Hopefully this will tempt you to look at the new e-novel I've just published. It's called Coconut Wireless and is about life, love and gossip in the country's capital, Honiara. Enjoy downloading some free sample chapters by clicking here or buy for a couple of US dollars from Smashwords as a pdf here.
Monday, 22 November 2010
Hopefully this will tempt you to look at the new e-novel I've just published. It's called Coconut Wireless and is about life, love and gossip in the country's capital, Honiara. Enjoy downloading some free sample chapters by clicking here or buy for a couple of US dollars from Smashwords as a pdf here.
Friday, 5 November 2010
It's rare that I use TV to travel but I made an exception when a friend (who'd done some of the filming on What the Green Movement Got Wrong) urged me to watch BBC 4, thursday november 4, which is available at catch up for a while here. The programme enraged me, mostly because it dismissed the idea that here in the West we all have to learn to live with a bit less. As the population keeps on growing - and poorer people expect to share more of the good things of this world, such as electricity - this means we need more and cleaner fuels. In the film, using a couple of turncoat Greens it was suggested this could only be nuclear. (btw No, it does not). But Mark Lynas thinks it is, both talking from his office and on a surprising trip to still-uninhabitable-since-April 1986- Chernobyl.
Two summers ago in Yorkshire I met two Belarus girls, young teenagers - so 2nd generation "Chernobyl" children (around 60 per cent of the radiation spread into neighbouring Belarus with long-term devastating effects). The girls were on a month's holiday organised by the Chernobyl Children's charity, see more here.
You'll die anyway
Last night on TV a scientist told us that not many people died after the 4th reactor went into meltdown, but lots died from alcoholism and stress from fear of radiation! How I laughed (in an ironic way). The host mum of these two girls told me how the Belarus children's exposure to Chernobyl gifts them with a lifetime of chronic ill-health. They are unusually tired, many end up with thyroid problems. It may not be a stark death under a blood-stained blanket, but it's a dreadful legacy. And one we could blight many other people with if we turn again to nuclear as a magic bullet for tackling climate change.
Obviously lots of watchers (it's the first thing most Greens have watched since the news of the failure of Copenhagen's climate talks last December...) were unhappy with the show. I like this calm comment from Craig Bennett at Friends of the Earth. That NGO has also published a briefing about what they thought was wrong with the film, see here.
I have an extra complaint about the way "What The Greens Got Wrong" is that it reflects its own premise - Greens are too conservative - by almost exclusively relying on white men in suits. Where are the women who'd talk a lot more sense?
I know so many mothers who are doing their absolute best to help their children become the adults who will be coping with climate change. They are teaching their kids to think and learn real life skills, plus rewarding tolerance and co-operativeness, etc. But they seem to be a missing species in decision making. Probably because they're back home putting the kids to bed. If you're interested in more thoughts on this see this piece in the Guardian (from 2009).
Monday, 25 October 2010
Just taken Lola and friends down to Portsmouth to catch a ferry to France. To avoid hanging around the ferry terminal we also visited Portsmouth's historic dockyard. An expensive trip (£55 for a family ticket) but full of amazing history lessons. For instance we were forced to whizz around the Mary Rose Museum which shows how Tudor seamen wore jerkins, measured the sea bed and plotted their routes, etc, just so we could have the guided tour of the navy's first ever commissioned battleship the HMS Victory at 3.35pm.
Because we made this trip the day after Trafalgar Day (October 21) there were wreaths marking the spot Nelson died while fighting the French. (Although the nearby Lady Hamilton pub seemed to have ignored this particular landmark moment). It was also a few days after the big spending review by Cons/Lib-Dem so felt strange seeing the about-to-be scrapped HMS Ark Royal tied up in a nearby dock.
Monday, 13 September 2010
Bread and coffee are my staples. But if I tweak the ingredients so it's a flat bread - injera - and add a bit of ceremony to the coffee, maybe with frankincense then it's easy to be transported to Ethiopia. It certainly helps if you add in the wonderful music of singer Honey Solomon at the 24th Gillespie Festival (held the 2nd Sunday every September) Ethiopia came to a pocket park in the shadow of Arsenal's football stadium.
The Gillespie Festival is a large fete with a cultural spin that reflects the area's unique mix of peoples. While the stalls are piled with secondhand or homemade creations. There's usually also a fast trade in homecooked or home grown produce (I bought rhubarb and plum tomatoes from the Quill Street Allotments and damson jam from Olden Community Garden's stall). Defying categories - a pedal bike that powered up a fruit smoothie maker being run by Finsbury Park Transition Town.
But the real pleasure of attending Gillespie Festival is its amazing multicultural mix of music and people.
Get up and dance
Honey Solomon specialises in Ethiopian songs - and during her set a tower block version of the flatbread injera was passed around for sharing to everyone in the audience. This bread was delicious tasting (and is ideally eaten with the right hand).
To one side of the stage a coffee ceremony had been set up, beans roasted, frankincense flavoured the air. The hypnotic effect of Honey's music, food and scented smoke soon had the crowd dancing.
Today I was back in this little park walking my dog and there's barely a trace of the Magic Carpet trip the people of London, N4 and N5 took yesterday to Ethiopia. But it's not one I'm likely to forget if I can turn my coffee love into something with more ceremony and less addictive-behaviour.
Saturday, 11 September 2010
Years ago in Zanzibar Town when I was new to travel, I went to the famous Stone Town night market where loads of stalls serve supper - or bitings - with the most basic of equipment. Fingers for forks, stars for parafin lights.
It was magic picking the best things to eat in the blue-black, super-scented dark. Perhaps because night markets lead to sensory overload - try the salt tang of the Indian ocean, bright Southern Hemisphere stars, crash of surf on reef, charcoal fires, the spit of grilling chilli fish, sweet taint of rubbish piles, ladies' perfume, sweat, mosquito buzz - the food at the original spice island tasted delicious. Just remembering has got my mouth watering.
Fast forward 23 years and I've just raided my own neighbourhood for food. Near my home the street trees that produce fruit (eg, rowans, crab apple, plums, elderberry, pear, sweet chestnut) are dropping their load. Inspired by Finsbury Park Transition Town's fair/fete (where I bought a jar of N4 crab apple and greengage jelly for £2), I decided to harvest what was left of the non-stomped on crab apples in my nearest street.
My first attempt - a half pound of mushy mini apples mixed with my homegrown redcurrants - produced two delicious jars of jelly. Later in the day I zipped around on my bike to pick up the very last of the edible fruit starting to rot along the pavement. Whilst doing this - bike parked by the side of the road, fruit popped into my upturned bike helmet - I had the strangest sensation of what it's like to know food poverty. Two guys in shalwar kameez walked past, oblivious to the rubbish picker (me). One woman plugged into an i-pod attempted to turn off my flashing back bike light (to save money she said!), a dog walker crossed the road. And then a friendly man, Rex, came out with his young son to hand me an orange plastic bag.
"It's alright, " I said quickly, "I know there's a shop just round the corner, but I want to pick these apples to make some really local jam." Rex did his best to humour the mad woman outside his house, promising me empty jam jars next time he saw me...
Really it's me who should feel smug. I now have five lovely pots of old-fashioned crab apple jam sourced spitting distance from my home.
But I'm still disturbed by that out of 21st century experience. It feels very rural - even in a city - to sort through and reject fallen fruit. Secondly I had a taste of what it is like to be absolutely invisible, how I guess a refugee might feel. People tried as hard as they could to ignore a street gleaner. Most looked faintly disgusted as if my parsimony might force them to drop to their knees and fill their own Tesco bags with unpackaged food.
The obvious third thought was how lucky we all are here in the UK with this profligate glut of food that no one fights over. If this was the flooded parts of Pakistan how different our approach to food would be.
The shocking media quiet about how our climate is changing - as highlighted by Bill McKibben who set up http://www.350.org/ - makes chilling reading about the speed our planet is warming, see here. For example Russia, Iraq, Saudia Arabia, Sudan and Pakistan have all set their all-time temperature records during 2010. Big changes like this change how things grow.
I won't be setting up a food stall outside my house yet. Which is lucky as goodness knows what health and safety would make of run over, chewing gum flecked, dog poo avoided fruit jams? But I still think these experiences are going to inspire me to make more produce I can store. What I hope this means is that if climate changes mean I actually have to do foraging for real I won't be an absolute beginner...
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
It's nearly the end of Ramadan and some of the mums (many with connections to Bangladesh, Somalia, Tukey and Nigeria) at my younger daughter's school are clearly looking forward to their long month of fasting to finish. There should be a big party in many homes for Eid Marabuk sometime this week - maybe wednesday, or thursday - definitely Friday (it all depends on the moon, and no doubt other details). I just wish someone would ask me to one of these celebratory parties as this will be a brilliant celebration feast.
Harvest festivals - and this year Ramadan - show that religions are clever at using our love of food as a spritual in, and an opportunity to thank too. But the UK has genius (often secular) food traditions - not just our fried breakfasts - and despite all our supermarket addictions it is hard not to miss the best autumn seasonal treats. Right now I'm loving blackberries, Conference pears, damsons, greengages, plums, cobnuts and the few grapes my one-year old vine kindly produced.
Obviously you can enjoy these treats on your own, but another way is to go to a food festival like Brighton and Hove which promises a chance to "taste the world" between 1 September and 7 October, neatly including the nationally celebrated local food week with a celebratory picnic at Preston Park on 25 September, from 11am-4pm. There's even a Regency Banquet - with dresses as sumptuous as the dishes, perhaps with even a few Indian courses given the look-East outlook of the time.
A quick look at the fascinating website of Common Ground (art merged with local distincitiveness) shows that 3 September was the opening of the oyster fisheries in Colchester, a tradition dating back to the 13th century. As you probably know tradition decrees that oysters can only be fished/eaten when there is an R in the month. This year Colchester's Mayor - a confirmed landlubber - caused outcry by doing the gin and gingerbread ceremony (yes, I know it sounds strange...) on dry land rather than a boat. She seems to have done it well though and the oysters can now be served up again.
More worryingly all blackberries are meant to be picked by St Michaelmas Day which this year is 29 September - after that the Devil has either spat on them or done something unspeakably horrible - so you have been warned. I have an Italian friend who says blackberries are considered unlucky throughout Italy making it a brilliant place to pick these delectable fruits. (And if you've got kids they are also a brilliant non-toxic face paint!).
But cutting back on your jam and blackberry and apple crumble supplies (assuming you've stocked up the freezer) does give you time to enjoy apple day and all the picking, preserving and juicing that goes with it on 21 October.
I am sure every nation has moments of food glut - the season of mangoes in the Caribbean, sardines in the Mediterranean, rich cream from Swiss cows, tumeric wherever spices grow - which you learn to love as a child and anticipate as an adult. Enjoy your autumn tastebuds and if you can't make it to a festival like Brighton's (or somewhere more local to you) you can always create your own special nature's larder celebration at home. Cheers!
Thursday, 26 August 2010
Bristol has 2 million people, two vast open spaces, loads of green lungs (parks, play space, Sustrans routes) and it's not far from Wales, Devon or the Cotswolds. What's not to like? Well my friends keep moving there... when I'd prefer them to live nearer me. But the result is great insider knowledge: so here's insights from a local on how to enjoy yourself on a walking tour of the city, even during rain. Most are free, and certainly interesting.
And if you go on a Wednesday you can choose a picnic at Bristol Farmers' Market (approx 9.30am-2pm) or just enjoy the markets at St Nicholas in the old town running from monday to Saturday the whole day, see details here.
Around the Harbourside/Waterfront area there's plenty to see. also look out for the Arnolfini gallery (next to the YHA) see here.
Behind the Watershed/Bordeaux Quay is Millennium Square - good place to hang if sunny - and home to @Bristol (science museum).
Slightly up the hill from there is the Cathedral, Council House and College Green (which I've taken to my family once for a picnic to Stop Bristol Airport expansion...).
Going over the river you can head out to SS Great Britain (ferry boats also an option), see here.
If you go a bit further along the river, you get a view of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and you can visit an eco house at the Create Centre. It's a big red warehouse building on the left hand bank where the river splits (this is about 20 mins walk from Anolfini). May be possible to take the tourist bus from Create up to the Downs for views of the bridge, gorge etc.
Or stay down near the centre, Red Lodge is interesting and free, see here.
Further up the hill (just carry on up Park Street from Council House/ Park Row from Red Lodge) to Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery - also free. No Banksy on show now but plenty of quirky items, see here.
Or over in Stokes Croft - Bristol's (alternative) cultural quarter, the People's Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) has just opened the Stokes Croft Museum. Admission costs £1 and it's tiny - but entertaining. Open Wednesday 11am-3pm. See here.
Given the stress on all things green and alternative culture, it could be said that visiting Bristol could get you thinking you are in a time warped, left bank France - the city has got Montpellier after all. But it's also got a big Caribbean community and in Stokes Croft you can find nearly 50 artists working at Jamaica Street artists, here.
Opposite the museum is Hamilton House, now home to Coexist and interesting shared office space (there's a rumour about a soon-to-be-built green roof and a wood fired hot tub), and The Canteen - which is the ground floor bar/cafe with nice coffee and a big terrace for outdoor lounging. This is also where Bristol Green Doors office is based (about 20 mins from Red Lodge, you just follow Park Row past the hopsital and then go left along to Jamaica Street and you come out on Stokes Croft just below the museum).
There's also the solar-heated Bristol Lido - edge of Clifton, up the hill fromt he musuem, near the BBC. But it's expensive to swim (£15 afternoons only). There is a cafe bar too which is open to the public.
Wednesday, 25 August 2010
We're in Wiltshire house sitting for a while (this is a brilliant way to holiday cheaply). In fact just swapping houses for a night gives you a sense of living quite differently. Pat Barker, winner of the 1995 Booker prize, calls time spent in another person's house (so long as that family isn't there) "a holiday from adult life". In the more recent Double Vision (Faber, 2003) a character enjoys: "The mere fact that the house was not his gave him an Alice-in-Wonderland feeling. He seemed to be wandering around between the chair legs while items of furniture loomed above him, mysterious with withheld significance. They made him feel insubstantial, these rooms with their carefully selected antiques, the fruits of years of settled, successful endeavour, and yet the feeling was not entirely unpleasant. Like Goldilocks in the house of the three bears, he had a sense of danger and transgression."
I have to admit that my lack of action with the vaccuum cleaner - despite today's full timetable of dawn to dusk rain - makes me feel edgy too... What will my friend Julie say when she surveys her house after her holiday?
But yesterday there was sun and a chance to enjoy a day trip to the Cheddar Gorge which splits the Mendip Hills, Somerset. I'd never been, couldn't even imagine what it looked like, but the Gorge with it's dramatic views enhanced by old grass, sheer rock faces, wild scrub, colonising ash trees, real climbers,magical stories and "British Primitives" (aka goats) and soay sheep browsing is as good as a wonder of the world. Comparisons include the Grand Canyon and any drama cliff coastline - Italy's Amalfi coast say (except there's been no sea here for millions of years) or maybe some spot in Albania or Croatia.
Way back the gorge was home to a spectacular river, and inside the carbonifeous limestone are some amazing caves. We toured the Gough Cave with its frozen waterfall, rough scratched mammoth cave painting and at the very back the huge dome space nicknamed St Paul's. Cooper Cave has lured in TV's Time Team, been home to a shepherd and his family in Victorian times, and no doubt was the ultimate in designer living for people in the Mesolithic Age.
Cheddar Man is a must see. It's Britain's oldest complete skeleton (approx 9,000 years old) and was used in 1997 to make DNA tests that show there's still a descendant of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherer living in Cheddar today - a history teacher called Adrian Targett. Amazing thought, and one which the small Museum of Prehistory spends time encouraging visitors to think about how much this disproves the notion of God. In case that's not enough brain meat there are also three skulls on display providing absolute evidence of cannibalism in the Cheddar cave network.
The downside is Cheddar Gorge, once cheese, mills and shepherds, is a real tourist trap. Every village building sells tacka-tack rubbish, postcards and snacks probably no different from Wookey Hole nearby (except at Cheddar Gorge dogs are truly welcome, thank you!). It's also expensive - a family ticket is around £40 plus a car parking fee. You can of course just take a walk to Jacob's Ladder which is up the Gorge (on the National Trust land) for free, but paying lets you see the caves, and that's what we wanted to do in our borrowed Fiat car.
I was impressed by the amount of people employed by the Cheddar Caves & Gorge company (no doubt for low wages, but the staff were invariably friendly, mixed ages and seemed to take some pride in working in such a honeypot). I also really enjoyed the onus on nature conservation at the site - we saw a buzzard and heard tales of 10 different types of bat, breeding peregrine falcons and a family of nationally endangered water voles near the mill pond.
It is also the true home of the Cheddar pink (a flower) and of course Britain's best-loved, and best-known cheese. We bought a slice of some cave-matured "authentic" cheddar from the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Company (£22.95 per kg). Irresistible after seeing it stored under lock and key during our tour of Gough's cave.
You don't just have to look and learn, or guzzle on the various cafe menu options as there's a place you can learn to cave, climb and abseil - and perhaps do something a bit dirtier and more challenging than just learn - at the Rock Sport centre.
After a summer spent feeling rural, I felt Cheddar Caves & Gorge had hit a potent mix that suits every sort of tourist, and perhaps even locals too. The next plan is to fit a ski lift from top to the bottom of the gorge, an ambitious £2 million idea, that if carried out would certainly gives British staycationers a taste of the Alps. I can't wait to go back...
Tuesday, 17 August 2010
I'm ashamed of myself really: in just two weeks of holidaying I've managed to drive nearly 1,000 miles. Most of this was local trips in Yorkshire, although the big mileage came from an up and down of the A1, plus a return journey from Carlisle to Wast Water. Although the family also clocked up the miles on the gear-changing, brake-waring crossing of Hard Knott pass between Boot and Ambleside.
Because we need to drive so little, I usually stick to a membership car club scheme, Streetcar. But this time it was more convenient to rent the cars from Sixt.
As a result of this I've been into a couple of motorway service stations - better for clean loos than most train stations still - and nowadays also serving a good cup of coffee, but otherwise soleless places. Assuming it is not an April Fool (and we are months out as I am writing this in August) there are plans in the Cotswolds to build an apparently "green service station" with a grass roof, electric vehicle refuelling points, and a veg patch. The full story is in the Guardian here.
What struck me about the service stations on the A1 was they were an identical layout, and nothing to tell me where in the world I was. Apparently the kit-design is the way to make cost and building savings - you create a model that can be dumped anywhere you acquire the land, a bit like Lego. So if this so-called green service station was to go ahead it would make sense to build it just like all the others. Or to make a model that would be acceptable to all the other service station developers.
I wonder if there is still time to ask the question: do we need yet another service station? I'm guessing this is a no, even if you could pour unleaded petrol into your car while munching on a locally-sourced goat's cheese sarnie.
Sunday, 8 August 2010
When bird poo lands on your head - observers laugh. The recipient feels slightly sick, then remembers that this sort of accident foretells a good luck day. When the young Isaac Newton sat under a tree and an apple fell on his head (or on to the book he couldn't take his nose out of being a bookish sort stuck at home to escape the plague in Cambridge) he began to work up a theory about the first, second and third laws of motion. Everyone knows these laws now. And who doesn't get gravity?
Driving up the A1 from London to Scotch Corner - this week I needed to drive 772 miles which seems a staggering distance (although it was only just over one tank of diesel, ie approx £65 of the rented VW Golf) - so I was desperate for a fun stop-off rather than a "services". The answer is at Grantham, the fascinating National Trust-run Woolsthorpe Manor, Lincolnshire which was the birthplace of Sir Isaac Newton. At the science centre Lola, 12, and I used a prism to see how red, green and yellow light beams become "white", we learnt that Isacc's dad (who died before he was born) couldn't write and how the boy Isaac built models of windmills and then powered them by mice! We also picniced near the famous apple tree (see pic above).
"His discoveries included revolutionary ideas in mathematics, optics, gravity and formulating the laws of motion. His theories and scientific methods underpin the world of science today."
NT guide book
Six fingers seen by people in a Sixt rent-a-car
Fascinatingly the house is also filled with anti-witch grafitti scratched into the plaster. It is at the front door, in the hallway, in the bedroom even. How strange that the man who did so much to make science accessible grew up in such a super-superstitious household. Or maybe that explains it? Lola and I drove off powered up by ideas that kept a conversation about how to make our own pet mice produce some renewable energy last many, many miles past York. And the fallen apple we took as a conversation piece is now tucked into my compost pile.
Thursday, 22 July 2010
Spain: there's so much I'd like to know about this country. And thanks to Nell's school organising a week of Spanish activities she at least is learning something. So far there's been flamenco dancing, paella making and a lot of foodie exploration. The eight and nine year old children were even given a jar of Mediterranean veg (aspargus!) to take home from a generous Spanish online gourmet shop, at http://www.ibericalondon.co.uk/.
The students were also asked to abandon their uniform so they could wear red and yellow clothes - which is a lovely way of remembering Spain's complicated flag. Although I'm sure that Spain's World Cup win (2010) means that every football fan knows exactly what it looks like anyway.
Extra tasty teaching
After classes on Wednesday the teachers laid out a table groaning with freshly-made fiesta food so every child could try something - even if it was just a grape or a bit of crusty bread.
Sadly Nell, 9, wasn't so keen on slithers of octopus, the dark, salty anchovies or the tasty gazpatcho. She's not allowed to eat nuts so that ruled out the almond-stuffed olives (I waffled these up) but she loved the tortilla. Phew.
Tuesday, 6 July 2010
4 o'clock on a Tuesday afternoon sees Lola and I, just minutes from home, sharing Charles Darwin's favourite teatime snack - cucumber sandwiches with the crusts off, strawberries, ginger and treacle cake and homemade lemonade. We're in Caledonian Park, Islington along with children from nearby schools, the Mayor and an impressive number of Charles Darwin's relatives to enjoy the opening of the new Darwin Trail.
In Islington the Darwin Trail is a 10-slated loop around Caledonia Park with quotes by the great writer of The Origin of Species that link the borough, the plants in the park and naturalist knowledge. The trail cleverly bridges science and literature with some meditative finger posts set by park highlights: a hedge, a bird feeder, a holly tree, an oak and a walnut tree.
Snakes and tortoises
The oldest and boldest of the relatives, Randal Keynes, a great, great grandson (author of Annie's Box) told the crowd that he'd opened Darwin Trails throughout the world. Each has a distinctive character - but in Brazil the first users had been obliged to detour past a boa constrictor, and in the Galapagos Islands there were tortoises to avoid. In Islington we spotted a cute dog, a fluffy dog and two scary dogs as well as the famous pigeons who are descendants of Rock Doves.
Look closely and even in this uber-urban setting all is "beautiful adapatation". It's a lesson for life, by the great mapper of life. A wonderful adventure for our armchair travel diary.
Monday, 7 June 2010
Our homegrown sunflower seeds are starting to break free and head upwards which has helped extra engage the girls with Van Gogh's famous flower portraits. Back in March we'd been to the Oxford Literary Festival to hear three children's writers talking about their work - one of the most impressive (and certainly the man who made everyone laugh the most) was Frank Cottrell Boyce.
Cosmic sunflowersThree months on we've now read three of Frank Cottrell Boyce's books aloud at bedtime (also on the tube, trains, in the garden etc) and he is a genius. See here for video clips with Frank talking about books and paintings to a class at the National Gallery. A truly "cosmic" writer as one of his character's might put it. But in Framed a key part of the plot is when the kids steal a really famous picture - Van Gogh's sun flowers.
Roll on a couple of months and Dr Who plus new assistant Amy Pond turn up in Arles a few months before Van Gogh's suicide to assist him removing an invisible, fierce, blind alien.
Seeing Vincent Van Gogh with their favourite TV characters - plus recognising his pictures from the Royal Academy exhibition (we went twice!) - and generally being clued up really helped the kids talk about depression, highs and lows of creativity, what is art etc, and they know what one small bit of Provence used to look like. (In the Dr Who TV series these scenes weren't shot in Cardiff, but on location in Croatia which clearly still has narrow cobbled streets and is incredibly picturesque).
If you're looking for ways to inspire kids about art then Framed is a brilliant introduction to the National Gallery collection. Obviously, you could just go to the National Gallery but I find it's worth picking out a few pictures rather than going room by room. Either provide a treasure hunt of target pictures or get lost and in each gallery pick out the pic you most want hung in your bedroom. Another in-depth read about Van Gogh's final weeks - much of it spent drinking absinthe, sharing ideas and getting cross with Gauguin (who will be the subject of a huge exhibition at the Tate in September) - is to read The Yellow House by Martin Gayford (Penguin).
I think this is the first trip to France my family's made that mostly involved books and pictures. Strange that it was inspired by sunflower growing and a Dutchman.
If you like this post do bookmark it, or also have a look at Nicola's other blog, homemade kids: thrifty, creative and eco-friendly ways to raise children here.
Monday, 31 May 2010
It's half term and I've already taken my kids to see Granny and their cousins over in Hertfordshire. Parking the Car Club car bumped into Dr Dave who has three small children who he likes taking on trips. Like me he's a fan of Adventure Walks for Families by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis (Frances Lincoln, £8.99), but I just read it in bed because it very much assumes users have their own vehicle.
Are we nearly there yet?
Dr Dave spent a good 10 minutes praising the trips that led him and his family to see the amazing red kites (birds on Christmas Common, Oxon); following in the footsteps of Alice in Wonderland (Port Meadow, Oxford) and BFG and other pursuits in ~Roald Dahl country (Little Missenden, Bucks).
So good we made up our own trip
Inspired by Adventure Walks Dr Dave then spent the last wet Saturday at Cadbury World, Birmingham. Not only do you get plenty of tastes of chocolates (chocolate buttons, curly wurly, chocolate bar, etc, etc) you also see a factory at work, better visualise Charlie's temptations (from Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) and learn about the founding of Bournville and how to be a truly good Quaker. Mind you he warns that you may regret the colour purple during the trip, and fail to learn anything about new owners Kraft.
I found Dr Dave's retellings of his family outings a joy to hear. Kids need love, of course, but stretching their mind with simple themed walks with plenty of opportunities to look out for Oompa Lumpas, or big red raptors, or a bottle labelled 'drink me' - or perhaps more practically a pub selling packets of crisps - is a lovely way to spend half term. You all get to know the UK better, and stop clogging up the sky with multi mini-break flights.
Friday, 14 May 2010
Part of the year I teach feature writing to university students. this is a real pleasure and has enabled me to meet many very lovely, bright and ambitious young men and women on the cusp of their careers. It's a kind of virtual travelling as I get to meet people from places I doubt I'll go to. For all of us it's about realising everyone has different norms.
When students do a feature assignment for class I always say "write what you know". This year I'm regretting it. Many of my students have interviewed friends/ family/ acquaintances who have harrowing stories about family life around the world.
Life changing journeys
From Nepal there's the misery caused by students lured to the UK enrolled into fake colleges, or Visa Factories, who then end up in debt and with no chance of getting the promised degree.
From Nigeria there's examples of the causual violence inflicted on girlfriends and wives because it's OK for men to be seen to be the boss.
From Bangladesh there is the problem of arranged marriages leaving young women, new-to-Britain (often with no friends and no English language skills) trapped with violent husbands and consentingly mean mother-in-laws. If these women manage to leave these husbands and divorce they are shamed and shunned by their own family, destroying their lives if they even can get a ticket home. They are also stuck if this happens within the first two years of their marriage/visa as the UK rules mean they cannot get any support from the state. Any unfortunate woman with a baby would be in a horrific situation.
There's the Albanian girl who knows her life will be mapped out for her. She may be a student know but you get married before you're 24 or that's it, no man will want you.
Or in India, the semi-Royal-behaving family who was so angry with their daughter's choice of boyfriend that they packed her off to the UK and then faked her death in a car-crash. This is a particularly harsh story as the girl was treated like a princess right until the moment her family realised she had been a friend of a Moslem man. Clearly she didn't realise she was living in a gilded cage and had misjudged the love her family had for her. Daddy loved her but only if she did what they wanted, which isn't love at all is it?
And there's another story from India recalling the clashes in 2002 which left 1000s dead in a city on the "other side of the bridge". For the Moslem teenager on that side the experience was scarring enough to bring on post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet his contemporary, a Hindu girl, remembers the three months of curfew on her "other side of the bridge" as a happy time with far more leisure and indoor activities that she almost misses now the troubles are over.
Nobody knows the trouble I've seen
It's a right set of misery pieces, all written so well. And I so hope my students can take these ideas and shake them up and make an effort to change things. At the very least I think we all deserve safe homes, and yet for so many women this is painfully not the case. My students' writing show the world as cruel and unfair - and yet their own generosity, happy spirits and kindnesses demonstrate another path.
Here's a good luck message to anyone baffled by the things going wrong - the lost housing deposits, the fake colleges with dud courses, the family or cherised boyfriend/partner turning against you. I hope things will get better for you, and that you have the skills to share your stories. I've never read about the stuff my students chart in my favourite newspapers, but I cannot tell you how many times I've read about how to reuse a plastic water bottle, what film to watch or summer festival fashion tips - useless, simplistic journalese.
I guess the message of this piece is that when you travel - anywhere, even out of your door - try to see if your friendship can ever help people too proud, or confused to admit to the pain their nearest and dearest are giving them.
Friday, 23 April 2010
This post is by Essex Man Pete.
Collapsed cellars, a ruined conservatory, hidden reservoirs, stone paths, cold frames and boating lakes emerging from the undergrowth. If Warley Place were in Cornwall it would surely be the subject of a Lost Gardens of Heligan-style TV series.
Warley Place was a welcome discovery while visiting my late father’s old farm in Great Warley. As a child I remember scrambling up a huge earth bank in Dark Lane and discovering the Narnia-like ruins of an old house in the woods. It was, in fact, the remains of one of England’s finest gardens created by the formidable Ellen Willmott, one of the top gardeners of her day.
Forty odd years later it’s been renovated by the Essex Wildlife Trust. The entrance is next to the busy Thatchers Arms pub.
Ellen Willmott moved into Warley Place with her parents in 1875 and spent a lifetime developing a sumptuous garden. Numerous plants are named after her (the Eryngium giganteum is still called "Miss Willmott's Ghost) and she once employed more than 100 gardeners. She was a big mover in the Royal Horticultural Society and was awarded the Medal of Honour in 1907.
She died penniless in 1934, perhaps having perhaps spent all her dosh on mail-order seeds, and the grand house was demolished in 1939.
The walk begins along the old main road to Brentwood which medieval pilgrims once used when travelling from Walsingham to Canterbury. Past the old crocus field is South Pond, Great Warley’s watering hole in medieval times. Then it's in to the woods and the ruins of the Willmotts’ old house.
The roofless shell of the grand old conservatory is still standing, an evocative sight in the dappled green light. While around it are drops in to the old basements. You can still see the tiled walls of the kitchen and the overgrown alcoves of the old cellars.
Mosaic stone paths have been unearthed by the Wildlife Trust's dedicated staff and the 17th century walled garden is still relatively intact, housing amon others, a palm tree, a ginko tree, magnolias, comfrey and anemones.
The wooded trail continues past wild garlic and the remains of Willmott’s cold frames, greenhouses, and a half-moon shaped pond and a deep reservoir.
Down the hill, the boating ponds are empty but the brickwork is still there complete with a mooring rail. A huge earth bank, now supported by steel trusses, descends to my dad’s old farm workers’ cottages in Dark Lane. You sense the huge effort Miss Willmott went to in taming and controlling nature — a very Victorian philosophy.
There’s still a carp pond with water and past the seven Spanish chestnuts a viewpoint by a daffodil-strewn meadow. Here you can gaze across the fields of my dad’s old farm, towards the M25 and then in the distance the towers of the City of London. You feel the history of encroachment at Warley Place; of both time and the city of London.
The tour ends with a bridge over a gorge that Willmott created to showcase her Alpine plants. Water used to flow through it and in to the South Pond. The huge rocks in the gorge were lugged all the way from Yorkshire by the company she employed.
Willmott never married and as she grew older she became increasingly eccentric, if not all stations to Barking. Her CV includes being arrested for shop-lifting (the charges were later dropped), carrying a revolver in her handbag and booby-trapping her daffodil fields as a deterrent to bulb thieves.
Yes, Miss Willmott’s garden was the project of a loaded toff. She wasn’t great on workers’ rights, and was said to sack any gardener if he allowed a weed to show. But the scale and ambition of her life’s work is still inspiring. She spent everything on her garden and died penniless.
After her death Warley Place was sold to developers (nothing changes there) but then the Second World War intervened and afterwards the area was designated part of London’s Green Belt.
Ellen’s pristine garden was overtaken by undergrowth, decay and Japanese knotweed, until volunteers unearthed it in the last decade. And the sense of decay makes it even better, within sight of the M25 lies a place to reflect, wonder down mysterious overgrown, shadowy paths and move back in time to an era of grand projects in the shrubbery.
Tuesday, 20 April 2010
No planes over London is spookily pleasurable. Without the planes it's been possible to sleep (ALL night), and leave the windows open. To hear bird song and see such blue skies you'd think it was a Photoshop trick. London is still noisy, but not half as bad as it usually is. And with all those busy Brits stuck somewhere else the city's tubes, trains and roads are far less crowded making cycling easier, taking buses more effective and walking more enjoyable.
It seems this is the world's first carbon neutral volcano. The figures go like this - the European aviation industry is emitting 344,109 tons a day and volcano Eyjafjallajoekoll 150,000 tons - so while the planes are forced to rest our volcano has cut Europe's carbon footprint by nearly 200,000 tons a day. See here for more info from the number crunchers.
Ironically the best view I've ever had of a volcano was when I was in a light aircraft island hopping in the South Pacific and the pilot flew close to the snout of a newly emerged volcano so we could have a better look. If I'd known then what I know now about dust particles I'd have been terrified.
Instead I was smitten looking down from the tiny plane into the smouldering red heart of a new volcano spitting out boulders with gusto as it emerged from the Pacific Ocean floor. Two years later I was in Rabaul, the Papua New Guinean town destroyed by it's neighbouring volcano looking for a friend who'd lost their home to hot grey laval ash forcing his family to move into a shipping container.
I know volcanos are an expensive pain, but for us stay-at-homes the no fly zone has been an unexpected treat. And an early lesson in what happens when your sky supplies get shut down...
Monday, 19 April 2010
This post is by Pete, who visited the Secret Nuclear Bunker in Kelvedon Hatch, Essex.
Kelvedon Hatch in the afternoon appears to be a town bereft of inhabitants. We get off the 501 bus from Brentwood and walk up the A128. No shops, no children, it could be an episode of The Survivors. Finally we find a man gardening by his bungalow.
“Excuse me, do you know where the secret nuclear bunker is?”
“It’s down that way on the left, but it’s a long old walk… ,” he says of the not-so-secret bunker, with the bemused look of a man who has never before seen a man and two children attempting to access a nuclear bunker via public transport. And it doesn’t look like he expects us to return.
The pavement soon disappears. It looks like a nuclear strike has already hit Essex. The verges, hedges and ditches of the A128 are full of shattered plastic mineral water and Coca-Cola bottles and rusting lager cans.
Eventually we come across a bunker sign pointing to a long track winding track heading across a ploughed field. There’s just a grassy hill in the distance with a mysterious mast perched on its top.
It feels like a real adventure, a trek into the unknown regions of both history and Essex. The track descends into a gulley where there’s a sentry box and a paintballing shed. We walk on past a stream and wood, post-apocalyptic paintballers scaling ropes in the trees, and eventually find a car park and a path to a suburban bungalow on the side of the hill.
Eerily there are no staff on duty, just hand-held audio guides in a rack. We enter to the left of the bungalow and find it’s a huge steel corridor with bunker plans and Geiger counters hanging on the walls.
It’s square and featureless and designed to defend the government from civilians if they tried to storm the bunker to escape the radiation and perhaps query their MPs’ expenses.
There’s an Armageddon time soundtrack on the public address system; four-minute warning wailing sirens and calls for Captain Palmer to head to the operations room.
Then we move through blast doors that are the weight of four cars each and descend further down to the depths.
We’re 100 feet underground and encased in ten feet of reinforced concrete. The bunker was built in 1953 and decommissioned in 1993 as it cost £3 million a year to run. The family who owned the land, the Parrishes, bought the bunker and now run it as a tourist attraction. The ideal place to fall out with the kids.
There’s no natural light and only circular vents in the ceiling to circulate the air.
We enter the communications area where 1950s switchboards give way to ancient telex machines.
“This is cool! Everything’s grey. These are so old. What are these?” says 11-year-old Lola, banging the keys of a Telex machine.
A uniformed female dummy sits in the incoming messages booth. The bog-roll like print-outs list innocuous towns like Aberystwth and Luton. Here the 300 self-appointed survivors of a nuclear holocaust would search for signs of life in other bunkers around the blighted landscape.
Panic pervades our party. Static crackles in the scientists’ centre where the fall-out patterns would have been monitored. Red phones stand in a box on the wall.
““I want to leave, it’s scary!” says 9-year-old Nell.
And so am I. It nearly happened. It still could.
In the BBC Studio a dummy of Margaret Thatcher stands headphones-on ready to talk to the shell of a nation.
Lights flash on machines and everywhere there’s great big clunking boxes with dials on them. It all feels like 1970s Doctor Who. The dummies look like Autons and there are gas masks on the walls. It would be no surprise to find Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart and his chaps from UNIT here, trying to maintain discipline and lay on a cup of instant coffee in an impossible situation. Jon Pertwee’s Doctor would be shaking his head at humanity’s folly.
We move up a flight of stairs to the “floor”, where there’s a map of Britain complete with pointers for military planning.
The children watch a TV playing Protect and Survive. It’s the best CND recruitment video ever. Everyone must stay in their improvised house shelter for 14 days with water and tinned food. The sections on placing your toilet waste in a plastic bag and storing it in a larger bucket fascinate Lola and Nell. “If someone dies wrap the body in plastic or blankets and move it to a separate room,” says the keep calm and carry on voiceover.
We see the giant grey tanks and pipes of the plant room where the life support systems supplied water and pumped filtered air around the bunker.
It’s up another flight of stairs to the sick bay where a dummy lies with a bloody eye. “Look there’s a coffin!” says Nell.
It’s the most surreal kids’ day out ever. We see the bunks where staff would have “hot-bedded” in the dormitory and a large room full of ancient computers that would have been the devolved central government. Although now it’s staffed by dummies with no legs and flapping white sleeves. A sign says “Justice” on the walls. And the controller of this bunker really would have had the power of life and death.
We find our house in the giant laminated map of London on the wall. And in the Gents piped music pays “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Weird. The children try on gas masks and army uniforms in a dressing-up area.
And then it’s up to the canteen where the smell of institutionalized food from stainless steel ovens evokes just how awful the post-nuclear bunker would have felt. And a sign reads that the food may contain nuts, which seems the last thing to worry about after the invisible death cloud arrives. I’m tempted to ask if they do irradiated food.
And finally we find two staff alive behind the counter, although everything has to be paid for in the honesty box.
We admire the nuclear bunker mugs, postcards and pencils and rubber toys beneath the grey tomb-like beams.
“Are these dead?” asks an elderly retainer picking up our coffee mugs and cans. No, but everyone outside is.
And then we take the final exit, walking down a long arced tunnel that finally emerges at a small camouflaged opening in the side of the hill.
Daylight at last. And thankfully there’s no sign of fall out.
Tuesday, 6 April 2010
Nell, 9, is intrigued by Essex, she's hardly ever been there and yet there's a map on our corridor wall with rings around all the places that are family important (and yes, Nasty and Ugley, High Easter and Cold Christmas - we lost control of the highlighter pen!). And so the plan is get-to-know Essex better. It also means we've got a travel theme and Nell hopefully won't feel so cheated by her friends and their climate-bashing tales of "when I was at the airport...".
Next stop was just outside Great Dunmow (a place Pete could remember his Dad recalling the Saracen's Head and his mum rolling her eyes at the metropolis) for Great Garnetts farm by Barnston. This is where his dad, Denis May, had his first tenancy farm, eventually moving to the other side of Essex when offered more land for his dairy herd.
Monday, 22 March 2010
Fiction is always nother country: but JK Rowling's Harry Potter world seems to be an inevitable part of our family's adventures. Here's four places I can recommend for Harry Potter fans, whatever their age:
1 Christ Church Hall, Oxford is Hogwarts' dining hall
We've just been to the Sunday Times Literary Festival in Oxford to listen to three great modern children's writers - Blue Peter's 2009 book winner Ali Sparkes with Frozen in Time, Frank Cottrel Boyce whose written Cosmic, Framed and Millions (and plenty of others) and new on the scene Harriet Goodwin with the excellent Boy Who Fell Down Exit 43.
2 Elephant House (cafe), Edinburgh is Harry Potters's birthplace
Lap up the atmosphere - and the craggy castle views - even though JK Rowling may not visit much now. This also does great breakfasts if you've just got off the night train... See opening times here.
3 Kings Cross Station is home of Platform 9 and three/quarters
Arguably London's best station, currently near the end of its underground revamp, and also the way to Norfolk, Yorkshire, the Lake District and other favourite places...
4 Alnwick Castle, Northumberland is Hogwarts
This castle is a fantastic place to visit and if you get tired of the gardens, the rampards, the Harry Potter memorabilia (especially HP and the Philosopher's Stone), the infamous poison garden, the treehouse cafe - is it possible to get tired of such delights? - then you can head to the famous secondhand bookshopnearby. Barter Books is known as the biggest 2h bookshop in Britain and the source of the recent craze for mugs, key fobs, posters etc telling us to "Keep Calm and Carry On". See Guardian feature here.
5 Isle of Man has Gringots Bank
Might need to check this... but a trip to Isle of Man (take the ferry from Liverpool) exits you not just from England but Europe too - an utterly exotic destination only a couple of sea hours away.
Friday, 12 March 2010
So where's the best place to watch the World Cup this July? I'm asking this less for myself, more as a puzzle. I know one sports writer/lecturer who is taking her toddler to South Africa for the full atmosphere (but worrying as much about which malaria tablets to take as how to get tickets). My Brazilian-based friend plans to come back "home" to London just in case England does really well - I also happen to know he likes being around the UK for the soft fruits season, so that's two draws. Meanwhile his wife thinks it might be more fun in Brazil, just in case her team does really well. While the Dads group from Nell's school look set to fall back on a CAMRA (ie, real) pub near Baker Street that serves Abbot Ale and when they drank there last undoubtedly set up England's recent victory in the friendly against Egypt. A winning ritual should not be broken they claim.
Where you watch and how you get to that place can be a brilliant way of sharing the joys and blows of being a football follower, or it can be rubbish (yes, that's why there's a picture of the rat infested rubbish truck from the recent Rio carnival!). I'm guessing I'll see some of the games with friends and family on outdoor screens, walkable distances from my home.
It's been 10 years - this coming April - since Lola and I took our last flights (first as well in her case as she was not quite two years). Nell is nine years and still hasn't gone on a plane. Pete has flown in the past 10 years but only twice, once for fun and once for work, so our family footprint has stayed low for a significant length of time compared to our friends.
Our no-plane boast is not so great if we compare with our own childhoods - Pete never took a plane journey with his family, it wasn't until he was 18 that he set off for an airport check-in. I think I made one return flight to Northern Ireland as a toddler (apparently noisily confusing nuns with Father Christmas) and then another aged 15 when my Dad suddenly took us all to Paxos, a Greek island.
Our family's experience shows you can have fun at home in the World Cup (why, even Lola was born at the start of the 1998 kickathon), in fact home is probably the only place you can watch every game, keep up to date with every bit of information and still keep that carbon footprint a blistering zero. Here's to an England win...
Wednesday, 10 February 2010
Thanks to my friend Nicky, who I met at university, I've been to many places in the world I would have thought weren't for me - starting with Chitral in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan. This was back in 1987 and my first trip to Asia. I really enjoyed it thanks mostly to Nicky who was living with her family there. Another summer we trained it around Europe (1984) - eurorailing was a belated right of passage for us both.
Nicky is a menace with the air miles (although I get to benefit and stay in touch as she comes by London Heathrow frequently as does 10-year-old Xander, see pic below with Lola and Nell). But last year, after nearly 10 years based in Zimbabwe, she and husband Robert (another uni friend) took their kids out of school and on to the dirt roads of Africa so that they could drive north-south from Cairo to the Cape and back again to Zim - a 25,000 mile road trip.
Robert is a fabulous photographer (that pic of Tower Bridge is his), films anything, and a good writer too so the blog entries on his trip, enlivened by the kids' entries, have been great. I loved popping to their blog between cups of tea and dull tasks, and now their route and adventures have also been poured over by Saturday Guardian readers - see here.
Six months cost their family £12,500, which sounds a hideous amount, but for an adventure fo a lifetime in which their children learnt so much - and not just how to use sand ladders to escape out of sand dunes and a combination of GPS and stars to navigate - it seems to me money well spent. Here at Baird Towers it would have gone on wine, bike services and energy efficiency which is nothing to write about... except that I do, see here.
If all of us could just take longer to get to places, perhaps we'd reduce the amount of mini trips made. Robert says there's a Swahili* word for this - mahali - the place that becomes a journey. That's exactly what this blog attempts to do as we wander around the world without ever needing to leave Britain.
*Swahili is spoken throughout east africa, including Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Saturday, 23 January 2010
One Saturday my family were all in Islington Music, just off Cross Street, waiting for the customer in front to stop chatting. She was obviously a journo (Rosie Millard a Sunday Times writer), had lots of kids (4), a patient hairy dog lying at her feet (see pic above) and an interesting story - she was off to see six unexpected bits of France in a few weeks time. Her problem was she didn't know what to do with the dog for the next three months.
"We'll have him" I said rudely interrupting, "assuming my husband will agree". Well we had to get served somehow... Pete looking a bit startled managed to say yes and the girls were ecstatic. And so it was that Disney the dog joined us for about three months last summer while his family went off to film their travel series, Croissants in the Jungle. As much as we like travelling we felt we got the better deal - and when Disney had to be returned to his family we missed him so much that we ended up finding a Border Terrier replacement, our puppy Vulcan.
While Rosie and family were off to see the Dom Toms, the bits of France that shouldn't really be France (but somehow are) including the tiny islands up in Newfoundland, St Pierre et Miquelon, Martinique, French Guyana, French Polynesia, New Caledonia and La Reunion, we got to hear the occasional travel snippet (Rosie's blog and postcards to Disney...). The places sound amazing, all cultural islands shored up financially by La France. Translated I reckon this means that crossiants in the UK are a great deal cheaper than French jungle breakfast bars.
You can join Rosie and family on their travels, described temptingly by the Travel Channel, as "part contemporary history, part family disaster movie" thanks to the complexities of having to film with four increasingly fed up children. If you like travel and the BBC sit com Outnumbered, you are sure to love this show which is on thursdays at 9pm. Have a look at the Travel Channel highlights here.
This entry is missing two rather cruical facts - dogs have a whacking carbon pawprint if you feed them meat, deal with their poos, leave the radiator on at night etc, and, secondly, flying around the world to French colonies busts a lifetime's carbon supply. In my own and the Millard families defences the answer is "we know", and as a consequence, and in another small part of this crossiant v dog coincidence are both users of the local car club when we are not poundingIslington pavements between the parks our dogs love.
Monday, 4 January 2010
2009 roundup - well our family has now visited by default 77 countries without really leaving the UK. We certainly haven't flown anywhere either (all very inspiring if you are a 10:10 fan/groupie). I haven't included postcards from amazing places which is vocarious travel, as is reading the travel supplements, going to the Embassies, eating in a themed restaurant or flying around using google earth.
I think introducing myself and the family to 77 countries without leaving Britain (except the one time we took Eurostar to Lille, France for three days during 2009) is a triumph. The idea even got picked up in the Guardian's Saturday supplement on 14 June 2008, see here. And then was reprinted in 2009 in the Guardian's Rainy Day Book, details here.
Most cold months I pretty much abandon this blog as I have to work the winter to take the summer in a leisurely way. But this year I will also be thinking more about green childcare ready for for the publication of my new book, Homemade Kids: creative, thrifty and eco-friendly ways to raise children, due out in July 2010. I've set up another blog for those entries so if you're interested have a look at my new homemadekids blog which is especially easy to add comments to. But when we travel I'll be blogging right back here. After all there are another 50 countries to locate...