An awkward blogpost

September 2015 is – without doing any kind of check whatsoever – the first calendar month in years in which I’ve not posted a blogpost, and we’re now two-thirds of the way through October. Therefore this post is simply awkward, like a coffee date with a friend unseen for years with no explanation, it just needs to be got through. In fact, reading it is entirely optional!

September 2015 was also a month in which a few things happened:

  • My housemate gave birth to the rather delightful Serenna on the 2nd. Her time in hospital and the impact of her return home meant that I was on babysitting duties with her older brother a little more than usual. Plus, it turns out that living with a newborn can prove distracting!
  • Newborns are both distracting and therapeutic. Serenna proved to be an excellent relaxation tool at the end of a long day writing – after all September 18th was the day on which my final MA essay and my dissertation were handed in! (That would be 27,500 words across the two assignments.)
  • How better to celebrate a completed MA than by watching one’s home nation playing their national sport in the city that was also one’s home for 9 years? Tonga Vs Georgia at Kingsholm may have had a disappointing result, but it was an ideal celebration the day after the deadline.
  • Big Cottage number two marked the start of a well-deserved fortnight’s holiday and two consecutive Sundays off. It was fabulous, not least because I had sole use of a ridiculously huge bathroom. (This is a big deal when current bathing arrangements at home involve a bathroom shared between 6-9 adults at any one time…)
  • What to do with nearly 2 weeks off? Go to America, naturally! I took the opportunity to gallivant off to the East Coast, visiting New York and Vermont respectively. There is much blog fodder from this trip.

The above isn’t so much a blogpost but a listicle. So to finish up and get this inconvenient ‘Er, hello! I’m back!’ post out of the way, I’ll leave you with a story…

As mentioned, I went to the Rugby World Cup to see Tonga play – which was fab, especially as it gave me a chance to catch up with a few Gloucester chums. I booked a train back to London at the sensible hour of 7.15pm (that early start on a Sunday still doesn’t feel normal!), which coincided with the time at which a number of clergy were also leaving Gloucester having attended the landmark consecration of the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England at the cathedral. [Whooop! Go Bishop Rachel!] We were scheduled to reach Paddington at just after 9pm, however, due to unforeseen events – the Rugby World Cup primarily, because no one knew that was happening… –  I didn’t get there until nearly 1am.

My journey was scuppered by a cancelled train; queues of rugby fans leaving Cardiff; trains that couldn’t be boarded in Bristol; a taxi to London that broke down on the M4 just before Heathrow; a 2 hour wait on the hard shoulder; a rude First Great Western employee at Paddington and his even ruder manager; and two night buses which eventually got me into my bed at 3.30am.

Grounds for complaint to First Great Western (who, as if to distance themselves from this debacle, renamed themselves Great Western Railway not three hours after I returned home), no?? Oh yes! A bullet pointed email was duly dispatched on the Monday morning and I awaited a reply that was supposedly due in 5 working days…

…20 working days later, I received an email. It informed me that my train from Gloucester was never going to run, because of an amended rugby timetable – but that I wouldn’t have known this in advance as they decided not to advertise it. It also mentioned that we were diverted to Bristol (despite the chaos caused by the rugby in Cardiff) because they’d rather we waited for hours than used another train provider – a victory for privatisation! Most importantly, it agreed that the station manager should have put my taxi passengers (there were 5 of us, including an elderly couple) into taxis at Paddington to ensure that we reached our homes safely. Did I mention that we’d turned up at the station clad in foil blankets from Highway Patrol?? Oh, and they refunded my ticket (with a cheque, not rail vouchers) and gave me a free 1st Class return anywhere on their network (apparently Penzance is the furthest I could travel…). Not too shabby!

22 working days later, I received a very large package. An anonymous admirer had sent me a delightful bouquet of roses! Oh. Wait. It was First Great Western, apologising in style.

Great Western Roses

Great Western Railway. You provided rubbish customer service last month, but you do apologise in style!

Let that be a lesson in complaining for you all…

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.

Farewell XXXth Olympiad

In the words of some people on Twitter on Sunday night:
“If we don’t give Rio the flag, we can keep the Olympics…”
“Noooooo! Don’t put the flame out!”

Not going to lie, the end of the closing ceremony found me curled up in a ball on my sofa trying not to cry. In fact, I must have appeared so forlorn that my houseguest was prompted to check that I was ok. Yesterday, the whole capital was clearly in mourning. All you could hear all over the place was talk of how sad it was. I even had mixed emotions at the sight of Olympic lanes opening up again (they’d prevent pedestrians crossing the road at a major junction near the flat which had been doing my head in).

I’m keeping the Olympic flame burning within me though. Thanks to being sequestered in wifi-free rural France last week, I missed 8 days of Olympic action which I’m now re-living courtesy of iPlayer. [Useful note: all Olympic coverage will stay available online till January. Blissful.] Also, my return to the church office this morning was brightened by the discovery of an Olympic themed gift:

That would be a Team Tonga wristband and pin badge. I’ve no idea how my friend Fiona acquired them, but I’m delighted – especially as I’d been rather jealous of one Games Maker I know who was given a Tongan badge after driving some Tongan dignitary around. (Fiona was a Games Maker whose job, I think, was sitting with people having dope tests, so logic would suggest she must have babysat one of the three Tongan athletes…)

Plus, a visit to the Olympic stadium for Paralympic athletics is less than three weeks away – I honestly can’t wait to get back into the park and finally get inside the stadium.

I may have only experienced half the Olympics, but it’s something I’ll never forget – from the trip to the Olympic Park, to watching the opening and closing ceremonies with fun people. In fact, a running theme of the Olympics was watching it in the presence of house guests (4 in 6 days) and friends. It began with my sister (and her Olympic themed gifts) and continued with a birthday party during which the TV had to be on for cycling and gymnastics (only during the Olympics would I think it appropriate for a guest to arrive and ask for the TV to be turned on). A Texan guest joined me in disbelief at Team GB’s  gymnastic silver-turned-bronze debacle and every morning with Morven began with rowing – in fact, it’s a miracle we ever got to the Harry Potter studios (more anon) given the draw of the coverage. Morven and I also paid a visit to the Royal Opera House for the Olympic Museum exhibition and the now obligatory Olympic Torch photo:

A final house guest – immediately prior to and post France – tried to convince me that Beach Volleyball was something other than a gratuitous opportunity to watch scantily clad women throwing themselves around some sand. (I’m still not convinced, but then I never actually watched any…) But he did successfully get me hooked on the final moments of a Team GB women’s basketball game – did you know that the final two minutes of a match can actually last twenty? Incredible. Yes, the closing ceremony had moments of utter ridiculousness, but there’s nothing quite like watching it in the company of someone with a similar sense of humour and sharing the best bits of each other’s Twitter streams. Their reaction to Eric Idle’s appearance was worth sitting through the entire 3 hour performance. 
And now it’s over. How long till we can have it back?!? 

Olympic fever

Last Thursday, I travelled back to London after a week in the north of England (no phone signal, no 3G, no internet…) along a deserted M1. Never have I seen so little traffic – it was like a scene from an apocalyptic movie, a thought that gained further ground as we sped, undettered by other cars, into central London, along a Euston Road that could have appeared in 28 Days Later

It turned out Danny Boyle (director of aforementioned non-zombie, yet zombie-like, film) did have a hand in this bizarre turn of events, but only because of his role in the Olympic opening ceremony. Basically, TfL’s years of warnings had worked – everyone with sense appeared to have left London before the Olympics, their crowds of tourists and their complicated road restrictions, arrived.

I am no Olympic cynic, in fact, I could be described as an Olympic bore. My mind is full of useless bits of information about the games and I’d quite happily sit and watch obscure sports simply to acquire a few more. Thus, it was with enormous excitement that I sat down to watch the opening ceremony on Friday night. Quite frankly, my expectations were exceeded – I spotted one of three friends I knew to be involved in the opening dramatic sequence; I was moved to both tears and laughter; I got to support my home nation; and could cheer wildly for one of my students who had the honour of carrying the United Arab Emirates name sign.

Not sure how it’s possible that I nearly reached the age of 31 without owning a Tongan flag.

Perhaps my experience of the evening is best summed up in tweets:

  • Would you look at that! Rowan’s got a prime seat again. Being ABC really does open doors…
  • In unision me & @mim_monk have exclaimed: “Errr, Maddy Prior?!?”. [Niche musical reference…] [Turned out it wasn’t that niche – others spotted it too.]
  • Hilariously, @mim_monk is now choking on her tagliatelli at the appearance of Rowan Atkinson playing keys.
  • Literally just asked when the Archers would appear. LOVING this!
  • Another niche reference, but it’s just struck me that this is not dissimilar to a London Weekend show…but an awful lot classier. [London Weekend was a massive Methodist youth event for many decades, the highlight of which was a show in the Royal Albert Hall involving young people in formation. There was definitely one that did the internet in a similar way to Boyle’s tribute to Tim Berners-Lee.] 
  • Incidentally, one of the 3 Tongans looks about as Tongan as I do, but has a Tongan name. Curious. Clearly I could qualify! [This is the guy in question. Apparently his mother’s English.]
  • Oh, and we now have a drinking game too. Discover a country you haven’t heard of? Three fingers… Disaster with flame? Finish drink…
  • Right, clearly we win in the ‘who lights the flame in the best way ever’ contest, yes? Beautiful…
Take that cynics! [Incidentally, where was Gary Barlow? I didn’t think we were allowed to have a national occasion without him writing a song for it?] Yes, perhaps Boyle’s contribution was rather nichely British, but isn’t the point to show the world what we’re about? How surprising was it that it included more hymns that your average episode of Songs of Praise? But how wonderful was it that all over the world, 4 billion people were united in watching the same thing. That’s special. 
Zhen in action (she gets to keep the dress but not the sign).
Credit: Reuters.
This month, I am very proud to be both Tongan and a Londoner! 

When two queens became friends

Once upon a time, in an island kingdom far, far away, there was a Queen who ruled over many islands (169 to be precise). Thanks to this Queen’s grandfather, the island kingdom had formed a bond with another island kingdom on the opposite side of the world, who did not colonise it, but agreed to protect it in the same way it protected its other dominions.

In 1953, a young Queen took to the throne of the United Kingdom. Many foriegn dignatories were invited to pay their respects to the new monarch, but only one of these was a reigning monarch in their own country. On a rainy June day, Queen Salote of Tonga created a stir when she travelled to the coronation without so much as an umbrella – the British public fell in love with her.

A new friendship formed between the two Queens, so much so that when the young Queen decided to tour the world visiting her empire’s colonies, she included a visit to the island kingdom of Tonga so that she could meet Queen Salote again – even though it wasn’t a colony and was miles away from any other destination.

It’s a quaint story, but I love it. For many in Britain it’s the only reason that they’ve heard of Tonga (unless they’re rugby fans), and Tongans are immensely proud of it for several reasons. Firstly, because they are fiercely protective of their independence and the fact that they were never colonised. Secondly, Queen Salote is their most loved monarch ever (the girls school named in her honour still wears black armbands over 3 decades after her death). Thirdly, they love the British monarchy too.

Last night I had the rare opportunity to see the land of my birth on TV. Channel 4 began a series on the Queen’s tour of the empire in 1953 with a programme that included her visit to Tonga. There was a modern day visit too, including some classic Tongan moments – like hearing a church choir sing ‘O for a thousand tongues to sing’ in Tongan and meeting Salote’s grandson, the current King, who sounds like a British Royal and drives a London taxi! Not to mention the obligatory eating of many pigs.
I’m a history geek and love archive film footage, but to see Tongan scenes from over 50 years ago was actually quite moving – there’s not a lot of it. Watching the presenter leave Fua’amoto airport made me realise that it’s nearly a decade since I visited, and perhaps it’s time to start thinking about another trip. In a week when Tonga’s made one of its rare appearances in the news thanks to a ferry disaster, it was great to see some positive exposure for my beautiful birthplace.