Wednesday 4 December 2013

Change of venue

I have radically revised and updated my website, at

This now contains a blog so I trust you will pop over and take a look of what I've put up. That's where - from now on - any new material will appear.

Thanks to the 8000 + people who have been reading my bather on this site.

Enjoy the fresh new look at

Signing off here with a happy new year,


Jane Wilson-Howarth.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Lest we forget

Irish Guardsman Terry Flanagan, was in the same platoon as Joe Wilson, my Dad, during the Second World War. Joe’s platoon was in Normandy being shelled and they were pinned down in shallow trenches.

This is part of a transcript of an interview with Terry:

"I had just got 200 Gallaher Blues from my mother [in Belfast] in the post the day before. I opened them up and I was going to have a smoke but I had no matches. A few shells went over, a couple landed a way down a bit.
"Hey Joe, have you got any matches?" Joe was a helluva nice bloke, didn't curse, didn't smoke and a lovely boxer.
And Joe shouts back, "Yes I've got a box."
"Could you bring them over?  I've cigarettes and no matches."  
Joe says, "Well that's tough luck! If you have no matches you can come over here for them."
"Ach Joe, we're gettin' shelled!"
"I know, that's why I'm not going over there to your trench. Bring your smokes over here."
I says, "Well you don't smoke."
He said, "I never did, but I feel like one today with these shells!”
The Germans were shelling, oh aye and the odd one was thumping into the front bank.
So I needed a smoke badly. So I said “Alright.” And I got out, crawled over to Joe’s trench; I got into it. I’d a 20 packet with me, opened it up got a cigarette out and I gave him one and he says, “How do you smoke it?”
So we got the box of matches and we lit up. We’d smoked maybe half a cigarette and then we heard this thing coming. The sound of it, the scream of it. We hit the deck. There was an awful explosion right near us. It must have been a 120mm shell. And we looked up and looked out then and there was a big pall of smoke covering my trench.
And [stammering in disbelief] I said, "Joe … it went into my trench ... thank goodness I came over…"

"YES, and I didn’t go over there, or the two of us would have been mincemeat!!”

This must be a rare occasion when smoking proved good for the health.

The Irish Guards were often in the thick of it and only a handful of the original Normandy men survived the war. 
1920 - 2011

Sunday 27 October 2013

Explorers and Risk-takers

I was in a good mood, having one of those English conversations, with a stranger, over a counter. I was enthusing about the mildness of the day and the gorgeousness of the autumn colours. She responded by complaining of the short days and the misery of getting up for work in the dark, and going home in the dark.
‘Yeh, it’s tough. Not sure I could live in the north.’ We were waiting for her colleague to arrive and help me with something, so, unusually, we had time for conversation. I spoke a little about our trip last winter to Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle, where from the end of November the sun doesn’t rise at all. Our visit was in late December. S & I didn’t know what to expect. We woke bewildered at 9am to complete and absolute night-time. We breakfasted and went out to explore. How could people cope with utter blackness for weeks on end? Yet although the sun doesn’t rise at all in December, there is a suggestion of daylight. The skies lighten to a beautiful twilight from about 10am. That fades to darkest night again by 2pm. (There are graphs at showing the level of light at

That darkness wasn’t at all gloomy. Light blasted out wherever there were houses, and shops of course. Norwegians aren’t private curtain-closers like us English. They are generous with their illuminations. Light streams from big windows even of remote homes. The countryside feels friendly, fresh and alive. And social life seems to ignore conventional timetables so there are midnight concerns and plenty going on.
Note the sculpture in celebration of whaling that has made Tromsø rich 

the lit up Arctic Cathedral

Tromsø with, on the left, the fine Rica Ishvashotel where S & I stayed

The long weekend in Tromsø introduced me – at the museum of Arctic explorers there – to the astonishing Fridtjof Nansen (1861 – 1930). He was attracted to the idea (!) of using the flow of polar ice to carry a boat right across the Arctic, and thus reach the North Pole. The theory was that a boat might leave Siberia and traverse the Arctic to emerge from the ice at Greenland. So Nansen deliberately set out to wedge his especially strong boat, the Fram, in pack ice. The plan didn’t quite work, progress was slow and Nansen calculated that the boat would take five years to cross to land again. They decided to split the party and strike out on foot for the Pole. The 14-month long expedition was treacherous, involved two of the team overwintering on the ice in a tent and spending a month on an ice floe. By the time the ice started to melt some of their navigational equipment had failed but they still managed to reach safety despite their home-made kayaks being trashed by walruses. These explorers were immensely resourceful and I couldn’t help feeling it was no wonder that the Norwegian Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole. Scott by contrast was an amateur.

What is it that makes people set off on expeditions? I think it is the minority who go in search of glory. I guess for most it is the call of adventure, to step outside of the humdrum. To challenge oneself. To see how you’ll cope. To take a risk and see what happens. To see what fate flings at you. That attitude was one that prevailed amongst the expatriates we lived amongst in Nepal. Most were risk-takers. We were an odd unconventional bunch of kindred spirits, even if we weren’t all heroic explorers.
One such risk taker returned to Cambridge last weekend, having achieved a place in the Guinness Book of Records. Anton Wright (with Mark de Rond) managed to row the entirety of the River Amazon, a terrific achievement rowing 16-hours a day in a boat that leaked. They navigated 2000 miles over 31 days. The self-effacing Anton, who returned 18kg lighter, said that the flow of the river helped a lot and sometimes they’d make 100km in a day.,
Then earlier this explorer-themed week A & I went along to the Arts Picturehouse to see original footage of the 1924 film featuring Mallory and his The Epic of Everest. Again this was an astonishing tale of determination and true grit. The film had been remastered and was, of course, silent, but the shots of grinning locals and the desperate aridity of that part of Tibet helped me see again the riches of my life in England. Travel – even vicariously – does that for you.

Returning, after the film, to our tiny but luxuriant and wild little garden, I felt myself moved by the wonderful autumn colours, and it was with delight I was welcomed home by the low croak of a resident frog. An aeroplane had just flown over, and I do believe he was calling to it. Maybe he was in love.

Tuesday 22 October 2013

In the Forest

... in the forest
I often go there, to those quiet places,
To rid myself of the ugly urgent things
That torture men.

Green turf amid silent trees and soft light airs
And a spring of running water in the grass,
They freshen a jaded mind, they give me back to myself
They make me abide in myself

For is there any man can live in town,
Harried and always at white heat with some fresh disturbance and racket,
And not be dragged outside himself,
Not waste his time on emptiness
No longer privy to his own thoughts?

Marbod de Rennes, 1035-1123
(Translated by Helen Waddell, 1927)

The weather forecast was fair when I tumbled out of bed on Sunday morning, and then as I sank my ivories into a slice of wholemeal and home-made marm, the sun broke though and the autumn colours in our little garden glowed. I felt strangely liberated as I set out on my little solo adventure with my bins and cheese sarnies a quest to catch some Red Deer Rutting Action. East Anglia is known for its landscapes and cloudscapes and the tumbling cumulus looked very fine as the sun continued to spotlight trees and fields and hedgerows dotted with hawthorn and rosehip red. I was heading east congratulating myself on the early start when the thunderclouds closed in and driving conditions deteriorated to fast-windscreen-wiper-mode.
I passed a sign ordering me to Diss Norwich, which seemed harsh and unnecessary.
I contemplated turning back then argued that the East doesn’t have a high rainfall even if it is known for the intensity of its rain. And anyway the forecast had suggested that the coast would be rain free at least until lunchtime.
 By the time I’d left the billowing chimneys of the Bury St Edmonds sugar beet factory behind me, turned off the A14 and joined the tourist route at Stowmarket, patches of blue sky were showing again. The rain-washed countryside looked lovelier than ever. Ploughed fields were sprouting rich green and black silhouettes showed where crows patrolled. I found myself noting that some of my patients shared surnames with village names I passed, and here too was a surfeit of place names with ing in the middle or end, meaning the people or family of an Anglo-Saxon chieftain: Dennington, Badingham and Framlingham.

Saxtead Green and a brooding sky

I paused at the fine loo-with-a-view at Saxtead Green with its impressive windmill, and photographed it. My idea is to find interesting loos to add to a collection I’m posting on the How to Shit Around the World facebook page. I don’t care if people find my enthusiasms odd.
Yoxford - 93 miles from London
Then it was on along the Roman Road past an assortment of pink cottages (traditionally the colour came from ox’s blood) through Yoxford and on along mysterious winding lanes with hedgerows so high that they formed green tunnels to drive through.
I’d imagined that the RSPB reserve at Minsmere would be open and watery but there are also areas of mature silver birch forest. It wasn’t easy to see far and I rapidly decided I’d be unlikely to see any of the testosterone-fired battles of the Red Deer Rut. Deer in most places are extraordinarily shy so I satisfied myself with enjoying the antics of various birds including a nuthatch. They’re so attractive with admirable athleticism.
Then, on a slight rise, I spotted the russet rump of a large deer. She was head-down, grazing and appeared to be alone. A dog barked. The hind’s head came up and she was gone. I tuned into gunfire too, and wondered who was shooting what. No wonder the wildlife was nervous.

I continued. Only a few metres further on I registered movement and realised I was close to a herd. One of the hinds raised her head to show an elegant profile. She turned ears then head towards me and I could see her nostrils working. I was downwind and my profile was mostly hidden behind a conifer. The herd was females and youngsters, moving purposefully at right angles to where I was standing. Might they be looking for the stags? I heard a characteristic bellow. They moved on towards the sound. I tried to keep track of where the hinds were moving to hoping they’d lead me to a battling pair of stags. I kept them in sight with my bins for a while. But they curved around and crossed into a part of the reserve protected by fierce Keep Out notices. There was another tantalising bellow
The ground was squelchy. I found a broken down ‘pill box’ – remnant of the war and one of our line of defences against German invasion – and sat to soak up the tranquillity. Birds twittered all around me. I luxuriated in the isolation and peace, and my cheese sarnies.

By the time I’d left the reserve, I’d got good views of herds of hinds six times and had seen tens of these magnificent animals. The last herd even had an attendant stag. Perhaps he’s already won his battles. I felt smug. I’d walked by lots of folk on brisk walks with friends having loud conversations or with yappy dogs and I felt sure most were unaware of the beauty I’d seen.
It is just a pity that I only caught the fungi on film. 

Sunday 18 August 2013

Errors and typos

Everyone messes up on occasion and it always heartens me when I notice deficiencies in works of great writers – despite all their learning and editorial backup. Who’d have guessed that the well-travelled Conrad (in the Heart of Darkness) would suggest that Africa is populated by alligators? Or that porcupines are found in Madagascar – as Geraldine McCaughrean suggests in her otherwise wonderful Plundering Paradise?

Those are errors of fact but how easy it is for mistakes to creep in. I was horrified to find two howlers in the first edition of my first book – my pride and joy – Lemurs of the Lost World.

I’d gone to some trouble to describe exactly the markings of my beloved lemurs, right down to their lovely soft white chest and belly fur. I wrote:

female Crowned Lemur with white underparts checking before entering a cave water-hole
“Most often we saw attractive small agile animals with thick grey fur marked subtly with white underparts and brown on the head. These were adult female Crowned Lemurs.”

Problem was that the publisher's editor (who clearly wasn't into wildlife writing) thought that I’d made a silly mistake or typo and changed white underparts to white underpants. Now there’s an image that still makes me smile.

The other embarrassing typo was:

“The door of the concrete bathroom had disintegrated long ago and had been replaced by some flattened oil drums in a wobbly wooden frame. It would not stay shut. Inside was a rustling oil drum which had been filled from the well. Floating on the water was a plastic mug which gave a clue to the local bathing technique: splashing the water all over me felt the height of luxury.”

Oops. Since when do oil drums rustle?

Those mistakes were corrected in the second edition and I also took the opportunity to update the text and especially the appendices which contain a lot of scientific detail. That edition, surprisingly, continues to sell steadily in book form though Amazon, and - a new departure - through my author website.

The 25th anniversary of the main expedition to Madagascar happened and was a stimulus for another update. I wanted to produce an electronic edition. I’d been contemplating the concept for some years but my problem was that I wrote the book on an old Amstrad – the kind with three-and-a-quarter inch discs. Yes 3¼, not 3½. I found a techie who said he could convert anything and everything – until he saw my discs. So we settled on scanning the book and converting it into a Word document.

I wasn’t too surprised when the system was discombobulated by odd Malagasy words like tsingy – that came out mostly as ts&gy, but accents also confused it. I was surprised too at how the odd mis-transliterated word can make something so unintelligible. Then there was a problem with the somewhat curly font reading Bs for Hs so 'had' became 'bad'. The most interesting error was a sentence that read:

Primates, the order of mammals which includes lemurs, bushbabies and lorises, apes, monkeys and Brian, are subdivided according to the shape of the nostrils.

Brian? Where did he come from? How did the system read Brian for Man? That’s almost Pythonesque.

Now I wonder how many more mistakes I have left to uncover.... actually there was one deliberate one in A Glimpse of Eternal Snows.  No-one’s written to point it out yet! Clue: it is hidden among bird names. Let me know if you notice anything.

Thursday 15 August 2013

The Bumps

July came and went and only now have I had enough of a pause to record the wonderful week of The Cambridge Rowing Association annual Bumping Races. Most people call them the Bumps. It is a mad annual summer event that must have evolved to cope with the fact that the River Cam is too narrow at Cambridge (Cambridgeshire) to allow side-by-side racing in something as long, wide and unmanoeuvrable as a rowing eight. They measure about seven metres wide blade-tip to blade-tip.

At the start, up to 17 eighteen-metre long boats are lined up along the bank with a boat-length-and-a-half between them. There’s a countdown of a four-minute canon and a one minute 'gun' when a coach on the bank will start to push the boat out into the river with a long pole. The cox holds onto a chain to prevent the boat getting an unfair advantage.

Then when the starting canon fires, the cox drops the chain and the crews row as hard and as fast as they can. The start is frenetic, splashy and can be full of panic. The idea is to try to ‘bump’ the boat ahead before the boat behind bumps them. You’re rowing as hard as you can, not knowing how well you are gaining on the boat ahead. (Sometimes coxes lie). Meanwhile, you can see the boat behind and think, are they gaining on us?

The challenge our crew had is that we are what my youngest son, Ʃ, would call a ‘seasoned’ crew and worked out we were about 250 years older than the boat that chased us on the first night. They were lithe sixth-formers (dressed in white) from the local girls’ public school. Predictably they got us, but the event goes on for four evenings. Any boat that ‘bumps’ is promoted further up the start order, while ‘bumped’ boats move down. The aim is to end up ‘Head of the River’. We were full of hope on the second night but again, a younger crew got us. Their start was faster, though we had plenty of comments on how neatly we rowed.

Third and fourth nights were going to be ours, we felt. Setting off rowing as hard as you can is all right, but the difficulty with this race is that you start as if you are running 100m, but have to keep going for over 1000. We kept away from our rivals the third night but by the time we reached the Plough at Fen Ditton, we wanted it to stop. ‘Stoke’ was beginning to whimper. I felt I couldn’t go on. But then I registered that the chasing boat had fallen apart. They had died completely. Suddenly the energy returned and we powered over the finishing line, and an honourable ‘row-over’. Fourth night too we rowed long and strong and again managed to maintain our place. It felt as if we’d done all right, AND we avoided serious collisions with other boats and even the bank.

And it is a great feeling working in metronomic harmony with women you know you can rely on, pushing through beyond fatigue, until finally there is the satisfaction of the end of the race – even if the whole event is mad and pretty pointless.

(With thanks to A and Ʃ for photography)
(I'm rowing at the 7 position)

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Lawrence's Travels

Meanwhile, Lawrence is out exploring again. This time he made his escape down into the bowels of the sofa, did a bit of improvement of its structure, relocated some nice soft bedding material and has returned to camp out in his favourite spot under the oven. The adventure is sure to continue.

(And if you'd like to meet Lawrence see my Gap Yah post from mid March)