Sunday, December 21, 2008


In exactly four weeks time my world must change forever. I’ve been anticipating this moment for eight months or, to be precise, for the last 36 weeks. Yes, Izzy is about to arrive, so the waistline has to go.

I don’t mean Joanna’s: she has remained petite and trim with nothing to show but the most spectacular orb of a bump. From the front and rear she looks the same; turn her sideways and it’s as if someone has stitched a giant beach ball onto her tummy. I know that as soon as Izzy emerges, the beach ball will disappear – it’s my waistline that’s the problem.

I think I’ve developed male pregnancy by proxy. I don’t know if it’s a recognized medical condition, but I can assure you it’s entirely authentic. As Jo’s bump has grown, I’ve developed a sympathetic clone. Now it hangs below my chest, an entirely unwelcome addition to the family.

Regular readers may sigh that they’ve seen it all before. I know it’s less than a year since I was beaten in a weight loss contest by the dieting equivalent of an innings defeat. A failure so embarrassing I’ve had to eat humble pie all year, along with apple, rhubarb, steak and ale and any other variety on offer.

The problem is, Joanna’s food cravings are too enticing. It’s not just her passion for chocolate ice cream: we have 7 different varieties in the freezer; nor her desire for mustard mash at midnight (made with a gallon of double cream and a cowsworth of butter). It’s the reassuring argument that it’s OK to binge because we’re eating for two. Which, in my case, is a lie: I’m eating for me. By this date next month, Jo’s waistline will have become a person, so mine has to become history. But how?

After last year’s debacle, I can’t risk the ignominy of another failure. I’ve tried all sorts of diets in the past, and none of them have had the slightest impact. Except one.

It was in 1980, and this diet was unplanned, but incredibly effective. At the end of our year in India, my first wife and I decided to explore Nepal. A new route around the Annapurnas was just being opened over the Thorung La Pass, which rises to nearly 18,000 feet, and we wanted to be amongst the first to try it. We set off from Pokhara with laden rucksacks and a Sherpa guide called Bim. The problem was, that unlike the common tourist route through the Kali Gandaki valley, this trek wasn’t accustomed to visitors. There were no teahouses or hippy inns; no Tibetans lined the route offering snacks and turquoise souvenirs. In fact there was nothing at all, except the most spectacular scenery and a constantly uphill horizon. The path was so steep that Jilly had to tie her rucksack on top of mine. Occasionally we came across a little village and Bim managed to persuade a local to sell us an egg or some fermented vegetable soup. Meat was out of the question.

The only provisions we’d packed were several catering sized packets of dried beef stroganoff that had somehow survived a year in the back of our van. Sherpas and stroganoff don’t go terribly well together – especially beef, which is against their religion. But at 14,000 feet after 12 days of starvation, Bim was ravenous. The following day he turned green and developed altitude sickness. So it was that I ended up carrying all three rucksacks over the pass. It was the best view I have ever seen, and by far the best diet. I lost 30 pounds.

Somehow I don’t think a walk up Cheviot is going to have quite the same effect, even if I lived on dried beef stroganoff for a month. But I guess it’s worth a try. Any better suggestions gratefully received.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Last Days of the Raj

I’m glad England’s cricketers popped back to India to finish their tour. Otherwise I wouldn’t have experienced that sweet sense of shock this morning when I discovered that we could actually win the Test in Madras (sorry, I mean “Chennai” – it’s difficult remembering all the new names India has given its cities to disguise its colonial past)*.

Though I haven’t been back for nearly thirty years, I can still vividly recall India’s smells and sounds. Last week, while moving house, I opened a dusty old box and memories of my year-long trip came pouring out in a pile of faded photographs. One exposes me with hippy beard and long hair, clutching a piece of tinsel and a plate of Christmas pudding: Christmas 1979, Uttar Pradesh. In another I’m bowling very badly against a group of Punjabi children screaming with laughter at my sporting ineptitude. India takes its cricket very seriously. If we win this game, there’ll be gnashing of teeth across the sub-continent.

Madras was on our original itinerary, but we were distracted by an unexpected encounter. Driving from the South with Jilly in our little Volkswagen campervan, we’d decided to visit Khana tiger reserve in Central India. Arriving at sunset we were just parking up in a jungle clearing when we heard a low rumble, then a deep booming voice called out “What, ho! English?” We peered through the undergrowth; lumbering towards us was an enormous elephant and perched on top was an impossibly tall man who looked and sounded just like David Niven. “I say, you must be on your way to the Queen Elizabeth Cup – would you care for a gin and tonic?”

So began our friendship with the extraordinary Bob Wright, a man who managed to preserve the spirit of the British Raj throughout his life. He was a kind of stereotypical Englishman abroad; he’d stayed in the country after partition, and had established a little tourist camp (appropriately called Kipling Camp) in India’s most important tiger reserve. “Never heard of the Queen Elizabeth?” he roared at us, “It’s in Calcutta, the most important horserace in India; everyone will be there, you simply have to go”. Several gin and tonics later, we made a pact. We’d go to the race if he came with us in our van.

“You’re on,” he cried. And we promptly forgot all about it.

At dawn the following morning there was a tap on the van door. There was Bob’s diminutive manservant Nubi, and behind him were lined up more than a dozen suitcases and bedding rolls. Bob was bringing his entire entourage.

Calcutta was 1300 miles away, along a dirt track optimistically named National Highway 7. We didn’t drive along it, we bounced; for six whole days. Weighed down by Bob’s huge frame, luggage and servant, our suspension trawled through the dust and potholes. Swerving to avoid brightly coloured lorries and buses, trying not to hit ox carts, we grew to ignore the cries from the back as Nubi, sitting on the bedding rolls, kept bouncing up and hitting the ceiling. Every few hundred miles or so there’d be a smart government sign: “Roads Define The Culture of a Nation”. Quite.

At nightfall, Bob would instruct us to drive into centre of the nearest village where he’d boom out of the window, “Where’s the inspection bungalow?” Whereupon a mob of children would lead us to the only stone house, built by the British for their touring magistrates. An ancient manager would open the shutters, dust down the bedrooms, prepare us a meal and find a punka-walla to operate the human powered fans. All for about twenty pence. It was as if the British had never left; we’d gone back fifty years and were living a scene from Jewel In The Crown.

Now I doubt our English cricketers are getting service like that, however grand their Chennai hotel.

* Of course, this was written before England performed its customary eleventh hour collapse. I guess I shouldn't have mentioned the possibility of winning. Or touched wood, or something.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Darkest Hour Is Just Before Dawn

Sitting here in my Northumbrian farmhouse, fields still white from last Thursday’s snow, I wouldn’t normally be inspired to write about events in a dusty landscape thousands of miles away. But, reading the headlines and seeing the terrible footage of suffering in Zimbabwe, I feel I have to share a few lines of optimism about that country’s appalling situation.

I detect the first rays of a new dawn breaking over the darkness of Zimbabwe. You wouldn’t have guessed it by the tone of the news bulletins, or in the weekend’s editorials. With the number of cholera victims expected to rise to over 60,000, with thousands more facing starvation, with the economy and all basic services in tatters, the army on the rampage and inflation running at 231,000,000%, it’s easy to see why the press has elevated Zimbabwe back to the front pages: it’s another sensational disaster story, and all appears doom and gloom.

Yesterday the Archbishop of York called for Mugabe to be sent to the International Criminal Court along with his evil cronies; Gordon Brown declared that “enough is enough”, and Condoleezza Rice has said it’s “well past time” for him to leave office. None of these outbursts would normally have the slightest effect on events. Indeed, in the past, the louder the international community has shouted, the more entrenched Mugabe has become. And the more contemptuously he has treated the West, the more his African neighbours have appeared to respect the revolutionary qualities which brought him power.

But on Saturday I received an email from a correspondent who sends me regular communications from inside Zimbabwe. And for the first time in many months, I detected a tone of optimism. The key to freedom in Zimbabwe has always been South Africa. And over the past ten days there’s evidence that South Africa has begun to change course. Partly because the exodus of cholera victims across the border is now turning into a flood, mostly because the ineffectual and Mugabe-worshipping President Mbeki has been ousted, there appear to be signs of serious pressure for change. It’s reflected in the South African media, in the statements of its politicians, and in its refusal last week to send Zimbabwe $30million of agricultural aid until the politicians have banged their heads together and implemented the power sharing agreement.

All this coincides with calls by other leaders in the region for Mugabe to go. On Saturday the foreign minister of Botswana said they should starve Zimbabwe of petrol and diesel, which would immediately neuter Mugabe’s henchmen; Raila Odinga, the Kenyan Prime Minister, said “It’s time for African governments to take decisive action to push him out of power”. It’s not a moment too soon.

According to my correspondent, if this pressure continues to grow, it will finally push Zanu PF to release its monopoly of power, and emasculate the tyrant President. And, miraculously for such a blood-stained region, this will have been achieved without the intervention of international troops or a bloody coup. The power-sharing compromise agreement, which is supposed to make Morgan Tsvangirai Prime Minister and chairman of the Council of Ministers, is only a transitional situation, but one big step towards the restoration of true democracy in that battered land. I suspect Zanu-PF will continue to fight all the way against anything that gives their opponents real power. But with South Africa holding the last few tenuous strings of Zimbabwe’s survival, it’s likely that common sense, and Morgan Tsvangirai, will prevail.

The next two weeks are crucial, and events in Zimbabwe could still go either way. Not just for the tens of thousands of people threatened with cholera, but for the entire country and the region. Noone can ignore the events going on in Zimbabwe, not even a writer in faraway Northumberland. So the more pressure we as a nation can exert, the better. Let’s hope it’s not another false dawn.