Monday, 31 December 2012

Dickens and dyslexia

The hols have allowed me to take some time out to read and I've just consumed my first ever Dickens. How shocking to have attained my great age with such an omission from my education, but it was a treat to meet a 'new' talent. I'm a slow reader - partly due to my dyslexia, no doubt - and I've never learned to skim, so I enjoy and savour books which speed readers forget.

Poor sickly Mrs Gradgrind came up with my two favourite quotes from Hard Times. The first was her speaking to her children:

'I wish,' whimpered Mrs Gradgrind, taking chair... 'yes I really do wish that I had never had a family, and then you would have known what it was to do without me!'

Then the other reminded how difficult some people find it to describe their symptoms. This also made me smile.

'Are you in pain, dear mother?'
'I think there is a pain somewhere in the room,' said Mrs Gradgrind, 'but I couldn't positively say that I have got it.'

Here's hoping 2013 will bring you lots of good reads to make you smile too.

Happy New Year.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Brits and the Weather

Brits are known for forever pontificating about the weather, and it is not until you leave our unpredictable climate that you realise what a gift our weather is.

In Sri Lanka, the year-round temperature is stuck at about 31. There are no seasons. No autumn. No spring. No season of rebirth after the winter. No change in day length. It is warm, luxuriant and there’s lot’s to love but it is so predictable. All that changes is the humidity, and the number of showers you need each day.
Autumn in Sussex
On one of many drives between Embilipitiya (our then home) and Colombo I noticed that the rubber plantation was changing into glorious rusty autumn colour. The vision made me weepy and yearning for home.

The delight of England’s changeability is that familiar scenes are seen anew. Summiting the chalk highlands at Wandlebury, there was a suggestion of dawn ahead – a subtle yellowing between streaks of black cloud and naked trees before a navy sky. On down through the last of Cambridgeshire and into Essex. The ex-marshes at Dartford have never looked as lovely as last Sunday morning. The industrialised hinterland of Tilbury Docks and Bluewater are concreted into submission and even the slight chalky undulations and hillocks are quarried to nasty open wounds.

That morning though the sun rose on a patchwork of fields painted in muted purples and grey-greens. Soft undulating mists highlighted hedgerows I’d never noticed before and disguised ugly buildings that would have been blots on the horizon. It was easy to see small patches of nature that shelter the Dartford warbler and other small cute wildlife.

Passages in Conrad's Heart of Darkness (first published way back in 1902) catch the mysterious but ever-changing atmosphere of the Thames Estuary: "the mist on the Essex marshes was like a gauzy and radiant fabric, hung from the wooded rises... and draping the low shores in diaphanous folds."
and at the end of the book...
[The Thames] "was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky - seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness."

We drove on, over the Thames all busy and twinkling with tiny lights and finally to Gatwick and a long-promised trip to the Polar North.

Oslo Airport - waiting to go north
Looking out at the snow falling in Oslo

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Bear with

I was ironing a shirt, for work, when S appeared. I said, ‘”OK, pause for breakfast.”

“Sounds indigestible,” said he, “the fur gets between your teeth, and the claws scratch on the way down. Let’s have toast instead.’

'Or maybe polar bear paws would slip down easier - they are furry on the bottoms...'
The other homophone that always gets us smiling is custody, so when we hear, “He was taken into custardy” we conjure some sad soul (or is it sole?) in a dank cell squelching gelatinous yellow stuff between his toes. Or maybe it is a flat fish that has been apprehended. Hmm... Dover Sole and Custard – another unattractive dish.

An overused expression used to annoy me, but now – with the help of homophony –  it makes me guffaw inside each time I hear it. This is “Bare with me.” So what does she want me to bare? My chest perhaps? Or worse? Or is she really saying “Bear with me”, hinting that there is a grizzly in the room so I must talk quietly for fear of angering it?
An unambigous peacock at our window

Tuesday, 20 November 2012


Awake. Suddenly. Pitch black. Beside me, there is steady even breathing. Opening my eyes wide, scanning around, there’s not a glimmer of light. Dawn is still distant. What woke me? Not nerves. Not bladder. No tension. Not too hot. Nor too cold. One part of my intestine talks to another. A gentle breeze – outside. No quite a strong wind, moving fallen leaves. A few raindrops hit the window. I rub my eyes. Sparks in the blackness.
“Wake me up when September ends.”

I’ve good things on my horizon: tonight a visit from my expat sis, so why do odd thoughts crowd in? A clumsy comment. An undiplomatic swipe. An unacknowledged kindness. A half-forgotten task left undone at work. Events long past, forgotten, I thought, even by me. Why didn’t I ask, that time? Could I have helped? Things I wanted to ask my Dad. Is there any way of unlocking Mum’s fading memories? “Will you still need me / will you still feed me / when I’m 64?”

An itch on the side of my nose. A tickle at the back of my neck. Another borborygmus – I love that word. Are there enough spuds in the cupboard? What shall we have for pud? Did I miss a text from sis? Where did I put my phone? Waterloo – that infuriating Abba song blunders into my brain. Let’s swamp it out with “You fill up my senses / like a night in the forest...”
Shall we go to see the Northern Lights? Will I get a chance to start some Christmas letters? How could I forget to respond to those two lovely emails? What about that Madagascar reunion? And the kindle version of my lemur book? And the next Wanderlust piece? Should I get that knee op? And I must call the bank / insurance / optician / dentist/ bike shop... Now my bladder starts signalling unnecessarily. 5am. Intestines ask why-oh-why-oh-why? Maybe a stimulating cup of coffee will send me back to sleep.

While the kettle boils, I make a list – with one thing on it.
Back to bed. The cosy covers will warm my toes. An early-bird car rushes by – some poor soul is off to work already. A click and our hot water system starts up. 6ish. Empty the head. Concentrate on a black velvet curtain.

Maybe I’ll fall asleep five minutes before the alarm wakes me again.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Author event

A relaxed, well-lubricated author event at my local - Rock Road Library - earlier in the week

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Debasing a legend

I don't generally admit to watching such things on TV but my son must have had it on: I'm talking about I'm a celebrity - get me out of here. It is engaging in an odd sort of way... fascinating watching people not really coping in what they see as an alien environment, while I sit wondering why on earth they would voluntarily put themselves in situations they must know they'll hate. But then again, we should salute them really - since facing the fear has got to be good for you: giving you resources for later. Giving you courage for future travails.

What I quickly took exception to yesterday, though, was the attribution of one celeb. He was labelled the "legendary darts player".

Well I'm sorry - and no offence to the man concerned, who I'm sure is very nice and highly skilled in his field - but how can a darts player be a legend? How can a footballer, when it comes to it? Surely a legend is someone who has really faced adversity - and risked all or even died in the attempt. Like Amelia Earhart or Malloy and Ervine??

Please ITV don't debase the English language like this. Keep at least some overblown language for the real heroes. And let's celebrate the astonishing wealth of English, which makes it so easy to avoid repetition. We've sooo many words, and it is great to be able to dip in and discover more.

The richness and scope of English really came home to me when I was living in Indonesia, trying to learn the rudiments of the national language. The first thing to surprise me was that the English to Bahasa Indonesia section of my dictionary was about twice the size of the Indonesian to English section. Why? Because there were simply no words for concepts we English-speakers deem important. There is no Indonesian word for vegetarian, for example, or for brown. If an Indonesian wants to refer to something that is brown they will either say 'red' or 'the colour of chocolate', or rather just 'chocolate'. This got me into culinary confusions. When I'm overseas long-term, I have a thing about baking my own wholemeal bread if I can't buy it. Consequently, when shopping for brown flour in Jakarta, Ujung Pandang and Mataram, I bought an interesting array of brown powers. I bought chocolate power, bread crumbs, gravy browning (or at least that's what it smelled like) as well as a few packets of very good wholemeal wheat flour.

So use the diverse language we have at our command. Let's keep words like legendary for people who have really earned such adulation, and strive to search for other lesser known words to discombobulate the illiterate and the uneducated.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Leech attack

I've been talking today to intrepid development engineers on the subject of staying healthy abroad, and they've been encouraging me to tell stories. I was reminded of this one.
A leech was feeding on my leg in Nepal. It was during the monsoon when there are lots about. There is something utterly revolting about watching a slimy black parasite bloat up on your life-blookd but I didn't want to just rip it off. That can leave mouthparts behind and promote infection.
I walked up to a woman who was squatting by the path smoking. I asked in my best Nepali, ‘Please may I use your cigarette to get this leech off.’

‘You have a leech,’ the woman said, looking in pity at this numbskull.

‘Yes, and I want to get it off by burning it with your cigarette’

‘Don’t be daft,' she said, ripping it off my leg and cackling.

She must have had some skill, though, because she didn’t leave the mouthparts behind. I just had to walk home with blood dribbling down my leg - because of the anticoagulant. Most unattractive.

An unfed leech

Sunday, 28 October 2012


I had to smile when I strayed across a review of my travel narrative, Lemurs of the Lost World, on recently. It read

I had not expected so much text and so few photographs or illustrations. I should have read the detailed description more fully!’

I guess I should be grateful that the purchaser – who probably bought the book for a few pence – bothered to post a review at all. It is, after all, unbelievably difficult to get readers to feedback in this way, but I really... ask you – what is a writer supposed to do with feedback like this? Too many words. Not unreadable or boring, turgid or inaccessible, but just too many. Or rather too many pages of text. Did he even read it? I think not....

Author sighs a deep depressed sigh and leaves her desk to make a strong cup of coffee.

Thursday, 25 October 2012


It is a dank autumn day in Cambridge. People have their collars turned up but the morning mist has reminded me of the cheery Nepali folk-song, Simsim Paani. The song is about drizzle but it is a celebration not a condemnation. Nepalis say that rain is a blessing and that thought always makes me smile, and simsim paani sounds so much more poetic than drizzle.

Even in the greyest of weather, I can drift into cosy recollections of our magical six years in Nepal. A Glimpse of Eternal Snows will allow you to travel there too, to revel in the scenery our family so loved. Photographs relating to the book are at
Publication of the first edition of Glimpse gave me the privilege of discussing my writing with my readers and of hearing others’ moving stories. One spoke of how strongly she connected with my experiences. The link was not because she had the slightest interest in Nepal, nor because she had experience of raising a different child. This women’s mother, who suffers from dementia, effuses delight and notices very different things when taken out in her wheelchair, just as David had done. Such different people, who are so easily written off as disabled or handicapped, can teach us to see again the little things that make a big difference. They can show us how to enjoy our familiar environments with fresh new eyes.  I trust that this book will equip others to find that joy as well. Perhaps too it will stimulate some to re-examine what is truly important in life.

The few certainties in our existences are pain, death and bereavement yet these are topics that we tend to shy away from in the West: the English in particular worry about saying the wrong thing. I hope that my book wil encourage more of us to talk about difficult subjects more often, and so comfort those who need words to help them heal.
Adapted from the Afterword of my new memoir
My favoutite mountain emerging from the morning miasma

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Forever doubting

I strayed across an encouraging statement by 2007 Man Booker prize winner Anne Enright.
She said "only bad writers think their work is really good."
I take from this that forever doubting is normal - and even, perhaps a sign of talent!
Maybe this also explains why authors like to huddle together for mutual support... on this lovely sofa for example.

With some of my fellow authors from Walden Writers discussing works in progress - Rosemary Hayes is on the left and Penny Speller on the right. Thanks to Amy Corzine for the photo

Sunday, 14 October 2012


Saturday / yesterday saw an unusual gathering in London - of 70 people with links to Madagascar; it was great to catch up with so many people with a passion for the Great Red Island. The meeting was organised by the most excellent Anglo-Malagasy Society.

Lemur expert Alison Jolly (in the centre of the photo) advised and helped us plan our research when we were setting up our first expedition to Madagascar which eventually led to the Crocodile Caves expedition and to my LEMURS OF THE LOST WORLD. Alison has written extensively on Madagascar, and most recently has produced a series of delightful story books aimed at 4 - 8 year-olds to promote lemur conservation; she's holding a couple of examples.

My first trip to Madagascar was at a time when the country was just opening up to outsiders and Hilary Bradt (on the right) got in touch for tips on her first trip; subsequently she became a faithful friend to me, and to Madagascar. She has written many editions of the Bradt Guide to Madagascar, and is of course the founder of Bradt Guides publisher of A GLIMPSE OF ETERNAL SNOWS.

The Making of a Sportsman

My Dad was a school master [his choice of job description], a man of letters, a lover of books and language. He headed up the PE department in an inner London school and he had a life-long passion for fitness, and games. Even in his old age he loved to play scrabble, or even snap. This week I had the privilege of celebrating his life by presenting the Joe Wilson memorial cup to the sportsman of the year at Ernest Bevin College – the school where he taught in the ’60s, ’70’s and early ’80s. This was at the school’s first dedicated sports awards evening and it was full of accounts of competition successes, but in line with Dad’s philosophy, the PE teachers and coaches also described the inclusively of the games activities and how pupils are encouraged to join in whatever their level of skill.

I don’t know whether Dad’s inclusive ethos came from his father’s commitment to service, community and swimming (he was an Ulster Presbyterian of the old school and a cavalryman in the Great War) or whether it was from Joe's time in the Army. I suspect it was a bit of both, but I shared a war story, illustrating the tough times Joe’d had during his early twenties.

My Dad joined the Irish Guards during the 2nd World War – when he was just 19. His platoon was in Normandy being shelled and they were pinned down in shallow trenches.

Terry shouts from a neighbouring trench "Hey Joe: Got any matches?" Terry had received 200 cigarettes from his Mum that morning.

Joe says, "Yes."

"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. Bring your smokes over here."

German shells are thumping around them. Terry needs a smoke badly. So he crawls over to Joe’s trench and they light up. They’d smoked maybe half a cigarette when they heard this thing coming. The sound of it, the scream of it. They hit the deck, there was an awful explosion right near by. It must have been a 120mm shell. They look out to see a big pall of smoke covering Terry’s trench.
Terry says, "It went into my trench ... thank goodness I came over …"

"YES, if I’d gone over there, the two of us would have been mincemeat!!”

 The Irish Guards were often in the thick of it and only a handful of the original volunteers survived the war yet despite the carnage there were still times when nothing was happening. They had to wait. Joe and his platoon-mates seem to have filled that time with sport. It kept them fit and must have helped stop them thinking of the horrors they’d been through and what was to come. Maybe that’s why Dad’s philosophy was just to get on with life... and enjoy whatever time you get. Dad stayed in the Army – in Germany – until 1946 and was apparently pretty hacked off when he was demobilised – it meant he missed competing in a big inter-service swimming gala, in Cologne.
Irish Guards 1st Company Christmas 1945 - Joe has the ball
Water polo 1945 - Joe is 3rd from the left

Joe was a disciplinarian though – in an era before corporal punishment was banned. He delighted in telling a story about a colleague, Reg. It was the first week of a new academic year and rumour reached Reg of an especially riotous class, full of wild and demanding boys. Reg decided he wasn’t going to have any trouble from them. On his first lesson with them he flung open the classroom door and stormed in with a cane in his hand looking like thunder. He said nothing but stroke up to his desk, slammed the cane down hare and glared at the class. He must have looked homicidal. Then he started his lesson. He was treated with respect verging on awe and never felt the need to use the cane or even threaten anyone.

Current teachers, of course use different techniques to gain their pupils attention and respect, and one of Dad’s big things was to give lots of awards, medals, colours and certificates. I was encouraged in this way and still proudly keep my award for having swum 50 yards, when I was seven.

Joe was great in encouraging his pupils – as well as his family – to try new stuff, and not be afraid of messing up. A favourite expression was, ‘Go on – give it a go!’

I believe that my Dad encouraged loads of people to try things even if they weren’t sure they’d make a success of it. He knew that small victories and successes give you something to be proud of – and when you feel good about what you’ve achieved, it allows you to make a success of yourself.

 I’m proud therefore to celebrate such success by awarding the first Joe Wilson memorial Sportsman of the year cup. I hope it will inspire more boys to aim higher in the coming years.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Remembering Swindon

Life as a GP is so full on that it is a rare thing to do nothing. Maybe that's why rail travel is such a treat. Hurtling through the landscape, it is easy to let the mind drift while interesting or beautiful images flash by, or placenames awake some fond reminiscence. Some journeys convince me that England is too crowded, too covered in concrete, too tamed, but then there is a journey like yesterday's where England really does seem like a green and pleasant land.

Bristol Temple Meads Station
I left the ridiculously Gothic Bristol Temple Meads to rocket east through wonderfully undulating agricultural scenery of the Vale of the White Horse, which looked especially attractive to this East Anglian flatlander.

We swept by russet cattle, and then a kestrel, suspended so still in the air that he looked like he was perched and merely exercising his wings. Then a huge evil-looking circling bird grabbed my attention, but it turned out to be a microlight. Then more signs of the British at play: two hot air balloons rising above the flooded fields, rushing brown streams, hedgerows and little woods with the strange sinuous white horse carved in the chalk down behind. The shadows were long and the clouds had silver linings. They blushed red then turned to a muted orange. Shiny vapour trails looked increasingly like an alien invasion as we drew closer to Heathrow.

The purpose of my journey was a meeting of travel health boffins, and the keynote speaker (and gap year guide author) Tim Beacon talked about what people get up to on their gap years and how easy it now is to keep in touch with home. Yes you can blog about your adventure, or you can just enjoy the experience. Tim isn't the first person to suggest that people either live or they write - so perhaps that's a good thought on which to stop this post.

Reminiscences of the Magic Roundabout and crazily busy hospital jobs

Thursday, 27 September 2012

On Extermination

I grew up in suburban Surrey with a fascination of pond life... nose close to water surface, you can witness battles as exciting on any safari. Visiting the home I grew up in this week, I had time to dip into another treasuretrove: my Ballymena-born Dad's library. An Ulster Childhood (written in 1922) caught my eye and the author bio made me smile. Lynn C Doyle is a pen name: say it out loud and you'll hear linseed oil.
Doyle's writing style is lovely but I was a touch offended when I read that rural people of Northern Ireland seem to diss pond-dwellers. They used to say....
"A newt [is] a 'man-creeper', a wicked insect [sic] that if you fall asleep by a waterside crawls down your throat and exterminates you."
I like newts, especially crested newts: they give a touch of the exotic to an English puddle, pond or stream. So what is it about such benign, belly-crawling creatures that scares people so?
Is it that we need creatures to fear (in Ireland there are no venomous snakes)? In Nepal too people have unfounded anxieties about the shiny pin-striped skink - a fine and beautiful reptile that villagers say kills on contact.
Fortunately that is complete twaddle too.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Home help

I've spent the weekend with a lovely lot of children's authors - at a conference in Reading University. We talked of books and writing and entertained each other. Our poor beleaguered publishers are having to be more and more careful about money, and can't spend huge sums on so-called mid-list authors. The consensus was that we writers must make more of an effort to engage with our readers. With that in mind - and with the help of my techie son - we've filmed a snippet read from my about-to-be-launched travel memoir; this extract is about the challenges of finding home help. If you like it you'll find two more readings from A Glimpse of Eternal Snows on YouTube.

Sunday, 9 September 2012


We’d stopped rowing after a tough, one-kilometre ‘piece’. My mop of unruly hair was annoying; it tickled my face and was in my eyes and mouth. Finally I had a chance to show it who was boss – tame it with a bungee. I took off my glasses to polish off the steam. They caught awkwardly in my wild hair and I saw them catapult into the river. I lunged for them but all I achieved was to rock the boat. ‘My glasses!’ I shrieked. C at stroke tried to grab them too but they sank amongst ribbons of long green weed. ‘I’ll go in!’ C said, but cox forbade her. I considered disobedience. I could feign a swoon and tumble into the river. Or stand and dive in. While I was dithering, they disappeared into the murk.

Cox sympathised but said, ‘It’s really deep here. There’s no chance of finding them.’

That was a challenge I couldn’t resist. I was a SCUBA diver. I was a cave-diver. I’d swum across a fjord. I’d find them, even if sometimes I’d temporarily lose them when I put them down on the bed at home.

We stacked the blades and eight in the boathouse and while still steamy from the row, C & I returned to the site of the sinking. We knew where my glasses were, but they were light, and could have floated away from where I’d dropped them. The river on the Stourbridge Meadow side was thigh deep where I slipped into the water. I’d kept my trainers on for fear of broken glass and hypodermic but could still that the bottom was squidgy. The water was colder than I expected. Much colder. This was summer, for heaven’s sake. Why was it so cold?

I allowed myself to fall forward. Sheesh, it was f-f-freezing. The cold made me gasp and pant however hard I tried to slow my breathing. How was I going to be able to hold my breath and search the river bottom while I was gasping and spluttering? Then there was the issue of brain freeze. I tried to get all the pain over in one go and dipped right under the water. I was assaulted by pain in my scalp. This was daft. C was shouting encouragement from the bank. I had to do a few dives at least.

‘Two-thirds of the way across. There! You’re in the right place, Jane! Try there!’

I did. Head down, legs in the air to take me down. It was deep. Brain freeze. I grabbed my nose to clear my ears. Further down. It was about three metres deep here. Who’d have guessed the sleepy old River Cam at Cambridge is three metres deep? I couldn’t see much. I reached the silty bottom. Quick feel around. My hand closed around a shell.  Out of breath. Swam for the surface. More gasping and panting. Breath back. ‘Anything?’ C asked.

‘A freshwater mussel shell!

‘Can you see anything?’

‘Yes. More than I was expecting – even without my glasses on.’

‘You’re opening your eyes?’

‘Yes... but it’s sooo cold.’

Brain aching, I surface-dived again. Managed to feel around on the bottom for a second or two. Found a lager can. Saw the red of a Coke can. A silt-covered wine bottle. A hunk of wood. Searching raised the sediment and made it more difficult to see. Need air. Up to air. I surfaced, spluttering and disorientated, in the middle of the river. I swam back to the place of sinking. Dived down. Gulping. Anxious not to swallow any Weil’s-laced water. Cleared my ears. Not much time searching.

‘I’m coming in!’ C shouted from the bank.

‘Wow! Really? You don’t have to.’ And she was in, gasping. Fighting the cold.

A few dives later, with C trying to convince herself the water temperature was ‘refreshing’, we concluded we needed masks.  C had a wetsuit too. ‘Yeh but I’ll do a few more dives. I’m getting used to it. A bit.’ My scalp wasn’t aching any more and I had better breath-control. And I’d found a bit of river with long ribbons of weed just like where my glasses had sunk. I dived down, swimming between the clingy Carlsberg-green strands, searching. The glasses could be caught amongst the weed. I found a traffic cone, a bit of fence, a fishing weight, and various unidentifiable items. I needed a mask. Up for a breath.

Down again, I reached a patch of cabbagey plants, and a big block of concrete.

A different kind of cold was getting to me now and I needed to get out. I was grateful to C for helping me out of the water. My muscles were seizing and it was hard to clamber onto the lovely soft grass of the meadow.

Next day, Sunday morning, I’d unearthed some past-their-sell-by-date contact lenses and was back with mask snorkel and fins, with A this time. I thought of David Walliams and others who promote ‘wild swimming’. They’re clearly tougher than me – although lots wear wetsuits, I guess. After my fjord swim this summer I’d even thought of trying a long swim in the Cam, but now I knew this was utter madness. I’d wondered about the temperature. If the river was mostly ground water unheated by the sun, it would be not much more than ground temperature which at this latitude in England must be around 12C. It felt that cold. I was surprised to discover that the Olympics pool is kept as cold as 25 but most of us swim in indoor pools kept around 29C. Wild swimming info implies that 15C is likely in English rivers. Does anyone know?

I slipped in watched, without interest, by several well-fed fishermen. It wasn’t any warmer. There hadn’t been much sun all summer. While I was standing unenthusiastically in the thigh-deep water before that first unappetising plunge, a cruiser came by. The engines were quiet, but I was surprised just how much it unsteadied me. It – and others – would churn up the water and my lightweight glasses could have floated anywhere.

I had to get in. I felt like I was drawing attention to myself. I swam two-thirds of the way across the river and made my first brain-freezing dive into murky greenish water. Even with the fins on, it was a long way down. I’d dropped my glasses into the very deepest part of the river. My antics made scullers uneasy. Disapproving oarsmen were perhaps thinking of anarchists in the water. A joined me in the river for a short while. Our attempts to search were interrupted by passing boats. I chatted briefly to people from my rowing club.

A quad approached. The cox asked ‘Lost something?’

‘My glasses!’

‘They’re on your head!’ His whole boat liked that quip.

One of the oarswomen asked, ‘Why’s your son on the bank while you’re doing the searching?’

‘He’s needs more subcutaneous fat,’ I said pompously.

A heard the cox translate, ‘He’s too skinny!’

I continued diving until I started recognising the jetsam I encountered – the same drinks cans, that concrete block, pieces of water-logged tree... I was ready to quit, but A suggested searching downstream.

The cold was starting to get to me again. ‘Three more dives.’ I spluttered.

My left calf started to cramp. Time to get out. Not so easy. Limbs not working any more.

A – now warmed again by the sun – took photos. He didn’t help as I thrashed around trying to get out of the water. I thought of the Ulster dialect word – to sprockle. My Belfast-raised Dad used the word to mean floundering about in an ungainly and ineffectual manner; often people are laughing at you as you get up and try to regain your dignity. That was me on the bank – sprockling. A took more photos to prove it. And I hadn’t even recovered my glasses.

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Fjord swimming

It had started by mistake, almost. I’d rowed the three of us across from Aga and when S mentioned he’d packed our swimming togs, I was tempted to cool off in the clear inviting Sørfjorden. Getting in wasn’t easy. A muddle of landslide boulders were covered in bladder wrack and coralline seaweed so it was hard to see where to put my feet: I’m a bit of a dweeb about walking on stony beaches too. And it was cold. Really cold. I splashed water on my arms so the plunge in wouldn’t feel so bad – but it was: cold enough to take my breath away. I kicked frantically to fight the spasms. S & Ʃ were sitting under the trees on the bank laughing.

S said, ‘Keep swimming – I’ve got to get a photo with the snow in the distance!’

I was soon breathing normally again, and even almost started to enjoy it. The fjord was so still I could see the Folgefonna glacier reflected in the glinting green water: this was real wild swimming. Then from Ʃ, ‘Why don’t you swim out into the really deep water. We’ll follow in the boat and you can get in when you tire.’

‘You... must... be.. joking!’ I spluttered. But then I thought about it. Our intended lunch-spot wasn’t anything special. Kicking out in my relaxed breaststroke felt good. Easy. The ripples I made with each stroke scrumpled reflections of snowy patches on the mountaintops.

‘OK – I will then!’ I struck out back across the fjord. The houses on the other side were tiny. Trucks driving along the main road between Utne and Odda were minuscule, but it would be fun swimming out and completely clear of the shore.

I was a couple of hundred metres out by the time S & Ʃ had launched the boat and rowed out to me. I enjoyed my breaststroke – kick glide pull... kick gli––ide pull, and the water didn’t feel that cold any more. I’d swim into pockets that felt almost like a warm bath, but then it would be out again into iciness. Kick gli–––ide pull... kick...

I was going strongly, though I didn’t want to put my face in the water. I was still wearing my glasses and it felt too cold to put my head in at all, so I didn’t rise to Ʃ’s challenge to swim right under the boat. I headed towards a red two-storey weatherboard house. I swam. It came no closer. Even so I began to think I might swim right across. That started a debate amongst the three of us. S thought it was a kilometre across. Ʃ said, ‘No – look how small the cars are. It’s much more.’

I was swimming steadily. I felt strong. I could keep this pace up for hours. I turned and looked back. It was good to change position, but I still didn’t want to put my head back in the water.

‘How far... d’you reckon... I’ve done?’ I asked. ‘A third?’

S was humouring me when he said, ‘Mmm. Maybe. Yes, a third.’

The rowan trees at my starting point on the east side of the fjord still looked large. I hadn’t made much progress. But I wasn’t at all tired and I still felt I could swim across. Then I hit a muscle-seizing cold patch. Maybe this was what the rest of the swim was going to be like. I was gasping again. It must be icy water welling up from the deep. I wouldn’t go on if it stayed like this. I spluttered as much to S & Ʃ. They didn’t hear.

It wasn’t long though before I entered another bath-warm patch, and even the next cold bit wasn’t that cold.
I turned on my back. The eastern side was still close. The red house seemed no closer, no bigger. The water had turned the colour of gun metal. I’d swim a bit further. To the middle at least. I looked up to the glacier and the snow and the mountaintops. I scanned down to the tree line and the pretty houses along the shore. Earlier that same day S & I had climbed high above the fjord, 500m or so up the steep valley wall amongst pine and then birch forest. We looked down not on a single expanse of water but on a varied and varying surface – a map as intricate as any landscape. In places there were tiny waves whipped up by undercurrents, rips and eddies. There were places where the water looked deep dark and menacing, others where the water surface was rippled from a slight breeze. Sometimes the water looked leaf green, sometimes it was almost black.

From the boat Ʃ shouted, ‘What if a whale came alongside!’ His imagination had been captured by discovering that many fjords are 1000m deep; he was sure there were big creatures living down there. He talked of humpbacked whales and monsters.

‘A big whale... wouldn’t come... into a fjord.’

‘What if a giant squid came up from the deep?’

‘You’d... photograph it!’

‘But it might eat you!’

‘Still got both my legs – so far...’ He wasn’t going to spook me, although thinking of that huge body of water below me was awe-inspiring. Being run down by a boat was a more realistic worry.

Something disturbed the surface. I took a mouthful. It was – surprisingly – hardly salty at all. Maybe that explained the lack of seabirds. There weren’t many wildfowl either though: just an occasional mallard or gull. Norwegians seem to like shooting their wildlife.

Time moved on, and so did I, slowly; Ʃ – who’d come up with the idea of this expedition – was starting to get a little bored. He taunted me. ‘Hurry up or we’ll leave you behind.’ S was no lying in the boat pretending – I think – to take a nap.

‘Don’t... make me... laugh... That’ll... slow me down... even more.’ I rolled over to swim backstroke for a while but got a rain-freeze when I immersed my scalp, and I couldn’t see where I was going. Back on my front, I realised my hands were numb. I wanted to make fists but how can you swim breaststroke with fists? I recalled one of my Dad’s stories. He must have been pretty hard. He enjoyed all sports but swimming was his greatest love – a family passion in fact. Above all he loved water polo. He played in Belfast Lough – that wide estuary which opens into the Irish Sea. He described how sometimes he would catch the ball then have to look to see if it was still in his hand. It was so cold he couldn’t feel whether he was still holding it or not. My blue wrinkled hands were that cold now.

I’d set out thinking I’d swim diagonally across the fjord – retracing the path I’d rowed. I realised now though that, although the water felt still and although we were a long way from the sea, there was a significant current. The boat owner later mentioned a tide of 1.5 metres. I changed my plan and told S & Ʃ I was aiming for a rocky spur that jutted out from the western shore of the fjord. I swam towards a warning sign for boats. I wasn’t sure whether this was okay for our little boat but I just wanted to finish this now. I just needed to keep the rhythm going.

There was more flotsam: bladder wrack, leaves and a few larger pieces of tree. The channel was getting shallow. S & Ʃ were suddenly animated, looking out for rocks now. The current increased a lot. I needed to swim much more strongly to make headway against the tide but I didn’t want to kick out against jagged granite. It’s hard to see anything from the water surface. S & Ʃ in the boat said they could see the bottom now. They were worried about running aground. They suggested I climb into the boat but I wanted to touch the western shore – so I could say I’d swum right across, the entire two-plus kilometres.

Just a few more strokes. I checked before I put my feet down. I saw clean rippled sand but that’s not what it felt like. It was sticky, like mud. But my feet were down and I could stop swimming. How good it felt to have my feet on the bottom at last. S & Ʃ again suggested I scramble into the boat then they’d row me back to the jetty we’d launched from. I was standing in chest deep water. I didn’t have the strength to get myself into the boat. I waded in to where it was shallower but had the oddest sensation. Standing now waist-deep I felt as if I was being pushed forward – back into my horizontal swimming position. After an hour and a half of swimming (S reckoned it was an hour and a quarter) my body had decided I shouldn’t be upright ever again.
The sensation soon passed, though my rubber-legs took a while to return to normal function. The pay-off was the long luxurious shower when we got back to the cottage. It was delicious.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Travel or travail?

I wish I was a more relaxed traveller. I usually arrive too early, and this time is no different. I should be able to enjoy a lull in a frenetic schedule but airports are such attention-deficit-inducing environments that I don’t settle. I just want to get on the plane. I’m tired after a lot of driving, in an unfamiliar hire car, on the wrong side of the road with unintelligible road signs, feeling sweat-sticky, tired throbbing hot feet. This is the part of travel that starts me wondering – for a while, at least – why I travel. This is the travail of travel. I should be able to people-watch. I should continue to take delight in the slightly odd things foreigners do, but I’m fatigued by it all now and I want to do home.

They’re late boarding us. We’re in a holding-pen with insufficient seating, and tired fractious toddlers. I sympathise but doubt that throwing a tantrum would get us on board any quicker. I smile as I imagine throwing myself on the floor and thrashing and screaming and shouting.

But the announcement finally comes. There are friendly welcomes from the groundstaff and the air stewards. Soon we are taxiing, there’s that pull on the stomach and we’re airborne. The ground falls away. Real people diminish to the size of ants. Cars shrink to tiny matchbox-toys. Other peoples’ lives become insignificant, just like that. I marvel at Bergen from the air; it’s a splattering of islands connected by little bridges, all populated by people, but what do they do all with their lives?

Then it’s up through the clouds into the sunshine above a white wonderland as pristine as any glacier. We’re homeward bound, home to the right coffee, my favourite muesli, marmalade and a comfortable bed. I let my mind drift as we float above the clouds, then after a while I get glimpses of ships on a still, still sea. Which part of Britain would we fly over first? I guessed it would be The Wash. The landfall isn’t right for Norfolk though. Where are we? Everything is so difficult to place from up here, but who cares. We’ll soon be home – to the right coffee, muesli, marmalade, comfortable bed and 137 emails (not counting a similar number in wait for me at work).

Loo signs at Bergen airport

Monday, 23 July 2012

How to use a squat toilet

How lovely to discover that I am apparentlythe Buddha of Bowel Motions according to this; an old e-interview was picked up again....and again here too

What interest and excitinment talking poo creates!

Some of the on-line comments and responses to these posts made me smile so I should mention that various of the quotes have been taken out of their Asian / resource-poor context. The idea is to use loads of water.... there is no scooping involved.....

If unsure of the correct technique take advice straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, through consulting

Ladies' loo sign in Budapest

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Friendship or elitism?

I was chatting this week with a lass who had returned to England after a stint in California. She described her excellent interesting well-paid job and her superb huge house opening onto the beach, but something was missing. She described the superficiality of her relationships – like she inhabited the embodiment of Facebook... she had lots of ‘friends’ but no real relationships or deep warmth and commitment. No-one was there for her.

That got me thinking about friends. I am not as sociable as I used to be, but I guess that is a side effect of working as a General Practitioner. My job is a privilege but my weeks are full of others’ crises so it can be a real luxury to have alone time. But I do need my friends, even if I don’t spend hours together every week. Every so often, I look forward to evenings with the right people. Those I feel most affinity to are friends I’ve ‘done stuff’ with. As an undergraduate I spent much of my leisure time caving or in various watery activities including white-water canoeing. Then with a change of location I tried rowing and hill walking. These outdoor activities can have you feeling quite miserable and you wonder why you choose put yourself into such situations. But they also stretch you – show what you’re made of.

Completing some journey under challenging conditions induces a good feeling, and if the weather is foul or I end up cold, wet and hungry, the cleaning up and the first hot chocolate tastes so unbelievably luxurious. How can anyone appreciate luxury except through the contrast of not having it?

The real jewel to treasure from working or exploring together in difficult circumstances is that you really get to know people. Particularly if you’ve shared miserable times, you discover what they’re made of, whether they’re really there for you, whether they still care for you when the cold, cold rain is dribbling down to soak the underwear. And you know who has the psychological strength to keep on going when the physical strength is spent. If that's elitism, then it gets my vote.
When George Mallory considered who would accompany him on his attempt on the summit of Everest in 1924, one of Sandy Irvine’s qualifications for the honour was his rowing prowess: he rowed for Oxford in the Boat Races of 1922 and 1923. Mallory knew that an oarsman of this calibre would have the unstinting determination to succeed.
Last night I spent the evening with the squad of women I’ve been rowing with for the last few years. We've learned that when the boat's unbalanced we each take our share of the blame. We’ve worked hard, got fit, been beaten often but each month we improve just a little. Most importantly though we are there for each other. We’ve rowed together, timed our strokes so we move the water together, our quads have burned together and we’ve struggled for breath together. This is true camaraderie and friendship. Thanks girls.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Scope for Improvement

The trouble with any writing project is that there's always scope for improvements. I shouldn't look at my work any more because every time I go back to it I come up with more requests for changes. I'm probably driving various people mad at Bradt, making suggestions to avoid word repetitions or adding the odd extra word to explain some exotic concept. And this is as we strive to get the book ready to go off to the printer this month, well next week actually. It is almost ready to go, although I'm not sure the back cover blurb is settled quite yet.

The new cover is vibrant and I feel it will attract quite a different readership to the towering mountains on the Australian edition, and my lovely editor, Caroline Taggart who is an author herself, has done a brilliant job of tightening up the prose. This has allowed me to sneak in new material, and even so end up with a book of a mere 390 pages, compared to the orginal 432. The colour section and new maps also add to what promises to be a really pleasing memoir. launch date is mid October.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Furious Rivers in Fluted Gorges

It had rained heavily overnight, water poured off the crags and mist lurked over a river that looked furious at being constrained by its gorge walls. Towards the end of our guide’s spiel about rafting, he got to the bit about capsizing. ‘Conditions are difficult today’ [it was too dangerous for hydrospeed] ‘and we will go straight into the rapid. We’ll have no time to practise. You must pay attention and paddle strongly if I tell you. If we capsize I cannot save you all. I will save the children and perhaps the women....’

We – our family of four – had to paddle furiously through each of the rapids as the river tried to throw itself at us, spun us and up-end the inflatable but in the calmer stretches we gazed up to the mountain tops and marvelled at the Boka waterfall that seems to just issue directly from the living rock.
This was our second day based in Kobarid. The previous day we’d donned wetsuits and followed the amiable Dejan (from up a long scramble through cyclamen-dotted beech forest, our feet disturbing fallen leaves and brought the rich smell of moulder to our nostrils. We were breathing hard by the time we reached the spot where we could begin our first taste of canyoning. Much of Slovenia is carved out of limestone, and although the rocks seem immovable, they are slowly dissolving. There are chutes and slides where the limestone is water-smoothed which are better than any swimming pool flume.

The idea of the activity is to slide, slither and scramble along in the course of a river, down at the level of dippers and pond-skaters. In places there are cliffs to leap off. The delight is that the guide knows the terrain intimately so he knows which inviting green pools are deep enough for a high-dive and which you can slide headfirst into. Wetsuits kept us warm as well as buoyant so often family members bobbed to the surface feet first after some head-first plunges or dare-devil jumps. Our descent – which was said to be a good one for cannoning virgins – ended in a 5m drop through a little waterfall. Alarmingly a guide just ahead of us kissed the rock goodbye before he launched himself over the edge. My confidence was further undermined by a comment from the guide that people sometimes break their backs on these long plunges. I decided not to look before my turn. At the bottom – invigorated as I waded out of a puddle that was barely waist-deep – Dejan said, ‘Even Mummy did it!’

Lake Bled, a centre for tourism and rowing
The landscape is superb throughout the country with the meadows peppered with cornflowers and other lovely plants; even the steepest ravines are covered in trees. There are plenty of castles and other signs of the country’s tumultuous past. The extreme north-west of Slovenia and in particular the upper Soča Valley is spectacular and varied. There’s scope for kayaking, hydrospeed, paragliding, horse-riding and fine forest walks. More sedate canoeing is possible on the tranquil Bohinj Lake where mountain bikes are also on offer and there are views of the country’s highest peak – Triglav. Or you can chill in one of many excellent open air restaurants overlooking Lake Bled, where the turquoise water is so clear you feel you could reach in and touch the fish. Menus were interesting. It took us a while to work out that Malice = Snacks in Slovene and we’re still unsure whether we should have tried the young horse cheek or morels and eggs. ‘Waiter, do you have morels?’
Slovenia is small but diverse and there is plenty to do while based in the capital. Ljubljana itself is a beautiful open city with excellent dining and a lively nightlife. We did a day trip to board the underground train (at 27) that goes deep into the Postojnska Cave system (; this is home to the unique blind white cave salamander that lives to 100 and can fast for several years. It never really grows up but its whole life looks like an overgrown bleached newt tadpole. My sons concluded that these creatures needed to get out more.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Something Massive

I suspected something was happening. There were notices on the cycle racks outside the Co-op on Mill Road saying that bicycle parking was been suspended for the day. Something massive about to happen in Cambridge...

Mill Road, Cambridge

Cambridge can feel like one big cosmopolitan village sometimes, and today – perched out on the rim of the bay window of my surgery – it certainly felt friendly and comfortable. The police on motorbikes fired up their sirens mainly to delight the children and offered high-fives to the little-‘uns lining the street. And it was unbelievable just how many people I recognised amongst the throng.  

The Wilds of East Anglia

Driving ESE from Cambridge last night, heading through that corner of East Anglia where you randomly pass in and out and in again of three counties, I glimpsed something ahead on the dark horizon. It radiated a warm glow. The skies were almost clear after the day’s terrific rainstorms. The only clouds were misty streaks.

Cottages, trees and hedgerows obscured the glow, and I wondered if it had been some trick of reflected light from within my car. Then I caught another glimpse. This time I could see it was an orb, easily three times the size of the full moon.

I thought of nuclear powerplants, early warning installations or even some ghastly illuminated erection to celebrate the Olympics. The next time I saw it, I made out the mottling of craters of a not-quite full moon glowing a gorgeous orange as it rose with astonishing beauty to light up the night.
Then on the River Cam this morning, the rain that we’ve all cursed so long and loud has given life to the creatures we share this planet with. It’s cleared the water so that terns come spear-fishing, plunging down from on high. Damsel-flies of jewel-brilliant emerald and sapphire cavorted and dipped along the luxuriant grassy banks doing amazing nuptial dances, in-flight insemination, while a humourless sentinel heron batted not an eye.

Live shows are always more atmospheric than anything recorded but am I alone in thinking that nature in all its glory still surpasses anything that TV or the film industry can show us?

Sunset over the Fens at Welney

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Spinning and slashing

The slashing is going really well. My Nepal memoir which started out with a wordcount of 141,000 is now down below 130k. We did, sadly, decide to cut out an entire trek which seemed harsh, especially as it means removing staring roles by close friends, but much of the cutting has been through trimming unnecessary verbiage and over-writing. The great thing about having slimmed the book down is that I've managed to sneak in a little new material and even a splendid waxed moustache, owned by a retired Gurkha Regimental Sergeant-major.

There is an unconventional forward, we'll print some of the many reviews and there will be colour photographs too. I'm also pleased that we'll have Nepali translations of the chapter titles in the attractive Devanagari script. So we're getting closer to sending the whole thing off to the printers. The latest big big challenge is the blurb to go on the back cover - something you might imagine your could dash off in two minutes. But how to condense the essence of hundreds of thousands of words, several life events, six years in two continents... into a mere 100 words. Yes indeed how? We have been batting ideas and many versions around and are still not happy with the result.

A slightly tidier-than-usual desk and playing with Nepali lettering

Friday, 8 June 2012

English wildlife

I've been out on the Cam a lot recently - rowing - in the lead up to the annual 'bumping' races. I love the glimpses we get of our wildlife during these several-times-a-week outings. Last night on the stretch of river that passes underneath the busy A14 trunk road, I caught the silhouette of a hunter... flat-faced profile, absolutely silent flight... clearly working the rough ground at the road edges and the embankment for the bridge. The barn owl rose up effortlessly and glided across the setting sun, to plunge into scrubby vegetation and out of sight -- before our cox noticed I wasn't concentrating.

About a week ago we were turning our 'eight' around down by Bait's Bite Lock while mallards laughed at our ineptitude. Movement drew my attention to a very different river-user. Their numbers are in decline in Britain partly because so many of Britain’s rivers are being trained and contained with concrete. I'd already guessed though that there must be a reasonable population of them locally because in several stretches of the river -- in the jungly area opposite the Cambridge Museum of Technology and also along the water meadows near Fen Ditton -- the river bank is pock-marked with their burrows.

The evening sun made his fur look an attractive chestnut-colour, despite a recent dunking in a turbid, fast-flowing river. He had a rounded face that made him look so much more handsome that other rodents, and I could see why friends with a passion for conservation feel it is worth fighting to conserve these water voles. He was shy and soon bolted for cover but it was a lovely encounter, even if this time I earned a stern -- if deserved -- reprimand from our cox for allowing my attention to wander outside the boat. It is fortunate someone was concentrating. We were broadside to the flow. We weren't far from the lock, the river was in spate and we wouldn't have been the first eight to get into trouble by being washed onto the weir.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Power of Words

I’d perhaps almost forgotten just how powerful words can be, but I had a reminder at the end of last month. I was invited by a good friend to give a talk in the fine market town of Hadleigh in Suffolk. The subject was the Crocodile Caves expeditions to Madagascar. It is quite a while since I revisited those experiences, and this time thought I’d read a couple of snippets from LEMURS OF THE LOST WORLD. One was light-hearted, capturing the Malagasy capacity of games and laughter, while the second was the sting in the tail. Reading it out loud brought back some really nasty feelings of an agonising 36 hours, and I was surprised just how powerfully the emotions affected me. I’ve heard it said that people don’t remember pain – maybe that’s true, unless you write about it.

You’ll be pleased to discover that the scorpion didn’t kill me although the sensation in my stung finger STILL isn’t normal. I also survived the experience of the reading and, more importantly, so did my audience. What made them squirm more, in fact, was a story contributed by Claire Verlander who was in the assembled company; she described an unfortunate ring-tailed lemur being swallowed by a boa constrictor. The saddest part was that the victim was a mother, and her infant was left screaming in the treetops.

This weekend I have returned to editing A GLIMPSE OF ETERNAL SNOWS. My new editor at Bradt is helping me to tighten the original writing a bit – reducing word-count is almost always A GOOD THING but this too is a painful process. A local GP colleague who is also an author, Mary Selby (aka Joanna Bell) describes the process as like scooping teeth out with a spoon. It really hurts. So far I’ve managed to cut 6500 words from what was a 141,000 word book, but I suspect more must go. The problem is that this memoir covers our years in Nepal and this was the time when I’ve experienced the very best as well as the very lowest points in my life. The challenge as an author though is to entertain my readers. Glimpse is a joyous book and what I’m working towards is making it even more uplifting than the original read.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Keepsake book

Long before I had any pretentions about getting published I kept a book of quotes that amused and inspired me and - in searching out some moving prose to celebrate a life - I opened this book for the first time in many years.

This is how I rediscovered the wonderful lilting Norman MacCaig (1910 - 1996)....

Sounds of the Day

When a clatter came,
it was horses crossing the ford.
When the air creaked, it was a lapwing
a lapwing seeing us off the premises
of its private marsh. A snuffling puff
ten yards from the boat was the tide blocking and
unblocking a hole in the rock.

When the door
scraped shut, it was the end
of all the sounds there are.

You left me
beside the quietest fire in the world.

I thought I was hurt in my pride only,
forgetting that
when you plunge your hand in freezing water,
you feel
a bangle of ice round your wrist
before the whole hand goes numb.