On Learning

October 14, 2017

For a moment it was imperative to become invisible. Which seems incongruous: aren’t I invisible anyway. A writer in the ether, describing her life under an alias.

Not invisible enough.

A piece I wrote for a large national went toxic. Viral. Trolls mauled it. I didn’t read a single one of the 5 000 comments. I rarely care to.  But somebody whom I love very much, whom I had cited in the piece, did and I cared very much about that. The national paper were forced under that tsunami of vitriol to drown dissenting voices by turning the option to Comment off. Then they deleted the post from Facebook. And I heaved a sigh of relief but remain deeply saddened that an innocuous, benign 1000 words could have brought so much sadness unwittingly.

The experience taught me many things: that a 1 000 words reduces a person to a single dimension, precisely resembling the flat blandness of the sheet of paper upon which it is printed; that readers often react to the first few sentences (for had they read down, they’d never have commented as they did); that I still don’t care what people I don’t care about think of me, but I care very much when it delivers pain to those I love; that hiding behind the shield of the internet makes people mean; that readers can misinterpret the tongue in cheek humour I imagined I was writing with; that my first editor on The Times, 15 years ago, was wrong: today’s story isn’t tomorrow’s chip wrap: today’s story can hang around like a bad smell for days, weeks, months.

So – for a while – it seemed important to withdraw, not to protect myself but to protect the person my words – and others’ comments – had hurt. If trolls could find me, they could find them.

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It is so hot now that the leaves on the trees curl inwards, as if trying to hide from the heat. On the plains between my mountains, where traipsing cattle have reduced the savannah to a moonscape, dust devils dance on the wind, they twist leanly against a sky smoked white, as if stoned. Or drunk. Directionless they tip themselves backwards and wheel across the earth, madly tossing debris upwards: leaves, the chaff from maize harvests, black plastic bags which we call Africa Blooms.


 My son is here for a blissful ten days. He has not been home – home to our home – for 18 months. He strides from the plane and looks tall, composed, confident, with his broad, broad smile.   His first evening home we walk, a long, long walk and I comment on how hot it still is – but to catch the last of the light, you must endure the last of the heat too I tell him. He tells me about his London life and job. He has lived in London for seven years now. He tells me the scariest moment was when I first left him there. I blogged about that then: I had thought then that I felt more afraid than he. I was wrong. I am not always right about my children.

That’s something else I’ve learned recently.


Listening to Words

September 25, 2017

Image result for words scribbled on a page


I start my MA next week.

I am beside myself with delicious anticipation. Ant does not understand my excitement, ‘I don’t get it’, he says, ‘poring over books’.

But he is a Numbers man.  And I am a Letters girl.

This feels like a luxurious excuse to indulge in words. To roll them around on my tongue, test them for weight, power, the very rightness of a fit.

I listen to the poet Imtiaz Dharker In the Studio.  She describes her writing day. Or night as it happens: an owl, she scratches away between the hours of eleven and 4am and I understand why: the silent, dark cocoon of sleeping households, the surprising creative thoughts that prickle at an inappropriate 2am. I have had my best ideas in the middle of the night, and been infuriated come dawn that I did not put pen to paper then for they are eclipsed by the brittle light of day.

Dharker is not impressed by thousands of words. Her job means she must deliver the tightest few. Pack a punch.

Are words no more
than waving, wavering flags? she asks.

One of my dearest friends, E, a photographer with the finest eye, is sympathetic when my freelance gigs do not match hers in number. She kindly tells me that her equipment – the value of which would rival a small car, or two – lends gravitas, ‘everybody with a pencil, or a keyboard, thinks they can write’.

But it is the weighing of each word that is so important, the crafting, moulding, shaping of a single paragraph that can elevate the banal to the compelling, the forgetable to the memorable, the powerful to the insipid.

And words define us. We are what we say. Consider Trump’s tweets.

China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters – rips it out of water and takes it to China in unpresidented [sic] act.

And Obama.

Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.

So. I will embark on my MA, luxuriate in language, wallow in words, thread them as neatly as I can and perhaps I will pin an elusive story to the page.

Wish me luck.

Ode to My Mountains

September 23, 2017

My mountains. They’re not my mountains and I am not Isak Dinesan my-farm-my-people-my-Africa Karen Blixen . But they are the mountains I see every day from my home. My children grew up in their shadows and I grew up in the shade of one over the other side of the border; our farm was fed with the water that ran from the ice that capped Kilimanjaro. So. Indulge me: my mountains.

This evening my footfall fell hard. No dust rose as silky plumes as high as my thigh so  there was no need when I got home to bang my tackies hard on the kitchen step and watch clouds fly, no need to wonder if tapping were enough of if I ought to chuck my Converses into the washing machine for a proper wash. No dust today. Two days ago rain fell long and hard and unexpected. It caught me short on another walk. First a breath of cool air and then the run of something like spray. Individual drops that tipped to that dust so that I could identify where each one had fallen. The breeze blew and dark clouds rushed in and real rain came so that drops all joined up, dot-to-dot and wet the earth with a million tiny kisses so that the ground puckered and was left quite wet cheeked. And I soaked through and joyous. The dogs had to shake, often; halos of water rose around them. I wished I could catch them slow-motion.

So the rain that fell that evening, softly and kindly and with decorum – not like the storms that used to blow up where I lived in my western outpost, those bustled in with blacked coated bossiness, hurling arrows of hot light and stomping about grey-booted and showing off to thunderous applause – the rain that fell here, that evening, with soft kisses and dainty skips, did not strip the earth bone bare and leave it ribbed with gullies. It just came and went and politely laid the dust and rinsed the air.

So that the next morning the sky was bright Persil-for-Coloureds Blue and the mountains stood all clear headed and fresh faced.  They were still there this evening.  A wisp of cloud gathered at Meru’s summit, as if it were enjoying a quiet evening smoke. A ribbon of jet-stream so frayed that its threads are pulled loose and white against a pale sky. Soon it’ll vanish.

Meru having a smoke

And I thought, again, how lucky am I? To walk this walk at the soft end of the African day when the light is all mellow-kind and the night steals softly in. I think of an artist when I witness this expanse of sky and earth and mountains. I imagine she unfurled a canvas, pulled it tight, pondered before washing her background soft blue and punctuating it, at either end, with these two extraordinary mountains which face one another across a valley where Africa spills, where urban sprawl bleeds to scrub and smallholdings and acacia and giraffe. In the Outpost my sky was huge. Huge. But there was nothing to break it. To lend perspective. It was clipboard flat. The occasional outbreak of kopjes the only elevation that pimpled an otherwise, mostly, uninteresting complexion. This is different. This is dramatic!

When the first explorers spied Kilimanjaro, they rubbed their eyes, they thought they were seeing things: a snow cap hovering as a mirage over equatorial savannah.  I grew up beneath one of the mountains and have lived for much of my adult life within sight of her; Kilimanjaro has been a beacon, an anchor, an exclamation mark, You’re Home! I can pick her out from miles away. I point her out to a visitor, she hovers, my mountain, a ghost.

See it, I say.



No, they say, squinting, frowning.

I lean into them and point, arm outstretched, there, I say, see there.



My visitor tips forward, eyes screwed together, flattened palm to brow.

Maybe? they offer hesitantly.

There, I say, there (trying not to sound impatient) see, look between those small hills, to the right of the big tree …


And then she reveals herself, she ripples forward, her icy head thrown back, her blue shoulders shrug, she doesn’t care if my visitors sees her or not. She wears a ra-ra skirt of cloud about her waist: that’s what gives her away.


Oh! Oh! I see her. Oh my.  And in the setting sun, Kilimanjaro blushes with all the attention.

Even pretending to be invisible Kili is glorious. Majestic.

So my walk takes too long because I lose track of time and take picture after picture. But nothing in my tiny screen mimics this enormous sprawling masterpiece I’m tiptoeing through as I step up my pace and turn for home.

Daylight is nearly gone when I get in and the mountains wrap up in velvety black and the sun slides slowly off the edge of my world.


Walks and Wings

September 16, 2017

I have found a new walk.

It takes me down into the dry. Dry country. Where the land is unyielding and the wind sings with Africa’s harshest notes; the grass is whip thin here and nicotine yellowed. The ground plovers scream like things possessed every time the dogs come within 100 meters of their pebble coloured eggs which they tuck into the earth so that only beady eyes will spy them. The birds wheel angrily overheard, they are good parents. Shrilly protecting their young. I have watched, in another dry place,  where the wait-a-bit-thorn was thick and grey, I have watched a mother plover chase a hippo from her nest, wings outstretched, neck thrust forward, beak open as she omitted an ear splitting warning. Brave little bird, I thought.

So where I walk, where the plovers fly low and screech, the dust beneath my feet is thick. Talc soft and inches deep so that with every footfall a cloud rises and my sneakers are shrouded in a fine coat. I will bang them hard on the kitchen step when I get home and the air will fill with powder.


There is a snake trail across the road. A puff adder has crossed here. I can tell for the fatness of its tread. I consider it from a moment, take a picture, cast anxious glances around; I am fearful of snakes. I have trodden on too many in my time and always been lucky. I whistle the dogs worriedly. Ant always tells me the snakes will hear the dogs pounding the ground as they tear through the scrub and they’ll disappear deep and fast and my dogs will be safe.  But I don’t believe him; last week my cat, a rescue who stole my heart as he made himself at home, had a close encounter with a spitting cobra. For a day I poured milk into his eyes, fussed over him, coaxed him to eat. He is fine now. And as disdainful as ever in the way only cats can be.

The plovers arched over my head again tonight, six of them, safety in numbers, ‘ok, ok, I’m going’ I laughed at the sky and the cross little birds. The sky was huge, winter is gone. The sun left the stage reluctantly, pinking it with an encore.

And my mountains stood tall and proud and clear headed.

Same Moon, Different Mountains …

September 7, 2017

My walks are as long but feel longer. When Hat was here we talked our walks away, conversation intermittently broken to roar at one of the dogs, tearing hurly-burly and out of control, yapping at guinea fowl who laughed at them from tree tops, barrelling out of long grass bedecked with burrs so that we laughed at them too. My walks are altogether quieter now, except when I roar and the guinea fowl cackle at the dogs.


Africa is spillingly generous where I live now, on this broad valley strung between two mountains. Kilimanjaro, bare shouldered, white-headed rises on my eastern horizon – sometimes it’s obliterated by cloud, sometimes erased by dust, sometimes rendered invisible by a heat haze but close of day when dust settles and clouds have melted away and the last of the sun’s heat has dissipated, I see it then: duckeggblue, profiled against a darkening sky. I turn then and head home, and west, where Mt Meru rises jagged, jutting peaks and wrapped in green. The sun sets beneath it, a Terry’s Chocolate Orange that pencils pylons sharp against an evening sky.


There are mountains where Hat is: she sends me a photograph of her view, the Andes a snowy backdrop to Santiago’s skylines. I look at the picture for a long time and imagine her new home. From East Africa to South America. Swahili to Spanish. But lots of avocados here too, Hat smiles. I cannot see her face when I speak to her on whatsapp – my connection is too slow for that. But I can hear her smile in her voice.


When she left, and I cried, alot, Ant drew me close and said, ‘she’ll love it’. I can hear that; she is having fun. It’s all you want isn’t it – for your kids? To be happy. If she is happy, being a little sad that she is not here to talk to, to walk with, is do-able. I think of her when I wake. She trails six hours behind me. Sometimes my phone pings with a message as I prepare my morning coffee so I scold, ‘OMG! Get to bed girl!’. But sometimes our hours coincide; she is home from work, I am readying myself for bed. There is time and space to catch up with delicious disregard to schedules.


I imagine then her sun setting over her snowy mountains. Mine is long gone. In my part of the world a huge high moon has risen, all cheesefatwhite and round, so full and bright then when I pad out in my pajamas to call the cat, I won’t need a torch.


If I think that she sees my sun, my moon, even if we cannot share mountains, she seems a little less far away.


I live vicariously here whilst she’s there.




September 5, 2017

the giraffe


On the farm there were twelve giraffe. They stood bunched, a forest of long necks, a little nervous to find themselves exposed on a long bare windswept slope, devoid of trees but thick with dust.   My heart stills in my throat as we circle them so that I can catch them in my lens before they dance off the way giraffe do: low legged slow motion.

This is my new home. My newest home.

My tenth? 11th? in as many years. I don’t recall.  There have been alot of homes. For from each house I try to conjure as a home: I nail pictures to the wall so that the glass winks squiffly and gathers dust and gecko shit, I toss rugs down so that there is some semblance of familiar scent on new floors for the dogs who look around a little anxiously as if to stay, ‘we staying put for a bit this time?’.

Usually there is renovation to be done: to mould that house to home. I am not fussy. Nor house proud. Comfort is important, that’s all. (And water, power, a solid roof over my head – which isn’t always the case with the old wrecks I’m obliged to live in).  And familiarity. That’s as important to me as it is the dogs; even in the most impermanent of situations I place a clutch of well travelled photograph frames so that my children smile encouragingly up at me and a younger self admonishes me for frowning: there are no lines in the visage that glares back at me: that picture was taken in another life.

So our new home – the one I am trying to cast from a house which has not been properly occupied for forty years – more – is being knocked into shape, the resident chickens – nesting in ancient Armitage Shanks basins – have been evicted, the shenzi dogs with their worm blown bellies will have to go soon. The bats still determinedly come into roost and scatter new (naked as  yet) floors with droppings: when will you glass the windows I nag the fundi who looks nonplussed at my urgency.


Every few days I drive up the hill and monitor progress. Or not. And I stand beneath the tallest acacias I have ever seen and I look behind me to the cold shoulder of Kilimanjaro and before me to the long sweep of valley that saddles the plains between where I stand and where Mt Meru rises like an astonishing exclamation mark, piercing the blue.

And I hope that this home is a stayer.


Hat’s off to Santiago

August 27, 2017

The weight that sits on my chest grows progressively heavier. In the days before Hat leaves I worry it might take my breath clean away. When she says, ‘Mum,  you seem distracted’, I am afraid to speak for I know my voice will wobble under all that weight.

The morning before she flies, I flee to the bathroom, put the loo seat down to sit on it, and weep. The weight begins to dissolve wetly.   There is some relief in tears.

All the way to the airport, none of us talk much, we gaze out of the window at sky and traffic and a drying Africa, I – in the back – lie with my head tipped against her case, resting my cheek on her jacket, inhaling her scent.

The long line that straggles out of the airport, untidy, moves slowly but still too quickly. Too soon we’re at the top of it and I must relinquish my beautiful daughter to the bowels of international travel.  I must hug her hard, I must say brave things like, ‘have a wonderful, wonderful time’. I must not say, ‘please don’t go, please, I’ll miss you so’. I have nagged long and hard and tediously. Ticket? Passport? Phone? Charger? My children laugh at my fretting. But they laugh with kind affection, not the irritation I deserve.

I wait outside, gazing beyond plate glass where I cannot go, to watch for her thumbs up from the check in. To know that she has successfully navigated her baggage all the way through to her faraway destination, secured her transit vouchers.

I don’t want to stand politely and force smiles. I want to tear rudely through this queue, vault over security, ignore the shouts of airport officials and I want to snatch my Hat back, I want to wrap my arms around her and coax her home.

But I can’t do that.  This is my life. And that is hers. I need to stand stoically, sensibly aside, acknowledge her thumbs up with one of my own, blow a kiss, plaster a smile to my wet face and give a last wave. And then I must turn and go.

Ant says, kindly, ‘you silly old bag’.

He is right. I am silly. And soft. And I applaud my young daughter’s courage and spirit and adventure.

‘If only it wasn’t so far away’, I say, Santiago, ‘if only it wasn’t for so long’.  A year.

We drive home in silence. Africa shimmies, swims. I have to wipe my sunglasses dry.

Later, after a shower, I pull Hat’s sweatshirt from the laundry basket and slip it on.  She feels closer like that. I walk into her room but have to step back. Its emptiness winds me. Like a slap. I close the door.

I’ll go in tomorrow. Tomorrow. When she’ll have crossed Africa, crossed the Atlantic, crossed almost all of South America.

I’ll go in tomorrow. I’ll be braver tomorrow.


Hat's off to Santiago


July 13, 2017

The mornings are cold. In the east, at Home, it’s cold. It’s winter. Only in the unchanging far away Outpost are the seasons mostly obsolete: it’s wet or its dry, there’s not much in between. And there is never mist. Or cloud. Except before the rains. But here, now, back Home, the cloud squats low. You’d never know you were beneath two of Africa’s most imposing mountains: Kilimanjaro lies a little to the west; Meru soars directly above me. But in the morning you’d never know. In the morning, when I wrap warm in a fleece and slippers (which would only have garnered dust and scorpions in the Outpost), my mountains hunker sulkily beneath a thick grey down.


In the mornings Hat, who is home for this summer/winter holiday, and I often venture to the shops. A novel experience for the two of us who have mostly spent the last ten years exiled in not-so-splendid isolation. We trawl a small supermarket which is microscopic in comparison to Tesco but a veritable Aladdin’s Cave compared to what we are used to. There is more than one trolley. And yogurt. And a selection of hair products. But we always buy our fresh produce on the road on the way home. I select tomatoes from ladies who sit in the dust, straight backed, legs out directly in front of them. The tomatoes are pillar box bright red against the softgreytalc soil.

Today we saw a goatherd. He sported a fabulous pink coat and a jesters hat and he waved his stick at his flock. Hat and I decided he was quite the best dressed herdsman we had ever spied. I coveted his coat: for its chic cut and its vibrant colour.


And in the evenings we walk. For miles. The dogs go nuts. They can’t believe their luck: long, regular walks are a new thing. They charge back and forth, wearing big canine smiles, tails wagging as if to say, ‘thank you! oh thank you for bringing me to this delicious place where there are guinea fowl to chase and monkeys who laugh at me and endless ponds and pools and rivers to dive into’. We walk, Hat and I, and we talk, the glorious close absolutely private chatter of mother and daughter. She will leave soon, for a year away, in South America. I want to gather up every hour, keep her close, instill as much confidence, courage, reassurance in her as I can, as if to stock pile it lest she feel lonely whilst she is away.

The sun has shooed the clouds away, the mountains have regained their humour, shed their moody blankets, both stand incredibly proud and tall, Meru a cut glass profile, distant Kilimanjaro shimmers as a ghost on my horizon, its peaks smudged by dust and haze. The Natal rose grass blushes in the admiring last rays of the day.
And we walk until night is nearly upon us.


A Decade on: Coming Home

June 26, 2017



We are back where we started. In the north. Life’s a circle. It’s true.

People ask, ‘it is like coming home?’

Yes – for the familiarity of the skyline, old faces, knowing – mostly – where to go to get what.

And no – for in the intervening ten years much has changed: many old faces have been replaced by new, younger, unfamiliar ones who do not know I bear a history here, who will treat me with the disdain that sometimes attaches to newbies, for – especially – that my own intrinsic geography has changed: I am a different person than the one who left here a decade ago. I am older. The many worries of recent years have left question marks as to the uncertainty of our future furrowed to my brow, but laughter too, in the creases around my eyes, deepened for squinting into many, many beautiful sunups and sundowns. My children are grown – and two flown; when I left they were all school children.

In the last ten years I have lived in almost a dozen houses, a rare few long enough to morph as Home. I have lived in three countries in four years. I have packed a removals truck six times in five and followed it a minimum of five hundred miles cross country, over borders, invisible lines in the African dust.

For the most part, the landscape of the last decade has been lonely. Rare new friends stand tall, like baobabs on a plain that stretches until I can’t see anymore; they have helped me to feel rooted when I did not. And I clung to old friends like life rafts. Some – inevitably – drifted off: it was I who was drowning, after all. I who needed them more than they me; their busier, social, populated lives kept them buoyant. I feel no rancour: my world, for its staggering isolation and vast skies, was diminished. My views at once both sprawled and shrunken: to Ant. To the children. To my animals. To my – increasingly – travel weary possessions. I have taken a handful of photographs everywhere I have gone, to pin to a mirror, a fridge, to remind me what I’m about, whilst I waited for a container chock full of a life lived elsewhere.

If you asked me six years ago, when we left the Outpost first time around, whether I’d be leaving if I could see the maelstrom I was stepping into, I’d have balked. I’d have said, ‘are you mad? you expect me to leave my – admittedly – solitary but safe position to traipse through three countries, six or seven homes, half a dozen jobs, dragging my children behind me in a turbulent wake?’. No thanks I would have said – sternly and emphatically – and I’d have stayed firmly put.

But ask me now, ‘would you undo what has been done?’ and that’s a harder question to answer. It hasn’t been all bad. There have been some very bad bits, some bits where I felt cowed, defeated, broke – and broken . But there has been adventure, tons of new adventure, huge, soaring challenges, new places, new faces, and each one has carved a small groove in me – nicked me with an experience I would not otherwise have had – which partly accounts for the changed shape I bear now.

I have learned many things. I have learned that my children are stronger than they ought to have been at so tender an age. I have learned that you can cart a cat through several countries sitting on the back seat of a landcruiser with two dogs and nobody comes off any the worse. I have learned that I can navigate new cities. I have learned how to make lampshades. I have learned how to design fabric. I have learned which friends will always be worth hanging onto for they have allowed me to cling in needy and unattractive fashion. I have learned how to pack a 40ft container with thrift so that I get much more into it than is seemly. I have learned – in this vast, unwieldy period where I was often disorientated – to narrow my gaze to that which is close and near and manageable: I have made jam. Literally. This most recent move was preceded by four batches of marmalade so that into said container went jars bejeweled with the citrine hues of Seville, perfumed with ginger.

And I have learned, as the flotsam and jetsam thrown up by a single bad choice six years ago buffeted and toppled me, that Ant was my anchor. And I his.

So no. I would not have asked for the last six years.

But nor would I want to erase the lessons I have been forced to counter.

I am Home. It mostly looks the same: those two mountains under which I sit stand majestic sentinel over miles and miles of spilling Africa. It is subtly changed.

And so am I.

Unwritten Tales

May 24, 2017

I am distracted as I pull books from shelves, wipe fine dust from their jackets with the back of my sleeve; every book tells a story, a tale quite separate from the one writ within its covers.

Babar the Elephants describes sitting at my paternal grandmother’s knee on a farm far away, listening as she read, wondering that none of the elephants I’d ever seen ever wore suits or bore luggage in their trunks.

Dr Seuss rattles with rhymes that we chanted then giggled as we demanded Green Eggs and Ham for breakfast.

A dozen books on Irish mythology, gifted by my maternal Granny in a bid to stick some proper identity to a barefooted wild child with hair as pale as straw and skin the colour of toast. A dozen more to describe lives in India where she lived, and which she loved.

And hundreds gifted to my children by Mum. Hundreds. Whole collections by the same author, whomever was current favourite – Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz – books to illustrate a newly adopted hobby – sewing, cooking, playing the guitar. I want to cry when I pluck these from shelves and stare as their titles swim. I want to cry for lost years, for babies grown up, for a home once filled with noise and energy and now full of silence.

And I want to weep for the bitter irony that my beautiful mother bestowed upon my children her love of words and reading only to lose the same to illness.

I heap piles of the children’s clothes onto the floor and whatsapp images, ‘what do you want?’ I ask. There is halfhearted interest.

Days later, I photograph the bookshelves, ‘let me know what you want me to keep’, I ask. There is an immediate outcry, ‘not the books’, wails Amelia, ‘anything but the books’.

And I know what she means. I will dust them off and pack them up.

For their stories.

For the ones we cannot read.