Wednesday 23 December 2020

South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

South Park Street Cemetery in Kolkata is an English cemetery and I could see plenty of those at home. I almost didn’t bother to go. I am glad I did or I would have missed seeing the splendid tomb of Major General Charles Stuart, better known as ‘Hindoo Stuart’.

South Park Street has been renamed. The pink stone entrance now leads off raucous Mother Theresa Street (that’s the street that’s raucous, not the nun) into a quiet and dilapidated graveyard romantically overrun by fig and palm trees. It looks and feels nothing like an English cemetery. It is oriental and exotic. The cemetery was opened in 1767 fell out of use by 1790. The English people buried here belonged not to the Raj but to the East India Company. They preceded the Victorians and their memorials are more in sympathy with Mughal and Hindu cultures than with imperial Britain.

The monuments were huge compared with English gravestones. I could not place the style. There were miniature Greek temples, columns, arches, obelisks, domes and cupolas. Some of the obelisks were pyramid-shaped, others conical and carved in spirals. There was a Greek classical influence and it did not feel the least bit Christian. I should have thought myself in a Mughal burial ground. I learned later that the tombs are a mixture of Gothic and Indo-Saracenic style. Some of the carvings show a Hindu influence. It was a strange and wonderful place of calm surrounded by the hectic rush of modern Kolkata. Indeed, the cemetery is only a remnant of a much larger plot that has been built over. Taxis, buses and bicycles now stream over the forgotten remains of the men and women of the East India Company.

I met three young men, all technical students from the city.  They knew little of the cemetery’s history and its British connection but they were grateful to find a place of peace and calm.

I walked around this marvel reading the inscriptions. The people here died young. Many of the men died in their forties. There were enormous monuments to young women. A huge pyramid shaped obelisk marks the grave of Elizabeth Barwell, who died in 1778 aged 23. Rose Aylmer lies, dead at 20, under a vast inverted ice cream cone of a tomb. It was said that the life expectancy of a European in Calcutta in the 18th century was two monsoons. Many of the young women died in childbirth and the men, if not of disease, in war or accident. The people buried here were not fainthearted.

I saw very few crucifixes. Biblical references were rare. Rather, the epitaphs celebrated people’s civic and secular virtues.  The Honorable (sic) John Hyde; a Puisne Judge of the Supreme Court died aged 59 in 1796.  He was, I read, ‘a firm and zealous friend’. His hospitality had been enjoyed a wide extended circle. ‘His advice, protection and munificence to unfortunate persons were his noblest eulogium’. It went on at some length; it was a big memorial. It ended eventually with a tribute to the generosity of his mind.

Beating the odds of an early death, Major General Charles (Hindoo) Stuart served in India for 50 years. He wore Indian clothes off duty, became a Hindu and bathed in the Ganges each day. He attempted to persuade the British ladies of Calcutta, the memsahibs, to discard their whalebone corsets and iron skirt hoops and take to wearing the sari. Did he have in mind their comfort, respect for local culture or more lascivious motives?  The answer is buried with him

The epitaph to Robert Gardiner reports that ‘unfortunately’ he died in the ship Ganges on the Barabuller Sand in the river Ganges aged 46 in 1787. The Barabuller Sand lies in wait for ships approaching the river from the Bay of Bengal. His affectionate son Andrew erected the stone from a ‘motive of filial regard’. 

A tattered advertisement informed me that I had missed the first concert ever to be held in the cemetery by a few weeks. I should have liked to have been there.

The Association for the Preservation of Historical Cemeteries in India and the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia care for the South Park Street Cemetery, evidently on a shoestring. They publish a guidebook.  The young woman who sold it to me explained that her father was the keeper of the plot.  He was off sick and she was standing in for him.  I was touched that she should take such family pride in looking after this wonderful place.

Friday 4 December 2020

Learning to Read and Write in New York City


The Strand Bookstore in New York City is in trouble.  The Pandemic has hit its business badly. When news of this much-loved institution’s problem reached the press, many of its legions of devotees placed orders to save it. It reminded me of a piece I wrote about a visit to New York a few years ago.


Learning to Read and Write in New York City


Back in Manhattan after 5 years, I made my usual pilgrimage to the Strand Bookstore.  From Union Square subway I walked south on Broadway and soon saw the shop’s maroon and yellow awning.  It has been there since 1923 and it is the last remaining independent bookstore in what had been a whole street of bookshops.  It boasts that it has 18 miles of books.  In its labyrinth of stacks on four floors, I could believe it.  Fortunately, expert staff can lead you to almost any book in a New York minute. 

It is the only bookshop I know that provides shopping trolleys.  An American friend told me she is not allowed in there without a keeper.  I was lucky; I bought just two books, neither of which I knew existed before I went in. I lingered in the stationery section.  I cannot resist a new notebook or pencil.  I could have bought a Moleskine notebook to turn me into Bruce Chatwin or a Palamino Blackwing, John Steinbeck’s preferred writing instrument. 

Pilgrimage over; I paused to pick up a copy of Gotham City Writers’ News from a sidewalk newsstand.  Gotham Writers is another fine Manhattan institution.  Among other things, it runs online courses for writers and competitions.

Then I went to an exhibition of Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts at the Morgan Library.  What especially appealed was that Hemingway wrote a lot about how he wrote.  I read his letter to Mary Welsh written from the Normandy Invasion.  He wrote 'I am ashamed I know too few adjectives.' 

'That makes two of us, Ernest', I muttered.

He enjoyed editing his own work.  He could do it first in pencil as he wrote, again when he typed it out and finally when reviewing the proofs. Editing is good for all of us whether we like it or not.  I guess we need to be as good as Hemingway before we can fight back against editors.  There in the margin of an edited typescript, Hemingway's own handwriting declared, 'who b******d this up like this?'

He wrote in French School exercise books and I could study the physical process of his writing.  He re-wrote the last page of 'A Farewell to Arms' 39 times before he was satisfied.  He had also consulted F Scott Fitzgerald about the manuscript.  After they had worked on a particular page together, Fitzgerald told Hemingway that page 226 was 'one of the most beautiful pages in English literature'.  Well that is certainly something to aspire to.

Evidently, Hemingway was not too proud to take advice.  Gertrude Stein told him of an early manuscript, 'begin over again and concentrate'.  Thanks, Gert.

I saw his notes for the title of a short story.  He used to write the story first then create as many as a hundred potential titles before selecting exactly the right one.

If writing was that hard for Hemingway, how are the rest of us to manage?

I drafted this piece with a Palomino Blackwing pencil but I am still not Steinbeck.  I used a school exercise book but I am still not Hemingway.  What can I be doing wrong?

Strand Bookstore

Gotham Writers


Monday 5 October 2020

BOOK REVIEW Tom Chesshyre – Slow Trains to Venice

Tom Chesshyre – Slow Trains to Venice

A Love Letter to Europe

Summersdale 2019 £16.99


This rather wonderful book is Tom Chessyre’s seventh.  He has a talent for writing train-related travel books and Slow Trains to Venice will not disappoint his readers.

Chesshyre relates the tale of a more or less random rail journey from his home in Mortlake to Venice.  He arms himself with a backpack, filled mostly with books, an Interrail Pass and a longing to be on the move by train.  It takes quite some dedication and curiosity to cover 3,990 miles to make what could have been a 700-mile trip. Chesshyre takes in Northern Europe, Poland, Odessa on the Black Sea and the Balkans.

Concerned mostly with the journey itself, Chesshyre gives us only snapshots of the cities he visits.  As he puts it, he dips a toe and moves on. He does, nevertheless, have the knack of finding something intriguing or offbeat in most places.  Innsbruck is the exception.  In a rush to meet his girlfriend in Venice, he has time only to describe his hotel.  His descriptions of the sometimes-quirky hotels he stays in are more a warning than a recommendation.  What he does so well is to find, and share with his readers, something fascinating in the mundane and everyday.   As he says himself, the traveller by plane wants dull efficiency, not a story.  The traveller by train always has a story to tell.  He has and he does it well.

Chesshyre fears for the future of some of the European countries he visits and worries about the rise of populism.  He is no fan of Brexit.  The subtitle of the book is A Love Letter to Europe. Many would join him in writing such a letter but he conflates Europe with the European Union.  Those that share his view will not be troubled.  Those that do not can still enjoy his storytelling.

Slow Trains to Venice went to print before Covid-19 hit European travel.  It may not be possible to travel as Chesshyre did for some time to come. In the meantime, the armchair traveller could not ask for a better companion.

Tuesday 22 September 2020

Meeting Mary in Fremantle

A pilgrimage and a connection in a cemetery.


On a wet and blustery early summer's day in November, the cemetery in Fremantle, Western Australia had a Gothic feel to it. Eucalypts with dark, grey trunks grew out of the brick and beaten earth paths of reddish brown.  There was birdsong but it was hard to hear over the hoarse cawing of crows flapping through dark foliage.  In the Victorian part of the cemetery, I was among grey tombstones mottled dark with age.

The atmosphere suited me; I was on a pilgrimage to pay my respects to Mary Higham.  I soon found her memorial.  Without being ostentatious, it had a Victorian dignity to it. 

It stood among a small thicket of later family tombstones.  A modern sign explained some of her history and described her as 'Mary Higham 1819 to 1883 Merchant'.  I think she would have liked that simple word 'Merchant' it quietly reveals a great deal about this remarkable woman. There was also a photograph.  She is wearing a bonnet graced with flowers and lace.  She is round-faced with small spectacles.  The eyes are kind but there is a determined set to her mouth, I got a feeling of steel.

When Mary was born in Northamptonshire, George III was king of England.  At the age of 34, Mary and her husband John sold all that they owned: paid about £20 each for their passage in steerage and set off from Liverpool in the ship Sabrina to start a new life in the young colony of Western Australia.  Sabrina was less than 50 metres long.  On that long and filthy voyage, Mary cared for her five-year-old son Edward and an infant daughter Mary Ann.  Little Mary Ann died either on voyage (five other passengers did) or soon after arrival.  Mary must have suffered that loss all her life because on the tombstone, no doubt at Mary's request, is added 'also MARY ANN daughter of the above 1853'.  There is no other record that little Mary Ann lived or died; she has no known grave of her own.  Even the exact date of her passing is lost.

On Monday 13 June 1853, Mary, now 35, arrived in Australia and, with John, set up a bakery and confectionary business.  Within about four years, they had three more children.  On 22 November 1858, 5 years into their new life and with their youngest son Harry, just 5 months old, John died.  He was 41. Mary was a 39-year-old widow with four children to bring up and a business to run in a strange land.  A lesser woman might have given up and run home, not Mary. Mary set up a new business, a sort of early department store in a new building on the corner of Market Street and High Street in Fremantle.  The building that stands there today is called Higham's Buildings.  The sign, confidently carved into the stone, says ‘M. Higham and Sons’ for Mary took her two elder sons out of school as soon as she could to help her run the business. 

The new colony was thriving and Mary imported the things the new colonists wanted.  She sold silk dresses and spades; tweeds and galvanised tubs; ribbons and rakes; stationery and saucepans; iron bedsteads and buckets.  She took in lodgers. While her two sons grew up to go into politics, Mary was barred from such a career by her sex.  She avoided exclusion from the Chamber of Commerce by setting it up herself. Mary's business grew; she diversified into land, pearl fishing and even mining.  The business she was to pass on to her sons was substantial.  Mary was still working until a few days before she died aged 65 in 1883.

Only two of her grandchildren were born before she died.  The second of them was Edward.  She would have known and no doubt loved him for the first year or so of his life.  Edward grew up and re-migrated to England.  I knew him too but near the other end of his life.  Edward was my grandfather. I have held the hand of a man who held the hand of Mary Higham

A newspaper once described Mary as "a person of remarkable energy and decision of character".  I stood for a few moments at the grave of this extraordinary woman and tried to share our one common memory. I wished my great great grandmother goodbye and walked back through the cemetery to the bus stop.  The sun came out.

Tuesday 1 September 2020

Party Night on the Stockholm to Riga Ferry (2013)

Party Night on the Stockholm to Riga Ferry

Observations of a curmudgeon.



It was a bright sunny afternoon at the Stockholm Ferry Terminal.  We realised immediately that we, a group of English tourists mostly in our sixties, would be a minority.  Almost all the other passengers were young Swedes setting out on an overnight party to Riga.  The trip had been advertised as a party cruise. Our expectations of a quiet overnight trip evaporated.

We stood in the terminal in a huddle surrounded by young people, most of them more tattooed than clothed.  They were in an exuberant mood.  To them we were as insignificant as streetlights at noon.  We had big wheelie suitcases; they had no luggage at all except cases of beer and boom boxes.  A Swedish policeman built like a brick out-house and armed with an automatic pistol rescued us from the throbbing beat.  He switched off the machine. The six youths around the instrument recognised the greater power and it stayed switched off.

On board, we dumped our bags in our cabins and went up to the sundeck — a big mistake.  The disco had started and the stack of speakers was nine feet high.  The bar was open and happy hour was advertised.  This was no place for anyone over 25.  We retired to an open space on a lower deck to watch quietly as we passed through the beautiful Stockholm archipelago. 

We did not have even this space entirely to ourselves.  Some of the young joined us.  They were at this stage mostly divided between male and female tribes.  The girls, who were mostly dressed in not very much, were nevertheless, dressed to attract.  Their skirts and shorts were tiny, they were in heels and carefully made up and coiffured.  They were enjoying being young and beautiful and not obviously playing hard to get.  The young men by contrast seemed to be doing their best to repel.  Loud voices and grunts, baseball caps on backwards, white, hairy tattooed legs and beer bellies were all on display.  What do the girls see in them?

We oldies ate dinner; the young did not trouble the restaurant.  We retired early, leaving the ship to youth, beauty and Bacchus.  We had an unexpectedly peaceful night.

We re-colonised the sun deck in the morning. The crew had done a great job cleaning up and all signs of the disco had gone.  The place was quiet.

As we steamed up the Daugava River towards Riga in the morning sun, groups of young people came up the deck, blinking and swaying.  Mostly they clutched water or cans of Coke.  A brave few were still forcing themselves to drink lager.  One must assume that some intermingling had gone on the night before but now they were for the most part divided once more into male or female groups.  The women had acquired clothes and were now more modestly and elegantly dressed.  One exception was a bubbly, outgoing girl clad in just a bikini.  She wandered the sun deck gently hugging and lightly kissing one boy after another.  It looked like a role reversal of Prince Charming with a glass slipper looking for the dream, who had been lost at midnight.

Amid this subdued yet sunny scene were two young women we had not noticed the night before.  They were tall, blonde twins — classic Nordic beauties. They were dressed identically in elegant summer frocks.  They sat back in chairs with skirts raised to tan their yard long thighs.  Even an old man's heart beat a little faster.  Mostly they were left alone but one young man dressed only in shorts and dark glasses holding a can of beer blearily approached, unintimidated by such class and beauty.  They tolerated his attempts at conversation for a while but, sensing no encouragement and perhaps uncertain of what he would do if he succeeded, he slunk away to find someone less demanding.

We docked in Riga, disembarked and did not look back.

Sunday 9 August 2020

Kayaking the Yarra by Night

The best way to see Melbourne by night is from a kayak on the Yarra river.

The grey and rusting Shed No. 2 on Melbourne's north Wharf was further than anyone thought from the free City Circle Tram.  The adventurers arrived in dribs and drabs in the drizzle.  A wan, late afternoon sun illuminated the only colour to be seen; six bright yellow kayaks in a neat row on the jetty.  Kent Cuthbert greeted us.  He was a tall, tanned Canadian who had lived in Melbourne for eleven years.  He and his assistant Mark, an Australian of Lithuanian origin, gave us some paddling tips and gave us a simple guide to the Rule of the Road, "Keep out of the way of anything bigger than you".
We, that is a group that included Germans, British and Americans, were mostly young.  My wife and I, at around 70 were by far the oldest and should have been acting our age.  The only Melbourne residents were two ex-pat Brits.  We all took our two-man kayaks down to a pontoon and embarked.  Kent led us out round the basin for a bit of practice.  Then we followed him to a new pontoon, where we rafted up. "Welcome to my Fish Restaurant," said Kent and went off to fetch a box of wrapped goodies.  We used our paddles to pass these around.  As the sun went down in muted shades of pink and orange, we dined in the drizzle on fish and chips.  It was much more fun than it sounds.
Dinner over, Kent lead us up river towards the City Centre.  Mark, in a single kayak, acted as sheep dog and rounded up those of us who straggled or strayed.  It had become dark, the bright lights of office and apartment blocks lit up the black water surface.  A flood tide cancelled the river Yarra's natural flow and the going was easy.  
At five to nine, we rafted up again opposite the Crown Casino.  Mark turned the raft of kayaks so that we would all have a good view.  We could just about see, against, the bright city lights, eight towers each about 10 metres high along the riverbank.  
There was a hissing and then something between a whoosh and a boom as the first of the giant gas flares exploded into the night.  Then each of the eight flared up in turn and then in unison.  The flares saturated the river (and our cameras) with light and heat.  The Gas Brigades as they are properly called use a much gas in each flare as an ordinary household does in a year.  We had been comprehensively wowed.
The show over, we paddled further up the river to Federation Square.  We climbed (pretty stiffly in my case) out of the Kayaks and helped stack them on the trailer that had been delivered by Kent's wife.   We then damply walked our way through Melbourne's exuberant evening revellers to our hotel.
It had been a wonderful way to see Melbourne by night.  Even the email request for feedback from Kayak Melbourne was different.  It came in the form of a postcard that said, "Wish you were still here!"  Indeed, I wish I were.

We kayaked with      Kayak Melbourne

Sunday 10 May 2020

Travels in South America. Market Day at Guamote In Ecuador

Feeling intrusive at a proper market in the high Andes

The Puruha people of the high Ecuadorian Andes have been holding a market at Guamote once a week for around 4,000 years.  They have probably always held it on a Thursday from before Thursday had a name. 

The Tren Crucero with us on board crept into the market square of this small town 3,057 metres above sea level.  As it came in, traders moved off the track in front of it.  As the last of the four carriages arrived, the market closed in behind.  I could tell this had happened because, as I alighted there were people and tethered pigs and sheep sitting on the track within feet of each end of the train.

The people here have seen the Incas come and go and I got the impression that they were now patiently waiting for the Europeans to leave.

This is a proper market.  There are no trinkets to sell to us tourists, no knick-knacks or alpaca scarves.  We are ignored as we walk about and they get on with their lives.  I feel intrusive and I resist the temptation to lift the camera hanging round my neck.

The only way to break the ice is to do some shopping.  I buy a couple of fresh, sweetish bread rolls decorated with a pinch of hundreds and thousands.  I tell the stallholder they are delicious — it is true — and I am allowed a photograph.

The colours and textures are wonderful, dignified women in wide skirts, puffed up with voluminous underskirts.  They call them mother and daughter skirts.  Bright, green, magenta, pink or blue woollen shawls are draped round their shoulders covering embroidered white shirts.  Bowler hats or fedoras in brown or black crown nut-brown weather-beaten faces.  Sharp dark eyes are emphasised by crows' feet earned by long days of work in the sun and wind.  Noble faces like this are not to be photographed; memory will have to do.  The few youths in nylon football shirts jar.

Bright vegetables and the mixed stock of the rope sellers set off the colours of the clothing.

The chatter of the market is briefly drowned out by an orange seller announcing his keen prices by loudspeaker from his pick up truck.  His wife walks behind making the sales.

I spot a young woman wheeling a trolley selling fresh coconuts.  She moves fast and I have to chase her round the market to catch up.  Deftly she stabs a hole in the top, squirting my glasses with juice.  She allows herself to laugh.  There is nothing to beat cool fresh coconut water straight from the nut.  She allows me to take a photo but shyly moves back. 

Most other food is on the hoof.  A woman walks past with a triumphant grin, clutching a squealing piglet to her chest.  Across the way a lamb is being half carried, half dragged out of the market.  Its bleating suggests it has just found out the meaning of the phrase, 'Lamb to the Slaughter'.

I cannot manage a hot, newly cooked empanada but it looked good.

I notice a three-deep semi-circle of attentive farmers listening to a man selling patent medicines.  I do not understand his language but he is good, they are intrigued, he makes them laugh.  He knows how to read his audience.  At the end of his pitch, most of the crowd fades away.  They enjoyed the show but they are not buying.  The snake oil salesman closes up his case philosophically.

I make my way back to the train and take a few discreet long distance pictures.  The engine sounds its air horn.  The traders ahead of the train move out of the way at their own pace and we intruders move on leaving behind the people who belong here.

Thursday 2 April 2020

Al-Mu'ezz Street, Cairo 2016

We were the only tourists in Old Cairo that day.

Al-Mu'ezz Street was slowly waking up on the first day of Eid.  My wife and I seemed to be the only tourists exploring old Cairo that morning.  Our guide, Anwar, took us into the street through its mediaeval gate Bab Zuwela.  Above us ancient, dark, wooden filigree filtered the morning sun and I do mean ancient, this wood is reputed to come from Noah's Ark.  Al-Mu'ezz   Street was first built when Cairo — El-Qahîra, "destroyer of the enemy" — was at the height of its power inthe 10th century under the Fatimid rulers. What we saw, however, was built mostly in the 18th century.
On our right, we saw the Sabil of the son of Muhammad Ali Pasha.  Here, water was carried from the Nile and stored in a cistern (Sabil) to provide water for the poor. We could not get in but continued up the awakening street. Narrow alleys branched off. These alleys used to hide the workshops or Khans of artisans: the leather workers, the silversmiths, the weavers.  It reminded me of parts of the city of London where names of old streets, for example, Ironmongers Lane, still record their old purpose. 
In Arab architecture, the outdoors is hot and hostile.  Its buildings reflect the inner life of coolness, family and privacy.  So we were not entirely surprised on being shown through a non-descript door to find ourselves in the previously concealed Al-Mu'ayyad Mosque.  Glorious stained glass windows high above us filtered hostile sunlight into a shaded and cool space.  I learned something, new about the Mirhab that is to be found in every mosque.  I knew that one purpose was to indicate the direction of Mecca. However, its shell-like shape also reflects the voice of the imam leading the prayers back behind him to the prayerful.
We returned to the street to find that not everything was serious.  A few young Cairenes were also visiting. They had hired period costumes to have their photographs taken. Over his jeans and T-shirt, the young man wore an elaborate black cloak and had enhanced his look with a false beard and a tarbouche.  The two young women, already very attractive in modern dress and hijab, had put on the full niqab, albeit its black material festooned with bright embroidery and pailettes.  One of them, entirely aware of the effect she was having, flashed kohled eyes through the narrow slit.  While we wondered whether to take photographs,they invited us to join in.  No doubt, we are now strangely adorning somebody's Facebook page in Cairo.

First floor windows jutted out over the street.  The windows were covered with dark wooden fretwork.  From here, the women would have looked out on a world that would never see them.
Another blank door, a few steps and we were in the bright, sunlit courtyard of the El Ashraf Brisbay Madrassa.  Its cool cloister was marked out with columns.  In its day, the courtyard would have been full of students in a swirl of robes, hurrying to the particular pillar, at which they knew to expect a particular professor to deliver the lecture they wanted.  
A diversion to our right brought us to the Bayt al-Sihaymi,the house of a 17th century merchant.  Rich merchants have not changed their habits much; this mansion was two houses knocked into one.  We stood in the festival room, where the men had sat on divans to watch dancers.  The women had their own rooms for entertainment.  They would have watched female dancers performing Raqs Sharqi, the gentler and less exotic form of belly dance.  We were in the house of a family that knew how to live well, what a treat it would have been to spend a day in the house's library when it was full of books.
Our last call was Sultan Inal's Hammam.  It no longer functions but we loved all the familiar elements of a hammam, the steam rooms, the marble slab and light
through coloured glass stars in domed ceilings.
We emerged from Al-Mu'ezz Li-Dîn Illâh, to give the street its proper name, at Bab Al-Nasr, the gate through which Egypt's victorious armies returned to the city.  We turned right towards the Khan el-Khalili and finished our tour in the traditional coffee house, El Lord.  We sat on divans among brilliant tapestries and carpets, drinking coffee and mint tea, we felt at home.  On the wall were photographs of some of Egypt's former leaders with such as Colonel Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein; smiling faces of men who thought they would rule forever.
For a few hours, we had felt part of old Cairo. Egypt needs its tourists back.  We met nothing but friendship and care for our safety.  My message to travellers is, please return to this city and to Egypt.

Saturday 21 March 2020

Burma Traffic

They tell you Burma is different, they are right. Our bus left the airport and plunged us into the traffic of central Yangon.  I have experienced city traffic from Cairo to Surabaya but this was new.  To start with there was the sheer density of cars, buses and trucks.  For reasons best known to itself, the Military Government banned bicycles, trishaws and tuc-tucs from Yangon City centre.  That means there is no space between other vehicles.  You would think that would cause a logjam but the whole lot swirl about like marbles on a tray.  It is terrifying.

Ten years ago, the same Government decided it would be good to change from driving on the imperial left to driving on the revolutionary right.  To be fair, quite a lot of Yangon drivers have got the hang of it by now.

When the Military was in full control people needed a permit to own a car and permits were not easy to obtain. The roads were probably big enough for the traffic. Now no permit is required and there are thousands of extra cars; the roads have not altered.  The influx of new cars comes as bulk importation of second hand cars from Japan where they drive on the left.  As a result, many of the cars driving on the right in Yangon have right hand drive.

Public transport is exciting.  There are lots of tiny taxis, about the size of the missing tuc-tucs but with one more wheel.

Mobs of people at unmarked places signify bus stops and buses plough through the traffic to reach them.  There is no such thing as a route marker on a bus and the conductors hang out of the doors yelling out their destinations like fairground buskers. 

To cross the road, always follow a crowd of locals and submit to your destiny.

It was less exciting in Mandalay.  Cycles and motorbikes are allowed and there is some space between cars.  Unlike his passengers, our one-eyed bus driver was blissfully unaware of traffic approaching from his left.

Monday 2 March 2020

Book Review 'Travel Writer’s Field Guide'

 Travel Writer’s Field Guide

Phoebe Smith and Daniel Neilson

The Wilderness Conspiracy:  £15.99

Review by David Higham

 This fine book starts with the authors’ intention; to combine storytelling with travel.  They say that they will complicate this simple statement by asking and then answering a different question, ‘What makes great travel writing?’

In the opinion of this reviewer, an aspiring travel writer, this book succeeds in answering the question and provides practical guidance on achieving the task.

The authors move on to a history of travel writing and an analysis of what makes the great travel writers so good.  This section covers familiar ground but makes for an inspirational start.

The section on pitching to editors is the authentic voice of experience.  Phoebe Smith was once editor of Wanderlust magazine.  Those of us who aspire to being published in magazines need to read it carefully. What was particularly useful was the advice to understand the purpose of any article which should either be to inform, to advise, to entertain or to inspire.

The practical advice on writing gets into its stride in the fifth chapter, ‘On the Road’. This reviewer particularly enjoyed the section on writing equipment. We all have our quirks about the right notebooks and writing instruments. We are curious about how the professional writers equip themselves.

There is excellent advice on style of writing though there are many more don’ts than dos. That is probably right; there are many more ways of writing badly than writing well.

The book is right up-to-date with advice on not only how to set up and write travel blogs but also how to make them commercially successful.

The Guide is for sale and also available as a series of podcasts at its website:

The design credit for this physically pleasing book goes to John Summerton, the third member of the Wilderness Conspiracy. With its soft but sturdy cover, almost square format and curved corners, this book looks good and feels good. It is well laid out and broken up with quotes, pictures and the charming line drawings by Alex Hotchin. The book seems to encourage the reader to annotate, mark it and to make marginal notes. This is a book to read, reread, scribble in, to keep and return to often.

Saturday 15 February 2020

A Wedding at Dendera (2016)

Excited children were running about in an open-air enclosure in which some 200 empty white cotton- covered seats faced a stage. There was to be a wedding in the small town of Dendera on the Nile.

 The senior women, soberly dressed, but with bright headscarves, started to fill the front ten rows of seats on the right hand side. They were engaged in the serious business finding the seat that properly reflected their status.  The men were nowhere to be seen.

The wedding couple, I learned, would have been formally married in the mosque the day before but the bride had stayed with her family that night. Tonight’s ceremony would unite the two extended families. Only then, would the honeymoon start.

A raucous band shook the air with tambours and coarse trumpets — the bride and groom were on their way. At last, the men started to take their seats on the left hand side of the congregation and a curtain was drawn to separate the sexes.

The fanfare reaching a crescendo and the bride and groom arrived. Almost overcoming the noise of the band, there now came clapping, whistling and ululation. The groom was a serious looking young man in a western-style white tuxedo.  The bride wore white, mostly traditional, but with something of the western style of wedding dress.

It was a hot evening and under the relentless flashing neon and camera lights, the bride fought to keep cool under her tight white hijab with just a small fan. She looked happy and confident as she sat on a throne, where she was subjected to a great deal of sisterly and motherly fussing.  The groom looked less at ease, possibly impatient.

About a year earlier, the prospective groom endured a fierce interview with the father of his intended. He would have had to establish that he had a job and somewhere to set up home. He had to declare the sum of money that he had available. The bride's father would then have to put up twice that amount as a dowry. Imagine having to work out how to pitch the figure just right. Too low and the bride’s father will think you unworthy and the bride will feel short-changed. Pitch too high and you embarrass the man whose permission you need to marry.

The bride will have used the combined fund to set up their future home. The groom’s role was to take an affectionate interest, while deferring to his future wife on every important decision. He would have been wise to assume that every decision was important.

Surely exhausted, band continued even louder than before. Lights rotated and flashed, gas flares roared and a camera on a moviemaker’s boom swooped over the audience and the couple.  The bride stood up and danced amongst the women while the groom danced among the men.  Men in traditional desert dress danced in a fog of dry ice, whirling dangerously heavy, wooden staves. Just 20 or 30 people were dancing and filming as the bride and groom eventually danced together; perhaps for the first time in their lives.  Nearly all the other guests, there must have been 150 of them, remained in their seats like a cinema audience, the curtain remained between the sexes. If the audience were sharing in the exuberant joy at the front of the arena, they did not show it.

The dancers showed no sign of slowing down. The party had hardly started.