Jacaranda and Jasmine

Flying into Sydney I was enthralled by the purple trees below. What were they? Our taxi driver from the airport told me they are Jacaranda trees and said that there was a tale about a midwife in Sydney giving a tree to the parents of every newborn. That is the reason for so many in the city. On a return trip in a taxi the story changed, to each district giving those who became citizens of Australia a jacaranda tree for their garden. Who knows which is the correct story of the trees.

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Sydney was not welcoming. It was cold and raining and the newspapers told me it was the coldest November weekend in ten years. Great. The Opera House and Harbour Bridge were wrapped in grey clouds and I was enveloped in a fleece and waterproof. Our hotel was just off George Street. I had heard great tales of what a wonderful street it was. The problem is George Street is a building site – a new tram line is being installed, already over budget and running over time. You couldn’t see from one side of the street to the other due to the hoardings. Very disappointing. It got worse. No one seemed to be working on it through the day but night time the jack hammers came out in force and sleep, at times, evaded me.
So what did I see? Other than the obvious ‘Big Two’ I spent a very leisurely time on a lunchtime cruise around the harbour. I found out where Russell Crowe and Cate Blanchett live (Finger Wharf in Woollooloo if you’re interested). The house where Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman used to live (I wasn’t impressed), and the fact that Prince Harry likes the Shangri La hotel when he visits Australia. A barbecue lunch with Australian wines shared with other tourists – one English couple, the rest American and a crew member who was born in Byker.

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We took the Hop On/Hop Off bus to the Fish Market. Yes, I am becoming a bit obsessed with these tourist buses but they are a great way of seeing parts of the city without ending up with aching feet. This was the place for oysters and fish platters – both at a reasonable cost – unlike the rest of Sydney.
The Rocks, apart from being very touristy and expensive has some hidden gems. Susannah Place is a line of cottages decked out in furniture and fittings from a bygone age. For my North East readers think Beamish in miniature. The houses were tiny but were still lived in up until the 1990’s. The end property was also a shop selling such things as Tunnocks Wafers and Teacakes. What’s that all about? As well as household implements from another era – wooden pegs, carpet beaters and brooms.

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The harbour seemed to be constantly occupied by a cruise ship (four while we were there). The daily expulsion of its inhabitants swelled the tourist population and like Venice they ebbed away when the ship sailed off into the Pacific.
We had the misfortune of being in Sydney on Melbourne Cup day – hotels were offering Melbourne Cup special deals with champagne and competitions for the best dressed on the day. It was the equivalent of Derby Day or Northumberland Plate Day in Newcastle. As with Plate Day the evening casualties were plentiful. Women walking around carrying heels and what were once well dressed men, now looking worse for wear. To cap it all while we were eating in the Rocks the waitress came in from an outside table shouting ‘the man on table 34 has wet himself’. Such class.
Sick of the city on the day before we left we took the ferry to Manly. It was like a British seaside resort from the last century but with surfers. A walk to Shelly Beach and around the North Head Sanctuary gave spectacular views across to Sydney.

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The houses were quaint and many had jasmine hedges. It made you feel as if you were walking through a perfume cloud. In the trees were lorikeets, noisy but colourful. A paddle in the Pacific to ease aching, hot feet was the perfect ending to our few days in Sydney. Like a child waiting for Christmas I was excited for my next location – the Wolgan Valley in the Blue Mountains.

Hot and steamy in Singapore

Don’t get too carried away with the title of the blog. After leaving a cold UK and two seven hour flights with Emirates via Dubai I took my first steps in the Far East.
Singapore is beautiful. Clean with no litter, chewing gum spattered pavements or cigarette butts. Why can’t the UK be like this? The island still has a colonial feel to it in parts and we couldn’t visit without a trip to Raffles for a Singapore Sling at an eye-watering $34 each. I have OCD tendencies and the peanut strewn floor did nothing to help this. As I walked across the bar and felt my feet crunching I wanted to find a brush and sweep the floor clean. Tradition it may be but it just doesn’t seem right in a country so clean. Raffles is looking a bit sad as it is in the midst of renovation work. Hopefully, a return visit to see it in its new clothes will be part of holiday plans in the future.

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The skyline is dominated by the Marina Bay Sands Hotel – why would you build a hotel and put a ship on the top? Is it a 21st Century Noah’s Ark for when the sea level rises and the chosen few can sail off into the sunset?

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My favourite parts of Singapore were the Gardens by the Bay with the Supertrees lit up at night and the Botanical Gardens. Both had a certain magic but for different reasons. Every night there is a light and music extravaganza in the Gardens by the Bay. We arrived just in time to hear the Christmas Edition of the show. Lying horizontal beneath the trees watching the changing lights with the sound of Santa Claus is coming to Town and Last Christmas seemed so wrong in temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius. Unlike the hundreds of people who watched the spectacle through their cameras, I attempted some mindfulness and lived in the moment. Magic.

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Although much is made of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest, I wasn’t too impressed. It was clever how it had all been constructed but the floral displays weren’t that mind blowing and it is really a tourist attraction rather than something for people who admire plants.
The other hand the Botanical Gardens house a wonderful orchid collection which is not to be missed. Although species named after both Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron were looking a little worse for wear. I wonder why? There is a wonderful stillness about the gardens with trees harbouring birds that you never see but hear. You could spend a whole day here just walking around and being at one with nature.


The Hop On/Hop Off Bus is a great way to see the city and we ‘hopped on’ halfway along Orchard Road which was ‘beginning to look a lot like Christmas’ with decorations and Christmas trees everywhere. A quick whizz around Singapore took us past the F1 racetrack, SunTech centre and a swathe of luxurious hotels.

Food is plentiful here with offerings for all tastes. We were lucky to go out for dinner with a past business acquaintance who took us to a fish restaurant next to the beach. Deep fried baby squid, followed by Black Pepper and Chilli Crabs was sublime. A mango dessert served on dry ice added to the spectacle. This was the culinary highlight of our trip.

Sadly we only had two nights here before we were off to the airport and our Qantas flight to Sydney. Having encountered high levels of service with Emirates, the Qantas offering felt a little like Ryanair. Luckily the flight was overnight and a combination of The Seagull by Ann Cleeves to remind me of home and some sleep we were soon landing at Sydney ready for our Australian adventure.

My gap year …

 

It is over 2 years since I posted anything on my blog. Shameful and I tell people I am a writer! This was always going to be year where I travelled more than usual. My twins, Sophie and Jack were 21 in July and instead of presents they wanted what everyone now calls ‘experiences’. These experiences included a sporting event and a transatlantic trip. More later.

In June I travelled to my favourite Greek island, Kefalonia. I fell in love with the island long before I had a holiday here. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louse de Bernieres sowed the seed and I eventually arrived for the first time in 2014. I was captivated by the stillness, the stars and the fact that there were no ‘party towns’. I longed to visit Myrtos Beach but due to landslides the road has always created a problem. This year, a week before we arrived the new road had opened. We were told the sea was often rough here but the day we went it was still and resembled a turquoise bottomed swimming pool. 2017-06-3015.33.16_preview[1]

 

Who can resist this view? Swimming in this water was one of those experiences you will never forget. The warm water, sheer cliffs rising above the sea and clear blue skies made this my vision of heaven on earth.

On my return it was the first of the 21st birthday experiences – the British Grand Prix at Silverstone with my son, Jack. I have always enjoyed F1 and although I thought the Monaco Grand Prix would be my race of choice, Jack decided he would prefer a trip to Silverstone. What an experience it was. Jack is a Ferrari fan so the weekend was a bit of a disappointment but he took Hamilton’s win in his stride.

 

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Jack on the track

In 2001 I was booked to go to New York to celebrate my 40th birthday. 9/11 put this trip on hold and I ended up going to Dublin instead. My daughter, Sophie, decided that she would like a trip to New York to celebrate her 21st. I, of course, had to go with her. It was a surreal experience and at times I felt overwhelmed by the noise, the height of the buildings and the fact that I had eventually achieved one of my ambitions. It was an exhausting trip. We walked, and walked and walked. Sophie will never let me forget the three mile walk to see ‘ a bit of stained glass’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I love Tiffany glass but she didn’t share my joy.

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It was humbling visiting the site of the World Trade Centre and listening to first hand accounts of that dreadful day. You couldn’t fail to be moved.

 

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National September 11 Museum

Everyone has asked me what was the best part of the trip. There were so many memories but one of those feel-good times was our breakfast at Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Yes it is a typical American diner but what makes this different is that the waiting staff are all entertainers. Songs from Broadway musicals and Disney films made people smile. There was audience participation and a rendition of Delilah had everyone singing. In a world that seems in turmoil this place made everyone smile.

We ate oysters at Grand Central Terminal, went to the Top of the Rock and viewed NYC from the Empire State Building at night time. A visit to Lady Liberty and Ellis Island gave fantastic views of Manhattan and a visit to New York would not have been complete without a trip on the subway. Central Park created a tranquil space for us both when we felt weary. Coffee and Banana Pudding from the Magnolia Bakery was a sweet treat. Times Square was too busy and brash for a girl from rural Northumberland and I longed for open spaces and hills.

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Would I go back? Not to Central Manhattan but maybe Greenwich Village could tempt me.

So next stop on my world tour is Singapore and Australia. Watch this space.

 

 

 

Northumberland, London, Forensics & Short Stories

My 26 mile challenge walk has been and gone and with only minor muscle aches I feel a great sense of achievement. The weather was spectacular and nowhere on earth beats the view on a sunny day as you walk up the hill to Low Newton and see Embleton Bay stretched out in front of you and the haunting ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance. Northumberland is my home and I feel privileged to have been born here. Friends who visit the county always want to stay. It is an inspirational place with castles, deserted beaches, forests, market towns and hills where you can walk for hours and never see another soul.

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In a real change of scenery I spent four days in Ibiza with my 18 year-old daughter. San Antonio Bay to be precise. I can hear the gasps and the images you must have of me in skimpy shorts clubbing on ‘the strip’. Well to my delight it was quite sedate as the real clubbing season hadn’t started. We did sip cocktails on the sunset strip with hundreds of others but it was more of a middle-aged clientele than the teens and twenty-somethings staggering along pavements having imbibed vast quantities of booze.

In my last blog I mentioned Jack London’s ‘The People of the Abyss’. At times I found the book frustrating and annoying with London’s ideological view of how the world of the East End should be. Many of the areas in the book are no more but throughout London,particularly in the East End, there is still a society where low paid workers are at the mercy of landlords charging high rents. Poverty is still prevalent and although living conditions have improved there are still overcrowded homes and poorly maintained houses. We talk about progress but has life really changed?

I loved Kate Atkinson’s ‘Life after Life’ and eagerly awaited its companion ‘A God in Ruins’. I wasn’t disappointed and although it did not give me the same breathtaking feeling as ‘Life after Life’ I found myself caught up in the story of Teddy and his wartime life. Atkinson writes emotive stories and the beauty of the prose engages the reader from the beginning. It is an amazing read.

Intrigued by the Twitter conversations I visited the Wellcome Collection for the ‘Forensics – Anatomy of Crime’ exhibition. For anyone interested in crime this is the exhibition to visit. Blowflies, blood spatters, DNA – it is all here. The history of forensics is shown in artifacts, interviews and real life cases. Accompanying the exhibition is the brilliant book by Val McDermid which shows how forensics has helped solve cases. I spent a very enjoyable (is that the right word?) journey home reading the book.

I seem to have turned into a Val McDermid groupie as I attended an event on Thursday 4 June at the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts where Val and Jackie Kay discussed the short story. Reading a short story each we were entertained by Jackie’s Shetland wedding story ‘Grace and Rose’ followed by Val McDermid’s ‘The Road and the Miles to Dundee’. We were even treated to musical renditions of the song in Val’s story with her singing. She has a great voice as well as being a great writer. There followed a discussion on the short story form and how it is all about voice. Both writers agreed that it gave them an opportunity to step inside someone else’s shoes – someone you are not. The two writers had a really good rapport with each other and this made it feel like you were sitting in a small front room with them, listening to their stories and learning from their vast experience of writing. I came away enthused and inspired.

And now to my writing. For a couple of years I have been struggling with my novel which seems to be going nowhere. So much so that I have decided to put it away and write something totally different. Crime. Maybe all those images of maggots and flies have stirred up my creative juices.

From the metropolis to Newcastle Noir

I spent a few days in London last week. A combination of work, research and seeking out interesting places. I am not familiar with the East End of London but a birthday present last month sent me off on a journey around Spitalfields and Canary Wharf.

I was given a copy of Spitalfields Nippers, a collection of photographs taken by Henry Warner around 1900. The photographs are poignant reflections of a society where children were working from a young age; selling flowers, cutting wood and often looking after younger siblings while their parents were out at work. There is an innocence about them but it was a world of immense infant and child mortality. For any writer, photographs are a great source of inspiration and the ones in this book have triggered ideas for short stories that are waiting to be written.

Spitalfields is in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and even now still has high levels of deprivation and child poverty, Compare this to other parts of the Borough; in particular, Canary Wharf and you wonder how in the 21st Century you can have great wealth and extreme poverty living side by side.

A great place to visit is the Museum of London Docklands in West India Docks where you can see the history of the river and the life around it. From Roman times to the present day this is an area that has seen it all. Invasions, world trade, slavery, wartime bombings and the metamorphosis from docks to skyscrapers.

From this visit my current read is Jack London’s ‘The People of the Abyss’. A review will follow in my next post.

I love crime fiction and spent an amazing afternoon on Saturday at Newcastle Noir Festival. The first panel was Northern Landscapes with Howard Linskey, Nick Quantrill, David Mark and Craig Robertson, chaired by Luca Veste. A great insight into how the landscape of places plays such a crucial part in crime novels. Cities such as Glasgow, Newcastle and Hull all give writers and readers a sense of the places they are. It is not just about cities in crime, wilder landscapes such as the countryside around cities and the Faroe Islands also represent the uniqueness of the northern landscapes. But what is the North? North of Bloomsbury was one comment. Is there a North/South divide and where is that indistinct line?

Writers in Prison had Mari Hannah, Russ Litten and Alexandra Sokoloff sharing their experiences of prison life from a range of perspectives. Mari as a former probation officer, Russ as a Writer in Residence in a prison and Alexandra as a screenwriter, novelist and early in her career working with young offenders. Are killers evil? What makes people kill? A fascinating discussion around crime, rehabilitation and the future of prisons made this a very thought-provoking session.

My final panel for the day was Mark Billingham and Martyn Waites ‘In Conversation’ and what a conversation it was. This whizz bang session was funny, informative and enthralling. These two writers were a great double-act and kept the audience entertained with their experiences of writing, researching and a short reading from their respective books ‘Time of Death’ and ‘The Woman in Black – Angel of Death’. Great entertainment.

Walking is back on the agenda tomorrow. Twenty six miles from Budle Bay to Alnmouth. Madness I hear  you cry and yes I think I am probably suffering from some type of mid-life crisis which made me sign up for the Coastal Challenge Walk. Yet walking is a time to think, to plot, to argue with yourself and also create characters and landscapes that will touch the lives of many. As Nietzsche said ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking’.

Welcome to my world of writing, walking and reading

Walking in Northumberland is one of my greatest loves. The landscape is inspiration for much of my writing and no matter where I go there is a link with both history and nature which I can weave into my stories.

Yesterday I walked from Beadnell to Alnmouth on the Coastal Path as part of a training walk leading up to the twenty-six mile Coastal Challenge from Budle Bay to Alnmouth on 4 May. The sun warmed the air but there was still a nip which bit the finger tips. Families were enjoying the spring day as we walked through the caravan park at Beadnell. It wasn’t long before we were met with the sweeping sands of Embleton Bay and the haunting ruins of Dunstanburgh Castle in the distance. The sea shimmered, looking like millions of diamonds floating on the waves.

This is a coastline of sandy beaches, rock formations, sea birds and golf courses. In total we passed three golf courses, Dunstanburgh Castle, Alnmouth (Foxton) and Alnmouth Village. Shouts of ‘fore’ frequently sounded as we walked, everyone looking around to make sure they weren’t going to be bombed by golf balls. Twice the RAF Sea King helicopter flew above us. The first was near the castle – it looked so large against the ruins and seemed to fly between the crumbling turrets. It flew over again as we neared Alnmouth.

It is nesting season for the many seabirds on the Northumberland coast. Walking towards Dunstanburgh Castle the cries of the nesting kittiwakes fills the air. The whinstone rock, splattered white with guano providing solid ledges for the nests,

Craster Harbour provided a welcome respite on the walk. The sun hot in the shelter of the harbour walls. The tiny beach below provided an adventure playground for two small boys shrieking as the cold water lapped over their toes. An elderly couple, eyes closed sat snuggled up on a bench.

My favourite sound was that of the ebbing waves turning over the rocks and pebbles on the shore. There is something hypnotic about it and I could lie on a beach and listen to this for hours. The tide was turning as we walked from Seaton Point to Foxton. Stumbling across the stones made walking difficult but there was time to pause and listen to the crackling of the stones as the sea retreated from the shore.

Ideas for stories fill my head when I am walking – sights, smells and sounds trigger ideas. Northumberland has everything for a writer.