Regular readers may have noticed that H&H took a bit of a sabbatical last year… I wasn’t doing anything terribly exciting like restoring frescoes in Florence or skydiving over Machu Picchu; I was very much here on my sofa, doing exactly what I’m doing now. Writing stuff.
Last year I wrote a children’s novel called Moth and the Nightingale. Amazingly, the first few chapters won the runner-up prize at the Montegrappa First Fiction Competition at the Emirates Airline Literature Festival, and I am delighted to announce that my novel is now going to be published in the UK by the amazing people at Chicken House! Hurrah!
Watch this space for further announcements, folks…
‘Tree-hugger’ is a vaguely insulting term for those perceived as hippy environmentalists, used fairly indiscriminately to describe pretty much anyone from an animal rights activist to a bypass protester. It’s also an epithet that has come to be associated with Prince Charles following his mid-1980s confessions about talking to his trees and plants to encourage them to grow… And it’s something, dear reader, that I have recently become. A tree-hugger. A hugger of trees.
Much of my babbling on Homesick and Heatstruck refers to nature – and those aspects of British nature that I particularly miss whilst living abroad – but last year, these yearnings must have reached some sort of critical pitch as, whilst on a summer ramble in the Cotswolds, I felt an overwhelming urge to wrap my arms around an oak tree.
I can report that it was quite a nice feeling. Solid, rough, a bit scratchy. But I did feel what I was hoping to feel – close to something living and breathing and benign and ancient. It was very comforting and peaceful.
And – this is particularly reassuring for those concerned about the state of my mental health – it may not be quite as bonkers as it sounds (fairly bonkers, admittedly, but perhaps not certifiably so). Research has shown that proximity to trees is actively good for the health. Plants release phytoncides or wood essential oils – antimicrobial organic compounds which help to defend against bacteria, fungi and other nasty things. When inhaled, they can help to slow our breathing, reduce our anxiety and even strengthen the immune system. Oak trees, pine trees and tea trees are particularly good for us, apparently. In parts of Japan and Korea, shinrin-yoku – or ‘forest-bathing’ is an established practice to reap the relaxing and health-giving properties of these phytoncides.
Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many forests for me to bathe in out here in Dubai, and, sadly, many of the more mature trees that lived in and around my beloved Safa Park have recently been uprooted to make way for a glamorous new canal-side
development (heaven knows we desperately need more upmarket boutiques and restaurants here…). There are other parks nearby though. Mushrif Park is big and green and has some pleasingly wild bits – it’s a good spot for bird-watching, and Zabeel Park is just a twenty minute walk away from our apartment. Last Saturday morning, before it got too hot, we set off to explore Zabeel Park properly. It’s very much a park of two halves – the footbridge that adjoins them straddling a multi-lane motorway. One half of the park is filled with exciting rides and activities for children and permanent barbecue and picnic spots. It hosts the wonderful Ripe Market every weekend; the other half (a hop and a skip over the footbridge) is much quieter. It’s green and peaceful and full of lovely trees.
We walked a full circuit of the park and sat down for a while in the shade. The trees were very pleasant company, but I didn’t feel particularly moved to hug anything. On reflection, that may have been for the best, given the attitude to public displays of affection in this part of the world… The forest-bathing will have to wait for my next trip home; until then, a spot of park-paddling will just have to suffice.
Homesick and Heatstruck’s Top Tips for Tree Hugging:
- The best tree hugging is to be had with big, old, wise trees. Young trees have very little to say for themselves. Oak trees give particularly good hugs.
- Ensure you are alone and not observed. People will laugh at you. Or maybe call the police. Alternatively, hug trees with lots of friends – there’s safety (and, indeed, dignity) in numbers.
- Select your tree very wisely – and be sure to choose a friendly-looking one. Avoid anything prickly, rotten or potentially poisonous.
- Beware of insect nests, territorial squirrels or burly men with axes shouting, ‘Timber!’
Further reading on this topic:
This is, apparently, one of the most depressing times of the year for British folk. The sparkling fairy lights of Christmas are long gone, but the winter drags on – bitingly cold and remorselessly damp. The mornings are dark and, throughout the grey days, the evenings loiter just beyond the horizon, bringing back the night-time before the day has even had a chance to brush its teeth and put its socks on.
‘The weather’ seems to be the main reason there are so many of us Brits here in the UAE (240,000 and counting…). Talk to any British expatriate and I guarantee ‘the weather’ will be in their top five reasons for leaving the UK. In fact, I’d wager it would be in the top three for most people. When friends out here are considering returning home, ‘the weather’ seems to be the thing they dread most (swiftly followed by taxation, pot holes and British politicians). We had one grey, rainy day here in Dubai last week. One day. A colleague told me it had left him feeling deeply depressed. I think he might possibly be the most sensitive sufferer of Seasonally Affected Disorder on the entire planet.
And I just don’t get it. As any regular Homesick and Heatstruck reader will know, I’m very fond of green things (You know – trees and plants and the like, not Kermit the Frog. Although I am also very fond of Kermit the Frog…) and without rain there are no green things. I’d much rather live somewhere green and damp than somewhere arid and lifeless.
I know how bloody miserable it gets – I used to find the cold, dark winter mornings just as terrible as everyone else does, particularly when you have to force yourself out of your warm bed, scrape the ice off your windscreen and go to work. But, like many other things that four-and-a-half-years in Dubai has made me appreciate about home, ‘the weather’ is now right up there at the top of the list of things I love. Any British weather at all – grey weather, chilly weather, blustery weather, drizzling weather, sideways-rain weather… It’s not just that I like talking about it (which I do – see my post Talk About The Weather), it’s that it does stuff. No matter how grim the British weather may feel, it’s still weather: it’s seasonal; it changes.
I remember very well how the long, dark winter can grind down the spirits, but, for me (and I appreciate I may be alone in this), there’s something about relentless sunshine that’s equally dispiriting. It’s a bit like that CIA sleep deprivation technique of 24-hour blindingly bright neon lights… So much sunshine makes my head ache – it’s against nature. When it rained the other day and everyone here was panicking about flooding and cancelled barbecues, I put my boots on and went for a walk on the beach. It was BRILLIANT – and really rather pretty – in a brooding, heathery skies sort of way. Oh, how I long for a frozen windscreen.
I went home to the UK for ten days in December – my first British Christmas since 2010 – and I saw winter in a whole new way. Winter is nature’s chance to rest, and if you too can find an opportunity to do so, it suddenly all makes sense. The darkness allows you to simply stop, to be cosy and sleep and recharge the old batteries. It gives us permission to hibernate.
And it can be beautiful too. There’s something uniquely lovely about bare, brown fields beneath a water-coloured, wintery sun. It’s a different sort of beauty from the bright, brassy tones of summer; it’s gentle and strange and humble. The stillness of winter is lovely too (when it’s not blowing a mighty gale of course) – the quiet, barely-breathing stillness of grey branches against grey skies.
Unlike the Middle Eastern Summer Heat (for which there really is no answer but to stay inside with the air conditioning on full whack), the British Winter Cold is bearable. Even on the chilliest days you can still get outside – put on your thermals, wear some thick gloves and a woolly hat – and walk briskly until the cold air makes your cheeks go pink. As Billy Connolly once said, ‘Get yourself a sexy raincoat and live a little.’ And you can always come home to the central heating and a nice cup of tea.
It’s amazing how many British beauty spots are deserted at this time of year. When I was at home in December, the cold was an incentive for me to get outside rather than a deterrent. I went on some wonderful walks with my family. I saw the morning sun shining on frozen puddles and frosted berries; I saw kingfishers darting amongst the reeds and perched on bare branches, watching the cold water of the lake; I saw seal pups playing in the grey waves of the Swale.
It’s winter here in Dubai too, of course. For the next few months it will be warm rather than boiling hot, and British tourists will be flocking here to escape ‘the weather’ and soak up their bit of winter sun. Sorry tourists, but I’ve got my fingers crossed for a few more grey, rainy days before this winter is out…
It has been a lovely winter over here in Dubai. Usually the winter is only distinguishable from the rest of the year by a slight drop in temperature: in all other ways the weather remains the same – blazing blue skies and relentless sunshine. This year, however, it has rained A LOT. We’ve had proper, pelting-it-down rain lasting for hours; we’ve had thunder storms, tenacious fog, thick cloud coverage and day-long drizzle. We’ve had plenty of sunny days too, of course, but they have been tempered by a delicious cool breeze. All in all, it has been much like an English summer, which makes me very lucky as that means I have had two English summers in the course of a year (I was home for a couple of glorious months in the middle of last year, and what a wonderful summer it was!).
On several occasions over recent weeks the temperature has plummeted to 13 degrees centigrade. While the tourists are still optimistically strolling around in shorts and t-shirts, local residents and those from other toasty-warm Arabic and Asian countries are wearing thick woollen jumpers, waterproof trousers and fur-lined boots. Children are being sent off to school wearing winter coats stuffed with goose-down. I even saw a chap out walking his Labrador, and both man and dog were wearing fleece jackets. But people are still boldly braving the beach – shivering in their bikinis and swimming briskly in the sea. Last week, friends on a boat trip spotted a pod of dolphins playing in the surf near the Dubai coast; we are not often honoured by such guests, the sea temperatures are usually much too warm for their liking. What next? one wonders: Penguins huddling for warmth on the beaches of The Palm Jumeirah? Polar bears hunting amidst the frozen tundra of Arabian Ranches?
I have loved being able to walk around all morning or even all afternoon without getting sun stroke: going to the park, walking down to the beach, eating lunch outside. My intrepid husband has even been out running in the middle of the day, giving credence to the famous Noel Coward lyric, ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen attempt to improve their 10K PB in the midday sun…’ We have enjoyed a few cosy evenings at home as the rain poured down outside. The giant flag at the bottom of Diyafah Street has, for the first time in my memory, been fully unfurled by a strong, steady wind. Patches of sandy wasteland have sprouted with grasses and tiny bright flowers.
Of course, this wintry weather is not without its drawbacks: the roads have flooded, the washing takes longer to dry and, several times, I have had to put on socks in the evenings. The cat has taken to sleeping inside the wardrobe, snuggling up on an old jumper of mine and, when the sun does shine, she stretches out on the windowsill, soaking up every single moment of warmth, like a basking reptile (but much more pretty and fluffy).
Schools have been closed due to downpours; outdoor events have been cancelled. Our favourite Greek restaurant closed their terrace seating area ‘Due to inclement weather’ (there was a chilly breeze). At the school at which I teach, the fate of Sports Day hung in the balance as PE teachers nervously watched the grey skies. In the same way that children in the UK feel it is entirely justified to stop a lesson with, ‘Miss, it’s snowing!’ (followed by a stampede to the window), children here will actually interrupt a high-level discussion on Wilfred Owen’s powerful lexical choices in ‘Dulce et Decorum Est…’ in order to tell me that it has started raining outside.
While many British expats have complained, claiming they could have stayed at home if they had wanted to be wet and miserable, I have loved every blessed, drizzly minute of it. After all, it’s only a matter of time until the skies clear, the mercury rises, the tarmac melts and the sand becomes hot enough to burn the soles of your feet. In the mean time I shall be the one out walking in the morning mist, taking pictures of the sparse desert flowers and turning my grateful face up to the cool and cloudy sky above.
[Exit, pursued by a polar bear]
Another Christmas away from home and here I am, listening to ‘Carols from King’s College’ and eating hot mince pies while the warm sun shines outside in a bright blue desert sky. It feels cooler than usual for the time of year – a very pleasant 25 degrees or so, with a wonderfully refreshing breeze and a few substantial clouds floating about. It would be my ideal weather in fact, if only it wasn’t Christmas Eve.
I remember one particularly lovely Christmas Eve when I lived in Canterbury: the air was freezing and sparkling with anticipation. I drove to a local farm shop and, wrapped up in several long scarves I picked through their frost-kissed vegetables, choosing some muddy carrots and a long, green stalk of sprouts grown at the farm nearby. I bought some local mistletoe too. I took the bits to my parents’ house along with several bags of wrapped presents. As usual the front door was adorned with a jolly Christmas wreath and I could see the brightly coloured lights of the Christmas tree glowing through the glass. I rang the bell and waited a few moments for the door to open – for the warmth and light and smell of mulled wine to flood out and invite me in. I remember watching my breath steaming in the air and thinking how gorgeous that moment was – all of Christmas still to come; the perfectly still frostiness of the evening and the immediate promise of warmth and family and happiness. And mulled wine.
I’ve got used to these far-from-home Christmases and I know we’ll have a fun and festive day in spite of the perversely lovely weather. The Christmas shopping is all done at least, and that’s certainly a very different affair over here… All the shopping for family back in England is done via the magic of the interweb: with just a few clicks (seventeen passwords, a few online PINs and a credit card security code or two) you can find just about anything you need, get it gift-wrapped and popped in Santa’s sleigh within seconds. Not as romantic or indeed as Dickensian as strolling through the dark, cobbled streets of Canterbury in a blizzard, carrying armfuls of bags and parcels, but it is very practical. Shopping in the malls over here is very efficient too – particularly once you know where all your favourite shops are… After living here for over three years I still get hopelessly lost in Dubai Mall (the world’s largest indoor shopping centre, based on total area), but I can now find my way to M&S or Waitrose in the same eerily instinctive way a drunk person can locate the nearest loo. The malls are so huge here, some people (AKA my husband) have been known to pop in for a spot of Christmas shopping only to stagger home many hours later with little more to show for their efforts than a DVD box set, blisters on their feet and the haunted look of person who has had one too many Starbucks Gingerbread Lattés. One of the good things about shopping in malls is that you don’t suffer from the alternately sweaty and shivery physical discomfort of what I call ROAST syndrome: Retail Over-heating Amidst Sub-zero Temperatures. Wrapped up in a duffel coat, woollen gloves, fluffy ear muffs and a balaclava, you brave the freezing British high street, only to get your eye-balls blasted dry with gusts of burning hot air as soon as you enter a shop, and you immediately have to strip off four or five layers which you then have to carry around with you as you choose your gifts, inevitably dropping one glove on the floor somewhere near the scented candles. ROAST syndrome is responsible for many a homeless mitten.
Shopping for Christmas dinner here requires no Arctic outerwear at all, just a bit more persistence to find all the things you need (GOT the cranberry sauce! but the quest for bread sauce mix is something akin to searching for the lost treasure of the Knights Templar). We’ve managed to get some of our Christmas veg from local organic farms (a rapidly growing industry here – and, frankly, something of a miracle), but much of our festive food is imported… The Turkish Delight really is from Turkey, and the turkeys are from France. Unsurprisingly, brassicas don’t do so well in the desert and our sprouts have come all the way from Holland. Thank you, Holland (my husband may not look grateful but he WILL enjoy his compulsory sprouts come hell or high, foul-smelling water). Sadly, they are not on a stalk. They are wrapped in cling-film.
Where possible this year, I’ve tried to get my Dubai Christmas presents from anywhere other than big chain shops. Global Village (I LOVE Global Village) has provided some lovely hand-crafted pieces from India and Africa and I found some gorgeous things at the local artisans’ market, ARTE. I happen to have a regular stall at this market (Books Bejewelled, for all your literary trinket requirements…) and this weekend I encountered the sorriest victim of last-minute Christmas shopping I have ever seen. The poor man was sweating and had what looked like an entire cup of coffee spilt down the front of his t-shirt (possibly a Starbucks latté, though thankfully I didn’t get close enough to confirm whether or not it was their festive gingerbread variety). He sidled up to my table, a wild, terrified look in his eyes, and whispered in the manner of a Cold War spy, “Do you know my wife?”
“Pardon?” I said.
“Do you know my wife?”
“I err – I’m afraid I don’t know whether or not I know your wife…”
“She likes jewellery. I’ve got to buy her some jewellery. Does she like your jewellery?”
“I… I don’t know…”
“No. No I understand…” He shuffled away and I saw him approach the next jewellery vendor with the same, desperate question – “Do you know my wife?” Poor fellow. I hope he found her some nice jewellery and that she appreciates all his efforts, as they were clearly born of love. And fear. Love and fear.
Well, I’ve got some wrapping up of presents to do now. I’ll be putting on the traditional ‘Muppets Christmas Carol’ and burning some Christmassy orange and cinnamon candles while I curl ribbons, swear at disobedient rolls of wrapping paper and stick my fingers together with Sellotape. Tomorrow I will Skype the family and eat Dutch sprouts. And I might go for a walk on the beach too… If the sun insists on shining I suppose I might as well make the most of it.
I am about to head home again for a week of British autumn and, as I pack my suitcase full of thermal undies and attempt to zip it closed (having first removed the dozing cat from within), I am reminded of the last time I packed my bags for a flight – back home in Canterbury after a long, glorious summer in England.
The summer of 2013 was filled with family, friends, sunshine, good food and, perhaps most memorably, some really fabulous walks. There was the wonderful Kent coastal walk I went on with my friend, Jeannine, from Reculver castle to Whitstable, on the hottest day of the year. We had a picnic on a remote bit of beach beneath a strange rocky outcrop and felt like Enid Blyton characters. We flagged down a passing ice-cream vendor on a tricycle to buy bottles of cold water, and ended the day with a blissfully cool sunset paddle and a well-earned pint of locally brewed beer at the Whitstable brewery.
I walked with my brother from Wye to Chilham through the beautiful Kent countryside, along the Stour Valley and up and down the Downs, on another day of booming blue skies and summer sun. The fields were golden with ripe wheat and barley, rippling slightly with the barely-breathing breeze. There were butterflies everywhere – Peacocks, Painted Ladies, Marbled Whites, Chalkhill Blues and many I didn’t recognise from my garden childhood of Red Admirals and Cabbage Whites: I’m told this summer was a particularly good one for the butterflies. There were dazzling patches of wild flowers at the edges and corners of fields – nature at its most free and colourful at the height of the summer – an impressionist blur of purples, reds and yellows. The walk took us through cool, shaded, badgery woodland and along the green banks of the river Stour, on its way to Canterbury.
Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh near Canterbury are favourite haunts of my family, largely for the birdlife, the fresh air and the tranquillity of the reed-beds. I walked here many times this year – more than I ever did when actually I lived in the UK I expect – with my parents and my brothers. Water rails screech from the reeds, ducks do crazy flapping take-offs from the water, flocks of geese honk by and a lone marsh harrier drifts high above, watching and waiting.
I wandered around the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle with my parents and my aunt, admiring the magical Rapunzel towers and the lovely, endless gardens arranged in different coloured ‘rooms’. I explored Batsford Arboretum with my dear friend Kate and her two tiny tots. I roamed the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds with my friends Jo and Simon and their gorgeous little Pappy-Jack pups, ending our walk with chips and a pint of beer in a pub garden with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
I scaled the rugged heights of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du in the Brecon Beacons with my brother, on a perfect day of fleeting fluffy-white clouds, taking great cleansing lungfuls of the cool, clear air as we climbed. We discovered the highest wheelbarrow in Wales, posed for pictures on cliff edges (well, he did – I was a bit scared) and ate our sandwiches at the summit, looking out towards the dramatically named Black Mountains.
I pottered through the cobbled streets of Canterbury: through the pretty Westgate Gardens with my friend Lou and her baby, Tom; over the bridge, past the wild flower meadow, to the Greyfriars chapel with my friend Stacy and her son, Milo; to the secret riverside butterfly garden with my mum and Aunty Ange; up St Margaret’s Street in the summer rain to meet my friend Kate for afternoon tea at Tiny Tim’s Tearoom.
I walked along the stripy-deck-chaired beachfront at Westgate with my friend Nicki and her two tiny girls; along the Thames and through Greenwich Park with my sister-in-law, Caroline; down a steep, narrow lane to paddle on a perfect Devon beach with my friends Kate and Jonney and their little boy, Finbar. I walked around a Kentish vineyard in the bright morning sunshine before sampling a dangerously diverse selection of their fine wines (I’m ashamed to say the sun was absolutely nowhere near the yard arm). I wandered around Brighton with my mum and my godmother, popping into jewellery shops and stopping at the Lanes for tea and cake.
Many people enjoy walking alone, but for me a pleasant walk is as much about good company as it is about beautiful surroundings. There’s something about talking whilst walking which is uniquely therapeutic. I think it’s to do with the healthy physical activity, the proximity to nature, the fresh air and the ever-changing landscape which stimulates and enriches the conversation. Even if there are other walkers around, a conversation while walking always feel private, and the necessary lack of eye-contact (in order to avoid rabbit holes, puddles or cow pats) somehow allows delicate subjects to be addressed or confidences to be shared in an easy, gentle way. On returning home as an expat, there are so many lovely people I am desperate to see. Going for walks with them is, in my mind, the best possible way to catch up whilst recharging with the healing essence of home.
I’ll be going for another walk tomorrow – along several miles of airport travelators: just a tad less picturesque than the Cotswolds or the Brecon Beacons perhaps, but it’s the way home.
We have moved ten miles up the road and it feels as if we’ve moved to a different country entirely. Al Barsha, our haunt for the last three years, has many good points: it is fairly central, close to the Metro and a big mall, and it is the home of Shawarmaji – purveyors of the finest chicken shawarmas in the country (in my humble opinion… Oh! The roasty, pickley, garlicky goodness!). But it never really felt like home. It never really felt like anywhere if I’m honest. The problem I had with Barsha is, I think, the same problem some people have with Dubai in general: it doesn’t feel finished. Less buzzing suburb, more building site, in Barsha one is never far from the pneumatic drills, dust, trucks, cranes, scaffolding and incessant hammering.
So here we are in Satwa. Our new apartment is smaller than our last but, because the area is nearly all low-rise, there is a wonderful feeling of space and air – and so much LIGHT! In a previous post I wrote about the bizarre ‘Rear Window’ experience of looking out from our balcony straight into the living rooms of the apartments opposite… From our new bedroom balcony we have an amazing view out over the roofs of Dubai, from the scruffier satellite-dished dwellings nearby right up to the glittering lights of the Sheikh Zayed Road and the magnificent Burj Khalifa.
It’s like being treated to a free fireworks display every night; in fact, on New Year’s Eve – our balcony will be the place to be! (It will have to be a rather exclusive party I’m afraid, as you can only fit about three people on it…)
Satwa itself is a wonderful, bustling place that comes alive at night. It is filled with tailors, textile emporiums and haberdasheries, their windows glimmering with satin and sequins, and extraordinary little hardware shops that sell everything you can possibly think of – plungers, piping and boxes of nails filling every square inch of wall, floor and ceiling space. There are bakeries, their windows flung open to the cool night air as men in white aprons puff up pockets of hot bread over naked flames, and neon-lit restaurants with mouth-watering, spiced meat roasting on rotating skewers.
Revelation of revelations (particularly after my recent adventures with driving): here in Satwa we can walk to nice places. Even though it’s hot! We can walk to the beach. We can walk to a huge selection of fabulous shops and restaurants. We can walk up to the aromatic, neon craziness of Al Satwa Road. There are pavements and, what’s more, pedestrian crossings! To head into Satwa proper, one has a choice: take the main roads or short cut through the quieter, residential streets. The main road is Diyafah Street and, unlike some bits of Dubai, it has been here for quite a long time. Yesterday, a friend of mine was telling me about life in Dubai when she first lived here nearly twenty years ago: one day she was walking up Diyafah Street, when who should she see but His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum himself strolling towards her, with his smart walking cane and a discreet entourage. It’s perhaps not quite the same sort of street that it once was (I haven’t spotted any royalty yet), but it’s certainly still lively and characterful. To mark the fortieth anniversary of the unification of the Emirates, Diyafah Street was renamed after the date of National Day itself – it is now 2nd December Street.
The short cut through the quieter, residential streets has become one of my favourite things about Dubai. Sometimes I count the trees as I walk, just to wallow in the delight of being close to green things. There are old villas here, with mature, rambling gardens; gnarled tendrils of bougainvillea twist over the tops of the white-washed garden walls. There are beautiful old wooden doors and gates, the paint fading and peeling prettily in the heat. There are people chatting outside front doors, washing hanging up to dry between trees and – this one makes me shiver with delight – there are chickens wandering about in the road. Chickens! They may not be wandering for long (one suspects their existence may be somewhat short and purposeful), but while they wander they make the place feel positively rural. And that makes a displaced Maid of Kent very happy indeed. All I need to do now is find a place that does really good chicken shawarmas…
I had never driven an automatic before, or driven on the right, or driven on the crazy roads of Dubai. But we were moving house and buying furniture and transporting fish tanks and cats, and the whole thing would have been a nightmare without a car, so I grasped the proverbial nettle…
The advice I was given when first setting off in my tinny little hire car was to “go with the flow”… Alas, if you “go with the flow” too wholeheartedly on these roads, you end up breaking the speed limit, missing your turn-off and coming perilously close to mowing down a street cat, a pedestrian and a certifiably insane cyclist. Traffic here has its own natural inertia – a mighty, unstoppable forward-moving force, like a herd of stampeding wildebeest. And woe betide any unfortunate little wildebeest who needs to take the next left turning for Waitrose. It doesn’t help that most people who live here drive MASSIVE four-by-fours, so that anyone in a car of relatively normal dimensions ends up feeling like Charles Hawtrey in a particularly pumped-up and aggressive Mr Universe contest. I really do mean massive four-by-fours. Stupidly big. So big they must be impossible to park in your average parking space. I’m not talking Chelsea Tractors, I’m talking Chelsea Tanks… Chelsea Titanic Chrome Juggernauts… Some crazily rich people, however, eschew these juggernauts for flashy, low-slung sports cars with deafening engines – though they must come horribly unstuck when it comes to negotiating the vicious speed bumps of the residential streets. It’s all implausibly impractical.
Of the driving instructor’s sacred dictum – Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre, only the one word applies here. Manoeuvre. Manoeuvre here, there and effing everywhere – as swiftly and unpredictably as possible. The extraordinary manoeuvres one witnesses in this part of the world are enough to make your brain short-fuse. People appear as if from nowhere in your wing mirror, swerve in front of you, narrowly grazing your bumper, slam the brakes on and then swerve back again for no apparent reason; people beep at red lights and then mount the kerb and drive cross-country over the pavement, sand and rubble to avoid the traffic altogether; people miss their turning on the high-speed highway and so stop and try to reverse through the fast-moving traffic; people drive the wrong way down one way roads and then beep at you to get out of their way. There’s a lot of beeping.
In the UK, beeping is generally for emergencies or alerting other road users of danger – and perhaps occasionally a cheery double-pip to say cheerio to people you know. Here the incessant beeping, hooting, honking and parping of car horns is used to communicate everything from “The light turned green one millionth of a second ago you blind moron – MOVE!” or, “I’m about to overtake you at 97 MPH – don’t change lanes for the love of God or WE’LL ALL DIE,” to, “I am sitting in my vehicle outside your shop and I can’t be arsed to get out. Please bring me some fags.”
There is a feverish impatience on the roads that is incongruous with the relaxed pace with which most other things happen over here – from the painfully slow progress of supermarket queues or bureaucratic processes to the local families wandering sleepily around the shopping malls. One wonders why everyone is dashing around the roads so dangerously, as they never seem to be in a hurry once they actually get there… The other day, the driver behind me was so impatient, he couldn’t wait the five seconds it would take me to turn left into our car park. I indicated left, slowed down and stopped briefly to let an oncoming car pass. Just as I started to turn left (still indicating, mind you), I had to slam on the brakes as the nitwit behind me had decided I was in his way and he was going to overtake me – while I was turning left (UK drivers may need to reverse the sides of the road to appreciate the full impact of this idiocy).
There is in fact so much idiocy on the roads here that some people advise “turning one’s brain off” to drive successfully. The theory is that there is no benefit in attempting to consider or anticipate other drivers’ moves: simply drive on your raw instinct. A bit like Al Pacino’s blind-man-in-a-Ferrari scene in Scent of a Woman, perhaps… I found it impossible to turn my brain off though, so I ended up attempting to anticipate the moves of every other impulsive, distracted, chatting / texting driver I was surrounded by, and, as people here overtake from both sides and rarely indicate, it was all rather exhausting.
Traffic here abhors a vacuum. If you leave a reasonably safe gap between your own car and the car in front, other drivers will see that gap and, perhaps assuming your lane must be moving slightly more quickly than their lane, will immediately swerve straight into it, often swerving back again when they realise it’s not actually moving any faster or they’re about to miss their turning. All of this without indicating of course. I think indicating actually sometimes causes problems as it can confuse people. The other day I indicated before safely and appropriately changing lanes and a driver two lanes across braked and honked at me. Having spotted my flashing light he had obviously panicked and thought I must be up to something much more drastic and characteristic of the driving out here, such as an impromptu U-turn or a spontaneous desire to park in the middle of the motorway.
Another frustration is that the road system is totally counter-intuitive: you have to set off in completely the wrong direction, take four U-turns, sit at five sets of traffic lights and navigate three spiralling spaghetti junctions just to get to the supermarket that you can actually see from your own front door. There aren’t many roundabouts here, and when you do come across one you soon understand why this is. With the erratic driving one sees out here every day, roundabouts are absolutely lethal. People barge onto them in front of oncoming traffic; they sit on the inside and then weave across every lane to take the first exit. I saw one expat driver actually driving the wrong way around a roundabout the other day as he sought to join the main road in his tinny little hire car. Heaven help his tinny little hire car. Heaven help us all.
That said, I suppose it hasn’t been quite as bad as I anticipated. The nice thing about driving, rather than getting taxis, is that you are in charge. Honestly, the amount of times my right foot has pressed into the passenger foot-well of a taxi in futile search of the brake… And it felt like a considerable achievement when I handed the keys back to the hire car man and received my full deposit back. “No speeding fines?” he said incredulously, “No parking fines? No bumps?”
“Nope,” I replied. “I told you, I’m a good driver.”
“The trouble is,” he said, shaking his head sadly, “everyone here thinks that.” And he hung the keys of my tinny little hire car on a peg behind the desk, ready for the next driver.
Sunday Times writer, Matt Rudd, has quite selflessly spent the last couple of years loitering around grubby motorway service stations, dodgy B&Bs and East Anglian dogging hotspots in order to write this splendid book (at least that was his excuse…). Just like Homesick and Heatstruck and many of my lovely readers, Rudd was living as an expat somewhere hot and exotic (Australia in his case, as opposed to the Middle East, but still, considerably more hot and exotic than, say, Bracknell) when he felt the plaintive call of his distant grey and green homeland.
Structured as a journey through those places that define us as a species – The Kitchen, The Garden, The Commuter Train, The Sports Field, The Bedroom – The English whips zippily through the findings of actual research, using personal experiences, experiments and informal case studies to add warmth, humour and humanity to his pseudo-scientific explorations. The result is a playful anthropological investigation of those diverse and mysterious creatures that graze our green and pleasant land (the people, I mean. English people. Not sheep).
Unlike most noble quests, which inevitably begin at Bag End, The Shire, Rudd’s journey starts in discount furniture store, DFS, in Carcroft, South Yorkshire. What follows is a moving eulogy for an Englishman’s best friend – his sofa. Rudd’s portrayal of the life of an average ‘Englisher’ (his chosen appellation) is indeed distinctly average. He positively wallows in the mire of modern Middle England, eschewing those old-fashioned English clichés of tea and cake, a foaming pint of ale, or cricket on the village green, focusing instead on the grimmer, every day realities of motorways, industrial parks and Tesco. And he has a jolly good time while he’s at it. Except when he’s in Blackpool, and who can blame him for that.
Rudd’s adventures encompass such exotic locations as the motel at Newport Pagnell motorway services, as he seeks to recapture the excitement of childhood holidays – that feeling of freedom, disorientation and dizzy anticipation that can only come from ‘stretching the legs’, using the loos and eating a deep-fried snack en route to a camping holiday somewhere in the Peak District. I know exactly what he means. Oh the joy of it when, after a bizarrely named ‘Tenderfoot Breakfast’, Little Chef would gladly swap my empty plate for their lollipop… More recently, my husband and I spent the second night of our marriage in the Travelodge at Podimore. We were on our way down to Coverack in Cornwall for our honeymoon and, still riding the crazy, heady high of pledging the rest of our lives to each other, we checked in as Mr and Mrs Trevor Lodge. The receptionist didn’t flinch.
One of my favourite parts of the book is Rudd’s investigation of queuing. Rather than popping into Wimbledon for the lawn-tennis-and-strawberries-and-cream side of Englishness, Rudd chooses a drier, more ironic approach, staying outside to observe the more subtle sport of queuing. It’s an endurance sport. John and his daughter Charlotte queue for forty three hours to get Centre Court tickets. There’s something soothing about a proper English queue – the calm, shuffling, pleasant order of it; the polite, shoulder-tapping ‘Excuse me, that counter’s free now’ – that’s balm to the poor expat soul who has suffered the angry humiliation of attempting to stick to ‘the rules’ of queuing when nobody else bloody bothers. I nearly flattened someone at the vegetable weighing counter of Lulu Hypermarket today…
The chapter on commuting also strikes close to home. Rudd lists the recorded announcement of stops on the Charing Cross line to Ramsgate: “Ashford. Wye. Chilham. Chartham. Canterbury West. Sturry. Minster. Ramsgate…” It’s a much-loved route I’ve travelled many, many times. Less often in recent years perhaps, due to the jazzy new hyper-quick-rocket-powered-leopard-train from Canterbury to London St Pancras (and the fact that I live on a different continent, of course). But while the list of these stations is nostalgic music to my ears, the announcement of the slow route gives my husband horrible flashbacks to his shell-shocked days of commuting from Canterbury to London every weekday for an entire year when we were newly married. For twelve long months he spent nearly six hours a day on trains. Six hours. The mere suggestion of ‘changing at Ashford for Marshlink services to Brighton’ or ‘moving to the front four carriages as this station has a short platform’ is so traumatic for him he just shakes his head, muttering, “You weren’t there, man. You weren’t there…”
But I digress. The English is witty, original and clever, with a few lovely running jokes, such as the Birmingham retail industry’s unhealthy obsession with ladies’ underwear, and delightful recurring characters such as Mehmet, the ‘Coffee Guy on Platform 1’. Rudd inclines towards positive portrayals whilst resisting the urge to make too many sweeping generalisations. It’s a satisfying and entertaining book and, speaking personally, essential reading for homesick English expatriates who might fall for more sentimental representations of cultural identity, and need reassurance that all is much as it was when we left and we’re not missing out on anything particularly wonderful.
One rather pleasant surprise is that we come across as a much more cheerful bunch that I might have anticipated. A randomly chosen commuter ranks his happiness rating as nine out of ten, whilst standing on a railway platform at 5:32am on a drizzly English morning. NINE out of ten?! Cheerful indeed. Or just barking bloody mad… But I have to say that certain chapters work as really rather effective homesickness aversion therapy, reminding us of those less pleasant aspects of home – the reasons we left the country in the first place: the bit about binge drinking and exploding bladders perhaps, noise-polluting neighbours, or the horrendous phantom traffic jams on the M25… Well, it’s exactly one month until I’m back in England for the summer, and I have to stave off the homesickness a little longer; I might just have to read that bit about Blackpool again…
The English: A Field Guide by Matt Rudd has just been published by Harper Collins and is available online and in shops now.