There’s a new play currently on at the National Theatre called Common about the fight in early-industrial Britain for retaining common land and yesterday in Ruskin Park I walked with Leo and saw a portrait in a pub celebrating the individuals who made it happen in the early 1800’s. Ruskin Park is in Denmark Hill near Brixton, it’s 36 acres with views back to the City – you can clearly see Big Ben and The London Eye. There are more parks in South London because South London developed later than the north side of the river and there was still time, back in those days, to establish them – and I feel New Zealand is now at that point. Leo, who I’m staying with, says it’s the one thing he finds little a depressing about New Zealand, everyone seems to is so obsessed with property prices. This must, in my opinion, have some effect on the provision for public space. Most of the green areas around where I live are sports grounds – wouldn’t it be good if we turned them back to parks?
A brief history; Common land was held by the lord of the local manor back in the day and he would allow local people to some rights on it: grazing animals, gathering wood for fuel and sowing small plots to grow food. These rights were granted as an unwritten social contract. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, traditional land uses shifted as Britain moved from a feudal system to a capitalist one and it increasingly befitted landowners to turn every single square metre a profit, including the common land. Many of the locals (or commoners) had come to rely on the land, so when fences were put up and the woodlands cleared, they pulled them down. Direct action and legal interventions of the day led to the creation of Clapham Common, Tooting Bec Common, Peckham Rye Common, Wandsworth Common, Wimbledon Common and so many more common parks in south London, including Ruskin Park where these images were taken.
Standing on the South Bank in the morning sun I needed to choose at least one significant place to visit in London. I’m only here for a few days before and after my side trip to the Isle of Wight. I strolled along the embankment and considered the options. Living in London for about six years back in the early 90’s I stopped doing those ‘touristy’ things – but now I have no qualms about it. The National Theatre has two plays that interested me: Salome and a new one called Common set in early 1800’s – and they’d both be superb, of course. I have no interest in the big musicals but the wacky London Dungeon show looks like the kind of cheap gory slapstick I’d enjoy. I immediately ruled out the London Eye and the Tower of London, and Buckingham Palace is never going to be on the list. I settled on St Paul’s Cathedral because I’ve never been inside – I spent two amazing hours there, even climbing the stairs to the upper outdoor balcony.
Entrance is £16 and includes a headset and a very hi tech visual hand unit about the size of an iPhone 7 with videos and information that’s really easy to use. I normally hate these fiddley things with a commentary but some clever tech team has designed something quite amazing because you choose the bits you want to hear and there’s short videos.
I used my binoculars and learned the story of each panel in the main dome. Paul’s journey to Christianity and his spreading of the word. I have looked closely at a few ancient religious story panels recently and realise the faith was primarily based on a few clever conjuring tricks; getting bitten by a snake and not dying, making someone instantly blind, and curing a cripple (‘look he’s walking!’) is all the proof you need. One of the panels in the great dome shows Paul burning the books of other pagan belief structures of the time – way to go. Religious mythology aside you can’t help but be completely blown away by the architecture, art and music it produced – and I speak as a person who studied and still enjoys listening to Palestrina plainsong, that’s the spooky male-choir music they use all the way through movies like The DaVinci Code.
It was a big day; I bought advance tickets for my journey to the Isle of Wight at Waterloo Station in person so I could talk about the options. It’s one of the wonderful things about Britain, and I’ve been reading Bill Bryson’s latest book while travelling and he says the same things but much better – Britain is charming. London is full of people and yet it feels safe, sensible and civilised. It’s a good change from the grim and menacing hordes of homeless on the street corners in Portland. I only saw a few individual beggars in London, apparently, Boris Johnson ‘got rid of them’.
I enjoyed wandering through Soho, had a bite at a restaurant called Kricket where Luca used to work, chanced on a Kath Kidson shop and bought something for Julia. After St Paul’s I travelled to Brixton to meet Allan Evans, a New Zealander who stayed on in London and whom I used to play in a duo with, 20 years later we picked up like it was yesterday.
We sat in a place called Brixton Box, a cluster of containers around a court yard that’s definitely the hang out for the new young Brixton arrivées – arty and edgy, and a bit rough and ready. Brixton is still the same, lots of West Indian people playing reggae, it’s still grubby, but lovely.
People ask me if I think London has changed, well, yes and no, there are all new shops, people have phones in their hands rather than A to Z map books, there’s more people I guess, but to me, it feels and looks more or less the the same. It was the smell inside the Underground that brought it all back – I really, really like London . . to visit. I’m so lucky to be able to stay with Leo, an expat in Brixton just a short walk from the Underground. He is renovating a flat and being an artist it’s going to have some very tasteful features. It’s so good to have a friendly kitchen table to sit at – because onwards from here it’s going to be crowded hostels and cheap hotels.
As I prepare to leave Portland it’s time to keep or delete the images on my phone and I have chosen six that I like as a sort of summary. I mainly used public transport, which is very good in Portland, and with the iPhone maps and apps everything is so easy and I got a good feel for the city. The troubled and dispossessed are everywhere, there are groups sitting on street corners and encampments in underpasses. The streets in the area of the NorthEast where I stayed are leafy and tree-lined, the houses all big and comfortable. The shopping is great – there’s so much stuff to buy. Everyone I met was friendly and keen to engage. There is definitely an easy-going, counter-culture community spirit in Portland, and there’s a T-shirt slogan you often see – Keep Portland Weird, but it’s not that weird – it’s nice.
The guy behind the counter said, ‘You might like to try this’, went out to the back room and came back with a 1943 Gibson priced at US$11,000. I have never played an acoustic worth that much but today I played quite a few of expensive guitars, and yes, they all do sound different and they feel different too. My absolute favourite was a 1971 Gibson Dove with an ebony neck at US$2,700. It rang out beautifully, had plenty of bass depth and the neck felt so natural in my hand – it was perfect. Next he gave me a new Gibson L65, the neck was flatter, made for a smaller hand or a learner, but so easy to play and it sounded big and full, a real modern acoustic guitar, and only US$1,000. I visited Old Town Music on Burnside Rd where I tried a few Martins, Guilds and Taylors from $1,500 to $3,000 but none really impressed. They had a 1976 Gibson L200 (pictured), the famous acoustic Pete Townsend of The Who plays, a big jumbo body with a great thumping sound that’s ideal for stage playing when there’s a band – but at US$2,700 there was something wrong with the neck – it was a bit twisted so the action was too high at the 12th fret. One of the best guitars in the shop, to my taste, was a vintage Yamaha F30 for just US$750. I didn’t buy a guitar but I did buy a mic I’ve always needed, too pricey in New Zealand, a SM58 with a switch for US$100, and they gave me a free T’shirt.
Next it was Centaur Guitars on NE Sandy Rd and some of the finest acoustics I’ve seen and played. There is no hard-sell in these shops, they don’t hover around you, they just let you play and play – but, there is one rule, whatever you do, and there are signs up – DO NOT SING.
There must be a big problem with prejudice in America. Whether it’s race, gender or disability, people are making their position known. Everywhere there are notices in shop windows, on front lawns and on the doors of bars and restaurants with lists, all saying the same kind of things. The people in Oregon seem to be confronting prejudice head-on and are trying to build awareness at a community level. I suppose some of this comes as a reaction to the white supremacist killings recently in Portland on a commuter train that surprised many people because Portland sees itself as a ‘liberal’ State. I started to wonder how it would go down if people put up signs in shop windows in New Zealand talking about a rejection of any form of prejudice, what would the average Kiwi think? Some may say it’s unnecessary, others would say it’s ‘about time’.
But it indicates to me the problem is very real in the US possibly increasing as a result of the current political climate and recent election result, or perhaps it’s always been there – but this is definitely a backlash. People at a community and grassroots level are making their politics know – and it’s very encouraging.
Oregon followed Colorado and Washington State in making the recreational use of cannabis legal and since then the cultivation of it has become big business. The ranch where I was staying is currently experimenting with the propagation of the plant and I was shown around their set up. There are many varieties with the most popular being Sativa and Indica, and it is this one that commands a higher price and the one they are focusing on. In the town of Bend in central Oregon with a population of about 80,000 there is already 14 stores exclusively selling pot. The price for the premium organic product is high, especially outside the September and October glut period when the outdoor crops are harvested. Outdoor product is known as ‘dirt-weed’: the set-up I was shown is growing indoors, a premium organic Indica sensimilla under special LEDs. The farmer I spoke to doesn’t smoke pot himself because he’s not really interested and hasn’t the time while running a busy farm with 31 horses along with his core business combining various silica and calcium powder ingredients to make the compound used to make plaster casts used in medical and dental applications – but that’s another story.
I was interested in the medicinal use of cannabis oil but apparently the recreational product is currently much bigger business. The science of the horticulture and propagation of the plants has captured the scientific mind of my host, and of course, the realistic possibility of making around US$2,500 a pound is very motivating. Just a final note, a few have asked, no pot was offered to me or was it requested. The cultivation is in the early stages and the tour was centred around the horticultural and the commercial aspects.
Staying a few nights at place called Bend in the middle of Oregon about three hours south east of Portland. It’s flat wide-open country with endless pine trees and a vast horizon in every direction with a row of mountain peaks rising in the North.
The Bent Wire Ranch has 31 horses, 3 goats, 6 dogs including a Great Dane and some chickens. They are involved in ethology; the study of animal behaviour, specifically, horses and hold regular training sessions and clinics on the property. People bring their horses and they work with them – it’s holistic and it all centres around the animal. Zeno, a trainer from France went into great detail of their methods. She says horses have riders forced on them when the horses are too young and not ready, like 3 years old and their backs can be damaged. She explained how the vertebrae in the back need to strengthen in muscle from 5 years and only ridden from the age of 7. She doesn’t accept the old myth of ‘breaking-in’ a horse saying its cruel and unproductive because the riding life of the horse is shortened. Instead, a horse needs to slowly build muscle between the vertebrae in the back. We walked around the ranch and she showed me some damaged horses. The Ranch is a rest home for a few older horses, the oldest is 27 years, while other horses have come because they have been too difficult for their owners. I learned more about horses from Zeno in half an hour than ever knew before – and no, I didn’t go for a ride.
I’ve been shown around the local town, Tumalo, where we ate at a food truck park and heard a local blues band play. And today into Bend to visit the massive Fred Meyer store that my niece, Hanna, assured me had ‘everything’, – it’s true, the quantity and selection is staggering.
I was looking for some tea and some snacks for my hike. My host has three drawers of teas in their kitchen in every combination of fruit flavours but no black Ceylon tea. With a quick mental conversion I figure the costs of everything in Fred Meyer is about a third less than NZ, but there’s nothing I really need apart from nuts, fruit and tea.
On my hike in Shelving Park reserve I followed a trail through the trees alongside a river. The air smells of pines and there’s a fine dust in the breeze, it’s spring and about 24° C but apparently it’s going to be 29° later in the week. They tell me summers are blazing hot and there’s huge dumps of snow in winter here – seems I’ve come at a good time.
I slept for about 8 hours on an 11 hour flight and I’ll never fly without those Bose QC20 noise-cancelling headphones again. I realise now the constant drone in the cabin is the reason so many people are so exhausted after a long-haul flight – it’s so loud.
Amazing co-incidence to have Jo Baylis from Micheal Park School, her husband and their two youngest girls in the seat behind me. They were flying on to New York to pick up a 1987 Chevrolet Sedan they bought on eBay: driving it across the States to LA and shipping it home – cool.
I asked at San Francisco Airport Information if there was free wifi and realised, as I was saying it, that Silicon Valley is just down the road – well, of course there’s free wifi at the airport.
I’m was in SF airport for four hours waiting for my connecting flight to Portland because someone suggested I leave plenty of time for immigration and security, I even changed my ticket fearing 2 hours would not be enough, but it was unnecessary, I whisked through, got my passport stamped and picked up my bag in 20 minutes. I had enough time to take a ride on the free BART train around the airport, and was even thinking of going into city. You can see the BART trains on their raised monorail tracks slipping in and out of the terminal. It’s was a beautiful clear day with just a touch of chill in the air. Later I flew to old Stumptown – Portland, Oregon.