About Gretel Hunnerup
Gretel Hunnerup is convinced that in a past life she was a carrier pigeon, such is her love of taking fanciful flights and posting little stories about her discoveries to her independent online pigeon hole: www.thecarrierpigeonpost.com.
The Australian sticky beak now writes about the little-known delights that make London hum...stuff that wouldn’t make the papers, like quirky establishments, not-for-tourists pursuits, and ordinary folks doing surprising things.
A trained journalist with six years travel and lifestyle writing for print and web, Gretel has taken a new post heading up internal communications for STA Travel’s Northern Europe and Africa Division, geared for maximum on-the-road reportage. Oh and she’s a sucker for documentaries, dress-up parties and dolmades.
Latest Posts by Gretel Hunnerup
Tonight I’ve been on the loose in Cambodia’s capital with my camera, and just had to share some snaps…the mood lighting and activity on the streets is really quite spellbinding.
Tonight I had dinner at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club with the lovely Polly, a Thai tour guide with Gap Adventures. She taught me a heap about Pol Pot’s penchant for butchering Cambodia’s thinkers, and the current brouhaha between Cambodia and Thailand over an 11th century temple.
She also talked a bit about her fascinating family; her Dad was a special operations policeman who would disappear with heavy weapons for months at at time, and now coordinates a kind of camp near the Thai border with Burma and Laos designed to cultivate healthy relationships with remote area villagers and hill tribes. It’s been a great night of seeing, listening, and learning about completely different lives and worlds.
On my Friday morning walk to work I came across this ex-Christmas tree, stripped of all its finery and chucked on the footpath for all the world to see.
Continuing down Queensdale Road I found another one rotting in the rain, then another, until an entire scene of undignified decay surrounded me.
This made me sad.
Not so much because my Christmas is over, but because for the first time I was alerted to the spectacular fall from grace these Christmas trees experience.
I mean think about it. They grow up in special forests geared for rapid growth, and their single purpose in life is to be selected for the job. Those displaying the greenest hue are handpicked, invited into family homes and all done up in lights. A glittering star is placed atop its canopy They become guardians of gifts, and take centre stage on the most celebrated day of our calendar year. They feel truly special, like they’ve really made it in life.
And for what?
After presents are opened and bellies are filled, they’re tossed naked into the street and forgotten about. Consider this chap:
He’s in danger of being slammed by a 4WD Volvo during the school run. And this guy here:
His adopted family has left some of the shiny bits on as a cruel reminder of how things once were.
The worst part about this whole stinking caper is that it appears the residents of Queensdale Road acted in unison. I can just picture them the night before, nibbling their barn-reared turkey leftovers together and plotting the overthrow:
“What do you say everyone, let’s grab the things in the dead of the night when they least suspect it, and drag them swiftly to the footpath.”
Should there be a home for abandoned trees? A place where they can reminisce about their tinsel days, and decompose together in privacy and peace?
Just a thought.
One of the joys of moving to a new neighbourhood is choosing your local pub, and in my imagination ours was going to be a cosy job set on a quiet street with flowerboxes on the outside and a crackling fire within. There’d be a rum club on Mondays for sure, fall-off-the-bone lamb shanks all year round, and a cheeky jukebox in the corner. A meat raffle even, if you will. And we’d make lasting friendships there, with backslapping and beers all round. We’d be finishing each others’ sentences in no time.
Instead we get this.
It’s called The Favourite, and exactly whose favourite it is boggles my mind. Where’s the quality control here? On the outside it’s a virulent green stain on Holland Park’s splendid facade. A spectacular embarrassment.
In the spirit of open-mindedness though, we head inside for a froth.
Up at the bar it’s just us, a bleary-eyed bloke immersed in an episode of Emmerdale, and ‘Slim’, the chatty Irish barmaid who confesses she can’t add up. There’s no jukebox to speak of, just a couple of pokies, a dartboard, some empty velvet bench seats and a few old photos of racehorses hung along smoke-stained walls. “The place has gone a bit downhill lately,” says Slim. “Our old customers buy cheap beers from the supermarket and drink emat home now, cause of the smoking ban, see. Last Saturdee night only two people came in, and one of em was my partner.”
It turns out The Favourite doesn’t do lamb shanks, or even meals at all, so we purchase the only foodstuff on the premises; a packet of ‘bacon taste’ snacks. Slim tells us all about the pub’s heyday, when regulars – mostly elderly – smoked pipes and played friendly games of darts on Sundays. “Weused ta hand out free biscuits and cheese,” says Slim, “but then the hygiene laws came in.”
To be fair, The Favourite isn’t a complete disaster. There’s a competitive darts team, a shelf of discarded novels and a motley crew of Fosters-drinking regulars who play cards in the backroom. Hell, there’s even a shoplifter who palms off his bounty here on the cheap. But I’ve heard of a pub just round the corner with flowerboxes and a fire, and it’s got our names written all over it.
The Favourite: 27 St Anns Road, W11 4ST
Nearest Tube: Holland Park, Shepherd’s Bush
Many moons ago – when the Murray River was still a mighty serpent – my family did the holiday on a houseboat thing. For a week we plied the muddy waters pretending to be pioneers, and tying up to giant River Red Gums to rest along the way. I remember this childhood river-living trip as one of the all-time greats, so naturally I’ve been looking forward to this latest Carrier Pigeon Does London challenge, to interview a family living permanently aboard one of those lovely ‘narrowboats’ built specifically to slip through the slender canals of England and Wales.
My brief was to find this family at Little Venice, a pretty labyrinth of waterways near Regents Park that harbours London’s largest floating community. But I got embarrassingly lost and it was frightfully freezing, so instead I approached the only person hanging around a bunch of boats moored at Camden. Andy Waterworth seemed like a nice young fellow – the kind who wouldn’t chop me up and store me in his freezer if I dared to step aboard his very homely 17 metre Emily Jo – so I accepted his kind offer of a cuppa and a river-living education.
How did you come to live on a narrowboat?
It’s always been my ambition to live on a boat; I worked in the merchant navy for five years, then I went on to study yacht surveying at Southampton. Years after that I came across a boat for sale on the mooring in Surrey, so I bought that, spent two years doing it up, made a few grand and put the money towards this one. It used to be owned by an elderly couple and I think it has a really nice character to it.
So how does the canal life actually work?
Well you’ve got the marina moorings, which are for people who don’t want the hassle of moving around all the time, and then you’ve got continuous cruising, which is cheaper but riskier as you don’t know where the available mooring spots are. I kept this boat at the marina in Hampton for 12 months within a small community of boats where everyone knew each other and everyone worked, then this summer I decided to try cruising around. It’s definitely harder, but this boat has a good engine and there are quite a few places to stop even within the M25.
What kinds of characters live on boats in England?
You get a lot of elderly couples who have retired and bought boats to cruise around in. You also get quite a few typical English eccentrics with strange styles of boats, then you get people like me who live permanently on boats and work full-time in London [Andy is a ship surveyor], and then you get lots of families that hire boats in the summer.
Is it a sociable life or a solitary one?
It could be both, depending on where you are. There are places around the Oxford Canal where you can really hide out, but people on the canals and rivers are generally really friendly. Sometimes when you’re going through the locks you can have another boat alongside you the whole day, so you chat with them and then you might see them at the pub later on. I’ve met groups of guys who have invited me on board for some beers, that sort of thing.
How much does river living cost?
Well I bought this boat for £36,000 but you can pick up a habitable one for about £20,000. Marina moorings can cost between £200 and £500 a month, depending on where you are; the Thames being the most expensive. An annual cruising license costs about £600.
What do you do to relax in here?
The same things that people with homes do really; I read a lot, I practice my guitar and watch a bit of TV if I feel like it. I also enjoy DIY projects, like basic carpentry and bits of plumbing. I’m currently building some shelving to house all my books.
What’s hard about living on a boat?
It’s hard in the winter because you get home and it takes a while to warm up. I actually light my gas oven and leave that on for an hour with the door open to get some initial heat in here.
In your opinion, why don’t more people live on boats?
It’s the space I think. My girlfriend says she could never live on a boat because of the space. We’ll take the boat up to Oxford for a week and she really enjoys it, but she’s ready to get back into her house.
What’s the best thing about your chosen lifestyle?
Summertime in the evenings; the fact you can actually take your home and go cruising somewhere really quite scenic. Living within nature, and having all of this on my doorstep for limited costs is really special. For me, this is my home, my holiday and my hobby.
Thanks Andy for inviting me on board the Emily Jo, and thanks to Sarah and Bert Calman for issuing the challenge!
In the highland market township of Solola, Guatemala, Radio Roca is broadcasting phone calls from local Indigenous listeners. “I feel sad that we don’t perform the traditional bull dance anymore, can you please play the music for this dance?” requests an elderly man. Others ring in to talk about road blockages following tropical storm Agatha, the algae spread in nearby Lago de Atitlan, and Solola’s upcoming annual street festival. This is healthy community radio at play, yet at any time this popular station could be raided by police and shut down, just like others of its kind around the country. Because in Guatemala, community radio is illegal.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. In 1996, when the Peace Accords drew a close to Guatemala’s 36 year-long civil war and genocide, Indigenous people were promised the right to set up their own hyperlocal stations, play their own music, run their own programs and speak in their own languages. Given that around 60 percent of the Guatemalan population is Indigenous – mostly Mayan – that most Indigenous people live in remote rural areas with no access to television or the internet, and that a great many cannot read or speak Spanish, this was a coup.
Little radio towers popped up in backyards and people took their beloved battery-powered radios out into the fields, or their favourite weaving spots, and listened to stuff that mattered to them as they worked. Stuff like how to care for workhorses, the warning signs of tuberculosis and how to register for voting. Stuff that never featured on the Spanish-centric mega-stations. “The people of the town had never heard anything like it before,” says Ancelmo Xunic of the Radio Ixchel station he built by hand in Sumpango, a village renowned for its kite making tradition. “For the first time they could hear women’s voices, and familiar voices, on the radio. For the first time they could listen in to talkback programs, not just music.”
The trouble was that back in 1996, the right to community radio was never actually written into the telecommunications law. So today, while these volunteer run stations – stations that often feature the police, Mayan spiritual leaders, Catholic priests and mayors as guest speakers – are broadcasted in towns right across Guatemala, they’re still not legally recognised under Guatemalan Law.
The joke among city folk is that these community radio volunteers are eye-patch wearing pirates. They’re classed as criminals. Thieves of the airwaves. If they want to broadcast, then they should pay the million-odd Quetzals (about USD$125,000.00) for a licensed frequency, at auction, like everybody else. This attitude has been carefully concocted and filtered down by the big commercial stations whose frequencies are occasionally, if unintentionally, interrupted.
The commercial stations have advertisers to keep happy after all, so they don’t want their audience poached. To complicate matters, for every community radio station on the air there is a multitude of unlicensed Evangelical and Catholic stations preaching their word to the exclusion of other religious voices, and ‘for profit’ stations that sell advertising spots without paying taxes. Community radio has been lumped in with the lot of them.
Community radio stations can’t stump up the cash for their own frequencies though; many of them are backyard jobs whose volunteers hold fundraising dances, sell eggs and gather listener donations just to pay the electricity bills. And when the police confiscate their transmitters, it can keep them off the air for months. It’s just not sustainable.
Right now community radio in Guatemala has its best chance of clearing up this mess. Cultural Survival – an international organisation dedicated to indigenous empowerment – has been working with community radio activists to fight for a new law that would grant at least one available FM frequency to community radio in each of Guatemala’s 333 municipalities, on the proviso that each station is ‘non-profit’ and open to all community voices.
This year – following 12 years of pushing and significant lobbying cash injections from Cultural Survival donations and grants – they’ve come further than ever. At the time of research in August, 95 representatives of the schmooze-or-lose Guatemalan Congress said they would ‘definitely’ or ‘probably’ vote for the bill. To get it over the line, 105 votes are needed. The great hope is that the bill will be voted on while the same guys are in office.
On a Friday twilight in the lakeside village of San Pedro, I pay a visit to Radio Sembrador, a tiny cement room kitted out with a CD player, microphones, various mixing gadgets and a program schedule listing things like ‘children’s health’ and ‘rubbish collection’ on the wall. There I meet Vicky Garcia, a bubbly young presenter dressed in a vibrant skirt in the Mayan woven style; not a pirate eye-patch in sight. I am told that community radio has helped to rekindle the wearing of traditional clothes. She cues the next track – a folky Mayan piece featuring the marimba – and I watch the people out in the street, giggling with neighbours and clutching their radios.
It’s been a busy old time in London town these past two months, what with setting up house, finding new jobs and seeing all the metropolitan musts, like Buckingham Palace, Borough Market and the Tate Modern. Sammy and I have lately been pining for some tree time, so on this sunny Saturday morning we jump in the car with friends – me in shotgun – and hurtle an hour west to Berkshire County, the wooded land immortalised in Kenneth Grahame’s classic tale of Mole, Ratty and Mr Toad.
Our pommy friends Simon and Matt grew up in a tranquil village called Cookham Dean, and they want us to roam the surrounding wild forests, drink lager in the old thatched-roof inns, and help celebrate the anniversary of Guy Fawkes’ failed gunpowder plot in the old English way, with fireworks, home-baked delights and steaming cups of spicy mulled wine. Frankly, it would be rude not to.
We arrive in ‘The Dean’, recently voted by the Sunday Times as one of the country’s poshest villages, and we take a look around. This must be the most spectacular time in the village, with all the falling golden leaves, and the majestic red kite birds that circle silently above. Two girls clip-clop by on their ponies bound for the old bridle paths that crisscross the area, but otherwise there’s nobody around. We decide they all must be taking tea by the fire in their cottages. And wearing tweed.
We wander over to the apple orchard owned by Simon’s family and three other families, and build a giant bonfire out of twigs, fence palings and a broken old row-boat for Sunday night. They’ve been putting on little bonfire nights with fireworks in the orchard for twenty-odd years, so it’s a real treat to be part of the preparation.
With bellies full of windfall apples we check out the bigger bonfire night for all the villagers. Rugged-up kids are releasing blazing lanterns into the night sky, and the fireworks are doing their job to wow the crowd. Then, following a lovely dinner with Simon’s parents, we could easily retire to our comfortable country beds and dream of Mole and Ratty messing about in boats, as they loved to do. Instead we stumble to the nearest watering hole and continue to down a lion’s share of liquor…
On Sunday we make for a meadowy stretch of land where the Thames gently curves and the furry cows roam free. Whoever pegged Cookham Dean as posh must have come to this part; it’s proper Hunter wellington and hound territory. However they all seem friendly enough.
Back at Simon’s place, Penny and I make a life-size model Guy Fawkes by stuffing old clothes with newspaper, rename him ‘Creepy Steve’ and sit him inside the bonfire boat. By 7pm Creepy Steve is a flaming mess, the boys are letting off Meteorite Rockets and I’m three homemade sausage rolls in. The locals hand out sparklers to ‘the visiting Aussies’, and serve up cups of mulled wine. I could stay here all night surrounded by this wholesome country cheer, but alas, it’s time to head on back to the big smoke.