Published by Macmillan (February 2018)

Friendship. How far does friendship take you? Should you ever break a promise? Do we really listen to our friends? Do we take the time to join the dots and see what might be happening beneath the surface?

Bonnie, is a straight A student. Dedicated, organised and sensible. Her friend Eden, however, isn’t – but they fit one another. Support each other and when a promise is made, its kept.

When a friend, ‘goes off the rails’, it can be difficult to work out what caused it and what is happening.  So when the school’s music teacher becomes overly involved with one of the girls, the repercussions and results are wide ranging and distressing.

There are enormous pressures being a teenager. Social and academic – to do well in exams is to be successful. It doesn’t always follow. There is more to life than exam results – they don’t make you happy, however, as I said to a young boy today, who is obviously the apple of his mother’s eye – they do give you choices, and that can make you happy.

This story is about love, friendship, self belief, confidence and a mistake – a belief that one thing will make everything else fall into place. The trouble is happiness is made up of lots of things at the same time. Safety. Love. Security. Settled financial circumstances and a meeting of minds. It is rare for one thing to bring happiness – its a mixture of circumstance.

What is love? How do you know, that what you feel is the ‘real’ thing? How do you really know about the person you love?

This is a complicated, and yet simple story of hopes, dreams, love and friendship.

 

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Published by Scholastic (January 2018)

This is a story about families. Sometimes parents get things wrong. Sometimes they bring new people into the family who shouldn’t be there. This is a story of a young boy being brought up by his mother who decides that the man she hoped would become a loving husband and father, isn’t what he should be.

Her solution is to leave and to stay in a house that her new partner doesn’t know about. It is rather dilapidated, however, Nate realises that for the first time in ages,  his mother is happy. She’s singing again. Then when she doesn’t return from a brief shopping trip, Nate is surprised when an old friend materialises…

This is a touching story dealing with a serious subject in a very careful way. It certainly wouldn’t be for everyone. There is no direct physical violence, but it does cover psychological and the feeling of tenseness in the air.

The above illustration is from Garden Lovers Club – Mason Jar Light (with thanks, its just right for this) – as a light jar is a pivotal point in the story.

 

The majority of visitors to Madagascar seem to be interested mainly in the mammals, in particular the lemurs of which there are many more different species than you would think. They vary in size from the tiny, not to say minuscule Madame Berthe’s Mouse Lemur, which they say can sit comfortably into an egg cup, to the majestic Indri, which are the largest and look not unlike young bears balanced in the branches of the trees. These caught my heart in 2015, when we were treated to an impromptu chorus of haunting singing by a group in the south of the country.

There is no question that the mouse lemurs are unbelievably ‘cute’ and ‘sweet’ – or any other of the appellations of that sort that you might like to apply. They are charming, not to say endearing. On my previous trip (mainly in the south of the island), I was lucky to be shown one on a night walk and then was able to photograph it. He looked a little startled I’m afraid, as he was the centre of attention for two groups – and was very much in the headlights. I wondered if they took it in turns to keep the tourists happy…but I suspect he was just unlucky that night. I must admit I have mixed feelings about taking photos like that, it seems a great liberty. I tried to make my contribution to his photoshoot as quick as possible, but I’m afraid there were some there with cameras with attachments of a foot or more, who didn’t seem to care at all.

That aside, I suppose they are the first reason most people visit Madagascar. They are very good ambassadors. Most people are aware of the ring-tailed lemurs, however, there are five families:

Cheirogaleidae, which includes the Mouse Lemurs, Dwarf Lemurs, Hairy-eared, Fat-tailed, and Fork-marked.

The SportivDSCN0461e who come out at night and look indignant when disturbed in day-time, make up the Lepilemuridae family.

The Lemuridae which include the Bamboo, the famous aforementioned Ring-tailed, True, and Ruffed lemurs.

Then there are the Indriidae: The Woolly lemurs, (which look as though their woolly jumpers have shrunk into a mass in the wash), the beautiful Sifakas, and of course the eponymous Indri.

Lastly, and certainly not the least the Daubentoniidae family which contains only one species, the most unique of all, the Aye-aye.

There is something about them that makes them very special. There is a gentleness, and they are all very beautiful.

On this trip we were able to spot several different types – mouse, Black Lemurs, Silky (which I missed), Golden Crowned and Coquerel sifakas, Common Brown Lemurs and several Sportive. I particularly liked these. They would look out of holes with large round eyes and gaze out with a vague look of annoyance and puzzlement. The Coquerel sifaka’s were very athletic leaping and climbing around the trees, often hanging by their toes to reach dainty leaves on the branches below. We were staying in the reserve of the Coquerel lemurs and they seemed to take great pleasure in dropping large seeds down onto the tin roofs, which made a very large bang and was very disconcerting, until you realised what was happening… We also saw a group of Blue-Eyed lemurs. The males and DSCN1056females are different colours – the females are brown, males black. This dimorphism is rather peculiar – they really don’t look as though they belong together. We were lucky to see a group with a small number of babies too – hanging on to their mothers. All of them were black, however, I am unsure if they are born black and change (if female), or whether all of the babies were male.

One evening near the end of the trip we were taken on a night walk, not far from our camp (Ankarafansika). We were left with a tracker and Ismael to walk a path that was sandy and enclosed on both sides by forest. The sky was dark, though between the overhanging branches there were patches of sky, liberally decorated with stars, bright and multitudinous.

I find it best not to continuously use a torch at night when with a group, particularly with head-torches; the forest paths are lit by the wavering lights from the others, and it does prevent you from being struck in the face by an enthusiastic large moth, if you wear one, which happened on my last trip. So, this time, I carried it hanging by its strap, and only periodically directed it into the foliage. It wasn’t long before our guide found a rare mouse lemur, the Golden-brown Mouse Lemur. Tiny, and diminutive. It was kind enough to continue to forage along the twig it was on… then leapt across to another twig, then across to another branch and off into the darkness. We came across a small intrusion of cockroaches*, on the path, and then a chameleon, pale in the torch light, hanging at the end of a twig over the path. The photos I took of him were really rather good – he is hardly there, you can see his tail, and his body and head, but they are just disappearing into the darkness. Certainly not intentional, if I had tried, I wouldn’t have succeeded, but there you go, sometimes it works. As we walked we were advised to keep to the middle of the path; it had fallen away on both sides, which was a little disconcerting, and then I spotted two eyes, low to the ground coming towards us. Was I at last going to see my fossa?  The hairs at the back of my neck began to rise, just as Ismael said, ‘Watch out for the zebu cart!’, and the cattle became clearer; the Malagasy driver sitting on top of the vehicle, feet against the front board, and toes in the air. The zebu pulling the cart were past in moments, heavy, large and ponderous, the cart creaking behind. The tracker then stopped suddenly beneath a branch and indicated with his knuckle – just above were some tiny little birds, sound asleep in a row. Absolutely stunning. Further on I was surprised to see a large insect buzzing around the path and was told that it was a night-dragonfly – absolutely gorgeous. Quite large, some four to five inches in length, red-brown with enormous eyes….

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I suppose if I were to pick my favourite reptile, or amphibian, I think I would choose chameleons. Though I do love the Leaf-tailed and the Spiny Lizards are fun too. There is

DSCN0293something about chameleons, though, that I find quite extraordinary. If it isn’t their way of moving, each bifurcated foot carefully placed before the next, it’s their eyes and, and I love their tails. I haven’t seen any very large examples yet – most have been around a hands-breadth in length, or much smaller. The Malagasy were very good on both trips and if they found anything at all they would stop and show me. If I wasn’t around they would either bring the twig it was sitting on, and then return it, or they would encourage it onto another stick, and bring that. One chameleon in particular was a bright lime green with gentle feet and beautiful eyes, his tail uncurled behind. He was balanced on a sprig of foliage, brought up to me as I sat at the table in Marojejy and returned back to the forest afterwards.

The arthropods were there in profusion – the arachnids were large, but beautifully DSCN0113marked. At Marojejy they lived under the eaves of the eating area and built webs, that reached down to the handrail of the platform. They would come down to grab anything unlucky enough to get caught. There was also a web that we could see in the forest, which reached from the tree canopy down to below where we were sitting, towards the forest floor. In the south they built enormous webs across the rivers and were suspended above the water below. At times they looked as though they had no way of support, but the web was always there. As in the south, the north had a profusion of small butterflies that would rise up from your feet as you walked out from the villages. About half an inch in diameter they were a beautiful flurry of life. In the south they had some very large examples – with wingspans as wide as a hand stretch. Those of the north though were more diminutive – at least those we saw. One though was about two inches across and settled long enough for me to photograph him.

Then there were the giant millipedes – I only saw two long examples. One was making its way across the boulders at the top of the waterfall at Marojejy and I encouraged it to climb over a small stick, which I then raised a couple of inches. He climbed over the obstruction with very little trouble; exerting considerable strength – pulling himself away. I had always assumed that they perambulated with a wave like motion, however, this one moved a number of legs in a batch at a time, which was very efficient and very strong.

We didn’t seem much in the way of crickets and the like, though one travelled briefly on the trousers of one of the other people on the trip. His antennae were extremely long and fine, some six inches or so in length.

DSCN0197There were several opportunities to see the leaf tailed lizards – gorgeous creatures with superbly designed eyes. Often with very interesting patterns. Their tails were thin like a leaf, often with ragged edges and they often had a cloak edge around their bodies to break up their outline. One was sitting across a branch hanging just inside our path. He was carefully balanced, his tail dropping away behind him, his eyes red in contrast to his grey body. The night walks really are very special, I like them as they don’t involve much climbing, and the creatures can be superb.

The people of Madagascar fascinate me too. There are at least 22 different tribes, with diverse beliefs, cultures, and language. The tribes have different social demands. They all have a system of fady – behaviour or things that are taboo. Some tribes believe the aye-aye to be evil, for example, others the reverse. Death, as a result is a complicated business, particularly as the ancestors are so important to their beliefs.

When travelling far in the north we came across a crowd that stretched across the road, a mass of 50 or 60 people, all singing and dancing. It was a little disconcerting, and then I noticed a litter that they were carrying at shoulder height. Neatly folded over the recumbent body, which was carefully wrapped into a rectangular shape, were a series of brightly coloured lambas, coloured clothes. The Malagasy were dancing and singing as they carried it with them down the road, celebrating their dead and his life. The crowd parted and they smiled at us as our four x four split the group, before it remerged again after we had past.  I was astounded to be told that they were from a tribe from the south. The deceased had died in the north and his family and friends were taking him home for burial. They were carrying him all the way as they didn’t have the money for a car. Not just carrying him, they were having a party.

Not long after that we came across another group, this time a more solemn and reserved crowd. Larger than the previous throng – they too were carrying a litter. This time the body was shrouded in a white sheet which hadn’t been prepared as the other, so you could see the outline of the deceased, the sheet fluttered in the air. They were Christians. Walking in near silence. Then, astonishingly we came across a third group, smaller than the other two, on the outskirts of one of the towns. This one had a coffin type affair affixed around the body (not very well, one corner wasn’t secured), and that again had a white sheet fluttering in the breeze. This body had, in addition, a note stating that the deceased was a member of the Christian clergy. I told Ismael that I thought the traditional funeral was the best – there was an element of joy with that funeral, which was lovely.

I have been reading an extraordinary volume called Madagascar – Land of the Man-Eating Tree by Chase Salmon Osborn LL.D. (1924) which gives details of the flora, fauna and the people of Madagascar – its rather fun – though in places quite complicated.

The book starts with the following declaration. Most of the time I shall be honest in this book. All of the time I shall try to be honest. Because of this pledge I am going to tell you that the purpose of the title of this chapter (which is the same as the sub-title of the book), is at once to enmesh your interest. Madagascar has been called “The Land of the Man-eating Tree” since prehistoric times as our vain and insufficient chronology goes. I do not know whether this tigerish tree really exists or whether the bloodcurdling stories about it are pure myth. It is enough for my purpose if its story focuses your interest upon one of the least known spots of the world. Now you are, at the most modest estimate, of average intelligence. Please for a second consider how little you know about this second largest island (actually fourth, but we won’t argue), on the globe – in fact nearly a continent. Only New Guinea is vaster in area than Madagascar, and size is not always a safe measuring standard of values.

Which I think you will agree is a super start to a book about a fascinating country. I have just looked Madagascar up on the Internet – it seems that Australia as a continent doesn’t count – which means the largest island that isn’t, is Greenland (840,004 sq. miles), then New Guinea (303,381 sq. miles), Borneo is next (288,869) and is followed by Madagascar – a mere 226,917 sq. miles. It is 1,000 miles or so from top to bottom too – which is rather good…and 350 miles wide…

I feel that the more I learn about Madagascar the more questions there are…so though I was exhausted when I returned, I did find that after a few weeks my interest was sparked to visit again. Undiscovered Destinations with whom I travelled have another trip – this time to the west coast. I was rather amused. They ask their guests to give feedback on their trips, which I did for both.  After the last trip, feeling rather exhausted. Then to find them replying, with an additional note, that they had just ‘put up’ a new holiday – to the west coast. Really too tired to bother, it made me smile. Then a few weeks later…and I started to read the information about the trip, and my curiosity was sparked again… At the moment, though they have a small problem with bubonic and pneumonic plague, I don’t have any money, no time and …

*How about that for a collective noun for cockroaches!

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Sitting in my study, with the window open beside me, the air is cool and the sky is overcast – grey, with a very slight hint of blue in it. Definitely off-grey. The road is black, damp from the rain, the earth a dark brown-black and the foliage is controlled and domesticated, enclosed within beds set in tarmac. My garden a little wilder, but still contained and tamed. Grass a little shaggy, shrubs a little untidy, but all in their place, even the wild bits, the weeds, and the self-seeded; all contained within the fences, controlled.

DSCN0296Marojejy – in the North East of Madagascar isn’t like this. There is no containment, no control. Madagascar isn’t domesticated and Marojejy is one of the wildest places in the island.

The park, (a phrase that is a misnomer, if there ever was one), is just beyond the village of Mandena – a typical small ‘conurbation’, if you will, of wooden houses, thatched with raffia – the building sites on the edge of the village are a collection of wooden frames carefully fitted together. Each piece with a letter corresponding to another. The workmen climb over it, barefoot, pulling long pieces of wood up from the ground, toes gripping the edges of the frame to give them more purchase. The forest is close… The track is murrain, a rich red-orange, with chickens running every-which-way, their chicks peeping behind. We stopped near the edge of the village, hitched our rucksacks onto our backs and extended our poles, if we had them. There were six of us, not including Ishmael, our guide and a few porters. It is a walk of around 3km to the park entrance – winding around bright green rice paddy fields – past zebu (cattle), browsing the edge of the path, the ropes around and through their nostrils disappearing back into the fields. The path is clear, rolling and somewhat worn from people making their way up to the entrance. The duck boards that went over the water courses, were somewhat rickety – and in some places had missing boards; they were fine, if you didn’t happen to look down between them. The forest plants mixed between the small plots of vanilla…encroaching back into the village – it was always there in some form or another. The view was superb. From the entrance it’s another 4 and a half km or so before you reach the first camp – which took about five hours in all.

Marojejy is green. England is supposed to be green, however, this was extraordinary – more vibrant, grassy, leafy, bright, pale, mossy, emerald, acidic and glaucous – it feels more alive. I suppose because it is – stuffed full of wildlife. Only around 1,000 people, including guides, scientists and professional people ever go to Marojejy in a year – so it hasn’t been affected so much by people.

Camp One, Camp Mantella is in the lowland rainforest. There is an eating area – with long tables and benches and a cooking area too. Dotted around are small chalets, which have four bunk beds in each, with a mattress, sheets and a blanket. The eating area was covered with plastic sheeting, and many of the chalet/huts had had rudimentary work done on their roofs – the result of cyclone Enawo back in March. ‘Bathroom’ facilities

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were basic. No running water, however there was the rudiments of a toilet – at least the porcelain bowl, no seat, but it wasn’t, of course plumbed in – not surprising when you think about it and the floor had been covered with wooden slats – the majority of which were missing… It is amazing what can be done with a bucket and a jug…

Creatures we spotted on the walk included chameleons, beetles and bugs, including a wonderful ant-lion that Ishmael encouraged out of his hole and there seemed to be innumerable butterflies, which never settled long enough for a photograph. At the camp we saw a beautiful bamboo lemur – which I had missed on the Southern trip – so it was lovely to see one quietly sitting near the camp. The night walk resulted in our spotting various reptiles and frogs – the only amphibians in Madagascar. A large cricket / grasshopper hitched a lift on a pair of trousers and we had some wonderful examples of

DSCN0200leaf tailed lizards too – one about 12 inches long… I particularly like leaf tailed lizards. They are finely delineated, and their eyes and tails are unique. I fell in love with them on the last trip – the Satanic Leaf Tailed Lizard had absolutely stunning eyebrows…We didn’t see the leeches at that stage in Marojejy, though Victoria had some interesting marks left around her ankles where one at least had gorged itself on her blood. We agreed she should follow Ishmael’s advice. Leave it to dry and sort itself. After that we rubbed salt into our socks – a sure way of keeping those little worms (when hungry) at bay. Useful – though after a short while we realised the slight disadvantage. A vague feeling of grit in our boots…salt granules that had fallen into them. On the whole we thought it probably worth it, though it only protected our ankles and they do drop from the leaves too.

The following day we were to have walked down a steep path to a waterfall, before going on to Camp Two. It was, however, a steep walk, which, after the previous day, I thought I ought to avoid, so I asked if it were possible for me to walk ahead with a guide to the next camp, without visiting it.  Two of the group decided to come with me. John and Victoria were from Wales, and though they had done several similar trips (so fitter, and more experienced), they thought they would join me. So, with me leading our small splinter group, we carefully paced ourselves; climbing over tree trunks and roots, stopping regularly as I spotted small insects and lizards that were near the path, which amused Ishmael considerably. Walking together without feeling that I was holding the group back made a big difference – and Clare’s walking pole was a real bonus, particularly when stepping across the odd small river with boulders that broke up the walk. It was still quite steep, but when we arrived we were rewarded at Camp Marojejia (750m) with the chance of sitting at the head of a waterfall, (just below our huts) where dragonflies flittered over the water and giant millipedes ran like clockwork toys across DSCN0376the rocks. These were great fun. If you placed a small twig in front they would begin to climb over it, then, if you raised the stick, so that the front of the millipede was gripping the rock, and its body was arched over the stick, you would feel the power of it, pulling itself up and over. Quite extraordinary and for the size very powerful.

Above the waterfall was a bit of a climb to our huts, which were distributed amongst the trees and along the side of a path. The set up much the same as in Camp One – four camp beds, a slat covered hole in the side of the building for a window, all set on legs a foot or so above the ground. My hut was the penultimate one near the eating area. The only real difference between the two camps was that the roofs of the huts seemed to have survived Enawo a little better. In the evening you could sit on the floor of my hut and hang your legs over the edge, down to the boulder placed so that you could step in easily, and listen to the frogs – their eyes glowing in the light of a torch in front of you as the forest dropped away from the path. Continuing up the path there was another small hut to one side, once more with the bowl of the loo in place and a bucket and jug to facilitate matters. Again, the floor had disappeared and it was best not to look too closely at the ceiling. Walking on, there was the last hut on the left and then a steep climb on slippery

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rocks up to a two-tier dining area – I say two tiers, but really the first area had a cooking area and a large table and benches over-looking the forest – which was frankly a stunning view. I hope to have a large picture made of the early morning mist that enveloped the top of the mountain. To the right of that ‘floor’ was a rather rickety step onto another, slightly higher, that we only used periodically, to gain a better angle for photos. The Malagasy seemed to use that area to sleep – curled up with a blanket beneath the table.

It was there that we met the ring-tailed mongoose and his family, and the almost certainly diabetic day gecko and we watched birds, butterflies and some of the most prolific and large spiders we had seen on the trip so far. Though the largest had been suspended on a very large web amongst the trees down at the reception area for the park – with a bright yellow body, a good inch/inch and a half in length…legs spread out and resting on the web lines.

DSCN0308I had spotted the ring-tailed mongoose at Camp One, early in the morning. Trotting around the site and under the buildings (all on stilts), and investigating the area for food. In Camp Two there were at least three; two adults and a youngster. They were very interested in any food that might fall from the platforms – and had a good supply of chicken entrails. The fowl had been carried up from Camp One, upside-down, and were kept safe in a cupboard until required; they would disappear into the forest with one of the cooks to return in pieces in a bucket. The mongooses were great fun, quite cheeky and brave, and would raid the waste bin for scraps. The day geckos, (a type of lizard), however, were, on the whole more nervous around us at Marojejy – though one took delight in raiding the sugar supply which was given to us in make-shift sugar bowls; small drinking glasses.

This day-gecko was about six inches long with a sort of bubbly bright green skin with red patches on his shoulders. He was a finely made creature, his toes were beautifully delicate. A very good example. When investigating the sugar supply, he would carefullyDSCN0361 make his way across the table, climb the side of the glass and hang upside-down into it, with his feet and toes splayed out to prevent him from falling headfirst down into the glass, his tail left sticking out of the top. Then, with great care he would flash his tongue out into the sugar – of which he took quite a quantity. So much so we tapped the glass, only to find he refused to leave, unless we actually moved it. He was a lovely creature – very brave in the sugar ‘bowl’, but terribly nervous otherwise and would flit to the underside of the bench or whatever he was sitting on, if he suddenly felt threatened. Not unlike squirrels running to the other side of a tree trunk.

Camp Three at 750m was another hour or so (officially) above Camp Two. We weren’t to visit that Camp, (it is very steep and has fewer beds), however, we did start the climb towards it to find the Silky Sifakas – a small lemur, with long fur and a pinkish-blackish face – they are very rare. I decided, however that it was best for me not to continue, when we got part way up – I have a slight problem with heights and was not fit and the walk was more a climb than a peregrination – very steep and frankly I wasn’t very happy about it. Colin from the group stopped too (he was in Madagascar for the views) so we waited together (with a Malagasy guide) until he was happy and we made our way back to Camp Two.  I was sorry to have missed the lemurs, but on the reflection, it was the right decision – particularly as Ishmael responded with ‘Good job!’ and a comment that it was the right decision when I told him why I wanted to stop… We were some way behind the others too and it was quite likely that if we had continued the lemurs would have moved off by the time we got there. That afternoon one of our group, who goes on these sorts of holidays a lot, went up with the tracker and was a way for some time. We assumed all was well – he had led the main walk to Marojejy and had been very clear about how fit and fast he was – going on ahead at all times. It was a pity because he did miss out on some of the animals pointed out by the guides. Anyway – he returned much later, grey about the face having fallen some way up in the forest and twisted his ankle. I gave him some painkillers I had taken with me – though I’m not sure it was much of a help. He didn’t really rest it at all, and his ankle was still swollen by the time we were flying home.

Our porters and cooks worked seemingly without any effort. Supplies were brought up by foot (often bare, sometimes with flip flops), including great bundles of wood, bottles of water and sacks of wood, carried almost nonchalantly.  If they couldn’t be carried directly on the shoulders, (bottles for example), they would suspend the supplies in bags on a long bamboo pole and rest that across one shoulder, so that they were carried in front and behind. I presume if put across both shoulders it meant that they would have difficulty with the path – it really is very narrow and only one person at a time can go up it conveniently. A request in the morning meant the order was met in the afternoon. They cooked in double pans. The bottom pan with a hole in the side in which the wood was set alight, and the top with the food in it. They cleaned the pans with earth from the ground, rinsing it off with water and cut the wood to size with large knives/mini axes held in their right hand, whilst the wood was held steady in the left.  A practice that disturbed me, as without doubt a slip would have resulted in damage to a thumb or finger or two which couldn’t easily be treated.

We enjoyed various walks around Marojejy – some of which were quite exhausting – I remember being woken once by Ishmael – after having a snooze and he held out a small beautifully designed chocolate in his hand, which he offered me. My response of ‘Oh! Chocolate!’ made him remove his hand quickly, along with the millipede which he had brought to show me, as I was so ‘interested in insects, and things…’  Why I thought it was made of chocolate, I don’t know – except the millipede looked like one of those posh, smartly designed chocolates that you can buy.

DSCN0385Ghee was our local tracker – an extraordinary man. He lives in Mandena – and is full of laughter and knowledge. I wish I had been able to just spend more time to get to know him – he seemed to know everything about all the animals, explaining how they lived, where and why. He has lived in and around Marojejy all his life – and was full of information. I don’t think I will forget scuffing the ground whilst walking with him and seeing what I thought was a tiny insect (‘Malagasy flea’) jump from the side of the path – ‘No,’ he said, ‘smallest Malagasy frog!’ with a grin that stretched from ear to ear… The porters kindly carried my rucksack down when we started our walk back from Camp Two all the way to the village which was a great help.

There was talk of a tribe who lived in the forest, separate and away from everyone else. Initially I thought this something to make things a little more interesting for the tourists (though why that would be necessary, I wasn’t sure), and listened with a little scepticism. When Colin and I decided not to continue in the climb to see the silky sifaka’s, Ishmael was quite determined (though polite) that we weren’t to be left together, to wait for their return. Later I asked him about it and he mentioned that the tribe in the forest don’t like white people, and it was best to avoid them. He said that the Malagasy guides would often hear them talking, but wouldn’t see them. His brother, however, had made friends with one of them – and described some of their way of life, (eating raw fish, and a fear of fire), but what really caught my attention was the statement that they were cold to the touch. This, I felt was an interesting description and if the tale was just a piece of colour, it was a detail I wouldn’t expect. The island is so large, and has areas of very dense forest that on the whole, I suppose it is quite possible that there are people who are living a primitive life away from the official tribes. Somehow, that really rather pleases me.

It was a fine morning when we left and then rained for a short while. Everyone put on their waterproofs – apart from me. I was warm, the rain wasn’t cold and I would dry. After all there was nothing I could do – my waterproofs were in my rucksack. A few minutes later the rain stopped, and the porter trotted past with my rucksack on his back…padding down without a care in the world. All I had to do was concentrate on the slippery rocks, the slope, and navigating the stones across the small rivers that suddenly materialised. The damp atmosphere definitely had an effect on the leeches. One dropped onto my fingers, which I flicked off with my other hand and we saw another come out of a log of wood and search around for his next meal…at that point a rather insignificant worm, moving around much like a caterpillar, body hooped, front end rising and dropping back onto the surface of the wood as it searched for something to get hold of. I was concentrating on getting down and didn’t think to take a photo, which I regret now – it would have added something to my photo book. We also came across an arthropod (I am not sure how many legs he had, but I don’t think he was an insect) – about an inch and a half to two, square – a small tank wandering along the side of the track. When poked with a stick, he rolled himself into a neat ball, which we ushered into the undergrowth in case he got stood on.

As we made our way back across the bottom of the valley and past the rice fields etc it started to rain in earnest. Heavy and thick. When we reached the village, the chickens had taken themselves under the houses with their peeping chicks, but the Malagasy weren’t really bothered and continued to carry sacks of food over their shoulders up to the camps as we made our way back, very wet, to the four x fours. It has been a long time since I have been so wet. Positively soggy.

We travelled from there to a place called Daraina – a trip on extremely poor roads for the most part, which entailed our drivers weaving between pot-holes when they could, or just carefully driving down into them and back out the other side when that was impossible. Daraina is in a much drier area than Marojejy, though in the wet season the camp we were going to isn’t accessible. We arrived after dark, we sensed (you couldn’t see), in a large open area with a small lit covered enclosure in the middle on which benches and tables had been set. Beyond the lights of this there was, what I can only describe, as inky blackness – an almost physical wall of dark. We were told that up the slope were our chalets and we were directed to them. It seemed there were about four somewhere on a slope, which we couldn’t see, above us and a couple behind. So, with some nervousness we all grabbed our various bags and set off into the dark, headtorches making out the odd bit of scrub…and yes, there was a slope – almost too much of one. With some help, however, I made it to the wooden gang-plank that ran up the side of my hut onto its veranda. On sliding the door, I found a mattress on the floor, with sheets and a towel, and behind, a washing area –  a shower and sink neither of which worked, and a loo that flushed with the bucket and jug system. By now I was getting used to this. I think I would have been more surprised if the facilities had been different.

I was, though, astonished in the morning. DSCN0462The chalets were perched on the edge of the hill. Very little of the buildings were set into the slope, they were almost resting against it – so they had twelve or so foot tall posts supporting them underneath to make them level and to keep them up. The nights were glorious. The wind swirled around the chalets and because there was a gap of about a centimetre between each floor board, it came up between them to whistle around the inside too. When lying in bed it was not unlike lying in a great ship; the whole thing creaked and moved as though sailing enormous waves, which was surprisingly restful. Then again, perhaps that was because I was exhausted.  It looked as though the legs of the chalet had been recently ‘planted’ – the whole thing newly set up. I was told, however, that the raffia roof and the chalet had to be rebuilt each year…due to the wind and weather.

The next day we left camp to walk the local forest to search for golden-crowned sifaka –

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these have a shorter pelt than the silky sifakas, and actually I think they are more beautiful. They were very quickly spotted high in the trees and we spent a lovely hour or two tracking various small family groups and photographing them. They are mainly off white with a crown of bronze/gold on their heads… We even managed to find a few with babies. Whilst wandering around the area we came across three aye-aye nests. They are the only lemur to make nests – most just sit asleep in a crook of a tree or hide in holes or together in caves. Since I was so interested, the trackers climbed the trees – some 18/20 foot up – climbing using their feet against the trunks of the trees and pulling themselves up with their arms. From there they used poles to poke the nests in the hope that a lemur would be at home. Just my luck they weren’t. It seems aye-ayes have a series of nests and move from one to the next (in order) each night – a method of having new clean ‘sheets’, I suppose. I never saw one, but was pleased to see the nests. They found some holes that they said had been gnawed by one of them, which I was able to photograph. A couple of Americans on another trip had more success. They went on boat trip and an aye-aye came down to eat a coconut – just by their boat. Still. It’s good to know they are there!

 

 

Published by David Fickling Books.

They say you should never judge a book by its cover. I know it, but sometimes a cover can say so much and you know its the book for you. I knew it, as soon as I saw this in the publisher’s catalogue in the staff room a few days ago. So I ordered a copy. What else would you do?

After all, it has a chameleon on the cover.

Oh, it also has a hippopotamus, a key hole and some bees on it too.

Which are nice, however, I do like chameleons.

This is really something special. Helen Cooper is the author of a small ‘run’ of picture books about soup – Pumpkin Soup, Delicious and Pipkin of Pepper and another picture book title, The Bear Under the Stairs. This, though, is her first novel and what a novel it is.

Helen Cooper makes reference to a wide range of species in the story – there is an elephant shrew (a species I love, almost as much as chameleons),  a pygmy hippopotamus (the eponymous hippo), an okapi is mentioned…a russet kangaroo, nine giraffe (in bits), and an owl (named Flumery). The book is stuffed full of animals with simply superb characters, including the bees.  Ben isn’t sure about them. I think bees are beautiful, but I always show them respect. Actually I have learnt to give all animals respect and a little bit of space. The smallest can have the largest effect on the rest of your day… Then there are the human characters, both good and bad…including a (possible) witch in a bottle… I have learnt to give many human characters space too. Particularly any I think might be witches (especially if they aren’t in bottles)…after all two witches are supposed to be in my ancestry…so it could be said I should know a little about that.

This is a magical adventure with lovely illustrations, all done by the author. The animal characters are not the usual cat and dog types. These are different. Though there is nothing wrong with a cat and dog story…but there aren’t many stories with a chameleon called Leon in it…One of the reason for loving the book so much is that Helen seems to have investigated the behavioural traits of the animals and this is reflected in their characters and what they do – which is marvellous.

I haven’t finished it yet – only started it today when I got it at lunch…I’m up to page 138 …. but one of my favourite parts (so far) is about Leon.

Leon’s tongue shot out like a rocket and recoiled with a bee captured on one end. The bee had no chance, for a chameleon has an incredible tongue, twice the length of its body, with a bulbous ball of muscle at the end like a suction cup, which can move at ballistic speed – faster than a fighter jet. Naturally, the other bees arose in a fury.

‘Where’s your respect?’ Flummery hooted….

Leon turned his back. Languidly he plucked the bee from his tongue and dangled the struggling insect above his bucket-like mouth, murmuring, ‘Shall I swallow you? Shall I bite you in half and nibble your wings?… 

Read it out loud up to Christmas – make a tradition of reading it up to Christmas every Friday and Saturday night from the last Friday in November…till Christmas day.

Its wonderful.

I am hoping to have Helen come to Waterstones Finchley Road O2 in January to sign copies…but have only just sent an email about it to David Fickling Books. Keep your fingers crossed…

 

 

Published by Allison & Busby

This is the fictional story behind Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol – a tale of an author’s roller-coaster of a life, some stories followed avidly by his readers, others a disaster for no discernible reason. Its a tale of money and its hold over people. A tale of families. Love, both unrequited and otherwise. It is a tale of hope.

This was miss-placed in our 9 – 12 section, I think by a new member of staff. The cover is, I think rather dull, and could have reflected the story a little more. Perhaps with a flash of purple somewhere. A hardback book with boards, and no dust-jacket. It was a superb book to pull off the shelf – a wonderful tale to compliment Dickens’ probably most famous story. Ideal for Christmas too.

Beautifully written – I loved it, a real gem of a find.

 

Published by Orion.

I have just returned from 18 days in Madagascar – a trip to the North. Of which I will probably write a post at some point or another, once I have recovered. A land of infinite variety and fascination.

There are a few disadvantages to going on holiday at this time of the year – Christmas was coming just before I left and whilst I was away, it came in like the proverbial hurricane it always is. I am astonished by how much stuff is ‘needed’ by young people, when I compare what the average Malagasy child has – it really puts ‘our’ now probably more ‘traditional’ Christmas – a season of ‘want’, in perspective…

I will stop ranting now and let you know about one of the other disadvantages. You can miss out on good books – unless you have kindly colleagues who let you know about them on your return. Young Amabel found this one whilst I was away and raved about it so much when I walked into the department on Monday I knew I would have to read it.

It has, I’m sorry to say, a rather unexciting dust jacket.

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The boards of the book though reflect the content  and are wonderful (they even have gold highlights) – with just enough flavour to indicate the darkness of this inventive and superb adventure – I am loving it – At the beginning of the book Morrigan Crow has an appointment with death. She knows when she will die – the date is in the diary. Her stepmother, however,  proposes that there is another side to death; life – and whilst her family and Morrigan sit down to her last meal – a ‘celebration’ of sorts, her stepmother informs her husband that she is pregnant – ‘It’s like…the circle of life. One life may be snuffed out, but another is being brought into the world. Why, it’s practically a miracle!’

The book is superbly complex, and filled with clever ideas… It is a new world for everyone to enjoy. It is one to savour; funny, scary and a little mystical. If you like magic – with a twist, and I suppose if you liked Harry Potter – you will almost certainly love this, and in someways Jupiter reminds me a little of Dr Who… which is frankly quite glorious…

This is a fantastic book and everyone should have a copy for Christmas.

Do not be put off by the cover, (or the majority of the pictures which illustrate the chapter headings) they do not reflect the intricacies and sophistication of the story. Then again, do not let my enjoyment of the darkness and the complexities of the tale to put you off either.

It has the right balance and is marvellous.

They just shouldn’t have published it with a dust jacket – as Amabel said, ‘naked’ it is superb. The dust jacket, just lacks a little something.

They should just have dared to go bare!

I have only one other complaint. I like to ask good authors to come for book-signings at Finchley Road O2 – Jessica Townsend lives in Australia – and even if I managed to persuade her to come, I doubt that Waterstones would be willing to cover her travel expenses. If, however, she should read this – and is coming anyway to the UK – a very warm welcome would await her in Finchley Road O2 Waterstones. Just let me know…

 

 

 

Published by Simon and Schuster

This is a beautiful picture book. One to treasure. Superbly illustrated – a book of gardening magic and wonder. I have fallen quietly in love with this simple story. Everyone should have a copy. Stunning and a masterful collaboration of story telling and illustration.

Buy this.

For some reason it reminds me a little of Mr Rabbit and the Present by Charlotte Zolotow and illustrated by Maurice Sendak. Sadly now out of print.

Published by Usborne Publishing Ltd.

A book of hopes and dreams. Dreams that are so much greater than the dreamer. This is about football on the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia.

Games played by boys in the streets with anything that moves when kicked and, if they are lucky, boots that look similar to those used by professional players.

Boots that look similar.

Millions of boots.  The use of a rattan stick. Of underdogs – it is a harsh story, but one that is repeated all over the world in one form or another – the end links of a world driven by money and greed.

It is a story of friendship, bravery, families, a story of football, and so much more.

An extraordinary debut novel.

Published by Collins Modern Classics.

First published in 1964 –

I suppose I first read this in the early 1970’s and I always remember that I loved it, though I couldn’t tell you what the book was about. Somewhere at my parents’ house there is probably the copy I read amongst other old editions of classic Penguins and the like.

Recently Collins Modern Classics have published a new edition of it – copies of which I found on our shelves at work the other morning, and so, I have been reading this once more.

The book is set in America – and has many Americanisms as a result. There are parts that I found I didn’t understand. Whether I understood them when I was ten or eleven, I don’t know.

This is the story of the eponymous Harriet the spy. At the beginning of the book she lives with her busy parents, a cook and her nurse with whom she seems to have the closest relationship. She has all the material things she could need. She has friends at school, but spends most of her time alone, recording details of people’s lives in a black book. Some of which are not the kindest of observations. When her nurse leaves to get married, Harriet finds herself bereft – and her gathering of information gains pace. Even hiding as she does in people’s houses to listen and to observe them at home, the details carefully recorded.

When her book is found and read by her peers at school their reaction to what she has written is dramatic.

The book is about stories. About the truth, and whether it should be told. About lies. Friendship, families, growing up and the differences between people; backgrounds, lives and beliefs…

Parts of this reminded me of my youth. Being told that some mathematical problem was simple, and that they would show her, reminded me of being told something similar. It may have been simple for them, but never seemed to be to me. However often they tried to show me.  Then there are the episodes of Harriet’s anger at the world, and everything and everyone in it, that also resonated with me too…

An extraordinary American tale – more American ‘flavoured’ than many I have read for some time. Some terms of reference, as I said at the beginning, seemed nonsensical to me, but didn’t affect my enjoyment of this book and my return down memory lane.