Books that Made Britain – BBC TV Program + My Poems

Books that Made Britain is a new BBC TV series that premiered on Sunday afternoon, 16th October. It featured Sussex writers from the present day (eg Kate Mosse) and the past (poet Hilaire Belloc) plus a new writing project, ‘A South Downs Alphabet’ in which I am participating. In the 1939 celebrated writer Eleanor Farjeon created ‘A Sussex Alphabet’ – a series of poems, each one celebrating some aspect of Sussex, literally from A to Z. The South Downs National Park Authority and The Write House (an independent group of local historians and writers) joined forces to produce the new version – reprinting Farjeon’s with it. (more…)

SUNDAY IN THE PARK – Beijing’s Jingshan

It’s Sunday morning in Beijing’s Jingshan Park, just minutes away from the Forbidden City where the stern face of Chairman Mao looks down on passersby. But here it’s all smiles. Why? Because this is where the Chinese go to have fun.

Looking round, we seem to be the only Western tourists. But no one seems to mind or even notice our presence. Youngsters are playing a game we’ve never seen before – like badminton but using their feet. With well-placed kicks, they keep the flower-like shuttlecock off the ground, passing it back and forth. Others are skipping rope but with a big difference: the rope is at least 8 metres long with half a dozen youths jumping simultaneously. One misstep results in a tangle of legs as the entire formation collapses. This happens several times as we watch, causing the young skippers to double over in laughter. Nearby, several women are twirling long streamers of multi-coloured ribbon. Like perpetual motion machines, they carve out figures of eight in the air. The colours flow and blend as in an optical illusion. Minutes pass. We stand still, mesmerised.

If tourist guides tell you this is only a 30-minute stop, ignore them. We are glad we have a totally unrestricted timetable for this Sunday in the park.

The Beijingers are enjoying themselves and don’t mind showing it. This discovery puts paid to the ‘myth’ of Chinese inscrutability. Here in Jingshan families are picnicking, others are concentrating on their tai chi moves and further on, couples, dressed in silks and brocades, are executing the well-practised steps of traditional Chinese folk dances. We skirt round a woman singing Chinese opera. Her small ‘fan club’ is obviously captivated by both her voice and the music but these sounds are strange to our Western sensibilities so we move on – just in time to join a group gathered round an elegant elderly couple, he in white gloves and tails, she in a floaty pink ball gown. We watch them go through their repertoire — stately waltz, seductive tango, sprightly foxtrot – to musical selections playing from their tape recorder. We are so charmed that we just have to applaud. Responding with a smile, he bows deeply then takes her hand as she curtsies.

In Jingshan Park no hats are passed round for contributions, no guitar cases are flung open for your loose change – everyone is performing for the sheer joy of it. What a treat!
Jingshan – meaning mountain (shan) of the Jin Dynasty – dates back to 1179. This 57-acre park is famous for its peony garden – the largest in Beijing. There’s always something blooming in Jingshan but May is the best time to admire the 200 different species – 20,000 flowers – planted throughout the park. A plaque marks the spot where the last Ming emperor died in 1644. According to legend, the 16 year old emperor fled the Forbidden City as rebel forces approached, hanging himself from a nearby tree. Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that the tree standing tall before us wasn’t the famous ‘hanging tree’ but a replacement, planted in 1981.

HILL OF SCENIC BEAUTY

In the middle of the park, rising 46 metres into the Beijing mist, is the Hill of Scenic Beauty, the highest point in Beijing. It was constructed in 1421 from the earth and rocks that were dug up to build the moat and canals that surround and protect the Forbidden City. In our technologically-obsessed age, it’s incredible to think that this was achieved without the aid of modern machinery. At the top of the middle peak is the Wanchun Pavilion, also known by the more romantic name of the Pavilion of the Everlasting Spring. Built in 1750, its exterior is decorated with colourful glazed tiles. Inside is a statue of Buddha where the faithful lay flowers and fruit. The burning incense makes us light-headed. We go outside to make the 360 degree circuit around the Pavilion, and are wowed by the most spectacular views of Beijing’s landmarks: Drum and Bell Tower, Imperial Palace, Shichahai and Beihai lakes.

But Jinshang is not done entertaining us. Back on level ground, we are lured once again by the sound of music. Just a few metres away, a handful of amateur musicians is starting to tune up. As we wait, more and more arrive, and an animated ad hoc jam session begins. I count twelve saxophones, three clarinets, four trumpets, a drum kit, even a keyboard plugged into a generator. They improvise New Orleans jazz and bossa nova standards. What they lack in skill, they compensate for with enthusiasm. Once again, we are the only Westerners, and we listen, rapt. This impromptu concert is an absolute delight. As the musicians pause between songs, a saxophone player turns to us. ‘English?’ he asks tentatively. We nod. He grins broadly, extending his hand. ‘Welcome to Beijing.’

Kerala, India

Have you ever been to Paradise? Well, I have and it’s called Kerala.

Statuesque herons silhouetted against lush green rice paddies. Elegant coconut palms leaning languorously towards the water’s edge. Here the smiling locals move slowly and gracefully in the noon-day heat. The contrast after busy, throbbing, dusty Delhi is staggering.

We have boarded a traditional houseboat or kettuvallam for a 24-hour trip in the Kerala Backwaters – 1500 kilometres of canals, fed by 38 rivers that drain into the Arabian Sea. The houseboat is constructed of wooden planks held together by coconut fibre ropes, using no nails. The roof covering is made from bamboo poles and palm leaves. The exterior of the boat, which is painted with cashew nut oil, glistens in the sun. .

We are greeted with a fresh fruit drink in a coconut shell. Three young Indians buzz around us doing preparatory chores. We set off and our eyes devour the rich diversity of our surroundings: ancient Chinese fishing nets, Hindu temples, Catholic churches, coconut groves, coir villages.

Chandu, our ‘navigator’, is dressed for comfort. Barefoot and holding a parasol over his head, he is wearing a westernised polo shirt and ballooning dhotis.

We pass the villagers engaged in their every-day activities. As a concession to the intense heat, many women wear loose-fitting ‘housecoats’ rather than the traditional sari. Some are washing clothes. A man has waded in waist-deep, soaping his upper body and splashing himself with water. People live along these waterways so transport is by boat, a‘water taxi’, which carries them to and from the jetties at spaced intervals along the canals.

We spend the day watching the cormorants and egrets, fishermen and flowers. As we drift along in the Kumarakom waters, we pass delicate, mauve waterplants that wave to us like bouquets of welcome.

Venkat, our ‘chef’, brings us lunch – fish, cucumber and tomato, rice and dishes cooked in coconut – all freshly prepared on board. He serves and we applaud his presentation. We do not speak each other’s language but the communication is irrefutable. His response: a beautiful, flashing white smile.

On the wall above the table are two coloured reproductions, one of Christ and the other of the Hindu god, Ganesh – reflecting this area’s two strong religious traditions. We know we are well-protected.

At dusk the insects descend. Venkat comes to our rescue with a powerful spray. We then sit comfortably, enjoying a leisurely meal as the water laps rhythmically, almost hypnotically, onto the sides of the houseboat. We are suddenly tired. We bid the young men goodnight and enter our cabin, manipulating the mosquito netting as we get into bed. The gentle rocking of the moored boat puts us straight to sleep.

We awake early as the waterway comes alive with other houseboats, fishermen and ‘taxis’. We hurry out on deck to enjoy our last few hours in Paradise – revelling in the vibrant colours and evocative sounds of Kerala.

All too soon we dock and our devoted crew, hands pressed together, murmur a farewell ‘namaste’. We leave the houseboat with great reluctance but are eager to experience more of our Indian adventure.

Mothers and Daughters: The Legacy of Love

My mother was my best friend. She died 41 years ago but left me a lasting legacy of love. It’s a legacy that she got from her mother…and that I’ve given to my daughter. Four generations of mother – daughter love. How special is that!

I’d like to tell you about it.

I was born in Pleasantville, New York, seven years after my brother and ten years after my sister. People used to comment regularly on how different I looked from them. Whilst they were both dark haired, I was fair. Whilst they both had olive complexions, I was peaches and cream. They used to tease me mercilessly, saying that I was adopted. My mother soon put a stop to that by telling them that I was the only one who was planned.

Our mother-daughter bond grew stronger and stronger over the years, no doubt aided by our shared interests – reading novels, playing Scrabble, going to the theatre, cultivating flowers. She was a woman of infinite understanding, and wisdom. “There is no such thing as the ‘perfect man’,” she told me. “Just be sure that when you find the man who you want to marry, his imperfections are ones you can live with.” Her favourite words of reassurance, “This too shall pass,” were always said with a smile that made the world feel right.

‘Nana’, my mother’s mother, lived with us. I never thought about it back then but my mother’s bond with her mother must also have been a strong one – after all, Nana had other children with whom she could have lived – but she chose to live with us. My brother and sister, being so much older than I, would go off with friends of their own age, leaving me on my own much of the time. With her two older children now being so independent, my mother decided to resume her career in publishing. But Nana was still there at home, playing with me, making us ‘tea parties’ with lovely little cakes and, despite her arthritis, taking me on nature walks. She was a gentle person whose presence in our household was welcomed, quite naturally, by her daughter, my mum – but also by her son-in-law, my dad, who adored her. I can still see her – the wispy white hair and vibrant blue eyes. I was eleven when she died. It was the first time I’d ever experienced the death of a loved one. Some weeks later, I had a bad dream and woke up crying. “I saw Nana,” I sobbed to my mother, “and she was dancing and singing. When I tried to go to her, she kept laughing and pushed me away.” Drying my tears, my mother consoled me with a dream interpretation that any child psychologist would applaud. “She’s trying to tell you that she’s no longer in any pain – that she can now frisk about like a young girl.” “But why did she push me away?” I wailed. “Because it isn’t time for you to follow her. She’s happy where she is and wants you to be happy where you are.” Her calming words made all the sense in the world to me – and I remember them to this day.

At age 18 I went off to a university that was located some 350 miles away from home. I was, at first, understandably very homesick. I tried to hide this from my mother when we spoke on the phone but I’m sure she knew. Then, after a number of weeks, I inadvertently referred to my dormitory as ‘home’. As soon as I said it, I felt awful – as if I’d betrayed her and her love. ‘Oh no, sweetheart, I’m glad that you can call your dorm ‘home’. Now I know you will thrive.’

After uni, I moved into New York City to live and work. My mother and I talked to each other on the phone almost every day. She would come in to the city quite regularly and we’d have a ’girlie’ time, going to exhibitions or concerts or the theatre. The family home continued to be a refuge for me, and I loved to escape from the city for a weekend in the country, often bringing
friends with me who were always made welcome.

After 22 years of working in a job she adored, my mother decided it was time to retire. Both parents had worked hard to ensure that their combined pensions would give them a comfortable life. They‘d bought a place in the sun, an apartment in Florida, and were looking forward to moving south. I can still see the travel and cruise brochures on the kitchen table, see them eagerly scanning the pages in anticipation of their time for fun. But nothing is guaranteed in life. Completely out of the blue, my mother was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Like many people of her generation, she’d been a smoker. Five years before this ‘death sentence’, she’d stopped smoking and was justifiably proud of her achievement. But the damage was done and no amount of treatment – the debilitating chemotherapy – could cure her. This was April 1974. She retired on her 62nd birthday in July. And she died in early September. Six weeks after that I moved from America to England, where I have lived ever since.

That first year in a foreign country was difficult and I shed many tears from loneliness and grief – but I knew she’d want me to be strong and make the most of life’s opportunities. Nonetheless, I wished I could chat on the phone to her about everything, like I used to.

It is a cliché but time does heal. And eventually I met a delightful Englishman, fell in love and married him. When I was carrying our first child, I hoped in my heart of hearts that I would have a girl and that she and I would have the same deep friendship that I’d had with my own mother.

Jennie arrived, and almost as if I’d scripted it myself, we have become great friends. I’ve listened to her problems, supporting her as my mother always supported me. I’ve celebrated her successes and exulted in her achievements. Being with her is always great fun – whether it’s retail therapy outings, watching chick flicks or simply chatting on the phone. When we walk down the street, she takes my hand, as if I were the child and she the mother. Yes, we are very close – and her girl friends often comment that they would never be able to tell their mother the kinds of things that Jennie confides in me. “After all,” she tells me, “you’re my best friend.” What more can a mother ask?

Sadly, my own beloved mother, whom I lost 41 years ago, was never able to meet my equally beloved daughter. But I know that she is out there somewhere, reunited with her own mother, looking down on Jennie and me. They are nodding their heads in approval, and smiling.

Spike Milligan and me

As a twenty-something, I came to England from the U.S., hoping to get a job with a work permit. One night an English friend took me to see Spike’s one-man show at the Mermaid. I hadn’t a clue who he was but went along. My friend laughed uproariously during the entire show but as I was a fairly new arrival to these shores, I’m ashamed to admit that most of the jokes went over my head.

My friend then dragged me backstage so he could say hello to one of the crew. There I spotted Spike, all alone, plucking out ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ on a guitar. Naturally, I started to sing it. ‘Oh, you like jazz,’ he said, suddenly noticing me. ‘Maybe we could go out some time.’ (more…)

My Afternoon Tea with Henri Cartier-Bresson

No pantheon of the greats in the history of photography would be complete without the name of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Using his trademark Leica camera and unobtrusive 50mm lens, he produced some of the most iconic images in a career that spanned more than 60 years. Considered by some to be the father of photojournalism, Cartier-Bresson’s photographs captured ‘the decisive moment’ which he describes thus: ‘There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see the composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera….Once you miss it, it is gone forever.’ (more…)

A Train Passage in India…with apologies to EM Forster

‘You follow,’ instructs the wiry, modestly clad porter at Mysore train station. He and his ‘assistant’ lug our very heavy cases, depositing them and us in the air conditioned second class carriage that has been booked for us. Alan and I are the only non-Indian passengers.

The carriage is painted a dingy mid-green; even the window glass is painted, most likely to keep out the intense sun. Enjoying the decent leg room, we settle down comfortably for this non-stop four-hour trip to Bangalore.

After about an hour, a young Indian comes through, cheerfully handing out refreshments – bottled water, biscuits and juice – all included in our ticket price. South West Trains – are you reading this? (more…)

American Rant – Expatriate’s Blues

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love this country. I’m here by choice. What’s more, I’m one of you: a citizen. But over the years some Brits have said some very annoying things to me. I’ve decided it was time to stop ‘keeping a stiff upper lip’ and instead tell all.

Did you know, for instance, that there are about 250,000 Americans living here in the UK? I imagine many of them have had similar experiences to mine. I’ve decided to appoint myself their unofficial spokesperson and the following ‘rant’ is in order to perpetuate our ‘special relationship’. (more…)

Lost – and found – in Brussels

We were literally going around in circles on the Brussels ring road, failing abysmally in our attempt to find the correct exit towards Luxembourg. In frustration, we left the ring road hoping to find a ‘local’ and ask directions.

We pulled into a petrol station and asked the attendant, ‘Pour aller au Luxembourg?’ Despite a working knowledge of French, we could not understand anything he said. And so, with increasing desperation, we drove on. (more…)

My Journey of a Lifetime: Cape Horn

‘I, the albatross that waits for you at the end of the world…’

Thus begins the poem which is etched into the memorial plaque at Cape Horn. It continues, ‘I, the forgotten soul of the sailors lost that crossed Cape Horn from all the seas of the world’.

Poet Sara Vial’s words resonate in this hugely emotive place, Cape Horn, the ‘end of the world’, where over the centuries countless sailors lost their lives in the hazardous waters. For many of them, their ‘journey of a lifetime’ resulted in death. It is not surprising — the strong winds, large waves, strong currents — not to mention icebergs– have made Cape Horn notorious for being a sailors’ graveyard. It is a place that I have yearned to visit all my life… the irresistible Sirens’ Song calling me to ‘the end of the world’. After months of planning, I am on my way at last, having joined a cruise ship at the port of Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, at the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, to follow in the wake of Charles Darwin and sail through the Beagle Channel towards Cape Horn. (more…)

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