Motorway spray races across the car window – I pick a winning droplet, in the frame of the passing linen sky. Soon, we spot seagulls, And a first glimpse of sea, “What time will we go to the arcades?” – the refrain from the backseats – As my brother and I fasten our shoes, And brush crumbs onto the floor.
Bloated fish nibble at the pond surface behind us, While we stand sniggering, Grandad’s shirt and tie refracted behind frosted glass, The back door peeks open, “Not today, thank you” – the ritual greeting – We giggle, and bundle inside To wafts of pastry and gravy.
Triaging each familiar comfort – Our Nana’s twinkle-eyed embrace, The measuring of just how tall we’d grown, Pink iced fingers, yellow French Fancies, Dandelion and Burdock – Our adventuring, up and down the house, Can begin in earnest.
Pillaging salted peanuts We scan over cousins’ school portraits, Smoothed under glass table top, Carpet curls tickle our toes, We press our noses against the enormous pane And fight over binoculars, Looking out at icy foam and black liners Carving through the English Channel.
After lunch – and Grandad’s apple slices – We bounce through hedged park squares Towards the Promenade, And drop two pence pieces Into moving treasure chests, Throw our plastic parachute men cliff-side, And watch them spin in the biting current As evening draws in.
Back inside the walled garden We chase after the fish, Fall about on the grass – Energies finally spent – Rosy-cheeked we watch The Pink Panther Then drift off under the covers To Famous Five adventuring, And the thrill of doing it all again Tomorrow.
I’m back on the bread-making cycle again. Today marking Day 22 of official house arrest here.
The mental exhaustion of even having to write about lockdown is inspiring me to simply avoid talking about the subject. We’ve been out to receive our second vaccine, to pick up and drop off the girls and, then, this morning, under the cover of 4:45am darkness, I ran my first 5kms in 12 weeks, up and down my street, masked up and nodding to two other violators of Saigon’s current rules.
Trying to stay sane, whatever it takes, we seem to be making only minimal progress here – a few steps forward, a few back again.
And so, as I prepared the next bread proof for baking this morning, I also infused some gin with lemon peel, and some Campari with a fresh chili. Because today, dear reader, is the start of “Negroni Week” and, in a delightful Broadsheet article, Doug Wallen was decent enough to share a new recipe to celebrate the forthcoming revelry.
It took me literally seconds to read his suggestion before getting to work concocting, what I am sure, will be a suitably spicy and energising lift to our Monday evening…
I drank my first Negroni in Dhaka, around six years ago, with friends Jamie and Ridwan, a couple I was visiting whilst on a work trip there.
Jamie and Ridwan happened to be in Melbourne, in January 2018, when Issy’s Mum hosted our engagement party, and were happy to imbibe this tremendous cocktail with us again, dressed to the nines as we all were, in our best garden party garb.
In Atlanta, and in Bangkok, we’ve staged yet more Negroni sessions with these two – it never seems to be a difficult “sell” in their company.
As Anthony Bourdain used to proclaim, about the lethal red drink, a Negroni makes for a great apéritif and digestif, and can be enjoyed in the sun, or also by the fire in the winter. Be warned, however, of over consumption – this is a glass of pure, unadulterated rocket fuel.
And, once you’ve then tired of the traditional Rosso, Campari, and Dry Gin blend, there are a myriad of cheeky hacks that can be bestowed upon the classic Negroni: pink peppercorns, rhuburb, ginger, caramel, egg white, peach bitters, cherry, frangelico – to name but a few of the many infusions and crafty sprinkles that I’ve read about, or sampled.
In Copenhagen, we sipped on Winter Negroni’s (cinnamon and star anise) after swimming in the sea – in December, no less – and earlier that same year, in New Orleans during a “Southern Decadence” weekend, it was a WhiteNegroni (mixing Suze and Lillet Blanc) that kicked off a memorable day at a local Country Club.
Whilst mindful of over-indulgence, but in lieu of right now having lost our freedom to go out, to run, to travel, to move oneself physically forward during discombobulating times, I will be embracing this year’s “Negroni Week” (like the marketeer’s dream customer that I am).
I will enjoy the memories of the places I’ve been, the times I’ve had, and my lucky stars – soothed on the palate by that unmistakably fragrant burn – will once again be counted.
“You’re probably going to find out anyway but here’s a little pre-emptive truth-telling – there’s no happy ending.”(Anthony Bourdain)
We watched Roadrunner over the weekend. It documents the life of Anthony Bourdain, a man I belatedly became quasi-obsessed with, not many years prior to his suicide, in June 2018.
It was the colourful biography, Kitchen Confidential, which spring-boarded him to fame, about 20 years ago, and almost certainly and aggressively pulled him away from being a chef in New York, to traveling 250 days a year around the world, making TV shows about food and culture.
Vietnam was one of the first countries to “wow” Bourdain, and go on to have a continuous and powerful impact on him, during his future visits here – including eating bun cha with Barack Obama up in Hanoi in 2016.
Other countries followed, each stirring up a cocktail of emotions, as Bourdain hopped from slurping street-vendor soup to smoking pipes with desert nomads, sampling exotic and, at times, gruesome cuisine along the way, determined as he was to inspire others to do the same.
As his film-making evolved, his line of enquiry became more intense and more considered.
Bourdain seems to connect well with everyone he meets (although, as commentators in Roadrunner will attest, directing him on camera can clearly be a nightmare).
As a viewer, I admired how he interacted with people on his travels, and noted at the time how his own careful, yet celebrity-kissed effervescence was often blunted by the authenticity, and the grace of the people with whom he momentarily spent time, or shared a meal.
As I was in awe of him, it was he who was in awe of the person sat in front of him at that moment on a plastic chair, talking about their livelihood, or about their hopes and dreams.
These emotions he experienced, from his constant exposure to different contexts and perspectives, and the lasting impressions they left on him, were then churned up and recycled, a million times over, amongst viewers, like myself, of his various shows: A Cook’s Tour; No Reservations; The Layover; and, finally, Parts Unknown.
For the most part, I imagine, these offerings served to inspire people on different levels. One tenet that runs through each series was the concept of being ‘on the move’:-
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
What Roadrunner illuminates, through its intimate outpourings from Bourdain’s family and friends, was that his years of travel were “never about the food.”
To spin a metaphor about how he might, instead, have been using fame, and trips overseas, as some kind of personal odyssey, so as to make sense of his own anger and frustration with the world, as well as with himself, could easily be construed as simplistic, and trite. However, it’s easy to see how this could have been the case: he was a man who never settled, was “always rushing onto set, or rushing off it…fleeing home, or fleeing from home” to quote from the film a sentiment that echoes throughout it.
During these chaotic, yet lucid, sojourns from continent to continent – drinking pulsating cobra heart juice in Thailand, being evacuated from Lebanon during a war, or just blustering through tequila shots with rock stars in Joshua Tree – there are some moments of ‘stillness’ for Bourdain, that Roadrunner captures. Moments where he does seem to find a karma, of sorts: becoming a father; being in a new relationship; breaking into deep smiles with friends, at very precise moments of camaraderie.
You feel, watching, that this stillness could provide a commendable corollary to the rage, anger and boisterous indifference that peppers most of the narrative associated with Bourdain. His can be a sensitivity, a genuineness and a purity unbridled to most who choose to place themselves in front of a camera lens.
Ostensibly, Roadrunner catalogues the litany of one man’s lifetime of reflections, circling around an over-arching curiosity that Bourdain pursued right until the very end. A curiosity which sought to answer some of life’s most existential questions.
And, for me, it’s this combination of anger and of calmness, with which Bourdain jostles, that make for such an engaging canvas on which to then let his curiosity run free.
In this sense, watching Roadrunner, like watching an episode of Parts Unknown, is made to feel a hugely relatable, and grounding, experience. Temporarily accompanying Bourdain on his quest (and, in the case of Roadrunner, condensing into a couple of hours Bourdain’s 61 year commitment to seeking out answers) is nothing short of an honour.
In his two decades of film-making, he made it clear that “aspiring to mediocrity” was never an option for him, and in that regard I feel he maintained the highest of standards.
That the last third of his life was spent “on the move”, very publicaly asking these questions – skittishly and consistently unsatisfied with the answers he was uncovering – is both upsetting to observe, as well as acutely uplifting, and insightful, all rolled into one.
Anthony Bourdain challenged norms and behaviours – relentlessly, and as widely as is possible in a lifetime – in search, perhaps, of the impossible.
That every contributor to the film, on camera, finds themselves lost for words, in their attempts to sum up, respectively, what Bourdain’s legacy might be, and indeed why he chose to end his life, is in itself a testament to the enormity of what he’d been committed to achieving.
Visibly moved to choking tears, one of Bourdain’s close friends (still angry at the reality that he’ll never again have his companion sit with him) challenges the film-makers to select a cheesy, closing scene of Bourdain for the final seconds of the film – “ideally, him walking down the beach on his own…he’d hate that” scoffs the friend, grinning.
The same guy then shaves his head (uncut since Bourdain’s death) and heads off to graffiti one of the nearby murals of Bourdain, in his neighbourhood – a last ditch attempt to connect with, to laugh with, and to indulge with his friend.
It’s a fitting and special tribute, because it’s so profoundly different, conventionally, to how people normally would behave in that situation.
In many ways, it’s the perfect tribute to a man who held a similar principle close, in all that he set out to accomplish, even though you got the impression he never quite knew what that actually was.
If seconds were gifted to you as money,
I wonder how much change you’d keep -
by the end of each indulgent day's splurge -
as you lay yourself down to sleep?
this gift will not save, these funds
must daily be spent,
the wise man (in this realm of wealth)
holds not back investing a single cent.
so, as dawn breaks and you wake afresh,
be sure your path of choice is clear,
the returns you seek can be cashed in
only whilst you are here.
The first time I received an actual wage was somewhere towards the end of 80’s, when my Mum’s mate, Bridget, invited me to work Saturday mornings in her pet shop.
Bridget passed away from cancer in the 90s, far too young, but those hours spent with her left a lasting impression. The warmth and enthusiasm she had for her business made the whole idea of “working” immensely easy. I was probably around 13 years old, but these memories of Bridget are crystal clear.
In the shop, I can recall her instruction to “fluff up the sawdust” in the guinea pig cages – to help with the sales – and then, some months later, in her home, and unbeknown to my brother and I when she was very ill, Bridget had us over one evening to listen to her vinyl back catalogue. Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” still gives me goosebumps, planting me back on the Goan carpet in Bridget’s living room floor, singing along voraciously to the chorus.
To be born, as I was, with all the secure trappings of education, health and support, it has only been during these past two decades, of digging into a career in international development, that has highlighted so relentlessly what a privilege my life has been to date. And also, come to think of it, how much I’ve enjoyed working. Not something I’ve thought about along the way but, truly, I can’t recall a job from which I’ve not drawn something positive.
Perhaps, on occasion, this has been down to my perseverance, or from turning some learning from a previous work experience into practice. I’d argue back, though, that I’ve fallen on my feet most of the time because I’ve worked with some very special people.
From the auspicious heights of selling accessories for pets, through to working in my Mum’s gift shop, carefully sellotaping lavender fragranced pin cushions, and the like, in pink and white striped paper-bags, I ventured into gardening, landing summer work at the Prime Minister’s estate – Chequers – where the head gardener, Bill, taught me a thing or two about planting vegetables and cutting vines, as well as how to drive a car (he first took me, and three summers later, my brother, round the edge of the estate in his blue escort, barking out orders in his colourful South London accent).
From gardening, the inevitable mid-to-late teen indulgence of bar-tending took hold – I worked at The Pheasant pub in Great Missenden, and then at Moor Park’s Golf Club, which was nearby to my school. I did lunch and dinner shifts at the pub and worked the member’s bar and on Saturdays, weddings, at the Golf Club. The head barman at the Golf Club was a raging alcoholic and I often had to hide his car keys and befriend the patrons, in order to help usher him into a taxi. Every shift I remember being a bundle of fun. We laughed in the kitchens, waiting for the food to be plated, and we laughed after hours, smoking fags and knocking back drinks.
On one blessed day up in Moor Park, I served the comedian Peter Cook a pint of lager, not long before his sad passing. To this day I can’t remember what I said to him, but he was sporting a lemon jumper with a blue moniker on the breast, still wearing his one golf glove, and making small talk with his companions. He tipped me two quid.
Not long after I’d earnt my fortune from the catering industry, I left Uni and taught in Uganda for a year, (as I’ve long droned on about on these pages) – an equally rewarding and sentimentally charged chapter in my career. This was prefaced by two summers in Israel, volunteering as a jack-of-all-kibbutz-trades: milking cows, planting citrus fruits, washing dishes and chopping vegetables. I worked with Swedes, South Africans, Americans, French, German and Spanish. Hard work, long hours, and some of the best days of my life.
London next, from 1997 through to 2011, and a clutch of fascinating roles, firstly in the private sector for two years, hocking expensive, but life changing, month long expeditions to Africa and Asia for sixth formers, then a hop into Government, earning my spurs as a would-be civil servant, before landing in the non-profit sector and working my way through three charities specialising, respectively, in disability, cancer and, finally, corporate social responsibility.
2006 was the turning point, cementing my commitment to a mission of understanding how to address poverty and social injustice, and which has compelled me to write regularly (and now consult permanently) on the issue of women’s empowerment.
I know I’ve learnt a thousand things on this journey so far, but the one about women’s empowerment being the ultimate silver bullet to quashing the underlying causes of some of the world’s most profound societal issues, is one I will take to the grave. The formula is so simple, and yet we remain so far away from fulfilling the type of equity (in gender, but also in other areas) that would bring about profound, anticipated and deserved change.
When I think again about Bridget’s kindness and spirit, and how that helped curate a sense for me about what was important when it came to working, I can pick out a similar seam of behaviour from others with whom I’ve shared time in each of these jobs – in an office, a classroom, at a conference, with a community or, more recently, simply on a skype call.
Difficult to sum up in one word, these people, these experiences. Many colleagues have remained close friends, and I’ve long admired their passion for work, or how passionate they’ve been about getting the best out of other people at work. Many of them have also been just plain driven, determined, and steely in their resolve to do things well. Others, still, impressive in their knowledge, their courage, or in their humility.
Maybe the over-arching message I take away from these peers, and managers, over the years, is how important it is to keep one’s perspective in check. To know when to listen, and also when to act, is one skill, but to carry oneself at all times, and especially during the inevitable ups and downs of a workplace, with at least the bare soles of your feet touching one part of the ground, is a true gift.
Bridget had that gift. As did many of the other men and women I’ve worked with since, and with whom I hope to collaborate again in the future.
Philip Larkin wrote about work as a toad squatting on one’s life and I’ve long thought about his imagery since first reading his poems at school. It could be seen as an injustice, almost, that past generations have perpetuated an exhausting norm around a person’s career: that of working to live, of grafting away at a job as a means to an end.
For many billions of people, shaking off the work toad is impractical, ill-advised, or more likely, impossible. Our current Saigon lockdown is the worst yet, and it’s crippling people. Just as lockdowns in other countries have done, and continue to do.
My story and my message aren’t connected or related to the vendors at the end of our street, who have had to close their businesses. Or to the migrant workers from this region who travel to Thailand in search of factory work and higher salaries. My context and my reality is miles away from them, and from all of the communities I’ve visited around the world. This blog isn’t for those UK shop-keepers, either, anxiously opening up to customers next Monday, for the first time in over a year.
My luxury, right now, might not be the freedom of movement (it’s been 16 months to the day since I was last outside of Vietnam) but it is the freedom to work from home, and to continue to work with others whose very way of being inspires me.
If this writing is for anyone, aside from myself, it’s for those who might have lost some perspective, at work or in the day-to-day grind of living through a pandemic.
Virtual workspaces are a reality now for many, but I see not why it can’t still be possible to influence your colleagues in a positive way – be that person, like Bridget, whose breath-taking humanity and compassion might rub off on another, becoming forever etched, always there, just under the surface, glowing.
Most of the small talk on zoom calls I’ve sat through, since last March, has defaulted to comparing Covid experiences, before a collective shrug of acceptance jolts participants out of their daily fug of speculation, and moves us onto other topics.
Within the aid sector, many commentators have articulated the typically unequal impacts of this pandemic on those in society less well off. Women and girls, as usual, marginalised and made more vulnerable. Poorer countries, and within them, poorer communities, confronting the harsh realities of their inability to access medicines and quality healthcare, in order to counter the virus.
Here in Vietnam, 31 million vaccines are due later in the year. Over in Western Europe and North America, many family and friends are upbeat about a return to “some kind of normality”.
For others, billions of others, Covid is lower down the list of zoom ice-breakers.
For Palestinians, whether living in Gaza, the West Bank or in Israel, the Eid celebrations of the last 48 hours could not have been more muted and shrouded in pain. The oppressive nature of a global pandemic suddenly rendered null and void, as children are blown up attending family dinners to celebrate the end of Ramadan.
In the past, when returning from an overseas assignment, and attempting to write about what I’ve seen or felt or done, I’ve tended to feel like a massive fraud.
Being a white man, working to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality – especially in parts of the world culturally enveloped in norms and behaviours that are wholly different to mine (I’m British to boot, which is just another delightfully ironic brushstroke on my rambling canvas) – tends to ensure I never feel very authentic.
All I know, when following this week’s news from Jerusalem and from Gaza, all I know, from the platform and vantage point that I have (ten years living in Vietnam, and visiting development programmes in two dozen countries), from working with Palestinian colleagues, and from travelling into Gaza and parts of the West Bank in 2017 with them, all I know is that the lives lost in this week’s conflict – lives now broadcast simply as numbers, and added to the long list of fatalities from both sides, stretching back to the end of the Second World War – were lost in the most unnecessary, unconscionable, and heart-breaking of ways.
Jonathan Freedland wrote on Friday about the hope that Gazans must be holding so close, that they can get back to normal, but that it is this ‘normal’ that has resolved nothing over the many decades of negotiations and cyclical conflict.
I concur with that sentiment. And I wonder how, through articles like his, and through the media writ large, it might be more plausible than ever before to build solidarity for those parts of the world (and there are many others to note, although none quite like this one) faced with a normal that can only be imagined by the rest of us as the stuff of nightmares?
Neither Jewish nor Arabic, I spent two summers working on a kibbutz in 1995 and 1996 – an experience I still hold dear – and then I’ve worked within the international development community since 2006, with any time spent on Israeli-Palestinian relations very much landing my support on the side of Palestinians.
As a friend suggested to me, one’s own social media preferences can play a big part in shaping our views on things. However, human contact and the visceral experiences that come with this, also lay deep foundations when it comes to forming opinions.
In terms of this last week’s events, I’ve read the arguments from both sides and of course neither will back down to each other. That much is certain.
For me, it remains impossible to justify the bombardment of Gaza and the killing of innocent families. Whilst the Israelis will blame Hamas for all things, it’s hard for me to see past what I saw when I was there, 4 years ago to the day, and not to see how the Israelis are complicit in the oppression of Gazans. A Palestinian fisherman was shot dead the week I visited, because he’d strayed outside of an allocated fishing zone, picked off by a military boat, patrolling the sea borders. His story lost amongst an ocean of others.
To live in Gaza with children must be a chilling experience. During the 2014 war, a colleague told me she went to bed every night (for over two months) covering her face, in case her house was bombed during the night. She wanted to retain some dignity in her death and, wearing a veil whilst sleeping was all she felt she could do to achieve this.
Other parents around the world went to bed last night feeling the same as my colleague did 7 years ago.
In Yemen, in Tigray, in Myanmar. All bloodshed this year, as it clearly so often is, has been both needless and poorly shared with the world. This is usually what happens, however Covid has compounded the phenomenon, taking over the lives and the algorithms of most people.
In the UK, no one is talking about Brexit that much anymore. Pundits are concerned, instead, with banning flights from Delhi into Heathrow. What of the British Government’s response to this week’s carnage in Gaza – “the Israelis have a right to defend themselves” – that, from the UK Secretary of State for the Middle East and North Africa. For me, his statement speaks volumes – none of which fill me with anything but frustration.
Treating with caution the views of extremist Israeli and Palestinian commentators and activists, and beneath a political frame and nuance that experts and historians are ten times better equipped to speak to than I, it seems to me that it falls (and has fallen) to other countries, including the UK, around the world to intervene in this insanely protracted and bleak generational cycle of war.
I am sure some would argue this responsibility doesn’t fall to others. However, in life, when two people are in conflict, it is very unusual to expect a resolution without a third party to facilitate a compromise, or to mediate the issues. In which case, how do Egypt, the US, the UK, Jordan and other countries’ governments, rest easy at night, knowing they have played a part, through their inaction or their bias, in the slaughter of innocent citizens?
Given the UK supplies so many weapons to other nations, and that past US administrations seem well sided with Israel, the vested interests of too many of these intervening countries seem set to supersede their effectiveness of actually finding a solution.
More campaigning for peace is required, more petitions, more journalists like Freedland given the platform to put forward opinions. All of this must continue, even if it’s merely pressing at the peripheries of some of the fundamental issues and decision making entities.
We can’t stop talking about this. That’s all I know.
When I was in the Old Quarter in 2017, I met a Palestinian shopkeeper who, genuinely, was holding out hope that Donald Trump (due to visit the day we left the region) might actually, actually, be the first US President to support peaceful resolutions that were sustained. The irony of the idea wasn’t lost on either of us during this exchange, but the shopkeeper represented so many local perspectives on the subject of peace, so deeply rooted in generations of disappointment, that he was allowing himself to dream that Trump might yet be the answer.
I wonder if this same man, this morning, is re-directing his hopes towards the Democrats, or, instead, simply praying for it all to stop?
The air's warm thickness
Always catches me by surprise -
An enveloping tropical blanket
That I breathe in and feel settling,
As I lace up running shoes
To the sweep of a broom
Outside my gate
I’m coaxed up off the perch of my
Front door step
By the prospect of adventure -
In autopilot I saunter up the driveway,
My muscles purring at the
Inevitability of the kilometres ahead
Dawn is still an hour away -
The overwhelming morning rays
That slow-cook the city
Will follow soon after,
Baking the uneven pavements
And simmering between layers of long-sleeved
Crowds, astride their spluttering scooters,
As they inch forward in morning traffic,
Past sugar cane juice vendors and the
Waft of street-food
Until the chaos and jostle of life here unfolds
I have these streets to myself -
With each new stride the pulse of blood and adrenalin
Numbing the aches and pains that
Escorted my lumbering frame down the stairs
Allowing a freedom of feeling,
An openness and calm,
Anchors the rest of me in a
Sealed off from the humdrum of the day ahead -
Egos and speculations,
Emails and negotiations –
A freedom of feeling connected to oneself
Threading through the darkly lit hems and alleyways -
An urban avatar of sorts -
I choose my path,
Control my outcomes,
Primordial, raging instincts pull me faster forward until
The stillness is complete
Exhausted and gasping,
I stare at the giant orange orb
Cresting over Saigon bridge.