Archive for the ‘Britain’ Category

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.


Hyde Park – A Short Walk To The Centre Of The Universe or ‘Sometime In London City’

September 3rd, 2012 No comments

There was a moment when I was in the crowd of 80,000 for the final Olympics concert in Hyde Park, on the evening of the closing ceremony, and New Order were playing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, when the last of the late August sun fell over the crowd’s faces  – a crowd who were singing along to the song – and a realisation came home to me which had been growing for the last couple of years. Slowly but surely, Hyde Park has become a concentration of wonderful energies from around the world.


When I was a kid growing up in London it was a dull place, a place of nannies with prams and the Round Pond and not much happening.

But slowly and quietly things have been changing.  It began with the outburst of emotion over Diana’s death when the railings of the park spilled over with flowers;  her memorial fountain  – treated more as a long water slide by delighted kids – and flower walk softened the martial regularity of the place.

With its intricate system of paths all radiating out from one another in complex geometrical patterns, rather like those children’s games where you make a point and then swing a compass to see where you can get to next, it is a park one can get lost in constantly and discover new surprises:  the Lido where the hardy can still swim the Serpentine;  the beautiful new statue beside it, unveiled in 2009, of a 10 foot high bronze ibis;  the many families from the Middle East who feed the ducks as a Sunday outing, carefully avoiding the Rasta-locked rollerbladers who swing along the tarmac;  Speakers Corner, where fundamentalist Americans wearing khaki debate with sober Hasidic scholars wearing suits.  The joggers of every nation pass the couples sitting on a bench, or the students playing Frisbee.

The park technically speaking is made up of two republics joined at the hip, like the old Czechoslovakia;  Kensington Gardens to the West and Hyde Park itself to the East.  But to all intents and purposes Londoners treat them as the same contiguous park, regardless of bureaucratic distinctions.  The Serpentine that snakes between them, with its strange boomerang shape, is not so much a border as a binder.

By happy chance Yoko Ono currently has a show in centre of the park, at the Serpentine Gallery beside the lake, with ‘peace trees’ outside, festooned with the notes and wishes of visitors.  The show not only demonstrates that she was doing conceptual art of great simplicity and rigour when the new sensationalists like Hirst and  Emin were just a gleam in the art teacher’s eye, but encapsulates the feeling that what used to be the preserve of Central Park in New York – the internationalism, the love, the casual mingling of nations, many wearing rollerblades – has now come here to the centre of London:  the park as a world of its own; the park as the centre of the world.


The Green Road into the Trees – Launch

July 18th, 2012 No comments

The book is now out – see the reviews in the Spectator and Independent  

To celebrate the launch and what is supposed to be summer, despite constant rain, a small extract on meeting a leading Druid at the summer solstice celebrations at Avebury: 


A few people have gathered by the big stones that were once, when upright, set as a triptych and may have been orientated towards the rising sun.  Loud snores are coming from a sleeping-bagged bundle at the bottom of the largest stone, where it looks as if someone is  going to sleep  through this year’s dawn solstice. 

I talk to a tall man in a grey cloak with a staff, who lives in Malmesbury.  He has the languid, tired manners of an Anglican vicar. 

‘Are you a Pagan?’ he asks, as if it were the most natural question in the world.  

I mumble the sort of non-committal generalities I usually do if someone asks if I’m a Christian.  My hesitancy is reinforced when he then asks if I’m a Christian and I have to give a similar response. 


‘Paganism,’ he explains patiently, ‘is tied to a sense of place, of being rooted in a landscape.  If you’re drawn to a place like Avebury, then you’re probably a Pagan.’ 

I nod politely. 

‘Not that it’s easy being a Pagan,’ he sighs, and leans on his staff to peer moodily at the ground. ‘The problem about Paganism is that because it’s all local, and about local places, we don’t organise ourselves on a national basis very well.’  For a moment he sounds like a Liberal Democrat.  ‘What matters to a Pagan in Malmesbury is completely different to what matters to a Pagan in’ – and he casts around for an exotic example – ‘to a Pagan in, say, Devizes.’  He pauses.   ‘Or for that matter in Aylesbury.  There are a surprising amount of Pagans in Aylesbury.’ 

‘Trying to organise Pagans is like trying to herd cats,’ he says, with bitterness. ‘It’s solstice day, the most sacred day of the year, and most of them have gone to the wrong part of the circle to celebrate!’


From The Green Road into the Trees:  An Exploration of England by Hugh Thomson (Preface 18.99), with illustrations by Adam Burton

River Swimming

September 9th, 2011 No comments

Poor David Walliams’ illness contracted from swimming the Thames for Charity threw up (sorry!) the following quite incredible statement from Thames Water:

A spokeswoman for Thames Water said: “The Thames is not a designated bathing area and therefore the Environment Agency does not require us to disinfect the treated waste water before it goes back into the river.’

swimming on the river thames Swimming breaksWell speaking as someone who regularly swims in it anyway, why the hell not make it ‘a designated bathing area’!  It would be a fabulous resource that could be accessed from half the Home Counties.  And get rid of the many pathogens that Thames Water currently pumps in there……

One of my best memories of travelling through Russia is the way that Russians use every last available inch of water to swim, so that you see them in canals and rivers and lakes everywhere, usually with a cold bottle of vodka and some pickled mushrooms to help them recuperate afterwards.

Pioneers like Kate Rew and the admirable Outdoor Swimming Society, OSS, still have a long way to go in their campaigning to make the same thing possible in Britain.

The Wrong Solstice

June 25th, 2011 No comments

Yes it’s a bit sad that 18,000 people converged on Stonehenge for the summer solstice when most archaeologists now agree that the alignment was originally made for the winter solstice anyway…

But anyone in doubt about the powerful attraction of sun worship should take a look at these images:

see also my recent piece on the opening of the Great Stones Way between Stonehenge and Avebury for the Guardian.


When Snow Falls

December 28th, 2010 No comments

Wonderful to have a white Xmas.  My children, nephews and nieces all went sledging with me down a hill in the Chilterns at great speed – and is there anything more beautiful than travelling across England on a sunny day when it is completely under snow, as it was on Christmas Day? 

That said, the ‘weather events’ of the last few weeks have left me wondering if we have lost the ability (or humility) to know when not to make the journey.  Are we so used to being able to “beat nature” and control it that when clearly uncontrollable forces arrive we still try to soldier on when the wise course of action would be to beat a retreat?

I noticed this when caught myself in a whiteout blizzard on the M25 as it crosses the North Downs in Surrey.  We think of suburban Surrey within the M25 ring road as being about as tame as England gets;  but the hills of the North Downs collect the first wave of any incoming north-easterly snow and can fast turn into a bleak and hazardous environment. 

On this occasion within just 20 minutes the scene looked like something out of the German retreat from Moscow:  heavy lorries lumbering to a standstill (400 ended up parked on the hard shoulder overnight), visibility down to a few yards, the slipways icing up so that it was only with extreme difficulty that anyone could leave the motorway at all.  Read more…

Apple Day

November 4th, 2010 No comments

It’s a perfect recipe for a communal village activity:  bring your ripe and surplus apples to the green, have them pulped and pressed to juice, play various arcane games with apples (‘apple bowls’ – quite a few inswingers – , an ‘apple-shy’ with prizes if you can knock them off their perch), eat local pork with apple sauce.  And of course drink copious quantities of  the actual juice, which constantly changes flavour during the day as different types of apple are added to the mix. 

In this small Oxfordshire village by the Chilterns, almost every garden has an apple tree and few can be bothered to store the fruit over winter in newspaper and sheds, let alone juice them, so much would just rot on the bough.   The big communal apple press on the green is satisfying in its simplicity, with layers of pulp in crates, separated by sheets of coarse muslin and with a long lever that everyone from kids to adults can take turns in wheeling around to extract the frothing liquid.

Roger Deakin would have loved it.  The Common Ground group he helped found were some of the first to celebrate the variety of the English apple, so that we did not succumb to a Golden Delicious monoculture (what Roger called ‘Tesco’s Delight’).  He died four years ago, just after completing his wonderful Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees, and is much missed by his friends.  I wrote this in his memory:


Roger Deakin
(1943 – 2006)


The dark red windfalls from our apple tree

reproach me silently;  I never knew

their name or provenance until you died

so suddenly;  or cared about the orchard

with its Russets, Bramleys, old Charles Ross,

the quince tree pregnant with unwanted fruit,

a mulberry staining the cut-grass red; 


and now you’re dead;  and there’s no chance

to walk your coppiced woods again, or hear

that rich, smoked voice describing how

the railway shed has fresh clean linen

always waiting for you on its bed

in a bower of alder and ash.

Roger, I eat this apple for you:


The Devonshire Quarrendon Red.

Stonehenge – a national disgrace

July 13th, 2010 1 comment

Stonehenge was given to the nation in 1918.  So far, almost a century later, the nation has done a remarkably bad job at looking after it. 

The situation at the site is currently, as its custodians English Heritage put it, ‘severely compromised’ and as others like leading archaeologist Mike Pitts would say, ‘ an embarrassing, abominable, inexcusable mess’. For decades, plans have been put forward to improve the site and then postponed.

Two main roads not only thunder past but divide the circle of stones from the Avenue that should lead to it.  The findings from Stonehenge are scattered piecemeal between some sixteen different museums and private holdings around the country.  For the almost one million annual visitors drawn there, it can be a dispiriting experience, with the stones themselves fenced off and the current ‘visitor centre’ resembling a British Rail station built in the 1970s.  Overall, it can be a bit like having a picnic in a car park.

Just last week the Government announced that it would no longer help finance the proposed new landscaping and visitor centre which Labour had announced last October. 

On the face of it, this might seem perfectly reasonable.  A saving of £10 million would result.  We all know that cuts have to be made;  the Government claims that Labour committed to projects that were never affordable. Read more…

My worst journeys from hell?

February 27th, 2010 No comments


[A shorter version of this piece was published in the Times]

My worst journeys from hell?  Waiting days for a series of cancelled boats in Ziguinchor, southern Senegal, at 100° in the shade — 6/10.  A bus trip across the Peruvian desert that lasted 24 hours –  8/10.  Taking a train from Birmingham to Edinburgh – 10/10 and not just because it was the last one I did.  Or because it cost hundreds of pounds more for the pleasure that the other ones.  But because you know it could so easily be improved.

Take a much cheaper coach from Birmingham to Edinburgh and you need a numbered ticket with a designated seat to travel.  Just as you do with a plane.  So why is it that British train companies get away with crowding as many people as they possibly can onto a train before shutting the doors?  This particular journey saw passengers crammed solid down the aisles and in the doorways, with luggage spilled in every direction and children crying:  it looked like a train load of refugees after a catastrophe event.  If the train company could have got away with putting passengers on the roof, they would have.  And this was not for a couple of tube stops or a suburban commute, but a five-hour journey. 

Read more…