Farewell to the Midlands: a Letter of Love

Dear Midlands,1486656_10152118375726789_1953571421_n

Just over a year ago we met and I fell for you.

Despite your cold exterior, the soot, dirt and the abandoned shells of buildings once used to house bustling industry, you had a beauty.

A beauty many others didn’t appreciate. A secret beauty that took some effort to discover but, once unlocked, was something to treasure.

Your lovely canal paths and waterways, which sparkled in the evening sun; fields of green that turned silver and black as each day ended; your people with their sing-song way of speaking and their willingness to speak to anyone standing beside them, friend or stranger.

I’ve learned so much while I’ve been here with you and I’ve become a stronger person for that.

I spent much of my time here in love and learning to be strong and loyal. I learned of loss and failure. Then I learned to stand up again and walk on.

I’ve learned to appreciate my health and to treasure my friends. And I’ve been taught how lucky I am to have a wonderful family in New Zealand and here in England.

My life here has taught me so much but it is time for our ways to part. Sadly, there is no reason for me to remain here, as much as I adore it. My friends and opportunities are elsewhere and a new start is beckoning.1504119_10152118375761789_1352477427_n

So I will re-name my blog and twitter account and welcome the new year with optimism. I will hope that the next place is the one for me. As beautiful and as friendly as you are, we can no longer be together.

Thank you for all you have taught me. We’ll see each other again and I will smile because I still love you really.

Love, Midlands Kiwi

When 11,615 miles really is a world away

The most difficult thing about moving to the other side of the world is leaving family behind. When I left New Zealand six years ago and hugged my nana and grandad goodbye, deep down I had a feeling that I was unlikely to see them again. They were in their 80s then and, as I headed to a country more than a day’s air travel away, I knew I’d never be able to return in time if things suddenly went wrong.

When my father told me on Monday that grandad didn’t have much longer, I wondered if I could make it in time. But, as I wrote my father an email with things I wanted my grandad to know so that he could read them to him, I knew deep down that there was no way.

It’s times like that when the distance hurts – so far from my grandad when he was in his final hours and so far from my parents and sister when I wanted to be able to help and comfort them.

I love all of my grandparents. I know I was special to each of them and I think of them a lot. I have my grandpa’s Yorkshire stubbornness and I aspire to be as generous to others as he was towards me. I think of my grandma every time I’m on a train through Birmingham, as that’s where she was from. My nana was so proud of her family and her grandchildren, making sure that dozens of Christmas cards, birthday gifts and congratulations for exam results were sent on time.

But my grandad lived the longest and so I knew him best.

I remember his way of greeting my younger sister: “Howdy, pal,” – a greeting he once used when she was very young and, as it had tickled her fancy, he had used it ever since.

She remembers him teaching us about the stars. I remember him teaching me about the mechanics of the Titanic, different types of cows (he was a farmer) and about growing plants and vegetables.

When war came, he had his eyes on being a pilot. Lacking the maths qualification needed at the time didn’t stop him. He simply taught himself until he got it.

ImageI remember interviewing him about his war service for a school history project. He was awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross for completing a bombing raid in Europe after flack had taken out one of his Lancaster’s engines but getting a sparkling quote from this modest man was seemingly impossible. To him, it was a job that simply had to be done and the medal was a recognition of his crew more than it was of his flying skills or courage. And so that, as he often said, was that.

He had every quality Kiwis admire: determination, resourcefulness and humility. And he was a link to a very special generation that is fewer in number as the years go on. But he had a sense of adventure – traveling to Europe and then later to the Mid East as a pilot in the 1940s. Maybe, if I’m lucky, he gave me a little of that too.

A Kiwi’s reflections on Remembrance Day

In New Zealand our poppy day and day of remembrance is Anzac Day, a public holiday on April 25. While we recognise Armistice Day, it is Anzac Day (the anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli landings of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in 1915) that sees millions of people from both countries gather at their local cenotaph or memorial for dawn services and, later in the morning, the parade. While the military campaign failed and serves as our reminder of the high human cost of war, the actions of those soldiers created what became known as the Anzac Legend, something our two countries are proud of. But I don’t remember any rules for how a poppy should be worn (I’ve been told the leaf is meant to point to 11 o’clock here?) or any looking down on those who choose not to wear one at all.
 
During this past week I’ve read about newsreaders who have received hate mail for not wearing a poppy and about an MP criticising an internet search engine for not making its page “spectacular” enough on Remembrance Day. There was a sense among many on twitter that people should show their remembrance in the “correct” way, whatever that is.
 
I don’t like how wearing a poppy seems to be expected. I don’t like how people are made to feel they have to “prove” they care about remembrance. For some people remembrance is a very private thing. My grandad, who was awarded a DFC in the RAF in 1944, never marched in his local parade until I was in high school (and even then I think it was because we encouraged him to). Perhaps remembrance was painful or there were other reasons for his reluctance. I don’t know. I like the ceremony and the parades but, for whatever reason, being a part of them wasn’t the way my grandad chose to remember. And that’s ok.
 
While in Afghanistan I met a young officer who had lost a friend, killed in Helmand a few weeks earlier. That wasn’t the reason for our interview but we couldn’t ignore it. The young man’s bedspace was just metres from us and, while his cot had gone, the other soldiers in the tent had posted photos of him in the space and made it a little makeshift memorial to him. They walked past it every time they left or entered their tent. Remembrance was obviously very personal to them and was not limited to one day a year.
 
On Remembrance Day I think of those soldiers and the friend they lost, a friend they still miss. I think of great grandfathers I never met who served in the First World War and witnessed waste and slaughter on an almost incomprehensible scale. I think about grandparents who served in the Second. I think of those who fought and died alongside them.
 
I think of those I have known and those I have not who are still fighting or have fought “over there”. And I think of those who feel as if they’re fighting a battle even after the tour is over. I give what I can to the RBL collection tin because I think those who served should be looked after when they need it.

But you won’t know any of that from whether or not I’m wearing a poppy.

It doesn’t matter if someone wears a poppy and how it is worn. Those soldiers of the past, those who fell where the poppies grow, taught us there are more important things. One of those is remembering why we have this day in the first place.

 

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Just Another Kiwi Adventurer

1374378_10151963316451789_92543079_nFor the past three weeks I have been getting re-acquainted with my homeland. It was the first time I’d been home in three years and the break was much-needed.

Maybe you have the same connection with the land where you were brought up, reader, wherever that might be. Every time I visit mine I know it is only a matter of weeks until I have to turn my back on my beloved mountain and the beautiful coastline of Taranaki and head back to the hustle and bustle of England.

But while I have been here I have been enjoying favourite places of childhood: walks along the beach while watching the big cargo ships arriving and departing the port, silver and orange sunsets on the sea-soaked sand, $2 single scoop icecreams (which is really about £1 for what usually ends up being about two-and-a-bit scoops), sitting on my beanbag outside in the sunshine and watching the blackbirds and sparrows enjoy the bird food.

Before I go to sleep I can see the thousands of stars in a clear night sky and when I wake up I can hear the birdsong from tuis, starlings and sparrows.

By now, you’re wondering why I would ever leave such a beautiful land.

But, while our national icon is a flightless bird, we human versions do fly. We’ve always had to in order to see the rest of the world. We are brave and determined types who thrive on adversity and adventure.

And we’ve always had to travel long distances from our home shores to find many of these adventures.

From England I have an exciting base from which to explore parts of the world that would require many flying hours otherwise. From England I can depart before breakfast and be in any one of dozens of countries in time for lunch.

If you grew up in Britain I wonder if you have ever realised what that means – not just for your ability to escape a harsh winter and find some sun but for your view of the world, your experience of other cultures and (in some cases) the advantages you have.

Some of us Kiwis return home for good, the pull of our country becoming too strong to ignore, and others will forever return only temporarily, feeding that hunger with short doses of the beaches, mountains, endless deep green farmland and a sky of a blue so bright it often surprises newcomers.

I’m not sure yet which of those I will turn out to be. For the moment my wonderful and loving parents and sister are in New Zealand, but I’ve spent six years building up a life in the UK, with experiences I’ve learned so much from and friends who mean a lot to me. I’ll be sad to wave yet another goodbye to all that I love and care about here – but I’ll be excited to return to the UK and see what the next chapter of life has in store.

Wolverhampton Chick

I know it has been a while since I posted anything and I have been exploring so many new places and learning so many new things since I was last here so I’ll update you as briefly as I can.At the moment I’m sitting inside on a day where the temperature must easily have reached 30 degrees and watching the rain pour down. People here sometimes seem surprised I find this weather hot too. I think many assume the weather in New Zealand is like that in Australia, with its desert-like hot summers. The truth is that it’s not. The part of New Zealand I’m from gets only a week or two of temperatures this high. But, unlike England, we get a much longer period of temperatures around the mid-20s, so summer seems to last longer.

One of the places I’ve explored recently is the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire. It is such a beautiful place, so peaceful, despite the busy road being so close to it. I had a few memorials to look for but I stumbled across the Shot at Dawn memorial. This remembers the 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers shot for cowardice or desertion. IMG_3460There is a central figure, a young man blind-folded and awaiting his fate, surrounded by stakes with the names of every soldier executed in that way.

I walked among them and, because I was there so early in the morning, there was nobody else around. It was silent: just me and the names of these men. History now tells us that many of them did not get fair trials and many were not cowards at all – they were suffering from what we now call PTSD or combat stress. It was so difficult to believe that, at that time, those in command thought execution to be the correct way to deal with such things.

When I reached the back row of stakes I stopped. For some reason, amongst all the other names, I’d not expected to see one from my home country. Not because they wouldn’t have gone through the same things as a soldier from any country, but simply because it’s so easy to unconsciously translate our geographical isolation into an isolation from these massive conflicts. But, of course, we weren’t isolated from it at all.This soldier was from Otago and was in his 30s, so not as young as many of the other names I’d read. But he was still a world away from all he knew and loved. And in those last few moments, his green and beautiful home must have seemed like another planet. A dream from another lifetime.

But on a happier note, I’ve been spending a lot of time in Wolverhampton recently for work. When I first arrived, my reply to my new colleagues’ “what do you think of Wolverhampton?” was a diplomatic: “it looks like a great news patch”.

But there is more to it than the massive old, sometimes abandoned, industrial buildings. There is the beautiful cathedral which looks out over the city, the people who cheerfully call each other (and me) ‘chick’ and there is even a tram that goes from the city centre to Birmingham and where, unlike in Melbourne (where I last used trams), there is a conductor onboard who sells you a ticket. In Melbourne there were only inspectors who fined you if you hadn’t got a ticket from the machine.

Through my work I’ve met so many interesting people there: a group of Polish church leaders who, because of the shortage of priests in England, are responsible for keeping an inner city church alive; a comedian with a penchant for making curry; a man who has sung in the same choir for about 40 years, even having his wife bring him to rehearsals on a wheelchair when he was recovering from an illness and a woman who, having her kitchen gutted by fire, was relieved just to see her dog safely carried out of the blazing wreck by a firefighter.

It is a city with so many faces, so many backgrounds and cultures and this is what I like most about this country and the job I do. As you walk around parts of the city you can see skeletons of buildings once busy and powerful now quiet. But you can also see once abandoned shells being moved into and getting new life, what council press releases like to call ‘regeneration’.

So I’m still exploring, even though I’ve not written much in the past few months. I’m still here and I’d still love to hear your thoughts on anything I’ve written. What do you think? Where do you think I should go to see the best of the Midlands?

Wandering About History

IMG_3223IMG_3245One of the first things I like to discover when I move to a new place is where the best walking tracks are. I am certainly not a serious walker but I do like to take some time after work, if daylight and weather permit, to be outside and breathe air that hasn’t been dispensed to me through an air conditioning system.

When I first arrived in Dudley borough I wasn’t sure I’d be able to find anywhere. The town I lived in seemed so covered with concrete and there was no obvious town park or beach-side track as there had been in the last few towns I’ve lived in.

It was after I got lost walking one day that I came across what has become one of my favourite walks. It also provides an insight into what kept this area alive more than a century ago.

The canal path stretches for many miles, with the canal linking the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal with the Dudley Canal and, therefore, Birmingham. Work began on the canal in the late 18th century and soon a thriving trade transporting coal, ironstone and limestone developed, along with products including one of the industries the area is still famous for: glass.

But in the 1850s a railway line opened and by the 1930s cars were more often used to transport products and canal traffic eventually stopped.

I’ve walked the track from Wordsley to Stourbridge town, where the factories still stand alongside the canal. Apart from a few where the old trades are still practised and their devotees try to make a living, most stand silent. Their reflection in the water would once have been constantly disturbed by the regular canal traffic, the hustle and bustle of industry and its main mode of transport around the area.

The broken windows and the doors hanging open have a sadness about them, but also a beauty and mystery. When I walk past, I wonder what life was like for the people who worked inside those dark walls, the people who spent their days working along the canal. The noise. The smell. The sights.

My other favourite walk is in Himley Park, near Gornal in Dudley. You have to pay to park your car but it’s worth the small fee. As soon as you leave the little parking bay you can see the 18th century Himley Hall, grand and austere, watching over the grounds. There is a massive lake, framed by a few beautiful willow trees, where people go boating and fishing.

But there is also what feels like a little adventure park around the house. You can walk up a little hill, crunching the winter leaves under your shoes and making your path around the snowdrops, to where a small waterfall trickles from a massive lake.
There is a little committee of ducks paddling, their movements making little ripples in the otherwise calm water.

You can walk around the edge of the park, up a winding track and small staircase built into the hill, until you are looking down on the house itself. There is a landing with bare trees, taking refuge from the winter before they grow their leaves again for the summer. Walking around them feels like walking around

So Dudley borough does have its beauty spots and there are some wonderful walking tracks to explore either with someone else or just alone with your thoughts. If you know the area, tell me your favourites.

More Than Just a Game

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5818331_600x400When I was preparing to move to the Black Country, one of the first things I did was google. I learned the populations of the main towns, about their industrial histories and various other facts and figures. I also realised football (or “soccer” where I come from) was much more than just a game.

Obviously, being a New Zealander, I come from a country that is also obsessed with a particular variety of “kicking a ball around a park” but, having grown up in a house where rugby was usually on at some point during the weekend (unless it was cricket season), at least I understood that version.

My first UK job in Gloucester saw me in a centre where rugby was still relatively dominant and when I moved to the north of Scotland all I had to learn was that Aberdeen struggled and there was usually some sort of off-field conflict between Celtic and Rangers fans.

Now I’m in the Black Country and football and the two main teams of Wolves and West Brom are more than that. So I needed to learn.

So I’ve been looking at the sports section in the newspaper (which should really be called the football section) but there are so many new names – managers, owners (a strange concept to me) – and it’s difficult to follow the myriad of player trades where footballers are shifted like chess pieces for million-pound sums incomprehensible to most people.

I still remember the national “soul-searching” in New Zealand when rugby first turned professional – it’s that recent. Over here, football is further down that path. Has it gone too far?

Anyway, the first thing I’ve learned about Wolves is that the team isn’t doing well. The manager Dean Saunders (who seems to me to be the coach) has been in the job only a few months and is failing.

About a month ago I wrote a little article about a local bar owner who invited Saunders to do a “Q and A” session at his pub. Saunders cancelled at the last minute, saying he had team commitments the next day. But the pub owner said he thought the manager under siege wanted to avoid the embarrassment of a grilling from 150 die-hard Wolves fans.

I suppose in many ways, although football and rugby have very different rules and I’ll clearly always prefer one to the other, they aren’t that different off the pitch. A few similarities I’ve noticed:

* If the team fails then it is the coach (or manager) who must be for the high jump.

* The team’s players have a contradictory status: when they are doing well, they are beyond reproach. When they fail (particularly off the field) their failures are dissected in detail by solemn-faced commentators asking “how this reflects on the game”.

* Many fans can become obsessed. In New Zealand 99 per cent of the population dresses in black on a big game day and reporters write of “national mourning” when big games are lost (trust me, we lost the World Cup a few times in past decades – I should know). In both places, the game will be the talk in offices and over the phone. It’s difficult to escape from sometimes.

* When the team is winning members are referred to by fans as “we”. When the team is losing, fans often revert to referring to them as “they”.

So I think that if I can master the various names and trades then I can become a Kiwi football fan in The Midlands. Or maybe I’ll just always be a bit too Kiwi for that.