Saturday, 29 September 2012


There was another air crash in Nepal last week. Nineteen people died - it seems that the plane took off from the domestic airport in Kathmandu, developed some sort of problem, turned round and burst into flames when the pilot tried to land on the river bank.

There have been at least six crashes of domestic planes in the last two years in Nepal. (I have heard a claim that there have been over twenty - but I can't verify that. It seems too high a figure to me, even for Nepal.) I'm not going to get into the whys and wherefores of this crash - there may or may not be an enquiry in Nepal and it's not for me to second guess what the outcome of that might be.

However, as those who have read Hidden Tiger know, it might take a while to get an Inquiry off the ground. Meanwhile, planes will continue to fly. Tourists will have to weigh the risks of using them, or resorting to buses - surely the more sensible option? Except that roads in the mountains can be, er, interesting. Tarmac clings to the mountainside - if you are lucky. Often it is washed away in the monsoon. Tata lorries give the surface such a pounding that too soon it is broken up into boulders and potholes. Travelling any distance can involve a night bus - do you need details of night buses? It is like travelling in a coffin. Except if you were in a real coffin you'd be dead and never need the toilet ... Or you can use taxis, which is expensive but at least you feel in a bit more control (except when the taxi breaks down ...)

All of which makes any plan to visit Nepal look like a very silly idea. Yet I want to go back. Because I have friends there now. Because the mountains are spectacular. Because the temples continue to mystify me. Because water buffalo wander through the lake at Pokhara. Because I've got the hang of strikes and power cuts, and love those corners where resources are limited and there is only the kindness of strangers. Because there are tigers.

And Nepal needs tourists. Manufacturing is rudimentary; they need to import food and services from India - they have nothing to sell but their scenery. If Nepal is ever to sort its education and health challenges it must attract international income.

So - is the risk of travelling there, by road or in the air, worth the benefits of seeing this wonderful country? Here is a picture, just to show you want you might be missing if you decide not to go. It was taken at Lumbini - the birthplace of Buddha, a site filled with temples from all over the world. Some are quiet and mystical. Others are such fun - like this!

Worth the risk? What do you think?

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The craft of travel writing.

Travel writing through the ages. No - I don't mean from the eighteenth century onwards, but rather the different way younger and older writers, men and women, approach the task of travel writing.

What's brought this on? Well, a while ago I read Trish Nicholson's Journey to Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, and more recently I won Alessandro Gallenzi's book Inter Rail on Jenny Woolf's wonderful blog.

Maybe it's not entirely fair to compare them - Inter Rail is a novel; but the writer informs us that it is based on his journey around Europe as a young man. So I'm assuming he built on his meetings with some rather shady characters and developed that into a tale of derring-do, of drinking and meeting women and careering around in very fast cars with a man who is clearly a con man. What struck me, reading this, is his lack of reflection - he is too busy laughing to think that maybe not paying for a taxi might be funny once, but the driver may have a family to feed and his larks have consequences. I found myself thinking like a mother, wanting to know what he did for clean pants when his clothes were stolen.

Of course, I have missed the point - he's a young man. Behaving as young men do - and having terrific fun doing it. Sometimes I need reminding of that.

In contrast, Trish's trek in Bhutan was instantly recognisable. She paused to drink in the mountain air, to marvel at the mysteries of the culture, to tiptoe round the edges of Buddhism. Her descriptions are wonderful - for those of us unable make it to Bhutan she offers such clear descriptions of her travels that we feel we are following her footsteps. She is hugely respectful of everyone she meets, as aware of her impact on them and their way of life as she is on her own thoughts and processes. (She is also enviably fit. How does she bound up mountains like that?)

Not difficult for me to identify with her. We follow similar pathways, notice the same things. Her lovely book feels gloriously familiar to me.

So why think of them in the same blog? Because they are, in many ways, trying to do the same thing. To show me a place, and the people in it. Their starting points are different, but equally valid. Both have something to say about the writers themselves, though Trish's book tells us more about Bhutan while Alessandro reminded me of the glorious energy of young men.

And did they both tempt me to visit their chosen destinations? Of course they did. But, while my thoughts may be closer to Trish's, I have to admit I'm not immune to joining in the folly of the young (as those who have dipped into Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain already know!)

And you - do you need jolting out of the familiar from time to time?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Writing the second book.

As some of you will know, there was three years between the end of Over the Hill and my trip to Nepal that became Hidden Tiger. Surely I've had adventures in that time?

Of course I have. I returned to Cambodia and Vietnam at the end of Over the Hill, and was away for two months at that time. I went to tie up the loose ends of the long trip. It didn't stand up on its own - there would have been too many old references to publish that as an independent book. And then I drove down the west coast of America, visiting a couple of old friends while I was there. We had several wonderful evenings reminiscing - conversations that meant everything to us but truly yawn-making to anyone who didn't know us. The drive itself was beautiful, of course, but without the colourful characters or unexpected hotel arrangements that can bring travel in unruly places to life.

So what made me think that Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain should see the light of day?

I can’t begin to tell you just how wonderful it felt to have total strangers tell me how much they enjoyed Over the Hill and Far Away. That is the tale of my decision to abandon work, house, and daughters (adult but important) to trot round the world in my mid-50s, with nothing but a notebook and curiosity to help me get by. It is a tale of the highs and lows, and the final crisis that brought me home. And it seems to have inspired some to tiptoe into the distance themselves. (I know of someone for whom a trip to France was an adventure who is setting off for India in a couple of weeks!)

I felt I owed it to those who had been so encouraging about Over the Hill to make sure this second book was at least as good. 

This trip to Nepal surprised me. I thought I knew what I was doing – and I didn’t. I thought I knew who to trust and who to leave alone; now I’m not so sure. Strikes and power cuts meant making any plans had to be provisional. The weather did its worst. The tiger … don’t get me started on the tiger. So I knew this book would be fun to write – and a fitting follow-on from Over the Hill.  

It is, you must know, only an ebook. I was away for one month – not long enough to fill a whole print book, but ideal length to slip onto your ereader. To those who would like it in print – I’m sorry. It is simply uneconomic to produce a print book that is this short. Maybe you can borrow a kindle, just this once.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Tis done, and to celebrate ...

Yes, as promised, HIDDEN TIGER RAGING MOUNTAIN is now a little ebook on Amazon. You can buy it here if you are in the UK, and here from the US. Go on, you know you want to.

And to celebrate, I'm going to post some more pictures from Nepal, and tell you a little about the stories that go with them. 

I couldn't resist an elephant ride - well, you wouldn't expect me to. I was in Bardia, a remote National Park in the south-west of Nepal, and we were wandering through the jungle in a gentle, lilting way when the elephant turned sharp right and walked into the river. The mahout was totally unconcerned - this was evidently planned. And we waited for a while until the elephant had stopped drinking before plodding on out way. I had wondered if she was going to take the opportunity to wash her back and give us all a soaking, but not this time!

Long before making it to Bardia, I spent a few days pottering about the shores of Fewa Lake, taking a boat trip across to the little temple, sitting in cafes, and generally taking in the sights and smells of Lakeside. The streets behind me are chaotic, but somehow the water buffalo and little boats in the water bring and air of stillness to the place.

It might seem odd to include a picture of a Tata lorry in a blogpost about Nepal - but for those of you who have read HIDDEN TIGER and wonder how big the lorries are I encountered on That Trip down the mountain - well, this is what they looked like. They look even more precarious in the dark!

Having made it down the mountain, I went to Lumbini - the birthplace of Buddha. It is a huge site, with Buddhist temples built by communities from all over the world. When I was there I spent some of the time with a group of Nepali women on a day out - and together we turned this gigantic prayer wheel. I didn't realise that sacred rituals could be such fun!

Finally, a market picture, because I just love markets. This particular market is in Nepalganj, close to the border with India. Markets in the mountains are far less well-supplied.

So - a few pictures to help bring my little book alive.

Sigh. When I can I go back ...

Where do you long to go back to?

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Reviews for Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain.

Not another blog about reviews ... no, please, wait a minute. Everyone else, it seems, has been having their say about reviews recently, so I might as well wade in with my pennyworth.

Because - Hidden Tiger Raging Mountain is almost ready for Amazon! And when it first comes out it will look a little lonely in the review department. I shall, of course, go on review hunt. Which means I've had to think long and hard about the whole paying-for-reviews, sock-puppetry mayhem. Actually, I didn't - the ethical answer is so very clear for me I spent more time eating cake.

So, if anyone would like to help me out, here's the deal:

If you happen buy the ebook and fancy writing something, that would be wonderful and I shall fall at your feet with gratitude.

If you'd like a free ecopy to review, please let me let me know, and I'll email you a pdf. Will I hassle you for the review - no. If you write a wonderful review I shall, of course, be indebted for ever. If you write an unfavourable review, will I stand outside your house at midnight and demand pistols at dawn - no. Nor will I harangue you, pelt you with eggs, nor throw shoes at you.  Though I might have a quick snivel in the privacy of my own kitchen.

Will I pay you to write a wonderful review - no. But should you pass this way I make a great cup of tea but will buy the cake as my cooking is rubbish.

(Will I create a hoo-ha with sock-puppets? I think you know the answer to that.)

So, there we are.

Good luck, little ebook.

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What walks books say and what they really mean.

I spent part of last week in North Wales - with its mountains and waterfalls and beaches, it seemed like a good place to spend a few days when the sun was actually shining.

And I thought I'd go walking. I walk a lot in Wiltshire - I'm used to her Downs and her forests, so surely a mountain is like that, only more so? I consulted a trusty walks book, found a route - it was long, but I'd be fine, if I gave myself plenty of time.

I must be clear - I'm no spring chicken. I'm sure the young and muscled would bound up and down this path without noticing its little challenges. In fact I know they did - the bounded past me, many times. Some even asking if I was all right, in a kindly, patronising way.

My problem, you see, was that my walks book was written for the young and muscled, who know all about mountains, and not for passing wrinklies who feel pleased if they make it to the top of Oare Hill. So here, for anyone who might be tempted to follow me, is a translation of the walks book for anyone who might not be used to mountains:

'Long, steady climb' - means long, steep, plod up a winding path with occasional steps.  If you take it slowly, and don't try to talk, you can feel reasonably smug getting up it.

'Steep, zig-zagged path, with a little light scrambling' - means the path has disappeared under a landslip and you have to clamber, crawl, other wise manipulate yourself up scree that feels vertical. Do not believe the young man who tells you the top is less than fifteen away - this final 200 metres takes an hour and a half. (Why not give up? Because you believe the plonkers who come past tell you that the top is round the next corner. Plus there is a cup of tea at the top.)

Coming down, of course, should be easier. But 'winding, rocky and a little difficult in places' - means coming down a ridge, much of it on your bottom as it is the only way to negotiate the boulders. Never be deceived by the twenty feet where you can stand upright - for soon there is another precipice, the path ten feet below and nothing but rocks or sticky-out bits in the way. (Why not go down the other way? What - down that scree?)

'Join the original path, and from there it is a short walk back to the car park' - means that the distance on the ground might be the same as before but this time it takes three times as long, as your legs feel like they belong to someone else.

(Snowdon, up the Watkin path and down the South ridge, for anyone who is curious.)

Why did I do it? Because very soon I have to take my knees to the bone man, and I'm afraid he might tell me to stop doing things like that. Which is a very stupid reason. There must be a better one, surely?

Saturday, 8 September 2012

We've a visitor. So please put your hands together for ... Stephanie Butland.

Yes - we're on our best behaviour today, because Stephanie Butland has called in. So, no feet on the tables, no slurping tea ... oh, all right then, why spoil the habits of a lifetime. Besides, Stephanie knows it can be a bit informal around here.
    What's more, she's got a new book out: THRIVE: The Bah! Guide to Wellness After Cancer.

Quite rightly, she'd like to talk about her book. And I'd like her to talk about her life writing. Which should make for an interesting way to pass a Sunday. So, here goes:

As life writers, we expose ourselves and our histories more than most. Are there things that you choose not to write about - and, if so, what criteria do you have for making that choice?
    Yes, there are things I choose not to write about. My basic criteria are:
    - Is my story to tell? If someone else is strongly involved in something, I might choose not to write about it, or write about it in a very abstract way. Or, if I do want to write about something that other people were part of, I'll ask them if I can write about it, and/or check with them before I publish. So, before Bah! came out, I asked my children to read my account of breaking the news that I had cancer to them, and they both said that was how they had remembered it.
    - Will I hurt anyone if I write about this? If I would, then I don't. Although it's not quite as simple as that. Some of my family and friends have told me how hard they found it to read Bah!, because it reminded them of such a difficult time. And some people have been offended by my sense of humour, while others have said the same jokes made made them laugh for the first time in months.
   But I think it really comes down to instinct. If I feel it's appropriate to write about something, I will, If I don't, I won't.

Life writing involves a dialogue between truth (albeit a subjective truth) and the needs of a book. As a travel writer, I don't write about the countless days when nothing much happens - though this may suggest to a reader that I lurch from one adventure to another. Do you, too, leave ordinary stuff out, and do you feel it skews the narrative? Or do you put it all in?
    Good question! Given the caveats above, I tend to write about everything - on the blog, at least. Books demand more or a narrative, so where there are probably hundreds of posts on the blog about the side-effects of chemotherapy, they are distilled in the books. One of the reasons I love blogging is that I think it does give an accurate picture of 'this is how it feels to be me, today.' Books require more structure and so perhaps distort the truth a little bit. 'I was tired for months' doesn't quite convey what being tired for months is like.

You have become known as 'the woman who had cancer.' You are a wonderful advocate for those dancing with the disease now, and for those researching it. But there must be other things in your life that you are equally proud of - please, what are they?
    What a lovely question.
    I'm writing novels at the moment - the first, 'Surrounded by Water', will be published by Transworld in early 2014. I'm working on a third version of it and just starting to believe that it might be A Proper Book Written By A Proper Writer And Everything. I think I will be proud of it.
   Just looking at my children - who are 18 and 16 and bright and handsome/beautiful and so utterly, utterly themselves - makes me want to burst with pride. They are fabulous. I am a great believer that children grow up in spite of you, not because of you, so I'm not claiming a lot of credit - I'm just proud to know them, really.
    And I think I'm proud that I have, finally, learned to ask for help, and to recognise when I'm struggling, and understand that life is all about continuing to learn and grow. I spent the best part of 4 decades trying to be perfect and make everything/everyone around me perfect too. It was exhausting. Trying to do things better is exciting and much more satisfying.

You offer comfort and encouragement to other women with cancer, and with those navigating their feelings once the doctors have done their stuff. Your blog is a testament to the women you have inspired. But who has inspired you - as a writer, and as a woman?
    As a writer, I'm inspired by the late John Updike's work ethic and attention to detail; Hilary Mantel's ability to write a sentence that takes your breath away; David Mitchell's imagination; Philip Larkin's sharp eye and surprisingly sweet soul; Anne Patchett, period. But that's only scraping the surface, really. (One of the things that bugs me about mortality is that I don't think I will ever have the time to read all the books I want to!)
    As a woman, I get inspired by anyone who is working towards something with determination and doggedness. Olympic athletes are where they are because they've got up at stupid o'clock on thousands of cold, horrible mornings. Women who are running successful businesses now have had days when they've looked at an unexpected bill and an empty bank account and wondered how on earth they're going to manage this one. It's getting on with it, little by little, that inspires me, because whether it's cancer or writing or travelling or grief or a degree, that's what we need to do.

Thank you, Stephanie - this is fascinating. You are an inspiration to many - and now it is our turn to help you celebrate the launch of THRIVE, and to cheer on all the work you continue to do, supporting women with cancer and their families.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

The story behind the cover.

My last blogpost introduced you to the cover of my new ebook, in all its wonderfuness. It has a story. But first, here it is again, just to refresh your memories:

The mountain is Annapurna South - and the photo was taken at about eight in the morning, from the garden of a teahouse in Tolka. 

The mountains hid their heads in the clouds for much of my recent visit to Nepal. Even when trekking, my guide promised there would be views in the morning but we woke to a pall of grey and not a summit in sight. Even, on two occasions, serious rain. The sort of rain that makes it difficult to think.

Except for this one morning, in Tolka. I woke to this view and was so enthralled that, when my guide suggested breakfast I barely heard him - could only stand and gawp at the summit that towered above us. I can never quite get over how hypnotically huge the Himalayas are! My guide gave up trying to steer me towards the dining room, set the table in the garden, led me to a chair so I could sit and eat and still look at the mountain without turning my head. He didn't quite shovel food into my mouth for me, but did have to remind me to eat!

Within half an hour this view was gone, and we were under the clouds yet again. Which makes this photograph all the more precious.

And as for the tiger in the corner - well, some of you may already have read about the tiger.

Don't fret, if there's a cover, the ebook isn't far behind.