Tuesday, 17 January 2017

North from Lilongwe, into the wild Nyika Plateau.

I knew my provisional itinerary involved taking the road less travelled from time to time. But remote takes on a whole new meaning in Malawi. We (Everlasting and I) left Lilongwe on the M1 - a single track road carrying just us and a bicycle or two. After four hours we turned onto a dirt road into the Viphya Forest Reserve - to drive for another 15Km to reach the Lodge.

This reserve began as a pine forest: the land was given by the government to a company who promised to build paper mills. When the first trees had matured, the company asked for more land. The government refused. Pine is not indigenous to Africa, and they did not agree with further encroachment on the natural forest. There was a stand-off; the government refused to back down and the company walked away leaving acres and acres of land covered in pine. In addition, bush fires and illegal logging have damaged the forest even further.

The Luwawa Environmental Trust is now growing thousands of indigenous trees from seed and beginning to replant the forest. And so my three days in their Lodge, deep in what is left of the natural forest, has contributed to a tree or two.

From there, we headed further north, to the Nyika Plateau. I knew, from my guidebook, that it could be a challenging journey. I'll leave you to imagine 140Km on dirt tracks in the rainy season. Well, most of it was dirt tracks. Sometimes the track had been washed away and we bounced hopefully or swished through muddy water until we found ground the tyres could cling to.

But it was worth the drive. The Nyika plateau, in the wet season, is lush and green. It's mostly sandstone, with granite outcrops. Trees cluster in the valleys. Kites and buzzards soar overhead. Tiny larks and pipits nest in the grasses. Herds of zebra, eland and roan antelope gather on the hillsides. Snakes slither across paths and up trees: grass snakes, pythons and spitting cobra. And, prowling among the trees and creeping through the grasses, the leopards stalk the unwary. One roared outside my chalet door the night before I left (I didn't open the door to take a picture!).

And it is a million miles, or so it feels, from a reliable internet connection. So I've had to wait until I've reached the northern lakeshore to post this. But here, is a glimpse of the coffee time on the Nyika Plateau, with the table set (complete with cloth) on the grass next to the truck, and behind it the rolling uplands of Malawi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Introducing ... Everlasting

I have made it to Lilongwe without adventures. Hurrah! And there, to welcome me at the airport was Everlasting. He is my guide, and that really is his name. He has slightly grizzled features and most of his own teeth. His trousers were made for a fatter man. And he laughs.

We will, I realise, be together for the whole six weeks I am here. And so I have set about finding out more about him. His children, all four, are young adults now (though he is not too sure how old they are). One son plays for the Malawi national football team - and Everlasting swells with pride just to think of him.

'How often do you see him play?' I ask.

'Oh I hate to see him play. In case someone kicks him and he is hurt. Nobody can bear to see their child hurt.' I can see from the look on his face that he may need to be restrained from running on the pitch to give the other lad a what-for, and to kiss his son's bruises better.

He has shown me Lilongwe - it is a complicated city, with some magnificent buildings (largely unused, and funded by loans from China), some huge houses behind walls and metal gates. And there are areas of high density housing with markets and African bustle. There are also significant areas which have been set aside for development but not yet been built on. The city is a 'work in progress'.

By the time you read this, I shall be on the road heading north. I may or may not have access to wifi. Please, should you wish to comment, be assured that I shall get back to this blog eventually, even if it takes a week or more.

But I leave you with a picture, not of Everlasting, but of some soapstone hippos - they perch by the pool of my Lodge in Lolingwe.  And I like the smiles on their faces.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Onwards and Southwards

So, the year has turned. All crackers pulled. All puddings eaten. It's time to gather ourselves for whatever 2017 will throw at us. After last year ... surely there will be some wound-licking, some serious reflecting, and maybe a change of heart or two.

However, for a few weeks, I shall leave most of that to you. Because I'm off to Malawi on Thursday. Why Malawi? I've had so many people ask me, so I'll share my somewhat tortuous decision-making with you.

I want to go to Africa, because it's the only continent apart from Antarctica (too cold) where I've not travelled independently. But - where to begin?

I fancied Madagascar - most of the time, I'm sure, it's wonderful, but there were too many reports of marauding gangs with knives for me to feel comfortable. Taxis travel in convoy, because it's safer. I was told I'd be fine if I had a guide with a gun ...

So, where else? The east coast can be very wet at this time of year, so I looked west, and was intrigued by Senegal. It looks fascinating, and not that difficult to get around. I was ready to book when I did my final check - on the UK Foreign Office website. They said that most visitors have no problems, but travellers should remember that it is UK policy not to pay ransoms if anyone is kidnapped ...

So then I went on the Lonely Planet forum. Where, I asked, would you go for a first visit to Africa. The first - and very quick - reply was Ghana or Malawi. There were elections in Ghana last November - largely, as it turned out, trouble-free. But I don't visit any country around election time, as feelings can run very high.

Which left me with Malawi. Which is relatively stable, and safe, and - I have discovered - beautiful. For those unfamiliar with African geography, it's north of Zimbabwe, east of Zambia and south of Tanzania. It's long and narrow, spanning most of the west shore of Lake Nyasa, with a high plateau in the north and mountains in the south. Livingstone, apparently, loved it.

What will I do there? I'm not absolutely sure. It is the wet season, which might make roads a bit too interesting to get to the more remote areas, but will bring plenty of birds. I know they have power cut problems from time to time - and one place I hope to go has no electricity at all. Who knows what I'll find in the way of wifi?

But I'll do my best to blog from time to time.

Sunday, 18 December 2016

'Twas the week before Christmas ...

... and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ...

I don't know about your house, but most I know are rather noisy this week. Children are suffering from a toxic mix of exhaustion after a long term at school and pre-festive excitement. (I know one daughter has secret supply of chocolate for times like these - not for the children, but for herself! Good for her.) Adults are tackling the lists, of presents, and food ... and enough booze to get everyone through. Some are working and donning the Christmas jumpers to run the gauntlet of office parties. Some people love them ...

But for some this turning of the year is also a time of reflection. Politically it has been a turbulent year and many of us are deeply troubled at what might be coming. And it is impossible to ignore the millions who are suffering in wars and natural disasters - the world looks very unsafe at the moment and it can feel as if we have forgotten how to look after each other.

This dance between the frivolity of Christmas and the misery of our fellow men and women feels particularly poignant this year.

Which puts those of us who are writers in an impossible position. It is easy to join in the festive fun and pretend that the rest of the world is pottering along without a problem for a week or so. It is equally easy to drown in heartbreaking events taking place far away and ignore the joy of playing with those we love. We cannot, of course, get it right.

Maybe that's fine. These are times of great change and we cannot turn our heads in several directions at once without getting a serious headache.

And so I wish you all a peaceful holiday. I shall raise a glass to those who are near, and those who are far away. I'll be back in the New Year.

(It is also, possibly, a crazy time to launch The Planter's Daughter. Hey ho, that's when she was ready to fly.)

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Planter's Daughter.

'Tis done. I know Lady Macbeth said t'were well it was done quickly, but this has taken forever. It's ten years since I first heard her story. And now - here she is. My Planter's Daughter.

So, as I've hung onto this story for so long, why publish it now? Because, at its roots, it is a story about emigration: a young woman who has to leave Ireland during the potato famine, in the hope of making a better life for herself elsewhere. She leaves with dreams, and believes that she will be welcomed. Nothing, of course (as this is fiction) works out like that.

But I've watched recent footage of refugees, with their meagre luggage and asking only for food and shelter, being turned away. I fictionalised such a journey, almost 200 years ago. But it feels heartbreakingly relevant to today.

And now, here she is. Here is the blurb, for those who haven't seen it:

It's 1848. And Sara, aged fourteen, must leave her family in the stinking potato fields of Ireland to seek a better life with her wealthy aunt in Liverpool. But her uncle has different ideas. 

Will she find solace among the dockers? She finds love, but becomes embroiled in the unrest of the Irish men and women who live in squalor in the Liverpool slums. Yet her efforts to help them only enrage her uncle further. 

Her escape takes her to the other side of the world. But there is no comfort in the dusty outback of Australia nor the gold fields of New Zealand. For she has left behind something more precious to her than life itself.
And here is the Amazon.co.uk link. (Just an ebook at the moment. I'm working on a print edition, but that probably won't be out until I'm home from Malawi.)

Sunday, 4 December 2016

In defence of Good Blokes

I don't often write about the work I used to do: the challenges and heartaches of Child Protection. But I have been prompted to do so by the recent disclosures of abuse by hundreds of footballers.

We are, rightly, horrified. It is the only possible response to the realisation that all those children have trotted off to football every week, with their boots and their dreams of Wembley, have been exploited by men (almost always men) who used those children for their own gratification. How could this happen? How did we not know? How could nobody stop it?

To begin - I'm not surprised. All organisations - churches, residential schools, sports clubs - close ranks when they feel under attack. It takes extraordinary courage from whistleblowers to stand up and shout loud enough to be heard. We also know that offenders are adept at wheedling their way into any institution that gives them easy access to children. Not just one child - but scores of them.

Does this mean that most coaches are abusers? No, definitely not. What these men have done is unforgivable. But most men are decent, honest, and want only to support their own children. We must not react to this by pointing a finger at every man who supports his son or daughter by spending hours with them at a football club. Offenders must be identified and punished. But we must not conduct a witch-hunt that could catch the vast majority of kind, decent men who are doing their best for their kids.

And this is where the courage of those now speaking out comes in. At last there is a climate in which their voices can be heard. They have names, times, dates, and are pointing fingers. They deserve all our support. For in disclosing what has happened to them, they are provide the foundation which can ensure we keep all our children safer in the future.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Truth and Fiction

Us fiction writers - we make stuff up. Sometimes we wallow in research for long enough to ground our made-up stuff in enough real-stuff to make it credible. And sometimes we just make it all up.

Readers know this. It's part of our contract with them - we do our best to make it believable and they do their best to suspect disbelief until the end of the book. But nobody really believes that David Copperfield or Anna Karenina or Middle Earth really existed.

Recently, it seems, some politicians have been taking a leaf or few out of our books. Here in the UK, the Leave campaign sprawled a slogan on the side of buses, insisting that they could give £350,000,000 a week to the NHS if we left the EU. And enough people suspended disbelief for long enough vote for it - though now the Leave leaders seem astonished that anyone might have taken them seriously. Across the pond, Donald Trump convinced voters that as soon as he was inaugurated as President of the US he would instigate criminal proceedings against Hillary Clinton - but now he's been elected this has been withdrawn. He claims, magnanimously, that he will give her time to heal.

Does this matter?

I would argue that it does. If it becomes acceptable for our politicians to abandon a semblance of truth - where will it end? Can teachers make up history, forgetting things like slavery or reframing it as 'development'? Or social scientist 'massage' the population figures, discounting anyone over eighty and thus meaning they have no need of social care? Let's not begin to think what the climatologists might come out with.

At times like this - times of great upheaval - we need clear thinkers. Men and women able and willing to cut through the claptrap and show us a truth. Men and women able and willing to stand up to the politicians and their wheeling and dealing.

Which will leave us fiction writers happily making stuff up, without worrying that anyone might actually believe us. Having said that, I think it's time Harry Potter challenged Trump to a game of Quiddich.