Sunday, 21 December 2014

A future for Cuba.

I might be expected to join in all the Happy Christmas shenanigans, but I can't let the Cuba news slip by without a thought or two.

Do I really have the qualifications to give an opinion on the thawing of relations between Cuba and America, based on just one month on the island last winter?

Of course not. But I can make an observation or two. Besides, I've read a couple of newspaper pieces that seem to be based on internet research. I have, at least, been there - and very recently.

Feelings, on both sides, run deep. There are misunderstandings, fantasies, projections - all feeding beliefs that have their origins in history. And that is surely the point - the fallout between the two countries began over fifty years ago. At last, it's time to talk.

In my opinion, what is most encouraging is not the announcement by President Obama that diplomacy will be resumed; rather it is the acknowledgement that there have - behind the scenes, in the bars of Havana and the corridors of Washington - been talks. Men and women from both countries have sat together, out of sight of newsmen and photographers, and settled on a discourse. There will be upsets and foot-stamping before an understanding can be reached. But the doors are now opened. There is the opportunity of listening.

And, from my position of ignorance, I can tell you what I wish for Cuba. I wish investment - in her buildings, in her health service, in her infrastructure. There is much to be done. But I hope it can be done thoughtfully - Cuba is a vibrant, wonderful country with a unique culture. Her music (ah the music) is compulsive. Her people are welcoming. She needs antibiotics and better transport.

Does she need MacDonalds? New cars? - Who are we, with our western luxuries, to go all gooey-eyed over the old cars, the shortage of french fries? Cuba should be free to make her own choices.

I rarely mention my books on this blog, but for once I reckon I'm allowed. In Vultures Overhead I wrote about my experiences in Cuba last winter. I found a Cuba that might not be recognised for much longer. Turkey vultures circled everywhere. I just hope that the Americans visit with the humility of puppies and not the avarice of vultures.

(There's a link to the book to the right of this blog.)

And - Happy Christmas. May it be whatever it need to be for you.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

My winter travelling plans

It's that time again. The days are long; the nights are cold; I'm grumpy. No, I'm not depressed - I have no seasonal illness. I can get out of bed and join in the razzmatazz. But I'd rather be somewhere warm.

And so, just as the baubles come off the trees and tinsel is packed into the cupboards for another year, I'll be again. I have a flight booked to Bangkok, and six weeks later I come back from Singapore. I shall probably spend most of that time in Malaysia.

Why Malaysia? I was there on my long trip and loved it. I love its multicultural soupiness. There are indigenous Malays, many of whom are Muslim. There are Chinese with their temples and wonderful food. There are Thais, of course, with their Buddhism. And plenty of Indians with their Hindu stories and curries. There is tension - much of which is not immediately obvious to the tourist - but there are also some wonderful celebrations of cultural difference. (For instance, each tradition seems to have a different date on which to mark the New Year - and they all celebrate with wonderful processions and dancing. How I'd love it if the tiny Chinese population in my little market town took over the High Street with dragons one year ...)

I love its scenic differences. I shall brave the leeches and go into the rainforest. I might try a little snorkelling off the coast of an island. I shall admire the patchwork hills of the tea plantations.

I shall see if some of the people I met last time are still there: Farouk, the waiter who gave me bigger and bigger breakfasts every day in Penang; Rusty - a landlady in Mersing who knew I needed a cup of tea before I even opened my mouth; Miss Jo - who took me to a Sikh ceremony and then to lunch. They may not be there, of course - it's nine years since I was last in Malaysia and much will have changed. But I'll look for them. And spend time with anyone else who might wander across my path.

Will I write about it when I get home?

I don't know. If there are adventures - then I probably will. But I'm not looking for adventures. In spite of all the dramas in Nepal I don't go looking for cyclones and tigers. I'm returning to a place that I love, because I can, because it's winter, because it is so gloriously different.

But I will blog it. (And I don't go till January, so no need to wave me off quite yet!)

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Time to Think.

What is life if, full of care, we have no time to ...  I've no time to finish the quotation now.

After all, there are cards to buy cards to write presents to buy presents to wrap don't forget Aunt Vera this year remember that sour look she gave you last year and then the children ah the children we must do our bit to give Santa a hand he'll need carrots and mince pies - not supermarket ones that's cheating - no you must make the mince pies and the sausage rolls and the stuffing get it all in the freezer and your cake will be made by now and the puddings so you've time to make costumes for little Nellie is a shepherd and Joss is a dog and the tree don't forget the tree and the decorations make some with the kids you know how they love it and a wreath for the front door ...


Who says we have to do all this?

I'm all for a midwinter festival - with or without any religious overtones. But does it really have to be such a struggle?

Speaking for myself, I want to hibernate at this time of year. I want to snuggle by the fire, watch the flames and let the winter blow itself out. I want to read. Write.

Most of all I want to think.

Some years ago I heard an interview with Germaine Greer in which she was asked her favourite pastime - and she said, 'Thinking.' Wise woman.

Where is the thinking in all the December mayhem? For without it we are simply automata, lurching from one must-do to another. There is no time for anything to touch us. To let the fun and laughter echo as we fall asleep.

If we cannot stop to think, we are purely reactive. We consider neither history nor consequence nor meaning. And we're all the poorer for it. We allow the marketing gurus to lure us into all the razzmatazz, sweeping us away from the glorious temptations of independent thought. From those quiet reflections that remind us of those we love.

It doesn't have to be like this. We can choose what we get swept up in, and what we allow to pass us by. But that means we must make the time to take that decision. And maybe it also means taking time to stand and stare.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black Friday - what was that all about?

Black Friday, we were told, is a tradition.

No it's not. A tradition, according to my trusty dictionary, is a transmission of customs or beliefs passed from generation to generation. I know they all have to begin somewhere, but I still don't see something that has happened for a couple of years warrants the title 'tradition.'

On top of that, it has no relevance in the UK. Just because Americans have enjoyed their Thanksgiving feasts and feel a need to go shopping doesn't mean it must be mirrored over here. We can shop when (and if) we want to shop.

But the marketeers have got hold of the idea and convinced millions of people believe that this is the one day they must go shopping. A hint of a discount and there they all are, fighting for this and that, for fear they might be missing out.

I recognise that our economic system depends on people becoming so dissatisfied with their old stuff that they have to go out and buy new stuff. Then the people that make and sell the new stuff have an income and pay taxes that fund our schools and hospitals (and pay our politicians). I struggle with the implication that the system must be underpinned by greed, but so far no one has come up with anything better. (I know, we could all downsize. But the money for health care has to come from somewhere.)

So you could argue that Black Friday was a good thing. All those people rushing out to spend money with no insight into the fact that their 'need' was manufactured by the marketing men and women.

But let's cut the twaddle. It is not a tradition. It has no relevance in the UK. It is simply the ad-people manipulating the buying public into believing something that has no basis in our reality.

What depresses me most is the millions that believed the hype and went shopping. Do they really keep their brains in their wallets?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Triumph from Adversity? Or just bonkers?

You don't know Sam and Andy, so let me introduce you:

They look happy enough, don't they? And that logo on their t-shirts - hiding behind the medals - I can tell you that it reads 'Madness 4 Mike'.

Here's what Sam writes about the project: Since losing my Dad to Bowel Cancer on 28th March 2012, I've been thinking of ways to raise money for the charity that helped my Dad. I can see you like them already, turning a family tragedy into something positive.

And then one of them suggested they set out to complete (walking, running, but always in a recognised event) 2014Km in 2014. Do you have any idea how far that is? It's like running all the way from London to Reykjavik (that's assuming you can run on water - given what they've achieved I've sometimes wondered if they've done just that).

They've had to work, of course. Not easy-peasy jobs that give them time for training. They are both vets, so they spend much of their time with their hands in sundry animal orifices. They sit up with sick creatures and will them to keep breathing. They rejoice in the pooch that trots away with her well-being restored; they comfort grieving owners. Not work for the faint-hearted.

But, once they'd started this project, nothing would stop them. And friends and family joined in. Anyone with legs and energy was welcome to contribute. Andy's mother trekked across Vietnam for them. Even my grandson ran 5Km (and had green paint thrown at him), his mother puffing alongside him, as a contribution.

Between them and their supporters they finished a total of 43 events - and Sam and Andy did most of them. The total distance: 3279Km. So far they have raised over £14,300.

So next time you're weeping into your pillow and everything feels like the end of the world, it's worth remembering what can be done. It's your party and you cry if you want to. But maybe, when you've dried your tears, you can transform that energy into something worthwhile. Though you don't have to do something quite as bonkers as this.

If you want to know more, have a look at their website here.

And, in the hope it doesn't put you off, here's what they looked like at the end of the New York Marathon:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The unkindness of burglary.

Our local independent toyshop was burgled last week.

The owners arrived to find the police stand by the remains of the door. Inside, toys were scattered all over the floor - all except the lego and playmobile. These burglars knew what they wanted - toys that were popular, and easy to sell for a reasonable price in a car boot sale on a Sunday afternoon, and difficult to trace.

The town has rallied round. We love this shop. It's all nooks and crannies, small spaces that are fine for children but adults have to squeeze through. It's owned by a family - and they love children almost as much as they love selling toys. There's a small train set just inside the door. Even a table outside with toys for children to play with as they pass. My granddaughter can spend half an hour playing with the toy food, leave the shop in disarray and depart with nothing more than a bottle of bubbles; and still she's welcomed back.

It took a few hours to clear up the mess. Meanwhile children came to the door and cried. But by early afternoon the front door was open and they were trading again.

Oh how heartless those burglars! Have they not been children?

Burglary is burglary - right? There's no defending it, just the urgency of punishment, retribution.

But is this burglary better or worse than breaking into a house and stealing personal treasures? Cameras? Laptops? Passports?

Is it better or worse than holding up a jewellers, terrifying staff and making off with rings and necklaces that will sell to the rich and careless?

Is it better or worse than bankers stealing millions of pounds of public money, then sitting back and insisting they still deserve bonuses?

It's all theft, and nobody is physically hurt. Does the motivation of poverty make one burglary more acceptable than one driven by greed?

I don't have any answers. I'm hugely proud of the way my town has responded to this one - the shop owners can have no doubt as to our affection for them. There is a cry for our burglars to by hung, drawn and quartered. But maybe, in the depths of our Wiltshire countryside, spitting feathers about those who steal lego, is a banker or two who cannot see that they, too, might have done more than their share of stealing.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Operation Kindness Worldwide.

Sounds a bit wacky, doesn't it. A bit hippy-dippy, 1960s, make love not war, all that stuff.

But hang on a minute.

Last week I pointed out that the government in the UK is fostering a climate of fear. (The link is here, if you missed it.) They would like us to creep into corners while they drop bombs on the 'bad guys'. While I suggested that there are millions of kind, wonderful, fascinating people in the world and we will only make progress if we get out there, understand and celebrate our differences.

There is, I think, a parallel in this Kindness Initiative. We can either pull up our metaphorical drawbridges, look after ourselves and those closest to us, let the rest of the world sink or swim. Or we can open our doors and our thinking and do our bit - however small - to oil the global wheels. (I know, too many metaphors.)

So the Mandala Trust (I'll come back to them in a minute) have defined November 13th as World Kindness Day. Just one day to make a point of thinking of someone else - from the half-forgotten man down the road with just his dog for company to the women walking miles in crippling heat to collect water - and doing something small. Take the old man to the library. Buy your neighbour a cake. Help the mother in the supermarket with two small children and a week's worth of shopping to pack.

Kindness can be infectious. I help the woman up the road. She offers her neighbour a lift to the station. The neighbour gives up his seat on the train for the woman with more shopping bags than hands ... and so it goes on. There's no reason for the wave to end. And if it should peter out because someone is having a bad day, then start another.

Does that seem so wacky now? So hippy-dippy? So 1960s? So here's the link for Operation Kindness Worldwide. Drop by and like them. And spend a minute or two thinking - what can you do on the 13th?

(And the Mandala Trust? The man behind it happened to be there when I was taken, suddenly and dramatically, ill on a beach in Cambodia. He held my world together when I was unable to do it for myself. He is a good, decent, honest man. And he runs the Mandala Trust - a small organisation that helps fund projects across the world that are set up and run by local people. For instance, I met a man in Cambodia who has a project to enable the children of parents who work on the dumpsite go to school - he has set it up himself, in response to a local need. All the Mandala Trust does is help pay rent, wages for a cook etc, just to keep the show in the road. They don't wade in with Western ideas about right and wrong, but prop up tiny projects run by local people that might collapse without them. So if all you can manage on the 13th is to put your hand in your pocket for a penny or two, here is their website: The Mandala Trust.)

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The politics of fear.

The UK Foreign Office has warned Brits living or travelling abroad to be vigilant. We are, we are told, targets for terrorists all over the world.

I have two huge problems with this. Firstly, it is evidence of our government's hubris to suggest that we stand out in a western crowd. Whatever the wrongs and rights of military action against the Islamic State we are not acting alone. Our media might suggests that we are planting the democratic seeds of Westminster unaided, but that is rubbish. We are a little cog in an international wheel, and are no more at risk than Americans, French, Germans, Canadians, Australians ...

Secondly, the Foreign Office is promoting a climate of fear. Look over your shoulder, they are saying. Everyone is out to get you. You are only safe if you retreat into the sanctuary of your British castle.

How dare they?

Yes, there is a world-wide rise in terrorism. But there are millions and millions of kind, generous, curious, ambitious people all over the world, in every country, of every skin colour. By suggesting that we should look first for terrorists and only once people have proved themselves innocent can we engage in discourse can only promote suspicion. We will all end up clinging to the wreckage of mistrust unless we bypass such instructions and engage with the wonderful, exciting, liberating exchange of differences.

I want to live in peace as much as you do. And I want to do it by fostering an understanding of the miraculous diversity of the world. Of all its colours and mysteries and beliefs. I want to share all our multiple wonderfulnesses. I refuse to believe that terrorists lurk around every corner.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

The garden needs a headache.

It's that time of year. Everything is overgrown. The air smells wet and soggy leaves clog the lawn. The roses have have a few brave little flowers but the glories of June are behind the. I've a vine that straggles across the back of the house. The quince tries to attack me as I squeeze past it to get to the compost heap. The ornamental pear looks like it's just woken up after a night on the tiles: it needs a haircut. The mock orange was beautiful in June but now it's trying to take over the world.

I don't climb ladders any more - mainly because I live alone, and if I fell off I'd be really stuck. Nobody coming to the front door and finding me out would think, 'I know, she's fallen off a ladder in the garden so I'd better find a way to get in and rescue her.' No, off they'd trot, assuming I was out or had my head buried so deeply in a book I was refusing to answer the door.

And so I have a trusty pruning-man. He comes with his ladders and electric thingies and long-handled whatnots and whizz, snip, chop - and the lawn is thick with twigs and leaves and general debris. My job is to come behind him and sweep it all up, and lug it down the garden to the compost heap. Give us a couple of hours and the garden will have its annual headache. It will look a bit surprised for a day or two, and it might sulk for a while, but by spring all will be forgiven. (Except, maybe, the vine - which has produced just one bunch of grapes in all the years I've lived here. It hung over next door; eat them, I said. But they didn't. And so, in a fit of childishness, I chopped that end off the vine. It has never produced grapes since then.)

The garden sorted, I need to do the same for my writing. Pass it over to someone with a serious red pen. Someone who does not linger over dead wood. Someone who can spot a weak shoot or crumbling branch and not grieve for it. I, too, might sulk for a while But eventually I'll review the remains of my lovely words. It will all feel very bald for a while, but will hopefully blossom next year. For we all know that writing, like gardens, need a serious chopping from time to time.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

I'm finding it hard to write today because

I'm finding it hard to write today because:
  • It's too sunny. I need to be outside to soak up a ray or two before the winter sets in.
  • It's too cold. My fingers are too stiff and I want to curl up by the fire.
  • It's too wet. There's a line in Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he writes, 'It's raining too hard to think.' Oh yes, I know that feeling.
  • I'm too tired. I had a late night and all I want to do today is flop about.
  • The gas person/electrician/plumber/parcel delivery person is coming some time today. I don't want to get stuck into something and then lose my train of thought.
  • I really ought to do something about the jungle that is my garden.
  • I'm meeting a friend for coffee later, so there's no point in starting anything.
  • Next door's dog is barking/baby crying.
  • I need to so more research.
So how come, when I get passed that lot, I love it once I can settle down. All I have to do is turn the computer on, open a file - and the hours fly by. Passing delivery men - pah! A coffee stop - wonderful - but not for too long as I need to get back to it.

I tell the world that I write because I breathe - and that's true. I can't imagine living without scribbling things down. My notebook is beside me (and full of random thoughts) all the time. So why the fiddle-faddling delays to turning the wretched computer on?

(Am I the only one who does this ...?)

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Sharing your home with wild life.

This is a seasonal post - as some wild life is looking for somewhere warm to spend the winter. And so am I.

Let's be clear. I'm not talking dogs and cats here. Nor hamsters and guinea pigs and budgies. No, I'm talking wild life.

I live on the edge of a market town - I won't tell you exactly where, because I go awol from time to time and it's bonkers to advertise which house will be empty. All you need to know is that I can walk across fields within five minutes of closing my front door.

There are implications in the garden.

I know there are foxes in cities - do they have the same distinctive smell as those in the country? When I walk down the garden in the morning, I always know if one has visited in the night from the pong. Though it doesn't happen often - there's plenty of rabbits in the forest. One summer there were badgers, taking a liking to the fallen crab apples (from my neighbour's tree) and eating so much fruit they were mildly sozzled, which was funny (except for the piles of poo left on the grass). I've had deer, too - muntjac deer who, you may not know, have a particular liking for rosebuds. (Good thing I've never tried entering roses in a show!)

Frogs, hedgehogs - anything is welcome if it eats the slugs and snails. I've also had the occasional slow worm. And birds - oh the birds! I can spend hours by my back door, just watching them.

So you see, I think I've made friends with the wild life in my garden.

And in the house? There are flies in summer, of course. And crane flies, midges, moths, butterflies, and numerous other flying things. Plenty of spiders. Do I evict them all? No - most do me no harm and seem quite happy where they are. I have been known to zap the occasional fly that has really got on my nerves, and will wallop a wasp that lacks the good sense to go out the window. But the rest can stay.

Then, after the harvest and as the nights grow cold (around now), I sometimes get a resident field mouse, come in out of the cold for the winter. One I can manage - he generally hides in the cupboard under the stairs and escapes back to the fields in the spring. I make sure there's no food left out to tempt him into the kitchen (mice wee as they run along, which isn't the healthiest thing in the kitchen). But a family of mice - there I draw the line. I've a humane trap to take them outside, and if that doesn't sort it then I'm sorry, they just have to go the hard way. Rats - I really can't make friends with rats (though I didn't do badly in Laos!).

There's the occasional bird that gets lost in the house - but that's not really a countryside thing. But I have had bats - three times. There must be a colony near here as they dive-bomb the back of my house in the evening, feasting (I think) on mosquitoes. Occasionally one gets lost and ends up in my bedroom.

The dos and don'ts of getting bats to go outside:

Don't turn the light on. Poor thing will flap round and round the light and be truly terrified - much more than you are.

Do - open the window, very wide.

Do go out of the room and close the door (with the light off). By the time you've made a cup of tea the bat will have found her way out.

And you? Who else shares their home with a creature or two?

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The wonderfulness of daughters.

Last week one of the daughters had a birthday.

They can be cruel reminders, if we let them be, these offspring birthdays. They are mumble-mumble years old now, so we must be (oh heck) mumble-mumble-mumble, and give another ten years or so we'll be all zimmer frames and meals-on-wheels and watching Flog It on iPlayer ...


We do not have to count years. We don't even have to recall, all those years ago, the nappies and sleepless nights, the mumps and chickenpox, the time when you (insert all bad-mother memories. If you can't recall them your children will). And then the bedtime stories, the birthday parties, playing hide and seek in the forest ... the parents evenings, the concerts, the prizegivings ...

And look at them now, all these daughters of mine (I have four). It's hard to connect them with all that long-gone childhood. But, as each has a birthday, it's time to celebrate what wonderful, feisty, independent, free-thinking, bolshy, unique women they have become.

One of the especially wonderful things about them is the support they give me. I do know I've given them the heebie-jeeebies a couple of times. In spite of assurances I won't put myself at risk, it happens occasionally. (I promise I'll never go playing with tigers again.) It can't always be easy wondering what I'm going to do next. Yet, whatever they say to each other behind my back (let's be honest, we all talk about our mothers behind their backs) they have always been encouraging and supportive to my face.

Who cares if I'm mumble-mumble-mumble with young women like this around me to keep me on my toes.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Men and the travelling woman.

As some of you know, I travel independently. And I don't just mean organising my own flights and hotels, I mean I travel on my own. Without going into detail, it just worked out that way. Now I've got the hang of it, I love it.

But it does raise issues with travelling men. Now, I'm no spring chicken. I've got a bus pass, if you must know. Wrinkles to prove the years of experience. (Botox? Why would it want to do that? I'm getting on a bit. Get over it!)

In most western cultures I enjoy the invisibility of older women. Where youth and wealth are valued we are also-rans. We slink into the shadows, from where we can see and hear much more than you can possibly imagine. There are, I have discovered, advantages to being invisible.

In many Far Eastern cultures older people are revered. Once people get over the fact that many of my contemporaries are already dead, I am treated with great respect. There is always someone to help with the rucksack, or steer me in the right direction if I'm lost. Plus countless young people wanting to practise their English, so I am never without company if it want it. Occasionally a young man will show 'interest' but he knows I have a British passport and he lives in poverty. I try to be kind.

And then there is Ireland. I love Ireland. I love the lakes and mountains, the music and the Guinness. But there I was, tapping my feet and sipping the black stuff, when up came a beery bloke about 10 years younger than me and asked if I was dating!! The first time it happened I just laughed, as you would. Every night, someone sidled up to me, would l like another drink - I often had another half, as the music was wonderful and I needed little encouragement to stay. But what was going on? Just the craic? A bit of fun? That's how I looked at it, though I haven't been hit on like that since I was 16. I confess to being a bit clumsy in the being-chatted-up department.

(I can only assume that many Irish women are chained to their sinks, have taken their intelligence and humour to work in the cities, or have more sense than to go near any of these beery blokes. But I'm guessing - if anyone knows where Irish women are hiding, do let me know.)

The daughters might be pleased to know I haven't come back with a toy boy.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Blog changes.

I've decided to drop my twice-weekly blog to just once a week.

I could provide lengthy justifications, explore changes in the blogworld, go into apologies and all that stuff.

So here is the truth.

I'm dropping to once a week because I want to.

We live in a culture where we expect explanations. Small children ask why and we do our best to answer them. We try to make the world logical, and explicable, and predictable. It's not, of course - while some things obey the laws of physics or nature but much of what happens is fairly random and we only ascribe meaning to it because it makes us feel more comfortable.

So I could offer explanations, if I tried. I could witter on at length about what blogging means to me, to you, its place in the general blogosphere. It would be twaddle, of course, and probably not very interesting twaddle.

But I do think that sometimes we carry on doing things because it's expected of us, or we believe it's expected of us. So this time I'm just doing what seems right for me. And I'm not even saying sorry.

And the plan - to blog on Mondays, unless I have a particularly wonderful weekend, in which case anything can happen. It will be interesting to see who sticks around.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

I'm back from Ireland, with pictures, as promised.

Well, I made it back in a thunderstorm! After eight days of untypical Irish sunshine the heavens opened as I struggled the last few miles home. Oh well, my home was still standing and it was easy enough to get warm and dry.

As for Ireland ... there is something restorative about south-west Ireland that I'm not sure I can put into words. And so here, without much in the way of annotation or comment, are a few pictures.

Looking out at the lake from Ross Castle

Fuchsia  (but you knew that anyway)

The Meeting of the Waters, on the Lakes of Killarney

The Gap of Dunloe

From Mount Beentee looking west, towards Caherciveen.

Then finish the day with a pint or two of Guinness and some wonderful music:

*sighs* Even organising this post is enough to make me want to go back!

(There are some more pictures on the website if you're really keen.)

Thursday, 11 September 2014

The Gap of Dunloe

My daughters might never speak to me again for writing this. For the first time I crossed the Gap of  Dunloe we did it together, and the day was so wonderful it has become part of the family story, a 'do you remember when' that still makes us smile.

I simply couldn't resist doing it again, and it was different - my excuse for writing about it now.

For a start, we went the 'wrong way round', beginning with a boat trip across the Killarney Lakes. I had forgotten how long that takes, chugging across the water, the mountains benign in the sunshine. Holly trees clung to the waterwide. Reeds swayed in the breeze. From time to time the boatman told us Interesting Things, but I forget all of them. I was more intent on just being in the boat, bobbling along on the water and looking up at the mountains.

After several days with no rain, the water levels were very low - so low that at one stage we had to get out and walk along the bank or risk grounding. And when we arrived at Lord Brandon's Cottage the quayside was about a metre higher than the water, involving some inelegant scrambling to get out of the boat (and complaints from a heavy tourist who seemed to think everything should be organised just for him. There's always one.).

A quick sandwich (note for daughters - the little cafe is much improved, so no cotton-wool bread wrapped in cling film) and it was time to find a pony to take me over the Gap itself. And this is where things unravelled a bit. There was only one pony, defended by a determined Irishwoman intent on taking me in her pony and trap. Should I stick to my guns, ride alone across the mountain, or accept her offer (even though I knew she was probably taking a backhander for it)?

I took the pony and trap - and can tell you that it is as uncomfortable as riding but at least you can't fall off.

The main difference fom years ago - there is now a tarnacked road the whole way. Where there was once a stony track, now there is a proper road and even the occasional car. Which makes the whole thing more hazardous than it was, with pony carts, cyclists, walkers and cars all sharing a narrow road.

However, it is still astonishingly beautiful. The road winds along a valley before zig-zagging up the mountainside. Sheep nibble at the short grass; birds fly high above the mountainside. The ponies haul the traps up to the saddle and then the view stretches out below. The river burbles, lingers in small lakes, and the tumbles on down towards the sea. And the mountains, blue and mysterious, loom over everything. Trees dominate the lower slopes; the higher slopes are vast and craggy and wonderful.

So it wasn't the day I expected it to be. There are some magical days that should never be repeated. But would I go back to the Gap of Dunloe again and again - oh yes. And there are pictures, but they are still on my camera, so that will have to sit till I get home.

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Off to Ireland

You're not off again ...?

Yes, this afternoon I'm heading for the airport, and flying out to Ireland tomorrow.

Why Ireland? I visited for the first time when I was 19, and have been back from time to time every since. And when I had to get my head round the fact I couldn't spend this September in Madagascar (I blogged about that decision here), the most obvious place to go to lick my disappointed wounds was Ireland. Now that I'm so close to leaving, I can't think of anywhere I'd rather go. For the music. For the Guinness. For the gentle people and glorious scenery.

So today I have a dilemma: I want summer to go on forever. Which means I want to pack summer skirts and floaty tops and maybe little light cardi in case it's chilly in the evening.

And then there's reality. I'm going to Ireland and it's September. Common sense says I should pack vests and waterproofs. Sturdy shoes and woollies.

I travel light - I learned, on the long trip, just how little I need. Filling a suitcase for all weathers doesn't sit easily. So much to squash in. So much to lug about. So little room for books!! (I've got my kindle, of course, and a couple of print books because I love them.)

Will I blog while I'm away?

We'll see - it depends on the weather. If the sun shines on me I'll be outside, in my skirts and floaty tops, enjoying the last rays of summer. If it rains, I shall read and maybe visit the blog.

But now for the packing. What would you take? Optimistic summer stuff? Or vests and waterproofs and good strong shoes?

Wednesday, 3 September 2014


Two winners, as promised, in my little competition:

Jacqueline Pye - who got it absolutely right, when she said Hove and Brighton (I was actually in Hove, and looking towards Brighton).

And Terry Tyler, who came out of the hat first of those who just said Brighton.

I'll be in touch with both of you - and this is what you will win:

Another book?

Yes, another book - a real book in response to all those who have asked me to put my Over the Hill ebooks into print. So here you will find my adventures in the Himalayas, including a rather alarming encounter with a tiger, how I shared a room with a rat in Laos, and finally my salsa through Cuba.

But, some will say, these are all available as ebooks - and you are right. They are. But many people have asked for print copies, to put on their shelves, to share with friends, and so I've put these three journeys together.

So, you might be asking, if I've read the ebooks do I find anything new in From the Inside Looking Out. No - only a brief introduction. If ebook are your thing, then there's no point in buying this purely for decoration. (Aren't I shooting myself in the foot - suggesting people don't buy it if they've read the ebooks? Maybe, but I'd rather be honest with a shot foot than have you accuse me of implying that I've deceived you)

I've got the proofs, and it's at the final tinkering stage - so my winners will have to wait a week or two. But I'll get in contact both of you to get your addresses and send it off to you as soon as the final copies arrive.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Pussy cat, pussy cat, where have you been? I've been ...

I've been here, there and everywhere. And what a wonderful time I've had. (And it's not over yet - I'm off to Ireland soon).

But here is a little competition to mark my return to blogland:

Where have I been:

Looking East from there - this is what I could see:

There will even be a prize!!

I have, at last, gathered my three Over The Hill ebooks into a print book. I've seen the proofs (and it is rather wonderful), and so - to celebrate it's arrival, I shall award two prizes of that book (picked at random) from those who get this right.

If no one does, then I'll begin to give clues. But for now - happy guessing!!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Today it is raining.

For months, years even, I have tried to be organised about blogging. Mondays and Thursdays, with an explanation for absences.

But it's August. There are gardens to sit in, books to read, grandchildren to be played with. And so, for a week or several, I shall be a bit more haphazard about the whole blogging thing.

I know - the received wisdom tells us that readers need us to be predictable. I will lose followers if I don't stick to a pattern. But, my loyal readers (you must be loyal if you are still connecting in August, when there are gardens to sit in, etc), let me ask you a question or two. Illustrate my choices.

When the sun is shining, and the bees busy on the lavender, would you rather be outside with a book or inside with a computer?

When children come to visit, on precious escape-days from school, would you rather paddle in the river and look for tiddlers, or be inside with a computer?

When you are offered picnics, or days by the sea, or a wander along the Ridgeway to look for butterflies ... would you choose to be inside with a computer?

I am sure there are those, diligent as ever, who will choose the computer option. I salute you, and your dedication to your writing (and your marketing). Me - I'm letting the side down. Maybe I'm a hedonist. Maybe, right now, reading is more nourishing than writing. Maybe ...

It's August. There are gardens to sit in, books to read, grandchildren to be played with. I'm not disappearing. I'll drop by to write when it's raining. I'll read blogs and comment and all the social media stuff - when the clouds gather. The rest of the time, I'm outside, in the sunshine.

Happy holidays!!

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Where are you now?

Today, I'm over on Authors Electric, waxing seriously about why writing matters. (Check it out here, if you're having a serious day.)

But, you say, I could have wittered frivolously on this blog, just to entertain you. Why not? Because the sun is shining. I'd rather be outside than hunched over my computer. And I'm not even going to apologise!!

And next week ... I'll be playing with children. Which is even more important than sunshine and serious writing and reading and talking about the weather or what I'm having for tea or even books. I'll be paddling and pushing swings and being a gaolie. I shall crawl around the floor and make towers and read stories.

I'll be back here, when I've recovered!!

Sunday, 20 July 2014

A Day Out.

The sun is shining, the bees are buzzing, it all feels very summery and wonderful (I'm writing this with a storm brewing, so you'll just have to use your imagination).

It is the season for days out. 

Just suppose you could choose anywhere, reachable for just one day, where would you go? What would you do?

Of course, my little blog cannot claim to be representative. But I'm rather hoping for as many different ideas as I have visitors. Maybe you want to trek up a mountain, or soak yourself under a waterfall? Or you plan a trip to a stately home, where you can marvel on how the rich and powerful spend their money. Or you'd rather visit a small town, potter among the shops, pick up a trinket or two. Or you want to go to Open Golf at Wentworth, or the racing, or to play a game of tennis. You might sit in a cafe, eat cake and watch the world go by.

Days out are rejuvenating and wonderful. Preparatory days are full of organising: tickets, picnics, anxiously watching the weather. Should you take the dog? Will the traffic be kind? How early should you leave to give yourselves plenty of time? Check those opening times one more time.

Me - this is where I went:

Are there people who go to Ascot who are more interested in the hats than the racing? Or get tickets for Wimbledon and dream of strawberries? 

There is no point in going to Lords unless you are interesting in cricket. I know, if I begin to wax lyrical about the delights of cricket that most of you will move on. It's not your thing and there's nothing I could say to tempt you. That's fine - as long as you have something else that is equally special in your life.

And so I will only tell you that I had the most wonderful day. The sort of day all of us need from time to time. So - where are you off to?

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

A post for those who are boycotting Amazon.

I've had several people ask me where else they can buy my Vultures. They try not to use Amazon, they explain - for Amazon is creative on the tax front.

How? Most Amazon stuff for the UK comes from Luxembourg, and they pay - much lower - taxes there than they would if it were sent from the UK. It says on the site that things are sent from the UK ... but often that's a depot on its delivery route.

As far as ebooks are concerned, all this may change in January, when they will have to pay VAT at the UK rate for ebooks sold in the UK. (Will they put up the price of ebooks, take off what they give to the writer ... dip into their own profits ... we'll have to wait and see.)

I completely understand why anyone tries not to use Amazon - I, too, buy stuff elsewhere if I can. But their convenience, and dominance in the market place, makes it impossible for any writer to ignore. I've used the Amazon link to my books beside this blog - why, because that's where most of my sales come from. It would be crazy to do otherwise.

But there are alternatives - and for anyone living according to your anti-Amazon convictions - I'm giving you links for platforms where you can find my Vultures. (All my other books are there too, if you look about a bit - this post would become unwieldy if I put them all in.)

Smashwords - the link is here.

Kobo - the link is here.

iBooks - the link is here - at least I think it is. It gives a price in dollars, and higher than the one I set. Goodness knows how that works. If there's a link to buy the iBook from the UK, I haven't found it yet.

I think you might also find it on another platform or two - some of these are linked to Smashwords and are fine, but some are pirated copies. I've no idea how they do that, nor how to tell the difference. I don't like it, but my techno-knowledge isn't good enough to do anything about it. But if you find it anywhere for free, you can be sure I've got nothing to do with it.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Wiltshire's crop circles

In response to suggestions I write more about the UK, here is a snippet about one of Wiltshire's oddities.

Every year, we see an influx of tourists to see our crop circles.

For those of you who've not come across them before, you can find a link to some pictures here. (Why haven't I put any up here - because I don't have any photographs

 I've taken myself, and am not into 'borrowing' anyone else's from the internet without asking. I don't like anyone 'borrowing' my writing, either.) They began as simple circles in a field, and have become increasingly complicated over the years - and some, as you can see, aren't even circles any more.

There are countless theories about these circles.

When they first appeared, over twenty years ago now, there was talk of tiny tornadoes at the foot of a hill flattening crops in a perfect circle. It was interesting that these tiny tornadoes always occurred where the circle could be seen from the road.

Then, given the lack of anyone coming forward admitting to have created them, came a theory of alien invasions, every summer, creating these circles. So, little green men were thought to have a sudden interest in Wiltshire, arriving with plans and flattening-tools, making wonderful patterns in our fields. For those who are committed to this little green men theory - I wonder why they would do that? Is is purely artistic? The little green man equivalent of the Turner prize? Entertainment? Are they practising for some sort of circle arrangement on their own planet?

Alternatively - and there are people who now admit to doing this (though there are those who still stick to the alien theory) - men and women draw diagrams on computers, work out the tools they will need and come out at night with planks attached to their feet and walk through fields flattening corn to make these extraordinary patterns.

These circles bring in the tourists - which is wonderful. And some are truly extraordinary.

But I also spare a thought for the farmers. Even those who charge visitors to walk across their fields to look at them (they rarely charge more than £1) lose a lot of money when crops are lost in this way. It's tough enough, growing food for us all - without what some would call vandalism while others see them as tourist attractions.

Have you ever seen them? And if you are in the camp with little green men, please can you explain what they are trying to achieve when they come to play in our fields?

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

How well do I know the UK?

In my past post I mused about where I might go next winter? To the Eastern sun? Fly Westerly?

But I was asked how well I know my own country? Why jet cross the world when Britain (and I include Scotland for now - I hope we don't lose it in September) - is so diverse and interesting?

She's right. This is a wonderful, exciting, and fascinating place. But I don't travel round it in the winter any more than I can help. Cold, wet stations or buses swishing along motorways with a view of misty wet fields don't excite me. Cities can be inviting, but on bad days can still be a battle with the weather. I'm not good at winters in the UK - my knees and I object to the cold and wet, and I hate the long dark days. Which is why I try to head for the sun after Christmas.

I know these winter wanderings can't on for ever. I might have to retire the rucksack some time between now and my ninetieth birthday. When long-distance travel begins to feel like and endurance test, I shall spend more time closer to home.

Having said all that, I know the place reasonably well - though there are gaps. I've never been to the north-east - and have heard it's beautiful. But, one way or another (holidays as a child or with my own children, and then work investigations that could send me anywhere) I've visited most of the rest of it at some time. That's not to say I know it all well, nor that there are places I don't long to revisit.

But I've not written about the UK. When I go walkabout from home (which I do occasionally) I rarely comment on it here. I think of it as escaping rather than travelling. I can sit by the harbour in Dartmouth and listen to the rattle of lanyards on the masts and not wonder how to shape that into a blogpost. I can puff up Pen-y-Fan in the Brecons without a word in my head. I can wander round the colleges in Oxford with nothing but memories of my days there in my head.

For sometimes I go to places and don't write about them. I have time off. And I don't tell you about it!! But maybe, sometimes, I need to think that differently. For there are stories wherever we look, and wherever we are, and next time one stares me in the face, I'll try to remember it and tell you.

By the way, I'm going to Ireland in the autumn. Just so you know.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

What I should do - not always what I want to do!

I know I should be telling you more about my wonderful little ebook. (Well, I think it's wonderful - it cost enough in terms of angst to get this far.)

I should be telling you about the challenges of catching buses in Cuba. Well, to be fair, catching the buses was fine; it was buying tickets that could be a bit random. I should be telling you about the vagaries of the casa particular system - a connected system of homestays. Once you have organised a stay in one (a process not without its challenges) your host or hostess will fix the next one. Which means you'll always have somewhere to stay - hurrah!! But you never quite know what it's going to be like till you get there ...

I should be telling you about the music ... and the waterfalls ... and the horse-riding ... and the vultures ...

But what I really want to do - what I always want to do at this point, with the ebook sent on its way - is think about another trip.

So I'll convince myself that if you're wondering whether to buy the book you might like to check out the pictures on my website here (follow the travel links to Cuba), and if you're not - well, me going on and on isn't going to change your mind.

Instead I'll ask you where you would go next, if you were me?

Would you retrace your steps in somewhere you've been before, and if so, where? Would you tramp back into the mountains of Nepal, with their breathtaking views and a cyclone or two? Would you head further east, back to Malaysia, or Cambodia, or Vietnam? Would you tiptoe back into the temples of India? Or maybe west, another road trip in America?

Or venture somewhere new? If I put my mind to it I might have usable Spanish by the winter, which opens more possibilities. So, South America? Somewhere in Africa maybe?

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Not all men are tossers, though some are.

I know I said I wouldn't write about Child Protection and the work that I did - and I meant it.

But the recent conviction of Rolf Harris has raised so many issues I thought I'd float a few of them here.

He presented as hugely likeable - and I'm sure that all those who never saw his 'darker side' had great fun with him. He was musical and talented and could make people laugh. Some blokes are good at that. Nothing can ever excuse the way he used his talents to abuse young women and children.

Some blokes are good at other stuff. They build things or make things or write things or dig their gardens or milk cows. They play music and read books and fall asleep in front of the telly. They cook the tea and play with their kids and read the newspaper and play on their computers. They are generally good blokes.

When I was working there were times when it felt as if all men were total plonkers - or worse. If anyone I didn't know well came near my children I went into fight-mode. Don't you dare pick up her ball for her, nor commiserate with a scraped knee. That sort of thing.

Since I stopped working I've met men of many more shapes and sizes and learned that - yes, some are still plonkers or worse. The Rolf Harrises of this world still lurk around children's playgrounds and in the swimming pools. They still sidle up to children and offer sweets and smiles and make them laugh. Parents must still be vigilant.

But most men aren't like that. Most men work and love and laugh and would need holding back in chains if they thought anyone would harm a child. There are more decent blokes around than tossers, even though the newspapers might have us believe otherwise.

And so, while nothing can ever diminish the harm that Rolf Harris has done, let's not tar all friendly men with his brushes. No one is perfect, but most of us (men and women) are good enough.

Now - that really is my last word on Child Protection. For I really ought to be marketing my vultures.

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Vultures Overhead.

Tis done. My Vultures flew into cyberworld last Friday, and have been floating around the place landing in an e-reader or several. So all it all it's been an exciting weekend.

It's been a challenge, this little ebook. I have never been quite so aware of visiting a country at a particular point in its history. With Fidel Castro aging (aren't we all?) there is a feeling that everyone - Cubans included - are holding a collective breath. Things will have to change.

Will they? Or is that simply western thinking, unable to contemplate a country that has carved a very different niche for itself when compared to the great gods of capitalistic greed? Are Cubans themselves fearful of what will happen when El Padre dies and America knocks on her door with an invitation for McDonalds, and Coca Cola, and heroin?

I couldn't answer any of those questions - though they lurked in my thinking all the time I was there. All I have done is try to tell you the Cuba I met, in January 2014. It is a personal journey - but I hope I have treated the country and her people with respect. That, to me, is more important than anything else.

But, I hear you ask, where are the adventures? Well, there were some hiccups along the way, and a few people I'd rather cross the road than meet again. And others who made me so welcome I felt like family. Read it and see for yourself!!

The Amazon UK link is here, and US link is here. For those who give Amazon the cold shoulder, you can find it on Smashwords here.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Is travel writing simply piddling in the wind?

Most travel writing - and I include my own in this - might look at first sight to be nothing more than fairly trivial recollections on one's journeys. The ups and downs of getting around in unfamiliar countries, of coping with unexpected food or different ways of doing things.

But we write at a time when, or so it seems to me, the world is becoming increasingly divided. Some newspapers would have us believe that there can be no dialogue between Christian and Muslim, between the democrat and the demagogue, between the greedy and the needy.

What travel writers do is ask questions about these differences - often very trivial questions - that explore everything that we have in common. We all need to eat and have shelter from the weather. We love and are loved. We nurture our young and grieve for our dying. The rhythms of our rituals may be different; the way we organise our families and our trade and our means of production may be different, but our fundamental needs and feelings are the same.

Travel writers understand our sameness and explore our differences without making judgement about them.

And in our divided, conflicting world it seems to me that it is needed more than ever.

Are we piddling in the wind? Possibly. One little stream will make no difference. But two little streams is better than one. Three can become a rivulet. Four ... you get my drift.

I cannot accept a world in which we settle our differences with guns. Travel writers might be nothing more than an entertainment for you to curl up with on a wet day. But collectively we can suggest that words are the only way to understand those differences and the only way to find a more peaceful way of living together.

Am I saying travel writers can change the world? Of course not. But I am suggesting that we feed curiosity, and that can never be a bad thing.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Just when you were wondering if I was ever going to write about Cuba ...

Well, the manuscript is almost back from the copy editor. If it's too smothered in red it might be several days (or even weeks) before I can tease it into an ebook. But it will happen.

It already has a blurb:

It’s time for JO CARROLL to pack her rucksack again, and this time she’s heading west, to Cuba.
Everyone, it seems, has been to Cuba, or wants to go to Cuba, or knows about it. Cuba, they insist, is on the brink of change. A market economy will finally see off the old cars and rationing. They’ve been saying that for decades. But what face does Cuba present to a tourist in 2014?
She finds salsa, of course, and cigars, and wonderful coffee. But what surprises wait for her when the music stops?

It even has a  cover:

For which, as usual, I am indebted to Mark Smart.

And if anyone should ask nicely for a review copy, then you can have one. Just get in touch.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Reflections on Berlin

I've been home from Berlin for a few days - time to let ideas simmer. Even so I still don't have a coherent view of the city - but I'm not sure there is one.

A disclaimer to begin with - the weather was lovely; and so, given a choice between learned museums and sitting in the sunshine with a beer, well, I'm sorry but the beer won. I also spent hours walking in streets, generally poking my nose into corners. I did the open-top bus thing, and the river trip - but passed on the ancient-ruin museums, even though I know they have precious collections. (I did go to a couple of art galleries, which were wonderful).

And I did some thinking. Freud told us that are all shaped by our histories - both personal and collective. Reflections on my travels suggest cities fit into the same construct. Berlin is no exception.

Berlin's recent history (by recent I mean the last hundred years) is well known and terrible. There is no hiding from the terrors. The city was devastated by the war: rebuilding has been slow, and without avoiding taking responsibility for the bloodshed. The Memorial to the Holocaust is respectful but still shocking even though no secret any more. The years of division echo in the concrete apartment blocks on what was the East Side - though many have been repainted and balconies added so they don't have the run-down, mildewed look of their counterparts in Havana.

The Wall came down in 1989. The city has had twenty-five years to knit itself back together - and continue to acknowledge its past. There are still differences between West and East (there are trams in the East), but they are blurred now. Restaurants proliferate on both sides. Museums cover the history of the whole city.

I searched for evidence of Berlin's piecing together. Someone told me that, just as the Wall had gone up brick by brick, then that's how it had to come down - and how Berliners had to step into their future. Tentatively, curiously, and now with enthusiasm and energy, the city wonders if it dares be proud of itself. Or would that upset those still traumatised by the Holocaust?

It's vibrant, and gusty, and wondering if it is time to be celebrate its recovering or should still be hanging its head in shame for the past.

Maybe it will take much longer for Berlin to get that 'right.' There will always be those who need, for reasons of their own, to see the city self-flagellate. While there are others who are eager to cheer her modernity.

What I took away is a conviction that great divisions can only mend if we listen and talk to each other. There have been ups and downs but Germany has come together without fisticuffs. Which is why it seems important to learn from them. How have they done it? And what can they teach other countries that seem intent on tearing themselves apart?

Answers on a postcard to those struggling with the mayhem in Iraq ...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

The Bears of Berlin

There is much to think about in Berlin. Memorials to events that are too terrible to think about for long. Lovely bars and restaurants where you can sit and drink beer and watch the world go by. 

The city has slowly knitted itself back together since the days of the Wall - I may blog about that when I've had more time to think about it. The city does not shy away from it's stories of hardship and recovery.

But I couldn't find the story behind the Bears. They clearly come from a standard bear-maker, as they are all the same shape. Many are advertising hotels or other businesses. Some seem completely arbitrary, standing on the pavement doing nothing more than entertain the passers-by.

Here are a few of them:

Aren't they wonderful? I remember being equally entranced by the painted cows in New York - but if anyone knows the story behind them I'd love to know it.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Itchy-feet time

I'm heading for the airport tomorrow, and will be awol for a few days .

Here's a clue to where I'm going:

And another clue ... it's not Manhattan ...

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

In praise of women who can mend computers

Last week my computer went on strike. I've got a Macbook Pro - and the screen had stuck a few times but if I ignored it for a while it got the message and got going again.

This time it was more than stuck. Everything disappeared except the little arrow. I pressed all the keys (stupid, I know) and then abandoned it. Several hours later I went back and persuaded it to turn off. We both slept.

I woke up - and the computer didn't. The fan turned on, and the whirly thing swam around the screen for a while. Then, with a bit of persuading, it turned off. I walked up and down, and bit my nails, listed all those things I've been meaning to back up for ages but somehow never got round to (updated pages for the website, my accounts, poems I've written for my grandchildren ...)

I could, I thought, take it to the Mac-mending shop. Without wishing to be too stereotypical here, I began to imagine what might happen. Two geeky boys (pretending to be men, barely old enough to shave) would look very grave and say it would have to be sent away and need new whatnots and thingamies and would cost megapounds.

I began with a plan B: I rang my neighbour and asked the name of her computer-whizzy person. In less than an hour she was here, resting elegant fingers on my machine. I offered tea (I had no cake). She pressed this, that and the other - and then waited. She restarted the machine ... and there it was, my homepage. Documents ready and undamaged.

No, she said, she didn't need money - she'd not been here for five minutes.

But I must pay you, I said, coming to my rescue so quickly.

(I won.)

So, without getting too embroiled in gender, I can't help wondering if women working in a computer-mending shop would do the chin-stroking, this-is-serious thing; or if a man would dream of admitting that my machine was suffering nothing worse than a need for a reset and try to charge me nothing?

Sunday, 1 June 2014

What the ...

My twin grandsons were three yesterday. Like any grandmother I bought presents and cards, sat to wrap them ... and a small flier fell out of one of the birthday cards.

For those of you unfamiliar with three-year old boys: a few are quiet and reflective, but most are impulsive and very physical. They look for anything to climb on, throw, kick, or leap on. They find great joy in their own bodies but it can take some time before their thinking catches up.

So, this little flier invited me to add an 'experience' to the card I'd bought for my grandson (a blue card, with a big blue 3 on it, so there could be no mistaking their target market). (All capital letters are from the flier, just to show how wonderful these opportunities are, presumably).

I could take him to the Kids Spy Academy (that lost apostrophe enough to put off any three-year old ...)

I could take him to feed Big Cats (even the thought of that is enough to give me a fit of the vapours).

I could teach him to Surf ...

I could take him to an Introduction to Archery ...

I could take him for a Photoshoot for a Little Princess ...

I could take him Ghost-Hunting ...

He could drive a Go-Kart

He could try Ice-Dancing

I have a discount number, so if any of you know a three-year old who needs feeding to the lions, get in touch!!

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A post about Iceland

When I wondered, a week or so ago, where I should go now that Madagascar is off the radar, a friend on Facebook suggested Iceland.

I went there many years ago (before digital cameras, so there are no pictures) - so I thought I'd muse on a recollection or two, as I'm not likely to go back in the near future: so this is a present for her.

I was there in June, during the long days of summer. So I went outside to see the sun almost dip below the horizon in the middle of the night and then rise again. It was dislocating, unnerving, waking to daylight and have no idea what time it might be.

I stayed in the south - for various reasons I couldn't get to the north, and I understand it's different, and full of mosquitoes. Reykjavik is a modern city with some lovely wooden buildings and modern sculptures by the waterfront, but the countryside is much more interesting.

It's geologically very new - which has a huge impact on the environment. Where volcanoes have erupted under the ice, carpets of new lava creep the mountainside. When cool, it looks like huge fields of stones (by huge, I mean something that can take a couple of hours or more to drive across - that huge!). These volcanic stretches are grey and bleak, and on cloudy days they are echoed in the sky to give an air of cold but beautiful abandonment.

But it's not all grey. Where grass grows it is fresh and green and precious. The ice (and there is plenty of ice) is blue, except at the edges of the glaciers where it is a rather dirty white. There are magnificent waterfalls - angry and full of water from the glaciers. There are some you can walk behind and find rainbows when the sun shines. And there are some - fed from warm underground water - that are warm, where you can swim.

Geysers, with the distinctive smell of sulphur, remind us of the earth's fragility. There are corners where the crust is so thin that the underworld bubbles and pops.

What is there to do? This is not a country for beaches. But you can ride an Icelandic pony, which has a strange extra stride somewhere between a trot and a canter. (I confess to giggling at a couple of experienced riders who were discomforted by that.)

And then you can go on a skidoo - which is like a motorbike on skis. You tog up in a giant babygro and gloves and helmets. Stagger across and wonder how you'll ever get on the thing (forget elegant). I used not to understand the attraction of motorbikes, but now I get it. That engine pumping between your knees - and you almost float across the icecap knowing that if you do fall off the landing (a thin layer of snow) won't hurt. Well, I suppose it might if the skidoo fell on top of you, but let's not think of that. It's wonderful - all that white ice, the wind in your face, and just a flick of your wrist to make that engine throb and you're racing.

Maybe I'll go back sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

It's Bank Holiday, so what are you doing here?

I might sit about with a cup of tea before the day gets going, and then I'm off to the Chippenham Folk Festival.

What - morris dancers and people singing with a finger in their ears? There's a bit of that, but much more besides. It might surprise you just how much 'folk' has changed since the 1960s - to begin with, singers are more likely to clutch a bottle of water on stage than a pint of beer.

I don't remember this sort of thing in the 60s? (Well, I do, but it sounded a bit different then.)

Having said that, it will still involve a lot of flopping about like an old hippy. Sitting in the sunshine (I hope). Eating festival food. Queueing for toilets.

Anyone else into festivals? I love them - I love celebrating anything: music, arts, books ... well, maybe not cars or steam engines. I love wandering among people who are interesting in the same things - so at literature festivals I talk words and this weekend I'll be singing and maybe enjoying a strip-the-willow if my knees can stand it. There will be no prizes, no stars. Just people having fun.

That's it - I'm off to enjoy myself.

But what do you do, just because you can? Because it lifts your spirits? Because you can share it with those you love?

Wednesday, 21 May 2014

Why you should vote.

It will be interesting to watch the stats for this post - my guess is I'll not get many visitors. Even the thought of an election sends many people to sleep.

Those who stay awake might say:
  • what is point of the voting for people who take no notice of me after the election?
  • politicians spend my money on duck houses and close school libraries.
  • politicians tell lies.
  • no one has taken the trouble to knock on my door so why should I put myself out for them?
I get all that. I can see that putting your cross on a piece of paper may feel like a waste of time and effort when you've many pressing things to do. And when nothing terrible happens if you stay at home and eat cake.

But if you've decided that elections are a waste of time - what would you replace them with? Government by some sort of cadre that co-opts new members when any participant pops his or her clogs? I've visited countries like that - and yes, people eat and sleep and laugh and go about their businesses just as you and I do. But they cannot stop on street corners and talk about the government, blaming those in power for everything from the price of bread to a war. There are places where they can be strung up by the short and curlies for that (metaphorically, you understand).

Or would you rather have a free-for-all that abandons any sort of government in the belief that we can sort things out for ourselves (are you going to collect the rubbish from your street, in the spirit of neighbourliness?)? 

Our democracy is hugely flawed - I know that. But every system is flawed; and every system has its pockets of corruption and politicians who tell lies.

Yet it's the system we've got - and only functions because enough people engage with it. Which, of course, means that governments - national, local, or European - can only represent a majority if enough people make the effort to vote. So do you want to be have your say, feeble though it may be - or join the unthinkers and let it all happen without you?

And for the women - our great-grandmothers chained themselves to railings so we could vote. Not so we could sit on our bottoms stirring our cappuccinos and complaining. Voting is a privilege. We should treasure it.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

So where shall I go next?

With the Cuba ebook in its final stages, it's time to plan another trip. (Well, it would be time to plan another trip whatever state Vultures Overhead was in - I'm not good at sitting about for months when there's a world that needs exploring.)

As some of you know, I've wanted to go to Madagascar for a long time. (No particular reason - it just feels like a good idea!)

Two years ago I didn't go when I discovered that January (when I planned to travel) is hurricane season. Hurricanes and cyclones are the same thing. As anyone who has read Hidden Tiger knows, I've done cyclones and they aren't funny. As a tourist you become part of the problem, which is unfair on people who live there and must piece their own lives together without worrying about you.

So last year I was almost organised to go in September when I checked out their election dates ... oh no, there was a Presidential election in September. Travelling independently in an African country during an election was simply bonkers. Never mind, I could - I thought - go this year.

When I got back from Cuba I was all itchy feet and enthusiasm, bought a Lonely Planet, worked out where to go and how to get there - and in the last few weeks I've been checking the Foreign Office website and Lonely Planet forum for safety advice (something I always do before travelling).

And this is where things came a bit unstuck. The Foreign Office advice seems to be changing all the time - largely in response to the murder of two tourists on a beach. It was particularly unpleasant, as the local people accused them of killing a boy to steal his kidney, and so the manner of their dying was particularly punitive. Never mind, I thought, I don't have to walk along beaches at night. But then more advice came - never leave your hotel after dark. In some places, don't even leave the resort.

I hoped for more encouragement on the Lonely Planet forum - that's where such safety advice is often poo-poo'd. But independent travellers, many of whom travel by taxi-brousse (pile as many people into a taxi as possible and then leave), wrote that even taxis are travelling in convoy because the roads are full of wandering youths armed with knives and machetes who waylay the unwary.

Then one man - who lives there - advised visitors to carry a gun. Now, he might have been being alarmist, and quite enjoying the attention this brought. But it was enough to give me the heebie-jeebies. I know I take a risk or two at times - but never, ever, ever with guns. Even if I had a guide with a gun, what if someone got shot with it? Even if it was one of the highwaymen  - that still isn't ok. I'm not sure I know how I could live with that.

So I've put my guidebook back on the shelf. I know I could take a tour - but I love independent travel. I love being able to talk with local people, to share a beer with them and discover what makes their worlds go round. If I can't do that, in relative safety, then I think I'll find somewhere less alarming.

Which grieves me - a lot of this may be scaremongering. The chances are I could visit and have a wonderful, safe time. But I don't want to be looking over my shoulder all the time. So - back to the travel drawing-board.

Where would you go?

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

So, when am I going to write about Cuba ...

Let's start at the beginning. Yes, I'm going to publish an ebook about Cuba - and it should be ready towards the end of June. The manuscript is currently with a copyeditor, the title is more or less fixed and my wonderful cover-person has been busy.

But I'm more cautious about this book than I have been about the others. Before I went to Cuba I was deluged with advice - everyone, or so it seemed, had been there or knew someone who had been there and knew where I should go and what I should buy. Then there were those with strong political views who seemed to know what I should think (they don't know me very well - telling me what to think is never a good idea!).

On top of that, I have no Spanish. Well, I didn't when I left home - I've blogged about my efforts to learn the language and develop my miming skills. But it means I have only impressions to work with, as my discussions with local people rarely developed beyond telling them where I was from (though I did get Brownie points for not being American).

So I'm biting my nails in launching this book. I might upset those whose advice I ignored. I might upset those who hoped I'm come home a raving socialist or even ready to worship the gods of the free market.

I don't wish to upset anyone - but do not feel a need to compromise. I've written about my experience of Cuba (which was mixed). I hope I've approached the country and its people with respect - that feels more important to me than pleasing all my well-wishers. Only time will tell if you agree with me.

That title: Vultures Overhead.

And it will be followed by a print book which includes all three Over the Hill ebooks, entitled From The Outside Looking In.

That should keep me busy for a day or two.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

There's a one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu

Is it just me, or was this one of the lines somehow edged itself into your memory during your childhood?  I think my father quoted it from time to time, though he didn't know the rest of the poem. (For those who don't know it - it's here.)

It's a lovely line - in the sense that it bounces along, presents an instant image, leads the reader into the narrative behind the poem. I came across it again the other day - written during the days of the Raj, it tells the tale of a militiaman in love with a young woman, her ethnicity unclear but the implication is that she is Nepali (Kathmandu being the capital of Nepal).

It's a poem of its time. The young woman asked for the eye of this little idol as proof of love, but the idol haunted the man for years afterwards. It wouldn't, at the time, have raised an eyebrow - especially as the lovely rhythms of that first line carry on throughout the poem.

Now - in the twenty-first century - it feels patronising - even racist. The jaunty tone of the poem contradicts any suggestion that this might be a love poem, even implies attraction between people of different ethnicities is slightly comic.

In addition, this yellow idol - diminished as it is by the loss of an eye - bears no relation to any of the Hindu deities I came across in Nepal.

Does this matter? Maybe not - it's a poem of its time. We've moved on, and surely anyone reading it could recognise that times have changed. And yet that sing-song rhythm lingers. I've come across people who, when I mention I've been to Nepal, quote this line. For some it seems to include all they know about the country.

I don't want to suggest we cull every Victorian poem that celebrated the Empire. But I wonder if we need to read them with one eye (yellow or not) on the times in which they were written and another on the wonderful opportunities we now have to celebrate our diversities and our commonalities.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Why I don't write about Child Protection.

I've been asked this - so I'll tell you.

I understand the curiosity. I spent thirty years with traumatised children, surely I have stories to tell. They'd be interesting. They'd open people's eyes to the suffering of children and their capacity for recovery. All very true.

Firstly, I'll not write about anyone I knew - it would break all the rules of confidentiality, for a start. But it's more than that - children are precious and so are their stories. It is up to them who knows.

I know - I wrote about therapeutic work with children and used case studies, all heavily disguised and with the child's permission. It must be possible to do that on my blogging platform. But that writing was for other professionals - men and women trained to work with children, or men and women who needed to meet and think about the gruesome details of child abuse before meeting a real child. The aim was help them be better at what we were doing - helping children.

This blog aims to do nothing more than entertain. Occasionally I get polemical, but mostly it's chit-chat about books and writing and travelling. Nothing to frighten the horses. Child abuse isn't entertainment. There is nothing funny or exciting about it. It is messy and frightening and deeply uncomfortable. What's more, some people get off on the details. (Surely not?? Oh yes there are. I've come across the worst that people can do to children and know that there are w*nkers out there.)

Couldn't I make it amusing - were there no funny moments? Of course there were. And often we found a terrible grisly humour which kept us going but would be inappropriate to share with anyone. For they were funny moments that only had validity because of the things we had seen and heard.

It is vital work - and I'm proud of everything I achieved. There are children I worked with who are making a success of caring for their own children (I am especially proud of them). But it's behind me - I left at the right time for me, just as I was beginning to wonder if I could listen to this any more. I don't miss it.

So no, I won't write about Child Protection. Instead I'll write about travelling, and bluebells.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

What would a child do?

I was privileged to work with children for decades. They taught me so much about the limitations of being a grown-up.

This hit me last weekend. Each year our local charities raise money by charging people to visit West Woods - known for their carpets of bluebells. Sunday was sunny - and the woods were full of visitors. But there is plenty of room for everyone, for these bluebells stretch for miles, or so it seems.

For once, I'll give you pictures:

Who wouldn't want to wander here?

Or here?

Just imagine you're six, and seeing this for the first time! That blue that shimmers, sparkles in the sunlight. That smell - though if you breathe too deeply it will make you cough. I was well-behaved enough, at six, to know I shouldn't pick them (though I wanted to) - but even now how I longed to run through them. Or even lie down, to make a bed in them, to have bluebells tickle my nose and whisper spring secrets in my ears.

I didn't, of course. I even took sensible routes to avoid the mud. But sometimes I wish we could shake off our adult expectations. Wouldn't it be wonderful to abandon grown-upness and rediscover bluebells for the first time?

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Play vs TV vs Book

Yesterday, I saw Birdsong in the Theatre Royal in Winchester.

I've read the book, seen the TV adaptation, and now the play. So is it fair to compare them?

Not really - they are different art forms. They take the same material (for those not familiar with Sebastian Faulks' book, it's set in the trenches of the World War 1 with flashbacks to an affair), even tell the same story, but they work with different tools. However, it is impossible for forget any encounter with this story before, even if it comes in a different shape.

A writer has nothing but words and white space on the page. And, of course, the imagination of the reader who must do some of the work - taking those words and providing his or her own images. The reader engages as he or she chooses; there are times then this books is gruesome - a reader is free to put the book down, take a rest from the misery, go outside and smell the roses, listen to the birdsong.

When I saw this televised, the director seemed to understand this need for respite from the trenches: the flashback scenes, while painful to watch in places, were full of sunshine and - in spite of the heartache - there was an optimism in all that loving. It left the viewer with a feeling that the carnage was worth it for love, in the form of a child, would survive. And, if it was too full of blood and mayhem, the viewer could turn it off - or go and make a cup of tea and hope it was more cheerful when he or she came back.

There is no such respite on stage. This production handled the flashbacks seamlessly, so 'present' morphed into memory with little more than a flicking of scenery and change of lighting. Characters slipped from past to present with comparable ease. However, the backdrop - the barbed wire and mud of the trenches - never moved. The audience was never able to forget the context of this play, no taking a trip to the loo, no slipping into the garden to remind yourself of sunshine.

The result - it was harrowing. It's hugely powerful - and important to remember just how futile it all was, how pointless all that carnage. The acting and staging was superb. But not for anyone who, for whatever reason, is looking for light entertainment. - I don't see this as 'criticism' - this is a magnificent, important play and this production was wonderful. Harrowing was what it needed to be.