Sunday, 13 May 2018

Me and my lodger

As some of you know, I have a lodger. And, while I’m not one to just by appearances, this is what she looks like (she’s a collared dove):

This gutter is at my eye-line when I stand on my balcony. I can watch her from my sitting room. When she first moved in she seemed very aware if I moved around - her little head bobbed up and her eyes seemed more alert. But now she takes very little notice - and I don’t get closer than about eight feet.  
And she’s not alone:

As you can see, this is not the best-constructed nest. Not much more than a haphazard collection of twigs. And I watch as the male arrives with a long twig to add to the collection. There is much grateful head-bobbing as he hands it over. And off he goes.

Leaving her with a twig far to long for her to even turn it round easily so it can sit on top of the others. She shuffles, tries bashing on the wall beside her to break it up, and eventually bits of if fall off. If she had words, she’d be muttering to herself: ‘Bloody bird. Can’t even manage to find a twig the right length. Might has well have gone to IKEA and come home with the box, not opened it to find out which bits were missing ...’

And when he brought her another, she waited until he had flown away and dropped it over the side!

She doesn’t have words, of course. And I’ve watched Springwatch often enough to know that the chances of her clutch surviving is less than fifty per cent. She’s already down to one egg: one has rolled off the end of her gutter onto one below.

But that doesn’t stop me feeling fiercely protective of this little family. I can spend hours watching her, rearranging twigs, shifting on her nest and then poking beneath her chest to make sure the remaining egg is snug beneath her. So if I’m late posting blogs over the nest week or few, I’m probably on bird-duty!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Once a travel writer, always a travel writer?

You know me as a travel writer. Which is not unreasonable, given that most of my books are about my travels.

Will there be a book about my last trip to Nepal - no. Because it wasn’t a travelly sort of trip. It was a recuperative trip, a trip to take the space I needed to fill my head with something other than my house-move (and failed house-selling efforts) last year. It was the trip I needed. 

And because I don’t have to write a book about a trip if I don’t want to.

But ... surely I’m a travel writer. I travel and write about it - that’s what I do ...

I don’t see it like that - though I’m not sure I’ve challenged it before. I love travelling, and I love writing, and the two have melted together very happily. But that doesn’t mean the reason to travel is to write, nor is writing an excuse to travel. The two activities are independent of each other. If they overlap, that’s fine. And if they don’t, that’s fine too.

I’ve become know for the overlapping - when the writing and travelling come together. And yet the book I’m most proud of, the book that cost the most angst, the book that gave me most pleasure to write - is my novel, The Planter’s Daughter .

Why? Because I had to make it up. I had to do hours of research first, to make sure I got the factual bits right. But the rest of it I made up. (Well, I had the sketchiest outline, as it grew out of a vignette I came across in New Zealand. That gave me about four sentences. The rest I made up.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because my writing focus, at the moment, is firmly turned to fiction. That doesn’t mean I shall stop travelling, nor that I’ll stop blogging about travelling while I’m away. It simply means that I won’t travel with a view to writing a little book about it - unless, of course, something extraordinary happens (like a close encounter with a tiger ...)

So what is this novel I’m writing .. it’s such early days, I’ll keep that to myself for now.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Shall I Compare Thee to Theresa May?

Shall I compare thee to Theresa May?
She is a ship of self deception, littering
Her promises of wealth and health and no delay
With no more substance than a winter’s glitter.
As winds blow frozen thoughts from Arctic shores,
She’ll force her cheeks into a rictus grin
And wait, assume a pose for rapt applause
From party faithfuls. 
                                 She cannot win
While mothers have no money left for food,
Teachers work until they cannot think
Doctors give their final pints of blood,
Frail and disabled hide, all hope extinct.
You, in this filthy corner, wrapped in rags
With nothing in your life but plastic bags.

With apologies to Shakespeare

Sunday, 22 April 2018

An apology to the young. We have let them down.

It is, surely, part of the human condition for each generation to aim to leave the world in a better shape than they were born into. We want peace, prosperity, and joy for our children and grandchildren.

I was born not long after the War. There was still rationing. Times were tight. But it was also just after the birth of the NHS and the Welfare State. No longer would the poor and the sick need to struggle by themselves. National insurance payments would provide a safety net for everyone.

It was an idealistic response to the deprivation of the 1930s and then the horrors of War. But it was also built on a belief that we can, and should, create a world in which peace, mutual respect and care for the frail and vulnerable is possible without judgement. 

The 1960s built on that. We were the generation who could, and would, make it all happen.

But now I am ashamed of us.

My education was subsidised until I was 24. I emerged without debts, and a qualification that led to a job. I could save for the deposit on a house. I was healthy, and I was educated. Of course, there was still a long way to go - there was still hardship and deprivation. Racism was rife. But we had made a start and pressed on optimistically.

Thatcher did her best to scupper our efforts. Her cult of individualism bred selfishness that hasn’t helped. Blair made a start on turning that tide, and then wrecked it by invading Iraq. 

And from then on ... we have seen all we believed in and fought for eroded. Education is precious - and yet now only the wealthy can take it for granted. Those working in the NHS find their efforts to keep us healthy and care for the sick undermined by a government who can offer nothing but glib, meaningless statements. We had forged peaceful links with Europe, found a way to end the fighting in Ireland - and that’s all being dismantled. We recognised the scourge that is racism and have challenged it in every corner - but only an outcry in the press has made the government pause in its efforts to deport brown people. There is more poverty, more homelessness ... I could go on.

How can we look at our children and grandchildren in the eye? I hope they rise up in a rage and protest. We have let them down.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Petition, Petitions, Petitions.

This blogpost isn’t about the bombing of Syria. Or maybe it is.

Petitions have been with us for decades. But they’ve taken on a life of their own in recent years. The internet has made it easy for anyone to set one up, and to reach thousands (if not millions) of people. The government has promised to discuss a matter in parliament if a petition attracts more than 100,000 signatures. (They haven’t, of course, promised that more than two people will be present in parliament for that discussion.)

At first glance, surely this is a wonderful thing? It means more people will think about and engage with matters that affect us all. It widens democracy, keeps people involved. Given past concerns that most people were disengaged we should, surely, be encouraged that so many are willing to express their opinions.

Or, we could argue, the sheer proliferation of petitions effectively weakens them all. I’ve lost count of the different petitions I’ve seen demanding parliament has a vote before Brexit terms are agreed - all phrased slightly differently. There are petitions to ban plastic straws, restore hunting (I’m trying to be balanced here - personally I’d keep the ban), provide sanitary products for girls in schools ... the list is endless. And yes, they all matter. But are all these petitions really an effective way of promoting change?

Speaking personally, I’ve stopped signing any. 

I have two reasons. For a start, I can’t sign a petition without giving my email address, and that results in a bombardment of spam. There is no way I can sign and insist that my contact details remain private. Who else are they selling my details too? And what use are they put to?

Secondly, I have yet to see one petition that actually made a difference. While I’m delighted to see so many people feel strongly about Brexit or badgers or milk bottles, there is no evidence that those in power give a monkey’s toss what we think. Which is deeply depressing, given the mess the world is in at the moment.

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Oh Facebook ...

Ah ... Facebook! Love it or hate it. Maybe a bit of both? 

It’s had a rough time recently, what with the Cambridge Analytica hoo-ha and then Mark Zuckerberg’s reluctance to talk to politicians. And then some plonker suggesting that it didn’t really matter if a Facebook post prompted someone to take a life (their own or someone else’s) as long as they continued to connect more people.

Does all this matter? I suppose it depends on your perspective. I can’t say I enjoy pottering about on Facebook, but I have books to sell and it’s part of being a public person (and that’s essential to the whole marketing process, were told). But it’s a great way to keep up with friends who are now far away - I can’t see us picking up the phone as often as we cross Facebook paths. And, when I’m away, it’s how I keep in touch with everyone back home.

So useful. So innocuous. Except while I’m there I might like a post or two, click on a link that takes me somewhere unexpected - and instantly I’ve given away information about myself, my interests, my political leanings, to someone who might, months down the line, tease me with propaganda or advertising. 

Harmless? If we are kept informed about what they are doing, possibly. So if I get message that reads something along the lines of ‘we noticed you like that, have you thought about this ...’ the origin of their information is clear and I can accept or reject it, depending on my whims at the time. But they don’t do that - rather they weasel ideas into my timeline and I’ve no idea where they’ve come from.

Does it matter - yes it does. Local elections loom, and the propaganda machine will be gearing up to bombard us with guff in the last few days. So much guff that some undecideds will lose the will to think for themselves and vote like automata. So yes, it matters. Whoever wins, it matters. It matters because we live in a democracy that is predicated on voters thinking for themselves and not being manipulated by social media.

And if Facebook is doing it, I’ll be astonished it Twitter isn’t. And all those other platforms that we love and hate. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

It’s not fair!

As some of you know, I’m into cricket - and so I’ve read every word about the Australian cheating shenanigans. But this post is not about who did what and whose idea it was and who else knew. (In the absence of evidence it’s not for me to speculate.)

Instead I want to think about the reactions - here in the UK, and in Australia (I’ve no idea what the papers are saying in South Africa, where this happened, or in India, which holds so many of cricket’s purse-strings). 

The hot air and column-inches that have been devoted to this episode is extraordinary - and, in my opinion, encouraging. The outcry has reflected a united - appalled - reaction. A few years ago there was anger when some players were charged with spot-fixing, even match-fixing, but I don’t recall seeing such unequivocal outrage at behaviour on a cricket pitch. I’ve read no one who even whispers a suggestion that cheating might be, somehow, ok.

I know, there have been reminders that the line between this outright cheating and attempts to change the condition of the ball can be blurred. But this episode falls so far wide of that line it cannot be defended.

It reminds me of the cry of every child - ‘It’s not fair!’ It’s not fair that other children are better at football or spelling or just allowed to go to bed later. As they grow older it’s the tenet that underpins some adolescent angst - it’s not fair that everyone else has perfect skin or parents who can afford driving lessons the second they turn seventeen. Children and young people have to wrestle with the basic unfairness of living. 

Yet their parents and teachers persist a telling them that there are some level playing fields that give everyone an equal opportunity. We know it’s complicated, but we still want our children and young people to believe that ‘fair play’ benefits everyone. It’s a tenet that underpins so much of our moral thinking.

Cricket isn’t the only sport to tackle the issue, of course. But there is something about the blatant rule-breaking of this episode that prompts childish outrage. We still long for life to be fair - for all of us. 

And not only on the cricket pitch.