Let me introduce myself…

I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names.  Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this.  Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad.  Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.

It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled.  I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!

The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are.  I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth.  I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate.  I’m a Paul, not an Ian.  Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion.  The other name is meaningless to me.  Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.

An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly.  Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality.  We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names.  A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.

Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course.  It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon.  Bonne n’est pas?  Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler.  However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).


It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too.  I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French).  However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.

Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name.  I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too.  She has another name apart from the Yoruba.  This is Clara.APW_8587-Edit


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In search of lost time

Conversing with one who has recently returned to the UK from many years en France, our discourse turned to the state of British television and its reliance on soaps, reality shows, American comedy, and the food programme.  To a fresh pair of eyes we appear obsessed with food, and I can see why; a trip through the weekly schedule of just one channel reveals The Great British Bake Off, James Martin’s Food Map of Britain,The Incredible Spice Men, Great British Menu, Floyd on Food, The Hairy Bikers‘ Bakeation  and Tom Kerridge‘s Proper Pub Food.  What’s more those came from just two days.

For a nation once embarrassed by the standard of its cuisine, we have certainly turned a corner, and whether your preference is for Jamie Oliver’s no-nonsense style or Heston Blumenthal‘s molecular gastronomy there is a chef out there for everyone, and not just on TV, because for every successful TV show, there’s a book out there for Christmas.  We are so gripped that I recently discovered that a team working in a heavy engineering plant nearby were competing in making custard tarts a la Bake Off.

That someone who has lived in France for so long should notice the obsession is very telling.  Traditionally the French have been seen as the greatest cooks; names like Pierre Koffman, Auguste Escoffier, Alain Ducasse and Marie-Antoine Carême  have inspired awe across the culinary world, and the French have played their part in our development too.  The contributions of Raymond Blanc and the Roux dynasty should  not be overlooked.

APW_0198But against this background there was one thing that seemed to be a distillation of all that was English.  The afternoon tea.  Supposedly conceived in the 1840’s by a friend of Queen Victoria, as a late afternoon meal to stave off hunger between lunch and dinner; it includes both our national drink (though there are half a dozen nations who consume even more than we do) and another English invention; the sandwich.

But then there are the cakes.  Scones with jam and cream (Devon or Cornwall method ma’am?) undoubtedly have an Englishness, but everything else is patisserie.  Choux pastries, Paris-Brest, mille-feuille?  The influence is obvious, but what I didn’t realise until recently is that the French have a similar approach to an afternoon cake break!  Listening to From Our Own Correspondent, I heard Joanna Robertson’s report on the love of Gouter (I’m sure there must be an accent missing in there somewhere!) the consumption of sweet treats by children on their way home from school, and its more sophisticated equivalent for adults.

Inevitably her report on the significance of this culinary fine art made reference to Proust’s  À la recherche du temps perdu,  a seven volume novel containing the famous madeleine episode, where this simple cake triggers a powerful flashback.  Inspired by this I decided to make my own, though I lack the appropriate shell mould tray.  With no exotic ingredients I had everything I required to hand.  No great technical skills were required and they don’t take long to make.

A shame then that when making a cake that will forever be associated with memory, I should forget to include the baking powder!  Ah well, at least I have the memories of afternoon teas.APW_0209

…and one for all!


Prehistoric monuments, Roman towns, Renaissance art; I do like things with a bit of history to them, and whilst I recognise the need for progress I don’t always see it as an improvement as I’ve written before about 1960’s architecture.

These values extend to language too.  It’s probably rooted in studying Latin many years ago that I’m interested in the etymology of words, they way they have grown over time through prefix and suffix, and the source of their original meaning.  With the decline in the study of Classics I find myself in the minority these days.

Look up a simple work like “bus” in the dictionary and you might be lucky to see it derives from the word omnibus, though that word is likely to be defined as an old word for bus or wagon.  You’ll be really lucky to discover that it is the Latin word meaning “for all” which was adopted as a nickname for these forms of transport in the 19th Century, probably in France.

The democratic connotations of this means of getting around became enshrined in English legal terminology when the term “the man on the Clapham omnibus” was referred to as a way of describing some mythical man of reason in the general populace.  Though recorded in a decision of Lord Justice Greer in 1932, the phrase is also supposed to date back to the 19th Century.

In the North East of England we have grown accustomed to the word “Metro” to describe the light railway system that joins Wearside and Tyneside.  Again if you were to look for this word in a dictionary it would probably define it as referring to an underground railway, such as ours or the original in Paris.  The London Underground more accurately has a Metropolitan line, pointing to the true origins of the word.  Whilst “Metropolis” may be simply the workplace of Clark Kent’s alter ego to many, or the name of Fritz Lang‘s cinematic masterpiece, it originates in Ancient Greek and means “Mother City“.

And as everyone has a mother, so the Metro in Tyneside is used by all.  As car park charges and fuel prices increase, so the attraction of a cheap rail link grows, with the spin-off that cars are left behind and we burn less carbon.  Like a mother she cares for all, making sure that kids get to school and party people get home.

She appears from nowhere to ferry people to and from work, whether manual labourer or white collared business man.  Alighting from one of carriages today I met John.  What better name to represent those who travel in this way?

BTW – if Metro means mother, what does that make a metrosexual?


Holiday, holiday, holiday time.

I’ve never really been a caravanner.  To be fair I’ve not experienced enough of it to see the appeal.  There were a couple of days in Castle Douglas, Scotland when my parents had agreed to tow a friend’s caravan home.  That was notable for three things;

  1. My friend Jonathan’s vomiting
  2. What seemed an interminable showing of Dr Zhivago at the local cinema, and
  3. Being told off regularly for not being careful enough with the gas light mantles.

Then there was the two weeks in a Eurocamp caravan with my family when my daughters were small.  Two weeks in the Vendée enjoying sun and sand, French coastal life and all that goes with it became seven days of strong winds and heavy rain.  We retreated back across the channel at that point when the forecast indicated more of the same!

There are those who love the pursuit however, and a few times each year they descend on the field at Seaburn Camp and do just that for a few days.  More often than not they experience conditions not unlike those that we had in France, but with lower temperatures, yet still they come year after year.

I don’t know what attracts them to the area.  I don’t see hordes of them crossing the road to the nearby beach.  It might be purely the social aspect of meeting the same hardy souls who put up with our weather this time last year.

Whatever the reason they are here again, the green of the field made white by a sea of mobile rooftops.  And the weather?  There have only been a couple of thunderstorms since they arrived, and the sun has managed to shine too, though always with the presence of menacing clouds.These of course are great for me to shoot dramatic skies – perhaps that’s what appeals to the caravanners too.

I don’t think Bill, was one of them but he did agree to be today’s portrait.  Thanks Bill,

Oh and by the way – three simple words to share.

Sir Chris Hoy!!!!!!!

La petite anglaise et la petite francaise

On the day that Anders Behring Breivik is put on trial in Norway for “self defence” against multi-culturalism, I find myself writing once more about the multitude of cultures that make up British society, an inevitable consequence of our days of Empire, and one that makes it far less likely that we will see such an atrocity on our soil.  Whilst I am not so complacent as to believe that violent racism cannot happen here, the very fact that we are daily exposed to the different faces, views, beliefs and religions that make up our society must be an aid to mutual understanding.

(Norway has none of these advantages, it’s remote position and lack of historic acquisitiveness contributing perhaps to more right-wing views.  I’m not categorising the Norwegians as fascists, but there were many who sympathised and collaborated with German forces in WWII.  The word quisling, meaning a traitor, has its origins with the Norwegian politician of that name.)

One of those “different” faces that I have been enjoying recently is that of Rachel Khoo, the British food writer who achieved recognition when to finance the ingredients she needed to write a French cookbook for the British market, she opened up her apartment as a restaurant.  To be fair it was a very small restaurant, serving only two covers, but nevertheless it proved to be a popular move.

I referred to Rachel as British, which she is having grown up in Croydon, but her surname and looks point to a more exotic heritage.  Her mother is Austrian and her father Chinese Malaysian, yet despite this genetic cocktail, her love of red lipstick and vintage clothes does give her a very French aura on-screen.

It might seem strange to think that our nearest neighbours are so different that we can identify “Frenchness”, particularly when you think that amongst the waves of invaders that have come to these shores over the centuries, the last successful cross-channel raid was that carried out by William of Normandy.  Many of us must be able to trace our ancestry back to Gallic roots, yet we often refer to ourselves as Anglo Saxons in preference.

This is doubtless the result of centuries of anti-French propaganda; we did fight the Hundred Years War against them, they aided the fledgling American forces in their fight for independence, and then came the French Revolution leading to further differences in constitution and politics.

So despite our common ancestry we have kept each other at arms length for centuries, until the early 1900’s when a mutual interest in each others’ cultures created what became known as the Entente cordiale.

Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1...
Britannia and Marianne dancing together on a 1904 French postcard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now if you’re resilient enough to have followed this blog all year, you’ll know that I’ve already photographed a French subject when I met Justine in Darlington, but just as Rachel Khoo is so much more than British, so Justine clearly had more than just French genes.  In contrast today when I saw Rose Elisa I was almost certain of her origins, yet I couldn’t tell you why; her hairstyle, her complexion, her glasses?!?!?!  She told me she was from Tours, a city in central France renowned apparently for the perfection of its spoken French (her accent beat me when she introduced herself), so perhaps she was archetypally Gallic.

Whatever the reason, I’m glad she agreed to be photographed. Merci encore.

April Fish!

Today is April Fools day in the UK, and so for about a week now I’ve had a spoof blog written, weaving local events into a tale of subterranean crimes and terrors in a network of tunnels beneath the village green, and featuring local songstress and thespian Lauren Waine as my portrait, but in character.  For those familiar with Iranian culture there was also a character called Sizdah Bedar as a clue to the deception.

Then the plug was pulled on the idea when Lauren’s director needed her earlier today and our opportunity for pictures was lost.  Ces’t la vie.  Back to the drawing board and a theme free blog.

Except that having researched the tradition of the day, I was reminded of it once more when I reached the beach this morning.  Surf was up, and a group of of wet suit clad enthusiasts were already out to sea – and I had just defrosted my car!  A whole new take on April foolishness perhaps, although they seemed to be enjoying themselves.

An April fool in Denmark, regarding Copenhagen...
An April fool in Denmark, (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Their activity would have been more appropriate in France, or maybe Italy, not because there are better waves there (is the Med a good place for surfing?) but because of the date.  April Fools day is a truly international celebration of the absurd, but in these two countries it is known respectively as “poisson d’avril!” and “pesce d’aprile!”.  I’ve no idea why the fish reference is important, but for the surfers , wet and shining in the bright sunshine it seemed a fitting description.  As they were thrust forward and buffeted by the waves they made great pictures.  Flying fish perhaps?

While I was standing at the waterline watching their antics, I spotted a woman walking her dog towards me, the bright sunshine illuminating her fair hair.  Something in her expression told me that she would have a great smile so I approached her.  Her name is Sheila, and she agreed to be photographed without even asking if it was an April Fool!

I would have loved to have captured the sunlight in her hair as I saw it, but the same offshore wind that was whipping off the wave crests was blowing her hair across her face, so I opted for a backlit shot, where the wind worked to keep the hair away.  Most women would have been horrified to be shot when out walking without full make up, but Sheila was game and I think she looks great.

Because I’d positioned her with her back to the water, and I was focused, literally, on her face, neither of us spotted the wave that pushed in just a little further than its predecessors, but Sheila felt it as the icy water rushed into her plimsolls.  The sacrifices we have to make for art!

I don’t think she was too vexed though, and she and her dog headed off to somewhere warmer.