Wednesday, 18 December 2013

It's that time again.

If I have readers from different cultures, forgive me. The UK is drowning in Christmas.

It's almost here. The shopping nearly done, the mince pies cooked, the tree laden with presents.

Newspapers, once full of articles on what to buy Auntie Nellie for Christmas are now laden with advice on how to survive twenty-four hours with your mother-in-law. (Note to sons-in-law - please don't park  me in the corner with a glass of sherry and the television). In a week or so we'll read about what to do with unwanted presents and how to lose all the weight you put on during the festivities.

Whatever the papers say, it will feel as if the world has stopped for a day or so. And so shall I - I'm taking a blog-break for a week or two. In my house there will be eating and drinking and merriment, and then a few days to recover and read by the fire. There are worse ways to celebrate.

This season means different things to different people. I hope you have time with those you love, and who love you. That you share food and games and laughter. And that that you stagger into the New Year with good intentions.

I'll be back ...

Sunday, 15 December 2013

One small handshake.

In the middle of all the tears and the razzmatazz following the death of Nelson Mandela there was one small handshake that could change the lives of millions.

For Barack Obama shook the hand of Raoul Castro. (Why am I writing about this now - because I'm off to Cuba in the New Year, and so I've kept an eye or two on Cuban news in recent months).

There has been no official diplomacy between America and Cuba for almost sixty years ... and here's where I have a question. I understand that countries fall out, that harsh words may be said and even bombs dropped. I understand that it takes time for people to lick their wounds, to sulk, to huff and puff and generally declare everlasting loathing. But at the end of the day, conflicts are solved by talking.

I know Nelson Mandela was exceptional, that it took time for both sides in South Africa to understand that they were locked in a mutually destructive way of being and to set up Reconciliation Committees, to admit the horror of what had happened and bring people together. Countries in the Former Yugoslavia are now reconciled to each others' independence. Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland continue to work towards peace. Americans are even, quietly, talking with the Taliban. The Syrians will, eventually have to meet around a table.

So how come it's taken sixty years after a silly scrap for Cuba and America to be brave enough to risk the one small handshake that might lead to some sort of reconciliation? Why did nobody sit them in the naughty corner till they both said sorry?

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Now they want us to work till we're seventy

I know there's a pensions crisis. I know we're all living longer and it has to be paid for. But the suggestion we should work till we're seventy got me thinking:


Work till you're pushing up daisies,
Till the blood in your veins has run cold;
Till you've gone to - whatever the phrase is - 
To the madhouse that takes in the old.

Work till your eyes fill with cataracts,
Till arthritis has eaten your knees,
Till you're ruled by your urinary tract and
You never know where you last left your keys.

Work on till you hear the Grim Reaper
Ring nervously on your doorbell;
Tread gently, don't welcome that creeper
For he's after your pension as well.

Take work from the young and the healthy,
Leave them lounging around on the dole;
Know that you can be smug and be wealthy
While they can only grow old.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Do you really throw your knickers out before Christmas?

There was a snippet in the newspaper last weekend - apparently 'The average British woman will throw out eleven pairs of knickers in the run-up to Christmas in readiness of the new ones her partner will buy her as a gift.'


Are our black bins overflowing with pants every December? Do the bin men grin as they empty yet another sackful of undies onto the rubbish tip? Do women only throw out the knickers that have gone a bit grey with saggy elastic, or are they getting rid of perfectly useful ones as well?

And please, if there are men reading (I'm widowed and don't have a tame man to ask something so personal), do you really throw yourselves into the Christmas-shopping fray with nothing more original on your minds than pants? I know most women like a little bit of lace from time to time, but every year? Can you really not think beyond her nether regions and wonder if, for once, a nice thermal vest might not go down just as well?

Then again, those numbers - the average British woman throwing away eleven pairs. Well, not me, for a start. And not anyone I know. Which means - to balance us out and reach this sort of average - some women must be throwing away, say, fifty pairs of knickers in December. (I don't own fify pairs of knickers, but maybe you don't need to know this.)

I know, we shouldn't believe everything we read in the papers. And this strikes me as one of the silliest snippets I've read recently.

But doesn't it create a wonderful image - all those woman secretly stuffing their old pants into the bin and then pretending to be astonished on Christmas Day when they open another pile of pink and frillies.

(Can't help wondering if anyone will drop by admitting to throwing away her pants in December. If it's you - please comment. You are welcome here, even if I don't quite understand your family's commitment to Seasonal underwear.)

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Oh heck, it's December already.

Someone asked me the other day if I'm ready for Christmas. It's three weeks away, I said.

So are you packed ready to go to Cuba? That's five weeks away, I said.

Even from here, I can detect a collective intake of breath. How can I be so casual? There will be no cards/balloons/tinsel left in the shops if I leave it one more day to buy them. What if I there are no mince pies left on Christmas Eve - and they speak as if the world will fall in for want of a mince pie. (I have no children sleeping in my house on Christmas Eve - I accept the possibility of the world ending in a home dependent on a mince pie for Santa.)

You must have lists, they tell me. Well, I have sort of lists - in my head. I know roughly what I need to think about when the time comes. Who needs presents, who needs to be fed and when, where I might be going and do I have a frock? (Yes, the same frock that has come out every Christmas for years. But you probably guessed I'm not into frocks.)

I'm not sure there's clear water between planners and last-minuters - between those who finish their shopping in September and others who do it all on Christmas Eve. Over the next three weeks I'll gather what I need, when I have time to think about it - for it does take thinking. I don't fall in with the panic-at-the-last-minute brigade. Neither do I spend four months preparing for what is, essentially, one day. I think there is a planning continuum, with the September shoppers at one end and last-minuters at the other and every range of planning pattern in between. And, while I sit towards the Christmas Eve end, I do leave myself time to think. For it is a day that needs thinking.

And Cuba - surely you're planning Cuba? Ah, Cuba. I'll talk about Cuba another time.

Meanwhile, I might make a list. And you - where do you sit on the planning continuum?

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Books for Gran!!!

I can't quite believe I've used that title - but that was the title of an email I received the other day, with a list of books to buy Granny this Christmas.

I'm a grandmother. And I love books - so maybe, I thought, I could pass the link on to a daughter or two? And then I looked more closely.

It seems that grandmothers have limited interests: We may drool over scenic views, or flowers, or gardening, or knitting. We long to know about celebrities - older celebrities, of course: Cilla Black, Lawence Olivier, Joan Collins. We need a book about caring for an older dog. We long to remind ourselves of our time in the Land Army (my mother, who died almost twenty years ago, told great tales of her time in the Land Army).

Also included: just one novel set in Africa - presumably for the eccentric Granny in the corner who was a bit of a hippy in her youth.

Phew? Is it okay to include just one book for older women who might think outside the old-lady stereotype? Women who might be having a wonderful time before sinking into the corner with their cocoa?

No, it isn't.

And so here, Mr or Ms Book-link person, is my reply:

Grandmothers are wonderful: we are besotted with our grandchildren and will play hide and seek as long as our knees survive. AND - we are free-thinking, independent women who are interested in everything: gardening, animals, politics, the arts, theatre, the glorious possibilities of different cultures, poetry, travel, history, architecture, archeology, botany, astronomy, particle physics, the life cycle of the flea ... 

So how about replacing Knit your Own Britain (that's not a joke - check the link) with books that are daring and different and reflect the reality that OLDER WOMEN ARE AS DIVERSE AS ANY OTHER GROUP IN THE POPULATION.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Nuisance calls

In the absence of a sponsor for my Grand Tour with Hats, I must settle back into the reality of November. I am a little grumbly - not ranty, but grumbly - because it's cold and the days are dark and that brings me out in grumbles.

Nuisance calls. I've had one too many - and am beginning to lose my sense of humour. So this is a post to ask how everyone else deals with them.

They fall into distinct categories:

The computerised call suggesting I press button whatever in order to claim compensation for my mis-sold PPI. What cowards, not even putting a real person on the end of the phone! So there's not even the satisfaction of answering back.

Then there's the personal approach, my name in Fred and I'm just calling from SuchaCompany - and here I ask him or her to repeat the name and the company, and get a phone number, and then remind them that I've registered with the telephone preference service and so I'll be reporting them. Responses to this vary from, 'I'm sorry, I'm amend our records to make sure we don't contact you again,' (which is a lie) to, 'You do that, and see what good it does you.'

Then - recently - and at the most inconvenient times of the day, have come the calls that claim to be 'lifestyle inquiries'. 'How are you?' I was asked. 'What business is it of yours how I am?' I said. 'I am not selling anything,' said the voice, taking no notice of my questions, launching into a script.

For me, these calls are an irritant, and inconvenience. Occasionally I put the phone down. Sometimes, I tell the caller I'm putting him/her on hold, put the phone on the side and walk away - and wait several minutes until whoever has rung me had completed his/her spiel and realised I'm not there. I report as many as I can - but it's a faff, turning the computer on and fiddling about with forms. (You can find out how to do this here.)

But what really worries me - these calls must work, often enough, to make it worth while for companies to keep making them. While the majority of us are irritated, there must be enough people who are vulnerable or gullible enough to be taken in by them.

How do other people deal with them? (And if anyone has clues how to stop them altogether - that would be truly wonderful!)

Sunday, 24 November 2013

A Grand Tour? With hats?

Val Poore has asked me to blog this. (If you don't know Val - you can find her at her Watery Ways, here.)

Some years ago a daughter gave me a book, not just any book: "The Queen Newspaper Book of Travel" - the 1905 edition. It includes some wonderful advertisements, for cruises, for costumes that do not cockle, for Mrs Pomeroy's toilet preparations, for Ganesh Chin Straps (no, I've no idea what those are either.)

And it tells you all you need to know about undertaking your Grand Tour - where to go and at what time of year, which hotels to stay in, where to catch trains or carriages, how many hats you will need. So I know that 'Avignon cannot be recommended as a winter resort', that 'Rouen is a healthy city for residence on the high ground.' I know that Oberstdorf is '2660 feet above sea level, a climatic air station and whey cure'. (A what?) I know that March is 'probably one of the best months to be out of Great Britain.' The steamer fare to St Petersberg from Hull cost £5 5s. There are maps and routes an illustrations - and it's wonderful.

Would it be possible to do such a tour now?

Yes, it would. Some things would be different - I can't imagine the response to the polite letter to the hotel requesting rooms, so bookings would have to be be email. Travelling by train with Serious Jewellery would be bonkers - though piles of hat boxes might be possible. But the routes - they're still there. The towns and mountains haven't moved since 1905/

So go, said Val - she'd even help me organise it. I am sure there would be a loyal band of you cheering me on.

So why not?

I think a project of this kind needs a sponsor. In Cuba (and on previous trips), once I've paid for my flight the day-to-day expenses are not much more than I'd spend at home. A Grand Tour, staying in Grand Hotels and eating in Grand Restaurants wearing Grand Frocks, would be outside my price range. Stay in cheaper places, I hear you say - and of course that's the sensible way forward. But, even so, three months travelling in Europe, with hats, would be far more expensive than staying at home, and if too many financial corners were cut it would miss the point of trying to recreate the Tour in the first place.

On top of that - the point of it would be to publicise it, make sure plenty of people knew what was going on - and that needs sponsorship. It needs a newspaper, or journal, or publishing company with an advance to fund it. And most of those, as we know, believe that the shenanigans of celebrities make more exciting copy than some woman wandering round Europe with hats, even if she can string a sentence together.

So that, Val, is why it's a dream. But, as you said, it doesn't have to be. You never know ... maybe a sponsor will creep out from somewhere ...

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

More money - Cuban money this time.

This news may have passed you by:

In the past, Cuba has worked with a dual currency, one for tourists and another for local people, effectively ensuring that tourists pay higher prices.

This dual-pricing system is common in developing countries. There has been much discussion on travel forums about this - for what it's worth, I don't have a problem with it. If I can afford to fly there, it's reasonable to assume I can pay a little more for my museum entrance or my supper.

Yet Cuba is the only country to enshrine the practice in two currencies, and now it is to be fazed out: the details are on the BBC website here. It's very unclear when the process will begin, or how it will happen -  but I recall similar concerns prior to decimalisation and that worked out ok.

Yet I do foresee some confusion when I go there in January - for me and for the Cubans. For I've met complex currencies before.

Let me give you an example: in Cambodia they have three currencies, the Cambodian riel, the Thai baht and the US dollar. It is common to be paid in one and get change in another. In the process of this exchange it is also common for the rate to vary, thus ensuring the tourist is a cent or two worse off than he or she ought to be.

Does that matter? There are those who believe that it does: ripping people off is always wrong, and tourists should make a point of challenging this process to promote a fairer cross-cultural exchange. Then there are those who recognise that a cent or two means little to the tourists, but - added to the next cent and the next - can buy a meal for a family, and they shrug off any discrepancy.

And now I shall probably be faced with this dilemma in Cuba. Which side of the fence do you sit?

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Authors for the Philippines

We've seen the pictures. We've heard the stories.

It's too far away - so we wring our hands and say if only, if only there were something I could do ...

You may have raided your piggy banks and sent a donation to the Disaster's Emergency Fund ... and still wished there was more you could do ...

Well, I don't know who set up Authors for the Philippines - but I've been in contact with a woman called Keris Stainton - and dare not imagine how hard she has worked to set up this site, market it, get the whole auction-thingy up and running - all in less than a week!

Writers all over the country are rallying round to do their bit - we can make a difference, if we all pull together. Over the Hill is there - but so are hundreds of other books, editing offers, mentoring, courses - you name it and writers have given in.

So go, browse, see what you can find - there must be treasures ... (but give it a couple of minutes because I want to get there first ...)

And then flop back and raise a glass to Keris Stainton and all those working with her - this site is a huge achievement. If I knew where they were I would send cake.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The bedroom tax

Karen, commenting on my last post, asked if I'd write about the bedroom tax.

So - taking a deep breath - here I go. Those of you in the UK with probably know all this - I'll be interested to see what you think. I shall try to be impartial - well, I'll try to present the reasoning that underpins the wretched tax, and then its unintended (but predictable) consequences. All this without using the word 'ludicrous.'

Here in the UK we have, since 1945, tried to provide social housing for those who, for whatever reason (generally poverty) are unable to buy their own homes nor afford rents in the private sector. This is meant to ensure that everyone is adequately housed, has access to clean water and sanitation - that sort of thing.

Then along came Margaret Thatcher who decided it would be a good idea if people who lived in social housing had the opportunity to buy their own homes, at reduced rates, thus allowing them to join the property market - founded on a belief that private ownership is good and social housing is inferior. Significant numbers took up her offer - thus reducing the number of houses available for those who need them.

Our current government, anxious to reduce public spending, noticed that some people living in social housing have a spare room. Sometimes this is because children have grown up and left home; sometimes it is because they are disabled and need space for specialised equipment; sometimes they are foster carers leaving a room free for emergency placements.

Not good enough, said the government - there are people who need these houses. They are right - the waiting list for social housing grows and grows. Families linger in unsanitary conditions waiting for houses to become available. So surely, if people with rooms to spare could move somewhere smaller - then this would free bigger homes for bigger families? But no one is asked politely to move, for the general good. No - everyone with a spare room MUST move to somewhere smaller (no, there can be No Excuses), or lose some of their benefits that help towards housing costs - effectively taxing them for having a spare room.

Which might be fine if there were flexibility - for the elderly who have lived in their homes for decades, for grandparents needing a spare room for children to return home, for those with offspring in their twenties who come and go for years before finally setting up their own homes, for the disabled ... On top of that, even if people agree to move, there aren't enough  smaller properties for people to move into. Because Margaret Thatcher thought it was such a good idea to sell them.

So how are people managing:

Some are turning to food banks, or payday loan companies, or going without meals or heating, and trying to pay the tax.

Some are simply unable to pay, and are evicted. But the Council have a responsibility to help them, so they are moved into Bed and Breakfast accommodation - which is more expensive than any tax that was saved - until smaller properties become available.

Which, to me, looks totally bonkers. But what do I know? (Karen - I'll be interested to hear what you think?)

Sunday, 10 November 2013

The tyranny of money

I'm changing tack a bit here, but recent news about bankers and bedroom taxes and food banks has got me thinking.

Money - we don't have to like it but can't live without it. Yet it's no more than a means of exchange. When Pol Pot abolished money in Cambodia men and women bartered: I'll swap you half my bowl of rice for your shoes, that sort of thing. In our prisons, cigarettes are used in much the same way.

So, if money is no more than a means of exchange, how have we reached a point where the value (as opposed to the worth) of anything is measured be something that is, effectively, nothing more than a piece of paper? Just suppose - bear with me - our means of exchange were ears of wheat, or mittens. We could have green mittens, blue mittens, red mittens - I'll swap you three blue mittens, or ten ears of wheat, for that sparkly iPad.

Wheat, mittens - neither intrinsically beautiful in themselves yet both have value; and both are fundamentally useful.

For how have we - a wealthy country (I'm in the UK) reached a state where there are people with insufficient money (which is simply paper) to heat their homes and have enough to eat? They are cold and hungry, for want of enough paper. If mittens were our currency I could unpick an old jumper and knit a pair or two. Wheat - my cooking is truly rubbish but I have a friend who can make bread. Neighbours could pool bread, or mittens - unite and make sure no one went cold or hungry.

But we don't. Instead we have paper money. We count it. We put it in banks. Some people have so much of it that they think it makes them better, or more important, or worth more, than those who have less. The Government measures wealth by it. Yet, for want of paper, our poor and vulnerable are abandoned.

Where did our priorities go so awry?

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Let me introduce you to ...

My granddaughter. You know of the boys - but I rarely write about her. She lives closer; I see her regularly, so the world doesn't stop for her visits.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't know of her wonderfulness.

She's three. And I think this episode will tell you all you need to know:

My daughter and I were driving (I forget where) and the little one wanted to get out to play. No said my daughter, explaining - with extreme patience and clarity - that it was raining, and we had other things we needed to do.

The child asked again, and again. And my daughter explained, explained - there was no question of her changing her mind, so this wasn't a child carrying on in the hope of getting Mum to let her out to play anyway. Rather, she wasn't actually listening - explanations, for her, are not the point. She wanted to get out, discover the rain for herself.

I flashed back to her mother, as a little girl. To my explanations, to the endless questions, to the not listening. To her overwhelming need to explore the world for herself, to make her own mistakes. She needed the rain on her face, not on the windows.

Like daughter, like granddaughter.

She stands up to face the world with the clear expectation it will welcome her. Luck girl: she has a family to cheer her on, and pick her up if the world lets her down.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

How do you do mornings?

It's November, and some of you will be up before dawn to write you 1500 words or more for your NaNoWriMo. (If that's a mystery to you, check it out here.)

Others, of course, will be up early for work - you are on the early shift at the hospital or steel plant (do we still have any steel plants?), or have babies who wake at any hour of the day or night. You have no choice but to crawl from the covers before the lark.

So - do you growl, then creep from under the duvet, dress without speaking, drink tea or coffee without thinking and force your body into the street believing that your head will wake eventually and catch up? Or can you rub your eyes, turn the light on, and welcome the new day with a stretching exercise or two?

You NaNo writers - how awake are you at this early hour? Some are probably writing in their sleep while others fire on all cylinders. (I salute you all!)

Me - I'm not NaNo-ing. I'm a tea-in-bed-before-I'm-human sort of woman. I scribble a page of rubbish while the kettle boils - it's handwritten, and reminds me that I love to write, rather than a glimpse of insight or literary merit. Then I read until hunger drives me from my bed in search of breakfast. Even then I can linger, stare from the window - I have a view across the valley to the forest from my bed. The beech tree just beyond my garden tells me all I need to know about the seasons and the weather - today it is still, and somewhat forlorn.

But, last week, when grandchildren were here, all that changed. Daughter hemmed them in until seven o'clock; then they were told to tiptoe into my room to see if I was awake. My bedroom door was flung open; crash. GRANDMA!!!!!! Three small boys piled in. I made tea (of course), taking a cup in to daughter in the hope that she might have twenty minutes peace (she earns it!) and we watched Bob the Builder and Postman Pat, in bed, the boys eating bowl after bowl of dry cereal, cuddled beside me. (Two days later and I am still finding Cheerios in the folds of my duvet). There are worse ways to start the day.

How does yours begin?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Half term, in all its wonderfulness.

It's half term. Some of you will be girded for a change in routine; others will wonder what the fuss is about.

When I was at school, life was punctuated by terms, and half terms - there was general agreement that holidays were wonderful and school was dreary, and I'm not going to nitpick that now for of course it's not as simple as all that.

Then I went to university. We didn't have holidays any more; we had vacations - which are much more grown up. But terms were also wonderful, partly because the learning was interesting (at last) and partly because being a student in the late 1960s was just the very best thing to be.

I went to work. Suddenly there were just seasons. Interruptions were confined to Christmas and Easter and a week or so in the summer (taken to fit in with others who had children - which never bothered me. I didn't need to fight my way to Cornwall on the M4 in August, and they did.)

Then I had my own children. Terms were time when I could juggle work and home more easily - but came with their own stresses, like homework. (I was pretty rubbish at homework when I was at school myself; by the time my own children had it I was useless.) I loved school holidays - I'd take as much time off as possible and play. There were never enough time for playing.

The children grew, as children do. Life returned to its seasonal fluctuations; I recognised that winter is not my best time of year and so began to go walkabout when the nights are at their longest. No longer would I notice terms, nor half terms ...

But now I have grandchildren. And this half term, three of them are coming. Some of you know of the six-year old - he is bringing his twin brothers (aged two), and his mum. Where will we all sleep? Have I bought enough tins of beans, sausages, ice creams? Will my neighbours bang on the wall when we make too much noise (that's very unlikely, as I have wonderful neighbours)? Will we lose a child playing hide and seek in the garden (that's quite likely)? Is the river too angry after the storm for us to play in it? Have I sharpened the pencils, got enough rough paper, thought of a story or two?

Oh, how wonderful it will be!

You'll understand if I'm not around for the rest of the week - I have much more important things to do. It is, after all, half term.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Today, I'm not here, I'm there.

It's my day to blog with Authors Electric, so I'm not going to repeat myself here.

I've had a thought or two about writing magazines, so to pop over to the wonderful Authors Electric blog here and let me know what you think.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

What a noisy world we live in!

I should qualify that - here in the UK, even in a market town, silence is rare, and precious. Even if the traffic is quiet, there is wind in the trees, the occasional dog, the radiators ticking, someone passing my house and running her stick along the railings. Mothers dragging their children to school. The slam of car doors. The drone of a passing plane (especially irritating if it's a microlight). Petrol lawn mowers.

Some - such as the passing police car or fisticuffs from lads coming home from the pub - I could live without.

But others can interrupt me any time and I'll stop to listen and smile:

Children playing. I can hear the children at the nearest school if I stop and listen when they are out to play. The cries and laughters from children's playgrounds are the same the world over. I remember waking one morning in Laos to the same joyful cries - and felt both a twinge of homesickness and delight at being where I could hear Laotian children all at the same time.

The mistle thrush that wakes me in the summer as the sun rises. I'm not good in the mornings but always I forgive this little bird. Many times - when I've been in 'less developed countries' (I don't like the term but you know what I mean) - I've been woken by cockerels. I have mixed feelings about cockerels. By the time they're crowing many local people are up and about, women in the fields and men ... too often the men are playing cards, but sometimes they're doing useful things with machinery. But the point is that local people are already into the day while this lazy tourist is still abed. The cockerel rebukes me. But, at home, my mistle thrush sings me back to sleep.

Music (almost all music. There's some very modern classical music that I struggle with.) Music does wonderful things in my head, and I'm not sure I can put it into words. Some makes me tap my feet, or swing my shoulders - and I'm not even aware I'm doing it. Some makes me join in a sing, in spite of myself. And some will make me cry - though I've no idea why. But somehow it reaches parts of my brain that are nothing to do with thinking, and that makes me feel wonderful!

Some accents - a strange one, this. I've no idea why some accents whine like musical saws (you know the kind - they appeared in music halls and are so screechy you want, briefly, to hide till they stop talking) while others are compelling. Last weekend, the waiter with his French, 'Voila' was enough for me to know I'd listen to him to reading the phone book. Tom Conti (do you remember him?) - I could listen to him reciting anything, listening to the music of his voice and paying no attention to the content. I read somewhere that the language of Dante was taken as the national language of Italy when the country united in 1848 because it was the most beautiful of the dialects available - and I get that, for I can listen to it without caring I don't understand a word.

And soon I'll be bombarded by new sounds. Cuban Spanish, Cuban children, Cuban birds, Cuban music ...

What sounds make you stop, listen, be glad you woke up today?

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Imagine this ...

Following on from my last post (you missed it? I won a night in a luxury hotel!) the main review for my lovely hotel will appear on Silver Travel Adviser. As you might see from that, I had a wonderful time. Plenty of fluffy towels and pampering.

In that review I comment in passing on the wonderful jacuzzi - imagine, if you can, a metal cradle, big enough for a man to lie in. It is composed of just four pipes, side by side, slightly bent to accommodate a body-shape, with small holes in. A bit like a large, curved, cake rack - with holes. At one end there is a head rest, and at the other somewhere to perch your feet. 

Now - submerge this contraption in warm water. Does it look inviting? No - it looks like some sort of contraption the torturers might use. There is nothing comfortable about lying on metal pipes. Not even in warm water.

Next, press the switch - and the bubbles begin. Not polite bubbles, these. Rather they are great jets of bubbles, through every whole making the water foam so that you can barely make out the metal frame beneath. Even so, that rack looks less than uncomfortable. Grit your teeth and lie down ...

And it's wonderful. Those jets of water, so fierce you almost float in them, are aimed at exactly those places on your body that hold the tension: the back of your neck, across the shoulders, your lower back, even the back of your knees. It is like being pummelled with water, a water-massage, leaving your body feeling surprised and so wonderfully relaxed that you have no choice but to flop about on a lounger like a beached whale until hunger sends you to dress for dinner.

For, yes, I scrubbed up. It was worth it - the food was wonderful. I had bream, and it tasted of the sea - fresh and wonderful, and must have been bought at the market by someone who knows about fish. And to follow: a dessert that just called itself 'chocolate' (I didn't need the details, just 'chocolate' was good enough for me). All served by a lovely French waiter who was blissfully unaware how my friend and I loved his accent.

And then it was time to go home. Back to my jacket potato and cheese, but oh I never thought I'd have so much fun lying on a cake rack!

Sunday, 13 October 2013

I'm not really here, I'm somewhere posh!

Well, who'd have thought it! From time to time I've pottered around on a website for older travellers - the forum is fun and they have useful info about places to go and how to get there. Go and have a look here - and then come back, because I need to explain why I'm lounging in luxury.

As you may have seen, they have competitions and winners go off to wherever, and write a review for the website when they get back. And I've won a night in a luxury hotel near Bath - which is where I am now. I spent Sunday pottering about the city, pretending to be Jane Austen, that sort of thing. (The best summer entertainment is in Victoria Park, watching anyone who hasn't met a deckchair before trying to put it up - there's not so many tourist in the park in October!)

I'll tell you about the hotel in due course, but must write the review for Silver Travellers first - that's part of the deal. Besides, I'm writing this before I go - so this is an anticipatory post.

And it feels strange, heading for luxury. It'll take my suitcase, not a rucksack. I'll need respectable clothes for dinner (yes, I do have some, not eaten by moths). The bathroom will be full of smelly goodies. There will be fluffy white bath robes and slippers. Tea will come in proper cups and saucers. There are views from all rooms across green fields and trees. There is a swimming pool, and sauna. And tennis courts and a golf range.

It will be ... different. I'm used to making myself at home in places that are, well, rough and ready (the tiny room with no windows in Kuala Lumpur probably the worst), and have had to make friends with unlikely visitors (my rat in Laos). I don't look for dirt behind the toilet. If I'm clean enough and safe, that's fine with me. The point is the travelling, and the people I meet, rather than where I lay my head.

So, this time, will I lie back on feather pillows and feel at home? Will I fill the bath with bubbles? Will I sit in the sauna, swim in the pool? Of course I will - and what wonderful fun it will be!! But will I know myself?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Roll up, Roll up ...

The fair is coming to town ...

Every year, on the two Saturday each side of October 11th, the Fair comes to town. My lovely High Street is closed at midday on Friday and the trucks roll in. They spend all afternoon banging and screwing and throwing bits of kit about, and somehow the street is transformed into a fairground. By Saturday it is full of children and balloons and thumping music, strobe lights, the smells of old cooking oil and fried onions. Which brings out the child in me - it is rather wonderful.

This year I took a trip along the street last Friday afternoon, while the whole thing was taking shape. And began to see some of the problems faced by the men (it is always men) putting these rides up. For our High Street is on a slope. And the rides have to be horizontal ... and so they must devise safe, secure ways to make sure everything stays upright.

Some are secured by a game of Jenga:

This looks a little sturdier, I'm sure it will be fine once it's checked with a spirit level:

I couldn't work out quite how the helter-skelter was kept upright - but it wasn't blowing in the wind, so it must be fine:

And this ride - which is one that throws everyone around until they vomit - relies on some interesting poles:

At the end of all that - don't you just want to:

Sunday, 6 October 2013

One story, two tellings.

There was a little drama near when I live the other day. Enough to surprise my polite market town. Three men, chased by a police car and helicopter raced along the High Street and ended up crashing in the side of a wall. Nobody was hurt - though a few were shocked. The three men were taken into custody without any more drama, and the car removed. The only damage - a couple of stones broken on the stone steps leading to the church. It made the front page of the local paper, and there was chatter outside the supermarket, but it soon died down.

The impact on the traffic was, well, you can imagine. I was on a bus, trying to get home, with no idea what the hold-up was. I had a book to read, so wasn't bothered. But the kids on the bus, with their phones, knew all about it. I've no idea who took the first message, but the knock-on was wonderful.

Of course, they had to ring home to explain why they might be late. Their conversations went something like this:

Mum, I'm going to be late. No - don't be like that, it isn't my fault. No, it really isn't my fault. There's been a highjacking in town - I'm on the bus, but nothing is moving, we're all behind barricades ... the place is crawling with police, the sky full of helicopters, there are hostages ... loads of them ... guns, I'm sure I saw guns [we were well over half a mile away] .. all this screaming ... no, mum, I'm fine, don't worry about me, but the police suggesting there are spies, terrorists ... bombs under the Town Hall ... we're lying on the floor of the bus ... Al Qaeda ...

At the time I had no idea at all what was going on, and so could not tell if there was any truth underlying all these wonderful fantasies. We were simply stuck on a bus, going nowhere - with no information. But what fun these kids had, creating their own stories. I'm glad they weren't true, of course - but what great imaginations they have. (Maybe they should be writers!)

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Lessons from a Literature Festival

Many thanks to all those who encouraged my Spanish efforts, in my last post. I am doing my best - honestly!

Last weekend, when I wasn't struggling with the language, I spent some time at the Literature Festival held, as some of you know, in the lovely market town where I live. And what fun it was, devoting time to bookish things. (Actually, I devote nearly all my time to bookish things anyway, but this time I did it with other booky people. And wonderful it was, too.)

I'm not going to review everything I saw - that would be tedious. But I've come away with a thought or two that might, just, be useful to remember when we are all famous. Some of it I knew anyway - from public speaking in my former life (I did lecturing and other learned stuff as part of my Child Protection work). But knowing something and seeing it work in practice are so very different. So here are some reflections.

The event that really didn't work was an interview with a writer who has been around for decades. I won't give names - maybe she and her interviewer had a bad day. But I felt she had no real idea what the purpose of the interview was - she had no new book to promote, no clear story to tell, and so fell back on disconnected anecdotes. But the real blame (for want of a better word) lay with the interviewer, who was unprepared. She had no list of questions, no idea of where she'd like their discussion to lead - so she said things like, 'You must tell them about the time you ...' as if she were prompting a recalcitrant student. She fluctuated between obviously floundering as she tried to think of something to say - and so suddenly asking something unrelated to the previous discussion, or interrupting because she had an idea and maybe it would fly away if she didn't use it soon.

It was the best illustration I've ever seen of what happens if you're not prepared.

This contrasts with Claire Tomalin, who spoke about Dickens and Queen Victoria. She had mislaid a page of her notes - and spent about ten seconds riffling through her papers and then carried on from memory. She knew - and loved - her subject, and she was fascinating, prompting equally fascinating questions.

And the star - Jackie Kay. She is a real presence on a stage (I'm not sure we can learn that - it's something some people just have), spoke with confidence and humour and compassion. She makes a point of never speaking ill of anyone - which is a huge achievement when writing a memoir. And I felt this was not simply a device so she could look compassionate - for instance, her birth father refuses to have anything to do with her (though she sees her siblings), yet she is still able to talk of him without resentment. She seeks to understand rather than pass judgement. She spoke about being adopted, about her race and sexuality, with such refreshing openness - she's the sort of woman you'd like to live next door to. The hour passed too quickly, and we all left wanting more.

So the big lessons - to share with any of my followers destined to win the Booker Prize - know your stuff. And make a point of being kind. (Can it really be that difficult?)

Sunday, 29 September 2013

I'm trying to learn Spanish

Well, the nights are drawing in, and, as some of you know, I'm looking towards my winter trip. To Cuba.

And this time I'm trying to do something about my linguistic ineptitude. I'm trying to teach myself Spanish. I have a book and a CD and have found websites to help with pronunciation.

It's a slow process. I'm not naturally good at languages (well, I like to think I'm good at English, but you know what I mean). I can, now ask someone how she is (though who know why I might want to do this before I buy my bus ticket, I'm not sure). I can tell them I have four daughters and four grandchildren (though words can never quite capture how wonderful they all are). I can ask the way to the bus station - though think it unlikely I'll ever understand the reply. And I can order a beer.

Yet there are many questions which aren't included in my basic Spanish - questions which, in my experience, are vital to know when you're a tourist. Such as:

There is no toilet paper in my room.

I think I am on the wrong bus.

Is that spider poisonous?

I shall happily play with your children but will not take them home with me.

No, I will not marry you just so you can get a visa.

Is there a collective noun for cockroaches?

I know I'm white-skinned, but the war in Iraq is not my fault.

Some years ago, when I was in Spain, I sent a text to a daughter, then teaching in Caracas, needing the Spanish for cake. (She understood cake emergencies). She now has three small children. Is it stretching her good will too far to contact her in the middle of the night to ask for the Spanish for, 'A rat has eaten my rucksack'?

When you're on  your travels, have you come across phrases you need translated, urgently, and cannot possibly mime?

Wednesday, 25 September 2013


This follows from my autumnal thoughts on Monday.

(Goodness, I never thought I'd be blogging about vests!!)

I can only speak for myself here (though I shall be curious to see how many of you recognise this process). I was made to wear vests as a child. In winter they kept me warm, and in summer - well, it was polite. It's what girls did. Presumably to mask any hint of development for as long as possible. A hangover from Victorian morality where layers of clothing was seen as an essential deterrent to any predatory male (or, presumably, female).

Oh how I longed to ditch my vests! I abandoned them at every opportunity, hid them at the back of the wardrobe and crumpled them, put them in the washing at reliable intervals in the hope that no one noticed that I would not wear them. Imagine, being out with a lad, and he was fumbling up your shirt (you knew it wasn't allowed and you shouldn't let him, but surely a five-minute fumble wouldn't matter?) and he found a vest!! You'd want to die, wouldn't you? You'd never emerge into mixed society again for he was bound to have told everyone in the whole wide world and they would all know this terrible thing about you - you wore a vest. So I didn't.

For years, even in the depths if freezing winters, I'd not wear a vest. I'd pile on jumpers and fleeces and shiver by the fire but no, I'd not be seen dead in a vest.

But then, when I took the decision not to buy a car but to use public transport, I knew I'd have to be equipped for stations and bus stops in the cold and if I wasn't to freeze I'd need Serious Clothes. That's when I bought a drawer-full of thermals - vests (both long- and short-sleeved), socks, and long johns. Some are almost pretty - and all are functional. They do what they claim they do. While they can't keep out the most determined Arctic wind, I have rarely been driven inside by the cold. I can stand at bus stops beside people who are stamping their feet and rubbing their hands and be - not hot, but warm enough. Which they clearly aren't.

But what, I hear you asking, about the man who might want an exploratory fumble? Pah - if he's going to mark me out of ten for wearing a vest on a cold day, then I'm really not interested.

Is this what they mean by grown-up?

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The year is turning.

As promised, I'm not blogging about voice any more. But there's an interesting discussion in the comments after my last post for anyone wanting to see Trish Nicholson and I grappling with it.

And now, on to lighter things.

It seems we've had our summer. All those lovely warm days, sitting in the garden with the hum of bees for company, skin smothered with sun block, book on my knee. For once we had some real weather - and wonderful it was too.

But now the lights are on before seven in the evening. My sandals are back in the wardrobe. T-shirts are hidden under fleeces and cardigans excavated from the dust in my drawers. Firewood for my woodburner is heaped by the back door. The garden is looking ragged - it needs me to take serious secateurs to the bushes, even a saw to the bigger shrubs. The man who wields the loppers will visit and my compost will overflow. (I no longer do anything that involves standing on ladders in the garden. I've been stuck in a shrub once - it was funny the first time...) I'll stand by the incinerator for a few hours and come back to the house smelling as I used to after visiting the protesters at Greenham Common.

The house is chilly - for now I'll turn to vests and fleeces but before long I'll give in and turn the heating on. The radiators will click and the rooms will warm and I'll close the curtains against the cold and the rain and the dark. I'll light the woodburner - and there is comfort in the flames.

And then - I'll turn to my Lonely Planets. For this is the time of year when my thoughts turn towards your freezing days of January. My flight to Cuba is booked. I have a hotel in Havana for the first few nights. I shall read Dervla Murphy and Graham Greene and, as my fire flickers and the wind howls, my mind will be in the warmth, the sunshine, and my body will sway to the music. There are worse ways to hibernate.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

My last post about voices (last, as in I won't write about it again).

I have so many thoughtful comments to my last post about writers' voices that I've come back to it - I've obviously stuck a chord.

I hadn't realised that the concept of 'voice' is used across the arts - so sculptors, photographers, knitters, are all encouraged to think about what makes them distinctive - to look at the way their work reflects them and what they are trying to say. (Thank you, Mark - I never knew that.) I'd not thought of it in terms of 'voice' but I can recognise a Henry Moore or a Barbara Hepworth, a Modigliani or an Ansell Adams, and will go out of my way to see them. They have a distinctive way of expressing themselves that speaks to me - and I'm not sure I can put that into words except to say that they make me feel good; they are satisfying on a deep level (if that makes any sense).

But in writing - does this familiarity extend to writing? I take Carol's point about Dickens (thank you, Carol) - his work is instantly recognisable. But modern writers - Bring Up the Bodies and Wolf Hall could only have been written by Hilary Mantel. But Beyond Black - that's a completely different book, written in a different style and with a different use of language, with no hint of drowning in wonderful historical detail, and also written by Hilary Mantel. Crime writers have their pet detectives - but they, too, spread their writing wings from time to time. I've not read Kate Atkinson's Life after Life but understand that the contrast with her crime novels couldn't be stronger.

I'm probably thinking round in circles - I'm not sure I'm any closer to a definition than I was three weeks ago, when I decided 'voice' is something to do with the dialogue between what we are trying to say and the medium (whether that is words or paint or plaster) we use to tell it.

And then I wonder - and this might be a heretical idea so please, those of you who know better, do shout me down - maybe the concept of 'voice' is an academic construct, used to promote discussion among students and give them headaches when they have essays to write, but of limited use to anyone with a blank screen in front of them, or paintbrush in hand. What do you think?

(It's hard work, all this thinking - I think it's time to go and burn soup!)

Sunday, 15 September 2013

On hearing voices on the page.

I'm following on, from sockpuppets, to talking to myself (my last two posts), to ... writing. And the thorny topic of 'voice.' There is a logic, I think - something about being heard.

I never offer writing advice - there are many far more qualified than I to do that. (And many unqualified who also put in their five-pennyworth, but let's not talk about that.) I'm in the learning game, and can only talk about what seems to work for me. So this is definitely not about 'finding one's writing voice'. Instead it is a tentative exploration of how I think of it.

Writing, for me, is not the same as talking to myself on paper. For a start, in my mutterings while stirring the soup I rarely use complete sentences; I might throw in a little blasphemy, call myself a prat for burning it again (yes, I burn soup; and occasionally indulge in a little gratuitous swearing).

If I'm writing, incomplete sentences are deliberate. Words with no main verb just for emphasis. A passing swear word is deliberate, used sparingly and with thought for the reader. I hear the rhythm of a sentence - playing with word order until there is a music to it. Even when I write dialogue, I try to keep myself quiet and let the character express him/herself.

And then I read it aloud. Clunky bits are obvious when you read them to the plants (plants are a great audience. They can't answer back, nor run away). Tedious bits are obvious - because you race through them, skip over useless words. It is in the reading aloud that I 'hear' my own writing voice - and begin to explore the conversation between what I think I'm trying to say and the words I'm using to say it.

So that, for me, is what I mean by a 'writer's voice' - the rhythm of the words and their relation to meaning. But, as I said, that's my understanding of the term. What's yours?

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

On talking to myself.

On Monday I blogged about sock puppetry - which is effectively talking to oneself online in order to appear popular, or to whip up some sort of storm to rubbish other people. If you missed it, you can find the post here (or scroll down). And there were lovely comments from people agreeing with me.

But it's got me thinking - for (is this a shameful admission?) I talk to myself at home. In the privacy of my own kitchen, I have lengthy conversations. They can be about anything, from what I'm about to do next (along the lines of 'what did I come in here for?') to rants about something on the news (if only politicians could hear me, there'd be no war, no poverty, no discrimination - come to think of it, no politicians ...). I talk to my plants (why aren't you flowering, like every other plant in the universe - I give you water, what more do you want?). I talk to my cooking (oh heck, burnt again; what have I done wrong this time?).

I argue with myself. What do I think about this, about that? The great thing about discussions like this that I am always right. I'll present opposite opinions knowing I can demolish them. I can be rewarding, when you get the hang of it.

Talking to oneself, they used to say, is the first sign of madness. In which case I'm totally bonkers.

I live alone. I have friends and family - so it's not as if there's never anyone else to talk to. But I do spend hours alone and am happy with that. But if there were no voices in that silence - well, that would feel too quiet. I speak, therefore I am alive, and I matter, and I have a voice, even if I'm the only person who can hear it.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Sock puppetry

I thought the hoo-ha about this had died down, but came across it on a forum the other day.

For those who don't know (lucky you) it's the creation of false identities, on line, to argue with on forums, or twitter, or put lovely comments on your blog so you can look really popular. Some months ago a writer admitted on radio to using countless sock puppets to develop an internet storm about his books - and there was general agreement that this was cheating.

It still goes on, apparently. (You yawning already?). Which leaves me wondering - why? Am I missing something? Should I, too, have an alter ego who drops by the blog on a regular basis and tells me how clever and witty I am?

Whether I should or not, I'm not going to. I have enough trouble keeping the person I am in order without creating a separate persona. It feels too much like hard work. For instance, when commenting on your own blog, do you write something witty and wonderful and risk someone clicking on the link - and then finding it's you all the time? Or write something tedious and make it look as if you have a following of plonkers? And if you review your own book do you eulogise about its wonderfulness, or remind people of the wonky bit on page 74 that you were secretly hoping nobody would notice? No - it's all far too complicated for me.

But - is it cheating? Really? When it's so easy, and I understand it's common? We beaver away at our own little blogs, and love it when there's a gathering of comments. Everyone must love us. Or does it simply perpetuate an illusion that online popularity matters - when it is really the love of friends and family that keep the world turning, not the number of comments on a blog.

Or am I simply naive?

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Back to school.

I know, many are heaving sighs of relief. The school holidays are done, the little darlings (not so darling in the last weeks of August) are dressed again in uniform grey, or navy, and heaving sacks of books off to school. They will return full of grumbles about Mr So-and-So and how little Johhny up the road never does any homework and gets away with it so why do they have to wrestle with Pythagoras so please, please, please can they have their phones back because they simply have to talk to someone they saw just half an hour ago ...

The days resume a routine, a familiarity. We all know what we're doing. From 8.30 to 9.00 the streets are full of young people, mothers with straggling youngsters, and working men and women relaxing in their shops and offices and building sites knowing that they don't have to worry about the children for a few hours. Phew.

There is another side to this. I'm 'retired' (whatever that means), so there's no going back to work, no resumption of routine. I get up when I feel like it, the same as always. I eat and read and wander round my lovely market town at any time of year.

But the town - ah, that's where the difference tells. No young people in the corners, lads with their trousers round their bottoms (how do they stay up?), women with wonderful bosoms on display. All those tattoos and piercings and telling the world about who did what to whom last night. No children hanging around the cafes licking ice creams. The playground is quiet, the swings still, abandoned. And the toy shop, which has been busy all summer, suddenly quiet. I can move in there and it feels wrong. The woman at the counter shuffles papers and doesn't know what to do with herself.

The streets are now free, for people just like me. Respectable, with careful hair and shopping trolleys. We remember our pleases and our thank yous. We discuss the new shop, have we been in there yet, I wouldn't bother if I were you, oh I thought it was rather good. We wonder if we have time to stop for coffee.

Nobody balances on the kerbstones. Nobody plays 'bears' along the cobbles. Nobody tugs at a sleeve and asks for an ice cream. And I miss them - these children, these young people who have filled the streets with energy and laughter.

Roll on half term.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Harvest time

It's a privilege, living in Wiltshire. Especially at this time of year.

Our huge fields are patterned - combine harvesters have swept up and down, up and down, weaving round trees and over ditches, bringing in the crops. Rabbits and mice and little voles run around like mad things - all protection gone. The air is full of dust, and bits of straw.

Harvesting begins the second the dew dries in the morning and continues long into the night. Headlights, like giant eyes, creep across the hillsides. And you know that some farmer is making the most of sandwiches for he'll be too tired for supper tonight - all to bring in wheat for my bread or barley for my beer.

The street where I live, on the edge of a market town, is lined with parked cars. At this time of year trucks thunder up and down, trailers laden with straw - which scatters across the cars and onto front doorsteps. There's so much straw you can taste it in the air. Children cling to railings as they pass, as they are huge and sometimes it seems that the mountains of straw must topple to the street crushing cars and small children. It's untidy, of course, all these bits of straw - but it's part of the season, part of living where I do, evidence that farmers are doing what farmers have done for centuries.

And sometimes it's truly entertaining - when the combine harvesters try to get down the street. It is the main route from the farms to the combine harvester menders, and so every year we have one or two who must make it between the lines of cars to the garage. The driver sits twenty feet or more in the air. Wheels over six feet high. Barely two inches each side (even less if someone has parked carelessly) for the machine to get through safely. Someone walks in front, waving the driver - an inch this way, an inch that (left hand down a bit, so to speak). The noise is wonderful - the growl of the engine as the machine edges its way, bit by bit down the street. With, of course, an audience - most of us who live here are out there, watching the entertainment. I don't have a car, but those who do bite their nails as it seems impossible their precious heaps of metal might be scratched. Occasionally we gather together to bounce a carelessly-parked car onto the pavement. And I've never seen the combine harvesters scratch a single car. (The big tractors - they've been known to clip a wing mirror or two!)

Are we too easily pleased - if this is our idea of excitement?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Is Laos so different from Cambodia?

I thought you went to Laos, I hear you say. (Well, I don't, but you know what I mean.) My recent book, Bombs and Butterflies, is all about my trip to Laos last winter. So why the chatter about Cambodia?

Well, the cobra came up, so to speak, so I wrote about that. And I couldn't do that without pointing out that there was so much more to Cambodia than snakes and temples. But you're right - so here are some thoughts about Laos.

Laos and Cambodia are neighbours. They both wrestle the dialogue between ancient ways of thinking and the urgency of western ideas. They have both experienced trauma in living memory - trauma that runs far deeper than most of us could possibly imagine.

And yet, in spite of all that, Laos is hugely different. To begin with, Cambodia has had to come terms with Khmer murdering Khmer. They slaughtered their own people in their millions. Some of those who survived are traumatised - but they have had many children. And it is the children, young people now, who work their socks off to rebuild the country. Killing fields, they say - pah! Look to the future. I was in Phnom Penh for Independence Day and every young person in the city was in the central park, speakers blaring, dancing, singing, Rocking all over the World. It felt like a joyful two fingers to the past - they have a country to rebuild and no one is going to stop them.

In contrast, the devastation in Laos came from the air - from American bombing. Raids were sent into to Laos every eight minutes for nine years. (Can you begin to imagine that?). They responded by closing their borders, for forty years. Why wouldn't they? Who was there left to trust? Slowly, with the support of China, they are beginning to allow the rest of the world to peer through their doorways.

As a visitor (I hope I was a visitor, and not simply a tourist), it takes time to meet people, to find a language we both understand, to begin to engage with their experiences - which makes sense in view of such recent devastation. I found them to be kind and generous, and quietly welcoming. A young woman at a Homestay, who carried my luggage and helped me up and down the steps (I'm ancient by Laotian standards) even offered to wash my feet. It was humbling, when she knew nothing about me other than the colour of my skin, that she should go to such lengths to show hospitality.

And the countryside is astonishingly beautiful: mountains, rich with heavy green, impenetrable to the likes of me but no doubt a metropolis of wild life. There are villages reachable only by river - what better way to travel. And so many quiet corners to contemplate this lovely country and its brave people.

As some of you know, my camera was stolen just before I left, and so I have no pictures. But Laura Zera has also been to Laos, and came back with some wonderful photos that are on her blog - over two whole posts!! Here and here. She has given me permission to use her pictures on this blog - but that feels unfair, given that she took them and has been so generous. So do go and have a look. (And you can find Laura on twitter - @laurazera - she's some fascinating mental health stuff as well as the travelling. What a woman!)

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Cambodia is much more than Angkor Wat

Most tourists fly into Siem Reap, spend a couple of days traipsing round temples of Angkor Wat at the end of which they've seen barely a fraction of what's there, and fly out again to the beaches of Vietnam or the temples of Thailand.

They miss the rest of the country - and they miss meeting some of the bravest, most resourceful people I have ever known. They have had the worst thing happen to them - a third of their population was massacred by the Khmer Rouge. Now they must rebuild their country, beginning with absolutely nothing. And they're doing it - with courage, and humour, and extraordinary generosity.

I have folders and folders of photos, and finding just a few to show you has been almost impossible. But I've found a few, to give you a flavour of how some people live:

These homes on stilts are common all over south-eat Asia. They look flimsy, but keep nasties on the ground and well away from people when they are sleeping, and flood water can run away beneath them when the monsoons come. They also provide shade on the hottest days.

I have no idea what this woman is cooking, but she was having such fun doing it:

Here are children sorting chillies (spare a thought for them, next time you have a curry):

But it's not all work:

There are beaches, and temples, and jungle. The Tonle Sap - the huge lake that covers much of the middle of the country - is stunning beautiful. Rice grows on the flood plain - a sweet green that fills the paddy fields. There are markets - only one or two with trinkets for tourists, for these are markets for local people, with sacks of spices and heaps of rice,

And when the day is done, you can always sit and contemplate the Mekong:

One day ... I'll go back.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

Now I really will tell you about the cobra

Beng Melea is seventy kilometres away from the main sites at Angkor Wat. I went in a tuk tuk. For those who've never met a tuk tuk, it's like a motor bike with little carriage on the back. It has a plastic roof, and decorative tassels to make it pretty, but nothing to protect the passenger from wind, or dust, or even determined rain.

After seventy miles my face looked like Cher's - pinned back, and with a complete coating of dust. I recovered with a soft drink, and then took the wide path towards the temple, past the board which told me which parts of the site to avoid as it is still littered with land mines, past the group of disabled musicians (the way most land mine victims make a living), past the monks, and towards the huge main gate.

A man approached from the right, determined to be my guide. I tried, politely, to tell him I was happy on my own, but he was undeterred. Oh well, it's only a tip he needs. So I followed him into the temple ...

... to find that it has not been excavated. There is a polite boardwalk for tour groups, but nothing to stop anyone crawling through doorways, or clambering over rocks, to explore the place for themselves. My guide leapt over a large crack in a pathway, held his hand out to help me over, and we were off - through pitch-black hallways, over fallen trees, along precipices.

He even took a photograph, to prove I was there:

Once he had his tip, I did it all over again - well, wouldn't you? It was like playing Indiana Jones - though there were times when I looked at a narrow ledge and reminded myself that just because I was allowed to climb all over this doesn't mean I have to. But it was such fun, like finding the place for myself, for the very first time. Do you recall that feeling, as a child, that you really could do this dangerous thing by yourself - climb up that cliff, or swim a whole length, or walk in the river and feel water round your knees? Well, it was like that, all rolled into one.

This shows you the boardwalk, and the sort of things I was climbing over:

And this the sight that greeted me when I peered across the top of a wall:

I was crawling through here:

when I saw a passing guide talking with his group. He was muttering about the history of the place, and how it was discovered in the 1960s, and plans to excavate and clear the land mines.

And then: 'A cobra lives under there,' he said, pointing to the rock beneath my knees. 'But it only comes out at night.'

(Note to daughters. This was much less dangerous than the tiger. The tiger was awake!)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

About the cobra

It's been a busy weekend - at the same time as looking after my granddaughter (oh the joys of learning to use scissors ...) I've been at the ebook festival. If you missed my posts, you can find them here - scroll down the righthand side and click on the travel writing link, and they should appear.

I hinted at my encounter with a cobra in my last post here, so I thought I'd better tell you all about it.

How much do you know about Angkor Wat?  You've probably seen pictures of the main temple, with its huge walls (you'll just have to imagine it without scaffolding - it needs attention as so much is falling down):

And the astonishing carvings on the walls, from huge heads like this (it must be twenty feet tall, at least):

 to images of the gods, some of which are much ruder than this:

But there are hundreds of temples - some small and intimate, and others enormous. Some no more than a central edifice, while others have vast walkways where people would live or traders would bring their wares to market. Many have 'libraries' - though I don't suppose you came with your ticket and went away with a book, and most are closed up now.

Most were built by successive emperors, who needed to prove their prowess by building a bigger, more extravagant, more lavish temple with the tallest (did anyone mention phallic?) towers. Does that matter? Not any more, for Angkor Wat is one of the most astonishing sites I've ever visited.

Some are falling down, with trees growing through walls:

And some, at first glance, little more than heaps of rubble:

And then, seventy kilometres away, is Beng Melea. But this post is long enough. I'll tell you about Beng Melea (and its cobra) on Thursday. Promise.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Don't we all do foolish things sometimes?

A little foolishness today, and antidote to the excitement at the ebook festival.

The lovely Val Poore has been blogging about steering boats down canals, which has involved a close shave or two, and I've admitted a little carelessness of my own from time to time in the comments. Write about them, she said.

Oh heck ... do I have to write about the day I tried to back down a narrow passageway, didn't get it quite right and took off both wing mirrors ... the day I overdid the wine and tried to carry a blown-up lilo through a door, taking a run at it, veering from the straight and narrow till those watching were crying with laughter (my memory of this, mercifully, is blurred by the wine!).

Don't we all do stuff like this? There you are, in a crowded cafe, and really want ketchup on your chips and shake the bottle without checking the cap ... to find the woman behind has a her best cream jacket over the back of her chair (and no sense of humour). Or this is the moment you simply have to prune that shrub, so on with the gloves and out with the loppers and there you are, in the middle of the thing, and a branch falls on your head and you're stuck. Now what? you think. Will someone come to the front door and decide she simply has to ask the neighbours if she can come in through their houses just in case I'm stuck inside a shrub?

I suppose not many of us have tried to close a window in the middle of the night with a cyclone raging outside. Or slithered down a rock face onto a beach in Australia to admire the sunset without wondering how to get up again. Or played explorers in old temple near Angkor Wat and crawled through a doorway to hear a passing guide say there was a cobra under the stone beneath my knees.

I know those were a bit extreme. We don't get cyclones or cobras in the UK. But surely we all do daft things sometimes? (Please, admit some of yours, so I don't feel quite such a wally!)

Sunday, 11 August 2013

It's that time again!

It's time for the e-book festival again. Cally Phillips has been working her socks off for months, to bring this wonderful, online festival to you - free! There are fiction people and life writing people and poets and bloggers and playwrites and comedy writers and spiritual writers and teachers of creative writing and digital publishers and

and a travel writer!!!!!!!

Yes, I've got a slot there this year - but not till next weekend, so you'll have to wait for that. (A resident travel writer - how about that for a contradiction in terms!)

Today is Day One - so I'm going to shut up now, so you can go and see what's going on over there.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Looking up

As you know, a week or so ago, I was in Lille, and in spite of my falling-down bathroom I still have things about Lille I want to write about. I love cities - and not just the obvious things, the cafes and museums and art galleries, the theatres, the general confusion of who is working and who simply enjoying themselves.

I love the corners, the bits we don't often look at, the alleyways (which often whiff a bit) and courtyards with the shock of bougainvillea falling down a staircase. And sometimes - I look up.

In Lille, I looked up, to find many wonderful attic windows which set me thinking: who lives up there?

This, I decide, is home to a poet. She works in a restaurant, and by the time she gets home her hands are raw from hours spent peeling vegetables or washing up but nothing can keep her from her poems. She plays with words all night, falling asleep when the cock crows and waking just in time to struggle back to work.

That little window, right at the top ... three student musicians live there. They have one stove, and no fire, so in the winter they must huddle together for their fingers are too cold even to play a trumpet. But in the summer, when the sun shines, sometimes they open the window and glorious music sweeps across the square below and passersby stop, listen, know that they are hearing something precious.

A young lawyer lives here. He pours over his books till his eyes ache. One day, he promises himself, he will earn enough to own this building, and then he will replace this dreadful modern glass with its ancient counterpart and the building will be at peace with itself again.

Look behind the windows - and onto the roof. That look-out tells a story more terrible than any fiction.

For this is Northern France.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

It will huff and will puff, and my house will fall down ...

My lovely house needed painting, like houses do. Well, old houses do - those of you with modern windows and modern doors will have no idea what I'm talking about. But my house was built in the 1830s, and has sash windows with original wobbly glass and a door that needs a strategic knee against it to turn the key.

The windows were flakey, and door bubbling a bit, so it was time to call in the painter. He took one look at the back of the house, stroked his chin, and muttered about it being a bit high. Three storeys, I concede, is a bit high. So it was time to phone the scaffolder who - to his credit - did exactly what he said he would do, just a day or so earlier.

Then the painter began his sanding, and stripping, and shaking his head - keeping his biggest frown for a bit of wood that goes along one side of the little extension to house the bathroom. It's rotten, he said, it will have to come off; you need a new one. I don't have the tools, he said, or the knowledge ...

So then my son-in-law came, with his hammers and strength and, with a yank and splattering of dust and the buzz of a few surprised bees, off came the bit of wood. And then, my son-in-law stroked his chin ... and shook his head ... and stroked his chin again.

You might have a problem, he said. I think a structural engineer should look at this.

I nodded, as if I might know what a structural engineer is.

Let me take photos, he said, I'll send them off to C, and he'll know the best thing to do.

I passed him the camera.

I wish I hadn't looked at the photos of a crumbly steel beam, that should be holding up my bathroom.

It might be fine, he said. It's not going to fall down immediately. And if it does need sorting out, they'll shore up the house and put a new one in - easy as pie. (Does he know how long it is since I last made a pie?)

In the cold light of day, this is an inconvenience - that's all it is. No one is hurt, or ill, or starving. No sons are marching off to war, no daughters deflowered. And the chances are high that all will be well for a long time - and I will be worm-food long before my bathroom falls off its trolley. But at two in the morning, when the wind blew and the rain battered my windows - that's when the house in my head ended up a heap of bricks in the garden.

So if anyone has techniques to stop me making the night-time mountains out of day time molehills, then please let me know.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

I may be a little while ...

Yes, this is still me - with a new blog title and a picture (I worked out how to do it, at last!), the same address - what do you think? Better? Or shall I go back to the old look?

This will be my only blogpost this week. For today my grandson is coming to stay.

This week I shall eat a lot of baked beans and chips. And probably ice cream. I might pretend vegetables come from Mars and are essential for anyone who hopes to be an astronaut; or I might give in and eat more baked beans.

When the sun shines I shall play in the river and when it rains there will be games and maybe there will be cheating but it doesn't matter, for he is my grandson and can do no wrong. I shall polish my goalkeeping skills, but be forever useless (dive, grandma, dive ...). I shall be woken at daybreak and maybe he will tell me that his clock is broken, though in truth he has taken the battery out, but it doesn't matter for he is my grandson and can do no wrong.

I shall sit in the front seat on the top deck of the bus and pretend to drive. And if he sings about the wheels on the bus very loudly that is fine for he is my grandson and can do no wrong. We shall arrive very early to catch a train; but I'll not let him run around on the platform for that is dangerous, even for little boys who can do no wrong.

This week I shall do no writing.

And when there is reading it will be stories for six-year olds.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

In a corner of Lille ...

It was hot - goodness it was hot. And, given that it was Monday and most of the shops were closed, I had the streets almost to myself.

Which meant I could notice all the quirky things that might normally be hidden in the bustle of city life. For instance, I found a wonderful yellow door, covered in writing. I'm sure it was something to do with the theatre, as there were other theatrical shops around and a sign of a woman with a splendid feather in her hat hanging above the door.

But it was the door that intrigued me, its very yellowness, and all its words.

The problem is: my French is dreadful. So here I need your help. I have here a random four extracts, all scattered in various places on the door - and since I don't know what they mean I have no idea if I've selected nothing but trivia and ignored the deep and meaningful. I suspect these are quotations from plays? If any are truly rude, then I apologise. And, as you will see, the writing crosses lines in the door as if they aren't there, so some bits are quite difficult to see.

Is this something about an outrage? An assassin?

I think I get this - a cousin has said something bizarre - I wonder what? There must be a story there.

Is someone arriving during a quarrel? Why do I need to know that?

This is possibly the most difficult to see - but please tell me it doesn't mean I love your fat bum?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

When this is posted, I'll be in France masquerading as a travel writer!

This feels a bit unlikely - given that I'm writing this in my kitchen, with the radio on and traffic trundling by and children running fingers along my railings.

But I was approached by Ceri Wheeldon, who runs the great site for older women - Fab After 50. What -  you don't know it? She's committed to raising the profile of older women, to challenging beliefs of invisibility, question the conviction that the ups and downs of the menopause make us into wild things and the myth that our brains and usefulness disappears with our fertility. There's money stuff there, and relationship stuff there, and general looking-after-yourself stuff there, and if you haven't seen it before go and have a look now (but please come back!!).

Anyway, Ceri sent me an email - she's offered trips from time to time, from companies wanting her to comment on this place or that place from the point of view of an older woman. She's a busy woman, and can rarely do them. Was I interested ............

I was astonished! Me - being asked to do proper travel writerly things! Packing the passport because someone has asked me to write something specifically for her! So I danced round the kitchen, and then replied to Ceri without too many whoops betraying just how amazing it all is.

So here I am, in Lille (well, I will be when you read this), being a travel writer, with a coach trip to write up for the Fab After 50 site when I get home.

I'm not one for labels. They rarely fit comfortably - generally I try to shrug them off. I'm a woman, with children and grandchildren; I travel and I write, and I sit in my garden and read.

But, today - and who knows, this might happen again one day - I am a travel writer. And it feels wonderful!!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

About the brothels ...

I've been asked about the brothels, so I'll tell you.

The first was in Morocco, so many years ago I can remember nothing but the madam sitting on the stairs - a huge woman smothered in sickly perfume, and an expression fierce enough to terrify any punter without money in his pocket. But she was kind to us.

The second was in Venezuela. I was with a friend, following an itinerary one of my daughters - then working in Caracas - had organised. We were late leave Canaima - the 'town' where we'd returned to after the trip up river to Angel Falls - because the pilot of the tiny plane taking us back to real towns was enjoying himself watching skydivers.

Which meant we were late catching the first of two buses to take us to Tucupita, where a hotel was booked and the next morning a guide would collect us and take us in a boat to the Orinoco delta.

We made it to a small town where the second bus should have been waiting.

It wasn't. There was no bus till the morning. And no taxi would take us to Tucupita as there was no hope of a fare to bring back, because ... the town was full of hoodlums and prostitutes. The manager at the bus station was as helpful as he could be (he offered us red plastic chairs in the forecourt of the bus station for the night), so we took a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a hotel ...

I doubt if there was a single conventional hotel in the town. The woman at reception looked a little surprised to see us, but gave us a key and we lugged our rucksacks upstairs. Why she gave us a key, goodness knows, as the door didn't lock. The pictures on the walls made it clear what this room was generally used for. There was a hole in the bathroom door where someone had put a fist through. And brown marks swiped across the walls - I didn't look too closely. Do I need to describe the smell?

We must eat, I said. So down we went to ask the woman at reception. No restaurants, she said. And not safe. Not even safe to walk five yards to the phone booth outside the front of the hotel to ring for a taxi.

We returned to the room and feasted on biscuits, catching crumbs in plastic and wrapping them up over and over to deter cockroaches. Then we turned the light off, and from the safety of darkness watched the street. Guns, knives, floozies, the trade of the city only too obvious.

We slept with rucksacks against the door and walking poles at the ready. And left at daybreak. From the bus station I phoned my daughter - I needed her to get hold of the guide to tell him we were on our way.

We were delayed, I said, and spent the night in a brothel. By then it was gloriously funny.

I won't tell you what she said - but what would you have said?