Big Birthdays

My 60th birthday is just around the corner. It feels like A Big One, a final trip over the threshold of middle age and the beginning of a long, slow fall into the basement of old age.

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How will I mark this bitter-sweet occasion? Gill is generously taking me away somewhere for a couple of days the week before….I know not where. I will hopefully celebrate The Big Day somewhere with the family. And then it’s off to Greece, to magical Zagori in the Pindos mountains of Epirus, an intriguing area I only discovered last year.

No doubt our group of 13 will eat plenty of the excellent local food and partake frequently of friendship-inducing tsipouro, between bursts of energetic mountain-climbing, gorge-walking, horse-riding and whitewater-rafting.

Early Big Birthdays are hazy. Or perhaps I was too focused on bean-counting studying and exams to celebrate 18th and 21st milestones.

I suppose the dedication paid off. I spent my 30th in beautiful life-changing Bermuda, although a joint 29-and-holding Miami Vice party with cute Canadian Diane Olchowik is even more memorable. A long night of Don Johnson no-socks and sleeves-rolled-up dancing and drinking culminated in a bit of skinny-dipping in Sonesta Bay as the sun rose on the island’s legendary south shore beaches.

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Fast forward 10 years and I was working in Germany for a few months. I had just met Gill, now my beloved wife of nigh on 20 years, and she helped to co-ordinate a lovely surprise 40th birthday bash at my brother’s place, while I was home for the weekend.

The Big 5-0 was marked by a moment of madness: climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest peak and a staggering 5,895 metres above the wildlife of Tanzania’s Serengeti. The motivation was as much to raise money for a very good cause as it was to shake a fist at the advancing years.

Actually, we climbed Kili in February, a few months ahead of my birthday, to take advantage of one of the climbing windows. May came and it was an excuse for a long weekend of drunken debauchery in the blues bars, pizza places and casinos of Soho.

And here I am, on the cusp of 60. How did that happen? Where have all the years gone? Will I make it to 3 score and 10….?

I’ll report back on the 60th activities. Just in case it’s the last Big Birthday I feel like marking in any memorable way.

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El Camino de Santiago

Have you ever seen The Way? It’s a small movie, but with a large heart, telling the fictional story of a father who unexpectedly walks the renowned Camino de Santiago – The Way of Saint James – to honour his dead son.

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And I’ve also just watched the fascinating Walking the CaminoSix Ways to Santiago, a more recent documentary film focusing on 6 very different people and their own motivation for walking the Camino.

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From the film’s website:

Officially, the Camino is any route that starts in Europe and ends in Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city of Galicia in north-western Spain. It is named after Santo Iago – Saint James – one of the 12 apostles. According to legend, his body was found in a boat that washed up on the northern coast of Spain thousands of years ago.

His remains were transported inland and buried under what is now the cathedral in Santiago. His bones were rediscovered in the 9th century, when a hermit saw a field of stars that led him to the ancient, forgotten tomb.

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Since then, hundreds of thousands of people walk the Camino every year, most as a personal pilgrimage. The classic route is 500 miles/800 km from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, across the Pyrenees into Navarra, through La Rioja and then heading west across the flatlands of Castilla y Leon before the final approach through verdant, gently undulating Galicia.

Both films and reality tell of the personal journeys each pilgrim makes, and the people you meet along the way. It is said to be a life-changing experience. You stay in albergues, special pilgrim hostels run by volunteers – hospitaleros – pilgrim themselves, whose love for the Camino has inspired them to come back and help others along the way.

At recent travel shows in London I chatted to the lovely people promoting Camino Ways, a commercial business promoting the many different ways to experience the Camino now.

I have been drawn to attempt it myself since seeing The Way. But I have shied away from the classic route…..too far, too hard and too many people! But there are some appealing alternatives, all ending in Santiago, that might be a good way to share some of the Camino emotions, if not the full self-examining 500 mile route.

Perhaps this is the year to walk the Caminho da Costa, the Portuguese Coastal Way. Starting in Porto, you cover 265 km of northern Portugal before crossing by ferry to A Guarda, in Galicia, and leaving the coast at Vigo to head towards Santiago.

I wonder how pale this imitation might be, or whether it will still be powerful enough to stir the soul. I am not religious, but perhaps it will nevertheless be a small spiritual awakening, as well as a physically demanding and fulfilling walk.

And who knows what else it might inspire me to do after arriving at the cathedral square, with all those other pilgrims……

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Movie review – Lion

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A 5 year-old boy lives in poverty in rural northern India, but is much loved by his hard-working mother and older brother Guddu.

Tragically, he is accidentally displaced to the mean streets of Calcutta, where he survives with other lost children, until swept up into a secure facility. Unspeakable things happen here, but young Saroo is fortunate and is adopted by a caring Australian couple.

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He settles in well – Nicole Kidman as your new Mum can’t be a bad experience, after all – but the family unit is destabilised by another arrival from India. Saroo’s newly adoptive brother Mantosh struggles with demons that he sadly never really overcomes.

Saroo thrives in Tasmania though, and qualifies to study hospitality management at university in Melbourne. He embraces the cosmopolitan environment there, and meets and falls in love with Lucy, sympathetically played by Rooney Mara.

But 25 years after being separated from his real family, Saroo becomes desperate to track them down, with inevitably damaging consequences for his Australian family and friends.

Based on a true story, this is a charming film, if a little mawkish at times. I defy you not to be reaching for the Kleenex when Saroo, played by Dev Patel, finally locates his village and family in India.

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Two things linger in my mind after seeing Lion. The scene where Sue Brierley tells Saroo that she and husband John could always have had children of their own, but wanted to offer a better life to parentless children from a poorer society.  And the caption – as the closing credits roll – that 80,000 children are lost in India every year.

 

 

Book review – Terrorist by John Updike

John Updike is lauded as one of America’s greatest writers. He was a prolific creator of novels, short story collections, essays and literary criticism. He is one of only three people to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once.

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And I’m almost ashamed to say that Terrorist, written in 2006 and one of the last works before his death in 2009, is the first Updike novel I have read. But it won’t be the last.

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Terrorist is eerily prophetic. It takes place a few years after the 9/11 atrocities invaded the minds of previously complacent Americans, but its characters and plot foretell with uncanny accuracy the constant jihadi threat facing Trump’s USA and the wider western world 10 years later.

Ahmad Ashmawy Mulloy is a US-born teenager, whose Irish-American Catholic mother Teresa had a brief relationship with an Egyptian, Ahmad’s now long-gone father.

They live in the ironically named town of New Prospect, the New Jersey equivalent of Trump’s mid-West rust-belt, where once vibrant businesses decay, people struggle to find work and neighbourhoods have become increasingly multicultural.

Ahmad is in his last year of High School. He is bright but has no immediate ambition, other than to drive a truck. He knows that his God – Allah –  will show him the right way forward. And, thanks to instruction of the Qur’an since he was 10, by Imam Shaikh Rashid at the local mosque, he knows not to succumb to the siren call of Joryleen, a sexually aware black girl in his class at school. As much as he is tempted.

Jack Levy is a world-weary careers advisor, who sees the potential in Ahmad. Jack’s wife Beth is fat and has become lazy, and he embarks on an ill-fated affair with Ahmad’s promiscuous mother.

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There is almost an overload of religious education in the first third of the book. We read swathes of the Qur’an with Ahmad and see how Shaikh Rashid begins to foment Ahmad’s radicalisation; Jack is a Jew, but struggles with his own faith and guilt; Teresa is clearly a somewhat lapsed Catholic.

At the age of forty, she has parted from a number of men, and how many would she want back? With each break, it seems to her in retrospect, she returned to her single life with a fresh forthrightness and energy, like facing a blank, taut, primed canvas after some days away from the easel.

As the plot develops and the characters’ lives intertwine, Updike’s powerful prose entraps you, like a fly in an arachnid’s web.

“What is freedom?”, Shaikh Rashid asks, his eyes opening and breaking the skin of his trance, “As long as we are in our bodies, we are slaves to our bodies and our necessities. How I envy you, dear boy. Compared with you, I am old, and it is to the young that the greatest glory of battle belongs. To sacrifice one’s life,” he continues, as his eyelids half shut, so just a wet gray glitter shows, “before it becomes a tattered, exhausted thing. What an endless joy that would be.”

Terrorist eases into being a conventional, taut thriller, but thanks to the author’s mastery of language and storytelling, it is so much more.

And it has also made me fear that there is no obvious solution to the threat of constant attack by so-called radical Islamists, who see death and destruction of Western infidels as the only Straight Path to follow in life.

Write, write, write

At a recent travel exhibition, I went to an inspiring session on how to pitch your writing ideas to editors.

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Lynne Hughes (founder and publisher of Wanderlust travel magazine), Phoebe Smith (Wanderlust’s editor) and Debbie Chapman (commissioning travel editor for Summersdale Publishers) shared some invaluable thoughts on best practice for pitching article and book ideas….and some cautionary tales on how definitely not to pitch.

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You may be the best writer out there, but unless you can get your ideas and writing noticed by those with The Publishing Power, you’ll never see your work in print. Well, not in respected print and digital publications anyway.

Regardless of what you’re trying to create and pitch yourself, they all said: just write, write, write. The more you practise, the better your writing will become. Hopefully. And read, read, read. Absorb as much as you can from published writers. Fingers crossed some of that purple prose will rub off….

I haven’t published much on this humble blog recently. But neither have I been totally unproductive. I’ve been busy creating content for a collaboration with photographer and film-maker friend Mark Melling: welcome to Great Escapations.

Our first project is to tell the story of the intriguing area and charming people of Zagori, high in the Pindos mountains of north-west Greece, almost hugging the Albanian border. We hope our films, images and words will give you a strong sense of life in this historical community of 46 stone-built and slate-roofed villages.

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We’re almost ready to unleash Great Escapations on the outside world. Let the pitching begin…..