Monday, 27 February 2012

Comfort and discomfiture

I’m reading Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus and each time I pick up the book, I am reminded of the alternative pronunciation used for a while by one of our boys – hippo-pompamous. We must have been saying pompous a lot at that phase of family life.... living as we were amongst expatriates and development ‘experts’.

As so often happens with good writing, I was taken by a passing phrase that made me think: this time, about the origin of a word...

I read, “.. Albert’s skills as a healer... lay in no more than the ability to comfort, to comfort in the proper sense, to make strong, to fortify.”

I pulled out my trusty Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and confirmed that this is indeed the first definition of comfort, which made me further ponder on how much as a practising doctor I should aspire to comfort my patients.

Then of course – and this is the delight of using a book to check such things rather than an on-line dictionary – my eyes strayed into the adjacent word: comfit. I was surprised to learn that this has a different route. A comfit is a sweet, a sugar-coated almond, which for me puts a different slant on the word discomfiture.

Ah the joy of exploring words....

Jane's messy desk

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Mad Reunion

There has just been a significant anniversary of the CROCODILE CAVES OF MADAGASCAR EXPEDITION and t'other weekend six of the original team gathered. Our expedition yielded a clutch of academic papers, a fine spread in BBC Wildlife magazine, a book - Lemurs of the Lost World, and most important of all we also achieved proper protection of the crucial Ankarana Reserve in the north of the island. So what did we talk about most?
Food... We reminisced about the awfulness of rice and bean stew dinners; we spoke of breakfasts of left-over cold boiled rice - topped with sugar or if we were feeling particularly decadent - tutti-fruitti jam, and we recalled the glorious moment (after the dried bananas had run out) when Sally Crook arrived at base camp with Mars chocolate bars for all.

Anne reminded me too of the Puke-bird. I didn't immediately recall the species but it called an increasingly frenetic caw-caw-caw-Caw-CAW and climaxed - unappetisingly - in a sound resembling someone retching. Then story reminded me that we'd been compiling lists of all the animals of the reserve and recorded seven of the fourteen members of the endemic Vangidae family. Rather like Darwin’s finches, each Vanga species has a bill of different size and shape, designed for different feeding strategies. They also seemed to have very different calls. One wolf-whistled. Our puke-bird was a striking black and white bird, the size of a raven, with a long curved slender beak which gave it its common name, the Sicklebilled Vanga. They flew around in disorganised rowdy flocks, often egged on by an attendant Drongo. When at their most excited they broke into paroxysms of caw-caw-caws, followed by a disgusting noise like someone vomiting. If we imitated their call, they became all the more excited and every member of the flock of twenty or so Sicklebills would all start to Caw-caw- caw ... puke! It wasn’t only us that wound them up. One morning a rabble of Sicklebills landed in a tree close to a troop of resting lemurs and an amazing shouting match broke out. The lemurs became terribly agitated and all started grunting frantically and penduluming their tails. The Sicklebills stayed put, so the lemurs let out a shrill volley of ear-piercing shrieks which upset the Sicklebills enough to make them fly away.

Sharing time with people on expeditions, you see people at their best and at their worst (retching for example). Small thoughtfulnesses are long-remembered. Lasting friendships form. So, comfortable in each others company even after years apart, we spent a wonderfully no-airs-or-graces relaxed and enjoyable weekend together. It was a good reunion; well I thought so anyway. It was only sad that the team remain so intrepid that others were away in interesting places. Take a look at Paul's website for example

Taking a break from clinic work in the primary schol at Morondava

Saturday, 25 February 2012

The River Cam

I awoke before 7am cosy as a clothes moth in a Cashmere jumper wondering why I’d agreed to this extra – early – outing. By the time I’d sunk some coffee and pedalled my bike to the river though, the crisp new day and cloudless sky had renewed my enthusiasm. At the boathouses, Midsummer Common and the River Cam looked especially lovely. Weeping willows were sprouting new leaves and even last year’s signets were thinking of sex.
Low winter sunshine made the swans look particularly pristine as they glided on a mill-pond-still river. I watched one couple approach each other, wings partly unfurled. They dipped their heads in greeting, then chattered beaks together affectionately, uttering low snoring sounds. They rubbed necks and, separating slightly to touch beaks again, their silhouette described a perfect heart shape.

Earlier in February - before that spring-like feel
This really is perfect time to swing an ‘eight’ onto the water and push out into a tranquil river. It takes a while to slot into the harmony of seven others’ strokes, but once that wordless communication has been achieved, it is like a mediation. We can’t think of anything else. It clears the mind of clutter as we power down to Baits Bite Lock.
The Cam at Baits Bite Lock

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

BBC coverage already

An interesting news snippet broadcast on BBC Breakfast TV this week discussed book covers. Towards the end of the end of the piece there was a short interview with artist Neil Gower who designed the beautiful new cover of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows, and it showed him in his Sussex studio putting the finishing touches to the artwork.

The book itself will be launched in the autumn by Bradt.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

New books

The new year has started exceedingly well for me and I'm celebrating with this new author blog. My big news is that I've just signed a contract with Bradt Travel Guides. They will publish a global edition of A Glimpse of Eternal Snows in the Autumn so my Nepal memoir will travel to North America for the first time and it'll be distributed properly in Britain too. This fresh incarnation is part of a new series of travel writing to be launched by Bradt later this year.

Bookshops in the Antipodes classified me as a Women Against the Odds and the beautiful Australian edition of Glimpse, sold well in the southern hemisphere. This was despite the challenges of promoting a book from the other side of the world. Now it is exciting to be working with Bradt on a British/northern hemisphere edition. It is especially good to be working with a publisher whom I know and trust - authors can be treated like disposable commodities sometimes - and also one with a social conscience too.

Founder Hilary Bradt is a friend - we have trekked together in Nepal - and Bradt Travel Guide's commissioning editor happens to be the lovely lady who was editorial director at Cadogan Guides all those years ago when I first signed up with them to write Bugs Bites & Bowels. I'm sure it wasn't in Rachel's job description but she ended up holding my one-month-old baby while I spoke at Stanford's Travel Book Shop in Covent Garden, London when we launched the first edition.

Currently we are discussing what changes we'll make to the text of Glimpse, whether we'll be able to use more Nepali script (perhaps as chapter headers), whether my drawings of Tharu designs will be used (see bottom of my web pages) and which colour photographs will be included. I'm also looking forward to seeing what the final version of the new cover will look like; this time it will be artwork rather than a photo. Giving birth to another edition of the book that means most to me is an exciting process, and I'm especially enjoying delving into our collection of thousands of photographs of Nepal to select those that best conjure up our years amongst the himals. It'll be hard selecting what to put in the book but it has given me the opportunity to post more in my photo gallery at

This photo by Quentin Stafford-Fraser features Jane and her books plus Walden Writers magazines at Cambridge Central Library in December
In addition to this news about my Nepal travel narrative, I've also signed a new contract with Cadogan/New Holland publishers so that they can launch an e-version of The Essential Guide to Travel Health (aka Bugs Bites & Bowels) though when this will appear I do not yet know.

Author discussion panel chaired by James Nicol
at Cambridge Central Library in December: Clare Mulley (second left), Midge Gillies and Jane Wilson-Howarth; photo by Quentin Stafford-Fraser