Essay, Memoir, New Zealand, Nonfiction, Women's Writing

Cat on a Cold Tin Roof by Talia Marshall

One night, after our kids are in bed I make Kerry, my oldest friend, watch Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid with me. I insist Butch is the sunny one and I’m jealous that Etta Place, played by Katharine Ross with her blank dollface, has two boyfriends. Kerry decides Robert Redford is hotter, it’s true that his silhouette is lithe as a cat when he draws a gun. But I’m stubborn about Butch being the better catch, because he’s played by Paul Newman with such twinkle and easy largesse before it ends badly in a blaze of non-glory in Bolivia.




Except I’m barely watching the movie, I’ve already seen it multiple times. I’m making Kerry watch it because Paul Newman reminds me of Luke, the car and drum n’ bass enthusiast I keep listening and looking for out the window. In case he drives by my house with the telltale pa-choo pa-choo of his car with its massive spoiler. I’ve become an engine connoisseur, I can tell the difference between a Subaru and Mitsubishi just by the rumble of the motor.

A few days before we watch the movie Luke lies in my bed after some unsatisfactory sex and chuckles when I tell him, with sudden amazement, that even though I’ve known him for over a year I still don’t know where he lives. He replies that he’s too ‘subtle’ for me to know where he lives. I’m frozen because he’s also told me I’m a pretty girl but he can’t see it working out for us. He says I’m too intelligent for him. Luke runs a finger through my hair when he says this but it’s a ginger gesture and proves far harder to forget than the sex. Back then I’m as proud of my brain as I am of my looks so it’s brutal news he views being smart as a social impediment. I’m not a prize to him, I’m a small town secret, that impossible, oxymoronic thing.

Instead of writing him off as a creep I obsess about Luke for the next two years. I tell myself I’m in love with him. I devote entire days to watching traffic and counting the colours of cars with my son, turning it into a game he doesn’t know the rules of in case Luke drives past. I jump on the trampoline I assembled by myself to show the small town where I live that solo mothers can do anything. But I jump on the trampoline so I can check if Luke’s coming down the road thanks to the view I gain from my son’s double bounce. Luke can’t help but drive past my house because I live on a main road but I refuse to let logistics get in the way of my love story. I tell myself he must love me because when I’m driving the ordinary blue of the sky and the wheaty hills out the windscreen match his colouring. Like nature was involved. You see, I had the vaguest material to go on in Luke which was probably fatal as I prefer a blank canvas, a mirage rather than actual men with their upsetting personal habits.


René Magritte, La Décalcomanie, 1966© Adagp, Paris 2016 © Photothèque R. Magritte / Banque d’Images, Adagp, Paris, 2016


I write him a poem that begins ‘Where I live there’s a piece of rock sticking out of the sea like a sphinx/ I wonder what he thinks of it/ I wonder what he thinks’. Except when I confess I’ve been writing poems about him he tells me he doesn’t know what a Sphinx is. Luke is a bit too blank. No matter, a year after the ginger gesture I figure out where he lives and confront him on his driveway. See, I tell him, I do know where you live but he responds by telling me he’s moving in with his girlfriend. A subtle guy, funny even, slightly anxious as he smokes rollies with no filter in a way which reminds me of my mother but is maybe not worth two years of watching cars. I start lying on the trampoline when my son’s at school staring at the blue nothing inside my head.

I’m not sure where my tendency to obsess comes from, whether it’s culturally produced, or inherited, or both, and I tend to associate it with being creative which means it’s a state I tend to romanticise too. I’m also not sure that knowing where it comes from, that locating the headwaters, would make it go away or help me change it. I emerged out of eight years of therapy with the same bad, self-punishing set of ruminations. Therapy only helped me to run slightly better angles on my obsessions, it magnified my ability to crack myself up.

Despite successive and confusing waves of feminism, romance still means a lot to so many women I know. I talk about all kinds of things with my girlfriends but our relationships and the hook ups that don’t turn into relationships is the topic we reserve the most energy for. Even so, it’s mortifying being the person that can’t stop talking about something no one else is invested in, my friends care about me, they don’t care about my love life, not really, it’s a crucial distinction. If I had been honest with myself, or rather if I had listened to my therapist, I would have realised if the person you want doesn’t really want you then you have to find other sources of fuel to feed the fire.

Some friends tolerate my self-obsessed unanswerable queries because I accommodate theirs. ‘What do you think he meant when he didn’t text me back, does it mean he wants to marry me?’ I ask while they ask me if I’ve had a look at her profile, is she better looking, and so on. But it’s like burning paper instead of wood and leaves me feeling empty at the piles of ash in the grate.

I don’t know how people do Tinder, or any form of online dating, I find them very brave as I would surely die when ambivalence is my asbestos. And appearing not to care seems to be the modern condition of finding love and frankly, I do give a damn so I find this ridiculous. The oddest statement people make about love to me is that it was just sex. The other terrible thing about this statement is that it’s usually true.


Vivien Leigh and Kieron Moore in Anna Karenina (1948)


Luckily literature is riddled with much more compelling and tragic figures to feast on. Madam Bovary eats arsenic like its icing sugar because she is ghosted. Anna Karenina throws herself in front of a train after Vronsky comes on strong but proves to be a cad and a dilettante. Anna is turned into an outcast for making an open mockery of her marriage while others around her get off much more lightly. The downfall of these fictional married women is substantial, it wears corsets and has an ermine trim. They are victims not just of themselves but of the age; their psychic wounds are obscured by layers and layers of petticoats and bizarre social etiquette. They go from being coveted to discarded, for a woman whose power resides in her looks it’s the worst kind of fate. In White Oleander the narrator, Astrid, has a gorgeous sociopathic artist mother, Ingrid, who poisons her lover with the flowering tree of the title for the crime of getting sick of her. It is frightening how much I admire Ingrid for this because she goes to prison and Astrid is made a semi-orphan.


song of solomon.jpeg


But it is Hagar from Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon who reminds me most of what a waste my late twenties were, mooning over Luke. Milkman, Hagar’s cousin uses her as the ‘third beer’, the one you can take or leave if drinking isn’t your problem. Driven insane by his ambivalence she keeps attempting to kill him, but fails. Milkman is not interested in commitment, but Hagar can’t commit to the act of utu that will release her from him, she imagines she loves his sorry self too much. It’s not low self-esteem that drives her to violent fantasies and holding a knife over Milkman while he pretends to sleep. Rather, as Morrison tells it, this spoiled, used woman, can’t understand a world where she doesn’t get what she wants.

Jane Austen is different, her heroines tend to get what they didn’t know they wanted but fulfils them nonetheless, at least this is where Austen often left the story. Darcy watches Lizzie Bennett and Knightley watches Emma with the benevolent eye of the author. Despite Morrison’s occasional heavy-handed allegories—Hagar is named after one of Abraham’s discarded pregnant handmaidens—and her turgid soap opera plots, it’s Austen that’s much closer to Mills & Boon. Don’t get me wrong, the heavy hand was part of Morrison’s genius, a word that is rarely applied to Black women, even to Beyoncé.

When I was little, my two favourite story books had nothing to do with men. They were both a bit twee but offered another kind of feminist vision. In Tilly’s House a wooden kitchenmaid is kept as a drudge in the attic of a Victorian doll’s house. She longs for another kind of life, and uses an umbrella to slide down the table to escape from the miniature bourgeois prison. At the end of the garden she fashions a room of her own, she’s resourceful, anything ugly is covered with a pleasing scrap of cloth. A teddy bear tells her it’s the prettiest room he’s ever seen and despite being made of wood she swells with pride.




The Maggie B by Irene Hass was the other story, a slightly more surreal tale which involved a little girl looking after her baby brother on a boat after wishing for an adventure on the North Star. There is a pet toucan too, an apple tree and a goat on the crammed, fertile deck. Maggie covers peaches with cinnamon and bakes them for her brother, she learns to survive a storm. Essentially, they are books about keeping ship and keeping house, but they make the place nice for themselves, not for any man.


Joan Didion


I can’t stomach romantic comedies and was late to Fleabag but I eagerly watched the Netflix documentary about Joan Didion. And the terrifying moment in it when she’s asked how it felt to walk into a hippy house and discover a child on acid, a scene she described in the essay, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem”. She is honest and replies that the moment was gold. This cold, snake-worshipping old woman waving her arms at nothing tells the truth, and her eyes glint. The first time I watched it she horrified me, the second time I respected her honesty, to write about what’s in front of you it’s sometimes necessary to stay detached. If she had picked up the child and rescued her there would be no record of the shadow of the flower generation with its children as the compost, or at least not one that wasn’t compromised by sentiment. But that level of detachment can rarely be applied to the self, it’s the shadow of all that nothing Didion alludes to with her ancient arms.

In the essay she published in Vogue in 1961 titled, “On Self Respect” Didion uses the example of Jordan Baker from F. Scott Fritzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a woman who knows her own measure, who watches the collapse of everyone around her without being particularly touched by it. But Daisy is the one people remember because for the doomed dreamer and fake, she’s the light at the end of the pier and the reason he floats face down in his beautiful pool.

I also watched a Breakfast panel segment with John Campbell in which Ella Henry rightly thundered about the uplifting of our babies by Oranga Tamariki [Ministry of Children]. She was so disgusted she refused to call the agency by its name. But she lost me when she said that our wahine, our girls, need to have their self-esteem raised up if they want to find good men who won’t hurt their children. She said they need to see themselves as princesses

No we do not, that kind of fairy tale ends in horror stories. In the media I regularly see men standing in the dock who fill me with disgust because they killed another man’s child. Odd then that it’s the evil stepmother who represents malice and danger.

A woman doesn’t need better self-esteem it’s a neoliberal conceit, she needs to know her limits and have some self-respect. It is normal to want to meet someone and fall in love, but society is too full of these broken pathological men. Money matters too, plain economics. It’s hardest for the solo mothers at home with small children and it’s not exactly naive to think having a man around might help. Until he starts stealing or coercing the benefit from her that’s meant for her tamariki to subsist on rather than thrive.

And I’m no better, no less subject, that’s really the source of my loathing. The last man I dared to dream in told me so many lies about his heroin habit it’s left me homeless. I knew he was an addict and lying is their means of survival yet I was still vain enough to believe in his version of my specialness despite the sirens.

But I think of Tilly and her resourcefulness and I know if I adhere to what I’m trying to assert about self-respect I’ll have a room of my own again. I’ll be able to watch as many Paul Newman movies as I like enjoying the luxury of my solitude and stop testing the patience of friends with my monologues as my Jack Russell stinks up their couch.

Katharine Ross, with her big Keane-like eyes was also the actress on the back of a bus with Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, suddenly foolish at running away from her wedding with someone she barely knows and has been fucking her mother. I’ve always disliked that ending because it’s so true to life and music videos have destroyed my taste levels.


Etta Place and her men


But what of the real Etta Place, the woman lucky enough to have two charismatic but doomed boyfriends, one her husband and the other her former lover, maybe? Her death is unrecorded and she disappears in South America. No one is sure if she was a prostitute or a music teacher when she meets Butch and Sundance, perhaps she was both. She seems to have been attracted to dangerous men anyway. I’ve only just been able to admit I’m the same. I was not interested in the man I was with for years until he told me he’d been to prison for shooting near, or at, caravans of sleeping children. Before that calculated confession, he’d been a balding square in a business shirt with excellent weed that lived around the corner from the person I was really in love with.

I published a poem about Luke just after I met the others and we started sending each other messages on Facebook because I made the mistake of sending him the link. My messages were poetic and wispy and his were fairly direct. He came to the house where I’d spent three years pining for him but once I got over the novelty I realised I didn’t like talking to him. I preferred the long involved conversations I was having with the balding man, who pretended he knew how to listen, who pretended that none of the other men were a problem and the benign attentiveness won me over.

Even though Luke was the most beautiful man I had ever seen there was nothing in it, he was not the same actor in my dream. Before he left he told me he really respected me for not sleeping with him, which was disingenuous because he wasn’t there for my personality, just more bad sex. How stupid the straight game of chase really is especially when someone who doesn’t even know what the Sphinx is still gets to set the rules.

Women talk about being ghosted and how maddening that can be but men are usually the ones who kill an ex for rejecting or leaving them. Murders which are propelled by the insane sense of entitlement Hagar fails to embody; she’s just a silly, spoiled woman that is unable to dig herself out of her own hole. Hagar dies broken instead. At her grand but empty funeral Pilate, her grandmother, laments that her baby girl was loved.

What would have helped her? But maybe this is the wrong question, I mean what is that would have soothed her, what would have let her out of the cage of being herself?




I find reading Alice Munro always helps because I don’t know how to help myself either. She is the high priestess of thwarted heroines but often resorts to O Henry-like coincidences when the pressure of identification with the women becomes too much. Nor is she afraid of making her women slightly ridiculous and grasping, because so often, they catch themselves in the act.


And this was a situation she had created, she had done it all herself, it seemed she never learned any lessons at all.  She had turned Simon into the peg on which her hopes were hung and she could never manage now to turn him back into himself.


This is Rose from The Beggar Maid and Munro’s story “Simon’s Luck.” Rose drives for miles across Canada to escape her fresh infatuation with Simon, a man she meets at a party. Even though he seemed so keen on her he doesn’t show to help her in the garden like they planned. After driving for hours, she sits in a diner with her coffee, resolute in the hard light of morning. She’s an actress and decides to move out west, to act the part of her own escape. The twist comes when Rose learns years later that Simon died of cancer, that his presence at the party was luck. Alice Munro gets away with these corkscrew endings because who wouldn’t wish for their obsession to be resolved by means outside of their control and independent of their failure? Narratives move toward closure in a way that is nothing like life and are so satisfying because of it.

Even my whakapapa is full of stories of aggrieved women, those headwaters I was so keen to avoid. Hinepoupou of Ngāti Kuia was the first woman to swim Cook Strait. She departed from Kāpiti having been abandoned there by two husbands. It’s the Māori version of Butch and Sundance but the plot is driven by her lust for vengeance. She is accompanied on her epic swim by our dolphin taniwha, Kaikaiawaro but her kurī start hanging off her and she turns them to stone. An aquatic Māori medusa, I wish that was my big bitch energy. I wrote a poem about her and in it she cries, “I’m Grace Jones motherfuckers, I’ll hunt you down. I’ll eat you like you’re the oyster, I won’t give in…”


Grace Jones


Silence though, what if it’s better to stay quieter than a shark? I mean imagine watching Jaws with the sound off, maybe it would be even more frightening without the warning?

I don’t want or particularly need a man to make me feel like a woman, I will keep telling myself this until intentionality becomes the reality. I will tell myself this not just because that antique version of gender is being replaced by people who don’t fit the definitions of either and the natural inflatable woman keeps leaking air. By inflatable I mean she has existed as the floating projection of men’s desire for too long; instead of being defined by her own fantasies.

And I’ll tell myself this not just because these literary women are such cautionary examples. It’s embarrassing to care about romantic love so much when the world is cooked but what if the aftermath of all the useless yearning I’ve indulged in makes for a plainly honest kind of cave?

My collection of man trophies on the wall and their cured leathery skins stretched out by the hearth is, maybe, the right kind of mood for the apocalypse I hear such gleeful reports of. A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, Australian journalist Irina Dunn said this, making a mockery of a male philosophical equation, but now it just sounds like a daft, improbable meme.

A woman needs what she needs and has to survive not always getting what she wants. I don’t want to be Anna or Daisy or Hagar I want to be Etta —holding my cards close and flush with mystery—no one knows what happened to her, no one knows who she really is.


Liz and Paul


About the Author




Talia Marshall is a New Zealand poet and essayist. Her work explores, with lyricism and courageous honesty, aspects of her life as a woman, a Maori, a lover, a daughter, a mother, a friend and a writer. Toni Morrison, in her 1993 Nobel Lecture on Literature, advised authors to “tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and the light” and Marshall’s mastery of this revelatory principle lends her writing unusual lucidity and power. 

Other similarly shimmering works by Talia Marshall include the following: 


Glossary of Maori and New Zealand words

kurī: dog

rollies:  hand-rolled cigarettes

taniwha:  a mythical sea monster

utu:  the concept of reciprocation, which includes revenge

wahine: woman or girl

whakapapa: genealogy

Memoir, Travel, Women's Writing

Eight Great Books by Wandering Women

You can’t beat a good travel story. In your mind’s eye, you may be stubbing your toe on an armadillo and getting gangrene after a deadly snake bite but in reality you’re tucked up in bed just as snug as a bug in a rug. On the one hand you get the novelty and the thrill of horror and pity, but on the other hand you skip the boredom and discomfort of actual physical travel. What’s not to like?

It has come to my attention that some excellent travel writing by women has not received its due. So, it being International Women’s Day, here are eight great travel memoirs (that happen to be written by women).

  1. Susie Kelly

“…I knew most people didn’t believe I could or would do what I had said. And that was the main factor that drove me onwards – that and the fact nobody made any effort to talk me out of it.”

Best Foot Forward: a 500-Mile Walk through France (2003)

One day a woman in her fifties with no experience of hiking suddenly decides to walk across France from La Rochelle to Lake Geneva. She contacts an internet stranger from Texas to come and care for her menagerie of horses, dogs, birds and cats, then sets off to make her dream come true. A large part of the charm of this book is Kelly’s descriptions of the things that go horribly wrong—her tent is inadequate, her feet get woefully blistered, she goes off-course because her maps are out of date. Then there are the moments of joy, when she has the best coffee of her life in a Michelin-star café, or when she has a glorious lie-down in a summery meadow. She describes the moment-by-moment slog of hiking in relatable, funny and matter-of-fact way that downplays the impressiveness of her quest. She includes plenty of detail about the people and places she meets on the way.

She has written a number of other books, my favorite of which is Travels with Tinkerbell: 6000 Miles Around France in a Mechanical Wreck (2012) , the star of which is a half-witted dog named Dobby. I also really enjoy her account of managing a couple of holiday cottages in France Swallows & Robins: The Guests in My Garden (2012).


Lucy serves tea in a yurt


  1. Lucy Atkinson

“The Kirghis, their steppes and mountains, are so indelibly engraved on my heart, that fifty years hence, should I live, every scene will be as vivid as at this moment; it will ever be a source of pleasure to look back on the happy days spent amongst them, and their wild but beautiful scenery.”

Recollections of the Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants (1863) 


In the late 1830s, while still in her teens, Lucy Finley sets off from East London for Russia to work as a governess to the daughter of General Mikhail Nikolaevich Muravyev-Vilensky (aka the Hangman of Vilnius). Shortly afterwards, still in Russia she meets and marries Thomas Witlam Atkinson. Between 1948 and 1853 the pair travels through Siberia, to the Kazakh steppes to Irkutsk and the Chinese border and all the while she keeps a journal describing the wonders she sees on the way.

Her account, though Victorian, is direct, chatty and sympathetic. She focuses on the people the steppes, their habits and customs, and clearly feels a strong affinity for them, in spite of the bandits and rogues she meets on the way.

Soon after they set out on their first journey together in 1848, Lucy becomes pregnant but (probably thanks to Victorian mores) she doesn’t mention this until the actual birth, which she deals with apologetically thus:


But you are already asking what excuse I can make for [not writing] the two last weeks. Here I have a little family history to relate. You must understand that I was in expectation of a little stranger, whom I thought might arrive about the end of December or the beginning of January; expecting to return to civilisation, I had not thought of preparing anything for him, when, lo! and behold, on the 4th November, at twenty minutes past four P. M., he made his appearance. The young doctor here said he would not live more than seven days, but, thank Heaven, he is still alive and well. He is small, but very much improved since his birth. I shall let him get a little bigger before I describe him. He is to be called Alatau, as he was born at the foot of this mountain range; and his second name Tamchiboulac, this being a dropping-spring, close to which he was called into existence. The doctor says the premature birth was caused by excessive exercise on horseback.


Alatau thereafter accompanies his parents on horseback over thousands of miles for several years. Incidentally, Alatau became the Superintendent of Public Instruction for the Territory of Hawaii. Also incidentally, Mr. Atkinson published his own account of these travels but left out any mention of Lucy or Alatau because his first wife was still alive and not down with bigamy.




  1. Noo Saro-Wiwa

Months of travelling cheek-by-jowl in cars had instilled in me a new-found loathing of men’s legs, which, like air, seem constantly to expand to fill the space available. I’m amazed they’re not all buried in Y-shaped coffins.”

Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)

As a child, Noo Saro-Wiwa grew up in Britain but (rather reluctantly) spent summers in Nigeria. After 1995, when her activist father Ken Saro-Wiwa, was hanged by the Abacha regime, she stopped visiting for a while. Having returned as an adult, she spends four months travelling throughout the whole country describing its diversity, its dysfunctions and delights through the eyes of someone who is not-quite-a-stranger.




  1. Sanmao

I often asked myself, ‘What is distance?’ Then I heard my own answer, saying that distance is what I most desired in life—that is freedom. Freedom to be far, far away, like the air. At that moment, I realized I had slowly released myself from all the things I didn’t need that were binding me to my life. I then thought, ‘I can go to the most remote corners of the earth if that is where my heart wants to go. It was in that moment, that my freedom had finally arrived.’ (translated Manya Koetse

 In 1967, Sao Mao set off to study in Europe and the US and became fluent in Spanish and German. After her German fiancé died, she went to Spain and married a José María Quero (who had fallen in love with her on an earlier visit). She moved with him to the Spanish Sahara, where he was sent on military duty. While there, at a time when the Sahrawi Arabs were ramping up their demand for liberation from Spain, she sent dispatches about her life there to a Taiwanese newspaper. After the Moroccan-Spanish war, the couple moved the Canary Islands, where José died in a diving accident in 1979. 

Sanmao’s The Story of the Sahara has been a bestseller in China since 1976. Almost as soon as it was published, the author gained a cult following thanks to her adventurous spirit and romantic life. At a time when few Chinese and Taiwanese women travelled independently, she  had the courage to set off on her own. Of course, she was also extremely good looking, which may have added something to her rock-star appeal. Tragically, in 1991, she killed herself.




While still quite young, she nicknamed herself ‘Echo Chan’ after her favorite painting teacher, and it is testament to her popularity that so many Chinese girls now adopt ‘Echo’ as their own nicknames, admiring this author whose life was so full of tragedy, passion and adventure. To this day, her fans bring even flowers to José’s grave. 

Incredibly, The Story of the Sahara has only now been translated into English and is due for release in November this year. Spanish speakers are more fortunate—it was published as Diarios de Sáhara (2016). If you read Chinese, you have probably read her already. 




  1. Anees Jung

“My reality no longer has one face. I have stepped out of an enclosed reality into one that is larger, more diverse, and mobile…”

Unveiling India (1987) and Beyond the Courtyard: A Sequel to Unveiling India (2003)

Jung’s Unveiling India (1987) is a kind of travel diary based on interviews with women throughout the country. Beyond the Courtyard (2003) is a follow-up piece in which she interviews the next generation—the daughters of the very same women she spoke to in 1987. When Unveiling India first was published, it was especially noted for women’s accounts of being in purdah—where they must remain secluded and removed from the sight of men. Jung herself grew up in purdah and never married; she has indicated that more than a travelogue, it is an attempt to find herself in her subjects:

“In the macrocosm of a vast land I find the microcosm of my own experience repeated and reaffirmed….Coiled within the lives of these women I find myself transformed.”  Quote taken from here





  1. Nancy Gardner Prince

Tuesday, the 20th, we set sail; the storm was not over. The 22d the gale took us; we were dismasted, and to save sinking, sixty casks of molasses were stove in, and holes cut in the bulwarks to let it off. All the fowls, pigs, and fresh provisions were lost. We were carried seventy-five miles up the bay of Mexico.”

A Narrative of the Life and Travels of Mrs. Nancy Prince (1853)


Nancy Prince had a remarkable life that involved travelling to Russia, the West Indies, New Orleans and learning several languages along the way. She was born in 1799 to Tobias Wornton (a freed slave) and a native American woman who served as a domestic servant in Nantucket. The event that sealed her travelling fate was marriage to one Nero Prince, founder of the Prince Hall Freemasons in Boston. Shortly after marrying him, they went to St. Petersburg, where he became footman to the czar and she opened a boarding home and made baby clothes. Unfortunately, her husband died while in the czar’s service and she returned to America via the West Indies.

She is a kindly soul and describes in moving terms of the banishment of prisoners to Siberia and of the plight of slaves she sees in the American South. At one point, anchored off New Orleans after her ship is wrecked, white people are allowed ashore whilst “we poor blacks were obliged to remain on that broken, wet vessel.” It is highly satisfactory to see her give some racist hecklers an irreproachably Christian tongue-lashing.


Do NOT mess with her. She has a knife.


  1. Fanny Bullock Workman

“I am not a light weight and am a slow climber. Still my powers of endurance on long days of climbing, and in weeks of continued cycle touring, have, for a number of years, been good.”

In the Ice World of Himálaya: Among the Peaks and Passes of Ladakh, Nubra, Suru and Baltistan (c.1900) (by F.B. and W.H. Workman) 


Born in 1859, Fanny was an avid mountaineer and cartographer travel writer and women’s-rights advocate. With her husband William Hunter Workman, she cycled thousands of miles around North Africa, Europe and Asia, finding time on the way to climb Mont Blanc, the Jungfrau and the Matterhorn (Fanny being the first woman to do so). At the end of their cycling trip, she and William stopped off in the Western Himalaya and Karakoram for a summer. Already keen climbers, they now attempted high-altitude climbing. In the next 14 years, they would return eight times, exploring and mapping several glaciers and reaching the top of Pinnacle Peak (23,000 feet) in 1906, a women’s altitude record that wouldn’t be broken for 28 years.

To be completely honest, her travel memoirs are a bit heavy-going for the general reader, partly (no doubt) because she always had one eye on the climbing community and science geeks. You won’t find any human-interest stories here, nothing about her finding her inner self by sleeping with a hot Sherpa (ala Eat, Pray, Love) or finding spirituality in a cup of yak butter. She missed her own daughter’s wedding to go climbing.

Note: as impressive as she was, she was also kind of a dickhead and racist AF. If you are put off by the word ‘coolie’ appearing twenty-five times per paragraph, do not read this.


Helen and Charlie


  1. Helen Thayer

“People said that I was a woman and I would get lost. I thought that was insulting. I was the kind of person that just went out and did whatever. The fact they didn’t like it was their problem.”

Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole (1995) 


National Geographic has named Helen Thayer ‘One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century’ and yet she is virtually unknown even in her native New Zealand, let alone the wider world. In a phone interview last year, she said “The New Zealand press never expressed interest in my expeditions or my educational programmes. Perhaps it was because I was married and lived overseas.”[1] This seems not only sad but almost incredible considering her resume: She was the first woman to walk solo across the Sahara from Morocco to the Nile, the first woman to trek solo to the North Pole, and the first to walk (with her husband, at the age of 63) 1,600 miles across the Gobi desert. She has also climbed some of the world’s highest peaks, lived among wolves and kayaked 2,200 miles of the Amazon River.

Thayer’s solo North Pole adventure is called Polar Dream: The First Solo Expedition by a Woman and her Dog to the Magnetic North Pole. She made this trip at the age of 50 without sponsorship, without sled dogs (she pulled the sled herself) and without stopping to resupply. As the title suggests, the trip was not done completely solo—she relied on her Charlie, for companionship and polar-bear scenting. The book is partly about their growing bond, which makes it an especially rewarding read for animal lovers.

Thayer is now in her eighties and lives in Washington State. Who knows what she’s planning next!



Memoir, Middle East, Nonfiction, Travel

Teaching the Kuwaiti Officer Corps

Candid classroom conversations with students on an undisclosed army base in Kuwait.


Classified chit-chat


Crazy Khalid


“Guys! Listen! Hey!”

Ten minutes into English class and the talking (in Arabic) is still going strong.

“Listen to the tape. Listen!”

The two lieutenant colonels are having a conversation in Arabic. The cadet is sleeping. The airforce man has his ear glued to his smartphone. The major, fat and benign as an African Buddha, is leaning his chair back against the wall with his eyes closed. “Break teacher,” he announces with an air of finality. “I have headache. You have not left us time to breathe.” His tone is pained.

“The listening is not difficult. We have only thirty minutes – then you can have a break.”

“We are tired teacher. Very tough!” Lt. Col. Abdullah interrupts his conversation to explain this to me before easily switching back to his Arabic conversation.

This is killing me!” Captain Ghazi yells gleefully from the back, emphasizing each syllable, delighted to have an opportunity to use a phrase he learned in our target vocabulary this morning.

I try the silent-statue approach to getting their attention. After standing there gawping for a minute, I feel as if I am floating above the classroom and viewing the chaos from the vantage of the in-class video camera, which is possibly being monitored by the General. I am woefully certain the students are not to be cajoled, persuaded, convinced or budged in the slightest degree.

One of the sergeants is now holding court, and all eyes are on him. Every now and then the lieutenant punctuates his speech with a marked gesture, and the room bursts into laughter.

What are you talking about?” I ask, intrigued.

“It is about my friend, Khalid.”

“Can you tell me in English?”

“OK, I will try. Khalid is a crazy man. He does many things. For example, one time he was lined up with other soldiers and the Chief Commanding Officer ordered the company to move. And Khalid said,

‘No, no. I don’t want to move now; I am sleepy. First we will go to barracks, have a nap, then later we will talk about it together to see if everyone wants to go.’”

“Wha–? What did the Chief Commanding Officer do?”

“He just walk away, laugh. Another time, we have radio training. Each soldier must learn to use the radio. The Captain calls soldiers on the radio. When the Captain called Khalid, he used, how to say it, a lady voice?”

“He pretended to be a woman?”

“Yes, and he said…I cannot tell you the things he said. Very dangerous.”

“I bet!”

“The captain – very angry. The captain come to each class to ask who spoke with the lady voice. Khalid – he stood up and just said, ‘Me!’ Like that! Amazing. He don’t have any fear.”

“Was he punished?”

“Yes! He was in jail for two days – he could not leave the barracks. But all the time he doing like this. Once the Chief Commanding Officer changed our start time from 7am to 6am. Everyone came at 6am but Khalid came at 7. The Chief Commanding Officer said, ‘Why you late?’ and Khalid said, ‘Late? I’m no late. Seven is best time! Why you early?’”

“Does he want to leave the army?”

“No, he like the army.”

“Why don’t they kick him out?”

“Because wasta.”

Kuwait o’clock


The Wastafarian


My daily commute


The next day I teach a class of one person, Major Lazam, who is effectively a class of 15 wandering cats.

“So, you see, the verb ‘recommend’—”

My grammar explanation is interrupted by the cheery whistle of his phone ringing for something like the thirtieth time this lesson.

“Teacher, please teacher. I’m sorry,” he shrugs, as if to say, “What can I do?” I nod and prepare to wait.

Officially, mobile phones are not permitted in the classroom. Unofficially, the students are army guys and they’ll do what they want.

Major Lazam, my only student in this class, is resplendent as usual in his snow-white dishdasha that lovingly encases his ample frame. His moustache is carefully trimmed and shaped in symmetrical segments a bit like downward-sloping dragon-fly wings. His face, which reminds me of some comic actor of the 1940s, is framed by the gutra, which is also white and hangs back stylishly like the hood of a cobra. It is held in place by the ogal, a black cord that encircles the crown of his head. I don’t know why he is the only student in the whole school exempt from wearing the army uniform, but I assume wasta –that all-important form of social power– has something to do with it.

After a lively conversation, the major ends the call and explains to me, “My cousin. He is driving lesson today. The teacher say, ‘Very bad, no pass.’ So I say, ‘Pass, pass, pass! No problem.’” The major accompanies this with a scornful purse of the lips and little sweeps of his hand to indicate that the teacher is being extremely petty.

I nod. It figures. Every day on the ride to work you see a wreck by the side of the road – no, but really a wreck – tyres burst, roof battered, with one or more sides so thoroughly smashed it looks like it’s been hit by a cruise missile. A minute later you see an ambulance racing to the scene of a crash. Then, at the roundabout there will be two cars stopped in the middle of the road, drivers standing outside their vehicles gesticulating furiously after a rear-end collision (it is an unusual driver who doesn’t tail gate here).

“So, how about we go back to the grammar now?”

“Teacher! Presentation on Tuesday. I give now:  ‘Hello my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people–’

“Woah – wait; hold on! Stand up; come to the front.”

He gets to his feet and makes his way to the front of the classroom. There he stands, looking unusually nervous and vulnerable. I wait.

He coughs, then looks over to me. I nod encouragingly.

“Hello, my name Major Lazam. Today I talk about two people. One my brother—”

A man’s head pops around the door—I recognize him as the colonel’s messenger. He holds up a hand to excuse himself to me, then he says something to the Major in Arabic. Major Lazam’s reply is delivered in his usual deadpan, cracking the messenger up.

“Teacher, I am sorry, excuse me. I must go to a meeting. What can I do?” he shrugs, smooths his moustaches, collects his (still unopened) satchel and the lesson ends early.



The Two Majors


Don’t you believe it.


Sayed and Ahmed are two majors who have the kind of charm and easy confidence one usually associates with successful Hollywood stars. They are urbane, cosmopolitan guys with excellent conversational English, a confident manner and a brotherly rapport. Both are unusually fit and muscular, no doubt due to the gym visits they mention frequently and possibly also to steroids, which they never mention at all (for one thing, it would be haram).

Sayed is impressively dignified and on the pale side. Ahmed is more African in looks and in manner—he laughs easily and adores African-American music–he even has a sidejob as a DJ, with the sobriquet ‘Black Horse’.

“Please turn to page 35,” I say, beginning our first lesson together.

“Excuse me, teacher,” Sayed says gently, “This book is too easy for us. Let me explain. With me and Major Ahmed, we prefer to discuss things ourselves. We choose a subject and have a debate. This is how we like to do it. We need only to practice English, not like the others.”

Ahmed nodded wisely.

“Yes, it is better for us. It is like our English diwaniya.”

The diwaniya is a Kuwaiti tradition in which the menfolk gather together in the evenings to relax, to debate, to create political alliances, to approve marriages…and so on. It is the word from which our ‘divan’ is derived. A lot of my students loathe it because it is so time-consuming and boring.

“But of course, when we make a mistake, you should correct us,” Sayed added magnanimously.

Ordinarily it probably wouldn’t be a great move to let a student dictate the lesson in this way, but the thing was, their English was very good. And, as my colleagues kept telling me, our job was essentially to keep the students happy.

“OK,” I said. “So what’s your topic for today?”

“Today we will talk about Thailand.”

“Oh, I like Thailand!” I said.

“Yes. It’s a good place,” Sayed agreed. “Back in 1995 I went to Thailand and I had a Louis Vuitton wallet. There was a place in the Chinese town of Bangkok; from the outside it looked like a barber’s shop, but inside it was a huge workshop. I showed the wallet to the man and he said, ‘Give me two weeks,’ so I went away to Pattaya and when I came back, the man showed me the copy. It was – you look very carefully, you’ll see no difference! He made it for one dinar. When I came back to Kuwait, I sell them—”

“Sold them.”

“Sold them to another man for three dinar. And he sell, sold it to another man for 15 dinar!”

“Wow! That’s a good profit.”

“Yes,” said Ahmed, “Back then in 1995, Thailand was the best place to find fakes; now is China.”

“It is China,” I said.

Sayed nodded, “After 2000, China flooded it.”

“Flooded the market,” I corrected.

“Yes, flooded the market.”

Sayed said, “Actually, I own a factory in China that makes these copies. I go there with my wife sometimes. And when I go to work in the morning, I drop my wife off at the mall. The mall is only for copies. It is huge – and there are three sections for the three grades of copies. Now I even hear they will make a section for VIP.”

“I hear they will even.”

“Yes. My wife went there and bought shoes copied from Christian Dior – nine dinars she bought them for. Later that day we went to a restaurant in a nice area of town. And there was a Christian Dior boutique. We went in to see if we could find the same shoes. They were there, and I looked carefully – I put the copy next to it and I could see no difference.”

“How much were the originals?” I asked.

“One hundred and twenty dinars,” he said. “No difference. Same shape, same design, same materials even.”

“What do you think about Thailand? Where is the best place to go?” Ahmed asked his friend.

“For me it’s Pattaya. There are clubs and pubs for every nation. The Thailand people are very smart. They copy everything, not just things. For example, in Pattaya there is an Irish pub. They have the Irish beer, the Irish music – the musicians are all Thailand people but when they sing they have an Irish accent. Also there is a cowboy bar, playing cowboy music. Thailand people dress like cowboys, and the people from Southern US love it there, it make them feel comfortable. The Arab bars – actually there are no Arab bars.”

“Yes, the Thai people are smart. They know what everybody likes,” Ahmed agreed. “Really, you can take anything to them. Like this bottle of water. They will look at it, then say, ‘Give me two weeks,’ and when you come back, it’s the same – you can’t tell the difference. Not only with things, but with characters”

“Characteristics,” I said uncertainly.

“Characteristics and movements. There is a new African-American club in Pattaya – all the Thailand people who work there have the hair like this—“

“In corn rows?”

“Yes, corn row and the way of moving,” Ahmed brought out some swagger-slouch gestures, rap-style hand movements.”

“For me, I don’t like Pattaya,” Sayed sniffed. “I prefer Phuket. It is smaller. When I am in Pattaya, sometimes I see people from my tribe, younger people, you know – 20, 21. They see me, they will go straight to their people and talk, talk, talk. All day people will make a meal of you. No! When I am away from home, I don’t want to meet people I know – relations or subordinate soldiers — on the street. I will look them and say, ‘OK, go. You don’t see me.’”

“You didn’t see me,” I said.

“For me,” Ahmed interrupted, “I don’t care. I see cousins and nephews. So what? They see me – for them see me, they have to be in the same place! One day I saw soldiers at a bar. They try to stare me down, make me uncomfortable. I say, ‘Hey guys, how are you?’ I am relaxed. When I am not at work, I am free. I learn this when I was stationed in England. From nine to five there is discipline. After five, officers and soldiers drink together in the bar, play pool…”

“For me, I don’t like this,” Sayed countered. “In US, yes, officers and soldiers drink together. But after some drinks, fights can break out.”






The last class I had before summer holidays consisted of one student, a polite, self-contained young airforce lieutenant who had only just graduated from military school. He was a capable, studious learner so completed the course early. I decided to spend our last day talking about movies; he’d mentioned that he usually watched at least four movies each weekend.

“What’s your favourite movie?”

He spent some time thinking. I wondered if he’d understood the question.

“Or what is a movie you have seen recently?”

“Yes, yes,” he nodded. “My favourite movie is Troy. I have seen it maybe nine times. “

“Really? Can you tell me what happens in the movie?”

“Yes. It is drama. About a war between two countries. First, Troy and Greek are—there is a problem, so two brothers from Troy go there to solve it. But when they in Greece—’

‘When they are in Greece.’

‘When they are in Greece one of the brothers takes the Greek king’s wife, he hides her in the ship when they go back.”

“Uh oh…” (I slyly pretended not to know the plot, to encourage the exposition).

“Yes. It is bad. And,” his eyes widened, “the old brother, he doesn’t know she is there. When he knows he becomes too angry and he fight his brother. Because he know there will be war. Then the Greek soldiers go to Troy and they fight but they can’t catch the town because of the high walls. The brother who take the Greek wife, Hercules–”


“Yes, Hercules, after he die, the Greeks build a big horse with wood. They take their ships around the land but not far far–”

“They hide close by, so it seems like they went away?”

“Yes. They put soldiers into the wooden horse. But Troy people don’t know; they put the horse into the city.”


“Because to win the war. It is something to show they win. But one of the King-of-Troy sons says they should fire it–”

“Set it on fire.”

“If set it on fire, Troy would not be destroy.”

“What did you like least about the movie? Was the…”

“I didn’t like when Paris took the woman. It caused all of the problems.”

“Did you know the movie is based on a famous poem?”

“Poem?” He frowned. “No, no! It is happen in real life. They have found the horse.”

Memoir, Middle East, Nonfiction, Travel

Child’s Play in Kuwait

When we lived in Kuwait, I taught in the mornings but my afternoons were free. Since there are limited amusements in that dust-bath of a country, a lot of my colleagues took evening classes to make some extra money.  My friend Ahmed recommended I apply at a school near our house, saying they needed someone to teach English to women.

The school was brand-new, and the manager who interviewed me seemed very pleasant—a young woman passionate about education and proud to own her own business.

“We have few students right now, because we are new,” she explained. “I am sorry, there are only children. But soon more adults.”

“Oh, but…I’m not trained to teach children though.”

“No matter,” she smiled. “It is easy.”

“Uh…what level of English do they have?”

“They are complete beginners.”

“Uh…OK, I guess I’ll try.”

Without further ado, she led me to the classroom, which contained two small children, a girl of five and a boy of three, both with enormous eyes and no English at all. Not knowing what else to do, I drew a cat on the whiteboard. This got the party started all right; suddenly they both wanted to draw on the whiteboard themselves.




Up they got on two chairs and I hovered behind them, afraid they would fall. On the left side, the girl independently embarked on a column of ‘Aa.’ On the right, the boy formed a magnificent capital ‘H,’ then switched to a circular scribble. Discovering (from his sister’s scornful rebukes) that his name was Hassan, I thought of showing him how to write his name and gently tried to take the pen from him. He had other ideas and a chimp’s grip; his scribbling continued, ever more expansive.

Aiya, with almost manic intensity, forged ahead with a column of ‘Bb’. Meanwhile, Hassan’s scribble gained momentum, growing steadily in all directions. As Aiya began the Cc column, tension mounted– inevitably, the two worlds would collide. Sure enough, as soon as a tentacle of the scribble touched a ‘d’, all hell broke loose. Aiya gave Hassan a slap; he headbutted her in the stomach and immediate intervention was required.

At this point a fat boy of about eight wandered in to watch the proceedings, smiling wonderingly.


The siblings stopped hitting one another and started their ‘work’ again. As I racked my brains planning what to do next, Hassan found the whiteboard eraser and started disappearing Aiya’s letters. Aiya wrested the eraser from his grip and went to work on his scribble.

The fat boy looked at me and tssked.

At this point little Hassan got down off his chair and wandered out of the room. Alarmed, and not wanting the manager to notice this mutiny, I followed him at a distance and tried to coax him back with gentle cooing sounds. Futile. He turned to me and said something so sincerely that I realized he must need to go to the bathroom. Indeed, that was where he went. Maintaining their dreadful symmetry, Aiya went to the girls’ bathroom. Emerging, after a brief whispered conference, they decided to go into a nearby computer lab and do a satanic dance around the desks.

“Stop!” I said in English. “La La!” I attempted in Arabic, adding an emphatic tongue-click.

They responded with laughter and balletic twirls.



Desperate, I switched off the lights in the hope that reduced stimulation would entice them out of the lab, as with moths. This was successful. We were nearly back in the classroom when they suddenly caught a glimpse of a janitor, gleefully yelled something rude at him and stuck out their tongues.

A roar came from one of the females in reception and the pair fled back to the classroom. The director of the school (for it was she) appeared in the doorway and roared some more, so that both of them sat at their desks with straight backs and solemn expressions. The director looked at me, smiled and cocked her eyebrow as if to say, “That’s how you do it.”

Now that the kids were nicely terrified, I proceeded to draw a face on the board, asking them (in mime) to copy it in their books. Aiya, however, was sulking. Her mouth had formed a perfect pout and she gazed straight ahead at the wall, though her eyes strayed now and again down to the board.

Hassan, meanwhile, had his head in his hand and was losing focus fast. I tried to engage him with the ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ song, but he kept saying something in Arabic that I didn’t understand, something like “abeeta”. He said it about a dozen times, and then finally closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep. With long dark lashes brushing apricot cheeks, he looked like a sweet angel.



With her partner in crime out of action, Aiya could be persuaded to pick up her pencil and copy the face. The writing part bored her, though. Halfway through ‘nose’, she decided to pack up all her papers and pens ready to go–there was still an hour of lesson to go.

The next day Ahmed said the director wanted me to come back, she was pleased with my work. I asked him whether “abeeta” means “I’m sleepy” in Arabic. He looked at me in surprise and said, “Uh, no. It means silly, or stupid. It’s very rude.” I told him I unfortunately could not teach at that school anymore because something had come up.