I was texting with E in Accra during the match on the relative merits of facing, in the next round, either England (winner of that match faces the winner of Argentina v Mexico) or the USA (winner of that tie faces either Uruguay or South Korea) *. We also touched on the fabulousness of John Mensah aka the Rock of Gibraltar. And of course the extraordinary, almost mythical, story of the feuding brothers playing for the opposing teams. Seconds after the final whistle the phone rang and the noise of jubilating from another continent nearly shattered the windows.

Arrangements are now being made to select the best Ghanaian bar in London to watch the game on Saturday night.

* See the table at the bottom of this page for a clearer visual representation of what I’m gibbering about.


The Docklands Light Railway is a great favourite in these parts because of the still magical experience of standing in the very front (or very back) of the driverless trains.  This weekend b2 and I went to stay with friends who have the great good fortune to live near a DLR station.


Here we are going there, at the back of the train, in one of the tunnels. Please note the hand-knitted cotton jumper of awesomeness.

rounding a bend dlr

Here we are going back, at the front, going round a bend above ground.

heron quays

And because, like bees, you can never have too many exciting trains, here we are drawing in to Heron Quays with an oncoming train speeding (a relative term of course) towards us and Canary Wharf (the red arches in the distance) ahead.

little soy cat

While on our adventures we met this cheerful cat. An excellent time was had by all.

Eye eye


What a joy to meet up with a friend from years ago and (re)discover so many shared interests, particularly at Exposed: Voyeurism, Surveillance & the Camera at the Tate Modern. It probably helped that we were pretty much on the same charger as regards the “permission” hobbyhorse. However it was thought-provoking about boundaries, assumptions and culture.

watching the match

So how do I justify taking this picture, people watching the <strike>UK</strike> England*-US world cup game on large screens at the Royal Festival Hall? After all I didn’t rush round the room asking each individual if it was ok. I suppose there are two things – firstly I was entirely obvious, possibly even slightly exaggerated, about what I was doing which I hoped would give anyone unhappy about being in a picture the opportunity to hide their face; secondly I chose the picture in which the child’s face is turned away from the camera. I like how trying to denoise the image (it’s the trusty iPhone after all, not a sophisticated low-light device) has rendered it rather like a painting.

The reason I was in the RFH for the football was because I’d been to the sublime Celebration of Kate McGarrigle. I hope devoutly they make a CD of the concert. It made me want to learn to play the squeezebox and write poetry about my children.

* I think it must have been subconscious retaliation to the Scot in the party who purported to change allegiance to the US on discovering one of their team allegedly “felt he was playing for Scotland too” which caused this otherwise inexcusable error. Despite the fact that having your own personal match commentator with a beautiful accent is sex on a stick.

Knitting on sticks

Shepherd on stilts, knitting, with his flock 1905

Stilts first appeared well before the forest, when Les Landes was an immense marshy country, very flat, with the vegetation primarily consisting of grass and undergrowth. Principally, it was shepherds who lived in this landscape. The shepherds had several reasons for using stilts:

  • in order to more easily make a path through the vegetation when the shepherds travelled the long daily distances required by their sheep-tending;
  • to avoid wetting their feet in the marshes;
  • but their main use was to be able to supervise their flocks of sheep from afar.

The medieval peasants of the marshy Les Landes area kept vast herds of sheep. The shepherds used the sheep for manure and wool, rather than meat. It is said that these shepherds would walk on stilts to increase their stride and see greater distances, and knit while watching their sheep. To keep their wool from ruin, these men wore a knitting belt and made their own felted jackets and protective clothing for their feet.

The great, home-hewn ash poles were kept on hooks attached to the beams of cottage ceilings and could be mounted with ease by sitting on the mantelpiece, or with more difficulty from ground level. The walker lashed the stilts to his upper legs by cloth or leather bindings called arroumères, and thus left his hands free. He carried a third and longer pole as a balance, and when stationary he could prop his back on it to provide a firm tripod while he watched over the sheep. On his back he carried a little satchel, the baluchon, in which he kept food, animal medicines and the materials needed for knitting the footless stockings peculiar to the district.

Shepherd resting on stilts and knitting

There are tantalising suggestions that the shepherds used hooked needles (whether latched or not I can’t make out) but I don’t have access to either the book or the paper in which this appears to be recorded.

People who saw them in the distance compared them to tiny steeples and giant spiders. They could cover up to 75 miles a day at 8mph. When Napoleon’s empress Marie-Louise travelled through the Landes . . . her carriage was escorted for several miles by shepherds on stilts who could easily have overtaken the horses.

Claret and Olives, Angus Bethune Reach, 1852, pp 72-74:

The novelty of a population upon stilts men, women, and children, spurning the ground, and living habitually four or five feet higher than the rest of mankind irresistibly takes the imagination, and I leant anxiously from the carriage to catch the first glimpse of a Landean in his native style. I looked long in vain. We passed hut after hut, but they seemed deserted, except that the lean swine burrowing round the turf walls gave evidence that the pork had proprietors somewhere. At last I was gratified ; as the train passed not very quickly along a jungle of bushes and coppice-wood, a black, shaggy figure rose above it, as if he were standing upon the ends of the twigs. The effect was quite eldritch. We saw him but as a vision, but the high conical hat with broad brims, like Mother Bed-cap’s, the swarthy, bearded face, and the rough, dirty sheep- skin, which hung fleecily from the shoulders of the apparition, haunted me. He was come and gone, and that was all. Presently, however, the natives began to heave in sight in sufficient profusion. There were three gigantic-looking figures stalking together across an expanse of dusky heath. I thought them men, and rather tall ones ; but my companions, more accustomed to the sight, said they were boys on comparatively short stilts, herding the sheep, which were scattered like little greyish stones all over the waste.

Anon, near a cottage, we saw a woman, in dark, coarse clothes, with shortish petticoats, sauntering almost four feet from the ground, and next beheld at a distance, and on the summit of a sand-ridge, relieved against the sky, three figures, each leaning back, and supported, as it seemed, not only by two daddy long-legs’ limbs, but by a third, which appeared to grow out of the small of their backs. The phenomenon was promptly explained by my bloused cicerone, who seemed to feel especial pleasure at my interest in the matter. The third leg was a pole or staff the people carry, with a new moon-shaped crutch at the top, which, applied to the back, serves as a capital prop. With his legs spread out, and his back- stay firmly pitched, the shepherd of the Landes feels as much at home as you would in the easiest of easy chairs.

” He will remain so for hours, without stirring, and without being wearied,” said my fellow-passenger. “It is away of sitting down in the Landes. Why, a shepherd, could stand so, long enough to knit a pair of stockings, ay, and not have an ache in his back. Sometimes they play cards, so, without once coming off their stilts.”

The best project ever (so far)

It started with a mail via flickr, one of those “you don’t know me, but… ” that usually mean something interesting is about to happen. It was headlined “Soon to be Doctor Krista“:

I’m Krista’s Dad and I need a favor from you – I need to find a Doctor Who scarf. Of course it needs to come from the Mother Country, not some colonial fake. Where can I buy one or could you make her one? I tried to find her a Tardis and did not have any luck so I thought of the scarf. For one of my birthdays she and her mother gave me a commemorative Dr. Who stamp so now with her becoming a true doctor, I must repay in kind.

How many levels of awesome is that? For a start there’s Krista’s geektasticness for even knowing, let alone loving, Dr Who, a British sci-fi tv series born several decades before she was as well as the other side of the atlantic. But even more awesome as far as I’m concerned is the fabulousness of her parents who knew of and appreciated her interest and came up with possibly the best PhD present idea in the world. (I think they must have known I knitted because of this.)

And it only got better. Because there is (but of course) an entire website devoted to this singular (and yet, as we shall see, multiple) item of clothing – The Doctor Who Scarf. Which is not one scarf but a multitude of different scarves which mutated over time (but not always linearly to the the viewer) and even regenerated into something, visually at least, very different.

A piece of swift and unscientific research revealed that, to us Brits, the original is also the best, so that’s the scarf that was made since we couldn’t find one for sale. Armed with a printout of the “pattern” I went with artist F, who has, unsurprisingly, superb colour sense, to the nearest large haberdashery department to get the wool. This looked as though it might be a considerable challenge since all the brands featured on the website are American and not widely available here (if at all). But we were fantastically lucky. The Rowan yarn Wool Cotton has a very close approximation to each of the seven shades required and is, miraculously, also the right weight.

1 The yarn

Knitting started in the summer on Holy Island, and continued hither and yon through the autumn. This thing is BIG. There was a hideous number of ends to darn in and tassels to be added. Finally it was finished, ceremonially photographed

9 Ok, so I broke the gate

and despatched.

At last, months after Krista was Doctored and even more months after it was started, it has found its home. Hurrah!

(It’s on ravelry here.)

TP still All Powerful (unlike me who failed to click "publish")

Being in the presence of the music of the Tout Puissant Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou is like… well it’s like being massaged by one of those road-mending whumpy things (albeit with a padded thumpy bit) at an above heartbeat rate of mind-bending rhythmic complexity operated by James Brown on ayahuasca. In a really fantastically good way.

the band

That’s still true today (or, more accurately, last night [now more than a month ago, but hey, who’s counting]) more than 40 years after the band was founded. Perhaps the energy had something to do with the fact that the date was particularly auspicious being the 64th birthday of founding member Clement Melome (Benin’s current average life expectancy at birth: 59 years). They may be pensioners – from the great distance of the Barbican balcony Clement Melome’s rotund figure and large white cap made him look like a middle-aged woman on a shopping trip – but by the gods they can still FUNK.

And by the gods it is (although more accurately Deity helpers or Orishas) – the music has its roots in the Vodun religion, as explained on the Analog Africa record label website:

The cultural and spiritual riches of traditional Beninese music had an immense impact on the sound of Benin’s modern music. Benin is the birthplace of Vodun (also Vodoun, or, as it is known in the West, Voodoo), a religion which involves the worship of some 250 sacred divinities. The rituals used to pay tributes to those divinities are always backed by music. The majority of the complex poly-rhythms of the Vodun are still more or less secret and difficult to decipher, even for an accomplished musician. Anthropologists and ethnomusicologists agree that this religion constitutes the principal “cultural bridge” between Africa and all its Diasporas of the New World and in a reflection of the power and influence of these sounds many of the complex rhythms were to have a profound impact on the other side of the Atlantic on rhythms as popular as Blues, Jazz, Cuban and Brazilian music.

Two Vodun rhythms dominate the music of Orchestre Poly-Rythmo: Sato, an amazing, energetic rhythm performed using an immense vertical drum, and Sakpata, a rhythm dedicated to the divinity who protects people from smallpox.

So there’s this astonishing mix. There are rhythms the like of which are not heard anywhere else. Then there’s the funk of James Brown:

According to their sax player Pierre Loko, who I met this month in Paris, while the word funk came from America, the rhythms are from Africa, and particularly Benin “We had a style called additivo which was very similar – and then we heard James Brown and thought he was doing African music”. What they did learn form Brown, he says, “was his energy, his showmanship, his style”. What actually resulted was a two- way conversation, with James Brown’s band visiting Africa “we learned from each other”.

This conversational style they call voodoo funk. And why not. But there’s a third interlocutor – Brazil:

Ironically, few of the musicians that have graced the Orchestre Poly Rythmo since it began in 1966 are professionally trained. They draw inspiration from a heritage that is rooted on Benin’s Atlantic Coast, where the Agoudas live. This ethno-linguistic group are descendants of former Brazilian slaves who returned to West Africa at the end of the 19th century, bringing back protosamba songs and dances that impregnated the local traditions.

The Orchestre has been able to mix this heritage with a fascination for African American funk, Latin grooves and the home-grown rhythms that punctuate voodoo ceremonies. Most of their 500 songs were recorded live with a couple of microphones and a Swiss-made Nagra reel-to-reel tape machine. The studio was a living room in the noisy neighbourhood near Cotonou’s airport.

Despite being massive in Benin, huge across West Africa, things were not always easy even when the band took the politically expedient route so many did, as singer Vincent Ahehehinnou told Independent journalist Nick Hasted:

“After the revolution [when Mathieu Kerekou’s regime, installed in 1972, began totalitarian, Marxist-Leninist inspired oppression in 1975], we were not allowed to play after 11pm on weekdays. And when the people came out of the venue, the police were waiting for them. If they picked you up outside a nightclub, they would say you were imperialist and anti-revolutionary! People were forbidden to hang out in the dark. They were disappointed and desperate, and didn’t even want to step out of their house any more. We feel bitter.”

Typically for Africa then, Poly- Rythmo were made the national orchestra by the new regime, and played its patriotic songs daily at the presidential palace. But even on a state-sponsored trip to Libya, trouble found them. “At the Libyan airport, the organiser said because we were musicians we were drug addicts. They took us to the third floor of the airport to check everything. Then they threw our instruments through the windows. And the government didn’t replace them. So it became harder and harder to play.”

So the gig. Well, it was great. So they’re old men. So they shuffle rather than shimmy. So what? The music’s still great. All those words – driving, pulsing, psychadelic – they’re still applicable.

There’s a wonderful story behind this the band’s first European tour.

part 2

The Kings of Benin Urban Groove 1972-80 which is apparently being reissued this week [now, err, last month] and there’s another compilation “Echos Hypnotiques – From the vaults of Albarika Store, 1969-1979 (Volume two)” out on 26 October [now also last month] on Analog Africa.