Tag Archives: friends

Book review – Beautiful Animals

I have wanted to visit Hydra since reading Sylvie Simmons’ superb biography of Leonard Cohen, and discovering that it was where Leonard Cohen lived happily for many years in the bohemian 1960s.

Leonard Cohen on Hydra – image from GTP Headlines

The urge has only been heightened since reading Beautiful Animals, an unsettling book written by Lawrence Osborne, which places the reader firmly on this tiny Saronic island, in Greece’s Aegean Sea and almost touching the Peloponnese.

Naomi knows Hydra intimately, spending every languid summer there at the family holiday home with her wealthy father, Jimmie Codrington, and spiky stepmother Phaine.

One day, returning from her secret daily morning swim in a quiet cove beyond Mandraki and Zourva, Naomi meets the preppy American Haldane family.

The other girl was younger than Naomi, maybe nineteen or twenty to her twenty-four, with eyes that were steady and cool: perhaps like herself a student of human beings and their calamities.’

Naomi and Samantha become close, their friendship taking a darker turn after they stumble across a half naked man sleeping in a remote part of the island. Later, they learn that Faoud is a migrant, fleeing Syria on the well-worn trail in search of a safer Europe.

Naomi concocts a plan to help the intriguing Faoud, but what are her real motives…and when it goes badly wrong, can any of their lives be the same again?

The author has been compared to Graham Greene, and I can understand why after reading this haunting novel. Covering multiple themes and with Greene’s eye for physical and psychological detail, he embeds the reader deep inside the troubled heads of his characters and under the blazing sun of a Greek summer, before making a dash for freedom with Faoud through southern Italy.

For me, place is everything… I spend more time thinking about that than anything.’

Lawrence Osborne

Thank you, Lawrence….see you on Hydra.


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….


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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Radio drama

Can there be a better medium than radio for some punchy drama?

I love some of the plays broadcast on Radio 4, and have been completely hooked on Forty Weeks, broadcast this week in 5 episodes of 15 minutes, at the back end of Woman’s Hour.

A romantic comedy about love, infidelity and accidental pregnancy, it was beautifully written by Katherine Jakeways.

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It may have been about yet another tangled love triangle, but it was written and acted with such humour, compassion and lightness of touch that it couldn’t fail to captivate.

And  hearing the story unfold on radio allows the listener to engage the imagination in a far different way to television, stage or silver screen.

Sam loves Rose. Sam’s Dad dies. Rose is working away from home. Sam shags Bayley. In a car park. Bayley becomes pregnant. Rose and Bayley become friends.

So far, so pretty predictable. But as each episode unfolds during the baby’s gestation period – lentil, lime, melon, cabbage, baby – the relationships of the protagonists take some unexpected and entertaining turns.

A listening joy from start to finish. It almost made me want to have a baby. Or write a play for radio.

Movie review – I, Daniel Blake

First Odeon Screen Unseen for a while last night. What a great concept. For just £5, it’s a complete surprise what movie you’ll see. Like Forrest Gump’s words of wisdom from his Mum – life is like a box of chocolates…..you never know what you’re gonna get. 

Well, we got I, Daniel Blake, this year’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner, from film-making legend Ken Loach.

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Dave Johns is Daniel Blake, an ageing carpenter who is signed off work with a heart problem.

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This proud, honest working class man loses his dignity and just about everything else as he struggles to penetrate the opaque benefits system. On one of his futile visits to the Job Centre, he tries to help single mother Katie – played by Hayley Squires – and her two young children, relocated from London to Newcastle and also being stonewalled by the rules-bound staff.

The film is relentlessly bleak in its assessment of the welfare state bureaucracy, but through the despair an unlikely friendship is formed and at least some human decency is glimpsed.

Ken Loach is renowned for his political views…somewhere left of Trotsky. But there’s no denying that he makes films that shatter you emotionally and which resonate with powerful issues of the day.

I remember being wowed by Land and Freedom, his 1995 homage to the communist protagonists in the Spanish Civil War….which coincidentally is also what Laurie Lee experiences in As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, which I’ve just finished reading.

Next Screen Unseen in November. Hope it’s got a slightly softer centre than I, Daniel Blake.

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Theatre review – The Shawshank Redemption

The 1994 Oscar winning movie The Shawshank Redemption is regularly right at the top of many favourite film of all time lists.

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Based on a novella by Stephen King, it tells the story of Andy Dufresne, a banker incarcerated in the infamous Shawshank penitentiary for the murder of his wife and her lover.

Andy initially remains aloof inside the brutal prison, but slowly forms an unlikely friendship with fixer Ellis “Red” Redding. He continually professes his innocence of the double murder, but over the years inside The Shank he uses his wit and intelligence to make life as bearable as possible.

This intriguing tale has now been transported to the stage. I can’t compare to the movie or to the original book, but it stands alone as a thrilling, life-affirming piece of live entertainment.


Paul Nicholls plays the wily banker, Jack Ellis the devious Warden Stammas and Ben Onwukwe, as Red, is a convincing double for Oscar nominated Morgan Freeman.

With stealthy set changes and a little imagination, we’re on the inside of the penitentiary with the cast, moving seamlessly from the canteen to Andy’s cell – adorned by a Rita Hayworth poster – into the exercise yard and back into the new library, a reward for Andy’s money-laundering efforts for Warden Stammas.

The cast of just eleven men punches well above its collective weight, thanks to a clever soundtrack and theatrical trickery .

We come to despise prison bullies and rapists Bogs and Rooster, pity institutionalised librarian Brooksie and laugh with the other long-term inmates.

In just two hours, we live with them all through almost 20 years of lies, violence, fear, friendship and – ultimately – redemption.

I might yet see the much lauded film one day, but it’s hard to imagine it could be a better experience than seeing this stage adaptation, on a wet September night in Windsor.

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Courchevel ski trip

Just back from our annual pilgrimage to the ski slopes of Europe. To Courchevel in the French Alps this time, part of the wider classic Trois Vallées ski domain.

I say annual, but Gill and I did sneak in a cheeky additional week on the pistes this year, at Champoluc in Italy with old friends Nigel & Julie Cripps.

Courchevel was with our usual group of alpinistes, whose ageing process I wrote wistfully about after the St Anton expedition a year ago. Sadly prophetic, the Gang of Eight was reduced through poor health to the Team of Six for this year’s outing.

Not wanting to betray the gang’s ethos – just us being pampered in a catered chalet, with a list of priorities longer than an EU summit’s – we stayed at Robin & Maggie’s own apartment in Courchevel. My brother Paul and sister-in-law Carol completed the reduced team.

The delightful village of Courchevel Le Praz sits at 1300 metres, lower than the bling-tastic resorts of Courchevel 1650 and 1850, but more of a living, breathing local community. And you don’t have to speak Russian.

Thanks to intense pre-tour negotiations, we managed to agree an interesting array of catering solutions: each couple would conjure up a feast one night; we would celebrate both Gill’s birthday (first night) and Robin’s (last night) at local restaurants; we would trial a catered meal, delivered to and eaten in the apartment; and for the remaining night, we might buy a ready-prepared meal from the excellent boucherie in the village.

It all worked so well that perhaps we should copyright and market the concept to self-catering chalets throughout the world. Mix & Match Catering Solutions? Smorgasbord Ski Meals? Courchevel Catering Concepts?

We splashed out on the celebratory meals, at Le Bistrot du Praz for Gill’s birthday and at the Michelin starred Azimut for Robin’s. In the end, we had a decadently long and late lunch – rather than dinner – at Azimut, leaving the slopes early in anticipation of deteriorating conditions and fading light.

This was sadly the story of our skiing week….clouds, limited visibility, and constantly changing conditions, with occasional bursts of brilliant sunshine and huge dumps of fresh powdery snow. Essentially as varied as the catering package.

Still, as Gill always says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Which nearly happened to Robin one day. Dying, rather than adding muscle to his slight frame.

After impressing us for days with his Zen-like affinity with Courchevel’s vast network of pistes and lifts, guiding us safely down the mountain in clouds as thick as Gérard Depardieu’s accent, towards the end of the week he promptly disappeared from amongst us.

In limited visibility and in the teeth of an icy blizzard, we all headed down the well-known blue track to the appointed meeting place, right of a large rock.

I passed Robin and stopped at the rock. The others arrived. Robin didn’t. We waited 10 minutes. We considered our options. We waited some more.

Half an hour later, we were finally reunited, further down the mountain in Courchevel 1850.

Robin had contrived to ski away from the marked track, falling head-first into deep snow and losing his skis. And if you’ve ever fallen in fresh powder, you’ll know that finding a ski is like looking for a cup of coffee costing less than €6 in the 3 Valleys.

He found them. He lived. He’s another year older, if not wiser.

In imperfect conditions, we still had a great week. But hopefully next year, the Gang of Eight will be reunited.

Pine Cottage Supper Club – entertainment

Well, my head still hurts and today is a very slow Saturday, after last night’s Tuesley Lane neighbourly shindig at Snoo Powell’s Pine Cottage Supper Club in Hydestile.

For better or for worse, we asked everyone to provide a short piece of inter-course entertainment. On a strictly voluntary basis. It helped the evening whizz by. As did the alcohol.

My own humble offering is reproduced below. It wrapped up the evening. It wasn’t funny but it came from the heart.

Numbers and Words

65 million people living in the UK.

22,000 in Godalming.

19 bottles of wine.

12 people.

3 courses.

1 host.

Numbers….functional, precise, unemotional.

But numbers can’t describe the friendships forged between 12 people over the gentle effluxion of time, initially neighbours but becoming so much more with each passing year.

You need words to describe the simple pleasure of those people sharing birthday celebrations; a bike ride on a grey winter morning; a walk across harvested fields in the full glare of a late summer sun.

18 years of marriage. But how can a stark number begin to convey the depth of love, affection and respect forged in that period, through times of work, stress and leisure alike?

Words are needed to portray a child’s love and memory of their parents, prompted as simply perhaps as by running a finger over the well burnished handle of an over-used garden tool.

5 holidays in 12 months, but only words can allow family and friends to share and understand the cultural differences experienced in an alien land, the exhilaration of seeing an Oriental sun rise at dawn from a volcanic crater rim, or the taste of a freshly cooked blacktip trevally, redolent still of the Indian Ocean waters.

4 countries in 16 years, but words are needed to give depth to the multi-layered emotions of expatriate life..the unalloyed pleasure of meeting new friends from a foreign culture; freedom from the straitjacket of domestic routine; the thrill of spontaneous weekends in another country. But all the while, an invisible force pulls you back to the home you left, as surely as a foraging bird returns to the nest.

19 bottles of wine. 2 colours. 5 countries. But that gives no sense of the soil from which the vines eased upwards, the passionate, nurturing hands of the winegrowers, the patient fermentation process in oak barrels as old as the estate owner’s grandfather.

1 host. Well, 2. But neither number can begin to tell of the generosity of spirit from Snoo and Gary in opening up the doors of Pine Cottage to 12 complete strangers. Nor of the flexibility and friendliness. Nor of the brilliant food and hospitality. Thank you, Pine Cottage….thank you, Chef Snoo & sous chef Gary.

Thank you, words.


Pine Cottage Supper Club

Love food? Love the sociability of dining with friends?

But hate all the shopping, preparation, and washing up?

And there’s always that constant struggle to get the timing right, wanting to serve each course in a blaze of perfectly timed culinary glory, but without neglecting your guests.

The solution? A Supper Club.

Gill had heard about Pine Cottage Supper Club a while ago. Last night 12 neighbourly friends took advantage of the generous hospitality of Chef Snoo Powell and her husband Gary, in their beautiful home in the nearby hamlet of Hydestile.

Imagine the idyllic cottage where Cameron Diaz falls in love with Jude Law in romcom classic The Holiday, and you won’t be far off….

As Snoo says on her website:

Pine Cottage Supper Club is a new dining experience – supper clubs have been on the scene in London and other major cities for quite a while and now we have one in Godalming!

If you want to go out to eat with a group of friends to celebrate a birthday, anniversary or just the fact that spring has arrived, and fancy eating in a very informal and relaxed atmosphere, almost as if you were dining at home, then come and eat at my kitchen table. This is not a formal restaurant – more like eating at the chef’s table.

And although we all dressed formally, the evening could not have been more informal. Or fun.

Glasses of Prosecco were enjoyed in the kitchen, with some exquisite nibbles, as we got to know our genial – and remarkably stress-free – hosts.

Dinner was served at a long unfussy table in my kind of dining room. Surrounded by books. Especially travel books. This is beginning to sound a bit like Through The Keyhole. Who would live in a house like this? I just hope Keith Lemon doesn’t show up…..

The first culinary surprise was an amuse-bouche – although linguistically I prefer the more slangy amuse-gueule (pretentious, moi….?) – of creamy vegetable (courgette?) soup. Served in an espresso cup, it was sinfully calorific, I suspect, and all the better for it.

Most of us had the excellent starter of goat’s cheese and smoked salmon parcels, with rocket and lemon wedges. Although it wasn’t until later that the interesting sweetness was identified as white chocolate.

Through all the conversations and email exchanges with Snoo we’d had before the night, we’d been struck by her ideas and flexibility.

Some people don’t like fishy things? Or goat’s cheese? No problem. Enter an interesting mélange of beetroot and aubergines.

The main course was a vast platter of slow-roasted spicy pork. With perfect filling-threatening crackling. And crunchy spuds. And a week’s quota of fresh greens and vegetables. But – and imagine this in Marcus or Monica’s most portentous Masterchef voice – what really lifted the dish for me was the silky smooth apple purée, the sweetness of the fruit wrapping itself around the meaty pork and iron of the greens. Yum.

To be honest, around this stage of the evening the effects of the Prosecco, white and red wines (bring your own plonk) were kicking in. I have a sense of many sweets arriving, all good – Snoo, if you read this can you please fill in the gaps? But the taste and perfectly wobbly texture of the smoky lapsang buttermilk pannacotta will linger a while. It transported me to Italy, pronto.

The cheese board was laden with – ooh – at least 10 outstanding, and quite unusual, varieties. Bit hazy again….Snoo, any help here, please? And where did you source that great selection?

The evening was over all too quickly. For us, at least. The 5 hours had flown by, filled with an endless stream of imaginative food, laughter, conversation….and an, erm,  interesting choice of inter-course entertainment.

Snoo had offered up the piano’s ivories to be tinkled. Sadly nobody took up that option, but it epitomises the philosophy of Pine Cottage Supper Club….this is your home too for the night.

Huge – and well-fed – thanks to Snoo and to Gary. The word is out.

ps – we’ll be round soon to pick up the cars


Pine Cottage, Salt Lane, Hydestile, Surrey, GU8 4DH

Tel: 01483 860 318

Email: pinecottagesupperclub@gmail.com   

Snoo’s dining table can be found in her family home of over 10 years, nestled in the Surrey hills and overlooking the garden.

The Isle of Purbeck

In 1953 my Mum and Dad spent their honeymoon in Swanage, on the Dorset coast.

In the 1990s, we spent a couple of idyllic family holidays on the Isle of Purbeck. My two young nephews dug sandcastles on Studland Bay beach,  floppy hats protecting their youthful skin from the unexpectedly searing heat. We walked decent stretches of the vertiginous coastal path, from Swanage to Winspit and then inland to the quaint village of Worth Matravers. We explored the natural wonder of Brownsea Island, and we drove miles in search of elusive Solero ice creams.

And now, good friends have a home near Corfe Castle. We’ve been lucky to spend weekends there with them in recent years, and the love affair with this still largely untamed part of the country continues anew.

It’s a Famous Five, or Swallows and Amazons type of place. Its rolling inland hills, perfect beaches and plunging coastline remain relatively unspoiled, and driving through Wareham always make me feel like I’m returning to the innocence of childhood.

In reality a peninsula rather than an island, Purbeck stretches from Wareham in the north, east from Brownsea Island to Swanage and Durlston Lighthouse, and west as far as Worbarrow Bay along the scintillating – though sadly eroding – southern coastline.

Corfe Castle bewitches you as you drive on the Wareham to Swanage road, its ghostly remains perched high on a hill above providing a history lesson.  Fortunately, the Parliamentarians left enough standing in 1646 during the English Civil War for it still to be an interesting National Trust destination.

Swanage probably hasn’t changed much since 1953. It’s a charming English seaside town, originally a fishing port but developed as a tourist destination from the early 19th century. Enjoy its sandy beach, fish & chip shops, characterful pubs and restaurants. And abundance of Magnum ice creams.

Inland, explore Purbeck’s rolling landscape on foot or from a horse or bike saddle. The scars from old quarries, where the island’s eponymous marble and limestone have been extracted since the 12th century, somehow only add to the natural landscape, rather than detract.

The crumbling Jurassic coastline in the south is equally magnetic, pulling you in to walk its helter-skelter contours. Venture west as far as Kimmeridge and Worbarrow Bay, before heading inland to caught-in-time Tyneham.

Its villagers were suddenly asked to leave late in 1943, expecting to return after the army had finished its war training activities. Sadly, they never returned. The army retained the village and surrounding area as Ranges, but at certain times you’re allowed back to the village to see the church and school-house exactly as they were, more than 70 years ago.

Wander along to tiny villages or hamlets with beguiling names like Langton Matravers, Church Knowle or Steeple.

But, best of all, go to the wholly unique Square and Compass in Worth Matravers. There can be no better reason to live in England than to go to this charming village on a warm, summer’s day and find your way to its whacky hostelry, an alehouse since around 1776. Order pints of award winning beers or home-pressed traditional cider from cramped counters inside, listen to live music in the sloping garden and enjoy a pie or pasty from its unashamedly traditional, limited menu. This is as far from being a gastro pub as Nicola Sturgeon is from being English.

After enjoying 3 pints of mind-altering, coma-inducing Kiss-me-Kate cider at the weekend, listening to quirky folk music, sprawled in the sunny garden with old friends, I think I’d like my ashes to be spread here.

And I hope the Isle of Purbeck remains untarnished, so that honeymooners, 9 year-old boys in search of an ice cream and ageing scrumpy hunters alike can enjoy its special charms for many years to come.