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Bath time

Royal Crescent 5 cropped

Sue Boyle cropped

I’ve just returned from Bath, where I was involved in various events at the Week of Good Poetry organised by Sue Boyle. Before I go on to describe my stay in Bath, I’d like to congratulate Sue on her wonderfully efficient yet relaxed organisation of the festival, and thank her for inviting me to take part.

Unfortunately I was able to go to only the second half of the week, so missed readings by R V Bailey, June Hall and Anthony Fairweather. I did, however, manage to get along for the presentation by Wendy French and the Lapidus team on Words for Wellbeing, in which they talked about their work with some of the unwell and disadvantaged.

Saturday was fairly busy. It began with a joint presentation on publishing by Patricia Oxley, talking about getting published in magazines such as Acumen, and me talking about how to go about attempting to be published by Oversteps Books. The audience was interested and appreciative, and fully understood the difficulties faced by poets trying to make their mark.

Patricia & William cropped

I enjoyed working alongside Patricia, and we agreed afterwards that as we complement each other so well we should do joint presentations again. In this picture she and William were not, despite appearances, on board a ship, but were sitting in the sunshine in Bath Central Library.

Peter Charters, Jeremy Young and Ewan McPherson did a group reading of Poems of Faith and Doubt. There was more faith than doubt, but that is not necessarily a criticism of what was a lovely reading. This was followed by a reading by William Oxley himself, which I was glad to introduce. He read poems under the title of ‘Places of Spirit’, and this was of particular interest as his new book, ‘Isca’, had just been published. This he calls a ‘coffee table book’, as it contains poems about Exeter by William alongside lovely photographs by his son-in-law.

me in flight cropped
My own reading was in the afternoon, and I was given plenty of time to include both serious and humorous poems. Once again, the audience was warm and enthusiastic, and it was good to be introduced by William.

I stayed with some lovely friends in Bath, who welcomed me warmly and made me feel completely at home. I also took the opportunity to explore Bath, which I didn’t know.

Rooftop-2011I had decided in advance that I would love to swim in the roof-top thermal baths, so duly presented myself there on Friday morning. The price of a ticket for a swim nearly sent me racing for the nearest river, but having looked forward to it for so long I decided to close my eyes and pay. The swimming pool was really warm, and it was, indeed, extremely pleasant to float around in warm water with a view all over Bath.

Street through arch 2

There was much to explore, from the Georgian terraces and the tiny streets to the magnificent abbey.

Bath Abbey 1 Bath Abbey 2

The other great beauty and fascination of Bath was more arboreal than architectural, for the whole city was like a giant arboretum, with every park, square and crescent adorned with the most beautiful trees. I’ve included a couple of photos of trunks that caught my attention, and one scene from the Circus; but I could have pointed my camera in any direction and made a record of yet more delights.

tree trunk in St James's Square 2 tree trunk in St James's Square

Trees in the Circus

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Happy ending to a little country tale

We spend part of our time in a flat in a remote part of the West Country. There are nine flats in the house, and we share a communal garden. We also rent an adjacent meadow, where we have developed a wild flower meadow and a potager where we grow most of our own food.


Life in the country can sometimes resemble a soap opera, and we could supply plenty of material for the Archers of Ambridge. As an illustration of this I thought I’d share a series of events that made up quite a satisfying little saga the other day.

Sadly, the husband of our neighbour downstairs died last week, and this story takes place the afternoon and evening before his funeral.

Part 1.

Two small dogs, rather more rat-like than canine, were seen loose in our garden. The lease of the house discourages dog-ownership, and insists that any dogs must be on leads. A quick check in the other flats brought me to the conclusion that the dogs belonged to visitors who were staying in the barn next door; so I arrested the dogs and returned them to their rightful  owners, outlining the rules of the house regarding dogs, and explaining that as small grandchildren play in the garden, we are particularly averse to the depositing of dog poo.

Part 2.

The level of noise in our quiet garden suddenly started to increase exponentially, and looking out of the window we espied six boys and one man, complete with cricket set, enjoying a noisy game of cricket on our lawn. Two of our neighbours from the other flats were up in arms, particularly as the game was taking place just outside the window of the woman who was getting ready for her husband’s funeral. I watched one neighbour go to remonstrate with the uninvited guests, assuring them that she wouldn’t dream of going to play in their garden and that they shouldn’t help themselves to ours without permission. So off they went.

Part 3.


I went over to the meadow to do some hoeing, but the hoe was nowhere to be seen. What WAS to be seen (and heard) was a group of young boys thrashing through the bushes, making dens. I called them out and suggested that they should play in their own garden, rather than colonising everyone else’s land. I also asked them if they’d seen our missing garden tool.
‘No’ they replied, rather sheepishly.
‘No one else comes to the meadow’, I said, ‘so who is likely to be the prime suspect if tools go missing?’
‘Yes, exactly’.

It didn’t escape our notice that a large patch of rough ground had been bashed down, and we mused over what they might have used to do that.


Part 4.


A thorough search of the meadow did not reveal the hoe – or to give it its proper name, the swoe. It was a rather good one, that belonged to my parents-in-law, and I was not best-pleased that in order to sow seeds that afternoon I had to use an old stick to loosen the earth and make a drill for the seeds.

I therefore decided that a visit to the boys’ parents was called for, and went round, to be met by two extremely embarrassed mothers, who apologised for the dogs and the cricket, and were alarmed to hear about the meadow and the swoe.  One of them insisted on giving me a cake as an apology, and the boys were summoned to apologise – which they did very graciously.

I said that we couldn’t find the hoe, and one mother remembered that they had brought a garden tool back to the house, saying that they had ‘found it’. She had eventually had to stop them playing with it when it looked as though they were going to decapitate each other with it. Three of the older boys were sent out to retrieve the tool, but didn’t return by the time I left, so presumably they had gone back to the meadow for it.

This could have been an issue that led to neighbourly discord, except that all of them were extremely charming lads, and they seemed genuinely sorry for their misdemeanors. I can’t vouch for the father, as he seemed to have gone into hiding; but he’s probably very nice too.

I raided the rather bare chocolate and sweet cupboard in our kitchen so that I could give the boys something when they returned the hoe. They didn’t turn up that evening, but brought the hoe round the next morning. Apparently they had searched for over an hour before they managed to find it, and they had enough nettle stings to keep arthritis at bay for many a year. They were overwhelmed to be given chocolates, and effusive in their thanks and, again, in their apologies.

It’s not often that life throw up little stories that are so neatly rounded off with a satisfying closure. Everyone was happy and friendly, we are now enjoying a ginger cake, I got to know two extremely nice young mothers, and the boys have probably learnt quite a useful lesson about trespassing, pinching and fibbing, without anyone having to punish them.



Politics on your plate

I don’t usually talk about why our family doesn’t eat meat; but since a number of people have expressed an interest in our reasons, I’ll attempt an explanation here. It isn’t primarily about animal welfare, although I abhor cruelty in any form; nor is it a question of preference: I can remember thoroughly enjoying roast lamb and mint sauce and can still get an enthusiastically rumbling tummy when I smell bacon frying or chicken roasting. The reasons are political and environmental.

It’s now over forty years since we became vegetarians. Young, idealistic, slightly off-beat, and
Borough-Market-007up for changing the world, we read in the New Internationalist that if everyone stopped eating meat there would be enough food to go round the whole world’s population. Looking back,
I suspect that the evidence for this might not have been quite as conclusive as we believed at the time; but somehow, having taken the information on board, it just became rather difficult to walk into a butcher’s shop and buy meat. It also happened to be the case that we were
impecunious kids just out of university, so cutting out meat also reduced our food bills and allowed us to survive.

Fruit-and-vegetable-market-stallWe received occasional warnings that we risked missing vital nourishment, especially when we started to bring up children; but as we all enjoyed consistently excellent health, we took no notice. We never tried to convert others to vegetarianism: it was just a personal commitment to consider the poorest people in the world through the way we ourselves lived. Nor were we strict, so although we have never bought meat since then, we have certainly not made an issue of it when being entertained by others; so if anyone reading this has served meat to us at some point in the intervening years, please do not be dismayed: we almost certainly enjoyed it. We just wouldn’t want to make a habit of it.

Initially we decided to adopt a monastic style and serve meat only when we had guests. images-8However, word got round that the meals we cooked when alone were of a high culinary standard, and people began to demand vegetarian food when they came to dinner. So we abandoned the ‘special meat meals for guests’ idea and began to explore the infinite range of delicious vegetarian cuisine.

In recent years, there has been a subtle but undeniable sea change, for it has increasingly become evident that animal husbandry is a major factor in the run-away production of CO2 that is threatening to destroy our planet. In 2006 the United Nations published a report claiming that raising animals for food generates more greenhouse gas than all the cars and trucks in the world combined. It is one of the greatest sources of carbon dioxide and the single largest source of both methane and nitrous oxide emissions, and these are the very gases that cause the vast majority of global warming.

Since raising animals for food is a primary cause of land degradation, air pollution, water shortage, water pollution, loss of biodiversity and global warming, the report concluded that “the livestock sector emerges as one of the top two or three most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global.

Animal agriculture takes up 70% of all agricultural land and 30% of the total land surface of the planet. In the drive for more animal pasture and feed areas, huge areas of prime forest are slashed and burned, so destroying the vital carbon sinks which we rely on to absorb carbon dioxide from the air. Vast areas of what used to be prime Amazon rainforest are now used as pastureland or for growing animal feed crops to fatten meat for rich nations. Animal agriculture also uses vast amounts of water, emits two-thirds of the world’s acid-rain-causing ammonia, and is the world’s largest source of water pollution, killing entire river and marine ecosystems, destroying coral reefs, and bringing sickness to some of the world’s poorest communities.

This diagram illustrates the different amounts of water used in producing food. water use

According to a study published in New Scientist, producing 1kg of beef releases greenhouse gases with a warming potential equivalent to 36.4kg of carbon dioxide. This is more than would be emitted by going for a three-hour drive while leaving all the lights burning at home. On top of this, it is also responsible for producing the equivalent of 340g of sulphur dioxide and 59g of phosphate, and consumes 160 megajoules of energy.


Carbon dioxide is responsible for about half of human-related greenhouse gas warming since the industrial revolution, and methane and nitrous oxide are responsible for another third. These gases come primarily from farmed animals’ digestive processes, and from their manure. In fact, while animal agriculture accounts for 9% of carbon dioxide emissions, it emits 37% of the world’s methane, and 65% of its nitrous oxide. Methane has 23 times, and nitrous oxide has 296 times, the warming power of carbon dioxide. These horrific statistics do not include emissions from managing farm equipment or for transporting meat, so the real damage is actually significantly more than these figures suggest.

These are all inconvenient facts, and it is tempting to ignore them. But the truth is that food is no longer a private matter. It is political, and it is of life-and-death importance. I’m afraid this is rather bad news for dyed-in-the-wool carnivores; but I’m sure many of them would want to know the facts, in order to make an informed decision about what they should do.

In deciding what and how we eat, there are three basic options:

* Jonathan Porritt has claimed that the most dramatic change one could make to cut down
carbon emissions, more dramatic even than changing a gas-guzzler SUV for a Smart, would be images-4to adopt a vegan diet. I myself have not yet taken this final step, though I know plenty of people who have, and they are contributing more to the effort to arrest climate change than most of us can manage with our low energy light bulbs and resistance to unnecessary car journeys. Veganism is worth considering.

* Given the fact that producing one calorie of meat protein involves burning more than ten times as much fossil fuel and emitting more than ten times as much heat-trapping carbon dioxide as a calorie of plant protein, vegetarianism can no longer be viewed as simply a
private images-2and personal choice. It is an essential and vital step in our efforts to save the planet. So hiding behind politeness, shyness or a desire not to intrude on other people’s life-styles is no longer a reasonable choice. Uncomfortable as such a role is, we should now be trying to persuade our friends and relations, and anyone else who might listen to us, that it is simply not acceptable to rely on meat as a major form of food.

* We are unlikely to stop meat production completely; and in reality, if people were prepared to eat meat occasionally rather than regularly, livestock production would probably be sustainable. For those who feel they cannot give up meat completely, there is some comfort in images-5 a Swedish study conducted in 2003, which claimed that raising
organic beef on grass rather than feed reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 40% and consumed 85% less energy. So those who are not prepared to be completely converted to vegetarianism, should at least limit their meat consumption to organic produce.


I think you’ll all agree that a display of vegetables beats a slab of meat on a blood-soaked butcher’s block any day! … And perhaps you’ll also acknowledge that there is enough variety, taste and excellence in the beautiful vegetable kingdom to satisfy the most committed epicure.



Food, Glorious food

Given the number and seriousness of recent food scares, one might be tempted to ask who needs enemies if one’s friends, the food producers on whom we all have to rely, can endanger us so much. But actually there is nothing very new about these crises. Slipping parts of horse into beef products, with the attendant risk of introducing bute into the human food chain, or discovering that consuming popular processed products such as bacon and sausages tends to shorten life quite significantly, are but the latest unpleasant revelations. The DDT used on food crops a generation ago was eventually found to be unacceptably dangerous to the consumer, and many (most?) of the food items sold in shops have long been laced with varying amounts of poison as a result of the pesticides, hormones and enhancers used on livestock, fruit and vegetables.

Yet, apart from the obvious fact that we can’t live without eating, the very metaphors of food and eating are deeply embedded in our acts of loving, our religious rituals and our celebration of life.Image The Jewish Seder meal, the Christian Eucharist, the offerings of food left in various forms of Hindu puja: all these and many more indicate that feasting and sharing food are basic to our religious instincts. And the opposite, fasting, also has a part to play in many people’s religious practice -– particularly, for Moslems, in Ramadan, which culminates in the feast of Eid.

Even limiting the palette to Christianity, the Scriptures and tradition are steeped in stories and metaphors of food: the Heavenly Banquet, the wedding at Cana, the feeding of the 5,000 and the Last Supper to name just a few.

ImageAnd moving away from the religious, many, perhaps most, of our celebrations and rituals involve special food and drink: Christmas pudding, hot cross buns, Easter eggs, Pimms in summer, mulled wine and mince pies in winter. The list is endless. Relationships rely on the giving and sharing of food: from the initial shy gift of a box of chocolates or the grubby sweets shared in the playground, to the hospitality extended to friends round our dinner tables and the celebration party (complete with special cake).

   Image         Image

Probably most of us could describe ‘memorable meals’ we’ve shared over the years: a romantic candlelit dinner for two sitting on deck chairs beside a pasting table in our poverty-stricken youth, an al fresco meal of fish on a wave-lapped Greek beach, or a simple sandwich consumed on top of a mountain after a vigorous climb.

Among my own treasured food memories are some from when I was working in poor parts of the world when I was chief executive of an NGO. One picture I still treasure is of a simple but delicious feast provided for me in a Tanzanian slum and served with royal grace; and another is the gift of a live chicken that was thrust into my arms as I left a remote African village. This latter fluffy passenger quite quickly adapted to travelling by car over bumpy roads, and I gave it to the next people I visited.

When my husband accompanied me on a visit to Siberia, we travelled in two stages from Moscow to Beijing on the Trans-Siberian Railway. For some reason the caterers ran out of food and  we were ‘reduced’ to dining on smoked salmon and extremely inexpensive 
champagne for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was also, of course, a samovar at the end of each carriage, which supplied an inexhaustible stream of tea.

And then there was the time we were guests of honour at a banquet in the far north of Thailand. On our plates were some unidentifiable lumps of a black substance. Having detected that these were not chunks of delicious aubergine, I quietly moved mine to the edge of the plate; but my vegetarian husband, ever curious, speared a chunk and asked our host what it was. When he was told that it was ‘congealed chicken blood’, I watched his smile fade as the piece of food slowly descended back to his plate where it was surreptitiously slipped under a pile of rice to hide.

Drinks come in various interesting forms, as well. When I was lecturing at a college in Fiji I was given a coconut shell full of cava, which I was required to down in one. It was not particularly unpleasant, as long as one didn’t mind the gritty sandy texture, but I think it probably spiced up my subsequent talk.

ImageCézanne’s translucent paintings often capture the spiritual beauty of food and remind us that food is for sharing, enjoying and celebrating. It’s no wonder that the Letter to the Hebrews exhorts us to show hospitality to strangers, ‘for in doing so, some have entertained angels unawares’. It’s easy to believe this when looking at one of Cézanne’s wonderful (wonder-full) studies of comestibles.

There are gloomy statistics that tell us that even in our wealthy country many homes do not have a dining table and that food is often consumed in front of a television without the need for conversation or laughter. Such information should alert us to the fact that while food is important as a personal, social and religious entity, it is also deeply political. 

And that will be the subject of my next blog. For the moment, I hope you enjoy your food, and are able to share, celebrate and entertain angels.



Poetry in public

This is the day when I should have arrived in New Zealand; and the first of my readings there was to be this evening at the charmingly named ‘Thirsty Dog’. Because disaster struck us half-way over the world, I can’t do this reading, or any of the others I was due to give in the next couple of weeks. Charles Hadfield and Hilary Elfick will be reading at most of the events I was going to, and they are kindly going to present some of my work to those audiences. So, instead of standing up and sharing my poetry, I thought I’d reflect on poetry readings in general in this blog.

All through my adult life I’ve had the privilege (and sometimes the burden) of giving countless lectures, talks and sermons. In recent years, however, I have far, far preferred to give poetry readings – and I’ve been extremely fortunate to be invited to read all over Britain and in several other countries as well. If by any chance you’re interested in where all these readings have been, you can find them on the Poetry page of my website ( I get a tremendous kick out of giving readings: writing can be a rather solitary occupation, and suddenly, at a public reading, one has the opportunity to engage with other people, to make them laugh or sigh, and to feel the energy of a common delight in poetry flowing back and forth between reader and audience. It really is a wonderful feeling when other people share and enjoy one’s poetry.

I’ll pick out just a few of my favourites to give a flavour of the range of opportunities for poets to share their work.

I was stunned and excited to be invited to read for a whole evening at Little Gidding a few years ago. The thrill this event gave me, obviously, was because of my life-long love of Eliot’s Four Quartets. The reading took place in a large and crowded, but cosy drawing room; and I was encouraged to go on reading for over two hours.

With Orta San Giulio in background

Poetry on the Lake in northern Italy is one of the highlights of the year for quite a number of poets. Like others, I first went because I was successful in their annual poetry competition – and then I was drawn back year after year. The readings are not so much large public events as good poets getting together to share their work with others who are on the same wavelength.

A & CA


The list of participants is star-studded, and in a beautiful venue in the sunshine (well, mostly in the sunshine), friendships develop and inspiration flows.

A reading on Sacro Monte

One morning at the festival is spent reading at the various shrines on the Sacro Monte. Then, at the end of the weekend we are also treated to a wonderful piano recital in the Casa Tallone, a thousand year old building on the island, where Tallone pianos used to be made.

There are dozens of excellent poetry and/or literature festivals in Britain. Sadly I haven’t yet been invited to read at Aldeburgh, Ledbury or Stanza, but I’ve read at most of the others. I’ve been fortunate enough to read at Ways with Words at Dartington for several years running; and I read at The Space in another part of the Dartington Estate at the end of my poetry residency with dancers and choreographers from the Ballet Rambert. For a poet who is crazy about dance, this was a wonderful opportunity to indulge in some of the best things in life.

Freiburg reading

Venues at the festivals vary, and one of the more interesting ones at which I read was the Freiburg City Festival in Germany. The challenge was to read on a podium in the city square, and although seats were put out, I doubted if anyone would come to sit on them to hear a poet reading in English. However, I was mistaken, and before long all the seats were taken and there was a crowd of onlookers standing as well.

Audiences for poetry readings range from the polite to the wildly enthusiastic. There was a nice example of the latter, when Carol Ann Duffy read at the Torbay Poetry Festival this last autumn and she received a well-deserved standing ovation. I had a particularly warm and enthusiastic audience at this last year’s Guildford Book Festival, when I read and Peter Terry sang a selection of lieder and English songs. Music can work well with poetry readings, and when I read with a couple of other poets in the Lewes Linklater Pavilion recently, our readings were interspersed with guitar pieces.

A reading at WalpoleAs well as festivals, there are many other opportunities for readings. I’ve read in a number of bookshops, at the launch of magazines and anthologies that include poems by me, the launch of my books, prizewinners’ events, as the entertainment at parties, and regular poetry events such as the Troubadour in London, the Uncut readings in Exeter and pub gigs such as Tradewinds on Dartmoor. Other great venues have been the Edinburgh Fringe, the Walpole Old Chapel in Suffolk, the Dower House at Morville Hall in Shropshire, Slimbridge and Leighton Moss bird reserves and at university venues. There’s also usually an opportunity to read after giving a workshop or judging a competition. If you’re looking for readings, the possibilities are endless..

* Sea sandals

And yes, as every poet knows, giving readings is the best way to sell one’s books. In general, the major gatherings of poets do not lead to large sales, as most of the audience have plenty of poetry books already and are probably more interested in selling their own than in adding to their groaning bookshelves. Other audiences will snap up the books and delight in having them signed by the poet.

Then there is the issue of payment. Most poetry events are fairly cash-strapped, and some others have no compunction in exploiting writers if they can get away with it. It is unusual not to receive at least one’s expenses, and there are some shining examples of organisers who value and reward their poets. Among these, Patricia Oxley, the Editor of Acumen and organiser of the Torbay Festival, is one of the best. Of course one writes, and reads in public, for love. But it is amazing how much more valued one feels when someone like Patricia shows her genuine respect and appreciation by paying a proper fee. And several more of the events at which I’ve read have been kind enough to reward me quite generously.

After so many readings this last year, and the fact that I expected to be away now, I rather feared there may not have been so many in 2013. However, the invitations continue to flow in, and between now and the summer I have already been booked to appear at the Wenlock Poetry Festival, Cheltenham Poetry Festival, the Bath Week of Good Poetry, the launch of a magazine in Swindon and at Ways with Words.

Pity about New Zealand, though!

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The best-laid plans o’ mice

Having shared quite a bit of our good news recently, I think I owe it to all the lovely people who have been reading our blogs, to share the bad news too.

Two weeks into our seven week ‘holiday of a lifetime’, disaster struck when Hugh got a detached retina. Fortunately we were in San Francisco, rather than several days out at sea, so we were able to fly home straight away, and we are now awaiting an operation to save his sight. We are both, of course, pretty gutted by this; and I am also upset to be letting down the various venues where I was doing poetry readings in New Zealand. And we were really looking forward to seeing Hugh’s sister, Sarah, again after so long. But the main thing now is to get Hugh right and to look forward to spring.

I had intended to do a blog about the ship at some stage, but for now I’ll just put in a few photos to give a taste. We did have a lovely fortnight.

Pool, 500There were two outside swimming pools on board, so we were able to swim each day.  In the intense heat, this was very welcome, particularly after we’d availed ourselves of the gymn – something we never normally do.

It was pretty amazing how many people were able to lie in the sun for hours on end. We thoroughly enjoyed our dose of sunshine; but with temperatures in the high 30s, shade and water also became very attractive.

There was a full programme of lectures and entertainment. One of the celebrities on board was Gerald Scarfe, who happened to be hitting the headlines that week with one of his cartoons. His wife, Jane Asher, was also with us, and acted as his technician for the talks – arranging his powerpoint presentations and microphones.

Gerald Scarfe 500We also had some good lectures on climate change and oceanography.

cabin 500Our cabin was very comfortable, and had a balcony. I know this will sound silly, but it was astonishing how busy we were on board.
As well as the lectures and other presentations, there were dance classes (!), activities in the gymn, swimming and a full programme of entertainments in the evening, some of which were enjoyable and others well worth missing! There was almost unlimited music, with pianists, a harpist, a ‘cellist, a string quartet, several bands and other instrumentalists.

I had also planned to do quite a bit of writing, which is why I took my lap-top.

Then, of course, there were the formal dinners. Over the years I’ve had occasion to buy a few really smart clothes, for weddings and visits to Buckingham Palace and such-like; so it was great to be able to pack them for the holiday and have opportunities to wear them.
Formal dinner 500So, to end on a cheerful note: we very much enjoyed the holiday we had.

There will be more blogs in time; but not from on board the Queen Victoria.

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Not the North West Passage

OK, so it’s not what is normally referred to as the North West passage, but we have been proceeding north west along the coast of Central America and Mexico since we left the Panama Canal. It has been extremely hot, and one just hopes that the real North West passage never approaches this heat as the climate changes and the ice melts.

We spent a very pleasant day in Huatulco, in the south of Mexico. This is a fairly new resort that was developed to improve on the earlier, badly-developed resorts such as Cancun and Acapulco.
Huatulco Bay 500

Strict environmental rules were applied, for instance restricting the height of buildings, and ensuring that no waste water is allowed to enter the sea. There was much to commend here, though I felt that the environmental credentials were rather spoilt by the jet skis speeding noisily around the beach. I was also not happy with the fact that when the resort was developed, the fishermen were all moved from their coastal homes to flats in town. But apart from those two reservations, it was an extremely pleasant resort.

Bird of paradise flower, 500Disembarking at Santa Cruz, the main bay of Huatulco, in the morning, we visited a medicinal herb garden, where we were introduced to the useful properties of many plants, then watched tortillas being made and sampled them.

Making tortillas, grinding maize 400

Making tortillas 1, 400

Making tortillas 2, 400




We were then taken to the town to see the church, where we heard the legend of the cross that arrived on Santa Cruz beach some fifteen hundred years ago and could not be destroyed whatever the English pirate, Thomas Cavendish, did to it. It was eventually cut up to make a series of smaller crosses that are venerated in various places around Mexico and Central America.

Mezcal (agave) for burning, 400Our final stop of the morning was at the plant where Mezcal is produced. This local drink is similar to Tequilla, but is made from the Agave plant, which is burnt and ground up, then the juice isextracted and distilled. We were plied with several variations of the drink, including mango flavour and coconut flavour. The tastiest was the cream version, which was similar to Baileys. We also enjoyed some of the hot chocolate produced there, and were given various snacks, which included the local delicacy of grasshoppers. Apparently, however many of these are caught on the maize each year, they come back in equal force, so it would seem to be a pretty sustainable crop. In the afternoon we braved the fierce sun and went to the beach for a delicious swim.

H & QV 350Since Huatulco we have continued north west, with the mountains of Mexico traced against the sky like a Japanese print over on our starboard side. Next stop San Francisco.

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Only Connect: Atlantic to Pacific

We’ve now been at sea for nearly a week. From Miami we took a southerly course past Cuba to Jamaica, then west to Cartagena, Columbia, spending a day in each. On the way, there were sightings of dolphins and flying fish, and the excitement of watching a pod of turtles swim by, the sun reflecting brightly off their heads and shells.

Approaching Cartagena, 500Cartagena is a smart modern city that is working hard, with apparent success, to overcome its bad reputation for drugs and crime. Education is held in high regard, with sessions of schooling in the morning and afternoon to accommodate all the children and also in the evening for older people who want to make up for what they missed when they were young.

Simon Bolivar statue 500
Simon Bolivar, who liberated Columbia in 1821, is the national hero and there is a statue of him in the old town, where much of the colonial architecture survives, and most of the old buildings have been well preserved.

Colonial architecture 500

From there, accompanied by pelicans and frigate birds, we proceeded to the Panama Canal.

Frigate birds 500

We had looked forward eagerly to this day, and were certainly not disappointed. We rose at 5.30 to be up on deck as we approached the first lock and finally cleared Panama City on the Pacific side at about 4.30pm.  Approaching before 6.00am 500I hope some of you were able to watch our progress and see a few of the views on the web camera. In case you haven’t discovered the webcam, for future reference there’s a link to the appropriate website at the top of this page.

The Canal, finished in 1914, is a huge enterprise that must have transformed international shipping. Mechanical mules on the banks pull the ship through the locks, though when the new, larger locks are completed in a couple of years’ time, tugs will guide the ships through.
Mule ascending 500

It struck me that, apart from finance and politics, which were obviously involved in the endeavour, the project was the child of Vision, Engineering and Poetry. The Vision was perceiving the potential and believing that it could be realised. The Engineering was, in some ways, simple once the vision began to take effect – but took years of very hard work. The Poetry is in the way it works so smoothly, and also in the sheer beauty of parts of the canal – particularly the Gatun Lake which stretches for many miles and is stunning. Not wanting to squeeze too much of a moral out of a highly enjoyable day, I could not help reflecting that for those of us who write, this trio of Vision, Engineering (including hard work) and poetry was familiar territory.

The locks, of course, depend on Lake Gatun’s immense body of fresh water to replenish the supply as water is locked down to the sea. As the rainy season can bring nine feet of water, the system is sustainable as long as climate change doesn’t alter the rain pattern too much. Presumably most of this beautiful lake was formerly rain forest, and the peaks of the hills are now exotic islands, deserted except for the one that houses a Smithsonian biodiversity research station.
Gatun Lake 500

As we passed through the canal it was fun to have a huge crocodile to add to our list of wildlife. It must have been at least 14 feet long, and was lazing at the waterside just feet from the boat as we passed. I wouldn’t have been quite so pleased if I’d been walking.

So, passing from NE to SW, we traced the magnificent connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As we travel we also connect, fleetingly, with those we pass on the shore or in other boats. We receive enthusiastic waves from people on balconies, workers on the undersides of bridges, passengers in other cruise liners or in passing speedboats.

A on balcony 500And here am I, thousands of miles away,
reaching out to connect to those of you at home through this blog.

Next stop Huatulco, Mexico.


Flight from the deep freeze

Snowy garden 3

 It was a bit touch and go whether we would get out of Heathrow on Sunday morning, as so many flights were cancelled because of the snow; but we were fortunate enough to take off only a little over half an hour late. First the plane had to be de-iced: I imagined that we would taxi through some giant warm warehouse rather like the railway sheds we went through when the train bogies had to be changed as we passed from Mongolia to China on the trans-Siberian railway many years ago; but in fact two lorries with cranes on top came to attend to us, dowsing us with appropriate liquids from long arms. They looked like maternal animals gently stroking us in preparation for flight. We left Heathrow in minus 1 degrees, and arrived in Miami to enjoy a very pleasant plus 27 degrees.

Hyatt pools 300

blackbird & bird table 600

We spent the night in an excellent hotel. I dislike smart pretentious hotels, but this one somehow managed not to be a all pretentious – though we were somewhat surprised to be put into an executive suite with two double beds. The next morning we did a tour of inspection of the boats in the harbour (always essential as one member of the family is a member of the Harbour Board!), then had a long leisurely swim to cool down a little. It was a change to be seeing lizards, dragonflies and parakeets instead of our friendly robin and blackbird who have been grateful for our bird table recently. I hope someone else is looking after them now.

The US is a country of dizzying contrasts. At Miami airport a long floral wall display assuring us that ‘All you need is love” welcomed us to the country that prefers to put an armed guard in every school rather than to ban the lethal weapons. Then, although the population is multicoloured, the society appears to be astonishingly stratified, with blacks and latinos doing the work while whites enjoy the party; yet the US has now twice pulled off the miracle of electing a black president. Barack Obama started his second term the day we arrived, and was sworn in the next day which happened, by happy coincidence, to be Martin Luther King Day.

Having flown four and a half thousand miles at around 500 mph to get here, we are now chugging along happily at about 25 knots. I’ve often wondered about the word ‘knots’ for speeds over water, and I’ve now discovered that it comes from the days when a rope attached to a log was knotted at intervals of 47 feet 3 inches and paid out over the stern of a boat. The number of knots that ran out while a 28 second sand-glass emptied itself gave the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour. As with most knowledge, however, that fact leads to more questions, such as ‘why 47 feet 3 inches between knots?’ and ‘why 28 seconds?’ Discussing this at breakfast, Hugh reckoned that the 28 seconds was to measure a half minute, allowing for turning the sandglass over, and the 47 feet 3 inches is probably the same fraction of a nautical mile as 28 seconds is of an hour. Does anyone know if this is correct?

Anyway, just in case you didn’t know, a knot equals 1.15 mph over land.

It’s quite difficult doing this blog on a very slow connection. However, I was told firmly that I had to include photos of us, so here we are setting sail yesterday.

Setting sail 600

Next stop Montego Bay, Jamacia.

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Good news

Benjamin ZephaniahFeed people enough misery and, not very surprisingly, they’ll end up being miserable and thinking that everything is bad; so it’s worth listening to the prophets who urge us to a more balanced view.  When
I turned the radio on, some time between Christmas and New Year,
I discovered that Benjamin Zephaniah was guest editor on the Today programme, and he was discussing the relative merits of good and bad news with the arch-cynic, John Humphrys. Benjamin was urging the radio presenter to report more good news, instead of giving us an undiluted diet of bad news.

In the interview, Humphrys claimed that no one finds good news interesting, which is patently not true. He gave the example of ten aircraft setting out from LHR to the US, and all ten arriving safely. ‘There’ he declared triumphantly, ‘no one will be interested unless one of them crashes.’ What he failed to understand, of course, was that the item wasn’t news because it wasn’t new. Its lack of newsworthiness had nothing to do with whether it was a catastrophe or not; it failed to be news simply because there was nothing new about it. A similar number of aircraft make that journey every day.

Another example Humphrys put forward to support his view that good news isn’t worth reporting was of a powerful earthquake in which there was no loss of life. As the earthquake was new, this did constitute news – good news; and it’s possible that most people would be more interested in an earthquake that didn’t kill people than in one that caused massive casualties. A third story with which Humphrys taunted Zephaniah was of an elderly couple who were sharing their 100th birthday, and who had been married for something like 72 years. Fantastic. That really should be on the news: it’s happy, unusual and encouraging. Cynicism and depression are self-perpetuating, Taizé meeting in Romeso we need to share some of the good things that happen in the world instead. I’ve just received an email from someone who was in Rome for the Taizé meeting of young adults over the New Year. The fact that 40,000 young people from many different traditions made the journey and spent several days talking and praying together somehow didn’t make it onto the radar of journalists who are always so quick to report the many failings and scandals of the Church and the waywardness of the young.

There’s an old expression sometimes bandied around by writers to the effect that ‘Happiness writes white’. In other words, great writing is more likely to come out of an unhappy state of mind than a happy one. I can never decide whether this is true or not, especially as I have personally produced decent work both when I’ve been heart-broken and when I’ve been euphoric. Zephaniah’s poetry encompasses the good and the bad, anger and celebration, and I think that’s the sort of diet that reflects the real world in which most of us live. There are also exceptions to the misery-mongering of the media. For example, there’s a newspaper called Positive News, which one can sometimes pick up in whacky places like Dartington, which redresses the imbalance in the rest of the media by reporting on good things that have happened.

JyotiMalalaTwo young women have, tragically, been in the news recently: Malala Yousafzai and Jyoti Singh Pandey. Sadly, the young Indian medical student will slip into the mire of crime history and be forgotten by most of us within a few months – though not by those who loved her. Malala is ongoing news and we’ll continue to watch her with interest. Let’s hope that journalists, too, will continue to find her interesting as she returns to full health and continues with her courageous campaigning. But underlying both these appalling cases is a sub-text of gender inequality. We have achieved so much in the last century, but these stories remind us that there is still a long way to go before everyone accepts that girls have as much right to education as boys do, and that attractive young women are people of dignity and worth, whose bodies belong to themselves and no one else. If and when that equality and dignity are accepted as normal everywhere, that will certainly be good news worth sharing.

2013 is still a fairly new year, so I leave you with a snippet of one of the poems from my recent collection, festo:  ‘Hope at year’s turning’:
hope springs eternal
leaps and bounds,
believes in bud and leaf and flower,
and puppy-like joyfully welcomes friend and foe.
Against all recent evidence I throw
myself into the arms of hope
for the new year.

Happy new year. My next blog (good news) will be from far across the sea.

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