A blog about writing, reading, travelling and great characters I meet in life. I love these things more than cheese-on-toast times trampolines times monkeys.

Friday, 30 March 2012

An open letter to Dave and his ferret Silver

Dear Dave and Silver

I met you this morning at Blackheath station in South East London. You were walking each other along Platform 1 in the morning sunshine. Then you both hopped on the 9.52 to Charing Cross.

Dave and Silver - the world needs you. Life isn't all that serious, is it?

Thanks for the reminder,


PS Dave, love your tiger shirt too.

PPS Silver, remember how you clung on to my cream Ugg boot this morning on the station platform? I just want you to know that it was hard for my Ugg boot to leave you too. Love at first bite, it was.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Spot the colourful difference

I came across my double in Yayoi Kusama's Obliteration Room at the Tate Modern.

This is me...

And this is her...

This interactive installation at Tate Modern is one for kids and big kids alike.

You are handed a sheet of polka dot stickers at the entrance.

And you are told to STICK THEM ON EVERYTHING.

Tables, chairs. Cups, sofas. Walls, ceilings. People, cushions. EVERYTHING.

My friend Phil and I had a sticker race to see who could stick their stickers quickest on stuff.

We also stopped by the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern to watch Tacita Dean's 11 minute silent film called 'FILM' - the bright colours and dots were there too.

Over dinner at the top of Tate Modern, St Paul's turned bright blue - it felt like the whole world was turning up the colour.

Then there were colours and dots everywhere...

...it was a week of brilliant sunsets in Peckham and Blackheath...

...there were Smarties in a glass in Covent Garden...

...there were thousands of lightbulbs at a party in Shoreditch, lit up in clusters of red and yellow...

...there was a wall of colourful guitars in a shop on Charing Cross Road...

...and Marilyn Monroe turned up in lime green trousers.

She said life was good.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

An incredible adventure by Chris Senior

I went along to the Royal Brompton Hospital In South Kensington last night to see Chris Senior.

When I arrived, Chris was just finishing off his pork chop dinner, his arm connected to a drip.

Chris is a mate of my friend Wesley, who sent me a Facebook message a few weeks ago asking if I could give Chris a few travel tips as he's planning a round-the-world adventure.

'Sure,' I said to Wesley. 'I'll talk about travel with anyone.'

So back in February, Chris and I met up for the first time in CB2 cafe in Cambridge. Chris had downloaded a world map on to his Mac - and he was picking out countries like a muso picks out albums they really want to buy. We non-stop chattered for 3 hours that day about places far and wide - from India to Thailand, South America to Malaysia, Jordan to Australia.

It was as clear as Philippines seawater to me - Chris had the totally incurable and infectious buzz for travel.

When you've gotta go...

Chris is in his late twenties and runs a successful drum business in Hertfordshire and Essex. But he's decided it's time for an incredible adventure in his life. Stops on the trip might include trekking in Nepal, island life in Thailand, the hills and mountains of New Zealand and the Indonesian jungle.

Last night from his hospital bed, Chris tells me he's decided.

He's got his list of backpacking essentials to buy.

He's travelling as light as possible.

He's booking a flight to Bangkok then the rest is totally open.

He's leaving as soon as he can get off his IV Aminophylline and complete the latest round of physiotherapy to clear his lungs.

The Royal Brompton is a specialist heart and lung hospital. Chris has spent around 3 and a half years of his life in hospitals, receiving life-saving treatment for cystic fibrosis. He's on up to 4 strong antibiotics at any one time, to keep infections at bay. It's really bloody hard for him to breathe a lot of the time.

And of course the advice from his doctors is not to go...

...it's too dangerous for him.

"I'm going to live my life," Chris says to me with a grin. "I've been wanting to go explore the world for years. I love adventure and I hate being tied down. My psychology and my physiology don't really go well together!

"Over the past 3 or 4 years life just seems to have got so much harder. Both physically and mentally. It got to the point where the juice ain't worth the squeeze... it's just too much effort to live day to day for the enjoyment and results I actually get out of life.

"I'm not the sort who likes the idea of wasting away in a hospital bed over a number of months. I'd much rather go out with a bang! So, I'm gonna go experience what wonders the world has to offer. I want to find inspiration again. To enjoy being alive and like when I was younger, be able to almost ignore the fact that I'm not very well and just have some fun!

"I'm putting a few things in place before I go so that if I don't come back then the money that I am currently taking from the business can go to do good things to help people for years to come. And at at least I'm going out swinging....No one can say I just gave up!"

A doctor pops in at the end of my visit to Chris's third floor hospital room...

She says that the IV bag that's currently feeding into his arm will be the last one of this round. When that's finished, the physiotherapy will start and Chris will be able to get outside for the first time in a week.

And then it's Bangkok for Chris in just a few weeks' time.

Chohk dee kha Chris - good luck and wishing you a wonderful journey round the world :-)

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Bollywood comes to Blackheath - Katrina and Shahrukh on set in London

"Who's your favourite Bollywood star?"

I was asked this question most days on my travels in India, a country I came to love more than any other I've visited.

And two names I heard many times were Katrina Kaif and Shahrukh Khan.

"I love Shahrukh!" people said. "And I really love Katrina!"

So the irony of returning from my travels and bumping into Katrina and Shahrukh in my local park in South East London has tickled me. They were filming for Yash Chopra's latest movie in Blackheath, outside the famous All Saints Parish Church.

Here's Shahrukh Khan, making his way through a scrum of fans waiting for a photo and an autograph next to Blackheath church in South East London.

The film crew covered All Saints Church in powder-white fake snow for the scene they were filming on 28th February.

Here are two of London Metropolitan Police's most entertaining officers - who kept the crowd of fans entertained whilst the filming was going on nearby.

For the scene, Katrina and Shahrukh walked together outside Blackheath's famous church on the heath, snow machines pouring out snowflakes like they were inside a Christmas snow globe.

Security on set were very keen to protect Katrina from photos - but here she is relaxing off set with Shahrukh in their makeshift dressing room on Blackheath. Katrina and Shahrukh looked very comfortable in each other's company, working on the latest Yash Chopra movie. It's sure to be another huge success!

Also check out The Blackheath Bugle for more on this...

Thursday, 23 February 2012

New eyes on old streets

The joy of returning home after a year in Asia is this. I see things differently now.

Take the streets I've walked many hundreds of times before in Cambridge and London.

Here's Benet Street in Cambridge - outside the Eagle pub. Turn right at the end and you'll find King's College.

And below is Regent Street in London, just before dark, as the Marylebone bus goes by.

Since returning from my travels, I stop on these streets now. I enjoy taking them in. I like to look up and see what shapes the roofs form against the skyline and to spot signs and colours I've missed in all the years gone by. Perhaps someone might be looking down on the street from a top floor window?

My home streets have many more possibilities now. What events happen along the way? Are there hidden alleyways? Undiscovered shops or museums? A place for tea and cake with some of the local characters?

All these questions are fantastic for creative writing - seeing the familiar as undiscovered. The old as new.

What inspires you to write? Is it travel for you too? Or something completely different? I'd love to know.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Midnight in London - home and still away

I was expecting to hit home with a thud.

After a year of travelling, mainly in Asia, surely it would be all a bit weird and rubbish coming back to England? And in freeeeeezing Febrrrruary?

A grey-times-sludge-green experience.

But when I got home, there was no thud. Just a few bounces - as if I'd dropped from the clouds on to a supersize trampoline.

There were blue skies the day after flying home - yes it was cold, but OH YES, IT WAS SUNNY!

Big Ben leaned over and gave me a wink through the coach window as I travelled from Victoria Station to Cambridge. It was good to see the old leaning tower of London!

In Cambridge, I ate home-made parsnip soup with my Mum, roast lamb with my Dad and a truckload of cheese with my some of my oldest friends. My niece brought me a pink cupcake and we had a sleepover. My nephew showed me his wobbly almost-walking and his command of alien-speak.

And there were some fabulous blotchy skies - a blend of colours to rival any Asian sky.

Back to work in London - and I had a surprise phone call from a very old friend who was in town. We went for dinner in Covent Garden - gorgeous steak and chips and a platter of puddings for dessert.

Covent Garden is still one of my favourite parts of London, it has been since I was a child. I love Covent Garden in the summer, watching the street performers from the pavement edge on a Sunday - when the clock goes all melty like a Dali painting.

I'm looking forward to another meal in Covent Garden tonight - that's one tip I have for long-term travellers returning home, celebrate in whatever way is right for you - for me, it's eating good food with people I like.

Looking back at some photos in my phone, I came across these two exhibits I'd seen in the Saatchi Gallery on King's Road before going away.

These photos reminded me how fantastic London is for the arts and culture. So many museums to wander around - and many for free.

I love Southbank. Relaxing with a paper in Royal Festival Hall, listening to free concerts, chatting to weird and wonderful characters that show up.

Or dropping into the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. I'm always surprised by what I find - for example, I remember seeing Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds there in 2010. One hundred million hand-made, hand-painted porcelain sunflower seeds spread across the floor like a beach scape - the most powerful artistic commentary I've ever seen on China.

I've still got loads to write about Asia - mainly about India - a country that challenged and rewarded me like no other this past year. 'Infinitely surprising' is the way my Mum's partner Dave describes India - and as a first time traveller to India, I have to agree with those words.

But the main thing I'm happy about is this. At just after midnight last night in London, I realised it's completely possible for me to carry on 'travelling' now I'm back at home.

Blackheath looked magical to me as I walked from the station to my sister's house.

There were lights in the trees.

Street lanterns.

And mine were the only pair of feet on some fresh snow.

I've seen the heath hundreds of times before, but last night it looked and felt completely new.

And waking up this morning, it felt like Christmas.

My lovely sister made us cuppas.

And she took some pics of the snowy garden.

I am so happy to be home...

...and the adventure is still on!

Monday, 23 January 2012

Customer service - the 'extra mile high' variety

I'm so excited to tell you about Tanya, Sandeep and Mohit. I met them on my Jet Lite flight yesterday from Port Blair to Kolkata.

The reason I'm excited is because of their MASSIVE ENTHUSIASM for their job as cabin crew with Jet Airways.

I like flying. You can read, listen to music, write and relax. And every now and then, a trolley comes along with refreshments.

But it's the service from cabin crew that can turn a good flight into a brilliant flight. The smiles and the personal touch and a bit of friendly conversation - beyond safety instructions and food.

The extra mile...

Mohit sees I'm reading The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. He strikes up a conversation about books. I chat to him in my seat for a few minutes, then he invites me to have a cuppa with the rest of the crew in the 'galley' at the back of the plane.

That's where I meet Tanya and Sandeep - both in their early days as cabin crew. I ask them what they like about their job.

'I love being up here in the sky,' Tanya says. 'I trained with Jet Airways for four months, there was loads of study and you have to get a really high mark to pass. When I got my wings on my graduation day, I felt ecstatic.'

Tanya proudly shows me her gold 'wings', pinned to her navy blue jacket. She's smiling so much it makes me smile.

'We don't really live on Earth,' Mohit says. 'The aircraft in the sky is our home. We just go to Earth to visit.'

Like friendly aliens - I love this idea.

I also ask Tanya her top beauty tip. I'm always a scruffbag at airports, so when I see the cabin staff swish through security, looking immaculate - I often want to ask them how they do it.

'Sunscreen,' Tanya says. Simple. And genes, I guess.

People power

These lovely people are an example of how staff make businesses. Maybe it's the training at Jet Airways or maybe they are just great people who would thrive in any job. But their enthusiasm is so infectious that it makes my customer experience great.

'We Indians are so much into hospitality, you know,' Mohit says with a smile and a head wobble, 'it comes easy to us.'

I go back to my seat for landing, happy to have made some new friends.

The extra extra mile...

Outside the Departures door at Kolkata airport. Bright sunshine. Big rucksack and shoulder bag. One tall armed guard. And me.

I'm trying to figure out how to get to the pre-paid taxi counter. It's just metres away from me, but curiously it's behind a padlocked metal gate - beside the tall guard with the gun.

A cartoon character would have scratched their head in bemusement, so that's what I did.

'How do I get to the taxi counter?' I asked the big-booted guard.

'Not possible,' he said. And then he made a sweeping gesture with his arm. He seemed to be pointing me in a big loop around the car park and then off somewhere beyond the airport.

'But it's just there,' I said to him. So near but yet so far. The guard just held his gun across his chest and shook his head at me.

I looked round to a sea of smily Indian faces, all watching this little scene as they waited for relatives. And I started laughing.

Then Mohit, Tanya and Sandeep appeared from the airport doors, pulling their wheelie suitcases.

'I think I'm causing a minor incident,' I said to them, explaining the situation.

'Where do you want to go?' Mohit said, so I told him the address.

Mohit walked behind the guard with the big gun, hopped over the metal gate. He sorted out my taxi ticket in a flash, then came back and handed me my voucher.

As easy as that.

And now, I love Jet Airways as a result. Simple.