Some advice for Piers Morgan on organising his Men’s March

On January 21, hundreds of thousands of people marched through cities on every continent in a global campaign for women’s rights and equality.

Journalist slash TV presenter slash twitter feud-haver Piers Morgan was unhappy about this turn of events that didn’t seem to be about him in any way and so tweeted a plan – a plan to hold a men’s march against encroaching feminism and the emasculation of his ENTIRE GENDER as a result of people thinking maybe it isn’t fair that not everyone has equal rights.


It was a tweet akin to the angry clamours that arise most years on International Women’s Day demanding to know the date of International Men’s Day (November 19th). This is rarely followed by an upsurge of action from the same people on Men’s day itself, almost as if they are more concerned about tearing down a bid for equality than actually campaigning for the rights of vulnerable men.

To be fair, Piers only came up with this plan on January 21, possibly inspired by the Women’s March rather than intimidated by it, so he might appreciate some advice in these early planning stages on whose rights his march should be trying to protect.


According to a 2015 UN report, there were 1,612 murders, across 62 countries, of transgender persons between 2008 and 2014. In the US alone in 2013, there were a reported 1,402 hate crime offences (the actual figure may be higher) based on sexual-orientation, 60 percent of which were aimed at men. A recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted the bullying homosexual youths face in US schools.

The rate of suicide is also four times higher for gay youths than it is for straight youths.

Anecdotally, gay youths around the world still face the risk of being kicked out of their homes, or ostracised from their peers.

Men of Colour

The University of California released a studyfound “evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average.”The American Civil Liberties Union released a report in 2014 which showed black men, on average, received longer sentences than white men for comparable crimes.

Male Victims of Sexual Assault

Male rape is both under-reported and under-researched, making definitive data difficult to come by. The FBI’s definition of rapewas not updated to include male victims until 2012 and in 2015, a study of discrepancies between assaults on male victims that were formally reported and the numbers of victim self-referrals for counselling indicated that more than 90 percent of assaults in the UK were going unreported.

Male Victims of Domestic Abuse

In the UK there are about 500,000 men living in abusive situations, but only 78 spaces available to men, and only 20 of those are for men only. Male victims are also far less likely to report abuse or feel they can even confide in non-formal sources such as friends and family.


These are just a few statistics, a few links from about an hour’s work, and it isn’t meant to be comprehensive. It doesn’t take into account the men who don’t fit the general idea of “masculinity,” or the boys who are bullied and beaten up because they like cooking, or dancing, or pink, and their peers have been taught from a young age that anything “girly” is inherently inferior and should be mocked. It doesn’t take into account the fact that boys are told not to cry, and to man up, and that emotions are a sign of weakness.

If half the people who sarcastically asked “when is International Men’s Day” on International Women’s Day actually did something to help men, to reduce toxic masculinity, even just to let their friends know they won’t be judged for being a victim, the rate of suicide in men might fall (it is currently about 3.5 times higher in men than in women.)

So if Piers organises a march for these men, this rabid feminist would be happy to march alongside them.



Switching blades…

…not switchblades, that’s a different thing.

International épée in Doha

International épée in Doha

“I think you will be a better épée fencer than you were sabre fencer.”

[Olympia Fencing Centre]

The different weapons and target areas [Olympia Fencing Centre]

My coach in Doha has said this a few times now in recent weeks. The first time he said it, I was hit by a mixture of emotions. There was the pleasure in the compliment, a rare thing among fencing coaches, a kind of latent regret that I was leaving my ‘favourite’ weapon behind, and finally a concern that if I had fenced épée to begin with, I might have progressed to the level I so desperately wanted to reach when I was younger.

The more I thought about it, however, the more I realised that while me now might have the “potential to one day be a decent épéeist,” (as I said, compliments are hard earned) my younger self would have been (and on the few occasions I was forced to try, was) a terrible terrible terrible epee fencer.

I guess, at this stage, I should look at the various differences between the two blades (and ignore foil completely because I know absolutely nothing about it).

The various weapons come with distinct rules and techniques but also very definite mentalities that make someone suited to it or otherwise.

Sabre - it is the slashy one...

Sabre – it is the slashy one…

Sabre – my original choice – is the fastest weapon with a target area of anything above the waist. It is slashy (technical term) as well as pokey (also a technical term) although the point is rarely used. It is so quick that instead of three sections of three minutes during a fight to 15 with a one minute break after each bit, you just stop for a minute after someone reaches eight points as it would be unusual for a fight to last more than three minutes anyway.

Because of its speed, you pretty much have to decide what you are doing between hits and then just go for it. If you mess up the next few seconds are run on instinct until one or other of you lands a hit. You have to adapt quickly and there isn’t a lot of thinking time.

This last bit is why sabre was good for me as a teenager and into my early 20s. One of the reasons I crapped out of competitions is that I had a tendency to over-think everything to the point where I was basically a ball of stress with a sword.

At the same time my concentration span was such that my brain would wander off in search of entertainment elsewhere after (at most) half an hour of thinking about the same thing. It is why I would regularly get y ass kicked playing chess, even if I had been ahead for the first half hour, my mind would give up and I would do stupid stuff and get slain for it.

So the need to think fast in sustained bursts and the fact that there was little room to think the rest of the time, made sabre the perfect weapon.

In épée, I discovered, being impatient to attack, or dropping concentration, is rapidly punished by a far more focussed opponent.

IMG_9991Epee, by the way, is the slowest of the weapons. It is exclusively pokey and the target area is anywhere on the body. When I first made the switch I was pretty awful and getting my ass handed to me by people who had been fencing a matter of months.

Muscle memory meant that successful parries were followed by cut cheek (not a hit), when I got tired my blade drifted into a sabre en guarde position (very bad times), I forgot to think  about my legs which were suddenly target area and my distance was all out of whack (which it had always been, but in épée I had no idea how to compensate.)

It was awful and added in to that was the fact that I was still too impatient. If someone didn’t attack for a few seconds I got bored and lunged in, not planning, not thinking, just going, and would be effortlessly hit for my trouble. My concentration would drop after ten seconds and suddenly the box would be beeping merrily, reminding me I just got beaten yet again.

I got more and more frustrated. I couldn’t use fencing as I had previously before the stress took over, as a way to relax, because when I relaxed my muscles were hard wired to do the wrong thing. It seemed to me then that the best thing would just be to stop, jack in the sport that I can’t really remember not doing and start something new.

Then, however, came to a new realisation. No one expected anything of me in this club. I wasn’t going to be expected to compete, or do well or be outstanding. I could just have fun fencing for the first time in possibly a decade.

With this turning point I started to relax. As I got used to everything and started to improve on the basics (one clue was when Christophe stopped having to yell “use your point” every few minutes) I started getting lessons again and slowly, slowly, I am starting to feel like maybe, one day, I could possibly be a half decent epee fencer.

Learning to be patient on the piste, to think while I am fencing, not to be distracted by the yells and gamesmanship, all that is still some way away, but I feel like it is reachable.

A fair while ago, while I was dealing with moving jobs, enforced unemployment, and a figurative landslide of paper work, I blogged about how I had rediscovered fencing at exactly the right time and how I had hated it by the time I quit in the UK.

Something I hadn’t considered before, but that my very wise coach suggested might be the case, was that switching blades was one of the reasons fencing became enjoyable again.

It is like a new sport without any of the baggage left over from the sabre years.


I am a doughnut…

…visiting Berlin then and now.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.

Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.

It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.

I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.

By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.

Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.

This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.

So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.

Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can't find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can’t find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.


Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.


We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.

There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.

After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)

This totally makes sense. Totally.

This totally makes sense. Totally.

We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.

Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.

It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.


From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.

It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.

In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.

They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.

By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.

The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.

Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.

My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.

I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.

I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.

I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)


This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.

Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.

I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”

I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.

Imposing is the word.

Imposing is the word.

But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.

We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.

At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

Anish Kapoor: At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.

We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)

One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.

It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)

This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.

It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.


Good for the Seoul…

…a solo exploration of South Korea’s capital.

As I write (for the first time in a long time) I am sitting in my parents’ living room, the sun has just come out and I am hoping it will stay out long enough to dry the rain-soaked streets so I can go for a run.

As ever, when I visit the UK, I am waiting for my visa and my contract to be re-newed so I can return to work.

Unusually, this all seems to be ticking a long quite nicely and I am taking advantage of the fact I am not chasing stamp-wielders and dotted line-signers to catch up with all my writing. With a feature on hold until someone replies to my many phone calls, a blog seemed to be in order.

When we last spoke, I was jetting away from the silence and peace of Mongolia, and heading to South Korea to round off a three week jaunt away from Qatar.

I had hoped to have a brief catch up with an old friend who, in the surprising way life has of throwing old acquaintances back at you, has followed a remarkably similar path to my own career-wise, but in Asia rather than the Middle East.

James, it turned, was being sent on deployment the day I arrived, and a confusion of timings meant we did not manage to cross paths. He did, however, lend me both his apartment and his girlfriend as tour guide to make my time in Seoul pass pleasantly.

I set out on the first day with little to no plan, and just headed to an area James had said was fun to explore on what was to be the first of many metro-based adventures during my six days in Seoul.

My first problem was similar to an issue encountered when first travelling in Arabic-speaking countries before I got a grasp on the alphabet – that I had absolutely no way of working out how to pronounce the words displayed on the signs. (There was English underneath, but my stumbling tongue still couldn’t quite form the right syllables in some cases.)  Added to this was the fact that the people I randomly approached either did not speak English or did not want to help.


An accidental moment of bliss.

Luckily, having lived in a world of incomprehensible letters, I had painstakingly copied out the characters signifying my home station, and a few stops I hoped to reach along the way. In this way, and with the help of a friendly man who also taught me how to say “thank you” I made it to the City Hall stop and roved around, taking in the Seoul Art Gallery and a narnia-esque garden in the process. (This last bit by total accident – having no sense of direction means you see far more or a city than originally intended.) The biggest shock to my senses at this point was when the construction noise of Qatar was replaced by the sounds of insects filling the air.

I also came across an exhibition of art depicting the abuse of Korean women during the war. This gallery offered no english translation, but the power behind some of the images meant none was needed and I left feeling like someone else’s pain had washed in to me.


Seoul on this first day seemed oddly impenetrable. I had, perhaps arrogantly, assumed English would be widely spoken, but this seemed not to be the case, and I felt useless having to pantomime my way through ordering meals and coffee.

Part of the culture shock may have come from the fact I arrived fresh from two weeks of an almost technological celibacy, only to land in a world of lights and machines and slickness.

I tried, especially when on the metro, to find relatable figures and behaviours.

The school holidays had brought out gaggles of early teenage girls, standing in groups of five or so in the middle of the carriage, giggling, playing with smart phones, all dressed the same to assert their individuality without moving away from the herd.

The differences between here and there surround the surface style. There is more neon, more animal motiffs on bags and shirts, they all look younger than their contemporaries in London, who age before their time.

I found myself wondering when these girls, with long, straight hair and short shorts transform into the uniform older women, with stiffly permed curls and loose-fitting trousers. Few examples of the intervening stages seem visible, the transformation appears absolute.

I voiced this with my guides (who I met up with a little later in the trip) and they laughed at my observation. The story behind why all the older women look the same is quite a poignant one.

The ‘ajumma’ – meaning ‘aunt’ (I think) – are seen as hard working, slightly pushy, older women. I couldn’t quite work out if it was a term of respect (as in South Asia) or a pejorative way of talking about the older generation.

Anyway, I was told that in the past, where times were much harder and working days were long and difficult, women would have these fixed, tight perms as they lasted and lasted and never moved and the women did not have time in the mornings to style their hair before heading out to work.

(A quick search threw up this post from someone better placed to explain the lifestyle.)

I got up on the second day with far more of a plan, and a determination not to be culture-shocked out of having a great time in a city so bursting with possibilities.

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

One of the buildings at Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace

Up and to the Gyeongbokgung Royal Palace, where a Korean/American girl and I drifted together in the manner of solo travellers everywhere and meandered about the place, before taking in lunch (I have no idea what I ordered – but it was delicious) and a calligraphy demonstration.

We then wandered off in our separate directions and I cable-carred up to N Seoul Tower (yes, I could have walked but *plurb* to you, I felt like being lazy.

At the top there are various over-priced places to eat and drink, a viewing station which I didn’t pay to go to, and a bunch of really fantastic displays made up of locks left by couples as a token of their love and relationship. It sounds tacky, I know, but the messages and the happiness kind of spills in to you once you get there.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Young couples also write their names on the fences.

Love lockets.

Love lockets at N Seoul Tower.

Guilt at not walking up came in to play, and I set off down the hill feeling all intrepid. This was eroded slightly when, during the course of my hike down the mountain, I was passed by a serene old lady, a women carrying a baby, and two blind men going the other way.

My happy wanderings brought me out at Bukchon Hanok village, a traditional 600-year-old urban environment preserved in the heart of Seoul. There, rather unexpectedly, my phone suddenly decided it could find a network provider after all, something it had completely failed to do in the more modern and shiny areas of the city.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Getting lost can be the best part of a holiday.

Seoul is marvellous, but, as previously stated, somewhat mysterious at first. My trip would not have been half of what it ended up being without the wonderful Hyojin Kim who I finally managed to meet up with on my third day there.

Seoul Fish Market

Seoul Fish Market

Together with a friend of a friend we explored Seoul’s fish market, where you can purchase fish to be prepared in one of the many adjoining tiny restaurants – resulting in the freshest Sushi you are ever likely to eat.

Never able to leave my journalist hat in Doha, we also visited one of Seoul’s under-reported on slums, where I managed to conduct interviews and get some interviews which will hopefully prove useful down the line.

One minute from the slum, we sat on over-priced patchwork sofas in one of the most expensive malls in Korea, and I accepted the fact that my brain was never going to work in quite the same way since moving back to the world of reporting.

Oh, I also went to Gangnam st….ation. By accident. But still, there it is.

With all due apologies...

With all due apologies…

By this point in my extensive trip my joy of discovery was starting to wane and I will admit to a certain amount of happiness on my fourth day in Seoul when I was able to have a blissful lie-in before getting up to navigate grocery shopping before heading in to the real world for Korean barbecue and a night-time exploration of Seoul.

My fifth day was given up to packing and some last-minute exploring of the city in order to meet some people James had suggested I hang out with. The knowledge that soon my ready access to good beer and pork products would be coming to an end meant that I welcomed an afternoon exploring pubs and tea shops around the admittedly slight more westernised area of Seoul.

I was journeying home on the tube when began feeling desperately sad because one of the old women I described earlier was standing by the doors with a cloth pressed to her face. She removed it to reveal a raised, purple eye and cheek bone. No-one was paying her attention, no-one gave up their seat, I was reminded of London in the worst possible way, when everyone looks at the floor and doesn’t ask questions.

I felt trapped and isolated, wanting more than anything to speak to her, but knowing my message would never be conveyed successfully. I stood mute and screaming.

Then, she sat down between two other identical women and they immediately started talking to her, asking her questions, with faces full of concern. I was relieved they had just not seen, rather than ignoring her. I was more relieved when she mimed falling. In this situations one thinks the worst.

I felt so divorced from being able to be a caring member of this society.

On my final day I had managed to get on the full de-militarised zone tour (you need to book pretty far in advance to get anything other than the half day.)

IMG_0687It was an odd experience, walking through tunnels, seeing a train station with a sign boldly displaying “To Pyongyang” feeling the futility of the fact that the tracks just stop, that a train has never run, that signs stating “the beginning of unification” seem pathetically optimistic.

Above all that is the surreal way the place feels slightly like an amusement park. Signs and sculptures are everywhere. The propaganda reel says that when re-unification happens, they want the area to be a place of happiness and joy.

If Disneyland did military buffer zones…


There were serious and interesting bits to the DMZ as well. You can stand facing North Korea, as heavily trained South Korean soldiers stand guard behind blue box-like buildings where the two sides can meet.

A low concrete line can be seen spanning the floor as the point that South becomes North.

By the end of the day, and the end of the trip, I was feeling exhausted. Nearly three weeks of adventures and new experiences and filling myself up with all the amazing tales I can now tell was been wonderful and refreshing, but I had never felt more ready to return to Doha.

Seoul is full of lights and sounds and unexpected corners that lead to hidden gems.

It is a city to explore, but it is also a city to share. The last few days of having people with me, showing me their favourite places and the hidden souls of Seoul made the tip better than I ever could have hoped, but it reminded me of the bad, as well as the good, of travelling alone.

I found peace being able to roam at my own pace, not stop until late, or coming back to the calm of the flat if it all became too much.

It is the singular joy of travelling alone that one feels no obligation to do anything and can enjoy a new place and savour it in ones own way.

With that, however, comes the loss of shared experience. A knowledge that to do something, to struggle through a mountain, or to stand in the baking heat to witness a particular event, is done purely to say “I did this” and to have no-one to laugh with about the arduous nature of the trials that were gone through so the reward could be enjoyed.

It is not to say I did not adventure and experience and live during that week.

Travelling alone opens doors to new friendships that might never have happened if the acquaintance had seen two people standing in a doorway instead of one.

As with everything, I would not change my trip, but I wonder how it might have changed if someone else were here as well.

Han river by night

Han river by night.

The time I attacked Sandy with an eagle…

…and other stories from the Mongolian steppes.

I haven’t done a travel post for a while. I have, however, done a fair bit of travelling.

An excellent thing about Doha is that from there you can get pretty much anywhere with relative ease.

So, naturally, with the whole world to choose from, I chose Mongolia.

It is hard to imagine a place that offers a greater contrast to Qatar then the one I arrived in after two plane transfers, a minor heart attack in Seoul when no-one seemed to know where I got my next boarding card, an excessively long line at immigration, and a scrum at baggage claim that made me grateful that I’m tall enough to see over the heads of most people.

Sandy, who I originally met in Doha and who has since moved to Ulaanbaatar as a teacher, picked me up from the airport and we drove back to his school on deceptively smooth roads that lulled me into a false sense of security about what our impending tour of Mongolia would entail.

Day one: In which two humps are better than one…

After an evening of curry and catch-ups and an unexpectedly long film (The View Beyond the Pines is excellent, by the way) we hit the road at a very reasonable 9am, having been introduced to our guide Khaliunaa, her husband Aba (our driver) and their three-year-old son, Tamulin, who would be coming on our trip with us.

Any trepidation I might have felt about spending the next several days with a three-year-old evaporated when Tamulin gave us a cheery thumbs up before settling into his car seat. He quickly became our trip’s mascot, and the instigator of many driving break games. And a stealer of hats.

This kid. This kid is awesome.

This kid. This kid is awesome.

The first day offered a tiny insight into what awaited us a few sleeps in the future when the road randomly stopped and Aba casually turned his heavily laden two-wheel-drive Hyundai people  carrier off road and continued as if everything was normal.

Which, as it turns out, it was.

We had lunch in this little girl's home...

We had lunch in this little girl’s home…

We stopped for lunch at a collection of gers (what we would normally call yurts) and the four of us were offered a camel ride.

Living and travelling in the Middle Easy means that camel rides quickly lose their appeal. Camels are bumpy, uncomfortable, stubborn and have massive teeth.

Also, it was raining. Which we were assured was very unusual in the ‘land of the blue skies.’

Sandy discovering that two humps are better than one...

Sandy discovering that two humps are better than one…

However, in a bid not to offend we agreed to the ride, and quickly found that the Mongolian bactrian (two-humped camel) is vastly more comfortable than its one-humped cousin (probably cousin, I’m not really sure how camel genetics work.)

We also realised that it wasn’t entirely normal that we were all in a position to compare relative comfort levels of camels.

That first day, as the Mongolian steppes rolled past the car window, and an occasional lurch jolted me out of my revere as I watched some of the world’s most beautiful scenery slide past me (when the windows weren’t steamed up by condensation from the rain on the outside and too many bodies on the inside,) I felt slightly disjointed from the country.

It’s beauty seemed alien and prehistoric, like at any moment raptors would rove down the hillside towards us, and scaled beasts would wing their way towards the distant treetops. The people were so friendly, and smiling and hospitable, but I was aware that I knew nothing of the culture other than what I had read, nothing of the language at all, and nothing of the hardships these nomadic families endured as the seasons shifted.

I had come to Mongolia fairly blind, with no guide book and few expectations. The extent of the wide open plains, punctuated by rolling hills, and the intensity of the culture, steeped in symbols of nature, caught me off guard.

On that first night I embraced the particular silence that comes from a total absence of a noise one is used to hearing, and bedded down for my first ever night in a ger and my first night for several months free from the humming background noise of construction and air-conditioning.

Oh yeah, we also got to see a rock that looks like a penis. Good times.

Day two: In which eagle attacks are the best kind of attacks…

It turns out that if you are going to spend a night in a ger it is better if you’re not travelling with someone who needs to pee a lot.

Despite the occasional disturbance due to nature calling someone else, and a nearby dog that didn’t seem to realise none of the other dogs were talking to it, I found my first ger experience remarkably comfortable.

The night-time urinator (who shall remain nameless for the purposes of this blog) redeemed themselves by providing life-giving coffee before we hit the road again and headed to Mongolia’s ancient capital and associated temple.

Sandy at Karakorum

Sandy at Karakorum

Chengis (apparently Ghengis is wrong, who knew?) (well, the Mongolians, I guess) Khan founded the ancient city of Karakorum in 1220 (it wasn’t ancient then, it was all new and the centre of a massive empire and stuff.) The city has been destroyed and rebuilt and razed and resurrected under various occupations since the time of the Khan, but it is still a very important part of Mongolia.

We roamed around the site of the capital and Erdene Zuu, the Buddhist monastery while Khaliunaa taught us about the symbols of Buddhism, showed us the spinning prayer wheel, and told us stories about the eight protectors of Buddhism.

Sandy and Morritz spinning a prayer wheel.

Sandy and Morritz spinning a prayer wheel.

While I love the theory and stories behind faiths, I also find being in buildings of worship to be uncomfortable and claustrophobic, so while people walked around an active part of the site, where monks prayed and incense burned, I stayed outside in the sun and marvelled at the existence of a sky so blue.

Lunch came and we sat with ancient walls on one side and horses on the other in a peaceful field off soft grass.

There is nothing about this I don't love...

There is nothing about this I don’t love…


Shortly before lunch I accidentally attacked Sandy with an eagle, which is as much fun as it sounds. I would like to claim that it was all part of a plan, but the thing just launched itself off my arm straight at Sandy’s face.

It was spectacular.

After lunch it was a ‘short’ 120km to our camp, and our first real understanding that people view distances with a different eye in Mongolia, which either has the fewest or the most roads in the world. Depending on your definition of the word ‘road.’

It became standard to ask two questions each morning:

“How far are we driving today?”

“How much of that is paved?”

We could well have added “how much of it involves Aba selecting a mountain and driving over it?”

The man was a miracle driver and thought nothing of navigating mountain paths, pathless valleys and small rivers in his van. I think someone forgot to tell him it wasn’t 4×4. As the days progressed, we all became aware that our journey, in many places, would not have been possible without Aba at the wheel.

The rain of the first day was burned out by the sun, and I began to feel an affinity for Mongolia as I watched the distant hills, shimmering with a blue haze.

We stopped for the night and stayed in a ger owned by a Mongolian family, many of whom have one or two extras to rent out to tourists and travellers.

I sat on a hillside watching as a seven-year-old who looked like he had been born in a saddle road past while an older boy skillfully herded cattle towards their pens.

After a trip to the hot springs, a blissful shower, and the even more blissful use of a lavatory with a seat, we fell asleep in our ger, disturbed only by the nearby huffing of yaks, and the occasional night-time pee-er.

Day three: In which I hit my head. A lot.

It turns out that gers are not built with height in mind. Particularly the doorframes.

You would think that once this lesson had been learnt once, it would not have to be repeated.

You would think incorrectly.

I’m pretty convinced I gave myself a mild concussion during the course of the day.

My general ineptitude aside, day three saw sporadic rain showers,the beginnings of carsickness an some of the most incredible landscapes I have ever had the fortune to lay eyes on. Rather making up for the rest of it.

Cross legged, eating delicious food prepared by our guide, watching eagles swoop past the rocky walls of a ravine, I realised I hadn’t looked at a phone, or a laptop, or a TV since we had left UB. It was a remarkably liberating feeling when my normal days were spent tied to the news cycle.

A Mongolian lunch stop...

A Mongolian lunch stop…

Mongolia is what they mean when they say ‘get away from it all’ and by this stage in the journey I was playing Elliot Smith’s ‘Let’s get lost’ almost on loop as we drove through Mongolia’s seemingly never-ending lands, sandwiched between the earth and a sky so blue it seemed unnaturally vibrant, like nature was trying to show you that it could do more than the washed out blue of its normal skies.

Also, there were more eagles.

Also, there were more eagles.

Because no trip is complete without pretending you’re a Bond villain, we climbed a (fairly) dormant volcano that afternoon, finishing just as the heavens opened and the rains began in earnest.

We made it to our ger for the night and piled inside.

I drifted into unconsciousness to the sound of rain on the roof, bouncing off the round walls of our hut, while wood burned in the stove, hissing and crackling as it dried on the flames.

Day four: In which misery has a new face…

And that face is Mongolia’s road network.

A 12-hour drive took us 280km further in our journey.

Teresa managed to pass the journey happily, seemingly immune to the gut-churning, unending rocking of the van as we bridged a path of rocks with the walls and were pushed from side to side.

Vaguely flat road which temporarily didn't make me want to die.

Vaguely flat road which temporarily didn’t make me want to die.

Occasionally the path would flatten out, and a track might temporarily appear, and I would stop wishing for oblivion long enough to stare at the scene around me, the eagles, the ubiquitous ox, the disappointing piles of rubbish that dot the countryside.

Having just finished The Long Earth, I couldn’t shake the feeling we had someone stepped sideways, into another earth, another time, another part of space that humans hadn’t quite taken hold of yet.

We skipped stones over a river at lunch, and my misery subsided as I watched the jumps and ripples. It is hard to stay angry at a place for its lack of comforts, when it is exactly that which is filling you with contentment.

You can’t pick the parts of humanity you want, and leave the rest behind. I wish you could.

Day five: In which we learn what three-year-olds dream of…

We spent the night in our guide’s cousin’s (or some other relative, it was difficult to be sure) house.

It was odd to be inside, and see how the more permanent homes were put together.

Sandy had said at the start of the journey that many of the houses would look fancy from the outside, but none would have indoor plumbing, and that was the case here.

We all slept on the floor of the living/TV/probably also someone’s bed – room, along with Khaluna and her family.

In the middle of the night, Tamulin woke us up as he started wailing in his sleep until Aba calmed him down.

The next morning it turned out he had a nightmare, specifically that his favourite ball had fallen into the outhouse pit of human matter (and maggots) and could only be calmed down by being shown the ball. I think i would have cried as well.

We left late and drove to Khuvusgul lake, where we were looking forward to spending two nights and having a day of no driving.

We avoided the tourist camp and stayed further out of the way. But headed back to the tourist facilities and shelled out for a freezing cold shower in the dark and a close encounter with a nail that left me wishing I knew the symptoms of tetanus. (Spoiler: I don’t have tetanus, but I did have an awesome scar for a while.)

After our shower the rain started in earnest. I also realised that the outhouse was slightly more exposed to the elements than was ideal. Once the rain abated I explored the gloriously peaceful lakeside and skipped stones until a curious herd of sheep wandered slightly too close for comfort.

The vast expanse of the Mongolian landscape is definitely an aid to clearing the mind, and just looking at the skyline had a calming effect that meant it really didn’t matter that I had no internet, no phone signal, no awareness of any possible impending nuclear holocaust.

Clinging on for dear life as the van bounced its merry way along imaginary roads the day before meant my right bicep was aching so it was back to our snug ger and a roaring fire in the wood burning stove, and the sound of rain pattering off stretched cloth.

Day six – In which riding becomes a rainy day activity

At this stage, my notes say “land of the blue sky my ass.” I think the rain was beginning to lose its charm.

Not to be deterred by a light downpour, we upped tools after lunch (is upped tools an expression? Did I just make that up?) and swung onto some deeply uncomfortable saddles, were mildly perturbed by the fact one horse seemed to be branded with a swastika (I know the buddhist symbol came first, but that one is the other way round normally, this one was the swastika way round) and set off through some woods and over some rivers and generally felt very intrepid until we realised our guide was about 13.

Horsies in the woods in the rain.

Horsies in the woods in the rain.

Anyway, it was ace. Having not ridden for years, it was still gratifying to dismount after 10km or so and be the most upright and least bandy legged among the lot of us (not including the Mongolians, obviously.)

Given the option of climbing a mountain in the rain for two hours to not see the view because of said rain, and going home in a car, we all unanimously, and almost wordlessly, plumped for the wussy option, went home, and played chess by torchlight.

We also discussed the obligation of travel (whether, when in a new country, you do things you feel obliged to do, in order to say you have done them, rather than because they are enjoyable at the time) and whether it would be possible to live in a ger for a ear (yes, if there was some kind of family unit or community to share up the wood-cutting, ger repairing, horse looking aftering tasks.)

Day seven – In which there was lots of driving and we saw a naked child in the middle of the road.

Um. There was a shed-ton of driving. Although about 20km of it was on a paved rad that hadn’t existed a week ago and so surprised everyone when it appeared.

And our guides seemed unconcerned by the naked child and seemed to assume her parents were around somewhere, casually watching their child run around buttock-naked.

Also, Sandy stood on a spikey thing.

And the rain meant we had to help a bunch of people who had less awesome drivers than Aba and who got stuck in the mud on mountainsides driving tiny little city hatchbacks. Because that is totally normal.

And there was a lot of driving.

Days eight and nine – In which I was unconscious.

I don’t remember much of this day and my notes have the unmistakable scrawl of me losing the ability to see straight.

We picked up some extra people to drive them in to town.

I slept a lot.

Then my headache went away at some point in the evening of day nine.

Day ten – In which I purchase the greatest hat in the history of the world.

Seriously. It’s a trilby made out of baby camel wool. What else do you need to know.

We went to the gobi cashmere shop and got very over excited and bought lots of stuff (including a hat.) Then we did some lovely genteel hitch-hiking back in to town with a busload of German tourists in order to watch a cultural show.

The show was pretty impressive, although the dancing women had terrifying smiles and the painted heads of the prancing horses were the stuff of nightmares.

Day eleven – In which I fly to Korea

I flew to Korea.

Also, this blog is nearly 3,000 words. Whoopsies.

So, Mongolia, awesome right?

When I grow I want to be this guy.

When I grow I want to be this guy.






I need feminism because…

…my ex threatened to punch me in the face when I didn’t laugh at a joke about domestic violence.

True story.

Firstly a quick, and potentially unnecessary given that intro, disclaimer:

This post? Not a barrel of laughs. If you come here for the yuks it is probably best to look away now and come back next week when I’ll no doubt be dwelling on the incompetencies that fill my attempts to navigate the Gulf and my own apparent adulthood.

Oh, also, it’s super long, you might need a tea break or something half way through.

I have been hesitant about sharing this for many reasons. I first wrote it when it was new, and raw, and too painful to do anything about but write.

Then, after a while, I read the piece at a reading group and managed not to burst in to tears on stage.

Now, finally we’re here.

So why was I afraid?

Making the abuse and the messages return is near the top of that list of reasons.

For months after everything was finally over I ignored the sporadic texts and emails, the fake apologies and all-too-casual attempts at contact until the deluge subsided, and now has dried up completely. There is a fear that acknowledging it could open the floodgates.

But there is something else, a lingering doubt over what other people will think, how others will judge me.

I know that my situation is, and was, nowhere near as bad as that suffered by thousands of women around the world. Acknowledging it, I thought, would seem self-pitying and result in people feeling I am over-reacting.

So why have I decided, now, to share?

Again, there are a few reasons.

My worries about speaking out are shared by women everywhere, and so become part of the problem.

When it comes to abuse, physical, emotional, or otherwise, people think that talking about it will make it worse, crack the dam they have built up around themselves and let the waters pour through, drowning them and washing away their defenses.

The widespread nature of the problem is not known because people feel that their case is not as bad as those they read about in papers; that it is not worth mentioning because they got out before it was too late, or because it never turned physical, or because the scars left behind, real or metaphorical, are starting to heal. But silence can not help.

The one billion rising campaign has been making waves recently, encouraging women who can speak, to speak, and ‘I need feminism because’ shows the extent to which women are still demeaned every day.

What happened to me was a tiny drop, the ripples from which are nearly faded to nothing on an ever-calming ocean, the fact that I can articulate what I felt means that I should.

This all began to make the concept of sharing this piece seem less ridiculous and more important.

And then the final push. Waking on Valentine’s Day (yes, it has taken me that long to actually work up the courage to publish) I saw messages he had sent from a number I hadn’t saved and so hadn’t blocked. Along with the standard pleas for sympathy and attempts at getting me to reply was a “Roses are red” joke about domestic abuse.

The fact a man who had systematically gone about trying to ruin my self confidence and belief, who would scream threats at me for not laughing at jokes about domestic violence and call me a hypocrite for having a ‘line’ when it came to humour, would send me a joke about a women being shot and killed showed such a lack of emotional awareness, a disregard for what he had done and what he had put me through, that I suddenly became incredibly angry.

That anger replaced the void I had been cultivating by telling myself it wasn’t a big deal.

It was a big deal, made bigger by the fact that he seemed to have no idea what he had done. Or if he did know, he didn’t care.

The fact that he still thought it was okay to contact me felt like a personal invasion, I felt sick seeing his name, my stomach knotted with loathing, but fear was gone.

Fear had morphed into anger.

Anger at what he had done.

Anger that he minimised it in his own mind so I was over-reacting.

Anger that he would probably do it to woman after woman until he found someone who might not be as lucky as I was to spot the signs (with a little help from my friends) and get out early.

As weird as it sounds, I was lucky and I know it.

I had what thousands, millions, of women do not.

Despite being far from home, I had a support network who I knew would protect me, I had financial and personal independence, and I had become involved with someone too lacking in self control (or too stupid) to wait until I was emotionally dependent on him to show his true self.

So I got out.

But not as quickly as I should have, because like all bullies he knew how to apologise, how to get my sympathy, how to ‘change’ for just long enough to convince me it was for real. He made me feel stupid and ashamed for wanting to think the best of him again and again and again.

I think for many decent people who find themselves locked in to these situations, you don’t want to admit that you were wrong to put your trust in someone, like it is your fault and your failings when it begins again.

I realise I haven’t actually said anything about what happened.

At first it was fun, and easy, and so relaxed.

And then it became official.

As soon as I was labelled ‘girlfriend’ in his mind it seemed like that was it.

I was his. He didn’t have to try to be the ‘nice guy’ he so regularly described himself as when things began to fall apart.

On my first night back from a holiday I was told that I was stupid, that I shouldn’t have gone and that I should have stayed and “sorted my fucking life out.”

That the fact I was worried about my career was my fault. That the fact he was still in Qatar was my fault, that if it hadn’t been for me he would have left and been happy, so I should feel pressure to make things work, because it would be my fault if I didn’t. I had ruined his life.

Forget that he is a grown man. Forget that he used his weekends to get drunk, and if he did come to the things I invited him to, he was either already drunk when he showed up, or got so drunk during the evening he couldn’t remember a thing.

At first the drinking wasn’t there, or he hid how bad it was, slowly though it began to creep out.

I would show up at four in the afternoon and he would already be on the vodka. He would wake up at 8am and drink what was leftover next to him. He threatened me, he threatened my friends, he forgot entire conversations we had and made up others.

On one particularly memorable evening I asked him to come to a party being hosted by my friends for an hour before he went to watch the football.

He came drunk, he didn’t speak to anyone, he left after 20 minutes, two hours before kickoff, and proceeded to bombard me with abusive messages about how I was a disgrace, how I had ruined his evening because he was ‘too nice’ to say no to me.

He was such a nice guy.

That should have been it. And for a while it was. But he wormed his way back in. He had changed. He would stop drinking. He was sorry. He had been joking.

That was always how he justified it.

Every time I voiced these thoughts to him I was over-reacting, he had been kidding.  (Looking back I am not really sure how I thought him saying things like “I’m going to punch you in the face” would be considered funny.)

But it went on, and it hurt, and over the months he chipped away at everything that made me me. Why couldn’t I just be normal? Why was I so fake? Couldn’t I be serious about anything? I wasn’t passionate about anything.

He hated my friends, they weren’t real friends, we kissed each other on the cheek and it made him sick because it was so fake.

He accused me of thinking he wasn’t good enough for me.

He was right about one thing, then.

Everyone has a breaking point. Everyone has something that finally flips the switch and they see what is in front of their face. Mine came when he told me I couldn’t be who I wanted.

He tried to stop my dreams dead. He tried to belittle me and my ambition.

He was kidding.

I had just taken a test for a job I really wanted. I didn’t think it had gone well and I told him. There was no support, no condolence.

I was told I would never be a foreign correspondent anyway, that I may as well give up. That I was selfish for not thinking of him when it came to my life plans and my career.

That I was an idiot to believe I could do it.

I left.

He stood in the way of the lift doors, stopping them sliding shut to form the barrier I needed between us. But I was done.

I cut ties.

I was never going to forgive him.

Just before he left for home he asked to see me, so I didn’t remember him badly. Stupidly I agreed. He was crestfallen and apologetic and he ‘loved’ me.

I had never been more relieved that someone was leaving my life to live 7,000 miles away.

I thought I would be free.

The messages began when I asked him to stop contacting me via whatsapp.

I was told I was a disgrace, that I had wasted time, that I had ‘no idea’ what he had gone through when we were together.

That he had cheated on me. That the girl was pregnant. That he was lying about the pregnant girl. That he was sorry. That he loved me. That he hated me. That I should kill him or he would kill himself. That he hoped I died.

That he had changed.

That he was kidding.

I blocked his numbers, I blocked his emails, I blocked everything and embraced the silence and the emptiness.

He contacted my friends via facebook asking them for advice, to send him pictures from my account because I had blocked him.

You can probably guess their reactions.

In a move towards catharsis I wrote him a letter, never intended to be seen by anyone let alone sent to him.

But it was an outpouring of the emotions that threatened to engulf me. And it was a reminder.

I will never doubt myself for cutting ties, but in the future there might be another.

These people are not alone in the world, in fact, they are all too prevalent, and if there is another, I will read it and I will remember.

I know this is opening me up to him and to trolls. Those strangers on the internet who sit and smirk and call jokes about rape culture “one of feminism’s more hysterical talking points.” (I’m not linking to the site in question as I don’t want return traffic.)

But I’m out. And those who can speak up should.


I am 27…

… and you’re still here (correcting my grammar.)

Normally, I share the opinion of many people that you shouldn’t need a special day to tell your parents you love them. And I don’t, not really.

However, as) a journalist and b) a procrastinator, I do need deadlines. Some form of schedule telling me when the random thoughts flitting about should be written down in some kind of logical way.

Add to this the fact that my new shift (and therefore sleep) pattern means I have hardly spoken to my parents for two months and  you get the below, a post about my dad, which happens to fall on Father’s Day, for no reason other than it seems to make sense.

(Some ages approximate due to not having a great memory):

I am too young to remember, and my older siblings learn what embarrassment is as my dad waltzes with me through Sheffield City Centre to stop me from crying.

I am three, and he picks all of us up at once and I think he is the strongest man in the world.

I am four and he lets me wear a spiderman outfit to the supermarket.

I am five and I curl up in the crook of his legs as he lies on the sofa teaching me the rules of cricket and rugby.

I am six and he reads me The Hobbit for the first time and we listen to PG Wodehouse in the car on family holidays.

I am eight and he drives me to judo every Saturday morning, a ritual that will last a decade.

I am nine and he carries me up the road from where I have fallen, breaking my arm.

I am 10 and we drive to Scotland and he does all the regional accents on the way. The same summer he teaches me how to do cryptic crosswords.

I am 11 and we begin the University Challenge challenge, a game I have never won.

I am 12 and we still watch nature documentaries together, marveling at Attenborough’s world.

I am 13, 14, 15, 16 and he drives me all over the country for fencing, waiting in the car or walking the dog because I won’t let him watch me compete. He introduces me to Bob Dylan, the Stones, the Boss, and the Kinks – the soundtrack of our road trips for years to come.

I am 17 and he never says ‘you’re not going out dressed like that.’

I am 18 and he bends the laws of physics to fit all my stuff into the car as I start university.

I am 19, 20, 21 and he picks me up at the end of each term, and takes me back in time for pre-season training. We still sing along to Bob Dylan as we drive up and down the motorway.

I am 23 and he helps me move into my first flat. He loves the river and the swans that nest outside my window.

I am 24 and he helps me buy a house, sitting through mortgage meetings I don’t quite understand.

I am 25 and he is confused when people ask if he is worried about me moving to Doha.

I am 26 and he fills me with bacon whenever I come home. We watch University Challenge, and do crosswords, and drive to see my nieces and nephew, singing Bob Dylan as we navigate the country.

I am 27 and he probably can’t lift all three of us at once anymore, and I have long outgrown the crook of his legs, but he still beats me at University Challenge. Every. Single. Time.

For some reason I only have pictures of Dad and my brother on my computer. So here's one...

For some reason the only old pictures I have are of Dad and my brother on my computer. So here’s one. (Sorry, Rob.)

The things I miss…

… when I leave Qatar.

Ha! Weren’t expecting that, were you?

Most expats who haven’t brought their lives and families with them perpetually have half their brain at home, thinking about pub quizzes and jelly babies (although that could just be me) and fields and trees. And cricket. *Pauses to check scores.*

Oh yeah, and my family, obviously, goes without saying, ahem.

Moving on.

When I eventually do get back to all these they are just as wonderful as I remember them being, but being away from Qatar is also the time that I realise what I love about the place and what is keeping me here.

Within a few weeks of flying back in to Doha, though, I start pining for the things Doha can’t offer once again and it all goes round in a big loop that sees my always wanting to be somewhere I’m not.

Which is ridiculous because everywhere I have been/lived/visited has amazing things that you should focus on while you’re there rather than when you’ve left and it is too late to appreciate them.

So here are the things I miss about Qatar when I am in the UK, being thought about, for once, while I am in Doha.

1) People.

My friends in the UK are amazing and I miss them every day, but by virtue of the fact we have either grown up together, or had our formative university years together, or generally were drawn to each other, we are all more or less similar as far as upbringing, education and opinions are concerned.

The people here hit such a diverse range of nationalities, opinions, jobs, ages, opinions, upbringing and experience that I feel as though my understanding of the wider world as grown exponentially since I moved here.

Of course, you have the few that fit into the typical expat cliche of being here for the money and not much else, but it is easy enough to steer clear of them and seek out people that will add something to your life, either as a passing acquaintance or a close friend.

Having people to share Doha with makes Doha so much more full of joy than it seems when you first find your feet here.

2) Balloo.

I mean, look at the little guy:

I'm sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you...

I’m sorry, you seem to be under the impression that this bed belongs to you…

He’s just a fluffy, vaguely sadistic, ball of adorable psychosis.

3) Work.

Yes, shut up, I miss my job.

I am still in the heady stage of loving my job and the opportunities I hope it will bring me.

I might have managed to and the same job if I had stayed in the UK, but it seems unlikely, and I will be forever grateful that Doha gave me the opportunity to do something I love to do.

4) The hidden joys.

Okay, a while ago I wrote a piece about how Doha isn’t boring, but that you just need to make more of and effort to find stuff to do.

The other thing is that, once you find something like the mangroves in Al Khor, or the random exhibits at Katara, or a cool display of swords at the MIA that your friend curated (go Bill), it means so much more because you found it and are able to share it with people.

Qatar is increasingly bringing in things to the country that might surprise people on the outside. Cirque de Soleil was here a while ago, today I am off to see Stomp, and there is a modern art gallery that is slowly becoming a pretty good place to be.

While I don’t specifically miss these things, when I’m in the UK there is less desire to do stuff I wouldn’t normally do, because I am doing the things I used to do all the time and now can’t.

Qatar is a place that encourages trying new things, because you’re old things don’t exist.

5) The down time.

When my mum visited at Christmas she observed “your weekends are real weekends”.

And it’s true (although now I’m doing shifts ‘weekend’ is any point I have more than one day off at a time). When we all have time off together we go and do things. Weekend things like shisha at the souq, or visiting the inland sea, or red bucket beach can just happen. No excessive planning, no worrying about the weather (most of the time) and no stresses.

Also, the head-clearing space and tranquility when you get there kind of makes you forget the construction noises the rest of the time.

The contrast almost makes the noise worthwhile.

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don't want to...

Red Bucket Beach. I would tell you where to find it, but I don’t want to…

6) The inside spaces.

Green outside space does exist, don’t get me wrong, but it is getting to the time of year that Qatar’s five months of perfect weather are ending and the humidity and heat is beginning to kick, so being outside isn’t that fun.

When it is perfect for being out and about, everyone heads to the same parks and greenery, so Aspire Park and the MIA park both tend to be full of kids, as they should be, because they are parks, but it makes sitting out under a tree and writing kind of difficult.

However, some of the architecture in Doha is frankly amazing. The Museum of Islamic Art has one of the best foyers I have seen, and the QNCC looks like a frigging tree, so that’s awesome.

Also, it contains this.

Also, it contains this.

The unusual wisdom…

…of fencing coaches

Other than my first coaches, those wonderful men who were generally too busy trying to stop 12-year-olds smacking each other with swords to focus on much else, I honestly believe that fencing coaches say some of the most insightful things you are ever likely to hear.

More often than not, the profound nature of these statement is not immediately apparent, and you are left with the unshakeable feeling that they have misunderstood something of great value.

My very first teachers notwithstanding, I have had three coaches who, in their own unique ways, have shaped me as a fencer and as a person.


With the exception of my dad, I think Laszlo has had a bigger impact on my life than any other man.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Student 5 nations in (possibly) Dublin in (possibly) 2006.

Not in a Mr Miyagi, student/master zen-type way, but through the very practical fact that my decision of where to go to university was based almost exclusively on the fact that he was there.

So the four years that I consider to be the most formative time of my life, the years in which I decided who I wanted to be, and that made me who I currently am (the two things are not the same right now) where all experienced because Laszlo exists.

He was a constant presence, a more essential part of my university career than any lecturer.

Patient when I was struggling, over-joyed by my successes, deeply sympathetic when I was injured.

Generous with his time. Committed to his students young and old, no matter what their level.

A kind soul and the kind of man you would never want to disappoint.

I once worked out that I had more contact hours with Laszlo per month than any professor in my department. Which explains a lot.

I will always, in my heart, be part of Laszlo’s Fencing.

He taught me to love fencing and respect opponents. To be a good loser and a good winner and to learn from other fencers as well as him.

I think that every single one of his students learnt something from Laszlo that made them a better person. I certainly did.

And he did all this with a wonderful turn of phrase that often leaves his students baffled, but somehow happy.

Some of the more memorable Laszlo-isms are:

1) (On meeting me for the first time when I was about 15 and excessively gangly having just grown several inches) “You have no idea how tall you are, but neither do your opponents, and you have longer to find out.”

2) “You must be prepared, like hedgehog.”

3)  (After I managed not to get injured during a training camp) “I am pleased you did not break, maybe next time you will work more?”

4) (Directed at the then British number one) “You used to move like old woman. Now, sometimes, you begin to look like fencer.”

5) “Your arm is like a sewing machine, stop it.”

6) (Directed at a consistently brilliant fencer) “Chris, you have the timing of an orangutan.”

7) “There is not enough room in your head for you to let other people inside.”

8 ) “Even when you are being slow, you must be fast.”

9) “You must work at everything.”

10) “Keep leg straight, like chicken.” (Thanks to Andy for reminding me of this one.)


“Terrifying” was my first impression of James. Ex-Olympian, ex-army, stacked as all hell, and not afraid to yell.

He also taught me how to let go of what happened on the piste once you stepped off it, how to stay focussed, and how not to let the noise other people made distract me.

As the only native English speaker in this post, James’ wisdom does not have the ‘lost

Commonwealths - 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I'm not pictured as I'm taking the picture)

Commonwealths – 2006 NIR vs Eng (possibly) (I’m not pictured as I’m taking the picture)

in translation’ charm of the other two, which is coupled by the fact that he was always very direct with praise, criticism, and all his other opinions.

If Laszlo taught me to train hard and be dedicated, James taught me not to moan and just get on with it.

1) “Pain is weakness leaving the body.”

2) “Tell that to someone who gives a damn. That ain’t me, by the way.”

3) “If you can talk, you can fence.”

4) (After a particularly brutal lesson)

“You need to make sure you get back for your parries.”

Me (standing very upright, breathing very steadily) “Ah-huh.”

“You need to really use your length when you lunge.”


“You need… to vomit don’t you?”



5) “You don’t need a jacket for the lesson, if you do it right you won’t get hit.”

6) (In a text message, sent on a hot day, having not seen or spoke to him for several months) “If you’re thirsty, it’s too late. Stay hydrated.”

7) “She’s not as good as you, she just doesn’t know it. Remind her by winning.”

8 ) “Just do things better than the other person. It’s easy.”

9) “Stop whining, get fencing.”


Whether he knows it or not, Christophe has pretty much kept me sane for the past few months.

A spell of unemployment, followed by being thrown into a shift pattern that risked turning me into a hermit with insomnia, training with Christophe as often as possible is keeping me happy, healthy, and focussed.

He is (slowly) teaching me the principles and techniques behind an entirely new weapon, and to think in the long term about what I want to achieve four and five matches down the line.

More than that, he is re-teaching me the joy of fencing that I somehow lost along the way.

He also has a turn of phrase so similar to Laszlo’s (right down to the animal similes) that I am convinced they are in some form of clandestine coaches club. Although there is a little bit of James thrown in for good measure:

1) “We need to make you a plan, like an octopus.”

2) “I don’t want slow, fast. I want fast, very fast.”

3) “Don’t go as I finish stopping, it needs to be as I start stopping.”

4) “I can tell from your fencing that you are very bad at maths.”

5) “See? It is better when you just don’t think.”

6) “Sometimes I think you might be a good épée fencer. Possibly.”

7) “What is wrong with you? If you do that again I’m going to hit you.”

8 ) “Allez! You’re not tired. Your mind is lying to you.”

9) “Your brain has to connect everything, but let them all do different things.”


A celebration…

…even if it is on the wrong day

Happy Mothers’ Day America! You might get this wrong along with a load of other things (use of the letter ‘u’, pronunciation of lieutenant, etc etc) but that doesn’t make it a less important version of the holiday than the British one. (It kind of does.)

On a serious note, a special very first Mother’s Day to the wonderful Carolina who gave birth to Julia Marie a mere eight days ago and who is basically amazing and one of the only people I know who can rock the hospital gown look.

Because this is fake Mothers’ Day, I have decided to repost something I wrote for my mum last year, but which got lost in the great blog disaster of 2012.

This has the added bonus of meaning I don’t actually have to think of anything to write today.

So here it is:

“My mum… and just a few of the things that make her my mum.” (First published March 18 2012)

1) She once forgot I was in the back seat of the car and drove all the way to college only to have to turn around and drop me at my grandma’s house.

2) She made me wear a blue, knitted jacket with a bell on the hood so she didn’t lose me in shops. It made me look like Noddy. (For this I have always blamed my brother who used to hide from her in clothes racks.)

3) She once forgot where she left me and was fairly surprised when she walked into her friend’s house to find me there. She later admitted this on BBC’s Woman’s Hour to the hilarity of all concerned.

4) When I forget to get in touch, she thinks it is a good thing because I must be having fun.

5) She was always right when she told me to take a jacket and I would never admit that I regretted not listening to her.

6) When we went on ferries she dressed my siblings and I in the same outfit so she could show people in case one of us got lost. (Again, this is totally my brother’s fault.)

7) She definitely isn’t eccentric.

8) When having a bad hair day she drives wearing a woolly hat to flatten her hair.

9) In recent years she has been on more jaunts, adventures and trips than I have managed to fit into my entire life. (2013 UPDATE: She will be spending Christmas and New Year hiking to the Everest base camp. Obviously.)

10) When we were growing up, she kept our baby teeth and now has no idea what to do with them.

11) She’s always right, even when she’s not.

12) Sometimes, when she is laughing at something, she sounds exactly like Eeyore.

13) One year, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she said ‘An Indiana Jones pinball machine’ (we’re still working on it.)

14) She plays the drums.

15) If she pays for things on her credit card, and then doesn’t open the bill, it doesn’t count.

16) She really definitely doesn’t snore.

17) When I was 18, she bought me a plane ticket and packed me off Greek island hopping. In the months I was away she only called me once because she thought something felt wrong. My purse had been stolen an hour earlier.

18) She has absolutely no frown lines, or wrinkles at all really.

19) If people take the time to listen, her life stories are some of the best they will ever hear.

20) She’s a journalist who would rather stay silent than tell a lie.

21) I miss being small enough to curl up in her lap.

22) Every night, she would read to us for half an hour. When we got older we all wanted different books, so she had to read out loud for ninety minutes every night. I used to follow her around and listen to the other stories as well.

23) When she read, she did all the voices.

24) She strives constantly to make me more organised and less of a procrastinator despite the fact that this has been a losing battle since the day I was born.

25) She came on our school trip to Cadbury World and so I wasn’t restricted by the spending money limit the school set.

26) She once made bread and butter pudding without the butter.

27) When my dad was on a teacher-training course, she set the fish fingers on fire and he came home to find her putting out the flames in the back garden.

28) She won’t be called grandma, but my brother’s and sister’s kids don’t know how lucky they are to have her as their not-grandma. They will one day though.

29) Sometimes, she doesn’t know what country she’s flying to until she gets to the airport. Sometimes not even then.

30) She doesn’t want me to grow up, come home, or settle down.

31) When we speak on Skype, I can only see the top half of her face and her collection of model cars. They aren’t toys, they’re models.

32) She used to sing ‘You are my sunshine’ to me until I fell asleep.

33) She introduced me to The Beatles and, at five, I would bounce up and down on her bed singing all the words Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

34) We’re undeniably similar, and I long ago gave up fighting turning in to her. There are far worse people to be.

35) For more about my mum, visit – says it all really.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

Doing all the voices for a whole new generation.

PS, I already did the discussion of where the apostrophe should go in my real Mother’s Day piece.