An evening amongst my fellow countrymen – and oddly shaped balls…

It’s unusual for anyone who knows me even remotely well not to know the circumstances of my birth. Or, to be more specific, the location of my birth. It comes up in conversations about birthdays (because I have two); about passports (because mine gets scrutinised for having a peculiar place of birth); and whenever anyone asks what my middle name is (it’s Lesieli – no, that’s not English).

Long story short: I was born on the island of Tongatapu, the largest island in the island kingdom of Tonga, in a hospital on the outskirts of its capital, Nuku’alofa. My parents were Methodist Mission Partners there and I was born 6 months before the end of their 3 year period of service. No, I don’t have a Tongan passport (not eligible, although I’m sure I could claim political asylum should I need it). No, I can’t speak the language (bar a few random phrases). Yes, Tonga is pronounced the way I say it – it’s not an emphasised ‘ng’. No, my sister wasn’t born there – she lays claim to the glamorous London borough of Brent.

Tongan beachDon’t you want to step right into that photo??

Tonga isn’t known for many things. In fact, I can think of four that might possibly spring to readers’ minds:

1. Queen Salote of Tonga’s appearance at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. (One for older readers.)
2. Jonah From Tonga – Chris Lilley’s politically incorrect portrayal of a teenage islander in Australia.
3. Tonga’s monarch (the king who died in 2006) being the heaviest monarch in the world – according to the Guinness Book of Records. [Warning: Daily Mail link – the only paper likely to include the title in the headline of their obituary!]
4. The Tongan rugby team.

The latter has usually been my most successful channelling of Tongan-ness – for a start, as they usually qualify for the World Cup, many of my rugby loving friends have actually heard of the country. Plus, it’s without question the sport in which Tonga excels the most (although they did have an athlete in the Winter Olympics…) and therefore I can claim a certain level of pride in being a Tonga fan. Having said that, supporting Tonga against England in the first round of the 1999 Rugby World Cup in a student bar during my first week at university was possibly not one of my wisest decisions. (England scored over 100, Tonga did not.)

When the fixture list for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was released (a very long time ago) I noticed that there were some great Tonga matches in the line up – against New Zealand in Newcastle and a match in my former home city of Gloucester. Through my sister’s school connections, she and I acquired tickets for Tonga V Georgia at Kingsholm (in doing so, being the only ones in our circle of friends to have RWC tickets!) next September – the excitement was palpable.

Thanks to a Maths teacher with both a good memory and membership of a rugby club, Mim discovered that we could have an international rugby dress rehearsal at the same ground, 10 months early. Tonga were set to play the USA at Kingsholm and her colleague remembered my connection and passed on a flyer for tickets. And thus, last Saturday, we joined a throng of rugby fans as they marched through the city towards the ground.

Luckily, we had in our party someone who actually knew the rules of rugby properly! Sally may have been older than the rest of us by some way, and might not have looked like a rugby fan, but she knew her stuff. Not that we didn’t – we knew some things! (Well, at least I knew more than I did about American Football!) We were comforted that we were by no means the most ignorant in the crowd when this exchange was overheard behind us:
American woman: “It’s interesting that every time a team scores a goal, there’s an advert for ‘Try’ on the screen.”
Her husband: “That’s because it’s a try, not a goal.”

I’d already had a bit of a chat with the couple as they’d commented on the commentator’s pronunciation of ‘Tonga’ as the players streamed on to the pitch – I explained about the dipthong and they asked how I knew. We found it amusing that a US born person and a Tonga born person were sat adjacent to each other at a match between the two countries, in Gloucester.

Goal! That’s what I call a great view!

As for the rugby, well, it was thrilling! We were right behind those posts that look a little like Quidditch goals, but aren’t. [I jest.] Literally, right behind – second row with no one in front, dead centre. Instead of being thrilling, penalties and conversions became terrifying as oval missiles hurtled up and then down towards our heads. During the first half, when it was Tonga’s goal, we greeted each with a “Yay!!! Come on Tonga!! Ooooooohhhhhhhh” *Covers head and ducks* 

'Ikale TahiThe ‘Ikale Tahi in action.

The crowd were unpartisan, cheering both sides at every opportunity, but once it was apparent that Tonga would dominate, cheers of “Tonga! Tonga! Tonga!” emanated from around the stands. Combined with the fact that many Gloucester rugby fans chose to wear their usual Cherry & White attire, thus matching Tonga’s colours, and it could almost have been a home match. As for us, my friends and family joined in the fun and wore red and white – bobble hats; a Tonga flag; my new RWC Tonga T-shirt; and a Tongan scarf Amazon had suggested Juliet buy when she bought the flag – an early Christmas gift for me.

Doris & Flag

There were others with Tongan flags too. I’d thought we might be the only papalangi [Tongan for white people] cheering on the ‘Ikale Tahi [the Sea Eagles – the Tongan team’s name] with flags and t-shirts, but others seemed to have discovered the flag was only £2.80 online and decided to acquire one. Perhaps they assumed that Tonga would be the underdog to the USA and deserved some extra support. Not so, this was a match Tonga should have won and they did! USA are 5 places below Tonga in the international rankings (when have you seen the USA play rugby??) and sure enough, the final score was 12 to 40.

Match Panorama

For two hours, I found myself amongst more Tongans than I had been since probably 2008 (my most recent trip to New Zealand and a service in a Tongan church). I had good cause to celebrate my island of birth and once again was grateful that my parents chose to bring me up with a healthy appreciation and knowledge of my unusual birthplace.

Appropriate Adult – appropriate viewing?

Living in London, it’s not unusual to spot familiar locations on TV, particularly when you frequent parts of the city centre that rarely off the screen. It would, however, be unusual to spot any of the places I’ve lived in London on the TV – even now I’ve moved to King’s Cross.

What I’ve found extremely odd is the fact that over the last two Sunday evenings, glimpses of my former Gloucester home were on TV. At no point could you see our actual house, but the square off which we lived and the properties I could see from my bedroom window featured prominently.

Controversially, ITV commissioned a Sunday night drama based on the murders carried out by Fred and Rose West, particularly the relationship that developed between Fred and his ‘appropriate adult’, social worker Janet Leach. You might say that it was made in the best possible taste – beginning with Fred’s arrest, it showed none of the murders, concentrating instead on police interviews and the hunt for human remains in various locations. However, it’s still one of Britain’s most notorious serial killings and traumatised many people. Should it really have been turned into ‘entertainment’?

The horrors of 25 Cromwell Street were discovered in February 1994, at a time when Gloucester was simply a city in a nursery rhyme and a Beatrix Potter tale to me. Yet just over 6 months later it emerged that it would soon be my new home. When I told friends at school in London, they all made the connection with the news story – one even suggested we could end up living round the corner from it, something I laughed off as highly unlikely. Highly unlikely it was, but exactly what happened. Our address was Brunswick Road, a street that runs parallel with Cromwell Street, linked by St Michael’s Square. An alleyway running alongside a Doctors’ surgery provided us with a shortcut to Cromwell Street that became our regular route to school.

Fred West had already committed suicide when we arrived in the shire, but Rose West’s trial took place during our first year. The impact the events had had on the city were (and still are) evident. It shocked everyone and there was a palpable sense of guilt amongst the community that someone should have noticed something earlier. I can remember exactly where I was when the news was announced that Rose had been found guilty – on a bench in the school changing rooms, sat near a girl who lived on Cromwell Street and who knew the family. I think the whole city breathed a sigh of relief.

So you can understand why Appropriate Adult was compulsive, yet eerie viewing. I watched the first episode online last Monday, with a sense of unease and weirded-outness, as familiar places appeared. At the first sight of number 25, I gasped out loud. Somehow a perfect replica of the house had been created on an identical street – down to the position of lamp posts and the detail of the Seventh Day Adventist church next door. Via Twitter, I debated how this had happened with both my mother and an old (Gloucester) school friend. Was it CGI onto the existing Cromwell Street? Had it been built elsewhere? If so, that’s quite a spooky concept.

[Those not familiar with the story may be unaware that the house was demolished and a pathway created. Morbidly, this became a rather convenient shortcut to the leisure centre for my family and our neighbours.]

When the investigation moved into a floodlit back garden, I could make out the outline of the terrace on our side of St Michael’s Square, knowing that to the right of it was the house that was home for nine years. Hearing Dominic West (as an uncannily true resemblance of Fred) describe one of the murders and how a bin from the end of St Michael’s Square was used was really quite shocking. Not having lived there at the time of the discovery meant that in some ways, I’d never fully connected the horrors with that street – it didn’t seem real. All of a sudden it seemed very, very real.

But was it appropriate? Should it have been made? Opinion in Gloucester was certainly divided, as a perusal of The Citizen (its local paper) revealed. Some felt that there was no good to be had in resurrecting something of the past which people were still trying to move on from. Others felt that it would yet again tarnish the reputation of the city. Many believed that turning it into a drama was downright crass. I’m not sure where I stand. On the one hand it’s been 17 years, and time heals, right? On the other hand, these were real people, with families, friends, colleagues, acquaintances – all of whom will have been affected by the resurrection of memories. Will society have learnt anything from the drama? Perhaps just that it is possible to deal with the subject matter sensitively and that people can be capable of doing truly horrible things to others.

Despite all my wonderings, it is worth watching – mainly because Dominic West could have been born to play the part and it was grotesquely captivating. Similarly, Monica Dolan’s portrayal of Rose was stomach churning, though her part involved little more than screeching obscenities. Plus, if you’re of the generation who weren’t so aware of what happened, then it may be a good way of learning – if it’s something you feel you want to learn about.

Having read a few interviews with the makers of the programme, I’ve been convinced that they had good intentions, that it was well researched and that the families were consulted. Such programmes will always be controversial and will never please everyone, but all in all I think they did a good job with this. It wasn’t gratuitous, it didn’t seek to glamorise the violence and most of all, it dealt with its subject matter sensitively. It’s just that when you’ve got even a minimal personal connection to the subject matter, you suddenly find yourself reacting to a simple Sunday night drama in quite an unexpected way.

Life is so much more fun when you’re 8

If you’re feeling a bit old and out of it, I highly recommend spending some quality time with a small (or not so small) child. [Please have their care-giver’s permission first, obviously!] If you let yourself give up boring, grown-up ways for a couple of hours, it’s amazing the difference it can make.

Doris is my favourite 8 year old. (Though I dearly wish she wasn’t growing up quite so quickly.) On Monday we spent the evening celebrating her brother’s birthday. Before birthday boy finally arrived home after an afternoon at the BMX ramps, we engaged in a little Gleek conversation and Doe demonstrated her rather considerable hairography skills. She had more hair to toss than most of the rest of us, so we just sat back and let her go to town. She was so keen to get on with it that we didn’t have chance to provide background music – instead this video has me & Mim in the background issuing directions and taking photos.

Note how extreme hairography can leave you a little unbalanced…

I defy anyone not to be happy in an 8 year old’s world. Nandos was a paradise of endless trips to refill drinks and use the ice machine, not to mention a highly diverting bird themed wordsearch and colouring-in activity. (Having said that, eating corn-on-the-cob minus her two front teeth was something of a challenge.)

The other bonus of being 8? You can do things that would be considered socially unacceptable, but age 8, are seen as simply not knowing any better. An hour or so into our meal, a woman appeared in the restaurant with a word tattooed across her cleavage. None of the adults could see from the table what this word was – fear not, Doris was able (on her multiple drink missions) to keep looking and trying to decipher it. I’m of the opinion that if you’re going to have a word emblazoned across your breasts in permanent ink, you deserve to have everybody staring at your cleavage… [Oh, and incidentally, we never did work out what it was. Last suggestion was that it involved Latin, which I doubt would be the case.]

The icing on the cake was the walk home. Doris and I decided not to walk, we skipped. Honestly – the most fun. (There may even have been a point at which we pretended to be galloping horses.) Excellent exercise and  terrifically energising. Who cares if passers-by think you’re weird? Frankly, the sight of a 28 year old cantering along the street in the company of a small person clad in a furry coat (reminiscent of Cuppa Soup’s ‘hug in a mug’ adverts) must have been bizarre, but Gloucester’s probably seen a lot worse.

Don’t go through life being a boring adult. Spend time with children, or put yourself back into their mentality – it’s amazing the difference it’ll make, promise.

RIP Tulip

This is Tulip (excuse a grumpy Doris in the first photo, I think she was looking into the sun).

Tulip belongs to my good friends and former neighbours, the Greenwoods. They’ve had her 17 years and she’s now reached the grand age of 23…
…and she’s just failed her MOT.
Actually, Tulip always fails her MOT but usually the 2CV friendly mechanic she visits is able to solve all her problems, but not this year – her welding was her undoing. Now she’s for sale, hopefully to someone who wants a restoration project.
But Tulip will always hold a special place in my heart. She’s the first car I ever drove – on a school playing field when I was 16 – and the first car to ever send me an invitation to its 21st birthday party.
Gloucester is losing one distinctive vehicle, but have no fear, the Greenwoods still have another two to brighten up the road; Buffy, a VW camper (visible in the photos behind Tulip), bedecked with flower stickers; and Rambo, a green 2CV with Tintin and Snowy painted onto its boot. They’re a special family…

Appreciating a local reference

One of my favourite lazy Saturday past-times is watching the Gilmore Girls omnibus on E4. I love it, in all its cheesy, chick-flick glory.

Today I was happy ensconsed in pjs and hoodie, painting my nails and eating breakfast (always the multi-tasker), when my ears pricked up at a reference to Gloucestershire (my favourite kind of shire).

Rory’s boyfriend Logan was just back from a summer tour of Europe and had broken his finger whilst participating in the ‘Gloucestershire Cheese Rolling Festival’.

Of course, Gloucestershire was pronounced “Gla-owcestershire” and the cheese-rolling actually takes place in May, not August…but still, not often the shire gets referenced in popular culture.