with the original host which is why it is also known as the Strangler Fig. There are fifteen different species of Banyan, which is why they do not all look identical in these pictures.

Starting, then, where the idea for this post germinated


This is the tree outside the Jade Emperor Pagoda. It may be small, bit it is a complex little blighter.

Banyan, Jade emperor Pagoda
Ho Chi Minh City
And this one is large, possibly the largest in Vietnam.

Banyan, Lao Cai
It is in the town of Lao Cai on the Chinese border in the north of the country. The kiosk selling incense sticks for the nearby Taoist temple has taken refuge in the tree's aerial roots.

Queueing for incense sticks, Lao Cai
Hong Kong

We first visited Hong Kong in 2004. On day 1, like many new visitors, we took the tram up Victoria Peak and followed the footpath round the summit. That is where we found this banyan, it may well be the first we ever saw.

Victoria Peak, Hong Kong
Chung Chau is one of Hong Kong's outer islands.  It is small and car-free, which makes it relatively peaceful, though it can be crowded, particularly at weekends, by those (like us) attracted by the seafood restaurants near the harbour. The town centre has a venerable banyan tree...

Chung Chau village
...with a gruesome past - it was used as a gallows by the Japanese during the Second World War.


Gods can lurk under Banyan trees, like this one near Dindigul in Tamil Nadu...

Near Athoor Lake, Dindigul
...or these Naga stones at Gokarna on the coast in Karnatika

Naga Stones under a banyan, Gokarna
These splendid banyans are also in Karnatika, lining a road near the Nagarhole National Park.

The road from Kerala to the Nagarhole National Park
 But my favourite is this huge old tree...
Banyan tree, Auroville the remarkably well-heeled New Age Settlement/Hippie Commune of Auroville in the Union Territory of Pondicherry.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Commemorating Comedians in Caerphilly, Morecambe and Ulverston

Tommy Cooper, Caerphilly, South Wales

Caerphilly is a dismal town; shops are boarded up, paint is peeling, windows need cleaning – those that are not broken – and many of the people look pale and unwell. It gives me no pleasure to write this; I may be a long exiled Welshman, but both sides of my family come from South Wales, as do Lynne’s (her mother actually attended Caerphilly Grammar School), and it remains a part of my somewhat complex concept of ‘home’. There are still many pleasant and prosperous places in the region, but I fear that Caerphilly is typical of too many towns struggling to adjust to the post-industrial world.

The centre is dominated by one of Britain’s largest Norman castles. This should be a tourist attraction, and maybe it is, but on the dank April day in 2009 when we visited the castle looked as dark and forbidding as Gilbert de Clare (see also Llantrisant and Castell Coch) would have hoped for when he began work in 1268.

Parc Dafydd Williams, Caerphilly

On the plus side, there is a pleasant garden which the town kindly chose to name after me (all right, it’s some other bloke with the same name, but it could have been). Nearby is a statue of Caerphilly’s favourite son.

Tommy Cooper was born in Caerphilly in 1921, though the family moved to Devon when he was three. His connection with the town is slim, but Caerphilly needs all the straws it can clutch. The statue, the work of James Done, was unveiled by Sir Anthony Hopkins in 2008.

Tommy Cooper and Caerphilly Castle
For those too young to remember, Tommy Cooper was a magician. Tall and ungainly with a fez stuck on his permanently dishevelled head, he looked nothing like the standard magician – and his tricks went wrong. From this simple premise he extracted humour which was sometimes simple, sometimes complex but always hilarious. An innately funny man, he could make an audience laugh by standing silent and motionless on stage, he was also a competent magician. Occasionally his tricks went right, just to keep everybody off balance.

He died on stage during a live televised show in 1984. At first both the audience and stage crew though the collapse was part of his act. Sadly it was not. A one-off and a true original, he died far too young.

Eric Morecambe, Morecambe, Lancashire

I have written about Morecambe Bay before (Morecambe Bay and Sunderland Point) but not about the town. A station and harbour were built beside the bay in 1846 and the town that grew up around them and absorbed the fishing village of Poulton-le-Sands eventually adopted the name of the bay. For a time Morecambe thrived, the railway bringing tens of thousands of holiday-makers each year, mainly from Yorkshire and southern Scotland.

In 2013, however, marketing Morecambe as a seaside resort seems a job for a hopeless optimist. With a beach of imported sand, and sea that only visits for a couple of hours a day, the cool, damp climate is the least of its disadvantages. Yet people still come here. The hinterland of north Lancashire and southern Cumbria is countryside of rare beauty, but surely it is only those who know no better - or can afford no better - that take a seaside holiday in Morecambe. Maybe Morecambe has its charms, if so I have missed them – I would be happy if anyone enlightened me.

The sea front at Morecambe

While the town took its name from the bay, Eric Morecambe took his name from the town where he was born in 1926. John Eric Bartholomew, as he was then, met Ernest Wiseman in 1940 and the double act of Bartholomew and Wiseman was born. Separated for a while by national service, they reunited, changed their names to Morecambe and Wise and the rest is history.

The Morecambe and Wise show was a Saturday prime time fixture for well over a decade and the Christmas special was compulsory viewing. With a script that was not actually replete with jokes, Eric’s clowning and ad-libbing regularly reduced my mother to a quivering heap. The quality of guests was legendary, serious actors, like Judi Dench and Glenda Jackson, serious musicians, like André Previn, and serious politicians, like Harold Wilson, queued up to be the butt of their jokes. 

Eric died in 1984, the month after Tommy Cooper. Like Cooper he died of a heart attack, but unlike Cooper he managed to finish his show before collapsing backstage.

A statue of Eric Morecambe by sculptor Graham Ibbeson has pride of place on the town’s sea front. Before the Olympics the Queen did not do guests spots on other people’s shows, but she did come to Morecambe to unveil Eric’s statue in 1999.

Eric Morecambe
Eric and Ernie brought the double act to such a pitch of perfection they effectively killed it. Humour does not always cross the generations, but my mother was one of his greatest fans and my daughter can sometimes be heard quoting him, though she was only three when he died.

Stan Laurel, Ulverston, Cumbria

Traditionally a detached part of Lancashire, but since 1972 officially Cumbria, the Furness peninsula is a strange sort of place. Travelling south, the Lake District hills flatten out into land scarred by ancient glacial activity, riven by broad sandy estuaries and fringed by desolate salt marshes. The unlovely industrial town of Barrow lies at the tip of the peninsula while at the base is the small, neat market town of Ulverston.

County Square is hardly the focal point of the cluster of handsome old buildings that make up central Ulverston, but it does seem to be considered the town centre.  

County Square, Ulverston

Stan Laurel was born Stanley Arthur Jefferson in Ulverston in 1886. He came from a theatrical family, went into the business straight from school and joined Fred Karno’s troupe in 1910.  In 1912 he toured America with the troupe (which also included Charlie Chaplin) and decided to stay. He was already a well-established actor and film director when he started working with Oliver Hardy in the late 1920s.

 The statue of Stan and Ollie that stands outside Coronation Hall is, like that of Eric Morecambe, by Graham Ibbeson. It was unveiled by Ken Dodd in 2009.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy outside Coronation Hall

Ulverston also has a Laurel and Hardy museum, but it was closed for ‘major refurbishment’ when we visited – what did we expect on a cold wet January morning?  Laurel and Hardy were, presumably, funny in their day, but I doubt that modern audiences find much to laugh at. That said, they were innovators in their field, they were the first major double act in film history, and they were successful in both silent and talking pictures, so they must have had something.

 My mother met them when they were touring Britain in the late 1940s. They came to the Ideal Home exhibition and visited the stand where she was demonstrating cookery techniques. Her verdict: ‘a pair of silly old fools.’