Connemara Mollie

Mollie

Mollie

Mollie was my Connemara pony on whom I fulfilled a childhood dream to do a long-distance ride with no set route and no support. Sounds surprising for a 70 year old? You’re right. I took a “career break” back in 1984, when I found myself unexpectedly single again. I reckoned it was now or never. I was publishing a couple of titles a year then, and spending several months in South America leading tours. So I went to Ireland and bought a pony. But after 400 or so miles, the Mollie part ended in heartbreak. To know what happened you need to read the book (Connemara Mollie will be published in July). But why wait 27 years to publish it? Here’s why.

When I got home from my two-part adventure in 1984 I could hardly wait to start writing. Although I hadn’t set out with the intention of writing a book, I’d kept a diary which I wrote up each evening in my tent, listening to my tape recorder play-back to catch the immediacy of the moment. But on my return I had books to publish and correspondence to catch up on, so it wasn’t until the following spring when I found the opportunity to start my book. My parents went on holiday, leaving me to house sit. I sat at the scrubbed kitchen table on which I had spent so many childhood hours drawing, painting and modelling horses, and started writing. I wrote in pencil on thick A4 pads of lined paper.

I worked steadily, checking my route on the maps I had carried with me, and listening again to the tape recorder to catch bits of dialogue, absorbing the cadences of the Irish accent and hearing the clip-clop of my horse’s hoofs as we covered the miles. When my parents returned three weeks later I had got it all down, but it needed a lot of revising and polishing, and for this I needed another period of isolation away from my desk. A house-sitting opportunity came up again, this time in Harringey. As well as solitude it had another advantage: an African grey parrot. I adore parrots.

I packed the two blue writing pads into a cardboard box, along with some maps and photos, put a few clothes into a suitcase, and drove my ancient car to north London, arriving at Julian’s house at dusk. He had already left, but I let myself in and started unpacking the boot, putting the box containing the manuscript on the garden wall so I could take my case inside. There were lots of written instructions to absorb and a very cross parrot.  The phone rang, Polly escaped and started walking determinedly down the stairs, and by the time I had got her back into her cage and found a sticky plaster for my finger where she’s bitten me, all I could think about was a nice cup of tea and then supper.

Next morning I cleared the table, cleared my mind, and prepared to start work on the book. But where the hell was the manuscript?  It wasn’t in my bedroom, nor in the kitchen. Nor, to my increasing dismay, in the car.  As I traced my actions back to unloading the car, I felt that awful sinking feeling all too familiar to absent-minded people. I’d never picked the box up from the garden wall. And it was no longer there.

I was distraught. Remember, this was pre-computers, and the only copy of my precious book was the one I’d lost. I couldn’t, wouldn’t write it again. I cried for about an hour, and then found a sheet of white paper and a black marker pen. “£50 reward!” I headed it. Yes, a huge amount of money, but someone must have taken the box, been disappointed at the worthlessness of its contents, and could be persuaded to return it.  I went to the photocopy shop and had 100 copies printed. These I put up on every telegraph pole and lamp post, and posted through all the neighbouring letterboxes for several blocks around. I was sure that someone would phone within a matter of hours, and certainly the next day, but I heard nothing. My despair deepened. I was alone in a strange house with a hostile parrot, and my whole purpose for being there had disappeared into thin air.  Soon I had to leave not only London but England, being due to lead a trip to Peru where I would be out of communication for over a month.

Enter my knight in shining armour. Two knights. My friends Tanis and Martin Jordan heard about my loss – everyone I knew heard about my loss – and stepped in. “We’ll find a dowser” said Tanis. “There’s one who advertises in our local paper.” I was easily convinced to leave it in their hands – I had run out of both time and options.

The Jordans contacted the dowser and visited him the day before I left for Peru. “Well, he was old and scruffy, maybe a gypsy”. Tanis reported. “He had a pendant, some sort of crystal, and a grubby map of London. We found the house on Rokesly Avenue, and he dangled the pendant over the area and moved it slowly in all different directions. It started to go in a circle over a school, just at the end of that road. We watched. It was extraordinary – it just went round and round and he said ‘That’s where it is.’  There were other possibilities that we circled on the map, then we paid him and off he went. My sister-in-law’s going to help me with the search next week. I’ll write to you in Lima.”

I still have the letter. “First, no luck so far. Ginny and I drove over to Hornsey, located the spot on the map and parked the car. The one thing I’d been dreading loomed in front of us – a builders’ skip overflowing with rubbish. However, a quick check of the map showed it to be on the wrong road, plus the fact that it had probably only been there a few days made it an unlikely chance, we convinced ourselves, but we gave it a quick once over just in case. We then located the exact spots on the map and these proved very interesting. One circle was over the school. The other was a long, shrub-lined drive leading to some barrack-style buildings. The sign at the end of the road said ‘Rokesly Road Kitchens. No Entry’. So we went in. The place seemed perfect for our search, full of rubbish under wildly overgrown weeds etc. Of course, being an explorer, I’d failed to bring a stick to poke around with and was wearing flip-flops. A few nettle and one bee sting later I waded out of the jungle, found Ginny, and peered through the windows of the buildings which were locked and deserted. So that’s still one possibility.

“After that we decided to knock on some doors. I think they thought we were selling something since most people seemed to be out. And when they did answer the door they couldn’t understand what we wanted. But one lady not only believed us but was very helpful. She suggested the YMCA round the corner. The woman there was the most unhelpful person I’ve ever met. Her only comment was ‘Have you any scientific evidence to back this up?’ She did allow us to put a message on the notice board, though.

“We were having too much fun to stop, so worked our way back to where we’d started from, searching drains and gutters, and paid particular attention to the school. We now had long sticks so went round the perimeter pulling out rubbish and examining it (fortunately it was quite a clean school).  It was closed for the holidays but where the circle on the map was, we peered through the windows and saw – kitchens! So maybe there’s a link with those buildings we looked at earlier. We managed to find the caretaker – a large, black lady from Trinidad – who was the first really helpful person we met. She even knew what a dowser was. She insisted that we memorise the names of all the schools in the neighbourhood, including ‘Tottenham High at de back of de church’.

“So I’ll follow up with some phone calls tomorrow. And who knows…?”

I was sure that this exhaustive search would be rewarded, but when I returned home there was a message from Tanis saying they still had no news. Weeks passed, then months. I stopped thinking about the missing manuscript every day and came to terms with my loss. Sort of. I didn’t want to write it all again so that was that.

Six months after I’d set that box upon the wall I was having dinner at my parent’s house and the phone rang. “She’s here if you want to speak to her” said my mother. “It’s Julian” she whispered.

“There’s a young man here with your manuscript.” said Julian “He wants to know if the reward is still on offer.”

“What? How? When?”  I spluttered. “I think it’s better not to ask any questions” said Julian carefully.

So I got my manuscript back. And when I read it, after the six month gap, I realised it needed a lot more than simple polishing. It needed a thorough revision and another visit to Ireland. So I put it in the loft and got on with other things…

Receiving an MBE

December 17 2011

Oops! This morning I think I heard a presenter on Radio 4 say “..and that was XXX, CBE in the New Year’s Honours”. Well, it brought it all back, the strain of keeping quiet about one’s honour because otherwise “it’ll be taken away”. No doubt that’s a carefully nurtured rumour, but nevertheless I was very careful to tell only a very few people who were sworn to secrecy.

 But it reminds me that all over the country there will be hundreds of people who’ve received That Letter, and will have gone through the same period of disbelief that I did, and then will look in the paper on January 1 (or in my case June 16) and see it in print and think, “Well it really must be true!”. So, for those In Waiting, or just idle blog browsers, I thought it might be useful/entertaining to know what it’s actually like. Or what it was like in my case in 2008.  

 I’ll begin at the beginning with the arrival of an envelope in mid May that looked like a tax demand, except that it was from the Cabinet Office which frightened me; I wondered what I’d done to upset Gordon Brown. Inside was a letter from a man who signed himself my Obedient Servant, suggesting that “The Queen may be graciously pleased to approve that you be appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)”. The Prime Minister, he said, would be glad to know if this would be agreeable to me (I wonder how many people say no?).  If so I needed to fill in a form stating my ethnicity, disability, background… The rest of the sentence had stuck to the envelope flap and torn off. Since I had to admit that I was neither black nor disabled, I thought I might hear no more about it. I did phone my MD, Donald, and ask if it was a joke. He thought not. The citation was “For Services to the Tourism Industry and to Charity”.

 Well, you don’t know when you’re going to get the thing, so my first mistake was to rush out to the charity shop and buy a really nice summer outfit. I finally heard, in October, that the investiture would be at Windsor Castle in December, which meant I had waited seven months with the wrong clothes in the wardrobe.

 As I explained in my Christrmas letter, “I’m worrying. Mostly about clothes and my finger nails. I’m borrowing Inge’s red jacket and Daphne’s black trousers. And I’m hiring a hat with a huge brim (everyone I speak to say that it should be a small hat) so I’m sure I shall knock Her Majesty over with it. Or fall over myself when I try to curtsy. Or fail to recognise HM. Or…   And the fingernails! I painted my new fireplace today with heatproof black paint. I should have worn gloves, or at least not smeared permanent black paint under my nails. So I’m going to have to ditch the red jacket and hat, switch to faded black, and go as a Goth.”.

 The investiture was on December 17, and here’s how I described it at the time

.“So, it’s happened. I got invested and it was literally awesome. My guests Kate, Janice and Inge and I were ushered up a magnificent staircase past a line of household cavalry chaps all dressed in silver, red and gold and at least 7ft tall. Then the recipients were separated from the guests and herded into a room with refreshments (wisely non alcoholic) and we mingled. I talked to a jolly woman who got hers for Services to Netball and a conspicuously caring woman who’d done 30 years atGreatOrmondStreetHospital. And a woman who will have intrigued the Queen since hers was for Services to The Caterpillar Club. Disappointingly she turned out not to be an entomologist but connected with parachutists in the War. And there was a man called Dr Drain who got his for Services to the Environment (bet HM had a giggle over that). Then a beautiful Mr Darcy-like man came in, all hung about with plaited gold braid and wearing spurs, and talked us through what we’d have to do. My brain immediately went into No Memory mode and although I could hear the words they didn’t seem to refer to me: walk to Mr Foster and stand at his chest (what?) then turn 45 degrees and walk towards the Queen (oh Lord), stop and curtsy (demo of a curtsy, with spurs clanking), then forward to HM who would say a few words. We were to address her as Your Majesty the first time and Ma’am to rhyme with jam the second time. Then step back three paces, another curtsy, and leave the room. “One warning” he said, “Don’t forget to let go of the Queen’s hand”. Nervous giggles as we visualised hauling HM along the floor.  At that point a dishevelled young woman arrived, hat askew, panic oozing from every pore. She told me she thought the investiture was atBuckinghamPalaceand had turned up there at10 o’clock. Can you imagine the awfulness? But she made it – I suppose by taxi.

 Far too soon, I found myself at the head of the queue. I could see this little blue figure with white hair, and I became rooted to the spot. “Go on” said the gold-braided man giving me a little push. I couldn’t remember how legs are supposed to move to create a forward propulsion. Kate said I looked like Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques, weaving my way across the floor in the rough direction of the Queen. But I did my curtsy and wobbled forward. She popped the medal onto me (they pin a hook on beforehand to make it easier) and said “Is it children?” I couldn’t think what to say. “No no” I blurted out “I publish guidebooks. For adults”. Then I realised she was talking about the charity part. “Oh yes, Children.Madagascar” and did a huge gesture to encompass theIndian Oceanand the children thereon. At that she looked rather frightened and held out her hand. I managed the second curtsy and fled, realising that I hadn’t addressed her as Your Majesty nor Ma’am.

 “Then photos and a lovely lunch with the lovely people who nominated me. The photo of the actual medal pinning arrived by email that evening. And I saw why people had said I should wear a small hat.”

 

TIPS FOR THOSE RECEIVING AN MBE (OR WHATEVER)

 Things I wish I’d known:

 1)     Don’t decide what to wear until you know the date of the investiture

2)     Wear a small hat or fascinator

3)     Double check the location

4)     Arrive early! The instructions said don’t arrive til 10 o’clock. We got there at 9.30 and waited in the car park until 10.00. We were almost the last to arrive and my guests were stuck at the back of the hall.

5)     Relax! Everyone is extraordinarily nice to you and it is an occasion to savour for ever.

 

 

Dervla Murphy – a birthday tribute

Dervla Murphy – a birthday tribute

My interview with Dervla, who will be 80 on November 28 2011, will be published by Wanderlust in the next couple of months, but I could have written twice as much about this delightful and wonderfully eccentric travel writer, so I’m jotting down a few additional quotes and memories here, while they’re fresh in my mind.

Many people have stayed with Dervla, or been host to her, during the 48 years that she’s been a writer, and any who visited her during the winter will remember the challenge of keeping warm (“I wonder if it would be possible to have a bath?” I asked on my first visit. “The river’s down there” she responded. It was while bathing in the same river some years later that a frisky bull charged her and broke some ribs – or possibly her back, I can’t now remember). Her hosts remember the challenge of keeping up with her questions:  “When we emerged blearily for our morning coffee, Dervla was already, after having listened to BBC since 5am or so, fired up and full of questions we barely felt we could answer. We’re not economists or politicians but Dervla’s questions demanded that kind of substantial response.” (Wendy Woodward, Cape Town.) And we all remember the 5am starts. I recall carefully unfolding myself from the foetal position that I had held all night to conserve heat to see Dervla, bare-armed, carrying child-sized boulders across the patio to build a rockery.

Readers of her books will know that a sleeping bag is always a “flea-bag”. More accurately than they may realise. Jock Murray, her beloved publisher, wrote me a note in 1984 to report that she’d just stayed at his house. “Unexpectedly Dervla passed through Cannon Lodge on her way to a British-Irish Conference at Oxford for which she had to wear evening dress – an alarming prospect for which we had a dress rehearsal after she had a bath to get rid of a flea she had picked up in Dublin.” I can just imagine how alarming the evening dress requirement would be. Dervla is not known for her fondness for clothes and she detests formal occasions. Jon Lorie successfully invited her to take part in his annual travel festival. “For a world-famous author, Dervla Murphy is one of the most modest people you’ll ever meet. She hardly ever accepts speaking invitations, and when we persuaded her to be a keynote speaker at the Travellers’ Tales Festival, it was on condition that there would be two literary friends on stage with her, to keep the conversation flowing. We were also advised to provide a bottle of Guinness to help proceedings along – which we did, at 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning! In the event she was delightful, if a little shy, sitting on stage at the Royal Geographical Society in her walking boots, with the bottle in one hand, rather amazed at all the attention. She loved talking to the crowd, but more about the many places she has visited than about her own life and work.” I was there and remember the affection welling out from the capacity audience. 

But even such a distinguished writer is perceived as an old lady and treated according to cultural custom. I asked her if travel was easier now “you have grey hair”. “What I do find is that the old woman in our world, in the west, is just disregarded. In other countries you get more respect. In those countries – Africa and Cuba – I definitely noticed that life was easier. But in the west it’s the total opposite. It’s as if you’re simply not there”.

Dervla Murphy has inspired so many travellers to push the boundaries of adventure and courage. The Guardian, Sept 2011, asked travel writers to choose the book that most inspired them. Robert Penn chose Full Tilt. “I started reading Full Tilt on a grey morning, wearing a grey suit, in a crowd of grey faces on the London underground. Several stops later I had raced with Dervla Murphy and her bicycle Rosinante from Dunkirk to Delhi and made the decision to quit my job as a lawyer and cycle round the world.

“Funny, ingenuous, gently erudite and intrepid, Full Tilt is the best kind of adventure story, and a clarion call to travel ‘for travel’s sake’. I realised that you don’t need a wealth of knowledge and experience to embark on a journey like this. If you believe that human wisdom may be measured by the respect we pay to the unattainable, the mysterious, or simply the different, and have a flair for getting on with people, you’re ready.”

 

Hear hear!  Happy 80th birthday Dervla!

 

 

My skydive: plummeting down to Devon

It’s something I’ve always wanted to do, that’s all. But in the Olden Days you went solo, like my friends Tanis and Martin, so the decision to jump out of a plane at 15,000 feet was left to you. And if you hesitated, that was it. No second chance. And, I was told, you needed to be able to jump from a 10ft wall, because that’s what landing was like, and I didn’t think I could. But these days oldies like me go tandem. No skill, no risk, so a perfect 70th birthday present.

I knew it was going to be fabulous because God had organised the weather and Janice had organised the jump. The forecast was for one fine day between grey, wet ones. And so it was on the Friday, clear and sunny. And I wasn’t nervous. At least not until I tried to check in and – the usual thing, everyone else seems to know by instinct that they had to enter their details on the computer. I queued at the desk for about 15 minutes to be told that. So then I was sure I would miss the training. Kate and Richard duly arrived, jovial and relieved not to be doing it themselves. We watched the planes go up and the parachutes come down. Nobody called me for training. I was sure I’d missed the briefing and would be put in a plane without having a clue what to do.

After two hours my name was called, along with a few others including Sue who was wearing a sprig of white heather on her shoulder. I realised I’d forgotten my “World’s Greatest 70 Year Old” button. The trainer told us to watch a video and to remember to raise our legs as high as possible when we landed.  He explained that the “freefall” was slowed somewhat by a little parachute “It slows you to 150mph from 200mph” which we think is too fast. So did I.  

More coffee and a game of Bananagram to pass the time. A shaken-looking woman greeted her friends and told us still-to-jumpers: “It’s a hell of a jerk when the main parachute opens. I wasn’t expecting that.” Then I was called to meet Neil. Neil was comfortingly big. Simon had told me of his jump in New Zealand where he was given a tiny little woman as his tandem partner, so small that once she was lashed to him her feet didn’t reach the ground so he had to totter around with her stuck to his back with her legs waving in the air.  I was given a jump suit – a real one, not something to go jogging in – and a fetching hat like an acorn cup. And Neil explained again about legs and how they must be high in the air or I’d break one. He made me demonstrate that I could lift them, one at a time, high in the air. And he explained the various signals he would give me. I was to begin with my hands tucked out of the way in my straps, then when he tapped my shoulder I was to spread them wide. “I’ll make this sign with my fingers”. I had to make my body like a saucer. And not my usual hunched concave saucer, either. Convex, with a nice arched back.

I was introduced to the video man and asked to say something “for my friends”. I said “I’m doing this for a nice charity – oh no I’m not actually, but I would… well I’m…”

Looking a tad worried...

A small black plane was waiting with a very large open door. We got in, about 12 of us but only two other tandemers, with Neil just behind me. He had bare arms, for heaven’s sake. I had lots of clothes under my jumpsuit but the straps were so tight that I felt my intestines being squashed flat like penne pasta. I gasped out my request and Neil loosened them a little. The plane took off. I felt sort of numb although the photos show me looking decidedly worried. Neil showed me his altimeter: 7,000ft – the height the main parachute opens – 10,000ft, the height I was originally going to jump from before Janice changed it to 15,000, then shuffle forward. Oh God, this is it. Oh shit. Kneel at the entrance, see the green patchwork fields far, far below. Then – whoosh!

The video shows my mouth open so perhaps I screamed. Neil pulls my head back and I remember that saucer shape. He keeps tapping on my shoulder so I saucer and saucer. I’m almost a bowl by the time he has wrenched my arms out to the proper flying position. The video shows his lips set in a grim line as he prises them away from their tight grip on the straps. Well, there’s such a lot to think about. There’s the video man leering below me asking me to do a thumbs-up, and he’s circling around getting different angles, and I’m grinning like a lunatic and feeling: Wow! What does it feel like? Extraordinary! The wind is so strong, its roaring so loud, and the knowledge of what you’re doing is so weird. And there are the little fields below getting ever closer, and the video man appearing in odd places so you keep smiling, but I think my head was empty of thoughts, just sensations.

Wheee!!! Managing a thumbs up at 150mph

Neil probably indicated to me the main parachute was going to open, I’m not sure. But the woman was right – it’s one hell of a jerk on the thigh straps and really painful. I thought briefly “I can’t stand this!” but Neil said “Put your feet on mine, it’ll take some of the weight”. And it did, and we were upright instead of face down, floating gently through the air, looking around at the scenery. “Do you want to go through a cloud?” asked Neil. “Yes please”. Then say “Hello cloud!”  “Why, hello cloud!”. “And what do you do for a living?” It was a bit surreal chatting about travel writing and publishing while suspended under a red parachute.

“Where are we going to land?” Neil pointed to a little square of green not far from the spectator area. Goodness how precise. “Now lift those legs!” And I did, but I couldn’t hold them there. They should have been straight out in front of me, at right angles to my hips, and I couldn’t do it. For a split second I thought “Damn, I’m going to break a leg!” and then I was down on my knees, light as a feather, with Neil saying reassuringly “You’re all right, you’re fine”. And I was, just blithering an apology about the legs. One of the other instructors heard and asked Neil if he’s done such-and-such a manoeuvre and he said yes.  I bet they give him all the little old ladies who can’t be trusted to do things right. “I broke a woman’s leg last week” he said ruefully. “That felt really bad”. “You broke it? She didn’t do what you said, I bet.” Then he told me about the 81 year old that he’s taken down last month. “She was brilliant!”. 

So there’s the challenge. Back in ten years’ time.

Getting Started

Welcome to my blog. Eventually. There’s nothing to read yet because I’m in the throes of moving house (from Bucks to Devon) and am too fraught to write anything interesting. Once I’m settled I expect to be writing about anything that I find thought-provoking, entertaining or moving, and want to share. So to kick off, here’s a poem (triggered by the word ‘moving’ ). There’s more to read and look at if you click the buttons on the left.

THE WARDROBE

By Charlotte Mitchell


My friend had this wardrobe stuck in her narrow hall

waiting for an offspring to come and fetch it.

Squeezing past it into the kitchen, I observed cheerfully,

‘It’ll be so good when it’s gone,

the hall will seem bigger than before,

it will be exciting.’


A few days later I had reason to call

and found an empty hall,

free and commodious.


‘There you are,’ I said, ‘it was worth

having a wardrobe in it for a month or two,

you can appreciate it now, the space, the hall,

you can skip down it, we both can skip down it – ‘


But as I enjoyed myself, I clocked the wardrobe

Skulking in the middle of the sitting-room,

Taking up a different space…

I nearly began my little philosophy again,

but it wasn’t going to work a second time,

not when I saw

my friend’s dark wardrobe-ridden face.


From: Just in Case (Souvenir Press 1991)