Postcard from Jersey: Why a child played on ancient graves

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As a small boy I played among these stones, unaware they were remains of graves unknown people built around 5,000 years ago. I had a better way to explain their presence — one Walt Disney might have liked.

The stones are called Ville-ès-Nouaux and they stand to silent attention in the centre of St Andrew’s Park on the island of Jersey where I grew up.

Jersey has several such structures and we call them ‘dolmens’. Like the skeletons of bigger beasts whose flesh time has torn from the bone, they were once covered with earthen mounds that centuries of wind and water — and some helping human hands — have carved away from the stone.

The structure at the rear of the picture was a gallery tomb, once covered with a long low mound, that people built in 3250-2850 BC. The grave in the foreground is a few hundred years younger, installed there between 2800 and 2000 BC. Its outer ring of stones once served to hold in place a high mound of earth.

Over millennia these tombs vanished from view as sand swept in from the shore to the south and dunes rose up over the remains.

It wasn’t until 1869 that local men unearthed the long gallery tomb during a search for rocks to build with, and it seems they took two of the horizontal cap stones and left the seven that lie there today.

Archaeologists have since found pottery and ashes but not much more to describe who deserved such special burials. But children who played there as I did in the 1980s didn’t need expert answers — we had a story of our own to explain the presence of the stones.

To us they were the graves of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. So we played there in the park without fear in our growing bones.

I always like to visit this site when I return — as I did a few days ago — to the island of my birth. They are silent but they speak loud of the circle of life and death and endless renewal.

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Postcard from Hanoi: A city of a thousand fig trees

I took a stroll in Hanoi today*. It’s a beautiful city. But parked motorbikes and perched purveyors of foods and goods possess its pavements. So to walk one must step into the streets and have faith in the swirling mass of motorists whose pulse keeps the city alive.

The constant sounds of their car and motorcycle horns beep and parp and wahdah-wahdah-wa-wa without pause. They tear the air and probably save lives, but they also kill a bit of a wanderer’s pleasure by drowning out other noises.

The only birdsong I heard today came from bulbuls and babblers and magpie-robins that hung from storefronts in little wooden cages. There’s an irony in their lonely captivity because Hanoi is also a city of trees, a city of fig trees that owe their existence to the some of the same species whose caged members no longer fly free.

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