February Newsletter

Hello dear friends,

Al-Alamein British and Commonwealth Cemetery. A peaceful resting place in the desert for far too many young and able men lost to war.

I am writing this on a cold, wet, blustery day in northern France, at our Mad Old Chateau. I have a chest infection. Last weekend I was in Berlin, accompanying Michel for a few days to the Berlin Film Festival where it was even wetter and windier. Fortunately I escaped the cold by watching a few films and attending a writers’ seminar. The week before I was in Egypt. It was an unexpected and unplanned trip, but one that turned out to be filled with joyous discoveries. It will remain a highlight in my year for some time to come, I feel sure.

My late father spent time in Egypt during WWII. He joined the Royal Air Force, auditioned for their entertainment corp, which was Ralph Reader’s Gang Show, and soon found himself posted to North Africa. I remember his African tales from when I was very small and how those stories instilled in me a ferocious desire to travel, to discover ‘exotic’ locations. It is only now, looking back, that I realise what a mind-blowing experience it must have been for him to find himself in such very foreign lands at a disarmingly young age. When the war broke out he was seventeen. Alas, I no longer have details of when precisely he joined the RAF but I do know that as a boy from a humble London home it must have all been so different, so unlike anything he had known before. He hadn’t even been introduced to ‘foreign travel’ on television as we have been. There was no television back then, nothing to alert him to the ‘foreignness’ of it all. Truly, a culture shock.

Later in his life, he often talked about writing all these experiences down and I deeply regret that he died unexpectedly and was not given the time to do that. Even so, my childhood memories of those African adventures, the tales he told, have never left me. The power of his verbal storytelling was a precious gift to me at a very early age.

I deduce from how many times he spoke of Egypt and Palestine that they were the countries that most affected him. Alexandria, on the northern shores of Egypt, a port city that is almost 2400 years old, founded in 331 BC, must have made a huge impact on him because he described its markets, the folk he met, visits to the bars, cafés, so frequently. Three weeks ago I received an invitation from two journalist friends of mine, dear friends. Their news was that they had rented a flat in Alex for a month and would I like to join them for a week. I took no persuading and bought an air ticket within minutes of accepting their invitation.

This was not my first visit to Egypt but it was my first to Alexandria, known affectionately as Alex. Of course, it was also a kind of pilgrimage for me. Memories of my father, his words, his youthful carefreeness, yes, even in wartime. I carried him with me in my heart.

There is no denying that the city has changed dramatically since the mid-twentieth century. Much of it, sadly, in a detrimental way because many of the old colonial buildings especially all along the seafront, the famous Corniche, are crumbling into the sea. It is not uncommon to walk the very uneven pavements and have to negotiate your way around piles of brick rubble.

Even in the last century before WWII this was a city of artists. Lawrence Durrell lived here. It is the setting for his wonderful The Alexandria Quartet. Constantin Cavafy, one of the most celebrated of modern Greek poets, lived and died here too. We walked to his flat which has been renovated and opened to the public as the Cavafy Museum. Alas, it was closed for further renovations! So, that is the first of many good reasons for me to return to this wonderful seaside metropolis.

My very first outing was to the newly-constructed library, the Biblioteca Alexandrina. It boasts the largest open reading hall in the world and has a fabulous, extremely long, Shakespeare Bench fashioned like an open book inscribed with lines from his sonnets. I have tried everywhere to find out the length of the bench but have so far failed. If any of you know, I would be thrilled to hear the answer.

Here, below, a photo of me in situ. I am reading Shakespeare’s words. This pic gives you a sense of the length of the bench.

My head is so full of all that I have seen in recent weeks that I am finding it hard to settle my thoughts to the early stages of my next novel. And secretly I am hoping that a genius idea for a book set in Alexandria will pop into my head and then I can justifiably book my next flight! 

But this is not a travel diary! The news from my publisher is that my current novel  – title soon to be revealed – will be published in July 2025. Yes, I was a bit taken aback by the delay. It has nothing to do with the book but is all about scheduling. I have changed  publishers so I am being slotted or woven into their calendar and that does not happen overnight. It is ages away so getting down to the next one is the most efficient method of keeping my impatience at bay. I hope that you, dear readers, will continue to look forward to the novel even if the wait is longer than we have all anticipated?

News from the farm: It has been a harsh winter for us. Two days before Christmas our very old but very solid fuel heating system went on the blink. Our Boiler, affectionately known to us as Bob, just gave up the ghost. After thirty-seven years, it was a shock. I felt like a member of the team had gone. Our plumber has retired so we had to ring around and find someone else. Two days before Christmas, it was a hard call. The long and the short of it is, Bob is no more, a new hot water system has been installed so we can shower at least while we try to figure out how to pay for a replacement boiler (somewhere in the region of 25,000 euros – deep breath, Carol). It has meant a cold winter but with roaring log fires.  We have been SO grateful for those fires and the fact that, due to all the trees that blew down in the recent years’ tempests, we have endless amounts of wood. So, a blessing in disguise.

Even with these hurdles to face, we are immensely fortunate, I know that. We are driving down again this week to meet with plumbers and maintenance bods to see what our options  are from here on. The almond trees will be in blossom so that will be very cheering. Spring will be well and truly on the way. I won’t have to stare out of the window at this endless northern rain. In the south when it rains I feel so grateful. It is a gift from heaven while up here, I see the poor farmers with very glum faces because their fields are absolutely sodden. There is no activity taking place whereas usually they are planting the summer crops about now.

Before Christmas I had a brief stopover in Amsterdam and bought lots of tulip bulbs. These are planted in pots here at the Mad Old Chateau. Next season I hope to put them al in the earth to colour up the dark winter and early spring days here in the north. This morning I noticed that the bulbs are all beginning to peep their heads out above the earth. It gives me such a sense of joy. Spring is a long time coming this year.

One more photo, this one from the Cairo Museum where I popped in to say Bonjour to King Tut. He was nineteen when he died. His memory has spanned so many millennia it seems incredible to realise he walked this earth for such a short time.

Two books to recommend. Both have been immensely informative and a delight to engage with during my Alexandrian trip.

The journalist, Adel Darwish, who now lives in London was born in Alexandria. This book is a personal account of his years growing up in this fabulous Mediterranean city

ALEXANDRIA ADIEU.  A personal history 1939 – 1960.

There are such wonderful details within these pages, so rich with life and modern history. I SO wanted to be there with Darwish, to be his companion when he was a boy and I SO wanted him to be at my side, guiding me as I discovered his treasured city. Reading his words quite broke my heart. The cosmopolitan city of his boyhood is no more. Even so, Alex still remains a hauntingly magical if crumbling venue to visit.

You can find his memoir on Amazon, published by Nomad.

The second book was first published in 1922, written by the novelist E.M.Forster.

Alexandria: A History and Guide.

In 1915, Forster, author of such novels as Room With a View, arrived in Alexandria as a Red Cross volunteer. He spent a great deal of his time acquainting himself both with the city he was living in and the three-thousand-year-old city of antiquity, beating its vibrant heart on the shores of the Mediterranean. Forster’s book is unparalleled in its historical scope. I learnt so much about a city that I actually thought on paper I knew something about. Alexander the Great’s concept where the greatest library the world has ever known was built and lost and with it knowledge, scrolls, manuscripts that have  tragically never been recovered. The city where Antony and Cleopatra loved and died, The city where one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World stood proudly. At 450 feet, the tallest lighthouse the world has ever seen, once shone from the shores of Pharos Island. It was a navigational beacon for the trading ships ploughing the eastern Mediterranean waters, trying to find their way into the harbour. A series of earthquakes, which took place over several centuries weakened and cracked its structure until eventually the world-famous building toppled. In 1323 AD, all that remained of it it disappeared into the sea.

I could go on (and on!). This book is packed with valuable and fascinating facts.

I hope you have excellent books to read, films to watch. If you haven’t seen Jonathan Glazer’s The Zone of Interest or Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall, I do recommend them. Both are nominated for several Oscars and are up against the biggies. Coincidentally, Sandra Hüller, the German actress, stars in both these films. She really is astounding.

In Berlin, I managed to grab a ticket for the film that won the Golden Bear, Dahomey. It is a documentary that deals with a subject quite in vogue at present: art works stolen by colonisers and the fight to have them returned to their rightful owners. In this instance the works came from the African country now known as Benin. Twenty-six works, out of thousands, have been returned from Paris to Benin. This film is the story of their journey home and the ethical rights and wrongs of nations holding onto to works that were stolen.

So, that’s it from me for now. Not a great deal of news but plenty of discoveries to fire me onwards with my usual passion, dreaming of more adventures again soon. But, oh, to where?

Thank you for being here. Please do get in touch and let me know what you are up to and if you have something to recommend to me. Or if you know the length of Shakespeare’s bench!

Love and good health,



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