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Antigua and The Kindness of Strangers.

January 21, 2011

Which strikes me as a good title for a novel – if I ever write another one.

I recently had a brief holiday on the island of Antigua and this blog was destined to be a straightforward travel account – well,  eulogy really , as the island is charming and beautiful,  365 beaches and all. It’s small, green and palmy with a couple of major roads – watch out for potholes the size of Cheddar Gorge –  sea in strips of emerald and peacock  – Caribbean caresses on one side,  wild , Atlantic surf on the other  –  gorgeous Colonial houses,  staggering rock star villas and  divinely picturesque wooden stilt-chalets.   The harbours are full of fuck-off gin palaces – Russian and other –  we nearly went to a party on one , courtesy of a rummed-up crew member. Eric Clapton’s music was playing , so I excitedly decided it was Clapton’s yacht – he does have one there, as well as a gated palace which occupies an entire private point of the island . I wondered if he would would remember meeting me years ago at The Marquee – okay, I do have a vivid imagination – but I never found out as,  in the end, the invitation was not forthcoming – man overboard?

Antiguans are incredible friendly, in the way one fondly imagines England to have been in the fifties , or the war,  and will wish you a happy holiday if they just encounter you in the street , never mind in a bar ( see above) . The bustling towns and small, higgledy-piggeldy villages offer up every kind of  architecture, signage, markets, bar life and food from posh Creole – Mahi mahi , lobster, snapper –   to wayside stalls with fish burgers,  jerk pork and chicken. There are lots of little  shacks selling local juices,  guava, ginger, coconut, tamarind, and  delicious, home made ice cream  – peanut was my favorite , rum and raison the boyfriend’s. Rum in general is big –   the rum punch is to die for . Well,  so I am told –  I didn’t actually taste any , and this brings me to the Kindness of Strangers…

On day two , just as I was beginning to  relax into the  breezy heat, the clean white-sanded beaches, the flora and fauna ( humming birds poking in and out of glorious Oleander and Hibiscus) I was struck down with a violent medical emergency.   A nosebleed. Yes I know that doesn’t sound traumatic , or even dangerous – but trust me,  it was both. This bleed was a geyser spouting from my nostril with such force people were leaping out of the way. It started in the hire car we had just acquired – hope the insurance covers cleaning the blood-soaked upholstery  – as we were negotiating the craters on the road to Admiral Nelson’s home at English Harbour.  Ironic – as he’d be only too familiar with unstoppable bloody wounds. We drew up at the kerb and I got out of the car, only to spurt all over the road and several passers by. Instead of running away – as we might have done back home – they stayed, at a discreet distance, and offered advice, pointing out there was ( luckily!)  a small community clinic nearby. One lad actually ran ahead of our car to direct us to it. The clinic was bare as a clinic could be , but had a kind nurse who found me gauze , rang up to get advice and eventually directed us on to the ABSAR Search and Rescue clinic at the English Harbour. There, a lovely medic tried to treat me – he was obviously horrified that his ruse of stuffing jumbo Tampax up my nose didn’t halt the gush – and called a Consultant colleague to get me admitted to a ear , nose and throat clinic . Long story short , ambulance with flashing light , wailing siren and oxygen supply arrived and I spent that night in the island’s only hospital, Mount StJohn,  and the rest of the holiday in and out of it.   Rum was forbidden.  As was swimming, sunbathing, snorkling, water sporting,  vigorous activity of any kind ( no air guitar , then, with or without Eric) and anything else you might want to do on a Caribbean island.

But – what kicked in was the famed kindness . I cannot describe how much better the lovely, gracious and unfailing concern of the people we met made me feel .  I want to thank in particular, Nicola and the lovely Patsy,  our Suntours reps – who really took onboard my plight and made many calls on our behalf sorting out our hotel and car situation. The staff at the pretty and welcoming Rex Halcyon Hotel were very helpful, upgrading us to a large , airy beach-front suite and letting us keep it as long as we needed.  Roshanna at Dollar Car Rental was an absolute trooper ( considering she had a bloodied car, which was then totaled by a truck while we were parked at the Clinic) and let us keep our fun little jeep for an extra day at no charge. What kind people!   And what a joy to realise the concept isn’t just a concept – it really does exist.  I will never be cynical about human nature  again . Or at least,  not for the rest of the day.

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Ladies of Letters

November 24, 2010

Ladies of Letters ended its ITV3 2nd series run on Sunday.  Irene and Vera ascend into a cloudy future  ( rather like the rest of us ) fighting over who will catch Vera’s daughter Karen’s wedding bouquet. Long story. There’s lots more to come,  as the old friends feud over which one suffers the most from explosive new family dramas involving children, grandchildren, surrogacy and skullduggery. We’ve just heard we’re to be nominated for a national comedy award for series 2 –  so that’s nice.

If you would like to see a third series – and,  indeed, a repeat of series 2 on ITV1 -please do go to our Ladies page ( http://www.ladiesofletters.co.uk) and leave a request. Or if you feel strongly, threat.

Happiness, happiness..?

November 22, 2010

Following on from my last post – Andrew Marr’s start the week ( 22nd November)  was also discussing political satire and bemoaning the current lack of it . I refer you to my previous comments on the real reasons for this.

But here’s a funny coincidence – last week, David Cameron’s condemned government  announced they were going to monitor the UK’s happiness levels so they can make better decisions on future policy. How 1984/ Brave new World is that!!

Nonetheless,  it’s not a new idea. In my political satire , Hard Choices,  Happiness Wardens are featured –  below is a passage in which one is about to make a visit to an ordinary family.  Be careful, be very, very careful – one could soon be coming to a home near you.

HARD CHOICES EXTRACT

‘Welcome to a curfew-free zone’, announced the street sign, as Grace’s car slid into a quiet, tree-lined suburban road. Margie and Tony ’s pastel-painted bungalow with its modest net curtains and tidy garden blooming with massive chrysanthemums and dahlias, was distinguished from others in the row only by a large Osso security van parked outside. Margie answered the door in an apron, being careful to hold floury fingers off the woodwork. She looked harassed, apprehensive even, but her face broke into a relieved smile when she recognised Grace.

“I thought it was the blasted Happiness Warden. Hello m’duck. Whatever are you doing here?”

She took a quick glance up and down the road, then ushered Grace in, shutting the door hastily behind her.

“ Come through duck.” She bustled ahead, along the hall.

“ Sorry to entertain you in the kitchen, but I’m just making the bread and I’ve got to finish while we’ve got the electricity..”

They passed the door to the living room from which blared the ubiquitous StoneTV soap.

“ Steve, turn that down,  please!” shouted Margie.

Grace glanced into the room. Steve, Margie’s son, a lumpen lad, was sprawled in his Ossophate uniform in front of the huge screen. He gave no sign he had heard his mother’s request.

Margie clicked her teeth. “I could set the house on fire, he’d never notice. The others are at school. Thank Gideon.”

The kitchen was poorly equipped, but neat and spotless. The sink was chipped, the cooker ancient, the table on which Margie was kneading dough scarred and scuffed, though newly covered in pale pink plastiflex.

There were other little, typically Margie-like touches of colour. The magnolia walls were gaily decorated with hand-embroidered samplers, ‘Fruits of the Earth’ and ‘Bread is the staff of life.’ Grace knew them to be Margie’s painstaking work. She’d been the same as a TU rep; every job undertaken with acute attention to detail. Now she’d transferred her abilities into homemaking for her four men. A certificate of praise for ‘Firm Family Values’, awarded by the Citizen’s Council, had pride of place above the table.

Margie glanced at the big clock on the wall and returned to pummelling the dough as though her life depended on it. Occasionally she stopped, picked up a pen with her sticky fingers and added something to a form on the table she was filling.

“Would you like a cuppa, love?” she said, suddenly remembering her duties as Hospitable Hostess. Without waiting for an answer she snatched up the kettle and crossed to the sink to turn on the tap. A grinding noise but no water came out of it.

“Drat and blast!” cried Margie. “ That’s the third time this week. And never a warning.”

She hurried into the pantry.

“ You’ll have to have Ransome’s bottled, is that alright? I resent using it to boil,” she added, almost to herself. “ It’s so blasted expensive.”

“Don’t bother Margie. I’m fine. Really.”

“Are you sure duck?” Margie’s expression hovered between concern for her bread and duty to her visitor.

Grace made a dismissive gesture.

“ Is Tony about?”

Margie’s face turned doleful.

“ He’s been hauled up in front of the Neighbourhood Committee, duck. It’s this bad fathering business.. the Outreach Unit’s instructed them to take action.”

She clenched her fists. ”Ooh ,I could brain our Kevin!”

She smacked her fists onto the table then subsided swiftly, aware she had overstepped propriety.

“ If he had one.” she finished lamely.

“I’m sorry Margie.”

Grace left a pause for Margie to recover, then said,

“ I wanted a word about those deaths. You know, at Ossophate?”

Margie pushed the kitchen door closed and lowered her voice.

“ Two of Tony’s work-mates he kept up with after he left. They told him they’d complained about things there..the de-skilling programme and wage cuts..Next thing we heard they’d committed suicide. Tony was stunned!

I mean they just weren’t the type.”

She shook her head to emphasise their disbelief.

“ Tony used to meet one every day to play bowls, the other had just got married.”

“ Does Steve know anything?” Asked Grace.

“Steve!” Margie yelled. There was no answer. “ Deaf as a post,” snorted Margie. “ He’d sit in front of that dratted telly all day, if he didn’t get hungry. I doubt he’d tell you, anyway.” Margie set her mouth in a line.  “ He’s like a clam about Ossophate. Scared he’ll lose his job. Well, we all are. If we get curfewed we’ll have to move to a Home-Zone.” Her voice rose. “ It would break Tony’s heart to leave this house after all the work he’s put in. We live off that garden..”

She waved towards the kitchen garden. Through the bow-tied print curtains Grace could see trellis and orderly rows of vegetables. A large pot of Ossophate fertiliser stood outside the small potting shed.

“ At least Steve gets the fertiliser free,” Margie went on.

“ Even if it is low wages..” She broke off suddenly and wrote ‘garden’ on her form, in big, simple letters.

“What’s that?” asked Grace.

“ Units of Satisfaction form.” Said Margie shortly.

“The Happiness Warden will be round to pick it up any moment.” She sighed.

“ Blasted thing always needs filling in when I’m at my busiest. And I have to print everything because she can barely read. Now..”

She checked down the list.

“ Do I prefer knitting to embroidery? No. Cooking to cleaning? Yes. How many units shall I give to being a surrogate granny?  Well, I love to see the poor little mites cleaned up and read to, the mothers never bother, but on the other hand it takes up such a lot of time, I feel things here are neglected – that’s why I’m late with the bread making. Great Gideon that reminds me..”

She dashed over to the cooker and flung open the door. Cold air billowed out.

“ No, “ wailed Margie, “the heat’s gone off! Now there won’t be any bread for tea and the children will be angry with me.”

She ran back to the form and began feverishly ticking and crossing, muttering,

“Jamming yes, pickling no, mending bother, darning urghh!  Oh, it’s so difficult.”

She rubbed her forehead, leaving a trail of flour.

“ I wish there was a pill you could take for all this!”

Steve, tall and ominous in his black boilersuit, sloped in as Grace watched in consternation.

“ Isn’t tea ready, Ma?” he demanded in an aggrieved tone, “ My shift starts soon.”

“There’s salad in the larder,” said Margie distractedly.

“ The fridge was seized by the National Security Wardens,” she flung as an afterthought to Grace. “They insisted it had been bought by the proceeds of crime.”

“Crime!” exclaimed Grace. It was unthinkable. Tony and Margie were the most honest people she knew.

“Our Darren.” Said Margie, sorrowfully. “ He was caught selling black market hamburgers. You know our class isn’t allowed meat.”

Grace couldn’t think of anything comforting to say. Instead she turned to Steve and asked,

“ Have you heard anything about a ‘bespoke’ programme at Ossophate?”

Steve stared at her blankly. “Dur..?”He said.

“He won’t understand ‘bespoke’. “ said Margie. “ It’s not the sort of word they use on StoneTV.”

Her tone was apologetic. “ Steve was only educated in practical de-skilling.”

She spoke of him as though he wasn’t in the room. In many ways, thought Grace, he wasn’t.

“ A new product, “ she tried, “ Under wraps.”

Steve gave a disinterested shrug and shoved a large tomato in his mouth.

“ Right.” said Grace, sotto voce. “ Just doing your job, I suppose.”

Steve slouched back to the telly with a plate of monster vegetables. Margie waited until he had gone to say in a low voice. “ That StoneTV soap is addictive. If you ask me it’s addled his brain.”

The back door opened and a wretched-looking Tony entered.

“ Tony, love,” cried Margie, catching his arm. “What happened?”

“I’ve been sentenced to three hours in the stocks.” Tony said dully. He slumped into a chair, as though drained of all life.

Margie ran to him “ No..” she begged, beating his shoulders. “No!”

“ Only one short of tagging.” Tony moaned. He fell forward onto the floury table, burying his head in his hands.

“Oh Tony,” murmured Grace. She had never felt more helpless.

“They’ll put a black cross on our door.” Margie whimpered. “The neighbours won’t speak to us. The kids’ll be shunned.”

“We’ll end up in your bloody camp.” Tony barked, a  sudden surge of rage lifting his head.

Grace was upset, but she couldn’t let that pass. “It’s not a camp, Tony.  It’s a Re-location Centre.”

“Well, we don’t want to be bloody ‘re-located’.“ Tony returned belligerently.

Margie was storming up and down the kitchen, wringing her hands. “ The shame, the shame,” she kept repeating. “ How has this happened to us?” She addressed the ceiling.  “ We’ve always been good. Done everything by the rules.”  She picked up the dough and threw it violently from hand to hand. “ It’s all the fault of your blasted Ministry. Telling us what to do!” She turned on Grace, mimicking, “ Faith in Families. Faith in Families. Firm Family values!” She lobbed the dough onto the floor and kicked it around like a football.

“I’m sorry..” Grace whispered, ”So sorry..I don’t know how to help..”

“Why don’t you just chuck the first tomato.” Said Tony bitterly.

Grace backed away from his accusing stare. Her last sight as she left the kitchen, was Margie jumping up and down on the dough. She almost seemed to be enjoying it.

Hard Choices

November 3, 2010

I recently heard a Radio 4 program querying the lack of political satire during the Blair/Brown years. Several writers ( all men – what a surprise) spoke on the subject, opining that it was because most satirists are left leaning, so were ‘with’ The Project and didn’t want to say anything that might derail it, or rock the Blair boat.
May I put forward another opinion? There was no lack of writers ( including women) poking fun at the wilder excesses of Blair’s self-obsessed and sinister Government. What there was , however, was a severe lack of editors willing to publish what they wrote. Commissioners in every medium appeared uncomfortable and unwilling to air anything critical of  New Labour – particularly in the early years when they still all believed the Emperor had clothes on.
As proof, I offer my own experience with my 2003 novel, Hard Choices, a dark and dystopian tale of life under a (mythical) Government in the (mythical) year of 0010. Despite a deluge of what he termed, “rave rejections”, my clever agent at Curtis Brown couldn’t find a publisher for love nor money  for this story of Grace Fry Minister for Women,  favorite girlie of smoothie PM Gideon Price,  and her discovery of a nasty  government plot . In the end I published it myself on a website – quite adventurous in those days – which provoked lots of people to write about it, and some to demand I do the same for their own political criticism. I was amazed – I thought it was just me, but here were some very well established authors who couldn’t get their rude and funny comments about Blair and his cohorts on radio, TV, film or in a bookshop. Conspiracy or cock-up? You decide.
Hard Choices was eventually published by Aurora Metro Press and is still out there – you can find it on Amazon, but here’s a little taste of what publishers and commissioners found so frightening:

Hard Choices: PROLOGUE

The piercing October sunlight struck Imre full in the face as he panted out of the copse. He winced and screwed up his eyes, momentarily blinded after the resinous gloom. Across the field, the distinct howls of the pursuing pack indicated the hunt was not far away and after a brief gasp at the stabbing stitch in his side, he set off in a stumbling run towards the bramble hedge beyond which, he hoped, was a road.

His back was to the sun now and his vision cleared enough for him to see the frost of his breath on the still, blue air. In the distance he could make out the splendid spires of Lord Ransome’s mansion. Sunbeams blessed the gothic grey with a touch of Camelot.  In the other direction reared the chimneys of the Ossophate factory; a white cloud of smoke puffed innocently above them, as if from a picture-book train.

The field he crossed was sprout green from recent rain. A cow munching, raised her soft head and gave him an unconcerned glance, as though accustomed to seeing a man in fox skin, brush dangling, speeding by in the muddy grass. Raucous barks and the sound of hooves churning the sodden turf urged him on. The bramble hedge, still blackberried and spotted here and there with bright splashes of poppy, offered dense sanctuary. Imre threw himself headlong into the tangle and, oblivious to scratches and snags, crashed through to the other side.

A little further up the narrow lane, a chaingang was working.  With dull regularity their pick-axes rose and fell, scattering chips as they hacked into the surface. A large hole had already opened and the leader stopped to wipe his brow. He and Imre made eye contact. Not so much as a flicker visibly passed between them, but a moment later Imre dived into the hole and the gang, without pause in their automatic labour, covered him with rubble. The pointed snout of his fox-head disappeared, just as the first foaming horse cleared the hedge and clattered onto the tarmac. Through a mosaic of chinks Imre watched the hunt dither, the flecked horses snorting and stamping, the dogs winding in and out, whining. Then with a great bellow of the horn, the Master gestured onwards. His chestnut leapt the gate opposite and in seconds, the whole heaving, hallooing mob had followed.

When all sound of it had gone and the day had settled back into a calm broken only by a skylark and the occasional weary grunt from a worker, Imre thrust an arm through the rubble and with the help of the leader’s sinewy grip, clambered out of the hole. No words were spoken, but the leader dragged off Imre’s pelt and offered him a tattered denim jacket and a bit of bread.  Imre tried to say thank you –  that, at least, he knew in English,  but his throat was choked with tears. The leader nodded and thumped his shoulder, then watched as the refugee set off up the road. Where, he wondered was he going?

Imre too was wondering. His plan was to get to someone who would believe his story. Grace Fry, the Government Minister who’d recently opened the Re-location Centre, might. She’d seemed friendly -had taken his hand in a firm grip, but he had no idea how to find her.

The air had warmed a little now and the sky turned deep cornflower. The sun filtered through the russet hedgerows and cast charming, lace-like patterns on the empty road ahead. Even in his despair, Imre could not help noticing that October was particularly beautiful that year. A blackbird chucked. A church clock struck the hour. One might almost think all was right with the world…

CHAPTER ONE

The white skin of the Drome glowed, the seaside sparkle lending a silky gloss to the PVC, as Grace Fry hurried towards it. As usual she was late, there never seemed enough hours in the day for her small Women’s Unit to attack the work she deemed essential. She saw it as attack, for that was her nature. Today however, the first day of Conference 0010, she was late not because of her own over-packed schedule, but because Ransome Rail had encountered a cow on the line.

Other ministers had been travelling on the same high-speed, tilting train; all had groaned as it tilted to a standstill leaving them on a tipsy incline. To be delayed for Conference, of all things- the consequences hardly bore thinking about! These thoughts were kept private. It was not done to criticise Lord Ransome. The Drome, towards which they travelled, had been bought by his consortium after the Great Crash of 0000 and re-leased to the Government for a nominal sum. It was one of Ransome’s most famous loss leaders. The railways were another. The Government had many reasons to be grateful to him.

Grace was more anxious than most. One of the first events of Conference was the ceremony at which she was to receive the Woman of the Decade Award from the prestigious European Female Federation. Though she courted the media and loved publicity – her detractors said too much – she was a naturally a little nervous. It would be a theatrical occasion. Her own performance must be immaculate.

To save time she slithered sideways, particularly awkward in her customary high-heeled shoes, to change in the Elite class ‘Fresh ‘n’ Up!’ facility. At the end of the carriage a Happiness Warden had already begun an uplifting exercise class for the more eager travellers. Idleness was frowned on. Those taking part had stripped down to modest one-piece undergarments, having travelled in expectation, and were jerking earnestly to chants of,“ Meat is death”, “ Greens are good”, “Eat your nuts” and so on.   Any moment they would break into songs of praise. Grace nodded to Naomi Lord, Secretary of State for Family, in passing. Naomi was leaping with set jaw and dogged determination. Grace knew it would be noted that she hadn’t joined in.

As she tottered along the corridor hanging onto the Teflon ceiling straps, thoughtfully provided for these all too frequent unscheduled halts, Grace glimpsed through the convex windows fields rolling away to the distant sea.  A labourer was ploughing with a horse-drawn plough, churning up great curls of rich chocolate-coloured soil. Seeing his broad, smocked back and gaitered legs, braced against the powerful, tramping horses, Grace thought fleetingly of a peasant Ben Hur. Behind the plough came head-shawled women, scattering seed and trundling huge drums of Ossophate fertiliser to spread along the furrows. Apart from the vivid ‘Osso’ logos – she could just make out the slanting slogan, ‘Puts “body” on your table – it was a biblical image.

Less so were the hoardings, which reared from the track sedges, announcing,

‘MORE CEREAL. LESS PROTEIN’ and  ‘VEGGIES “R” U’.

Grace sighed. She could barely remember steak. She ran her tongue over her lips – she was an unreconstructed carnivore and would sometimes bite them just to taste blood. Not the sort of thing to admit in public. Well – not while the eating of meat was forbidden.

She bolted herself into the silver loo capsule complete with Toobs vanity unit, Osso night-soil re-cycler and spouting fountain of Ransome’s water and ducked away from the port-hole window labelled ‘Warden-Watch’, clicking her teeth in exasperation. Really, it was unnecessarily invasive in Elite class, she hated to be scrutinised about her toilette. She ran a comb through her blond urchin cut, grateful as always she didn’t have the bother of a wig, and applied careful make-up, finishing with a dash of bright coral lipstick. Lipstick was power. It was important to look young and vibrant.

Now, an hour later, she clacked down the front in a stunning white sharkskin suit, mirroring, not entirely serendipitously, the shiny Drome. Though Grace was used to the sight – the Drome had been the seat of Government ever since the collapse of the Houses of  Parliament, due to faulty underground infrastructure – it still filled her with awe. Drome had an almost animal aura and breathed white light over everything.

Grace put up a hand to smooth hair tendrils slightly ruffled by the mild sea breeze, simultaneously making a mental check she had everything necessary for the rest of the busy day.  She straightened her collar and her hand fell to the simple gold locket she wore round her neck. She fingered it absent-mindedly, as though it had talismanic properties and the mere fondle could reassure. The touchstone obviously worked, for a moment later her brow cleared and her step regained its bounce. Grace was never down for long. Besides, she was aware that shortly, her image would be relayed to many screens. It would not do to look troubled when approaching a moment of triumph.

Outside the twelve foot steel fence, which cordoned the Drome circumference and separated Grace from the pebbly, wave-lapped beach, groups of National Security Wardens were stationed at regular intervals. Their presence had been worrying when they’d first been created to quell the panic riots in the National Emergency after The Great Crash. The appalling terrorist attacks of 0000 had created world wide hysteria and many countries had resorted to a similar watchfulness.  Now, like so much else, the sight of the wardens in their grey Teflon boilersuits had become unremarkable. Only a few years ago these streets would have been littered with beggars, drug addicts, refugees. Now, there was no sign of disturbance in the neat town, which was gaily decorated with national bunting in St George’s red and white, and strings of coloured lights for the Conference. Even the security cameras, which hung on every Heritage lamp-post trailed jolly ribbons. The Ministry of Mode had, as always, done an excellent job.  Ransome’s red and silver logo appeared on many of the Government posters – his company had sponsored Conference this year – along with the Drome symbol which always reminded Grace, to her guilty amusement, of an old-fashioned Dutch cap. Martha had been the only one with whom she could share such irreverent thoughts.

The pricking of her wrist-bleep urged Grace to a trot. As well as giving messages and time by the nano-second, it emitted small electrical shocks, which increased in sharpness the later its wearer became.  No one knew quite how highly charged they were. High-ranking ministers, who wore more powerful bleeps, could often be seen careering across Millennium Green, but the unpleasant tingle they caused at warning level was enough to spur most to action.

A few seconds later, the whirr of a security camera marked her arrival, a little out of breath, at the giant reclining figure of the entrance. Encouraged by the huge banner which draped the creature’s breasts, proclaiming,  ‘Creating Stability.  Go with Gideon.’ and pursued by the swivelling lens, Grace hurried through the androgyne’s mouth and down its transparent throat towards the foyer of the huge saucer- shaped building.

St John Eye Hospital, Jerusalem

September 1, 2010
Exterior St John Eye Hospital

Exterior St John Eye Hospital

There was a sobering Dispatches on Channel 4 recently about  first cousin marriage.  The children of these liaisons can be born with severe medical problems and degenerative genetic conditions – frequently related to sight and hearing . The medical facts  remain largely unacknowledged throughout the practicing community, as well as in circles where it’s considered un-PC to address certain cultural issues in case it’s seen as criticism of that community as a whole

I watched with particular interest, as I recently visited the St John Eye Hospital in East Jerusalem . This extraordinary clinic works with the children who are born with, or develop, eye problems –  often due to the first cousin marriages common throughout Palestine.  The present hospital is a gracious building, erected 50 years ago on a site  in Sheikh Jarrah.  It’s in pleasant , welcoming golden brick,  set in gardens of a lushness both mediterranean and surprisingly English.

The Director , a lovely man called Rod Bull, showed myself and my photographer partner around , gave us welcome iced tea and told us something about the work of the hospital, which was originally established 128 years ago . With a mixture of Arab and Israeli staff, they treat children,  young people ,  and occasionally adults,  who come to them from Gaza and the West bank. They also run outreach units all over Palestine. The achievements are the more amazing for the  remarkable spirit of co-operation displayed by the diverse staff –  giving their time and sharing their skills, often for nothing. I was tremendously impressed by the goodwill ,  tolerance and affection evident throughout the hospital . Even the patients were smiling. It’s living proof that no matter how fundamental the differences  between people,  when there is a will to overcome them – there is a way.

I’ll be writing more about the hospital and its work  – but I wanted to share these thoughts asap.

Thai hideaway

February 22, 2010

The darling little star-shaped Island of Koh Mak off the Southern coast of Thailand was my New Year destination. Never having tried Thailand before – amazing, as I love Thai food, and come to that, Thai drink, to say nothing of Thai massage – I was delighted with my choice, and whiled away many a sunny, snoozy hour pretending to read in a hammock slung between palm trees on the edge of a white sandy beach.

That’s when I wasn’t indulging in some, or indeed, all of the above – particularly the cocktails. Which brings me to the Bamboo Hideaway Resort – the Mojitos there, mixed by the proprietor’s own liberal hand, are better than any I’ve ever had in Cuba. I’m not sure how I got back to the other side of the island after my first visit – it was pitch black and I was, after all, on a Moped – but I lived to go back the next day. And the next…

Read more…

Prague, Prague, Prague

February 10, 2009

(With apologies to Chekhov)

Having been denied a pre-Christmas trip to Prague (my partner forgot to renew his passport – boy, was he sorry!!) I missed out on my fantasy of frosty sunshine, and cheery Xmas markets dispensing gingerbread and gluhwein. I went around for days murmuring “Prague, Prague, Prague” like some demented character from Chekhov’s Three Sisters, but was still less than charmed to finally be there in downtime January with temps of minus 13 & ‘this most magical of cities’ completely minus cheeriness.

We were not at all encouraged by the taxi driver from the airport, who told us Prague was getting reputation for bad attitude and high prices. He painted a dark and dangerous world, where everyone was out to rip you off – no wonder Kafka was so paranoid – then charged us 20 euros. Though we took what he said with a pinch of salt – taxi drivers, Oy – he turned out to be right. Nothing in Prague is as it seems – Kafka again – especially when it comes to paying.

E.g.

Most restaurants offer a cheap ‘Touristic menu’ to tempt you inside, then hit you with a different rate once you’re seated. You’ve come on the wrong day, at the wrong time, or what’s advertised outside is all finished. Crossly, I complained to an unsmiling waitress that this was fraudulent. She nodded, shrugging, “Yes, it is problem”. Er…so…? But too late, she’d gone.

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