Showing posts from February, 2015

The second worst chat-up line in the world.

We didn't do a lot in Cooktown while we waited for the tyres to be shipped up to us from Cairns
because back in 1989 there wasn't a lot to do. In Cairns, they had described the people of Cooktown as 'ornery' which didn't mean awkward but seemed to mean, hem, parochial and with rather closely-related families. I have no evidence of that being true at all.
At the mouth of the Endeavour River, it was the gateway to Australia's gold-mining region and now it's thriving with a bitumen road from Cairns but, when we were there, the road was rough and the greatest prosperity seemed to come from the shrimp boats.

It's a tropical town and the hostel where we stayed had its fair share of giant cockroaches and cane toads so we spent much of the time resting and reading in the local pub where we ate crocodile (which tasted like slightly tough fishy chicken) and kangaroo (which tasted like slightly rabbity chicken).  To our great surprise, after 24 hours, they starte…

Cape Tribulation

Sarah and Pete arrived in Cairns the next day with a sturdy 4x4 to take us north into the Daintree National Forest, Cape Tribulation and beyond to Cooktown. The name of the Cape is, perhaps, a suitable warning. It's where Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour, hit the reef and, as he said, 'the start of all their troubles' (mostly sickness from there on).
Australia is full of things that really, really want to attack you and quite frequently kill you. There are the legendary spiders for a start — the funnel-web, the redback, the mouse spider, fiddlebacks, tarantulas and even the trapdoor spider whose bite can give you lethargy and nausea if nothing worse.
There are taipan snakes, brown snakes, the, the box jelly-fish (those will kill you, soon as look at you at certain times of year), death adders, cone shells, the blue-ringed octopus and sundry other fearsome beasts.  The sand flies on the beaches aren't much fun either.
And that's not even mentioning the saltwater …

The barracuda.

I was very aware of being not normal in the months after Henry died; grief had set me somehow about
half an inch out of my skin and everything looked and felt wrong wherever I was. I didn't want to kill myself but I didn't really have much life-force either. I had a constant feeling that if I stepped out in front of a bus and it didn’t stop, I wouldn’t have minded.
I certainly wasn’t paying very much attention to life. I didn’t see the point in anything which is a horrible way to be. And I was hoping that running away to Australia would help.
It was my birthday on the day after I arrived in Cairns. so I went out to the Barrier Reef to do some snorkelling. I had been planning to wait until Sarah and Pete arrived but there are only so many circuits you can make of a town when you’re miserable.
The ship that took us out was crowded with Japanese tourists so I could hide quite neatly in the crowd. I did listen to the announcements on where to swim and where not to go.
‘Just avoid …

To the End of the World.

I chose Australia because two of my dearest friends were on a one-year Sabbatical travelling round the world and would be in Cairns at around the time of my birthday in April. In those days before mobile phones we had had a couple of emails and one phone call during Henry’s illness when they had been adamant that I would be welcome to travel with them should the worst happen.
I also had a former work colleague and friend who lived in Sydney and one of Henry’s oldest friends lived in Perth. So I had a range of places to visit if I chose. The trip was paid for by the sale of Henry’s Nagra, a then state-of-the-art recording machine which had travelled the world with him taping soundtrack for wildlife documentaries among other things. Henry told me once that if you ever see an eagle rising majestically from a tree on TV it’s not from hours of patient waiting and filming but usually because the sound recordist shot at it with a catapault. The Nagra brought in £9,000, a veritable for…

After the End, the Beginning.

I'd be the first to admit that I probably had it relatively easy being a widow. After all, I'd only known
Henry for 18 months so my previous life was still accessible. I can only imagine the crashing of worlds when a long-established marriage ends.

Even so, my future had been taken away — even more so because I had gambled my career by going into TV documentaries about China and Tiananmen Square had put all future visits off the cards. So I had no husband and no career.

Back in those days, before we had the habit of going to war in the Middle East and we got used to the shipping home of the bodies of young men, widowhood in your 30s was still quite an unusual thing and most people simply didn't know what to do with me.

There were the oddest comments, almost simultaneously as in "I think you're wearing too much black, dear," and "I don't think you should be seen out with Alan; what would people think?" Alan being an old boyfriend who had morphed…

While You See a Chance, Take It.

It's twenty five years ago this weekend since my first husband, Henry Barley died. We were married for one year and sixteen days and I have no regrets.

Henry married me because of a hedgehog. I married him because of the recording artist, Steve Winwood. I had long been cunning in my resistance to marriage, while believing all along that I wanted it. That contradiction was almost certainly inspired by watching my parents’ years of mutual unhappiness and sitting at the joy-free table of Sunday lunch where, no matter how good the food (and it was, it was!) there was constant emotional indigestion in the air. With middle-class angst, too much puppy fat and enough training in not showing off to make me dull as ditchwater, I believed no one worth having would want me. I didn’t realise that my strategy of falling in love only with those who were unavailable was also an effective defence. I can’t say the men I languished over were commitment-phobes; most of them were seriously committed — c…

Marriage in the Seychelles.

French had put a condition on giving Henry and me a marriage blessing — if he hadn’t liked us he could have said ‘no’ — but I didn’t doubt for a moment that he would agree. I was right. Even better, after we had travelled to Mahé and had tea at the Palace, French offered to marry us in the cathedral; not just a blessing but the full wedding ceremony itself. Henry really liked our friendly local Archbishop and had no problem with the concept. He was one of those amiable atheists who didn’t have an issue with anyone else believing as long as they didn’t try and change his inner world. And he wanted his new wife to be happy, whatever that would take.
I was happy. I felt very blessed. I’d just wanted a church wedding but my ego was thrilled to be married by an Archbishop in a cathedral, even if it were a tiny grey stone building smaller than St. Peter’s back at home. So why was it that on the morning of our wedding, I froze? I couldn’t come out of the bathroom, to head out for the ceremon…

Finding Love in China.

Over six years of visiting China I ate some pretty odd stuff, much of it completely unidentifiable. I still wince at the memory of sea cucumbers — sea slugs — and of 100-year-old eggs. Sparrows’ brains never did it for me although snake and camel were quite tasty. I have a horrible feeling that I did eat dog once ... and I definitely tried mare’s milk cheese which was nose-smartingly strong. One thing I never ate, knowingly, was hedgehog. In 1988, together with PBW, I wrote a book called China By Rail. Dad wrote the first, technical, chapter and took the photographs and I wrote the rest of the book. From that came the ITV documentaries Manchuria Express and Slow Train from China and it was while making those that I met Henry. He said he fell in love with me on day three while we were filming in a marketplace in Jilin in Manchuria. It was full of bright colours and crammed with fruits and vegetables, medicine stalls with dried frog and snake and even weirder stuff, stalls groaning with sp…

Kicking over the traces.

Each night I attended a banquet at a different place in Changchun, being celebrated as a foreign dignitary and eating clear soups with meat and vegetables, 100-year-old eggs, sea cucumbers, sweet-and-sour pork, chopped chicken, river fish that seemed to be 70% bones, chopped duck complete with bones, bean curd flavoured 20 different ways, all kinds of mushrooms including one type that looked, rather amusingly, like mini penises, pak choi and other green cabbage-like vegetables. Some of it was delicious, some of it took quite a while to get used to and sea cucumbers are definitely the food from hell. Bravely I ate as little rice as I could.
Desserts were fresh fruit or little cakes made to look like Western cup cakes but made with a strange, tasteless custard. Sometimes we had fresh lychees or red tinned cherries which I came to love for their sweetness and tang. I ate only with men. Women would serve us but the concept of equal opportunities in the businesses I visited seemed to be lim…

The Princess Diana of Changchun.

I was royalty from the moment I stepped down from the train in Changchun. This was an incredibly important event for them and a true baptism of fire for me. I truly had no idea how unusual a white woman would be — or how powerful they would think me with the might and power of a prosperous Western city and the BBC behind me. Waiting on the platform were the Mayor and four other serious-looking Mau-suited men in grey and blue from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Introductions were made and hands were shaken. From then on it was a whirlwind of events, banquets, meetings and interviews as I was displayed to the whole city. I did the best I could to stop the panic showing in my eyes and the prayer ‘Dear God, don’t let me screw up,’ was constantly in my heart and on my lips.
I was paraded around schools, colleges, hospitals, factories, railway depots and offices. It began with the university; a large echoing grey building where I was welcomed in the traditional Chinese reception room wit…

Sleeping with Three Strange Men

As the train left Beijing station on its overnight journey to Changchun, I felt very alone and lost.  It was a big step to be going out into this strange world alone apart from Chen, my interpreter. The other two, belonging to the Railway Publishing House, were remaining in Beijing. ‘You’ll be fine,’ PBW had said that morning as we hugged goodbye. ‘Just beware the carriage attendants and, whatever you do, don’t get drunk.’ I wasn’t in the habit of getting drunk so I was quite affronted by this but then I’d never had a glass of Mau Tai before. Each carriage had its own female attendant guarding the steps onto the train and the one for our section smiled at me as I tried a polite ‘Ni Hao’ in greeting before boarding. I felt reassured and laughed off PBW’s warning until five minutes later she came into our carriage to check Chen’s and my tickets and roared at me for putting my suitcase on the wrong bed. ‘You put your case on that bed, you pay for that bed,’ she said. I got the message. Ch…