Saturday, 24 March 2012

Tales from Argentina – The Rail Crash

On Wednesday 22nd February 2012 Argentina suffered one of the most serious railway accidents in its history.

(Internet picture)
The crash at Once station, Buenos Aires, 11/02/2012
It happened at one of the major termini in Buenos Aires known as Once (full name Once de Septiembre), where trains arrive from west of the city. 51 people were crushed to death and over 700 injured when the train reached the terminus and due to brake failure was unable to stop. It hit the buffers at about 25 miles per hour, enough to concertina the first crowded four carriages, stacking one inside the other.

The trains are old and poorly maintained, windows and even doors sometimes drop off; passengers report that there are also tiles missing from the floor here and there, through which you can see the rails flashing by. None of this would have come to light if the mortality rate had not been so high and the anger of the surviving commuters so great.

For some time I have been following a blog called Relatos de una Pueblerina en la Ciudad (Stories of a Village Girl in the City), its writer Mechi being the village girl of the title. She lives in Moreno, 45 km/28 miles west of the capital and works in downtown Buenos Aires at a job she loves, in the quality control of computer games. She’s a regular weekday commuter, and was on the ill-fated train.

Mechi is a witty and sharp observer of the eccentricities of her fellow daily commuters, but I’ve always been keenly aware of the discomfort she is forced to endure in this daily routine.

There aren’t enough trains or buses to accommodate the number of commuters needing to get to work in the capital and every weekday morning she arrives at her local station (which is the end - or the beginning - of the line) fretting about whether she will be able to get on the train without having her hair pulled, her ankles kicked, her clothes torn, her feet crushed or her eyes stabbed by elbows and bags.

She anxiously checks the electronic timetable when she arrives on the platform, noticing the services which have been cancelled without explanation yet again and tensely awaits the eventual arrival of the next train. She frequently finds herself in tears as she desperately tries to outwit the crowds so that she can get to work on time and in such a way as to find somewhere to sit, to enable her to recover her dignity and relax before the next stage of her journey to the office.

She and her fellow travellers use careful judgment and sheer cunning to try to get a seat, as the journey takes over an hour; she has remarked in wonder that once the frantic struggle to get one’s own space on the train has been negotiated, people switch from vicious to kindly in an instant as they invariably laugh with relief and behave as if it had never happened.

She attempts to shut out the loud chatter and the ever present stench of urine by listening to music on her iPod, or if she’s been able to get a seat, by dozing. After alighting from the train she catches a bus for the last hour of the journey into town.

Such is the overcrowding that many seats are taken even before it arrives at this last station on the line, for commuters who live several stations nearer the city will board the train in the wrong direction and therefore add 15 minutes to their journey - just to ensure they get a seat.

There is fear too. Even if larger and more aggressive travellers have been skilfully avoided, there is the problem of the state of the train itself. She tries to avoid choosing the carriages which have tiles in the floor missing; it gives her nausea to see the rails racing by underneath. The doors don’t always work properly, however when commuters complained to the company – TBA (Trenes de Buenos Aires) that people smoking on crowded trains made the journey intolerable, they responded in an unexpected manner by knocking out the windows of the carriage allocated to smokers “so that the smoke could escape”. Commuters didn’t know whether to be surprised because of their choice of solution to the problem or because they had bothered to respond at all.

On the morning of 22nd February Mechi felt stressed even before the train pulled into Moreno station. Making split second decisions she ran past the first carriage, which she knew would fill up to unbearable levels with last minute arrivals; she carried on past the second because it was the smokers’ compartment, and after a brief hesitation sped past the third because she assessed that she would still smell the smoke. Her decision to board the fourth carriage and her success in finding a seat probably saved her life.

The journey was uneventful – or at least it was by her standards. The carriage was packed and someone who got on several stations down the line had even opted for the uncomfortable tiny enclosed cabin at the end which had a sign on it forbidding its use – perhaps because it was used for storage. But even that was better than being crammed between so many bodies. Mechi was in a double seat facing two other seats - but sometimes the crowding was such that people would stand in the tiny space generally occupied by the four pairs of feet.

As the carriages ahead rounded bends she could see through the window sparks flying from the wheels; at various stations the driver didn’t stop properly so that all exiting passengers could alight onto a platform, and at one point a plastic cover on the door mechanism of her carriage sprang loose and passengers who were pressed against the door had to help keep it pinned back so that the sharp edges didn’t injure both them and the people getting in and out. But, as she said later, this was not unusual.

As they pulled into the terminus at Once, early morning rush hour was at its height and in the densely packed carriages people were gathering up their belongings. Books and iPods were stowed away, women tidied their hair and rucksacks were zipped up. The lucky ones who had managed to get a seat had stood up to stretch their legs and prepare themselves for the exit scrum.

The train had slowed and suddenly braked very sharply. Sleepy expressions turned to terror and Mechi heard the sound of hundreds of people screaming as they were knocked off their feet. Then there was a muffled crunching sound as the train hit the buffers and passengers were flung through the air to the front of the carriage. She herself was thrown on top of the young woman who had been seated facing her, and her first concern was to help her to her feet and ensure she was alright. She had been protected from further injury by the row of seats in front of her.

There were sprawling passengers tightly packed several high in the gangways, and some were bleeding. She found it impossible to extricate them, though she was able to help one girl who had hurt her leg and as they sat her down she continued to cry hysterically. Mechi could see that there was nothing further she could do without expert help and decided to exit the carriage where more horrors awaited her as she picked her way dazedly past heavily injured people who had been pulled out and onto the platform.

(Internet picture)
The crash at Once station, Buenos Aires, 11/02/2012
Even in shock she observed that the third carriage was deep inside the second, and the second deep inside the first, with the sides looking like so much torn cardboard. The buffers were half way into the first carriage. People were screaming insults at the driver – who survived relatively unscathed – and tried unsuccessfully to get to him.

Whilst Mechi kept repeating to herself over and over that it was her loathing of cigarettes that had made her choose the fourth carriage, a man at the exit, looking white and drawn, told anyone who would listen that he had been in the train behind because he had missed this, his usual one, and he always travelled in the first carriage...

Trembling, she boarded her bus to go to work, and when she got there she did the only thing that could comfort her at that point. She sat down and wrote it all out in her blog. It wasn’t till she got home later that she learned the true extent of the crash, and about the number of victims, and just how lucky she had been.

Over the next few days her blogger friends were prompt to offer comfort, as the emergency services commented on what they had seen, and the fact that oil had had to be used to prise apart the tightly jammed dead victims. There were angry protests, grieving families, and desperate people looking for their relatives not knowing whether to search in hospitals or mortuaries. Fifty deaths were reported, with many of these unnamed and unaccounted for.

The driver said his brakes had failed, but that had been happening for some time and no maintenance had been carried out. On the journey that morning they had failed at an earlier station, but when he reported it he had been told to carry on. It was later revealed that this shocking instruction had been given based on past experience: if they had accepted the issue as a maintenance problem the train would have had to be emptied of passengers; hundreds of angry people thwarted from getting to their destinations for many hours. On a previous occasion they had turned on the staff in a very ugly scene and the trains were set alight. TBA wanted to avoid a repetition of this incident, which had been extensively reported in the media.

Accusations flew back and forth at high level within TBA and the government; finally the president herself gave few opinions on the subject, and always during speeches where other subjects were also being covered. She grieved for the dead and their families, she said, we will find the culprits and they will be punished accordingly. Yes, she continued, there had been a lack of investment in the railways, but this was because previous governments from the seventies had left her with a high level of debt. She was careful to define exactly to which administration she referred, since the last one had been her own (she is on a second term) and in the two before that her own husband had been president. Some days after that she sacked the transport minister.

Meanwhile the parents of a young man called Lucas Menghini still desperately searched for their 20 year old son, who had been observed on closed circuit television entering the train that morning, and begged the emergency services to search again. Three days later it was announced that the body count had gone from 50 to 51. His body had been found in the fourth carriage, where Mechi had travelled. Lucas had sought to make the journey a little easier on himself by taking refuge in the little cabin with the sign on it forbidding passenger access. When the train crashed it became a death trap, and he was only identified by the contents of his rucksack.

In Mechi a terrible anger was growing at the pointlessness of the deaths, the inaction by the authorities and most of all against TBA and its treatment of its customers. She remembered over her two years of commuting how frequently the staff had treated them like cattle, herding them in and out of trains with shouts and insults, how complaints were either ignored or treated with contempt.

She sat down and wrote an open letter on her blog to TBA explaining why, despite her upbringing when she had been taught never to hate anybody; she hated TBA with body and soul. If you treat people like animals, they become brutalised; she didn’t blame the daily commuters for behaving as they did, she said, she blamed TBA for not only disregarding its customers, but for actively pursuing a policy of put-up-and-shut-up. “You have turned us into psychotics”, she claimed.

Her letter struck a chord in many people, who copied and pasted it onto their Facebook page, and before she knew where she was she had turned into a minor celebrity, with thousands of hits on her blog and many dozens of comments championing her reaction. She was contacted by television channels, radio stations and newspapers, all wanting to interview her and quote her blog. Bewildered by all the unexpected attention, she responded to everybody as best she could, and her obvious inexperience and fresh approach multiplied the effect.

Aside from making scores of new virtual friends who are helping her overcome the shock and horror of what she went through, her anger has achieved what politicians would give their right arm for – attention at the highest level.

In the short-term things have got worse.  Taking fright, TBA have removed all trains from service judged to be substandard and replaced them with a reduced bus service and a special train service at double the cost of a ticket.  This does not even begin to cope with the vast numbers of people travelling to work, and the trains that do work are having to leave doors and windows open so that the more intrepid can travel by holding on to the outside while securing a foothold inside the carriage.  Facing seats now always have rows of people standing between them.  Police guard the platforms to break up scuffles.

Whereas before the crash passengers were travelling a couple of stations in the wrong direction to enable them to have a seat on the 'return' journey to Once, people who would have been boarding the train several stations further still along the line on the way to the city are now choosing to go in the opposite direction for half their journey rather than risk queuing for an hour to get an overcrowded bus.  The president has made no further comments.

It now remains to be seen whether anything is done. All that is reported in the newspapers is the update of negotiations on which government department will take on the responsibility for the railways above and below ground.  Nothing is yet known about what exactly caused the accident and enormous loss of life.

One month on and at 8.32 on the morning of Thursday 22nd March passengers alighting from the same service at Once station showed they had not forgotten - as the thousands of people descended from the train wave upon wave of clapping echoed through the huge terminus.  It was a clear message to TBA "We won't forget, and you won't either".  Meanwhile in Buenos Aires itself and other cities in Argentina by prearranged signal motorists sat on their horns at 8.32 for several minutes.  In her office at the Casa Rosada, if the president missed the clapping she most certainly will have been unable to ignore that cacophony.

Internet pic, 8.32 a.m. one month from the accident.
TBA's unpopularity has spread and - at last - it has been reported that the investigations are to include the recently discovered 800 odd formal complaints submitted to TBA between 2006 and 2009 which were ignored by the company.

On a lighter note, one of the many individual stories was of a man whose brand new shoes saved his life - on that morning in February he had realised that he would be too uncomfortable standing in a crowded train until the shoes had been worn in an little, not to mention the upset he would feel if anybody trod on his gorgeous new purchase, and opted for a later train after the rush hour so that he could sit down.  How many times in our lives have we unknowingly saved our skins by such trivial decisions?

Mechi has taken remedial action in her own life so as not to be at the mercy of old and malfunctioning trains any longer and is moving away from the family home in the village of Moreno to share a flat in town, a short bus ride away from her job.

Internet pic
Note added on 28th March 2012 - a correction:  Mechi has commented today that although she has moved, she is still in the village of Moreno, as the home she and her boyfriend have been building (themselves) is now finished.  Her move is therefore unrelated to the accident, and her commuting difficulties are set to continue for now.  She is both brave and resourceful, and I wish her the very best.

Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

From a garden, and a rugby game,
plus some clouds at the end for Penny at Snap That

I liked the photographer craning for a shot on the left
with the shouting man behind him,
and the two men top right watching the kicker,
as a frame for the picture.

Trying my hand at panning...

Fuerteventura, Canary Islands

Portishead, North Somerset

Portishead, North Somerset


Sunday, 18 March 2012

Nuffsy Nuff... LapBand update

I’m tired of this over-restriction, I’m tired of being sick, of worrying that I’m going to be sick when I’m out for a meal, tired of my blotchy face the day after I’ve had a major blockage, tired of constant heartburn after meals, tired of not being able to eat more than a spoonful of a protein-rich main course... yet seeming to  ‘manage’ a suitcase full of ice-cream, sweets, chocolate, biscuits and cake which I find difficult to resist because I’m so hungry; and finally, tired of the knock-on effect it’s having on my diabetes. 
Bandits are all warned about the dangers of overfill, and we go into denial because we think that “ least the band’s working – how many more calories would I be consuming if it didn’t stop me dead in my tracks?...”  But I’ve been like this for over a year, and the precious pounds I was so happy to lose are creeping back on again.  I’m also tired of forcing myself into the kitchen to prepare vegetable goo (drink, soup, purée, whatever) so that ‘I get my vegetables’, and John is fed up with washing every cooking utensil and multi-part electronic device I possess after I’ve finished in there... and the cats are fed up because my efforts don’t involve meats, butter, milk or cheese so there are no titbits on offer.
(I’ve nearly finished)
And I’m particularly fed up with the fact that I can’t take my statin pills without drama, because they’re too big.  Our surgery say they can’t give me smaller ones, and crushing pills and mixing them with honey brings out the bitter taste no matter how much honey you put in, and the honey sends my glucose soaring.  I'm careful with the glucose I consume of course, and adjust insulin accordingly, but I know it's not good enough.  Yesterday I faced the fact that I’m taking half the statins I’ve been prescribed because I can’t persuade my band to let me swallow two pills, even with a decent interval.  Don’t want to bring them to work either, I’m too restricted during the day anyway (‘cept for biscuits...).
So there you are, all my dirty laundry hung out for you to see, and you can now laugh and point, and tell me that it’s exercise I need.  Well don’t waste your breath.  My exercise consists of two daily 15 minute walks to and from my car, plus several 20 minute walks a week to and from the far reaches of the hospital site for errands or meetings.  That’s already more than I like, but I grudgingly admit (as I kick the wall with a scowl) that it’s been sort of good for my sciatica, since said complaint stays away from me during the week and comes back on weekends, which, bright spark that I am, I know is no coincidence. 
So if you’ll allow me to use a Bristolian phrase (at least I think it is), after nimmin’ and nammin’ for a few months I’ve decided to have a small unfill.  My reasoning is that I’m eating the wrong food anyway whatever my restriction, so why don’t I try the pleasure of filling up with meat and two veg, and salads (oh I miss them), and when I can say I’m not hungry, then quietly try (very hard) to stay away from the sliders? 

The sweet spot is a moving goalpost.  In the good old days after the operation the more I lost the looser I got inside and the more fill I needed.  As the pounds go back on, I get more restricted.  My band’s fill is at 10.5cc at the moment, I think I should have a half cc removed, and John thinks I should only go for a quarter.  Any thoughts?  I have an appointment for Wednesday 21st March, which I was pleased to learn will be free because I didn’t have my yearly free visit in 2011.
My willpower was never going to be strong enough to pull a brown paper bag, let alone drag me away from temptation, but I think I need to actually find out whether making life a bit more comfortable will help me to “make the right choices”. 
And if I stay out of the kitchen John won’t have to wash up.

Photo Finish -
From Lonicera's non-digital archive
Rugby, and Fuerteventura, Canary Islands


Saturday, 10 March 2012

A Blast from the Past - Joan Baez in Bristol

It was 1968, Argentina, I was fifteen, newly in love with the most handsome boy on the planet, and somewhere we heard Joan Baez sing The House of the Rising Sun accompanied by her guitar playing.  I had been studying the instrument since I was ten, but had never heard a sound like this before.  He gave me one of her LPs for Christmas...

...and so I 'discovered' folk music, and what to play on my guitar that instantly created a warm atmosphere in a gathering of friends, and yes, made me feel less shy and more popular.  The songs she sang told sad stories of lost love, murder for love unrequited and gentle protest, and her voice had a ringing quality from low to falsetto which combined wonderfully with the sound of the cords of a Spanish guitar.  Soon after that he gave me this one -

- and I would sit and listen to both records over and over until they became what they are now: beloved and scratched. 

The relationship ended when he went to study abroad, and I put the records away because I couldn't bear even to see them.  But I still loved the songs, and eventually I started playing them on the guitar again.

I followed what the media told us about her life, the protest marches, the marriage to a conscientious objector - it was the time of the war in Viet Nam -  their son and the causes she spoke out about.  Throughout all this time she continued to tour like the true professional she is, her gentle charm and humour coming across as loud and clear as her lovely vibrato voice.  Thinking about her gave me a sort of melancholy and nostalgia for the past and my innocent youth, and that was essentially where she stayed - in the past.  Until this week.

I learned last November that she was on tour and that she would be in Bristol in March, and on impulse I decided I had to see her in concert for the first time, however much it cost.  £80 later I had secured two tickets up in the gods, for that was all that was left, even back then, and last week I finally went with a friend.

She's 70, ultra slim and smart, quiet at first; I feared that the Bristol audience was the problem.  I'm told we're not the most appreciative of audiences and it's rare for standing ovations to be given.  Both she and we relaxed after a few songs, and thereafter she played non-stop for two hours without an interval. 

She had an entourage of three - Dirk Powell who played many different instruments and had written one of the songs she sang, and Gabriel Harris on percussion.  Then there was a young girl of 23 - we were told it had been her birthday the day before - who was both very short and well rounded, with her hair in a ponytail which swung and bounced every time she came on stage to swap guitars for Joan, unplug the one she had been using, plug in the new one and stamp on some pedal on the ground... and this was every single song, for Joan seemed to alternate her guitars constantly.  It became comical to watch this procedure with the 'little' girl marching onstage carrying a guitar that was virtually taller than she was.  Joan seemed very fond of her.

Her voice has lost some of its vibrato, strength and high notes, but she has modified her interpretation of the songs to allow for this, and the ringing tone was still there.  Remembering as I do the many "concerts" I gave in the sitting rooms of friends and relations over the years till I came to England in 1973, as time wore on I found it harder and harder to repeat the same old songs over and over again.  I knew the ones I would be asked to play, and I was heartily sick of them after a few years.  I have therefore always felt a sense of wonder how professional singers can go on stage night after night and make it sound fresh every time.  They can't be thinking of the money in the bank all the time, surely?  Joan seemed to thrive on the attention, and gave four encores, ending with the one she had sung and I had known since the very beginning, written by ex-boyfriend Bob Dylan:  Blowing in the Wind.

She got her standing ovation and we clapped till our hands were sore.

While writing this post I have learned (with shame, because I should have known) that her percussionist Gabriel Harris is her son.  Nice touch.

As I left the theatre and headed towards the car park with my friend - who had never heard her before and tells me she's now a total convert - it was strange to reflect that I felt that I was the one who had aged inside while she had somehow stayed the same.  Overwhelmingly though, I had been warmed by being part of a crowd of several hundred people spontaneously singing together to songs they remembered and loved. 

Long may she continue to sing.


Photo Finish -
From Lonicera's non-digital archive

Rugby, and Fuerteventura, Canary islands


Monday, 5 March 2012

Tales from Elsewhere - The Bargain

In 2005 when I was browsing on my computer one lunchtime, I was astonished by an entry on eBay and the story behind it, and when years later I started thinking about stories for my blog, this one gradually surfaced from the mists in my brain.   However I postponed writing it for two reasons.
 I was sure I still had the eBay page where the item was advertised, having printed it off at work, but much ransacking of my desk and cursing my untidiness later, I’m afraid I just can’t find it and must have thrown it away.  So I can’t scan it in for you to see, and it has long since been taken off the internet. 
The second reason was that though particularly satisfying (to women), the story was brief, with no further facts known, probably more appropriate for my Eavesdroppings blog.  My keenness to get my facts right paid off in the end - hurray for the internet, because I’ve now learned the prequels and sequels to the story and much more besides about an extraordinary British  disc-jockey called Tim Shaw.

He hails from Sunderland in the north east of the UK.  In his thirties now, he’s done more as a DJ and TV presenter than most people have in a lifetime – much of it controversial in one way or another. 
Tim has been fired from 13 radio stations, been forced to pay the biggest recorded fine of its type in history for breaking radio regulations, accused of burglary and himself been the subject of one of the best practical unfunny jokes by his own wife.
His own website tells us that he has two first class honours degrees, and was Young Engineer of the year in 1994.   He has a knack with cars, for he purchased a written-off 1994 Lotus Esprit Turbo and re-built it from scratch. 

A man of many parts, his profound interest in people led him into working in the media, and he particularly enjoys interviewing people.  He claims to have interviewed at least 8000 individuals so far, among which is US astronaut Buzz Aldrin, former gangster Dave Courtney and Holocaust survivor Kitty Hart-Moxon.  The latter event was supposed to be an hour-long interview but turned into 7 hours, to the bemusement of the radio station hosting it.
His radio shows have featured secret phone calls and recordings with family and friends – he once rang his grandmother to ask her if she knew that her grandson Tim Shaw had died, owning up to the hoax after her reaction had been recorded.  She then slammed the phone down on him.  He’s filmed (live) up the skirt of a female contestant on a TV reality show and not surprisingly received a punch from her boyfriend for his pains.
His greatest controversy came in 2005 when he and a colleague broke into the house of the radio station’s director, live on air.  The director returned to his home some time before midnight believing that it had been burgled, only to be confronted by Tim and his friend bursting out of the cupboards.  He was suspended for a month.
However the event for which he will be best remembered was set in motion not by him but by his wife Hayley. 
Tim & Hayley Shaw

During his night time radio programme on Kerrang Radio (in the West Midlands) he had been flirting on air with a former glamour model, swearing to her – teasingly or not - that he would leave his wife and children for her.  Back at home Hayley was listening, and suddenly she’d had enough. 
He was to regret having put his beloved Lotus in her name for tax reasons, for she now logged on to the eBay auction site and offered it for sale at a “Buy it Now” price of 50pence.  Under the section describing the item she wrote:
“I need to get rid of this car in the next two to three hours before my husband gets home to find it gone and all his belongings in the street.  I am the registered owner and I have the log book.  Please only buy if you can pick up tonight.”   She by-passed the headings where sellers include specific details on cars for sale and merely put (if I remember correctly) “for 50p – who cares?”  Shaw’s work on the car had increased its value to £25,000. It was sold five minutes later. 
The story made national news and he apologised publicly to Hayley on Channel 4’s Richard & Judy Show.  As far as I know they’re still together. 
He managed to buy the car back for £5,000 and set himself the challenge of building another car, worth £50,000, for 50 pence.  He asked various manufacturers for free or cheap parts and with the help of a local BMW distributor achieved his purpose – the vehicle has a BMW chassis, a carbon fibre bonnet with a flexible retractable roof and is fitted with LCD screens on the backs of the passenger seats and in the boot.  It cost him a total of 39 pence and he described the experience on ITV’s Pulling Power show.
He’s had many exploits since, not least of which was one for television of his own devising (for charity), Man in a Box, when he allowed himself to be locked in a steel box for 30 days with 24 hour a day live stream filming.  Viewers had to guess where he was (he didn’t know himself) and the first to get the coordinates would win £30,000.  8.5 million viewers tuned in, but nobody won...
Personally, I think Hayley was the winner.
(All above pictures from the internet)

Photo Finish
from Lonicera's non-digital archive

Bristol Opera Company: Aida

Bristol Opera Company:  Aida

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society:  The Mikado

Bristol Gilbert & Sullivan Operatic Society:  The Mikado

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