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?