Mind The Gap

Genius idea:

Alternative Walking Steps Tube map download

A new Walking Steps Tube map has been launched by Transport for London showing the number of steps between stations.

Transport for London’s (TfL) new version of the iconic Tube map has been created, ironically, to try and get more Londoners off the Underground and out walking in the capital.

Many central London stations are less than 1,000 steps apart and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan says the map will be a fun and practical way to help busy Londoners who want to make walking a part of their everyday lives.  

The estimated direct cost to the NHS of treating obesity, and related morbidity, was £6.3 billion in 2015. Indirect costs are projected to be as high as £27 billion.

Never mind suggesting, how about physically throwing every Londoner off the tube and forcing them to walk a stop or two of their usual commute to work.

Just imagine how competitive people could become, and the conversations by the water cooler….

I bagged 3,000 steps this morning. 2 stops on the Circle & District Line. South Ken to Victoria. Boom. 

Not bad. But I’m gonna walk from Bank to Waterloo on my way home tonight, instead of jumping on the Waterloo & City Line. 3,300 steps. 1 stop. Job done.

Use technology. Lose weight. Get fit. Save the NHS billions.  Result.

Walking reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, stroke and depression. Just a 20 minute walk every day can provide noticeable health benefits.  I hope the new steps map inspires Londoners to travel and experience more of the city on foot. We’ll be rewarded with improvements to our health, economy and the environment around us.

Image result for walking in london

Movie review – Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome is partly responsible for my lifelong love of books. Along with Mum & Dad for encouraging me to read from a young age. And Mr Ingram, my English teacher for later “O” and “A” levels, introducing me to Graham Greene, Saul Bellow, Master Shakespeare and so many other disparate, illuminating writers.

But it was the adventures of Swallows and Amazons that opened my youthful eyes to an exciting wider world, both physically and in the imagination.

We borrowed Gill’s nephew Ben (11) and nieces Jess and Lucy (7) last week. In a high-risk strategy, we took them to see the new movie Swallows and Amazons. No inter-galactic wars, no dazzling animation, and not far short of two hours….would they survive an old-fashioned yarn lasting longer than a WhatsApp exchange with their friends?

The film is largely faithful to the concept of Ransome’s well-spoken Walker family, zooming north to the idyllic Lake District while the patriarch captains a destroyer somewhere in the Far East, not long before the outbreak of World War II.

The four older Walker children – John, Susan, Tatty and Roger – persuade their baby-cradling mother to let them set sail in the Swallow across the lake, to camp for a few days on Unexplored Island.

Park your 21st century cynicism at the cinema door: of course no responsible mother would let her brood loose on such an adventure now. Especially as the youngest can barely swim. And how sad that the author’s Titty has succumbed to contemporary political correctness and had her name changed to the ridiculous Tatty.

The out-of-towners are attacked by friendly local pirates Nancy & Peggy Blackett on the Amazon, sporting the evil Jolly Roger on its mast. But they soon share a mutual respect. Just as well, because – in another diversion from Ransome’s original innocence and a further sop to modern demands – they have to work together to foil a Russian spy plot.

No matter. Swallows and Amazons remains a nostalgic tale, conjuring up days spent in the open air, having old-fashioned adventures and making a campfire, with no sign of Facebook, Instagram or texting.

Ben, Jess and Lucy stayed awake – and hopefully fully engaged – until the happy ending.

I wonder if they’d like The Famous Five books too…..


Book review – The Red House

Mark Haddon is a genius.

I still haven’t read his best-known work The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but I loved A Spot of Bother.

And now The Red House has made me envy his literary talent even more.

On the surface, it’s a simple tale of two families spending a week together in a self-catering cottage on the Welsh border, near Hay-on-Wye. But page by page, master story-teller Haddon wraps you up in a darkly comic web of characters. They wrestle with history, youth, ageing, confusion, sexuality, anger…and each other.

Richard is a middle-aged doctor, outwardly successful and recently married to new second wife Louisa, who comes with the hefty baggage of feisty teenage daughter Melissa.

Estranged sister Angela arrives with shallow loser of a husband Dominic, three very different children – each with their own issues – and the ghost of stillborn daughter Karen, whose 18th birthday coincides with the week in The Red House.

There is no single central character, there is no earth-shattering incident, nobody dies and there’s no magical rapprochement between the distanced siblings. But through short sharp sentences and paragraphs, lurching from one character and small incident to the next, Haddon deftly paints a picture of disparate people coming to terms with life, if not each other.

Here’s the writer inside the head of spoiled, confused, beautiful but self-loathing 16 year-old step-daughter Melissa:

She sat on the floor between the bedside table and the wall. Laughter downstairs. She pushed the point of the scalpel into the palm of her hand but she couldn’t puncture the skin. She was a coward. She would never amount to anything. That fuckwit little boy. She should walk off into the night and get hypothermia and end up in hospital. That would teach them a lesson. God. Friday night. Megan and Cally would be tanking up on vodka and Red Bull before hitting the ice rink. The dizzy spin of the room and Lady Gaga on repeat, Henry and his mates having races and getting chucked out, pineapple fritters at the Chinky afterwards. Christ, she was hungry.

And middle-aged Angela, lost in an unhappy marriage and still grieving for a lost daughter from 18 years ago:

Angela poured boiling water over the dried mushrooms. A smell like unwashed bodies she always thought, but it was the simplest vegetarian recipe she knew. Made her want to roast a pig’s head for Melissa, all glossy cracking and an apple in the mouth. Make Benjy sad, though. Earlier she had told Dominic that she wanted to go home, and thought for a moment that he might actually agree, but he had slipped into the grating paternal role he’d been adopting more and more over the last few days. “You’ll regret it….insult to Richard….hang on in there”….Him being right made it worse, of course. Sherry, tomato puree. Risotto Londis.

The Red House is a cynically perceptive dissection of human frailty. I just hope you never meet my family, Mr Haddon.



Kapesovo, Zagori

Newsflash….this article won the Telegraph’s Just Back competition and was published in the Saturday print version on August 27, 2016 and online on telegraph.co.uk on August 29 – *surprised and chuffed*


My latest entry in The Telegraph’s Just Back weekly travel writing competition:

Joanna pulls me into the kitchen before dinner. A necklace of walnuts, sewn together on a thread, has been coated in grape must, rolled in flour and “boiled with ashcharcoal? – before being strung up on a makeshift washing line.

She leads me down to the boiler room, where several pieces of nutty jewellery – zmpeki – hang for 5 or 6 days, to soften and infuse before being offered to guests.

Tradition echoes everywhere in the Thoukididis Guest House, restored by Joanna’s father over 8 years and now a faithful reproduction of a 19th century Zagorian merchant’s home.


You can taste the pride and love in every dish Joanna serves up in the small restaurant. Gigantes plaki – giant white beans – arrive, with spinach, leeks, sorrel, spearmint and parsley. “Anything from my garden”, near the Guest House in the stone village of Kapesovo, one of 46 settlements of Zagori. Known collectively as Zagorohoria, these sparsely populated villages sit high in the Pindus mountains of Epirus in north-west Greece, close to the Albanian border.

“My father’s mother came from Turkey. I like to combine the cultures in my cooking”, Joanna tells me the next evening. Zucchini fritters with yoghurt appear, sprinkled with parsley, dill and spearmint; stuffed tomatoes with rice; minced meat, mashed potatoes and porcini mushrooms, foraged earlier from the side of a mountain track.

Historically, the Zagorian region relied on family members sending money back from where they found work – Turkey, Egypt, southern Greece – to survive. But some villagers are slowly embracing independence, proud to share their heritage with outsiders.

After dinner, I wander down the narrow stone alleyways to the plateia, the heart of the village and inevitably shaded by the vast, gnarled limbs of an ancient plane tree.

I’m welcomed here too, by Joanna’s mother and father, at Sterna. The tiny shop is named after the 13 metre deep well, built in 1848 to collect rainwater for the villagers. The symbolic sterna is now an illuminated feature in the middle of a Zagorian treasure-chest. I’m offered tsipouro, the traditional ouzo digestive. Then a few aperitif liqueur flavours, all made from local ingredients: walnuts, cranberries, fig. And bitter orange, surprisingly infused with coffee beans. And a Greek coffee, as black and treacly as a vat of molasses.

During the daytime, try homemade lemonade or sour cherry juice, served in wide-rimmed jam jars and topped with a single, fragrant mint leaf. Or buy mountain tea, foraged from near Kapesovo and sheafed like an archer’s quiver. Some bellows for the winter fire, perhaps, made from local black elderberry wood.

My final breakfast from Joanna is a banana and peach smoothie; fried egg, with ham wrapped around grilled cheese as comfortingly as a Zagorian welcome; homemade bread, jams and cake.

I leave Kapesovo reluctantly. But as I begin to climb the 1,200 ancient stone steps towards the next village of Vradeto, I smile and wonder whether the packed lunch in my rucksack might include a piece of peach cake.

So long, Marianne

One of the best non-fiction books I’ve read in recent years was I’m Your Man, an expertly crafted biography of Leonard Cohen by Sylvie Simmons.

A significant part of Cohen’s early life was spent on the Greek island of Hydra, where he met Norwegian beauty Marianne Ihlen in the 1960s. She was his muse and inspiration for two of his best known pieces of work, So long Marianne and Bird on a Wire.

She died in Norway on 29th July, aged 81.

A close friend of Marianne’s – Jan Christian Mollestad – had contacted Cohen a short while earlier, letting him know his old lover was close to death.

It took only two hours and in came this beautiful letter from Leonard to Marianne. We brought it to her the next day and she was fully conscious and she was so happy that he had already written something for her,” Mollestad said.

Mollestad read Cohen’s letter to her before she died. “It said: well Marianne, it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.”

And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”

Mollestad told CBC that when he read the line “stretch out your hand,” Ihlen stretched out her hand. “Only two days later she lost consciousness and slipped into death. I wrote a letter back to Leonard saying in her final moments I hummed Bird on a Wire because that was the song she felt closest to. And then I kissed her on the head and left the room, and said “so long, Marianne.”

So Long Marianne

Leonard Cohen

Come over to the window, my little darling,
I’d like to try to read your palm.
I used to think I was some kind of Gypsy boy
before I let you take me home.
Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began
to laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again.

Well you know that I love to live with you,
but you make me forget so very much.
I forget to pray for the angels
and then the angels forget to pray for us.

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

We met when we were almost young
deep in the green lilac park.
You held on to me like I was a crucifix,
as we went kneeling through the dark.

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

Your letters they all say that you’re beside me now.
Then why do I feel alone?
I’m standing on a ledge and your fine spider web
is fastening my ankle to a stone.

Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

For now I need your hidden love.
I’m cold as a new razor blade.
You left when I told you I was curious,
I never said that I was brave.

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

Oh, you are really such a pretty one.
I see you’ve gone and changed your name again.
And just when I climbed this whole mountainside,
to wash my eyelids in the rain!

Oh so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began …

RIP Johnny Barnes – Bermuda legend

I lived in Bermuda through much of the 1980s. Every day on the way in to work – wearing canary yellow shorts and long, dark blue socks as I fidgeted on the hot plastic seat of my Honda 80 cc moped – I’d pass the Crow Lane roundabout, the main access point in to Hamilton, the island’s capital.

There, happy, smiling, white-bearded Johnny Barnes would wave to everyone, so close that he would often also high five motorists, cyclists and bike riders. Every day.

He did this for more than 30 years. He became a legend, for locals and for tourists alike. A statue was erected near his waving spot.

Sadly, Mr Happy died recently, aged 93. He only stopped waving and smiling at the roundabout in December 2015.

RIP Johnny. Thanks for the memories and for the love.

Below is the full text of an obituary printed today in no less a publication than The Times. A fitting tribute.

Bermudian bus driver known as ‘Mr Happy’ who became a tourist attraction after years of cheerfully greeting the traffic.

For 30 years Johnny Barnes woke each day before 4am and walked two miles from his house to one of the busiest roundabouts in the capital where he spent several hours waving at commuters and telling them, “I love you, God loves you”.

With his white beard, arms thrown wide and broad-brimmed hat, he was familiar to most of the islanders. His large smile and cheerful greeting were infectious and he became known as “Mr Happy”.

“I enjoy making people happy,” he said. “I like to let them know that life is sweet, that it’s good to be alive.” Tourists often came to be photographed with him and a group of local businessmen erected a statue in his honour near the roundabout in 1998.

He was born John James Randolf Adolphus Mills in 1923 and raised as a Seventh-Day Adventist, a sect that preaches the return of Christ to Earth. His mother often told him that — according to the children’s rhyme — as he was born on a Saturday, he would have to work hard for a living. Once she sent him to deliver a message to an elderly lady. He successfully handed it over but his mother still scolded him on his return. “I delivered it but I didn’t speak to her,” he recalled. “My mother said never, never, let no one come to her and say that I didn’t speak to them. She said I must speak to everyone.” It was a lesson that he took to heart throughout his long life.

He became an electrician on the Bermuda Railway. Later, he worked as a bus driver. Full of the joys of life — and his mother’s words — he made it a tradition to wave at passers-by from the bus depot as he ate his lunch. “If we learn how to love one another, there would be no jealousy, no anger, no envy. Everything would be just right,” he said.

Barnes married in 1949. His wife, Belvina, was also a happy woman because, as he said, he “covered her with honey” all her life. He always told visitors to their house how much he loved her. They had no children.

He became an electrician on the Bermuda Railway. Later, he worked as a bus driver. Full of the joys of life — and his mother’s words — he made it a tradition to wave at passers-by from the bus depot as he ate his lunch. “If we learn how to love one another, there would be no jealousy, no anger, no envy. Everything would be just right,” he said.

After his death his wife read out his final message: “My mind and heart would have liked to continue at the roundabout forever, sharing love, cheerfulness, happy wishes and prayers with each of you. However, our Loving Heavenly Father knows best, so He said, ‘Johnny, it is time for you to rest’.”

Johnny Barnes, Bermuda’s “Mr Happy”, was born on June 23, 1923. He died on July 9, 2016, aged 93.