Rio de Janeiro scared me at first. I landed at night in a rainstorm and from the airport took a taxi whose driver had no idea where I was going. I did not speak Portuguese; he did not speak iPhone. We drove through dark streets where the 7ft fences around each smart apartment block gave way to the concrete walls of the favelas. At the cocktail bar where we made our first stop, two burly men stood at the drive clutching machine guns.
Driving around Bali, the first thing I noticed was the big wicker baskets by the roadside. Inside each basket was a cockerel. I asked my friend Wayan why these birds were there. ‘They put them by the road to make them used to people,’ he told me. ‘Then they won’t be scared when it’s time for them to fight.’ ‘What do you mean, time to fight? A cockfight?’ He nodded. Cockfighting is a clandestine activity here.
If like me you get all your news from the Cornish Guardian, you may have spotted an article announcing that the Fairy Investigation Society is conducting a survey. They’re seeking information from anyone who has seen any pixies, elves or sprites — all on a strictly anonymous basis. I rang the man behind the research and he told me that in just three months, he’s had over 400 replies. An example: ‘I was walking down a field in Scotland when I noticed a winged being leaning up against the side of a sycamore tree.
On 24 September 1896 Queen Victoria was given a present of a paper knife, and expressed herself ‘much delighted’. The handle was set with overlapping gold coins each bearing the portrait of a British monarch. The uppermost coin bore an image of Victoria herself; the one beneath it, that of her grandfather George III. As Victoria recorded in her journal, 23 September 1896 was ‘the day on which I have reigned longer, by a day, than any English sovereign’.
President George W. Bush’s place in history is already guaranteed, fixed by a series of monumental blunders that no amount of revisionism will ever be able to whitewash. By comparison, historians are likely to have a hard time drawing a bead on Barack Obama. How could such an obviously gifted President, swept into office on a wave of immense expectations, have managed to accomplish so little in his attempted management of global affairs? Over the past six years ‘Yes, we can!’ has become ‘No, he hasn’t.
Almost two years ago, a cancer surgeon named Joseph Meirion Thomas decided that he could no longer keep quiet about what he regarded as a major abuse of the NHS. The Francis inquiry into the scandal at Stafford Hospital had just published its report, reminding doctors of their ‘duty of candour’. Thomas interpreted that to mean that health professionals ‘should feel supported and protected should they ever need to speak out.
I was talking the other day to a young woman who knows a lot about the history of rock. We shared an enthusiasm for Bob Dylan’s later work — especially Blood on the Tracks (1975). As we talked, it occurred to me that Dylan recorded this ‘late’ effort 40 years ago, only 13 years into his career. So why do we treat it as belonging more to our time than, say, his folk ballads from the early 1960s? Some baby-boomer journalist must have decided around 1970 that something Dylan did in 1965 or 1966 — maybe his switch to electric instruments or his motorcycle accident — marked a critical break in history.
As a provincial teenage virgin with ideas so far above my station that they gave me vertigo, I frequently reflected bitterly that whoever coined the phrase ‘Schooldays are the best days of your life’ must have come to that conclusion after being involved in a serious car-crash the evening following their last day at school, probably rendering them a tetraplegic. And the little thing which summed up how thoroughly inappropriate it was was the horridness of name tags.
When George W. Bush was outed as an artist, after a computer hacker uncovered his nude self-portraits, jaws dropped around the world. Could Cowboy George, a man whom even Kim Jong-il’s cronies dubbed a philistine, actually be a closet aesthete? This spring, at the first exhibition of his works in Dallas, he confessed: ‘There’s a Rembrandt trapped in this body.’ It shouldn’t come as such a surprise.
‘You’ve got a lot to live up to,’ said the ranger. ‘The last Spectator journalist who stayed here was Jeremy Clarke. He made quite the impression.’ Like some sort of Zulu legend, our ‘Low life’ columnist’s time at Shambala game reserve is now talked about around the campfire — or braai as it is known in South Africa. ‘I heard he commandeered a safari vehicle and set off to find a drinking hole,’ said one of the camp staff.
My husband and I decide we are up for a horse-riding adventure. We’ve done a few and have realised it’s the only way to travel: the truest way to experience an up-close and personal with a country and its people. You’re out of your comfort zone, there’s no turning back, you must abandon all control and anything can happen. There’s nothing like extreme vulnerability to induce trust and affection in your guide and his horses.
The Republic of Maldives is the lowest country in the world and has the highest divorce rate. Is there correlation between altitude and fidelity, I wonder? Male, the capital, is 370 miles south-west of the southern tip of India. From the air it looks like Tower Hamlets. From Male we flew first by DHC-6 Twin Otter seaplane to the tiny coral island of Moofushi — about 20 thrilling minutes — and checked in at the Constance Moofushi island resort.
As a boy camping with my father on safaris deep in the African bush, there were no tents involved; we just slept by the fire like cowboys in the open under the constellations. Supper was sweet tea and biltong and we used a tin bucket for a shower. When it rained we simply moved underneath our parked Land Rover. One morning we woke to find tracks circling us, where a big lion had come close enough to blow on our toes as we slept.