Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Taiwan Calling


This is the last in a series touching on our trip around the world, and Taiwan has to be the most foreign. Why? Because all of the other countries had strong colonial of some sort, and boast a common language, or so it’s claimed.

Taiwan is a busy, sometimes frenetic, place of great beauty and great danger: earthquakes, typhoons, snakes and China.  However, there is no day–to-day awareness of that danger to my mind: life goes on, and for many it is a good life.

We have rather a unique view of Taiwan since our eldest son lives there and is married to an aboriginal lady. Consequently, we spent Lunar New Year’s eve way up in the mountains where her father has built his own house with, perhaps, the most stunning and (for the vertigo sufferers such as myself) dizzying views that I have witnessed in Taiwan. There we barbecued food whilst alcohol ran freely (including the father’s own peach wine – very strong) and various members of the family, young and old dispatched hundreds of rockets over the peach trees which cling tenaciously to the mountainside: those fireworks exploding noisily in the valley far below. Meanwhile red envelopes containing money were given to the children and even some for us as honoured guests – how kind.

Though most of our time was spent with our son, his wife and their two children; we did venture further afield taking the rather famous Alishan Forest Railway up to the park of the same name. It’s a tortuous trip in a small, narrow gauge, train traversing a line that rises steeply by utilising switch backs, U-turns and spirals. Originally created by the Japanese colonists to bring down timber from Alishan, it is now a major tourist attraction and is certainly a memorable experience for all – especially the vertiginous. We stayed up there in Alishan’s wonderfully laid out park in a hotel which turned to be our most expensive, meanest and coldest of the whole trip! But the views compensated: so dramatic, especially from the railway station.

One night was certainly enough in that hotel so we moved by bus (another dizzying, but stunning, experience) to Sun Moon Lake. Here is what I wrote in my notes. “This is one of the most inspiring, tear jerkingly beautiful locations I have ever visited. The view from the hotel lobby this morning caused me to stop in my tracks and gasp. It’s probably impossible to put into words but I’ll try. The lake is suffused with sunlight and rippling softly. There seems to be many islands but some are actually low hills on the distant shore. In the background are many grey/blue mountains of random heights, the biggest looming right up towards the sky and each of them wreathed with the soft whiteness of clouds.

Though roads are constantly improving across the country and there are many overpasses to speed the flow of traffic, the scooter is still king. Margaret christened them “replacement legs” and she’s right, people do not seem to walk very much because it is so easy, and cheap, to hop onto the scooter and park on the pavement right outside the shop or eatery that you are making for, thus creating a street scene that is unsightly, dangerous and awkward to negotiate on foot. My son took me to places where change is beginning, where pavements are for pedestrians and there are more trees and some modern apartment blocks, but this will surely take decades to make a great impact.

I’ll finish by confessing to my love for the flora and fauna of Taiwan, particularly the former. Things grow so luxuriantly there, and on any surface: including each other. Not far from my son’s home the straggle of houses finishes and wild, almost impenetrable jungle abounds. It may soon devour the scooters as you can see. I call this a “natural ending”.

And so ends my trip. After three months covering four distant countries and twelve air flights we arrived back in Oxford, which was cold but still lovely and a complete contrast to the places we have visited. Now I must begin work on a book detailing our travels.

Thursday, 12 January 2023

New Zealand Calling

 Is there a tangible difference between Australia and New Zealand beyond geography? Well, they do have a lot in common - but there are real differences. Upon leaving Adelaide we stayed for a few days in Auckland, NZ residing just beneath the incredibly thin and high Sky Tower. On our first morning we visited the War Memorial Museum located in the city’s wonderful park: the Auckland Domain. The museum covers a range of topics, but we were most interested in the history of the country (and certainly not that of Stonehenge which was currently being covered as a guest display from the UK), particularly the coming of the Maoris (known to themselves as the “Mouldies”. That part of the museum began with a vast area devoted to Polynesian cultures – the true ancestors of the Maoris before their incredible journeys from the Cook and Society island groups – and it is that journey plus their settlement of New Zealand that particularly interests me.

Maoris first landed their ocean-going canoes in NZ only 800 years ago or so – whereas the original people of Australia were there 50,000 years ago when their land split from the main continent. I have a personal interest in all of this since the reason for stopping off after leaving Australia was, at least in part, to link up with our granddaughter. She was there for Christmas and New Year with her New Zealander husband (who himself has Maori ancestry) and a first chance for his family to meet their baby son, our first great grandson.

Though thrilled with the wonderful blue-green experience afforded by the landing at Auckland airport (one of the best airport approaches in my estimation), we were not that taken with our second visit to Auckland itself: we later regretted that we did not hire a car to explore the reportedly beautiful coast to the north. However, our main objective was not there so after a short stay we took the bus south travelling to the west coast via the green, lumpy countryside of those parts. Unfortunately I had return to Auckland soon after leaving because of the ‘suitcase incident’ – don’t ask. So we spent the day of New Year’s Eve travelling by bus to the island of Mount Maunganui, then on the following day I spent eight hours travelling back to Auckland and half of the next returning to the Mount. Maunganui is the place that my grandson-in-law regards as home and this is where I saw the New Year in, sitting in the garage of an Airbnb with a group of his NZ friends who displayed an enviable capacity for alcohol, cursing and beer pong. It was fun and I added just a little to the atmosphere by getting them to sing and dance to Auld Lang Syne.

The mount is a strangely fin-shaped volcanic cone at the western end of the island, itself bordered by the finest of white sand and pummelled by roaring surf which delights surfers but knocked me for six over and over again. It lies in the Bay of Plenty next to Tauranga and is known by some as the party island of the country despite severe restrictions on the consumption of alcohol outside the home (and Airbnbs).

We returned to Auckland for our next flight (to Taiwan) and had a pint in the Shakespeare Hotel which has its own brewery and was the scene of violent glass throwing on our previous visit. The beer there was not bad and the fish and chips just great. But the best pint to my mind is Galbraith’s just to the south of the city. This place is unique, not only does it have its own brewery but serves the beer at cellar temperature through a fine set of handpumps. Yes, REAL real ale. That was and I’m sure will remain, the best pint of my round the world trip. Still, when in Rome and all that. Do they serve real ale in Rome? ‘Course not.

Tuesday, 3 January 2023

Australia Calling

I know, I know. Tasmania is part of Australia and I’ve already written about that. But it seems like another country, just as the State of South Australia that I visited seems a different country from West Australia its neighbour to the west and Victoria to the east. I think these state are more like England, Scotland and Wales in this respect rather than, perhaps, the counties of the UK.

Our son greeted us at the airport together with his two kids who were squirming with ... with what? Excitement, embarrassment, shyness? Who knows? After all they hardly know us plus they are just five and six years old. Then we took a taxi and my son took them home, no room in his car because of the child seats regulations!

This was a return for us – and a goodbye. They rent an ugly but quite spacious bungalow in North Brighton, Adelaide but had just bought one of their own in the same area – so we now know that Australia is their permanent home. Most of Adelaide’s housing consists of bungalows and on a previous trip I regarded them as little more than sheds: this time, because of their purchase perhaps, I realised they are often quite characterful and certainly varied. Meanwhile there is a trend there towards demolishing the bungalows and constructing two storey and/or multiple homes.

For me the most welcome, the most startling, and the most interesting aspect of the country is the birds: so colourful, so splendid, so musical yet also cacophonic, and so proximate. For colour my favourite is the Rainbow Lorikeet – so beautiful, so noisy. For musicality it’s the Australian Magpie, so lyrical, so black and white. But of course I love the mammals too, though there were not so many wild sightings this visit (we did visit the excellent Adelaide Zoo guided by our grandchildren).

My three week stay consisted primarily of working on my son’s new home: fencing in his dysfunctional swimming pool (a legal necessity there), repairing a collapsing garage, some rewiring and so forth. However, I was allowed a holiday of three days; so we hired a car and travelled north towards the York Peninsula through bleak flatlands mostly consisting of natural low scrub, vast wheat fields, or enormous sheep enclosures. The roads were mostly straight, lonely and well-made though we also traversed long miles of unsealed roads at ten miles per hour or less. On the latter we met a kangaroo and experienced a limited, but enthralling, degree of interaction.

Star location of the trip was Moonta, an ‘ancient’ town owing its existence to copper mining and imported Cornish labour (the pasties were good). We resided in a hotel that served no food and dined in a motel that had no beds! We also enjoyed the local museum which brilliantly told the story of this now defunct mining area from all aspects: community, technology and workforce and so on. We also visited a seaside town called Port Broughton and a wine town in the Clare valley.

Of course I much prefer beer to wine and, on this trip, evolved a technique for obtaining beer which was not ‘teeth shatteringly cold’. What I did was this: I ordered bottled from the store at room temperature and mixed them with the near zero stuff from he tap to attain the perfect cellar temperature of approximately twelve degrees centigrade – much to the astonishment and puzzlement of both drinkers and bar staff.

 Christmas was very different to my norm. First of all the sun was shining and it was hot. I went for a run as ever in the morning and found nearby Brighton beach buzzing with swimmers, sun bathers, dog walkers, kayakers, surfboarders and so forth. The water looked so blue, so inviting, so tempting that I stripped to my shorts and underpants and plunged in. Cold, but refreshing, I truly enjoyed that swim, my first on a Christmas day so it really had to be done. I then dripped, towel-less back to the Ilfracombe Avenue bungalow for present giving and a spiced beef Christmas lunch.

In the afternoon, guess what we did? Yes, the whole family went down to the beach dragging a tent, in which Margaret sheltered from the wind-blown sand, an inflatable paddle board and all the paraphernalia apparently necessary for a family beach visit. And there I was again; swimming on Christmas day plus playing ball and drinking beer, not at the same time of course, on a glorious sun-baked beach in the antipodes.

On Boxing Day there is a tradition within our family to take a long walk, so, even though the heat was omnipresent, my son and I did just that. We followed a trail up to some waterfalls located in a national park on the eastern outskirts of Adelaide and found, just like us, they were dry. However, we met an emu, which was nice.

It was not all building work and play though. I did some interesting research into a famous man who headed a ground-breaking medical team in Oxford and was born and educated in Adelaide. Watch this space for the forthcoming video.


Wednesday, 7 December 2022

Tasmania Calling


Hawaii to Hobart is a long stretch, we were in the air for 11 hours before changing at the airport horriblis: Melbourne. So, after further delays, it was quite late when we arrived at the Doctor Syntax Hotel and consequently there was no-one to let us in and nowhere to eat! As ever all’s well that end well and next morning I took a run down to nearby Sandy Bay – and was impressed. I liked Hobart with its individual houses that struggle up the hills surrounding the vast and convoluted bay.

It was an easy walk into the city where we learned so much more about Tasmania: from the original natives , through the convict age, the immigration phase and including some intriguing things about the flora and fauna. We also visited a pub with a handpump! Unfortunately for me it only delivered imperial stout and the rest of the beers were cold, fizzy and expensive craft ales – the norm for the last few weeks and for the rest of my world trip.

Idiosyncratically we took a bus to our next stop: Port Arthur. It dumped us about a mile away from our hotel , the Fox and Hounds.  Though isolated the place was great. Have you ever opened the door of a hotel room and expostulated a loud “Wow”? This “wow” was not for the room but the view: straight out onto the wood-lined bay with the sea lapping the shore a few metres from our full length window. Wow. Next day we walked down to the Port Arthur prison­ which was where those considered the real bad ‘uns of the day were confined, beaten and educated. It was by all accounts a horrific place, but is now tranquil and despite its horrific past, rather beautiful.

Returning to Hobart I gave in and hired a car from a backstreet dealer called Raj and we went ‘a touring. I like Tasmania. It seems that there is always a mountain range in sight plus easy travelling distance to the highly varied coast. We saw spectacular waterfalls, long stretches of zero occupation countryside, chainsaw carvings in the remnants of condemned trees, and even visited Pontypool - not the 25,000 population town of Wales  from my childhood, but a sparse community of ten farms  dotted beside a long rough road and ending in the middle of nowhere.

Our favourite place was the second city of Launceston, with its impressive civic buildings, lovely setting, beautiful parks and a memorable ravine through which one of its two rivers squeezes  into a steaming cataract. There and elsewhere we met people with English connections: direct or through ancestors. And it is there that we attended a live music concert in a pub which was great.

We found the  people of Tasmania to be very forthright and friendly, our only criticism of the place can be applied to anywhere where the USA has had an influence: the meals were just too large. We adapted by ordering one meal and two plates.

It rained heavily on our last day in Hobart and our plane to the mainland was cancelled at the last minute - an unfortunate ending to an otherwise great fortnight. Oh and don't forget the black swans, so many, so black.

Friday, 25 November 2022

Hawaii Calling


It’s a strange place, this little archipelago all alone out there in the middle of the Pacific, first “discovered” by Captain Cook – who later died here. American to the core it still includes the Union Jack in its state flag and boasts of the many kings and queens of the “indigenous” people. Expensive and overloaded with tourists it has an enormous airport on the main island of Oahu with planes departing and arriving every quarter of an hour or so.

We had a relatively cheap (in Hawaii nothing is really cheap) hotel shielded from the famous Waikiki Beach by rows of sky scraping alternatives which were much more expensive. Yet the beautiful blueness of the ocean was only minutes away. We had a balcony looking down on a sumptuous swimming pool belonging to the hotel next door and were surrounded by the skyscrapers. It wasn’t a bad place and the Honolulu Lounge, possibly the nearest thing to a real pub in this sea of tourist bars and restaurants, was very close by.

The beach was wonderful and the view over the ocean with its rolling surf, soft sand and treed parkland is to die for. It is spoiled only by the masses of indulgent tourists and rich invaders who rule the economy by their presence and ruin the economy of the less well-off locals who cannot afford the prices that the outsiders pay with seeming ease. Our guide on the Waikiki Trolley bemoaned her situation in which multi-generational housing is the norm and keeping chickens a must if you want eggs for breakfast.

The entire beach area is dominated by a chain of shops called ABC which arguably stands for Always Bigger Costs. When I went out to buy the makings of a cheap breakfast on the first morning I was shocked to see a loaf of bread at $10, a few slices of cake at $7.99 and, our breakfast mainstay – cereal bars only sold singly and at a price that you usually pay for a box of them!

Yet, amongst all this expensive luxury poverty is in plain sight. Behind my hotel there was a long canal which replaced a mosquito ridden swamp. It is now a very pleasant water course with a golf course on the opposite side and a park at the very end. People live in that park. They are mostly men and move their only possessions about in shopping trolleys. One man mad two linked together! They did not look at me and I did not engage with them. Drunks lie on the pavements, stepped gracefully over by bronzed young women in thongs with surf boards held above their heads.

The only thing that is cheap is the beach and the buses. A 40 minute ride from the airport to our hotel costs just a couple of dollars, though they did not run on the early Sunday morning of our departure: we had to use an Uber at more that $40!

The backcloth of extinct volcanic mountains are a delight to the eye and are often topped by impressive cloud formations, however, the incomers are creeping up the valleys towards the heights with their million dollar houses.  Fortunately, there is a coast not far from Waikiki beach which has so far resisted the real estate mongols. It is rugged, wind swept and beautiful with a blowhole that gushes pure white foaming sea water onto the black igneous rock.

Food of almost any country is available of course and can be consumed with a live band playing if you so wish. We happened to be near the most popular place in town: a Japanese restaurant with a queue extending down the street for most of the day and night. We did not queue but had a good meal in nearby Coco Coconuts, serenaded by their own band. The leader told me that he was a Radiohead fan.

Yes, a strange place. If I return, which is unlikely, I will give Honolulu a miss and explore the more natural parts of Hawaii.

Friday, 11 November 2022

America Calling

We chose Austin, Texas because an America singer called Patty from our local Oxford music pub recommended it for live music. Then the harmonic player from Lighting Willy and Poor Boys sang its praises to us – his name is Fancy and they also play at the Harcourt sometimes.

Our motel was crap, right next to a roaring freeway and no double glazing, but we did meet an interesting couple in the miniscule breakfast room there (the woman guided Margaret through the intricacies of the waffle maker). He had studied English but now worked in the renewable energy world.

However, the Super 8 motel was central and had great views of the wonderful Capitol building, seat of state governance for Texas. It was also close to a nice little park beside a stream which borders the eastern part of the city, and there I saw my first group of boat tailed grackles, a bird that is very common in Texas but fascinates me in its song, its movements and general behaviour. I reckon it’s related to our blackbird.

Found great blues music at King Bee’s on the first night and the beer wasn’t too bad either. There was eve real avaible (not) see photo. Next night we ventured into Sixth Street where there is an amazing collection of bars, most with live music. We had a good time in a piano bar where a young man vamped on the keys and sang energetically backed by just a drummer and driven to excess by tips and requests.

Wasted a lot of time trying to get data to work on my phone in Austin: essential for Uber and maps. It was a problem that dogged me for most of the trip. Thank the stars for Wi-Fi, but it’s often not there when you need it.

Moved to Corpus Christi by Greyhound bus via San Antonio (Remember the Alamo) and found it as interesting as it is intriguing on the map:  the reef-like Padre Island runs along mile after mile of the Mexican Bay coastline in front of the city. At first we had a hotel with a swimming pool on the north side of a very impressive bridge which crosses the dockland inlet. There we established a local in Blackbeards: chatter at the bar and live music in the next room. Had some good conversations in Blackbeards. 

Then moved into the Emerald Hotel in the city proper and right on the shoreline, but a bit out of town (we go for cheap places but it’s still costing a small fortune to live). Room was crummy but a view to die for. From there we spent two nights at the House of Rock but the music was not as good as Austin (or the Harcourt). Then off to Harlingen in the south which so far seems a very bad mistake.

Monday, 10 October 2022

My first night at the resurrected Lamb and Flag


A friend asked me along to the opening night on 6th October 2022 and I said no – it will be too crowded. Then, irresolute as ever, I relented and went along, alone, at about 8.30pm. As expected it was heaving – but not uncomfortably so. The bar-less and unfurnished front room was pretty full and the noise level was, to my ears, near to the threshold of pain as alcohol fuelled conversations battled for acoustic supremacy. I pressed on towards the remaining bar with a nod of appreciation at the piano now gracing the east wall.

I stood for a while taking in the space where I had spent so many happy hours chatting or just drinking alone, sharing my thoughts with an ever-changing set of hand pumps and leafing through the latest Oxford Drinker, the CAMRA magazine. The space was the same, yet different. The interesting alcoves were either curtained over or missing, the ceiling was now lined with wooded planks, the bar surface was much wider, and the place was jam-packed with youngish, happy people. But there were two proud sets of hand pumps just as before and they were serving up interesting beers - as before. I settled for Rude Not To from Amwell Springs. It’s my sort of real ale at the moment: pale and a little tangy, but smooth and refreshing – I stuck to it which is unusual for me. The bar itself was a crush, but the people behind it were both pleasant and efficient and the ambience enjoyable, even though there are still renovations to be completed.

I spotted only one person that I knew, which surprised me. He was talking to one of the community group, The Inklings, that brought this place back to life. He turned out to be a newcomer to Oxford, and I shared memories of China with his wife, though the general hub-bub made conversation difficult for me. Finished the evening back in the now depleted front room talking to an interesting young man from Stroud who ran a bar at weekends and I thought, “great, this is how the Lamb and Flag should be: excellent ale, interesting company and a complete lack of that corporate feel so common to many city centre pubs”.

I doubt that the original Inklings could have tolerated the all encompassing sound level, but I am sure that Tolkien and Lewis would have appreciated the ale and congratulated the new Inklings on their rescue of this jewel of an Oxford pub. I congratulate the New Inklings on this resurrection – it would be Rude Not To.

 Take a look at my video of the pub made before the resurrection

Monday, 22 August 2022

A wedding, a book launch, and an invite to party

Having just celebrated my granddaughter’s wedding on our field in the Cotswolds, I would like to invite you to an upcoming party there which might, or might not, take place. But there is a condition.

I have just launched my latest book and it has been entered into the Amazon StoryTeller literary prize competition.  OK it’s extremely unlikely that I will win, after all the number of entries is immense and the prize equally so - a cool £20,000 - but if by some chance I do win, then you could come along to my celebratory party.

My book is a work of fiction and is a major departure for me: I am writing as a woman! I don’t mean that I have had a sex change, no, it’s simply that I am writing from a woman’s point of view and in the first person singular. I am, for this book only, Tracy. Here’s the blurb from the book.

Tracy’s adolescence is unpromising, but following her teenage years she plunges happily into the rewards and challenges of motherhood. Then, her offspring and spouse depart the nest plunging her into an emotional vacuum from which she dreams of escaping to a life in rural Spain. However, the reality of her days in that sun-soaked country rapidly descends into an extended darkening nightmare.

It is inspired by a true story and draws heavily on my own experiences in Spain over the past twenty years or so. One early reader told me that the graphic descriptions of rural Spain were so real that “I believed I was actually there and could almost smell the air”. That was encouraging.

It’s called That Place in the Sun. Clicking here will get you to more details on my website or here to go direct  to the Amazon page where it’s available in paperback or Kindle form. Have a look.

OK, but what about the party? Well, if you buy the book, in paper or digital form, it may well help me get through to the final line up of the Amazon competition and even gain that substantial prize. Just show me that you’ve purchased it and I’ll add you to the guest list. Do a review (good one preferably) and I’ll sit you at the top table!

I know, I know, the prize and the party are as likely as pigs flying – or less given the rapid advances in genetics. But you never know. What have you got to lose? Well, if I lose then there will be no party, but you will still have the book.

Please pass this invitation on – the more who come to this unlikely party the merrier it may be. 

Thursday, 21 July 2022

I surrender: Mother Nature Wins


Visited our village in Spain for a short break recently. We did not take the motor caravan because the ferry to Sant Ander now costs over £1000 - another inflation-based decision. We flew by Ryanair and took buses plus a lift on the final leg from friends who live in La Fresneda.

This meant that I had to walk down to our huerto (large terraced garden and orchard): a distance of about 2 or 3 Km. The irrigation ditch had blocked and surged like a waterfall when I unblocked it which was a bit scary, but all well in the end and the casita that I built in the past seemed OK. However, the terraces below were completely overgrown and some of the fruit trees had died. The brambles are back with a vengeance and the main terrace is bursting with canes.

I did a bit of strimming then gave up. It is hopeless. The idea of having a garden in Spain was sort of romantic, but it’s not at all practical. The soil is rich and the weeds grow splendidly. Constant attention during the growing season is pretty much essential.

So, I will try to relax into the visitor that I actually am. I will try to stoically observe nature taking its course as it invades the three terraces that I gradually transformed into orchards and gardens. The automatic irrigation scheme that I devised over the years will block and dry up. The brambles will choke my fruit trees from below and the irrepressible fig trees will engulf them in impenetrable shade from above and the 70 olive trees down by the river will have a wild time. Hey-ho, life goes on and the experience did result in a book: Rolling Stones in Spain.

Monday, 30 May 2022

A project completed and a splendid day in Oxford

I have spent a great deal of time lately producing a video on CS Lewis’ Oxford, well in fact its a mini series of three covering his arrival at Oxford, his earlier years as a fellow and tutor and then his later years living at The Kiln. Here’s the link to part one.

I admired Lewis through his books long before I knew anything about him, and I admire him still and would have dearly loved to take a pint or two with him in the watering holes of Oxford.

Finishing a project like that is inevitably anticlimactic, but now the series is done I will return to a writing project that has been neglected for some time.

Meanwhile the entertainment scene in Oxford is good, though I think that the lockdown years have subtly and sometimes drastically changed the pub scene here (four of them are still closed, three belonging to colleges). Nevertheless I had a wonderful day following the launch of my CS Lewis series. A tour in the morning then an afternoon spent in Jericho sitting beside the canal appreciating live music from a tethered barge followed by pie and chips and a few pints in the nearby Victoria. All of that was capped by a wonderful open-mike evening of incredibly varied music at another local pub. If only you could cask a day like that, and tap it when needed.