Arboreal Oblation (Confeugo)

Before my trip to Genoa I downloaded a guide to Christmas events taking place in the city from the official tourism site for the city. To say it was comprehensive was an understatement.  I decided to save some trees and save it to my phone to carry rather than opt for paper, and perhaps this was just as well.

Partly due to my limited Italian, but mostly due to the sheer volume of events listed, I found it hard to tell what might be an item of cultural significance from what was a few stalls erected to capture a slice of the festive market, and so I nearly missed the Confeugo.

I was down in the Porto Antico when I spotted a woman in a historical outfit, and in watching her for a moment or two spotted others in similar garb chatting together in small groups.  Moving in their direction I found a group of younger citizens in matching blue and white outfits carrying large square flags.

Their general direction of travel seemed to be towards Piazza Ferrari so I hurried ahead of them in case they were going to make some sort of spectacular entrance.  On arrival there were crowds building outside the Doge’s palace and a band setting up (also costumed).  By pure chance I’d happened on an annual event which dates back to the 14th Century, and probably much earlier.

As far as I can tell the history of the event is for the local populace to pay tribute to their lord and master (the Doge back in 1339, nowadays the Mayor) each Christmas.  Traditionally the Abbot of The People presented a laurel tree decked in red & white ribbons (representing the Genoan flag) to the Doge, who in act which seem particularly lacking in gratitude set the tree alight.  Unfazed by this the locals would vie to get an ember or two to take home for good luck.

When Napoleon took control of the city in the late 18th century he put an end to the tradition, but it was revived in 1923 by an association who aimed to preserve and restore local traditions, and today it is a representative of that association who represents the people.

The term Confeugo confuses me though.  At first I misread it as Confuego, a Spanish term meaning “with fire”, appropriate enough, and given the fluid nature of alliances and borders throughout Genoa’s history a little spagnolo would not be out of place, but my not so handy festival guide was clear that this was the Confeugo.  The word doesn’t appear in my Italian reference guide, but break it down into con + feugo and you get “With focus”.  I’m none the wiser.

Perhaps I can’t see the wood for the trees.


Palline di Natale (Venezia 151)

On my recent visit to Prague I encountered a number of Christmas decoration shops, though to be honest they didn’t have a great range of tasteful options.  Perhaps I was just unlucky, but it struck me that the Germanic countries and their former empire seem to place a lot more emphasis on the traditions of Christmas than we do, or indeed the Italians.  That doesn’t mean that a city famed for its glass-making can’t do so in July!


A Christmas Carolyn

Sometime ago I was talking to Carolyn, an old friend and colleague, about the challenges of spending Christmas Day on your own and the consequent trepidation that I was feeling.  As you would expect from such an experienced coach and counsellor, she wasn’t going to let me get away with that for long, and we ended the call with me having made her two promises.  (How does she do that?)

The first was that I would get out and about with my camera and vicariously experience other people’s pleasure; seeing kids out and about with new toys and bicycles.  The second was that I should do whatever it took to enjoy the full Christmas experience at home, so should stock up with food, drink, films and the TV schedule and keep myself occupied accordingly.

Appropriately enough on a day when the rules of time and space have been rewritten,  I seemed to get my timings wrong for the first element.  I didn’t get up too soon, or rather, once I’d texted the one person I know would be at work at 7.30 today, I went back to bed and did resurface too soon.  I had a leisurely breakfast, showered and dressed, prepared some food for later and only then did I pick up the MKIII and head for Durham.  It was 10.05 when I arrived and even though I then undertook another of the day’s text conversations it was still way too early for signs of life in the city.  I wasn’t quite alone, there were the odd couple strolling here and there, an occasional elderly churchgoer, and of course some Chinese students taking pictures of each other.

These aside the roads, streets and alleyways were largely devoid of life,

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the Palace Green similarly deserted,

and even the great edifice of worship itself stood silent with not a carol or chorister to be heard, APW_5703_4_5 and while the Wear was in spate from recent rains, it flowed silently and unbroken by oar or hull.

APW_5718 As I left the city to prepare my lunch, the nature of my timing error became apparent as a steady stream of vehicles developed, all bound for the Cathedral.  I’m guessing that the morning communion service was at 11.00.  Still I was not downcast.  The clear skies and fresh air had done the trick, and I even had time for a sneaky selfie in a barber shop window.  Given the time of year I should have photoshopped a large red “E” to the right.APW_5713

I had no problem with the second part of Carolyn’s advice however! APW_5731

A terrible affliction

Having successfully shoehorned daughter Megan and all her worldly goods in between the spider carcases that pepper her tiny room, it was time to say goodbye for another term, until we see her at Christmas and discover how she has really fared when having to share a house and look after herself.  (Nice curtains don’t you think?)

Minutes later, Gill was drying her tears as we joined the notorious M25 and the Satnav helpfully informed us of long delays ahead.  Long delays that grew longer as a result of an accident in the thunderstorms that punctuated our crawl around the orbital motorway.

Consequently no sooner had be joined the M1 than we stopped at the motorway services for a loo break, having been on the road for a couple of hours already!  The trouble with public toilets is that they always provoke an outbreak of IHS with me.  No not IBS, IHS.  Invisible Hand Syndrome.  I’m sure I can’t be the only sufferer, but whenever faced with one of those “automatic” hand dryers I’m snookered.

I present my hands to the machine just like everyone else, having shaken the surplus water from my fingers and nothing happens.  Whatever sensor they employ in these machines, my hands never seem to trigger it.

I wave them about a bit under the vent.  Still nothing.  Start drying movements.  Nothing.  And then… the machine gives a splutter, if only to prove that it is actually switched on, before resuming its stony silence.  I try another machine with similar results.  Meanwhile the first is happily blowing hot air all over the hands of another punter.  Is it just me?  I don’t have such small hands.  What am I doing wrong?

Inevitably I give up and emerge to meet Gill with hands that have a damp sheen to the backs, and a pair of jeans that have a slightly darker tone down the centre of each thigh!

Today’s portrait is of Rachael, one of Meg’s friends from both school and Uni, although she is about to move away from Royal Holloway soon as she has switched to a journalism course elsewhere in Surrey.  I’m sure she’s made the right decision as she’s a great photographer, and now a blogger too.  Check out her blog here.

She has fab dimples and gave me a great quirky smile – cheers Rachael and good luck.


For many outside the North East, Roker Park refers to the former home of Sunderland football club, the ground being replaced by The Stadium of Light after 100 years of service in 1997.  There are houses now standing in its place.

There is however another, and older Roker Park; a recreation park that pre-dates the football ground by almost 20 years.  The park centres around a ravine that was once the course of the River Wear.  In my youth it was a place of adventure, cycling back and forth across the rickety wooden ravine bridge that was closed for many years due to safety concerns!

Taking samples from small ponds to look at under a Christmas microscope, playing tennis very badly, and watching steam trains circuit the miniature rail track.  Wikipedia claims the track was built in the 70’s yet I’m sure I can recall sitting astride the small carriages for a circuit or two when smaller.  Perhaps that was at some other track that I have mentally conflated with Roker over the intervening years.

However there is one memory that always springs to mind first.  The boating lake.  Once a favourite haunt of small boys with radio controlled speedboats or elegant yachts, it is not afloat with seagulls, though it did enjoy something of a renaissance during the 1990’s when Sunderland tried to rival Blackpool with its annual illuminations.  The “floating” tap pouring continuously into the lake was a favourite for many.

But for me it was about a small yacht, a vessel that I had only been allowed to sail under paternal supervision until one Saturday when my mother uncharacteristically decided to accompany me.  I was a little afraid of leaning over the wall to give the boat its initial impetus, but was assured that there was nothing to worry about.

I lowered the yacht onto the water by its mast and then crouched at the lakeside, reached for the stern and gave a push.  I’m not sure how far she sailed, because at that point my vision became blurred and green as I somersaulted over the small perimeter wall into the waters!

I think I must have relived the experience today, for as I toured the park I stopped to photograph some men on the bowling green and took a portrait of Ron.  He enquired whether I had recorded him swearing when at his last shot, but I reassured him that I was only shooting stills.

There was more swearing to come when I processed the image and realised I had his eyes out of focus, bizarrely keeping his ears sharp instead.  I must have still had water in my eyes.  (Sorry Ron – I’ll get it right next time!)

Incidentally I have been told that I resemble Phil Daniels – better than Paul Daniels I suppose!.

The Great British Bank Holiday (that isn’t!)

Public holidays in the UK tend to be known as Bank Holidays, a term which goes back to the days when the banks maintained very different operating hours to those which they do today, for whilst it is Good Friday there are branches open in some locations, an act that would have once been seen as outrageously sacrilegious.

The terminology goes back to the late 19th Century when the original Bank Holidays Act was passed by parliament, and only four days were specifically mentioned as it wasn’t felt necessary to include Good Friday or Christmas Day as these holidays that preceded public record keeping and so formed part of common law.  Interestingly many people consider Good Friday to be a Bank Holiday, but see Christmas Day as something unique although they both have the same legal status.

The banks themselves ceased to observe such holidays many years ago, and you will find contact centres open every day of the year in the interests of increasing customer service/retail profits*. (*Delete whichever you feel appropriate!)  Technically they don’t process transactions on these days so the money you withdraw will appear on your statement the next “working day”.

Regardless of their history, we Brits love our Bank Holidays – they are a source of that particular British Quality: unfounded optimism.  It is the same quality that manifests itself every four years when the Football World Cup is under way.  The media hype the chances of the England team, the fans get ever more hopeful, and then there is the inevitable disappointment which invariably involves a bad refereeing decision or a penalty shoot-out.

It’s the same with Bank Holidays – we always plan days by the seaside, trips to the country, or barbecues in the garden to make the most of these days when we are not required to work (unless you work in a bank, shop, cafe, etc.), and we are invariably reaching for the umbrellas if we do so.

Living as we do on the coast, the local economy sees these days as great opportunities for extra sales, and remarkably they still seem to be regardless of the weather.  My daughters have had a busy day at Latimer’s Sea Food Deli, and the seafront cafe’s and fish and chip shops were still doing well earlier in the day when it was just cloudy.  Once the rain arrived though, only those with seats inside were still doing so well.

This made the process of finding a suitable subject more challenging as the majority of those out and about had faces buried under brollies or encased in Gore-Tex.  Those without this degree of protection were on a mission to find shelter so would be unlikely to thank a humble photographer trying to detain them for a minute or two.

I parked the car and was considering my options when I happened to look in my rear view mirror and see through the rain spattered window a sweep of hair without the waterproof barriers favoured by so many others.  What was more, as she stopped under the canopy of Santini’s to read the menu there was a chance to speak to her whilst she was under some shelter, so it was a real bonus when Kate agreed to be photographed.  No standing around trying to keep the camera dry in the hope of a photogenic rain hat, and what’s more a great looking subject with beautiful eyes. I’m guessing she knew that she looked good as she didn’t even protest that she wasn’t wearing make up.Of course there are some who benefit from the weather acting as a deterrent to beachcombers.  This lot were loving it!

In a military style…

I’ve been shooting street portraits in Darlington once or twice a week for three months now, and remarkably I’ve never bumped into any of my subjects again (with the exception of the car park attendant at the college who can’t escape).  Perhaps I’ve frightened them away to do their shopping in Northallerton in future!

The temperatures were soaring again today, and being suited and booted for work didn’t make it a comfortable walk as I made my way into Darlo, so I had it in mind that I would find someone suitable as quickly as possible to evade the heat.  I considered my best bet for this would be the junction of Priestgate and High Row where a taxi rank provides a constant stream of characters – and that’s just the drivers!

As I reached my destination I looked around for likely individuals.  Extraordinarily tall businessman in the middle distance?  Too far from my comfortable piece of shade  Well heeled shopper?  Too predictable, many of my Darlington shots fall into that category.  High Row saxophonist?  Nowhere to be seen today.

Turning to look over my left shoulder I spotted them; Daz and Duncan.  When you encounter a Scot in Darlington called Duncan you think of the local millionaire dragon, but this wasn’t Mr Bannatyne, this was a young soldier and one of his fellow recruits.  Darlington is only 15 miles or so from Catterick Garrison, the largest British military garrison anywhere in the world, so I’m surprised I’ve not noticed someone from the army here before.

Public attitude to members of the armed forces has been changeable in recent years, stories of abuses in Iraq and Afghanistan had tarnished their reputation in the minds of some whilst others responded with pride and patriotism to the steady stream of British dead returning via RAF Lyneham and Brize Norton.  The Christmas sales of the Military Wives single perhaps indicate a renewed level of respect, although if the troops are called in to break a planned strike by petrol tanker drivers things could change again.

Duncan and Daz walked High Row with pride and I was pleased to be able to photograph them, although when I got to processing the image I saw that it worked better as a gritty portrait of Duncan (sorry Daz!).  This is how Duncan became my first subject in uniform…  with the exception of the car park attendant at the college!