Viewing the world from a larger perspective



A Sense of Belonging

Red rose

I am white, English, middle-class and 57 – a classic middle Englander, except that I am a passionate Remainer and I woke up on Friday morning feeling as if my soul had been ripped apart and I had lost my country. It is a visceral gut-wrenching grief that cannot be cured by rational thought. I simply need to work my way through it and I will. You see, unlike most of the 48% of Britains who voted to remain, I have been there before and this referendum ultimately wasn’t about economics or migrants or roaming charges. What it was actually about in our beloved fragmented jigsaw of a country is a sense of home and a sense of belonging. The Welsh have a word “hiraeth” which the Oxford dictionary defines as “homesickness for a home you cannot return to, or that never was”.

I grew up in Zimbabwe, then Rhodesia, during the dying days of empire, a child of Ian Smith’s UDI and the vicious local civil war during which I lost many friends. Mine was the generation which bore the brunt of the fighting. I never fitted there and saw the UK as my promised land. After all, I was English and had been brought up to think of this distant land, which I visited every few years as “home”. When I arrived, I realized I was different, an outsider, in spite of having been born in Croydon.

On 18 April 1980, I sat in the common room on the Exeter University campus on my own and watched the Zimbabwean independence celebrations. None of my university friends understood anything about it – I’d had to show them where my home was on a map. As I saw the new flag flying, I rejoiced with almost every fibre of my being – I believed in the cause, the war was finally over, but… deep inside was an unexpected visceral gut-wrenching pang. However flawed it may have been, the country of my childhood no longer existed. My roots had been ripped from the earth.

I understand that great howl of grief that led to Brexit “I want my country back!” I understand only too well people wanting to regain their sense of dignity and confidence, their sense of home and of belonging. But these are different to each of us and in voting to leave, we may have anchored some but cast adrift millions of others who identify themselves as Europeans and are now floundering angrily.

Whatever happens next, our national crisis is not going to be solved by economic arguments or bickering about the political leadership but by finding a way to make all Britain’s people feel at home.


Words Matter

I wake up this morning to find my social media feeds laden with words such as Broken Britain, shame, bigots, vile, and, above all, hate. Words are powerful things. We use them to communicate but use them often enough and they seep into our brains and twist the way we think about ourselves and those around us. We bandy them around unthinkingly, upping the ante as we try to outdo ourselves and each other on extravagance and create a whirlwind of desperation and destruction.

“Oh God, I had such a bad time at the party last night.”

“I know, it was, like the worst night of my life.”

“I’m going to shoot myself in the face. It was so fucking awful…”

A typical teenage description of a bad evening, complete with smiley faces and lols, the language of despair and extreme violence has become the norm. We are all guilty of not protecting our language, our brains and our society from being sucked into the pit. I don’t actually hate beetroot, I actually have nothing against it as a vegetable and accept that it is probably very good for you and many people find a great deal of pleasure in eating it. Yet all too often I’ve used the word “hate” to describe something as inconsequential as a vegetable.

A silly example perhaps but one of many and it has to stop – we have to relearn how to talk, to think before we speak. I’m not talking about a world filled with memes of fluffy kittens but of using language carefully and positively, of looking for the exact meaning rather than the knee-jerk negativity into which we’ve programmed ourselves.

People say our society has fragmented over this referendum and are casting around for who to blame – another of those words. We are all to blame, we must all bear our share of the guilt, and we must all work together to reunite our society, mend our belief in our common humanity and find a common joy in living. And remember, write and talk with care. Our words matter.


The Real Project Hope – EU Remain

Boris Johnson was talking wildly about Project Hope. I see little hope in Brexit and I am fed up to the eyeteeth in doom, gloom, prophecies of disaster and misinformation. I am however very hopeful about the possibilities for remaining in the EU, however flawed it may be.

  • We win in the EU Parliament – a lot!

In various interviews people are outraged that the UK has been outvoted in the European parliament 72 times. So what? According to Full Fact:

“Official EU voting records* show that the British government has voted ‘No’ to laws passed at EU level on 56 occasions, abstained 70 times, and voted ‘Yes’ 2,466 times since 1999, according to UK in a Changing Europe Fellows Sara Hagemann and Simon Hix. In other words, UK ministers were on the “winning side” 95% of the time, abstained 3% of the time, and were on the losing side 2%.”

By any stretch of the imagination, that’s a pretty good hit rate. What on earth are we complaining about?

  • We can live and work in the sunshine

This one is pretty well known by now – we have around 3 million EU immigrants in the UK at the moment. Most of them are young, fit, healthy and working (50,000 or so actually working in the NHS). They contribute over £20 billion to our economy. At the same time, around 2.2 million Brits are living abroad within Europe, a significant number of whom are probably retired, elderly and rather less healthy. But they enjoy the relaxed lifestyle, the sunshine is good for their health and their presence contributes to the economies of some less thriving regions of Europe. Just imagine, for a moment, the effects of a population exchange… I love being surrounded by bright young people eager to learn and work. I also love the idea of being able to travel, live and work in any of 28 countries should I wish to do so. It offers all of us amazing possibilities beyond our own borders. Hooray!

  • We could study free if we wanted to

Speaking of living and working all over Europe… I’ve gone back to university in my 50s and am partway through a PhD which I’m self-funding with great difficulty. I don’t regret a single second or penny of it although I would love mature students (and PhD students) to have the same access to cheap student loans as others. However the point is this. The university is stuffed with students from all over the world, including other parts of Europe, making my learning experience, my social life (and the university coffers) immeasurably richer. From the other perspective, at the moment, as members of the EU, students from the UK have a right to study in any country within the Union and pay the same fees as the citizens of that country. In many cases, tuition fees are still free or minimal – and many of those countries also have courses taught in English! That’s right, slash your student debt and have a foreign adventure all in one. Have a look at this website for a comparison chart:

Isn’t that a really, really good reason to stay in?

  • We’re saving the bees

Over the last couple of years, a separate war has been waging between social media, corporate lobbyists and the European parliament over bee-killing pesticides. Bees are really important to the survival of the food chain and their numbers are plummeting. The weight of scientific evidence is growing by the day that chemical pesticides are heavily, if not totally responsible, and there is a battle to try and get them banned. This can only work on a continental basis, like so much other legislation to do with the environment. Countries have to work together and getting 28 individual agreements while big business sues 28 individual countries would take decades which we simply don’t have. The European parliament is making the right decisions this time, on all our behalves, the collective might of 28 nations acting in concert to save our bees and stand up to the corporations. Hooray for them.

If you want to know more about this, follow the links below this petition:

This is only one of many great environmental actions the EU is taking on our behalf. Thank you.

  • I’m not going to disappear without trial

I grew up in a country with a pretty dodgy regime and have spent much of my life travelling in others with highly questionable human rights. I don’t buy into the idea that you only need to worry if you’ve done something wrong. I’ve seen far too many rogue governments to know that the good guys often end up in prison, being tortured and disappearing. I’m not naïve and know that the terrorist threat is very real, but we have to ensure that everyone’s human rights are respected. I was appalled when our government decided to try and introduce the idea of detention without legal representation, even for a few days, and relieved that it was rightly overturned by the European Court of Human Rights. And while I do believe we should be allowed to export unwanted people, I would much rather live in a country that would spend £12 million ensuring the human rights of someone they didn’t want were respected than live in a country where my rights were not. I like being opinionated, I don’t want to be locked up for it and I want to be sure someone is watching my back and ensuring I will always be able to speak my mind. Rights are fragile things and we need to protect them fiercely. I am hugely proud of the fact that the British wrote the founding principles of the European Court of Human Rights and our Human Rights Act. I am hugely proud of the fact that the Magna Carta, flawed as it is, is the corner stone of modern democracy. We need to remain proud defenders of the organisations we created and the rights we have always espoused.

And that is quite enough. EU Remain. Take back the true meaning of #Project Hope.


Giving in to a Walking Stick

Flight of uneven stone steps and castle ruins

I was at the top of Kantara Castle in Northern Cyprus when I finally realized that it was time to bow to the inevitable. It is an extraordinary place, one of a series of magnificent Crusader castles set dizzyingly high with views, on a clear day, across the sea as far as Lebanon. It had been worth every one of the several hundred rocky uneven steps to get up there, but now I had to get down. There were no rails, virtually no handholds, my knees were buckling and stabbing with a thousand arthritic needles. I had thoroughly overdone it. It took me well over an hour to get back to the car park, much of the undignified journey bumped downwards on my bottom. I was shaking with exhaustion and pain by the time I got there. I had to start using a walking stick.

Stalking my stick

Back home, I went hunting. It was surprisingly difficult to track down a walking stick. The only place locally I could get one was in the Age Concern shop. Don’t get me wrong – they’re a great organization, but it added greatly to the feeling of being old and frumpy, as did the stick itself. It was everyone’s first walking stick, black, solid, with an ergonomic handle, alterable height and, most importantly, foldable for hiding when not in use. It was incredibly practical and incredibly dull.

A couple of years and two arthroscopies later, it had became evident that the stick was going to become a permanent part of my life so dull, practical and occasionally hideable was no longer going to cut it. I don’t profess to be a fashion icon but I simply don’t understand why some disability aids should be more socially acceptable than others. It’s perfectly OK to wear glasses – to the point that my teenage nephew spent years choosing to wear them occasionally as a fashion statement when he didn’t need them – but hearing aids and walking sticks which simply aid different parts of the body are disguised or drab. The only decorated sticks I’d seen were either designed for elderly men with monocles or looked as though they’d been covered in a pair of 1950s curtains. Time to make a statement – to find a walking stick that was me.

Dogs, ducks and peacocks

I started at a local fair, thinking I’d get a beautifully hand carved wooden stick. I found plenty to choose from, but while most of them looked lovely, the wooden ducks’ feathers and dogs’ heads were carved for show not use. They dug painfully into my hand as soon as I put any weight on them and I would have had blisters within hours. Reluctantly, I turned away and continued my search online.

I knew I’d hit paydirt when I stumbled upon Walking Sticks Online. Here there was everything from silver headed canes to swan-necked ebony, folding sticks with candy stripes and black and gold peacock feather sticks. I could only afford one and there was too much choice!

Heavyweight issues

walking stick with decoration of flowers and parrots' heads

My parrot stick

There were certain practicalities. As a relative rookie, I decided that I wanted a height adjustable stick and I definitely wanted a comfortable handle. I’m no lightweight, so it had to be sturdy. And it had to be fun. In the end, it came down to a choice between a tiger print and a tropical jungle print and the parrots won. It makes me smile and is hugely admired everywhere I go. A triumph. However… it isn’t quite perfect.

It isn’t foldable. My old black one was and that was useful although it was still quite clunky and had a habit of springing apart. I keep thinking about shiny ski or hiking poles in lovely fluorescent colours and wondering if anyone has made a tough telescopic version with a proper ferrule and handle for everyday walking that would tuck into a backpack or bag for travelling. I travel a lot and it would be incredibly helpful when going through x-ray machines or when sitting in cafés. I spend a huge amount of time apologising to people at the next door table who’ve been hit by a falling stick or rescuing it from under benches or tables. I found a stick advertised by  Flexyfoot that claims to be telescopic – with the added benefit that the soft handle and flexible ferrule help to relieve shoulder ache. I haven’t tried it yet, but I think it’s probably worth a go to see if it lives up to the sales pitch.

A bit of bling

sparkly folding walking stick

Glam Sticks’ Multi-Sparkle folding stick

I also have my eye on a bit of evening bling. After all, if I am going to be using a stick if I go out at night, I need a posh one too. I may go for the black and gold one but I found another website, GlamSticks, that custom makes sticks with sequins, diamante, rhinestones and even wedding satin and ruffles. Just perhaps, for my next night out, I’ll go all out for a bit of bling. After all, I’m worth it.

PS I don’t have any ties with any of the companies mentioned in this article.



Scotland referendum – the morning after

I was born in England. My parents are English, although my father was born in Egypt and, probably like most English people, I am part Scot (a Scottish grandfather in my case). My eldest nephew was born in Wales. As far as I know we have no Irish blood, but we may – we probably do. The English are mongrels, going back to the dawn of time. Oh, and just to add to the confusion, I grew up in Zimbabwe, which was then Rhodesia. So it was with very mixed feelings that I watched the Scotland referendum. And this morning I woke up to a profound sense of relief. I still had a country.

Erased from the map

Let me backtrack to the 18 April 1980 and the day that Zimbabwe finally gained full independence and became a nation state. By that time, I was back in the UK and watched on TV, on my own. After years of bitter civil war, there was finally peace. There was finally majority rule. The country could finally look forward and begin to bind its wounds. All these things were excellent. It was incredibly positive and happy. I was incredibly positive and happy watching the celebrations. However – as the new flag of Zimbabwe was raised, the country of my childhood ceased to be. It was erased forever from the map. I was already living thousands of miles from that childhood home and I felt as if my last support had been knocked from underneath me. My head kept telling me it was a stupid reaction but something in the pit of my stomach mourned for that sense of belonging. I felt rootless.

A search for identity

As I grew used to life in the UK, I soon learned that I needed to call myself British not English. I needed to be inclusive, so as not to offend the sensibilities of the Scottish, Irish and Welsh – or to ally myself with the horribly negative image of the English, all football hooliganism, xenophobia, class warfare and even fascism. The English have served as the whipping boy of the union, as Hollywood villains, as imperialist hate figures and establishment buffoons. I have to admit, some – but definitely not all of it – is justified. But while the English have been calling themselves British, submerging their own identity in an attempt at national unity, the other countries in the union have been busily building strong separate identities, leaving us insecure and desperately lacking in self-esteem, casting around for anyone to lead us out of it and along the way we have chosen (and continue to look to) some distinctly dubious leaders in hope of finding a saviour.

Lessons learned

So what lessons have I learned in the last few weeks?

1)   I know that many of my Scottish friends are in mourning right now, but I am delighted that I still have a whole country to belong to. I never want to feel that rootless sense of loss again and I am British, not just English.

2)   Everyone has called for drastic change throughout the referendum. The Scots are not the only ones who want this. For me, the most striking aspect of the No campaign was the way the different parties and people, from David Cameron to George Galloway, managed to pull together and work in harmony when it was something that really mattered to them. What I would like to see is an end to the constant battering of confrontational politics in favour of a system that puts the well-being of the people and the country before point-scoring. And if the Scots could put some of the energy of the referendum into helping us change the rest of the UK too, that would be great!

3)   There are issues of race still confronting the Home Nations. Racism isn’t just about skin colour and immigration. It needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

4)   It’s time to stand up and be English. I am English, not just British. England needs to find its real identity. Not UKIP little England hunker down and keep out foreigners English, but to reclaim Englishness for what it really is – a scrappy mongrel mess that has welcomed, mixed and married foreigners from Romans, Saxons, Angles, Jutes, to Normans, Jews and Jamaicans, Indians and Somalis, Poles and Pakistanis, Bulgarians – and Romanians! We collect people and borrow all the best bits of them. We are creative, tough, determined, and funny. We love a laugh and we love to grumble. Our language has three times more words than any other and is utterly amazing. We are probably one of the most internationally polyglot nations in the world. And that’s something I’m really proud of.

5)   The Scots really know how to throw a party. It’s been way too long since I’ve been to Scotland and I’m going to make a real effort to go to next year’s Edinburgh festival.

Caption for featured image: © Copyright Callum Black and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.


Politics, Human Rights and the Travel Media – Can they co-exist?

Huge number of people in a big square under floodlights

Politics, human rights and the travel media are unlikely bedfellows but they regularly share a bunk! Before we can ever begin to think about the implications of the pairing, we need to ask one seemingly simple but actually fiendishly difficult question – what is travel writing? No one has ever clearly defined travel writing. Nor have we defined where it stands on the question of truth and accuracy. And whose truth, for that matter? Is it storytelling, is it journalism, is it marketing, is it history, autobiography? Are we writing for moral purpose – to educate and inform our readership or to make a stand on an issue about which we feel passionate? Do we live in a world of ideas and entertainment? Or are we selling the destination as many PRs assume?

Ask each of us and we have a different answer. I’ve had some lively debates on the subject with some extremely eminent practitioners of the art and none of them can agree, with mutterings about ‘genre conventions’. One even threw up his hands and said ‘it’s travel writing because it says it is.’ The truth, such as it is, is that travel writing is all things to all men – it encompasses the globe and each of us makes of it what we will.

Why is this relevant? Simply because we need to know, collectively and individually, where our own boundaries lie, but we should also be aware that every one of us sets those boundaries differently. There are no norms.

Tourism is political

The same, incidentally, holds true of politics and human rights issues. If I hassle the US Dept of Homeland Security about visa requirements or the UK government about Airport Passenger Duty, these are political issues and no one would be in the slightest doubt that they are also tourism stories. At the most basic level, if I am writing a guidebook and I describe the make-up of the country’s political structure and a historical roundup of how it came to have that structure, I am, by definition, writing about politics.

In some countries, this is more straightforward than in others. I have written guidebooks to Turkey, Zimbabwe and North Cyprus. In each of these, you pick your way through the history section with extreme care, knowing that whichever words you choose, someone is going to disapprove. Simply mention the word Armenia in a book on Turkey and you are immediately into murky political waters. Add any other word and you need to think long and hard about which word to use. I was confidently promised death threats before I took on the book on North Cyprus. They didn’t happen, but there were calls for boycotts.

Entrance sign - Serengeti National Park

(c) Seyemon

I also write regularly about Africa and conservation issues. There was recently an attempt made to build a high-speed rail line and then a tarred road across the Serengeti, cutting the route of the Great Migration. This was a huge conservation story and undoubtedly a huge tourism story. When writing about it, should I write a pretty puff piece about a scenic ride on a failing railway or should I write something that also explains its past – built by the Germans in a race to the Nile with British and its future, part of a new Great Game with the Chinese in Africa? Should I explain the implications for wildlife and the future of the Serengeti – one of the greatest national parks on the planet? Which is more interesting? If I leave out the politics, I am shortchanging the people of Tanzania, my readers and myself. I don’t have to make them the sole focus of my piece or my chapter but they should be there.

Being sociable

Then of course, there are the social media. In this day and age, I don’t think it’s possible to stand aside from politics and human rights issues and still retain any credibility as an expert. Social media is too powerful a force. Take a brief look at three recent mass protests in three key tourist destinations – Egypt, Turkey and Thailand.

Tahrir Square in Cairo has been the focus of most of the main protests over the years. Tahrir Square is the home of Egypt’s National Museum. I’ve stayed in a hotel overlooking the square. It is not some forgotten corner – the centre of the capital city is now effectively a no go area to tourists. What does that say about the society and more importantly, tourists’ safety? Is this something we should be talking about in print or should it be ignored?

Street art of two penguins

Penguin street art protesting the lack of state TV coverage of the Gezi protests in Turkey. (c) Wikipedia/Creative Commons.

Taksim Square in Istanbul, centre of the main disturbances during the Gezi Park protests, is surrounded by many of the city’s main business hotels. There were running battles with the police, water cannons and tear gas in the lobbies of those hotels and at least one hotelier has been arrested for ‘aiding and abetting’ the protesters, offering them food, water, shelter, access to toilets and first aid. This had a direct, profound impact on the tourists staying there. Some of the protests were also very creative, with the rainbow stairs across the country becoming instant tourist sites. With bloggers and tweeters out in force, are the travel writers going to be the only silent voices? Or should we join the state TV channel in broadcasting films of penguins?

And to Thailand – the Thai protestors did things differently with extremely short speeches, and plenty of free food and entertainment ranging from rock bands to pole dancing to ensure that the crowds arrived and stayed. Backpackers soon discovered that this is where the party was and joined in, welcomed by the protesters who fed them happily, feeling that they offered a degree of protection. Again the social media was highly active and tourism and politics were inextricably intertwined.

Time to stop?

But inevitably there comes a point when we have to ask ourselves if we should stop writing about travel. Or at least narrow our definition of travel writing. Unfortunately, one of the repercussions of the protests in Turkey, Egypt and Thailand has been a crackdown on free speech. Journalists have been arrested and jailed in all three countries. There are increasingly draconian efforts in these countries and all across the world to shut down newspapers, curtail the social media, intimidate and even torture those who speak out and criticize. In Zimbabwe, where I grew up and about which I write regularly, it has recently been made a criminal offence to discuss Mugabe’s health! Many people supported the boycott of South Africa during the apartheid years and the boycott of Burma.

We have to ask ourselves what price we are willing to pay for a holiday in the sun. Are we willing to write about lazy days beside the sea when thousands live in terror or face execution, if children are starving or if we ourselves fear for our own safety or fear for the safety of those to whom we talk if we stray onto more difficult topics.

Recently, I was at Africa Writes!, a wonderful festival of African literature at the British Library. This is what Nigerian travel writer, Noo Saro-Wiwa had to say: “Only a very few privileged white people can afford to be apolitical… and they are not going out there to look for anything or discover anything new.”

I, for one, don’t want to be one of those people. So while human rights and politics should not dominate the tourism agenda, they should and must be part of the tourist media and it is impossible to separate them out.

This article is based on a discussion paper given by Melissa Shales at a British Guild of Travel Writers/Association of National Tourist Office Representatives evening on 15th July 2014 at Gibraltar House, London.

Caption for header photo: Egyptian protestors in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Feb 1, 2011. (c) MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images Creative Commons


Climbing Tenacious

“I’ve always wanted to climb the mast of a tall ship. You can fix it for me sometime.” Mark said, not long after we first met nearly 12 years ago, repeating it regularly – part of a surprisingly short bucket list. As he’s now over 50 and had another birthday approaching rapidly, I decided that if we were going to do it, we’d better look at sorting this one sooner rather than later and hit Google. I found some wonderful looking sail training holidays but they were way outside my pitiful price range. Never one to be defeated, our friend John sent a forum message out on the internet to fellow pistonheads – somewhat random, but what the hell? Two days later he phoned me.

SV Tenacious – the small(ish) tall ship

“Guess what? There’s this organization down in Southampton. It’s a charity. They say that if we can do a day when they are in port, Mark can climb the mast!” And so we met the inspirational Jubilee Sailing Trust and found ourselves heading down to Southampton, where SV Tenacious was dwarfed by the ports giant cranes and a vast freighter piled high with containers in rusty rainbow shades, while beside her was berthed P&O’s sleek cruise ship, Arcadia. Coincidentally, Arcadia is the only big cruise ship that Mark and I have ever been on, meandering up through the Norwegian fjords – visiting Norway being another item on his bucket list! It was a promising synchronicity.

A man and woman on the deck of a ship looking up at something

Melissa and Andy watching the climb, in comfort

Once on board, Mark was whisked off by Richard, one of the permanent crew to be rigged up in a safety harness for the climb. Richard, ex-Royal Navy and more bizarrely a former London stockbroker, is now one of eight permanent crew and looks frighteningly fit, probably due to shinning up and down the rigging many times a day. Meanwhile, John and I were greeted by Operations Manager, Andy Spark, the fellow pistonhead who set up the day for us. John busied himself with a camera, I was given a cup of tea and a great vantage point to watch the climb. We were all happy.

Yardarms and futtock shrouds

View of man climbing rope ladder on a ship, from below

View from below – Mark climbing

As Mark reappeared, strapped up, and gingerly tested out the first rope ladder – my very own Peter Pan in a baseball cap – Andy gleefully punctured my composure by explaining he’d only be attached by the harness during the difficult overhangs. During most of the climb, he’d be perfectly free to fall off and crash down onto the deck below. The 142ft mast suddenly became much taller and it all became much more harrowing. Mark inched his way upwards, almost hanging backwards to climb through the gloriously named futtock shrouds (I think that’s the name) into the platform area, then crawling out on ropes along the yardarm. I got a badly cricked neck from staring upwards to follow his progress – but the tea helped, as did Andy’s commentary on the Jubilee Sailing Trust.

Inspiration for all – with penguins

Man climbing the mast of a tall ship

Mark climbing through the futtock shrouds

Andy had become involved years before after a motorbike accident left him minus part of a leg and a friend bought him a trip with the Trust. He loved the organisation so much that he has stayed as part of the staff more or less ever since. It is a totally inspirational set up and unique in the world, its two tall ships, Lord Nelson and Tenacious are kitted out to allow able-bodied and disabled sailors to work together on more or less equal terms. Tenacious was even built by able-bodied and disabled volunteers, working together – it took four and a half years and £16.5 million but the results are a triumph. Andy was in at the beginning of the build and as he said ‘I was the very last one out at the end, sweeping the floor of the workshop.’ She can carry 52, a professional crew of eight, the rest are volunteers, half able-bodied, half disabled. They have a nurse amongst the crew and usually have a doctor amongst the volunteers, just in case. And they achieve

Man climbing the rigging of a tall ship.

And safely back down!

incredible things. The Lord Nelson has been around the world and managed to get wheelchair-bound passengers down to the Antarctic to visit the penguins. They regularly manage to get wheelchair-bound and even blind crew members up the mast to where Mark has made it and is snapping photos of us taking pictures of him, the biggest grin on his face!

Time, I think to go on a diet, stock up on Stugeron and Ibuprofen and start saving so we can try a proper seafaring version next time…

Photo/s by




Rocking those tea shops – travel and the over-50s

Elderly tourists in a small boat off the coast of Norway, with mountains in background
Woman with case boarding a train

Melissa off on an adventure, at Alexandria station, Egypt

A little while ago, I was asked to consult for a PR company who were pitching for a new tourist office client. One of the target markets was the over-50s. The 23-year-old who’d been tasked with coming up with a list of suitable ways of enticing the over-50s to visit said country had filled it up with tea shops and gardens.

Now – I am exceedingly fond of both tea shops and gardens. I was exceedingly fond of both when I was 20, when I was 30, now I’m in my 50s and fully expect to continue to love them both should I make it into my 90s. There’s nothing more delicious than scones, jam and clotted cream, unless perhaps it’s a really good coffee and walnut cake (with lots of icing) – and a nice cup of Earl Grey. Preferably while looking at something gorgeous like roses or a Gothic cathedral.

Hippy chicks and rockers

But stop and think about dates for a bit. When I was in my 20s, it was the 1980s – the boom years. When those in their 60s were 20 they were  70s chicks. Those in their 70s were flower children of the 1960s and the octagenarians are the 50s rock and roll generation! Today’s pensioners are yesterday’s wild men and feminists from Mick Jagger to Germaine Greer. These are the people who invented rock music, the pill and free love, who lived through the devastation of the

People climbing out of a safari jeep

Sundowners on safari in Zimbabwe

Cold War, the  Vietnam War and the first AIDS epidemic. These are the people who smoked pot, experimented with LSD – the hippies, the rockers, the punks. They are the people who fought the censorship laws when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was considered dangerously pornographic, created gay rights and equal rights for women. They are also the people who backpacked across Europe, interrailed, invented the hippy trail, sat at the feet of gurus in India, invented the gap year and volunteered for the Peace Corps or VSO. They started the trend for holidays on the Med, for cruising in Antarctica or trekking in the Himalayas. They created Lonely Planet and the Rough Guides, and the whole modern travel industry as we know it.

In other words – whatever you are doing, whatever you think may be original – they’ve been there, done it, bought the t-shirt and grown out of it. But it’s still stashed in the back of a drawer somewhere along with a whole bunch of memories unsuitable for sharing with shockable grandchildren.

Longboats, ziplines and a nice cup of tea

These days, they are probably still going strong, this indomitable breed. Only time, arthritis, bad hearts and the exorbitant cost of travel insurance mean that they can’t quite do everything at breakneck speed. My parents headed down the Amazon in a longboat at the age of 75. My friend Judy was ziplining and tandem parachuting in Australia at 70. And as for the Marys – the stories they tell – of being stuck in a hotel in Cairo for a week with Nina Simone, of dancing naked at the Isle of Wight Rock Festival…

So next time you are thinking about what the older generation want to do – it’s all the same things as you, but a bit more slowly and in a bit more comfort, with fewer stairs, and with a few more antacids and other medications! And, of course, with the occasional garden and a nice cup of tea thrown in…




I Remember – Dad


1963 to 1965 158

I remember potmess picnics at Inyanga with Dad crouched over the gas stove opening tins of Fray Bentos beef and tinned peas into the saucepan

I remember being tickled mercilessly until I screamed at him to stop

I remember the terrific telling-off I got when I broke one of the dining chairs “that chair survived 250 years until you came along…”

I remember Dad turning up in full naval uniform to collect me from a teenage dance and laughing because he’d made me ‘creep sadly’ in front of the boys

I remember Dad in a dinner jacket doing his official duty and winking as I curtsied to him at our school leavers’ ball

I remember Dad painstakingly painting my name in crisp white Roman capitals onto a shiny black tin trunk as I got ready to leave home – and Africa

I remember being safe

I remember Dad wading uncomplainingly into several large boxes of receipts to sort out my life and accounts when I got myself into a muddle

I remember Dad mending my toys again and again to the childhood cry of ‘Daddy mend’

I remember Dad meticulously drawing lines across the block of Neapolitan icecream during Sunday lunch to ensure that we all got fair shares of all three colours

I remember Dad growling across the sitting room as Mum and I waded into yet another Telegraph-inspired political spat “Oh God, why do you two always have to argue?”

I remember Dad conducting Beethoven round the sitting room

I remember sitting with Dad in his hospital room, quietly listening to Elgar

I remember Christmas dinner with noise and flaming puddings and Dad at the head of the table, paper hat askew, head in his hands, proclaiming over the din “I hate my family!” as we all joined in

I remember Dad, towards the end, smiling sadly and saying “Sorry, Mel, I just can’t concentrate” and closing his eyes again

I remember Dad in a deckchair snoring gently in the sun



Dad barbecueing at Margnac4/3/1931–5/11/2013



My British Summer – Andover Hawk Conservancy Trust

Close-up of an American bald eagle

This summer has been all about Britain – well, mainly England. Our first trip was down to Hampshire for a long weekend. It all started with Mark’s Aunt Margy’s 80th birthday surprise party. The family is spread from Essex and Leicestershire to Somerset, so it was decided that we should meet somewhere sort of in the middle which turned out to be a day at the Hawk Conservancy Trust near Andover.

Eyeballing an eagle

Aunt Margy makes a friend

Aunt Margy makes a friend

I hadn’t known what to expect and truthfully, my expectations weren’t that great, but I really loved it. There are around 150 species of raptor here, from tiny pygmy owls to huge strange waddling prehistoric monsters and strutting secretary birds. And the setting is beautiful, lush and green, with wide skies beyond. I would be happy to spend days there watching peregrine falcons wheeling over the open meadows and lumbering vultures swooping low over the heads of nervously giggling tourists. I came eyeball to golden eyeball with a disdainful American bald eagle, while the boys learned the fine art of falconry with a red kite on one arm and Aunt Margy made friends with an inquisitive owl.

Precision planning

You need to plan your day if you want to take in all the various flying displays – it’s non-stop action with only short pauses for people to stroll around the pens between the different arenas. It takes quite a bit of walking but there are benches for those who need breaks and it’s all wheelchair-friendly. They were even able to lay on a wheelchair for us to borrow for the day.

Mark’s sister, Davina, had laid on a picnic worthy of Enid Blyton and Daisy Ashford for the festivities, crowning it  with a perfectly splendid chocolate birthday cake in the shape of an owl. Even better, the Trust has an indoor picnic room where we could lay out our birthday feast, at trestle tables with chairs, safely out of the drizzle, and away from ants and wasps. (There is, of course, also a café.)

Chocolate owl-shaped cake

The very splendid chocolate owl cake!

If I had one tiny gripe, it was that while there was a tea stall at the top of the site, the only toilet in the whole place was down near the entrance, a long walk from the upper display arena for elderly aunts and those of us with arthritic knees and walking sticks. A second loo block at the top of the site would be welcome. Apart from that, this place makes a really, really brilliant family day out – and also does good work conserving, researching and rehabilitating birds of prey. They even run a bird hospital.

Most importantly, Aunt Margy also loved the day – and the cake was a triumph!

If you are in Hampshire, also think about visiting the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.



My British Summer – Down the Docks with Mary Rose

Clichéd it may be, but as I haven’t been abroad much this year for a variety of reasons, I’ve been rediscovering quite how beautiful and interesting this country is – particularly when the sun shines! One of the first adventures of my British summer was what was for me a return visit to the Portsmouth Historic Dockyards. Even before the brand-new Mary Rose Museum opened this summer, the Dockyards were high on my personal list of one of the best museums in the world – and I don’t make that claim lightly. I’ve seen quite a few after writing 30 guidebooks on four continents.

Henry VIII built the world’s oldest dry docks in Portsmouth in 1495 and the city is still home to two-thirds of the Royal Navy’s surface fleet. With commercial shipping, ferries and pleasure boats also using the harbour, saltwater is built into every stone and every stone can spin a naval yarn. I’ve quite literally spent days in the Historic Dockyards and there are whole sections I still haven’t seen. A single day isn’t nearly enough.  It is huge, it is action-packed and the maritime history is astounding.

A Warrior Ship

As it was my partner’s first visit, we started off on HMS Warrior, the world’s first iron-hulled steam-driven war ship, built in 1860. She is a thing of beauty, straddling the worlds of wind and power, still with soaring mast and rigging. Sadly as a national monument, her ladder stairs are definitely not easily

Deck gun on HMS Warrior

Deck gun on HMS Warrior

navigated by arthritic knees and I chose to stay on deck and chatted to a very nice lady from Canada and a former sailor from Liverpool, both also clutching walking sticks, while Mark explored below.  Unlike them however, I had been lucky enough to go below before – for an extraordinarily memorable banquet years ago, eaten at trestle tables between the ship’s guns – and I couldn’t possibly top the memory of that spectacular night.

Henry’s Seventh Queen

From there, we walked up to the far end of the site (it’s a fair way) to the main focus of our visit, the ship-shaped Mary Rose Museum. For any Rip van Winkel who’s been asleep for the last 35 or so years and has missed the blaze of publicity that surrounded her discovery, recovery and restoration, The Mary Rose was Henry VIII’s flagship. She sank in the Solent on the 19 July 1545, while facing an invading French fleet. No one knows quite what caused her to sink although some think that she had been over-enlarged and made top-heavy. Only 35 of the well over 400 men on board survived (some say up to 700). Some 179 bodies were recovered with the wreck along with over 19,000 artifacts.

I’ve always felt a slight proprietorial interest in The Mary Rose as she was discovered just as I was graduating with a newly minted archaeology degree and they were advertising for archaeologists with diving capabilities to work on the wreck. A different decision and she could have been my life’s work. I’ve tracked her progress ever since.

While it has been possible to see many of the finds in a different museum and see the murky outline of the hull in the process of renovation for years, it is only recently that the sprays of glycol preservative fluid on the timbers have been switched off and you can see it clearly. They are spectacular – you can understand how England lost her forests to these soaring slabs of oak. It wasn’t possible to move the delicate structure, so the museum was built around the ship with the artefacts moved to the other side of the three corridors that float between the two halves of the display.

A pewter bleeding bowl and syringe found in the surgeon's cabin. The syringe would have been used with non-corrosive fluids such as rosewater or wine and vinegar, used to flush out wounds.

A pewter bleeding bowl and syringe found in the surgeon’s cabin. The syringe would have been used with non-corrosive fluids such as rosewater or wine and vinegar, used to flush out wounds.

The result is a breathtaking tour of life on board – sombre, compelling, beautifully presented and documented, with superb lighting and, full marks, proper disabled access. Mark, for whom ‘OK’ is normally high praise was moved to say that  it was ‘the most interesting thing he’d ever seen’. For me, it was the tiny details that made the tragedy seem so fresh, the life aboard so vivid – the minute silver ends from an officer’s shoelaces, the plates from the galley, a finely carved manicure set, coils of tarred rope, English long bows and arrows and wildfire near the crows’ nest, ready to rain down on the French, the skeleton of the ship’s dog.

Victory and scones

It says something of the quality of the Dockyards that HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship from Trafalgar and scene of his tragic death, one of the most famous and fascinating ships in the world comes in second! By the time we got on board, we were almost ‘museumed out’ – there had been such sensory overload. You really need, if possible, to take advantage of the year-long ticket and return several times to let your brain catch up.

The exterior of the Mary Rose Museum mirrors the shape of Nelson's flagship, HMS Victory, next door. (c) Luke Hayes

The exterior of the Mary Rose Museum mirrors the shape of Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, next door. (c) Luke Hayes

A harbour boat tour (all part of the museum ticket and well worth it) and we called it day. We’d done perhaps half of what there was to see, perhaps less. We hadn’t been near Action Stations or the main museum, but I couldn’t walk any further, our brains were about to explode and the café had stopped serving anything that I could eat. All that seemed to be on offers was the odd sandwich and cream scones and I don’t eat wheat or dairy. OK, I know I’m picky but many smaller museums manage to rustle up a bowl of soup or a salad all day and these days, I’m not alone.

So at the end of my visit, I’d like to make two teeny tiny requests, rather than complaints. I absolutely accept that there are huge difficulties putting full disabled access into the old ships but perhaps the museum authorities could consider putting on some kind of golf buggy or bus to take less able walkers from one end of the site to the other so we could keep our walking energy for looking around. And could they please keep serving some sort of meal that doesn’t involve bread through the afternoon for those who’ve got carried away in the museums and lost track of time?

Other than that, the whole experience was superb and I will go back again and again. One day, perhaps, I will see it all, but by then, I feel sure there will be more to discover. Portsmouth may not be on everyone’s tourist map, but the Historic Dockyards should be. Going down the docks with Mary Rose is a gloriously British day out.

Melissa was given a press ticket for entry to the Historic Dockyards; Mark paid for his admission. If you want to know more about the Mary Rose, try or this article on the museum in Current Archaeology. The Mary Rose photos are (c) The Mary Rose Museum.



Weighing up the cost of flying

Over the last few days, ITV’s Daybreak pursued me across Britain with requests to appear on the programme to talk about their new poll on whether fat people should be charged more when flying. I was unable to get to their London studios and with the Cardiff studios otherwise occupied, they ended up by suggesting they would try and send a satellite truck up to my sister’s house in Trehafod, a small village near Pontypridd in the Welsh Valleys. I was greatly flattered – and astonished by the extraordinary lengths they were going to. My family were greatly amused. Lots of comments about Muhammed coming to the mountain, being big in Trehafod etc etc… Sadly, in the end, the satellite truck was unavailable and I didn’t get to spend my Monday morning in the back of a lorry on a Welsh hillside being interviewed on telly. However, I had spent the weekend thinking about the issues, just in case, and it seemed a shame to waste all that brainwork (as my neighbour Olive used to say).

 Pound per pound?

The issues – we’ve already had the one about whether fat people should pay for two seats. Now some bright spark has suggested that people should be weighed along with their luggage and should pay per pound as they use more fuel. I can just see it now…

Stansted Airport on a Sunday evening. Tickets will have been sold on the basis of combined weight and luggage. At least 90% of the travelling public will have lied not only on their tickets but to themselves. Who hasn’t moved the bathroom scales onto the wonky board in the corner because you can lose a couple more pounds that way? Who doesn’t take off their clothes, glasses, watch and go to the loo before weighing themselves – in the morning, to ensure lowest possible weight? And who but the crowing diet mafia doesn’t jealously guard their exact weight from everyone, including their nearest and dearest.

Weighed, courtesy of Lindsey B/Creative Commons 2.0

Weighed, courtesy of Lindsey B/Creative Commons 2.0


So the form is filled in, weights have been adjusted to fit aspirations and ticket price policies and people get to the airport. Enter the weight police and check-in scales. Carefully guarded marital secrets will be laid bare. The diet mafia will have hysterics as the spare jumper and the hair straighteners thrown in at the last minute tip them over the edge. The rugby club who’ve been on a binge the night before and had a few extra beers will see it as a mark of manhood – like a strongman machine. I can just see the point at which some bright spark decides to strip off and travel in his knickers to beat the weight limit. And the queues will wind round and round and round the airport as people queue to pay and no one actually ever gets on a plane.

One size fits no one

And what about the disabled? You are at a real disadvantage if you have a wheelchair. They are really heavy. What is a reasonable weight and should it be done on reasonable weight for your height or just a blanket one size fits no one? I regularly travel with a friend who is just under 5ft, should she get a discount or perhaps team up with another small person on a 2-for-1 bogof? My partner is 6ft 2in but not fat, should he be penalised for being tall? Could people combine weight allowances? My short friend could make a fortune by hiring out case space for big knickers.

Presumably First Class passengers will be exempt from this humiliating mass weigh-in. Just imagine the paparazzi frenzy that would await the arrival of Angelina Jolie and her designer bags – or the headline possibilities of Lord Sugar?

So airlines, stop being greedy and try to remember that you are meant to be a service industry.  In your headlong rush to squeeze your pound from the flesh of the overly endowed, pause for a moment and use a little common sense. It’s going to be unworkable and inconvenience everybody.  No one is going to like this one.






Thomas Cook Publishing – End of the Line

Cover of Cook's Timetable, 1888

News broke yesterday that Thomas Cook is pulling out of publishing, the latest in a long line of guidebook publishing disasters over the last few years. Thomas Cook Publishing hasn’t been one of the biggest players of recent years in comparison to names like Lonely Planet, Michelin or Dorling Kindersley, but their exit really does mark the end of an era because they are probably the oldest and most venerable of all. After all, it was Thomas Cook who invented the package tour in 1841 when he hired a train to take a group of temperance supporters from Leicester to Loughborough for a rally. 500 passengers went for the day. The journey was 12 miles and tickets cost a shilling. It was a huge success, but what would he have made of hard-drinking Magaluf?

Into Print

Thomas Cook Publishing began soon afterwards. With commercial trips thriving, by 1851, the enterprising Mr Cook was soon producing an advertising newspaper, Cook’s Exhibition Herald and Excursion Advertiser, as a way of attracting passengers. Modern travel writing was on its way.

In March 1873, Cook’s Continental Time Tables was published for the first time – the forerunner of today’s Thomas Cook’s European Timetable, detailing all rail and ferry services across Europe. Inevitably now overtaken by the internet, for over a century it was the bible of European travel, much thumbed by everyone from trainspotters to interrail enthusiasts, businessmen to station porters. Dry as dust at first glance, it was a miracle of research and offered endless adventures. These convoluted tables led from Andover to Zagreb via Istanbul, Moscow or Madrid. Everything was possible. Just thinking of it now makes me want to grab my backpack and head for the nearest station.

Thomas Cook and me

Cover Thomas Cook Traveller's Guide, Delhi, Agra and RajasthanMy own history with Thomas Cook publishing began in the late 1980s when the AA hired me as series editor for a new series of guidebooks they were creating, to be sponsored by Thomas Cook, the Thomas Cook Traveller Guides. They were to be aimed at people doing a one to two week package holiday, were 60,000 words long, strictly formatted, with lots of colour pictures, suggestions for restaurants, hotels, walks, tours – and really good maps. It all seems obvious today, but at that stage it was part of a revolution in guidebook publishing that was exploding onto the world scene. In the space of five years, I commissioned and edited 54 titles in the series, working with many of the world’s finest guidebook authors and photographers to shape the books and take them through to the finished product. I also wrote the titles on Kenya and Delhi, Agra and Rajasthan myself (editor’s privilege, cherry-picking destinations I had always wanted to visit). It was hugely satisfying, intensively busy and not always easy. I remember doing deals with other editors. It was one of three major new series being created by the AA alone and we had to juggle schedules to make sure that there were enough good writers to go around.

“If I do the Sicily in this batch and Rome in the next one, then she has time to write both…”

Those were the days! We got paid a living wage if not handsomely, had expenses, enough time to do good on the ground research, backed up by verifiers and editors, very different from the spiral of internet updates which has helped contribute to the downfall of the guides. But that’s a different story…

I later went on to do other work for Thomas Cook, helping to create the blueprint then editing the first editions of On the Rails Around Europe and various other companion volumes.

 What next?

Both the Traveller guides and On the Rails Around Europe (now called Europe by Rail) have survived and continued to sell around the world to this day, running into many editions and helping thousands of travellers enjoy and remember happy holidays. I am hugely proud of that and of the work put into them by the many writers, photographers, editors, cartographers and others who created them. I hope that they may have some sort of future. The splendid team behind Hidden Europe magazine have been editing Europe by Rail for the last couple of editions and they are hoping to save it, so watch their website. As for the rest?

The last few years have seen the AA pull out of guidebook publishing; Frommers sold to Google, then the name sold back to Frommers; Lonely Planet sold for a fraction of what the BBC paid for it. The list goes on. Guidebook sales have plummeted, thanks to the internet. But I do believe there is still a market out there eager for properly researched, properly assessed, properly organised, professionally written and maintained, objective information. It doesn’t matter in the end whether it comes in book form or electronically, but it’s just a matter of persuading people to pay for it.

So farewell, Thomas Cook Publishing. You helped to change the world. Not many people can say that.


Mavericks – who polices power-hungry governments?

A short while ago, Apple announced that their new operating system is going to be called OS Mavericks. They are naming it after a California landmark and it sounds lovely – a bit rebellious, but still cool with really trendy sunglasses. Just right for the Apple image, in fact. But! Apple has also been in the news for all the wrong reasons this week, along with Google, Facebook et al, in the great Prism leak.

Prism – another wonderful word. A beacon of reflective light of all colours of the rainbow, something utterly beautiful and compelling and now utterly sinister. Since The Guardian first broke the news a few days ago that the US government appears to have a backdoor into the entire global communications network and is happily monitoring all our private correspondence, the British government has been falling over itself to assure people that it only avails itself of the opportunity to use the resources under strictly controlled legal conditions. That is not the point. No one seems to be asking the right questions.

1) Who gave the Americans the right to monitor my private correspondence in the first place? I am not a US citizen. If they are going to have such control over my affairs, I want some control over what they do about it. Perhaps it is time the rest of the world got a vote in the US political system.

2) According to William Hague, they would only use the information under a strict legal framework. What is that strict legal framework? In the UK, at present, a court order is required before an individual’s correspondence can be monitored. This is patently not happening in the USA, so how will the material be treated? And who will decide? It is useless saying that the UK courts will decide if the material is still freely available to the rest of the world. Who will protect my rights as a UK citizen against potential abuses of that material?

3) Most importantly, perhaps, we need to think about the repercussions of this on those who are citizens not of friendly, open Western democracies such as our own beloved country, where we can stand up and shout the odds if we don’t agree, but of citizens of some of the US’s dodgier allies. What happens to them?

I write a great deal about Turkey. I’ve written several books on the country and I’m actually halfway through a sequence of seven features about the country at the moment. It’s a place that I love dearly. At the moment, all hell has broken out and it all started because some protesters exercised their democratic right to stop the bulldozers moving in and destroying a park in Taksim Square. It has turned into a nationwide showdown about democracy.

As I am writing this, between 50 and 70 lawyers, acting on behalf of the demonstrators, have themselves been arrested within the Istanbul courthouse. Hundreds of journalists have been arrested and tried over the last few years in freedom of speech trials. Yet Turkey is a relatively moderate country, a major Western ally and a member of NATO. Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is denouncing the protestors as terrorists and blaming Facebook and Twitter for all the ills facing his country. What happens if he asks his most powerful ally, the US, for aid in tracing the social networking of the protestors? With neighbours such as Iraq, Iran and Syria, Turkey is vital to the defence of Europe and the Middle East. Is the US going to trade off the rights of a few middle class liberals? And there are many other countries far more extreme than Turkey with whom the US does a great deal of very useful business.

My heart bleeds as I write this. America claims to be the home of democracy, Britain to be the mother of democracy – and Turkey, much of it part of the ancient Greek empire, has some claim to being the birthplace of democracy. It’s time to remember what democracy really means. Of course we need to stop terrorists but not at the expense of freedom.



My Immigrant Garden

Garden with patio and wisteria
Garden with patio and wisteria

My garden (c) Melissa Shales

I haven’t been abroad as much as usual recently – a combination of circumstances has conspired to keep me at home and I have seriously itchy feet. I took to living vicariously through travel blogs and TV shows, desperate for pictures of African sunshine as the rain dripped steadily down the windows and the heating remains stubbornly on. The only bright spot during the dismal English spring has been my little garden – rapidly turning into a miniature rainforest. The dog has been spotted prowling the undergrowth in search of sloths.

Over the last couple of days, the sun has finally appeared and, basking blissfully under the wisteria with a cup of Earl Grey yesterday, it occurred to me that I really didn’t need to go that far to go round the world – all I needed to do was to go to the end of the garden path.

The collectors

Generations of botanists, enthusiasts, colonists and explorers have taken my quintessentially English patch of Essex and turned it into a microcosm of the world.

Wisteria comes from China, brought back to Europe by Captain Welbank in 1816 as a present for a friend, CH Turner, from Rooksnet, Surrey. He had seen it during a dinner party with a rich Chinese trader in Guangzhou (Canton) and fallen in love with the magnificent ‘blue vine’.

The hostas in the pots underneath also came from the Far East – they are native to Japan, China, and Korea. The first European to document them was a doctor stationed in Japan with the Dutch East India Company, Dr Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1715), but the first couple were brought back from China to the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in the mid-1700s.

There are thought to be around 150 species of native roses throughout the northern hemisphere but the Chinese were probably the first to cultivate these too, some 5,000 years ago. The yellow rambler on the wall is just coming into flower. The brilliant red climber that winds through the wisteria is a mass of bud, but no flowers yet.

The lavender, originally a Mediterranean native, arrived from France in the 1600s when it was thought that a bunch tied to the wrist might protect the wearer against the Black Death. That obviously didn’t work, but it remained hugely popular as a flower and working herb. Tulips arrived in a blaze of financial glory and scandal via Holland from Turkey in the same century.

The Roman invasion

My little peach tree also has an interesting past – native to China, it was first cultivated in South Asia, but is named Prunus persica after the Persians because it was in Persia that it was discovered by Alexander the Great who introduced it to Europe. The Romans then brought it to England. The jasmine also came from the Far East via Persia. Its Persian name ‘yasameen’ means ‘gift from God’.

The Romans have actually been responsible for an awful lot in my garden. It’s small and with little space to spare, I like the idea of things being edible as well as decorative. All those quintessentially English herbs – parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme? Think again. Mediterranean natives, everyone of them. Along with the bay, feverfew, fennel, asparagus, chives and onions and raspberries. Sage was considered to be an important medicinal plant by the Romans who prized its digestive properties, particularly in helping to cope with fatty meats (hence sage and onion with pork). Feverfew was used to bring down fevers.

New World

The Americas aren’t so well represented. I don’t have room for a greenhouse, so have given up on growing tomatoes but do astonishingly have some random potato plants that self-seeded from our home-made compost! We’ve also planted some maize (sweetcorn) as an experiment for the first time, so will wait to see how that does – so far it’s not looking promising! The small blueberry and cranberry bushes I put in last year are doing better although they are rather lost in a sea of thuglike forget-me-nots at the moment.

I don’t think I actually have any African plants in my garden at the moment, although I do have some heather and it could be a South African species, but many gardeners do grow irises, pelargoniums, freesias, agapanthus and the gloriously bright Namaqualand daisies.

My immigrant garden

In fact, as I look around, and check more and more plants, it’s hard to find any that are definitely British natives. The gooseberry might be – the book says that it’s native to northern and central Europe, but I’ve never met a wild gooseberry in England, so perhaps it was the Romans again – or the Saxons or the Vikings who introduced it.

I got down as far as humble primrose, primula vulgaris, now past its best as we finally head into summer, before I finally found something that I could definitively call a native to this country. So my archetypical English country garden is, in fact, absolutely stuffed full of foreign immigrants. What would UKIP and the Daily Mail have to say?





Two designer gowns in the Gattinoni studio

Rome was important in my life – standing in the Forum at the age of 8 with my mother telling me the story of how Julius Caesar was killed by his best friend was the exact moment when I ‘got’ history and decided to become an archaeologist. The fact that I was told this week that he was actually killed at another temple nearby and that I later discovered – halfway through an archaeology degree – that I would be a really bad archaeologist and became a travel writer instead are incidental. Rome has quite literally changed my life. At the age of 8, I literally cried when I had to leave.

So I was happy to be back there this week, staying at the gorgeous Regina Hotel Baglioni on via Veneto. It’s just had a make-over and is sumptuous – all black and gold and art deco, with Moroccan lanterns in the bar, an ostrich leather bedhead in my room and a pumpkin risotto at dinner that converted a lifelong loather of pumpkin to drools of delight.


Rome itself, after a ferociously stormy introduction, turned on a smiling face with cobalt blue skies, perfect for gelato at Giolitti’s, via Uffici del Vicario, a local institution that has stood near the Pantheon since 1900 and is considered by Romans to serve the finest icecream in the city. It was an ideal way to rest the aching knees after the steep climb up to the roof of the Castel Sant Angelo, Hadrian’s tomb converted into papal fortress. Another great thing about the city – the way it is so multi-layered and recycled – history heaped on history – Raphael and King Vittorio Emmanuel buried in the Pantheon, an ancient Roman temple, the colonnade of St Peter made out of columns recycled from the forum and the Colisseum. Sensible and frustrating at the same time.

Food heaven in the market, Campo di Fiori

Food heaven in the market, Campo di Fiori

In the afternoon, we were invited to visit Gattinoni couture house where we had an amazingly entertaining interview with superstar designer, Guillermo Mariotto, and got a chance to see up close some of the stunning creations, from frocks made for Audrey Hepburn in the 1950s, to this year’s collection. Sometimes I do love being a journalist, even if I did feel like an elephant at an elf convention. From there to the Etruscan museum (which I hadn’t ever seen before – amazing exhibits, badly labelled) before a quick trip to the Campo di Fiori in search of parmesan and porcini to bring home.


Fat lady rating for Rome as a destination – food 9/10 (it loses a point for being too tempting); getting around (7/10 – relatively easy public transport, but it does involve a lot of walking, stairs, uneven streets etc and it gets tiring. Overall rating – 10/10.


Past Life Flashes

Group of women standing in front of a bandstand in a park

I was at school with Claudette from the ages of 4 to 18 and Carol from 5 to 10. Kathy moved to town when she was 10 and became my best friend for the rest of our school days. Glenn was my first ever boyfriend (first date set up by Kathy at the age of 14, holding hands nervously at the film of Godspell, very conscious of my parents sitting three rows behind us in the cinema).

I haven’t seen Claudette, Carol or Glenn since I left school in 1976. Kathy now lives in New Zealand and while I have stayed in touch over the years I hardly ever see her. Creina has been a family friend since I was 4; she was also my French teacher and more responsible than anyone else for teaching me to think. She lives in North Wales.

For most, a school reunion isn’t anything special, but when you grew up in Umtali, Rhodesia, a town of some 10,000 people on the remote eastern Mozambique border, it becomes a very big deal indeed. The town is now Mutare, the country is now Zimbabwe, a whole way of life has changed, the people I grew up have scattered across four continents.
On Sunday, in St James Park, one of the other schools, Umtali Girls High School (not even my school) – held a reunion picnic to celebrate their centenary, inviting anyone from our tiny outpost of Africa to join in.

For once, this summer, the sun shone. The deckchair man was vigilant in demanding his £1.50. People rushed around trying to work out if they knew you behind the inevitable swelling caused by age and beer (Rhodies love their beer). It was all-white and backward-looking in some ways, but it was comfortable. No need for explanations, a shared experience of something long gone, a common past and old friends and memories. There were the people I grew up with, talking about the plays my mother produced for the local amateur theatre, the competitive puddings on the local dinner party circuit, Nolan’s Electrical shop where I had my first Saturday job, Claudette and Carol who shared my earliest birthday parties and Glenn who shared my first fumbling attempts at romance. And Kathy who shared all my teenage adventures. It was a scary, extraordinary, special afternoon. Thank you, UGHS, for letting me relive a time and place far away and long ago.


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