Friday, 27 May 2011

Getting home

Always odd coming home. Time - which seemed so limitless at the beginning of the trip - shrinks as you put everything back into the cases. It was extra poignant this time, because we were saying goodbye to Catherine, the maid who had looked after us so diligently at our hosts' house. She is Kenyan, an orphan, and as the oldest child responsible for the raising of her younger siblings. Her parents died together - so, probably in a car crash, I don't know. She is now 23 and paying for her little brothers to go to school. She works about 6 days a week. She lives in for her work, they live with an aunt, so at least she does not have that responsibility. But when her employers (our friends) come back to England this summer, she will be out of work, in a ferocious marketplace.

Down in the shopping malls, we saw many notices with people desperately looking for work: I can drive, I can clean, I can cook, I am a qualified nurse, I have excellent references, I can guard your house, I can care for your sick family, I NEED WORK! These posters have tear-off strips along the bottom. It seems so hopeless. There are thousands of people in every district looking for work. How she can find anything in this maelstrom is anyone's guess. And then there are the guys who did the outside work at our villa - gardening, pool maintenance, night-watch. These too will be out of work.

Catherine's hope is to find another English or European employer, as the general preference would be to avoid working for the Indians, who notoriously abuse their African servants. We said our goodbye to her, gave her a huge tip and a bracelet, and now I find I have brought her home with me. She is a kind, gentle, sweet, pretty young lady and her dearest wish would be to marry and have children, but it's hard. How to find a reliable Kenyan man, who'd have to be a Catholic, and who'd could support her and a family? Impossible, probably. The young men do not often stay with their wives once children come. There are almost no steady jobs. The death of her parents will have altered everything for her. Her predicament is Dickensian, almost operatic. I feel very sad for her.

Our driver to the airport on Wednesday morning was called Joseph, typically a rural Kenyan who'd arrive in Nairobi to seek his fortune and ended up in the taxi business. He was educating his girls - one wants to be a pilot, one a lawyer. He said, the bye-election in W Kenya on Monday had been very important. Neither the government nor the opposition candidate had been elected, but an ordinary person who was standing for ordinary people. He said, the election violence a few years back had been abhorrent to most people: some had benefited, some had lost, but the population wanted peace, prosperity and an end to corruption. He thought democracy would work, even if it took time. He was an excellent driver (in the chaos of the rush hour) and wants me to pass on his details if anyone's visiting Nairobi - he can fix good hotels, plan outings, etc. His email is and his phone numbers are 0729 382 512, and 0722 539 567. You'll need the prefix for Kenya.

The flight home gave us a superb view of the whole of Kent, and across the Channel, so we could see Faversham and Sheppey and all the geography laid out in the misty sunshine. It all looked so peaceful and easy, and close. (Little did we know it would be a four hour trek to get from Heathrow to Faversham. Once again, we had to suffer London's transport system which is DISGUSTING - old, worn out, inefficient, dirty, crowded, scandalous).

When we landed, everyone got up, then we had two VERY stern warnings to sit down again. Two policemen marched down the aisles. They homed in on an African guy sitting just behind us, handcuffed him, led him away, with the two stewards accompanying them. The guy was 40-ish, grizzled, bearded, meek. The rest of the aircraft was in hushed silence. It was all very dramatic and mysterious. Who he? No idea.

Back home, we are unwrapping our touristy bits and bobs: sculpture, Nice & Lovely soap, Maasai blanket, khangas, an ingenious snake made of bottle-tops, some wallets (made by the girls in the fruit market) out of fruit-juice boxes, so many bits of rubbish turned to use. Catherine is looking at me, nervously. The girls in the project are singing. Jaya, the Jain lady is showing us how to make kulfi. The sunbirds are darting about by the kitchen window. The impala are looking at us, just a few feet away. The pelicans are gaggling on the shores of the lake. The people are bustling about their business along the miles of slum verges. The tiny children are setting off to walk miles to school in their immaculate uniforms, great satchels on their backs, while cars bash past them, too close. The traffic is horrendous. The volcano broods and looks peaceful. Kenya is all there... it's all happening, while I write this, five thousand miles away.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Last Day

So little time, so much to do. We did a deal with Marvin over some pretty, semi-precious stones, we've just had a quick swim in the very glam and sparkling pool, then a jacuzzi. Supper out tonight, then an early start in the morning to fly home. Cross fingers the ash from the volcano keeps clear of Heathrow.

I have not yet told you of the girls' centre by the fruit market, a last-ditch safety-net for a few lucky girls, who are nominated by various community leaders in the huge slums as being especially needy or at risk (the mind boggles). They get to learn about horticulture, growing their own meagre lunch of veggies, cooked in a solar pot. That's better than nowt. During a one year stay, they get taught various useful skills - sewing with a treadle machine (no electricity there), making beads out of rolled up printed paper waste, and then threading them into stylish necklaces, crocheting some surprisingly handy little totes out of old plastic carrier bags, making small wallets out of fruit juice cartons. Yesterday, they were having a treat - a three course lunch at the sister of Shariffa, the Ismaili lady who founded it all. The girls would never have been served in that way in their lives. When Shariffa brought a doctor to see them, a woman from Chicago, and she asked each of them how they were - they burst into tears. No-one had ever asked them that. The doc gives them each a full check-up, once a year and can offer limited medicine. Even an aspirin is fabulously rare.

One of the girls took us around the market for some shopping, carrying the bags. Shariffa's driver Festo led us to the best stall for each purchase. Once again we found nothing but smiling courtesy in that dark and muddy place... but the produce was shining and beautiful. We gave Mary our loose change. This was the first money she had ever had of her own.

We talked to Iris, a volunteer and trained gardener who is leading the garden project. She is pretty inspirational, helping the girls work out what works best, experimenting with composting techniques. She's German, said she'd be glad of all my old gardening books which of course are in English - that way they can start a library and the girls can do some research into plant nutrition etc. Getting the books to them may prove tricky as the postal service is not 100% reliable.

The girls sang to us as they left - a slightly ghastly 'thank-you' routine but actually it rapidly became funny and fun. This project needs people to place orders for the pretty and stylish things they make - 100 necklaces, or 100 cushion covers, or 10 woven bags. I think you see this kind of stuff in cool shops in Brighton - anyone who'd like to know more, let me know!

Shariffa is a real star - cajoling people into supporting her project, and absolutely clued up about all of it. The Aga Khan, spiritual leader of the Ismailis, said: if you have a son and a daughter and can only afford to educate one of them, educate your daughter. I'm into that, big time.

As it happens, in the evening we ate with our hosts' neighbours - she was born in Kenya and it was her mother who helped start the bead factory at Kizuri. Their three children are all devoting their working lives to the betterment of the country, one with a Slum TV service, another with UNICEF, etc. Their lovely open house was full of art and family pictures. They played hits from the 60s in the sitting room while we sat under a canopy on the terrace, warmed by a kippering chiminea...smoke billowed around us while we talked about the history of this marvellous country. David runs a tree planting charity - has planted millions of trees here. He also talked about a NIKE-backed project up on the Lake to help the young girls who trade in fish; recently the fishermen have started to demand sexual favours before they will sell their catches to the girls, so HIV/AIDS has rocketed. This project - again with horticulture and other manufacturing power - is transforming the lives of a few hundred or maybe a thousand girls. That's so few. But every single one counts.

Sunday, 22 May 2011

Shopping, church, gemstones....

The number of things we are seeing and doing is tremendous and difficult to report in full with only limited access to a computer, or indeed time to write. I keep remembering things I meant to say ... For instance, over lunch (when we blessed the icons) Runar, the Norwegian, turned out to be quite an ornithologist. He explained how the owl is not liked in Africa, is thought to be a bird of bad omen, bringing death. (Mark later said this may be because it’s nocturnal). Anyway, Runar said people often destroy owls’ nests and generally harry them. This is very different from my own view of owls – as wise birds, interesting and valuable, related to the goddess Athene, and of course significant in Winnie the Pooh as Wol. Anyway, Amanda pointed out this dislike of owls puts a very different colour on the story in Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ where her staff on the farm give her an owl. She took it, I think, as a fine gift and something to cherish, but the donors’ purpose may have been quite different.

Yesterday (Saturday) was taken up with various errands – to buy meat for the weekend from Mr Gilani, who we met in his resplendent shop. He is dressed in formal 3-piece suit, with no less than 18 people serving in the shop and more visible via a screen in the cutting room at the back. He was at pains to tell us he had trained at Dewhursts and lived in New Maldon. I doubt there is a butcher’s shop like it left in Britain, though I must say The Butcher at Brogdale (near Faversham) certainly operates to the same proud standards. I was thrilled to find Harriet (our hostess from Friday’s Icon lunch) standing next to me at the counter. I felt like I had acquaintance in Nairobi, an oddly satisfying feeling. We then went to get salads etc... found a particularly tasty, firm and juicy orange called Pixie, which I recommend to you if you can find it, for its crisp easily-peeled skin and full flavour.

We also went (as witnesses if nothing else) to Ramoma – this is its last weekend. It is only 3 years old, a tremendously successful and generative art centre, but it’s run out of funds and they have to close down. The whole is set in pretty gardens, with sculptures all around, the walls inside covered in works of all kinds, including wonderful art made by children in hospital – some of them in the direst circumstances imaginable. I loved the pieces made of recycled materials – hanging screens made of hundreds of brightly coloured jar-lids, and representations of animals or scenes from life bashed out of old tins and other metal. The staircase itself was adorned with a marvellous parade of people, animals, clowns etc, so that to get to the upstairs galleries was to move inside a huge spiral artwork. I was thrilled to find the piece I bought – a very apprehensive looking lion made of scrap metal – was made by this staircase sculptor, who is called Harrison Mburu and deserves wide acclaim, as do many of the other artists whose work was on show. We saw only one dance show – performed by two men, one of whom had had polio and with totally wasted legs, but the two moved in perfect, loving, balancing alignment, one lifting the other slowly over his hips or back, the other using his long stick to help his taller companion to swivel and bend. It was very very good. One can only wonder what will happen to these artists now. In a city of such enormous poverty and contrast, it must have been a meeting place of huge value, and offering opportunities to people who would otherwise never get a chance.

We have now been to quite a few shopping malls – partly to get to bank machines, partly to get presents for people, partly to see the culture. There are sometimes ramps built alongside the staircases, either for disable access or for wheeled trollies for deliveries, not sure. The rake of these ramps is lethal. I would hate to have to get someone in a wheelchair up or down – it’d be very very difficult to hold them steady let alone push. All the malls have crowded carparks outside, with barrier entrances. I think most are owned and operated by Indians, and it seems that Kenyans themselves are not in the majority once you get inside the buildings.
Amanda needed to see her tailor about the coat he’s been making for her... this has been a tale of disappointment and mishap. Somehow he has not cut the precious raw silk properly and though the front of the coat looks marvellous, the back does not hang properly. She has been distraught... the cost of it, the waste, the amount of time, the exasperation with the man who said he did not need to do fittings, the need for it to be ready for a wedding in Kent on Sunday. We waited in the car outside his place while she tried to get some sort of improvement made... It grew dark. We waited and waited. Nothing to be done. She eventually came out, saying he was going to work at it overnight and try to do something. Very sad. Lots of emotion hanging on it. (Today in fact, having gone back there twice, and taken him two garments from her wardrobe to show how it needs to be done, she has accepted a change of plan, and he will now make a copy of one of her jackets using the remaining pieces of the silk).

It was a relief to stay in last night. We made a picnic supper and settled down to watch a (pirate) DVD... an Argentinian film called The Secret in the Their Eyes. This had previously been a failure as the first copy of the DVD only ran for about half the film. This time, it all seemed to be going very well. The story is a romanticised tale of an official from the prosecutor’s office who in retirement wants to go back to a horrible unsolved murder case. It involves quite a lot of flashbacks. His boss is a gorgeous lady (who looks very like my friend Sue Cassini), and his sidekick is supposed to be a drunk but actually steals the show as a clever and attractive free-thinker. We just got to a chase scene inside a football I stadium where the supposed murderer was hiding in the smelly-looking bogs, when the disc froze and nothing we could do could get it to move past this point. So I shall have to find a genuine copy when I get home to find out whodunnit.

Since I do have some precious time now to write I will give you this morning’s wonder. We went to the 8am Mass at St Augustine’s, which is the earliest Catholic Mission in East Africa and a fine set of buildings. I am not at all religious (our hosts are devoutly RC) but was keen to listen to an Kenyan choir. This was the Swahili service. We arrived in good time, the church was at least half full – and that was about 200 souls already sitting and standing in the handsome space. The windows are lovely – 1920s French glass. The church filled up and off we went. The whole service was in Swahili, the singing of the choir rocked! Their choirmaster is a thin, handsome, illuminated man, one trouser leg caught up in his sock, but who cares??? With drums, a washboard, a keyboard, and occasional ululation from some of the sopranos, we had a fantastic performance, with swaying, clapping, marvellous harmonies and rhythms, just wonderful. Mark said the early missionaries encouraged this style of singing as it seemed so African, but he as a purist thinks they should just use Gregorian chant. I cannot agree. I loved it. It seemed to throb out of every man, woman and child in the church as an occasion for expression. I also loved the chance to shake hands with my neighbours... the two young girls in front of me couldn’t believe this was happening. I guess not many white people go to that service, certainly not out-of-towners (and non-believers) like me.

We’ve also had a visit from a gem dealer this morning, a nice fellow called Marvin, who came to show us some tanzanite and other things. He worked in the US in the hotel trade but while he was there went the Gem Institute to study and qualify. Cool guy. He was walking around with a whole load of stones in his backpack – not only his own stock but also stuff belonging to other dealers. He loves cutting too, showed us which ones he’d done, and how brilliant they were. We’ve just had a nice barbecue from Mr Gilani’s excellent meat, with the remainders given to the staff.

We have Monday and Tuesday left now, with a full schedule for almost every hour. It’s going so fast. I see how I have become accustomed to the roadside life which we drive past. I can see how desperately poor it is, but also how enterprising and optimistic it is. Vision Groceries, Plumbers Exhausterer Unlock, Destiny Funeral Services, Christ is the Answer Church, all these mean hope for the future.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Icon Blessing

Icon Blessing
I often feel I am living inside a novel. The situations seem so contrived. Today for lunch we went with our hostess to meet with some of her icon-making students. It was arranged that they were to be blessed by a Franciscan monk, Father Augustine. We drove to another nice house not far from here, and everyone had brought something to contribute for the lunch. The students gathered, and their icons were laid out in display on a table, leaning back on small childrens’ chairs. The students were three immaculately clad Indian women, all Jains, a portly Norwegian Catholic UN man and our hostess, a tall English girl called Harriet. Her three children were at school, but her little terrier amused us by responding avidly to the call of ‘Monkey’. That house, in Spring Valley, being in a more forested area, has monkeys in the garden as a commonplace. Fr Augustine arrived, tall, bearded, thin, friendly.
I had brought, but forgotten, the little Ethiopian icon I bought the other day. It was wrapped up in my bag. Never mind. We had drinks on the verandah – water or fruit juice for us and the Jains, red wine for the Norwegian. Eventually everyone gathered around the icon table, photographs were taken and then we had the blessing – the words having been downloaded by our hostess Amanda from the Vatican website... Catholic rites for Orthodox images. Fr Augustine sprinkled some holy water on the icons, using sprigs of rosemary and we all said Amen. It was rather jolly.
Then we had lunch – the dishes being warmed in the back kitchen and brought out to the table – wonderful curries and puri, yellow rice fragrant with cardamom, and a dish we had brought, made by Catherine, the maid at our villa. This was a Kenyan dish, called githeri, a concoction of beans and other filling things, very nice too. More wine, water, fruit juice and a getting-to-know-you conversation amongst us all. Geeta, stunningly beautiful had been born in Uganda, fled as a baby with her family to Peterborough which she recalled as a true community place, where neighbours gave them tables, chairs, beds etc to get started with. She (it turned out) is a highly successful architect and mother of teenage children, but truly looked to be in her 20s. Jaia, clad in a wonderful saree, was the great cook – elegant, funny, shrewd – we are looking forward to having some cooking lessons with her on Monday. Fr Augustin said he was shortly to go off on his holidays – actually ‘begging’ as he said, (fund raising) for a new student hostel in Nairobi. There is a desperate shortage of safe accommodation for students in the city. He also had news of a German school out near the aiport which had been completely razed to the ground – apparently at the behest of the head of a rival high school whose government connections have proved impervious to law or any other form of open justice.
The Norwegian explained the origins of his name, raved about the stewed rhubarb, drank more wine, and talked of his childhood. He’s worked for the UN in many places, starting with a background in health. He had enjoyed reading a set of books by an Englishwoman (couldn’t remember her name) about Anglican clergy before during between and after the two world wars. Apparently their preoccupation is entirely sex – the slightly ribald laughter implied that this was only to be expected of Anglicans. I did manage to say that Catholic clergy presumably also thought a lot about sex- it seemed a bit unfair to ascribe this universal phenomenon to one sect only.
All the people round the table have had roving lives, born into it, it seems. Harriet was actually born in Brazil, married a Belgian, her father born in India, one child born in Africa (and a struggle to get a British passport led to the other two being born in the UK – no nonsense). Her house is anther due to be torn down to make way for more profitable flats, it seems.
I remembered too late that my icon was in my bag, but Fr Augustine very kindly blessed it (without holy water) right at the lunch table, in a simple ceremony asking a blessing for all who look at it. It will go next to my marvellous Russian icon, also of the Annunciation. In this work, the Angel Gabriel is shown on a tiny little cloud, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, seems to be darting downwards like an arrow towards the Virgin.
Mark drove us home as Amanda was going to a tailor’s fitting, and en route told us of his hopes and fears for his work and the whole dilemma of his decision to return to the UK.
Later in the day, we went to the Massai Market, as I wanted to see it and to buy some cloth. It’s held on Fridays in a large covered space in one of the shopping malls. Mark wanted to approach it through a supermarket and bribed the young salesman in the sofa department to open a fire-exit so we could get straight to it. The young man protested that his boss would be angry, but as usual Mark had his way. It was an excuse, after all, to press a note into the man’s hand. The market is about 10 tennis courts in size, under a high dark roof – all very badly lit. The stalls are throbbing with merchandise and eager salespeople – it turned out, many are employed by businessmen who hire them by the day. If they don’t make enough sales, they get fired. This explains their polite but desperate enthusiasm to get you to stop and look at their wares. I was not looking for carvings, but for cloth of a particular colour and pattern. Bargaining is the way. They ask an impossibly high price, written covertly on the margins of scraps of newspaper stapled together into little books. Under their opening price, you are asked to put your offer, and the bargaining proceeds to a mutually satisfactory level. Cotton has all but disappeared from the market, it’s all acrylic, though they will swear otherwise. The light cast by the one or two high orange lamps is anathema for any kind of colour vision, so it’s ok to ask and take a piece of cloth to the edge of the market to see what it realy looks like. I found a lady called Irene who (uniquely I think, on the market that day) had some of her patchwork quilts, and one I bought. Also a Massai cloth (acrylic) and some Kikuyu khangas, which were a lovely soft cotton. Florence Kelly, the girl selling us these last items, said we had saved her job – she had sold nothing else that day and would have been sacked if not for us. As we left, all these young grafters were packing up their wares into huge cheap plastic bags, to load them onto the roofs of those precarious vans, or the backs of bikes, to haul them away again till the next time.

Friday, 20 May 2011


I am really chuffed to see the number of followers is going up. Thank you!!!! Please pass on to your friends...I would dearly love to find a publisher for my travel writing. :-)

Yesterday we went to a Garden of Eden. Lake Naivasha is a huge freshwater feature of the Great Rift Valley volcanic activity, part of the water is shallow marginal, and part is in a crater and about 38m deep. We made a picnic and drove one and half hours up a very well made road to the lakeside, stopping only to view the Great Rift Valley from the top of a huge ridge (8,000’) and then turned into the first ‘Resort’. It is all immensely well looked after. Our first wildlife was a pair of Superb Starlings in the carpark, with fantastically iridescent blue backs. Putting our picnic into a fridge in the restaurant, and after a delicious coffee with hot milk, we strolled down through some pleasure grounds towards the water and our waiting boatman.

On the way we met a goatherd, with a fine flock of cows, goats, sheep and a couple of bulls. He showed us how much they love a particular kind of tree, pulling a branch down to the ground and the goats absolutely rushed to it, like children at a party.

Our boatman Peter helped us into the long blue and white fibreglass boat, we had our lifejackets on. We set off, and within less than a minute he was pointing out various birds. I am sorry to say, I cannot remember all the names but we saw pelicans, yellow-billed storks, kingfishers of various brilliant kinds, a lark, various kinds of cormorants, ibis including the Sacred Ibis, gulls, fish eagles, a lovely little shy red bird (jamara?), plover, all these and more in their various groups. There is tremendous range of size among the different species of each bird.

The water hyacinth threatens the lake. The lake is rich in fish. None of the birds
seemed stressed by the boat, as long as we remained still and quiet, so we could go very close to them. Peter was intensely knowledgeable, and had fantastic eyesight, picking the birds out long before we could see them. He spoke quietly and deeply, turning the motor down each time we spoke so we could hear each other.

On the banks, we could see various animals – it is FANTASTICALLY exciting to see your first zebra, I can tell you. Thankfully there are few buildings visible from that part of the lake, though the wondrous volcano Logondo (which we saw from our plane when we flew in) rises up on the horizon.

Then we saw our first hippo, a solitary male, making a dark ripple on the shining water. A larger group were resting in the water on some sort of mud bank, all piled on top of each other. These creatures are mostly nocturnal, live on grass (eating 67 kilos of grass each a day), and very dangerous, so we kept a safe distance.

Peter took us to a landing point and after using the bush toilet (a pee in the bushes) we set off with another guide, John, on our walking safari. This bit of land (Crescent Island) was used for filming the safari sequences in ‘Born Free’ and ‘Out of Africa’, so the grazing herds they released for the films are still there with no predators. Thus you can walk without fear through the area and get very close to the impala, waterbuck, zebras, gnu (wildebeest). In the woods we found a small group of giraffes, looking at us in curiosity. They seem to have interbred, which was not thought possible, but the markings were clearly a mixture of Rothschilds, Maasai and Reticulated.

The whole appearance of Crescent Island is most reminiscent of Hampstead Heath, with the turf sometimes worn through into bare dusty soil. (One little gulch was a distinct grey colour, very different from the bright red soils we have seen everywhere else... this is the deposited mud on the old lake bed.) The hippos range quite far from the lake each night to feed, and we could see their tracks as they tend to walk in file. There are scattered bushes, and areas of trees. We saw one or two dead carcases, the meat picked away by birds.

This area was in living memory under the waters of Lake Naivasha, but for various reasons, the normal fluctuations of waterlevel have been exceeded, maybe due to extraction for the flower farms and greenhouses further along, or maybe just ‘climate change’. The lake has clearly diminished is size by a huge amount.

During this walk, which took about an hour and half, I was moved to tears. To be so close to such beautiful animals, and they being so unafraid, was a sublime experience. Of course it is not natural. In the real world these creatures would be hunted by man (their worst predator) and subject to lions and leopards. Nonetheless, this was paradisical, for me.

John, our guide, said he had been in the Born Free film, one of the little boys who drummed to keep the lions away, and it was his grandfather who, in the film, was the lion handler. He said the whole area is getting into a partnership with the Kenya Wildlife Trust, who will give them training - it ought to be a two-way process as he himself was very very well informed about the local history, geology, wildlife, etc. The project will get some sort of certification, and ultimately theguides will be able to establish both a fee-structure for their services (voluntary at present), and also – more importantly – a scheme to include local people. This will involve further training and the whole idea of common interest – so the ordinary people can become stakeholders and learn to value these marvellous animals and places.... I do not wish to sound condescending at all, but the manifest barriers here, between the haves/have nots, the amount of barbed wire, the gap between the rich few and the many very very poor is not just shocking but potentially dangerous. Tourism is the main source of income for the country as a whole. The people we have talked to have been unfailingly polite, kind, welcoming, gentle. But there is an undeniable difference: we have money (choices), and they (to a large extent) do not. Our maid at the house, Catherine, has never been to Lake Naivasha.

I should add, on our boatride back to the resort, Peter bought a couple of fish from some guys and then, with a marvellous shrill whistling sound, summoned some fish eagles from the trees. He threw the fish out onto the water, and the eagles swooped down to scoop them up. Again, not natural, but still magnificent to see. Beautiful. We learned, not all the boatmen know how to do this, so we were lucky to have him. It also turned out, this was the same man who had taken our daughter Lucie and her boyfriend Matt out on the lake last year, and remembered them. Amazing. They remember him too, because a hippo got too close to the boat and they were afraid of a capsize.....

We came home along the lower road, with more stupendous views, this time of the volcano. The driving is terrifying. The tarmac drops off on the left to a verge of ruts and sand. The road is used indiscriminately in both directions by vehicles trying to pass the slow lorries and buses. The cars range from total jaloppies to lush new people-carriers. Driving means weaving in and out. There are monster pot holes and speed bumps. The police set up road blocks (for weekend money, says our host). Being in a car with UN plates we are not stopped, but otherwise it’s one in every twenty who are waved down. Probably 20 K shillings if you’re black, 30 if you’re white, that’s what I’m told. Pay up or go to jail. (125 Kenyan shillings to the pound).

We swam in the unheated, immaculate pool when we got home. Around us, the immaculate garden. Out there, less than a mile away, the shanty towns of corrugated iron: Posh Hotel, Jesus Saves, Best Stores, David Armchair, Mama’s, Lion Bar, more names later.... No running water, no sewarage systems.

In the evening we went to eat at Lord Errol’s, a resto run by a Swiss guy marking the ghastly life and death of Josslyn Hay, part of the so-called ‘Happy Valley’ set, murdered by who-knows in 1941. This was the same social scene which Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham, Lord Delamere etc moved in... for the most part spoiled rich sybarites, with louche manners and every kind of arrogance. No doubt they loved Kenya, and they left their mark, recreating Surrey in the hills around Nairobi, and extracting wealth.... oh dear, I am drifting here into areas I don’t know well enough to write about. Nor do I really want to know. The restaurant is in a rather lovely Australian kit house, built in a marshy bit of ground which the owner drained and made into a water-garden. You eat under cover on a large open verandah, with the tree frogs serenading you. The polished floors of the whole building are a marvel. The food was totally European in style, though I ate ostrich, which was perfectly cooked and delicious. The service was fit for royalty, including a ceremonial lifting up of silver dish covers which look like bosoms.

Today we are going to a ceremony to bless some icons which our hostess has helped various people to make in the last year or so, in her iconography classes. The religious life of the country is I think probably very interesting, ranging from unchanged Stone Age beliefs and practices to the most ‘developed’ formal religions. Catherine told us at breakfast that an American has prophesied the end of the world tomorrow at 6 o’clock and as a result a local man has sold and given away all his possessions and given sawdust to his children.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Tummy bug

Yesterday started badly with a sharp bout of some sort of stomach bug and I found myself not knowing which end to point at the loo – but mercifully, it all passed pretty fast and so today I am feeling pretty much back to normal. It must have been something I picked up from the fruitmarket, a germ on the skin of a piece of fruit. Luckily the weariness attaching to this kind of bug did not really kick in till the afternoon so we were able to do some interesting things in the morning.
First we called to see Tristan McConnell and his family – we had a parcel to deliver to their two little children from their granddad in Kent. They live in Lavington, another nice old area rapidly changing into denser development. Their pretty little villa, tucked down a steep bumpy driveway, has a huge garden full of trees. The properties on either side are now blocks of apartments, some in the process of construction. Their landlord, said Tristan, will surely turn in the same direction, which will mean the removal of these amazing trees. In particular one huge eucalyptus has an amazing nest in it, built by the Hamerkop bird, a prehistoric looking thing nearly 2 feet long, from the heron family, massive and with an equally impressive home of twigs and branches.
The birds all around are fascinating: we have seen shrikes, sunbirds, ibis, eagle, hummingbirds, kites and more that I couldn’t possibly name. Their dawn chorus is lovely.
After Tristan, we went to Karen, the fabled home of Karen (‘I caught the cla-a-a-a-p in A-a-a-fricaaaah’) Blixen, which the Danish government gave to the Kenyan government at Independence. It is weird walking round a filmset (you remember we watched the movie the night we arrived). It’s also very nice seeing Danish furniture and porcelain, so distinct. Karen was no mean portraitist, I have to say, and her portrayals of various children from her farm are absolutely sweet. Our guide identified every item in the house as being original or not original. A short walk through the woody forest afterwards was calming and interesting – this is ‘like’ the original forest now rapidly disappearing and could have been in Surrey.
Then we called into the Kazuri - which claims to have given employment to women in distress, mostly unmarried mothers - and they do make the most lovely glazed and assembled necklaces and bracelets. Lucie bought me some earrings from there last year and urged us to see it. It is impressive, with 340 women quietly working neatly at the various stages, with huge machines doing the initial pounding of the clay... which till recently was imported from England! They then found some clay on Mount Kenya, which seems more sensible. The quietness in the workshops was not comfortable...I was left wondering how much the women actually earn - presumably enough to keep them coming back, but the man who showed us round said they all walked to work as they couldn't afford the fare from the Kibera slum where they live, about 30-40 minutes walk away. The place is managed by Indians. They sell the beads all round the world, Harrods, Oxfam and John Lewis are their main UK outlets. The work is lovely and fashionable, and there is no doubt the women working there are pleased to be there, but I just wonder, couldn't it be just a teeny bit more uplifting?

By this time I was feeling a bit grotty, so we made a quick turn round a Botanical Gardens - nothing labelled, unfortunately but a delightful collection of unusual flowering trees and shrubs, landscaped into large ‘rooms’, some with one large central tree. My day was done by this time, and Amanda kindly brought me home (and even went to get me some medication from Mr Shah, who is not a doctor but part of the UN setup. He handed over various tablets, some of which I have taken, but not the antibiotics, as I didn't think this bout was going to be very prolonged.... and that has turned out to be the case. No flowers please). I should say the Ladies loos in most the touristy places we've been to are on the whole very clean. I have been compulsively washing my hands everywhere, though it has not protcted me, bleurgh.

Back at home I lay down in griping agony, while the others merrily ate, sang, laughed, joked, watched telly, and had a nice time. Friends!

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


We explored some of the edges of Nairobi’s cultural and anthropological scene today. En route to the fruit and veg market we called at Diamond Plaza, an Indian retail experience. First thrill was a sugar cane drink with lime and ginger, the juices squeezed out in a big old antique machine, and exactly filling two glass mugs ready to drink. Sensational! The warren of shops and boutiques could have been a suburb of Mumbai, complete with sex shop, Buddhist temple, shop selling lots of Ganesh replicas, and a cake shop filled with delectable sweets.

The fruit and veg market was something medieval, crammed into the edge of a pretty park laid out by the British, it looked from the outside like some sort of dangerous hellhole which no sane white woman would go anywhere near. A ramshackle arrangement of wooden stakes is covered with old strips of corrugated iron, plastic bags, old sacks and other makeshift waterproofing. Inside, it's very dark, and there are hundreds of fruit stalls, more or less carefully arranged on wooden trestles and banks which are lashed together with string and nails. Every trader, man, woman or boy, calls out a cheery ‘Good day! Hallo, mam!’ Some of the ware is instantly recognisable, some very strange. Grannies sit round the edge shelling beans into bowls or trays, so we have lots of beans and peas of all colours gleaming and glowing in the dark. Lads come to offer to carry your shopping. Every trader calls out and wants you to buy from them. They will cut fruits and veges open to show you how ripe or how marvellous their produce is. We bought two baskets full of bananas, passion fruit, fresh chickpeas, mango, mushrooms, cucumbers, courgettes, onions, and more... every item individually negotiated and bargained for. We took photos of some of the traders standing or sitting by their gorgeous stalls. Above their heads, a makeshift inner ceiling was stuffed with sacks and bags to help insulate everything from the heat, pouring in through the holey corrugated iron sheet roof.

I thought of my childhood visits to Camden Town market – how threatening the women there were – their raucous shouts and willingness to cheat. These traders today were quite different, modest and eager, and again it all seemed very Dickensian to me.

Home to a lunch of squash and ginger soup made by the maid, Catherine, a 23 year old orphan who works for our hosts to support herself and put her two little brothers through school.
Then with Mark at the wheel, we set out (via a fuel-fill at the subsidised UN garage) Paradise Lost. This is not a wellknown or promoted place, but worth the bone-shaking ride through Runda Forest (or what’s left of it). Turning off the highway, we were on a dark bright red soil road, with lush hedges on either side. We drove through a coffee plantation, and then tried to see a coffee processing plant – but nothing doing.

The entrance to Paradise Lost has a sign saying it's a Stone Age Cave. It's guarded by a gaggle of old men,some chewing khat, and looking pretty much out of it. We saw a camel and an ostrich, both available to ride when the place is fully open. We jogged down a steep rough path towards the lake. A sign says: No Swimming. Please Adhere! (This is because of the diseases in the water). Then we walked along the path to the waterfall, a picturesque tumble of filthy-looking water with a sheer drop of about 40' and then some rapids. The path leads to a neat space behind the waterfall and then to a cave. There is no information there, nothing apart from one plastic garden chair and a dangling light switch which is worth turning on.

A light bulb goes on inside the cave. To go in in, you have to stoop down and go along a short very low passageway and eventually, through some twists and turns, into a handsome cavern. There are handy side caves and shelves, but to my very untrained eye, no direct sign of burials or art. But who knows? The passageway ceiling looks waterworn, but the floors are rough and presumably hand-hacked.

I have never heard of this cave and have no idea if anyone’s ever studied it. It reminded me of the cave in South Wales which turned out to have very ancient human and animal occupation, high up on a cliff face – but this was easier of access. Something to research.

Coming home we called into yet another Indian shopping place, looking for Duct Tape but buying ayurvedic oil instead. Now the TV is on as I write this. It’s been another fascinating day. I am not finding it any easier to see so many desperately poor people along the roads. The villas are fenced with pretty walls topped with razor wire. The compounds are all guarded by watchmen, maybe as medieval houses were guarded – it’s employment for them, after all. The land in front of these walls is frequently gardened with hedging and topiary, which to my eye looks like a hangover from the vivid bedding schemes beloved of formal England up to WWII. Women waiting for their buses home after a night shift (cleaning?) spread out thin cloths on the ground and try to sleep, looking both decorous and vulnerable. The rich, including us, bounce past in 4x4s, sometimes looking people in the face, most often not. There is not any sense of revolution in the air, but I wonder if there should be.

Monday, 16 May 2011


I am told you can no longer get Bournevita in England, but you can in Kenya. People therefore take suitcase-loads of it back home after a visit. Let me know fast if you want some.

Why lions like eating Indians

Due to a sudden power cut this morning, I lost a whole bulletin so this time it’s being done on a document which I can paste in! I lost a superb text, full of wonderful phrases and now, I fear it will be impossible to remember how I wrote everything down. Here’s a summary....

Yesterday for lunch, maybe because it was Sunday, we had steak and kidney pie, an unexpectedly English menu. Because we are guests, this was our host’s favourite meal and very nice it was too. The avocado starter from some nearby tree was tangy, creamy, huge.

Then we set off for a visit to the National Railway Museum. Once again we were out on the terrifying roads, where chaos reigns. Appalling road surface, holes, overflowing sewage, groups of people trying to cross, children, beggars, men pushing or pulling barrows laden with goods, total lack of any lane discipline, no speed limits, traffic lights completely ignored, cross roads, markings or no markings, people cutting down trees on the central reservations without ladders or ropes, pedestrians, men down on the pavement (sleeping, drunk or dead, who knows?), flower sellers, lane changes, no signals of any kind, people overtaking or undertaking on a wild spree, accidents, in a frantic, almost merry free-for-all.

There are a huge number of people walking... everywhere you look. As our host said, it’s like a Lowry painting, but as you drive slowly past all the shanty towns, the road-side markets and churches, it reminds me more of Dickens’ London – the unmistakable stewpot of a growing, hungry, resourceful mass of people, working their socks off in appalling conditions, and doing their best to survive and improve things for themselves and their families. It is noticeable how clean and tidy everyone looks, however loose their clothing.

We are here visiting old friends, and being driven around by them in their 4x4 which has UN numberplates (Mark is working in the Development Agency). The car license plate exempts them from local road tax and also from local police fines imposed on the spot for any misdemeanours. These fines evaporate in the system so although they may provide an extra income for the police, the money does not help the screaming need for investment in safer roads.

It was a good idea to start at the Railway Museum – because it was the railway, known as the Lunatic Line, which is the whole reason for Kenya’s existence. The Brits (along with the other European colonists, loose aristocrats and merchants) were looking for ways to bring goods across country... maybe a line from Mombasa on the coast could connect up with the headwaters of the Nile? It seemed worth the venture and so they brought Indian coolies over (experienced in the construction magnificence of the Indian Railways) and these workers hacked their way by hand up from the coast through swamps, forests and mountains to the place now called Nairobi. In Masai that means ‘place of cool waters,’ as it was originally a watering place for their cattle.... there was literally nothing here in 1890. Hundreds of the workers died making the line. But the poor navvies had to face more than hard labour. They were preyed on by lions who evidently developed a taste for curry-flavoured human meat – and many poor Indians were devoured. Eventually they complained loudly enough for the railway company to do something. They set a wagon up with workers inside it for bait, and a young Englishman called Charles Lyall was on duty overnight with a rifle. He fell asleep while he was on watch and the inevitable happened... he was taken and eaten, the only white man to suffer this dramatic and terrible fate. However, he is also the only one whose death is commemorated, and the museum guide went so far as compare him with Jesus Christ, as he sacrificed himself for his fellow man. There is the very wagon where this happened. We went aboard, looked at where poor Lyall breathed his last.

From the very good maps and models inside the Museum building, it's very clear how the country coalesced around this 'lunatic line', with the great powers rearranging the map of East Africa, so that Zanzibar and Tanganika disappeared, and the European wars had their impact here too, as you can see in the Karen Blixen film ‘Out of Africa’.

The Museum is absolutely fantastic. There is a very large collection of marvellous steam engines (mostly from Manchester) in pretty good shape, along with various wagons, cranes, etc and they are crying out for restoration. All it needs is a group of UK railway enthusiasts to come and set it up, and some heritage funding.

There wasn’t any coal in Kenya so the engines were ingeniously converted to oil, with extra tanks fore and aft. Some of them are huge, especially for a one-metre gauge (an Indian Railway feature, apparently). How come the Indian Railways were metric? The Museum building has a marvellous collection of artefacts and photos, maps, tools, furnishings etc and we were free to climb into and around all the gear there throughout the whole site, as health and safety are not (as you know) an important aspect of life in Kenya. The guide was knowledgeable and helpful and I thoroughly recommend this as a place for you to visit if you come here.

Our final call yesterday was to Westgate Mall, which shows what happened to the descendants of the Indian railway navvies. This is a glittering state-of-the-art shopping centre, which could be dropped wholesale into north London and look completely at home. That’s because after they'd built the railway, the Indians took up trade – shopkeeping, in fact, and the Mall is a temple of retail. Very smart. Outside we had a cool drink and observed a tree full of weaver-bird nests. These miraculous constructions are made from leaves or strands of this and that... the tree in question looked as if it was dying because all the leaves had gone, but dozens of nests were dangling from all its top branches, like tiny shapely lanterns.

We watched ‘Out of Africa’ in the evening, a film which I think bears repeated viewing as it has so much in it, sufficiently historically accurate, to be a good aid to our understanding of what’s gone on here.

Today we went to see the Sheldrick orphaned elephant sanctuary, which was of course charming and interesting as well as a telling illustration of how Africa has been carved up, displacing both peoples and animals. They keep these dear little things in care for up to three years, feeding them on human-formula milk till they’re weaned, and then gradually (over 5 years) introducing them back to the wild. 84 successfully reintegrated so far. They are orphaned for various reasons – poachers kill their mothers, or man interferes in some other way, or natural causes. They are rescuable from a very early age, as young as a week or two, which seems miraculous. Elephants can no longer do their massive migrations across the plains, as they are a direct threat to farmers. It is frightening how quickly this magical powerful life cycle can be destroyed... in my lifetime.

We then went to see a similar set up for giraffes. There are nine sub-species of giraffe in Africa, three of which are in Kenya. The most endangered (down to a few hundred or so not very long ago) is Rothschild’s giraffe, which is identifiable by its white knees and socks. This sanctuary has a small herd with a successful breeding programme and has brought numbers up to safer levels. The giraffes come to a feeding platform for pellets, and there you can kiss them – they take a pellet from your mouth with great delicacy. I can report their long tongues are a bit sandpapery and I am told their saliva is very antiseptic, as they normally browse in thorny acacia trees.

I am very conscious of telling only a very small part of all the things we are seeing. I will try to fill in as we go. The whole botany of the place is amazing. The birds are beautiful. We saw a baboon in the middle of the road. The suburbs and slums are eating into the forest very fast. The roads are mended by young men wielding pickaxes... not a machine in sight. The verges of the roads are a sort of no-man's-land where people can set up shop, and they do. They make marvellous mahogany furniture by the side of the road, lovely looking stuff. They also have masses of little plant nurseries, hundreds of them, with every colour and size of plant, apparently tended by one or two youngish people or an old granny type. These are on fast-flowing roads, and I have not yet seen a single person stop to buy.

Sunday, 15 May 2011


It's a shame the Sky-map thingy didn't work on our Virgin flight as we flew over some amazing things, all mysterious and perhaps never to be known now.

Sleep was difficult on the plane. I thought £159 each for an upgrade (to Upper Class!) was too much before we boarded but later thought it might have been worth it. However I had a window seat and saw coasts and distant swathes of lights (was it Italy or the coast of Israel, or the Nile?) Then two brilliant planets greeted my first African dawn... We flew over an oh-my-goodness extinct volcano with a baby crater on its northern flank. Later told this is Lungunot... with its own micro climate and unique animaux living inside the crater. It looked smallish from where we were but who knows?

Clouds banked up in very un-English style, with ominous flashes inside them. Landing fab. But here on the ground it's been varying between hot and mild. The driving between the airport and this house was pretty much a free-for-all, like dodgems, but for real. Horrendously staggeringly dangerous, even in a 4x4, and driven by our friend who's used to it. Aagggh.

We passed many drifts of Kenyan people, solo or in groups, walking somewhere (a long way), going through piles of rubbish, carrying stuff on their heads, waiting in groups for Sunday School or church, making a dash across this terrible road.

We saw secretary birds, too, huge, which I've never seen before, only read about.

The villa here is like an hotel, with a beauitful garden, pool, security gates, cameras, armed guards, grills on the windows, sensors and emergency buttons in case of attack, and razor wire in the hedges. Inside it's very plush - tiles, arches, drapes, suites of rooms, palms inside and out, very stylish. We have unpacked, had coffee or tea, gone into the jacuzzi, swum, not had a sauna, jacuzzi'd again, and now waiting for lunch.

I have to remember this is Sunday. We left home yesterday at 4pm, and all was uneventful apart from a vile child on the tube, fat and pernicious, swinging on a pole with one hand and grasping her sweets in the other, poking fun at a man who was asleep, hoping to wake him up by droning loudly at him. We also spoke to a very black French guy from Cameroun who was going to Paris to see his wife and child (a baby of 5 months had recently died). He told us some of his life story - no family, hard work, study at the U of Greenwich, finding his lady, their struggle, her work as a nurse, her need to get French citizenship, and more. His round flat face looked sad when he said how tough his life had been but it lit up when he said 'But I am a Christian so everything is in God's hands', and we parted amicably.

I am sure you know this.... The London tube is awful. Dirty, small, overcrowded, old, bad, overworked. We need a completely new Circle line, and more, either deeper underground with escalators to get people to the platforms, or up on stilts like the road from the NY airport into Manhattan. Our metro is a total disgrace. How it will be during the Olympics I dread to think. We should be ashamed of what we have, what we put up with.

I am so tired... this is just a quick report to get us started. We are going to the railway museum after lunch, as it is the railway which explains the whole existence of Nairobi.

Saturday, 14 May 2011


The great thing about going away is coming home, seeing your familiar places through new eyes. The effect does not last long. But I thought how quaint and charming our town is as we came home. I still have in my mind's eye the amazing harbour at Fécamp with the tide powering in and out even though I am not there to see it. This melancholy is particuarly evoked, for me, by moving water... I think of rivers and waterfalls just doing their thing far away, and me not there to see them. It is something about the intensity of the moment while you are there, the now-ness of now, the here-ness of here. The fall of light on the land, and the quality of shadows in different places.

I should say our last night in Fécamp was a delightful supper party in our new acquaintance's house, and one of their neighbours dropped in - a French-Portuguese film-maker. We were given a succession of dishes of local food - chicory leaves spread with a little soft cheese with herbs, a dish of very fragrant tomatoes, then a 'salad' of soft potatoes mixed with herring - absolutely divine and a speciality of Fécamp. Then we had some local cheeses, all perfect and finished with an ice-cream topped with sliced pears-in-syrup from our hostess's dad's tree. This is a very very very hard little fruit, which has to be stewed for a long time. It turns from white to dark red, almost like a marmalade. The pears can be frozen if required. They have a quincey quality, so these slices were rather like membrillo from Spain. Delicious.

Now getting ready for the trip to Kenya I am paralysed once again by not knowing what to pack. I realise this is my neurosis, my deep anxiety - I have shared it before - but I am transfixed by inner queries about whether to pack bright coloured things or soft colours, whether I will need more than one pair of socks, where to find my rain-hood thing, do I need nail-varnish remover, etc. I really dislike this about myself, can see how trivial the questions are, how lucky I am to be able to travel at all. My green self would certainly not be going on this trip, but it such a curiosity.

Our hosts have asked us to bring as much bubblewrap as we can manage. Their son has just arrived with a roll of it... monstrous size, though weighing almost nothing. It takes up much more than a suitcase. We are fortunate that our host has not asked us to bring a lawnmower with us. That is what he demanded when the same son flew there last year. True. It seems inconceivable to me that neither bubblewrap nor Flymo-s are available in Nairobi. If it is really true, we have clearly identified a gap in the market for someone to start exporting these crucial items to Kenya immediately. I think maybe while my own anxiety is about getting on a plane and zooming into the stratosphere, our host has a dread of being away from England and comforts which can be found in any quaint old English shopping mall, so he uses family and friends as a personal import service. Nothing wrong with that, really apart from the extra worry about getting the stuff there.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Backwards and forwards in time

Good places always have a clear identity, so that you recognise them and remember them. Often it's just the lie of the land, or the angle of the paths, or some other almost unconscious element, so you can hardly say what it is which you've noticed, but still, you know where you are.
Strangely, some places are very reminiscent of other distant places, and it's a pleasure to contrast and compare. Today after lunch at St Valery-en-Caux (of which more later) we tootled back to Fecamp along the tiny coast road, and found ourselves in North Norfolk. Here are the same little flint-and-red brick cottages and gardens with battered hedges, ancient lanes, poppies in the verges, and a hot dry chalky feel to the place. Just as in Burnham Market or Cley-next-the-Sea you feel you could reach back just with one hand to the bad old days of hard graft and lowly status, but in front of you is a sense of prosperity and rejuvenation, with the labourers' cottages modernised, and the old potato patches turned over to lawns and other leisurely purposes. This Norfolk idyll is particularly attached to one village, the others looking more Normandy-French... you will find it if you take the coast road around les Petites Dalles and xxx (forgotten, will fill this in!)

This is called the Alabaster Coast because of the light coming from the sea and the stunning line of chalk cliffs which stretch in either direction, 350+ feet high. Calm farmland up top and dangerous beaches below. Tiny valleys pip down to the sea from time to time – you can drive down these timeless little hideaways, with their calm cattle and expensive herds of horses. In the cliffs themselves are the inevitable remains of German fortifications – heavy concrete bunkers in Art Deco style.

We had lunch at St Valery-en-Caux, which is another port-in-a-valley, like Fecamp but smaller and with more of a tidal race. It too has its lifting bridge, lock and basin, plus casino, market, defunct railway station, bomb damage etc. We had an ok lunch at Resto les Bains, enjoying the powerfully coloured fake flowers and stylish lamps. It's all so well organised, wherever you go in France. It works. It's a total mystery to me why we can't organise this in England.... but then, our revolution was 130 years before the French and our class system, property-owning system, community-mindedness, and common sense are totally different. Neither did we have Napoleon.

We watched a few fishing boats loading the last of their catch up the huge wharfs to the stalls above. We watched a middle-aged couple gingerly working their way along a tiny ledge by the water's edge: she fishing for something – crabs? shellfish? - with a shrimp net, while he watched. It seemed timeless. They could have come from the Stone Age, apart from their clothes. We watched two young herring gulls pulling in a tug-of-war over some scrap on a sandbank in the harbour as the tide slowly filled around them. We admired a huge mural (60 feet high?) on an end wall.... depicting the sea, which in reality was only a couple of hundred yards away. We looked at the amazing carved wood on the front of the medieval merchant's house, with lots of women carrying bounty or spinning, or standing around... dating from the 14thc? Gorgeous.

We drove back past the thermo-electric nuclear power station at Paluel, with its ferocious razor-wire fence. We crossed the Paluel beach which in formation must be how Fecamp looked before the Abbots or nuns or whoever decided to develop it back in the 9th C.

Our tootling was helped by the satnav, which led us down roads with grass growing in the middle, and past thatched cottages with irises planted neatly along the roof-ridges, and past the gates of a smart 18thC chateau commercially named after Sissi (because she stayed there one summer. Not many English have heard of Sissi in my experience, but every Austrian and most French have. She's worth researching).
Actually the chateau is a Logis and is really called Sassetot and has a Salon de The - so we called in. It's quite nice, very reminiscent of Digeon which is my favourite Chateau so far, back in Picardy..... and see, we are back at one place being like another.

Here's the story. Sissi's chief courtier checked the place out a year in advance and then recommended she visit for the healthy sea air. She pitched up in July 1875 with 70 servants and had a great time. Not only did she cause a sensation by the size of her retinue, but she also swam in the sea. To remain private she did her daily bathing inside a double line of colossal canvas screens stretched out on the beach. The 'histoire' does not fail to have a dig at the English... it was an ENGLISH riding master who constructed some jumps for her horse, but she fell to the ground during her riding exercise and was UNCONSCIOUS for a while. Luckily a FRENCH physician was on hand to restore her to health and she totally recovered. She left a fortnight later at the end of September... back to Vienna, I suppose. Reading the notes provided by the waiter in the tea room, I wanted to shriek with laughter but restrained myself. The sense of anxiety and drama surrounding this long-dead aristo/Empress is almost palpable... the lady has fallen, she is hurt, we are all affected, we are deeply moved to hear she has recovered... Oh, please!!! Citoyens! What are you thinking?

Tonight, our last night, we are having supper with Michelle – a friend of the lady who owns this marvellou apartment. It was Michelle who let us in, showed us round. She is the one in the house with all the ornaments. I love it. We leave after breakfast, boo hoo. As usual, our holiday has passed by in a flash.

I meant to say – this morning I was able to meet with Mme Desjardins, the Conservateur from the fishing museum, a lovely lady whose office is in the old museum building no longer suitable for public access due to fire regs. The fine circular staircase is a model of elegance but is now deemed unsuitable, apart from municipal officials who risk their lives every day by working there. She was friendliness itself and has agreed to stay in touch with the Faversham Creek Trust – we can do with all the help we can get.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

French culture

We've had another amusing day immersing ourselves in French culture. We set off first of all to the musuem devoted to cod fishing on 'the Grand Banks' off Newfoundland. Whereas the Breton fishermen stuck to the old French-Canadian inshore territories, the Fecampois traditionally fished for cod in the deeper water. The tiny mother ships – only 50 tons up the beginning of the 19th century – would send out a dozen or so dories, each with two men who lay out the lines. Their positions were chosen by lot. The whole thing was horribly risky and open to chance – if fog or ice or bad weather overtook them, their only way back to the ship was hearing her bell ringing. Many men were lost every year. A haunting scenario. When they got their hauls of cod back to the big boat they had to throw it up onto the deck, where it was weighed by the mate, and they were paid by the number they had caught. It was salted at sa and brought back, mostly to be kippered in great warehouses round the harbour. None of those enterprises (or cod fishing boats) are left, of course, but the buildings are being restituted and respected. The museum itself is beautiful, fantastically well presented and staffed, richly plannd and endowed, with marvellous models of famous vessels (going back to the Vikings, too, as it was the Vikings who are credited around here for inventing kippers). They even have that wonderful book 'Tim at Sea' by Edward Ardizzone, in French, on sale in the excellent bookshop.

Then we went off to see the extraordinary parish church of St Etienne, which was started by an ambitious abbot in the early 1500s, on a huge scale. He died or left, they ran out of money and stopped with just a choir, transepts, tower and no nave. Fifty years royalty visited and the celebratory cannonshots actually set this awkward structure on fire. It took a further 15 years to be repaired, but still no nave. Rather reminscent of St Barts the Great in London now.

Then we took in the astonishing Abbey of Fecamp, which is utterly huge, white, and complete. This is where Wm the Conq came back to give thanks to God for letting him conquer and become King of England. He poured money into it, gave the Abbey possession of the churches at Rye, Winchelsea, Pevensey and Steyning and then staffed the rest of the English chuch with clerics from Fecamp. No wonder it was so rich. The noticeboard explaining some of this, across the road from the heavily symmetrical 18th century west front, is malicious in its glee in telling this story, in my opinion. The Normans proved to be a savage and punitive lot as far as the English were concerned, and our culture never did quite recover its confidence.

We went back to the harbour for lunch – to le Progress – filled with fat Frenchmen in pairs, eating in silent homage to their good fortune. The formule was 15.50 for Pecheurs... so it was fruits de mer, huitres, moules, morue, frites etc. The two men beside us were pleased to chat, sent us some nibbles, recommended the food, drank our health and sent us three 'trous Normandes' – little entr'actes of apple sorbet dropped into Calvados, as a present. One of these two was very merry and repetitive. The other was really spherical and reticent. He concentrated solely on the business in hand. Looks like they went there every day. Because Fecamp really is still more or less 'old France' this is how things are. We have not seen so many gourmandes in places which are better known to tourists.

A trip to the Tourist Info filled us up with maps, invites, etc especially relating to the maritime museum theme (part of the reason for my visit – to help form an alliance perhaps between the museum here and new one we are considering in Faversham to concentrate on our Creek and the Thames Barges).

Then, up we went to the Chapel of Our Lady of Salvation on the hilltop to the north of the town... again, no nave. This time it had fallen into ruin, and what's left of the very early church only survives because – like Reculver in North Kent – it acted as a way marker for shipping. The holy space below and around the tower (with a golden Virgin on top) is filled with all kinds of French religious bric-a-brac, several Mothers and Child, lots of plastic flowers etc., as well as very poignant memorials and prayers for poor sailors lost at sea. A (19th? century) noticeboard urging visitors to show respect and join in the prayers has been adorned and 'improved' with bright pink nail varnish, ending with the honest-looking word 'merci' all in lower case bright pink squeezed in at the end. The church there has been used as a quarry ever since the 18th century.... a farmhouse has been banged onto the back of the building, and that in turn has been adapted to a hotel, built in cloister style but looking both expensive and run-down at the same time. The knock-up nature of the farm house is hilarious.

We carried on along the coast, to a hidden valley leading down to a beach... lots of tiny cabins now costing thousands, I guess, but very tucked-away and rather cute. Then back to the town to find a really big supermarket... this time LeClerc.... huge, full of everything you could want. I love these places. This is where you can chart the progress of 'new France' and I can report things are definitely looking up. Stylish, cheap, confident, with a distinct national character, and very practical. I bought some more plastic-handled cutlery, 6 place settings of four pieces each for just under 13 euros. Cheapo and terrific.

Now we are back at the flat. Sunshine is flooding over the harbour. After our massive fish lunch it will be salad for super tonight. We are all tired. I have no idea if I'll get to 92 which is my mother-in-law's age, but I must say she's doing very well. Engages unkown gentlemen in conversation with ease. We had her in her wheelchair at the museum but otherwise she's done the whole day just with her walking stick for assistance. Pretty good.

Hypothetical (or not so hypothetical) French conversations

Eh! I am a lonely old French millionaire, living alone in my beautiful modern house here on the hill, overlooking the bay of Fécamp and the view of the magnificent line of cliffs which runs down to le Havre. It will never be overlooked: It is the best site in the town. I 'ave absolutely no-one to leave zis house to when I die. You look like a responsible couple, and also, you are Engleesh. I wonder, would you care to come inside wiz me and see what you sink about my proposal. 'ere, come up onto zis terrace and admire ze view... As you see, ze house is built to ze most exacting architectural stanadards. Let me offer you a leetle drink.....

Tiens! 'ere I am in my lovely new apartment, brand new as you say in Eengland. I 'ave 'ad many soughts about 'ow to decorate eet. We 'ave a very simple, modern, minimalist style 'ere. Very chic. So I will add a leetle trellis, 'ere, to give what you call a false perspecteeve. And I will add some bright blue plastic roses, 'ere and 'ere, so charming, no? And my old farzer, 'e was a fisherman, so in 'is 'onour I 'ave put zis model of a fishing boat right in front on ze balcony. Eet is good, no?

Well, actually, the Place Gouret is named in memory of my great-uncle Albert Gouret who was betrayed as a member of the Resistance, right at the end of the war, and he was taken away and shot by the Germans. Of course I never knew him. I am very proud of him. The whole family is very proud. They were terrible times. We cannot imagine now what it was like. I run the Bar de la Place now, right in front of the Hotel de Ville. Very popular with tourists of course. We get a lot of Americans coming, art lovers, because of all the Impressionists who painted this town, and people interested in the Normandy landings. And Dutch and English of course. And Germans, too..... They love it.


Mayor: Now, here we need to modernise the town. We need to pull down the fish-canning factory, and these old works. We need a good hotel, and a museum and a cultural centre. And a playground for the children. We'll have to close the road and move this bridge and it will cause a lot of disruption for three years. Then it will all be renewed. What do you all think?
Commune: Oui!
Départment: Oui!


Paulette, you stand in front. You are the smallest. Now, Daniel, you next. Put your hand on Paulette's shoulder. Now, Lionel, you stand behind Daniel, yes that's right.Put your and on Danile's shoulder. Now, Cyril, you go behind Lionel. Michelle, you are next, you mustn't cry. Just stand here, and put your hand on Cyril's shoulder, and then we will have – er, who's the next tallest? I think Agnes, yes, you are the one.... Now, you twins come next, Aristide and Nicole, either one, it doesn't matter, you are the same height. Now, all you others, wait your turn. We have to take your picture in groups, and this way everyone gets an equal position in the composition. Hurry up, stand straight, remember this is where the famous French artist Manet stood to paint the cliffs... you will all be in our photograph, you will remember this day when you grow up, and be very proud. Now, stand very still, that's it, and a big smile! Good, now the second group. Starting with Alain, good, now Armande, and then Camille, yes, that's it......


French TV cooking channel called Yumissimo... she is making velouté de concombre, incorporating rocket and tomato.... (True).


Do you know what he's going to do? He's going to get some goats. In fact, he's already got some. They're in the orchard at the back and he's made them a shelter in that building at the side of the garden. I know it used to be a goat house, but he's been using it as a personal gym for the last few years. He's taken all that exercise equipment out and put it in the garage. Yes, it's true. I said to him Jean-Paul, you don't know anything about keeping goats. Milking them, and so on. They can really hurt you if they want to. And he said, there can't be too much to it, the peasants used to keep them. Really! He wants to make his own cheese. I ask you! He's not even here most of the time. He's a city man, not a farmer. He's in advertising. He doesn't know anything about farming. He says he can learn it all from the internet. Ridiculous.

Mayor: This old building here on the quayside is very historic. It is not being used in the best way. In fact this whole property has always served in a useful way for our community and the present owner just wants to convert the place into apartments for a one-off profit. We will buy it from him by compulsory purchase, and make sure the whole town benefits from the restoration of the area. This will preserve our heritage and create jobs and new opportunities for generations to come. What do you think of this?
Commune: Oui!
Department: Ouit!
Echo from Belgium, Nederlands, Holland, Denmark: Oui! Oui! Oui!
Echo from England - typical council official: An Englishman's property is sacrosanct. And we have never used a Compulsory Purchase order, and don't intend to start now. Even an election doesn't scare us. Nothing the community does will make us change our mind..... Never mind if all the old skills and knowledge is lost, this man must be allowed to put his apartment block and cafes into this building......


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

French supremacy

We had a perfect day. It's about to be marred by frustration with French keyboard layout where a, ., w, numbers, m, and other usual keys are all in the wrong place so typing takes far longer than normal, trying to correct everything.

During the night, Joan's bed had tried to eat her when she got up in the dark - some sort of automatic pillow-lifting thing slipped into action when she inadvertently knocked a switch.

After breakfast we headed along the coast towards Etretat, stopping first at Yport where a pretty little open-topped English Morgan drew an admiring crowd of French Harley riders, and we watched masses of little school children go winkling down on the beach. The tiny row of beqch-huts are very pointy and chic in white, grey and black stripes. The twisty road over the headland to Etretat is just divine... through woods dappled with sunlight, with wild flowers shining in every quarter. (I now know why the French speak with such q strong accent - it's becaquse their keyboards are all zrong:::: I am spending tzice as long as nor,ql trying to type this as I have to correct it every few letters).

Etretat is gorgeous - coffee in the square, visit to a cider shoppe. An Englishman with a very strong northern accent told a tale of woe. He had forgotten to drive on the right and totally mashed his car. He was waiting for a new one to arrive.

Signs along the prom warn against feeding the gulls. We ate plaice at the Corsair Hotel on the seafront, with one cheeky gull trying to get through the glass 'wall' to nick our food. We admired the well-placed repros of some of Monet's beachscapes, comparing them with the present view. The sea was glassy calm, the cliffs magnificent. I wish you could see the rubbish unfolding fro, ,y fingers qs I try to touchtype. Aaaaaghhh.

On then to Honfleur, which must be one of the prettiest places on the planet. From a campaiogning point of view, I want to bring all our local councillors to this little medieval port to see what could be achieved with a swingbridge, some pretty boats and cafes etc along the waterside. Fantastic.

We have just eaten a crab salad for supper. Simple, stone-age and perfect. I cannot stand to type here qny ,ore; I zill do it on ,y Liniux ,qchine to,orroz qnd trqnsfer using q flqsh cqrd:

More to,orroz:

Monday, 9 May 2011

Day one

To Fecamp

We've had a great day getting here: The ferry crossing from Dover to Calais was smooth – on P&O's brand new Spirit of Britain. We had a reasonable cafeteria lunch marred only by the 'hostess' insisting that we approach the counters via a chicane of those bloody awful straps which make you walk up and down in pointless back and forth movements. I asked why she didn't just take it down as the boat was barely half full. She said it had to be there in case a great rush of people arrived. This kind of attitude is insulting as well as bonkers. My mother-in-law is 92 and walking is not always easy for her, but even she had to limp her way round this ridiculous rat maze. She chose a sandwich, Andrew had a Balti curry, and Josh (my 22-year old nephew) and I had haddock and chips. Not bad.

Getting into Calais is always splendid. I love it. The whole history and light of the place is very transparent. I liked it better before its recent revival, but no doubt the locals are pleased with how it's turned out.

There is something so inexplicably French about France, something so different from England and made up of so many tiny details all deeply rooted in their revolutionary culture and democratic method, that is impossible to imagine there could ever be more than a nodding kind of friendship between them and us. Their lamp-posts, gardens, hours, family life, rules, humour and smell are totally, absolutely, completely different from ours. I can only imagine they look on us as a real yahoo country, indisciplined, scruffy and with an odd tendency to assymmetry. I am always struck by how the French have arranged for most of their things to work the same way wherever you are in this huge country... lunchtimes, parking arrangments, town lawyers, shutters, what have you. Their engineering of bridges and harbours is magnificent. Their formality, directness and national pride maybe seem rather old fashioned to us Brits now that our great empire has more or less vanished... we are turning our own considerable powers of science, politics and engineering to new areas, so we have a rapidly evolving language, more informality, more self-deprecation, more fragmentation.

We dropped Josh off at the station to catch the TGV to Paris, then we drove down through Normandy – the glowing beauty of the landscape is irresistible. The farms may sometimes be small but they are prosperous. There are these small fields full of grass with small herds of the local brown and white cows and their calves, who all look blissfully happy. You almost never see cows like this in England. Here, each animal knows it is highly valued for that precious creamy milk and is, in all probability, a member of the family. They are actually radiant with calm contentment. It makes me angry that our livestock are not managed like this, but squashed into intensive systems, fed on unnatural foods, numbered and kept distant. Here the mighty French tradition of food has made them cherish their kine, and the dairy cows are so so lucky to live this side of the channel.

Fecamp is an old sea port, where the fishermen until recently worked the Grand Banks and up into Icelandic waters. Now the harbour is full of yachts and there are plans to build a big hotel and museum. Our gorgeous apartment on the third floor faces west over the basin. The town is spread out on the opposite bank, with the cliffs leading down towards Etretat behind them. We were shown into the flat by a friend of the owner who is away in Portugal. Our guide is a lovely lady who used to be an English teacher, comes from Rouen, and sounds just like my French teacher back home. Both are called Michelle, as it happens. This one has invited us to supper at her house on Thursday. Her house is a feast of French knick-knacks, bowls, paintings, dried flowers, ships' wheels, a marvellous old banjo-clock which was a wedding-present to her grandparents in 1902. The décor is yellow and blue. She's lived there for 10 years. She brought us along to this apartment just along the road: it's three floors up, via an automatic car-gate and a smooth lift. She went back home, leaving us to install ourselves. As we loaded the things into the lift, a neighbour downstairs told me in a stong Fecamp/Dieppoise accent that the person in the flat exactly next to ours died this morning. The family are all here. She indicated we should be sombre. That does not match our mood as we enjoy this big spacious salon with the sun setting over the sea, and light cascading down onto the quays and jetties. I hope Josh has arrived in Paris ok... in fact he's just texted to say he's ok.
This keyboard has a very different layout... I zill hqve to get used to it:

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Anxieties.... plans....

We watered, hoed and planted some beans this morning on the allotment, hoping things will stay orderly enough for our friend Dennis to manage it while we are away. The people on the plot next door were putting up a proper polytunnel - the last one ripped in the wind and that led to a rift between the two guys who owned it. One left and the other has found a new helper. They were using a metal-cutter to fit the hoops so our peaceful time there was full of industrial noise. I planted out some baby red pak choi and something called namenia for salads when we get back. Hope the slugs don't find them all.

Back in the garden it's been hard work planting things out so they have a better chance of surviving whatever the weather flings at them. That includes a smart little banana tree, three coffee plants, a lychee, and the usual herbs etc.
Our neighbour is very kindly going to water for us, but there are so many pots and special things, it will be quite a task. I vow never to go away again in May... there is just too much going on. The truth is, at this time of year, we are quite often checking things on a two-hourly basis. Wind and bright sun can wreck things very fast.

We are particularly pleased with our pip-grown grapefruit. It's about 15 years old and has made blossom for the first time this year. One of the flowers has already started forming into a little grapefruit. The tree has quite vicious spikes, however.

I should have gone to hear Andrew playing in the choral society's fund-raising cabaret show this afternoon, but ended up wandering round the town and doing some petty shopping. First time for ages. I'm sad to have missed his brilliant new arrangement of 'My Old Man Said Follow The Van' for three (or four) brass instruments. I've only heard it so far on the laptop, it sounds terrific. He says the players take it more slowly than he intended, but there are an awful lot of notes. He will be home soon - we will finish up in the garden, pack, check things are organised, and have an early night. So, that's it for today. Next bulletin should be from Fécamp, where we will be in an apartment on the Quai Guy de Maupassant, overlooking the harbour. I am planning to go to the fishing museum, which I am told is exemplary, devoted mostly to the Grand Banks. I have some beautiful little posters for them, from the Faversham Creek Trust, which is considering starting a museum devoted to Thames Barges and other North Kent matters. Private, of course.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Getting ready

I always find myself writing about how panicky I feel before I go away. Too much to do. All the planning in the world is useless. There's still too much to do. Anyway, my business affairs are in capable hands, the garden and allotment are being cared for by friends, ferries and flights are booked, so that's about it.
Is the panic really another fear? I think so. That I won't come back. See?
Having had a totally unexpected cancer diagnosis in January, followed by surgery, and with radiotherapy lined up for the end of the month, the ridiculously fragile nature of my life is more apparent to me than ever. I thought I would go on forever, in fact. Now I've had this little message from the ultimate hotelier, Death.
Consequently, my perfectionist instincts are all the sharper. I would like to be leaving my house, garden, wardrobe, accounts, correspondence, etc all in perfect order but - ha ha! they have never looked so chaotic!
We are off to Fécamp in Normandy with my 92-year old mother-in-law for a few days, then back home for a night, then off to Nairobi to stay with friends for a long week. Quite a lot to plan, as it happens. I am aware of the perils of both excursions, all to do with relationships of course, and how I manage my behaviour. I find I have a low opinion of myself in the company of some people and I shall be with some of them during this holiday. Heigh ho!
Anyway, as usual I have no idea how easy it will be to post during these travels. I will do my best. We are off on Monday early.