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