Help yourself

How much help is it reasonable to expect from others?

Of course the answer to that depends wholly on context. Family and friends are likely to help out in a crisis, and simple kindness means we might want to offer assistance to anyone struggling on to a bus with a baby buggy, but it seems to me that there are times and places where it is wholly reasonable to expect help and yet none is forthcoming.

I’m talking here about people whose actual job it is to provide assistance in the form of service, guidance, repair or recompense but who entirely fail to do so.

Now I know that am marching on into an increasingly irritable middle age, so I accept that I may be experiencing the unfortunate confluence of rising expectations and declining patience that is the hallmark of a Grumpy Old Woman. Nonetheless, a glance back over the past few weeks of the call centre queue that is my life throws up a dispiriting array of occasions when, shall we say, expectations have not been met.

From Amazon to Zambian Internet service providers, via British Airways, Uber and others, I’ve had a bellyful of case reference numbers, specified delivery times that pass with no delivery, and a tinny eternity of the Flower Duet on hold. I’m driven to rage by chirpy recorded messages asking me (rhetorically) whether I know that almost every problem known to man – climate change, the refugee crisis, the rise of Islamic extremism – can surely be solved by visiting their website. Thanks, but I’ve tried that already. That’s why I’m calling. And what is the whole customer-service-line-that-gives-you-absolutely-no-chance-of speaking-to-a-human thing about? (I’m talking to you, Vodafone) And the ones whose ‘Contact Us’ page is nothing more than a way of trapping you in an endless Escher-esque loop back to their FAQs, which of course don’t answer your particular Q, since perhaps it is not A very F, otherwise YOU WOULDN’T BE PUTTING YOURSELF THROUGH THE PAIN OF MAKING THIS PHONE CALL IN THE FIRST PLACE.

I had to go to Ikea recently to buy stuff for a daughter going to university. We’re pretty good at the whole Ikea thing now, and have totally nailed the shortcuts that avoid you having to traipse through the whole ghastly sausage machine behind two fat women and their army of kids moving at the pace of an asthmatic snail. Thus it was that we arrived in the lighting department with rather smug alacrity, selected a desk lamp, doubled back briefly into textiles to buy a rug, paused on the way through the market place for the obligatory bag of tea lights without which no visit to Ikea is complete, and made for the tills.

Of course I should have known it wouldn’t be that easy.

Unpacking in her hall of residence a few days later we discovered that when switched on, the desk lamp gave out a hallucinatory pulsing beam, reminiscent of a rave in a small town club rather than the calming pool of light in which I had fondly imagined my daughter engaged in quiet and diligent study. Dozens of miles from an Ikea, and (naturally) without my till receipt, I called their customer service line.

The best thing – what am I saying? the ONLY good thing – about the Ikea customer service line is that they play Abba while you are on hold. This all but demands you join in with a singalong to Waterloo, which can cause a certain amount of embarrassment and confusion when a person actually comes on the line. Recovering my dignity I explained my predicament and was told, as I knew I would be, that I must go to a store.

The next day I did so, making straight for the Returns and Exchanges desk, where I explained the issue. The assistant looked nonplussed, so I suggested that perhaps she could plug the lamp in and switch it on in order to see the problem for herself.

She said, “Well, I’ll have to see whether there’s anyone in the store today who’s got the authority to do that.”

I am rarely lost for words, but I have to say that she had me there. I mean, there we were, in a developed country in one of the world’s most successful retailers where all around us staff members were tapping on sophisticated electronic devices, and yet she was suggesting that plugging in a lamp was outside their skill set or authority.

Fortunately, at this juncture another yellow-shirted employee happened by. Perhaps his attention was caught by the sight of a middle-aged woman tearing her hair and rending her garments but, whatever, happily he stopped and took the matter in hand. With the sort of assurance that comes from knowing his way around any flat pack assembly instructions you could throw at him, he took my lamp, moved two meters to his left, and plugged it in. It flickered in the same unpleasant, epilepsy-inducing way that it had the day before.

In no time he had authorized a voucher for its exchange and in just a little longer I was on my way. Job done.

We are so accustomed now to staff who manage to imply that the problem is somehow your own fault, or who are so miserably ill-informed about their own products and services that you must be bounced from department to department and answer the same security questions over and over again, that good customer service is rare enough to be truly memorable.

I was reminded sharply of this when I went into a branch of Sports Direct to buy some trainers. Sports Direct is a British retailer known for its cavernous stores and the overstuffed mess of bright nylon and branded hoodies that fill them. I went only because trainers are cheaper there than elsewhere, but it’s a heavy price to pay. Previous visits had yielded rudeness and only the most reluctant show of help from the spotty and callow youths that work there.

Well that’ll learn me.

The young man who came forward, unbidden, to offer assistance turned out to be charming, helpful and extremely knowledgeable about sports footwear. In no time at all he had me sorted with exactly what I needed. I was so surprised and delighted that had he suggested it, it is perfectly possible I would have left with a full Manchester City strip as well.

The warm glow from this transaction hasn’t faded yet and the next time any of us need anything made of lycra or with air cushioning, I know where I’ll go. Vodafone and others, you could learn a lot from the young man in the women’s shoe department at Fosse Park. Maybe you should pop in.


John vs. Cancer #1: Not Having Cancer

We’ve been down this path ourselves a few years ago, and this is more eloquent, articulate, funny and wise than I was capable of being when it was my husband diagnosed with blood cancer 15 years ago. John and Ella, thoughts with you, and will follow your story and your progress. And you should know that Iain is still here, fully healthy, after a bone marrow transplant organised through the fabulous Anthony Nolan Trust.

JM Underwood

***In which our hero doesn’t, and then maybe does, and then definitely does have cancer. Just so we’re clear.***

“John, I think you’ve got blood cancer.”

“Fuck off.”

“I just really think you should go to the GP. There’s that rash on your leg, and you keep having nosebleeds, and you’re always tired and-”

“Fuck off. You’re a hypochondriac. What’s worse, you’re being a hypochondriac at me. This is basically Munchausen’s Syndrome by proxy. Fuck off.”


“Fuck off.”

The awkward thing about spending two months telling your girlfriend that she’s an idiot for Google-diagnosing you with leukaemia, of course, is when she turns out to be very nearly correct. Ought I to regret, to recant the conversation above and the dozens like it, or is it just inevitable that one nervy partner in a million will accurately call a cancer diagnosis eight weeks before a doctor appears on the…

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Shedding the load

In Zambia the rainy season starts in November and ends in late March. The country relies on this rain to fill the rivers that flow into the mighty Zambezi, which in turn fills the Kariba Dam, which generates the nation’s electricity as well as an excess that is exported to some neighbouring countries.

The last rainy season started late and – aside from a late flourish that catastrophically coincided with the soy harvest – never really took off, so rainfall was considerably lower than usual. As a consequence the rivers and dams are low, and power company ZESCO is rationing electricity, or load shedding as it’s known. This means lengthy and frequent power cuts for the whole country.

Climate change might well be playing a part in this. There is no doubt that weather patterns all over the world are changing, and seasons are increasingly unpredictable in Africa.

Lack of investment certainly plays a part. Zambia’s population is one of the fastest-growing in the world, increasing by more than 3% annually, but there has been no corresponding increase in investment and planning to meet higher demand for electricity and water. The infrastructure is creaking, and now we must all look forward to at least six months of power cuts before – we hope – the rains begin to fill the rivers and dams once more.

While there is nothing quite like the power going off ten minutes after you’ve put supper in the oven to send you reaching for the corkscrew and the biggest glass you can find, I’m aware that for me it’s just a Force 10 nuisance. For business it’s different. Without power to run the pumps, crops cannot be irrigated. Harvests are already lower because of the rainfall deficit, farmers’ incomes are down, and many will struggle to pay for the inputs they have used, creating a ripple effect through many other businesses. Manufacturing is hit just as hard. Many companies are forced to use diesel generators to keep their businesses ticking over, massively increasing their costs as they simultaneously try to sell their goods into a weakened economy.

Load shedding on a national scale has been going on for only a few days, but already we are settling into a sort of resigned routine. We’ve stopped swearing when the lights go out, but merely sigh heavily. We’ve got candles and matches and torches strategically placed around the house. I am driven to rage by hours without wifi, but I’m just going to have to suck it up.

And the best bit is when the power comes back on. It feels like Christmas. Without fail we smile and give a small involuntary exclamation of pleasure. Let’s hope that this equanimity, and the modest sense of triumph and delight, see us through until the next rainy season.

Group therapy

So we went to Argentina. Notionally to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, but actually to drink lots of wine and to see whether the vineyard in which we made a modest but rash investment two years ago actually existed.

It did. Which was a relief.

It was the first really big trip that the two of us have taken without the children – now all travelling or working or studying – and at the airport we both had the giggly, slightly delirious sensation of playing hooky, or of having forgotten something important.

In fact all we had forgotten was how nice it is to pay two airfares instead of five.

Two jet-lagged days later we found ourselves bunked in much greater style than we’re accustomed to at the Park Hyatt in Mendoza, enjoying welcome drinks with the group we were joining on a wine tour.

Over the next four days we drank wine of a calibre that is the stuff of fantasy when you live in Zambia, and also ate extravagantly well. We were ferried around the country’s top wineries in minibuses into which we decanted – and increasingly squeezed – our overfed bodies, slumping heavily into our seats, catching a siesta on the way to the next meal.

I had never travelled in a group before, and actually I loved it. I loved the way people’s stories and personalities emerged slowly and then in a rush, encouraged by the companionship of shared interests and by the necessity of sitting next to a stranger at lunch and dinner each day.

And if I’m truthful, starting to drink at 11am probably helped too.

People talked about children and grandchildren, about wives who didn’t like to travel and jobs quit in favour of seeing the world. They talked of romantic encounters in Uruguay, of a beloved son’s suicide, of retirement spent practicing medicine as a volunteer in Peru, of aging parents and disappointing sons-in-law. It was fascinating, tragic, hilarious and occasionally a bit dull. Just like real life, actually.


Argentina is staggeringly beautiful. The Andes – wrapped around the Valle d’Uco in a semi-circle of snow-capped magnificence – bring a lump to the throat and cause you to gape silently in the manner of a landed fish as you struggle for words.

It’s also a country laid low by economic incompetence. Everywhere we went people shook their heads in rage and despair at the car crash their once wealthy country has become and all had their hopes pinned on better things after elections scheduled for October.

In our two-week trip there was one day of general strike and no fewer than four public holidays. One of these was Malvinas Day, on which the country remembers the soldiers and sailors it lost in the Falklands War of the early 1980s. We kept a low profile that day, and left the Union Jack T-shirts in the suitcase.

We saw only a tiny bit of the country, but are determined to go back. The group parted in a flurry of embraces and email addresses and promises to reconvene in two years. I hope we do. But next time, in the interests of maximum sartorial choice, we’ll be sure to avoid Malvinas Day.


Scaring myself


‘Do one thing every day that scares you’ (thank you, Eleanor Roosevelt) has always seemed to me one of the more witless bits of life guidance in a self-help lexicon that does not want for witlessness.

After all, I’ve done loads of things that scare me – attempting to learn to ski, teaching my children to drive, and flying Kenya Airways to name but three – that patently haven’t killed me, but haven’t made me obviously stronger either. (There we go again.)

But not long ago I made a trip to Livingstone to see the mighty Victoria Falls. Pre-visit research yielded up an array of life-threatening activities all listed as ‘must dos’ in the ‘adrenalin capital of Africa’. Not wishing to reveal myself as the enfeebled wimp I truly am, and faced with a choice that included a zip wire 300ft above raging rapids (what?) bungee jumping (why?), and a tandem gorge swing (wtf?), I found myself opting for a flight over the Falls in a microlight. This choice, I hoped, said, ‘This woman is courageous and fun and is not afraid to try something new’, while still allowing me to duck out of activities that actually made me tearful to think about.

Of course I instantly regretted it. Even as I handed over the (large) sum of money it necessitated, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. The sky around the Falls buzzed with the rotor blades of countless helicopters, agile yet reassuring in their sturdiness. But from time to time, a softer and higher-pitched engine sound could be heard, and if you scanned the dazzling sky you could trace it to a tiny, orange-winged moped, dangling improbably above the boiling plunge of the Falls. This was the craft to which I had entrusted my life.

The night before our flight I couldn’t sleep. I was going to die. It would be a terrifying, painful and very public death, and one that had cost me a lot of money. And then there was the worry about which picture of me the media would use when they covered the story. Tragic British Mum in Microlight Death Plunge. I wondered how many times the YouTube footage would be watched, and how many Likes it would get.

So it was in a not altogether positive frame of mind that I climbed next morning – dry mouthed and with as much dignity as my bulky blue flying suit permitted – into the tiny craft. My pilot – a good humoured young white Zambian – told me nearly everyone is scared, and that once he’d had a woman so hysterical that she tried to undo her seatbelt and jump mid-flight. He told me he had built up strong counselling skills as well as thousands of flying hours, and that there was nothing to worry about. Of course I didn’t believe him.

But then something extraordinary happened. After a short and bouncy ride down the grass strip, we were suddenly airborne with nothing but an increasing span of warm, clear air between our feet and Africa below. And I wasn’t scared. Not even a bit. It was all so magical and exhilarating and improbable that I wanted to laugh. And of course there were the Falls, unimaginably powerful and beautiful, freckling my visor with spray thrown hundreds of feet into the air. What must it have been for David Livingstone to come upon such a sight after years of arduous walking, enduring heat, disease and inhospitable tribes and terrain? And actually I think they have never been better described than by his words:  ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’.

IMG_5959We crossed to the Zimbabwean side of the river and back, circling over wallowing hippos, basking crocodiles – their menace concealed by their repose – and a group of elephants walking their babies to the mighty Zambezi to drink. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.

Too soon it was over, and I took off my helmet to reveal an idiotic grin. For the rest of the day I walked on air and had to be forcibly restrained from seizing the shoulders of total strangers and telling them that they must, absolutely must, fly above the Falls in a microlight.

I’m going to do it again, of course. Why wouldn’t I? It was one of the best experiences of my life. It almost made me think Eleanor Roosevelt might have been on to something.

Admission of guilt

About two weeks after we moved to Zambia, my youngest daughter and I drove to the airport to meet middle daughter. We had pitched the trip to her as an opportunity to spend ten days working on her final university assignments, far from the social distractions of London and with someone else to take care of her laundry and catering requirements. She, I suspect, was more drawn by the prospect of going back with a suntan but, whatever the divergence of our motives, as I barrelled along Lusaka’s Great East Road towards the airport I was in that heightened state of anticipation so familiar to expatriate mothers about to be reunited with far-flung children. So when a policeman stepped into the road ahead and signalled for me to stop, it was a deeply unwelcome interruption to our journey.

I was speeding, he said. Youngest slid down in her seat. After the customary Are-you-sures and Yes-madams I was invited to drag my guilty butt in the direction of an unmarked police car parked a short distance away. In the rear seat was a female officer of formidable proportions, wearing dark knee socks and a heavy woollen sweater in the lunchtime heat.

She greeted me cheerfully and agreed with my feeble protestations that the speed limit signs on that stretch of road were both confusing and hard to see, but regretted that nonetheless it was her sad duty to fine me.

At this point I should probably say that I have spent some 15 years of my adult life in Kenya, a country of exquisite and varied beauty and of kind and resilient people, but one not known for the integrity of its police force. Stopped once for using my mobile phone while stationary in one of Nairobi’s legendary traffic jams I was asked first directly for a bribe to have the offence overlooked and, when I demurred, was instead invited to give the policeman’s son a job. Another time I was a passenger in a car, again in diesel-choked gridlock, when one of Nairobi’s Finest thumped on the windscreen and informed us that by failing to use our left indicator while sitting in a left-hand-turn-only filter lane, we were committing an offence. We must allow him into our vehicle and drive to the local police station where we would be charged. Or – and here he paused – there might be another way to deal with the matter…

Being stopped by the Kenyan police could have its lighter side too. Several years ago, husband at the wheel, we were driving towards Nairobi on the Mombasa highway when a policeman signalled for us to stop. We had, he said, waving his mobile speed-gun in the air triumphantly, been travelling at 130km per hour. This was absolutely untrue. Even had our ancient jalopy been capable of it, we would never have driven at such speed on Kenya’s lethal and potholed roads and with two tiny children in the back. Husband asked if we could see a printout of some sort to prove this allegation. Aah, responded the police officer, unfortunately there was no printout or, indeed, any record of the speed recorded. Husband then suggested – probably unwisely and perhaps a little rudely – that the policeman was not being entirely truthful. At this he tilted his chin, squared his shoulders and uttered the immortal line, ‘A police officer takes an oath not to lie on the road’.

So back at the roadside on the outskirts of Lusaka my heart was heavy and my expectations low. I had, quite deliberately, left my handbag in my car to avoid any suggestion of willingness to ‘sort this out another way’ but in fact I needn’t have worried. The policewoman reached with some difficulty over her substantial bosom into the depths of the vehicle to withdraw an A4 pad of unmistakably official appearance, crowned by the Zambian crest and embellished with an elaborate, curlicued watermark in green.

At the top was the heading ADMISSION OF GUILT.

At her polite request I handed over my driving licence and she set about completing the form, eventually asking for my signature, and concluding the transaction with the official stamp of the Zambia Police Service, Lusaka Province HQ, Traffic Section Administration. That would be 180 Kwacha (about £18), please, an amount accurately recorded on the Admission of Guilt form, which served as my receipt.

She tore the top copy of the form from her pad, handed it to me with a smile and wished me a pleasant afternoon.

When I had wiped from my jaw the African dust it had picked up as it dropped, I thanked her, returned to my car and proceeded with assiduous attention to the speed limit to the airport, where the happy reunion with daughter duly took place.

Back at home that afternoon, and recalling with amazement the integrity of my first encounter with Zambia’s police, I decided to join the girls and go and lie for a while by the pool. Because of course I, too, would never lie on the road.

An introduction

This blog has been born out of finding myself in southern Africa with an unexpectedly large amount of time on my hands. The most recent of many international moves, and the first to take me thousands of expensive miles from fledging children, it meant leaving a reliable if not always very exciting work stream in Switzerland, and starting all over again professionally and personally.

There have been compensations. Zambia is a lovely country, the sun shines a lot, and people have been hugely welcoming. I decided to step back from the work I’d been doing previously and start to think and to write about things that interest or amuse or enrage me. I haven’t approached this in a very systematic or disciplined way. I don’t write every day, or sometimes even every week, and I don’t have a particular theme or direction in mind. But I’d like to start a conversation with people living lives similar or wildly different from my own, who share some of my enthusiasms, and who might agree or violently disagree with my perspective.

If any of what you find here from time to time interests or amuses or enrages you, I’d love to know, so please leave comments, or point me to other sites or blogs or anything else you think might be interesting, and let’s see where this conversation leads us.

Look forward to getting acquainted.