Ben Lerwill http://www.benlerwill.com Freelance writer & travel journalist Thu, 09 Mar 2017 14:59:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 View from Parc de Belleville, Paris http://www.benlerwill.com/view-from-parc-de-belleville-paris/ http://www.benlerwill.com/view-from-parc-de-belleville-paris/#comments Fri, 03 Feb 2017 14:29:52 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=363 Posted in Uncategorized

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Cleaners at Amber Fort, Jaipur http://www.benlerwill.com/cleaners-at-amber-fort-jaipur/ http://www.benlerwill.com/cleaners-at-amber-fort-jaipur/#comments Mon, 05 Dec 2016 09:35:33 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=351 Posted in Uncategorized

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A Gori Affair http://www.benlerwill.com/a-gori-affair/ http://www.benlerwill.com/a-gori-affair/#comments Mon, 13 Jan 2014 10:51:04 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=268 Posted in Uncategorized

At some Kremlin-ordained moment in the late 1930s, a neighbourhood of simple brick houses was demolished in the Georgian city of Gori. One solitary residence was intentionally left standing. Directly from the front door of this unremarkable dwelling, an avenue of parks and trees was constructed, sweeping straight out for a mile or more towards the mud-brown Mtkvari River. Today the... Read the rest →]]>
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At some Kremlin-ordained moment in the late 1930s, a neighbourhood of simple brick houses was demolished in the Georgian city of Gori. One solitary residence was intentionally left standing. Directly from the front door of this unremarkable dwelling, an avenue of parks and trees was constructed, sweeping straight out for a mile or more towards the mud-brown Mtkvari River. Today the tiny house remains where it always has, and has the vantage point of a palace.

Why should a low flat-roofed cottage have provided the centrepiece for the rearrangement of an entire city centre? Simple enough.  It had nothing to do with its masonry or wonky wooden porch, and everything to do with the baby boy born there in 1879 – Josef Djugashvili, later to take the name Stalin. If it had witnessed the birth of the Great Leader, ran the diktat, it was by default a Great House.

Personality worship as a tool for town planning was no rarity in the Soviet era, but it didn’t often take such extreme form. Gori remains inseparable from the memory of its most infamous son, and until recently the city – only ninety minutes from capital Tbilisi – was seen as one of the last bastions of support for the man who even Lenin called “a coarse, brutish bully”.

But as generations pass, things alter. Seventeen metres of fresh air now occupy the spot in Gori’s central square where stood, until 2010, the last remaining major statue of Stalin in the former USSR. There was no fanfare surrounding its removal. Residents simply woke up one morning to find it gone. At around the same time, a new gallery was added to the large museum that stands directly behind the house of Stalin’s birth. This new gallery is worth remarking on because it deals with the manifold horrors of the gulag – the first time that the museum, long decried as hagiographic, has made an open admission of one of modern history’s darkest chapters.

“Yes, you can say that the relationship between Gori and Stalin has changed,” says museum guide Olga Topchisvili, as we wander through opulent halls of memorabilia and state gifts – pipes he smoked, fountain pens he filled, clogs from Holland, an ashtray from Britain. “A few of the very oldest people, some of them still respect him. Visitors find this hard to understand, but it’s true. But the younger people in Gori, no, they don’t like him at all.”

She has a trained way of straight-batting any leading questions (“You want to know why there is so little about Trotsky? Well, he had a situation. Now this next exhibit…”) but is otherwise surprisingly candid about the reality of Stalin’s legacy. This hasn’t always been the case. I’d heard tales of travellers leaving Gori in disgust after finding the museum seemingly staffed by flag-waving labour-camp apologists. It’s hard to say precisely what led to this shift in conscience, but it would seem that younger members of the Georgian authorities finally saw the glorification of one of the 20th century’s most despised figures as too great a source of embarrassment.

This more open attitude certainly chimes more clearly with the general experience of travelling through Georgia, a country intent on lavishing conversation, hospitality and homemade grape vodka on anyone with a rucksack. There’s a theory that Georgians are so welcoming to visitors who come in peace because they’ve been historically accustomed to being invaded by outsiders with more violent interests. I can state this: when you’ve spent the bus journey to Gori having boiled sweets repeatedly forced on you by a beaming nun, it’s hard to think of the place as lacking in heart.

At the city chess club, of all places, I fall into conversation with a middle-aged woman who teaches English. I mention that I’ve come from the museum, and in responding she sums up the weird attitude that pervaded past generations, a mindset that was testament as much as anything to the power of the Soviet propaganda machine. “The way the older generations felt towards Stalin, you know, it was very complicated, almost impossible to understand,” she explains. “People hated him but – he had a hold. My mother lost two brothers to the gulag and still cried hot tears when Stalin died. How do you explain something like that?”

Back at the museum, there remains a much smaller Stalin statue right outside the main doors ‘for display purposes’, but it lacks the bristling surety of most of his iconography. Rather than wearing the glare of a steel-fisted leader, this particular Uncle Joe has the decidedly troubled look of someone who’s watched the very last transport roll out of town.

 

 

 

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Still Here http://www.benlerwill.com/still-here/ http://www.benlerwill.com/still-here/#comments Thu, 28 Nov 2013 12:00:28 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=258 Posted in Uncategorized

It’s been brought to my attention that I haven’t posted anything here for a few months. You know what it’s like. Work. Kids. Travel. Kids. Work. International subterfuge. Travel. Work. Kids. Occasional days of leaping through sunny fields. This is just a quick post to alert any passing visitors to the fact that I remain alive and well. And for... Read the rest →]]>
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It’s been brought to my attention that I haven’t posted anything here for a few months. You know what it’s like. Work. Kids. Travel. Kids. Work. International subterfuge. Travel. Work. Kids. Occasional days of leaping through sunny fields. This is just a quick post to alert any passing visitors to the fact that I remain alive and well.

And for no special reason, here’s a photo taken in Jerusalem a couple of weeks ago. I’ve been told that the text translates roughly as “Found: Lost Item”. Pretty creative thing to do, I thought.

 

 

 

 

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Wings on the Ridgeway http://www.benlerwill.com/wings-on-the-ridgeway/ http://www.benlerwill.com/wings-on-the-ridgeway/#comments Fri, 10 May 2013 08:47:56 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=242 Posted in Uncategorized

I walked the Ridgeway last week. It took me five days, going west to east. On the third day, in sun-soaked countryside somewhere close to the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, I met a man hiking in the other direction. He was wearing only boots and a pair of shorts. He had a big rucksack, lots of white hair and a fabulous walrus... Read the rest →]]>
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I walked the Ridgeway last week. It took me five days, going west to east. On the third day, in sun-soaked countryside somewhere close to the Oxfordshire/Berkshire border, I met a man hiking in the other direction. He was wearing only boots and a pair of shorts. He had a big rucksack, lots of white hair and a fabulous walrus moustache. “Hello!” he said, barely slowing his stride. “You’ll find lots of brimstones up ahead.”

“Ok,” I replied. I couldn’t remember what brimstones were. I then said “That’s good”, deciding brimstones were probably a positive thing but adding a tiny inflection of sarcasm in case they were something bad. He laughed politely. Then he was gone with a wave, and I looked up “brimstone” on my phone.  They were butterflies.

The next twenty minutes of walking were like passing through a soft confetti storm. Dozens of yellow wings flipped and dipped from verge to hedge and back again. I took this photo. That night I stayed at a farm. When I told the farmer’s wife about the brimstones she became very animated. “Oh!” she said. “They’re out are they?  Spring at last!”

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Engineering A Draw, Tehran-Style http://www.benlerwill.com/match-draw-tehran-style/ http://www.benlerwill.com/match-draw-tehran-style/#comments Thu, 07 Mar 2013 10:56:13 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=226 Posted in Uncategorized

  There’s been a lot of talk, evidence and insinuation of match-fixing in recent months. Football, cricket, even tennis. It’s monumentally depressing for any serious sports fan. It also puts me in mind of a match I attended in the Middle East a few years ago. I’d been sent out to Iran to cover the Tehran derby for FourFourTwo Magazine.... Read the rest →]]>
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There’s been a lot of talk, evidence and insinuation of match-fixing in recent months. Football, cricket, even tennis. It’s monumentally depressing for any serious sports fan. It also puts me in mind of a match I attended in the Middle East a few years ago. I’d been sent out to Iran to cover the Tehran derby for FourFourTwo Magazine. The experience was fairly nuts (there was an all-male crowd of 95,000, many of whom had begun filing into the ground at 5.45am) but the match itself was chiefly notable for the suggestion of blatant engineering.

By way of context, the last four matches between the two teams, Esteghlal and Persepolis, had all finished 1-1.  The nudge-nudge theory I was given was that a drawn game meant (comparatively) less crowd trouble, so was favoured by the authorities.

Eighty minutes in, the blues of Esteghlal were 1-0 up. This is my account of the conclusion to the match. The handball in question is pictured above.

“The Persepolis supporters are becoming increasingly jittery – they’ve been here all day and want a result to show for it. With minutes to go, Esteghlal striker Siavash Akbarpour is presented with a simple one-on-one. It should be game over. He skies it. And as the clock rolls into injury time and desperation sets in, a Persepolis corner finds Ali Karimi’s head, which in turn finds the outstretched hand of Esteghlal’s Ali Alizadeh, substituted on just minutes earlier. It is the craziest of handballs. The referee has no option but to award a penalty, which is slotted home as the final whistle blows. For the fifth time running, the Tehran derby ends a goal apiece.

The flags left flying are red. Esteghlal fans begin ripping up seats and hurling them onto the pitch. Police rush sections of the crowd to calm them and, inevitably, skirmishes spill outside. While the vast majority of fans restrict their emotions to vocal expression, there are numerous arrests for violence (as many as 100, according to the next day’s press). “We want football, not politics”, goes up the chant. On the main road back into town, groups of youths on scooters square up to each other. In the eyes of the fans pouring home – particularly the blues – there seems little doubt they’ve been had.

The media fall-out begins in force the next day. Almost all papers splash with a photo of the handball, and headlines are accusatory. Iran Varzeshi leads with ‘The gift – a bouquet of flowers from Ali Alizadeh’. Donya Futbol reads ‘Alizadeh: the special envoy for the derby’, and Navad says simply: ‘Inevitable’.”

I’ve just looked up the last few results between Esteghlal and Persepolis.  Only three of the eight matches since the one described above have finished in draws. It’s nice to think of that as progress.

 

 

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Travel Glossary for 2013 http://www.benlerwill.com/travel-glossary-for-2013/ http://www.benlerwill.com/travel-glossary-for-2013/#comments Tue, 18 Dec 2012 13:47:22 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=216 Posted in Uncategorized

A list of vital words and phrases for the modern traveller. Please go ahead and suggest more.             atlascock (n) – an individual who can name the capital of Togo without pausing for thought. (usage: “He’s a bit of an atlascock. I mentioned China and he started reciting all 23 provinces.”) sadstart (n) – an aeroplane breakfast... Read the rest →]]>
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A list of vital words and phrases for the modern traveller. Please go ahead and suggest more.

 

 

 


 

 

 

atlascock (n) – an individual who can name the capital of Togo without pausing for thought. (usage: “He’s a bit of an atlascock. I mentioned China and he started reciting all 23 provinces.”)

sadstart (n) – an aeroplane breakfast of anaemic sausage, congealed egg and tepid tea. (usage: “I need to grab something to eat before lunch. I’ve only had a sadstart.”)

doshbotch (v) – to withdraw ten times the intended amount of an unfamiliar currency at an overseas ATM.

twattenborough (n) – someone who spends a safari moaning that they’re not seeing enough leopards.

minareticent (adj) – having an ingrained aversion to cultural breaks.

ricefloe (n) – the mess made on a restaurant table as a result of poor chopstick skills.

amundsen (v) – to trump someone intentionally by booking an earlier holiday to the exact resort they’ve planned to visit.

snorchard (n) – a dormitory in a rural hostel.

haikueue (n) – a queue for something

………………………. which is highbrow in culture

………………………..but a bit pointless.

lonely gannet (n) – a traveller who makes a point of eating solely at restaurants recommended in guidebooks.

deceptionist (n) – a receptionist who neglects to inform you that breakfast costs 18 euros.

vuitton (v) – to bray on at length about luxury travel (usage: “She doesn’t half vuitton.”)

piddlepocket (n) – coins of small denomination that cluster at the bottom of pockets and backpacks. (usage: “I grabbed an old rucksack from the wardrobe and a load of Croatian piddlepocket fell out.”)

cabarooney (n) – the semi-mystic law by which any conversation with a foreign taxi driver will turn inexorably to the English Premier League.

 

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Pen-Twiddling While Rome Burns? http://www.benlerwill.com/fuddy-duddy-pen-twiddler/ http://www.benlerwill.com/fuddy-duddy-pen-twiddler/#comments Mon, 26 Nov 2012 11:33:25 +0000 http://www.benlerwill.com/?p=112 Posted in Uncategorized

I went along to one of the Social Travel sessions at World Travel Market this year. I found it very enlightening, partly because I don’t spend enough time thinking about social media. This is my inaugural post (it’s a new website for a new me – prepare the fatted calf) and at time of writing I’ve published precisely 16 tweets,... Read the rest →]]>
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I went along to one of the Social Travel sessions at World Travel Market this year. I found it very enlightening, partly because I don’t spend enough time thinking about social media. This is my inaugural post (it’s a new website for a new me – prepare the fatted calf) and at time of writing I’ve published precisely 16 tweets, the last of which was 15 months ago. I’m not proud of this. Stubbornly, I’m not on Facebook yet either. I am a bit proud of this. Anyway, my point: I am not at the vanguard of the digital revolution.

So the session was informative, and at times inspiring. It was essentially a show-and-tell session in which six or seven well established travel bloggers talked about their various online enterprises. They all had clear plans, striking amounts of confidence and obvious passion for their particular projects. There were some highly successful individuals among them. I didn’t join in with the rather-too-hearty-for-my-liking audience approval at one speaker’s assertion that all magazines would soon be dead, but I clapped in the right places and stayed until I was forced to dash off for an exciting meeting on the exhibition floor with someone who’d forgotten I was coming.

The hour or so I was at the session left me with a mix of emotions. In some ways I felt woefully behind the curve, a fuddy-duddy pen-twiddler sitting there listening to the proclamations of the newfangled folk reshaping the industry. In other ways I felt buoyed by the possibilities. And in other ways I felt, well, a little confused. One speaker, who published a quarterly iPad travel magazine, seemed to be saying she had as many as 115,000 paying readers – seriously, bravo – yet also said her freelance contributors were rewarded at a rate of US$150 for 2000 words. There are factors involved there that I don’t understand.

The speaker who most impressed me was American writer Matt Kepnes, aka Nomadic Matt, whose website (for those of you who don’t know – so that’s maybe just you, Mum) has found huge popularity in supplying up-to-date tips and travel stories. He now supplements this, he explained, by offering one-to-one telephone sessions with people prepared to pay for his advice on where, when and how to travel. It made me think a) what a strange, multi-storied thing the idea of being a travel content provider has become and b) that I would fare miserably if I had the gumption to offer a similar service, chiefly because  I’d spend the duration of any conversation worrying I was being perceived as pushy. Britishness can be burdensome.

Anyway, welcome to my – page. And there’s not really a conclusion to this little ramble, other than to say I face the digital future with caution, curiosity and – if I’m brutally honest – a little reluctance. But that’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed.

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