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GOD AND BUBBLES: What God and science say about climate change, environmental catastrophe and how to be prepared

The theme of this blog came to me following an inspired exchange with a friend (who happens to be a God-fearing and sensitive Muslim) about the fact most people go about in their own little bubbles, unaware of and largely unconcerned about what is going on in the world around them. The context of our conversation was the consequences of gross social and political injustice and environmental disaster, two items that have been highlighted during this time of lockdown and remain at the forefront of the news through issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time, I felt inspired to comment that if you think about it, the whole time we are in our mother’s womb, we are in a bubble, protected in “the secret place, where [I was] woven together in the depths of the earth” (Psalm 139: 15). As we are born and continue our journey through to adulthood, most of us tend to remain in this same self-oriented bubble, generally only aware of or concerned about our immediate spheres, e.g. our own lives and circumstances, or perhaps we may extend our bubble to include our family, friends, churches, immediate communities or our individual nations. Very few of us, it seems, deeply or daily consider the lives and needs of other individuals and communities around the world, or are aware of how our individual and collective actions as a nation affect others — including the approximately one million species presently at risk of extinction, largely as a result of human activity — who share space on our planet. And yet we know our Father is constantly aware of and attentive to even the death of one single sparrow (Matthew 10:29). Shouldn’t we be likewise attuned? And where is the church’s voice in all of this?

This is what I hope to address in this blog — to understand what God has to say about the kinds of ‘bubbles’ He provides by looking at the promises indicated by Psalm 91 and reflecting on how Jesus read these, as well as to consider His call to us as Christians to imitate His Son, who as we know left the comfortable ‘bubble’ of Heaven to come to Earth, because “God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” John 3:16) — in which case this may mean breaking out of our own bubbles of self- and/or immediate-bubble absorption in order to make a loving, positive, just and lasting impact on our world.

We enter the world in a bubble of protective fluid in our mothers’ wombs — the amniotic sac where we were “woven in secret” (Ps. 139:15)
(Credit: http://nitidlife.com/)

Media: ‘fake’ news, bad news and selective inputs

It seems implausible we could still be so entrenched in our own worlds and positions, and remain largely unaware of what is happening elsewhere in the world when the resources we have available today through commercial travel and technology have truly made us all global citizens. While it might make sense if, as in past centuries, we still lived in remote, unconnected communities and were dependent on messages being delivered by horseback or carrier pigeon, that is hardly the case now.

Alexander Graham Bell, father of the
telephone (Credit: Biography.com)

Ever since Alexander Graham Bell first dreamed the telephone into existence, the revolution in communication has continued apace — now, even in emerging economies such as Indonesia, Brazil or Nigeria, up to 83% own a mobile (cell)phone, 60% use the internet (World Wide Web) and 49% use social media (2018 statistics); and now even the harshest and most remote continent, Antarctica, is being opened up for touristic exploration. Surely, if anything, we should be all too aware of what is happening outside of our own bubbles rather than remaining ignorant?

Unfortunately, being bombarded constantly with an excess of information — which, with the proliferation of ‘alternative’ digital news sources such as various social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, You Tube, etc), is unavoidable these days, unless you live in a desert with no Wi-Fi access — can have the effect of causing people to feel unbearably overwhelmed. Along with the tandem development of an increase in ‘fake news’, unsubstantiated rumours and non-fact-checked reports circulated both via unreliable news sources as well as on social media, many people elect to switch off entirely — or worse, only tune in to those channels that promote views and coverage of things that confirm their own biases, fears or prejudices. The facility for critical thinking, informed praying and general awareness is thus further harmed, often having the opposite effect of enforcing and even narrowing our bubbles to the point of irrelevance.

Yet the plain and uncomfortable fact is some of the things we have access to daily information and updates on — e.g. the impacts of climate change — have the potential to affect all lives on the planet drastically in a very short timeframe indeed, even within our own life span. We can try to tune it out, as many news channels appear determined to do, with frivolous information on celebrities’ lives or other less-challenging titbits, but we certainly cannot claim we didn’t have the ability to access the information and so become aware of what is happening, because we do. It is available 24/7, any time we desire to find out, on the Internet.

Extinction Rebellion protestors, whose climate anxiety is expressed in the motto ‘Love and Rage’, occupy London’s Oxford Street in October 2019

Of course, there are also those on the other end of the spectrum, for whom awareness of climate and other emergencies is indeed very real, and whose sense of rage, despair and helplessness to alter the world’s current trajectory is a very real thing. They are the ones actually reading the increasingly frequent scientific and other reports warning of impending climatic doom, and becoming activists (or, as some would have it, anarchists). To most people, they undoubtedly sound like Noah, constantly banging on with the negative news of potential flooding from massive sea-level rises due to melting polar ice caps. But on the whole, they remain a small minority, especially within the church. How is that? Surely if such things are indeed coming, we would all be hearing from God about it?   

But… perhaps He is speaking, even via these ‘negative’ scientific or secular reports, and we are simply not listening? Perhaps our personal theology or churches encourage a convenient climate denialism — or we believe that once things get near the point of no return (as, in fact, we are by most accounts already reaching), God will somehow intervene and rapture us out? Or for those who aren’t sold on the idea of a supernatural ‘beaming up’ of God’s people, surely our leaders will ensure underground bunkers will be available on the Earth when we need them, or perhaps scientists will yet figure out how small colonies of earthlings can restart on Mars or other habitable planets? After all, didn’t He give Noah enough warning so he could build a boat and rescue enough genetic material through the pairs of species he crammed on the ark to restart life on Earth after the Flood?

God’s terrarium

The Earth is like God’s terrarium as it is covered with a protective bubble, the atmosphere

In thinking further about the womb / bubble analogy, we can easily extend this concept and apply it to our planet as a whole. We know from science and Nasa pictures that our Earth itself is enrobed in a protective bubble, the atmosphere. This atmospheric bubble is what makes life possible on our planet; without it, we would not survive.

Our planet is the only known planet within our solar system with an oxygen-rich atmosphere that is capable of sustaining life. Whether you believe life exists on other planets, galaxies or solar systems (outer space), or perhaps once existed on other moons within our own solar system, there is nothing presently to substantiate the existence of life anywhere else but here on Earth. It remains unique, and we as beings who are capable of having a relationship with God are also unique.

With all of the other amazing diversity of flora, fauna, terrains, microclimates and elements on our planet, this marvellous biome we inhabit is effectively God’s terrarium — as we are told in Isaiah 40:22: “He sits enthroned above the circle of the Earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

Life on Earth would not exist at all without a set of very exact and unique conditions, which for believers are sure evidence of the handprint of God

On further consideration of the unique properties of our planet’s design, we can clearly see the very precise handprint of God in many other aspects. Astonishingly, life on Earth would not exist at all without a series of very exact conditions — for example, our sun is stable and its position in relation to other stars and forces in the galaxy renders it safe from other hazardous forces in the galaxy such as gravitational pulls, collapsing stars (supernovae) and gamma-ray bursts.

Also, Earth’s position in relation to the sun allows it to receive just enough energy to allow water to exist as a liquid on the surface; any closer and the liquid would evaporate, any further and it would turn to ice. But it is specifically thanks to our planet’s particular bubble — its fantastic, life-protecting atmosphere — that Earth is shielded from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, meteors and other space debris. Our atmosphere absorbs heat from the sun by using gases to trap the heat (a natural phenomenon known as ‘the greenhouse effect’), thereby helping to regulate its temperatures to the exact degrees possible to sustain life — just as you would ensure tropical plants survive in your own greenhouse.

Further, there are six layers of protective gases that comprise our atmosphere — roughly 78% nitrogen, 20% oxygen, 0.93% argon and 0.04% carbon dioxide, along with other smaller trace elements of neon, methane, helium, krypton, hydrogen and water vapour. These make up our relatively thin atmosphere (the thicker part of it is 300 miles; some of the higher bands extend further, but most of it — specifically, the ozone — is only ca. 15–20 miles from the planet’s surface). These six layers are:

Layers of the atmosphere – Credit: Randy Russell, UCAR
  1. the troposphere, which is the air we breathe; this is the layer closest to the Earth’s surface;
  2. the stratosphere, where planes fly and where the ozone region lies;
  3. the mesosphere, which begins about 50km from the surface;
  4. the thermosphere, which is where the aurora occur, and where the International Space Station (ISS) and other space shuttles and satellites circle the Earth;
  5. the exosphere, which is the upper limit of our atmosphere, which extends halfway to the Moon or further into outer space; and
  6. the ionosphere — a dynamic, fluid region of electrons and ionised atoms critical to Sun–Earth interactions, which also makes radio communications possible.  

According to scientists, the high-altitude (roughly 15–35km above the Earth) ozone layer that floats within the stratosphere came into being through early plant-like organisms that emitted oxygen into the atmosphere. Typically, ozone is created when ultraviolet (UV) light strikes ordinary oxygen molecules and causes them to split into two oxygen atoms (O2); the O2 atoms then combine with unbroken oxygen to create ozone (O3). The ozone atoms then create a layer of UV ray-screening gas, which acts as a kind of blanket around the Earth, shielding us from harmful, cancer-causing UV radiation. The thickness of the ozone layer over the Earth fluctuates with the seasons and latitudes, with higher concentrations typically in the northern latitudes.

Therefore, we can see that even in the intelligent design of our home, God foresaw the need for a protective bubble to shield us from the impact of the sun — and without it, we cannot survive. The bubble He designed to protect us is secure and stable, and yet….

Holes in Earth’s bubble: warnings of warming

Sadly, this very unique bubble (atmosphere) that protects life on Earth is now seriously under threat — and even more sadly, from the very beings it was designed to protect.

Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903

The first prediction of global warming due to excesses of carbon dioxide in the stratosphere — and thus negatively impacting the protective blanket of ozone — was actually made as far back as 1896 by Nobel prize-winning Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, who used the principles of basic chemistry to estimate the extent to which increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere raise the Earth’s surface temperature. Arrhenius proved that even the slightest raises in carbon dioxide levels could upset the delicate balances our Creator set to control the atmosphere and temperatures on Earth, thereby causing a negative ‘greenhouse effect’ of heat-trapping gases and water vapour that could potentially redirect harmful radiation back to the Earth and result in an unstable and non-life-sustainable warming of the Earth’s global mean temperature.

This theory was picked up again in the 1960s, when American scientist David Keeling recorded a progressive build-up of levels of carbon dioxide at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He noted that carbon dioxide had become higher in modern times than at any other time in recorded human history, and was the first to make the connection between human-caused (anthropogenic) warming of the Earth’s atmosphere through the influx of manmade carbon dioxide-emitting instruments such as cars, airplanes and factories. Scientists agree that since the 1880s — after the Industrial Revolution had been in effect for several decades —Earth’s average surface temperature had already increased by 2°F/1°C, and that human-caused increases of carbon dioxide and releases of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere were the likely culprits.

But the excess of man-made carbon-dioxide emissions is not the only worrying chemical culprit in the global-warming scenario.

Scientists have confirmed the ozone shield is being
depleted well beyond natural levels

Since the 1970s, scientists have observed a steady depletion in the amount of ozone (O3) in the stratosphere, along with some sizeable pockets (ozone holes) of thinning ozone layers, specifically around the Earth’s polar regions. Although a certain amount of ozone depletion in the atmosphere occurs naturally as a result of sunspots, latitudes and seasonal fluctuations, scientific evidence has confirmed that the ozone shield is being depleted well beyond natural levels. This ozone depletion occurs because of the interaction of chlorine and bromine atoms with ozone atoms; one chlorine atom is able to destroy 100,000 ozone molecules.

Most of the chlorine in the upper atmosphere (stratosphere) is a result of human activities, as the human-produced halocarbons frequently used in refrigeration, aerosols and cleaning chemicals — such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) —are not breaking down chemically in the lower atmosphere so ascending to the stratosphere, where they destroy ozone atoms, thereby letting in more UV radiation to the Earth.

While God did give man dominion over the Earth and all its creatures (Genesis 1:26), He did not give man dominion over the heavens. We may have discovered ways to launch planes, rockets and satellites into the atmosphere, thus disrupting what He intended to serve as our protective bubble, but this is precisely without His express direction — and, as we are now aware, there are grave consequences as a result of man’s careless interference with the atmosphere and perhaps through his attempts to gain dominion over it through space exploration, the impacts of which on contributing to our ozone holes are as yet unknown. We may have rattled God’s terrarium in seeking to be gods ourselves, but arguably this is now being reflected back to us now as a warning we have overstepped our bounds (or bubble).

Unfortunately, as ozone can be depleted much more rapidly than it can be created naturally, this has led to the increasing size of the ozone holes over the arctic regions. These are not really ‘holes’, but rather a large area of the stratosphere with very low amounts of ozone. Since 1985, the large gap or ‘hole’ of ozone-rich content over the continent of Antarctica has been observed getting gradually larger and deeper each springtime, with a corresponding increase in ozone depletion over the Arctic and more densely populated regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The thinning ozone, combined with the presence of carbon dioxide-loaded air pollution in this region, is letting in greater degrees of UV radiation, which is in turn accelerating the Earth’s warming and adding record heat waves in previously frozen northern areas.

The infamous Thomas Fire ravages Foothill Road in Ventura, California on 12/5/17 (Credit: Patti Antilla, via Pinterest)

Trials by wildfires

The traditionally frozen regions of Siberia saw a record heatwave on 17 June 2020, with temperatures reaching 100.4°F/38°C, sparking worldwide alarm among scientists and others. Simultaneously, the prevalence of forest fires in the region saw an unprecedented threefold increase, with a whopping 4.3 million hectares destroyed by out-of-control blazes in 2019.

Along the nine million square miles / over 23 million square kilometres of Arctic landmass, the rapid acceleration of climate change is radically altering the landscape and lifestyles of indigenous peoples. Animals such as beavers that previously lived in warmer climates are suddenly flocking to this newly warming and more habitable land. While scientists might have expected the tundra to thaw gradually, the fact is that it is thawing almost literally overnight — and the entire Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Not only is this abrupt change to a radically different climate profile truly alarming, but it signals the development of other problems, which are in fact all linked to global warming’s vicious cycle.

As more trees burn and the previously frozen areas of tundra in Siberia, Alaska, Greenland, Scandinavia, Canada and other Arctic regions begin to melt, more carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere. This phenomenon is not only occurring in polar regions, but across the world, as wildfires due to global heating are on the rise — in recent summers, much of California on the US West Coast has been on fire, and the Amazon rainforests has suffered some of the worst fire ravages, with 4.6 million acres of irreplaceable carbon sink destroyed in 2019 alone.

These wildfires not only destroy the trees that act as the Earth’s natural filters for removing carbon dioxide and ensure we have cleaner air to breathe, but the carbon dioxide released through the fires also unleashes other harmful greenhouse gases which, in addition to further carbon dioxide, continue to warm the planet. And as a warmer Earth is also a drier Earth, this contributes to the escalation of further forest fires — thus becoming a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction.

But the worst may still be yet to come. The wildfires and thawing frozen ground are exposing wide swathes of long-dead ancient matter such as frozen plants and animals, some of them remnants of the last Ice Age that have lain buried under the permafrost for millennia (or perhaps longer). As these hit the warming air and begin to thaw and then decompose, they release other destructive, climate-warming gases, including methane. Tundra is one of the world’s largest carbon sinks; it has effectively trapped huge bubbles of methane gas under its permafrost, which scientists warn further warming and thawing could unleash as much as 240 billion tons / 243.85 billion tonnes of carbon, or 1,400 gigatons, into the atmosphere.

What’s more, many as-yet-undetermined pathogens and bacteria also lie dormant under the permafrost — if we thought the Covid-19 pandemic was alarming, we likely haven’t seen anything yet.

What is certain is that if these harmful gases continue to escape into our atmosphere, they will accelerate warming to an uninhabitable degree for man and the other creatures on Earth. Our planet could ultimately become like Venus — at 900°F / 465°C, it is the hottest planet in our solar system, with a runaway greenhouse effect caused by clouds that trap the heat in a dense atmosphere composed mostly (96%) of carbon dioxide, with nitrogen, carbon monoxide, sulfuric acids and other gases, and only trace amounts of water — although some scientists consider it may at one point have been habitable. However, if you were looking for a literal manifestation of the Biblical descriptions of Hell, Venus would surely fit that!

Is global warming how God will judge the world by fire?

We know that God, through His promises, which cannot be broken, made a covenant with Noah after the flood, assuring him that “Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the Earth. I will put my rainbow in the sky as a sign to you and every living creature of my promise, which will last forever” (Genesis 9:11–12).

He also promised that “As long as the Earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease” (Gen. 8:22) — so even during any of the former ice ages and times of global heating, there will still be seasonal fluctuations in temperatures on the surface of the Earth, as these are regulated by Earth tilting on its access at an angle of approximately 23.4 degrees (note: Earth’s tilt may vary slightly every 40,000 years; it is possible some variation in climate conditions affecting glacial rebound and land mass may affect this further).  

If we choose to take God at His word, that means even with scientists claiming that climate change is melting ice caps and raising sea levels that could ultimately swamp low-lying coastal regions, flood cities and wipe out many islands across the world (and God only knows what will happen or be released when the 400+ lakes or “springs of the great deep” [Gen. 7:11] hidden on the frozen continent of Antarctica, and under the Ross Ice Shelf and Thwaites Glacier are released), that isn’t going to happen — at least not as the final judgement / apocalypse that will wipe out the Earth. Instead, 2 Peter 3:7 makes it clear that “By the same word, the present heavens and Earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgement and destruction of ungodly men”. So those of us who know and believe in God and the revelation of His word know that when God decides to judge the Earth, it will be destroyed by fire rather than by flooding.

I confess that, having grown up in the US at a time when the collective fear of nuclear bombs wiping us all out featured heavily in the news and in popular culture, and was being circulated as yet another excuse for yet another war, it seemed a given this would likely be the way the world would end. To quote a line from the Kingston trio’s ‘The Merry Minuet’, “And we know for certain that some lovely day, someone will set the spark off, and we will all be blown away.” Perhaps more relevant to today’s growing recognition of the impacts of climate change are the last lines of the son, which go on to say, “What nature doesn’t do to us will be done by our fellow man.”

The End is Near Due To Global Warming/The End is Near due to Nuclear Winter (© Harley Schwadron)

When I later became a Christian, I considered the Earth’s destruction by nuclear war was clearly what was meant by the passage in 2 Peter 3:10 that says, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the Earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.” Although the threat of a human-caused nuclear apocalypse is objectively still very real (apparently nine countries — China, India, the US, Israel, France, the UK, Russia and North Korea —now have a combined 16,000 nuclear warheads, which is enough to destroy our planet several times over), the pace with which the Earth is heating and the impact on the ozone in our polar regions is happening so rapidly, this seems to be a far more likely cause of our planet’s fiery demise.

If the present thinning ozone around the poles — those gaps in our protective atmospheric bubble — continue to increase, the chances of Earth being struck by a meteor or other space debris, or burned up through intense UV radiation heat and noxious gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, are very high indeed.

Man and nature: a warning about stewardship

As the lines of the Kingston Trio song cited above indicate, while we may be experiencing a temporary hiatus from the kind of man-made disasters that can obliterate the planet, nature — or God through nature, if you will — is doing plenty to us at present: we have increasingly unstable weather patterns, a rapidly changing climate, an increase in devastating hurricanes, floods and earthquakes, and, of course, our current global pandemic crisis.

Make no mistake about the coronavirus pandemic: there is an exact correlation between our out-of-control killing, eating, exploiting and abusing of wild animals, and the pandemic we are now experiencing, along with others that may soon head our way, which are typically zoonotic in origin (e.g. spread to humans through wild animals). Studies have shown coronavirus is linked to one of the most commonly illegally trafficked animals, the pangolin.

A frequent victim of the so-called ‘wet markets’ in Asia, where they are sold for meat and their scales for use in traditional ‘medicine’, this shy, scale-covered creature — a primitive form of anteater, but in fact their own taxonomic order — is now among the world’s most endangered animals, with all eight species variations (four in Asia, four in Africa) on the red list, and two on the critical list. And if all of them go, there will be nothing like them left on the Earth.

All eight species of pangolin in Africa and Asia — the creature thought to be behind the coronavirus crisis — are at risk of extinction (Credit: Wikipedia)

Surely our God, who created all of the wonderfully unique and fantastic diversity of species such as the pangolin, cares about the fact a full one million of His creatures are now threatened with extinction (some estimates put this at one-quarter of all species), with several of His most beautiful, unique and oldest animals on the critically endangered list? And surely, He will also hold us accountable for the death and decimation of these creatures at our hands?

Before the Fall, man was only allowed to eat from fruit-bearing trees in the garden (Earth) God had commanded man to look after and tend (Gen. 2:15­16). Yet post-Fall and Flood, God gave dominion over all creatures to man, and all creatures were now allowed to be eaten for food. As God told Noah in Genesis 9:2–3, “Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.”

Most Bible commentaries suggest Genesis 9:4–5 (“But you must not eat meat that has its life blood still in it”) means we are to respect the fact that it was only because of sin that He now allowed animal meat consumption, but we were still to ensure that no animal was consumed alive or cruelly, and to respect the soul of the animal that was contained in its blood — so as not to partake of its flesh lightly.

If God is aware of and concerned by the death of a single sparrow, surely we should be alarmed about species extinction (Credit: Dreamstime)

Despite the above, there is no Biblical indication that man has ever been excepted from the work of looking after God’s creation, including all of the animals that share the Earth with humans. As the ‘Second Adam’ and as our Redeemer and model of being free from the curse of sin and death that was set in motion by the Fall, Jesus told His disciples that “not one single sparrow falls to the ground without your heavenly Father knowing about it” (Matthew 10:29). While Jesus then goes on to speak of how God has numbered every human hair, this does not in any way detract from the previous statement’s revelation of His care for every single tiny sparrow. Therefore, we must believe that God cares for every single animal, bird, fish and insect on Earth — and He expects us to do so also.

As others have suggested, the presence of pandemics such as coronavirus may well be nature’s — or at least the threatened pangolins’ — revenge against humans for taking animals’ lives cruelly and with their blood still intact, as in the wet markets where they are sold and often consumed alive. If we humans have broken this law, and have so grossly failed in our calling to be stewards of the Earth, it stands to reason that all of the other laws on which our Earth depends for its stability may also be shaken — and we know that God has promised in several places in both the Old and New Testaments, most notably in Hebrews 12:26 and Haggai 2:6, that He will “yet once more shake both the heavens and the Earth”.

Therefore, it seems our present situation, along with all the other radical climatic changes taking place on our planet, are in fact God’s messengers shouting at us to wake up before it is too late — before the bubble of His protection is removed and the Earth enters into the time of His final judgement.

Christians and God’s protective bubble

In view of all these things, how should believers — those who know Jesus, are redeemed by His blood, and are part of the Bride Jesus said He will be coming back for — supposed to respond in the face of such imminent potential catastrophes? Should we simply believe in and trust in God’s protection and ultimate redemption, and get on with the business of living our lives as faithful witnesses? Or should we remain informed, watchful, praying and actively preaching and witnessing, trying to wake others up to prepare them for potential hardships and hopefully to lead them to repentance and a saving knowledge of Christ?

Although there are many passages in the Bible that speak of God’s supernatural protection and deliverance in times of trial, Psalm 91 is perhaps one of the best-known and most relevant, particularly during this current situation with the Covid-19 pandemic:

3"Surely he will save you
    from the fowler’s snare
    and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
    and under his wings you will find refuge;
    his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.
You will not fear the terror of night,
    nor the arrow that flies by day,
nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness,
    nor the plague that destroys at midday.
A thousand may fall at your side,
    ten thousand at your right hand,
    but it will not come near you.
You will only observe with your eyes
    and see the punishment of the wicked.
If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
    and you make the Most High your dwelling,
10 no harm will overtake you,
    no disaster will come near your tent.
11 For he will command his angels concerning you
    to guard you in all your ways;
12 they will lift you up in their hands,
    so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.
1You will tread on the lion and the cobra;
    you will trample the great lion and the serpent."

As the psalm states above, God does indeed promise to protect His faithful flock from plague and pestilence — defined in Collins dictionary as “any disease that spreads quickly and kills large numbers of people” such as Covid-19. This passage assures us that if we look to God in faith, and take refuge under the protective ‘bubble’ of His wings, He will protect us; the plague will bypass us and not even come near us, even if scores of people around us become infected and die, as we are aware is presently happening all around the world.

As wonderful and reassuring as this is, it does not mean that Christians should become complacent about God’s protection, which shows a deep lack of respect or proper fear (as in awe) of God — or is even foolhardy. Considering some American right-wing evangelicals have reportedly died after refusing to wear masks or personal protective equipment (PPE) because they claim they are covered by the blood of Jesus, this has only given the world yet another occasion to mock God because of what some unwise followers do or advocate doing.

Yet Jesus Himself, when He was being tempted in the wilderness by Satan whispering the above passage in Psalm 91 and trying to incite Him to prove God’s word by jumping off a high temple, responded by quoting back the commandment, “Do not tempt [or: put to test] the Lord your God” (Matthew 4:6–7). This demonstrates that along with the need to use common-sense precautions, it is offensive to God if we arrogantly presume on or recklessly test His provisions, including His protection.

Furthermore, we are exhorted to exercise prudence, caution and wisdom, be alert to dangers coming, and to anticipate and be fully prepared in advance for any coming disasters. Both Proverbs 22: 3 and Proverbs 27:12 state plainly that: “The prudent [or wise, sensible, shrewd] see danger coming and take refuge [hide themselves], but the naive [simple, thoughtless, fools, the inexperienced] proceed [pass on, go ahead, keep on going – presumably in the same faulty direction they were heading] and suffer the consequences.”

In other words, in order not to be caught out when danger and disasters come, and to ensure we can truly avail of His divine bubble of protection, we need to be alert and watchful — because in fact, if the wise man wasn’t occupied with looking ahead down the road, he wouldn’t see the danger approaching on the horizon and so be able to avoid it. Therefore, God does indeed promise to protect us if we trust in Him, but He also expects us to do our part by being alert and watchful, and by being prepared.

The resurrected Jesus, as depicted in the Church of the Holy Saviour, a mediaeval Byzantine Greek Orthodox church in Chora, Istanbul, Turkey (Dreamstime)

In terms of the dramatic climate change our planet is already experiencing — which anyone can easily observe if they are not too involved in their own little bubbles of work, church and family life — God is giving us very clear signs that we are indeed entering into a period of great tribulation. Whether or not we as Christians will also go through the Tribulation first or be raptured out before it transpires, we still need to be ready and prepared to cope with either eventuality. This requires both remaining steadfast in our faith and keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, as well as being aware of and prepared for all of the effects climate change will bring.

Unfortunately, as most of the worst effects of climate change will disproportionately hit poorer and ethnic minority communities around the world the hardest — as highlighted in a recent UN report, among other sources — we should certainly as agents of God’s compassion focus on how we can help others who have less resources to deal with these.

As we know, Jesus Himself commended the wise and faithful servant who was busy doing his Father’s will — which we know from John 3:16 is that no one should perish but come to a saving faith in Jesus, so that means continuing to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), as well as reaching out in compassion to meet the needs of the poor and oppressed. Therefore, we should be not only concerned about ensuring our own relationship with God is solid and we are ready to meet Him, but we should also actively seek to reach others, particularly to help them prepare with the trials and tribulations a dramatically changing climate will bring.

Moving the church out of its bubble

Sadly, except for the typically small minority who respond to the call to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every tribe and tongue and nation”(Matthew 28:16–20), and those who actively work for social justice for the poor, it seems most individual Christians and churches are still ensconced in their own local or national bubble, remaining either unintentionally (or perhaps even intentionally, considering those who are resistant to becoming involved in anything remotely political, which might appear contentious or controversial) unaware of the looming environmental emergency. In effect, most Christians are either vastly unaware or vastly unprepared — or both.

Worse, some may even be in complete climate denialism, or unwittingly supporting fossil fuel industries that are destroying many poorer communities around through their investment portfolios. On an encouraging note, Pope Francis has urged churches to divest from fossil fuels, and at least 20 churches and Christian organisations in the UK have agreed to divest at the start of 2020). Yet in terms of the scale and acceleration of climate change we are presently witnessing, this is effectively a drop in the ocean.

While we know God’s heart extends to all peoples and all of His creation, including the now-feared one-quarter of all species currently threatened with extinction due to man’s activities on the planet, there seems to be little active response from the church in terms of our calling to be stewards of God’s creation. Apart from a handful of radical Christian environmental activists and Christian environmental groups (Operation Noah, Green Christian, A Rocha, Pray and Fast for the Climate, European Christian Environmental Network, Catholic Climate Movement Global and Extinction Rebellion’s Christian Climate Action, among others), compassionate Christian actions or activism is rarely ever mentioned in the news — although other faith leaders have spoken out boldly, even risking arrest (such as Reform Rabbi Jeffrey Newman) for their convictions.

However, as groups such as Extinction Rebellion are now more actively highlighting the intense spiritual crisis that comes with climate anxiety and awareness, surely this represents a massive opportunity for Christians to become involved and address this climate anxiety with God’s message.

One thing is certain: in view of the times we are in (and even if this is out of Biblical context), we must take Jesus’s words to heart: “Whatever you do, do it quickly” (John 13:27). Because if we fail to act now, the door of the ark may soon slam shut, and we will miss our narrow window for redemption.

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A meditation on unity — Psalm 133 / Ephesians 4

Psalm 133

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity!

2 “It is like the precious oil poured on the head, running down on the beard, running down on Aaron’s beard, down upon the collar of his robes.

3 “It is as if the dew of Hermon were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord commands His blessing — even life
forever more.”

New International Version, slightly amended with reference to other versions

Unity in the body of Christ has long been deeply important to me. I’ve often joked that if you want to get a burden for unity, go live in Ireland — it’s not just the fighting in the north between Catholics and Protestants I witnessed as a student there in the 1980s, but also in the south, between the various denominations and charismatic groups, the house churches and independents, all of whom at times have seemed deeply divided on doctrinal matters and styles of worship.

As I began to pray for revival over the years, I felt God distinctly sharpened the point about unity to me — Jesus cannot return for a divided bride, so we urgently need to “put our house in order”. It has therefore been my constant prayer and intercession, and frequently the theme of my meditation as I have read and studied the Bible, read up on church history, and witnessed countless divisions and misunderstandings among many otherwise well-meaning individuals who appear hopelessly unable to walk or work together. So, how can we both understand and achieve unity?

I believe that while God has revealed His will and His command for unity, He has also given us the answers to the vital question of how to achieve it. This is what led me to meditate on the symbolism in this wonderful psalm in the Old Testament, as well as other relevant passages in the Old Testament, the gospels (specifically Jesus’ prayer for his disciples in John 17:20–23) and New Testament epistles — particularly Ephesians chapter 4 — which I will also discuss later.

For now, let’s look at this very short, but deeply meaty, “psalm of David” to unpack a little of what it says — I have referred to others’ notes on these from the Israel Bible commentary online, among other sources.

Symbolism and significance of the ‘song of ascents’

First, this psalm is described as a song of ascents — which means ‘going up’. It was typically applied to the Jews’ pilgrimages to Jerusalem, the Holy City, to worship God in the Temple, because Jerusalem is set on the top of a hill and the temple stood on a mount crowning the hill. Therefore, the 12 tribes of Israel traditionally ‘go UP to Jerusalem’ to worship God in the temple.

In addition, ever since the time of Abram/Abraham, who built his first altar and called on the name of the Lord on the hills of east of Bethel (Genesis 12:8), worship was traditionally offered on hills or high up on mountains, as these were seen as being nearer to God or a place of closer communion with Him. The physical, geographic depiction of ‘going up’ to a high (or higher) place to worship reveals the truth that the highest act of commitment and devotion we can give to God is to worship Him, particularly in challenging times or when we struggle with doubt, can’t understand what He is doing in our lives, or feel unable to hear His voice. This is when our act of worship is most truly a ‘lifting up’ or ‘going up’ of our souls.

The ‘high places’ also represent places of difficulties or struggle. Elsewhere in the psalms and in Habakkuk, God is the helper who “makes my feet like hinds’ [deers’] feet to walk upon my high places” (Psalm 18:33, Habakkuk 3:19) — in other words, as the psalmist and prophet express, it is God Himself who provides them with the strength and graceful ability to manoeuvre the steep, rugged, mountainous terrain of their struggles. Only a very skilled and agile creature such as a deer or mountain goat can navigate some of those incredibly challenging, near-vertical places, as was so delightfully depicted in Hannah Hurnard’s allegorical classic, Hind’s Feet on High Places.

Our ‘high places’ can also represent the steep divides and seemingly intractable clashes we experience in human relationships, where misunderstandings, strife, wounded spirits, griefs and temptation to seek revenge can be rife. In such times, we may feel helpless to change the dynamic, and so must learn to rely on God to give us this same ‘hind’s feet’ grace to deal with our own ‘high places’ of pride and selfishness as we seek to restore our broken relationships, knowing we cannot do this in our own strength.

History is filled with evidence of mankind’s inability to solve deep, longstanding rifts created by centuries of conflict in places such as the Middle East and the US, where tribal and racial tensions teeter constantly on the brink of explosion. Here even the greatest skills of human diplomacy, statesmanship or political manoeuvres fail to wrest the kind of lasting peace and justice humanity longs for, with often tragic consequences. Yet disunity and division in the Body of Christ — whether from the past historical conflicts between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic or Catholic and Protestant traditions, or between individual Christians in the church — also breaks God’s heart.

It is therefore all the more significant that Jesus described His disciples as a “city set on a hill whose light cannot be hidden” (Matthew 5:14). His unified body, the church, is called to triumph over the world’s ‘high places’ of darkness and division by demonstrating unity, peace and love — which, indeed, “is life forevermore”. The powerful light emitted when this is present is one our broken world is desperately crying out for.

David and disunity

Second, Psalm 133 is described as “A psalm of David”. While we don’t know when it was written, we do know there were several times in David’s life when he had problems with disunity — for example, his own brothers did not treat him very kindly when he was growing up, although he is recorded as bringing them food when they were at the battle front (I Sam 17:28). But his greatest heartache was the toxic relationship among his sons, especially when his son Absalom killed his other son Amnon because he had raped his sister Tamar (2 Sam 13:28).

Michelangelo’s famous statue
of David

He may have been reflecting on those bumpy moments between Moses and Aaron, as described in Numbers 12:1. Or perhaps he was instead thinking positively about his close, brotherly bond with King Saul’s son Jonathan, as described in 1 Samuel 18:3. Such deep love surely provided a sharp contrast to the murderous hatred and jealousy he experienced daily from Saul — either way, David had experienced enough disunity in his own life to realise exactly how “precious’ and rare indeed true unity is.

Now, note that the word “behold” means “Stand aside, look at and give your full attention to this amazing thing!” God is trying to get our attention here to the awesomeness that is revealed when His body is fully functioning in unity. He wants us to observe how significant it is because this reveals His heart for us to be one in love, in Him — as a Father, He has no greater joy than to see His children loving each other and living together in unity .

Such unity is “good” because it reveals the WILL of God; we know it brings joy to His heart. It is also “pleasant” — it is always much more enjoyable for us to be at peace and harmony with our brothers and sisters than have to deal with constant strife and friction.

The Jews who were on their way to worship God in Jerusalem had to make a pilgrimage by camping (“dwelling”) in tents along the way. This surely brought many opportunities for conflicts to arise as their differences were brought into sharp relief. Some were old, some young; some families, some single; they represented all walks of life and occupations, and came from different tribes and regions, possibly with different dialects and customs. As they travelled and dwelt together in tents along the way, their relationships would have been sorely tried and tested. Therefore, part of their journey in going up to worship in Jerusalem would have been about learning to be at peace with each other, in much the same way it’s both preparation for the act of worship and part of our calling as believers to learn to dwell, walk and work together.

Going with the flows

Now, the next descriptions concern the opposite direction — this time it is not about something or someone that is going up, but instead the flowing down and extending out of two types of liquid: oil and dew. This in itself is significant, as it is the very essence and nature of a liquid to flow. Therefore, the choice of these two ingredients is in itself a message to us about how to maintain “the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace” (Ephesians 4:3): it means we have to stay liquid — to “go with the flow”, literally, by remaining yielded to and in tune with the Holy Spirit.

Oil symbolises the blessing and glory of God being poured out and flowing down, as well as symbolising the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. It is God’s desire to pour out His Spirit on all flesh (Joel 2:28), but also on and through us as His first fruits (Acts 2:17) so that the rest of the world will be blessed and come to know Him through us.

The oil being poured out on Aaron’s head signifies a few things: first, it is symbolic of Aaron’s priestly anointing, calling and ordaining; second, it is symbolic of Jesus — the high priest of the new covenant and the Head of the church, the Body of Christ. Note that Moses and Aaron were both anointed and called of God to minister, but whereas Moses spoke face to face with God as a prophet and leader of the people, Aaron stood in the Holy Place, received from God, and ministered to the people as a priest. They were both significant callings, which together completed God’s work among the people.

Fragrant oils were also poured on guests’ heads as a form of welcome

Oil was also used in the Middle East as a common form of blessing for visitors, as it was poured on guests’ heads as a welcome as they entered their host’s abode. The oils used for this purpose would have been perfumed or blended with aromatic spices, which would have been both a soothing and sanitary way of refreshing guests who would likely be weary, sweaty and probably quite smelly after travelling through desert lands in the hot sun.

When the oil is sprinkled on the robes, they become holy (Exodus 29: 21) — so the oil running down from the head and flowing down onto the collar and then on down the robes is symbolic of how the presence of the Holy Spirit works in and through us to purify and sanctify us. That it begins with the head is symbolically significant, because in order to be holy, we must have a truly renewed mind. And just as the head directs the body in actions, so we must remain connected to the Lord by keeping our eyes on Him. It is by being jointly engaged in maintaining our focus on and connection to the head that we as a body can achieve unity of purpose and effect.

The outflowing of the oil onto the outer garments and then onto the feet and ground pertains to our commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel” (Matthew 28: 16–20). That is why the apostles were told to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; it was the New Testament version of the ordaining and consecration by outpoured oil.

Mountain ‘dews’

The other significant liquid here is the dew. Note that dew is a common symbol of the Lord’s bountiful blessings (as seen in Prov. 19:2, Isaiah 18:4, Hosea 14:5, Micah 5:7). While rain is always traditionally seen as a sign of God’s love for mankind because it makes crops grow so we have food, dew is related to divine blessing because it forms from condensation of atmospheric water vapour, which does not form if there are clouds. Therefore, God’s dew can only wet the earth if we do not harbour any ‘clouds’ of grievances, bitternesses or unforgiving attitudes towards each other. 

The geographical location of Mt Hermon is to the north of Jerusalem (eg where Mt Zion is), rising up above the Upper Jordan Valley — so the melting snows from the mountain were referred to as ‘dews’ because they flowed down from the mountain to refresh and revive the parched desert landscape. Such dews were often the only water available for crops and drinking etc; they were a vital source of sustenance as they flowed in to feed the Jordan River and the oasis of Jericho. In a dry land such as Israel, the melting snows or ‘dews’ became very precious indeed.

A snowy Mt Hermon is a significant source of water, or ‘dew’

Unity is our command. The place of unity, then, as described here, is where the Lord “commands” or “bestows” His blessing — the blessing of eternal life in Him (“life forever more”) .

We are in fact ‘commanded’ in the New Testament to seek unity. We know that we have eternal life in Jesus and have become part of His resurrected body as members of His body; yet all the members of the body need to function in one accord for any movement to take place. In the same way a human body would get nowhere if its arm and leg went in separate directions, so too does God need the members of His body, His church, to act in one accord. Only then can He achieve His direction and purposes.

God’s will for us to be at peace first with Him, and then with each other, is revealed in the symbolism of the cross: it points both vertically, heavenward and horizontally, from side to side, along with Jesus’ outstretched arms. Before He was crucified, Jesus prayed earnestly for His disciples to be one: “My prayer is not for them alone, but for all those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them will be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that You have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20–24).

Likewise, in Ephesians 1:10, Paul describes this will and plan of God “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ”. He reminds of us of the command to seek and preserve unity: “Live in harmony with one another… insofar as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18) and of the royal law, the law of love: “Love your neighbour as yourself… love does no harm to a neighbour.” (Romans 13:9–10). So, as his disciples, we know that unity is God’s will and His plan; it proceeds from his nature, and is also His command.

So how do we achieve unity?

Yet how do we, practically speaking, achieve unity when we are so different and so easily misunderstand each other, disagree, and fail to see eye to eye on matters of doctrine or principles, or judge each other harshly while omitting to ‘walk a mile in another man’s moccasins’? Well, this is where, in Ephesians chapter 4, Paul provides the answers:

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit — just as you were called to one hope when you were called — one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:2–5, New International Version). Humility — and honouring each other — is the foundation stone of unity.

“It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the whole body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God, and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Ephesians 4:11–12, italic emphasis mine). Just like Aaron and Moses had different callings and functions as prophet and priest, together they were anointed and appointed by God to lead and serve the people of Israel — so too in valuing and humbly receiving from others according to their different gifts and ministries, we may all become mature and grow in grace and spiritual wisdom.

“Therefore, each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbour, for we are all members of one body… do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those that listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander [gossip], along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ forgave you.” (Ephesians 4:25, 29–32, italic emphasis mine.)

I understand from this last passage that we are called to be absolutely real, open and honest with each other, not to wear masks or pretend to be something or someone we are not. That is how we can learn to truly understand and empathise with each other, and therefore build each other up rather than tearing each other down.

I call on all of my brothers and sisters in Christ, whichever your denomination or doctrine, to endeavour to practise these behaviours and ways of speaking with each other. In these days of deep division and despair across the world, we must urgently seek to shine that light of unity, so that indeed we may fulfil Jesus’ earnest prayer that the world may know and see his love and the Father’s love, and that we may be one and mature or fully formed in grace, even as they are one.

An Irish blessing

My good friend Shay Phelan in Dublin, Ireland

As I began this meditation by referencing the troubles of division and disunity among Christians I had witnessed as a student and young Christian in Ireland, I’d like to close with a few quotes from my dear friend and brother in Christ, Shay Phelan. Shay, a trained and gifted actor, singer-songwriter and compelling speaker, has made it his life’s mission to memorise the entire book of Ephesians, and to preach and share from this wherever he goes. He and a fellow Christian have walked across Ireland and elsewhere in the British Isles to share the gospel and display the bond of unity in the Spirit they share.

Here are some quotes from his own meditation on Ephesians 4 that are specifically relevant to what I have been sharing; if possible, I will add the entire PDF for download, or please message me at jane@smallwriteratlarge.com for a complete copy.

“We need to be open to receive from all God’s people in the wider church, when they have something God wants us to learn from them. And it may well be that we have something God wants  us to share with them. Do you see the abortive nature of our divisions? If I cut myself off from you, then I lose the gift to me that you are in God’s scheme of things. And I rob you of the blessing God has given me to share with you. No wonder there is so much immaturity still in the Body of Christ.”



“There is something about the word mature that suggests to my mind all the perfection of a glorious summer’s day. The mature person has poise and wisdom;  he or she knows how to measure what they hear with the truth, and how to graciously and respectfully, and with confidence, speak the truth, yet the mature Christian humbly accepts that they may not always get it right. The mature Christian is diligent in the Lord’s work and yet maintains a deep, inner rest, an unswerving trust in God. He or she knows how to give and receive love in the joy of Christ.”

Shay Phelan, Excerpt from Reflections on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians

“Speaking the truth in love is a key phrase for how we may proceed to grow together in the church.  How many times have I won the battle but lost the war, as it is said, because of the tone of voice or the attitude behind my words?  I may be correct in my point of view, but completely wrong in my attitude to the person with whom I am in debate.

“In Paul’s second letter to Timothy he gives him much advice for his role as pastor.  In chapter 2 verse 24 – 25 he says: “…the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth….”

“Every time I forget to apply these words in a difficult conversation, I find I lose my sense of peace. If I have become defensive or arrogant in tone, I am better off shutting up, even though I may be correct in what I am endeavouring to say. Though not a pastor, as a son of God I am called to speak the truth in love and that is what brings real growth.

“As we mature and grow together in Christ we are interlinked and connected, just as the various parts of a body are connected, and we are built up in love”

 “Let’s finish this message with those verses from Psalm 133 we quoted earlier:

     “How good and pleasant it is
when brothers live together in unity…
For there the LORD bestows His blessing,
even life forevermore.”


N.B. In the wake of George Floyd’s death and the ensuing riots across the US, UK and elsewhere, I have been seeking the Lord in prayer regarding how we, as believers, should respond. I felt the Lord spoke two simple words to me: ‘feet’ and ‘brothers’. As I prayed about it further, I felt He was saying that those of us who are perhaps unintentionally (or even intentionally, which of course is another matter) guilty of any sense of a racist kind of white privilege urgently need in this time to demonstrate a real servant heart towards our black brothers and sisters, both through doing active listening to them as they share their experiences of ill-treatment and racist abuse perpetrated on them, and so metaphorically help to ‘wash their feet’ of all those festering scars and pains inflicted on them — even as Jesus did when He washed the feet of his disciples and urged them to wash one another’s feet. Perhaps even a public foot-washing ceremony, which all churches of all denominations all around the world could be used as a symbolic act of love, service and healing. May God lead us all into His ways of peace. Amen.

N.B. As a further addendum to this, I spoke recently with Andrew Philips at Premier Christian Radio about the recent Black Lives Matter protests in High Wycombe and Marlow on his Faith, Hope and Love broadcast – I was on at around 11.30am; you can listen retrospectively here: https://www.premierchristianradio.com/Shows/Weekday/Faith-Hope-and-Love/Episodes/Faith.-Hope-and-Love25


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Art — for Sanity’s Sake

In this time of Covid-19 lockdown, many are finding relief from the isolation tedium by rediscovering forgotten hobbies and long-held interests, as well as connecting with others who share the same passions via online tools such as Zoom. The UK and other governments may downplay the necessity of the arts in terms of their willingness to fund them, but at times of crisis, they are necessary to our health and wellbeing. Indeed, where would we be without art?

Over the past few years, one of the things that has helped keep me sane, positive and creatively productive is developing my drawing and painting skills through joining various Shoal of Art Meet-up groups run by Mark Lovelace, as well as other working artists and teachers such as Debra Collis and others. This practice has been vital for me as much in my occasionally sporadic freelance journalism, etc career as during the current lockdown situation, as it provides a very welcome opportunity to break the tedium of working from home on my own by meeting up with fellow like-minded artists or artists-in-progress (as in fact we all are — Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote, “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places”, which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”, should perhaps be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist).

Most of the Shoal of Art-run groups focus on producing portrait sketches and paintings from life – e.g., with live models – also drawings and paintings based on old and recent masters at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. The groups are open to all artists in various stages of developing their skills; some are professional or ‘full-time’ artists, while others are serious or semi-serious dabblers.

As for me, I grew up in an artistic household, and so learned to consider the practice of art and creativity in general to be essential to life and wellbeing in the same way others value team sports and developing athletic skills as vital to one’s social, personal and physical development. My mother — a professional fashion illustrator and a lifelong craftswoman and quilter — raised my sister Betsey and I to express ourselves creatively through visual media; in addition to doing art projects at home, we studied it in school and were known for our artistic talents. But whereas my sister continued to focus on art, specifically ceramics, into university, eventually becoming a professional fine artist with a specialism in equine art, I was torn between studying art and writing at university as I was also interested in English literature and creative writing, so perhaps naturally gravitated towards publications work — for example, I created and edited an illustrated literary magazine during high school that featured stories, poems and artworks from myself and other colleagues, and edited the school [and later, Bard’s] newspaper.

Perhaps Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places” — which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” — should be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist

Left: Me in high school editing the literary magazine I also designed and contributed to

So while art may be one of my ‘roads not taken’, since in the end I went with English Lit/Creative Writing (I also excelled in writing about art when I studied Renaissance art history), I have continued to study and write about art, visit galleries regularly, maintain friendships with other artists, and draw, paint and take art classes on and off throughout my travels and living abroad – which is why I realised how much I needed to continue to practise this in London during my ‘time off’ from freelance engagements. To me, indeed, art is life as life is art.

I also find that as a somewhat extroverted artistic type, I’ve always enjoyed sketching people as it provides the perfect opportunity to tune out, reflect and observe others while simultaneously being around them, as occasionally I just need a balance between being around people 24/7 and total solitude. But another obvious benefit of being in a group with other artists is that although the process of drawing and painting is itself a solo activity, there is the valuable aspect of peer-learning in that you can see and learn from others’ techniques, processes and practices. It’s also nice just getting to know the rolling group of eclectic regulars and visitors/newbies from around the world who join the cafe- or pub-based life-drawing sessions, as well as those who meet at the National Gallery — if you are an artist or artistically inclined, it is a wonderful way to add to the richness of visiting London as one of the world’s leading cultural cities.

For the National Gallery meet-ups, we usually meet in the reception of the Sainsbury’s Wing at 10.30am, then decide which room(s) of the Gallery we will focus on. If you ask nicely at one of the information desks or in the cloakroom – and of course only when they are available – you can usually borrow a stool to sit on too. We then go off to sketch for a couple of hours before finally meeting downstairs in the Espresso Bar to chat and exchange views of our work over a coffee.

Above: a few of my sketches from the National Gallery – not all my best, perhaps

There are a few other artists who come along to join for a coffee and chat and then go off to continue drawing on their own, as well as others who seem to sketch in the cafe regularly. Now, during the lockdown, we are making use of the gallery’s extensive online catalogue while we are working from home, which at least allows for more diversity in materials. Occasionally Mark or whoever is leading the session will urge the group to focus on a particular theme or technique — as in a recent online National Gallery session, where the focus was on capturing spring light as it was reflected on a figure and landscape.

Although I struggled with the particular problems of working with a variety of soft/hard and chalk-/oil-based pastels on plain mixed-media paper (I was advised later by another artist in the group that I should have used a special pastel paper, since it absorbs and smooths the colours better), the two hours I spent trying to replicate Seurat’s Morning Walk were nevertheless a joyously glorious — if deeply messy — challenge.

The portrait and life-drawing sessions, on the other hand, usually involve working with a professional model for a small fee (typically between £7–£15 per person attending). The model will hold timed poses for periods ranging from 10–40 minutes long; some of them are happy to have their image taken if you need to carry on working to finish a drawing, whereas others are not — it’s always best to ask rather than assume.

The life-drawing sessions with a model are held at various evenings or days throughout the week — with some on the weekend, too — and at various pub locations in London, although most are now functioning just as effectively online, typically at the same times as the London sessions ran. I have infrequently attended the paid-model sessions at the Archduke pub near Waterloo station on Sundays from 2–4pm, and once or twice produced drawings I have been quite pleased with. However, I find working with the model online from home at least allows for more opportunities to explore using a variety of media.

But now that we can join these paid sessions online from home, it is so much easier to mix paints to use in our sketches – I’ve only just started experimenting with adding watercolour to my charcoal or pencil sketches, or even working directly from my paintbox, but this is an area I do wish to grow in (so far, I have mostly used pen, pastels, charcoals, graphite pencils, etc, but now in addition to using watercolour, I would like to try using a brush with ink, as I have observed others using in portraits and see this can be quite effective and expressive).

There are also several free ‘Portraits in the Cafe’ sessions involving drawing each other in quick 5- to 15-minute poses. In non-lockdown times, these sessions are usually held at the Roman Road site of the Muxima Cafe in Bow – a Time Out ‘Best Cafe in Bow’ for two years running. It’s a friendly, relaxed and quietly bohemian venue, perfect for an evening of social portrait sketching – if a little out of the way for me (however, I usually head into London to dance at SOS on a Sunday night, so the timing – from 6–8pm, is actually perfect). Of course these are also now being done online, again at the same time as the Muxima sessions. Below are a few of these 5- to 15-minute portrait sketches from the live Cafe sessions, as well as some of our more recent online sessions.

I’ve also benefitted occasionally from joining Mark Fennell‘s workshops at his studio in Henley-on-Thames, which involve portrait painting in oils. As this is a new or less-familiar medium for me, I still need to work on mastering blending the pigments, but I am pleased with some of my results, which were included in a local art exhibition last year (see below).

Most of the artists who attend are very experienced – some are also professional artists – and bring their own canvases, oil paints, spirits / mixers, brushes and other materials, as well as their knowledge of how to use them; if not, Mark kindly helps out by providing materials some hands-on tuition, as well as the photographs of the subjects and materials if needed.

Above: Inside Mark Fennell’s studio in Henley-on-Thames; my oil painting of one of the characterful subjects Mark presents in his class sessions; my first two oil portraits, both done in one of Mark’s workshops, were included in an exhibition of local artists’ work in Micklefield, put together by Reverend Wendy Bull, vicar of St Anne’s and St Peter’s parish in Loudwater to showcase work by fellow artists in her parish. Below: another ‘Portraits in the Café’ session in progress at Muxima Café in Bow Road, London.

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The Lowdown on Salsa Lockdown Radio

Interview with Sassia Michel, Creator of
Salsa Lockdown Radio

As I said recently, one of the best things to come out of this global shutdown is the tremendous burst of creativity and innovation it has prompted from the international salsa dance community in an effort to help keep us vitally connected while we’re apart. Here I talk to London-based DJ Sassia Michel about what led her to create the online radio station Salsalockdown, the benefits this format provides for both dancers and DJs – including from her own perspective as a DJ – and whether there is a post-pandemic future for the channel.

JC: So Sassia, what was it that inspired you to set up the Salsa Lockdown Radio? Have you worked in radio before and was it always your plan to create an online radio station? Or did it only happen because of the virus?

DJ Sassia Michel

SM: No, I never worked in radio before. I was always interested in streaming live video and audio and about 10 years ago, I found some software for streaming straight to Facebook. But the idea for the radio actually came to me right after the lockdown.

On Friday the 20th of March they announced the lockdown, and my first thought was, ‘Oh no! We are not going to have any salsa!’ Then on Saturday morning I woke up with the idea of making a radio station to help keep people going. I thought if they can’t go anywhere to dance, at least they can listen to music any time through having access to a 24-hour radio. The idea was not to stop that salsa momentum and passion while we are locked down.

So I got up at 8am and started to think about how I was going to do it. I took my laptop and tried to work out how I was going to get the radio going using that streaming software. Then I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be even better if we can have a chatroom so people can literally come and talk, and still stay connected by talking and exchanging ideas. If they are at home alone and feeling lonely, it will be a nice place for them to come and chat.’

After I found the software to stream, I realised I needed to create a website and then find a way to get the radio software on it. I found the artwork for the site, then a platform I could put it on. So then I spent the whole day working on it, about 7–8 hours. I wanted it to be available that night, straight after the lockdown, so we could keep going with salsa. I also knew I had to do it right away, because I knew if I waited, I might get lazy and not get it done. So I decided to do it in one day and then take more time to decide what to do with it.

DJ Sassia with her salsa-mad mum Yolette, who asked her for help to find a way to keep listening to salsa during the lockdown

That day, my mum – who is alone in France – texted me asking, ‘How can I listen to salsa? Can you send me some salsa tracks I can listen to while I’m locked down?’ And I was like, ‘Wow! That’s amazing – that’s exactly what I’m doing! So now you will be able to go to this website and listen to salsa 24/7. And rather than just having a few tracks, you can have it running for the whole of the lockdown.’ I was so happy my mum asked me to do this as it was exactly what I thought dancers would be saying – ‘We need salsa! How can we do it?’ So it would be great that Salsa Lockdown would be right there.

As soon as I had had the idea, I messaged a friend in salsa, who said, ‘Wow! That’s genius! Go for it!’ So as soon as I had made it, I shared it with my friend. She came back and said, ‘Yeah change this, do this that way’, and then boom! Salsa Lockdown was born.

JC: So what about the different DJ sets? The CoBeatParty is doing that too, with lots of sets from DJs around the world 24/7; how is it different on Salsa Lockdown?

SM: On the day I created the radio, I thought, ‘You know what, it’s not going to just be a 24-hour radio – I will get DJs to play on it too. And it’s not going to just be me playing, it’s going to be other DJs playing too, because they’re also probably missing playing for people.’

It also seemed like this could also be a way for people to get to know the DJs better too, because dancers don’t usually care about the DJs when they are just standing there playing a set. You might get a few dancers coming up at the end and saying how much they liked a song or songs, but that’s it.

So my idea with the live radio is that it would be a great opportunity to create that friendship and community thing, and to get the DJs interacting with the people listening to their set as part of that community. For most of the DJs, apart from Tuli maybe, they haven’t ever done a proper radio show, but from a DJ’s point of view, this is different from DJing on the floor because first, you don’t see the dancers.

“DJing online has been a new and exciting experience since it gives you the chance to interact with the crowd on the chat on a more personal level – you can share thoughts, anecdotes and opinions while listening to the same music we usually only dance to, which you can’t do in a social situation. I loved that it gave me the chance to explain details about the music and the history behind certain rhythms, and to engage with the crowd in a less-superficial way.” [If you missed Alexistyle’s set on Salsa Lockdown, you can also catch him here on the CoBeatParty Online Salsa Congress]

Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala

I usually say to the DJs, ‘You don’t have dancers in front of you, therefore you’re not trying to make people dance. But I want you to take them on a journey – on your journey.’ So I am challenging the DJs about speaking on the microphone, and having people interact with them – and the result is that they love it!

I did the DJing myself that first Saturday on the radio – I think we only had about 10 people listening, some of whom were close friends – and although I actually played for them, it was more like a talking thing as I was asking them, ‘What should we do with Salsa Lockdown? How should we make it work? How often should we do it?’ Because I wasn’t playing for them like the other DJs on the CoBeatParty, I played a bit of Haitian music. And I realised after that first night of doing this that it wasn’t about me, but it was working with the dancers and the DJs in the best way to keep everyone in the salsa community together.

But I also think it gives the opportunity to DJs to really show a bit of themselves – like when you have those people in the chat room, it’s not about making those people dance; it’s about helping those people to understand about the music a bit better, or discovering something interesting that they didn’t know before. So the DJs on Salsa Lockdown have the freedom to play anything they would not play in a normal set.

“The first thing I noticed was I didn’t have immediate feedback like you get on a dancefloor, where you know straight away if the dancers like it – instead, all you had was the live chat. But once I got used to it technically, I saw that even though it was not immediate, you get a lot of detailed feedback where people are explaining what it is they like in the music, which was much more interesting. If you’re DJing at an event, you may get some people coming back and saying, ‘I really liked that track’ – but here they are telling you why. So it wasn’t immediate, but the quality of the feedback was so much better.”

Sebastian Mamborado, Czech Republic

I know as a DJ I have so many tracks I love, but I don’t feel like it’s going to fit with a salsa party or work on a dancefloor, so I think that’s what the difference is – as a DJ on Salsa Lockdown, you have that opportunity to really be yourself and take people on a musical journey wherever you want, because those people who are coming to listen are the real music lovers. I usually tell them, ‘Be you! If you want to play something, play it! It’s not for dancing, so you can tell people more about your music and why you choose to play that.

So I think this is what makes it a real different experience for the DJs – at least, that’s the way I see it; you should talk to some of them and ask them too.

JC: So what about your own musical journey as a DJ and the Haitian salsa you played on the first night? You mentioned your mum was into salsa; is that what led you to become a salsa DJ?

SM: I come from a musical family. My dad was a famous musician in Haiti where I grew up. He didn’t play salsa, but he played the piano and a few other instruments in the popular national music known as konpa [otherwise spelt kompa or kompas, from the word compass]. So I grew up in music, really, and that’s how I got my love of music. I was also a musician – I played the saxophone and used to play with jazz bands in France after we moved there.

Sassia and her twin sister Tassia with their musician father in Haiti

When me and my twin sister were little kids, our mother loved to go and dance salsa and bachata, to go to the shows and classes, and to listen to salsa music from the Dominican Republic. As she often couldn’t get a babysitter, she took us with her – so we were exposed to salsa from a very early age.

When I moved to London from France and was exposed to the DJ world in London, I just kind of fell into DJing. It wasn’t something I really planned to do, but it just came to me, and I embraced it. I am really happy now that I often get to share my music at some of the best events in the UK and also internationally, as it says on my bio on the revised website.

JC: You mentioned you played some Haitian music on the first night of the radio – I remember listening then and thinking that was really cool that you were playing that as I didn’t really think of Haiti as a place for salsa music. So it’s great you could share that with us and educate us about that since it is your background.

SM: Yeah, I also thought the Salsa Lockdown would give the DJs the opportunity to bring more diversity to the music we are listening to because it is not just playing for people who are dancing in a club, so they can bring things we haven’t heard much before – including in my case the Haitian music.

Normally, you might get one track in a night from a Haitian band that sometimes plays salsa; I tend to throw in one every few sets I do, and in salsa parties around the world, they might include some Haitian salsa or you might get some traces from Haitian bands, but no one actually knows it’s from Haiti because it is sung in Spanish and sometimes in Creole. I remember as I was growing up, although most of the music was sung in French, you would always hear one song in Spanish.

Back in the day, those Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa – but I do need to research it myself more to really know the history.

“Haitian bands had a close relationship with Cuba and Dominican Republic as these islands are not far away from Haiti, so the influence was there in some of the Haitian bands and music, especially in the konpa

On that first day when I played the Haitian salsa on Salsa Lockdown, it was because I thought, ‘Hmm, I don’t have any dancer in front of me, so I can play what I like’ – and it did make me feel really good to play that music because it is something I know and it is from my country, so I was showing a bit of me that I don’t normally get to share with others on a dancefloor. And it really surprised me that so many dancers who were listening to it on the radio were really into it – now I think I could probably do a whole set just on salsa in Haitian music!

But that’s really the idea of the radio: it gives DJs a chance to be who they are, share a bit about themselves and do something different.

JC: It’s a bit like the DJ version of that ‘Share Your Salsa’ initiative Toan and Tina set up ages ago at TNT – but here it’s DJs sharing their musical journeys, which is really cool. So what’s the plan and the schedule for the other DJ sets on Salsa Lockdown?

SM: Well, at the moment, I try to have live sets on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday nights – a lot of us were used to coming to Funky Mambo on that night, and I wanted to keep the momentum going for the dancers. So I am working with Funky Mambo to do that for as long as we are in the lockdown, and they also recommended some DJs.

DJs that have played already:

  • DJ Rupert, UK
  • DJ Alexis Ruiz, London/Guatemala
  • DJ Mari, Prague
  • DJ Vincent, Paris
  • DJ Erick the Saint, London
  • DJ Tuli, London/Venezuela
  • DJ Martina, London
  • DJ Jeff, London
  • DJ Mamborado, Prague
  • DJ LaFuriosa, Lyon
  • DJ Mario, Italy
  • DJ Duste, Sweden

I’ll also look around and see what’s going on with other DJs on the CoBeatParty or elsewhere, so depending on that, I might also add something on a Sunday so we can have a relaxing night – for example, I just decided to have some special starting this Sunday with Magna Gopal sharing her music and talking live on the radio.

“Ah, I loved it. I loved it so much I thought I have to start a radio station myself! Music is one of my favourite forms of expression, but verbal communication is another — and if you mix the two at the same time, well, that’s paradise for me! For each song I could explain why and what I liked about it and any memories attached to it — that level of sharing was so fulfilling at a time of limited human interaction! Through the questions I asked, I could feel people were also craving that same feeling of sharing as they would engage with me in many different levels. And of course, getting live feedback on specific parts of the music… you never get that level of detail playing for the dance floor!”

Martina Petrosino, London/Italy

In the next couple of weeks, we have some fantastic DJs coming… this Saturday (25 April), we have DJ Ajad from Japan – I’ve heard he’s the best DJ in Asia, from what I understand, so I’m really excited about getting to know him. We also have some from Spain and one from Greece coming, so that’s fantastic. And when they come, they also bring new listeners from all over the world, so that’s fantastic, and I really feel so blessed to have that I have all these DJs from around the world that want to do this.

DJs that are coming soon:

  • DJ El Nene del Bronx, Spain
  • DJ Ajad, Japan
  • DJ Mortin, Romania
  • DJ Khoos, Australia
  • DJ Paolo, Spain
  • DJ Sam Sleek, London
  • Magna Gopal

So far, we have some people tuning in from everywhere – but it’s mostly 10 countries or so, with the majority coming from the UK, Slovenia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Estonia, the US and Spain, which are usually the countries the DJs are coming from. The most we’ve had tuning in at any one time is around 70 or so, but it’s usually around 30–35 – which is fine for now, as it’s often the same people who are the regulars listening, which makes it feel like a small party and community, and that is how we get to know each other. But every time we have a DJ from a different part of the world, they also bring people from their own countries, so that makes it really interesting.

I also have the radio on all the time, so I can see who is tuning in and connecting from all over the world to listen to it, so I think this is really great to have this available all the time. Most people might tune in and listen for an hour or so each day, which is great as they can access it whenever they like.

JC: So what about the future? Do you plan to keep going after the lockdown ends? If so, will you keep the radio the same, or do you plan to do anything different?

SM: Well, yes, I would really like for it to continue. Maybe not exactly in the same way or at the same time, because once the lockdown finishes, people will want to go back to the parties, and they might not have time to tune in. But I think we could certainly have some special radio shows, maybe every two weeks – for example, some interviews with artists, dancers, performers and promoters coming and talking about themselves, so again we can feel closer as a community.

We can also have some live sessions with people debating things with DJs and other guests, so we can keep that sense of community and the educational thing going with quizzes and talks and things, because there really does seem to a real hunger for learning these kinds of things among the dancers.

Coming soon: Magna Gopal

There’s so many things going on online now – you can go and listen to CoBeat or do online dance classes every day, but I want Salsa Lockdown to be really about growing the sense of community. It’s about listening, learning, understanding and getting to know people better – the dancers, the DJs and the musicians – everyone really.

So far, we’ve had so many great chats, such great quality with the music and so much wonderful education from people like Alexis, and I really don’t want that to go to waste, so I’ve just added a podcast section on the site so people can listen to those talks any time. I’m also making some other changes to the site with new graphics as well as the original art. I had a lot of help on the graphics from Marian from Prague, who did all the Photoshopping of the DJs onto the graphic, so I’m going to keep that.

As for other changes, well I just really need to put the time into it to promote it – that’s not really my thing, but I do need to put the time into it. I like the intimacy of the small community listening to it now, but it would great to get some more people tuning in from all over the world, and really to grow that diversity element. I don’t want it to be just about the DJs coming to do the show, but to really grow that diversity element, so we as a community can continue to learn and grow. So many people have come back to me and told me how much they appreciate this initiative, so I think most of them want this to continue. I know I do! 

Eventually I would also really love to have some live concerts, to have live music streamed onto the radio. It would be great if a band was playing live somewhere in the world, and we could stream it straight onto the radio so anyone anywhere can enjoy it.

JC: Wow, that sounds great! I certainly look forward to it continuing in that way! One last question then: if you can get it sorted out so you can get a live concert or band livestreaming on the radio and website, who as a musician would be your number-one dream band to play first?

SM: Believe it or not, I am listening to a lot of Cuban music now, and there’s a band I really love – it’s called Havana de Primera. I saw them play in London once and I just fell in love with the singer’s [Alexander Abreu Manresa] voice. So I’ve been listening to them a lot because I love his voice – you can really hear his soul in his voice, and that is wonderful.

I’d also like to have Tromboranga playing on the radio, but for my very first livestreamed concert, it has to be Havana de Primera! [She sent me this link so I could hear for myself]

…Lastly, a big shout out to:

I’m really grateful I’ve had so much help and support – including a little donation (a big thank you to those people who did that) – from so many people who have been behind me and really supportive of me. First, I want to say thank you to my family – my twin sister Tassia, my mum Yolette, and my other half WJ for always believing in me. I especially want to mention the two ladies who have been my other eyes on this project, Katja Kliewer and Polina Levontin – thank you for your friendship. And thanks to Jana Kleineberg and Alexandra Bailey for their help with the new logo.

Of course, I am also thankful to all of the DJs who were on board straight away and played for us, and for everyone else who has been a big help and support to me on this project from day one – Toan Hoang, Ovidiu Suciu, Alex Shaw, Marian Grocky, Jamil Bacha, Rupert Boyle, Helen Sweet, Phil Marsden, Martina Petrosino, Loïc Thomas, Vincent Amiche, Julien Arnaud, Ulrike Silberkuhl, Adele Minniti, Dustin Hogg, Coco Jacoel-Robertson from the Agozar team, Miho Miha Shigematsu and Cliff Joseph from Funky Mambo, Karen McGuire, Hannah Galbraith and Alex Buckley, Ashwin Mannick, Sofi Cook, Jane Cahane, Rachel Naunton and Stefan Dosch.

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Connection in the time of social d(ist)ancing

Thanks to the abundant creativity, generosity, vibrancy and innovation of the international salsa community, keen dancers like me have been able to get our fix 24/7 during lockdown, with round-the-clock sets from some of the world’s very best salsa DJs streamed live on via the CoBeatParty Facebook page – including the world’s very first online-only salsa congress, which featured some amazing dance and music workshops from Eddie Torres Jr and Princess, Joel Domingo and Maria Palmieri, Alexistyle Ruiz, Joaquin Arteaga from Tromboranga and others.

Other initiatives have arisen almost daily ever since the global lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic began, with an explosion of online dance-oriented exercise sessions, classes and workshops in salsa, bachata, kizomba and other popular partner-dance styles offered for free (mostly).

While various London radio stations have hosted salsa sessions for a while (e.g. DJs Tuli and Hughie leading The Latin Explosion on Colourful Radio and DJ Del Salereo offering Cuban vibes on Back2Back FM, for example), radio seems to have found a new lease of life online through DJ Sassia Michel’s excellent Salsalockdown channel. Featuring various UK and international DJs on rotation, this online radio channel offers dancers a chance to chat with each other and interact in real-time with the DJs, some of whom have delighted in the opportunity to explain their musical preferences, introduce some unusual offerings (DJ Martina Petrosino, especially), or quiz the listeners with fascinating snippets of musical history and explanations (thank you, Alexistyle and Jamil, for the fun quizzes, and for sharing your wealth of knowledge about musicality, the instruments and the history of salsa! We have all benefitted greatly from it).

While this plethora of dance and musical offerings online has indeed been very welcome at this time of social distancing (which of course means not dancing socially), it has also sharpened the distinctions of what it actually is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.

Whenever someone asks me why I like dancing with partner X or partner Y, or what it is that makes a truly great dance, I’ve tried to explain that in my opinion, the best dances happen when both dancers are simultaneously feeling and expressing the music in the same or a responsive way. They don’t necessarily need to be doing exactly the same steps, patterns or movements – in fact, the dance is often like a conversation, in-joke or flirtation between two consenting adults – but they do need to be responding to the same elements in the music, and also correctly within the timing and style of that music. And unless both dancers are in tune with and truly connected with the music, they won’t achieve a perfect connection when they dance together.

Social distancing has revealed what it is that truly keeps us connected as dancers: it’s the music.


In truth, while I can’t deny missing the buzz of face-to-face and skin-to-skin encounters, and indeed like many others at this time, I am craving physically connecting in real-time on a dance floor, I’m also deeply grateful for the chance to practise other forms of connection at this time – nature, art and writing are all things that are actually best practised and enjoyed in solitude; so is listening deeply to and really understanding and feeling the music. The ability to do that is absolutely essential to excellence as a dancer, so this time is in fact a real gift to anyone who really wants to be a good and certainly a great social dancer or performer. And that is one reason I can truthfully say that, even as a dancer, this period of ‘inactivity’ is truly a blessing in disguise, as it will enable us to take time out to listen more deeply to the music we all know and love to dance to.

But even on a social level, this time out we are experiencing has benefits. Being an undeniable extrovert as well as a long-time social dancer (I first began dancing salsa 23–24 years ago; I was also teaching a full syllabus of Salsa and Related Latin Dances and writing about salsa for over 10 of those years), I can’t say I don’t feel connected to other dancers, thanks to the above initiatives. Given my dedication to going out at least a couple of times a week to dance, and attending at least a few major international or London-based salsa festivals each year, it is hardly surprising that everyone who knows me expected me to feel quite bereft or at least deeply challenged by not being able to go out and social dance, but truthfully – for the moment at least – I’m fine, even grateful for the break.

When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!

Admittedly, I’ve missed having a reason to get glammed up, but even that has had its moment online, thanks to the Agozar team inviting me to join them in a ladies’ version of the men’s ‘Brush’ routine, which was a lot of fun (I’m near the end, transforming from my high-vis Bucks Angels volunteer jacket to a congress-ready look).

Although these do have their limits compared to being there in the flesh, at least we now have a range of social media and real-time meeting apps such as Zoom allowing us to connect and chat with each other in real time via text or video. Occasionally, when we’re chatting online, the actual social connection is surprisingly better than the real-life situations it is temporarily replacing, as for one thing, you can actually hear what others are saying. Online chats mean you don’t have to compete with the noise and distractions of a crowded club, dance class, bar, dance festival, or even a boozy congress party, and so and are able to appreciate all the quirks of your friends’ unique personalities.

Will the close physical contact we as dancers are used to enjoying at international congresses (as here – Vienna Salsa Congress, December 2017) become consigned to the dustbins of history? That is the burning question on many salseros’/as’ lips at this time

I’m sure this is the main reason for the popularity of pre- and after-parties at congresses: people just want to get to know others and also be known more intimately, as that way you can make deeper connections and lasting friendships – which of course we can’t really do when we are all too busy dancing. So, by eliminating the background noise and distractions – as well as the desire to run off and dance as soon as we hear a great tune – we can truly focus on what the other person is saying, enabling a deeper, richer understanding and more genuine personal connection.

It’s hard to imagine how we would be able to remain connected without these online channels; we’d probably all feel like we’re hiding out in a dark cave on some deserted island. Which, if this situation drags on interminably – as some suspect it will do, given the virus’s rate of global multiplication – we may well effectively be doing. But right now, it still seems like a gift – a challenge to the most creative among us to make the best with what we’ve got – so perhaps a salsa-relevant version of the saying should be, ‘When life hands you Covid-19, make a CoBeatParty!’

As for me, I’m still feeling grateful… whether I’ll still feel like that after another few weeks or months of non-physical lockdown isolation remains to be seen. Watch this space!

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Fashion sense and sensibility: getting out of the fast-fashion trap

As the global fashion industry comes under increasing scrutiny for its carbon footprint and contributions to social and ethnic injustice, is it time to give high-street fashion the boot?

Increasingly these days, I discover I am not the only person – and notably, not the only woman, since most fashion advertising specifically targets us – who is beginning to the see the connections between the fashion industry and the environmental catastrophe we are facing, and to feel a kind of moral nausea about the whole idea of shopping.

I find myself in a very strange place, having seemingly morphed overnight from someone who used to love to shop, whose eyes glittered magpie-like on the latest shiny, bling-y thingy, into someone who now finds the whole concept of shopping completely uninteresting – even to the point of being physically repugnant. How did this happen?

This sensation inevitably flares up after glimpsing shop window after shop window in shopping centre after shopping centre, all boasting the invariable pre-, mid- and post-season sales racks, with heaving ‘fashion’ items piling up like so many Ghosts of Christmas Must-Haves Past. Following hard is that sinking feeling that comes with knowing that eventually, most of this once-coveted mass is only going to end up swelling landfills in much poorer countries that are already overburdened with the task of cleaning up the West’s discarded seas of plastics.

Therefore, if I/we are ever going to have any hope of getting away from this mindlessly devastating consumerism, we will have to start by asking hard questions that will make us more conscious about what we buy, where (and how) it comes to us (eg the supply chain), what we value and give our attention to, and – more pressingly – why.

Fashion vs. food: how cotton threatens life

My personal queries about the fashion industry began after I watched bubbly investigative reporter (and latterly Strictly Come Dancing star) Stacey Dooley’s BBC production, Stacey Dooley Investigates: Are your clothes wrecking the planet?. Here, Dooley reveals the direct cause-and-effect links between the fashion industry and environmental disaster, showing, for example, how cotton-growing in the Caucasus region had caused the Aral Sea (originally the world’s fourth-largest freshwater lake) to shrink to a mere tenth of its original size, bringing devastation to the land, health, lives and livelihoods of its communities.

Sadly, after decades of growing cotton for export, this huge and once-abundant lake had almost entirely dried up, leaving the surrounding communities stranded without any fish for food or income from fishing. And with less fresh water to drink, the people were forced to drink the heavily chemical- and pesticide-laden water from the dried-up lake, resulting in multiple cases of cancer and lung disease.

While I had always considered cotton to be a more sensible, Earth-friendly, natural, breathable and ‘sustainable’ fabric, cotton is actually about as far from sustainable as it gets. It is not at all a ‘nice’ fabric – at least not to anyone who has to grow or produce it.

Cotton – which grows naturally in warm climates in the US, Brazil, Asia (including China, Uzbekistan, Pakistan) and Turkey – is in fact a very thirsty plant. It requires 20,000 litres (5,283 gallons) of water just to produce one kilogram (2.20 pounds) of cotton. According to a Refinery 29 report, “it takes 2,720 litres of water (as much as you’d drink over a three-year period) to make one T-shirt, and 10,000 litres of water went into making your favourite pair of jeans.” That is an awful lot of water, especially considering many countries around the world are already contending with problems caused by severe drought, water shortages, pollution and erratic rainfall. Cotton farming is also responsible for 24% of insecticides and 11% of pesticides, despite using only 3% of the world’s arable land.

Fashion may be fun – but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!

But cotton production is not the only factor in environmental damage. The article quoted above also points a glaring fistful of stats at the fashion industry in general:  “A 2017 report revealed that, in 2015 alone, the fashion industry consumed 79 billion cubic metres (nearly 20.9 trillion liquid gallons) of water – enough to fill 32 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That figure is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.” Considering how much water goes into producing a single garment, the environmental footprint of a simple pair of jeans and T-shirt becomes truly unsustainable. In addition, the fashion and textiles industry accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, and is second to oil as the world’s greatest air polluter.

Therefore, if we care at all about the future of life on our sorely abused planet, we must seriously evaluate the true costs of the clothes we wear – and stop buying anything we don’t actually need. Our planet simply cannot endure much more abuse in the service of our dedicated following of fashion, which typically results in acres of landfill once consumers have tired of their insta-fashion garments and discarded them. The average consumer today buys 60% more fashion items than in 2000, but discard half of these garments. Such blind consumer behaviour is ultimately suicidal: if we destroy our drinking water, air, soil and other resources in the process of creating and following fashion, we are lost. Fashion may be fun, but we cannot drink clothes or eat shoes!

Textiles exhibition, Charleston Museum, Charleston, South Carolina, US

Fashion and slavery: a fundamental evil

Along with the environmental destruction wreaked by excessive cotton-growing as cited in the Aral Sea example, a recent visit to the Charleston Museum highlighted how this seemingly pure, natural fabric is also deeply intertwined with the grave social injustices inflicted during America’s shameful history of slavery. Just as today’s fast-fashion brands rely on the nimble fingers of children in sweat shops to keep consumers queuing to buy their brands, so the colonial South relied on the dirty business of slavery to build its empires of water-hungry cotton, indigo (a plant that produced a sought-after blue dye) and rice.

During the height of the transatlantic cotton and textiles maritime trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, the US became the third-largest producer of cotton after China and India. This was thanks entirely to the unscrupulous US slave traders who purchased and enslaved billions of Africans, and then sold them to plantation owners. The owners then forced their slaves to work in the blistering heat, digging and planting their cotton fields, harvesting their crops, then spinning, weaving and tailoring their fabrics into the fashionable garments craved in ‘polite’ society parlours on both sides of the Atlantic.

Enslaved Africans working the cotton fields of the American South

The enslaved who were captured and dragged from the wetlands-rich west coast of Africa – an area steeped in centuries-old cotton- and rice-growing knowledge – brought with them the exact skills and experience needed to turn the plantation owners’ swamps into profitable land. But instead of being recognised and rewarded for their skills, they were brutally manacled to the holds of ships bound for major US slave ports such as Boston and Charleston, where they had to endure horrifically cramped, inhumane conditions for 2–3 months, with few surviving the notoriously dangerous ‘Middle Passage’ across the Atlantic (typically one in six perished per voyage). Throughout the journey, and continuing into their lives as slaves, they were frequently sexually and physically abused. Those that survived were ripped from their families on arrival at port, and then bartered for according to their age, sex, strength and skills.

Once the buyers claimed their purchases as ‘legally owned’ property, the slaves were then subjected to all manner of base cruelty and oppression, without any basic human rights or dignities – it was illegal for them to learn to read or write, as their owners greatly feared an uprising if the enslaved had too much knowledge. Yet without the knowledge, skills, expertise and back-breaking labour – often in malaria-infested swamps – of the enslaved, none of the South’s opulent mansions, exquisite silk and lace garments, and graceful antebellum plantations would ever have existed.

A comparison with today’s slave workers

While we may retrospectively deplore this treatment of slaves as barbaric, is today’s society really any different? Especially when high-street fashion moguls such as “unacceptable face of capitalism” Sir Philip Green of British fast-fashion retail giant Arcadia Group (owner of Top Shop/Top Man, Miss Selfridge, Dorothy Perkins, Burton, Evans, Wallis, and the controversially now-defunct British Home Stores) have built their fortunes on the backs (literally, in some cases) of the presently ca. 260 million under-15-year-old children employed in slave labour in impoverished areas of countries such as India, Nepal, Turkey, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Indonesia and Colombia?

Although cotton is not, strictly speaking, a ‘fast fashion’ fabric (which usually refers to synthetic materials like polyester or poly-cotton blends) because of the amount of time (and growing conditions — including the vast reserves of water required) it takes to produce it, pure cotton still accounts for 39% of all fibres worn today, and 58% of all non-synthetic fibres worn by people around the world.

Sadly, the treatment of slaves in the cotton fields of the South foreshadows today’s global fashion industry and its reliance on cheap labour, which specifically exploits the most vulnerable peoples in poorer regions of the world – women and children. The working conditions, threats to health, and lack of basic human rights such as education and a living wage – not omitting frequent evidence of physical and sexual abuse – female and child workers endure are a near-exact parallel to the damning situations African slaves faced.

Above, clockwise from left: Disgraced Arcadia chief Sir Philip Green; children work cotton fields in Uzbekistan; African woman sifting cotton buds; a cotton gin (Source: Wikipedia)

Because of their size and agility fashion chains cynically exploit under-15-year-old children, who are forced into the hard labour of cross-pollinating the cotton plants, harvesting the crops, and then put in further long hours working in cotton mills. There they spin, weave and dye the fabrics subsequently mass-produced as the clothes we buy from high-street chain stores. The children are paid a pittance for their labours, and frequently threatened with expulsion from school by their governments if they do not work the cotton fields during the summer months. Children also rarely benefit from their wages, as these go straight to their parents. Many become ill and malnourished; most have very little freedom to play and enjoy a normal, healthy childhood.

Women in supply chains also suffer gross injustices. A 2018 article in the Guardian cites two reports by Global Labour Justice highlighting 540 incidences of gender-based sexual and physical abuse in fast-fashion favourites Gap and H&M’s supply-chain factories across Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, India, Indonesia) over five months. The report also found the female workers were often forced to put in excessive hours of unpaid overtime and work at an incredible pace due to underbid contracts.

Female workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh (Source:

From 2017–2018 in India alone, female workers using cotton gins in 4,000 mills processed 37.7 million bales of cotton – that’s a whopping 8,550.2kg (18,850 lbs – based on a standard bale at 500 lbs / 226.8kg). The cotton was then mass-produced for high-street consumption in the fast-fashion chain stores, where it is sold for competitive prices far above the production costs and pay rates for this extensive labour.

How fashion enslaves us all

While we may lay the blame for such harsh conditions and exploitation on the profit-hungry high-street retail bosses like Sir Philip Green, they are not the only ones who are culpable – such onerous supply chains exist purely to accommodate consumer demand. And if it is was not for our seemingly endless lust for new things, to be in step with the latest fashions, such a toxic, abusive and oppressive system would not flourish.

Let’s be clear: the demand side of the fashion supply-chain cycle is NOT driven by the need to clothe an exponentially growing global population. Yes, human beings do need clothing, however the fashion engine is driven purely by human greed, further accelerated by fashion marketing and advertising, and the scores of celebrities and models who endorse (whether wittingly or un) such environmentally and human-destructive brands. The sole purpose of fashion advertising campaigns is to make us feel we are missing out if we are not seen or snapped wearing the latest fashions. It is no surprise that one of the most popular social media channels carries the prefix ‘Insta’ = instant (fast) fashion.

One of the definitions of fashion (according to Collins Dictionary’s American usage) is “the way in which something is made or done; manner” – except that we are more often not actually the creators or choosers of what we make, do or wear, and the style in which we do or wear it; we are in fact the followers. The leaders are whatever the Vogue or In Style or all the other fashion mag editors and bloggers tell us we must have or do in order to be on-trend, to fit in, to look cool, to be popular, desired or successful. When we feel a compulsion to buy something merely to fit in, we are no longer our own masters, but slaves (as Grace Jones put it, ‘Slaves to the Rhythm’ – but in the case of fast fashion, the seasonal changes are what dictate its rhythms).

Black Friday shoppers in London (Source: Money Talks News)

It is one thing to follow fashion, to be interested in trends or ways to subtly adapt our style of dress and appearance to be in vogue, and yet another to be completely enslaved by it. That compulsive, all-consuming ‘need’ to be the first to own or wear a garment – that fiercely competitive streak behind the queues of ‘Black Friday’ shoppers lining up outside stores and shopping malls every year after the US holiday of Thanksgiving (an irony in itself) – is symptomatic of a deeply dysfunctional, blindly self-centred insecurity. We won’t be happy until we get that item we believe is essential to our success, status, fashionability or desirability, and we demand to have it now.

And sadly, it is our selfish, ego-driven demands that are feeding the cycles of oppression and abuse in the supply chain; our need to have it now that puts workers under constant pressure to deliver faster and cheaper goods. That is the other reason it is called ‘fast fashion’ – because of the pressure required to deliver it, borne by the workers.

Fashion and capitalism: challenging our beliefs

The capitalist economy underpinning our most obsessive consumerist behaviour is founded on the belief that the purpose of life is to create and perpetuate wealth, and to be able to demonstrate the outward trappings of success – always being one up on the mythical Joneses. It is an inherently toxic and destructive ecosystem purpose-made to accommodate a survival-of-the-fittest, law-of-the-jungle mentality that relies on the cruelty of consumption to remain at the top of the food chain. Yet the same system that so violently oppresses and enslaves female and child garment workers also keeps us slaving away at our desks, neglecting our families and abusing our health, just so we will be able to purchase our much-craved items, stay in fashion, and be recognised and admired by others. Instead, we should ask:

So why do we do this to ourselves, to our only home, and to others who share our planet with us? Can we not simply choose to be content with what we have – or better yet, learn to share?

With all the evidence stacked against fashion, we need to evaluate our part in the cycle of greed that drives environmental devastation, socioeconomic deprivation, injustice and oppression, and ask ourselves why we are so easily manipulated into supporting something so obviously unethical. If we care about making a different and better world – both for ourselves and our children or those we will bequeath it to, we must step away from the cycle, refuse to get on it. We must somehow say no to fashion’s siren call, to the desire to jump on the latest bandwagon to feel included.

We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives. We must start making some very tough choices. It requires a deep and radical rethink about what we actually need, a reappraisal of why, some research about the supply chain of the particular garments and brands we most like, and quite a lot of discipline and discernment to eschew the worst offenders and find viable alternatives.

Other bloggers have published their own remedies for avoiding the above issues, including guides to the top brands to avoid; both Attitude Organic and the guide above on US chains, from Vanessa Adams, as well as several others, name H&M, Zara and Gap as the three worst offenders.

Other companies that figure high on everyone’s list of worst offenders include: Amazon, Primark, Mango, Uniqlo, Target, ASOS, Top Man/Top Shop, Forever 21, Monsoon, Matalan, Benetton, Wet Seal, C&A, American Apparel, Pretty Little Thing, Esprit, Dorothy Perkins, TK Maxx, Urban Outfitters, Nike, New Look, Esprit, River Island, Missguided, Sports Direct, Adidas, Boohoo, George, Pull&Bear, Victoria’s Secret, J Brand, Massimo Dutti, Armani Exchange, Peacocks, Charlotte Russe, Next, M&S, Old Navy, Express, Muji, Louis Vuitton… the list goes on.

So how to look good without harming anyone/anything?

First, while de-cluttering is certainly good for our souls as well as our overstuffed closets and drawers/living spaces, the problem with discarding clothes is that unless we know for certain they will be properly recycled to those who need and will wear them, we may simply be adding to the already serious problems of landfill (57% of discarded garments go to landfill; only 10% are actually recycled and 8% reused. The remaining 25% are incinerated). In Hong Kong alone, 253 tons (2013 figures) of textiles and discarded clothing are sent to landfill each day, with 15 million tons of textile waste (of which 12.8 tons were discarded) recorded in the same year, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Remember: true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear
your clothes as what you wear

Therefore, we should: 1) hang on to our garments for longer – and concentrate on taking better care of them so they will last longer. That means employing the ‘Make do and mend’ strategies used by our ancestors in wartime.

Second, if hanging onto items is important for all the reasons above, then surely that also requires us to 2) be much more choosy about what we buy. Along with consciously investing in more sustainably and ethically produced garments (see here for suggestions of European-based brands, and here for US/UK brands), we should be careful that we only buy clothes that are made from durable, natural fabrics, fit well and not too snugly to accommodate weight fluctuations, suit us and are something we enjoy wearing.

If you are unsure what suits you, ask a friend to help you sort through your wardrobe, and consult an online version of the original book such as Colour Me Beautiful to help you work out your colours. That will help you to determine and to 3) stick with a colour palette that suits you, with a few seasonal adaptations.

If you find you have unsuitable colours in your wardrobe, consider 4) hosting a swap or ‘swish’ party with similarly fashion- and waste-conscious friends so that you can swap or recycle your unwanted garments. Alternatively, if you and a friend both like a certain style or colour, and wear similar sizes, you could try sharing items of clothing to get the maximum amount of wear from them.

Along with making do and mending, swapping or sharing with friends, you can also ty to 4) recycle items from your own wardrobe – sometimes clothes you haven’t worn for a while can give you a ‘new’ look, particularly if you try pairing them with different items or accessories, or wear them in a new way – this is actually what fashion magazines should help us all to do. After all, true ‘fashion’ is as much about how you wear something as what you wear. Channel your inner Audrey Hepburn – that insouciant scarf around the hat, turned-up shirt collar, or multi-stranded jewellery always looks fresh, feminine and stylish no matter what decade it was first worn, so any look modelled on her style is likely to have a reliably classic nous.

Last but not least, try to 5) buy ‘new’ clothes from vintage, consignment or charity shops as a first port of call. If you live in or near an expensive area, you should always look there first as charity shops in these areas are more likely to hold high-quality, better-lasting goods that should also stay in style and in good shape for much longer.

And as we sign off on January’s resolutions, let’s all aim to make this year the year we finally and fully divest from fast fashion in all of our purchasing decisions.

Deforestation and Flooding

Deforestation – the intentional eradication of trees by felling to clear land of forested areas to make way for other human-created uses (eg houses, buildings, runways, motorways, tunnels, trains and agricultural) – is a major contributor to climate change in general, and to flooding in particular.

Between 1990 and 2016 alone, the Earth lost a staggering 1.3 million square kilometres (502,000 square miles) of forests, according to figures from the World Bank. Since humans first began cutting down forests, 46% of the Earth’s total trees have been felled. Woodland comprises less than a third of the Earth’s surface (30%), but this is disappearing fast as a result of deforestation – in the past 50 years alone, at least 17% of all rainforest has gone as a result of intensive tree felling, with the past 12 years alone accounting for record highs of deforestation in the Amazon.

A significant factor is also the types of trees needed, and why. Although some have argued there have in fact been recent gains in total global tree canopy due to melting polar regions and the growth of man-made forests through timber plantations, mature palm oil plantations, and zealous tree-planting programmes in China and other countries, man-made forests can never compensate for the loss of primary forest – specifically primary tropical forests and savannahs, which host a wealth of unique flora, fauna and vital ecosystems that are irreparably lost when the land is cleared.  

Tropical forests, such as those found in the Congo and Amazon river basins and Indonesia, are particularly critical to life on Earth as they are store the most carbon and are the most richly biodiverse regions on the planet, with some 90% of all species on Earth. Tropical forests are also home to many hardwood tree species that have no dormant period, and as such are vital to regulating the Earth’s atmosphere.

Amazonian rainforest fire in Brazil’s indigenous territory in 2017 (Source: Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

The UK is one of the least-forested (13%) nations in Europe (the total landmass of Europe is covered by 37% woodland), thanks to historic felling by the Romans and other invading peoples to clear land for roads and agriculture; further stripping of woodlands to provide ships during the height of Britain’s colonial and naval supremacy, and during the Second World War; and subsequent relentless felling for agriculture and building – including the current felling and irreparable destruction of 108 ancient woodlands to make way for the highly contentious high-speed railway (HS2) project, which some have referred to as ‘Britain’s Amazon’. Of this, most of the UK’s trees are in Wales and Scotland, with only 6.5% tree cover in Northern Ireland and 9.9% in England.

There are many impacts this substantial loss of tree canopy and forest cover will have on our planet if allowed to continue, not only because of their essential link to climate change and biodiversity loss, but because trees are also a vital deterrent to other ravages of a dramatically changing, overheated and destabilised climate, such as sea-level rise, water scarcity, drought and flooding. In this article, we will focus particularly on how deforestation contributes to flooding, both in the wider global picture and within the UK.

Deforestation and climate change

Deforestation accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions – to put this into a proportional geographic context, this comes third below all of the emissions currently produced by the US and China.

Forests serve as the Earth’s temperature regulator and pollution filter. They not only provide shade, material for building and food for creatures including man, but they also act as a vital ‘carbon sink’, meaning they absorb carbon dioxide and monoxide molecules from the air and lock them in, re-releasing them as oxygen through the process known as photosynthesis. Thus, they are effectively nature’s air-conditioning units and weather regulators, as they recycle water, which then forms clouds and later rain, thus helping to cool and water the Earth and enable to plants to grow.

“Without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat.”

–JANE CAHANE

Therefore, without vast tracts of woodland covering every continent on the planet, humans – and indeed, all (or most) other life forms on Earth – would be completely wiped out, as they would not have sufficient clean air to breathe or food to eat. Without trees, the presence of the harmful carbon emissions and other noxious gases that have intensified through human fossil fuel-burning would make the air unbreathable.

If the pollution alone did not kill us, the heat would. Without vital tree cover, incremental temperature rises would diminish the protective layer of ozone in the Earth’s atmosphere, thereby exposing our planet to the sun’s harmful radiation. The entire land surface would become a scorching, uninhabitable desert, where nothing could grow – as is currently the case in regions of the world that are covered in desert, whether hot or cold (note, at 33% of the Earth’s total landmass, there is already more desert than forest).

Map showing global forest cover density with percentages in 2010, reused with permission from research organisation Our World in Data

The lack of trees would also mean the planet would be unable to internally regulate weather patterns; coupled with the impact of the ozone reduction and rising heat, Earth’s weather would rapidly plunge into a wildly destabilised, crisis situation – as it is already showing signs of doing.

We are all increasingly aware of the problem of climate change; we now know that if we do not act soon to reverse the ravages of climate change, our planet is on course for imminent untold disasters due to increasing wildfires, sea-level rise (SLR) and flooding, as well as decimation of vital plants, soils and species. The rise in global temperatures has accelerated the process of evaporation, which in turn has caused global wildfires to intensify in frequency, duration and prevalence, with some 8,100 wildfires in California alone in 2019–2020 and the fire season there now lasting 75 days longer than in the 1970s. Global SLR is also accelerating beyond predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) 2013 report, with more recent data showing SLR could reach up to (or even over) 2m by 2100.

“Along with sea-level rise, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher oceans and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation… this then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding”

— JANE CAHANE

Along with SLR, wildly fluctuating weather patterns will mean increased and more severe flooding, as higher ocean and air temperatures also mean higher concentrations of evaporation and cloud formation, which further increase the moisture content in the air. This then leads to an increase in storms, levels of precipitation (frequency, intensity and duration) and severe flooding, with many regions already experiencing higher-than-average rainfall ­– for example, in October 2019, more rain fell in areas of the UK within a single span of 48 hours than would normally occur over an entire month.

Yet while forests could provide more than one-third of the total CO2 reductions required to keep global warming below 2°C through to 2030, mankind unbelievably continues to chop trees down at an unprecedented rate. In the relatively short period between 2001–2015, over 300 million hectares (nearly the size of India) of tree cover was lost. Such short-sighted behaviour is essentially suicidal – if we continue chopping trees as we are, we will be unable to survive.

Deforestation and flooding

One of the biggest single causal factors in the devastating impacts of flooding is deforestation or de-vegetation. Deforestation contributes to the severity of flooding in a number of ways, both directly and indirectly, as described above in terms of the relation of the absence of trees to the overall impacts of climate change. Indirectly, forests also hold and use more water than agricultural lands or grasslands, which means some rainwater remains on the leaves and may evaporate directly into the air.

The most direct ways deforestation increases the impacts of flooding are by:

  • increasing the speed and amount of sedimentary run-off;
  • decreasing the amount of rainfall that is intercepted, as there are simply less leaves on trees and surrounding vegetation to absorb rainfall and reprocess it through photosynthesis; and
  • the simple fact there is literally nothing physically present to stem the tide of a fast-flowing flood, which may or may not contain additional sedimentary elements.

The top two impacts are connected to the mechanisms by which plants absorb and expunge water. The process of photosynthesis means water is first absorbed via tree leaves and then transmitted to the roots beneath the surface of the ground, which in turn release nutrients into the soil. The water that is not used then travels up along the underside of the leaves and is re-released into the atmosphere as oxygen via evaporation.

Flooded areas with with dislodged soil (Source: Rachman Reilli on Unsplash)

When there are no trees and vegetation to absorb the precipitation, the quantity of water continues to increase, yet has nowhere to go. Also, roots absorb water from the soil and make it drier and able to store more rainwater, thereby making the surrounding lands less prone to flooding. Without the roots of trees and other vegetation deep absorbing precipitation deep below the ground, the water will remain on the surface and can more easily become a flood.

Deforestation also results in the top layer of soil becoming dislodged – a process known as erosion – because without the roots of trees and other plants and vegetation to anchor this topsoil in place, it becomes unstable and is no longer able to retain or reprocess any of the water that falls on it. This loose soil then becomes run-off– rain that is not absorbed by the soil. The increased surface run-off in turn increases the risk of flooding, because there is no soil layer to stop or absorb the flow of water. It therefore becomes a fast-flowing stream, with the loose sediment mixing with it to become a mudslide.

A flood of fast-flowing water or mud can also be more dangerous if the force of the current is strong enough to uproot and transport rocks or heavier items. Such items would have more likely been filtered or intercepted by the network of branches, roots and leaves of smaller trees, shrubs, hedgerows and other low-lying but substantial vegetation. Further, the movement of sedimentary run-off can shrink river channels downstream, thereby constricting the flow of rivers and causing them to overflow and burst their banks. Without forests and vegetation present to stem the tides of rising waters, the flood waters surge and move faster, ultimately becoming uncontrollable.

According to Janet Abramovitz of WorldWatch, deforestation in the Yangtze river-basin area played a major role in the massive flood of 1998, which occurred as a result of the region losing 85% of its trees. Although the Chinese government blamed El Niño and denied any complicity due to its logging activities in causing the regional devastation, it subsequently launched a $2bn plan to reforest the Yangtze basin. Says Abramovitz, “[This was] certainly… a very clear sign from the government that deforestation was [the] problem.”

Flooding in Shaoguan, Guangdong Province, China (Source: Jéan Béller, Unsplash)

Deforestation and flooding: the case against HS2

As previously stated, the UK is one of the least-forested nations in Europe, with less than 13% of tree cover. Therefore, any programme of deforestation for building, infrastructure and large-scale agricultural projects threatens to increase both the levels of climate change-related air pollution and the risk of flooding in the UK – not to mention severely impacting fragile wetland ecosystems and many unique, rare, threatened and protected species.

One of the UK government’s most ambitious, expensive and deeply controversial infrastructure projects is the high-speed railway (HS2), phase 1 of which is currently being built, with an escalating cost to taxpayers of some £106bn. The HS2 railway scheme proposes to connect London and Birmingham (and, at a later stage, areas of the Midlands, the North of England and Scotland). To build it, engineers have drawn straight lines bisecting large swaths of countryside, including several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), such as the Chilterns; HS2 officials have also contentiously seized houses and farms and evicted families along the proposed route, citing a World War Two law that allows the government to grab land and houses for ‘a national emergency’.

Yet, according to a survey conducted by the Wildlife Trusts, the work will destroy or irreparably damage 108 irreplaceable ancient woodlands (these once covered Britain, but now only 2.5% remain), plus 693 local wildlife sites, five internationally protected wildlife sites and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest (SSIs).

While some see the proposed train route as an advantageous – even ‘green’ – development, both for facilitating business and reducing the amount of car traffic through ostensibly providing faster connections between major UK cities, the journey from London to Birmingham will only be 20 minutes shorter, which hardly seems to justify such excessive expenditure and destruction.

Perhaps the flooding in
areas already deforested
for HS2 is a sign that
if even if the government
refuses to halt this work,
nature herself may have

the final say”

—Jane hurd cahane

Also, HS2 will in fact add carbon dioxide (1.49 million tonnes of carbon emissions) rather than reducing it over its projected 120-year lifespan. And then there is the fact that overall, rail travel is down – the pandemic has proven that remote working not only could become the norm, but for many workers, is preferable. Indeed, even long before the pandemic, train use was in decline; it is hardly likely demand will ever justify its construction.

But despite the risks and the clear lack of viable green credentials, the project poses an even greater risk: increased flooding. This is because several areas across which HS2 is being built are floodplains, and without the farmland and forests – which HS2 is commandeering all across the route – to soak up the surface water and serve as a natural flood defence, this leaves these flood-prone areas even more exposed to the freakish extremes of the weather and precipitation patterns, which have clearly increased in recent years.

Understandably, many residents, particularly in the Midlands and areas of the North of England along the proposed HS2 route, are fearful that its construction will put their homes at even greater risk of flooding. Some critical MPs and reporters such as BBC News Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith have even suggested that HS2 itself will be a casualty of flooding. Indeed, a map produced by the Environment Agency revealed that areas already severely hit by flooding run an almost indentical course to the proposed rail line, including a 45-mile section of Staffordshire and a large area around Leeds station. In fact, had the rail line already been built through this section, it would likely have been submerged several times over.

While various spokespersons for HS2 have claimed, and continue to claim, that drainage systems near the construction locations will be put in place as works continue, recent flooding of what was formerly the South Cubbington Woods – home to ancient woodlands and the beloved Cubbington 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ pear tree, which were recently felled to make may for HS2 – makes such claims vastly unreliable. In view of such evident increase of flooding in an area that would have otherwise been soaked up by these woods, local residents are justifiably angry that money being spent on what many see as a ‘white elephant vanity project’ has not instead been directed towards erecting greater flood-prevention defences.

Speaking after the major flooding incidents caused by Storms Desmond and Eva during the Christmas 2015 holidays, which saw record-breaking rainfall hit Lancashire, Cumbria, southern Scotland and parts of Wales, former UK MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber Mike Hookem said: “Flood defences are not something that the government can palm off on charities and communities… rather than pouring billions of pounds into projects like HS2 – while at the same time cutting the flood defence budget, as it did in its recent spending review – the government must get its priorities right and make protecting the homes and businesses of hundreds and thousands of people from flooding an absolute priority.”

Boxing Day floods 2015 in Bingley, Bradford (Source: Chris Gallagher, Unsplash)

As an island nation normally subject to intensive rainfall, it is clear flooding is about to become even more intense for the UK due to rising sea levels, increasingly erratic and dangerous weather patterns, and the other issues of climate change-induced flooding made infinitely worse through deforestation. While the government has recently agreed to new 2050 targets for achieving net carbon neutrality and becoming a net-zero emitter of greenhouse gases, its continued support for the HS2 project is in direct opposition to these goals, due to the fact the project itself is adding to rather subtracting carbon emissions.

Perhaps the flooding in areas already deforested for HS2 is a sign that even if the government refuses to halt this work, nature herself will ultimately have the final say.

This article was originally written for the Earth Fast 2021 website in relation to this year’s theme on water – please see here for further articles and information about how to join the fast, and how to fast safely.

Recent artwork

Like many of you, I rejoice that creativity in all forms is not in lockdown – and as I posted previously, I am very grateful to remain a connected, active member of a number of groups, including the Shoal of Art Meetup group, which I first got involved with a few years ago when I joined the Meetup group that usually meets at the National Gallery in London, and also for various portrait sessions likewise based in London.

As I mentioned in last month’s post, I am also writing an historical novel, and grateful for the daily discipline of joining the Writers’ Hour sessions at the London Writers Salon to aid my progress in that. Being connected with other artists, writers and creators online during this time has been a huge part of the reason I have rarely, if at all, felt lonely, and instead have remained upbeat, fulfilled – even excited – throughout lockdown.

So, here is a small sample of artworks I have created since lockdown began – mostly in order of creation from most recent to shortly after lockdown began in 2020, they include: various portrait and landscape sketches (charcoal, pastel, watercolour, pencil); watercolours, pastels and acrylic paintings of animals (birds, particularly, as well as some animal-themed banners and sashes I created for the HS2 Rebellion March in June 2020 [I have also made countless effective placards, some of which have been lost while en route to protests in London and elsewhere]); contour pen and pencil drawings of live and static models; a few autumn-themed acrylic, watercolour and mixed-media landscape paintings; and interpretative copies of works of known artists (Monet, Rembrandt, Matisse, Gauguin, Bonnard, etc) from the National Gallery and other sources. Most of the portrait sketches were 15–30 minute poses.

Sitter from the #draweachother sessions from the Wednesday night Meetup session led by John Pipal
My watercolour of professional model Sassetta in a recent Sunday afternoon Meetup session organised by Mark Lovelace
Christmas pomegranates – watercolour
Recent pencil sketch of Ana Lucia from the Wednesday #draweachother session; below, two views of a model in a similar session, watercolour and pastel
Pastel from a photo of my friend Gemma Rogers on a wintry local walk
Several sections of Monet’s Giverney paintings, above and below

From a Gauguin self-portrait
Pastel landscape, section of a painting by Bonnard (?)
From Rembrandt, Portrait of an Old Man
Two charcoal sketches focusing on aging; below, three pastel landscapes
A combination of a #30-daysketchbook challenge exercise and a National Gallery group focus on winter scenes
Above, Kingfisher – watercolour; left; colourful bird in South Carolina

Below: various images of sashes and placards I created to highlight specific species threatened by HS2 for the June 2020 HS2 Rebellion March

Charcoal – sketch from a black and white still
Above: two views of the same live professional model, both charcoal
Autumn tree, watercolour, from FB photo by Denise Hutchison
Pastel landscape, from my own photos
Above, two mixed-media autumn landscape paintings from Debra Collis’s WEA course
Watercolour 15-minute sketch of Debra Collis (not a great likeness, however); below, two acrylic paintings of a professional model
Above, two charcoal, pastel and pen countour drawings from a recent figurative drawing session
Two charcoal views of a professional model
Above: 1. copy in charcoal of a Bonnard (?) painting and 2. copy in pastel of a Matisse painting
Colour pencil combined portraits
Autumn landscape, London – watercolour
Above and below, sketches of live and stationary life-drawing models
Another section of a Monet Giverney painting – pastel
Pastel of George Floyd, shortly after his death in relation to the Black Lives Matter protest

I certainly have a long way to go yet in developing my skills, individual style and knowledge of various media; while I have been drawing and painting all my life (and only with a small amount of university, etc art training), I am unable to say whether much of the below constitutes improvement.

However, I do consider that, as God has given me some measure of natural talent and/or artistic ability, the only way I will ever really improve is through practice – and so I continue to do just that. Thank God for lockdown giving us the time and space to do it!

An Amsterdam All-Sorts

What began as an intended series of light-hearted travel-and-food blogs (it still is, in part  – see rijstaffel recipe below) has now become a compendium of thoughts and reflections on Amsterdam and its impact on the world (and on me). That is because it is both a chief location for the historical novel I am writing (as explained below), as well as a place in which I formerly briefly lived, and which radically altered my life. Therefore, I invite you to take from this what you wish and leave the rest – like a liquorice all-sorts, some flavours may appeal more than others!

Since mid-October, when an ornament on display at the ‘Kimono: From Kyoto to Catwalk’ exhibition at the V&A gave me the initial idea and inspiration, I began working on the preliminary concepts, genres, character sketches and plotting for an historical novel, which is set in mid-17th century Amsterdam and Japan. (Note: The above image is a collage I created during a recent Shoal of Art session where we were looking at surrealism; as I had just come fresh from my research, the image I created ended up being a mix of Dutch-, Japan- and VOC-related paintings with some of Meret Oppenheim’s surrealist creations, including her blood-stained gloves – which I decided are a perfect metaphor for the ‘staining’ power of colonialism.)

As I’ve discovered, writing an historical novel requires a tremendous amount of research and total immersion into the period, locations, conventions, clothing, habits, morals and attitudes to make the characters believable and as factually accurate as possible (some are based on real-life characters). This can be both fascinating and frustrating. I’ve already learned quite a lot about my subject(s) and the time period, as well as some of the conventions of historical fiction, but I have also realised how even tiny details require an awful lot of time to find on a Google search, and how easy it is to get sidetracked or fall down research rabbit holes in the process. That is one reason for sharing some of this excess information here – it’s a golden opportunity to tell rather than show!

To aid my progress, I’ve joined an online writing group – the London Writers Salon (it’s called that, even though many participants are actually based in the US, Europe and further afield) where you log on to Zoom and write collectively for a solid hour, with a few minutes’ check-in with other writers at the beginning and end. It’s perfect for writers like me who often write best when held to account by others or to an external deadline – and while it is a different incentive to the paid writing commissions I do as a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor, it still gives me a deep sense of satisfaction in setting and achieving goals (I am still working on getting my novel research and plotting, etc NaNoWriMo ready by January – but am nearly there).

“Remember this year? It was a good year, actually. This was the year you stopped waiting around for things to happen. And somehow, as soon as you stopped waiting, as soon as you started doing things, making things, claiming your own space, speaking up for yourself? That’s when your real-life began.”

———Heather Havrilesky, How to be a person in the world

Writing a novel is something I have intended to do all my life, but have somehow been too distracted (usually with salsa, which of course I cannot do now) or discouraged (eg not believing in my message or talent) to get down to it. Therefore, I am grateful to the coronavirus for giving me the incentive to forget all that and get on with it. This quote from a recent LWS session has really resonated with me: “Remember this year? It was a good year, actually. This was the year you stopped waiting around for things to happen. And somehow, as soon as you stopped waiting, as soon as you started doing things, making things, claiming your own space, speaking up for yourself? That’s when your real-life began.” (Heather Havrilesky, How to Be a Person in the World).

Being that my novel will focus on the explorations of new worlds, among other things, here’s to all of us continuing to explore and discover the ‘brave new worlds’ and exotic riches of creativity within us all, and to a new year full of new beginnings!

Travel and spices: how a craving for exotic flavours led to capitalism

In the same way probably the most British dish you can eat is curry, as a result of the colonial heritage from the days of British Raj in India, the most Dutch thing you can eat is likely an Indonesian rijstaffel (see recipe below), thanks to the Netherlands’ long-term trade via the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie (the VOC, or the Dutch East India Company) with the famed Spice Islands of the East (the Maluku or Molucca Islands). This small group of islands in the Molucca Sea, in the north-east of Indonesia between Sulawesi and Papua New Guinea, is the world’s largest producers of mace, cloves, nutmeg and pepper. As a result, Indonesian spices and flavours have long been familiar Dutch staples, including in the wonderful street varieties found in Amsterdam.

European trade with the Spice Islands began in 1512 after Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India that connected the Indian and Atlantic oceans; before that, obtaining spices, Chinese silks, Indian cottons, Arabian coffee and African ivory was a costly and time-consuming affair, as these goods had to be shipped and then transported overland, passing through many traders’ hands before eventually reaching Venice – the chief point of trade contact between Europe and Asia – where their cost was up to 1,000% higher than the price originally paid for them in the Spice Islands.

You may wonder why the desire for such a small and unnecessary-seeming thing as the subtle, delicate flavourings and aromas of a certain spice or herbal ingredient would motivate our European forebears to undertake such long and arduous sea journeys to unknown lands, yet if you try removing all spices and herbs from your cooking, you’ll soon understand how valuable these indeed are.

Once you discover how much depth, texture, pungency and richness of taste these can add to your otherwise boring or bland-tasting food, your desire to repeat these sensations becomes very addictive, and you experience an intense craving for more of these amazing taste-sense experiences.

Antique map of the Spice Islands

Therefore, an insatiable desire for these pungent ingredients is what drove the expeditions and travel of these brave, curious explorers, who succeeded in opening up new transcontinental maritime routes, ultimately paving the way for our modern globalised world and its complicated (and ecologically disastrous) supply chains.

Such demand led to many wars and acts of piracy between European and Asian nations as they fought to outdo each other in the race to claim ‘ownership’ of these exotic lands and their goods, thereby creating the ensuing horrors of slavery, exploitation of indigenous peoples, deforestation and ethnic wars caused by the disrespectful mapping of colonial conquerors, who simply drew up boundary lines willy-nilly to suit their own aims, which were utterly out of sync with tribal peoples’ boundaries.

Another factor in terms of what motivated this vastly lucrative, competitive and destructive trade is that, while spices and extra ingredients were hardly the stuff of necessity – you could still eat potatoes, vegetables and meat without them, as sadly the poor who could not afford them had to do – their very subtlety and unnecessariness is actually what made these goods so compelling (the spice equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, if you will). The ownership and use of such luxuriously unnecessary spices became a distinct mark of social and economic ‘arrival’ for many of the ambitious VOC merchants’ families and the other wealthy patrons who could afford them.

These spices were also deemed valuable because they derived from mysterious far-away lands, which their purchasers could boast of either visiting or financing expeditions to. Well-off hosts revelled in the one-upmanship of displaying their ostentatious wealth through hosting elaborate banquets. This desire to show off their exotic acquisitions in turn gave rise to the artistic trend that emerged during the Dutch Golden Age of depicting fruits, shells and flowers from these strange new lands in meticulously detailed and expertly crafted still lives, which became very fashionable at that time – the 17th century version of Instagram, if you will.

Map of the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam – in what is now the southern tip of Manhattan

Another direct result of this demand for spices was the VOC’s creation of our now-familiar, but then-pioneering financing methods. The VOC was the world’s first corporation, and financing it relied on the purchase of stocks, joint stock corporations, investments in maritime insurance, futures trading, favourably (or unjustly) tilted trade negotiations and agreements, warfare, actual and financial acts of piracy, and (often violently) enforced monopolies. It was the first conglomerate, and the first company to be listed on international stock exchange – in effect, the beginning of capitalism as we know it.

“Exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices made our world what it is today. The demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change”

It is probably no surprise, then, that the originally Dutch settlement of 1624 on the southern tip of the Hudson River, known then as Nieuw Amsterdam, eventually became Manhattan, New York – and the world’s leading exponent of capitalism.

Therefore, it was due to this exposure to new lands through travel and the sense-stirring revelations of heady new spices that made our world what it is today. The insatiable demand for these far-flung fragrant spices and other exotic goods not only contributed to laying the foundations of today’s consumerist society, but also to all of the horrendous after-effects of colonialism and the global supply chain – the single-biggest driver of climate change, the greatest existential threat mankind has ever known.

If you think about how we ‘commoners’ today enjoy goods from far-flung lands as everyday ingredients in our mass-produced food, you can see how the ‘trickle-down’ economic concept was expected to work; of course what you don’t see is all the dreadful exploitation, slavery, child labour, deforestation and devastation of resources going on in these countries now – but that is a topic for another blog.

New York, New York – is it any surprise, really, that the epicentre of the capitalism created by the Dutch through the VOC should have started as a Dutch colony?

Yet we would not recognise our modern life if we did not have what has now become daily access to commodities such as:

  • chocolate (cacao – from South American and Asian rainforests);
  • cinnamon (from Sri Lanka, India and Burma, also the West Indies and South America);
  • garlic (China and Middle Asia [Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan; from there to Egypt]);
  • pepper (India and Indonesia);
  • sugar (originally, Papua New Guinea, then South East Asia, China, India, Haiti and Dominican Republic);
  • turmeric (South East Asia and Pacific islands [Tahiti, Hawaii, Easter Island]);
  • tea (China, then Japan and later India);
  • ginger (India and China; throughout South East Asia);
  • coffee (North Africa, originally; now South East Asia, Central and South America, predominantly);
  • tobacco (originally South and North America; today, China, India, Brazil and the US are the top producers);
  • vanilla (originally Mexico, now mostly Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia and Uganda);
  • chilli and paprika (Mexico); and
  • saffron – officially the world’s costliest spice by weight, it comes from the dried stigmas of a particular crocus flower, Crocus sativus (originally cultivated in Greece, now also cultivated in Iran, India and Morocco).  
The range of colours and varieties here hint at the incredible pungency, vibrancy and texture exotic spices can add to flavour otherwise bland and boring food

Amsterdam and the Netherlands – in all their spicy ‘glory’

They say if you like Amsterdam, you will love Europe; while every European city is different, it is true that, being a seafaring country and having both a Catholic and Protestant heritage – not to mention all those amazing canals, frequently superior in construction to their Venetian cousins – Amsterdam reflects some elements of nearly every European country.

Thanks to its early explorations of Asia, South America, Africa and the Caribbean during the Dutch Golden Age period of (particularly) the 17th century – and its colonial acquisitions in countries and islands such as Curaçao, Aruba, New Zealand Surinam, South Africa, Indonesia, Sint Maarten and Dutch Guiana, and parts of Australia, North America, Japan and India – Amsterdam has long had a tradition of open-mindedness, tolerance and outward-lookingness, especially towards other cultures and religions (not excluding its famously liberal attitudes towards sexuality – an altogether different form of spiciness! – as a more recent development).

Antique map of Amsterdam, around the time the canal district (including the Herengracht, Prinzengracht and Kaisergracht canals) were being added to the city

In the late 1960s and 1970s, Dutch culture became a model of tolerance and leniency towards drug use, euthanasia, abortion/birth control, prostitution and homosexuality, with a globalised sex industry expanding beyond the red-light districts in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities (as I myself have experience of through outreach to prostitutes from Santo Domingo and other colonial outposts, as I explain later). However, the influence of a heavily judgemental Calvinistic streak has also left its mark on the psyche of the nation; even if 82% of Dutch people no longer believe in God or attend church these days, they still adhere to the virtues of integrity, truthfulness, hard work, respectfulness, reliability, acceptance, self-discipline and efficiency that derive from a heavily Calvinistic background.

Martin Luther, left, and John Calvin, right, were leaders of the revolutionary Reformation

For those who do not know, John Calvin was a highly influential theologian and preacher of the Reformation movement that swept Europe in the mid-16th century as a result of the teachings of German Martin Luther, which emphasised a personal faith through one’s own reading and interpretation of the scriptures. Later, the French-Swiss Catholic-turned-Protestant John Calvin became a leading proponent of Protestantism, and his teachings were eagerly embraced by the Dutch people – including then-leader William of Orange, as well as a large percentage of commoners.

Prior to the Reformation, all of Europe was Catholic, and therefore under rule from Rome. However, there were also many inter-national economic rivalries and wars – such as the Eighty Years’ War between Spain (under Philip II) and the Netherlands. This war came about as Spanish Catholics began a campaign of harsh persecutions against Dutch Calvinists, which led to resentment and resistance via a wave of rebellious, disorderly attacks known as the Beeldenstorm (image storm) of 1566, in which Catholic images and statues were destroyed. Inevitably, the Dutch broke free from Spain in 1581 and formed the Dutch Republic. One wonders what the world might have been like were it not for Calvin’s preaching!

Multiple Dutch ships engaging in cargo transport in Malabar harbour after the Dutch developed their own routes to the coveted and lucrative spice trade, thereby usurping the Spanish and Portuguese monopoly

The Dutch rebellion against Catholic and Spanish rule also ignited their determination to overthrow the monopoly of the spice trade and send their own ships east, thus forgoing the necessity of trading with Spain and Portugal. The Dutch soon became the leading maritime explorers of the 17th century, thanks in part to the fleet construction of their East Indiaman ships, which were lighter and more compactly built than the heavy Portuguese and Spanish war ships (they were also initially faster than other European ships, however, as the British began to use copper sheathing in the construction of their ships’ hulls, their speed eventually overtook the Dutch, who delayed using this innovation for various reasons).

The Dutch are certainly some of the world’s most incredibly ingenious, hard-working, tenacious and resourceful peoples – for example, their advanced abilities to reclaim land from the sea using dikes and polders is an amazing feat of engineering. After the catastrophic North Sea flood of 1287 (aka ‘St Lucia’s Flood’ – considered one of the worst floods in history), which killed 50,000 people and destroyed the many small earth-mound villages protected by dikes at the time, the Dutch had to work extra hard to push back the newly formed Zuiderzee (‘South sea’) created by this flood. They slowly pushed back the Zuiderzee by building newer, stronger dikes and creating polders (land reclaimed from the sea through draining water using canals and pumps, which were then maintained to keep the land dry and prevent further flooding). This ingenuity has given rise to the proverb, ‘While God created the Earth, the Dutch created the Netherlands’.

Contemporary French actor Francois Caron, whose appearance above may well resemble his namesake – the charismatic 17th century explorer, VOC chief and master linguist

The Dutch are also master linguists; while their own language is incredibly difficult for any non-native to pronounce correctly or master, they seem to make up for that by mastering everyone else’s language, so if you but open your mouth to speak – even if you are trying really hard to learn and practise speaking Dutch – they will immediately discern your language and start communicating with you in it instead. Whether this is because they are proud of their seemingly almost supernatural gift for this, or embarrassed that their own language is so difficult and contains so many challenging sounds, is hard to say. (Dutch is actually the closest linguistic relative to English, specifically the version (Frisian) spoken in its most westerly area – Friesland, or the Frisian Islands. The Frisii (Frisians) were the first tribe to settle the Netherlands in 400 BC.)

It was also largely in part due to French-Dutch explorer François Caron’s mastery of Japanese (one of the factors in my novel) and other languages that the Dutch ended up having a trading monopoly in Japan – which goes to show how essential language skills are to the evolving development of international trade and diplomacy.

Chiaroscuro: my personal history lessons in Amsterdam

Artist Debra Collis demonstrating chiaroscuro technique

I lived in Amsterdam (or A’dam, as we called it) for a brief two years during my early 20s, during which time I worked in the fundraising and communications office of Jeugdt Met Een Opdracht (Youth With A Mission, an international, interdenominational Christian missionary and relief organisation, which I had previously trained and travelled with in Latin America before I felt specifically compelled to come to Europe). YWAM’s Amsterdam HQ – situated in a large building opposite Amsterdam’s Centraal Station (main train station), which proclaimed ‘God Roept U’ (God Loves You) from its top storey – was set up by The Father Heart of God writer Floyd McClung, Jr. and other former hippie-trailsters-turned-Christian-evangelists who had previously used two disused house boats (known collectively as ‘The Ark’) as a base for outreach to the city’s large drug-using/abusing community, and to scores of disillusioned young people asking deep questions about the meaning of life.

By the time I joined YWAM in A’dam, it had attracted a fairly large corps of international volunteers, most of whom either lived in shared temporary communal housing or in flats in various parts of the city (I lived for a time in the Bijlmermeer – at that time, a cheap but very rough neighbourhood, considered a Dutch ghetto – and afterwards in the outlying provincial [and then rather boring, though much safer] village of Purmerend).

While my ‘day job’ was all about boosting funding through producing a newsletter for the ‘Friends of Amsterdam’ and recording various audio-visual productions, I spent much of my spare time doing outreach to the (mostly) Spanish-speaking prostitutes in De Wallen, Amsterdam’s Red-Light District. This is one of the reasons why, despite my efforts to practise and learn Dutch properly in the two years I lived there, I could never master it – instead, my daily language ended up being a very weird kind of ‘Danglish’ (Dutch-Spanish-English) hybrid; for some reason, I also developed another weird habit of speaking in a form of transliterated English whenever I find myself in any situation where I feel like a foreigner – which I still do occasionally even now!

During my time in A’dam, I experienced much of the sharp moral and other contrasts of its inhabitants, witnessing at first hand their inherently Calvinistic qualities and simultaneous liberal attitudes. Such ambiguity (hypocrisy?) was possibly a contributing factor in my personal experiences of spiritual abuse at the hands of YWAM Amsterdam’s leadership, as while seeming to be forward-thinking and open, and emphasising compassion, it was in fact controlling, legalistic, dismissive and misogynistic (after submitting something I’d been asked to write that displayed my command of vocabulary and contested the viewpoints of the main leader, I was criticised for being a ‘dangerous female intellectual’ and asked to leave the organisation – an event that subsequently caused me to stumble in my faith for several decades after [and which I can only recently claim to be healed of]).

Yet as I also witnessed some very powerful and dramatic spiritual confrontations between the powers of darkness and the power of light during various street-outreach sessions, I will forever associate Amsterdam with the concept of chiaroscuro – the technique of highlighting contrasts between dark and light, which Rembrandt and other Dutch Golden Age masters are famous for.

Like the chiaroscuro technique used in this painting, Amsterdam’s Golden Age demonstrated the glories, as well as the darker sides, within the Dutch psyche

Despite the above negative experience and my fruitless efforts to acquire the Dutch language, those two years in Amsterdam changed my life immensely – for the better, mainly. I developed a more European (and truly cosmopolitan) view of life, and became very aware of (and deeply ashamed by) the US’s war-mongering footprint across the globe through understanding how this was perceived by other nations. While generally kind-natured, the Dutch are also typically very blunt, and do speak their minds; it took me a while not to take it personally if they criticised US foreign policy whenever I opened my mouth, though this certainly made me determined to develop a stronger Irish accent so I no longer felt obliged to apologise every time I opened my mouth!

By the time I returned to the US, I no longer considered myself American – the insular, imperialistic values the US manifested seemed completely out of sync with a more tolerant, globally aware and objective European vantage point. I felt like a stranger, a permanent exile (or expatriate), which led me to return to Ireland to study, and thence to my marriage and relocation to London.

I had also become used to the Dutch way of life – cycling to the shops each morning to fetch a bouquet of fresh tulips from the market, along with my food for the day (typically, some broodje [bread], kaas [cheese, usually Gouda], jam and koffee for breakfast and lunch, with the makings for a savoury pannekoeken [pancake], a rijstaffel, curry or vegetarian stir-fry for dinner). 

I particularly loved the street snack of frites met sate (chips or French fries with spicy Indonesian satay sauce), available from many street vendors around the city, and the wonderful stroopwaffelen (two waffle biscuits or cookies cemented with a thick caramel-like syrup). I also learned to love (and still crave) the Dutch dubbel zoute (or double salted) liquorice, though even many Dutch people can’t take its strong flavour! I was thrilled to discover you can get a gluten-free version of this at London’s Borough Market.

As for raw herring – just… no! That was simply one cultural adaptation too far!

This picture encapsulates many things I remember fondly about life in Amsterdam – the canals, the bicycles, the flowers

I am grateful for very fond memories of some lovely Dutch people I knew from that time, such as Peter and Marilyn Gruschka, who always demonstrated the most exemplary hospitality, fun and fellowship on their colourful houseboat, and other international friends I made during that time – some of whom I am still close to (or have renewed contact with, thanks to Facebook).

I am also deeply grateful for the many long hours I spent at the Rijksmuseum, admiring and sketching from the works of the Dutch Golden Age painters – Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, Jacob van Ruisdael, Aelbert Cuyp, Pieter de Hooch, Adriaen van Ostade, Jan Steen, Nicholas Maes, Frans Hals and many others. This has made me a lifelong, devoted fan of this period of time, particularly of the genius of Rembrandt.

I finally went back to Amsterdam for the 2015 Amsterdam Salsa Festival, and was delighted to revisit a few favourite haunts – the Oude Kerk, the Van Gogh Museum, the Stedelijk Museum, Leidseplein and Rembrandtplein, Dam Square, the Concertgebouw, the Rijksmuseum and Vondel Park – and enjoy some of my favourite street food. I even visited Jeugdt Met Een Opdracht’s HQ, and believe that was a good step towards being able to leave the remaining spiritual dark shadows cast on me from that time in the past, where they truly belong.

You can see the original of Rembrandt’s most famous painting, Nachtwatch (The Night Watch) in the Rijksmuseum. It is an excellent and dramatic composition, which also makes great use of chiaroscuro techniques
Me outside the Van Gogh Museum when I went for the Amsterdam Salsa Festival in 2015

Being that we are unlikely to be able to travel any time soon (even short-haul, as in to Amsterdam), all this talk of far-flung spices has whetted my appetite – both for revisiting (mentally) many of the wonderful places I have traveled to or lived in, and the crave-inducing foods I savoured on these trips. So I hope to write a few more shorter travel-and-food blogs along this vein, but this will do for now. Meanwhile, I will leave you (and end this blog, finally) with the background about and a few recipes for creating a traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel. I intend to make this for a New Year’s treat – though I will hardly need to cook a whole rice ‘mountain’ just for two!

The famous Dutch-Indonesian Rijstaffel

The traditional Dutch-Indonesian rijstaffel (literally, ‘rice table’)was modelled on the Indonesian custom of serving a ritual feast, called a ‘selamantan’, which featured a variety of dishes surrounding a cone-shaped, turmeric-seasoned rice ‘mountain’ to represent the metaphysical Hindu Mount Meru – the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain and Buddhist cosmologies. The selamantan (and consequently the rijstaffel) was an elaborate spread of 11–21 dishes (always an uneven number, as even numbers were seen as somewhat inauspicious), served with various condiments and a literal mountain of rice.

One of the reasons the rijstaffel became so popular with the Dutch is that it offered the wealthy merchants and VOC colonists a way to sample and balance a range of exotic flavours and consistencies (salty, sweet, crunchy, smooth), and to show off all their spicy and exotic acquisitions to their friends and the business associates they wished to impress.

Below are a select few recipes for some of the more memorable dishes of the rijstaffel – once you get used to these wonderfully pungent and aromatic flavours, you’ll understand why the Dutch developed such an addictive craving for the exotic flavours of the Spice Islands that they outdid every other nation in dominating the East Indian trade – or at least I do! I’ll start with my favourite sauce in the whole world, Gado Gado – this crunchy spicy peanut sauce would certainly make me endure months at sea and travel halfway around the world, although obviously that isn’t necessary now.

A typical Indonesian rijstaffel at a restaurant in Amsterdam

Gado Gado
1 small onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1 tablespoon dark-brown sugar
1–2 teaspoons sambal ulek (a spicy Indonesian pepper paste, found in the world foods aisles of many supermarkets)
2 tablespoons kecap manis (a thick, sweet soy sauce found in Asian food stores)
2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
1 1/2 cups smooth or crunchy peanut butter (according to taste)
1 tin of coconut milk
chopped peanuts, as a garnish

Fry the onion, garlic, coriander and cumin in a little oil until the onion is soft. Add the sugar, kecap, vinegar and sambal, and stir until combined. Now add the peanut butter to make a thick paste. Slowly stir in the coconut milk and combine with the peanut-butter mixture, continuing to whisk the ingredients together.

Once the sauce is smooth, let it simmer on a low flame for about 10 minutes, remembering to keep stirring to keep it from burning. Thin with water or broth as needed, and then serve warm with salad, chopped raw or cooked vegetables, beancurd and egg. For grilled chicken, pork, fish or seafood kebab skewers, use the variant known as sate or satay* [see below for an easy recipe] – both versions go well with everything, and are great with chips (in Amsterdam, ask for ‘Frites met sate’ from a street vendor).

As a final touch/for extra crunch, add a few chopped peanuts as a garnish.

*Sate [or satay] sauce

1/2 lime, juiced
1 tsp honey
1 tbsp soy sauce (I use the gluten-free variety)
1 tbsp curry powder
3 tbsp peanut butter (smooth is best for this version)
165 ml coconut milk

Mix the first five ingredients in a bowl, blending well, then transfer to a small cooking pan. Gently pour in the coconut milk and heat, stirring continuously. Simmer for 5 minutes and serve.

Ajam Kecap (Chicken with Ginger and Soy Sauce)
900g chicken meat (preferably thighs; can use breasts)
4 tablespoons vegetable or coconut oil
2 large onions, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
3–4 tablespoons chopped fresh ginger root
2 tablespoons ground ginger
4 tablespoons kecap manis
2 tablespoons rice-wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sambal ulek
1/2 cups chopped crystallised ginger

Cut the chicken into one-inch pieces. Season the meat well with salt, pepper and two tablespoons of the ground ginger. Heat the oil and fry the chicken pieces until they begin to brown. Add the onion, garlic and ginger root. Cook until the onion softens, then add the kecap, vinegar and crystallised ginger pieces. Cover the pan and simmer on low heat for about 40 minutes.

For an alternative version with pork (known as babi kecap), substitute 900g of cubed pork; or for a vegetarian version, you could perhaps try tofu as a substitute.

Serundeng (Coconut Peanut Topping)
1 to 2 tablespoons coconut oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-inch piece of ginger root, peeled and grated
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
Juice of 1 lime
11/2 cups dried unsweetened shredded coconut
1 cup roasted salted peanuts
Salt to taste

In a large non-stick frying pan, fry the onion, garlic and ginger root in the oil until they are soft and fragrant. Add the dry spices and the brown sugar and continue to cook, so the sugar dissolves. Add the lime juice and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Add the coconut and continue to cook, stirring all the time until the coconut has absorbed all the seasonings and is toasted and dry. (You can do this last step by spreading the mixture on a baking sheet and baking it in the oven. The coconut should be dry and golden; make sure it does not burn).

Last, add the peanuts and toss to blend. Serve this over rice, or over anything with peanut sauce.

Cook’s note: Serundeng is a condiment served with rijsttafel. It is like an Indian dry chutney, something to sprinkle over rice or vegetables. Its sweetness will balance out the heat from spicy dishes.

Udang Kuning (Shrimp in Turmeric Sauce)
Note: You can prepare the spicy paste ahead of time, and lightly sauté the shrimp in the sauce just before you are ready to serve it.

1 tin coconut milk
2 djeruk purut (lime leaves; only use them fresh)
Juice of 1 fresh lime
Basil or coriander leaves for serving
450g raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

For the spicy paste:
1 medium onion
3 cloves garlic
1 teaspoon coriander seed
2 stalks of fresh lemongrass, inner white part only
2 inches fresh ginger root, chopped
1 tomato
1 teaspoon sambal ulek, or 1 fresh serrano or chili pepper
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 teaspoon salt

Chop all ingredients for the spice paste and blend them together in a food processor until smooth. Heat a little oil in a heavy saucepan and fry the spice paste for a few minutes, until it gives off a strong, fragrant aroma.

Then add the coconut milk and the lime leaves, and simmer on low heat for about 30 minutes. Strain the cooked mixture, squeezing the solids to extract the flavour. Add the lime juice for extra flavour. Before serving, lightly sauté the raw shrimp in the sauce until cooked through.

*Note: Most of these recipes have been adapted for UK shoppers and to suit my personal gluten-free needs, but derive from Josephine Nieuwenhuis’s blog on rijstaffel – please see her blog for the full-gluten, US version.

Some expat thoughts on Thanksgiving 2020

This is the first year I won’t, as a US expat living in the UK, be serving turkey for Thanksgiving, which I have celebrated faithfully in the traditional way for each of the 25+ years I have lived in the UK. But with the Covid lockdown, family gatherings aren’t happening – and anyway, who wants to cook a big turkey just for two?

So this Thanksgiving night, we are simply polishing off a moussaka I made earlier in the week. I know other US friends and family will likewise be giving the traditional turkey roast a miss, whether due to Covid or the ongoing economic crisis – at least it’s good news for turkeys everywhere!

But even where traditional festivities may be lacking, the main point for rejoicing – that is, for me personally, and at least circa six million of my fellow Americans – is that after four years of turmoil, racism and disgust, we are finally about to lose the perma-bronzed turkey in the White House. And to that most of us can say a heartfelt Amen!

With President-elect Joe Biden rapidly filling his cabinet with some forward-thinking and impressive appointments, and his affirmed commitment to addressing urgently the twin threats of Covid and climate change, we can at least feel some hope for moving forward in addressing these in 2021, even while the gloom persists as numbers of Covid cases continue to rise in the US (roughly 12.9 million cases, with 262,831 deaths recorded thus far).

This prompts some thoughts about how the present and following generations of Americans will come to view the past four years of Trump’s reign. A proud and ego-driven Trump now appears to be spiralling into a stupendous fall as his increasingly ludicrous claims of voter fraud fail to find any fruition.

One of Trump’s recent tweets celebrating his election “win” (with Twitter amusingly begging to differ)

In spectacular bad-loser fashion, Trump has instead eschewed the spotlight, holing himself up in the White House and making only rare appearances to negligible events, and generally appearing to be only a shell of his former bombastic self. He almost begins to acquire the patina of a tragic hero; one wonders what Shakespeare, was he around today, would have made of this – in the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts). Not that anyone should feel sorry for such an innately self-centred individual, who has continually put his own needs and greed for power ahead of the good of the nation.

In the hands of a skilful writer, the real-life material presents an unbeatable opportunity to draw a brilliantly scathing portrait of a man both at war with his rival and himself (or, in Trump’s case, the facts)

One also wonders what the Pilgrim Fathers would have made of a Trump presidency. Surely the four freedoms – religion, speech, press and assembly – they originally fled to the US in the hopes of preserving have been severely threatened by the Trump administration, which has frighteningly evidenced many of the hallmarks of fascism in recent months.

A tradition born of conflict

Yet even as Biden has spoken today of the need to heal and move forward from “the grim season of division” that has riven America both before and since polling began, it is interesting to recall that the traditional Thanksgiving celebration was actually begun during a similar period of national division: the US Civil War – the very bloody, divisive and destructive ‘War Between the States’, which lasted from 1861–1865 (and for which, some argue, the rationale has never truly been resolved, as is indicated by the racist rhetoric and stance of many Trump supporters).

The traditional portrayal of the Pilgrim Fathers’ peaceful meeting with the Wampanoag Indians – yet you can see by the way the pilgrim grasps the chief’s hand why most Indians would now say, “No thanks – and no more giving, dude!”

While the Pilgrim Fathers did indeed celebrate a feast to give thanks for their safe arrival in North America and the bountiful food generously provided by the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts (and no doubt to deeply resented by every Native tribe since), and this did indeed provide the inspiration for the official four-day holiday celebrated by Americans across the US (and the pond) ever since, the actual holiday came into practice directly as a result of the frictions that triggered the Civil War and its ensuing deadly battles.

After the Northern states of the US overwhelmingly elected abolitionist Abraham Lincoln as president, thus dealing a supremely enervating blow to the proud slave-owning Southerners who had profited enormously from the centuries of hard work done by their African ‘inferiors’, the South retaliated with their own brand of coup by firing on Fort Sumter – a strategic declaration of war directed at a federal fort smack in the harbour of the leading slave-port city of Charleston, South Carolina. This open declaration of rebellion and secession signified the South’s unrelenting unwillingness to submit to a unified federal government that denied it the power to continue twisting laws regarding slavery to its own benefit and thus enhance its power.

And so began four long years of hellish conflict as brother fought brother across borders demarcated by the famous Mason-Dixon line (a line separating the officially Northern [Union – Yankee] states of Pennsylvania and from the Southern [Confederate – Rebel] states) in what was then alternatively described as the ‘War Between the States’, the ‘War of Secession’, the ‘War of the Rebellion’ or the ‘Great Rebellion’, or the ‘War for Southern Independence’, depending which side of the line you fought on.

In late 1862, the Northern Yankees were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many thought of giving up the fight. In acknowledgement of their pain and suffering, 17 governors instituted a four-day state-wide thanksgiving holiday

In late 1862, the Southern Confederate armies seemed to be winning. After suffering horrendous casualties in the first two years of fighting, the Northern Yankee troops were returning home in the midst of what seemed an interminably long, dark, cold and depressing winter with their metaphorical tails between their legs. Many on the front lines of the battle were demoralised and secretly thought of giving up the fight.

In acknowledgement of their suffering and hardship, 17 state governors decided to institute a four-day state-wide Thanksgiving holiday, with New York Governor Edwin Morgan declaring that despite it being “numbered among the dark periods of history” there were still reasons for giving thanks, because “Our Government and institutions [being] placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value”.

‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln was the first US president to mandate an official Thanksgiving holiday

This prompted President ‘Honest Abe’ Lincoln to set a series of national days of thanksgiving over the next years of the war, in which the tides progressively turned, and the Rebel Confederate armies of South finally capitulated in shame and defeat.

These various days of celebrating thanksgiving at different times during the four long years of the Civil War ultimately culminated in the eventual date of the last Thursday of November, which was thereafter set as the day in which “all Americans in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands” were urged to observe a day of thanksgiving to God for the endurance of democracy and the emancipation of formerly enslaved people and set as a permanent national holiday.

New rifts – and new urgencies

Now, nearly 150 years later, America faces new internal fractures and rifts, both to its population through the ever-increasing Covid toll and its economy.

As with Abraham Lincoln at the end of the Civil War attempting to heal the rifts caused by that bitter division through celebrating the lasting preservation of the unifying ideals of democracy and freedom, President-elect Biden has rightly chosen the theme of the war on Covid as a unifying rallying point in his Thanksgiving address: “We need to remember we’re at war with a virus — not with each other. This is the moment we need to steel our spines, redouble our efforts and recommit to the fight. Let’s remember – we’re all in this together.”

“We need to remember we’re at war with a virus – not with each other. Let’s remember – we’re all in this together”

president-elect JOe Biden

Biden reminded all Americans that staying home and forgoing traditional celebrations is actually a truly heroic act that can help save lives in a time where the country is seeing 160,000+ new cases of coronavirus a day. He is notably always publicly wearing a mask – unlike the prize turkey who has noticeably been without one more often than not, a signal of his carelessness and lack of empathy while presiding over the nation’s gruelling death tolls.

Biden also echoed Lincoln’s urge to celebrate America’s democratic institutions in a not-too-subtle slingshot at Trump’s efforts to overturn the election process by stating, “America was tested this year… [but] we are up to the task. [Here] we have full and fair and free elections, and then we honour the results. The people of this nation and the laws of this land won’t stand for anything else. Through the vote – the noblest instrument of non-violent protest ever conceived – we are reminded anew that progress is possible… [so] today can be better than yesterday, and tomorrow can be better still.”

Bombastic Trump battles ‘Sleepy Joe’ in the presidential election debates in one of the most heated and nerve-wracking elections the US has seen in recent years

I well remember the sleepless, nail-biting and near-despairing days of the election, watching anxiously as votes were counted and states turned red or blue, with some stripey-swings and others as yet uncounted, undecided. The time differences in the reporting of results regularly played havoc with my sleep schedules, with days spent fighting off the inevitable exhaustion and brain fog.

At one point when it all seemed to be too much, I lay down for a brief nap respite from all the stress, praying silently to God. And I then very clearly heard the words of the apostle James 4:7, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” As I closed my eyes, I suddenly had a very clear picture of Trump and Biden fly-fishing a few metres apart in a fast-flowing stream. Trump suddenly hoisted a big fish and began yelling out, “I got a whopper! I got a whopper!”

Meanwhile, ‘Sleepy Joe’ – as some have called him – then got a sudden tug on his line as a huge fish started to pull well below the surface. I took that vision as a much-needed reassurance to bide my time and trust, and so managed a few hours’ much-needed kip.

At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly and with an eye to the needs for unity for the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air

At that stage in the election drama, Trump was still all full of swagger and braggadocio about his sure win. Yet Biden was quietly, calmly, and with an eye to the needs for unity in the whole nation just going about his business, already demonstrating a soundly presidential air, just as he is currently doing in preparing to get on with job even while a defeated, ego-bruised Trump is lashing out like his grounded whopper in its last throes.

While this year will be a Thanksgiving WITHOUT all the trimmings for many – but as long as we still have freedom, there are many reasons to be thankful

While we have yet to see what the new year will bring for the US and the rest of the world in the ongoing battles against Covid and to preserve democracy, we can be truly thankful that even in a quiet Thanksgiving 2020 where leftover moussaka takes the turkey’s pride of place on the table, we still have food to eat, we still have our hard-won democratic freedoms, and we still have the ability to choose whom and how we will serve. And as long as these last, let us indeed give thanks.

For all my friends on both sides of the pond, I urge you to continue to pray that wisdom, kindness, truth and justice for all will prevail.

I also wish to acknowledge Heather Cox Richardson’s excellent blog post for details of the Civil War background, forwarded by my mother while I was in the midst of writing this.

REFLECTIONS ON A YEAR OF ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM

‘What is the use of a house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?’ — Henry David Thoreau

As it is now a year since I began my journey as an environmental activist last October, starting with Extinction Rebellion and continuing to the fight against HS2 (the high-speed train line from Euston to Birmingham, which will cut straight through the heart of 108 of the UK’s remaining ancient woodlands), it seems an appropriate time to reflect on my experiences – including a recent event that caused me to lose my voice. There’s a certain poetic irony in losing my physical voice while trying to speak for the birds and trees and woodland creatures that have no voice – but I hope this blog will help me to plead their case.

Rachel Carson’s seminal work, ‘Silent Spring’ (first published in 1962), foretold our current environmental crisis

Extinction Rebellion: Affinity and anarchy
I grew up in the US, where – even as far back as the early 1970s – scientists were already concerned about the impacts to the ozone (the part of the atmosphere that protects the Earth from the sun’s harmful rays) from global warming, which I have written about at length here. As a young adolescent, I was deeply disturbed by this, convinced the world would end in my lifetime. Back then, there were no teenage activists like Greta Thunberg around to confront the system – if so, I would have joined them.

My first encounter with Extinction Rebellion (XR) was in early April 2019. I was taking an alternate route home from work via the South Bank Centre when I heard a loud commotion coming from Waterloo Bridge. There, around 100 rebels were occupying the bridge and obstructing traffic. While amused at their hippie-style, rainbow-hued clothes, banners and makeshift tents, I felt a deep affinity with their message about climate change and their demand for the government to take this seriously, as this echoed everything I had been reading while researching topics for investigative reports for my then-job as editor-in-chief of an online investigative journalism start-up.

After the grim findings of the air pollution report I had recently commissioned and contributed to (see here), which revealed that inhaling London’s air was equivalent to inhaling a half a pack of cigarettes daily, it was delightful to see London’s normally grey and congested urban landscape transformed by their artfully arranged pop-up gardens and vegetation. I found the innocent-seeming joy emanating from the musicians strumming folk and reggae, and their shamanic (shambolic?) dancing uplifting and inspiring, so I determined to find out more about XR.

Towards the end of September 2019, a team of representatives from XR came to do a press conference at Reach (the commercial wing of the Mirror newspaper group in Canary Wharf, where I was then working) ahead of the planned two-week International Rebellion starting on 7 October. I went to one of their London-based meetings and immediately signed up to join the Rebellion and help with their media work.

XR target the media by protesting outside Google and YouTube headquarters during the October 2019 Rebellion

I was soon contacted by an Oxford professor about joining the SE Press Working Group, whose task was to write press releases and articles for the national and regional newspapers about the Rebellion. This group comprised mostly white middle-aged female PR and media professionals from around SE England. As most of us were new to XR and so not clued in overly about the daily plans for the Rebellion – usually decided on the hoof and relayed through a plethora of social media channels – it was a challenge to keep up with all the various protest actions taking place all over London, while attending and then writing about them, which felt quite overwhelming, chaotic and confusing at times. We quickly decided to work from a generic press release template for each event, adapting it for our respective regional newspapers.

Me joining in briefly with an Extinction Rebellion flag during April 2019 – this was when I decided I wanted to join XR fully

I also joined my local XR ‘Affinity Group’ in Marlow just before the Rebellion began, but as I hadn’t had time for a proper induction or to get to know my fellow local rebels, my initial efforts to interview them for press quotes were viewed suspiciously – understandable given XR’s reasonable distrust of journalists. As most of my local group were seasoned rebels, they seemed to know exactly what they were doing as soon as we arrived in London, whereas I quickly lost them amid the crowds at Whitehall. Eventually, a few of them talked openly to me about their reasons for joining XR, and I amassed some usable quotes. But I quickly realised gaining the trust and support of my local affinity group meant not only joining actions in London, but attending as many local evening meetings and discussions as I could.

One local event was actually a climate change comedy night in High Wycombe, which admirably managed to be funny while presenting some very hard-hitting climate facts. This included an infographic showing the spectrum from climate-change denialism to scepticism to the ‘cautious’ to the ‘concerned’ (eg those already ‘doing their bit’ by recycling, petitioning, using renewable energy, etc) and finally to the ‘alarmed’ – those deeply anxious and angry about the climate emergency and the failures of government to protect us — which was where most rebels found themselves on the spectrum.

The October 2019 Rebellion

Rebels display banners announcing Extinction Rebellion’s demand that the government tell the truth about climate change and take action now

The October Rebellion was planned with the aim of targeting the major tourism, financial, retail, media and government centres of London, with rebels occupying areas in an effort to stop ‘business as usual’ and force government leaders to confront the climate emergency. Most of the actions were centred in and around Whitehall, Westminster, The Mall, Trafalgar Square, Victoria Embankment, Downing Street, and Lambeth and Westminster Bridges, with additional protests in locations like Oxford Circus, Bank and Canary Wharf. Sub-groups, including Doctors for XR, Scientists for XR, Animal Rebellion, Ocean Rebellion and others featuring different threads of the extinction theme, also held actions in relevant locations.

I usually headed first to Trafalgar Square, from where I then joined marches and protests in and around Westminster and Whitehall, typically punctuated with dancing and music from the colourful samba bands. At the time, the famous Extinction Rebellion ‘Tell the Truth’ pink submarine boat was stationed in Oxford Circus, where celebrities such as Emma Thompson and Guardian columnist George Monbiot addressed the crowd before being dispersed by police – sometimes quite forcibly. Police aggression towards protestors usually provoked a chant of ‘We’re not violent, how about you?’

Protestors surround Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square

One evening after a day’s marching, I was sitting with a crowd the drizzling rain in Trafalgar Square, listening to a talk about the need to organise citizen assemblies, when someone asked if anyone was willing to be arrested. I suddenly thought, ‘Why not?’ and joined a band of young women ranged around the base of Nelson’s Column with their arms linked and knees covered by a plastic sheet – all singing and in good spirits, despite being soaked through.

Someone else passed through the crowd handing out ‘bust cards’ with instructions on what to do if arrested. While it didn’t concern me too much when the police began to surround us, I was a bit worried about how my husband would feel if I had to phone him from a jail cell, and also suddenly realised I’d left some medication at home.

As I was pondering this, a woman approached me, saying, ‘I feel very strongly you should not be arrested – you need to save your beautiful sword. Please, go home now.’ While I wasn’t exactly sure what she meant by ‘saving my beautiful sword’, I knew I hadn’t had any arrestee training yet, so didn’t feel ready. So I decided to take her advice and go home, stopping to watch in mesmerised awe as the mysterious Red Brigade (a group of men and women clad head to toe in red, with white mime-face makeup) enacted a solemn ceremony on Whitehall, which seemed to evoke a deep sense of grief and mourning for the planet.  

The Red Brigade performing a mourning ceremony in Whitehall as protestors stage a ‘die-in’ to highlight our coming extinction

Although I did get the arrestee training shortly afterwards, I realised it would not serve my purposes to be arrested. Yet in the coming days, it seemed progressively harder to avoid. While some police, such as the policewoman I spoke to as her fellow officers herded us out of the Bank area where we were protesting financial institutions’ support of fossil fuel industries, had initially seemed sympathetic, even laughing and joking with us or joining in the dancing, as of the 11th – only four days into the Rebellion – at least 1,000 activist arrests had been made, and were increasing. Tents were slashed open and goods confiscated from the occupied area of Trafalgar Square, while aggressive police carried protestors away forcibly, despite many of them being locked on (usually by supergluing themselves to statues or railings).

Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’

Suddenly, at 9pm on the 14th, the police banned all of the Extinction Rebellion protests in a move deemed ‘chilling and unlawful’ and ‘an attack on democracy’. Green Party MP Caroline Lucas described the ban as a ‘huge overreach of police power’, while advocacy group Liberty said it was a ‘grossly disproportionate move by the Met and an assault on the right to protest’. Lawyers for XR launched a judicial review of the ban. But despite this police action, XR continued its protests at the Department for Transport, at which leader Gail Bradbrook was arrested after climbing atop its entrance, and the Google and YouTube headquarters, where Guardian journalist George Monbiot and Green Party leader Jonathan Bartley were also arrested.

Metropolitan police arrest Guardian journalist George Monbiot

However, it was the ‘surprise’ actions of a rogue contingent of XR activists (including a few Christian Climate Action members) who went against the general advice from many in XR with an action at Canning Town tube, which held up the trains from running during the morning rush hour. A handful of activists climbed on top of and then glued themselves to London Underground trains, thereby preventing many in the predominantly working-class region of East London from getting to work. I was against this action, as I knew only too well how unfair this would be to any London commuter, and how unlikely it was to gain any sympathy.

The resulting backlash in the press following the Canning Town incident was significant, and had the effect of splintering XR. Although the London Rebellion hadn’t officially ended until the last big action at Oxford Circus and Big Ben, in which activists climbed structures to lock on and unfurl banners announcing a Citizens Assembly and ‘No pride on a Dead Planet’, the negative press about Canning Town and increasing arrest momentum led many of my fellow local rebels to stay home and seek ‘regen’ (peaceful, healing, peace-affirming self-care actions). Other actions involved targeting airports.

Oxford Rebels climb on top of an entrance to London City Airport in an action targeting the airports

When I later met up with members of the SE Press Group in London, we discussed the Canning Town incident and how this affected the success (or lack thereof) of the Rebellion. Over the next few days and weeks, this incident provoked heated debates across many XR social media channels, with some groups – including what I termed the ‘virulent vegans’ – seeming bent on making Extinction Rebellion all about their own particular cause, which had a dis-unifying and disarming effect.

Although I briefly considered joining a group going to Madrid for a protest around COP 25, in the end I did not go, preferring to take some time out to reflect and reconnect with myself, God and nature. Some members of my local XR group kindly provided some much-appreciated ‘regen’ sessions, however I felt I needed a different kind of regen – one where I could feel I was actively helping the environment. This led to my next phase of environmental activism.

It’s not really about a railway…

Alan Budgee Woodward, one of the two resistors manning the camp at Link Road, Great Missenden

On the day of the Canning Town incident, a few of us from my local XR group decided not to go into London, but to support a local protest at Link Road in Great Missenden (near the Roald Dahl Museum, about a 20-minute drive from my house) instead. There, two hippie-ish, but very gentle-natured, well-informed and quite decent-seeming ‘tree protectors’ were camping out to stop the mature trees along Link Road being felled to make way for a haulage road for the HS2 railway project. Several local residents – most of whom were not aligned with XR, though some were members of the Stop HS2 campaign,  the existence of which pre-dated Extinction Rebellion by a good six years – were also actively supporting this protest to fight HS2’s impact on our Chilterns Area of Natural Beauty (AONB).

One Link Road protestor, a member of the River Chess Association, told me the planned drilling into the River Chess’s chalk aquifers to create the tunnels for HS2 would be a major cause of pollution of the drinking water for local and London-based Thames Water and Affinity Water customers. (In the latest update, because pollution was seen immediately as the drilling into the chalk aquifer commenced, Affinity Water decided to cease abstracting from the two bore holes that descend deep into the source of the River Chess’s spring. This, and the agreement between HS2 Ltd and Buckinghamshire County Council to forego taking down most of the trees on Link Road, are two very small victories in the battle with HS2.)

Janet Cameron, a member of the River Chess Association, opened my eyes to the potential for pollution of London’s drinking water

This same protestor also explained that drilling into the aquifer would deplete much of what little remains of the once free-flowing and extremely rare chalk stream, which is home to many threatened wildlife species – including water voles (on which the character of Ratty in Wind and the Willows is based – now Britain’s most endangered species), ospreys, water rails, mayflies, brown trout and brook lamphreys, and the very rare, critically endangered Bechstein’s bat, which inhabits the Link Road trees. Please note: HS2 Ltd does not have now, nor has it ever had, any licences to disturb or destroy bats’ habitats. (I later checked this out with HS2 Ltd and its allied vehicle, Natural England, both of which took several weeks to reply, and in the end only returned some vague PR spin that did nothing to address my complaint; I also attempted to get answers from the Bat Conservation Trust, and discovered they had also seemingly sold out to HS2 or could/would do nothing to stop the destruction of the bats’ habitats.)

Another knowledgeable Stop HS2 protestor explained that not only would this high-speed railway destroy our AONB, but it would also inevitably damage the hearing of local schoolchildren because the decibels of the screeching, fast-moving train would exceed the limits for safe noise levels. While I knew trees provide a vital first-line defence against respiratory conditions such as asthma and other health impacts of air pollution as they filter harmful carbon dioxide (CO2), I hadn’t considered the impacts of noise pollution until then.

A significant number of UK and international wildlife groups are aligned in their efforts to stop HS2

As I made successive visits to Link Road and other nearby resistance camps (Dews Lane and Harvil Road), I met many local farmers threatened with eviction from their houses, farms and lands to make way for HS2 and its haulage works roads. According to several I spoke with, HS2 represents the greatest compulsory land-grab by the government since World War II – it is not at all about a railway, but is a massive government gambit to steal land from farmers and reclaim it for other purposes (for example, once the HS2 building work is done, the once-biodiversity- and soil-rich farm lands will likely become useless brownfield, and then be sold off for housing developments to profit private companies).

Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison with the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands

Many of these farmers have been bullied, threatened and intimidated into compliance, despite only being offered a pittance in comparison to the real value of their homes, farms, businesses and lands; they have also been told they will not receive any compensation until after the works are completed. In many cases, their properties are literally miles away from the proposed railway path, compounding the sense of injustice. Most have welcomed the resistance campers on their grounds, as at least this has provided a delaying tactic; however others, like the Ryalls, have had their lives, businesses and lands (in their family’s possession since Shakespeare’s time) completely destroyed.

I later interviewed the Ryalls as I had heard one of their staff had committed suicide because of the unjust situation they face; other farmers I spoke with have revealed the terrible mental, emotional and financial suffering they have experienced as a result of having their homes and livelihoods effectively stolen from beneath their feet.

With fellow XR and anti-HS2 activists in Denham Country Park, November 2019

Until I met these protestors and learned of HS2’s looming impacts on families, nature and people’s health, I was completely unaware of the scale, cost, and lasting environmental and health damages HS2 will cause. Like many, I had ignorantly assumed that as a train, it would be good for the environment. However, HS2 is clearly not really about a railway; there is obviously another, more dubious agenda going on. It will also not be carbon-neutral not for 120 years – by which time it will be too late to do any good for the environment, and in fact will harm it greatly.

The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in HS2’s path will be lost forever – not to mention the loss of vital flood defences this represents

The UK is one of Europe’s least-forested nations, with only 13% tree cover left – therefore, the carbon sink that would have been provided by the 108 ancient woodlands in the path of HS2 will be lost forever – not to mention the loss of vital flood defences this represents. And there is no way HS2’s pathetic handfuls of newly planted saplings will reduce CO2 sufficiently to keep us all breathing healthily.  

As my eyes began to be opened to this horrendous and tragic ecocide unfolding literally on my doorstep, I realised that this indeed is Britain’s Amazon, and therefore I must throw all my energies into fighting it.

With fellow anti-HS2 protestors on a march in Cubbington Woods, Warwickshire, in March 2020

Further HS2 revelations and actions
Over the next weeks and months, all through the winter and into the new year, I continued to join various protests and resistance camps at Link Road and other sites along HS2’s proposed 125-mile route from Euston to Birmingham – Harvil Road, Dews Lane, Denham Country Park, Colne Valley Nature Reserve, Steeple Claydon, Poor’s Piece, Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods, Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve and Jones Hill Wood in Wendover.

I became determined to write an investigative report to expose HS2’s crimes, and eventually completed a short report – initially published on the Ecologist website, where it went viral overnight, and subsequently republished here and on the Stop HS2 website – highlighting the threatened, rare, endangered and legally protected wildlife species at Denham Country Park and Colne Valley Nature Reserve, which will be destroyed forever by HS2. I included all the wildlife laws (UK, EU and international) HS2 is breaking, and backed it up with ecologists’ evidence, checked by a wildlife biologist.

I have tried to urge other journalists to collaborate with me to expose HS2 further; to my knowledge, there has never been a thorough ‘follow the money trail’ investigation to expose the corruption behind HS2’s endlessly escalating costs (the most recent projection is a whopping £231.32bn). As this project is being paid for with taxpayers’ money, it raises immediate questions as to who stands to profit from it (apparently HS2 Ltd’s CEO Mark Thurston is earning ca. £650K a year for his ‘contributions’; I have heard HS2 construction workers, and the hired police and National Eviction Team [NET] thugs that enforce its evictions earn £250–£350 per day, which is a lot of money for them to stand around all day as most of them seem to do. Clearly, this is money that should be funding our cash-strapped NHS and helping struggling businesses, not this travesty!).

This is about as close as a proper newspaper investigation on the serious financial scams behind HS2 got, to my knowledge

I have also witnessed HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’ at work; they turn up, poke a stick around in a bush for a few minutes, and leave – there has never been any evidence of actual mitigation (apart from a few planted saplings, often left un-watered until they die) or translocation work to remove any threatened species.

HS2’s idea of mitigation to replace the ancient forests is to plant saplings, most of which are left unwatered – and hardly a match for these ancient woods in Dews Lane, which have been around since Shakespeare’s Day

As I began to question this, one of the Stop HS2 founders alleged there was copious evidence linking the HS2 project to trade deals with China as part of the latter’s Belt and Road Initiative, which intends to link routes from China across Europe. This seems a potentially likely explanation for why the project is being pushed through by the UK government, despite the fact the vast majority of the British populace never asked for and clearly do not want this railway. I am sure the facts will eventually become clear, but I do wonder why this project is not being challenged or investigated properly – most newspaper coverage only ever presents HS2’s positive PR spin, and (like Natural England, the Environment Agency and Buckinghamshire County and other entities) seem either to have taken backhanders from HS2 Ltd or otherwise been silenced.

Anti-HS2 activists don Boris masks and HS2 ‘carrot’ vests with chainsaws to highlight the PM’s wanton disregard for nature

Fortunately, BBC naturalist and presenter Chris Packham has taken a clear stand via his  Stand for the Trees legal petition against HS2, launched in early 2020. I was at the resistance camp in Crackley Woods when everyone shouted with jubilation as we learned the lawyer representing the case had amassed irrefutable evidence showing HS2 had no licences for the bats and other wildlife ecocide it is committing.

Sadly, although Packham’s lawyer did an excellent job of arguing this evidence, his petition has so far been unsuccessful. And although work on HS2 was supposedly suspended while the Oakervee Review was being considered and before the PM officially gave the go-ahead in February 2020, the vegetation-clearing work and tree-felling had actually continued throughout Johnson’s supposed review, throughout the spring nesting season (which is illegal), and throughout the coronavirus lockdown. While the lockdown has certainly proven that no one needs this ludicrously expensive white elephant with its spiralling and vastly unjustifiable costs  as so many workers have successfully transferred to working from home, even that has continually fallen on deaf Parliamentary ears.

Me protesting at the Dews Lane site – spot the number of ‘carrots’ (HS2 workers clad in orange)

I have also witnessed and recorded ample evidence of – and even personally been threatened by – violently aggressive acts against peaceful protestors by HS2 Ltd’s bevy of hired goons (construction workers, Metropolitan and Thames Valley Police, and NET officers) in the course of my visits to several HS2 sites.

Some activists who have been violently assaulted have shown me X-rays of broken collarbones and fingers, and I have been present when NET officers have cut tree protectors’ precarious zip lines, causing them to fall into streams or onto cherry pickers and tree grabbers.

Throughout my weekly visits to protest sites and woodland camps, which I continued to do during the Covid-19 lockdown period, I have met so many truly warm, compassionate, witty, dedicated, decent, caring and truly awe-inspiring activists, whose heroism and selfless commitment to protecting Britain’s countryside by persevering and camping out through all weathers is incredibly inspiring. Joining them in the front-line fight against HS2 has made me feel far more engaged in actively protecting the environment than marching through the streets of London with XR ever has. I began to ask the question, as had many of the other camp warriors, where was Extinction Rebellion, and why wasn’t it more actively engaging in this fight that so clearly constitutes Britain’s Amazon?

XR joins the fight against HS2

Rebels join the Rebel Trail march along the HS2 route from Birmingham–Euston; below, clockwise from top left, my hand-painted sashes; me with ecocide placard; Rebels continuing on the march; local XR Rebels Steve Morton and Gemma Rodgers with her children on the trail

While I knew a few other XR members who had been actively resisting HS2 for several months – apparently, some scaled trees in an act of resistance at Colne Valley as far aback back as April 2019 – XR’s involvement with HS2 on the whole was a more gradual process, eventually culminating in a new channel called HS2 Rebellion, which became more publicly active towards the end of May 2020.

According to its Facebook page, HS2 Rebellion is ‘an alliance of various groups and individuals who are campaigning against HS2’ – including Stop HS2, Stand for the Trees, Save Cubbington Woods, Crackley Woods protection camp, Wendover Active Resistance camp, Harvil Road protection camp and Extinction Rebellion’– and alongside other XR splinter groups such as Wildlife Rebellion, Animal Rebellion and Global Rebellion.

One of HS2 Rebellion’s first organised protests, from 20–27 June 2020, was a high-profile Rebel Trail march, which galvanised XR and other local protestors to hike the full 125-mile length of the HS2 route from Birmingham Curzon Street to Euston Station in London. This helped focus media attention and divert some funding and needed supplies to the various HS2 resistance camps.

Although an untimely knee strain prevented me from joining the march, I at least succeeded in organising several of my local XR group to join, and made my presence felt by providing them with several hand-painted placards and clothing sashes highlighting the various wildlife species threatened with ecocide by HS2 (hedgehogs, barn owls, great crested newts, eels, European water voles, water bugs, hazel dormice, common shrews, stag beetles, tawny owls, European badgers, harvest mice, muntjac deer, polecats, snipes, teals, lapwings, and a range of bats – Leisler’s, Natterer’s, Serotine, Brandt’s and Bechstein’s).

Shortly after this march, HS2 Rebellion joined with other local groups to try to prevent HS2’s destruction of the Calvert Jubilee Nature Reserve, with several XR activists camping out there to delay the nature reserve being razed to the ground. Unfortunately, this tragic devastation went ahead after XR’s Red Brigade was despatched to perform their solemn mourning ceremony there, as they have done at other sites once the battle to save the trees appeared truly lost.

Sadly, efforts to save the much-loved, 250-year-old, 2015 ‘Tree of the Year’ Cubbington Pear Tree – including an action in which HS2 Rebellion activists turned up to sing to the tree – have thus far failed; even after over 20,000 petition signatures forced it to be addressed in Parliament, it has so far only received a temporary reprieve, and is still due to be felled soon.

Increasingly, and supposedly at the invitation of the HS2 resistance camps, young XR activists had begun to turn up at several of the camps, often remaining within their own cliques while drifting casually between the various camps. While I heard rumours of disputes over funding and leadership in the camps between the older members and the newer arrivals, with some grumbling about XR activists causing rifts by trying to impose XR’s values and culture on the camps (apparently, HS2 Rebellion had been awarded a total of £32,000 to help fund the camps, but had only distributed the funds to those camps that agreed to abide by XR rules), I have been assured these issues have since been resolved.

Younger XR activists outside High Wycombe Magistrates Court

However, where there was a more harmonious integration between the younger XR campers and the veterans, this has been very effective. Some XR activists have got stuck into the camp life and have valuably contributed fresh skills, enthusiasm and creativity in places such as Jones Hill Wood in Wendover, where they recently helped host a family-friendly ecological discovery day to showcase these beautiful and biodiversity-rich woods, which has helped to increase support for the camp among local residents.

The two-week XR Rebellion in London in September 2020 was massively curtailed by a heavy police presence, who eventually confined most of the protest to a single square in Westminster, supposedly due to the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions. This Rebellion included a one-day march around Euston, where HS2 Rebellion activist Larch Maxey was among others camping in trees on the grounds near the building works until their recent arrest and eviction.

Up until this time, I had only participated in and written press releases about a few local XR actions ahead of the Rebellion, including a few Black Lives Matter protests and an action involving unfurling ecocide-themed XR banners on bridges over the M40, but I did feel motivated to join this particular London-based protest, as well as an ocean-themed event.

My press release and images covering some of our local actions in High Wycombe and Marlow – of course I didn’t get a byline as that was claimed by BFP

Towards the end of XR’s London Rebellion, there was a planned attack on Murdoch’s press empire as rebels mounted artfully erected wooden cranes to blockade the entrance to several printing presses. I had only heard about this after the fact as the action was kept secret to avoid police intervention. Although it only really caused a temporary delay to papers like The Sun reaching its mostly older newspaper-reading fans – so was actually more of a symbolic gesture, given that most people get their news digitally these days – It provoked quite a backlash in the press, with several arrests made in the following days and substantial fines imposed on the activists involved.

Jones Hill Wood the wood that inspired Roald Dahl’s ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’ – as seen from the fields belonging to farmer Kevin Bunce
Above: Fellow XR and HS2 Rebellion activists Emma Hawkins and Elizabeth Cairns at the resistance camp in Jones Hill Wood. Emma and I camped there one night, and as I could not sleep since it was freezing (even in mid-September), I could hear badgers and glis glis rummaging around near our tent, and saw bats flying around within the woods as dawn broke. Below: The glorious woods and the camp’s entrance

Swampy and the Battle of Jones Hill Wood (aka the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’)
Shortly after this, the dreaded 1st of October arrived – the day anti-HS2 activists referred to as ‘National Tree Killing Day’ as it signalled the day HS2 would ‘begin’ felling trees at the various threatened sites. Despite being recently antagonised by XR, the UK national media suddenly switched tack and rushed to report on this, with BBC, ITV, Daily Mail and other cameramen and journalists turning up in droves to film at the Jones Hill Wood resistance camps.

Why the UK national media was suddenly so interested after months of unreported clashes between HS2 and the dedicated activists at other resistance camps is hard to say – although clearly they were expecting some sensational action, even if their news coverage of the events in Jones Hill Wood left a lot to be desired. No doubt they were also drawn because of the higher-profile XR activist presence and the fame of these woods’ associations with UK author Roald Dahl, and the boldly courageous dedication of camp protectors such as West Berkshire Green Party Councillor Steve Masters, who had been living in a treehouse in the section of the woods threatened with eviction. However, it seems their presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Woods, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree, known as the ‘Bean Can’, with his 16-year-old son Rory.

It seems the heavy media presence was most likely inspired by the rumour (subsequently confirmed) that famed 1990s eco warrior Dan Hooper (aka ‘Swampy’) had joined the battle at Jones Hill Wood, and was presently inhabiting a large treehouse atop a 30ft tree known as the ‘Bean Can’

On this day, I went along to join the protest with several other locals who regularly visit and support the camp with food, supplies and dry clothes, etc. As we began making our way across the field towards the camp, we encountered several BBC journalists flying camera drones over the woods – I can’t say why, as none of this aerial footage was reflected in the televised news reports I saw later that evening.

As soon as we were in the woods, it became clear HS2 workers, assisted by 40 of HS2’s hired NET and police officers who were out in force as of 5.30am, were going to become quite nasty and aggressive in their eviction attempts. As they began to erect fences to separate what was supposedly ‘their’ part of the woods, it also became clear they were putting fencing on parts of the wood that still belonged to local farmers, and had not been legally injuncted (or stolen) by HS2.

Because these farmers had given their permission to the camp members and protestors to be there, the protestors were actually within their legal rights to be present, but the HS2 workers were guilty of trespassing illegally on those areas of the woods they did not ‘own’. As has since been proven, the area of woods they fenced off encompasses sizeable chunks of the woods not included on any official maps of their works area, and therefore not belonging to them legally.

Freelance journalist Jo Griffin’s article for the Observer spotlighted some of the police and NET assaults on protestors, including a racist assault

However, when I asked them civilly to produce paperwork showing they were within the boundaries of land they supposedly ‘owned’, they did not. Led by a particularly nasty NET thug named Lawrence, a physical struggle began between the NET and police officers as a few of the female protectors gently attempted to resist them and were manhandled aggressively. This was very alarming, as the majority of NET officers were disrespecting Covid distancing rules by crowding into protestors’ physical space.

As had happened to me at a few other HS2 sites on other occasions where I witnessed such out-of-order behaviour, criminal trespass, callous disregard for others’ safety and illegal disruption of peaceful protestors’ democratic rights to protest, my anger flared up. I began shouting at them to get behind their side of the fence, demanding loudly that they produce the paperwork to prove they were within their bounds and stop manhandling female protestors. As most of the other protestors present in this stand-off along the fencing were either quietly recording or observing, rather than displaying any fighting spirit, I felt my shouting was entirely necessary.

Vicious NET thugs aggressively remove a 90-something-year-old protestor from the ‘scene of the[ir] crime’ at Jones Hill Wood

I continued shouting at them virtually non-stop for several hours, which at least had the effect of unnerving some of the HS2 goons, one of whom complained I ‘talked too much’ and was being ‘hysterical’. I retorted that he hadn’t seen hysterical yet, but if he wanted to, he would bloody well get it! While I was later ashamed of the language that came out of my mouth in those hours of wrangling with HS2 by their illegally erected fencing, I was not at all ashamed of having shouted to that extent – as I said to several there who expressed their admiration to me for my ‘heroic’ efforts to stand up to them and put them off, ‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’

‘What is the point of being a loud, annoying American when you can’t use it where it counts?’

Alas, exercising my vocal cords to that extent severely strained my voice, and it was not long before I effectively lost it. At this point I removed myself from the fray and sat on a log some distance from the battle, which at least allowed me a few moments’ peace to listen to the gorgeous birdsong in the trees, pray quietly and be reminded of the reason for our fight, which was to protect that beautiful wood and all of the lovely creatures that inhabit it, which we had recently observed ample evidence of. (I had camped there recently one night, and as I was too cold to sleep an wide awake, had heard several animals rummaging outside our tent through the night and observed bats flying as dawn broke; I also later saw night-vision recordings of badgers, glis glis [edible dormice] and rare Barbastelle bats, evidence of which is even now being used in further efforts to pause HS2 works).

I tried to alert some of the ITV and BBC cameramen to the locations of several badger setts, which were right below the fencing HS2 had just erected; having seen badger setts deliberately blocked by HS2 on other sites, as well as trees with nesting birds in them callously felled by HS2, I fully expect these will not be properly translocated by any of HS2’s supposed ‘ecologists’.

Jones Hill Wood – home to rare bats – and even rarer species of hero, such as Swampy and the Bean Can warriors (Credit: Imogen May)

My woodland reverie was suddenly interrupted by loud shouting from the opposite end of the camp, where HS2’s tree grabbers and cherry pickers were forcibly attempting to remove tree protectors from their vertiginous perches. They had even cut the zip lines for one female, causing her to fall on top of the cherry picker. While this aroused immediate reaction from the protestors and witnesses at the camp who recorded it and later shared it on social media, these villainous actions by HS2 somehow escaped reporting by the BBC journalists present, who seemed too busy being distracted by ‘urgent’ phone calls.

This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET

This battle between the tree protectors and the NET raged on for several hours, punctuated by continual shouts and cries from tree protectors who were not only having their lives threatened by the wilfully violent and aggressive actions of the NET, but whose possessions were callously removed from their treehouses and cast onto the ground in heaps. I was horrified to read that HS2 Ltd had made all sorts of untrue allegations to the press, for example blaming the tree protectors for the piles of rubbish left on the forest floor that they themselves had created, and wildly claiming tree protectors had thrown their faeces at them, which I knew from subsequent visits to Jones Hill Wood and other channels was an outright lie.

Although my weakened vocal cords and painful feet forced me to go home and rest, I continued to monitor news reports and social media communications from the camps regarding Jones Hill Wood as the fierce battle between the protestors and HS2 raged on into the night and over the next several days, with a few tree protectors left dangerously dangling as cherry pickers ruthlessly cut their lines.

Councillor Steve Masters holds up a HS2 Rebellion leaflet as he and other valiant Bean Can warriors are released on bail from High Wycombe Magistrate’s Court

Eventually, after several days, the ‘Battle of the Bean Can’ stand-off between the NET and Swampy, along the other activists with him in the Bean Can treehouse – known by their code names Pigeon, Satchel, Scrap, Sky, Biscuit and Peahead – came to an end as they were all forcibly hauled out of the treehouse, arrested and led away in police vans, as the Daily Mail reported on 8 October.

While Swampy and the other evictees have since been charged with trespass and released on bail, other anti-HS2 camps are bravely continuing the fight, even amid further evidence of police brutality and NET aggression used against them. These include breaking a protestor’s jaw even while they were supposedly off-duty and hospitalising a 19-year-old protestor who was savagely cut down from a tree.

‘Extinction is Forever’ – so what about HS2?

Wary of straining my voice or any further antagonistic interactions with aggressive NET and police officers in the wake of these reports, I hesitated about joining the next HS2 Rebellion action held in front of the Denham HS2 works entrances on Friday, 9 October 2020. However, in the end I went with a few from my local XR group; on the whole, it was a peaceful and relatively easy-going protest, with good support from XR and other activists. Even though there were far more police present than was necessary given the peaceful nature of the protest, most of them (especially the Hertfordshire officers, who said they had instructed NET officers to leave) appeared to be relatively sympathetic to our cause.  

In a show of great irony, this action was entitled ‘Extinction is Forever’ in allusion to PM Boris Johnson’s speech as he signed a biodiversity pledge along with other UN leaders in a virtual meeting on 27 September 2020. The PM verbally committed to ‘restoring nature to 30%’ by 2030, with a plan to protect an extra 40,000 ha of land. In the PM’s own words, ‘Biodiversity loss is happening today, at a frightening rate… if left unchecked, the consequences will be catastrophic for us all. Extinction is forever – so our actions must be immediate.’

It is hard to imagine how this same man, who gleefully authorised the lawless tree-felling only a few months ago, can sleep peacefully at night after uttering such words. The PM has consistently lied about his real intentions regarding the HS2 project; clearly, his concern about the urgent loss of biodiversity does not extend to all the UK nature reserves and unique biodiversity he has authorised to be destroyed to make way for HS2! One wonders if he wasn’t thinking of this as he mentioned it is ‘happening today at a frightening rate’, as surely this is the case.

Meanwhile, I and my other anti-HS2 activist comrades continue to hope against hope that someone will finally take those non-bat licences seriously, and work on HS2 will be stopped for good. Until then, we have no option but to keep up the fight!

Addendum: I’ve just received the positive news that, thanks to the work of diligent activists recording and recording rare Barbastelle bat activity at Jones Hill Wood, authorities have forced the HS2 works to be paused until 2021, until full bat surveys are completed. Although HS2 can never be trusted, let’s hope they will be paused for good!

MAGNIFICENT MAGNA: The Philosopher-Dancer

As we settle down to our Zoom interview, Magna Gopal is her usual energetic, affable, extroverted self, eager to chat. With the kind of easy-going, confident-yet-self-deprecating charm she exudes, it’s easy to see why she is enduringly popular as a teacher, performer and public speaker beyond the international salsa scene that has made her name. Yet underneath, she’s one tough cookie — as well as a deeply philosophical person eager to share her tips for transformational empowerment with the rest of the world.

For those who don’t yet know her, Magna was born in India and moved to Canada as a child. She learned salsa while studying Economics and International Relations at the University of Toronto, and intended to pursue an MA in conflict resolution afterwards, but the demand for her to perform and teach salsa classes professionally in Toronto and abroad grew, so she moved to the New York City metropolitan area to pursue her passion for dance.

A self-taught salsa teacher, her methodology is based on an analysis and deep understanding of body mechanics in dance. Combining her personal philosophies of empowerment and commitment to helping others, she has continuously developed her ‘Mpowered with Magna‘ brand through various channels, including teaching and performing dance around the world, public speaking, mindset coaching and writing.

JC: Your ‘Mpowered with Magna’ brand seems very focused on your personal philosophy of relationships, communication and connection. Why are these important to you?

MG: I believe human beings are essentially communal animals. Even if you are an introvert and your happiness means being on an island all by yourself, you still need someone to take you there and to help you survive, so you still need to be connected to others.  

As communal beings, relationships are important. So, the more we understand them, the easier it becomes for us to have those relationships in a way that not only benefits us — that helps us get closer to our goals — but gives our lives meaning and purpose, which is also about contributing and giving back. Now, how do those relationships function? They function through communication. So, it’s important to get better at communicating. Sometimes we can get very good at speaking, but terrible at listening. As a result, we hear things that upset us, take offence, and end up receiving hurt and pain, which affects our relationships negatively.

Usually when we think of relationships, we think of depth — and we think we need years to develop those relationships. But in dance, you realise you can have deep connections very quickly, even after only a five-minute dance. Granted, I might not know all the background of that person, but sometimes even after just one dance, I just instantly know we are going to be friends.

Magna with ‘Million Moves Man’ Mario Hazarika, a fellow globally successful salsa personality from an Indian background (Credit: Salsaholics)

JC: How does what you’ve learned about communication through dance translate to a non-dance audience?
MG: I’ve actually written quite a lot about the importance of smiling and touch as non-verbal forms of communication. Dance gives us so many opportunities to communicate and share our joy through smiling and touch. Because we share our passion with so many people in dance through smiling, we get more confident at smiling at others and more used to doing it. Then we can go out into the world and meet another stranger and think, “Maybe I can also enjoy five minutes with you?” and go ahead and smile at them. This helps us grow in our ability to connect with other people.

Touch is also important for connection. When you dance with someone, it becomes easier to differentiate between touch that is sexual or has another agenda, and touch that is purely for connection. When you realise you can connect through touch without an agenda — which is what the world usually thinks touch is about — it is liberating.

“As you get more comfortable with giving and receiving touch,
it makes you a better communicator.”

—Magna Gopal

Dance enhances your skills of reading others’ non-verbal cues, which helps you to be better able to read and give off those signals when you encounter others outside the dance scene. If I am giving a speech or talking to non-dancers, I can work out the right amount of contact. I will know whether I can break that barrier and make physical contact with them without them feeling like I’ve invaded their space, or like I have some kind of physical agenda — or like I’m inviting them to exercise one.

Magna teaching a packed class at the Istanbul Dance Festival about how to think about their movements (Credit: SalsaMalsa)

JC: How do you feel about non-smiling dancers?
MG: That reminds me of someone I danced with recently — I can’t remember if it was a salsa or a bachata — he was a very good dancer, but very straight-faced. I said, “How come you don’t smile more?” And he said the lyrics were about losing someone, so he was feeling that emotion. So now I’ve stopped judging him or other dancers who don’t smile, because maybe they are responding to the music in a different way. If I hear John Mayer singing ‘Slow dancing in a burning room’, I’m not going to be smiling. But if I hear ‘London Bridge is falling down’ — not that I want it to fall down! [laughs] — I’ll probably smile. If we hear any type of trigger in the lyrics, we’re going to express the emotions we attach to that song. But I still always try to get a smile out of somebody — at the very least, at the end of the dance!

There are also times people aren’t smiling as a result of fear or insecurity, or an uncertainty, and in those cases, you can usually tell. Sometimes it’s the other end of the spectrum, when it’s a kind of cockiness or arrogance – like “it’s not cool to smile!” Whenever it’s one of those moments, I try to influence those situations. If it’s insecurity, I’ll make jokes. Or I’ll screw up on purpose and apologise. If it’s arrogance, I’ll try to make fun of that. If they’re not even making eye contact, then I’ll be like, “Oh yeah, I can dance like this too [tosses her head nonchalantly].” If they ask, “What are you doing?” I’ll say, “You’re so cool! I’m trying to copy you so I can be cool too!” Usually they end up laughing, and then boom! we’ve broken the ice and can be human with each other.

JC: What key moments contributed to your philosophy, both as a dancer and as a person?

“My entire life is the source of my philosophy. Dance is just an extension of the way I communicate generally — I wouldn’t box myself in as I’m a dancer; I’m everything. That’s how I look at myself: I’m whoever I want to be in that moment.”

—Magna Gopal

I was lucky I found dance, because it appeals to so many facets of my personality, like being an extrovert, being very social, being physically active, moving, developing an awareness of my body, connecting with people, travel, experiencing new cultures and food, and all that stuff. Dance is very much aligned with who I am.

But the mindset I approach everything with — like relationships and communication — I’ve had since childhood. I remember at 16 cutting off all my friends who were drinking and going to parties, and weren’t on the path to further education, because I really wanted to focus on getting into university. For a while I was shunned — I went from being super-popular to being a loner. But it enabled me to push forward and succeed. So, I realised I didn’t need other people’s acceptance if they weren’t aligned to my goals — support, yes; acceptance, no.

When I got into dance, it was a similar experience. I got a lot of criticism for how I dance and how I act — why am I hyper and always joking around? But I just kept pushing forward, and that’s what’s allowed me to succeed. So, my mindset is about understanding you don’t need others’ acceptance if they don’t align with your goals.

Magna social dancing at the Valentine Zagreb Salsa Festival (Credit: Mayer Miklos)

The other thing that’s important is always growing and learning, and adapting to what is happening around you — which involves embracing change, embracing discomfort and the unknown.

As a child I was really curious to experiment — I would go to the park and climb trees, and I would see a bug and be like, “Oh, what kind of bug is that?” And when I got into dance, it was the same thing, because I would say, “Oh this is new!” or “I’ve never tried that! I’ve never danced with this person, so let me try this.” Or I travel somewhere new and I see all this food, and I think, “Oh, I’ve never had this, let me try it!”

Embracing those new experiences has impacted my dancing, because it allows me to truly flow with another human being. I don’t approach a dance with an idea of what it’s going to be like — even though they might have an idea, it almost never goes the way you think it will.

“When you’re comfortable with discomfort, when you can adapt
and be resilient, every situation becomes a positive outcome,
because you acknowledge your influence on it. You don’t feel
like a victim, but a contributor.”

—Magna Gopal

Even if it was negative, you can say, “I did something that allowed this to happen — what can I take out of it?” It’s always integral to your learning experience because that’s part of the process. You are not a victim because you’re participating in the process, which is about how you are learning and developing as a person.

So that allows me to be comfortable with change — to realise every situation can be a positive because I am always learning from it. Even if it is a negative, it’s still part of my growth and development.

JC: Where are you now in your journey? Have you achieved your goals?
MG:
Well, I’ll never feel like I’ve ‘made it’ per se — there are so many other levels, I have chosen not to go there! [Laughs.] But one of my goals in dance was to disrupt this community and enhance it, and I feel I have done that — just by changing things up, by changing the role of a follower, by changing the idea of what it means to be a woman and a solo female artist in a male-dominated industry. I feel I’ve contributed to this dance in a way that enables more people to find their voice and expression, and not feel boxed in by definitions from 20 years ago.

But the lessons I’ve learned in dance aren’t just dance lessons — they are life lessons that can be 100% successfully applied to improve people’s relationships, happiness and fulfilment, their profession, their vocation, their passion — all those things. I feel what I was able to take from dance was a gift, and I want to be able to give it back. I like the idea of balance in life — I don’t want to hoard what’s been given to me; I want to find a way to give it back, so that in this life I have taken, but I have given more. And right now, I don’t feel like I’ve given enough — but I don’t feel like I’ll ever get there.

“My next goal is to find ways to take these lessons and convey them to a non-dance audience. My TED talk was one step in that direction, and I’m continuing with my Mpowered videos on my YouTube channel, which takes some of those titbits from dance to find out how we can apply them to our lives.”

JC: Speaking of that, how was your TED talk? Was it as nerve-wracking for you as public speaking is for most people?
MG:
I’ve done plenty of two-and-a-half-hour seminars at salsa congresses with people just sitting the entire time. At the end of the session, they’re like, “Aw, is it done already? Can we just carry on?” so I felt comfortable with that part. But the TED talk was nerve-wracking because it was a different audience, and the challenge was “Will I be able to communicate this very important lesson to a non-dance audience by giving dance examples?” I was also thinking, “What do I wear?” because I didn’t want to come in a business outfit because that’s not me. So, in the end I just wore jeans and a nice shirt and some heels, which felt right.

Magna on stage giving her TED talk (Credit: ThisLearning.com)

When we were all backstage, the first thing they told us was the order of the speakers. And they said, “Magna, you’ll be opening.” And I was like, “Maybe they think I suck?” But they said, “We think you’re our strongest speaker, so we want you to open.” So, then there was the added pressure of going first. When I looked at the very old rickety stage with pieces of wood missing from the floor, all I could think was, “My God Magna, you’re going to walk out and your heels are going to get stuck in that floor, and before you even say a word to this audience you’re going to fall flat on your face!”

Fortunately, I got past that, but then we were in this tiny little box so we could be within a frame for their cameras, and I felt like a lion in a cage because the space was so tiny and I couldn’t move. When I got into my speech, I really wasn’t sure I would be able to communicate my message well or look comfortable, but once I started speaking and realised the importance of what I was talking about, it started to feel better.

I would actually love to do more TED talks, or more talks like that in general. There’s just so much people don’t know that if they only knew – even just a small hint of it – it would totally change their life. Even a simple thing like my talk on rejection, which means instead of sitting this song out, you could be happily sharing your passion on the dance floor. Or how being able to smile with someone can make their day. Or how much more connected giving a hug instead of a handshake could be. So yes — there are so many more lessons from dance I would like to give — I’m determined to put those out there.

Magna delivering one of her Mpowered Musicality and Connection seminars to seated students at the Vilnius Salsa Festival

JC: If the Covid-19 restrictions continue, how will you go forward as a dance teacher?MG: I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow. If I was stuck at home with no social dancing and no congresses, I can do online classes, and I can teach people how to become better communicators.

Actually, lately I’ve been doing fitness sessions online for private groups. It’s something I’m good at, and I can get better. Now I know how to create workout programmes and add all these variations, target different muscles and package that all together in a way that challenges people — and although I never ever thought of doing that, because of this situation, I found a way.

I like Bruce Lee’s concept of ‘Be like water’ — learn to flow. I believe we have to adapt — so if next year means knowing I can’t travel abroad and teach dance, then I have to go with the flow.

—Magna Gopal

I’m also coaching one of my students who is a university teacher, helping her find out how to build and engage with an online community. Many teachers haven’t grown up with this technology, so they need to learn how to adapt.

There are plenty of other opportunities, and I believe in the ability to rise above this — I don’t ever doubt I can do something if I want to. Going back to embracing discomfort, I don’t have to be a victim — I’m a participant. I can sit there and say, “Why is this happening to me?” or say, “This is happening, and this is what I’m going to do with it and how I’m going to add to it.” This is just another situation for me to apply my philosophy, to advance myself and stick with my purpose — which is to help other people.

As a teacher and as a social dancer, Magna always seeks to find and bring out the joy in every moment

JC: What do you think makes you successful as a teacher, and how do you adapt your teaching for different people?
MG: There’s a great sense of satisfaction in seeing others improve — that’s the quality of a good leader or teacher. With some people, once they get to a level of authority, their focus turns inward. They forget that the reason they got to that level of authority is because they were busy helping other people. But when I am teaching, it’s always about my student, about the person in front of me. When I am with you, nobody else matters — it’s about giving you as much as I can. And if there’s gratitude, fantastic. But if I don’t receive the gratitude, but I can see you grew, then I feel I’ve done something right.

The base for my teaching is ‘Mpowered with Magna’ — so whether I’m teaching dance, fitness, or whatever, it’s always about getting my students to feel more empowered. I adapt my teaching on the information I receive, which goes back to the dance analogy of leaders and followers. There’s not a clear leader and a clear follower — they are fluid roles. Being a good leader or teacher requires the ability to be a good follower, or learner. Similarly, a good speaker needs to know how to listen. The only way I can lead my group is to listen, and to pay attention — whether they’re speaking or not, I need to observe how and what they’re saying, including their body language. I take all that information and figure out what will best resonate with them to help them get better.

Magna with her pal Munchkin

I do have a kind of motherly, care-taking, parental quality — I don’t have kids, and don’t even have pets, but I do have plants, which are finally starting to survive. When people ask me “Do you have any kids?”, I’ll say, “I’m working on my plants!” If they say, “That’s not what I asked you!” I reply, “But didn’t I answer your question?” My plants were struggling, but they’re doing pretty good now, so maybe I’m ready for a pet! [Laughs.]

As an example of this quality, I have a friend I call ‘Munchkin’. He is not a kid as he’s 26 years old, but I always feel I want to take care of him. And if someone’s in my class, I want them to know that with me, they’re safe. If they fall, I’ll help them up. If they are struggling, I’ll show them the skills and help them find the strength to get through. If they are nervous, I’ll show them there’s nothing to fear. If they need to go into battle, I’ll be right there beside them. That’s how I am with my friends and my students. I want them to know I’m there to protect them and help them to enhance their abilities so they can face this world and maximise everything they can from it.

JC: Who or what challenges you or has ever challenged you? Have you ever felt
you were wrongly judged by anyone?
MG: Well, it depends on the way the challenge is delivered. If somebody challenges me in a fun way, cool. Then, even if it’s a competition, we’re both winners.

But if it is a situation where there are people who are cocky and arrogant, or who are maybe coming from a very insecure or malicious place, and if they challenge me in a way that attacks or has the intention to hurt, my response would be different. I would brush them off, saying, “You’re hurting, but I don’t need to take that, and I don’t need to contribute to that pain.”

“Growing up alone most of my life — having to fend for myself, be
my own cheerleader, be my own person in the corner of the
ring supporting me and training me to fight — allows me to step
up to those kinds of challenges.”

Magna Gopal

If they come at me with words, I can find my wit when I need it, so I usually snap back at them. And most of the time, those people speak not to be spoken back to; they speak to silence [you]. They’re not really trying to fight, so as soon as you put up your fists and say, “Okay, let’s go!”, they back off.

The fact I’ve travelled a lot and seen people in many cultures has helped me to not take a certain delivery or action or set of words as something personal. I can just say, “Maybe that’s just how you grew up. And if I grew up with you, we would be speaking exactly the same. But I didn’t, so I accept you came from a different background.”

(Credit: Steve Martin)

I always say I don’t want to assume the worst of people because I have no idea what they’ve gone through. And if I’m not going to take the time to find out why, I’m not going to take the time to judge. Back in the days of survival, you had to make quick judgements about whether something was going to attack you. And whether you’re being judged or judging, you have to decide where you want to go with it. If you see someone’s action triggers things you don’t want to deal with, you can decide not to associate with that person — but if you see them do one small action out of context and decide to tell the world about it, that’s another story.

Judging is as actually natural as breathing. Everyone’s breathing all the time, so you can’t say, “Oh, he exhaled in my face!” because he was just breathing.

JC: How do you help people cope with rejection? If one of your students was going to their first congress, or had just broken up with their girlfriend, what do you tell them?
MG:
Coping with the rejection — and then going to a salsa congress to have more rejection! [Laughs.]

I tell them, “Some of the most beautiful things you have experienced in your life are because of the chances you’ve taken. Maybe you feel that heartbreak and that pain now, but you did feel joy at one point. And the reason you felt all of that joy was because you took a chance. You gave it a shot. So instead of focusing on this pain you can’t control, why not go out there and aim for that joy again? You have to move past that fear of rejection and try things in order to experience more beautiful things.”

In my opinion, every relationship has its expiration date. Everything ends. Whether it ends because you part ways, you start thinking differently, you move away from each other, you find new friends or a new hobby or a new love or a new job, or you die — one way or another, every relationship comes to an end. And sour milk really does not taste good. So, it’s better to enjoy it while it lasts, then let it go and move on.

“If I can feel this much in only a five-minute dance, why can’t I have that level of intensity off the dance floor?”

—Magna Gopal

JC: If you had one message to give to dancers and/or non-dancers, what would it be?MG: Going back to that dance analogy of having a very intense connection with someone within five minutes, I wish people would look at that dance as an entire lifetime — sometimes it does feel like that. You’re being introduced, you’re sharing, you’re touching, you’re moving in sync to the music — things some people can take years to do outside the dance floor!

Maybe we can take that five minutes and apply it elsewhere as well? Ask yourself, “If I can create such an intense connection in five minutes, shouldn’t I be doing more? Sharing more? Experiencing more? How many five minutes have I had in a 10-year relationship?” It should challenge you to revisit your relationships, and to realise that any relationship can have that same intensity of give and take if you look at it in the same way as a five-minute dance.

JC: So, what’s next for Magna?
MG:
I’m actually doing a lot more writing. I write a lot, really — in general, I just put a lot of my thoughts down, and I have tonnes of stuff I’ve written, but I don’t really publish anything. So now I’m focusing more on publishing, because I have a lot of content and I need to get it out there. So, thanks for inspiring me to add to my blog!

Apart from that, I want to focus on developing my ‘Mpowered with Magna’ YouTube channel, to put these messages out there and see where it goes in terms of coaching and public speaking and helping people. Even aside from communication and building healthier relationships, it’s also about creating community.

I’m also debating whether to do my own podcast. I have one with Leon already, the ‘Naked and Counting’ podcast, which we’ve been doing for a while — I think it is probably the longest-running podcast ever in the dance community, and we’ve done it religiously every bi-weekly Wednesday, with just a few exceptions.

So many times, when I’m talking with friends and we’re just shooting the shit, there are so many important messages that come up, and I just wish I had a quicker way to share them that didn’t require me to shower and get dressed up for it! [Laughs] … I could just speak into it and record something anywhere, and then put it out there instead of this whole production number of having to look decent so people are not like, “Ah! What’s that on the screen? I can’t watch that!” [Laughs.]

I also want to get more into mindset coaching, because I realise that throughout my entire life, my mindset has been the only way I’ve been able to get through all the hardships — and there have been plenty: the negative push against me as an Indian female and a solo female performer in a male-dominated Latin culture; I don’t have family here in the US as my family’s in Canada; most of my best friends live in other countries, so it’s not easy to see them; my entire year of gigs gone just like that. And how did I cope with these things? It’s my mindset.

“It’s the way I think about things that has helped me succeed, so I want to share that, because I think a lot of people are struggling now with uncertainty, and they need to feel empowered.”

—Magna Gopal

As an empath, when I see someone in pain, I want to help them move past that. I try to find ways to relate to people so they don’t hate the world or are resentful — so they can still feel loved, still feel there are opportunities and possibilities, and that there’s still hope. Life is not bad, people are not bad, relationships are not bad, break-ups are not bad —  they are just experiences that you’ve had and have gone through. [In relation to relationship coaching] there’s no point in saying, “Yeah, everybody sucks” — because maybe they don’t, maybe they were actually pretty good to you, maybe it’s just that the timing is wrong or your goals don’t align. This person wants to go flying, and you want to go swimming — how are you going to align? If you need that aquatic connection, maybe you should look for a turtle? Then you might make it on land! [Laughs.]

Magna in royal-blue Indian garb, looking simultaneously sassy, mystic–serious and regal (or is that seriously regal? Or regally sassy?) (Credit: Urban Avenue)

I don’t think people should push pain or negative experiences away, because when you compare joy to that, you realise if you didn’t have pain, how would you even know what joy is? How would you experience the richness of your happiness without those contrasts? Compared to negative moments of pain and discomfort, joy really feels amazing. So, developing that empowered mindset further is where I want to go, because it allows people to overcome whatever difficulties they have in their personal lives — whether it’s through dance or personal relationships, or leadership, or work, or whatever.

JC: You mentioned earlier you were writing a book. I’m sure your fans will want to know something about the backstory behind your positive messages!
MG: There are so many times I think about it and then I’m like, “But who the hell wants to know about my life?” But actually yes, there’s a book I am working on now, which is about an experience that happened to me a while back. I’ve already written about 13 pages with 10,000 words in sort of chapters, so I guess it’s a book. I have a whole bunch of things I want to tell about that in detail, because I think it would help other people to understand the way I was thinking and processing things as they happened. There were two people who were involved that struggle, and as far as I’m concerned, I won!

On that tantalising note, we conclude our discussion about the possibilities of that book project. From what I have already learned about Magna, I’m convinced it will be, like her, a winner. Watch this space!

Agozar Presents: Salsa Cross Borders — Llego la Banda (“The Band has arrived”)

On Saturday 13th June, 2020, the Agozar team from Sweden and around the world will present the latest don’t-miss instalment of its unique ‘Salsa Cross Borders’ concept, with a thrilling new offering called ‘Llego la Banda’ (‘The Band has arrived’) — a full day of back-to-back live music, interviews and behind-the-scenes interactions with some of the finest up and coming salsa musicians from around the globe, offset with a rousing pre- and afterparty that will be sure to put a sunny salsa smile on your lips to carry you through the weekend and beyond.

Kicking off with an online pre-party for the dancers who will be tuning in to join the event via Zoom, the all-day event will highlight some of the wonderful new salsa music being created around the world by 12 fantastic bands, including Grammy and other award-winning performers, who have offered to share their wonderful music with us to help lift our spirits further during lockdown.

While many of the bands featured on the day favour salsa dura, some bring original Cuban rhythms, while others seek to evoke the classic sounds of the golden era of salsa mambo legends, and some seek to create an altogether different sound. With bands hailing from around the world — Australia, Ukraine, Europe, the US, and Cali, Colombia, where the lively atmosphere of the Feria de Cali will carry on through to the afterparty — this round-the-world marathon salsa music party promises to be a feast for the ears.

1. Salsa Kingz, Sydney

First up on the day, starting at 6am EST / 11am GMT / 12noon CET / 8pm AEST (UTC), we head to Sydney, Australia for a brief interview with the band’s director, Christian Guerrero (led by yours truly btw) followed by a live set from Australia’s favourite party show band, Salsa Kingz®. Salsa Kingz® is a multiple award-winning show band based in Australia, where they have been performing their contagious, super-tight brass arrangements and explosive Latin percussion rhythms live since 2004.

Christian Guerrero with the other 11 members of the dynamic Salsa Kingz band (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

Led by charismatic showman Christian Guerrero of the renowned Sonora Galaxia Band, the band merges Latin tunes with classic Aussie anthems, adding its own signature salsa twist — a fun, interactive salsa dance lesson that wows the crowd and ensures every party is a hit. Its popular ‘party kings’ reputation was cemented with a performance at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Olympics in 2000 alongside Jimmy Bosch, Jose Feliciano, Savage Garden and others; since then, frequent tours across the country and the Asia-Pacific region have kept them at the forefront of the Australian salsa scene. 

2. La Maxima 79, Milan

Next up, we head to Milano, Italy, for a half-hour interview and half-hour of music from renowned band La Maxima 79. Created in 2010 by DJ and producer Fabrizio Zoro, La Maxima 79 brings a fresh take on the old-school salsa sound, and is mainly produced with the dancers in mind. Following the success of their first two albums, Regresando al Guaguanco in 2013 and Joseito in 2016, the band has emerged as one of the best salsa groups in Europe, with an increasingly global appreciation. Their latest album, Resilenzia, launched in 2019, pays a special tribute to the original Cuban rhythms, fusing styles such as mambo, guaracha, guaguanco, cha cha cha and ritmo changui from Cuba.

La Maxima 79 pays a special tribute to Cuba, with rhythms such as guaracha and ritmo changui featuring in its music (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Roberston)

3. Mercadonegro, Zurich

Next we head to Switzerland for a half-hour interview and half-hour of music with Mercadonegro. The Zurich-based salsa band is formed of three expat Latinos: Havana-born Cuban José Armando Miranda, who is the lead singer and songwriter; Peruvian Cesar Correa, who hails from a well-known musical family, and is a piano and keyboards master; and Rodrigo Rodríguez, from Colombia’s Caribbean coast, who plays timbales and other percussive instruments as well as writing songs.

Zurich-based Mercadonegro delivers a dynamic sound (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

The band’s name — meaning ‘black market’ or economy — acknowledges the struggles they as a group of unknown Latin musicians face in establishing their place in the salsa world from such an unlikely base as Switzerland. Yet following their debut at the Latinoamericando Expo in Milan in 2009, and subsequent live performances at some of the biggest Latin jazz and salsa festivals and congresses in Europe, they quickly established a reputation as being one of the most versatile and interesting bands around, with an expert showmanship that wows the crowds.

4. Dislocados, Kiev

Our musical journey next continues to Kiev, Ukraine, where we uncover the revelation that is multi-award-winning band Dislocados via a 15-minute interview, followed by a 45-minute live set. What? A salsa band in the Ukraine?! I hear you ask – well, that explains the band’s name, Discolados (‘dislocated’), which plays on the craziness of transplanting an authentic Latin salsa dura sound to Kiev. Yet this 10-member band certainly knows how to knock it out of the park with a line-up including respected pianist and composer Ilya Yeresko, award-winning jazz musician Dennis Adu, and singers Karolina Patocki and Olesya Zdorovetskaya.

Ukrainian sensation Dislocados knows how to knock it out of the park (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

Exploding onto the Kiev music scene in 2005 under the name ‘Kiev Salsa Kings’, the band quickly became a fixture on the national and international music scene, winning an immediate international audience after their single “Resaca” debuted on New York’s Hard Salsa Radio. Since then, they’ve featured in Salsa Dura Mundial, a worldwide salsa compilation album with Latin Soul records; released Ukraine’s first salsa album, with 10 original tracks and an intro by salsa legend Andy Harlow; played with DLG’s Huey Dunbar at the Summer Salsa Festival in Stockholm; and won a bevy of awards for original tracks.

5. La Candela, Tenerife

Next up and coming to you live from Tenerife with a 15-minute interview followed by a 45-minute set, sensational eight-member band La Candela Salsa Orquestra serves up a niche mix of original rhythms — son montuno, guacancó, mambo, cha cha cha and salsa dura — that hooks dancers in with a fiery roller-coaster of emotions. Their first album in 2015 was inspired by and includes classic tracks by Joe Cuba and His Sextet. Since then, the band has continued to evolve, adding a primitive pungency to their classic sound, with new instrumentation that evokes tributes to the great precursors of Afro-Cuban music, Tito Rodriguez and Frank Grillo ‘Machito’. Its third studio album, now in production, includes some exciting surprises.

La Candela Salsa Orquestra serves up an awesome roller-coaster of sound — catch their live set on Saturday 13 June (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

6. New Swing Sextet, Orlando, FL

Up next, we head to Orlando, Florida, for an hour-long presentation on the New Swing Sextet (NSS) band and the history of the 1960s and 1970s salsa scene, featuring selected highlights of their music. Founded in 1965 with a stirring debut at the New York World’s Fair, legendary New York City salsa band New Swing Sextet has been a popular and innovative exponent of Latin jazz, salsa and pop for over five decades. NSS’s classic sound evokes the heyday of the Palladium era for today’s global salsa fans, with masterful musicians George Rodrigues on vibes and vocals; brothers Angel on vocals and conga drums and Harry Justiniano on bass and vocals; Hector Ortiz on bongos and Latin percussion; Jimmy Figueroa on timbales and vocals; Conal Fowkes on piano; and Orlando Ortiz on lead vocals.

Grammy-nominated band New Swing Sextet’s music evokes the heyday of the Palladium era, but with a contemporary twist (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Roberston)

After a gap of a few decades, the band reunited recently in honour of its 55th anniversary, recording  CD ‘Lo Que te Traigo‘ as a follow-up to its Grammy-nominated album ‘Back on the Streets… a Taste of Spanish Harlem, Vol. 2‘ (2009) and ‘Yesterday Today & Tomorrow’ (2013).

7. Luisito Rosario, Bethlehem, PA

We then journey on to Bethelehem, Pennsylvania, for a 15-minute interview with world-class, charismatic sonero Luisito Rosario, which will include a 45-minute selection of his MP3 music. Born on the 4th of July and raised by Puerto Rican parents in New Jersey, right across the river from the epicentre of Latin music, New York City, Luisito was deeply influenced by his Latin American heritage and listening to all the Salsa legends of that classic period of the 1950s and 1960s, particularly the Fania All-Stars. These inspired Luisito to pursue a singing career within the salsa music genre. He has since achieved over 20+ years’ experience of performing and recording with the likes of Larry Harlow (Fania All-Stars), Grupo Hechizo, Los Hermanos Moreno, Mambo City Music Ltd, Croma Latina and as a solo artist. Luisito’s mission is to restore and revive that old-school salsa sound by making it fresh-sounding and popular again — Eh la cosa! (That’s the thing!).

World-class sonero Luisito Rosario — eh la Cosa! (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

8. La Excelencia, New York

Speaking of the epicentre of Latin music, we now head to New York City for a 30-minute interview with videos and live jamming with the excellent La Excelencia. True to its name, La Excelencia is a powerful, award-winning salsa band from New York. Offering a unique contemporary take on traditional salsa, its music combines a hard-hitting, socially conscious message with highly danceable salsa dura rhythms that perfectly capture the gritty energy of the city’s original ‘working bands’. Founded in 2005, the band’s first album, Salsa Con Conciencia (2006), uncovered a surprising resonance with global audiences; its subsequent three albums, Mi Tumbao Social (2009), Ecos del Barrio (2012), and Machete (2020) have further enhanced their international reputation as an up-and-coming salsa legend to watch.

Salsa music with a conscience: New York City’s gritty La Excelencia (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

9. Los Hacheros, New York

Staying in New York, next up is a 30-minute interview with videos and live jamming with Brooklyn-based Los Hacheros. Los Hacheros is a five-member contemporary salsa band whose swing-oriented sound emphasises the Cuban clave in homage to the golden age of Latin music, with a raw, warm and open sound inspired by these Latin legends. Los Hacheros is dedicated to reviving folkloric styles like son montuno, guaracha and salsa, often combining them with Bomba, a fiery rhythm from the mountains of Puerto Rico. Their first album, Pilon, received critical praise for its “deep groove” and “solid arrangements and lively original songs” that “have impressed old-school salseros and young music fans alike”.

“Gritty, driving and infectious” — Los Hacheros (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

Jacob Plasse, producer and guitarist on the band, describes their follow-up album Bambulaye as “gritty, driving and infectious, with the goal to get you up and dancing”. He explains: “I wanted to capture the vibe of when the band plays its final sets at 3am in East Harlem, and everyone is exhausted — and then the band comes to life and all the old dancers are at it just like it was 1970 again.” Tune in on Saturday 13 June and ‘come to life again’ with us on the dance floor as we listen to Los Hacheros!

10. Avenida B, New York

Continuing in the ‘New York state of mind’, we next feature a one-hour live set in a park with Avenida B. Born and raised in Lower Manhattan, New York — a neighbourhood rich in the Latin American cultures that created the salsa sounds of the 1950s and beyond — David Frankel absorbed the salsa legacy of his late father, Daniel ‘El Mago del Organo’ Franklin, which eventually led to him taking up piano, percussion and salsa dancing. As his father had said, “salsa is made for dancing — and you will have a lot more fun with it if you dance.” With a growing passion for salsa, he formed Avenida B in 2011 with the purpose of recreating the old-school salsa dura sound the added swing of Latin percussion, as in the music of Eddie Palmieri and Ray Perez. Says Frankel, “Our mission is to reconnect salsa dancers, musicians and DJs in a meaningful way, and inspire the perpetuity and evolution of salsa dura’s singular energy and swing.”

11. Bailatino, Caracas

Next we head to South America for a 30-minute interview and 30-minute CD presentation (with possible live broadcasting from their present base in Colombia) with Venezuelan band Bailatino. Reflecting a rich mix of diverse Venezuelan and international influences — La Dimensión Latina, The Greater Sauce, Eddie Palmieri, Federico and His Latin Combo, Sonora Ponceña, The Mango Group and Fania All Stars — Venezuelan band Bailatino’s mission is to honour and revitalise its Caribbean cultural heritage.

A rich mix of Caribbean heritage: Venezuelan band Bailatino (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

Debuting in 1995 at the Caracas International Theater Festival, the band’s musicians are renowned for their versatility, popularity and professional growth within the salsa world and across the Venezuelan music spectrum, specifically within the nightly rumba scene. Bailatino has evolved its own brand of ‘resistencia salsa’ (“salsa without concessions”), a traditional salsa dura, yet with its own unique twist, which is in great demand at many of the best salsa parties in Caracas.

12. Corfecali y Feria de Cali presents Orquesta la Clandeskina + Swing Latino, Cali

Staying in South America, we head to the other world capital of salsa, Cali, Colombia, for a 15-minute interview and an exciting 45-minute live set from Corfecali y Feria de Cali presents Orquesta la Clandeskina, augmented with a fiery performance from Colombian dance supremos and World Dance Champions Swing Latino.

Two treats in one from the world-famous Feria de Cali: band Orquesta Clandeskina and the Swing Latino dancers (artwork by Coco Jacoel-Robertson)

Cali fuego is in the house! Orquesta la Clandeskina is a rousing 12-musician band that delivers a fresh take on 70s salsa music reflecting a distinct Cali-style sabor (flavour) and heritage. Under the musical direction of David Gallego, the band is a key performer at the ginormous five-day Feria de Cali street festival in Cali, Colombia, which highlights all of the amazing cultural things in the country — including a massive salsa parade that gets the whole city dancing. Their first hit, “Sonando el Tambor”,  was included in the official Feria de Cali EP in 2012 and became a dance floor favourite. They have since gone on to achieve fame across the country as a result of their live tours.

Swing Latino performing at the 2017 World of Dance event — copyright / credit to NBC

They will be joined on the day by world-famous Colombian salsa dance champions Swing Latino. Founded in Cali in 1999 by dancer, director and choreographer Luis ‘El Mulato’ Hernández, the troupe has placed first in prestigious competitions in Cali and Florida with their exciting choreographies, ‘Echa Pa Lante’ and ‘Bemba Colora’. Their energy is bound to get you dancing. Eso!

...and on to the afterparty!

We continue the festive ‘feria’ atmosphere with an afterparty that continues with our global guests, the Agozar team and dancers from around the world who will be joining online in the Zoom room. Dancers from around the world are invited to tune in to join us throughout the day via Zoom / their own mobile device. Whether you are dancing solo in your living room, or as a couple — either inside your home or in a park — we look forward to you sharing in this awesome, first-of-a-kind online event. It promises to be a sublime feast for the ears, delighting music lovers, dancers, DJs, collectors and promoters alike.

BOLDLY GOING: Salsa Cross Borders Enters Third Dimension

Salsa’s on the move again – this time into the world of combined virtual dance + TV + radio  

The online salsa revolution continues apace with the launch of combined TV, radio and virtual dance one-day programme Salsa Cross Borders (SCB), organised and pioneered by self-proclaimed ‘serial entrepreneur’ DJ Dustin Hogg.

The new concept – meant to continue with further offerings in the near future (e.g. WATCH THIS SPACE!!) – kicks off live on Saturday 16 May at 12noon CEST / 11am GMT with a 12-hour global programme featuring multi-award-winning Australian party band Salsa Kingz and their fantastic live televised show, then continues across the globe with TV-style interviews hosted by Dustin’s Sweden-based Agozar team, a virtual dance party to simulate the experience of being at a salsa festival, and live DJ sets and radio programmes culminating in an online ‘afterparty’.

Sweden-based Australian-Indian DJ Dustin Hogg (above, from his Facebook page) is the originator behind the Salsa Cross Borders idea

As Sweden-based Hogg told fellow Australian Christian Guerrero in a YouTube interview on 8 May 2020 joined by Salsa Kingz band manager Maurice Cordova, SCB was inspired by Salsa Kingz’s televised format, as well as some of the creative initiatives of other online salsa pioneers showcased in the launch: “I thought, why not join all of these efforts under one umbrella on one day, like we would have at a festival?”

Hogg further elaborates SCB’s mission by adding, “Our goal is to inspire more online collaborations – so make sure to tune into the first online premiere this Saturday.

“The plan is to start the party with yourselves [Salsa Kingz], then go with Salsa Meets House, which is a concept developed with DJ Dante from Australia and Phil in the UK – I expect we’ll do more with that under the name SALVAJE.

DJs Dmitri Matalka and Rumbero will represent CoBeat Party

“Next, we’ll head down to the CoBeat Party, which is an international explosion of DJs, with DJ Dmitri Matalka and DJ Rumbero doing a joint set. Then we’re going to go to Mad About Salsa, which is also in the UK with DJ Tuli [Venezuela], who will be doing documentaries and whatnot.

“After that, we’ll head to Feria de Cali, home of the world-famous festival, to have a Colombian radio show with director Alex Zulaga, a dinosaur of salsa and an historian, which is going to include a special surprise from Isidoro Corkidi – make sure you tune in for that!

“We’re also working with a group of world-renowned dancers who are going to kick off a virtual dance party from 14.00pm–16.00pm – that’s going to be fun!

“Then we’re heading over to New York for Agozar’s interview with Colombian collector Alex Gonzalez – a kind of ‘Desert Island Discs’ with 10 tracks that have never been heard before.* Thirty years of digging! So, be sure you tune in for that!

World-class salsa collector and music lover Alex Gonazalez, CEO of Zanja Records in New York and host of Alex’s Latin Beats, will talk about his top 10 ‘Desert Island Discs’ – really rare, never-before-heard salsa recordings – in what promises to be a highly enlightening interview led by the Agozar team

“Last, we cannot have a party without an afterparty, right? So we’re going to do that with the Salsa Lockdown Radio show, which happens in the UK with DJ Sassia [Michel] and the team there – so we’re going to have live sets with DJs from around the world [El Gringo (France), Martina (Italy/UK) and La Furiosa (France)] and an interactive online chat party going on until 12pm (GMT) – it will be 12 hours of solid fun with all these online initiatives in one day.”

So – get ready for this very unique  online salsa marathon! It will be a first-of-its-kind event that will hopefully inspire further global collaborations. Says Hogg, “We’ve had Japan, Thailand, a lot of people reaching out now, but there’s only so much you can do in one day – so we’re hoping this is just the start. So look at this as Volume 1 – with more to come!”

Salsa Kingz producer Maurice agrees the programme offers an excellent platform for the world to learn more about what Salsa Kingz is doing in Australia, as well as for Australia to learn what Europe and the Americas are doing. “It’s going to be epic – I can’t wait to be in the afterparty!” he adds.

Tune in on Facebook #salsacrossborders — and stay posted here on www.smallwriteratlarge.com for further updates.

© Jane Cahane 2020. Please credit and include a link to this blog when using any or all of this post.

*If interested in Alex’s collection, please contact him via the following: