Thursday, November 09, 2006

Please Remember My Daddy

'Please remember my Daddy' says the poster outside Tesco's, behind a man selling paper and plastic flowers for the Royal British Legion. I walk past, without buying a poppy, as I have done every year for the past three years. I don't feel guilty about it, though perhaps I should. Because I don't need a poppy to remember anyone else's Daddy on November 11th. I spend most of it remembering my own. On the day nominated throughout Britain as a memorial to the war dead, he chose to hang himself. I doubt he was aware of the date, the intervening years have taught me that anyone contemplating suicide is rarely aware of the quotidian reality passing them by, but for me and for those who loved him, it is now a pivot in the year, a day when two-minute silences are unnecessary since every second is full of memories. Of the phone calls we made to try and find him. Of the cross-country journey to talk to the police. Of the moment when we knew that our lives had changed, for ever.

He had lots of reasons - he was in debt, he was out of work and had no pension, he was 59 and on his own - most of which make no sense to those left behind. No money, no job, no partner, these may have seemed to be mountains to him, but to us, grieving his loss, they seemed like molehills. That is the magic trick that death plays upon you: it reduces the daily pecuniary and professional irritations of life to nothing and amplifies what is important: relationships, love, passion, enjoyment. But who can really enjoy life, in an increasingly material, technology-driven and ageist society, without the means to pay for it? Dad had ceased to exist for employers, at whatever level, but the local council were determined that he wouldn't get out of paying his council tax. When my sister quizzed them on their heavy-handed tactics, and their failure to notice that he was on benefit, the man on the phone got cross. 'Everyone's trying to fiddle the system' he said. But for every person trying to fiddle it, there is another bona fide case trying to fathom it.

My Dad was no saint; he'd borrowed and spent a lot of money that he didn't have on dubious pleasures. However, his debt began with a very simple purchase, a purchase that everyone in Britain is encouraged to make (unlike other Europeans for some reason we consider renting somewhat infra dig), if only because when we reach retirement age we want to know that we’ll have something. He bought a house. Unluckily for him he bought it in 1988 and as interest rates rose and the housing market collapsed he and his partner struggled to keep pace. By the time the pound crashed out of the ERM in 1992, his house was worth 2/3rds of its purchase price. When his relationship ended, and he could neither afford the mortgage nor sell the house, he began to borrow. Then he couldn't stop. And he didn't need to, since every day another offer of a credit card or loan came through the letterbox. Eventually he, like a record 27000 people this summer alone, declared himself bankrupt.

It gives me no consolation to think of him as part of a trend, to realise that the figures for personal insolvency have increased 100% in the last two years. Rather it makes me fearful for the future of the UK. My Dad, like many other people here, was trying to survive, in one of the most expensive places on earth, on a very average income. When he lost that income, through his own fault it has to be said, and tried to start again, tried to work, to pay his bills, he found no open doors. His house had been his pension but, as a bankrupt, it was no longer his. He knew he would get very little from the State. He knew that he had little chance of a job or enough benefit to survive. And thousands of others, especially after another interest rate rise today, are facing similar problems.

We’re bombarded with the statistics, with the numbers declaring bankruptcy and insolvency, with the pictures of those surrounded by the credit card upon credit card they have used, in some cases to survive, in some to spend. But where is the policy, where is the think tank looking at the fundamental reasons for this crisis: that our housing market, and our reliance on its bounty, is distorting our material expectations; that our government, sitting on safe final-salary pensions, is not confronting the fact that many cannot afford to save for a pension, let alone worry about spreading their risk; that our basic costs of living are beyond the means of many? Shouldn’t every citizen have the right to food, warmth and shelter and their continuation through old age? Shouldn’t we be questioning why our society can’t afford such basics yet, in many instances, insists on the right to much more than that?

Like those before a sudden death, we are blasé about what’s important, dismissive of the small things that actually make life livable, unaware of how little we need and how lucky we already are. But the shock, the wake-up call that will make us long for our innocence is, I believe, on its way. My dad died, I sometimes think, because he couldn’t afford to live here. I fear he won’t be the last.

A Year On

It's a year since I came back from my trip and I have forgotten many things about it: forgotten the smells and the sounds of the places I visited; forgotten the misery of a different bed every night, forgotten how homesick I was. But there is one aspect of my trip that remains in my mind, that I can't and don't want to forget.

I am certain, after my short trip, that there is no such thing as cheap travel. In small communities in Thailand and Cambodia, it was obvious to me that although tourism is a fantastic resource, it destroys many natural ones as it develops. However, there are thousands of young people tramping across the planet who seem only interested in cheapness. Indeed their main concerns, or so it appeared, are where to eat, sleep and get drunk cheaply. It's easy to be poor for a while, knowing it will end, that we’re going to leave it behind, that we’ll remember it but rarely do anything to change it. Anyone like me, able to write a blog, or read it, like you, is unlikely to have any idea what poverty is and, if we’re lucky, we never will. Real poverty though surrounds those who travel through it. The tuk-tuk driver who wears second-hand shoes that don’t quite fit. The legless man propelling himself along the aisle of a train with his two arms, down the steps and along the platform. The hill tribe where a child has chicken pox but no one knows how to treat it. Being able to afford the luxury of poverty, for weeks, months, sometimes years at a time, makes those enjoying it feel that they are doing themselves some good but rarely do they think about doing good for the countries they visit. I kept thinking about this as I watched yet another argument over a few pence and the same image, of preacher-outfitted men and a barn kept coming back to me.

A decade ago in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania I had my first encounter with Amish people and ways. Horsedrawn traps, wooden scooters for the children, hand-dyed clothes, nothing motorised bar the odd strimmer in sight. I bought some postcards and put them in a frame. Children, a trap and a barn. Except this barn was unlike none other than I had ever seen. On the concrete base a wooden frame had been erected and crawling all over it, in straw not hard hats, trousers, braces and plain cotton shirts are the men of the community. Between them, they build a barn for their neighbour, for the community’s good. It’s an extraordinary, uncomplicated way of using a small amount of personal energy and multiplying it to achieve much more for others. Or much more than it could on its own.

At one point I was sitting in an internet café, booking a ticket back to Bangkok. A woman next to me was doing the same; across the room three others, Swedish or Danish, were booking three more. A room full of computer and literacy skills, full of energy being expended on plane tickets, on moving around. I started to imagine what would happen if only 5 or 10% of those hours were spent on projects, on something selfless, something to help the country visited. I started to think of those barns, of how much might get done if, for every ten hours spent visiting the globe, using up its resources whilst flying, whilst staying on islands that don't have enough water for locals yet alone visitors, another one was spent on putting something back, something to replace what had been taken. This may sound like the ramblings of yet another bleeding heart left-winger and maybe that's all they are. But whereas I’m not sure the planet can support many more flights, I'm sure it could use some more barn-raising.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Moment You Finish.

It's a cold Sunday in April, the heating still on though Spring is nearly over. You haven't washed. You haven't been out all day. And you sit staring at the desktop, in my case, a picture of Emperor penguins in Antarctica. There are no trumpets, no fireworks, not even to my surprise any massive sense of elation. Because, though it might be done, this first draft, it is still a long way from being finished. Or, more importantly, sold. I have climbed one mountain, reached the creative summit as far as I am concerned, all the while knowing that another awaits me, the commercial one.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


Oh, it's been so long. That's what happens when you give up travelling to write; you no longer have anything left to write about since why would anyone be interested in the details of a life spent sitting at a desk. But having said that, I'm being disingenuous because I'm obsessed with reading about how writers spend their lives, how they manage to find the hours to write as well as the money to pay the bills (I haven't worked that one out yet...though a generous and indulgent partner helps). I read all the weekend profiles in the books pages, I listen to interviews on Radio 4, I attend readings, awaiting for the epiphany which will tell me what I've been missing, what I've forgotten to do all these years.

Because it has been years, over twenty to be precise, since Mrs Francis, she of the butter-cream foundation face, told me in the first year of secondary school, (that must be the equivalent to sixth grade) when I was gawky (oh I wish now), untouched by wrinkles or disappointment, that I would be a writer when I grew up. I didn't know what that meant; Dad was a plumber, Mum a secretary, but it sounded good. And for some reason, unlike everything else I studied at that age, it lodged in my mind. And, inevitably, writing stories was my favourite form of homework. I once filled a whole exercise book with my story of cat burglars (who, of course, were feline; how clever I thought I was) because I couldn't stop. The teacher was horrified (now, having spent a few years marking papers, I know why) but still grudgingly gave me an A-. I didn't grasp that I could make a living out of this; I simply thought it more interesting than dissecting toads and measuring momentum.

I've tried writing stories ever since, or perhaps I should say books. Sometimes I feel like I've lived all the cliches: the garret in Paris, the early mornings before work, the American coffee-shop scribbling. Ultimately, I now realise, there is only one thing that will get a book written and it's the one that I've always shied away from, that many shy away from. It's called work. I realised this only recently, embarrassingly recently, since I'm four, no five, months into writing a first draft. Two weeks ago, I went to my favourite spot in the London Library, on a Saturday. For some reason. the fact that it was a Saturday made a lot of difference and I spun through my 2000 words at great speed. When I left, and I have to say I only left because it was closing for the night, I was on a high, a high of having hit my required word limit but also of virtue. It was the first time in years that I'd worked, willingly, on a weekend and I realised that I'd really enjoyed it. Because writing had, has stopped being about the lottery, the massive advance, the book deal, the fame. Writing has become, at last, its own reward.

Obviously it helps that I'm nearing the end. Now there are some words I never thought I'd write. The end. It really is within sight. Okay, it's only a draft and there's another lifetime of editing to work through but, oh the pleasure, the sheer pride I'll feel at finally finishing the bloody thing. I almost don't care if it's published (no, that's a lie, I do) or not; I'm just glad I've tamed this particular misery, the misery of desperation. For it is always after the joyous, pleasurable, infinitesmal high slopes of inspiration - what a fabulous idea I've had, and just think where it will lead - that the doldrums of desperation appear and I stumble. Six weeks of gleeful longhand or typing are followed by the reality of how much further I have to go, how loooooonnng it is, how I need a job to pay the bills then I'll do it in the evenings...and the book remains a heap of printouts and a few forlorn Word files that are no longer compatible with my operating system. I have folder after folder of those.

This time I didn't have that choice. It wasn't so much that I'd given up all forms of work, permanent and freelance, it was more that this was my last chance. I'd abandoned jobs, no careers, twice for the spurious pleasure of writing a novel or at least a narrative, rather than a guide to the best areas of the feet to rub when treating constipation and if, on this occasion I didn't complete something neither my confidence nor my finances could face it again. In fact, although renegotiating the overdraft on Christmas Eve made me realise that I couldn't afford to keep writing, I also realised that I couldn't afford to stop. If I didn't put my proverbial money where my mouth was, then I might as well become an accountant and earn a decent income instead of faffing about in jobs where I taught and edited other people's books whilst neatly sidestepping the nagging feeling that I should be writing my own.

So, despite the yawning abyss of debt I kept going. I can safely say that for most of January and February I was miserable, determined to do anything but this. I had so many ideas for so many other books, so many ideas for earning money and everything seemed more suitable, sensible and, yes, enjoyable than another six hours of writing. Perhaps I would become a journalist, go back to teaching, retrain entirely. Anything, everything was possible; this was just filling time and pages. But when I started work on Saturdays something shifted. It was a tiny shift, as if I'd been pushed, or pushed myself, just that little bit harder, stopped imagining alternative universes and stayed in the one I had, after all, chosen. Yet it was enough to make me aware that I really wanted to finish this book and that, in this case, I could and I would. And now I don't mind the doldrums so much, because for once I realise that they end, that there is light at the end of the long dark tunnel that lies beyond inspiration. That light is not money or fame, as it always was in the past; it's simply the knowledge that if I can reach the end once I can do so again, that writing is not just having your head up, looking at the stars for inspiration, but having your head down, over a page.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A London Moment

Having just watched The Constant Gardener, heads full of the horror of companies and countries treating the poor and black in Africa as petri dishes not people, we walked out into Mayfair. One of the richest areas of Central London, it is stuffed with expensive hotels and restaurants and, as we headed back to the Tube, we went past both the front and back door of one such establishment known worldwide for its chef and prices. At the main entrance stood the doorman, white, grey-haired, in a dark Crombie-like coat. At the back stood two tall black men in aprons, next to several plastic crates full of pheasants. There must have been a hundred birds, two hundred meals.The men were pulling something off their necks then throwing them into black plastic bags. Kenya, it seems, had resurfaced in Curzon Street: the white guarding the door, the black clearing the rubbish.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Just a Thought

Twenty years ago, a period of time which makes me wince, I went to university. In my first term, my Mum bought me a coat, a turquoise duffel with black toggles.This being Cardiff I didn’t need it very often, since all-in-one waterproofs were more use as protection from the persistent rain. When I did finally wear it no one really noticed, although its distinctiveness meant that my friends made a point of telling me who else was wearing the same one.

A year later I went to study abroad in Strasbourg, France. Unlike South Wales, Alsace has a continental, cold climate and the coat was put to immediate use as soon as classes began. Whereas in Cardiff no passerby would even look at me, I noticed that in Strasbourg I was frequently the object of critical glances. At first I thought they were appraising but then, having experienced several, I realised that there was nothing but bemusement and judgement on the faces of onlookers. I asked French friends, some of whom it has to be said had made comments, why my coat was such an object of interest. The response was often the same: because it was a ‘fantaisie’, a bit of fun, not a classic. It stood out because it was so far removed from the camel/navy blue straight-cut overcoats worn with Burberry scarves sported by every right-thinking young female student. It wasn’t normal or, rather, it wasn’t French.

Most people who have travelled on the Paris Metro will have experienced the same treatment, a rapid glance up and down with no attempt to disguise the resultant sneer. It’s just a way of life, a habit. Whereas in London on the Tube, a group of Portuguese-speaking transvestites can sit side-by-side with a few Hassidic Jews, a black Muslim reading the Koran and a bunch of middle-class white women returning from Oxford Street (I kid you not) without anyone even acknowledging anyone else, in France the merest hint of difference, of ‘fantaisie’, will make you stand out. What hope for racial tolerance then if the band of acceptance, on such a simple, unimportant level, is so narrow?

Wednesday, November 09, 2005


The lemongrass shampoo from the first hotel has finally run out, the battery in my toothbrush has given in and the Bangkok pedicure is looking decidedly patchy. I’m home and though I've only been away for seven weeks it feels like much longer. I am glad to divest myself of a rucksack, the constant checking for passport, travellers' cheques and camera (not easy to miss that one; it weighs rather a lot) and the mosquito bites (four on my last day, just in time for the flight where I was crushed into an economy seat and unable to scratch them) but I will miss a lot more. Not physical sights, more the immateriality of being in a different culture. I'm in winter boots now, rather than wearing flip-flops all the time; I can hear police sirens and trains not the constant sound of parrots or lorikeets in the trees and the rain, well, let's just say it doesn't come in short, tropical downpours.

I didn’t bring back many things, not for myself anyway, but I hardly needed to. My body is a souvenir. There’s the pedicure, as I mentioned, which I had in a small backstreet hairdresser’s in the Pratunam district of Bangkok. A Thai-American woman in my first, posh hotel offered to show me the best places to go and, although the lift in the BMW was reassuring, the tiny streets she barged it through were not. I wondered, as she pulled up outside Renee’s, how on earth I would find my way back. Inside, after the initial introductions, I sat in a chair surrounded by locals, completely at a loss as to how to make myself understood. Luckily choosing a colour isn’t that complicated. Once it was finished, I decided against retracing the BMW’s route through the market and headed towards the bright lights at the junction. Nothing looked familiar and, since it was Sunday, every inch of pavement was covered in stalls selling both tourist tat and local necessities. I cowered for a few minutes, then remembered what my new acquaintance’s husband had said about Bangkok: don’t be afraid of it; it’s just another city. In London, getting lost on a walk is part of the pleasure; perhaps if I could approach this strange metropolis from the same angle I wouldn’t spend any more time on this street corner. So I simply turned left, crossed over the bridge and there, in front of me, was the Skytrain. I knew where I was and it was five minutes away from my starting point.

The clothes I wore have left different traces. The swimming costume crisscrossed my upper back, whereas the bikini left straight lines so I am patterned with a St George’s Cross. And, since most of the time I was in strappy or short-sleeved tops, my shoulders are brown whereas the rest of me is not. I’m not much of a sunbather, but I still managed to get burnt twice, first when kayaking and second when snorkelling. Despite the factor 30, the shorts and the careful timing, the proximity of my skin to the silvery surface of the Pacific left the back of my legs pink and, if the itching is anything to go by, soon to be peeling. I didn’t learn my lesson.

Then there’s the scars and bruises. First, on Koh Samui, I was so busy looking at the moonlight on the sea that I failed to notice the titanic weight of a wooden sunbed bearing down on my shins as I walked into it. Even seven weeks’ later my left leg still proudly sports a big red mark, evidence of my distractedness. Similarly, for some reason, I never noticed the large metal handles on hostel and hotel doors and both my upper arms look like they’ve been squeezed in a vice. However, my right leg, obviously wanting to join this litany of damaged limbs, didn’t miss out either. Having borrowed a bike in Port Douglas, the quietest and easiest place in the world to ride one, I was happily sailing along on the safe, separate cycle path when for some reason, having noticed the disused tramlines in front of me, I decided to try cycling across them. Of course I fell off.

I couldn’t avoid the mosquito bites but the rest, well, travelling seemed to distract me from the need to look where I was going. Perhaps that’s the point. There’s actually nothing to be gained from looking too far ahead: all I needed to notice was where I was. Maybe then I’d have saved some epidermis.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Finding Nemo

When I first arrived in Koh Samui, I stayed in a beachfront bungalow. Dark, damp and, since it was on the path from the road to the beach, far from peaceful, I found it eminently depressing. When I discovered that cleaning my teeth with bottled water also meant that I gave my feet a bit of a wash, I decided to move. Despondent and lonely, I switched on the television. Finding Nemo was on and, after a few minutes of watching Marlin and Dory argue about the best way to reach Sydney, I felt more cheerful. I rinsed off my toothpastey feet and went out to find somewhere else to sleep.

On my last full day in Australia, as I set off on a snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef, I remembered that moment and wondered if I might find the real Nemo, or at least his piscine equivalent. To be honest I was feeling quite guilty. Here I was, having seen the damage to the Samui coral, taking a trip to one of the most delicate ecosystems in the world. I had deliberately chosen a small group, accompanied by a marine biologist, as opposed to one of the 450-strong ferries that plough across the water but I still knew that I was adding to the problem. However, ever since I was little, perhaps because I saw a documentary or maybe another Disneyfied story, I have wanted to visit the Reef and I gave in.

Our first site demonstrated that this was no gentle float in the water wearing a mask. Waves broke over our heads, filling mouths and noses with salt, and the hour and a half journey offshore meant that the t-shirt for sun protection was also quite useful, at least initially, for keeping me warm. Under the waves blue, yellow and purple fish swam lazily beneath us, unfazed by fifteen shadows. Back on the boat, as we motored to the second site, we were invited to ask questions. I wanted to know how much damage such a trip would cause the coral. Tim, the marine biologist, was obviously anxious to reassure me since his business depended on it, but, I determined, not particularly happy that I’d asked. Apparently such trips only visit 1% of the Reef and simply snorkelling is not a threat, unless you touch or break the coral. In fact, the biggest threats, he explained, are the weather and the development of the rainforest: tropical cyclones and storms cause huge waves to lash against the delicate coral, snapping off years of growth in one day whereas cutting down trees to make room for hotels rather disturbs the soil and fills the sea with unwanted chemicals. There was no suggestion that oil-guzzling, rainforest-lopping humans might be aggravating the storms and undermining the earth.

I wasn’t reassured but that didn’t stop me going in at the next site. Tim came in with us, to give us a guided tour. This wasn’t the easiest of prospects, when waves and different swimming speeds separated us and if, like me, you were almost last off the boat and then prevented from progressing by a faceful of flippers, you missed both the turtles and the reef shark. However, Tim then dove under the water and pointed silently to a dark spot. Once my eyes had readjusted, I spotted three stripy fish, blue and white, all different sizes. Back at the surface Tim explained that these were Great Barrier Reef anemonefish, which, like the clown anemonefish made famous by Pixar, live all their lives in one anemone. For a moment I forgot all my reservations as I watched the family dart in and out of their home. It was, is, incredibly beautiful.

The guided tour almost complete, we headed back towards the boat. Then Tim resurfaced with something small and pink in his hand. It was a piece of coral. I don’t know if he had broken it off, or if it was a loose, dead piece he’d picked up but, whichever it was, it didn’t belong in his hand or ours. We had found Nemo, or at least his closest equivalent but all of a sudden I wished I’d stuck to the celluloid version.