Category Archives: Life

A Kurdish haircut and education

I had a haircut yesterday. And I also had a humbling insight into today’s complex world of migration, refugees and multiculturalism.

Godalming is a sleepy, affluent Surrey market town, historically populated largely by white, middle-class commuters. But in recent years, we’ve got used to seeing throngs of Eastern European fruit-pickers wandering past our window to the local soft fruit farm, and several heavy-smoking Turkish barbers undercutting the long-established local scissor-wielders in the ancient High Street.

The latest additions, though, are Kurds and I was captivated by the story of my barber’s life, family, country and future.

He has lived in England for 10 years. His mother still lives in Kurdistan, and is sick. The last time he went home was to help his father, who needed surgery on his legs. The barber sold his car and borrowed money from friends to get back to Kurdistan and help his father, but he was stopped at the Iraqi border and imprisoned for 2 days.  The authorities demanded a bribe of $10,000. He refused, but eventually agreed to pay $1,000.  He saved his father, was held trying to return to England and is unable to go and back and see his family in Kurdistan again.

He asked if I knew about the recent referendum in Kurdistan. A huge majority of Iraqi Kurdistanis voted for independence, but it seems this has put them at an increased risk of attack from neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as from Iraq. He believes a war is inevitable.

The barber shrugs his shoulders. Conflict and death are nothing new for Kurds. He says Saddam Hussein murdered hundreds of thousands of his countrymen in the 1980s. Mass graves are still being uncovered today.

I ask if he is a Muslim.  Yes, I am a Sunni Muslim. We have Shia Muslims in Kurdistan too. And Christians, Yazidis, Zoroastrans and some Jews, all living peacefully together. Unlike our neighbours.

I say I would be interested in visiting his country, and ask if it is safe. Normally, yes…but at the moment, after the referendum, possibly not. And do not travel direct from England. Go via Istria. Or Germany. If you go, tell me. You can meet my family.

£10 for a haircut and a humbling insight into another world, as far removed from sleepy Godalming as Kurdistan is from peaceful independence.

Sleep well, old friend

I lost a friend today. A good friend.

I only met him 20 years ago, and we probably only saw him two or three times each year, but for 15 years or so one of those occasions would be for a week’s skiing.

There were 8 of us in the gang. We stayed in catered chalets across Europe, and revelled in making the wish list as challenging as possible for whoever had the onerous task of finding somewhere that ticked all the boxes that year.

But once we all met up at the airport, something magical happened. It was as though we had just finished the previous year’s final run, and we all slipped effortlessly back into the same warm camaraderie as before. We knew a great week of snowy escapades, excessive food and drink consumption, banter, laughter and friendship would follow, as surely as an Alpine lunch is vastly overpriced.

Our friend was the oldest in the group, but probably also the most fearless. He was the one who first embraced helmetdom, but his excellent value  protective head wear from Lidl didn’t prevent him seeing stars after a heavy fall on a packed piste. And in flat light in Zermatt one year, he failed to see the edge of the groomed piste and performed a spectacular somersault into fresh powder, leaving his skis way behind him. Blood still gushed from his nose as we boarded the funicular back into town, but he had a demonic look of quiet satisfaction etched on his craggy face.

Our snowy pilgrimages started off in middle age, and we were all sliding inexorably towards old age, when he became ill. Unable to ski, we spent a memorable autumnal week in Dorset instead, renting a house to try and replicate that ski chalet ambience for one last time. We enjoyed a lovely Sunday lunch at  River Cottage, a brilliant piece of theatre in Lyme Regis – he loved Nina Simone – and he even managed to play golf for the first time in a while.

He was fiercely intelligent, with a wit as dry as his glass after a long lunch. He was sociable, and yet intensely private. He was a special person. His only flaw was that he supported Manchester United and Wales.

We might all ski again, but it will never be the same.

You have left a big hole, old friend.

Sleep well. And when we all meet again, it’s your turn to find the chalet….


The Big 60th birthday marathon

I wrote recently about some memorable big birthday celebrations I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy over the years. A 29-and-holding party in Bermuda, a surprise 40th party at home whilst working in Germany, a wild weekend in Soho for my 50th after an earlier fund-raising trek for World Vision up Kilimanjaro….

Well, I’ve come through the other side of my 60th and I reckon it may just have been the best yet. It all ended up being completely over the top, more like the so-called world series of baseball. Or the Queen. I’m exhausted, grateful, blessed….and officially old.

Round 1: Gill, my lovely missus, had said she was whisking me away somewhere for a long pre-birthday weekend. It turned out to be Cheltenham. For the last jump meeting of the season at the beautiful racecourse on Friday, and a spectacular Indian meal at Prithvi on Saturday….with old friends of various vintages arriving throughout a glorious weekend of surprises.

Round 2: 10th May, 60 years after my arrival in this often troubled but always amazing world. A low-key Italian-themed evening at home with family, friends and neighbours. Why Italian? Because I’m learning the language, because we love the country, people and food…and because I cracked open a few bottles of the rather special Sassicaia given to me as a leaving present from ex-colleagues.

Image result for sassicaia tenuta san guido

Well, it started off low-key, but escalated into something dangerously resembling a party. I definitely felt 60 on the morning of 11th May…

Round 3: on 12th May, a group of 14 headed over to Greece for 5 days, as a belated celebration but also to show the natural beauty of hidden Zagori to family and friends.

(images below courtesy of Mark Melling, with the obviously less professional ones from my humble Samsung)

Collaborator and friend Mark and I have made the villages and people of Zagori the first project for our travel publishing venture Great Escapations. I had discovered it last July, Mark and I had researched and interviewed people there last October.

I hope old age hasn’t addled my senses, but I think everyone else fell in love with this magical area too, with its friendly people, healthy food…and tsipouro.

Too many adventures to list fully, but here are a few selected highlights:

  • the Papaevangelou Hotel in Papigo…..Giorgos and his family have created a very special place to stay. If the natural surroundings don’t astound you, the level of service and quality of the breakfast surely will. Read about Giorgos’s story and meet him here 
  • a memorable evening at Anemi with lovely Lila and Pavlos serving up a feast for the senses, using food foraged from the landscape near Kato Pedina and cooked with love. The wine and tsipouro flowed, we shuffled around to Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love, Pavlos whipped out his bouzouki and nephew Steve sampled Pavlos’s pipe collection. Read about Anemi, Lila & Pavlos and meet them here  
  • a walk down into the majestic Vikos Gorge on a glorious spring day. It’s a measure of how beautiful, calm and cooling the Voidomatis spring is that I was almost forgiven for underestimating how far it was from Papigo. Almost….
  • the 3 hour hike up from Papigo to the 2,000 metre high Astraka refuge, sitting below the jagged peaks of Astraka and Gamila. Some went back to the village after this ascent, others ventured on, through a flower-strewn high Alpine valley to the mythical Drakolimni – Dragon Lake – still edged by snow and a mere appetiser for the even more breathtaking and expletive-inducing (thanks, Genovefa) main course….the yawning chasm towards Konitsa. Words really are not enough to describe the views that made our legs wobble and our hearts pound 
  • 5 brave souls swapped the luxury of cosy hotel rooms for a night in the mountain refuge. Nephews Steve & Dave, Dave’s girlfriend Lissy, Gill and I hunkered down in a dormitory – with a Bulgarian couple – after hearty bowls of spaghetti bolognese, tin jugs of local wine and a couple of games of cards, warmed by the stove as a hailstorm raged outside 
  • while others loved the rafting trip through the icy water of the Voidomatis river, Gill and I dropped in to see Lena at the agritourism venture Rokka. Despite being very busy running the Guest House and organising the first Wool Festival in Greece, Lena dropped everything to share some tsipouro and home-made meze with us, and to show Gill her 3 weaving looms. Such warmth and hospitality is an integral part of life in Zagori. Read about Lena, Kostas, Rokka and meet them here 

And that was my hyper-extended 60th birthday. Well, almost….

Gill and I swapped the mountains for coast, and spent a glorious couple of days chilling in Lefkada, one of the Ionian islands, off the west coast of mainland Greece. The others were unable to catch a ferry back from Igoumenitsa to Corfu, because of national strike action…and ended up chartering a boat to get them across the Ionian, under cover of darkness and in fear of being found by the coastguard or striking ferrymen.

A fitting finale…..just sorry we weren’t there to share the refugees’ fun.


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.

Image result for old age clipart

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.

Image result for don johnson miami vice sleeves rolled up

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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A Day To Remember

Well, I’m glad today is nearly over….

Image result for poppy images lest we forget

Leonard Cohen checks out on Remembrance Day.

Image result for leonard cohen

We get back from the funeral of Victor Sayer, a wonderful old friend of Gill’s, and who will be sorely missed….and find out that my dear father is in hospital again.

In the prescient words of Jools Holland and his ever brilliant Rhythm & Blues Band, who we were lucky to see in Guildford last night with good friends Chezza & Dave: Enjoy yourself….it’s later than you think.

Image result for jools holland it's later than you think


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.

59 and descending

May 10, 2016.

I’m 59 today.

A year from now, I’ll be in the 60s Zone. No longer Middle Aged, I’ll be starting the long, slow descent into Old Age. There will be no Renaissance period for me.

30 years ago, I had a Miami Vice themed 29-and-holding birthday party, in the garden of our rented Bermuda home. We were tanned, lithe-limbed, supple, sockless and solvent, the dollars flowing as freely as the rum.

Now I’m unemployed and it’s more likely to be an artisan macchiato, or a peppermint tea, than a dark-and-stormy. Joints ache, hairs sprout, pee gushes. More blustering Boris Johnson than dashing Don.

Small craters erupt on my creased face, like the foothills of Kilimanjaro on the Serengeti plain. I hope they’re not harbingers of skin cancer, often recently afflicting my family. And they didn’t even get to enjoy a few years in a sun-drenched tax haven.

So I’m going to carpe that diem like it’s never been carped before. Grasp that nettle as tightly as an expat does happy memories of 30 years past.

Time for a 59-and-clinging-on party, perhaps….



The toilet roll test

I’ve often wondered why anyone has their toilet paper hanging under, rather than over.

I mean….why would you?

If it’s hanging over, it’s so much more easily accessible. Not just for those certain moments of toiletary panic, but as a metaphor for life. Why make extracting every piece  more challenging than it needs to be, when it’s so much easier reversing the flow?

You wouldn’t hide your shoes right at the back of the cupboard, when there’s loads of space at the front, would you?

Or put your Oyster card in the zipped pouch of your rucksack, rather than the back pocket of your jeans?

It bugs me so much that – yes, I admit it – I’ve been known to reverse the toilet roll directional flow. More in commercial premises than peoples’ homes. I respect everyone’s right to do something contrary and inefficient, after all.

Well, it turns out this says a lot about me. And you. I’m dominant. Apparently. And under-hangers are submissive. Really.

Unsurprisingly, this psycho-babble bunkum is being rolled out from the US.

Relationship expert and performance coach Dr. Gilda Carle – based on a random sample of 2,000 men and women – says the toilet roll test ascertains key aspects of your personality. And even says it’s important when assessing your life-partner.

“What first began as a fun exercise actually turned into an accurate assessment tool. 

“While it adds humour to the conversation, it also provides oh-so-much insight about your future compatibility with that person!”


There, that feels better. Let’s get married.

What’s in a name?

A few years ago, a good friend of my nephew Steve changed his name from plain old Christopher Young to a rather more uplifting Kit Fantastic.

Kit, his wife Beth and children Tilly & Teddy are obviously now The Fantastic Four. But there’s no truth in the rumour that they’ll christen the next child Fantastic Fantastic.

It turns out that Kit was ahead of his time. An article in the Times today reports that in 2015 a record 85,000 people in the UK changed their name by deed poll.

And why wouldn’t you, when you could wake up one day as Simon Smith, but go to bed as Bacon Double Cheeseburger.


“A name is the least important part of your personality”, Mr Smith told The Sunday People. “It’s given to you by someone else”.

The 33 year-old from Muswell Hill changed his name last year. “Bacon Double Cheeseburger was the first name I came up with”, he said. Presumably with a straight face.

The report doesn’t comment on whether he kept his job – as an investment banker? An Ocado delivery driver? – or what his wife – now Alice Mushroom Stilton Cheeseburger – thought. (I made that last bit up).

The report goes on to say how others have adopted equally bizarre names, such as Sarge Metalfatigue or Simply MyLove Poet.

In a remarkable tribute to Kit & Beth, another couple have renamed themselves Mr & Mrs Amazing.

Louise Bowers, of the UK Deed Poll Service, said: “One man changed his name to Happy Birthday. It gave us a chuckle, but if that’s what they want to do, it’s their choice.”

The process takes 4 working days and costs just £33 for an adult, and £35 for a child.

So I’m going to scribble out a cheque for £66 right now and by the weekend, when we’re off to Courchevel, boring old Andrew & Gillian Morris will have morphed into Monsieur Deep Powder et Madame Corduroy Avalanche Beacon.

It’s Gill’s birthday on Saturday….she’ll love the surprise, right?

And I suppose we’ll just have to find another new name for the summer.