Friday, 14 December 2012

Through Germany with the Book Thief and Zusak

First the colours.
Then the humans.
That's how I usually see things.
Or at least, how I try.

Markus Zusak perspective of Nazi Germany is a strange one - observed through the eyes of death. And it is his quirky, original way take on the world that made me fall in love with his novel, The Book Thief. Zusak takes one of Europe's (and the world's) darkest moments and injects it with humour and hope - but doesn't shrink from describing the horrors of that grim period of history.
The book is not perfect but it is original and clever. The characterisation (larger than life; cartoon-like) is a joy to read. The creativity of his language is inspirational, but when Zusak gets caught up with telling his story, he doesn't manage to sustain the level of creativity found in the first pages of the book.
The structure of the book, however, is innovative: The small fact files that break up the text, act as pointers, glossary and sub-titles all rolled into one, allowing the book to breathe.
The grim reaper as protagonist works well too, and the motif of colour throughout allows Zusak to write scenes of sumptious creativity.
Zusak's portrayal of Liesel and her relationship with her foster family and the street kids she befriends could verge on the sentimental, but the tough and humorous characters he creates lets him off the hook.
This book was my companion as I travelled through Germany, camping along the Baltic coast and on down through Swiss Saxony before reaching Bavaria. I started seeing Germany through Zusak's eyes: the absurdity, the generousity, the small-mindedness, the individuality, the humour, the weaknesses and the strengths of my fellow human beings encountered along the way:
There was the wild-eyed German at one campsite who threatened to call the police because we'd kicked a flaming gas canister into the centre of the field (out of the way of our tent, car and children), even though we had put the fire out!
There was the large-bellied cook in dungarees on a Ruegen campsite (who had built a metal cocoon, segments of tapered corrugated tin, called the 'Woodpecker Cave') who fed us on pineapple and shouted so loudly he might as well have been speaking through a megaphone.
 There was the monstrous Hitler 'holiday camp,'  5 miles long (but never saw a single  holidaymaker); a building of such misguided ambition, it stood like a decaying beached whale on the shoreline with its cracked concrete and broken windows.
There was the excited carpark attendant on the Island of Usedom whose eyes nearly popped out of his head when he 'saw' my young son driving - he had never seen a right-hand drive before. So thrilled to meet a Brit, he exclaimed he would have bought me a bunch of flowers if only he had known I was coming.
There was the rattling trabi on the autobahn trundling along at a stately 40 miles per hour; an older couple peering through the window. They'd waited years to get their precious car. The metal wasn't much thicker than a can of baked beans - but all their dreams were contained in that scrap of metal. They weren't about to give it up any day soon.
Sometimes as I travelled, the absurd, the funny, the tragic and the colour of Zusak's created world merged with my own real life journey through Germany. He added flavour to an unusual holiday, and I realised, his larger-than-life portrayal of war-time Germany was not so far removed from real life in the present day Germany.
Zusak just helped me see it ...

This post has been entered into the blogging competition at the works here:

I nominate 3 bloggers:

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Foreign Encounters: A New Anthology from Writers Abroad

Online writing group Writers Abroad are proud to announce the publication on Wednesday 24th October of their new anthology, entitled Foreign Encounters.

An encounter can be a chance meeting, a planned get-together or even a confrontation. This collection of stories, non-fiction articles and poems features a variety of foreign encounters: with family, friends, lovers, animals, cultures, or just with one’s own prejudices and preconceptions.

Foreign Encounters is the third anthology published by Writers Abroad, an online group of ex-pat writers.  All the contributors are, or have been, ex-pats living in places around the globe. Author Julia Gregson, a former ex-pat whose bestselling novel East of the Sun won the Prince Maurice Prize for romantic fiction, has written the foreword.

Following a call for submissions, Writers Abroad received 231 contributions of which they selected 95 for the anthology. They include 16 poems, 38 short stories and 41 non-fiction articles. Since Writers Abroad is a virtual writers’ group, all the work to produce Foreign Encounters has been done online.  

All proceeds from the sale of this book will go to Books Abroad, a charity which coordinates the donation of free books for schools throughout the world, believing that education is a crucial aspect of human progress. The charity celebrates its 30th anniversary this year and has supplied over 1,600 schools with desperately-needed books.

Foreign Encounters is available from Lulu, price €9.99 (approximately £8.00), from Wednesday 24th October, when this link will become live:

To find out more and for a complete list of contributions and authors, please go to the Writers Abroad website,

Notes for editors

·         Writers Abroad was founded in 2009. It provides an online forum for ex-pat writers to exchange ideas, views and news on writing and to offer support and constructive feedback on each other’s work. Membership numbers are limited but ex-pat writers may apply to join if they are able to support the group’s initiatives and aims.

·         For more about author Julia Gregson, see

·         For more about Books Abroad, see

·         Contributors live in, and have written about, more than 50 countries in every continent.

My story called 'Seeing the World Differently' will be included in this anthology. Please, buy a copy (or copies - the book would make a fine Christmas present) and will support a great charity at the same time.

Saturday, 8 September 2012

Drama on the Stari Most
At the highest point on the bridge a small figure on the skyline climbed over the rail. 20 metres below him the freezing Neretva River swirled beneath sheer-sided rocks.
On the shoreline, a crowd had gathered to watch. High above them, the man stood there frozen on the narrow ledge.  For a moment, it felt as if time has been suspended.
Then someone was shouting. “Go on. Do it!”
As if broken from his trance, he raised one arm to the sky, took a deep breath and propelled himself outwards, his arms stretched out like an eagle. For a moment he seemed to fly, but then he began to drop like a stone to the river below. The wind lifted and his body curved dangerously close to the rocks. He hit the surface and the water exploded. He was gone.
The crowd scanned the river but there was no sign of the man, until moments later he reappeared bobbing like a cork further downstream.  Everyone broke into applause.
All afternoon we’d watched the young boys of Mostar jump from the 10 metre board on the riverside just below the bridge, practising for the day they too would qualify for the Stari Most Annual Diving. In Monsar it’s a rite of passage.
The Stari Most (Old Bridge) was commissioned by the Suleiman the Magnificant in 1557. On completion it was the widest single-arched bridge in the world. No one knows how the scaffolding was erected or how the stone had been transported from one side to the other. It seemed a miracle.
For over 400 years, the locals dived from the bridge. No one imagined it would ever end – that is until the 9th November 1993, when the bridge was obliterated in the war.  Mostar was in shock. The Stari Most was more than just a bridge – it had been a symbol of unity across a multi-ethnic city. Mostar had to wait until 2004 for the reconstructed bridge to unite the old town again and the diving could recommence.
The local youths gazed up at the divers, their eyes bright with admiration, anticipating their own initiation. Diving from the Stari Most, they knew, wasn’t for the faint-hearted. The water, at 12 degree Celsius, can send the heart into cardiac arrest. Before the jump, the divers submerge themselves in the river to acclimatise and are sprayed again with icy water just before they make the leap.  The jump itself is perilous too - one mistake can mean the difference between life and death.
The initial jump had been completed and the Bosnian anthem rang through the ravine. Flowers thrown from the bridge, floated across the air before drifting down the river: a remembrance to those who died in the war. High above the banks of the river, the remaining burnt out shells of buildings are a sobering reminder of a very recent war. But again the town is reunified in its annual dive on the Old Bridge.

Saturday, 1 September 2012

A taste of Croatian waters

My husband had disappeared from our village apartment. He’d only gone to check the washing. Minutes turned into hours and I went in search of him.
I peeped into the courtyard out the back. The square was empty in the fierce afternoon heat. The tiny pekara, the bakery was deserted too, as was the café next to it. I wandered downstairs to the basement corridor where the washing machine was. Not there either. I descended the last steps to the seafront. In front of me, the Mali Ston Bay stretched out to the Pelješac Peninsula, where grey-green olive trees and pines covered the hillside. I scanned the seafront promenade and the shore: He was nowhere to be seen.
Back inside, I returned to the washing machine. Iva the landlord’s daughter appeared.
“Looking for your husband? He is here.”
I frowned, puzzled. The corridor was empty.
She pushed back a door I hadn’t noticed before. “Come in, come in,” a voice sang out from behind the door. It was Mile, our landlord.
I peered through the gloom and there was Tom in the corner of a storeroom grinning sheepishly, a glass of rakija in his hand.
I took in the arched brick wall lined with dusty bottles and a long bench covered in food amongst an array of strange, unidentifiable Croatian objects.
 “Welcome to my place,” Mile said. “My wife, she own the kitchen. Here … all this belong to me. We men must have our place.”
I laughed. “In Britain, men have their garden sheds to escape to.”
“And here,” Mile said, “we men have our basement.”
“Come, come, have a glass of rakija.” He poured a generous glass of his homemade spirit from a large demijohn.
“You must eat some Pršut.” Only then did I notice the pork leg, trotter protruding in the air, jammed in a polished, wooden drying rack.
“I prepare this two years,” Mile told me.
Pršut, (jambon to the Spanish) is cured with Adriatic saltwater; then squeezed on a rack until all the brine is removed. The ham is smoked and left outside to dry in the fierce Bora winds over winter. It is then hung up in dark attics, outbuildings or basements all over Dalmatia to mature.
I took a bite and tasted the winds and seas of the Adriatic Sea, the fustiness of the basement, and the years of loving attention.  Mile handed me some crusty bread and cut a slice of cheese.
Paski Sir, the best cheese in the world,” he said. “It is from the island of Pag. Eat some.”
The Pag Bora wind dries the millions of tiny seawater droplets that blow in off the sea and scatters the salt dust across the sage-covered island; a flavoursome diet for the island sheep.
 I tasted the salty aromatic sheep’s cheese and knocked back another slug of belly-burning Rakiya. British men could keep their garden sheds, I wanted a Croatian basement.

Delighted to have won the Just Back Telegraph competition with this piece.
Komarna is a small modern village, mainly catering for the tourist industry. It is a good centre for visiting some of Croatia's beautiful islands: Hvar, Mljet, and Korcula, for example, and the Peljesac Peninsula. Dubrovnik can also be visited on a day trip, as can Mostar in Bosnia. The apartment we stayed in was right by the sea. It was wonderful to sit on the balcany and watch the world go by - or watch the sun set. Check it out here:
The Brljevic family, who own the apartment where we were staying, were incredibly hospitable. Apart from the wonderful basement experience, Jasminka made me a delicious orange and nut cake for my birthday (and gave me a box of chocolate). On arrival the fridge was filled with food: milk, beer, orange juice, rolls and a platter of food (cured ham and cheese) as well as fruit.
This is a family who love good food. Vera, their daughter, and partner Frank live in Istria and write a great blog about Istria and food. The blog includes mouth-watering recipes. Check it out here:

Thursday, 23 August 2012

Across the Bay of Kotor with Zoran

It wasn’t an auspicious start. Zoran, the skipper arrived at the jetty with a comic-strip finger, immobilised with splint and a thick wadding of bandage.
He noticed my worried stare. “Did it when I was sawing through a chain,” he explained cheerfully.
He hopped down off the pier onto his outboard dinghy and awkwardly unmoored the craft with his good hand. Having reached his fishing boat and anchored the dinghy, he returned to the jetty with the larger vessel. Well, he’d made it this far. Maybe he could make it across the Bay of Kotor?
We clambered aboard, my husband, children and I, the skipper’s children and grandchildren, a sullen husband-of-his wife’s-cousin with an upside-down smile, and a thick-set Croat-Serbian couple looking uncannily like a pair of bulldogs. Was it too late to jump ship?
Things didn’t improve.  Zoran was panicking because his keys were missing. Everyone combed the boat, peering under supplies of bottled water, scattered clothing and seat padding until at last the keys materialised under the skipper’s seat. Triumphantly, Zoran unlocked a cupboard and produced a large bottle of rakia to celebrate.
Zoran poured a generous measure into each plastic cup. Jelena held hers up to the sun and smiled, suddenly looking more human and less bulldog like.
“This is good,” she said contentedly. “Homemade rakia is the best.  Look how pure, maybe 60% or 70% alcohol.”
I gazed nervously at Zoran who grinned and knocked his rakia back in one.
“You know, rakia is so strong,” Jelena continued, “if you drink too much you can forget your name or get lost in your own home”.
I stole a glance at Zoran who was already on his second cup. If people got lost in their own homes, how was our skipper going to navigate the Bay of Kotor?  Zoran was now looking very relaxed. He’d abandoned his skipper’s seat and was stretched out next to me on the passenger’s seat on the portside, manipulating the wheel with his foot.
All around us the Montenegrin Mountains soared heavenwards. Zoran headed straight for a rocky shoreline at speed. It was only at the last minute that I noticed the Blue Cave. He inched the boat through the entrance. Inside, tiny bats circled us in the gloom.
I dived into cool water. Below me, scuba divers’ lights blinked in the murky blue depths. Surrounding me, the white rock of the cave reflected a paler blue.  At the far end, I could see the light from a second entrance. I swam across the cavern into warmer turquoise water. Only then, I saw Zoran was turning the boat and heading towards the distant entrance.
“Quick,” my husband called urgently. “Zoran must leave now.” Furiously, I swam towards the boat. Tom hauled me on board as Zoran headed full-steam out of the cave.
Back on shore, Zoran gave me a rakia-fuelled wink. “Your husband was sure I was going to leave you behind”.  I smiled weakly, relieved to be on dry land again.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Wanderlust Blog of the Week

Delighted to have been awarded 'Blog of the Week' by Wanderlust. See my blog, 'Return to Belfast'. February 2012 (Back on the local train after 25 years).

Saturday, 23 June 2012

Besieged at Topkapi Palace

There’s a stirring in the air. Guards are shuffling nervously, drumming their fingers against starched uniforms, glancing furtively around them, checking doors and whispering into radio transceivers. Something’s afoot.
We are in Istanbul, inside the Privy Chamber of Topkapi Palace, the opulent residence of Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. I can’t help but think of the 1964 heist film, ‘Topkapi,’ starring Peter Ustinov. My imagination goes into overdrive. Is someone about to burst through the doors, face hidden beneath a balaclava, wielding a gun and screaming hysterically? But this isn’t the Imperial Treasury, wall-lined with bejewelled objects made of gold and other precious metals (gifts that have ceremoniously been offered up to the great Sultans of the Ottoman Empire across the centuries) - although for many the artefacts here are beyond any earthly price. Queens and Kings, Ministers and Presidents, Sultans and humble Muslims along with an endless stream of tourists, have all come here to gaze upon the most holy relics of the Islamic world.
We shuffle round the room and gaze upon the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad, two of his swords, his bow, his footprint, one of his teeth and a single hair from his beard. The crowds heave and splutter to a stop, marvelling at the staff of Moses, a turban hat from Joseph and a carpet that had once belonged to the daughter of Muhammad.
Suddenly, the guards spring into action. There are yells and much arm-waving. The men try to herd us out of the first room and through to the second with the aim of driving us outside, but the tourists like sheep, are studiously ignoring their shepherds.
I hear a commotion from behind and turn to see a rush of besuited men heaving across the entrance. Two guards quickly dash to the door and cordon it off, halting the flow of tourists queuing outside. It seems we have been besieged, locked into a room with some as yet unknown person and for some inexplicable reason.
It’s mostly just the tourists that come here now. The great Sultans left a long time ago, although this place is filled with their ghosts - and their portraits: The Conqueror, The Magnificent,  The Warrior, The Hunter, The Devout, The Composer, …The Blond  and The Hunchback. But someone of great importance has clearly arrived.

The black-suited men in their crisp white shirts, swaddle around an obscured figure like a colony of excited penguins. They jostle for position, squawking excitedly and holding up flashing cameras like trophies high in the air. 
I make my way to one of the guards, his bulky body puffed up with importance and pride.
“Who’s here?” I ask, “The Prime Minister of Turkey?”
“Oh no, Madam.” He mutters a string of incomprehensible words with a thick Turkish accent. Then a translation slowly filters through my brain.
I have been locked into a room with a living, breathing modern-day Sultan - the Sultan of Brunei.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

City of a tree, a bird, a fish and a bell: a boy, a cemetery and a church

Glasgow: tough, rough and mean?
Think of Glasgow and what do you think of: the Glasgow kiss (a greeting with a head butt), alcohol-fuelled street brawls, sectarian violence between Celtic and Rangers supporters and thick, threatening, indecipherable accents. You might think of a sprawling urban mess, notoriously dysfunctional high-rise flats, 70’s concrete monstrosities and dark, forbidding sandstone Victorian tenement buildings and other utilities blackened by decades of pollution. Poverty.
You might think of bad, bad food: iron brew, a nuclear-orange sugar-fuelled drink, the deep-fried Mars bars (surely an urban myth?), bloody black pudding, haggis consisting of the parts most butchers throw away, flat sausages, 90% fat and 10% meat, and sugar-packed cakes. Early death.
London it isn’t – nor Edinburgh. There’s nothing twee, contrived, touristy or pretty-pretty about Glasgow. Glasgow is down-to-earth, has real character. It’s smart, gritty, witty, vibrant and alive. It’s the genuine article.
Glasgow has had its ups and downs. It’s easy to forget it was once called the ‘Empire’s second city,’ it was a thriving industrial city full of sea merchants, shipbuilders, tradesmen, entrepreneurs, inventors, ground-breaking scientists, artists and intellects.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the Necropolis in the Cathedral Quarter. I went there as a tourist and unwittingly returned my father-in-law to the place of his birth, finding myself touching a personal past. I had no idea. He lived in the shadows of the Cathedral and the atmospheric Victorian cemetery, a child of poverty among Glasgow’s great and good.
The cathedral area was Alan’s stamping ground. The gates of the Necropolis were kept locked, no doubt to keep young scallywags like him out. Hardly a deterrent, the street kids scaled the railings and crept in regardless, sometimes tearing their clothes on the railings. Once they dared each other to enter the cemetery after dark. They crept through Celtic crosses, obelisks, toppled urns, headless statues and mausoleums. They crept past writers (including the author of Wee Willie Winkie) and sculptors, rich industrialists, sea merchants and esteemed churchmen and a towering John Knox. Near the bottom, they saw a shadowy old woman attired in black. They glanced away and looked back again to find she was gone. The boys scarpered. My father-in-law, a man not usually given to flights of fancy, swears she was a ghost.
The Necropolis lies on a hill overlooking the city. All of Glasgow stretched out before us: the Tennent’s brewery close by, isolated tenement blocks, smaller brick-built houses, concrete offices and wind turbines on the moors, far on the horizon. Alan pointed out the place where his tenement home had once stood, long gone now. It had survived an incendiary bomb during the war (His mother, an ARP warden, had hosed down the fire in the attic herself) only for the building to be later demolished.
Atop the hill, a Victorian high-rise city of the dead, Glasgow’s elite sought to outdo their neighbour: with the largest family vault, the highest monument, the best quality stone, the most detailed mason work, the grandest sculpture or the finest inscription.
The gravestones are filled with story and history. I could have spent hours there uncovering lives like John Ronald Ker’s: accidentally drowned while shooting wildfowl from a small boat off Contyre of Ronaghan at the early age of 21 – of a generous and amiable disposition and endearing qualities which made him so agreeable a companion, so good and true a friend. (July 1868)
Making our way back down the hill, Alan showed us a wall with a 30 foot vertical drop. He and his pals had once skidded to an abrupt stop here as they had tried to out-run a police officer. The policeman caught up with the ragamuffins and apprehended them, taking delight in reading out every detail of graveyard vandalism over the entire week, although the boys’ singular crime had been ‘breaking and entering’.
We slipped out of the cemetery, over ‘the bridge of sighs’ into the cathedral. It’s an imposing Gothic church built in the Middle Ages. Saint Kentigern (more widely known as St Mungo) supposedly built the first Christian church in Scotland here.  The tomb of the saint lies in the lower crypt.
A stained glass tells the story of St Mungo and the miracles associated with him (symbols that form the Glasgow coat of arms):

The bird that never flew 
The tree that never grew
The bell that never rang
The fish that never swam

Another stained glass window pays homage to Glasgow’s tradesmen: bakers, barbers, bonnetmakers, bookmakers, coopers, cordiners, dyers, fleshers, gardeners, maltmen, masons, weavers and wood binders; crafts that are now largely confined to the annals of history.
Alan called us over to show us a neatly hand-scripted list of parish servicemen who had lost their lives during the war. He pointed to one of the names on the list: Driver: C Findley  RASC, and said: “My brother-in-law”.
“But Tom’s uncle died in the 80s,” I said in a puzzled voice. 
“I know,” said Alan. “It’s a mistake. Charlie took great delight in showing people his name on the memorial, claiming he was one of the living dead. He thought it a great joke.”
“But how did he end up on the list?”
“When he was evacuating to Dunkirk, on the run from the Germans, his truck took a wrong turn. He ended up on a beach some miles adrift from Dunkirk. Missing, it was presumed he was one of the Dunkirk dead.”
A fortuitous wrong turn indeed.
Glasgow survived the heavy bombardment of the Second World War and the decline of its manufacturing base, and is on the up again. It’s no coincidence that Glasgow was chosen to be ‘European City of Culture’ in 1990. Since then Glasgow has gone from strength to strength.
We visited the Clydeside, currently being regenerated with its smart new Riverside Museum, a theatre - the Armadillo, and the science museum tower.  Over in the West End we discovered a vibrant hub of fine eateries, trendy boutiques and night clubs set among the cleaned-up sandstone Victorian buildings; handsome historic university buildings and museums set in leafy parks and hilly bluffs.
We ate in ‘The Black Sheep’ and ‘Two Fat Ladies’ and tasted some of the best food I have ever had. Yes, Scottish fare: tatties and neeps, haggis, black pudding and sticky toffee pudding; food that was surprisingly light and full of flavour .
Glasgow: unpretentious, vivacious, humorous, plain-speaking, rough at the edges, but ultimately warm and generous, (A bit like my father-in-law, I discovered) - yet witty and intelligent. Go there, and you might have to rethink your view of the city. I had to.

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Returning to Belfast

Wanderlust Blog of the Week

I've just come back from Northern Ireland. Recently, I've started using the trains again - and I'm discovering a new, vibrant Belfast.

Somehow, I have lost a quarter of a century between trains.
Back in the 1980s, the train from Lurgan to Belfast shuddered and creaked its way to the city. The seats were blighted with cigarette holes and knife slits, the floors covered in litter, the walls plastered with graffiti. Disaffected youths smoked in the no smoking compartments and no one dared challenge them. This was Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles: troubled, angry, defiant.
You ascertained where you were on your journey by peering through grimy windows. To disembark, you had to pull down the window, reach outside and twist the metal handle, pushing the heavy door outwards with all your might.
Here I am twenty-five years later, back on the train to Belfast. The new stock is state-of-the-art: shiny, clean, comfortable, smooth, fast.  Rolling neon lights flash up the destinations along the line.  A soothing English voice tells us our next stop. Automatic doors slide open effortlessly. The female voice recites the remaining destinations. Surely I must be in the home counties, not in my homeland?
But the names are the same:   Moira, Lisburn, Hilden, Lambeg, Derriaghy, Dunmurry, Finaghy, Balmoral, Adelaide and Great Victoria Street. They roll off the tongue like poetry.
I breathe out slowly, and soak in the past and the present. Across the way, a couple are speaking in the tongue of my childhood. A language half forgotten.  They punctuate every sentence with a verbal full stop.
“I’ve just got back from Australia - so I have.”
“I didn’t know that – I didn’t.”
“Loved it out there – aye.”
“You’re still in Finaghy – are you?”
“I am – aye.”
I smile to myself. When did my birthplace become a foreign country?
In Belfast, I met a friend at the City Hall. We dodge the ‘tour-of-the-troubles’ operators, touting for business.
Back in the eighties, you entered the main shopping area through a gated terrapin to be given a thorough body search – repeated in every store you entered. Shopping in the city wasn’t for the faint hearted. People in Derry refused to go to Belfast because they felt it was too dangerous. Belfast citizens wouldn’t go to Derry for the very same reason.
There is such an air of freedom and optimism now, I feel dizzy. We continue on to Victoria Square and the new centre with its glass dome offering 360 degree views: of the city, the river Lagan, the Lough, the sea beyond, and the Black Mountain on the skyline.

We walk on to the waterside. I had no idea it was so close to the city centre. During the troubles it was a forgotten wasteland.
By the Lagan, we gaze up at the Ring of Thanksgiving. The locals prefer to call it ‘The thing with the ring,’ ‘Nuala with the Hula’ or ‘The doll on the ball’. They have a way with words here. Peace and conciliation is the statue’s message.
I carry my fragile bundle of hope onto the train. Then it’s ten stops and home.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Boxing Day, Radio Derby and Coney Island

Boxing Day is an important date in the family calendar. My siblings (living in England), their children and now their Grandchildren (who would believe it!) gather together for a Boxing Day extravaganza. Every year, it gets bigger and bigger as our family grows and grows! For a couple of years, we even had some 'stray' Chinese girls (from my neice's Uni). They must have been highly bemused by the scale of our family - having no siblings themselves whatsoever.

Anyway, the day involves lots (and lots) of food, games, music and performances.
This year, I decided to make a 'Desert Island Disc' for each family.  (I stole the idea from a friend). Jamie, my son, and I then set about writing a quiz based on each family's choices. It was all great fun.

Whilst I was investigating the rules for Desert Island Discs, I noticed that the Radio 4 website was asking the public to send in their 'Desert Island Song' along with a story. Each local radio was going to do a regional programme, giving 'Joe Bloggs' a chance to hear a song that was close to his or her heart and tell an accompanying story. I sent a story I had already written about Van Morrison's Coney Island song-poem, and promptly forgot all about it.

A short time later, I had a phone call from a producer at the local radio. Would I come in and share my story? Would I not! I took the train to Derby and nervously told my story into the mike.
Some weeks later, our family sat round the radio (It had a real wartime feel to the occasion) and listened to my story on the radio. Strange to hear my own voice over the airwaves.

Here's the lyrics to the Van Morrison song I chose, and the story I sent into Radio Derby.
Coney Island

Coming down from Downpatrick
Stopping off at St. John's Point
Out all day bird watching
And the craic was good
Stopped off at Strangford Lough
Early in the morning
Drove through Shrigley taking pictures
And on to Killyleagh
Stopped off for Sunday papers at the
Lecale District, just before Coney Island

On and on, over the hill to Ardglass
In the jamjar, autumn sunshine, magnificent
And all shining through

Stop off at Ardglass for a couple of jars of
Mussels and some potted herrings in case
We get famished before dinner

On and on, over the hill and the craic is good
Heading towards Coney Island

I look at the side of your face as the sunlight comes
Streaming through the window in the autumn sunshine
And all the time going to Coney Island I'm thinking,
Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?
By Van Morrison (Click on the link below and listen to the music when reading the lyrics)

Try following Morrison’s route – it’s a geographical nonsense!
Artist’s licence?

Coney Island: In the footsteps of Van Morrison

“Dad, do you know where Coney Island is?" I asked.
Van Morrison’s Coney Island poem-song stirs something deep within my soul. Maybe it is the wall of dulcet orchestration. Maybe it is the poetry that perfectly captures those small moments of happiness. Maybe it’s hearing the lilting language of my Ulster childhood; words like ‘craic’ and ‘famished’.
“Coney Island?” my Dad replied. “Sure, Coney Island is on Lough Neagh.”
But Lough Neagh is nowhere near the places Morrison speaks of in his poem - which are all on, or near, the coast of County Down. Like Van Morrison, I have sweet memories of trips to the area around St John’s Point, Ardglass and Strangford Lough - but I’d never heard of Coney Island. And I had no idea where it was.
Back in Northern Ireland, I wanted to follow in the steps of Van Morrison...only his Coney Island route made no geographical sense. So my husband, Tom, and I devised a more logical route of our own that didn’t involve driving round in circles! There was only one problem – we were unable to find the exact location of Coney Island. Would we find it?
We left out the Lecale District - hardly a picturesque part of Belfast. Squigley, too. (Why on earth was Morrison taking pictures there?) Instead we headed straight for Downpatrick via Killyleagh, and over to Strangford Lough. At Strangford we weaved through tiny, ‘neat-as-a-pin’ cottages, until we reached the jetty. There we watched the little ferry plough across the Lough and peered into the water to find the walls laced with delicate pearl-pale jellyfish.
 Losing ourselves in narrow country lanes, we drove ‘on and on over the hill’. Then we turned a corner to see the Mourne Mountains rising like humpback whales out of the Irish Sea.
Ardglass seemed a little forgotten. The fishing trawlers were all but gone. My parents often stopped there when I was little, and bought fresh whiting straight from the sea. (Their simple tastes in food didn’t run to ‘jars of mussels and potted herring’).
Just outside Ardglass, we saw the sign for Coney Island. So it did exist!  We trundled down a pot-holed road to find Coney Island was actually the name of a hamlet that consisted of a row of peeling, down-at-heel fishing cottages.
Tom and I saw a small piece of land that extended into the sea. It wasn’t an island - more a tombolo - but maybe this was Coney Island for Van Morrison, not the hamlet. It wasn’t beautiful - if nature could look messy, this was messy. The ground was rough and uneven, and covered in a tangle of low-lying shrubs and trees.
Suddenly, Tom stopped and pulled me close. He took out his MP3, put one earplug in his ear, and one earplug in mine. The sound of Morrison’s ‘Coney Island’ filled our ears:  ‘I look at the side of your face as the sunshine comes streaming through...and all the time going to Coney Island I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if it were like this all the time.’
It was one of those small moment of perfect happiness...

Thursday, 19 January 2012

 On the Road to Samnaun

My heart’s in free-fall. This shouldn’t happen in Switzerland, land of road engineering par-excellence, with state-of-the-art tunnels and wide, smooth roads that slice effortlessly through rock faces. Not here though.
The road to Samnaun is a scratch on the mountainside; its edge crumbling into the abyss hundreds of feet below - mere inches from our car wheels. One wrong move…
“I can’t do this,” I say to my husband, gripping the steering wheel.
“Well, we’ve got two choices,” he says unhelpfully. “Continue on, or turn back.” Doing a twenty-point turn on a knife edge isn’t an option. So going on it is. 
We weave through ink-black forest, hoping we won’t meet any on-coming traffic on this ridiculously narrow road - or worse still, the local bus. Then through drizzle, I see the mouth of a cave swallowing the road ahead. I edge the car into a tunnel. It fits snuggly between roughly-hewn walls of blasted rock. The tunnel curves a long snake through damp darkness. 
“What if we meet another car?” My voice sounds pathetically shrill.
“You’ll have to reverse back out.”
I glance sideways at the man who has promised to love and protect me. Is he speaking to the woman incapable of reversing two metres on a perfectly straight road without hitting the bank?
We are in the Lower Engadine, in a valley so remote that its inhabitants continue to speak an ancient Latin language long forgotten by the rest of the world. Here, isolated villages, teetering on the edge of v-shaped valleys, are surrounded by harsh, ragged mountains. It’s an unsettling beauty.  Samnaun sits high up at the end of a side valley in a narrow corridor flanked by sheer Austrian mountains on three sides.
Emerging from the last tunnel, the dashboard flashes up REFUEL!!! 
“Better pray we find a petrol station,” husband says with a touch of the absurd – after all, there’s a wall of mountain on one side of us and a void on the other.
But as I inch round a corner, road barely discernable in the rain and fog, a petrol station appears like an aberration on a rocky promontory.
Now we can reach the forgotten ancient Romansh village I have imagined… but no… instead we find Heathrow’s duty-free lounge has taken off and crash-landed on the mountainside here. A jumble of shops strewn across the valley is spilling watches, perfumes, leather bags and designer clothes. Samnaun is a duty-free haven.
We make a hasty departure, flying down the valley on the Austrian side with its state-of-the-art tunnels and wide, smooth road.

Delighted to have won the World First December writing competition with this piece.