Danger is Near

Posted on June 19, 2020


The book was the key. He had found it by accident in an old shop in Madrid and now he had him. 25 years of searching and there he was in the apartment opposite. He had seen his shadow behind the drawn curtains but had never seen him face to face.

He fingered the text and memorised the words. It would be all that would save him when the confrontation came. He pressed the cross against his heart and squeezed it tightly.

‘Guide me, oh lord in thy deeds and protect me in my hour of need.’

He kissed the red book and imbibed its smell of musty leather. He placed the water bottle in his cloak, pulled up his hood and slipped into his shoes.

He opened the windows letting the sea breezes waft through the building. He looked out and could see his friend working on the pavement below. He was drawing the shape of cobbles, looking every bit like a local workman. But he too had terror in his eyes and pulled the wooden stake closer to him.

He walked slowly down the stairs and crossed the alleyway. The light was on in the man’s apartment. He knew that he never slept. He climbed quietly up the stairs and approached the door. He knocked gently. There was no reply. He tried again, holding the bottle tightly. Still there was no reply. Then he heard it. That haunting scream, the sound of footsteps and then silence. He ran down the steps into the alleyway but there was no one.

His friend had gone. He ran to the spot where he had last seen him and stood back. Scrawled on the wall were some words. ‘El periclor esta cerca.’ ‘Danger is near.’

He leaned out over the ledge and could see the mangled body being washed repeatedly against the rocks below. Its was face up and he could just make out the scratch marks that had ripped out his eyes.

He turned just as it attacked. All he saw was a black shape and then it was scratching, clawing, shrieking. It tore at his face, ripping and tearing. He could feel the flesh coming away.

He staggered back trying to protect himself but its force was so strong and it was determined to push him out over the ledge. He slipped back just managing to hold on but his strength was failing and the creature was growing stronger and stronger.

It started to metamorphise in front of him with its small , narrow face becoming almost human. He looked into its eyes and all he saw was a reflection of himself on fire with his skin melting away in one gigantic inferno. He screamed out, jerking his head backwards and releasing the crucifix around his neck. It caught the creature and wrapped itself around its claws.

It stopped suddenly, let out an enormous shriek and turned, trying to dislodge the cross. He hauled himself up and tried to give chase but he was too exhausted and collapsed on the floor. He could see it disappearing and felt inside his cloak for the book. He opened the page and chanted the words.

The creature stopped in its tracks and turned. It rose on its hind legs and came towards him, it’s tail lashing from side to side. Its head grew larger and larger and he could make out the distinctive horns protruding from it’s skull. It shreiked and laughed as it came towards him.

He clutched the book and chanted the phrase, over and over again. But it had no effect and on it came with its hideous smell growing in intensity. He shouted louder and louder, then in desperation, hurled the book at the creature. It spun in the air and connected with its eyes. It staggered, tried to flee, supporting itself against the ledge. It fell forward, its claws scratching against the wall as it smashed to the ground. It erupted into flames that shot up above the buildings before settling into a small mound of black ashes.

He knelt down and prayed. ‘Thank you Oh Lord, it is done. The devil’s work will be no more.’

He turned and walked away, leaving the alleyway behind. He descended into the town and sought out the monastery.

A sudden gust of wind filled the alleyway, catching the ashes and spinning them upwards into a huge arc. They settled on top of one of the buildings.

A black shape suddenly appeared. A small cat, purring and licking the congealed blood from its fur.

Pool Side

Posted on September 24, 2019


The Hippo

The large, fat man sat by the pool slurping his glass of beer and chatting up the young Vietnamese waitress. He downed the contents quickly, stood at the water’s edge and launched himself headfirst. He disappeared and I thought that he had had a heart attack and I would have to dive in and rescue him.

Instead, he emerged at the other end, raised his head and shook it like a dog cleaning itself. He then swam back with a half breaststroke, his face partially submerged and his mouth gulping in air sideways. He reminded me of a hippo moving effortlessly through the water searching for food, its ears twitching. He climbed out, pulled his shorts over his sagging belly and moved towards his wife and stood over her.

She lay on the lounger in her polka dot swimsuit, wrinkly and haggard. He looked at her, mouthed something and flopped face down on his own lounger. The wife had red sunglasses and a white band around her head as if she had had brain surgery.  She had large round headphones and stared into her I Pad, oblivious to him.

He lay for a while, then sat up and ordered another beer. He downed it in one then stood up and walked once again to the edge of the pool. He did the same manoeuvre as before, belly flopping into the water and spraying water over a young couple engrossed in their books. He rose at the end, gasped a few breaths and adopted the hippo position again, moving slower through the water. This time he did two lengths, scrambled out and stood over his wife again. She looked at him disdainfully, turned onto her stomach and adjusted her headphones. He flopped down once again, sneaking a glance at the young Vietnamese girl standing by the bar.

The ritual continued for an hour. The beer, the wife stare, the short’s adjustment, the belly flop and total submergence.


The Voyeur

The Chinese couple sat on the opposite side of the pool. They were in their late twenties/early thirties and he was constantly touching her as if they were newlyweds. He had side-burns and long black hair and wore dark shorts and a denim shirt with some expensive emblem stitched on it. She was slim and somewhat demure with her hair tied up in a bun on top of her head. It was difficult to make out the contours of her face since her sunglasses were large and obscured almost everything. She wore a small, brown top pulled tightly over her breasts.

He had one of those modern cameras with a zoom lens and insisted on taking shots of her from every angle despite her protestations. He stood over her on a marble plinth and took a shot downwards with the zoom focusing on her breasts and her legs dangling in the water. He encouraged her to wriggle around sensuously and moved from side to side smiling. She finally said enough was enough and stood up, her costume clinging to her body and her bottom exposed. He immediately stood behind her and took the shot.

She covered herself in a towel and sat on the lounger, dangling her legs in the water. He pushed up close to her and showed her the shots, nodding his head almost rhythmically. He whispered something to her and she submerged herself once again trying to escape him. She swam to the other end of the pool and sat on the steps. He followed her, climbed above a large ceramic vase that bubbled water and took downward shots, this time focusing on her legs and lower torso under the water.

He was totally oblivious to my presence and persisted with his intrusion until she eventually stormed out and left, dragging her towel behind her. He checked the shots and then pursued her. I caught sight of her face pressed against the third floor window of the hotel, still in her bikini with the tell-tale flash of the camera glistening in the darkness behind her.


Synchronised Swimming

 The girl in the pink bikini rarely moved from her lounger whilst her boyfriend occasionally dipped into the water, made a few strokes then clambered out and returned to his laptop. She had a very distinctive, pointed nose and a face that lacked any real beauty. He was reasonably handsome but his midriff had sagged and layers of flab hung over his tight-fitting shorts. She had left him for a while and he flopped into the water and moved around ponderously.  He looked up, saw her filming him from the balcony on the third floor and pretended to do the crawl. He turned, lay on his back and pushed his legs wide apart laughing.

She returned, took off her shawl and tip toed into the water as he departed.  She made a few perfunctory strokes, turned and lay on her back with her breasts protruding above the water. When she looked up, he was there with the camera filming her. She swam towards him, smiling and dived under the water before emerging near his feet. He had a towel pulled tightly around his waist and urged her to go back and do the same manoeuvre again. She retraced her steps, turned and dived deeper as he smiled and focussed the lens on her submerged body.

As she surfaced, he discarded the towel and dived in next to her and clambered on her back. She tried to shrug him off but he put his arm around her neck and pulled her towards him biting her ear. She escaped, swam up the pool and admonished him. He swam after her, dived and swam between her legs lifting her into the air.

She was clearly embarrassed and pushed him away. There then followed a sort of synchronised swimming with the two of them moving in unison through the water and taking turns to ride on each other’s back. They would detach themselves, swim away then come together, gripping each other tightly and sinking under the water in a passionate embrace.

They eventually emerged, returned to their respective loungers, he to his laptop and she to a large pot of sun cream which she smothered on her bright red nose.




Nippon Koi

 The small Japanese boy entered the pool completely covered in protective clothing. He wore a grey hood over his head that almost concealed his eyes, and a tight, black body suit that made him look like a Ninja warrior. He wore rubber gloves and lime green coloured shoes and goggles that filled his face. He made a few splashing movements, attempted to swim but sank beneath the water.

His mother sat by the water’s edge shouting until he was rescued by the father who descended quickly into the water and scooped him up into his arms, holding him tightly.  The mother relaxed and the father admonished him for his foolishness. He too was dressed like a Ninja Warrior, all in black except that he had no hood. He was late 30s and quite muscular and handsome.

His wife was the personification of the English rose. She wore a floral Liberty’s dress with shoulder straps and a large, fashionable straw hat held on with pink ribbon. It was difficult to make out her face but she was clearly pretty and had those sharp Oriental features that reminded me of the Tretchikoff picture that we had on our lounge wall in St. Helens when I was a child. She calmed down after the boy’s rescue and aimed her mobile phone at them taking endless photos.

She barked out a series of commands and her husband responded. He picked the boy up, lay him horizontal in front of him and pushed him forward, urging him to kick and spread his arms to his sides. The boy responded, the father let go and the boy sank quickly to the bottom. The mother screamed and barked out another command. The father lifted him once again, placed him on his back and made him kick with his feet and move his hands backwards over his head. This he did, his mother applauded and photographed this achievement until the father once again let go. He quickly sank and was once again snatched into the safety of his fellow Ninja’s arms.

The mother rose, walked to the water’s edge and shouted. Father and son bowed their heads and moved quickly to shallow water and emerged. She took the boy, caressed him and removed his hood and glasses. She stared at the husband disconsolately. He placed the towel over his head ostensibly to dry his hair but in reality to avoid the ignominy and disgrace at failing his son.


The Heron

The Thai girl was very young and wore tight blue jeans and a short, white top that exposed her skinny waist. She had a small diamond embedded in her belly button, which glistened when the sun reflected off it. She stroked the man’s back gently, caressing his shoulders and whispered something in his ear. He was mid- fifties, probably sixty and wore a sort of Tilley hat with Thailand emblazoned on its front. He had a patch of white hair across his chest, which looked totally out of character with his pink, skinny body that resembled a plucked chicken.

He seemed embarrassed by her attention especially in front of the group of British travellers who had just arrived and had clearly not been exposed to this sort of behaviour before. Most were old and flabby, with the men bald and the women determined to retain their femininity by keeping their hair grey and natural.

He pushed her away gently and she sprinted off with her bottom waggling to the consternation of the ladies of the group clad in khaki as if they were about to embark on a mission into the wilderness. He settled into his Lee Childs’s book and twitched as he read, blinking his eyes continuously. He then rose suddenly, removed his hat and launched himself into the waters of the pool, emerging after a number of strained strokes.

He stood up suddenly and walked around almost like a heron with his head jerking forward as if searching for a fish, constantly peering. He then stopped as if he had detected something, then turned around and started looking up at the balcony windows.  I noticed the bald patch on the back of his head, which had been obscured by the hat. He was obviously searching for something and then he spotted her.

She was at the window on the 4th floor, waving at him and encouraging him to join her. She was smiling enticingly. He stayed in the water with the water up to his waist and was about to wave back when he caught sight of the British tourists also staring upwards at the young girl. He sank deeper into the water as their eyes focused on him and swam back to his lounger.

The young girl retreated from the window with a faint wave as he climbed out of the pool, showered and returned to his book as the British moved off to visit yet another defunct monument. He nodded rhythmically as the thoughts of the feast to come overwhelmed him.


Swimming Lessons

The Korean ladies took over the pool this morning, all fully kitted out with tight swim caps, brightly coloured goggles and tight–fitting swimsuits. They occupy all of the right side of the pool and swim up and down in unison, their strokes almost matching perfectly. The breaststroke is their preferred action and they appear as if trained and synchronised. They are all middle-aged and well practiced with slow, methodical strokes.

On the left hand side of the pool, a large teenager attempts to placate her mother by thrashing around in the water without gaining any momentum. Each time she tries to propel herself forward, she sinks quickly and is dragged out by the mother. Her mother wears the compulsory, black ninja suit and lies on her back and kicks herself forward. She waves to the child to follow but the girl makes two strokes and sinks.

The Korean ladies stop swimming and form a circle with their toes touching. They put their arms around each other’s shoulders and move around in a circle, laughing loudly. They break away and return to their breaststroke.

An attractive woman in a black, backless costume walks into the water, poses to have her photograph taken by an elderly lady and marches up and down the pool punching her arms backwards and forwards. Her friend tries the butterfly beside her, making loud, gasping sounds like a stranded whale before crashing down into the water with a loud splash. She makes very little progress and gives up and joins her colleague on her march up and down the pool.

Another tall attractive woman enters with black shorts and a grey top and walks along the side of the pool as if in a fashion parade. She moves her head gently from side to side as if looking for admirers, then moves towards me. She stops suddenly, bends down with her hands cupped and places them under the water. She brings them up quickly, holding something so precious and places the small insect on the pebble stones in front of me. She smiles at me and claps expecting me to respond. I nod disappointingly as she joins the two other ladies in their long march.

I move to the lobby and then to the lift. Just as the doors are about to close, the Korean ladies enter, wet and in white robes like something out of a mental ward. I press the button and they all stare at me with my long hair and my dishevelled look. I nod and smile reassuringly but they bow their heads to avoid my stare.

The lift moves upwards slowly and jolts to a halt. I wait a while as the panic starts to overwhelm me and the thoughts of being trapped with these oversized ninjas spins horrors in my mind. The door opens slowly and I step out sweating profusely and relieved.

Hoi An, Vietnam, 2016



Bottoms Up

Posted on September 18, 2019



A colleague of mine recently showed me a catalogue with a new toilet from a German manufacturer. It was called the Balena 8000 Shower Toilet- for daily freshness and comfort and had a shower arm that emitted a spray of fresh water at body temperature to your backside, then a warm jet of air to dry you. The arm then retracted and was cleaned with disinfectant before the next user. Presumably this dispensed with the need for toilet paper and hand washing and made this device extremely eco-friendly. This is the latest example of man’s endless ingenuity in developing more and more sophisticated ways of carrying out our most basic needs.

In Austria and Switzerland, their preoccupation with anal cleanliness has resulted in toilets that have seats covered in a fine layer of tissue paper, which is replaced automatically when the user flushes the chain. Fine, you think, until the paper gets stuck to your bottom and no amount of pulling and tugging will remove it. Not very good if you are about to embark on a romantic evening with a new date. Presumably, those who wear lederhosen and enjoy the art of backside slapping, end up with the paper permanently embedded.

In Italy, they have removed all areas where contamination can occur with the result that you spend ages hunting for the flushing device in the cubicle and resort to filling the basin with mountains of toilet paper to spare you any embarrassment. It is only when you close the doors that you realise that the toilet flushes automatically. They also have washbasins with no taps. You endlessly move your hands to and fro under the fountain and just when you are about to rip it from the basin in total anger, discover that there is a simple foot pedal on the floor under the sink.

In Europe, they have installed time switches in the toilets, which means that you only have a very limited amount of time to finish your ablutions until you are plunged into total darkness. Fine as long as there is light in the washroom but if the whole place shuts down, as is often the case in Romania, then you find yourself crawling towards the exit on your hands and knees with your trousers hanging from your waist and all your vanity exposed. When you eventually do find the exit and open the door, you are suddenly bathed in light and appear as some demented pervert.

An increasingly common sight in the town centres in the UK is the pay to enter toilet, which is designed to offer a clean and secure facility free from intrusion by tramps, vagrants and drunks. You pay your money, do your business and exit as the door closes and the whole toilet is flushed clean. Fine so long as you don’t try and cheat and attempt to sneak someone else in without paying. Some friends of mine tried this once only to find that the second person that entered was sprayed from head to foot in water and disinfectant before being rescued from his hysteria by a passer by paying the full amount.

Despite this, I must say that I would prefer cleanliness and sophistication to some of the experiences that I have had.

I once worked in the Pacific Islands and would travel around them in a ship with an innocent, young doctor who used to return at night grim faced and lacking any appetite. When asked what he had been doing all day, he replied that he had been stitching up the rear ends and removing splinters from local women who had cut themselves wiping their bottoms on trees protruding into the sea. So much for those idyllic scenes of sun drenched beaches washed in surf.

I also remember working in Eastern Europe just after the Berlin Wall came down and finding the entrances to public toilets barred by old ladies holding a bowl and a toilet roll. For the payment of a simple sum, you were presented with 3 sheets of rock hard toilet paper irrespective of your size or disposition. If you found that you needed more, however, then you were forced to shout loudly, place more money into the hand that appeared underneath the door, and receive a further 3 sheets.

In Latvia, on the Baltic Sea coast, I once ventured into the toilets near the hotel entrance only to find that there were no cubicles to separate them or provide any degree of privacy. The thought of sitting there with a row of trouser less men filled me with horror and I fled to the Ladies only to find a similar situation there. This was taking communism too far, I thought only to learn later that Latvia had been the principal home for KGB agents, who presumably were so paranoid about spying that they could not trust anyone to do anything including going to the toilet alone.

At the bottom of the list must surely be the “ hole in the floor” system used in France, the Middle East and parts of Africa. Which contortionist invented this? How on earth are you supposed to balance on your knees with your trousers wrapped around your ankles as you flick at the swarm of flies that inhabit these places? You can always choose the option of removing your clothes and placing them on the floor, but you then run the risk of finding them covered in water as you pull the chain and the basin overflows.

If, however, you are toilet phobic and cannot bear to use public toilets anywhere, then you can always resort to a course of Imodium, which will bung you for days. Take care, however, with local varieties of this drug since I once gave a colleague of mine something called Idiom in Syria and he miscalculated the dose to find himself totally constipated for 3 weeks and in an extremely explosive state for his long journey home.


Open Wide

Posted on September 18, 2019


I have always had a pathological fear of dentists and dread the sound of drilling as you flick through your copy of Hello in the waiting room. It all goes back to my childhood when our school would file into the state dentist near the bus station in the centre of St. Helens. Being Walker, I was always at the back of a long line of lads all equally terrified by the site of limp, ashen faced boys staggering out of the surgery at the end of the corridor, blood pouring from their mouths. By the time my turn came, I was almost rigid and dreaded the door opening. There was no smile, no welcoming hand, just a large dentist, wearing a mask with a rubber overhaul tied across his front covered in blood. His assistant, a huge, bulbous woman held the rubber mask in her hand and pulled me towards the chair.

He had the extraction tools ready and the sudden smell of ether was a welcome relief from the terrors that awaited me. I always remember never getting past the count of 3 before that horrible smell of rubber overwhelmed me. Recovery was quick and you were woken with a slap, handed some cotton wool and pushed out, dazed and incoherent into the broad daylight to a sea of boys laughing and poking their fingers into holes were the former teeth used to sit. How many? They would ask, trying to gauge who had lost the most. I would return home with huge, yawning gaps, leaking blood and tuck into the sweets my Mum would give me to recover.

I rarely went to the dentist as I got older or an emergency forced me to go. There were no check ups, no alternative therapy just extractions sometimes using cocaine rather than the dreaded gas. I preferred the latter since the sight of a needle being thrust into my mouth was too much for me. At 18, I was at College in Manchester and had a sudden toothache. I asked my flat mate, Dave, if he knew of one and he said Sure, Frankenstein’s just round the corner.  I tried to laugh but the pain was too intense and I staggered round the corner into the pouring rain. There was a thunderstorm and flashes of lightning illuminated the sky. I looked at the address he had scribbled on the piece of paper and stopped in front of a very large house with a gate in front. I walked through the grounds, up the steps and stopped abruptly at the front door.

It opened suddenly and large lady in a white coat smiled and spoke. Doctor Frankenstein will see you now. He is expecting you.  I tried to turn but she grabbed my hand and led me down a dark corridor towards the light seeping out of the bottom of a door. It creaked open, revealing a small man beckoning to me. He was quite small, in a white coat and wore those little pince-nez glasses. He led me to the chair and spoke. ‘Zoh, we haff problem.’  I pointed to the tooth and he probed it, pulling back when I showed any pain. ‘Crown. You need crown. Can save it, but suggest gold.’  I nodded. I looked up at the ceiling expecting electrodes to come down and be attached to my head, but he was gentle so gentle. I left with one of the largest gold tooth ever seen, which lasted for almost 50 years.

This did not allay my fear of dentists. I moved to the Solomon Islands in the Western Pacific and visited the local dentist in a hut near the sea overlooking Iron Bottom Sound, famous for its Second World War sea battles. A local girl with a Fuzz haircut and a very short mini skirt greeted me. The dentist was a New Zealander who looked like he had had one whisky too many. His teeth didn’t impress at all. So what have we got here? He sniggered. I winced as he pressed against the decayed tooth. That hurt?  I nodded. He smiled. He turned to the girl and asked her to get an instrument from the lower drawer and noted my reaction as I saw right up to her knickers. He sniggered. Better give him an extra dose, he said as he filled the syringe deliberately placing it in front of my eyes. The big ones are always the worst, he said to the girl, ‘cry like babies.’  He hurt, my god did he hurt and seemed to savour every moment of my agony. He finished, nodded and showed me the door. I never went back. I would have taken a plane to Australia rather than visit that sadist again.

Throughout the rest of my life, I have travelled endlessly and always dreaded that moment when you knew that you had to use a local dentist. In Syria, a colleague recommended a very good dentistwho had done all her teeth for $500. I only needed some minor repair work, so was not unduly worried. I took a taxi to a small street behind the State Planning Commission and stopped outside a large metal gate. I rang the bell, but there was no answer. I waited and waited until a car door opened nearby by and a huge man slithered out. He walked towards me, held out his hand and spoke, Woka? I nodded. He opened the gate and I followed him into the surgery. I wanted to leave but he sat me down and stared into my mouth. No Engleesh.  He picked up the drill and held out the suction tube. I stared at him and he placed it in my hand and pushed it into my mouth. I held it tightly till my mouth filled with blood. He stopped and shook his head. Need stop.  He withdrew, gave me a handkerchief. Morrow. Come morrow.  I left, took a taxi back and stared into the mirror. There was a large gash in my gums. For some reason I did return. He stooped the bleeding, finished the job and asked me for $15. I smiled and tried to get up.  All teeth? $500. All gold $1000.  I declined and left. The idea of returning home looking like the assassin from the James Bond movie would have finished my wife off.

In Jordan, things were much better. The surgery was modern, very modern and the owner trained in the USA. He said his daughter would look after me. She peered into my mouth,No Engleesh, she said and put clamps into my teeth. As she turned, one caught on the strands of my moustache and pulled it tight. The more she twisted the worse was the pain. She smiled ‘No pain?’  I nodded. She stopped and removed the clamp. My eyes stopped watering. No need cry, she whispered as she attached it to the other side of my mouth, trapping the other side of my moustache. No pain?  She asked as I closed my eyes and thought of that awful scene in The Marathon Man, where Dustin Hoffman is tortured by the evil dentist, Lawrence Olivier.

 Finally, Belgrade, where Dr Frankenstein’s tooth eventually fell out after 40 years. I took it to a dentist recommended by the receptionist at the hotel. I entered a somewhat run down building and pressed the bell. The door opened and a large woman appeared and nodded. Com, she commanded. She led me to small room and took the tooth from me. She peered into my mouth and spoke. No Engleesh. Only Deutsch and Francais. Ca va, I responded and she stared at me. Leetle French.  I smiled and nodded. Je t’aime, she answered. I tried to rise but she pushed me back and dialled into her phone. A woman appeared and stood in front of me. Alo, speak good Engleesh.  The dentist put her fingers on the woman’s lips and held her mouth open. She kept nodding.  Ees good. I nodded. $500. She moved her hand across her mouth. Do all.  I shook my head.  Just the gold, please.  She tried to persuade me but I was not impressed by the over-sized molars in front of me. She gave up, cleaned the tooth and smothered the crater with glue. She pushed it in, then pulled back and smiled. I tried to close my mouth but the filling was too high. I tried to explain, then watched as she took a small hammer and proceeded to bang the filling. Each time she stopped she would smile. OK now.  Another woman appeared. Daughter, said the dentist. I smiled. Speak very good Engleesh. The girl spoke.My muther think you very handsome man.  I nodded.  She like do all teeth. Only $500.  No thank you, I smiled and tried to rise. The dentist leaned across me pushing her large breasts against my cheek. The daughter continued.  She like take you out for dinner.  I stared at her. Visions of Dick Emery came to mind. I realised there was no escape without serious injury. The hammer was still very close to my head. I smiled and she clapped like an expectant child.

I rose, asked how much and handed her $100, almost a month’s salary in Serbia. She opened the door, both women shook my hand and she pierced her lips. Her daughter spoke, You come back later, say 7.00.  I smiled, moved slowly down the stairs and ran back to the hotel. I turned off the lights, took the phone off the hook and sat in terror expecting the knock on the door. I never ventured down that street again and the nightmares still continue to haunt me.

The gold tooth unfortunately disappeared last year in Mongolia at a banquet. After being forced to eat Soup of Seven Internal Organs including a testicle look-alike and drink large volumes of Genghis Khan vodka, I was grabbed and forced to jive with a somewhat robust lady. As the music intensified, she moved closer and closer, forcing her breasts into my chest. I tried to extricate myself but her arms were incredibly strong. After numerous dances, I managed to extricate myself and escaped by jumping through a window. I returned to my hotel, locked the door and sat there whimpering. In the morning, I woke on the floor, fully clothed and went to brush my teeth. That’s when I noticed the large gap in my tooth where the gold one had been for nearly 50 years.

I can only assume that she kept it as a souvenir of our evening and thought about confronting her. Then I learned that one of her relatives  was a wrestling champion and very mean. I decided that discretion was better than valour and returned home trying to explain to my wife how I had lost a tooth.

Can you swim?

Posted on September 18, 2019


I approached the large, oak-panelled doors with trepidation, my legs shaking and my three-inch Cuban-heeled boots almost propelling me headlong. A shaft of light hit me as I entered and approached the large wooden table where dark figures were silhouetted against the backdrop of Churchill and Anthony Eden and Downing Street beyond. As my eyes re-adjusted, I saw that they were mostly elderly, late 50s or so, wore dark, black suits and were exploring my every feature. I tried to control the mounting panic. The man who had led me in sat to my right and started to take copious notes. These were the Governors of the remnants of the British Empire now reduced to small colonies or protectorates in Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Turks and Caicos, Gilbert and Ellice and finally the British Solomon Islands Protectorate or BSIP as they called it.

A large, round man from Gibraltar led the interview and grilled me on China, its economy, its future prospects and whether I could cope with living in an overcrowded, urban sprawl such was Hong Kong. I calmed down, held my own and fell confident as they drew the meeting to a close. None of the others spoke until the end when the man on the extreme right who appeared remarkably tall asked if I could swim. I was somewhat stunned by this but replied that I was a good swimmer and had my Duke of Edinburgh’s award for this. He nodded, forced a hint of a smile and jotted down a note in his file. I rose, strode out without tripping and breathed a sigh of relief as the great doors slammed behind me.

A month later, I received the large envelope excitedly and prepared myself for the magic of the Far East and China. Two months later, I landed in the hot, sultry heat of Honiara, the capital of the BSIP. There was little to see except a very small terminal and some natives with a luggage trolley. I picked up my small son and walked with my wife to the welcoming party, which comprised the Deputy Governor and his wife, and one or two other men with pink legs and shorts. We checked into the small hotel, the Mendana on the sea front and I was amused to see the sign saying No swimming. Sharks. Very welcoming.

On the first Monday, I was told to go to the offices of the District Commissioner, which were between the market and the harbour, and he would tell me what my duties would be. I approached the offices and saw a large crowd of natives outside peering in through glass windows. This was the Magistrate’s Court and a young man in a wig was waxing lyrically. I climbed the steps, waited to be called in and sat down in front of a well-built man who looked all the world like Stewart Granger. He introduced himself as Low. Mr Low. He wore all white and had eyebrows that turned up at the end. He peered at me, welcomed me and asked me what I was good at. I explained that was an expert on the Chinese economy and was very keen on the environment and development issues. He didn’t write anything down but just kept staring at me as if the words didn’t mean anything. When he asked if I could play rugger, I nodded and noted a hint of an affirmation. Good he said, you can manage the police team.  Then he asked if I had ever done any law. When I said I had as part of my business studies degree, he stood up suddenly and walked to the door and led me out. Good he kept muttering.

We descended the stairs and the crowd parted as he walked through them towards a Land Rover. He climbed in, pulled me in next to him and patted the driver on the shoulder. He was a large, thickset man in grubby clothes with no shoes. He introduced him as Chipi and told me that he would drive for me. As we sped down the road, I noticed that his lips were bright led and he incessantly spat red slime from the window. Betel Nut said the Commissioner, mix it with coral and it makes them high.  You’ll be given some when you start travelling.

 We pulled up outside a large white building with the Union Jack flying from its roof and I read the sign that said High Court of the Western Pacific.  He jumped out, dragged me with him and led me into a large ante-room. A small Indian gentleman sat there behind a large desk. Is Sir Jocelyn in? said Low. The Indian nodded and pointed to a side room. We entered and there sat a small man in his vest and shorts eating a sandwich and reading The Times.

He looked at Low then me and stopped chewing. Yes, he muttered.

This is your new man, said Low. Just what we need Sir Jocelyn.

 He stood up, walked a round me and stopped in front of me muttering to himself.

Knows the law, said Low.  Masters Degree and all that.  Sir Jocelyn eyed me and beckoned us towards a large door. We entered a large, ornate court room with a picture of the Queen and the Union Jack dominating the walls.

Stand there, he said as I shivered in the air conditioning. He opened a large cupboard, pulled out a wig and a large red, velvet cloak and returned and stood in front of me. He produced a bible and placed it in my hand.

Kneel down, he said and I did as I was told. He then told me to repeat the oath after him and then asked me to rise. Congratulations, young man. You are now the District Magistrate for the Central Solomons. We’ll gazette it by the end of the month so everyone will know who you are.

 Low turned me round and led me to the exit. Just before we left, Sir Jocelyn spoke again.

Oh, bye the way, can you swim?

 I nodded nervously and he relaxed.  We don’t want a repeat of last time, do we Low?

 We left and drove to the harbour. A schooner was tossing around in the waves. He took me on board, introduced me to the Captain and explained who I was and that I would be travelling around the island in the following week dispensing justice. I shivered with fear.

I tried to explain that I had minimum experience of law and this had largely been commercial but he was having none of it. He took me back to the office, gave me two volumes of the Laws of the BSIP and suggested that I read them before I left the following Sunday.

He was leaving to another appointment when I asked why everyone asked me if I could swim.

He looked at me somewhat bemused. Didn’t they tell you?

 I shook my head. About your predecessor?

  I shook my head again.

 Very sad. Same age as you. Fell off the back of the boat in the middle of the night. Didn’t miss him till morning. Crew asleep or drunk.

 Did they find him? I asked.

His head, yes….but nothing else. Washed up on the shore a week later. Sharks you know. Got a taste for humans. The war you know. Many ships sunk off here in Iron Bottom Sound.

Poor buggars. Survived the sinking but then picked off by Hammer Heads and Tigers.

Careful when you’re going ashore. Seas can be mighty rough on the Weather Coast.

Thank God you can swim!


Graham Walker, District Magistrate, Central Solomon Islands, 1974-75.

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Posted on October 12, 2016




I was in high spirits when I signed up for the bicycle tour but regretted it immediately. Only 9 kms she said, a nice lunch and a boat ride back. Sure that you don’t want the full, all day trip of 20 kms in the mountains. Much better for man like you. I knew that it was double the price and the temperature was due to climb to over 40 on the next day. I shook my head politely. A quadruple bypass, a new titanium hip and endless other scars were testament to man who should be starting to take it easy in life. Not cycling in the midday sun in Vietnam.


I woke early, did my stretches and squats and fortified myself with a full breakfast and masses of strong coffee. I then returned to the room, tried the cheap hat on again and forced it as far as it would go down my head. I then smothered every inch of my body with factor 30, especially my nose. I charged the camera, packed as much water as I could carry and made my way down to the lobby. The girl who had sold me the tour smiled. It very hot today. Pleese take care.


At 8.15 on the dot, a small girl appeared who looked about 15. I watched her go to the reception and knew it was her in an instance. She wore very tight blue jeans, a grey hoodie and gloves. She carried one those Vietnamese hats by her side. I walked towards her and she asked me if I was Clementine. I said no and indicated that that was the name of the receptionist who had booked it. Graham, I smiled. GraHAM, she replied emphasising the H. I nodded. She led me outside, placed a small helmet on my head and pulled the strap tightly around my chin, almost choking me.


She then climbed on the very small scooter, turned the engine on and asked me to climb on the back. I wasn’t sure what the etiquette was and decided not to put my arms around her waist and grip her. I felt around and found a small handle at the back of the machine. I put one hand on it to steady myself, forced my knees inwards to get a good grip and held tightly on to my undersized, white cowboy hat that I had bought on the previous day for a ridiculous amount of money.


She said Ready and the scooter jolted forward. I held on as we sped up the road, crossed the intersection without looking and turned right over the bridge. At the end, she swerved in front of a bus and cavalcade of scooters and accelerated down a narrow street. A lorry came our way but she pressed her horn repeatedly and it moved to one side. I had forgotten whether I was covered by my insurance policy. We eventually stopped outside her office with a mass of bikes lined up in the street. We got off and she undid the helmet and I could breathe again.


Outside was a group of people covering themselves in factor 50 including a group of small children who were clearly Australian. The Mum was blonde and would not stop until they were ashen white. Dad looked on and shook his head. A tall English lad came out, as white as a sheet and introduced himself as Alan, a web designer from Leicester. He said that he had been welcomed everywhere because of Leicester’s standing in the Premier League. There was also a Dutch couple and three Americans who were distinctly quiet.


We all tried out the bikes and cycled up and down the street. The seats were adjusted and then we assembled in front of the girl who had collected me and her friend. The little one spoke and said her name was Quen, which meant Power. Her friend was Hue, which meant Thought. She gave us a few instructions and we set off down the street weaving from side to side and then turning left towards the lake. We stopped alongside a wooden boat, rolled our bikes along a plank and stacked them at the front. We were told to mind our heads as we sat down but as usual, yours truly walked straight into beam and flattened his cowboy hat.


The boat chugged away over the calm, still lake and came to rest against a wooden pier after ten minutes and we disembarked. I assumed that was where the cycling would begin but we turned a corner and stopped and entered a wood yard. We moved in and were given a lecture on boat building by Quen as the men hammered, screwed and sawed their way through large cuts of dark wood. At the end was a semi-finished one with a bright blue hull and large eyes painted on the front. We were told that the eyes were there to guide the fishermen in the right direction after a night on the rice wine. I looked on as a man in sandals with his toes exposed, placed a circular saw between his feet and cut through a large piece of wood. His friend was chipping away with a hammer and chisel at a smaller piece of wood, again with no shoes on and his toes exposed.


We left, walked across the road and watched another man with his legs crossed, chip away at mother and pearl as he weaved delicate patterns on the wood and pasted the tiny shells into complex shapes. She said that he had taken 5 years to learn the skills.


By the time that we returned to the bikes, the seats were red hot and the water in the bottles was roasting. The temperature was starting to rise rapidly and we cycled past boat yards and along the riverbank. Elevated fishing nets billowed in the wind waiting to be lowered in the evening to secure their catch attracted by lamps and candles. We cycled past houses with rice and peanuts drying outside on bamboo mats; water buffalo cooled in the muddy waters, occasionally grunting as white herons pecked at the water searching for fish. Everything was lush green with birds circling the small fishponds.


I was aware that I was getting hotter and hotter but had not realised how much until one of the small Australian children said that I looked like a beetroot. I was definitely wilting and the water was too hot to provide any reprieve from the heat. I was on the verge of turning back when the Dutch man offered me a biscuit filled with honey, which seemed to revive my sprits temporarily.


We cycled on as the heat grew more intense and my seat sank lower and my knees almost came to my chest. We stopped and Hue pushed my seat upwards. Shade was a relief as we swept through a small village where everyone shouted Alo and held out their hands to give a high five. All the cyclists in front held out their hands and carried out the manoeuvre but when I lifted my hand off the handlebar, I swerved to the left and almost hit a small woman and her child.


I had just about given up when we pulled into a small house and parked the bikes up. We were then given a lecture on how to make a circular boat from bamboo and how to fill it with cow shit to seal it. We were then led to the river where a toothless old lady dropped the boat into the water and paddled away with her knees tucked underneath her. She came back and beckoned us to try it out.


The Aussie lady was in first and was very adept, much to the admiration of her kids. The Dad refused claiming a bad back. The Dutch also refused but one American with the Jewish cap stitched into his hair, was off like a shot and didn’t need the old lady’s help. He congratulated himself as his colleague moved in gingerly with the old lady jumping in behind him and deliberately rocking it wildly. He was not amused when Quen shouted that there were crocodiles in the water and the old lady rocked harder and harder, singing Gangham style. He was relieved when he got back to the pier but was clearly upset by the experience. I declined on the grounds that I had a new hip and needed to be careful with bending. The Americans laughed and asked if the titanium would rust or not.


I thought that we would be off again but by the time we returned to the house, the table was laid with cakes and there were bottles of ice-cold LaRue beer. More importantly, there were two very large fans, one of which I sat in front of, as I put my hand in the ice box and held the freezing cold cubes to my face and neck. Bliss. I thought that I had recovered and felt good about myself until the little Aussie girl said that I looked like a tomato about to explode. I asked where the toilet was and was pointed to the back of the house past a bedroom with an old woman lying on her side. There was a room with large basin in it but no door. I decided I had no option despite the thought that the old lady was staring at me. I emptied the contents, put my hand under a tap and smiled as I walked past her.


I re-joined the group as we cycled past small temples and across paddy fields and narrow canals with small stone bridges. Quen insisted that we get off our bikes at each bridge in case we toppled in. In my case, there was a very distinct possibility and the water would have been a welcome relief.


We stopped at a house, parked the bikes and were greeted by the owner who kept bowing his head and smiling. We were then shown the process of making the rice wine, which made the local men very drunk especially after a hard day’s work. First it was soaked for days until it fermented; then it was put into plastic pots and then into metal canister where the distillation was finished. A large fat pig lay nearby obviously high on the fumes from the distillation process. Then to the tasting. One lot was cloudy and was only 30 per cent alcohol. We were given glasses and made the customary toast. Then the real hard nuts sampled the 50 per cent version, which was in a clear bottle. Again the customary toast. It tasted like the palinka from Hungary to me and was quite palatable. As we left, the owner smiled more and more and nodded. Obviously, he had been sampling the 50 per cent stuff to see if it was of the right quality.


We cycled much quicker after the rice wine, whisking through villages and waving our hands at the locals like lager louts. They must have known that we had just been down the road at the rice wine factory and just laughed. I don’t remember the next part of the journey but we passed through a sort of jungle retreat with bamboo houses and long tables. Lots of foreigners were busy eating and it reminded me of one of those POW camps in Japan in the Second World War.


We parked the bikes and entered a house, which we were told had been destroyed in the Vietnam War. It had been rebuilt and now a family lived here and this was a restaurant for tourists. There was one bedroom with no door and just a curtain for privacy. In the main room was another double bed and this had no mattress and just wooden slats and a bamboo mat. This was done to let the air circulate. In the main room was an altar and pictures of the deceased surrounded by incense candles. The dead were consulted on a variety of issues especially children’s names where two coins were thrown into the air and selection was based on the two same colours landing at the same time. They were allowed five goes before the ancestors got fed up and asked them to start all over again.


We then moved to the tables and were served lovely vegetarian food for those like me who had been newly converted as well as chicken for those who still liked eating dead animals. This was followed by mango, which was delicious, and of course beer. I sat opposite the oldest of the Aussie children, Rupert who had been quiet up to now with the conversation dominated by his two younger sisters. He started to disclose all of the family’s dark secrets much to chagrin of his Dad who sat next to him and tried to keep him quiet. His wife just smiled and said that they had encouraged the kids to integrate with older people like me and to be outspoken. His Dad attempted to stop him talking by feeding him but it was impossible to stop as he moved on to disreputable family members from the past.


The Americans thought that this was hilarious especially the one who was a journalist and training to be a Rabbi. I discovered that one was a surgeon; the other was an Emergency response Doctor and the latter, fluent in Hebrew and just moving to New York to finish his training. For one who has suffered so many misadventures and health scares, this was great to know. Open heart surgery in the bush; a new hip made from bamboo; brain surgery using the circular saw from the wood yard. The mind boggles.


We finished and walked across the road to watch a son and mother weave bamboo mats. He was cross-legged and pushed the weaving mechanism backwards and forwards. She inserted the coloured bamboo strands to create a multi-coloured mat in 4 hours. We left and there was a mound of what appeared to be black hair at the front of the house. I asked if it was horsehair and was told that it was seaweed and they would soak it and eat it that evening.


We left the bikes, walked out over a bridge and there was the boat waiting to take us back to Hoi An. What a relief. The thought of cycling all that way back had filled me with horror. Instead the small boat chugged away; we donned our bright red life jackets as if on the Titanic and sailed for 45 minutes down the river. Fishing boats passed us by; the large nets had turned a sharp sandy colour as they were lifted off the bottom and they billowed in the wind.


We relaxed, hid from the sun and reminisced about a beautiful day in the Vietnamese countryside.




Hoi An


April 2016


Dorsoduro, Venice

Posted on August 24, 2013

In the high season, Venice’s population doubles and the log jam on the main thoroughfares becomes almost unbearable, as thousands of tourists clog the alleyways between the Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco. A short walk over the Ponte dell’Accademia crossing the Grand Canal, however, provides an escape route into one of the most enduring and increasingly fashionable districts of La Serenissima, Dorsoduro. Somewhat euphemistically translated as ‘high ridge’, it juts out from San Polo and lies to the South of San Marco with its tip almost opposite the Doge’s Palace. It also embraces two islands across the canal to the south, Giudecca and the less fashionable, Sacca Fisola.



What I adore about this district is its bohemian atmosphere, its relative tranquillity and its mix of students congregating around the campos near the University at Ca’ Foscari and locals relaxing outside the osterias and wine bars in the early evenings. Restaurant prices are much lower than those across the Grand Canal, service is much more cordial and the ambiance is friendly and unassuming. Stroll along the Fondamenta Nani next to the Rio di San Trovaso in the early evening and you will find locals and tourists congregating around the Cantina del Vino gia Schiavi and the smaller Al Squero sipping prosecco or spritz and sampling the crostinis, cichettis, rosettas and paninis. Nearby the Gelateria Lo Squero serves up its speciality pistachio gelato; recently Angelina Jolie herself was seen sampling the local ices there.

The Waterfront

A short walk away is the waterfront, Fondamente Zattere stretching all the way from the Maritime port to the church of Santa Maria della Salute (La Salute) at the tip of Dorsoduro guarding the entrance to the Grand Canal. Fish restaurants, bars and cafes look out over the Canal de Giudecca and the luxury hotels, home to the rich and famous on the island opposite during the Venice Film Festival. Vaporetti crisscross the canal and occasionally huge cruise ships ply their way slowly towards the lagoon towed somewhat precariously by fleets of tugboats. If you are in need of refreshment, sample the gianduiotto ice cream with its lashings of chocolate and cream in one of Venice’s oldest and most famous gelateria, Nico’s near the Ponte Lungo.



Nearby, at Santa Maria della Visitazione, look out for the lion’s head, bocca di leone, embedded in the church’s wall. The Doges wanted to encourage Venetians to denounce people who had committed crimes without fear of retribution and letters were signed in front of a witness then placed in the lion’s mouth surreptiously. If the crimes were deemed serious enough, the accused was arrested and tried. More often than not, however, it led to wrongful imprisonment and endemic paranoia and suspicion especially at times of plague.


Dorsoduro is also the home to last remaining boatyard for gondolas in Venice and you can watch the squeraroli plying their centuries-old trade next to the San Trovaso church in Lo Squero. Gone are the days when some 10,000 gondolas monopolised transportation in Venice and today only 425 licences are issued for the whole network, with many handed down from father to son and new recruits having to pass an extremely arduous exam. The gondolas are built to precise specifications, painted the regulation black and made from 280 pieces of eight different types of wood. At the prow is an iron stabiliser, made of six metal combs (pettini) that represent the six sestieres, or neighbourhoods, that comprise Venice. The posterior pettini represents the island of Guidecca.

Until recently, the gondoliers were all male but in 2010 a mother of two, Giorgia Boscolo, became the first female to take up this trade. If you fancy a gondola ride, however, beware since they do not come cheap and cost €80 for 40 minutes (€110 after 19.00) and €40 to €50 for every twenty minutes after that. It pays, therefore, to go in a group.


Gondola construction, Lo Squero


Dorsoduro also has some of the most beautiful but less frequented churches in Venice, which allows you to enjoy their solitude and charm far away from the crowds that swamp the churches around San Marco. In San Sebastiano, Veronese spent 10 years of his life painting almost every wall, the ceiling and even the organ and was eventually buried there. It is worth the visit just to see the wonderful sacristy and the magnificent paintings around the altar. You can also watch the painters meticulously and delicately retouch the wall paintings as part of the restoration programme funded by the New York-based Save Venice Inc.

Nearby, Chiesa dell’Angelo Raffaele, was immortalised by the British novelist, Sally Vicker in Miss Garnet’s Angel; and San Nicolo dei Mendicoli was used as the setting for Nick Roeg’s 1973 thriller, Don’t Look Now, starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie. San Barnaba was used as the exterior of the library in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade;  and in the 1955 film, Summertime,starring Katherine Hepburn who insisted on falling into the canal herself rather than use an understudy. Unfortunately, she contracted an eye disease as a result, which affected her for the rest of her life.

Ponte di Pugni

In contrast to the solitude and reverence of the churches, however, the Ponte di Pugni stretching over the Rio de San Barnaba, has a much more infamous past and was the site of the War of the Fists that took place between rival gangs in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were huge fist fights numbering hundreds of fighters that were watched by thousands of spectators and supported financially by the nobility and church. They were principally between the Castellani who were shipbuilders from the Arsenale close to San Pietro di Castello and the Nicolotti, who were fisherman from the Western end of Dorsoduro near San Nicolo dei Medicoli. Although they started out with referees and some semblance of order, they soon disintegrated into all out battles where people were crushed to death or drowned in the canals. They were subsequently banned in 1705 when contestants and indeed spectators joined in with all manner of weapons resulting in many deaths.


Ponte di Pugni

Peggy Guggenheim Museum

The Peggy Guggenheim Museum sitting by the banks of the Grand Canal, however, blends beautifully into its surroundings and provides an oasis of calm serenity that belies the wonders of its art collection. The gardens of the single storeyed Palazzo Venier dei Leoni are filled with sculptures yet nevertheless remain unassuming and a place to relax or even write a message to a loved one and post it on a tree donated by Yoko Ono. Inside, you can wander around galleries filled with priceless collections of cubist, surrealist and abstract art including works by Picasso, Salvador Dali, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Jean Metzinger and Hans Arp; or eat in the wonderful cafeteria overlooking the gardens.


Galleria dell’Accademia

Whilst Dorsoduro’s attraction is its ambiance, it nevertheless does possess some very important tourist attractions. The Galleria dell’Accademia, just over the bridge across the Grand Canal, is one of the principal art galleries in Venice and in Italy. Despite its somewhat unglamorous appearance, it hosts major works by Bellini, Tintoretto, Veronese, Titian, Carpaccio and has Giorgione’s pricelessTempesta. Only 180 visitors are allowed at one time, so either go early or be prepared for very long queues. Further north is Ca’ Rezzonico, built in 1648, where Robert Browning spent his last days until his death in 1889 and was also rented by Cole Porter. This is a very grandiose Baroque Palazzo housing the museum of 18th– century Venice and worth the entrance fee just to view the lavishness of the interior.


 ‘La Salute’

‘La Salute’, itself is also well worth a visit. Built to commemorate the plague that swept through Venice in 1630 and took 80,000 lives, it was designed by Baldassare Longhena when he was only 26, and took 50 years to complete and required some 100,000 pinewood logs to be driven vertically into the ground to support it. Quite apart from its immense structure its interior hosts two magnificent pieces of artwork, Tintoretto’s Wedding at Cana and Titian’s St Mark Enthroned with Saints Cosmos, Damian, Roch and Sebastian.



If you happen to be there on November 21st, prepare yourself for the Festa dell Madonna della Salute when a bridge is constructed from San Marco to La Salute and the whole city turns out to celebrate the end of the plague and the survival of La Serenissima.  In the third week of July, a similar festival takes place when a bridge is constructed from Zattere to La Redentore on the island of Guidecca to celebrate the end of the plague in 1576 and culminates in a huge firework display that illuminates the whole city.

Dorsoduro is one of my favourite districts in Venice and one that I love to explore. Its magic is its variety, its vitality and its mixture of young and old, pensioners and students, locals and tourists, workers and art aficionados. We should also not forget, however, that it also plays host to a major prison, and the inmates’ voices can be heard resonating around the alleyways near the Venice University of Architecture faculty not far from the waterfront.

Mallorca, Spain

Posted on August 24, 2013


I had only visited MAJ-ORCA once before in 1988 in the company of our five teenage children, foolishly believing that we would have a quiet family holiday by the sea. Was I mad? The holiday turned into a nightmare with the flight overbooked and packed to the gunnels and the resort resembling Stalag 7 with the family scattered around clay huts that would not have been out of place in rural Africa. The sound of karaoke every night, evening meals of fish and chips, chicken and chips and the occasional spag boll did little to endear me to the island and I swore I would never return again.

In search of rest and recovery after an operation had gone seriously wrong, I was therefore, somewhat apprehensive about returning there twenty years later, although I was assured that Northern Mallorca was much more demure and attracted a different class of holiday maker to those who seemed to have a penchant for falling off balconies in Magaluf. My holiday, however, did have a somewhat inauspicious start with my private taxi failing to turn up at the airport and my luxury room at the back of the hotel resembling. A small cupboard. I slept fitfully, cursed myself for returning there and eventually succumbed to overwhelming tiredness.

In the morning, however, Puerto de Pollenca unfolded in front of my eyes. A broad, sweeping bay, a backdrop of green mountains and a clear, blue sea lapping against sandy shores. A small, town hugged the shoreline and the smell and fragrances of bougainvillea and pine trees filled my nostrils.  Fishing boats chugged out to sea and my fellow guests scattered their towels and lounged on the veranda, soaking up the morning sun. I was to discover a region of untold beauty, of dramatic scenery with some of the highest peaks on the island and a coastline dotted with small bays and villages. No wonder it was the favourite haunt of writers such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Agatha Christie, Robert Graves and the notorious George Sand who wooed Frederic Chopin in Valdemossa.


Puerto de Pollenca

Mallorca is essentially an island of two halves. The South dominated by a flat plain called Es Pla stretching from the capital, Palma, which is the island’s prime agricultural centre; and the North and West, which is dominated by the magnificent mountain range, the Serra de Tramuntana, with peaks rising as high as 1463 metres at Puig Majo and stretching from the Southern shores to the dramatic Cap de Formentor, which is the northernmost spur of the mountains, jutting out towards the smaller island of Menorca.  It is a hiker’s paradise, with the long-distance hiking trail-Ruta de Pedra en Sec running from Soller all the way to Pollenca.  The route is one of the prime walking areas in Spain and is well served with hostels en route. For those feeling more energetic, it is also fabulous cycling country especially if you are fit enough to climb to the top of the peaks and savour the twisting and winding descent round hair-pin bends.

For those of a less energetic disposition, it is worthwhile hiring a car and taking the Ma-1110 west of Palma, which takes you through stunning countryside and beautiful, picturesque villages. It’s one of the best day trips from Palma de Mallorca.

Only 15 kms North of Palma is Valdemossa, famous for its Monastery, bequeathed to Carthusian monks and now one of the island’s most popular destinations, not only because of its beauty but because it was home to the notorious, trouser-wearing, cigar-smoking George Sand who lived there with Chopin in 1838-39. A visit to the cells is a must if only to view Chopin’s piano. The village has a wonderful ambience, with winding streets, art galleries, chic shops and cafes and restaurants crowded with visitors.



To the north of the town, the road passes through the picturesque village of Deia, immortalised by the writer, Robert Graves, who lived there in the 1930s and after the Second World War and penned many of his most famous works including I Claudius.  The village was to become a centre for writers and artists and owed much of its fame once again due to the notoriety of Graves’s partner, Laura Riding and their mystic group, the Holy Circle. His house has been beautifully restored at Ca N’Alluny just out of the village.



From Deia, the road twists and turns along the coast before descending rapidly to Soller, almost enclosed by the dramatically high peaks of the Serra de Tramuntana. A picturesque town, with activities centred around the Placa Constitucio, its main claim to fame is that it is connected to Palma by a 28 kms railway and is then linked to the seaside resort port, Puerto de Soller, by a tram, which shuttles regularly between the town and the resort. The train ride from Palma is well worth the €10 price just to experience the climb through the tunnels and the steep valleys.

Puerto de Soller is also one of the most popular spots on the coast with a beautiful, secluded horseshoe bay, clear, blue seas and a backdrop of verdant mountains. In May, it is also host the famous Sa Fira I Es Firo, commemorating the victorious battle of the Mallorcans against marauding pirates.


Puerto de Roller

From Soller north, the Ma-10 traverses the highest point in the mountains and the views are dramatic if somewhat unnerving to the novice driver. The road twists and turns round hair pin bends, through tunnels, passing Puig Major before emerging into the Gorg Bleu, the Blue Gorge, where three reservoirs have been created by the construction of a hydro-electric power scheme. At the Embassament de Cuber, a footpath winds its way around the lake teeming with birdlife. Dominating the reservoir is the Puig de Massanella (1365 metres).


Puig de Massanella

The road continues its ascent to its maximum point before eventually turning downwards and heading through beautiful countryside to the picturesque town of Pollenca.  Built inland to avoid attacks by pirates, its main tourist attraction is the Via Crucis (Way of the Cross), a steep, 365-step stone stairway from the centre of the town climbing up the Puig de Calvari (Calvary Hill) with its magnificent views of the surrounding countryside. Again, a certain amount of stamina is required to make the climb but it is well worth it. Pollenca also has its own thirteenth century church, Nostra Senyora dels Angels just off the Placa Major with a beautiful rose window and painted ceiling, a welcome respite from the midday sun. It is also host to the Museu Dionis Benassar, which has a collection of the artist’s famous paintings, with beautifully coloured landscapes that capture the beauty of this region.

Whilst the mountains provide a sanctuary from the high-rise buildings that still litter the southern coast, Puerto Pollenca itself offers something unique with its stillness and tranquillity and its absence of cars. An ideal location for families with shallow waters and sandy beaches, it also offers links to even more secluded beaches such as Platja de Formentor, which can be reached by road or preferably by sea with the catamaran only taking thirty minutes. Here, the one kilometre of sandy beach is a haven from the town across the bay. Turquoise blue waters, the backdrop of pine trees and freshness of the sea breezes induces a state of almost total relaxation. Such was the appeal of this area that a wealthy Argentinian, Adan Diehl, purchased the whole peninsula in 1928, built himself a hotel, Hotel Formentor, and used it as a retreat for the wealthy and famous including Charlie Chaplin and Agatha Christie who wrote Problem at Pollensa Bay there. His intoxication with the area has had some very positive effects in that there has been scarcely no development there despite the fact that it is now owned by the Barcelo chain.

No visit to this area is complete, however, without a drive to the very end of the island at Cap de Formentor but be prepared for cyclists training for the Tour de France hurtling round the bends. The drive is however, worth every penny with dramatic viewpoints down the sheer cliffs with a twisting, winding road up to the lighthouse dominating the headland. From here, you can see Menorca in the distance and the mountains behind Puerto de Pollenca.


Cap de Formentor

I left Mallorca overwhelmed by the scenery and the amazing contrast between the mountains and the coastal towns. Gone were my apprehensions about lager louts, fish and chip shops and high raise hotels. Instead I was left with a memory of turquoise blue sea, soft white sands and the magnificent backdrop of the Serra de Tramuntana.


Island of Giudecca, Venice, Italy

Posted on August 24, 2013

If you’re a backpacker and want to savour some of the most iconic views in Venice, then there’s no better place to stay then the Ostello Venezia on the Island of Giudecca, For the price of a small meal at the nearby luxury hotels you get the same magnificent views over the canal to the Doges’ Palace, the Campanile towering over St. Mark’s Square and the cathedral of La Salute guarding the entrance to the Grand Canal. If, however, you are feeling very flush and really want to have a momentary bit of self-indulgence, then you can sample the world famous Hotel Caprice with its Olympic-sized swimming pool and hobnob with De Niro, Angelina Jolie et al during the annualVenice Film Festival, held in the nearby Lido in August every year.

Giudecca from Campanile 2.jpg


Nicknamed the ‘spinalonga’ or long spine, Giudecca is only a ten minute vaporetta ride from Zattere across the canal but its proximity belies its tranquillity and simplicity. Here, you can stroll aimlessly along the Fondamenta, sample the seafood in the many restaurants scattered along the waterfront or just relax in the bars and cafes as the speedboats, vaporetti and the occasional cruiser float by. There is no sense of haste, no crowds; just an unhurried ease and a place to relax far away from the summer mayhem around the major tourist haunts across the canal.

No one is really sure of the origin of the name of the island; some say that it comes from the settlement of Jews there following their flight from the pogroms in Europe.  A more plausible view is that it derives from ‘giudicati’ meaning the judged and refers to the banishment for 9th century aristocrats who had fallen foul of the law in Venice and earned the displeasure of the Doges. Michaelangelo took up residence there for nearly a year in 1529 to escape the wrath of the Medicis and there is a street named after him at the western end of the island. Certainly, the space, the light and the distance from the crowds on the mainland would have been inspirational.

Until the 18th century, Giudecca was home to wealthy Venetians and numerous lavish houses were established there with extensive gardens. A number of churches were also built, two of which were designed by one of the world’s most famous architects, Palladio. Il Redentore was built to celebrate the end of the first great plague, which killed 50,000 Venetians in 1575-76.  If you happen to be there on the third Saturday in July, be prepared for a sudden end to the peace and quiet when a pontoon bridge is constructed across the canal from La Salute to Il Redentore and the whole of Venice turns out to cross the bridge and back to celebrate the end of the plague. The evening culminates in a gigantic firework display that illuminates the whole waterfront and the revellers on the hundreds of boats stretching across the canal. Sante Maria della Presentazione, known locally as Le Zitelle, was formerly part of a complex that gave shelter to young maidens who were considered to be at risk of becoming prostitutes and were taught music and lace making. Acquired by the Bauer group, parts of the former convent have been converted into a 50-room luxury hotel-the Palladio. Not for those on a modest budget.


La Basilica del Santissimo Redentore

The onset of Venice’s industrial revolution in the 19th century had a dramatic effect on the island. Not wanting to see La Serenissima overwhelmed by factories and pollution, the authorities moved industrial activity to Giudecca and it became famous for boatbuilding, textiles, flour milling, brewing, matting and rope making. One of the earliest film studios was even established there behind the current Hilton.  The whole social mix of the island changed with the influx of workers and their families and tenements stretched along the spine of the island. The subsequent decline in the post-war period had a dramatic effect on the island, descending into a poor backwater with a few isolated islands of prosperity. Two of the city’s jails were located here and the island became synonymous with poverty.


Prison on Giudecca

In recent years, however, there has been a major resurgence and huge efforts are being made to revive tourism and foster industrial regeneration. The former flour mill/vaporetti factory/power plant at Molino Stucky fell into disrepair following the murder of its owner, Giovanni Stucky the biggest employer in Venice, in 1955 but has been transformed into a 250 room Hilton hotel with a rooftop swimming pool.  Its Skyline bar is a must for anyone wanting to sample some of the best views in Venice and is well worth the prices charged- €14 for a spritz. It also has one of the best health clubs in Venice. The Judeca Nova complex built on the site of the former Junghans watch and clock factory has been converted into modern apartments, many of them available to let in the summer months; and the area behind the church of Santa Eufemia on the Fondamenta is also being developed into a modern business centre. There has also been a revival of the Fortuny textile factory, located next to the Molino Stucky Hilton. Originally established in 1922, the factory almost closed until its revival by its American owner, and there has now been a resurgence of interest in the unique fabric designs- carnavalet, lucrezia, de medici and moresco- and visitors can view these in the showrooms.


Molino Stucky Hilton

Even the prisons have embraced the island’s new status. Le Convertite, the women’s prison, descended into notoriety in the 16th century when Fra Giovanni Leon used it as a refuge for prostitutes only to be beheaded for using the 400 nuns as his personal harem. Until recently, the inmates had resigned themselves to a life of relative solitude and limited exposure to the outside world. If you turn up at the prison gates on a Thursday morning, however, you will see stalls set out and prisoners selling some of the best quality organic vegetables in the city. Take care if you go, however, since the locals feel that they have a monopoly of the fruits and vegetables and woe be tied intruders especially foreigners who try to usurp them. The prisoners also produce a range of toiletries ( soap, gel, shampoo, lotions) under expert supervision, market them through a co-operative and also supply the Bauer hotels. They also produce a range of clothing. Such has been the success of these ventures that the prisoners recently appeared on TV in the UK in Jamie Oliver does Venice, where the famous chef served up minestrone soup to somewhat disgruntled inmates.

Near to the Bauer Palladio hotel, the Casa de Trei Oci built by the famous Spanish painter, Mario de Maria, has been transformed into a multi-purpose venue and recently hosted a major photographic exhibition by the eminent American photographer, Elliot Erwitt. With its distinctive gothic architecture, its iconic pinnacles made from istrian stones and its unique ‘three eye’ windows, it is a venue that aptly serves the arts very well.


Casa de Trei Oci

Venice can be an exhausting city at the best of times and the peak season in July and August can be unbearable. An escape to Giudecca, even for just a few days, can be a welcome relief where you can stroll along the waterfront, indulge in one of the local delicacies or have a leisurely meal in one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront. If you want to splash out to eat, there is Harry’s Dolci, between the vaporetto stop at Palanca and the Molino Stucky Hilton. Whilst somewhat cheaper than its namesake near San Marco, prices are nevertheless in the range of €55 per head excluding wine for the set menu. Alternatively, if you are a on a more limited budget, there is the Trattoria do Mori and the snack bar  ‘La Palanca’ serving reasonably priced meals. There are also numerous local shops including an extremely good fishmonger, an excellent baker and a wine shop serving directly from the barrel.

Alternatively, if you find the heat suffocating, the public baths on Sacca San Biagio just over the bridge from Sacca Fisola offer a respite and allows you to sample the markets nearby in San Gerardo Sagredo. Failing that, it is a short vaporetto ride to the beaches of the Lido and the Adriatic; or to the nearby island of San Giorgio Maggiore with its magnificent cathedral and campanile, where the views over Giudecca and La Serenissima are magnificent. Fortunately, there is a spacious lift to the top.



Waterfront on Sacca Fisola, Giudecca

Graham Walker

A Night at the Opera, Verona

Posted on June 21, 2012

Verona is famous for its music and especially its opera, which takes place in the former Roman amphitheater, L’Arena, next to the Piazza Bra in the center of this beautiful city. A venue more renowned for gladiatorial combat and games (ludi), it has been transformed into one of the wonders of the world, with over 50 performances every season running from June to September. The 2012 season includes Don Giovanni, Aida, Carmen, Romeo and Juliette, Turandot and Tosca. 

Here are some tips that will help you in preparation for the performance you might attend.

Arriving to the opera performance

The sheer vastness of the setting in the huge circular amphitheater packed with 14,000 spectators, all sitting in the open air, creates the most mesmeric of atmospheres. It’s not just the opera itself but the ambiance outside in the piazza and surrounding streets prior to the performance that makes this an unforgettable experience.

Crowds form a line outside the entrances for the unreserved seats, jostling to get the best positions; those who can afford the reserved seats indulge in the expensive restaurants around the piazza while there is a constant throb of excitement as the rich and glitterati arrive in their limousines. Actors dressed as Roman soldiers, Egyptian Pharaohs and Mummies stroll amongst the on-lookers trying to exact a few euros to have their pictures taken.


L’Arena, Verona

Warm-up before the show

As 9:00pm starts to approach, everyone moves towards the entrances. Entering the amphitheater is like going to a football match, except that there is no pitch below. Instead, there are rows and rows of seats facing the stage, only for the rich at nearly 200 euros a person. The whole arena is shrouded in light and there is a constant cacophony of noise. Searchlights move amongst the crowd, small candles are lit everywhere and the orchestra in the pits below the stage go through their warm-up routines.

As the magic hour approaches, a figure walks onto the stage with a gong. He is dressed in a top hat and tails and bangs it three times to indicate that the performance starts in three minutes. Everyone quietens down, switches off their phones, turns the anti-flash on to their cameras and waits expectantly for the performance to begin. I had chosen La Traviata, Giuseppi Verdi’s masterpiece.

The beginning of the show

The lights dim, silence descends and the conductor struts across the stage and bows to the audience and everyone claps loudly. Then, the music starts, shadowy figures move into the background and the stage is suddenly covered in light. A huge picture frame fills the stage with men in dinner suits and lavishly attired ladies enjoy a party thrown by the famed courtesan, Violetta ValeryThe suspense is enormous as the sopranoVioletta, emerges and starts to sing. Act I gathers momentum and builds to a crescendo and Violetta lies prostrate. The whole audience cheers, claps and shouts ‘Bravo’ as she bows graciously and exits.

The first of two intervals arrives, people stand and stretch their legs, some disappear quickly in search of the toilets and ushers direct people to the exits.  The opera continues for two further acts with one more interval before midnight arrives and the finale finally comes. Huge roars resound around the amphitheater, Bravo‘ echoes off the marble staircases and everyone stands and applauds. We leave in droves, some for the bars and restaurants in the piazza and others like myself dashing to the hotel on the outskirts. This was a memorable experience and one that I will never forget.


The duration of the performance

If you are thinking of going to the Opera, there are certain things you need to remember. Firstly, if you leave your seat in the middle of the performance to go to the toilet, you will not be allowed back until the next interval. Given that there are only two breaks in the three-hour performance, this can be an expensive way of spending your time. It’s a good idea, therefore, not to over-indulge before the performance. If you do need to go at the interval, remember the toilets are limited and hundreds of spectators descending on them at once can cause a huge logjam.

Secondly, the performance goes on from nine to midnight and the temperature can drop substantially, so ensure you have something warm to wear. Thirdly, indulge in the cushions. Three hours is a long tie to sit on a hard seat and 3 euros will spare you agony. Choose your seat wisely. If you can, avoid the cheap seats at 25 euros and buy the 73 euro reserved seats on the steps. It is a long haul and some comfort helps.

What you can expect

Finally, be prepared for anything. This is an open-air opera after all, and the amphitheater is exposed to elements. in the atmosphere. In my performance, in the middle of Act II, a sudden gust of wind lifted the huge tapestry draping the stage, knocked the table over and almost decapitated the lead tenor with the umbrella stand. Of course everyone laughed, including the lead tenor, but a few minutes later the whole tapestry collapsed in a heap on the stage. To the credit of the performers, they made light of it and carried on as soon as the set had been restored.

It can rain in the performance and often this is torrential. It’s good to keep an eye on the weather reports and be prepared if necessary. You should also bear in mind that there is a predominance of rich, old people in the audience and the incidence of heart attacks, I am told, is quite high. Again, we were treated to the sight of an old man teetering, then falling over and being whisked away by a team of red clad medics.  It was like something out of a Marx brother’s film, but had much more poignancy.

So, treat yourself to a lifetime’s experience. Remember the golden rules and it will be something that will stay with you forever.

© Graham Walker 2019

Originally published by Viator