My UK publishers Sceptre turned 30 this year, with a splendid celebration on the new Hodder & Stoughton rooftop overlooking the Thames at Blackfriars. To celebrate they asked some of their authors to write a short piece about time, and the creative process. This was mine….
When I turned 49 I thought big birthdays didn’t matter; by 49-and-a-half, I knew they did. I marked my 50th by walking the 500-mile camino pilgrimage across northern Spain.
The idea was to reach Santiago by my birthday, but after my right knee swelled like a plump grapefruit on day two I had to let go of that plan.
I had to let go of just about every plan.
I was carrying too much: two novels for God’s sake, coloured pencils, three extra kilos of nothing. Then one day I found myself on a track through one of the most ancient human sites in Europe. Even though millions of pilgrims had walked before me, I knew I would find something. Continue reading →
This article was originally published in The Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly in spring 2016. It looked amazing in its original print edition – incredible photos. It’s nice to find it online just now.
you land in India anytime in late February or March, it’s wise to check the dates of the annual Holi festival, and bring a spare set of clothes. That’s because for a few days in spring, people crowd the streets and splash brilliantly colored dyes on anyone walking by. It’s hard to avoid the fun—and paint—unless you stay inside or look menacing enough to discourage the custom.
“Watch out, madam!” said my taxi driver in Amritsar as we drove through a melee of young people pelting each other with powder.
“The colors never come out of your clothes,” he said. “And you might be having purple hair for many days. It is a complete liability.”
I did a quick check. I was wearing black, a color rarely seen in India. In the caste, or “varna,” system (which in Sanskrit translates as the “color” system), it is usually associated with the lowest categories of social classes, and can be viewed as unlucky. A Forbes study in 2009, which compared corporate logo colors in India with international brands, suggested that black is the one color that companies in India assiduously avoid. I was happy for my clothes to be permanently splattered.
“Can we stop?” I asked. “Or will I make your taxi dirty when I get back in?”
“No, madam, I have a cloth for just this exact purpose,” he said. “And I have some powder I bought for my children. You can have some gladly, to join in our customs.”
Holi represents the arrival of spring and the triumph of good over evil. It is also said to be the enactment of a game the Hindu god Lord Krishna played with his consort Radha and the gopis, or milkmaids. The story represents the fun and flirtatiousness of the gods but also touches on deeper themes: of the passing of the seasons and the illusory nature of the material world.
Traditionally the colors used in Holi came from flowers and herbs—which in the hot climate of India tend to produce bright natural dyes—but today they’re usually synthetic. The tub of crimson powder the driver handed me was almost fluorescent; holding this as my weapon of choice, I walked into the Holi smoke. Continue reading →
My father’s funeral was three months ago last week, and as several friends have told me strictly, it’s about time I posted HIS eulogy to go with my mother’s. His funeral was on December 9, and he died on November 26, three months and a day after my mother. I miss them both so much.
My brother and I accompanied both our parents to the furnace: it needed planning, but after I had conducted a funeral service myself, I had seen how the coffin was left in a corridor waiting for the furnace to be lit and I decided I didn’t want my parents to go the last few yards on their own. For our mother’s cremation, it went smoothly. My brother and I left the church together after the funeral for the crematorium, accompanied by the funeral director and the vicar; he said a few prayers including a most wonderful psalm, I rested my cheek against the coffin, the funeral director said “they are ready” and we went behind the scenes, through the kitchen, and waited while the coffin was pushed pneumatically into an oven so hot that when it went in there was a shot of fire as if by God. It was raw and it was holy. Continue reading →
The funeral for my mother was a week ago. She would have loved it, I think… so many friends, the fact that my father was there, the flowers, the service written specially for her. She’d have put the pictures and the order of service on her new iPad and shown everyone with pride. My mother was an extraordinary person: she explored ideas, she made — and kept — so many friends of all ages, she cared for my father with so much love, she could still do headstands even just before that catastrophic stroke, she was a brilliant mother, she was wise and funny and she made me be a better person. Each morning I wake up and remember again. Here is her eulogy.
On Boxing Day 2004 our mother and father were in Sri Lanka. They had – though we didn’t know this until later – arranged to go on a little boat to a small temple island with friends, Alison, Alasdair and Cordelia, who was then eight. That morning my mother had gone for a walk on the beach and met with the wife of the hotel manager, with whom she had a wonderful discussion about… I don’t know… everyone here knows my mother’s astonishing capacity for making instant friendships and having wide ranging conversations about all sorts of exciting things. Continue reading →
The furore around whether this dress, aka #TheDress is blue and black or white and gold (I say it’s white and gold. Obviously!) and the delicious vox pop videos the BBC and others are making of when they ask people about it (“you’re winding me up!??? Are you turning my spanner???”) makes me wonder what would have happened if there had been twitter and video in 1820s Paris.
That year the Gobelins Royal tapestry workshop in Paris had a problem. They were using the same bright dyes that they’d been using since the 1660s, and which they were famous for, and for which they were charging a fortune. The trouble was the coloured threads started coming up grey on the tapestry.
A dress manufacturer could just change the production line but these guys only managed about a square metre in a year (tapestries were about 12 feet high and longer across and were made by teams of weavers) so mistakes were pretty painful.
Today they’d have had young media types wandering around posh Parisian arrondissements holding up tapestry samples of bright red against orange and the same bright red against purple (“tu me fais marcher!?? vous me tournez ma clé à molette!!!?”) with the first one so much duller than the second. Continue reading →
(more notes from the notebooks in the attic)
There are no pictures of the great Braganza diamond, and nobody knows quite where it might be. But here’s the story, and the mystery.
In around 1790, three criminals were banished “into perpetual exile” in the interior of Brazil. The rule was that they could not go into any big towns – and if they did so, they would be imprisoned for life.
The three men decided to try their luck mining in the Rio Plata area, hoping that a big find of gold might reverse their fortunes and maybe even, with some bribery funds, their sentences. In 1797, after six years of searching (and avoiding cannibals and government soldiers on the way) they came to the river Abaite. It was a drought and the waters were at their lowest levels known in living history.
While panning for gold they were surprised to find, in one of the pans, a stone of excellent heft that weighed nearly an ounce. A clergyman helped get them access to the governor at Villa Rica who consulted a jeweller to decide whether the stone was or was not a diamond. It was decided that it was, and the men were pardoned. It does not appear that they were allowed to keep the jewel.
It was called the “Braganza”, after the Portuguese Royal House of Braganza. However now the stone has disappeared from sight, and it is believed by many experts not to have been diamond but topaz.
Edwin Streeter notes there are other accounts and many possible weights attributed to the Braganza. He tells a story of the German Aulic-councillor Beireis of Helmstadt, who possessed a stone he believed to be a diamond – weighing 6,400 carats. He kept it locked up in a cabinet and spread the story round that he had received it from the Emperor of China. “Nobody of course believed this story, but the strangest part of it was that at his death [in 1809] the stone had disappeared” – even though Goethe himself testified to its existence. It could be that he loved mystery, or it could be that he wanted to save his reputation by preventing the true character of the gem from being known. “It is well to remember that the topaz, which consists of a fluorosilicate mixed with silicate of aluminium is apt to be mistaken for the diamond by unpractised eyes.” (p.45)
A final note on the Braganza, Portugal has not has a King since 1932, when its last monarch, the exiled Manoel II, died at Twickenham, after a day of watching tennis at Wimbledon.
More on topaz on the latest “The Ones that Got Away” page.