And so this was Christmas…
December 29, 2010

And so this was Christmas …

The festive season began with a blanket of snow and the mercury dipping as low as -12˚C over the Christmas weekend. There had been concerns that the weather might cause problems for those travelling to the Shire but thankfully not so.

During the last two days the Wintersmith has released his icy grip and overnight rain has all but erased the Christmas card backdrop against which the Yuletide festivities have been acted out.  

December 2010 may turn out to be the coldest since records began but comparisons with the long hard winters of ’46-’47 and ’62-’63 may have been a trifle premature – all will be revealed over the next few weeks.   

As always, I was pleased to find that Santa had left me a couple of books beneath the Christmas tree:

The Shadow of the Sun, by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, has been hailed the greatest modern work on Africa and a dazzling literary masterpiece. It contains the correspondent’s work covering a forty-year period, following his first visit to the Dark Continent in 1957, and was first published in English in 2001.

I have already dipped into it. The author has the easy style of an accomplished story-teller coupled with a reporter’s eye for detail.  His evocative writing will resonate with anybody who has spent time in Africa.            

For obvious reasons I was immediately drawn to the piece entitled A Lecture on Rwanda. In seventeen pages Kapuscinski manages to distil the historical complexities of the Rwandan crisis, leading up to and including the genocide, in an account that provides greater clarity than any I have previously read.     

Duncan Hamilton was a Nottingham sports journalist. Last Christmas I received his first book, Provided You Don’t Kiss Me: 20 Years with Brian Clough, an honest, sensitive and extremely personal biography of the great man.

This year I was delighted to get a copy of Hamilton’s authorised biography of another Nottinghamshire legend, and the world’s fastest bowler, Harold Larwood.

I’m already well into it and the author clearly deserved to pick up the 2009 William Hill Sports Book of the Year  award for his moving portrayal of the Nottinghamshire miner who later became synonymous with the controversial Bodyline bowling tactics used by England to nullify Donald Bradman and his Australian team mates in the 1932-3 Ashes series.  

England won the series 4-1 amidst a huge diplomatic row that threatened Anglo-Australian relations. Larwood, a working class national hero who had merely bowled in line with captain Douglas Jardine’s orders, was made the scapegoat. When requested,  by the MCC, to apologise he refused effectively bringing his international career to an end.

Ironically, Larwood later emigrated to Australia where he was welcomed, respected and held in high esteem for the rest of his days.         

I didn’t watch a great deal of TV over the holiday period but couldn’t miss the annual Christmas Day helping from the Royle Family. Unfortunately, as is so often the case with Christmas Specials, material that would have made a good thirty minute show was over stretched to fill an hour slot, compromising its overall quality.

Along with 10 million viewers nationwide, I also tuned in to the latest offering from Mat Lucas and David Walliams, Come Fly With Me. I found this spoof documentary, set in an airport, mildly amusing but probably less so than the antics portrayed in the Airport series about actual day-to-day life at Heathrow.

Lucas and Walliams have been criticised in the media for their use of racial stereotypes. The blacked up faces and accents were certainly a throw back to 1970’s comic offerings such as It Ain’t Half Hot Mum and Mind Your Language.  However I didn’t consider the humour racist, simply a little dated, and I certainly don’t think it warrants a six part series.   

Another Christmas TV highlight had to be the business minister, Vince Cable, temporarily putting his and the coalition government’s problems to one side for a moment, and taking time out to show some nifty footwork dancing a lively Foxtrot with  the lovely Erin Boag, in the Christmas celebrity edition of Strictly Come Dancing.  Well you have to get your priorities right!    

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I crawled out of bed on Boxing Day morning to catch the latter stages of the first day’s play in the 4th Ashes Test in Melbourne.  Australia had been dismissed for a meagre 98 and England were already fifty or so ahead, without loss, in their first innings.

I had been expecting a buoyant Australia, after their recent victory in Perth, to push England really hard for the rest of the series but they have fallen apart. England are now so firmly in the ascendancy again, barring an act of God, they should wrap up a four-day innings victory, and retain the Ashes, some time in the early hours of  tomorrow.   

Jonathon Trott seems to love playing the old enemy, having followed up his match winning century, on debut, at the Oval in 2009 with two more in this series. But, at the highest level, there are fine margins between success and failure.

Trott threw himself full length to avoid being run out, by Aussie skipper Ricky Ponting, when he had scored only 46 of his eventual 168 not out. Another wicket at that stage might have brought Australia right back into the game.

‘Punter’ of course, is having a nightmare series with the bat and is about to become the first ever Aussie captain to lead his side to three Ashes series defeats.

He has been a great player and competitor throughout his career and his current frustration is understandable but his behaviour towards the on field umpires, following an unsuccessful referral, was totally out of order. He was extremely lucky not to receive a ban from the next Test, in Sydney. But then again it’s quite likely to be his final game in the Baggy Green!

Finally, I would like to announce the arrival, at Orchard House, of Christmas Monkey.  He emerged from a seasonal package of PG tea bags  on Christmas morning  and we are now a two monkey family. 

A Monkey is not just for Christmas!

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FC at UTC and breakfast with the Lion King
November 29, 2010

On Saturday, with December still a few days hence, I unexpectedly had my first encounter with Christmas at the sparkling UTC (United Trade Centre) shopping mall, home to the 24 hr Nakumatt super store, part of a Kenyan chain, which essentially serves Kigali’s expat community.   

The Nakumatt logo is an African elephant and to underline the point a large but undistinguished model stands guard outside the entrance to the store. It has now been joined   by two robotic Santas issuing jovial yuletide greetings as they rock backwards and forwards to the rhythm of a Bing Crosby sound alike version of Jingle Bells!

The Christmas welcome is completed by a somewhat tawdry looking artificial Christmas tree ordained with a few under inflated balloons and limp crepe paper decorations. In summary, nice try but no cigar!

Anyhow, having attended to a shopping list of luxury items such as Rwandan gouda, peanut butter and tinned sardines I returned to the Isimbi and settled down to watch the live Premiership action with a chilled Tusker beer (another elephant logo!) and a packet of Bellini Croustilles.

It turned out to be something of a goal-fest with Arsenal hanging on for a 4-2 away win at Villa Park, after looking like they were going to throw a comfortable lead away again, and a Man U demolition of Big Sam Allardyce’s Blackburn by 7-1, in which Dimitar Berbatov equalled the Premiership record of five goals in a game!     

Elsewhere in the sporting world Glawster dogged it out against Saracens to maintain their lofty fourth place position in the Rugby Premiership whilst Martin Johnsons’ resurgent national team received a reality check from the Springboks at Twickenham, but  down at the Gabba England’s cricketers were embarking on what would turn out to be an improbable recovery*.     

On Sunday morning I was woken by the familiar call to prayer at the nearby Kigali mosque  closely followed by choral harmony from its Christian neighbours. CNN was headlining ‘war games’ in Korea, a cargo plane crash in Karachi and winter wonderland scenes from across Europe. It seems back home everyone is bracing themselves for the earliest significant snowfall since November ’93!

Enough of that, it was pleasantly warm and the sun was shining as I set off for my final breakfast in Kigali, a tomato and avocado croissant with a large Americano, in the Simba café ,  Nakumatt’s only serious rival, which interestingly seems to be favoured as much by the black middle class as well as expats.

Simba, as the name suggests carries a lion’s head logo and the store is guarded at pavement level by two concrete felines whose design features, although scaled down, owe a lot to Landseer’s lions in Trafalgar Square. ‘Paw prints’ with the slogan ‘make your mark’ are set into the steps that lead into Simba’s dimly lit den.    

Some time later as I stood at the International bus depot, taking in the sights and sounds of Rwanda’s bustling capital for one last time, watched over by the circling kites and a low flying pelican, I marvelled at the speed with which the Kigali Tower centrepiece has been erected over the last three months and reflected that this young, clean, safe and upwardly mobile city has made great strides in the last fourteen years and is well on the way to fulfilling Paul Kagame’s vision of a hi-tech hub for the continent of Africa.

*The first glad tidings  I heard from the World Service this morning was ‘mission accomplished’; an astonishing Ashes comeback with Alistair Cook and Jonathon Trott breaking batting records left right and centre!