Saturday, 30 July 2011

When bloggers meet

L to R:  Justine, Tina, me
The blogging world is a treacherous place.  At first it seems as though you're in a boundless playground where you can pick and choose your friends and where you can decide at your leisure whether you like someone or not.  The only way this is going to half-way work of course is if you project your true self, warts and all.  The temptation in this anonymous and anarchic medium is to fulfill your dream of being seen by others as you want them to see you, with no warts.  As I navigate curiously from one blog to another by clicking on the "next blog" button at the tops of our blogspot screens I often wonder how many Wizards of Oz there are out there, hiding behind the curtain.

Years back when we first started putting ourselves on the internet by creating a blog on which to express ourselves, there was a new innocence in the air - we even wondered if we all got friendly on the internet with translation gadgets to break down the language barriers, whether - hey, why not? - there would be less world conflict?  Well, we learned.  People weren't always what they seemed, just like in the real world.

I've been thinking along these lines for a couple of years now, and as one of many lapband bloggers, was slightly wary of this possible dichotomy.  When I knew that Tina, a blogger with a lapband, was coming to the UK for a holiday it was totally natural to see if it might be possible to meet up, and an added delight when another local bandit blogger, Justine, joined in. 

We met up at Starbucks at a shopping mall in North Bristol, Cribbs Causeway (located, as you can see, under the escalator!) and chatted for over two hours.  I'm sure we all had our escape tactics in case anything went wrong, but I think we knew each other's blogs well enough to realise straight away that - oh relief - we were pretty much as we portrayed ourselves on our blogs.

Of course they wouldn't have guessed that I talk a lot (in writing brief and to the point, that's me), and at the end of a post you don't know that I'm hoarse, but alas they know it now. 

So because I prefer to be seen as I really am, I'll tell you that all through childhood and growing up years my family would listen to me indulgently for a while, then finally beg me to shut up, ("Why can't she ever stop TALKING?" my older sister would say in exasperation), but as from some years ago I have tended to confine my chatterbox instincts to the written variety.  I suppose that way if I'm being boring I won't know about it. 

That I talked myself hoarse at Starbucks the other day (er, did I let anyone get a word in edgeways??) is a tribute to these two ultra nice people, who are as straightforward as they are on their blogs, and with whom I felt instantly at home.  Their weightloss is an inspiration to me, as is their attitude towards it - a relief to have achieved it to enable them to get on with the lives they want to lead.  They were good listeners, as we each in turn gave our opinions on weight issues, and we talked about plenty of other things as well. 

It was - well, lovely, and I was truly sad to say goodbye.  Please can you come back to the UK soon Tina, and Justine, I'd love to meet up again sometime. 


From my Eavesdroppings blog
No. 148.  Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours...


A London couple have just moved to the south west of the country and being in a new town, want to make friendly approaches to the neighbours on either side of them. The ones to the left were particularly kind on moving day, providing cups of tea when the kettle couldn’t be found, offering advice, taking in parcels for them when they were out, and so on. The ones on the right are a quiet older couple in their seventies who keep to themselves, though they were perfectly friendly when the London couple popped round briefly to introduce themselves a week later. The new arrivals were grateful to learn from them the all-important information on the days rubbish is collected.

A few days later, London lady buys two boxes of chocolates to give to them for Christmas. A large box for those on the left, tagged “Thank you so much for your help when we moved in, would you like to come over for tea next Tuesday?”, and a small token one for those on the right, whose tag reads “It was a pleasure to meet you, and we much appreciated the advice about rubbish”.

On her return from Christmas shopping one day, she learns from her husband that he’s delivered the chocolates for her, and had a nice chat with both neighbours, who were delighted. The following day there's a knock on the door…

Neighbour, Right (70): What a wonderful big box of chocolates! This is so kind of you – yes we’d be delighted to come to tea next Tuesday.

London Lady (62): (In a very faint voice) Oh – er, that’s wonderful, look forward to it…

The couple are wondering whether it is yet safe to come out of their front door.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non-digital photo archive

Province of Salta, Argentina

A Bristol Opera Company production of
La Traviata in the 1990s.


Bristol - reflections on a building

St Ives, Cornwall
(A little doorway for Zanna!)


At the Roman Baths, in Bath.  I took this
picture of one of the statues because it so
reminded me of Charles Laughton.


Sunday, 24 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Witness (Part 3 of 3)

The Río de la Plata (The River Plate)
– a brief story of a neglected river

IV -  Death by The State

In the seventeen years from 1966 to 1983 Argentina had seventeen presidents, of which three were properly elected civilians, two inherited the job or were acting as caretakers (also civilians) and the remaining twelve, representing 70+% of the total over that period, were members of the armed forces.

Between 1976 and 1983 the country was run by a military dictatorship which called itself the National Reorganisation Process (“El Proceso”) during which there was a permanent state of siege and no political parties were allowed.  Political repression led to the execution without trial of sections of the population judged to be subversive or terrorist, euphemistically described as “disappeared persons”.  Official figures for these “disappeared” people at that time stand at 18,000, but human rights sources put that figure unofficially at nearer to 30,000.

This was terrorism by the state.  A high proportion of the victims were young people who were student activists, as well as many who were suspected of being politically active but who actually had no involvement.  They were rounded up or kidnapped, tortured, raped, forced into exile, made to disappear or assassinated.  Some gave birth while under detention and their children were subsequently given to childless army couples who did not ask questions.  They had no defence, no trial, and there was no one to listen to them.

Except that is for their mothers and grandmothers, who appealed to the authorities to be told where their children and grandchildren were, or to demand restitution of the bodies for decent burial.  What started out as an indignant appeal became a world famous cause, as they took to wearing white scarves with victims' names embroidered upon them and gathered in the park opposite government house  (the Plaza de Mayo) in peaceful protest every Thursday afternoon for many years.  They became known as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo) and are now known formally as human rights activists.  They have identified 256 children who would have been born in captivity and passed to military families after their mothers were assassinated, and they have been successful in finding the whereabouts of a lucky few, who as adults have returned to their families.

There were 610 clandestine detention centres around the country, the best known being ESMA (Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada, or the Naval School of Mechanics), where over 5,000 prisoners were “processed” and 90% of the executed during “El Proceso”.

It was from this location that many hundreds of prisoners made their final journey on the so-called Flights of Death.  This came to light when bodies started being washed up along the coast of both Argentina and Uruguay, revealing at post mortem that the victims had died of a blow consistent with hitting a concrete surface at great speed.  Many years later in 1995, a navy captain heavily involved in these crimes made a statement  before a judge, confessing his part in the Flights of Death. 

Groups of detainees, 15 to 20 at a time, would be told that they were being transferred to a better and freer detention centre, and once in the air would have to submit to a so-called vaccination, which was in fact the barbiturate anaesthetic Pentothal.  When semi-conscious their clothes were removed (the reasons for this are not clear) and they were flung out of the plane into the River Plate.

Corruption, a failing economy, growing public awareness of the harsh repressive measures taken by the regime and the military defeat in the Falklands/Malvinas by Britain in 1982 eroded its public image.  The last de facto army president was forced by the lack of support within the army itself and the steadily growing pressure of public opinion, to call for elections.  In December 1983 democracy was formally restored, the presidency being taken up by a civilian Raúl Alfonsín.

The 1976-1983 period was known as the Dirty War, and was investigated from 1984 onwards by the National Commission for the Disappeared, whose report was entitled “Never Again”.  The members of the governing army juntas were put on trial and sentenced in 1985, and in the decades since other people responsible have also been brought to book.  The most recent is one of the Flights of Death navy pilots who was found living in the Netherlands.  He gave himself away because he had been talking to colleagues about his former life, and his views – shockingly – had not changed.

This is a life-sized monument to the people
who died in this way, located 30 metres from shore
 on a floating platform.


The River Relents

I remember Ricky when we were at school – different building for the boys, but the same school – his dark, curly hair and strong features, and the way he broke into a dazzling smile when something pleased him.  Always the good guy, the one you could go to for a laugh or advice.

In 1968 the boys’ and girls’ schools staged a joint show  - Rogers and Hammerstein’s My Fair Lady, and he played Alfred P Doolittle, Eliza's father.  I was Mrs Pearce, Professor Higgins’ housekeeper (with most of the original part cut out, so I didn’t get any standing ovations).

Ricky in the middle (singing 'Wiv a lttle bit o' luck')

At curtain call

Colonel Pickering on the left, Eliza in the middle
and yours truly on the right (as housekeeper Mrs Pearce),
in no danger of acting myself off the stage
Then our school days came to an end and we each went our separate ways, and that was that.  Until a few years ago when I learned with horror of what had happened to him in 1995.

In early June of that year he was the only survivor of 7 people on board a Cessna belonging to a small provincial airline, of which he was the General Manager at the time.  It lost its right propeller 1,700 metres from the coast after leaving Aeroparque, the city airport, and crashed into the River Plate.

Ricky remembers the plane taking off, and the bang a couple of minutes later which left him in shock.  Then the water pouring into the cabin.  He thinks he was saved by the fact that his seatbelt was on very tight and that the pilot had told him how to get out. 

Having managed to get the cabin door open, thanks to his size he was able to force his way through the pressure of water trying to get in.

“Once in the river I realised properly what had happened, and I was filled with despair”  he says.  His first reaction was to search for the others but it was late autumn and night time and raining, and he couldn’t see.  He recognised that hypothermia would soon set in. 

The smart leather boots he was wearing weighed him down and for the next forty minutes he struggled to get them off, painfully aware that the process was draining his energy.   “I was swallowing water and I kept sinking.  I even thought of giving up.”

And then he remembered a brief conversation he had had with his daughter that morning  and her words “I’m frightened that one day something will happen to you and you won’t come back”, and this gave him strength.  The boots came off eventually.  He saw lights twinkling ahead of him and he swam towards them, but after what seemed a very long time it dawned on him with increasing hopelessness that he was no closer to them. 

Perhaps it was adrenalin, perhaps it was thoughts of his family, but he suddenly felt his brain start to work.  He realised that it was possible that he had been fighting the current and that the shortest distance between two points could well not be the most direct.  He decided to swim aimlessly, and let the current push him where it may.

His luck turned at last.  The sea was very choppy and must have carried him at some speed across the water, because some hours later he staggered ashore at Punta Carrasco, Uruguay, where the current had driven him.  His body temperature was 26°C.

Ricky had reached the very brink of death and he realised for the first time what it really meant to fight for one’s own existence.  He feels it brought out the best in him.  “I no longer say I can’t.  It was a new birth for me.”

Those who did not survive were found with arms extended towards the other emergency door, which inexplicably was locked from the outside.  The pilot’s widow is still trying to clear his name through the courts.


Final Thoughts

My memories of the River Plate were always of a rather threatening presence on our doorstep, a smelly, dirty, brown stretch of water which had to be crossed to get anywhere, or to turn our backs on because she was way too unhealthy to swim in and her delta too full of mosquitoes.  I knew nothing of her history, thought little about it as I got older, and realise only now as I learn about this part of my mother country, that my real problem with the Río de la Plata is embarrassingly childish and simple – I never forgave her for not being blue. 

I crossed the estuary by ferry to Uruguay in 1961 as a child of eight at exactly the same time of year as the tragic accident of the Ciudad de Asunción in 1963, only two years earlier, and my excitement at being on a boat for the first time was quite dashed when I looked over the rail and saw really brown water all around me.  Nobody said anything about silt and its benefits.  Brown meant dirty, and that was that.  I turned my face away forever. 

She will never be beautiful, but I long for the day when there are enough funds and the will to clean up the Riachuelo which feeds into it and give the sealife a better chance.  The run down area in one section has been transformed in the last twenty years, and Puerto Madero is now a very attractive complex with wonderful restaurants and pretty areas to sit on a peaceful Sunday afternoon.  I hope her rehabilitation will continue.

She has witnessed terrible scenes of conflict and suffering, but life and commerce continue despite it all.  Cargo ships laden with goods come and go, oil tankers and dredgers lumber slowly along her channels and people still pack the ferries. 

And generations of children succeed each other, still disappointed and slightly ashamed that she isn’t blue and sparkling.


In “Clifton Town”, an opera about Bristol’s riots in 1831 written by John Humphreys, there is a sweet song about the river Avon which crosses Bristol and continues its journey through the Gorge and out into the Severn Estuary.  I was struck by the relevance of some of its verses on the role of the river in the countryside versus its role as it flows through the city.  As I read it there were to me strong echoes of the river of this story, whose main tributary, the Paraná, has a peaceful and pretty beginning in the north of the country. 

In this final section of the poem the river Avon could easily be the River Plate as it flows into the estuary.  A Peeler – as the policemen were called in those days – is singing to a young local girl, whom he sees as the embodiment of the innocent river upstream, and who has now come to the city to be soiled and corrupted -

…O child of Nature, like the River Avon,
A gentle gem that in the summer shone;
A city’s heart of stone’s no loving haven!
She’ll be grieving on leaving and ready to be gone.
Through the Gorge she’ll sadly flee,
Down to the sea,
With the stains of a city’s dirt,
Painfully creeping
And hurt by the same inhumanity and shame
That has tarnished the lovely name of Avon!

And for all the songs she sings,
Tales that she brings,
Of the meadow and wooded hill
Green in the memory still,
Just the same inhumanity and shame
Ever tarnished the lovely name of Avon!

Thank you to John Humphreys
for permission to quote part of his song.
References are at the end.


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's non- digital photo archive


References - in addition to Wikipedia
General: (for list of submerged wrecks in the River Plate)
The British Invasions:

The air accident when Ricky swam to Uruguay:


Friday, 22 July 2011

Tales from Argentina – The River as Witness (Part 2 of 3)

The Río de la Plata (The River Plate)
– a brief story of a neglected river
III -  Death by Misadventure

The Ciudad de Asunción

In Uruguay schools break up for a fortnight’s winter break at the end of June, and in Argentina the national day, 9th July, marks the start of winter holidays for schoolchildren.  So on Tuesday 10th July 1963 the ferry Ciudad de Asunción travelling between Montevideo and Buenos Aires was full of noisy families in carefree mood. 

The Ciudad de Asunción
It was a foggy and still evening and all flights between the two capitals had been cancelled so the ferry was carrying more people than usual.  There weren’t enough cabins for everybody so some people were sleeping on armchairs or the floor.  There was a total of 444 passengers and crew aboard.  Although the fog persisted, Captain Avito Fernández did not delay departure, and they weighed anchor promptly at 21:00.  After dinner, the passengers settled down to sleep wherever they could for a few hours.

Dining-room, Ciudad de Asunción

The Ciudad de Asunción and its twin, the Ciudad de Corrientes, had been built in Glasgow in 1929 and travelled to their next home in Argentina that same year.  They were ideal for the routine shuttle across the River Plate, having ample space for passengers and storage alike, and a cruising speed of 14 knots.

That night progress was slow because the captain could not see the buoys clearly due to the fog, and apart from radar, in those days there was no other means to guide him around the treacherous sandbanks and sunken wrecks.  He plied the same navigation channel daily but this time there was an added problem.  The radar had not been working properly and had not yet been repaired.

Despite his caution, at 03:40 he guided the Ciudad de Asunción the wrong way round a buoy, and collided with a submerged wreck, the remains of an old Greek cargo ship, the Marionga J Cairis.  He gave the order to stop the engines, then almost immediately to go full speed ahead.  The engine room flooded rapidly and he gave a further order, hard to starboard, north, in an attempt to get free and into deeper water.

At 03:44 the engines stopped for good and the power was shut down.  The alarms were sounded and the order given to wake the passengers and prepare the lifeboats.   He told the shivering and frightened assembled people that it would not be possible to continue their journey but that they would be rescued by other boats as soon as it became light.

At 04:00 the boat settled gently on the river bottom.  It was a calm night and it remained level, with the main and upper decks above water.  There was chaos while people milled about, some in pyjamas despite the low temperatures – it was mid winter – and members of the crew were seen heading for the lifeboats and stashing contraband aboard.  Some calmer ones guided people up the steep ladders to the upper deck, where they felt they would be safer.

Things started to calm down.  People felt reasonably safe and they prepared to sit it out until help came.  Then someone saw a thin column of smoke snaking out of the stern funnel.  It was 04:15.  Everybody watched it uneasily and presently realised that it was growing thicker, and that there were sparks coming out with the smoke.  The passengers started to move away from the source but it soon became obvious that there was a very serious fire in the engine room, and there were now flames emanating from the funnel.

A Uruguayan photographer by the name of Francisco Tastás Moreno was on the Ciudad de Asunción that night.  He was a man in his early 50’s at the time and during the Battle of the River Plate 24 years earlier he had been one of the few cameramen who had filmed the Graf Spee from the air as she was being scuttled.   Now he described vividly what happened on the night of the 10/11 July 1963 as he tried to figure out the best course of action.

“I learned first of all that when there’s a serious fire you have to check which way the wind is blowing and walk in the opposite direction” he said.  “Secondly, a boat sinking at sea is not the same as in a river.  At sea you can throw wooden objects into the water and they will remain floating in the vicinity of the boat, but in a river, whatever you throw in the water just disappears.”

Investigations later revealed that the last safety drill had taken place more than a year earlier and the crew had had no training at action stations.  Only two of the six lifeboats could be launched, two were stuck fast due to lack of maintenance and two had been lowered inexpertly by passengers because there was no crew on hand to help.  They fell into the water upside down and could not be used.  Their capacity was a maximum of thirty five people each.

Panic took over when it became evident that there would not be enough boats to save everybody, the flames were getting higher and the crew was split between the well-meaning ones who didn’t know what to do, and the rest who were intent on saving themselves. 

It was 04:30.  Many people did the very worst thing they could have done, which was to jump into the freezing waters of the River Plate.  There were horrifying reports by the surviving passengers of men in one lifeboat where there were children struggling to get aboard having their fingers prised off the edge where they were holding on, and having to let go… of an adult yanking the lifebelt off a six year old child to save himself… of crew vainly attempting to be heard above the screaming of the frightened passengers. 

Captain Avito Fernández held on to a small group of people huddled together on the bridge.  In the event they were the best off.  The fire did not reach them and he kept them together and reassured them.  One survivor said later that what kept the group from panicking was the knowledge that they had a leader. 

The son of two survivors, his parents, told of a priest and a young girl who survived thanks to his father’s strong leadership, by talking to them and comforting them constantly, and keeping them moving their limbs in the water to stop hypothermia settling in.

Francisco Tastás Moreno, the photographer, had been one of those who had jumped, but he had managed to grab hold of a wooden box and clung to it for many hours until they were rescued by the Granville, a tugboat, nine hours later, just in time for him, as he was at the end of his strength.

The Ciudad de Asunción half submerged & still smouldering
By the time they were rescued the ferry had sunk further.  The remaining deck was almost totally destroyed by fire.  Of the total of 444 people on board, 58 perished due to hypothermia followed by drowning, 364 were picked out of the sea alive and 22 from the stern bridge, which included the captain and 2 of his senior crew.  To his credit Captain Fernández was the last to leave his ship.

It was discovered during the enquiry and trial that the captain had not in fact used the navigation channel which was clearly marked with buoys on either side, but had opted for another channel which shortened the journey and therefore meant that less fuel would be used, but which involved negotiating a sandbank.  In normal conditions he would have known his way.  He stated that he frequently took this route, and the authorities knew about it and had never taken any action.

The captain and one of his senior crew were sentenced to 5 years imprisonment apiece for bad navigation and negligence in relation to the saving of lives once the accident had occurred.  It was judged that there had been sufficient lifebelts and lifeboats, but that due to clumsiness and lack of training too many of them had not been used.  Although passengers had been told to don their lifebelts there was no further control of the critical situation which had worsened minute by minute.

Captain Avito Fernández died in jail without knowing of the development of satellite Global Positioning Systems which started in the late sixties.


The Corps de Ballet of the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires

There are too many distressing stories of accidents involving light aircraft in Argentina, and it is not my intention to debate here how they happened or how they could have been avoided.  However there are two involving the River Plate which do belong in this chronicle, the second of which I shall relate at the end.

On the evening of Sunday 10th October 1971 a small Beechcraft Queen Air plane took off from Aeroparque, the smaller city airport of Buenos Aires next to the river, bound for Trelew 1440 km/900 miles due south on the Atlantic coast.  It crashed into the river several minutes later.

It was established subsequently that it was carrying too much weight, so when one of the engines failed as it climbed, the pilot attempted to return to the airport but without success.  As Sunday strollers watched in horror, it plunged nose first into the river.  There were no survivors.

Recovery of the plane from the River Plate
As rescue teams and journalists converged on the scene, the news spread that the passengers were professional ballet dancers and their staff, and by the following day it emerged that all nine dancers, the entire corps de ballet of principal dancers at the renowned Colón Theatre at that time, had perished along with the crew and staff accompanying them.  They had been travelling to Trelew to give a special show at the Teatro Español, where the anticipation and excitement at the visit of such famous stars had been growing for days.

The nine who perished,
taken very shortly before they left on their fateful journey.

In addition to being a horrifying tragedy on a personal level for their relatives, friends and fans, it was a disaster for the ballet world in Argentina, from which it would take fifteen years to recover.  These nine dancers had done much to popularise the art and were admired as stars in their own right, particularly the leaders, Norma Fontenla and José Neglia.

Norma Fontenla & José Neglia

Norma Fontenla had reached the peak of her fame in 1967 when she appeared in Giselle with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, and in 1971 Nureyev selected her for one of the main roles in the Nutcracker Suite when he appeared in Buenos Aires, and together with Neglia the three of them completed a very successful television series.

Images of Norma Fontenla

José Neglia had also won many awards, the most famous of which was the Nijinsky prize in Paris.

Images of José Neglia

What was little understood then was that the families of the dancers also formed part of the backup team that drove the resurgence of ballet as a popular art in Argentina at that time, and the loss of these artists meant that all the backup disappeared along with them.  A whole generation was lost.

Images of the Teatro Colón (Google images)

The wake was held at the Teatro Colón and  there were 3,500 visitors.  A year later a Dancers Fountain was unveiled, the two characters being Norma Fontenla and José Neglia, and the 10th October was declared the national Day of Dance.

The memorial to the corps de ballet who lost their lives

Next time – Darkness, then hope


Photo Finish -
from Lonicera's photo archives



(Digital from here on)
Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society: 
The Pirates of Penzance

Mother of the bride

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society:  The Mikado

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society: The Mikado


References - in addition to Wikipedia

Shipwreck of the Ciudad de Asunción:
Aircraft accident - principal ballet dancers of the Teatro Colón:

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