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Famous writer pinches things in Regents Park


From Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On

I was given this book for Christmas and am now on page 361 out of 753. Quite a bit to go which is great as I won’t want it to end.

Also reviewing another book at the same time and the temptation, with KOKO, is to pick up a pen and make notes. Fatal. I’d be making notes all the time.

Here’s one anecdote out of many: he cycles through  Regent’s Park every day for the exercise but one day it’s raining so he walks.

“Almost out of piety and a respect for a tradition I filch a couple of  branches from the base of  a balsam poplar  on the north side of Regent’s Park. The buds are hardly open  and thus are briefly heavily scented.  Now in a glass on the sitting room mantelpiece they bring a flavour to the room as they have done every spring for the last forty years.”


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My reading list just gets longer. Time to prioritise…

Got to the Bodleian yesterday evening about 16:30 when the sky overhead was a deep, luminous blue which surely meant snow.
The book I had ordered was there, waiting for me in the Radcliffe Camera. Normally, for books on the open shelves, readers help themselves but we are temporarily barred from the lower Gladstone Link, due to a leak, and so enjoy the luxury of our books being carried up the metal stairs for us to the Camera.
The book I wanted was Travel A Literary History, by Peter Whitfield, published in 2011, by the Bodleian itself and available in the library’s excellent shop.

As with all books ordered, I did a skim read. Byron is there as is Joan Didion, Dante, Hannibal, Sara Wheeler and Jan Morris among many others. I’m not. (Yes, I checked. I am human, after all.) Egeria is there though Whitfield is a bit dismissive, saying that she tells little about the places she visited. Not so. Earlier this year, I sat in a shaded monastery garden outside Jerusalem, with Earl from the Falls Road, though now known as Gregory, Abbot of the Benedictine Monastery in Jerusalem’s old city. He knew of Egeria ( full marks, Abbot) because of her writings which are greatly valued as being among the earliest first-hand accounts of 4th century liturgy. Her descriptions of the rich hangings and drapes alone are worth reading. She also comments on the plants grown by the monks and on their irrigation systems. You can read more about her in my book The Blessings of a Good Thick Skirt ( .

You can also read, in Blessings, about Margery Kempe, the noisy, obstreperous, talkative and, at times, infuriating pilgrim who travelled on foot and by boat from England to Jerusalem in 1414. Strange that she too has been left out of Whitfield’s so comprehensive book. By the way, if I’ve whetted your appetite, you’ll find the radio documentary I made about Margery also on my website.

Whitfield has included an apt comment by Paul Theroux made when a friend remarked that there was no point in travel writing since, said the friend, everyone travels so who wants to read about it. To which Theroux replied: ”Everyone gets laid too but that doesn’t eliminate screwing as a subject – I mean people still write about it.”
So Egeria is here as is Saint Brendan but not, and understandably perhaps, Saint Ia who sailed across the sea on a leaf from Ireland to Cornwall to found the settlement of Saint Ives. Or so I’ve been led to believe.

Whitfield’s book will demand time and attention which I didn’t have last night but I will be back. Not only to read Travel but also to read his upcoming book Mapping Shakespeare’s World, also published by the Bodleian.

This is going to be a fascinating read as it looks at the way in which Shakespeare locates his plays in places he had never – nor could have – visited, such as Verona, Elsinore and Ephesus.

The play I’m currently interested in is Othello, set in Cyprus and in which play Shakespeare moves dates around to suit his dramatic purposes. The Ottomans would have had a right to complain but they didn’t. Instead, they welcomed the Elizabethan travelling salesmen with open arms. And why not? Everyone wanted to hang their palaces and churches with silk from Damascus.Or clothe themselves in the precious silk:  Anne Boleyn wore a damask mantle when she went to her death.

Strange then that, in Whitfield’s book on travel and literature, there’s no mention in the index of Aleppo or Palmyra or, saddest of all, the great city of Damascus.

But here, cue my latest book My Home is Your Home which tells you not just about the city and the country but the people who make up that country. Published in 2011 it is now a record of times past.

I will be back in the Bodleian to read more of Peter Whitfield’s travel book but first there’s my bookclub book to finish: Rose Tremain’s The Colour. Then there’s a book review to write for The Irish Times: Leaving Before The Rains Come, by Alexandra Fuller whose Let’s Not Go to the Dogs Tonight, I reviewed and loved. And finally, there’s a post-Christmas gift: Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.

These may keep me going till Mapping Shakespeare’s World is published in June by which time it will be top of my reading list.

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What’s it like to be a war reporter?

This is a short story that won the Listowel Writers Week short story competition. 


That Tears Might Fall                                                    

There are times when I just want to flip over the cover of my notebook, toss it into a garbage bin and walk away. What good does it do, this writing down of other people’s misery?This chronicling of  injustice and rape and killing?

Take last night, on TV: a war photographer defended his pictures of bloodied children, of stricken men, of wailing women.

“I do it,” he said, “so that they may have a voice through me.”Lying, unctuous bastard. He does it because one, it pays well and two, he gets a thrill out of it. I should know. I’ve covered four wars. It’s wars that put my children through school, bought my wife a Nissan Infinity 4 by 4.That keep me in whiskey.That give me a thrill. Or used to – though in those early days, of course, I called it idealism: I was risking my life for a cause. Any cause that looked good on paper and you could take a picture of.

Take the old boy on the Gaza strip. Living in a cardboard lean-to on the beach. His corrugated tin shed had been bulldozed by the Israeli army because he’d erected it two metres the wrong side of some invisible line or other.

He came to me in his grubby djellabiya and said: “Write it down, what they did to us here so that it never happens again.” So I wrote it down in my notebook and I wrote it down again, in different notebooks, in Rwanda, in Chechenya, in Northern Ireland.In a township in South Africa. And the paper printed the story each time. The only thing they had to change was the date-line.Whereas I was changing the world.Making it a better place for the smiling, ragged orphans playing in a village in Laos ringed by anti-personnel mines.For the old women struggling to bring them up.  For the South African girls who didn’t even bother to report they’d been raped on the way to school because it was such a common occurrence. For the Zairean teenagers, robbed of their childhood and forced to carry guns by members of a jungle platoon themselves armed by some distant country they wouldn’t even be able to locate on a map – that’s if they had one.

Do I sound angry? No, I’m not. But Hettie is.

“You’re just a supercilious cynic,” she shouted at me last night. And because I’m fed-up taking the shit, I shouted back at her

“If I’m a cynic, ” I yelled, “ what does that make you? You’re happy enough with a four bedroomed house, your own car, a skiing holiday every year. You’d have none of those things if peace prevailed throughout the world.If people went around smiling and shaking hands instead of maimingand killing each other. You make me sick.” And I stormed out into the kitchen to find a beer.

We made it up, of course. We always do.

“I think you provoke these rows,” she said afterwards, in bed, “so that you can let off steam. It’s all that tension building up.”

“If I remember rightly,” I said, “ it was that gob-shite of a photographer on the television justifying his sleazy existence that started everything up. ”

She’s right, of course. I am a cynic. But who wouldn’t be after what I’ve seen? Done what I’ve done, cradling Bill’s head as he died,his blood seeping through my shirt onto my skin.  And as he died, I wondered when it would be my turn.

Once, trying to get some respite from the African heat, I stood at the doorway of the Jumbo bound for Khartoum, grounded in Cairo with some bomb scare or other, and looked at the metallic gleam of moonlight on the curved helmet of a soldier standing guard by a plane. And thought of his skull inside it: one shell inside another. I can see my own death: my head crushed quietly, like a Christmas tree bauble, blood and thick white matter seeping from it into the sand.People standing around. There are always people who want to do that. It’s compulsive viewing, watching death for the first time.

But I’m hardened to it all. Death? Grief? I look away. And when I’ve got my story, I walk away.

“That’s your trouble,” Hettie said last night, at the height of our domestic battle.  “You just turn away. You don’t deal with pain. Not mine, not the children’s.No-one’s. ”

“Others have that job,” I said. “The UN, the Red Cross, the Red Crescent. That’s what they’re paid for. Mine is to get the story out.”

“That’s all it is,” she said, “a story.”

“Look,” I said later, for her words still pricked me, “if I took war personally, I’d never get out of bed. The snipers that killed Bill weren’t aiming for anyone in particular.Nothing personal. The fact that he was a close friend of mine was neither here nor there.

“Oh, no,” said Hettie, Nothing personal. Like rape.” She turned over in bed abruptly and the conversation, if you could call it that, ended.

The trouble is, I’m right. I’ve seen snipers up in the hills around Sarajevo. Stood behind them as they pushed their Kalashnikovs through the small hole in a boarded-up window of some school or apartment they’d commandeered, waiting their moment and then firing at a figure beetling from one shelter to another. It was like lobbing pebbles at a column of ants. They didn’t care which one they got as long as they got someone.

Hettie and I never resolve these arguments and in the end, we call a cease fire. I go back to whatever war zone is currently in the news and while I’m away, she sees to the children, does the disco run,holds down her part-time job and puts up with my silences when I get back.And my rages.

This morning, she was cool, polite.Silent.Smiled at me over the coffee pot. After five minutes, I couldn’t stand it.

“There’s nothing I can do, you know,” I said, more loudly that I meant to. “  I can’t go in somewhere and get the two sides talking.  I’m not a negotiator. I go in, set up the sat phone, file my piece and get the hell out of it again chop-chop.  Christ! Sometimes they don’t want to talk. It’s only when the required numberof people have been killed on both sides that they’re ready to even consider it. But the figures have to tally first – number of civilians killed against number of women raped against number of children orphaned.The scoreboard from hell.”

“Oh, of course,” she said and got up to carry her plate and mug to the sink.

“And don’t be so bloody sanctimonious about all this,” I shouted at her back.

She spun round: “That’s what you think, is it? I’m sanctimonious? Well, you listen to me. I’m part of it too – whichever bloody war it is.  You may think the only way to deal with something is to turn away but I’m tired of watching you turning away from your own children. There’s no war here yet you never listen to anything they say.  They show you things they’ve done, tell you about what’s happening in their lives. Hope for your attention. But you’re operating on another level. You’ve cut yourself off from reality. If I could find some way of pinning you down, I would. Make you take on board what’s happening around you. Force you to look. And listen.”

But I’d had enough and I left the house, banging the door behind me.

As soon as I was outside, I wished I was inside again. I’d walked out into a cold December drizzle. I thought of going back. A kiss, a bunch of flowers, a few words would do it but I walked on, head down, till I came to a pub.

Women are too emotional. They just don’t have the capacity to withdraw. Pin me down? Like a sniper picking out his target? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I’d like to see the man who could pin me down. But that’s dangerous talk, of course. You can be caught unawares, like Bill.A bullet in the head while he set up his camera, his mind on something else.

I caught a taxi to a bar across town to meet Kwame Nbane’s brother, Uchebe. I could have done without this interview, today of all days.

Uchebe was waiting for me at a table by the door, a glass of mineral water in his hand. I got myself a beer, took out my notebook and sat down. But of course, I already knew the story. Everyone did: his brother had been tried by the military regime back home – rigged, it was generally believed – accused of being a political activist, found guilty and hanged immediately – before the international community had a chance to protest. Then they’d thrown his body into a lime pit.

What shocked everyone was that Kwame was a poet – had been a poet – and poetry and hanging don’t go together. Poetry is reflective, quiet, uplifting.Inspiring. A poet is a harmless fellow. Probably a bit of a loony. Except that Kwame’s poetry had charted the destruction of the land by the petroleum companies and his people sang it in the villages, beat their drums to it along the river banks.Danced to it in the compounds.Which is why he was hanged.

But the hanging had gone wrong. He was a tall man and first time they did the drop, his feet hit the ground. He had to be hauled up again, semi-conscious, and held there while the rope was adjusted. That part I didn’t know. But Uchebe did and his eyes filled with tears as he told me.

“He was my oldest brother, ” he said. “ I was next to him. Now I have to wear his shoes.”

I looked away, first through the window at the wet pavements and the shops decked out with bright Christmas lights, then down at my glass of beer. I counted to ten – I’m used to these moments – and counted to ten again just to give him time. Through the window, I watched a woman go past pushing a baby buggy and dragging a large dog behind her on a lead.  A man got out of a taxi wearing a long black coat, a red scarf wrapped round his neck and carrying a large camera case. My heart missed a beat: Bill? But of course it wasn’t. Just someone with a red scarf like the one Bill used to wear. The man paid the taxi, pulled some gift-wrapped packages out from the back seat and ducked into the shop next door. I felt the tension drain from my body.

Three days to Christmas and I still hadn’t got anything for the children. What does Hettie mean, anyway, that I turn away from them? I’m with them as much as I can but teenagers like their own space. I didn’t want my father around when I was fifteen. Last thing I wanted.

I looked up at Uchebe.  His eyes were still full of tears and it wasn’t until I looked into them, and he held mine steady with his, so that I couldn’t look away again, that the tears fell, bright and sharp as diamonds, leaving a trail of salt on his black face.

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