Wednesday, 30 November 2011

N30 2

This was my view from the Gloucester N30 march today :)

Whilst Bristol had a massive turnout (10,000 according to local radio, 20,000 according to Indymedia), we had our own little shindig up here in Gloucester. An estimated 2,000 turned out, from all the major unions: NHS, Teachers', Unison, GMB - even NAPO (National Association of Probation Officers).


NAPO out in force.

I texted Mum to tell her, as that's her lot, and she replied saying she'd been on the picket line since 8am. Very proud.

So, eventful day. Still hear a number of silly lines by anti-demonstrators though. The two that always make me laugh are:

1. What about my kids? It's very disruptive.

Take this as a wonderful, seldom seen, opportunity to show them democracy in action. Remember all those tiresome wars like Iraq, Egypt and Libya? Yeah, boring, I know, but this minor disruption to your day is a prime example of what people in other countries give their lives for on a regular basis: freedom of speech, expression, and the right to dissent. *yawn, yawn* But hey, it's one day - and some day, your kids might even have something to fight for themselves. So it's good to get them in the swing of things early, so they don't forget that they have civil rights. 

2. What are these Public Sector people whinging about? They get a much better pension than I do in the Private Sector.

Yeah, really weird that inni' - they fight for a better pension, and somehow they manage to get one (or at least hold on to it). It's almost as though there is a link between exercising your civil rights and, err... maintaining them. *shrug* Perhaps the lesson there is - instead of complaining and suggesting that everyone should give up and be worse off, you should have a go at fighting for better yourself. Get organised, form/join/recognise a union and stand together, rather than throwing stones from the sidelines.

Right, that's the world put to rights. Lost a few book sales? Possibly. Feel bad about it? Not a bit. 

March on.


Well, today marks the N30 Strike: 2 Million UK Workers to Protest Against Tory-Led Government Cuts - 'N' in this case standing for November.

The above picture is doing the rounds on Facebook and seems, quite aptly, to sum up the mood.

Harks back to Captain SKA's catchy tune Liar Liar, released last October, forewarning of the situation we now face.

'Half a million jobs' seems a little conservative (pardon the pun) in retrospect.

Wednesday 30 November will see the first mass strike across Britain for four decades, as public sector workers protest against pension cuts.

Some 17 unions, including the biggest ones Unite, University and College Union (UCU), Unison, various teaching unions and Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), have all balloted to join the national Day of Action.

An estimated 3 million people will withhold their labour, and many other actions are planned to highlight the injustices brought about by government spending cuts and austerity measures - which have produced a downturn rather than an upswing in the economy, and are harming the country's capacity to repay debt as well as support its most vulnerable citizens, say critics. - Ekklesia

There was a nice little note posted by Facebooker, Lord Leigh Park:

When the government decide we can have a day off for the royal wedding it doesn't damage the economy, but when the workers decide to strike for a day it costs the UK economy half a billion ... is there something funny going on?

To which a follow up posted by Stephanie Henderson pointed out:

They failed to report on approx £290M saved in wages and, funnily enough, pension contributions for the day....

Well quite, and indeed.

I'm off to help make up the numbers in Gloucester later. If you're wondering whether the strikes will affect your day-to-day, there's a helpful list on the BBC.

Monday, 28 November 2011

MissFire at Gloucester Quays

This was the scene at Gloucester Quays last Saturday as Victorian England reinstated itself for a Christmas market along the docks.

With a pork roll in one hand (complete with crackling) and a cup of mulled wine in the other, I munched my way around the stalls.

(click to enlarge)
Having just driven back from visiting friends in the Diff, on four hours' sleep, it wasn't long before I had to retreat to the warmth and comfort of home. However, one stall in particular caught my attention.

Each year it's traditional for me to head to the Christmas display at Clearwell Caves in the Forest of Dean. One of my favourite places in the country. It's an ancient mine and they have an underground forge. A little while back it was taken over by a female Smith - MissFire.

(Image from MissFire's website)
Her name is Clare Robertson. If you visit Clearwell you will find her work on sale in the shop. You can also find examples of her work online. It was lovely to see her at the Victorian Market. She is extremely talented.

Seeker by MissFire

With that, I meandered home for a nice cup of hot cocoa. 

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Armenia Part IV: Cognac

Yep, that's what I do for a living :)

Well, this was the last trip - therefore the last post about Armenia. No more rocks, promise.

This time I spent my day off enjoying the sights around Yerevan with my friend Makrita. We started at a Christmas fair with lots of handmade and traditional crafts. Including a display of vana katou (white swimming cats!). 

Other delights included:


I received a beautiful Armenian scarf as a leaving present. It's that time of year to start wearing it again. 

Next, we headed to the Matenadaran: National Institute of Ancient Manuscripts. This is a building of epic proportions, housing some of the oldest books in the world.

The Armenian collection at the Matenadaran is abundantly rich in manuscripts dealing in all fields of the humanities, but particularly historiography and philosophy...
The Armenian collection is also composed of 2,500 Armenian illuminated manuscripts, which include such prominent examples as the Echmiadzin Gospel (989) and the Mugni Gospels (1060). Another prominent manuscript in the collection is a 632 page, 80 lb. calendar made out of calf skin, which dates back to the 15th century. The calendar was found by two Armenian women in an Armenian monastery in the Ottoman Empire during World War I, and because it was found to be too heavy to be carried, it was split into two: one half was wrapped in a cloth and buried, while the second half was taken to Georgia. A couple years later, a Polish officer found the first half and sold it to an officer in Baku. It eventually was brought to Armenia and the two halves were finally reattached together. - Wiki
It was truly fascinating to see what the ancient inks and pens were made from. Something that impressed me most was that, in Armenia, there seemed to be very little schism between church and philosophy. It wasn't considered heretical to discuss ideas such as the world being round, or medical theories. This meant that there were a lot of copies of extremely ancient philosophical and scientific works that may well have been burned in places such as Britain. 

I forgot to mention, during the trip to Geghard, we stopped at a beauty spot dedicated to the Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak, overlooking the Ararat valley where he liked to sit and write. Some speculate that he was killed by the KGB for being outspoken against the Soviet regime.

Paruyr Sevak's Spot

View of the Ararat Valley
It was a bit too cloudy to see Mount Ararat clearly. The dark band in the distance marks the border between Armenia and Turkey. Ararat was once in Armenia, and remains the symbol of Armarvia Air.

We rounded off the day with a trip to the Ararat Brandy Company in Yerevan.

The adult version of
winning the golden ticket.

Armenian cognac is considered so fine that both Stalin and Churchill ordered supplies. As shown in an illustrative theatrical sketch above. Makrita's interpreting skills came in handy here.

The Peace Barrel. Only to be opened once a peaceful reconciliation has been found between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh.

That's the way to do it.
We received a lesson in cognac drinking from a living statue. Apparently you should hold the glass against your heart to warm it. I can assure you, this is indeed the way to do it - I practiced at the hotel bar afterwards.

"What's that Makrita? You want
me to stand just here...?"
A wonderful end to a full-on couple of months. It was all plain sailing after that (literally, I had to take the ferry home because snow grounded my flight!)

I really enjoyed my time in Armenia and would highly recommend it as a country to visit. Massive amounts of history. 

I leave you with a picture of another fond memory. Hotel Aviatrans did a stunning BBQ sandwich. Three stories high it was!

Cognac Antidote

See Also:

The Schiphol Saga

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Armenia Part III: Carahunge

By my second trip to Armenia, I was prepared. I'd had a chance to peruse the electronic information guide at the reception of my hotel, and learned that Armenia has its very own Stonehenge!

Now that I had to see.

My Yerevan abode - Hotel Avitrans

On the Saturday, after returning from Tsakhkadzor, I went out for drinks with colleagues (by this time friends) and we headed to a jazz bar to see a world-famous musician. So famous that I've forgotten his name *blush* But he did play the clarinet exceedingly well.

We went for drinks beforehand at a lovely place with live music.

Pre-Jazz Drinks

Another totally excellent feature of Yerevan is that every Sunday between 9-11pm, the fountains in Republic Square (just around the corner from my hotel) start to dance! There's a huge music and light spectacular. People stand around talking, kids skating, popcorn sellers. It's got a lovely communal feel to it.

Fountains in Republic Square
(click to enlarge)

That's the townie bit over. If rocks bore you, look away now.

The journey to Carahunge is pretty epic. It was about a seven hour round trip. Few people attempt it in one go. Most join a tour, but I had to catch a flight the next day. I hired a trusty driver and vehicle from Hyur, and off we went.

I did feel every minute of those seven hours, but it was a great opportunity to get out of the city and see rural Armenia. My driver had a real penchant for Louis Armstrong, which helped pass the time. Think we got through every song he'd ever done.

We parked up on the road and I began my soletary journey along a dusty track in the direction he told me the stones were in. It was a trust exercise.

Approaching the Stones

Carahunge, Karahunj, Zorats Karer (Zorat's Stones) - this is Armenia’s Stonehenge. The site may be as old as 7,500 years, and the central grave dates to around 2,000 BC.
The site is located on a rocky promontory near Sisian. About 223 large stone tombs can be found in the area. It was explored by a team of archaeologists from the Institut für Vorderasiatische Archäologie, University of Munich who published their findings in 2000. They concluded that "in contrast to the opinion that Zorakarer may be called an Armenian Stonehenge", Zorats Karer "was mainly a necropolis from the Middle Bronze Age to the Iron Age." The Munich archaeologists add that it may have served "as a place of refuge in times of war", possibly in the Hellenistic - Roman period (c. 300 BC - 300 AD). A wall of rocks and compacted soil (loam) was built around the site with vertical rocks plugged into it for reinforcement: today only these upright rocks remain. - Wiki
From the above description, it sounds - and looks - a little more like Avebury, which was constructed around 2,600 BC and contains a deep trench around the outer rocks.

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
You might notice the holes in the stones at the top of this post, and the top right, above. In the UK these are sometimes called 'spirit holes,' especially with dolmens, which would originally have been buried underneath an earth mound. The idea being, in folklore, that the holes were left so that the spirits of the dead could come and go.

A more practical explanation is that they were used for astronomy:

About 84 of the stones feature a circular hole, although only about 50 of the stones survive. They have been of interest to Russian and Armenian archaeoastronomists who have suggested that the standing stones could have been used for astronomical observation. This suggestion was made by observers who noted four stone holes which could be claimed to be sighted at the point on the horizon where the sun rises on midsummer's day. Four others standing stones display holes which observers claimed point where the sun sets on the same day. However, this must remain conjectural as the holes are relatively unweathered and may not even be prehistoric in origin. - Wiki
I have to admit to never having seen so many spirit holes at one site. Usually you only see one or two. Although I'm the first to jump at a spiritual solution, because I love the mystery of these places, one might practically conclude that perhaps they had something to do with how the stones got there. 

It's long baffled anthropologists and archaeologists just how such huge rocks ended up in these remote, hilltop locations. As unromantic as it sounds, you could probably fit a sturdy pole through one of those holes.

Spirit holes can be quite good fun, though. Below is a picture (left) of a dog at Caragunge. On the right is 'Cow in a Dolmen,' taken at St. Lythans in South Wales. Click for a better view.

Genius Loci

On arrival, I immediately made a friend. She had no ears, and a severe tick infestation, but also that friendly, gentle spirit about her which indicated that she was a manifestation of the Genius Loci of Carahunge. This is one of my all-time favourite photos, taken by two fellow enthusiasts passing by:

Me and the Genius Loci of Carahunge
I had such a wonderful time at the stones. The views were incredible and there was such a peaceful feel to the place. It was a vast site. Once again, I couldn't help marvelling that you find these places as far apart as Mongolia and the Outer Hebrides. Once upon a time, half the population of the globe considered building these things to be a fantastic idea. Yet none of us can remember why. Rather funny when you think about it.


I won't lie, it's quite a trek. But if you like this sort of thing, I hugely  recommend going. It's an incredible sight.

See Also:

Armenia Part II: Geghard & Garni
Armenia Part I: Sevan

Monday, 21 November 2011

Armenia Part II: Geghard & Garni

This was where Hyur Tourist Company came into their own. For the equivalent of around £40 I hired a 4x4, driver, and English-speaking guide for the afternoon and headed off to see what Armenia had to offer.

It's hardly any surprise that I leapt at the chance to see the last Pagan temple in Transcaucasia. Hyur do a package tour, so I also went via an astounding monastery.

Geghard is a 4th century monastery, carved out of the same mountains where early Christians hid in exile. According to another blog: " was built to house a relic, a spear of Jesus' body."

You arrive along a winding road through the hills, past a stone statue of a lioness. She is a symbol of strength and protection, welcoming all who visit, as the monastery was also a safehold. The hills are surprisingly green. Trees were planted around the 5th century by the King at the time, who wanted a forest populated by woodland animals for the aristocracy to hunt.

Click any of the pictures for a better view...

Road to Geghard

Geghard: 4th century church carved into the mountain.
Nowhere in Armenia would be complete without cross stones.

This rock fell out of the mountains during one of the many earthquakes throughout history. As it didn't kill anyone, it was left there as a symbol of good luck.

Talking of earthquakes (and I've done quite a bit of talking about earthquakes) the ornate carving around this door isn't just beautiful - it's actually stress absorbent, and was apparently created as a stability measure against earthquakes. Must have worked as it's still standing.

The further into the church you go, the further into the cliff you are walking.

In one chamber there was a natural spring, considered holy. People come to fill up water bottles and wash themselves. I just had a little sip and dipped my feet, hoping for a safe journey ahead.

Sacred Spring
Talking of sacred springs - look what else I found outside:

Can you spot the wishing tree (top right)?

Geghard has some truly amazing architecture. It wasn't until I got home that I realised I was being watched...

People peeping!
The most memorable moment came right at the end. Shortly before leaving, I ascended some steps into a cave at the very back, where a women's choir were singing. It was like nothing on earth. The entire mountain reverberated with their voices; drowning in sound. So beautiful.

Cave Choir
Truly a magical moment.

Outside were several stalls selling fruit sujukh, which Makrita describes as an 'Armenian Mars Bar'. It's a string of walnuts covered with dried grape juice. Like a big sugary candle. I sat munching on it all the way to Garni.

I was extremely excited about going to Garni. As I mentioned, it's the last standing Pagan temple in the whole of Transcaucasia. It was built towards the tail end of the Pagan era, around 300 BC, but was settled around 3,000 BC - when a lot of stone circles were being erected in the UK, including Stonehenge.

The temple was dedicated to Mithra (known in Armenia as Mihr). Funnily enough, I had just finished reading Jeff Lindsay's third novel in the Dexter series: Dexter in the Dark. It added an extra, entertaining, dimension.

The 'Free River' which began at the waterfall in Geghard.
Garni has its very own Giant's Causeway!
Called The Symphony of Stones.
Temple of Mihr at Garni
Altar and Fire Pit
The interior is very small. A stone slab is missing from the floor, where they used to light fires. It would have been incredibly hot inside. The crowd would gather for sacrifices, but no blood was allowed to be spilt inside the temple, so they erected sacrificial plinths outside. Practical thinking.

Sacrificial Plinths
The carvings apparently depict Atlas, holding up the sky. He faces East and West towards the rising and setting sun, depicting the birth and death of life.

Roman Bath
It is said that the reason Garni was spared demolition was because the King's wife asked for it as a gift. She considered it to be the most beautiful of the pagan places. A Roman-style bath house was built there. Steam would filter through into three rooms of varying temperature. The mosaic held an inscription which read: "We worked but received nothing." Nobody is entirely sure whether this was a disgruntled message from the masons, or a tongue-in-cheek comment that 'now work is over, we'll relax in the bath house'.

The last beautiful surprise was this:

As well as being the first country to turn Christian, Armenia also holds the first recorded Swastikas (Sanskrit: to be well). This astounded me, as I had always thought it to be India. My guide explained that, unlike some traditions, it doesn't matter which direction the symbol is spinning in Armenia, both directions mean good luck.

I felt unbelievably privileged having the chance to see this ancient site. I had expressly gone there to see the temple, but discovered Geghard en route. It was an incredible day. I fully admit that, when I received the posting, I wasn't entirely sure where Armenia was. I couldn't even name its neighbours (Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Iran). However, having been, I would hugely recommend everyone to go. Tomorrow. Book your flight! 

See Also:

Armenia Part I: Sevan