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Photo: John Sturrock
“A modern mania for canal developments is reshaping cities by offering oases of calm in fast-moving town centres,” says the
Guardian.

When our kids were small, the Barge Canal (otherwise known as the Erie Canal) was as familiar to them as their friends’ backyard, as the elementary school, as the Hicks and McCarthy luncheonette. It ran right through town. I remember taking a canal-boat ride up and down (vertically) through the locks with a visiting grandmother and a picnic lunch.

In today’s story, John Vidal writes at the Guardian about a new focus on canals in England.

“Every second Monday of the month, a small group of volunteers meets in the training room of a Birmingham supermarket. They discuss what has long seemed to many of their friends a crazy and probably doomed idea: how to excavate a contaminated 40-year-old waste dump, create an urban marina, restore three miles of derelict canal and build several new bridges and locks.

“Last month, however, the meeting of the 18-strong Lapal Canal Trust committee was joyous. After 20 years of trying to restore this short stretch of the 200-year-old Dudley No 2 canal, permission had finally been granted, they were told.

“What’s more, a feasibility study showed that the plan – which would link the suburbs of California and Selly Oak by water – could be a catalyst for nothing short of the economic and ecological renaissance of a large area of south Birmingham.

“The new canal will generate jobs but also provide space for new houses, as well as pollution-free walking, boating and cycling routes. The marina for 60-100 boats will stimulate businesses and bring in tourists. The wildlife corridor created along the canal will attract herons, otters, fish and waterfowl. And although the whole project will cost about £5m, the study said it would pay for itself in six years.

“ ‘It will improve life in the city. It will complete an old canal loop around the city – we owe it to the future to restore it. … No one is objecting and we have nearly raised the first £250,000 – enough to start work,’ says the Lapal trust CEO, Hugh Humphreys.The Lapal plan is one of at least 80 canal renaissance projects currently making British towns and cities suitable for populations seeking tranquility, leisure space and new ways to move around. …

“It’s not just happening in Britain. … But few countries have as many urban canals as the UK, a legacy of British industrial might – and now a golden opportunity for transformation. Some, such as the Aldcliffe yard development in Lancaster, will see just a few expensive houses built on old industrial canal works; but many seek to create large new ‘liveable’ urban communities in what were some of the Britain’s polluted places, such as Wolverhampton, Leeds, Manchester, Lancaster, Glasgow, Liverpool and Birmingham. …

“Three things unexpectedly changed everything. A postwar infant canal leisure industry emerged; dozens of passionate heritage charities like the Lapal trust voluntarily restored many of the old waterways; and water proved to be the vital ingredient to kickstart a new, property-based canal mania.

“ ‘The restoration of the canals in the 1950s and 60s was thanks to a remarkable act of defiance by unpaid volunteers against the authorities,’ says canal historian Mike Clarke.

“ ‘Volunteers were vital. It’s unlikely there would be many canals today without them. The government, many influential people, and the British Waterways board, were all happy to see the majority filled in. … They told the government, “if you want to complain, take us to court.” …

” ‘They formed isolated stretches of peaceful country within the urban environment. Planners eventually saw them as an asset, and government at last understood their potential for leisure.’ …

” ‘The job is only half done in Britain,’ says Alison Smedley, policy officer of the Inland Waterways Association. ‘The restoration of Britain’s canal system is in full flow but there is so much left to do. … There are still about 1,800 miles left to be restored, although many [canals] have been filled in and are unlikely ever to be reclaimed,’ she says. …

“Canal and River Trust (CRT), the government-part-funded charity set up in 2012 to take over and manage the 2,000 miles of state-owned canal formerly run by British Waterways, [calculates] that about 10 million people a year visit the canals to fish, walk, cycle, observe wildlife or go boating. …

“In addition, canals have become a real alternative for people unable or unwilling to buy city property. .. Ten years ago 10% of the boats on British waterways were used as primary residences. It is now 26%, says the CRT. …

“ ‘Almost unnoticed, the canals have become important sanctuaries for urban and rural wildlife,’ says Simon Atkinson, head of conservation at the Birmingham and Black Country Wildlife Trust. … Otters, water voles, kingfishers, ducks, herons, fish, dragon- and damsel flies, even rabbits, are seen on the 100-odd miles of Birmingham canals, some of which are classed as local nature reserves. …

“ ‘If development is done well, it can enhance nature. The canals have never been more important, but it could go the other way. There is a real opportunity for high quality inner-city development and nature to flourish together.’ ”

For me as a lover of Dickens (the novels, not the man), I can’t think of English canals without thinking of the dark spirit of Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend. In fact, maybe I’m ready to read that one again.

Learn more about the benefits and challenges of canal popularity here.

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Photo: David Jennings for the New York Times
David Esterly in 1989. His woodcarvings were in the tradition of a 17th-century English master.

How some artistic geniuses stumble onto their metier is a mystery. This wood carver didn’t even know how to carve wood when he was blown away by the beauty and intricacy of works by a 17th century master. He had to know more.

Katharine Q. Seelye writes at the New York Times, “David Esterly was in London in 1974, walking with his girlfriend to meet her parents for the first time, when she steered him into St. James’s Church, Piccadilly, to see the intricate woodcarvings by Grinling Gibbons, widely considered one of the greatest woodcarvers in history.

“Mr. Esterly, an American who had studied at Cambridge University in England and was trying to figure out what to do with his life, had never heard of Gibbons and knew nothing of woodcarving.

“But inside the church he was mesmerized by what he saw — a cascading cornucopia of delicate, lifelike blossoms, foliage and fruit above the altar, all sculpted in wood by Gibbons in the late 1600s.

” ‘I was seduced by the power of the carving and its capacity to convey the beauty of nature,’ Mr. Esterly told the New York Times in 1998. ‘It seemed to me beyond belief that a human hand had fashioned those seashell swags, drooping bellflower chains, birds with laurel twigs in their beaks and dense whorls of acanthus. My fate was sealed.’

“He decided to learn more about Gibbons, and to do so, he realized, required taking chisels into his own hands. He taught himself woodcarving, becoming so skillful that when some of Gibbons’s 300-year-old carvings were destroyed by fire, Mr. Esterly was summoned to recreate them. He became not only an expert on Gibbons, but also the maker of sought-after sculptures of his own. …

“Mr. Esterly’s life was shaped by his obsession with Gibbons, master carver to the crown, who was commissioned to work in Windsor Castle, Kensington Palace and St. Paul’s Cathedral, among other landmarks. …

“For Mr. Esterly, carving was as much an intellectual exercise as a physical one.

” ‘The wood is teaching you about itself, configuring your mind and muscles to the tasks required of them,’ he wrote in his book ‘The Lost Carving: A Journey to the Heart of Making’ (2012). ‘To carve is to be shaped by the wood even as you’re shaping it.’ …

“He worked slowly, creating only about 50 pieces in his lifetime. But as his literary agent, Robin Straus, said by email, he was ‘equally fluent with words and wood’; besides books, he wrote numerous articles and reviews about art and carving.

“The subjects of his carvings varied. One might be Gibbons-like but with a twist — a spray of delicate roses, but with insect holes in the leaves, or a broken stem; another might be a head covered in elaborately carved vegetation.

“In most cases Mr. Esterly carved to the specifications of a patron. For a buyer who revered Thomas Jefferson, he carved a necklace like one sent back by Lewis and Clark, whom Jefferson had sent to explore the Northwest Territory. In others he whimsically updated traditional themes by inserting, say, a carved iPhone or a set of car keys.

“After a fire in 1986 at Hampton Court, Henry VIII’s palace, Mr. Esterly spent a year creating a replica of a seven-foot-long Gibbons carving that had been destroyed.”

More of the story — and some terrific photos — here.

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Photo: David Tipling/Getty Images
The nightingale’s song has been inspiring writers for more than a thousand years, but today most people have only recordings.

I’m reading one of the Narnia books to my younger grandson (The Horse and His Boy), and naturally some of the cultural references are to author CS Lewis’s England. We turned to our North American bird book when a nightingale was mentioned, and no nightingale was there. I’ll be showing him this story.

Patrick Barkham reports at the Guardian, “The nightingale has virtually disappeared from Britain over the past 50 years, its population plummeting by 93% to fewer than 5,500 pairs. But now a chorus of nightingale events are being arranged by artists, musicians and filmmakers to raise awareness of the plight of one of the country’s most celebrated but endangered birds.

“Birdsong was played on phones [in April] as the street artist ATM spent the day painting a nightingale in a gallery on the square, and more than 750 people attended a concert [of musicians performing] with amplified nightingale song.

Let Nature Sing, a track of pure birdsong including the nightingale, has been released by the RSPB to highlight the loss of more than 40 million birds from the UK in 50 years. …

“Its song was played in Berkeley Square as ATM painted a nightingale on the tailplane of a Wellington bomber at an event organised by the makers of a new documentary, The Last Song of the Nightingale.

“In 1924, the BBC’s first live-to-radio broadcast featured the cellist Beatrice Harrison playing a duet with a nightingale recorded in her garden in Surrey. The BBC continued this annual tradition until 1942, when the broadcast was famously abandoned when microphones picked up the sound of Wellington and Lancaster bombers en route to attack Germany, and the radio engineers realised the sounds could forewarn Hitler. …

“[Folksinger Sam] Lee said the nightingale was the most inspiring of musicians.

“ ‘For me it’s pure song,’ he said. ‘It’s an animal that is so utterly at one with music and the environment and using all the tropes and articulation and emotional capacity of a human musician, in the shape of a tiny brown feathered being.’ …

“Lee will rework the classic song ‘A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square’ at a free Extinction Rebellion event in the square, after which the audience will be encouraged to disperse through the streets of London with the nightingales’ song playing on their phones.

“Lee said … ‘At this rate we’re going to lose our nightingales, and so many species are in massive decline. We have to start celebrating these species and the arts are a very important way of brokering awareness and creating an agency for change.’ …

“ATM said he was convinced that nightingales did once sing in Berkeley Square. ‘It’s all about whether there was dense scrub in the square and I wouldn’t be surprised if there was one singing here 150 years ago.

“ ‘I lived in Berlin and the nightingale’s song was a common sound. Unfortunately the modern ethos of park-keeping is lawns and open spaces. People are frightened of the impenetrable places the nightingale needs.’ ”

More.

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In honor of my 3,000th post today, Suzanne is offering a 20 percent discount on anything at Luna & Stella, the site for contemporary and vintage jewelry with which this blog is associated. Just use the code 3000. The offer is good for all of June 2019!

Turning now to two of my blog’s favorite themes — paying it forward and refugees — I want to tell you about England’s Dame Stephanie Shirley, a former kindertransport evacuee, who plans to donate German government compensation to modern-day refugee children.

Are you familiar with the kindertransport that rescued children from Nazi Germany and brought them to England? According to Wikipedia, “The Kindertransport (German for ‘children’s transport’) was an organised rescue effort that took place during the nine months prior to the outbreak of the Second World War. The United Kingdom took in nearly 10,000 predominantly Jewish children from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and the Free City of Danzig. The children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often they were the only members of their families who survived the Holocaust. Most importantly, the programme was supported, publicised and encouraged by the British Government, which waived some immigration requirements.”

Imagine that. The government responded to the urgency!

I like that Dame Stephanie, having grown up to be a successful entrepreneur and philanthropist, will pay her German compensation forward to help other refugee children. There is still a crisis, just for children from different countries this time.

According to the Jewish News, “Dame Stephanie Shirley, 85, who boarded a train from Vienna in 1939 aged five, founded a software company in 1962 which was later valued at over £3 billion. … She said: ‘I intend to donate my €2,500 windfall to the Safe Passage charity which supports today’s child refugees. …

“ ‘I’m trying to encourage others to donate theirs as well. There are an estimated 500 of us Kinder still in the UK, so that adds up. I’m discussing it with [Lord] Alf Dubs and [Sir] Erich Reich, how we can combine to make a really big donation. …

‘I’m ashamed of how little this country has done to save child refugees in recent years. It couldn’t be more different to the monumental effort that saved so many of us.’

Read more here and here.

P.S. Please buy something gorgeous at Luna & Stella — for yourself, or maybe a June bride — and use that 20 percent discount so my daughter knows my eclectic blog actually sends folks her way.

Dame Stephanie Shirley, a former kindertransport child, who is paying it forward to help young refugees.

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Photo: UNHCR
Shukria Rezaei, an Afghan Hazara refugee in the UK, with Kate Clanchy, writer-in-residence at Shukria’s school.

Years ago, my husband’s company ordered his department to move to Dallas from upstate New York. We decided not to go, which was a big no-no in the corporate world at that time. Other wives got a laugh when I said, “I don’t transplant well.” That’s probably true of many people who get used to their place. When I think of the thousands of migrants leaving home now, I know they are not doing it just for fun but because there is no other choice. Most people love their home.

The young Afghan refugee in this story longs to go home someday. In the meantime, she is learning all she can, including how to write poetry in a new language.

Caroline Brothers reports for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) that a few years ago “no one, not her family, her teachers, nor any of her 900 schoolmates, was more surprised than Shukria Rezaei herself, when she was judged the best poet in her year. A shy, 15-year-old Afghan girl, who was still grappling with an adopted language.

“Oxford Spires Academy, a secondary school whose catchment area includes deprived localities, had just run a poetry competition to discover what talent might lie hidden in a student body speaking 54 different languages.

“ ‘Everyone was shocked, even myself,’ said Rezaei, now 20 and a scholarship student at the University of London, recalling the moment when Kate Clanchy, the school’s writer-in-residence and the competition’s judge, announced Rezaei had won first prize.

“Less than a year before, Rezaei and her mother – Hazara refugees – had arrived in Oxford from Quetta, Pakistan, which hosts a large population of displaced Afghans. The two were reunited in 2011 with Rezaei’s father, who had been granted asylum in the UK, after a three-year separation.

“Rezaei, for her part, was still struggling to master a language whose barest bones she had learnt at Afghan primary school and refugee school in Pakistan. As a child in the Afghan province of Ghazni, she awoke to the tap-tap of sheep trooping past on their way to the fields; a few hours later, she would set off through the mountains with a dozen other girls.

“ ‘School was two mountains away, and it snowed a lot,’ Rezaei told UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. ‘We went on a rocky mountain path and it took an hour and a half.’ …

“In England, in the thick purple jumper of a strange school uniform, she was struggling to keep up.

“ ‘I could only understand what was written down,’ Rezaei said of her first year. She survived, she said, by reading rather than speaking, copying everything she saw on the blackboard: ‘I just did as much as I could.’

“With the poetry prize, however, things shifted. From feeling invisible, Rezaei suddenly had an identity within the school. Clanchy, meanwhile, invited her to join a poetry group she had formed on a hunch that the quiet foreign girls at Oxford Spires might in fact have something to say.

” ‘At the beginning, I couldn’t talk,’ said Rezaei. But seated among 15 or 20 aspiring poets, she began to express herself. …

“Since then, Rezaei has had work published in Oxford Poetry, the emblematic literary journal that has showcased many of the country’s greats. She will be included in an anthology, England, to be published by Picador in June; one of her poems, ‘Homesick,’ has already been translated into German. …

“Like many children of refugees, Rezaei is acutely aware of how much hope her parents have invested in her. Even in the bleakest moments, amid profound dislocation, giving up was never an option, either for them or for her. …

“Rezaei is finding her feet in London, another major adjustment after Quetta and Oxford. Having won a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, she is studying politics, philosophy and economics, which she hopes to convert into a law degree.

“She still misses aspects of her Afghan childhood, but for now her hopes are firmly focused on England. She recently passed her driving test, and is exploring the creative writing scene.

“ ‘Afghanistan is still dear to my heart,’ she said, ‘but I have a lot more to achieve here before I go back.’ ”

Here is one poem.

I want a poem
with the texture of a colander
on the pastry

A verse
of pastry so rich
it leaves gleam on your fingertips

A poem
that stings like the splash of boiling oil
as you drop the pastry in …

I’d really like to copy the whole lovely thing, but you better click through to read it.

Hat tip: Beautiful Day on Instagram.

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Northampton Town v Forest Green Rovers - Sky Bet League Two

Photo: Pete Norton/Getty Images
Reuben Reid (front) of the Forest Green Rovers in England went fully vegan after the team’s owner introduced healthful food. He says it’s made a huge difference in his life.

Even after the retirement of founding host Bill Littlefield, the WBUR show Only a Game continues to have stories that appeal to sports lovers and lay people alike. I got a kick out of this one about England’s vegan soccer team.

Gary Waleik was the reporter.

“The menu at sports events has traditionally been a bit limited … and unhealthy. Especially at soccer games in England.

” ‘On a match day, you’re looking at a lot of sausages, burgers, bacon sandwiches. Quick and easy fried food,’ says Forest Green Rovers striker Reuben Reid. His team is broadening its menu with healthier fare. But that’s just one part of a much larger mission.

“In 2010, Forest Green Rovers, then a fifth-tier football club in Nailsworth, England, was in financial trouble. Dale Vince, who loved the sport as a kid, was approached by the team.

” ‘They said they needed a little bit of help to get through the summer,’ Vince says. ‘And I thought it would be a nice thing to do — because we could, so we should. But within a couple of months, it was clear that they needed much more than just a little bit of money.

” ‘And they said to me, “You really need to be the Chairman.” And I said, “I really don’t. I’ve got so much else to do.” But I then faced the choice — if I walked away, they would fold.’

“It was heady stuff for a guy who, two decades before, was living a hermit’s life on a hill in England’s bucolic Cotswolds region.

” ‘I had an old U.S. Air Force radar trailer that I rescued from a scrap yard and converted into a home,’ Vince says.

“In 1991, he was traveling in Cornwall. And something caught his eye.

” ‘It was England’s first modern, proper wind farm,’ Vince says. … That inspired him to build his own windmill farm, beginning in 1996. He called his new company Ecotricity. It was a big risk.

” ‘When I got started, renewable energy powered about 2 percent of Britain,’ Vince says. ‘Last year, it was 30 percent. And we’ve grown to be a company of about 700 people supplying about 200,000 customers.’ …

” ‘I saw the opportunity to use football as a new channel to speak to a new audience of people about sustainability,’ Vince says. ‘It’s still a football club, but it’s become something else, as well.’ …

” ‘We cut red meat out of the menu straight away for the players. We did it across the whole ground at the same time, so staff and fans and visitors as well. And then we took a series of other steps over the next couple of years toward full-on veganism.’

“The team dropped all meat, fish and dairy. By 2015, Dale Vince was the Chairman of the world’s first vegan sports team.

‘There were people at the time that said, “You’re gonna kill the club. Nobody’s gonna eat it. This kinda stuff,’ Vince remembers.”

Read more here.

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Photo: The Music Lesson, by Frederic Leighton, 1877. The young girl being taught to play the saz (a Turkish lute) is Connie Gilchrist. She was not a musician but became famous as an artist’s model and jump-rope entertainer.

The little girl in this story, born to a stage mother in a 19th century London slum, appears to have had a very successful life. But do click on Little Fatima, a painting by Frederic Leighton, and tell me what you see.

Vanessa Thorpe writes at the Guardian, “Fame is a fickle thing – and this point is well made by the painting of an opulently dressed girl being taught to play a stringed instrument that now hangs in the City of London’s Guildhall Art Gallery.

“Researchers preparing for an exhibition on Victorian attitudes to childhood, called Seen and Heard, have found that Connie Gilchrist, the forgotten young musician in painter Frederic Leighton’s canvas entitled The Music Lesson, was once the toast of England. …

“The child star, then known as ‘the original Gaiety Girl,’ made her name on stage at 12 with a novelty skipping rope act. But even at that early age, Gilchrist’s face was well known across London.

From the age of four she had posed for many of the great artists of the era, including Frank Holl, William Powell Frith and James McNeill Whistler, and for photographs taken by Lewis Carroll. …

“Gilchrist’s is a remarkable rags-to-riches story, yet one masked by her later identity as Countess of Orkney, the name by which she went until her death in 1946.

“Leighton’s sumptuous 1877 painting shows Gilchrist playing the saz, a Turkish stringed instrument, in a scene influenced by the artist’s visit to Damascus in 1873. But it is not the portrait of a child of the English aristocracy. In fact, Gilchrist had been born in the slum area behind King’s Cross station – a district described in 1851 by the writer WM Thomas as ‘a complete bog of mud and filth’ – which was demolished the year after her birth in 1865.

“ ‘Connie had been pushed into celebrity by her mother, it seems, in the hope she would be able to pull the family out of poverty – which she eventually did,’ said [Katty Pearce, curator at the Guildhall gallery]. ‘But although she appeared in hundreds of stage shows, becoming a star turn, those who met her in artists’ studios remembered her as quite a sad little girl.’

“Gilchrist was six when she began sitting for Leighton, and she is the Arab girl in his painting Little Fatima. Whistler even attempted to depict her skipping rope routine in an etching. …

“Gilchrist was able to quit the stage for good after doing an American tour in 1886. Her two wealthy benefactors, Lord Lonsdale and the Duke of Beaufort, had introduced her into high society, one buying a London home for all the Gaiety theatre girls, which he then left to Gilchrist, and the other becoming in effect her adoptive father. In 1892 Gilchrist married a Scottish peer, the 7th Earl of Orkney in London, and they lived quietly together for 53 years in his home near Leighton Buzzard.

“The painting of Gilchrist is one of 50 on show until the end of April in Britain’s biggest exhibition to examine Victorian representations of childhood.”

More images of Gilchrist, here, including the Whistler painting. More of her story at the Guardian, here.

I love how the various strands of this story could lead to many different investigations: on the sadness of child stars, on benefactors that do things like making a home for girls working in a theater, on how a town got a name like Buzzard. Leighton Buzzard — such an English name! Can you say it without affecting an English accent?

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