Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

At The Captain’s Table

March 30th, 2014 No comments

Kindle_let us depart.inddAt The Captain’s Table:  Life on a Luxury Liner, Hugh Thomson (Kindle Singles £1.99).  Round the world the soft way. For less than the price of a cappuccino grande, a frothy confection of a travel book with double shots of autobiography and world analysis thrown in.   download it here.

I  enjoyed writing this  –  light-hearted, it involves all the classic elements of comedy: life on the high seas, some rampant snobbery and even a marriage at the end.  And I got to see a lot of intriguing places.

For those who haven’t come across Kindle Singles before, it’s an interesting Amazon initiative.  Kindle have commissioned established figures like Stephen King, Jon Krakauer and Amy Tan to write shorter, novella-length books and put them in a special branded part of the store, so readers know they’re getting something that’s met a quality control threshold – unlike the self-published parts of Kindle.  A development which may get traditional publishers very worried…

FROM THE BLURB:  “Hugh Thomson had always wanted to travel right around the planet.  He just never had the money. Until he realised he could do it on the world’s most expensive luxury cruise.

Mischievous and entertaining, this is the first book to be written about a new phenomenon – the strange and unreported world of small luxury cruise ships, so exclusive that if you need to ask how much they cost, you probably can’t afford them.

So don’t act like the Cruise Queen Bee who, when she received her invitation to the Captain’s table, wrote back giving her apologies and explaining, ‘I cannot accept your invitation as, on principle, I never eat with the staff.’  Buy the book and take your place as Hugh serves up tales that are clear-sighted about the rich and observant of the new world opening up on our horizons, powered by a supercharged 32,000 ton luxury liner, a microcosm of 21st-century life, with its superb engineering that almost, but not quite, overcomes all the indignities the natural world can throw at it.

In Memoriam – Michael Jacobs

January 13th, 2014 1 comment

michael-jacobsDeeply saddened by news of Michael Jacobs’ sudden death a few days ago, from cancer of the kidney which was only diagnosed in September.  He was 61.

Michael was a good friend and very kind man.  A dedicated hispanophile who lived in Andalucia, he wrote many books about both Spain and South America.  For my money his very best was his last, The Robber of Memories, a quite magical account of travelling down the Magdalena river in Colombia.  I reviewed it when it came out last year:

“Subtle and precise, it may well be Jacobs’ finest work after a lifetime of studying the Hispanic world. This is travel writing at its best, with the memories a country creates about itself weaving with those of the author for a journey that pulses with an elegiac, penumbral light.”

My daughter Daisy also interviewed him for Isis Magazine at Oxford and ended her piece by saying:

“For Jacob, travelling creates memory and it is these memories that keep us alive and moving forwards.  As Jacobs says, ‘It is our memories that sustain us in later life.’ “

 He will be much missed.

PS FEBRUARY – since this was written, a fine obituary has appeared in the Independent by Barnaby Rogerson

All that glitters

October 27th, 2013 No comments

I go to see the press opening for El Dorado at the British Museum, which is excellent – one of the best curated and lit shows there of recent years.  The exhibition is careful to remind us that while the Spanish conquistadors were excited by the gold they found, even more enticing was the gold they didn’t  – and nowhere was this more embodied than in the legend of El Dorado, a myth so potent it has persisted from Sir Walter Raleigh to Walt Disney.


The Colombian civilisations made gold offerings in liminal places – like mountains or lakes, such as the one of the El Dorado legend in which a naked gold-powdered leader offered precious jewellery into the water.  They used gold to transform themselves into otherworldly creatures with a metallic second skin, their nose pieces and earrings swinging so as to catch the light.

And the exhibition is well timed, not just because it is the first major show for many years that the British Museum has had on South America, but because our obsession with gold continues: a rise of some 1000% in its price of the last 10 years; an accompanying gold-rush in those countries like Peru whose mines have been reopened, or the Amazon panned, with devastating environmental effects like arsenic run-off. For a searing indictment of quite what this has meant on a human scale, read Marie Arana’s recent extraordinary article about the La Rinconada mine, ‘Dreaming of El Dorado’.

Salutary Salgado

August 19th, 2013 No comments

Iceberg in the Antarctic PeninsulaAlthough you can see some of this striking exhibition – a worldwide preview – on the website, while there’s still the last chance, how much better to see the photographs at the Natural History Museum in the flesh  (of which there’s plenty, as nude bodies often feature in the virgin landscapes; the penis gourds of jungle tribesmen are flourished exuberantly by their wearers.)

Sebastião  Salgado’s previous acclaimed epic projects and books include Workers and Migrations, about human displacement.

Now, for Genesis, he sets out, in what may well be a last elegiac photographic project, to document the 40% remaining of untouched planet.

What prevents this from being National Geographic writ large is the tenderness. Where Nat Geo follows Ansel Adams in presenting pin sharp images – life at f.64 – Salgado has a softer depth of field and texture to his black-and-white prints: a cloud of Antarctic petrels rise up, the mountain massif behind them a misty backdrop;  or a Yali man collect insects from a giant fern in Papua New Guinea, his skin rippled with articulated tension like the sprung branches.

The Arctic National Wildlife RefugeThe project took him so long that he started shooting on a film camera and ended on a digital one, with a lot of retouching and “painting” in the lab.  Occasionally the black-and-white can frustrate (hard to see a picture of red and green macaws without wishing for colour), but it often works beautifully, like the large egrets in the Pantanal or Disappointment River winding its way through Canada.

For a man who is seventy next year, the sheer energy of his range and travelling is impressive – from sand dunes in Algeria to some lovely wondering albatross in the South Atlantic to a herd of buffalo seen from a balloon in North America.  As a reminder of the still undiscovered or seldom visited world, it is salutary.  And if you miss the exhibition, there is always the excellent book.

following Edward Thomas and his ‘map of the soul’

January 10th, 2013 No comments

The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, Almeida Theatre, LondonBlown away by the quite phenomenal Nick Dear play The Dark Earth and The Light Sky about Edward Thomas, now showing at the Almeida Theatre on its first run.

I wrote about Thomas in The Green Road into the Trees – indeed in some ways the book was a centenary version of his own book, The Icknield Way, when he took the same route in 1912. Nick Dear has a fine phrase for Thomas’s travel books which he describes as ‘maps of his soul’, rather than more conventional guides, and as a result did not sell.

Dear does a few things exceptionally well:  he doesn’t sentimentalise Thomas at all – he often comes across as a monster in the way he treats his wife Helen in particular;  the play does not climax with Thomas’s tragic death in the First World War which often over-colours accounts of his life – this is the chronicle of a death foretold;  he shows how the friendship between Thomas and Robert Frost was pivotal for both men’s poetry – Thomas started publishing and Frost got recognition.

But above all it focuses on Helen, who for me had always been a shadowy presence.  She comes across as a tragic figure, quite beautifully played by Hattie Morahan, dealing with her husband’s depression and death wish with alternate light and sadness.

In The Green Road into the Trees, I quoted the lines of Thomas that haunted me from his own account of my journey:  ‘I could not find a beginning or an ending to the Icknield Way. It is thus a symbol of mortal things with their beginnings and ends always in immortal darkness.’

Well at least it gets you out and about early

December 21st, 2012 No comments
IMG_5502 tattoed man lo res

all photos (c) Hugh Thomson


Having complained in an earlier column that most people celebrate the wrong solstice at Stonehenge – i.e. the summer one – when archaeologists think that it was built for the winter solstice, seemed only fair to go along today and see what might be happening. Even if it meant getting up at four in the morning to drive there.


IMG_5528 blowing the horn lo res



The Druids were out in force and drumming up a storm.  So were about 1000 more people, but nothing compared to the summer when you can easily get 30,000. Fewer people come in the winter because usually there’s no sun – but today, despite the recent rains, it dawned beautifully clear.


One celebrant who came every year told me it was the first time she’d ever seen the sun for the solstice dawn.

Made for a great atmosphere.  Chief druid Rollo Maughling (Panama hat, below right) led some ecumenical prayers in which Gaia got the odd mention, as did the war in Syria and – an unexpected left field one – the centenary of the US membership of the IMF (I’m taking him on trust on this one).

IMG_5551 druid smoking cigar waiting for the sun cropped lo res

The odd friendly heckle from the crowd added suggestions for the service – like a spontaneous cheer in the honour of the late Sir Patrick Moore. Or a cry that went up at one point – ‘give him some room, druid coming through’ – when one berobed and bearded sage arrived late after  trouble parking on the A344.

IMG_5564 sunrise in stones lo res cropped


More by accident than design I found myself right by the drummers as they got going and almost got speared in the face by a stray dear’s antler on the back of someone’s mask.


But the moment the sun came up was a moment to melt the ice splinter in any sceptic’s heart:  the stones warmed by the dawn, the music and the celebration.  As the self-styled King Arthur Pendragon, who has spent a lifetime campaigning for more open access to the stones and is now in his 60s, said to the assembled media, ‘one can see the divine in the spirit of the place.’





Read more…

Getting Through Customs

November 20th, 2012 No comments

Regular readers will remember my review of Howard Marks’s book about his adventures and high times in the drugs trade, which I suggested signalled a new form of travel book – the ‘how am I going to get through customs’ genre. Another remarkable example of this was Marching Powder, ghost-written by Rusty Young about the hair-raising experiences of a drug dealer in a Bolivian jail and set to be a major motion picture, with Brad Pitt’s involvement.


Now comes Mark Dempster’s Nothing To Declare, ably ghostwritten by Matthew Huggins, which is considerably grittier than either of the above.  Dempster does slightly less glamorous travel – though there is a funny bit where he tries to cross the Himalayas to a Nepalese village when stoned which is clearly not recommended in the manual – and is more Sweeney than Miami Vice.

Connoisseurs of the genre will still notice one or two similarities:  there is always a moment when, just like the hero of Goodfellas, paranoia overtakes the life of Riley and the helicopters start circling overhead.

Dempster also does the ‘it’s just become a day job shtick’ well, when he describes ‘the same daily routine, the same grind: up at eight, drink, stock up on Crucial Brew, deal, opium, drink, deal, smoke hash, deal, line of coke, deal, line of coke, Brian [his main supplier], bottle of wine, Sprog [bodyguard and drinking mate, trouble], fight, opium, drink, sex with girlfriend Lesley, drink, drink, drink, drink – pass out. That was it – days into weeks into months until a whole year had vanished.’

Thinking of doing a hard-core writers book which would describe my day, which also begins at eight but otherwise has few similarities: cup of tea, watch a rerun of Frazier on Channel 4, bacon sandwich, few e-mails, cup of coffee, write as much as I can before I get bored, phone girlfriend, pop over to deli across the road for a chat, have a Scotch egg or pork pie for lunch if I’m feeling like something extreme, salad if I’m feeling healthy and trying to go clean, do some more writing, do some more e-mails, uh, take some exercise, and let’s face it no one has got this far in the paragraph because it’s so dull….

This book reminds me a bit of those Alcoholics Anonymous meetings where every speaker tries to outbid the last one by declaring that ‘you think that guy did bad stuff – wait until you hear what I did!’

Dempster is quite remarkably candid – and often funny – about his lowlife, which does hit some truly frightening lows by the end. It never quite addresses the mystery of why some people feel the need to get so wasted – ‘an addictive personality’ is a very loose concept.  But it certainly describes the consequences well.

What Laser Scans have revealed at Stonehenge

October 10th, 2012 No comments


ArcHeritage/English Heritage

Revelations about Stonehenge continue apace, with the news that laser scans have revealed 72 previously unknown Early Bronze Age carvings chipped into five of the giant stones.

Moreover many of these carvings are of Bronze Age axes.  The initial response – by among others The Independent, who covered the story – was that ‘the axe-heads – the vast majority of the images – may have been engraved as votive offerings to placate a storm deity and thus protect crops.’

As always, whenever anyone reaches for a ‘ceremonial’ or ritual explanation in archaeology it is wise to be careful.

One should remember that bronzes axes were neither purely functional or military, let alone ceremonial, in Bronze Age culture; they were often used as currency, to be bartered for other goods.  There are many reasons why the symbol of the axe may have had such a great attraction for the builders of Stonehenge: as a symbol of wealth, or of the great clearance of the forests which they were embarking on;  or simply as a potent icon, in the same way that they celebrated horses on their coins and at the White Horse of Uffington.

Very few such Bronze Age depictions of axes have been uncovered elsewhere in Britain;  those few that have were often associated with funerary monuments, which would match with the recent work done on the sacred landscape that surrounds Stonehenge by Mike Pearson Smith (who uncovered a henge at the river Avon nearby).

These are not the first axes to be noticed at Stonehenge. A few can still be made out on the surface without the need for a laser scan, and were listed in the 1950s. But in the past they have always been considered a rather marginal aspect of the site.  This new discovery, showing them there in such quantities, puts them more centre stage.

Those who wish to go straight to source on this fascinating story should read the full report which very helpfully has been put online by English Heritage:  among other details, it also confirms the long-held suspicion that many of the stones have been removed over the years.  Rather than being an unfinished site – as many have suggested since the very first investigations of the 18th century – it is a vandalised site.

Those who think the only good thing ever to happen to Stonehenge was to be in Spinal Tap might instead enjoy the Daily Mash’s Experts close to discovering secret pointlessness of Stonehenge.


The Real Enemy of the Coral Reef

October 2nd, 2012 No comments


An excellent piece in the Independent shows how the true enemy of the coral reef is not climate change – although of course this is a contributory factor – but a particular coral eating starfish.

I had a wonderful time a couple of years ago snorkelling off the Belize coral reef, the longest in the Western Hemisphere and one of the most unspoilt in the world;  Charles Darwin described it as ‘the most remarkable reef in the West Indies’.


I had snorkelled before, off Bonaire in the Dutch Antilles which has some of the best walk-in snorkelling in the world. But this was altogether more satisfying, slipping from the side of a sailing boat into some nameless section of the reef, and seeing one’s fellow passengers transformed into weightless and floating mer-folk swimming with the fishes.


And what fishes:  large shoals of blue tang floating over and around the elkhorn coral;  yellow snapper and the striped school-master fish;  Nassau groupers and the odd pork fish as loners within the group;  a peacock flounder near the bottom.  And then the sting rays, swimming in majesty and leisure, or burrowing down into the sand, the best possible reason never to rest your flipper on the seabed if you could possibly help it.


At one point I felt someone swimming along beside me and turned to see which member of the group it might be, only to find a spotted eagle ray calmly keeping pace at almost arms length, the largest of the stingrays after the manta.


Much of the reef was still healthy compared to some of the deterioration that coral had experienced worldwide as sea temperatures rose.  But there was still a sense of elegy, a feeling that if I returned in ten, twenty, let alone another thirty years time I might not be able to see delicate blue damselfish nibbling around the polyps, the fan coral waving in the current or the squiggles of brain coral clustered on the bottom.


Machu Picchu in the clouds

September 21st, 2012 No comments

There is a good interesting roundup of current theories about Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Times in which the author, Rick Vecchio, sensibly doesn’t commit himself too far in any particular direction…

…Unlike many of the guides at Machu Picchu who are still perfectly capable of telling you that this was where the Inca emperor hid his Virgins Of The Sun and that stone over there was where they sacrificed the black llamas.


For my own brief introduction to the interpretation of the ruins, take a look at the short film I did for CNN last year:  See Hugh’s cut-out-and-keep 5 minute guide to Machu Picchu for CNN.

Then you’ll understand why I prefer to use this picture of my own in which Machu Picchu is covered by cloud, rather than the usual sunlit panorama.  It’s a place we still don’t fully understand although we have recently gained some useful pointers.