This Sort of Thing...


The Spice of Life


I often wondered if dear old Joan had anybody in the world to talk to other than me and Torty, her tortoise. Before marrying a serviceman and moving to the West Country, she had lived in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Long after she had been widowed I would visit her once a month in her garden flat in the centre of Georgian Bath to remove stubborn corns from her smallest toes and she would entertain me with her thoughts on the strange goings-on in the world, all of which outraged her. She was an avid people-watcher and, barely pausing to take a breath, she would spout great monologues about what had gone through her mind as she’d waited in queues in shops or the post office on pension day, or at the bus stop.

Her great meandering sagas were dotted with ‘I thought this’ and ‘I thought that’, so I’ve put some of her thoughts into written words.



Just look at her! The Jezebel! I don’t know how she has the nerve. Shamelessly putting them there on the conveyor belt for all and sundry to see with her pouches of fancy cat food and her Vogue magazine that’s pure filth and her Findus frozen meal for one, as if to say, ‘Hey, look at me, I’m going to be fornicating tonight!’ Why do they have to sell condoms in Sainsbury’s anyway? It never happened in my day.

I don’t think we even had condoms then. Well the war had just ended and there was still rationing. Even if they’d put up a sign in a shop window saying ‘Get your gentlemen’s latex sheaths here!’ I’d have laid a pound to a penny that you’d never see a rush for them. Well, modesty prevailed, and there just weren’t the condom vouchers in the ration books. In any case, we had too many hungry little mouths to feed for us to be able to afford contraceptives.

To tell you the truth I don’t think we even had a Sainsbury’s just after the war. Not in Thirsk anyway, or even Northallerton which you’d be surprised at. They had them down south of course. I know this because Great Aunt Olive on Father’s side had lived in London during the Blitz. She took shelter in their premises in Kentish Town High Street as soon as she heard the air raid siren wailing but Hitler didn’t stop to think about the poor ordinary housewives running around on a Tuesday afternoon to keep their families fed and watered. It was direct hit by a bomb from a Heinkel that finished her. They found her near the bacon slicer, buried up to her eyes in tins of powdered egg. The cruel busybody of a neighbour thought it a great joke to say she’d been a victim of shelling. I can’t remember his name but there were very few tears shed when his pressure cooker blew up one Waterloo Day. He shouldn’t have been cooking anyway. That was work for Mrs whatever it was that he was called.

We got everything we needed from Mr Cooper’s grocery shop on the corner of Station Road and we were happy. A lovely man he was, despite his ear wax and his wife’s fondness for a bottle of milk stout. I expect it was the ear wax that drove her to the drink. She must have worn her fingers to the bone scrubbing it off his shirt collars. He wouldn’t have sold condoms to anybody. I think he was one of those Roman Catholics.

I wonder if she put them in her shopping trolley by mistake. Mark my words, she’ll have thought they were chewing gum or cough lozenges or something. Mind you, they do come in such a variety of gay colours. Very pretty. I’ve thought about buying some myself, the packets look so nice, but I wouldn’t know what to do with them. Mrs Gooding said they make them in all sorts of flavours too which I find a bit peculiar because they say they’re to stop you getting in the family way. What difference does it make if they taste of banana or raspberry ripple as long they keep the young ones out of trouble? The BBC Light Programme was what kept me out of trouble. Elsie across the street listened to Radio Luxembourg and regretted it for the rest of her life. All that jitterbugging! I blamed her parents.

What flavour has she got there? It looks like juicy fruit to me. Does it say sugar-free? She’s worried about her teeth rotting. The least of her worries, I’d say. Perhaps it is chewing gum. No it can’t be because it says ‘ribbed’ on the box and why would anybody want ribbed chewing gum? Why would anybody want ribbed anything for that matter? Though I bought a nice non-slip bath mat in British Home Stores the other day. That was ribbed. She’s going to be disappointed when she gets home and opens the packet. They’re not going to do much for her curry breath unless she’s bought Signal toothpaste with minty stripes flavour. How on earth do they get the stripes into the tube? Mrs Gooding said they have a machine.

If they are condoms, it’s funny she doesn’t let the husband buy them. He’s probably not her husband anyway and he’s probably too tired after a hard day at work to be bothered with all that sort of shenanigans but she loves him so much she’s gone out to buy them herself. Bless her! I wonder if she’ll use them before or after she has her boil-in-the-bag curry. She obviously doesn’t love him enough to cook him a proper tea, or even share her awful modern food. Don’t Findus do meals for two? At least she’s feeding the cat. I wouldn’t be surprised if she was feeding it to her man friend… feeding the cat food, not the cat, to him I mean. Curry indeed!

We didn’t have those in my day either. Boil-in-the-bag curries. Mr Cooper would never have sold anything like that. Well there was no demand for curry. No, not in Thirsk. All the people who ate curry lived in India until Findus came over here. It’s an Indian word is Findus. Mrs Gooding said it’s the name of a river in India. She used to go on a lot of boating holidays before she lost her husband so I expect she’ll have read about it in the Hoseason’s brochure.

What I can’t understand is why Findus make frozen toad-in-the-hole as well as curry. Mrs Gooding said her granddaughter went to India on holiday. She took everything she owned in a haversack the size of herself but didn’t think to pack an iron. She must have looked a sight but, although I would never say anything to offend Mrs Gooding, I don’t think her granddaughter even bothers to use an iron when she’s at home. She’ll be buying condoms next, just you see. Anyway, she told her grandmother that while she was away on her travels she had toad-in-the-hole in the hotel cafeteria so it must be an Indian dish. I’ve always said I won’t eat foreign food because it pains me, but I do like my toad-in-the-hole. I open a tin of marrowfat peas with it. Mrs Gooding won’t touch foreign food either. She said her father was a prisoner in Burma during the war and the food was terrible.

You’d think they’d go the whole hog and make condoms in curry flavour, wouldn’t you? It would save people like her a lot of time and trouble. Killing two birds with one stone. I suppose she’d turn her nose up if they were toad-in-the-hole flavour. No, everything has to be exotic for today’s generation. I can’t understand why she doesn’t cook herself some normal food. If she’s got time to fiddle about with condoms she must have time to fry a chop. My husband would have insisted on a chop. I’m not the sort to blow my own trumpet but I can proudly say I kept a good pantry, so I knew he would always be content with what went on the table. He never was one for frozen food. Dreadful stuff he said it was, and he wouldn’t have thought twice about telling the likes of this trollop here where to stick her blooming condoms.

Funnily enough I’m having a chop for my tea tonight. They sell them individually now but you’ve to look sharp if you want one with a bit of kidney in it. You can buy the kidneys separately but they don’t taste the same. I bought some in a plastic tray once. They’re only really any use if you’re doing a steak and kidney pie but those things are such a carry-on to make I don’t bother anymore. Well the frozen ones they sell nowadays are so tasty and easy to do. Twenty minutes at gas mark five and Bob’s your uncle.

I think that’s why so many foreigners come over here you know. For the British food. I don’t expect they’ve got a Sainsbury’s in Calcutta and even if they have I bet they don’t sell steak and kidney pies. I wonder if Findus make their food in India and bring it here in lorries. Mrs Gooding’s granddaughter would know. She thumbs lifts from lorry drivers on the M4 when she’s going to see her chap in Nottingham. She certainly gets about a bit for someone so young. He’s at university there. A young man who looks like he’s never seen a hot iron either! And he rides a bicycle everywhere because he’s a vegetarian.

I wish I’d travelled when I was a girl. We went to Butlin’s in North Wales two years running when Father was doing the extra shifts on the railway. He moaned and groaned all the way to Pwllheli, saying that six hours on a train was no holiday for him and he might as well have brought his stoking shovel. Mother said, ‘Bert, there’s no need for language like that!’ Oh how we laughed. The second year we went the dog was sick which spoilt our enjoyment a bit. Well they were such small chalets for six of us and he was a big dog was Rusty. He would get very nervous on bin day (Thursdays, no I tell a lie, Fridays) so I’m not surprised he didn’t settle in Wales. Mother blamed it on the food but Father said, ‘Offal is offal no matter what country you’re in.’

I would have liked to have gone a bit further than Butlin’s. I loved to look at the photographs of the pyramids in Egypt in my history book at school, and Swanage always seemed such a bonny place in the pictures on the travel posters in the railway station. But they were so far away and I never really got the time. Well I had to help Mother look after the house and a stoker’s overalls don’t wash themselves you know. And after I was wed I had so many flipping kids to feed. But there’s not much you can do about that is there?


ABC 118 

Photograph: Joan’s reptilian friend, Torty. Almost as old as her but not quite as chatty.



Bill or Bob?


As my Ma took the biggest pan from the kitchen cupboard I knew that we’d be having fillet of a fenny snake for tea. But I won’t complain, I told myself. There’s a delicate situation that needs discussing so I need her to be smiling like a Cheshire cat on its holidays in Grimsby. I’ll eat whatever she puts on our plates. 


Eye of newt and toe of frog

Oxo cube and hairs of dog

Granny’s homemade cholagogue

Your innards to contort and clog


Rations were meagre on Seacroft Estate in Leeds during the early seventies but better than in nearby Gipton. Mealtimes required a combination of imagination, courage and tact. On this particular day, with an announcement to make that I was sure would not be well received, I had to use double tact.

The problem that arose could be blamed entirely on Paul Mallinson, a kid at school who I had semi-befriended because of his knowledge of music. All my other friends seemed to be obsessed with Led Zeppelin, Yes or Cat Stevens, none of which particularly wowed me. But fifteen-year-old Mallo (which seemed such a cool nickname) knew his green onions when it came to unconventional or emerging talent and had midway through an English lesson announced that he was going to a Bob Marley and the Wailers’ gig at York University the following week. New ethnic music from Jamaica, a quid to get in, pay on the door… how cool was that?

I had never heard the word ‘gig’ before. It was what rock stars called a concert. Mallo just got cooler and cooler every time he opened his mouth. He remained unruffled as the English teacher mocked him for wasting his pound on something that wasn’t Pink Floyd related but, although not formerly invited, I decided that I would accompany my teenage mentor on his twenty-mile journey to Trench Town, Yorkshire. Bob Marley’s new style of reggae, that I had only heard late at night on Radio One, was too exotic to miss.

My Ma had a rough idea of where Jamaica was on the map but she had probably never before encountered the terms Rastafarianism, Reggae Music or might not be home that night, so she was somewhat less than enthusiastic when I broke the news of the great adventure I was planning.

‘But haven’t you got school the next day?’ Her words immediately honing in on a stumbling block.

‘I have,’ said I ‘But not until the afternoon because we’ve the exams all week.’

Her lack of enthusiasm diminished to a total absence of understanding underlined by the waving of a gravy-coated wooden spoon. ‘And what exam do you have that day?’

‘Only English Literature.’

Only English Literature? And you have all the answers already in your head?’ she asked, already knowing the answer to her own question.

‘All that I need’ I replied, which may have sounded like over confidence or a lie, but was actually neither.

We had been studying Shakespeare’s Macbeth (you may have heard of it), H.G. Wells’ Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and some poems by some poets that had been admired for some years by some people but not me. All of these I found to be as tedious as a twice told tale, as the Bard of Avon himself might have said. Even our chemistry teacher had expressed sympathy at the joyless task imposed upon us, oblivious to the fact that in many of his own lessons only a few ill-timed explosions and his sense of humour had saved the day. He told us that H.G. Wells was where mercury came from. 

I’ve always loved reading and enjoyed some poetry, but not the set books of Foxwood School’s English Department. I’m tempted to say that their stuff was outside my comfort zone but that couldn’t be completely true because it always seemed to send me to sleep. I wasn’t interested in what they considered essential reading, so I had absolutely no intention of doing any revision work. I would sit the exam because if I didn’t my parents would receive a letter from Leeds Education Committee demanding that they remit £3.75, the administrative cost of inflicting such torture on innocent schoolkids. I didn’t know much about what I’d be asked to write in blue or black ink for a duration of three hours in silence broken only by the occasional cough or dropped lucky gonk in the ghostly school assembly hall where I imagined so many students before me had suffered near-death experiences, but I did know that I’d get by in life without a certificate from the Joint Matriculation Board confirming that I understood exactly why Lady MacDuff had been so pissed off with her husband.

‘You’ll have to tell Bob Marley that you can’t go. Your education comes first.’ My Ma, stirring with heightened vigour what bubbled in her pot, wasn’t smiling anymore. I sensed that toil and trouble was brewing.


‘Don’t you but me. You’re wasting your life. Any more of this and I’ll be telling your Da!’ she threatened.

I wished I’d twisted the truth and said I was going to see Larry Cunningham (who bore the epithet Donegal’s very own Jim Reeves). Years earlier we had been lucky enough to lose his LPs in a house move but his crooned Distant Drums were never too distant from my Da’s eardrums so I know he’d have given me his blessing and possibly even the bus fare to York. Unfortunately, my Da too was distant, doing his bit for the North Sea oil people at the top end of the country, not far from where the Scottish Play was set, so it was my Ma who called the shots in the area of bringing their kids up the proper way.

To argue would have been a waste of time. There would have been shouting, weeping and wailing and an altogether bad atmosphere about the house for days on end and then all stirred up again and repeated with renewed hostility when my Da got home from his work. An older me would have just gone and to hell with the consequences, but the younger me was foolish enough to heed the words of his elders. Thankfully I didn’t have to explain this to Mallo because I hadn’t told him that I’d be going with him in the first place. There’s nothing less cool than telling your peers that you can’t do something because your mother said you’re not allowed. I imagined Mallo’s Ma to have the attitude and demeanour of Janis Joplin.

So, in the interests of family harmony, my education and my future career, I chose to give Bob’s show a miss. Mallo went and he said it was the best gig he had been to in all his fifteen years on Earth. He’d talked to a Rasta roadie and bought a The Wailers - Catch a Fire Tour button badge. Knowing he had no chance of catching the last bus back to Leeds, he had slept under a tree in the lush green grounds of York University. I expect that when he left school he went to live with Bob Marley’s beautiful daughter in a wooden shack on the beach in Montego Bay.  

In the days when grades one to six were pass marks for a GCE ‘O’ Level and grades seven to nine denoted failure, in English Literature I managed an imperfect six. To this day I cannot imagine how I managed to achieve such unexpected success. I think the examiners must have given me a couple of extra marks for wearing my Who Shot King Duncan? tee-shirt during the exam. It can be said that my working life fell into three main areas of expertise; they being merchant shipping, pensions administration and podiatry. Without that certificate of competence, on which the Joint Matriculation Board spelt my name wrong, I just don’t know how I would have got on.

I don’t have many regrets in life but high on the list of those that I do have is my decision not to attend that Bob Marley and the Wailers gig.

A long time after the event (or non-event) two things have cropped up to rub salt into my wounds. The first was my beloved Priyatelkata telling me that in 1977, when she was only thirteen, she went with her friends to see Bob Marley and the Wailers near where she lived in Paris but didn’t tell her parents that she was going.

The other laceration stinger occurred one summer’s day almost fifty years after the forbidden gig. Whilst visiting my, by then, quite elderly Ma, we decided it would nice to go for a car ride over the North Yorkshire Moors, stopping for a bit of lunch in a nice country pub. The sun was shining. The weather was sweet.

‘Buffalo Soldier, Dreadlock Rasta’ she started singing as we motored along the A64 towards Malton.

‘What are you singing that for?’ I asked in utter astonishment.

‘They played it on the radio while I was having my breakfast. It’s a really nice song. It’s by Bob Marley. I like him.’

The hell-broth that had boiled and bubbled on the stove in our kitchen at the beginning of my tale turned out to be something different to what I had expected. I could perhaps describe it as stewed bicycle inner-tubes in a parcel of some sort of leathery-textured, offal-flavoured substance. It wasn’t very nice. In fact, it was almost as bitter as I was. But it was better than what the poor black babies in Africa would have been having for their tea that day, apparently. Little consolation in my mind.  


ABC 117       

Photograph: Me taking full advantage of my grade six GCE ‘O’ Level whilst painting the sharp end of a big rusty ship floating about somewhere in the Persian Gulf.



Cherries and Dahlia Petals


Part 12 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

The final day of our magic carpet-ride through Persia began at the Setareh Hotel in Isfahan with our last ever full Iranian breakfast and colossal disappointment as the waitress solemnly broke the news that there was no moraba havij (carrot jam) because the people who had been there for breakfast the previous day had eaten far more of it than expected. Greedy fat buggers, I thought to myself, until I remembered that I had been one of them. But all was not lost as we were still offered the hot naans, the fried eggs, the sheep cheese, the selection of fresh fruit and the mushy dates on draught; all delicacies we had become accustomed to.

Bags packed, we headed off in Vahid’s Volvo to embrace the 500 kilometres of desert roads that would take us back to Tehran. I had always coped better with the last day of a trip if it had been packed with things to do. Today would be packed with things to do but most of those things would be looking out of a tour bus window at sand. ‘Live for the moment,’ I kept telling myself ‘this is still better than being at work’.

The journey was to be broken with a stop in Kashan, and on the way there we saw evidence of power stations and rock formations (a good name for a rock band’s album, I thought) to slightly break the monotony of lots and lots of desert. I loved the desert and the desert loved me. It had become my all-time favourite monotonous thing.

Mahtab’s amazing catalogue of sweeping generalisations about the characteristics of the inhabitants of Iranian cities continued today when she announced over the public address system on the coach that the people from Kashan were all very timid. She went on to say that in the aftermath of the 2003 earthquake that wiped out the entire city of Bam, killing 26,271 people, the Tehranis sent food and water, the Shirazis sent medicines, the Yaz’dis sent earth moving rescue equipment, the Isfahanis sent tents and blankets and the Kashanis shat their trousers. How refreshing it was to discover that cheap jokes weren’t confined to a place in my own little head.

The guide book told me that Kashan and its environs had been home to human settlements since at least the fourth century BC. We only had a couple of hours there to absorb an atmosphere created over the course of more than two thousand years so we were restricted to fleeting visits to the Tabatabei Residence and Fin Garden. The former was a beautiful house built by a carpet merchant around 1880 with a rabbit (a recent addition, I imagined) nibbling away at large multi-coloured ornamental cabbages planted with great precision in rows in the garden. Mahtab criticised the latter of these two sites because it didn’t have as many flowers as she had expected (maybe the rabbit had been there too), but what they had done with stone arches, running water, trees and fish was a joy to behold. It was also the place where Amir Kabir (oh dear dear Amir Kabir), Prime Minister of Iran from 1848, had been exiled and brutally murdered in the bath house because there’d been a bit of a cruel side to the way he had been governing the country. A police spokesman reported at the time that he’d merely slipped on a bar of soap. Either way, it was the unfortunate highlight of the final stop of our tour.

On the way back to the bus we had a few minutes to pop in to see the open air  factory where rose oil and vast quantities of the rose water by-product were produced. This antiquated process appeared very similar to the way in which poitín (farmhouse whiskey) was distilled in Ireland. The lady in the gift shop said that after a couple of glasses of Eau de Cologne on a Saturday night she was anybody’s. It was a procedure very interesting to watch and very sweet smelling to sniff. Apparently the only place in the world that contributed more rose oil than Kashan to the Paris perfume industry was the region around the town of Kazanluk in central Bulgaria, not far from where the writer and poet, Turlough Ó Maoláin, currently lives but didn’t at the time and, in fact, had never even heard of it.  

Our time in Kashan was a return to the peace and serenity that we had found in the places we had stopped before reaching Isfahan. It was lovely to be there but it lacked the sheer magnificence that we had got used to seeing at other historic sites.

Near to the holy city of Qom we stopped at the Mahtab Rest Area. Mahtab denied that it was named after her so we assumed that she must have been named after it. Actually I made that bit up because Mahtab wasn’t Mahtab’s real name. I mentioned before, near the beginning of my account of the expedition, that I didn’t want to reveal her true identity as some of my writing wouldn’t suit the people in positions of authority if they happened to read it. So I changed her name because I didn’t want to get her into trouble. Though previously I had known another Iranian woman who really had been called Mahtab, so it isn’t a completely made up name.

Anyway, this made me realise for the first time that some motorway service stations, although often much maligned, had names that were nice and even suitable for giving to daughters and sons. I pondered over the possibility of new parents in England thinking the same and naming their children Leigh Delamare, Charnock Richard or Tibshelf. I’d heard of kids having far worse names. And I could imagine a young mother opening a kitchen window in Twickenham to shout ‘Clacket Lane, your tea’s ready!’ 

I’d never been particularly fond of motorway services but this place made me think again. I might describe it as a twenty-first century equivalent of a caravanserai. It boasted an incredibly nice coffee shop with waiter service and a free chocolate with every drink, and a second free chocolate for those who asked nicely. In the gentlemen’s toilets there were more than fifty cubicles and incredibly there was a long queue of people waiting to wash their hands. Everywhere else I’d ever been in the world I’d never had to wait more than seven seconds, if at all, to engage in the soap and water phase of this process. Hand washing, I had noticed, had been a big thing all over Iran.

Mahtab said we couldn’t go to the holy city of Qom because we didn’t have time and it was a bit too holy for riffraff like us. It sounded quite interesting though, so she suggested that when we got home we should read about it on its website, which was, probably! Had Dot Cotton, the character from the EastEnders fly-on-the-wall documentary series on the BBC TV lived there we agreed that her email address would have been but she didn’t, but just talking about it passed a few minutes on a tedious road journey.

Climbing back onto Vahid’s Volvo I said goodbye to the hot sunny weather that I loved. The weather in Iran had been Sunni for the whole of our stay but we had heard that back in Britain it was absolutely Shiite. 

To compensate for not seeing Qom we were able to look out of the bus window at the nearby salt lake. It was the largest salt lake in Iran, apparently. It wasn’t a very interesting thing to see so goodness knows how disappointed we would have been if we’d gone to one of the smaller salt lakes.

Approaching the centre of Tehran on the coach brought a lump to my throat, partly because I’d bitten off a bigger piece of gaz (nougat) than I could chew and partly because Mahtab told us that she wouldn’t be joining us for the final dinner that evening due to the fact that she had airline ticket matters to attend to on our behalf.

More lumps appeared as I returned to our hotel’s eighth floor terrace where we had had our first breakfast naan and mushy dates on the first morning. The sun was setting, poking its last few rays through the layer of traffic pollution that blanketed the city. A sunset on a last day of a wonderful trip is never a good thing unless you’re totally void of emotion.

This throat lumpiness problem was then added to by the appearance of a bit of eye moistness as I leafed through my journal. I had asked my fellow travellers if they would write something in it. It gave them something to do on that long coach ride and it was handed back to me on reaching our destination. I saw that Mahtab had responded magnificently with some lines from what she said was her favourite poem. It was called Another Birth and had been written by a Persian feminist poet by the name of Forugh Farrokhzad who had died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32.

A couple of lines stood out:

I shall wear a pair of cherries as ear-rings

And dress my nails with dahlia petals

In this incredibly moving verse, the poet also wrote of a little girl blown away by the wind one night, with the suggestion that the little girl was Forugh herself. But the way I read it, it was Mahtab and what she had copied into my book was a plea for me to return to Persia one day.

Our plane was taking off from Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport at half past the most ridiculous hour of the night imaginable so, as we had hotel rooms, we had the opportunity to have about a third of a night’s sleep. There was a lot going on in my mind so I was wide awake. I wrote a bit in my journal but decided I wasn’t in the right mood for it. At that stage of the holiday there was nothing to look forward to so I just wanted it to be over and done with and to be at home. I flicked through the copy of the Quran that was in the bedside drawer, accepting that I wouldn’t understand the writing but optimistically thinking there might be some pictures. Looking up at the small brass arrow that you find on the ceiling of every Iranian hotel room to indicate the direction of Mecca, I unrolled the complimentary prayer mat but it did nothing for me.  

Earlier in the trip, my room-mate, Kidderminster Andy, had politely suggested that I buy myself some earplugs so that his snoring, which he admitted was capable of causing structural damage, wouldn’t disturb my sleep. So I did and I politely shoved them up his nostrils, but to no avail.

At midnight, feeling bored and frustrated, I left the hotel and wandered a few of the almost deserted streets of the capital. A couple of policemen asked me what I was doing and if I was alright, probably because they were as bored as I was. A few other Tehranis washed their shop windows or swept the pavement outside their closed cafés. I looked at the artistic but gruesome and damning anti-American murals painted on the surrounding wall of the building that had been the U.S. Embassy prior to the upheaval of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Nearby on another wall there were painted quotes from the Quran translated from Farsi into English in a way that made them a little amusing. My favourite being:

They should not strike their feet in order to show the ornaments of their ankles to draw attention to themselves.

Of all the punishable crimes in the Islamic world, I hadn’t considered that this would be one of them and belatedly wished that I’d packed a few pairs of socks before leaving home.

Returning to the hotel I found Mahtab sitting in the reception area having a natter with the night porter. She had half an hour to kill until it was time to wake up the group for the journey to the airport. We had a bit of a chat, which comprised mostly of me thanking her for everything including the carrot jam. The night porter, using my camera, illegally took a photograph of me and her together, standing side by side but touching ever so slightly. She was a remarkable person who had really made our trip that extra bit special. Being a woman she was able to tell us a lot more about the gender discrimination in Iran than a male guide would have been able to. She had described her problems and fears, and her clever ways of dealing with them. Even if a male guide had appreciated the situation it would have been very unlikely that he would have described it to us. It was dangerous for anybody to do so. Mahtab was switched on politically and, although a practising Muslim, she was very much opposed to the Islamic regime that ruled her country. To many of the questions we had asked, her immediate reply had been ‘bus’, meaning that she would give us a full explanation and her opinion when we were back on the bus where nobody else could hear what she was saying. She was a fun person. She could be witty and sarcastic and the female members of our group, with whom she had spoken to a little more openly, told me that she loved a good old gossip. I sometimes detected sadness in her eyes but at the same time I suspected that she had a much, much happier life than most other Iranian women. I still sigh heavily every time I think of this.

The bus came, we climbed aboard and there was subdued chatter about the hilarity of passport photographs, remembering where car keys had been safely stowed ten days earlier and who would be picked up by who in cold, rainy London later that day.

At the front of the airport terminal building I felt very sad saying goodbye to Vahid as I moved to make my way down the steps of his bus. He’d been a great fella to have a chat with, even though for 99% of the time neither of us had had a clue what the other was saying. Usually at the start or end of a day’s journey, as we were getting on or off the big yellow Volvo, he would stand outside by the door of the luggage hold and help us with our bags, but on this occasion he’d been instructed to stay in his seat.

A serious looking Mahtab told us to stand on the pavement at the side of the bus and to not move. We stayed there for four or five minutes, not knowing why. And then, when she was sure that there was no one else around to see us, she hugged us all individually. These were huge emotional goodbye hugs. If we had been seen, especially by a policeman, Mahtab would have been in serious trouble as public physical contact between men and women was strictly forbidden by law. By the time I had really taken in what was happening Mahtab was gone, as if blown away by the wind one night.

We were all feeling a bit stunned as we took our bags from the bus. Entering the terminal building I looked back and saw it drive away. Beyond the revolving doors where armed policemen stood we had to go through separate channels for men and women where we and our luggage were rigorously searched by security officers of our own sex. There was absolutely no way a terrorist was ever going to get on a flight leaving Tehran. Boarding passes were issued after we had passed through security so, as we had already been split up as a group, we would all sit apart from each on the plane to London.

Most of us met up again at the departure gate. We sat looking at each other, drinking glasses of sweet black tea but not knowing what to say. Mike, one of our group members from Essex, broke the silence with ‘That was fucking awful!’ They certainly weren’t the words I had expected such a truly fantastic trip to end with but I had to agree with him.

On the eight-hour flight my seat was in the middle of a group of travellers from Iceland who didn’t want to talk about anything at all in any language, so I sat in silence with my thoughts. Hundreds and thousands of thoughts. Thoughts about the flawed beauty of a country where I had been made to feel so welcome by exceptionally friendly people with their gorgeous food, amazing architecture, fascinating history, even more fascinating culture and lovely weather. And thoughts about Mahtab, this exceptionally warm, knowledgeable, entertaining woman who, above everything else, was incredibly brave, given the circumstances in which she lived and worked. Even as I write this now, so many years later, thinking back to those exciting Persian days I still see her as one of the four or five most wonderful people I have ever met in my life.  

With a broad, knowing smile on his face, a member of the cabin crew asked me if I’d like an alcoholic drink. I had a can of beer. It was black, Irish flavour beer… my absolute favourite!

And silently I toasted my dear friends in the Islamic Republic of Iran.


ABC 100 


Photograph: The handmade tile that I bought in the ceramics shop in Na’in depicting my dear friend Mahtab eating her breakfast naan.


Link to the full album of my photographs of the expedition:

Desperately Seeking Mahtab




The Gaddafi Effect


Part 11 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Containing mostly carrots but also cardamom, rose water, saffron and surprisingly little sugar, moraba havij, when spread liberally on a hot naan, was a goddess amongst jams. As my penultimate Iranian breakfast vanished like a rat up a qanat, I could think of no better way to start a day

The mere thought of the morning naan was usually enough to make me leap out of bed as soon as I had woken up. It always came to the table steaming hot and deliciously charred. How would I cope without such dawn delicacies when I got home? A bowl of Frosties was no match for this. The only place I could recall naans being served in Chippenham was the Taj Mahal on the Causeway but they never opened before noon. Apparently there was a Taj Mahal in India too. What a coincidence!

My only concern about the Persian carrot jam was that if it caught on there might be a succession of sweet preserves made from other vegetables, and with the threat of Brussels sprout jam lurking menacingly on the breakfast table it was likely that a fair proportion of the world’s population would be afraid to emerge each day from underneath their duvets.

As we were coming towards the end of our holiday, Mahtab handed out X Travels customer satisfaction questionnaires and asked us to start thinking about what we would write on them. She reminded us that because we were in the Islamic Republic of Iran it was forbidden to write anything uncomplimentary about the travel guide lady, especially her fondness for breakfast naans and jam. Scanning through the sheet I thought that it all seemed quite straightforward until I came to the ‘Mosque of the Trip’ section. There had been so many. Some people started scribbling on theirs straight away but Mahtab snapped at them, suggesting that they should carefully consider their answers but shouldn’t write any of them down yet as we still had some travelling to do and no one could ever tell when there might be another mosque just around the corner. I panicked because I couldn’t remember the name of the one in Na’in that had no iwan (vaulted portal). I felt like I was sitting a GCE ‘O’ Level Islam exam and I wasn’t wearing my lucky underpants.

Being reunited with the bus meant being reunited with Volvo Vahid, which was great, but he couldn’t remember the name of the mosque in Na’in either. It also meant that the day would involve a bit more driving around than the previous one had done.  The Jameh Mosque (or Friday Mosque) was only two kilometres from the hotel so we could have walked it in thirty minutes, plus the other five or six hours that we would have required to stop to answer the local people’s questions about our lives at home and the beautiful clothes that we wore whilst out fox-hunting and how many times we had met James Bond. So we obediently hopped on the bus.

At the end of the short journey, before we had even hopped off the bus, the Jameh Mosque wowed me like only a few buildings in the world had ever done before. In the months leading up to the start of the trip I had worried that I’d get bored of visiting so many mosques. Wasn’t one mosque just the same as any other mosque? But I came to realise that they each had their own distinguishing features and despite the fact that all previous mosques visited since my arrival in Iran had been places of great interest and incredible beauty, I could safely say that Isfahan’s Jameh Mosque outshone them all, and why.

The whole building, with its four contrasting iwans and magnificent ablutions fountain in the centre of a great courtyard, was utterly stunning. What made visiting this place an even more unbelievable experience was the fact that the north and south iwans had been built as long ago as the eleventh century. There had been a mosque on the site since 771 AD and in its current form it was a UNESCO World Heritage Site considered to be one of Islamic architecture’s biggest and most important monuments in Iran.

In such a gorgeous setting it was just about impossible to take a bad photograph, though because of the presence of shadows on such a sunny day and the lack of an ultra-wide wide-angle lens, it was difficult to capture more than one iwan at a time. The enormous rooks flying around their minaret roosting places made it even more photogenic and the absence of other tourists was an added bonus that I enjoyed here just as I had at most of the other historic sites we had visited.

The frescos on the interior of the Vank Cathedral, or Holy Saviour Cathedral, in the Armenian quarter of the city were superior to any that I had ever seen before, particularly the one depicting Heaven, Earth and Hell in three horizontal layers. The Hell bit looked even more sinister than I had ever imagined Hell to be. Other members of the group who had visited the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican City (I hadn’t then but I have since) said that the painting that decorated the ceiling of the cathedral was at least as good as the work of Michelangelo; but the world didn’t know about this phenomenal treasure because the world was so reluctant to visit Iran.

I was disappointed that photography wasn’t permitted and there was no sign of postcards for sale in the cathedral shop. On the way out I discovered that video recording was permitted provided that an official permit had been purchased from the shop beforehand. Had I known, that would have been perfect. I could have captured a permanent record of damned and tormented sodomites with blood squirting from their bottoms to make my holiday complete. In a frame, such a picture would have been the ideal gift to adorn my mother’s mantelpiece. But to find this out after the event only added to the frustration.

From the outside, this Christian cathedral didn’t look very interesting and was nowhere near as ornate as its Islamic neighbours. Apparently it had been established in the early seventeenth century by the hundreds of thousands of Armenians who had been forced into an enclave by Shah Abbas the Great as part of his scorched-earth policy in Armenia during the Ottoman War of 1603-1618.

I was unaware of this at the time but, whilst doing a little research recently to check the accuracy of my writing, I discovered that Isfahan’s Christian Armenian quarter was the only place in the whole of Iran where it was legal to buy and sell alcohol. We must have walked past bars that we didn’t know about. Thirteen years after the event I discovered that we could have gone and had a pint. So, to make up for lost time, that’s where I’ll be having my stag party when I get married. 

Next on the day’s busy itinerary was a visit to three beautiful old Isfahani bridges which spanned the broad majestic patch of baked mud where the Zayandeh River used to flow before it was redirected to supply a series of reservoirs many kilometres away. They were impressive structures even without there being water flowing beneath them but, from photographs that I’ve seen taken in the recent past, they had been a spectacular way to cross a great body of water. Ever optimistic, I hired a pedalo and sat in it, waiting for the tide to come in… but it didn’t, and still hasn’t.

That day being the Moslem Sabbath, everyone in Isfahan (including the Armenians) was off work and had gathered in the parks on the banks of the meandering sun-parched mud. Kids enjoyed the thrill of paddling without having to remove their shoes and socks. The parks, however, were very green and flowery and everywhere I looked there were people having picnics, flying kites or just enjoying the searing autumn sunshine. There was such a lovely, happy, fun-filled atmosphere despite there being no alcohol, or perhaps because there was no alcohol.

Lunch today took place at the famous Abassi Hotel, near to the shop where I had bought my CDs of traditional Persian music a day earlier. Knowing the way there made me feel like a local and impressed fellow group members (or maybe encouraged sarcastic ribaldry) as we approached on foot along the tree-lined boulevard from where Vahid slept in his bus.  When I had seen it the day before I wasn’t aware of the importance of this old building that Mahtab was able to explain as having been built in the eighteenth century by Sultan Husayn of Safavid as a caravanserai (a place to provide food and lodging for travellers along with their camels or horses). Although it contained a lot of Middle Eastern art and antique furnishings that created a feel of majestic splendour, it took time to imagine how it would have originally looked as a lot of steel and glass had been added in the refurbishment process.

I was also impressed by the majestic splendour of the spiced chicken sandwich that I had, but maybe not by the ice tea which was really just cold tea in a taller than usual glass. Such was the level of the hotel’s opulence that it had often been chosen to accommodate leaders of the nations of the OPEC cartel (Organisation of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) as they manipulated global economics with their fluctuating price for a barrel of crude.

I hadn’t, at any point of our Persian adventure, seen any reason to dislike any of the members of our group and by this point we seemed to have all bonded superbly, and Mahtab our wonderful guide too. It seemed strange to sit around and chat in the lounge of a luxury hotel, feeling more like old friends than a group of recently acquainted travelling companions. In my life I have noticed that nothing has brought people close together as quickly as sharing the experiences of being thrust into unusual situations whilst far from home. This had been a lunch of great style and hilarity that I would always remember. Iran was unique but so were the members of our group, and one without the other just wouldn’t have seemed right.

I bought some postcards in the hotel’s gift shop, not to send but to keep. I often do this as photographs aren’t always possible. I paste them into my journal. Some of the cards on sale were pictures of ancient Persian art. One of these depicted a Moslem lady posing topless. She was pouting for the camera too! I was shocked but I had to buy it. I showed it to Oldham Liz and, like two children, we giggled together. I went to the cash desk to pay, handing it over to a very attractive, very sophisticated looking and well spoken Moslem lady shop assistant. Suddenly I felt very embarrassed. Even though the picture must have been painted hundreds of years before and was really quite innocent, under the circumstances I felt like a dirty old man buying pornography from the top shelf of a grubby little newsagent’s shop. It was an Islamic custom for a man to not make eye contact with a woman so, by adhering to the ways of my hosts, I managed to survive the sordid experience.

Thinking that I had averted disaster, I was dismayed when Oldham Liz immediately ran out into the lush and bounteous hotel garden to tell everyone in our group about what I had done. So lovely ladies, particularly Oxford Ann and Mahtab with whom I would never have dreamt of discussing anything rude, suddenly wanted to peruse my purchases. My reputation was in tatters but everyone else was in fits of laughter.

Our tour of Isfahan, a city with which I had fallen in love, was drawing to a close. All that remained was a drive out to another ancient Zoroastrian fire temple on the outskirts. Typically, it was built on a rocky outcrop which appeared easy enough to climb as ladies in sandals and chadors were scaling it but, despite talk of a fantastic view from the top, we had to give it a miss because we were booked in for the four o’clock showing at the nearby Shaking Minarets.

Some might have found the Shaking Minarets a bit disappointing but I loved them. They formed part of the fourteenth century tomb complex of Abu Abdullah. On arrival we were directed to stand on a small lawn beneath two old but fairly small mud-built minarets. We stared in gleeful anticipation for ten minutes, expecting them to start their trembling in some mystical manner but nothing happened. And then, bang on the stroke of four o’clock, a fat Iranian bloke climbed a ladder and manoeuvred himself a little dangerously to the top of one of the towers. He then proceeded to shake his huge arse and belly about so vigorously that both minarets began to shake too. Some of our party had expected something a bit more spiritual but for me it had been wonderfully unique and memorable just the way it was.

Shaken but not stirred, we were delivered by Vahid and the Volvo back to the square in the city centre and in ones, twos and threes, our group split up again to do their own thing. My thing was to buy a saffron ice cream and to make another attempt at recording the maghrib azan (sunset call to prayer) from the Shah Mosque on my phone. Three or four seconds after I pressed the phone’s red ‘record’ button, my favourite postcard salesman arrived. This man, always courteous and smiling had been trying to sell me some of his fine wares for a couple of days but I had always put him off by saying that I had to dash away to keep up with the rest of the group, which was perfectly true. On this occasion there was no group so I couldn’t say no. Each time we had met and quickly parted I had promised him that I would buy some cards as soon as Mahtab gave us some time off. I had genuinely wanted some so I wasn’t just fobbing him off, although I was sure that he suspected that I was. So with him lusting over my by now quite thin wad of rials I had to quickly complete the deal and start my recording again when the second round of the muezzin’s call started. This was my final chance so I had to get it right. I was relieved when at last I was able to play back my phonographic masterpiece, discovering that it contained additional material in the form of the sound of the bells that jangled on the horsedrawn carts that hauled passengers around the square for pleasure. But at least the horses didn’t speak or try to sell me anything, so I considered the session to have been a success.

The square after sunset was sight to behold. With the outline of the Shah Mosque silhouetted against the vivid orange sunset, the eerie sound of the azan, the chatter of Iranian passers-by, the fountains sparkling in the beams of strategically placed floodlights, and the mouth watering smell of the Isfahani street food cooking in kiosks on every corner, I cherished every second that I had spent sitting there alone and taking it all in. Then I heaved a sigh and said goodbye to dear old Naqsh-e Jahan.

Arriving back at the hotel I found some of our group drinking coffee in the lounge. Mahtab was with them. There was an unusually sombre mood.  Apparently earlier that day Libyan leader, Colonel Gadaffi had been shot dead near his home town of Sirte. The whole world, according to the BBC, seemed to be excited about this and although he had been a cruel dictator I couldn’t join in the jubilation as I considered the current situation in Iran and wondered what might happen next in the Middle East. The political state of the whole region seemed so volatile and it was heart-breaking to think about the effect that it might have on the lovely people I had met in Iran.

Mahtab, although having said that she detested the man, sounded quite morose. She told us that a group of Americans that she was supposed to be guiding along the same itinerary as ours the following week had suddenly cancelled their trip because they were worried about an outbreak of civil war in Libya. This, she said, was a strange notion as Tehran was approximately 4,500 kilometres from Tripoli, the Libyan capital; a distance almost exactly the same as the entire width of the USA at its widest point. The prospect of ten days without work or pay was playing on her mind much more than political instability was.

After everyone else had gone to bed I too went up to my room. Suddenly the atmosphere in the Setareh Hotel didn’t seem so jolly. I thought about having a bottle of beer to cheer myself up. I opened the door of the minibar to find there was just one left. It was alcohol-free carrot beer… my favourite!


ABC 099


Photograph: One of the four iwans of the Jameh Mosque in Isfahan.


Link to Part 12:

Cherries and Dahlia Petals




Tea with the Coppersmith


Part 10 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

All of a sudden I found myself travelling solo, soon to lose myself in parts of Isfahan that Mother Mahtab hadn’t told us about. Without the help of a grown-up or the library of glossy but often contradictory guide books carried everywhere in the knapsacks of wanderlustful travellers, I was as free as one of the thousands of hooded rooks that flew and, with sinister looks, scuttled and scratted about the streets and gardens across the city. Liberated from the constraints of flock membership, my afternoon’s route would be half planned and half aimlessly wandered.

Because of the Islamic regime’s attitude towards live performances, it was difficult to hear traditional Persian music. Homogenous religious music seemed to be played by radio stations all day long and listened to by a few taxi drivers and the owners of very small tea shops, but it wasn’t in the least bit entertaining in my opinion. I had already bought the only two CDs available in England (which I’d loaded onto my MP3 player and had listened to constantly for a month) but I hadn’t seen any others on sale in Iran or met anybody who was prepared to talk about the country’s rich seam of traditional music. So I was delighted to stumble upon a shop selling CDs and records in a shopping precinct opposite the famous historic Abassi Hotel (a restored inn with a central courtyard for caravans of nomadic merchants and their camels).

Delight quickly turned to despondency on my discovery that the CD shop was closed. My door-to-door enquiries revealed that the owner had been called away to pray. It was the only shop out of the two or three dozen in the precinct that wasn’t open. Thankfully, the man who ran the book shop next door took pity on me and invited me in. He told me that his cousin worked on a farm in Liverpool as he plied me with glasses of sweet black tea and tried to sell me a book about Persian carpets. He was determined to keep me entertained until the music shop proprietor rolled back with his rolled up his prayer mat, and he succeeded.

When the record salesman did eventually appear he immediately understood exactly what I was looking for. He had music from all across the Middle East and North Africa but, although I found this very interesting, I chose to be loyal to my host country and concentrated my attention on the Trad Iranian section. He was so excited at this stranger from foreign climes arriving to show such an interest that he forgot to offer me tea, which he later apologised for. He played a few CD tracks for me on a stereo system as big as the Shah Mosque, I happily parted with 300,000 rials (about £20) to secure ownership of five of his finest discs and then happily I danced out of his shop. Twenty metres from his door I sat on a bench to examine the contents of the carrier bag bearing the name of the shop (or something else) in Perso-Arabic script. The contents, which I lovingly examined every detail of, were also covered in Perso-Arabic script that I knew I would never understand, but that took nothing away from the fact that they were precious additions to my ever expanding collection of World Music.

In the course of my musical shopping sprees, I find it beneficial to listen to a little before I buy. Although my taste covers a wide range, it doesn’t cover everything. In Madras thirty-five years earlier I had bought, from a man in a turban in a market, a pirate cassette of Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album. I was a long, long way from Madras when I first got the opportunity to play it and, when I did, I was a little disappointed to discover that the unmarked cartridge contained not the work of the gritty-voiced Dylan but of the Cockney barrow boy, Max Bygraves. I gave it to my Nan who said she was thrilled to receive such a thoughtful gift.

The labyrinthine seventeenth century built Bazaar-e Bozorg went on and on for what seemed like eternity. I spent most of the afternoon exploring its tunnels and alleys, marvelling over the vast array of shiny, colourful, tasty and exotic goods for sale there. The majority of them were handmade. Some were still in the process of being handmade as I passed by the busy workshops where sole craftsmen tinkered away with sheets of glittering metal and antiquarian hand tools.  It turned out to be a grand place for talking to wonderfully welcoming and hospitable traders, all keen to make a sale but even keener to have a chat with a wandering loner with tales to tell from foreign lands and a few rials in his pocket, such as the likes of me.

Straight to the top of my friendly traders’ league table went a coppersmith and enameller by the name of Elias. In his little shop, shelves and cabinets groaned under the weight of the multitude of copper vases, jugs, challises and trinket boxes that had been shaped, painted and enamelled with traditional Persian patterns in blues and reds by him and his brother. I felt as though he should have been putting more pressure on me to buy something from his tiny showroom but really he was more interested in just talking, as if he was on holiday himself. I bought a copper vase enamelled with a hand-painted design that included birds and ancient Persian symbols, mostly in blue and white but with traces of red and gold. I couldn’t describe the level of intricacy in the work that must have taken days to complete. It was fabulous and inexpensive and it still sits on my shelf at home today. He had much larger similar items but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to manage a bigger and heavier piece of artistic copperware in my bag for my flight home. I loved my purchase but it almost hurt to consider the other extraordinary merchandise that I could have bought had I been going back to England by bus. It briefly crossed my mind that Volvo Vahid might have been able to help me out by taking a trip with me in his tour bus, but I instantly dismissed the idea as it was unlikely that he would have enjoyed all the pomegranate-free English beer where I lived.

Haggling over the price of the vase didn’t take long as we appeared to have an immediate mutual respect for each other. He started with a price that wasn’t very high, I came in with an offer that wasn’t much lower and soon the little urn was parcelled up in pages of yesterday’s Isfahan Evening Echo, brown paper and a couple of metres of coarse string. More time was taken up in boiling the kettle, drinking the tea and answering his questions about what extravagantly crafted artefacts a tourist might expect to see on sale in a souvenir shop in central London or Edinburgh. I thought back to the shops that I had seen selling traditional tartan-kilted soldier dolls at Heathrow Airport just over a week earlier, but I didn’t mention them as it would have taken some of the excitement out of his plans to travel to Britain sometime in the next forty or fifty years.

As we drank the tea from small copper cups that Elias had made himself, he told me he had never heard of the English places where I said I had lived but he had a friend who lodged with a Syrian family in Luton. Elias had never been to England but his friend had told him in letters that Luton was a very beautiful city and one day he would like to go there himself. In fact he said he would like to go anywhere in Britain except Manchester. He didn’t care much for the people from Manchester because he couldn’t understand their ‘thick voices’.

Going deeper into the bazaar I found a real life Tin Pan Alley where I was almost deafened by the noise of dozens of people clattering away with hammers to make metal cooking pots and pans. Then I got lost. I was totally disoriented as I meandered by stalls selling fruit, vegetables, nuts, spices, shoes, toys, jewellery, carpets and chadors. These gradually gave way to eerie dark arches of equally dark shops selling automotive parts, gas canisters and corrugated iron sheeting. This, in turn, led me to a series of small courtyards which, despite being out in the open, provided no through route back to Naqsh-e Jahan Square or the streets. I didn’t panic. I just kept walking and walking until eventually I came to a sack of walnuts that I recognised from earlier in the afternoon and I knew then that I was back on track.

In a narrow street near to the public square, as I readjusted my senses to meet the reintroduction of sunlight and fresh air, a man in a security sort of uniform with a gun holster but no gun told me he was a policeman and then asked me if I’d like to go into his brother’s shop to buy some glassware. Showing him that I was already weighed down with shopping bags (two quite small ones) he said that he understood my decision to decline. Then, after the usual brief twenty-minute conversation about my whole life story that Isfahanis loved, I asked if I could take his photograph, to which he agreed. Photographing government buildings or vehicles, or people in positions of authority could cause the photographer big problems in Iran so, overlooking the fact that he probably wasn’t a real policeman anyway, I was delighted that he had gone along with my request. I felt that I had beaten the system. As I lined him up in the viewfinder of my camera, he grabbed a passing boy of about eight or ten years to stand beside him in the picture. I asked him if the boy was his son. He replied that he had no idea who he was but that he had looked like the sort of kid who might enjoy having his photograph taken. Within seconds of hearing the click and whirr of the shutter release, the boy had disappeared without saying anything to either of us.

By that time I was ready to return to the hub of the activity, to catch some of the evening light on camera and to listen to the fantastically haunting maghrib azan (sunset call to prayer). But my plan failed as I became entangled in an hour-long discussion with a couple of teenagers about the contrasting politics, culture, weather and price of petrol in our respective countries. Having been brought up to show great respect for their elders, they wanted to call me Mr Turlough and, while we were talking about the music of the Beatles, they referred to two of the Fab Four as Mr Lennon and Mr McCartney. They said they had never before heard the term Fab Four and that any Iranian using such an epithet would be considered unforgivably rude. The time I spent with these two fellas was absolutely priceless. They were called Ali and Saied and in English and Farsi they wrote the following in my journal:

I wish you don’t need any doctor to help you, I wish you don’t have any problem in your life. - Ali Safaei

You should live until there is any flower (wish). - Saied Mohamad Amin Khodaie

Their prime objective had been to practise their English with me. They invited me to a tea shop where they could offer me a drink (of tea) so that we could speak English in comfort, away from the noise of the busy square, but I told them I was unable to do that as I still had a lot of things to see and do during my short stay. I spent most of the rest of the evening fretting over the possibility that two youths had found me rude and disrespectful.

Because of the debating session with Ali and Saied I missed the call to prayer. I had wanted to record it on my mobile phone and use it as my ring tone. Saied said he would email it to me.

Many more conversations with Iranian people later I found myself in a gaz (nougat) shop trying to buy sweets for my lovely children at home from two sales assistants who spoke absolutely no English. I tried to tell them that my son didn’t like nuts in the hope that they’d be able to come up with a suitable alternative to their nutty gaz for him. In an attempt to overcome the language barrier, they insisted that I try a small sample of virtually everything that they had on display in their glass cabinets. Almost all of the goods that I tried contained nuts, but the unusual sales promotion had at least compensated for the fact that I had forgotten to go for something to eat. There were no other types of sweet shops in the whole of Iran so in the end I settled for a couple of boxes of their sixty percent cut (referring to the pistachio content of the nougat, this being the purest that rials could buy) for my daughters and thought that for the lad I’d just get a big bar of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk from the shop in Chippenham railway station on the way home. I was sure he’d never know the truth.

My truly marvellous day ended with an hour of journal writing in the lounge at the Setareh Hotel and a lovely smile from the lovely receptionist with the big ugly scar on her face as I ordered a bottle of beer.

A minute later the waiter brought me something I hadn’t previously seen in Iran. It was alcohol-free malt beer… my favourite!



ABC 098


Photograph: Elias the coppersmith holding my copper vase enamelled with a hand-painted design that included birds and ancient Persian symbols, mostly in blue and white but with traces of red and gold that he had made himself.


Link to Part 11:

The Gaddafi Effect




The Man in the Iran Mosque


Part 9 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Woken by the muezzin’s call, I leapt from my bed with all the vitality of a goitered gazelle from the Karakal Desert. Through the hotel room window, early but bright sunlight streamed in, dotting the walls and ceiling with small flecks of colour reflected from the debris of bottles that littered the floor from the previous night’s non-alcoholic binge. Snuffled snores in a Kidderminster accent reverberated from beneath a duvet covering a bed at the other side of the tastefully furnished chamber. From my wardrobe I made a practical selection and dressed in clothes that would be cool enough to resist the fierce heat of the Persian climate but of sufficient fabric to cover my flesh in accordance with the Sharia law that ruled the land. Then, two steps at a time, I climbed the almost regal winding staircase to the hotel’s rooftop restaurant to have breakfast. With a glass of sweet black tea and a plate containing my own body weight in naan, sheep cheese, apricots and mushy dates waiting for me at my table, I paused to take in the view of a waking metropolis as it lay before me in all directions, inviting me in. For a minute I became Frank Sinatra as I crooned ‘My kind of town, Isfahan is.’ This was going to be a great day in an exciting Middle Eastern city and I would be spending exactly none of it sitting on a bus. The X Travels trip notes even promised some free time to spend alone.

Chewing the cud with Volvo Vihad the chauffeur, it came to light that he shared my optimism in respect of the hours that lay ahead of him. Making full use of my best Farsi (all seven words), some hand gestures and the medium of dance, I asked him what plans he had for his rest day. Which mosques would he be visiting? I may have misunderstood him but the impression I got from his facial expression was that he was sick to the back teeth of magnificent ornately tiled places of worship and he had made arrangements to sit in a bar with his mates, knocking back the alcohol-free beer like it was water and watching football on television; Kaseef Leeds (meaning ‘Dirty Leeds’), I would imagine.

As our walking tour of Isfahan began, a light wind laden with hot dust from the desert brushed our faces making us feel like we were being rubbed down with a sheet of wet and dry sandpaper and suddenly we yearned for the comfort of our air conditioned tour bus. Mahtab said that if we were going to moan all day she would send us back to our rooms with some homework to do.  

Our first point of interest was the Chehel Sotoun Palace, built as a pleasure pavilion and reception hall, it dated back to 1614, though what we saw was what had been rebuilt after a fire in 1706. Mahtab told us what a nasty piece of work Shah Abbas the Great had been, which wasn’t really evident from the vistas in the magnificent frescoes that adorned the walls of his palace as they depicted scenes mostly of parties and picnics. Under his leadership, apparently, Persia introduced the Ghilman System where thousands of Georgian and Armenian slave-soldiers were forced into the army to brutally repel Ottoman and Uzbek invaders who had been a threat to the stability of the country. The inclusion of Turkish dancing girls dressed only in their vests and knickers in the later frescoes suggested that Shah Abbas II (son of Shah Abbas the Great) had an even more avant-garde taste in art and entertainment.

Walking away from this stunning building, through its gardens beautifully appointed with rose beds and ornamental pools, Mahtab stopped us and made us turn around to look back at the royal palace we had just left. She told us we should remember that no matter where we travelled in the world, and no matter what the colour, creed or roots of the people we met, there was one thing that we all had in common. And that thing was the construction workers’ scaffolding that clung periodically to our most attractive public and historic buildings. I wouldn’t have said that the framework of rusty metal tubing had affected my enjoyment of the visit to the palace but it certainly spoilt my photographs.   

Without being rude or aggressive, I usually swerve around groups of schoolchildren when I see them on school trips. However, a joyous moment of this grown-ups’ trip of ours was meeting an exaltation of Isfahani kids in a pedestrianised stretch of the ancient tree-lined Chahar Bagh Boulevard. We had suddenly been inundated with hundreds of beaming little brown-eyed faces all wanting to practice their English and have their photographs taken with us. One little girl, who said she was seven years old, asked me in very good English if I could speak Farsi because she didn’t speak very good English. She said her name was Afsoon, which apparently means ‘charm’ or ‘spell’, except in Scotland where it’s a word that people with a fondness for beer might say in their pubs as they order what they intend to be their final pint. I let her hold my camera and showed her how to take some photographs of her excited friends, causing her schoolteacher to grin as much as she did herself. But then all 683 children in the class wanted to do a photo shoot, and there was education to be getting on with for both parties, so we sadly had to bring the whole thing to an end. Looking around me it seemed that every member of our group had adopted at least a dozen Iranian youngsters. ‘Can we keep this one?’ I heard Oxford Jo plead to her Oxford mother.

Such lovely, polite children had made quite an impression on me, as children in foreign countries often did. When returning from a trip I usually take some sort of presents back for my own kids. Sometimes it’s difficult to decide what to get them. Perhaps arriving home with some more kids might have been a good idea, especially as the original ones were getting a bit big and hairy.

Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque, that stood halfway along the eastern side of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, was built between 1602 and 1619, not as congregational religious sanctuary but as a private place for that old rascal, Shah Abbas the Great to praise his god. The building was beautiful but I knew that it would be even before I stepped inside it. It would have been wrong to describe it as exceptionally beautiful because it’s beauty was just typical of all very old mosques in Iran.

Despite its name, Shah Mosque at the southern end of the square was built for the riffraff rather than the Shah. It was equally lovely but spectacularly large, with a portal built at a bit of an angle to the main mosque so as to fit in with the design of the rest of the square. So although the portal was built to face the square, the mosque was oriented towards Mecca. I wondered which way the mosques that were actually in Mecca were oriented, especially those situated right in the middle of the city. Mahtab rolled her eyes and suggested that I ask X Travels if they’d put on a Saudi Arabia trip just for me.

The usual mosaics and countless millions of ornate tiles, the perfumed garden of roses with ornamental pools, the shady arched places for contemplation and the steady flow of worshippers were all there but what made this place unique was the peacock feature on the inside of the qubba (dome). Persians of old believed that peacocks represented the diversity of the world, the colours in their tails represented all the colours of nature and their feathers symbolized the rays of the sun which brought light and life. At a certain time of the day, as the sun shone through a small hole in the centre of the dome in the Shah Mosque, it formed a pattern of light in the shape of a peacock’s tail feathers on the tiled ceiling. Nobody knew whether or not this had been a deliberate part of the design of the mosque but as we gazed up to watch its brief appearance I was so entranced I didn’t care whose idea it had been.

What a Shah Abbas the Great day this was turning out to be, and it continued along that theme as we climbed the steps to the elevated terrace of the sixteenth century Ali Qapu Palace (Ali Qapu meaning ‘Gate of the King of Kings’). Despite the construction scaffolding that disappointingly hugged sections of the Shah Mosque, the views across the square and in the opposite direction towards the Zagros Mountains were incredible. More steep, winding stairs took us up to the top floor music room where there were no views, or music, but a gorgeous ceiling. It wasn’t the sort of place I could comfortably live but I had a strange feeling of not wanting to leave.

Isfahan was a fascinating city but even when I thought that the wonders of our trip had peaked I was introduced to a plate of chicken with plums and sultana rice at the Bastani restaurant located very near to the Shah Mosque. This turned out to be a mistake as after I had finished eating I didn’t feel that I’d be able to move again for several hours. But in the face of great indigestion I showed tremendous courage and eased myself out of the mother of all comfortable chairs in congenial surroundings.

With the morning’s historical building tally having reached mosques 2 palaces 2, Mahtab said that because we had been very well behaved, we could have the rest of the day off. She was going back to her hotel room because she’d been breaking in a new pair of shoes and her corns were killing her. I enjoyed the company of my X Travels friends but when I’m in foreign places I absolutely love spending a bit of time on my own, so I sneaked away before anybody was able to ask if they could come with me.

To celebrate my newfound freedom, I returned to Chahar Bagh Boulevard where I had mingled with crowds earlier in the day. But this historical avenue with a name meaning ‘four gardens’, constructed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was a place I wanted to visit alone. Some called it the Champs-Élysées of Isfahan and I could see why. I found a little café and sat at a table in the cool shade beneath tall cypresses.

A waiter brought me a cold beer. It was alcohol-free kiwi fruit beer… my favourite! He brought me a bowl of pistachios too before asking if I had ever met Margaret Thatcher and if he could have his photograph taken with me.


ABC 097


Photograph: My favourite minaret in Isfahan, complete with a bit of mosque portal and a hooded rook in flight.


Link to Part 10:

Tea with the Coppersmith



The Great Falafel Kerfuffle


Part 8 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

The least stimulating day of the Persian adventure had taken us on a long journey across the Dasht-e Kavier desert from Yaz’d to Isfahan. Hours spent staring out of a window at passing expanses of hardly anything had been largely uninteresting and uncomfortable. On reflection, this sandy landscape stretching from the Red Sea to the Persian Gulf might have been considered one of the world’s best beaches but it didn’t look like much fun at the time. However, every moment of numbness suddenly seemed to have been worthwhile as our coach approached a place that might be better described as a melting pot of commotion than a city. Isfahan, with a population in excess of 2.2 million, was the latest on our list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Since leaving the City of Na’in there had been very little traffic on the road. Just a few cars and vans crammed with too many people or goats on their way to places where there might be something to eat, or where the latter might become something to eat. Occasionally we’d see colossal trucks wearily wending their way along a land route that linked Southern Asia with Eastern Europe. Their loads would probably have been bulk agricultural produce in transit to feed the more densely populated areas, or heavy machinery being relocated from where it had become obsolete to where it would be refurbished and reused. Concealed within these shipments it was possible that there might also be human traffic fleeing something dreadful. Apart from a few pilgrims bound for holy sites there were no signs of other tourists; our swanky, bright blue and yellow Volvo coach must have stuck out like a sore angošt (thumb). As we got nearer and nearer to our destination the trickle of traffic gradually intensified and coagulated before becoming a solid jam in which our bus, that looked a bit like a wasp anyway, struggled to make progress like a floundering wasp trying to escape from a blob of spilt jam.

Just as it had been in Tehran on our very first day, the peak period city traffic was too dense for our tour bus to negotiate, so it was decided that we would make the final kilometre of our journey to the hotel in taxis. These were much more manoeuvrable, and they didn’t belong to Mahtab’s travel company so it didn’t matter if they got scratched or dented.

There were twelve of us in the group so it was calculated that we would quite comfortably fit into three taxis, all of which were Paykans (Iranian Hillman Hunters) the design of which provided seats to accommodate three passengers in each. Again, reminiscent of our first bash at this city centre ferrying about that we’d seen on day one, there was a lot of squeezing in and touching bits of people in a way that didn’t sit easily with the local culture or laws. Our bags were thrown into the boot to encounter the same not-quite-fitting scenario and, despite the skilled use of frayed and worn lengths of nylon rope, we witnessed the hurtling of one of them onto the busy road as we raced to get through a traffic light that was already four or five seconds into its red phase. Rajid the taxi driver told us not to worry and in truth only Kidderminster Andy showed any sign of concern about the bag because it was his that had broken loose from its state-of-the-art bit of string. Looking back, I suppose we may have behaved a little selfishly, but the rest of us were too worried about our lives to think about anything else.

What happened in the next few minutes must have looked like a video clip of a car chase in a low-budget American film as the brakes were slammed on and the Paykan was thrown into reverse gear before doing an illegal left turn to thrash through the shrubbery planted in the central reservation and re-join the dense traffic on the opposite carriageway. A few panic stricken chickens flapping about wouldn’t have looked out of place. In Rajid’s defence I must say that although the recovery of Andy’s bag was of prime importance to him, he ensured somehow that no pedestrians, wildlife or lollipop ladies were harmed. Only a few rose bushes and maybe the chassis of the taxi were listed among the casualties.

An angry policeman in a motionless car adjacent to ours bellowed some sort of warning in the most aggressive Farsi that I had ever heard, but Rajid was able to shout back at him even more loudly and then double our already death-defying velocity to lose the police car and catch up with the other two taxis in our convoy. He stopped once, and only briefly, jumping out to run through the log jam of bloodstained vehicles to retrieve the accidentally jettisoned bag that lay on the pavement guarded by a dozen smiling onlookers. The incident had most likely seemed like a common occurrence to them. It crossed my mind that installing an airport-style baggage carousel on every Isfahani street corner might make life simpler in the inevitable event of this sort of thing happening again.

And all this had taken place because Vahid didn‘t think it was safe to try to drive his big bus through the mad throng of urban traffic. Later in the day, whilst sharing the telling of the tale of this white knuckle ride with the other survivors, Mahtab remarked that she had learned to drive in a Paykan. I told her that I had too, and about my emotional attachment to these wonderful machines, including the one in which I had come close to losing my luggage and my life that afternoon. She went on to say that most Iranians learnt to drive from watching clips of car chases in a low-budget American films.

The Setareh Hotel in Hafez Street was the ‘Hotel of the Trip’ competition winner by an Islamic country mile. Just like myself, it was stylish but not quite luxurious and some bits didn’t work properly, so I felt well and truly at home there. The fact that the minibar in our room was not just well-stocked with alcohol-free beer but also contained a number of tins of pineapple chunks was, for me, the match winning feature. The man from Infidel Monte had obviously said yes.

As well as being a little more plush than the other hotels we had stayed in, it had the tasteful ambiance and elegance of hotels from times long gone. Falling into the depths of very comfortable leather sofas in the lobby to relax with a drink and watch the Middle East and his wives go by, I could imagine that former guests might have included the likes of Omar Sharif, Peter O’Toole or the cast of Carry On Follow That Camel.

Behind the hotel’s reception desk worked a beautiful young woman. She was tall with olive skin, long dark hair and those classic Persian deep dark eyes. When she turned her head I was shocked to see a really ugly scar about ten centimetres long on the other side of her face. Each time I saw her after that, I couldn’t help but wonder about how and why the scar had got there. Maybe it had been the result of an accident, but I couldn’t remove the thought that it might have been something more sinister. Isfahan was well known for its health tourism; people from all over the Arab world travelled there to have their large prominent arched noses modified by plastic surgeons. I wondered why she hadn’t taken advantage of that, concluding that she may have been advised not to, so that it would remain as a constant reminder of something to her. I hoped I was wrong. In less than a week I’d fallen in love with Iran but in that same short time that love was frequently and rigorously tested.

Wiping the residue of the pineapple chunks from our chins, Kidderminster Andy and I travelled down in the 1930s style lift to the reception area to meet Oldham Liz and venture out into our latest jewel of the East. We already knew that we were a long way from the tranquil streets of Yaz’d and Na’in. Isfahan, Iran’s third largest city, was going to be a whirlwind of fascinating people, architecture and culture. A smiling concierge in an old-fashioned uniform held the door open for us and told us to have a nice day as we gulped and stepped out into the street.

Naqsh-e Jahan Square, approximately 500 metres from our hotel, was said to be the second largest public square in the world, surpassed only by Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Mahtab had been doing such a good job as our tour guide that I didn’t like to point out to her that it was really more of a long narrow rectangle than a square. Perhaps I should have done because, if Tiananmen Square really was geometrically square then Naqsh-e Jahan Square would surely have been able to claim the title of biggest public rectangle in the world, which sounded much grander than second biggest square.  

We hadn’t walked far when a young Iranian gentleman asked us where we were from and were we enjoying our stay and would we like to visit his shop to drink tea? Having imagined a small tea shop with red and white gingham table clothes and all that goes with them, we became immediately suspicious in a racial stereotyping kind of way when he led us down an empty alley to a large carpet shop. We were to be hustled! But in his defence, he did keep to the promise of his opening line and provided us with a cups of sweet black tea. As none of us had left home with any plans to buy floor coverings, we sat on the lavish leather cushions, drinking our tea and feeling a bit awkward about what to say or do next.

We were relieved of our embarrassment when one of the many young proprietors asked ‘Have you never been in a carpet shop before?’ So we must have looked as awkward as we felt. Eyeing the magnificent handmade rugs and carpets that adorned every inch of the walls, I hadn’t the heart to tell him about the Allied Carpets Bank Holiday Monday Warehouse Clearance Sale that seemed to take place every day of every year in Swindon. So we explained our predicament and drank their tea and answered their questions about our opinions of their country. They were all lovely, friendly people striving to make a success of their business. I would describe them as persuasive but not pushy because they did succeed in making me wish that I could buy something from them. I promised that I would make every effort to purchase one of their carpets on my next visit to Iran and in the meantime I would tell all my friends about their fine emporium and their delicious tea. We hadn’t spent a single rial but we were thanked profusely as we left to return to the public rectangle.

As darkness fell and the muezzin called from the top of one of the minarets of the mesmerising Shah Mosque, the lovely gardens and fountains were lit up and the square exploded with colours to become one of the most memorable night time city scenes that I had ever set my eyes upon. The ornately decorated Ali Qapu Palace was also very beautiful and I would have said that the Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque was the most wonderful building I had seen in Iran had it not been only 200 metres from the even better Shah Mosque. Exquisite ancient mosques in Iran were like Leeds buses; you’d wait ages for one to come along and then all of a sudden you’d get two together with men waving their arms about and shouting streams of words you don’t understand from the tops of them.

Kidderminster Andy was keen to introduce us to Persian falafel. Someone he knew in Kidderminster (though it may have been Bromsgrove, but it didn’t matter) had told him that the best falafel in the world was to be found in Isfahan. We searched for a falafel restaurant but to no avail. We already knew that restaurants were rare and usually not required in Iran because families eating their meals together at home or on a blanket in a park or garden was such a strong feature of their culture. Andy showed signs of panic until we eventually found a small non-alcoholic beer and falafel bar where we bought the biggest sandwich ever made. Falafel sandwiches only came in extra-large or massive sizes so we shared one between the three of us. It was a bit dry, making me wonder if it really was the best in the world. Andy panicked again and muttered something unflattering about Bromsgrove under his breath. We washed our food down with much needed alcohol-free beer in bottles that had no labels on them, so we assumed that the beer must have been alcohol-free homebrew.

Our meal had been a bit disappointing so we became curious when we noticed picnickers in the square eating gooey yellow stuff that didn’t look all that appetising but seemed very popular. We asked some people what it was and after a thirty-minute session of being told their grandmother’s recipe and having our photographs taken with them and explaining exactly where Oldham was in relation to Buckingham Palace, they told us it was called kashke bademjan and pointed us in the direction of a small kiosk where we could buy it. It was a dish made from aubergine, garlic and saffron, topped with sautéed onions and eaten with naan. I had to admit it looked absolutely disgusting. Oldham Liz, who was a surgeon, said that it had the appearance of something that might be left lying around at the end of a long hard day in a hospital’s ear, nose and throat department. We sat on a low stone wall in the square to eat it. A sort of night time picnic, just like the hundreds of Iranian folks around us were having. It was absolutely delicious.

Our bellies full, we sauntered a little more in the area of the square. There were no restaurants or bars and the shops had nearly all closed for the night. All that remained open were the shops that sold gaz (nougat) which must have inexplicably had some sort of late licence arrangement with the local authority.

Some Iranian ladies sitting on the grass by the fountains laughed and shouted at us. All a bit of fun, I thought. But then an Iranian man came up to us from nowhere and apologised for their ‘cheap jokes’ adding that he hoped we weren’t offended. My only regret was that I hadn’t understood what they were saying as I quite enjoy a cheap joke, though I didn’t tell him that. I suspected that they had been amused by the traces of kashke bademjan that had dribbled from my chin to the front of my shirt.

Back at the hotel we marvelled at the elevator music. With perfect acoustics, it seemed as though there was someone in there with us performing Chopin on a concert grand piano. Also, the recorded voice of a lady saying ‘third floor’ and ‘have a nice day’ in English and in Farsi sounded sophisticated and seductive. I remember thinking that the cabin of this small lift was more comfortable and attractive than quite a few hotel rooms I had stayed in on my previous travels.

Kidderminster Andy, who was still showing signs of distress from the unfortunate outcome of the falafel episode, decided that he was going to hit the pineapple chunks. I couldn’t stand the atmosphere so I left him to it and returned to the hotel lobby to write the day’s entry in my journal. I ordered a coffee from the beautiful woman with the awful scar. A man in a bellhop uniform brought it to where I was sitting. It looked good and it smelt good but it tasted awful. But at least they had coffee; this was only my third cup since my arrival in Iran. As I sat and wrote, occasionally looking up to observe the assortment of people who were wandering into the hotel from the darkness of the Persian night, I felt totally at peace with the world. I decided that it was only the poor standard of the coffee that was putting me off staying there forever.

Five minutes later I decided that the coffee was better described as unbearable than awful, so I spoke to the lovely receptionist and ordered a bottle of beer. It was alcohol-free cantaloupe beer… my favourite!


ABC 096


Photograph: The kashke bademjan seller of Isfahan.


Link to Part 9:

The Man in the Iran Mosque



Just Deserts


Part 7 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Yaz’d had been the place where I think I really fell in love with Iran. In the middle of the Dasht-e Kavier desert we had left behind the hubbub of the country’s more popular cities and we had greater opportunity to mingle, chat and laugh with people, some of whom had never met foreigners before. Marco Polo, the Venetian merchant, explorer and writer, had passed through eight centuries earlier (introducing mints to the local cuisine) and I supposed that he had been even sadder to leave than I was because at least I knew where our group would be going next. Poor old Marco didn’t even have a map. Yaz’d, they said, had been continually inhabited for seven millennia. I hoped that it would stay that way for another 7,000 years, but in my mind there were doubts and fears for its future.

This was a day that will always stay with me as the ‘day of the desert’. In our super-comfortable tour bus on which we had to wrap up warm to combat the chill of the super-efficient air conditioning, we travelled 350 kilometres on the road to Isfahan, the next stop on our itinerary of super-ancient cities.

The scenery along the way might have been described as monotonous though there were intermittent points of interest such as broken down trucks, drive-in highway mosques, old abandoned fortresses, ancient dwelling places, interesting looking but indecipherable graffiti daubed on crumbling old walls, and far away through the shimmering heat of the dusty plain, we saw a flock of camels grazing on the sand. The police stations, of which there were many, were places of great intrigue for me as I shuddered to think about the things that might have gone on inside them. Small dusty uniformed men with big dusty moustaches and guns to match signalled to us to halt at a couple of these for Vahid our driver to get his documents stamped in a tacographic kind of way. On both occasions, upon discovering that we weren’t Iranian, the men in positions of authority climbed aboard the coach, smiling, shaking our hands and proudly welcoming us to their patch of the desert. I would have loved to have snapped a few pictures but we’d been warned against photographing anyone or anything that looked official and, despite the good-natured reception, I felt that I might have been pushing my luck in doing so.

Mahtab pointed out to us a power station two or three kilometres away from the road. She said it was the place that political leaders and spies of the western world believed that Iran’s nuclear enrichment was going on. She also told us to keep this under our hats as it was an aspect of Persian life that X Travels had told her to exclude from their list of less controversial matters covered in the schedule. So we weren’t allowed to go and have a closer look. Years before this I had worked for the electricity generating people at home and as a perk of the job I had visited a great number of power stations in England and Wales (a nerdy hobby that I share with only a few special friends). So remembering the old saying that once you’ve been contaminated by uranium particles in one power station, you’ve been contaminated in them all, I didn’t feel aggrieved at this missed opportunity. Though it would have been nice to have been able to buy a deadly power plant fridge magnet.

Our request to stop the bus and hop off to stretch our legs and take in some fresh air wasn’t ignored. A few kilometres from Sizewell’s sister station, at a place where there was nothing at all to see but the road and the desert, we stood on the verge and looked around us. It was like the surface of the moon but without any sign of American flags (well, not yet) and it was utterly breathtaking in its nothingness.

The guidebook said that the great thirteenth century Persian poet Rumi had once written of his time in this desert, ‘A great silence overcomes me, and I wonder why I ever thought to use language.’ I experienced that same overwhelming sensation myself, 800 years later.

Just before noon we rolled into the slumbering town of Na’in, an important transit point at the geographical centre of Iran and at the start of the real no-nonsense desert road to the cities of Tabas and Mashad near to Iran’s borders with Turkmenistan and Afghanistan. None of us had read the Surviving Extremely Harsh Desert Conditions for Dummies book so we gave that a miss and went for a nice cup of sweet black tea instead.

In downtown Na’in we visited the tenth century Jameh Mosque which had no iwan (arched entrance) which, for those who are up on this sort of thing, is quite novel. Such an omission was something I wouldn’t normally have noticed but ever since then, whenever visiting a mosque, I have always looked out for the presence of an iwan and explained to anyone visiting with me that the poor people of Na’in didn’t have one. I also learnt that any mosque referred to as a Jameh Mosque was a congregational mosque and could also be called the Friday Mosque, even though they’re open every day of the week. Apparently Na’in’s Jameh Mosque was especially noted for its fine mihrab (a niche or depression indicating the direction of Mecca) and beautiful stucco decoration.

The nearby old baked clay traditional houses and fortress were fascinating to look at and walk amongst, but many were in a poor state of repair. I felt it was a huge shame that no effort was being made preserve them. Because so few people ever went to Iran there was no Ministry of Tourism to preserve non-religious buildings and there was no interest among the local population to secure their existence for future generations of foreign visitors to point their fingers and cameras at. Like in many countries I had visited, people who had lived their lives surrounded by the old ways were keen to brighten things up a bit by seeking out the trappings of the new ways. Iranians had more historic buildings than they could find a use for but, in places like Na’in, there was very little evidence of anything else.

Until we had left Yaz’d, the vast majority of cars that we had seen on the roads had been very shiny and modern. Every registered driver in Iran had a monthly allocation of fifty litres of free petrol. Any fuel that they needed over and above this allowance cost them a matter of pence per litre.  And there was no road tax or purchase tax on overseas brand vehicles if they had been manufactured in Iran. So the cost of motoring was very low. But in Na’in, and for much of the rest of the trip, there were old Hillman Hunter cars on every street. Apparently, when their production ceased at the Rootes Motors factory at Linwood in Scotland in 1979, the whole production line was sold to Iran. The sight of these wonderful vehicles, rebranded as the Paykan (meaning ‘arrow’), brought me moments of soppy sentimentalism as I thought back to my very first car which had been a Hillman Hunter. It was in this that I had most of my driving lessons. A strange feature of this right-hand drive car had been that the handbrake was on the floor to the right of the driver’s seat, greatly enhancing the look of fear in the eyes of my friend who was teaching me.

Another fabulous lunch was laid before us at the Traditional Na’in Inn in Na’in (try writing that when you’ve been on the alcohol-free beer). I had lemon barley soup (Robinson’s I presumed) followed by ghormeh sabzi (a beef stew that was unofficially Iran’s national dish) with raisin rice. Jo (daughter of eighty-year-old birthday girl, Ann) told me about all her own intrepid travels over lunch. By that I mean that while we were eating she told me of her travels, not that she had been travelling while we had been eating. Out of the blue, she became another person for me to be in awe of, though I can’t remember where she said her travels had taken her because my head was concentrating so much on the job of eating the sumptuous food.

Refreshed and exercised, we were back on the road with lots more vast expanses of emptiness to look at. From English language books I had bought in Shiraz I tried to read some of the verse of the poet Hafez but it was almost as heavy going as the scriptures of the Quran which I had dabbled in for a whole five minutes. So I turned to my MP3 player for entertainment and not surprisingly had the words of songs by Shahram Nazeri, the Kamkars and Chengis Mehdipour stuck in my head for the rest of the day. It was probably disrespectful to Iranian culture, and it was certainly irritating to other members of our group, but I sang them out nice and loud anyway. Unfortunately, Mahtab was unable to tell me where and when the next Asiavision Song Contest would be held.

We broke the final 150 kilometre stretch of the day’s journey with a stop in the village of Rafsanjan, not to be confused with the city of Rafsanjan to the south of Yaz’d. The city of Rafsanjan was the birthplace of Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani, the former president of Iran, and the village of Rafsanjan was the birthplace of Mohammed the weaver. Before leaving Britain I had somewhere between very little and no knowledge of these two men, but I was glad that we had stopped in the village rather than the city because Mohammed seemed like a much nicer sort of person than Akbar. If you’re reading this, Akbar, I do apologise, even though we both know it’s true.

Mohammed, who for a living wove the coarse woollen cloth used for making clerics’ robes, was approximately eighty-five years old. Nobody could be completely sure of his age because everyone who had lived in Rafsanjan at the time of his birth was no longer around and documented records hadn’t been a big thing in desert villages in the 1920s. Descending four or five steps from the street into the basement of his very simple white-painted, mud-built, dome-roofed house, we entered an archaic workshop where this frail old man sat and worked at his ancient loom. With no windows, the room was lit by a single energy-efficient lightbulb that hung at the end of an electric cable stapled in place to make its precarious journey across the ceiling to the wall where it connected with a fuse box as old as Mohammed himself. Also on the wall were scraps of paper with scribbled quotations from the Quran and a large colour photograph of local rival, Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani. The floor was littered with bundles of wool, pieces of cloth, teapots and teacups. He obviously hadn’t been expecting us.

As he wove he answered our questions, translated via Mahtab, about what life had been like in rural Iran when he was young, his work, his relationship with the clerics who he worked for and his family. We asked if he had travelled far from his home and we were told that he had been a few times to Na’in, about seventy kilometres away. It was incredible to think that we’d seen so much more of his country than he had.  Finally, someone asked if he had any questions for us. He only had one. He wanted to know which cities we came from. Going round the room he was given the names Southampton, Oxford, upstate New York, Oldham, Kidderminster and a few others that I can’t remember. No one has ever heard of Chippenham where I lived, so when it came to my turn I said ‘Leeds’ where I had spent much of my youth and Mohammed immediately remarked ‘Ahhh, Leeds United!’ I couldn’t believe it. Since then I’ve told many people this story and the majority of them didn’t believe it either, but it’s completely true. Had it not been for Iran’s austere rules and regulations regarding physical contact in public places I would have kissed him.

Listening to Mahtab talking to Mohammed in Farsi was fascinating. We later found out that much of what they were saying was in desert slang Farsi, so it was obvious that we wouldn’t be able to understand them. I could have listened to them all day. It was like music to my ears. The chatter became even more intense when we were joined by the weaver’s daughter who seemed to enjoy a bit of a chinwag. And then, when we went outside, there was an absolute Farsi frenzy as Mrs Mohammed the weaver’s wife appeared. Apparently they had wanted to know all the news from those faraway places like Yaz’d and Shiraz that they’d never been to.

In most countries it’s not permitted to drink beer on a bus so I took great delight in returning to my seat beneath the cool blast of the air conditioning and drank a bottle of beer from the small mud-built shop on the corner of Mohammed’s street. It was alcohol-free mango beer… my favourite!


ABC 095


Photograph: Mohammed the weaver in the desert village of Rafsanjan.


Link to Part 8:

The Great Falafel Kerfuffle




Razzmatazzed in Yaz’d


Part 6 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

In the breakfast room of the Parsian Hotel in the City of Yaz’d, the people sitting around the table allocated to the X Travels intrepid adventure group seemed strangely subdued. I suspected that they’d all overdone it a bit with the alcohol-free apricot beer the previous evening. So I said, ‘My name’s Turlough and I’m a non-alcoholic’ and they all came suddenly back to life.

Mahtab spoke next, telling us about the problems she had encountered as a career woman in Iran and how her father initially hadn’t been happy about the unorthodox way that she wanted to live her life, but had eventually accepted that she was never going to learn to cook and sew like her sisters. Rather than lose their daughter, as many Iranian parents faced with that situation had done, he had given her his blessing and told her to crack on with it. She understood the implications, which strengthened her determination to be successful and made her love him all the more. She didn’t mention what her mother had had to say and, under the circumstances, we didn’t like to ask.

Despite what I had heard about the role of women in Iranian society, Mahtab appeared to be quite happy with what she had achieved. I was really pleased that we had a female tour guide as I suspected a male, however good, wouldn’t have been able to tell us so much about the way women were constantly downtrodden or ignored. She also talked about difficulties that existed within mixed-sex platonic friendships, rendering them almost impossible.

Wherever I’ve been in the world I’ve always felt extremely fortunate to have originated from a country where I was able to enjoy freedom of speech and the security of a decent human rights record. But I need to visit other countries because I love the experiences of contrasting landscapes and cultures. It appalled me that our hosts couldn’t voice their opinions openly or travel freely, particularly the women, but neither were they threatened by the excessive crime rates and out of control drug culture that I’d seen in the so-called developed world. Despite its many terrible faults (the severity of the punishments handed out to lawbreakers being a major one) the Iranian government did try to look after its people. Using revenue from oil exports it was able to provide Iranians with free education, free good quality health care, and virtually free fuel. And homelessness was virtually non-existent. Looking around me then and now it’s impossible to see that any country in the world has ever got everything completely right. Until they have attained perfection I’d say it’s wrong for one country to impose its ideals on another, whether that be in an east to west or in a west to east direction.

The whole of the Old City district of Yaz’d was a World Heritage Site so we didn’t have far to go for our daily UNESCO fix. Apparently Yaz’d used to be called Yez’d but the half million people who lived there decided that they fancied a change so they razzmatazzed the name a bit. It means ‘City of the Holy One’. It’s said to be the oldest living city on Earth with historians claiming that it had been inhabited continually for more than 7,000 years. Those historians were unable to prove such longevity but elderly American Connie confirmed that it had always been there on her visits to Iran.

A very short bus ride had us back on the mosque trail at last with a visit to the Jameh Mosque. Built in the fifteenth century it formed an equally stunning sight from close up or from a distance. It had the tallest entrance portal in Iran and was beautifully tiled throughout. Its magnificence had earned it a place on the obverse of the 200 rials banknote, at least the ones that hadn’t turned black from overuse.

Moseying around the mosque’s arcaded courtyard I got chatting to a student of architecture. He was keen to practice his English on me but he practiced his architecture on me too, telling me some of the differences between Western designs and those of Persia. For example, every building in his country was planned to include some sign of life in it, the clearest example being a deliberate small depression in a roof which would fill up with rainwater and from which the birds would be able to drink. Courtyards would always have an area of soil for shrubs to grow and a pool for animals to drink from and for fish to live in. Without these a building would be considered to be lifeless and consequently not be a healthy place to live or work. He had a huge bandage on his right wrist because he said he ‘had been doing falling over’. He laughed when I suggested that maybe the pond in his courtyard wasn’t big enough to provide the required standard of good health.

Because of its desert location, Yaz’d had had to adapt its architecture and had come to be known as the ‘City of Wind Catchers’. The idea of these structures called bagdirs in Farsi, and which dominated the city’s skyline, was to direct the slightest of breezes into a mosque or house to make it cool. Some were more impressively designed than others and although some were obviously very old, many more had been built in recent years.

For a couple of hours we walked around the almost deserted labyrinth of back streets of the Old City, losing ourselves amongst a myriad of old baked clay buildings and often stumbling across a small square with a café, a shop, a fountain, a palm tree or any permutation of two or three out of the four of these.  Women with small carts sold roasted corn on the cob (balal), doughnuts (bamieh) and saffron ice cream. People came out of their houses to talk to us. Some would ask to have their photographs taken with us, but only if they were in their best clothes as they were proud people. Not only were we in a different land, we were in a different time where only the tangled web of overhead electricity and telephone cables and an abandoned shopping trolley suggested that the twenty-first century had arrived.

From a ceramic shop in a tiled courtyard I bought a ceramic tile. A simple picture of a woman in old Persian dress standing in front of a window with brightly coloured curtains and holding a large, circular, beige object which I took to be either a fan or a naan. It was beautiful and the man who sold it to me was the man who had made it. He told me how, where and why he and his family produced such tiles and offered me tea and thanked me for visiting his shop. Connie had bought a similar item in a shop just around the corner in a tenth of the time and, having paid less for it, suggested that I had been ripped off. But I liked the shop, I liked the man, I loved the tile and I had enjoyed the experience. No one’s words could spoil it for me.

Today was the eightieth birthday of our group member Ann, who had come on the trip with her daughter Jo to mark the occasion. We bought her a party balloon and asked her if she’d be going out on the lash in the evening. This wouldn’t have been too unusual a question in Britain or Ireland where it meant partaking in the heavy consumption of alcohol to celebrate. In Iran, where the penalty for being caught with alcohol was forty lashes, being on the lash wasn’t the sort of thing you’d get dolled up for.

We passed a lovely hour relaxing among the fruit trees (pomegranate, medlar and persimmon) and ornamental pools in the shady courtyard of the Traditional Hotel, which was far more ornately decorated than the Parsian Hotel in which we were staying for a couple of nights. Here we escaped the hot sun and drank our first coffee since we were in Tehran on the first day of the trip. Iranians, we’d noticed, didn’t do coffee very often (in fact, almost never) but when they did, it was among the best I’d ever tasted. I sat and talked to the birthday girl, the youngest octogenarian that I knew, about her many travels during her lifetime. Her late husband had worked in the British Diplomatic Service so, accompanying him, she’d not just travelled but lived in a number of Asian and African countries and continued to travel to unusual and distant places after his passing. I admired and envied her, as well as Connie and Tony who were both also in their eighties with reams of travel stories tucked away in their wise old heads, and I promised myself that I’d continue to travel, as they had, late into my life.

From the roof of the Traditional Hotel I had an excellent view of the unique skyline with dozens of wind catchers filling the spaces between the clutter of domes and minarets of the city’s many mosques. Standing there alone I witnessed the dhuhr azan (noon call to prayer). From most of these the call was a recording broadcast by means of a loud speaker but some still had real life muezzins (the men who do the calling), and each started at a slightly different time so calls would be heard echoing from every direction for several minutes. This hauntingly beautiful experience was made even more bizarre by the chaotic flapping and fluttering of thousands of pigeons, disturbed from their shady rooftop perches by the sudden blasts of Islamic prayer.

Bagh-e Dolat Abad was cool in both senses of the word. Exquisitely designed, it was once the residence of Persian King Karim Khan Zand. Built around 1750 it consisted of a small pavilion in a large but peaceful and shaded garden with rows of cypresses lining either side of a qanat (a sloping channel, often ornamental as well as practical, for transferring water from a well to a building) and boasted the tallest badgir in Iran at over thirty-three metres. It was described in the guide book as 7,000 square metres of heaven on earth. Leaving there was difficult as by the time we had reached the end of our thirty-minute tour, the dry heat outside had become a bit uncomfortable. So strange it was to see the local people with their woolly jumpers on and their coats zipped up to their chins. In a part of the world where summer temperatures could reach 50° Celsius in the shade, a day of just over 30°, such as the day that we were there, would have felt quite chilly to them.

Several times we passed a building that had a huge sign on its roof saying ‘Yaz’d Water Museum’ which had me intrigued. In a place of such perfect desert conditions, I could imagine great halls with banks of display cabinets containing exhibits like a puddle from the rain shower of 1934, Cyrus the Great’s Saturday night bathwater and a half-full syphon from the days when local residents could enjoy a brandy and soda whilst sitting down to watch the Benny Hill Show on television. Mahtab said we didn’t have time to pay it a visit because we were dashing off to have our lunch in a restaurant that was a restored hammam and the museum wasn’t very interesting anyway because it was all about the history of building qanats which we would know all about if we had been listening to her while she was telling us about them as she showed us round the palace only half an hour earlier. ‘Yes Miss!’ we replied in unison.

The restaurant, tiled throughout with intricate turquoise and white ceramic tiles, was well worth the visit. Delightfully cool with delicious food served at tables where a century earlier there would have been steam rooms and plunge pools and people even sweatier than we were. As I write this I dribble a bit from the corners of my mouth at the recollection of eating a dish called abgusht which comprised of a hot iron crucible containing a lamb and potato stew in two layers. The first, rather runny layer was decanted off, just as molten metal would be decanted from a crucible in a steelworks, into a bowl and eaten like soup. Following the table etiquette of the region, I mashed up the second layer with a large metal implement resembling an engine piston rod and spooned it on to my plate to eat with spiced rice drizzled with pomegranate. The starter had been chilled yoghurt, nut and raisin soup which I have mentioned last because, although lovely, it was more like a dessert than a starter. A couple of members of our group thoroughly enjoyed plates of something that contained minced camel testicles, though they hadn’t been aware of the ingredients until the waiter explained the recipe as he cleared the tables and stared at the mess we had made of his starched white tablecloths.

In the afternoon we had a break from Islam and turned our attention to Zoroastrianism which, until then, I knew nothing about. The first port of Zoroastrian call was the ancient site of Dakhmeh Zartoshtian (The Tower of Silence). There were actually two towers, though one was in a much better state of repair than the other, built on hill tops where the Zoroastrians laid their dead so that the vultures could pick their bones clean, thus preserving the purity of the earth which would not have been possible with a burial. At the foot of the towers were the dome-roofed stone ruins of old fire temples in which worship had taken place. This incredible spot where the city met the desert bore a remarkable resemblance to the Star Wars film set.

Ateshkadeh means ‘House of Fire’ and our final historic treasure of the day today was the one that accommodated the Atash Bahram, meaning ‘Victorious Fire’, a Zoroastrian eternal flame that had been burning continuously since 470 A.D. It was refuelled constantly with branches from apricot trees but otherwise it was the same fire that had burned for one and a half millennia. We felt obliged at this point to explain to Mahtab the principle of Trigger’s Broom. Trigger was a character from the BBC television comedy series Only Fools and Horses who said that he had had his road sweeper's broom for twenty years, but added that in that time the broom had needed seventeen new heads and fourteen new handles. Mahtab smiled before hastily scribbling something in her X Travels group leader’s notebook.

Before returning to the hotel we had an early evening visit to the Yaz’d Grand Bazaar which, at the weariest hour of the day, didn’t appeal much to me. But on our arrival I discovered that it was one of the world’s oldest markets with countless arched tunnels crammed with Persian wares and a throng of Persian people out with their Persian shopping lists and shopping bags bearing the Yaz’d Grand Bazaar corporate logo.

Here we found busy little moustachioed men with pale skin due to them never having seen the light of day, trading from small shops and stalls laden with all manner of wares. The most memorable of these were the wooden kitchen knife blocks in the human form with big holes like stab wounds to accommodate the knives, Manchester United football shirts with the letter ‘h’ missing from the word Manchester where it appeared on the crests, handmade clothes (religious and non-religious), cakes (wedding and non-wedding), boxes of chocolates (edible and non-edible), tea pots (chocolate and non-chocolate), and multi-coloured umbrellas which were particularly strange to see considering that we were in one of the driest places on Earth. They had every retail item imaginable with the exception of corkscrews and condoms.

Outside the bazaar we bumped into Farzad, a young man who took delight in explaining to us that he was getting married the following day. So he was out on the town with his blushing bride to be, his mother in law to be, the bridesmaids and some of his sisters and their friends. I was surprised to see so many female members of this one-man stag party. The ladies were all dressed from head to toe in black with only their faces visible. Their joviality surprised me, as did their interest in us and where we were from. We took photographs of various permutations of family and guests but we weren’t invited to the wedding… not even to the evening do.

Dinner was enjoyed by the pool at our hotel once again. It took about an hour to eat it then and another hour to pay for it as we flapped and faffed about with copious piles of indistinguishable Iranian banknotes and the counting fingers of every member of the hotel staff. I was glad I wasn’t the only one in our group who was struggling with the Iranian rials to U.S. dollars to British pounds maths problems that followed each and every meal. The fact that they gave group members individual bills took some of the sting out of this but when settling up I found it was easiest to give the entire contents of my wallet to the Iranian man at the till each time, telling him to take whatever he needed and then hand what remained back to me. Tipping was impossible. As we were walking away from the cashier’s desk I tried to a leave a couple of dog-eared notes that were probably somewhere in the region of 10% but a waiter came running after me shouting that I’d made a terrible mistake. I spent the next ten minutes trying to explain to him and two or three of his colleagues the concept of leaving a gratuity. In the end the only way I could get the message across was by saying, ‘I like you very much and I want to give you some money so here you are and good night!’

Feeling more stressed than I had expected to feel whilst on holiday, I retired to my room and drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar. It was alcohol-free nectarine beer… my favourite!


ABC 094


Photograph: The Ateshkadeh fire temple in Yaz’d and its beautiful reflection.


Link to Part 7:

Just Deserts



The Iran - Tie Rack War


Part 5 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

In an attempt to appear multicultural, multilingual and possibly even intellectual, I extended my grasp of the Farsi tongue and greeted Vahid the driver with sob bekhey (good morning) instead of plain old salaam (hello) as used by most other members of our group. A term that Vahid had probably never heard before but which was used quite regularly amongst my travelling companions was smartarse. This seemed to them the perfect opportunity to demonstrate its use.

Minutes later we were saying khodâ hâfez (goodbye) as aboard our tour bus we sped past the sign that probably bore the legend ‘Thank you for driving carefully through Shiraz’ but which could have said absolutely anything because it was written in the Perso-Arabic script that I wasn’t quite familiar with.

As we headed for the desert, Mahtab’s information stream was soon in full flow. She began with a rundown on the general characteristics of people from various regions of her country, reinforcing my theory that all women make sweeping generalisations. According to Iranian lore, Tehranis were generous, people from Shiraz were lavish, Yaz’d folk were reputed to overindulge in food, and the good citizens of Isfahan were extremely careful with their money… a bit like Aberdonians, she added. Others seated near me informed her that it was believed that the same could be said about people with Yorkshire blood in them, whilst gesturing towards me. She smiled at me before hastily scribbling something in her X Travels group leader’s notebook.

There then followed the misunderstanding of the trip. Women in Iran are required by law to always have the crowns of their heads covered, and to do this a large proportion of the younger ones wear brightly coloured silky scarves rather than the black hijab that non-Iranians might expect to see. Angie from Essex was wearing a particularly brightly patterned item that many people had commented upon in admiration. Another of our group asked her where she had got it from and she replied ‘Tie Rack’, which most of us knew as a clothing company with branches in airports, railway stations, and shopping centres all over Britain. Elderly American Connie wasn’t aware of such retail outlets and expressed shock upon believing she had heard that Angie had been to Iraq, which Americans pronounce as ‘Eye Rack’. She couldn’t understand why Angie was still alive, until this was explained to her. I had been to Iraq in the late 1970s but I didn’t mention this to Connie as I hoped to prevent a return to the state of commotion or the start of a debate over whether or not I was dead.

Whilst on the subject of Iraq, and to complement the fun-filled holiday mood that we had found ourselves in that morning, Mahtab told us some of the story of the Eight Years War (1980 to 1988) fought between Iran and Iraq. Apparently it had come at a very unfortunate time because Iran was just finding its feet in the wake of the Islamic Revolution when Iraq, heavily supported by the U.S.A., attacked. This assault on Iranian territory was inspired by the Iraqi leadership’s belief that it was a necessary step to prevent the spread of new post-revolutionary Iranian ideology. It was a horrific conflict in which the combined number of dead from both sides exceeded 1.5 million. Since hostilities ceased, the relatives of the Iranian dead, who were considered martyrs, had received some benefits such as easier entry into universities, but this had seemed to cause some resentment amongst those who hadn’t lost family members in the war. Clerics had told the people that the dead would go to Paradise because they were fighting  to defend their country, so many volunteered to go to the front, including nomads and Armenians. I imagined that as this promise was made on both sides of the militarised zone, the dead would have been able to continue the battle when they arrived in Paradise. By the time of our visit, people of the two nations had come to exist side by side on friendly terms, largely because many Iraqis, especially clerics, had fled to Iran to escape Saddam’s regime in their own country. Pilgrims from both sides often entered their neighbouring country to visit religious shrines and holy places. 

Our modern history lesson complete, I sat back in my seat to study the physical geography that was on display beyond the tinted glass of the coach window. My guide book described the Plain of Dasht-e-Morghab, a large stretch of which we would traverse that morning, as vast but beautiful. I couldn’t disagree as what I saw was mostly arid, but with pockets of vegetation and areas of agricultural activity. And it was clear that it had been a place of great geological upheaval over millions of years as flat stretches of landscape would suddenly be sliced open by deep chasms which I assumed were features of seismic goings-on. I had read about there being a number of fault lines crossing Iran but in this region there seemed to be a multitude of mini versions of them. I wished I’d known how to tell Volvo Vahid to drive carefully in Farsi. At that point I was unaware that the harshness of the terrain we were crossing was nothing in comparison to what we would see later in the day. To my relief, the majority of the roads in Iran were in very good condition.

Two hours after leaving Shiraz we stopped at Pasargadae, an archaeological gem that pre-dated even Persepolis. This was our UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Day where we saw the austere but imposing tomb of Cyrus the Great, founder of the Persian Empire, and the remains of several of his palaces, all located in this lonely windswept spot surrounded by the virtually boundless expanses of an inhospitable landscape. There was absolutely nothing there apart from these incredible ruins that dated back more than 2,500 years. Admission was free. There wasn’t even a fence around the place.

It was there that I had the pleasure of bumping into Hassan Marshad, the motorcyclist. I was taking a photograph of a most unusual Honda bike parked by the road when he came up to me and asked if I would like any information about it. Not being mechanically minded I wondered what I would be letting myself in for but his face beamed as he explained to me all the useful devices he had added to the machine since he had purchased it in Egypt. On it he had ridden through most of the countries of the Middle East. His journey, he said, wouldn’t have been possible without a few technical enhancements. These included the fitting of a fire extinguisher, a gas cylinder for inflating his mattress, a windscreen wiper and a system for boiling water to make tea. If the Iranian Film Board had ever decided to make its own version of Inspector Gadget then Hassan would have been the obvious choice to take the lead role. I was pleased that he invited himself to have morning coffee with us near to the tomb.

The numbers of the gathering swelled further a few minutes later upon the arrival of a family of touring Iranians who seemed keen to adorn us with compliments. I didn’t doubt their sincerity but I felt a little uncomfortable as these plaudits obviously didn’t come naturally to them and gave me the impression that they were trying very hard to be profound and witty in an Oscar Wilde sort of way. ‘Your garment, magnificently tailored with the golden needles and silver threads of the angels, displays the grandiose extravagance of the hide of a tiger’ was what a woman said to me whilst examining my tee-shirt that I had picked up for around a fiver in Primark in Bristol. Formal English lessons were illegal in their country and it soon became obvious that they were just practising on us what they had learnt from books.

Recognising the need to bring things back down to earth, Hassan told me a joke and drew enough confidence from the fact that I had laughed to enable him to tell it again to the whole group. Before commencing his brief stand-up comedy routine, he apologised to me because he would be repeating himself. Hassan’s joke went like this:

If your nose runs and your feet smell, you were born upside down.

Uproarious laughter ensued, as much at the delivery as at the joke itself. Hassan grinned from ear to ear with pride and I could see that the response from his audience had caused him to become a little emotional. He was keen to quickly shake my hand, thank me profusely and then ride off across the dusty plain on his magic Honda.

The travelling family stayed with us a little longer. We expected them to drive away as soon as all our coffee and cake had disappeared. Our mid-morning snack was really nice, having been generously prepared and packed up for us by the kitchen staff of our hotel in Shiraz, but what our new friends then produced from the boot of their car to share with us was far superior and absolutely delicious. I’ve been on 1,447 picnics in my life, but to this day the one at the Tomb of Cyrus remains my absolute favourite. In fact, I if I worked for UNESCO I would designate it a World Heritage Picnic.

The next stop on our journey, about an hour’s drive beyond Pasargadae, was to meet another Hassan. He had been described to us in advance as a farmer, local historian and jovial raconteur. It turned out that he was the sort of person who, where I came from, might easily be described as a bit of a lad. His farm was really a vineyard and, whilst taking us on a tour of it and explaining how raisins are produced, he confessed to having made maybe a little wine, just for family and friends. He also told us he was a big fan of Joan Baez and world peace, as silent but smiling female members of his family laid out plates of food for us on tables beneath the tall cypress trees that shaded his garden. This was a real desert oasis; miles and miles from anywhere we dined in verdant luxuriousness surrounded by rocks and sand as far as the eye could see. Naan, goat’s cheese, dates, melon, huge sweet rose-coloured tomatoes and Hassan’s words of wisdom were the perfect ingredients for what seemed a banquet.

‘The Earth is just one place. If you go to the Moon you cannot see man’s borders on Earth. All men have the same coloured blood.’ he said philosophically. He repeatedly called us his friends so we asked if this gave us some sort of entitlement to a drop of his ‘little wine, just for family and friends’ but, as expected, he laughed and said no, explaining that he would worry about the trouble we would be in if we were found out by the police. I found it strange that, so soon after the picnic of a lifetime, this had been the lunch of a lifetime.

Sarv-e Abarkuh (the Cypress of Abarkuh, National Tree of Iran) said to have been alive for more than 4,000 years, was an interesting sight to see. Please don’t tell this to anybody at the Iranian Tourist Board, but it didn’t look that old to me. We asked Elderly American Connie if she had seen it on her previous visits and she said she had but it had been different and much better back then. This was what she always said when we asked her questions about her travels that had spanned seven decades, but becoming accustomed to our humour she added that it had only been a sapling the first time she saw it. Nearby was a vast circular beehive-shaped ice house built from local stone in which, before the introduction of electricity and freezers, ice from the mountains had survived being stored through the ravages of Persian summers.

The final 150 kilometres of the road to Yaz’d wound through the breathtaking Zagros Mountains, the tallest of which was Shir Kuh Peak, towering to a height of 4,055 metres above sea level. I read that it was a feature of an arc of volcanoes composed of Jurassic granite. The setting sun bathed the landscape in crimson making it one of the most beautiful and surreal places I had ever seen. Roadside mosques and a couple of old fortresses silhouetted against the dying embers of the desert sun enhanced the spectacle further. This was the climax of a day in which I had already collected a headful of memories to treasure for the rest of my life.

The Parsian Hotel in the City of Yaz’d was very nice. Not luxurious, but clean and comfortable and I was never more than a couple of metres away from an electronic knob or switch or lever which never did anything, and which nobody could explain, but kept me intrigued and amused nonetheless.

In the evening our whole group ate dinner together for the first time. We had delicious ‘troutfish fish’ and aromatic rice topped with the juicy sarcotesta of pomegranates. The drink flowed like water. This was mainly because, in the absence of anything else, it was water. Entertained and amused by Mahtab and my companions, I spent a wonderful couple of hours at a table beside the hotel’s ex-swimming pool that had been filled in with soil and planted with rose bushes but still had a diving board. Iran’s senior clerics, like my mother, must have recognised that it wasn’t wise to swim on a full stomach. Mahtab corrected me, saying that it wasn’t wise to remove any articles of clothing at all and consequently swimming pools had become totally redundant since the revolution.

Retiring to our room, Kidderminster Andy and I lamented the passing of another day void of mosque visits. We hit the minibar and managed to run up a bill of over 100,000 rials (almost two British pounds) on the strength of us each having a bottle of alcohol-free apricot beer… my favourite! It must have been good stuff because it had ‘Extra Halal’ written in English on the label.


ABC 093


Photograph: Hassan Marshad, the inventive nomadic stand-up comedian.


Link to Part 6:

Razzmatazzed in Yaz'd



Only Here for The Poets


Part 4 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Waking up in Shiraz, I felt that our trip had taken on a different mood. During the night a calmness had descended that had so far been missing from what, after all, was a holiday. Despite having a population of one and a half million the city was relatively peaceful in comparison to the urban turmoil of Tehran. Birds could be heard singing in the fruit trees that lined the streets and gardens near to the hotel, and gone was the sun’s struggle to shine through traffic pollution as dense as the atmosphere of Saturn. To Iranians Shiraz was known as the city of poets, literature and flowers. Its description alone was a balm to the brain after the demanding schedule of the previous two days, and having had a good night’s sleep had made a big difference too.

I enjoy a good capital city but they tend to be a bit busy and sometimes pretentious so I’m usually more comfortable when I’m away from them, and looking on the map I saw that we were a long way from any of them; Kuwait City being the nearest at that point. So I feel more of an accomplished traveller when I have explored a country’s provincial areas. It saddens me a bit when I hear foreigners saying that they’ve been to Ireland, England or Scotland when they’ve only actually seen Dublin, London or Edinburgh. In my opinion these cities, although interesting and well worth seeing, aren’t truly representative of the countries that they sit in and any determined tourist should try to set foot a bit further afield. For me the sign of a real traveller is one who has visited Sligo, Hartlepool or Inverness and gone rooting around to find better things to see than the top ten must-see things that the glossy guide books prod us in the direction of. Consequently, as I was awakened by the sunrise azan (Islamic call to prayer) from the minaret that formed the centrepiece of the view from the window in my hotel room, fond memories of being off the beaten track in Dundee came flooding back to me.

As well as being the city of verse and flowers, Shiraz was also the original home of the Shiraz grape. But since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 alcohol had been strictly forbidden and all the grapes produced there had been made into raisins rather than wine. Such a great shame as Shiraz was one of my favouite red wines, along with all the others. For decades the city was in a dispute with the town of Jerez in Spain over having the honour of being the birthplace of sherry but, as a consequence of the installation of an Islamic regime in Iran, this bitter argument was dropped. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say.

Reflecting back at my life in Britain, was it a coincidence that some evenings at home when I fancied a glass of wine but knew that for health reasons I really shouldn’t, I would instead have a bowl of Kellogg’s Fruit ‘n’ Fibre breakfast cereal which usually contained a generous quantity of juicy raisins? I liked to think that it was some sort of calling to the lands of the East and not just gluttony.

Despite the city’s dried fruit claim to fame there was no Fruit ‘n’ Fibre on the breakfast buffet table that particular morning. I came very close to having my second fried egg of the trip but the man in front of me in the sunny-side-up queue must have been a bit peckish as he took the last fifteen that remained in the serving dish. Cursing, but only to myself in case the Muslim cleric at table number six heard me, I wondered why on earth anybody would want that many eggs. Perhaps Imodium tablets were another commodity that had been outlawed in the aftermath of the Islamic Revolution and eggs were the next best option to block up a runny system and cure a bit of traveller’s tummy. I consoled myself with a pita the size of a dustbin lid and a plate of mushy dates and lemon curd.

What I found more incredible than the no wine and no eggs situation was the contents of Mahtab’s mind. Whatever question we asked her, she had an immediate answer to, or an opinion about. Extremely well-informed and erudite, what she had to say was always made even more interesting by her wonderful sense of humour. As she wrestled with her own slab of pita at the breakfast table she told us that Mahtab was only her nickname and that her real Moslem name meant wise and innocent and then she gave a hearty laugh, adding a bit of mystery to her persona.

At the front of the hotel we said our first salaam (meaning ‘hello’, but which translates literally as ‘peace’) to Vahid, our new coach driver. Those of us who had managed to keep our eyes open the previous evening on the journey from the airport had seen him before but hadn’t known this word to say it to him. Smiling and relaxed but able to speak only Farsi, he was there to transport us in his trusty shiny blue and yellow Iranian-manufactured Volvo B7R MKIII for the remainder of the trip and eventually all the way back to Tehran, ishâllâ (which was the word for ‘if God will allow’ and used extensively in the conversations I had heard).

A sixty-minute drive into the Bamou National Park was our first experience of rural Iran. I would never have imagined that an area of rock, sand and dust could have been so interesting to look at. Wonderful geological formations poked out of the ground in all directions in an arid landscape dotted with occasional clumps of juniper and pine trees. We didn’t see any of the park’s protected wildlife and we were told that it wasn’t advisable to go looking for it as it included a lot of sharp teeth and deadly venom.   

The only sign of life was from what appeared to be a gypsy encampment about a kilometre from the main road but Mahtab told us that there were no gypsies in Iran. So added to the list of things that couldn’t be had in the country were handmade wooden clothes pegs, sprigs of lucky white heather and palmistry. How did they get by? Iran did, however, have Armenian nomads who camped just wherever they liked and did the manual work that Iranians preferred not to do themselves. Calls in the Iranian Daily Mail for them to be sent back to where they had come from were largely ignored.

Persepolis, located in the Plain of Marvdasht, was our second UNESCO World Heritage Site of the trip. Originally called Takht-e Jamshīd, meaning 'Throne of Jamshid' it apparently served as the ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire from the fourth to the sixth century BC. We saw breath-taking ruins of a palace complex and citadel in the apparently unique Achaemenid architectural style. It was taken over in 330 BC by the army of Alexander the Great who destroyed much of it. I’ve heard this a lot about other places that Alexander had been and wonder if he really deserved the title ‘the Great’.

The complex had been built on a walled platform with five palaces varying in size, monumental staircases, grand entrance gateways and stone sculptures of horses and mythical creatures. Many archaeologists believe that it was primarily used for celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, coinciding with the spring equinox, and which continues to be an important festival in modern Iran. A lot of the things that had gone on there back in the day were depicted in exquisite reliefs hand-carved in black marble that remained in very good condition despite sitting exposed to the desert sun and wind for more than two millennia. I could write a lot more about this incredible place but readers might find it a bit of a dry subject and, for those who are really interested, it would be easier for me to let them have a loan of the book I bought in the small museum there.

A truly remarkable feature of Persepolis was the total absence of tourists apart from our group. It is one of the most impressive archaeological sites in the world but it is in Iran, a place that few people know about and even fewer visit. The ticket office was a small wooden hut, there was no parking area crammed with cars and buses, no café or restaurant, no souvenir shop and no fridge magnets. It was simply history in its purest form. 

My mouth was still agape from what I had witnessed at Persepolis when we rolled up in the bus at Necropolis, ten kilometres down the road at Naqsh-e Rostam. Here we saw a series of ancient Persian rock reliefs carved into the face of a mountain that also had hand hewn caves forming the tombs of four Achaemenid kings, notably King Darius the Great and his son, Xerxes. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Indiana Jones emerge from one of them but I was surprised to see local young men playing football on the flat area of ground in front of them as the midday heat approached 40° Celsius.

Equally enjoyable but in a totally different way was a lunch of local cuisine in a quaint little garden restaurant that Mahtab had often frequented in the past. Lamb cooked in spinach, and spiced aubergine with stewed lentils were just two of the sumptuous dishes that we had. Some members of our group were unable to eat as the heat impaired their appetites. Mahtab told me the Farsi slang word for ‘wimps’ (which I can’t remember). I hadn’t asked her. She provided this gem from her native tongue without any prompting.

Following this magnificent repast, Vahid hit the highway like an Achaemenid out of hell and we were soon back in Shiraz to see more monuments. First of all we visited the tomb of Hafez the poet. He had lived from 1325 to 1390 and unfortunately we had missed the celebration of his birthday by a couple of days. He was a man still highly revered in Iran with the majority of households owning at least one book of his verse and his writing being constantly in the minds and on the lips of Persian speakers to be used in proverbs and as suggested solutions to day-to-day problems. The tomb, built in 1451 was surrounded by beautiful, oasis gardens which managed to retain an air of serenity despite being crowded with hundreds of admirers paying homage to the great man. It was amazing how much respect Iranian people had for him in the twenty-first century, seven hundred years after he had lived there.

I felt sorry for Saadi, who had been another great Shirazi poet from medieval times but who didn’t command the same respect from the local people. This was largely because soon after finding fame he had abandoned the place that had made him. His head had been turned by the bright lights and big money on offer in Baghdad; a bit like Gareth Bale’s move from Tottenham Hotspur to Real Madrid. I also pitied the man who I had seen working in the ticket office at Persepolis. Although his historical site was phenomenally more spectacular than the lovely gardens surrounding the tomb of Hafez, he had very few visitors to keep him occupied. In this respect, I looked at the throng of literature lovers gathered in Shiraz, thinking to myself that by being there they were neglecting their country’s rich archaeology. I had an almost uncontrollable urge to raise my hands in the air and chant ‘You’re only here for the poets!’ in their direction, as rowdy football fans might.

Sitting on the back seat of the bus, guzzling great quantities of alcohol-free nectarine beer (my favourite) and singing our favourite Hafez ghazals, we passed by the imposing eighteenth century Karim Khan Castle (used as a twenty-first century prison) to arrive at the Nasir-ol-Molk Mosque. This gorgeously colourful building was otherwise known as the Pink Mosque because of the beautiful way that sunlight shining through the many stained glass windows illuminated and embellished the hue of its ornate tiling.

‘Hurroo!’ I said to myself as we entered our long awaited first mosque, the inside of which became the scene of a frenzy of photography. It was here that I noticed that my fellow group member, eighty-six-year-old Tony, was taking more pictures than I was. On my travels I have often been considered a bit of a nuisance because of my obsession with photography. Having Tony there made it unlikely that it would be me who would be the target of mild abuse as the last person to get back on the bus each time we were leaving a place for the next destination. Over the course of our adventure through Iran I really enjoyed talking to him about photography and sharing opinions on what would make good shots.

We were all pleased that our long day didn’t extend into the evening. Perhaps Mahtab had already had enough of us. So upon alighting from Vahid’s Volvo directly opposite the front entrance of our hotel, four of us set off on foot to explore the labyrinth of busy streets awash with Shirazis doing their evening shopping and promenading. We were in search of a suitable cheap and cheerful fast food outlet where there might be a table to sit at and where we could see the food we were ordering because none of us had the faintest idea what to ask for. After an hour of tramping hot pavements and dodging menacing traffic we ended up at a rather upmarket slow food outlet directly opposite the front entrance of our hotel; and there we ate like Shahs.

Whilst wandering, the cherry on the yazdi was making the remarkable discovery that when trying to cross what a level headed local person might call a busy street but which I saw as a vehicle-infested portal to hell, it was a good idea to adopt an Iranian family and to tag along with them for a few minutes. They seemed to be quite good at making sure their kids weren’t mashed to a pulp by buses or trucks so I found that if I crossed the road just a metre behind them I had a decent chance of avoiding a horrible death, on most occasions.

Such an outing on any other trip would, I was sure, have involved the consumption of alcoholic beverages; a glass of cold beer at the very least. So, no matter what we talked about as we ate, the conversation generally came back round to alcohol. Liz, an orthopaedic surgeon from Oldham, confessed to having had the temptation to drink her nail varnish remover.

Being so far from home, in a busy old city, on a warm night, where absolutely everything was so completely different to what I was accustomed to, and being in the company of three like-minded travellers who I had known for less than forty-eight hours was my ideal way to spend time away. With my tendency to feel like I’m only in my comfort zone when I am out of my comfort zone, these were special and unforgettable moments.

Arriving back at the hotel I was dismayed to see that on a television in what could be loosely described as a bar, ITV (Iranian Television) was showing an association football match between Newcastle United and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Men sat open-mouthed on the edges of their seats as their womenfolk grumbled ‘Football, football, football. All we get is bloody football!” whilst asking the bartender if he could switch channels so that they could watch Middle Eastenders.

Neither Kidderminster Andy nor I were fans of Newcastle, Wolves or soap operas so we went to our room where I wrote my journal. While we were there the earth moved for us, not violently but not insignificantly. This happened several times during the next two to three hours. I wondered if it was my body shaking in its craving for strong drink but eventually I realised that there were small earthquakes going on. I was a fan of plate tectonics but I had never experienced one of their movements before. Thankfully there were neither casualties nor structural damage but I did encounter a little difficulty in holding my pen steady as it wandered across the pages.

To celebrate the day’s events and the evening’s shudderings, I drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar in our hotel room. It was alcohol-free melon beer… my favourite!


ABC 092


Photograph: An Achaemenid-style grand gateway at Persepolis.


Link to Part 5:

The Iran - Tie Rack War



Lovely Palace, Must Fly


Part 3 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia.

Whenever people have asked me how I would like to spend my time during a day following a long haul flight, I’m sure I’ve never suggested traipsing round three museums, sitting on a tour bus amidst chronic city centre traffic congestion for two to three hours and then flying away to another city almost a thousand kilometres distant. But, due to circumstances beyond my control, that was what happened on this particular day. 

To save time whilst packing my bag to leave the Hotel Mashad in Tehran (at that point my favourite hotel in Iran) I left my comfy shoes under the bed. Clog-like and made from leather, they were as black as a 5,000 rials note so the chambermaid probably accepted them as my weirdo western way of offering a tip.  How Mahtab laughed when I asked her if she could recommend a shoe shop in the District 6 district of Tehran to replace them. I went to all the trouble of learning the words for ‘I’d like a pair of dark coloured, soft leather shoes please in a size forty-two but I don’t want any of your expensive footwear-cleaning products because I’ve already got a cupboard full of the stuff under the kitchen sink at home’ in my English-Farsi phrasebook, so I was quite offended when my request was met by nothing but mockery.

Always looking on the positive side of life, I learnt a valuable lesson from this experience and I will always heed the wisdom of an old Iranian man who I chatted to in the street later that day who said that if you wear your shoes all the time you will never lose them. So these days I travel with only one pair of shoes, partly because of his words and partly because I only have one pair of shoes; all others having been left behind in a variety of hotel rooms around the world.

Outside our hotel, the Shahid Mofatteh Boulevard greeted us with the winning entry from the 2011 World Traffic Congestion Championship; the extra density of the engine emissions having given it the edge over close rivals, Beijing and Buenos Aires. When we arrived there in the middle of the night there had been no sign of this. At breakfast we looked down from the roof and saw only what seemed like normal big city rush hour traffic. But in the five minutes that it had taken me to lose my shoes it seemed like all hell had been let loose, which would have been bad enough if all hell had been going somewhere but, until Tehran City Council agreed to install a few traffic lights and roundabouts, nobody was likely to be going anywhere, at least not at any notable speed. With this in mind we optimistically climbed into the X Travels bus.

Twenty minutes later we seemed to have moved physically but we could still see the hotel. Our driver, Javad, seemed to have moved mentally and we could see him mouthing something along the lines of ‘sod this for a game of goatherds.’ After a few discreet words in Mahtab’s ear a phone call was made, mutterings were muttered and then we were asked to abandon ship. As our twelve strong group, including tour guide, squeezed into an eight-seater minibus that stood idly at a nearby taxi rank any hope of maintaining Islamic culture’s gender etiquette went flying out of the window like a legendary carpet.

Iranians, I discovered, take a practical approach to most situations so it turned out that there were more than eight seats in the minibus but not all were immediately noticeable. A small ledge near to the handbrake where the driver kept his battered old tobacco tin full of change was something that my nether regions found sufficiently comfortable to be deemed a location for sitting as we gradually weaved our way through the morass of taxis, bazaar traders’ vans, motorcycle riders, motorcycle stunt riders, apparently fearless pedestrians and funeral processions. Mahtab, also struggling to find a conventional seat, sat mostly on me. She was a lovely, smiling, friendly woman but in truth I was surprised by the closeness of the contact in what was probably a breach of the rules but, such was the density of the smog outside, it was unlikely that anybody in a position of authority would see. I was equally surprised by the driver’s change tin as it contained coins with denominations as low as 50 rials. My rapid action mental arithmetic told me that this amounted to less than a tenth of a British penny and that Tehrani taxi passengers weren’t the most generous of tippers.

Despite our close confinement, Mahtab, being a true professional, continued with her tour guide speech at full volume ‘so that everyone in the back could hear.’ They always say that. She told us that there were thirteen million people living in Tehran and I was able to count all but a dozen of them travelling along the street in the same direction as us. She also said that in the six months of the Islamic year so far, there had been 2,600 deaths in Iran caused by road traffic accidents. This made me wonder how bad the situation might have been if Iranians had access to alcohol.

To make the journey more relaxing the driver took his CD of Iranian traditional music out of his car stereo and replaced it with a recording of Antonio Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I’d already heard these concerti many times before and was of the opinion that the local tunes that were new to us seemed to fit the occasion better. However, when the driver told us that in a previous job he had been a performing violinist in an orchestra I desisted from disagreeing with his choice and wondered if I should ask for his autograph. He gave me his business card which bore a photograph of him in action with fiddle and bow. I keep such things as souvenirs so I was disappointed later in the morning when I had to hand it over to Mahtab so that she could phone him to arrange a lift back to where the mother bus was parked. I asked her if I could have it back when she’d finished with it but she told me no, because she might need it again in the future. But I suspected that really she was as star struck as I was.

Our visit to the Golestan Palace made the tiresome journey and the consequential damage to our lungs more than worthwhile. At the breakfast time meeting this place had been modestly offered to us as a ‘national museum’ but it turned out to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an absolute jewel in the Iranian crown. Also known as Rose Garden Palace (you can probably guess why) it was built in the sixteenth century during the Safavid dynasty when Tehran was a walled city. It was extended and beautified in the nineteenth century when it became the royal residence and seat of power of the ruling Qajar family. As well as the main palace building, the site included other palatial structures used as museums for ancient and modern Persian arts and beautiful gardens with covered shady areas and fountains. The complex was too large for us to see it all so we spent most of our visit in the area called Shams-Al Emarat containing rooms with stunningly beautiful mirrored and tiled walls and ceilings that housed an impressive display of historical photographs, furniture and pottery from all corners of the world, including Derby. Yes Derby, but strangely not Abu Dhabi.

Iranian people were immensely proud of this place so we had to put elasticated polythene covers over our shoes to protect the carpets and marble floors. These blue slippers with pointy toes looked rather fetching on me, I thought, giving me a hint of that old Ali Baba style. An armed security guard in a khaki military uniform appeared quite menacing and authoritative from the ankles up but a complete dandy from below his sock line. I would never claim to be much use as a fashion critic but even I could tell that his polythene slippers and Kalashnikov AK47 rifle clashed a little.

The return trip in the Minibus of Death to where our coach was parked wasn’t as bad as the outward journey because, still exhausted from our flight from London, most of us fell asleep. Re-boarding Javad’s vehicle, we found him sitting in his seat, his knuckles white from clutching the steering wheel as he endured some sort of road rage related mental breakdown. However, for managing to survive the morning we were rewarded with a stop at a rather stylish coffee shop where we enjoyed wonderful Turkish coffee and a selection of Persian cakes. Slapping each other’s faces to eliminate any risk of dozing off, this was the perfect opportunity for group members to chat and get to know each other. First impressions had been made under cover of the previous night’s darkness and had been rather scant, but second impressions suggested a nice bunch of people to be exploring Persia with.

Mahtab told us to enjoy the coffee as it would probably be the last that we would see on the trip. In Iran they don’t drink coffee. To comply with the obligations of Islam there is no alcohol but their reason for not drinking coffee is that they simply don’t like it. They could drink coffee until it came out of their ears if they wanted to but they choose not to. This was the part of their culture that I found the most difficult to get used to.

Towards the end of our much needed refreshment break I marvelled at the richness of the coffee, the delightful taste and texture of the confectionery, the opulent surroundings, the remarkable beauty of the waitresses (I’m by no means a pervy lech but oh, you should have seen them) and the cleanliness and comfort of the apparently quite rare European style toilets. This was all very nice and I felt quite at home there. But we were less than twenty-four hours into the trip and already I had become nervous of the handheld bidet shower contraptions installed by the sides of sit down sanitary earthenware receptacles. A good idea in principle, I thought, but I had to ask myself what use had they been put to before my arrival, whose bottoms had they squirted with warm water and how much disinfectant had they been in contact with, even though I probably already knew the answers. It didn’t require close inspection to see that they looked a bit like microphones; the small shiny metal sort that you might associate with singing stars like Tom Jones or Tony Bennett. Perhaps water closet karaoke was a form of entertainment in this country where the law didn’t tolerate the performing of music in public places.

Suitably refreshed, we checked our progress against our must-see museums chart and set off in the coach driven by the suitably refreshed and becalmed Javad. Number two on the itinerary was the National Museum of Iran; another very impressive building opened in 1916 to house artefacts from the pre-Islamic period. Because of its relative modernity it looked like it had been designed as a joint venture between the architects of Golestan Palace and Barking Town Hall. What made it particularly interesting was that it was the headquarters of the Government’s Department of Antiquities who continued to sponsor major archaeological excavations, so new exhibits had been arriving on a regular basis since the day of its founding. The head of a man that had been preserved in a salt marsh for three thousand years was the star attraction. Dear old Connie commented that she had seen him before and the rest of us made impolite jokes and sniggered. Connie smiled a little.

Museum number three was the Glassware and Ceramics Museum which was very beautiful and very small, and from the 1920s to the 1950s it had been the home of the prime minister of Iran. Ironically, amongst all that glassware, my eyes began to glaze over, probably as a consequence of a combination of jetlag, caffeine deficiency and lungs that had intermittently been filled with carbon monoxide. 

A glass of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice from a street vendor and short conversations with passers-by wishing to hone their English language skills brought me back to life in time to board our coach for a spin round Tehran’s leafy suburban districts en route to the domestic airport.

The final stretch of our journey took in the impressive Azadi Tower, built in the early 1970s at the request of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (oh, what a Pahlavi), the last Shah of Iran, as part of the celebrations to mark 2,500 years of the Persian Empire. For once I was grateful for the traffic jams as passing by it so slowly enabled us to enjoy the spectacular sight of the scarlet rays of the setting sun on the beautiful white marble cladding of the enormous structure.

We had seen countless mosques during the course of the day but hadn’t visited any at all. I worried that the mention of them in the trip’s description on the X Travels website had merely been a marketing carrot to get us to part with our hard earned rials. Mahtab told me to be patient.

Then sadly, the time came for us to alight from the tour bus and say goodbye to Javad our driver who had been through hell with us and probably would suffer the same again the following day with another group and couldn’t wait to get home for his tea. It was suggested that we might give him a gratuity in acknowledgement of the friendliness and courtesy he had shown during his series of neurotic attacks. I didn’t have the right change in my pocket to give him a tenth of a British penny so I gave him significantly more… at least double.

Tehran’s second airport (the Mehrabad International Airport) was a huge disappointment to me. Seasoned travellers I knew had incorrectly predicted a place with lavish stalls laden with all manner of Persian street food, passengers haggling with airline representatives over how many goats or chickens would be required in exchange for flight tickets and dashing young chaps wearing goggles and leather flying jackets shouting ‘chocks away’ in Farsi from open cockpit windows. 

But it was as modern and efficient as any other airport I had passed through. I felt quite guilty that a mild and very uncharacteristic attack of xenophobia had caused me to have fears about the internal flight that we were about to embark upon. I blamed racial stereotyping in the Western media and the Wiltshire pubs for temporarily corrupting my normally broad mind into a much narrower one. Before leaving home I knew that those in Britain who had tried to brainwash me with anti-Islamic thoughts of a backward nation had wasted their time as Iran turned out to be as modern and technologically advanced as many countries I had visited in Europe. To rectify my embarrassing situation I looked up at a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini crafted in ceramic tiles high on a wall in the departure lounge and said, ‘Sorry mate!’ And do you know what? I was pretty sure that he winked at me. Wisely, in my opinion, I decided not to mention his regime’s appalling human rights record until I was in a place where neither he nor his followers were in a position to punish me for being a winker. During my stay I could only accept Iran for what it was. The reputation of a country’s government could destroy the reputation of a country’s people but at that early stage of my trip the people I had met had all been delightfully welcoming.

We travelled not with those magnificent men in their flying machines but with Mahan Air in an A320 Airbus. The seventy-five-minute flight flew by thanks to the friendly and efficient cabin crew, as many bottles of free alcohol-free beer as you could ever want (which in my case was one) and an in-flight meal that was tasty and healthy and included all sorts of nutty spicy things and fresh salad.

To help us unwind at the end of a very tiring day we were taken through our second baggage collection hall, airport to hotel transfer journey and hotel check-in rigmarole in less than twenty-four hours. But lying on my bed a little later, although exhausted, I couldn’t sleep. I was in the historic City of Shiraz, the home of the famous Shiraz grape, but unfortunately there wasn’t a drop of Shiraz wine to be seen. I drank a bottle of beer from the well-stocked minibar in our hotel room. It was alcohol-free peach beer… my favourite!


ABC 091


Photograph: A cool and shady place the gardens at Golestan Palace. 


Link to Part 4: 

Only Here for the Poets



A Fistful of Rials


Part 2 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia. 

Stepping through the aircraft door into the night, a hot dusty wind burnt my face and I wished that I had taken the trouble to learn how to say hello in Farsi so that I could make an immediate impression on the people who were to be my hosts for the next ten days. I could remember how to say goodbye in Cockney, so my parting words to the stewardess came without difficulty, apart from the fact that she wasn’t listening to me. This, I imagined, was because her mind was elsewhere as she brooded over her misfortune at having to do a stopover in a city where she wouldn’t be able to indulge in cocktails whilst sunning herself half-naked beside a hotel pool, unlike her workmates who had probably been sending her boastful and sarcastic text messages from places like Singapore and Bangkok.

With my feet finally and firmly on Persian soil, I joined the queue for passport control where I met a second member of our group, Andy from Kidderminster. But I lost American Connie with whom I had become acquainted during the long-haul flight from London. With dozens of stamps and visas in her passport it was as thick as a Hong Kong telephone directory and the immigration officer examining it complained of being overworked. So she was taken away by serious but polite men in uniforms to a nearby office to be dealt with behind a closed door by someone more senior. Meanwhile, all other passengers from the Boeing 777 on which we had arrived, having met all the requirements for entering the country, nervously looked over their shoulders for her as we reclaimed our belongings from a serpentine luggage carousel.

Despite bearing an uncanny resemblance to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the lady who was cashier number three in Chippenham Post Office had, a month earlier, been unable to provide me with a supply of Iranian money. So while I was waiting for the reappearance of Connie and/or something else to happen, I went to a currency exchange window to change some cash. I got six million rials, just to be on the safe side. It seemed to me that Iranian people really got the most out of their money as the banknotes I was given had been used so many times that many of them in my bulging wallet (I wished I’d remembered to pack a Tesco bag for life) were almost black. Even those that were in a better condition bore denominations in Persian numerals which I didn’t recognise. So when the man behind the counter took a heavy bundle from an old cardboard box on the floor and began to count them out, I could only stand and watch in amazement. He said he had given me six million but I couldn’t be certain. ‘What’s a million or two between friends?’ I thought. My involvement in the transaction had been to hand over to him one hundred crisp English pounds, and it was worth every penny of those for the experience alone.

Struggling to walk under the weight of my holiday money, I waddled back over to where a dozen or so people had congregated beneath a piece of card on a stick bearing the X Travels logo. Here we met our tour guide for the first time. I think we were all surprised to find that a woman had been given the responsibility of looking after us and educating us for the duration of the trip. In any other country it wouldn’t have seemed unusual at all but in Iran things were a bit different. Here I’m going to call her Mahtab, though that wasn’t her real name. I don’t want to reveal her true identity as there’s a strong possibility that I’ll go on to write something that doesn’t go down well with Sharia law. We can never be sure about Sharia or who might read what we write on a computer, and I don’t want her to get into serious trouble as a result of my words. I have known a real-life Iranian woman by the name of Mahtab (which is the Farsi word for moonlight). Both women were incredibly brave and strong in the difficult circumstances in which they lived and worked so, in my mind, switching the names was an easy and sensible thing to do. 

At three o’clock in the morning the members of our newly formed travel group were all too tired for proper introductions so there were just a few half-hearted smiles and nods at each other. There was no great need to impress and forge immediate friendships as we didn’t need to worry about not being included in rounds for drinks because there wasn’t going to be any alcohol on the trip. Connie, having caught up with us and looking a little flustered, was the only one who spoke. She was disgusted with the way she had been kept waiting by the immigration people. It hadn’t been like that when she was there in 1956. She was surprised that they didn’t have special treatment for American citizens, and she had told them so. The rest of us thought that they probably did have, as we’d all sailed through the border control business in a matter of just a few minutes. The staff at the Imam Khomeini International Airport had turned out to be much more welcoming than most of us had expected, but maybe they took objection to Connie’s passport in the past having been stamped with Israeli or Iraqi visas, or her foot having been stamped that night with an air of superiority and arrogance.

For an hour on a cold, air-conditioned bus I peered out through tinted glass windows at deserted Tehrani streets lit by flashing neon signs sufficient in number to make Las Vegas look like Burnley. Everyone else slept except the driver and Mahtab, who sat at the front clutching her X Travels clipboard and smiling. I wanted to talk to her. I had a million questions to ask about her and her country and what the indecipherable writing on the neon signs might have said, but I was concerned about gender etiquette and I didn’t want to wake the others up. Tentatively, I smiled back at five minute intervals until the bus pulled up outside Hotel Mashad in the city’s fashionable and exotically named District 6.

The list of group members on the X Travels clipboard was scrutinised and ticked as room keys were handed out by a young woman with stunning Persian features. Then young men dressed like the bellhops in 1930s Hollywood films appeared from nowhere to whisk luggage away to hotel rooms. From previous adventure trips I had learned that the likelihood of having spare time to spend alone was quite slim, so single travellers usually skipped paying the supplement to have a room to themselves. This meant sharing with a stranger and the stranger that I had been allocated for this trip was the aforementioned Andy from Kidderminster. He seemed like a nice enough fella, though it was difficult to understand his peculiar lingo when he spoke.

Feeling as worn out as an imam’s prayer mat, I spent thirty seconds in the shower and then what seemed like another thirty seconds, but which was actually as long as three whole hours, sleeping. Before going up to the room I’d had the forethought to ask the receptionist for an early morning call, though it seemed a little strange that when I was requesting it we had already reached an hour that could be considered to be early morning. The phone on the table at the other side of the large room rang precisely at the time I had suggested and by the time I had walked across to answer it I was wide awake and fully aware that I had a big adventure to be getting on with.

We breakfasted in the eighth-floor rooftop restaurant with windows and doors open wide so we could wander out onto a sunny terrace to look down on the busy streets below. Tehran was a great sprawling city. Its thoroughfares forming a vast grid of almost stationary traffic with a cacophony of early morning noises and innumerable people casually going about what they needed to do to start their day. On almost every corner I could see somebody selling something, mostly fruit or nuts or freshly squeezed juice. In the distance the Alborz Mountains rose steeply from the plain and immediately behind them, although not visible, was the Caspian Sea. Mahtab said she could arrange for us to go skiing in the mountains but it was very expensive and it wouldn’t be possible until we’d done all the mosques on our list. Oh, and we’d probably have to wait a month or two for some snow to fall.

Unlimited quantities of fried eggs, brown fava beans (baghali pokhte) and slightly charred pita bread, all washed down with sweet black tea and finished off with sweet yellow cake (yazdi) seemed a perfect way to start the day whilst simultaneously engaging in the embryonic stage of group bonding. The main conversation starter seemed to be the question of how well each of us had slept. I told everyone who asked me that I had slept very well but, at the risk of sounding a little negative, I added ‘though not for very long.’

After taking our much needed nourishment, Mahtab gave us the mandatory trip talk about rules and regulations and plans and possibilities. At the top of the list was a reminder about dress code and respect, both needing to be strictly adhered to throughout the country. Women had to have the tops of their heads covered whenever they left their rooms and both sexes had to keep arms and legs covered. I took consolation from the fact that the wearing of socks wasn’t compulsory. Even the Ayatollah recognised that socks with sandals wasn’t a cool look.

Then she told us to look sharp, and tell our bellhops to look sharp, as we were expected to get our kit together and meet downstairs in the foyer in half an hour. I was already packed up and raring to go so I spent my time on the terrace with my trusty camera, taking in the splendour of the amazing sights around me but which were not yet in reach. Kicking off with a new batch of travel photographs that I knew I would treasure forever was almost as exciting as the realisation that I was in Western Asia at the beginning of a massive dose of full-on culture shock.

My first full Persian breakfast had been delicious but I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into my first mosque.


 A Fistful of Rials.


PhotographCashier number three at the currency exchange bureau at Tehran International Airport.


Link to Part 3: 

Lovely Palace, Must Fly



Ticket to Tehran


Part 1 of my personal magic carpet-ride through Persia. 

Pulling away from the front of my house in the small Wiltshire town of Chippenham, it was obvious that the taxi driver with the local accent, the facial features and the worldly knowledge of a beetroot was struggling to get his head round the concept of anyone wanting to travel to Iran for a holiday. Before I’d even fastened my seatbelt he’d asked me where I was going and why, and from that point on he did his best to join me in my state of excitement at what lay ahead. Travels beyond the magnificence of an out-of-order KitKat machine, a pack of rabid teenagers attempting to perform death-defying stunts on Poundland skateboards and a fat bloke with a flag in his hand and a fag behind his ear on the two draughtiest concrete platforms of the most remote stretch of the Great Western Railway to the lands of the mystical East were beyond his comprehension.

In between periods of utter speechlessness, he fired questions at me about what the beaches might be like over there and would the beer be really cheap. He repeatedly asked if I had perhaps misheard the travel agent when making my booking, listing other potential destinations beginning with an ‘I’, such as Italy, Ibiza and Ireland. The most exotic that he could think of was Istanbul, and he threw in Ipswich where one of his neighbours often went to stay with her sister because they shared a great fondness for budgerigars.

At the railway station, after lifting my luggage from the boot of his cab and remarking that I travelled with a backpack rather than a suitcase, he shook my hand and said ‘Adios’, the only word in his foreign vocabulary. Then he drove away, shaking his head and chuckling to himself, no doubt itching to tell his mates that one of his fares that day had been a suicide bomber.

He hadn’t been the only one to question my wisdom in this respect. The very first person to do this was me. I vividly remember one wild and windy Saturday night in February 2011, sitting alone at home after having had an unexpectedly difficult day at work. I was feeling a bit sorry for myself because my weekend break would amount to only a single day, during which I had a multitude of chores to attend to and many of which involved venturing out into the abysmal weather. A little wine would cheer me up, I thought, as I read a few pages of the book that I hadn’t had the time or energy to pick up since my previous day off a week earlier. I couldn’t be bothered reading. I couldn’t go out. In a town as abysmal as the weather, there was nowhere to go. My kids were out (in other towns) so I had no one to talk to. I was wondering how I could justify the amount of time and effort that I had thrown into my working week; that week and almost every week.

Leaving the bookmark exactly where I had found it, I drank a little more wine. I switched on my computer. I do enjoy red wine, I said to myself as I typed the words ‘where can I go for a holiday that’s a bit unusual?’ into the little enquiry box on the Google page. I drank a little more wine and searched and scrutinised website after website before drinking a little more wine. I must have smiled when I saw the City of Shiraz appear on a trip itinerary, so I drank a little more wine. I particularly enjoyed red wine. I’ve never had a drink problem except when an uncorked bottle has been standing within a metre of where I’ve been sitting. And being a bit of an eco-warrior, I was always conscious that kettles and percolators consume so much electricity, leaving me wracked with guilt whenever I turned one on. Red wine seemed so green.

I would guess that it was round about ten hours later that I woke up in bed with a head full of nothing which slowly morphed into a head full what I needed to get done during the course of my Sunday. This wasn’t easy as I came to realise that upon moving my head it contained a significant amount of pain, delightfully juxtaposed with an enormous numbness that had taken over my body and limbs. And then came the question that no one ever really wants to have to ask themselves in the abyss of a hangover… had I really booked a trip to Iran?

My chosen adventure holiday company (let’s call them X Travels) had to be congratulated on their efficiency. There, in black and white (and intermittently in duplicate) was an email they had sent me at 1:37 a.m. to confirm my booking on their One Hundred Mosques in Ten Days expedition and to thank me for paying the hefty deposit with my flimsy credit card. Rebecca, the Senior Sales Executive in the Theocratic Asia Overland Department, had excelled herself so it would have been rude of me to back out, and a week and a half in a country renowned for its teetotalism as much as its totalitarianism seemed to me like an excellent idea on that shameful Sunday. 

Over the course of the next few days my body and mind returned to their normal state, that being the model of clean living and good health. Thoughts of ornately decorated minarets and vast deserts and delicious exotic food and mind-blowing archaeological sites collectively overcame any inkling I had of a cancellation refund request and my planned voyage became a major talking point with everybody I knew, many weeks before the need arose for me to dust off my old keffiyeh and camel-riding togs. My flicker of interest roared and soared to become a fiery furnace of anticipation as I read Persian guidebooks and novels, watched documentaries on the worldwide web and bought CDs of Iranian music. The track Dashi, by Abdolnaghi Afsharnia, absolutely rocks by the way; it will be the first record to be played at my wedding.

After the taxi experience, a variety of modes of transport, none of which was a magic flying carpet, took me to the appropriate airport terminal. This, only days after a friend had pointed out to me that, if you don’t mind the gap, only one letter makes up the difference between Heathrow and Death Row. His approach to pessimism had a much more amusing angle to it than that offered to me by family, other friends, neighbours, business clients and keffiyeh salesmen.

As I sat alone in a departure lounge waiting to board something shiny and fast and eastward bound, my mobile phone suddenly erupted ‘bon voyage’ messages from the aforementioned pessimists suddenly remembering I was going away on my travels and that they would probably never see me again. Text messages seemed to contain a profusion of words like good luck, hope, thoughts and prayers, and last will and testament.

By this stage I was oozing excitement from every pore. I love airports, especially on outward journeys. I love looking around me at the fascinating things that are going on. Other excited travellers, nervous travellers, and travellers who I fear will miss their flight because they’re overindulging in fluids to help them relax, celebrate or sleep. Some struggle to overcome their phobia of flying while others struggle to overcome their phobia of flying whilst sitting near to passengers with children who insist on kicking the back of the seat in front of them until someone agrees to spend €40 on a fluffy toy helicopter gunship from the glossy pages of the in-flight magazine. There are always some travellers who are dressed appropriately for their tropical or arctic holiday destinations hours before they even climb aboard a plane to leave English Home Counties airspace. And there are travellers like me who might have interesting things to say about their travels if they weren’t so busy looking around at other travellers. Where were they all going, and why, and did they have mothers like mine who wondered if they would come back alive?

I’ve often regretted not taking advantage of some of the retail outlets that I have found in airports, especially the Caviar House & Prunier which I was pretty sure there wasn’t a branch of in Chippenham High Street. The shops selling traditional tartan-kilted soldier dolls (the height of authenticity for the Hounslow area), tea cosies in the shape of the Isle of Wight, and Theresa May patterned erotic underwear amused me but never tempted me to part with my money.

The departure board was something I had kept my eye on even more than I had on the group of women in one-size-fits-all (well, almost all) swimsuits waiting to fly away with Coconut Airways for a hen party in Barbados in the sunny Caribbean Sea. My heart leapt each time it flashed with updated information. I came close to having an embarrassing intimate accident in my undergarments when eventually I read ‘16:35 - Flight BD931 - Tehran via Yerevan - Go to Gate 21’. Although in my time I had already travelled quite a bit around the world, the thought of walking towards a departure gate from which I would be whizzed off to such an exciting destination was something that will stay with me forever. I can categorically state that those flight details are one hundred percent accurate because I took a photograph of the departure board. Sad, eh? But had anyone else ever in the history of our planet been so blissfully happy whilst being within ten miles of Slough?   

The eight-hour flight was a frenzy of free wine. I had five bottles. They were only very small bottles but they numbered four more than what I had been expecting and five more than I had ever before enjoyed free of charge on a plane journey. Conscious of the fact that we were en route to a place where alcohol was completely forbidden, everybody was quaffing the complimentary plonk with gusto and cashew nuts. The pilot explained over the public address system that he was only going to have a couple of glasses himself as he would be flying back to London the following day but we, the passengers, should all get stuck in and cherish our final hours of liquefied debauchery.

As I knocked back the strong drink I chatted to my new travelling companion, Connie, who was going to be a member of the same X Travels group as me and coincidentally was sitting right beside me. An amazing American lady of eighty-four years who had been everywhere except Libya, the Moon and Watford. This was her third trip to Iran, the first having been in the 1950s when more oil was sold in barbers’ shops than in petrol stations and before dangerous levels of carbon emissions had become fashionable.

The plane landed to refuel, and probably re-wine, in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. This was a place to add to my frustratingly long list of countries I had seen from the other side of a border or landed at but not actually set foot in. I wondered if some of the hundred and thirty independent states that had made it on to Connie’s list were there for the same reason. Smiling, I asked her this but it became immediately apparent that her sense of humour fell a long way short of her sense of wanderlust. Still, it was quite exciting to be in this mysterious place on the edge of Asia in the middle of the night even though I could only catch a glimpse through an aircraft window from which the view was restricted by an aircraft wing. Wings, I find, are always a bit of a nuisance on aeroplanes but people seem to get into such a flap if they’re not there.

Just over an hour later, as our descent to Tehran commenced, the cabin crew’s preparation for landing procedure was a bit like the early hours of the morning at a teenage party just before the unsuspecting parents are due to arrive home. All bottles, whether empty or not, were quickly cleared away and all passengers appeared to be sitting up straight, smartening their appearance and pretending not to be a bit squiffy. There isn’t an airline carpet in the world that doesn’t have a stain on it so we didn’t need to worry about that bit. However, such blemishes may have contained alcohol and the potential consequences of scrutiny by Iranian police sniffer dogs passed through my mind. But that was something else that it turned out we didn’t need to worry about because the dogs, by virtue of the stringent laws of their homeland, had no idea what alcohol smelt like. Obeying orders, I fastened everything that needed fastening, returned everything to an upright position and turned everything off that could be turned off which excluded Connie who still had a lot to tell me about her 1972 visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo accompanied by a young guy from Michigan named Ralph.

I’m usually pretty good at being patient and remaining in my seat until I’m told otherwise. At Tehran Airport, however, as soon as the plane’s engines had cut out I couldn’t wait to get down the stairs and onto the tarmac which I was so pleased to see that I had an overwhelming urge to kiss it in that old Pope John Paul II way. But they don’t have much time for popes in Iran, or for over-excited tourists with bladders half full of intoxicating fluids. For the next ten days I would be on my very best behaviour. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is the only option.


Ticket to Tehran


Photograph: The cabin crew on Flight BD931 from London Heathrow to Tehran. But I jest, as really it is the very friendly and entertaining wife and daughter of an old weaver who I met in the Iranian city of Rafsanjan.


Link to Part 2: 

A Fistful of Rials



This Sort of Thing - December 2023


1 December, Friday

Behind Advent Door 1, Jack Nicholson saying, ‘Little pigs. Little pigs. Let me come in.’ Well that’s enough of that!

Priyatelkata visited her other house for gutter repairs. She does this every 1st December, starting today.

A gypsy clearing trees next door left his chainsaw in our shed because he had no petrol in his car to carry it home. His mouth was full (well, half full) of Shane MacGowan’s teeth. An endearing way to pay his respects.

We had warmth and sunniness. Wearing tee-shirts, we cleared away snowstorm garden debris from last weekend.

In Gaza the seven-day ceasefire ended.


2 December, Saturday

Cat Nouveau enjoys playing with the jingle jangle rosary beads from Dingle that dangle from the rafters in the upstairs room near a framed photograph of Leeds United’s 1964 promotion winning squad (ah, big Jack and wee Billy).

Perhaps the cat’s a Roman Catlic. We’ll call him Brother Crado so friends and neighbours will think he’s monastic AND Socialist, buttering both sides of the kozunak.

He’s definitely a Leeds fan. He’s no choice in the matter! And Leeds haven’t lost a game since we took him in. Today we beat the ‘Boro.

I hope he stays. Priyatelkata doesn’t like football.


3 December, Sunday

The dismantling of our antique tubular steel grapevine frame began. Not a difficult job, but sad. A victim of last weekend’s snow.

Such great memories of that pile of rust. Good times, bad times, you know I’ve had my share… picking mega-buckets of juicy black grapes every September and scraping my head on it to the point of suffering tremendous pain whenever I walked beneath because it was constructed twenty centimetres too low are particularly vivid, except on the occasions I lost consciousness.

Although cut back to miserable proportions, I sensed the vines’ excitement at talk of a new pergola.


4 December, Monday

If you’re having vermicelli for your tea tonight, then look away now.

Cat Nouveau has what might be described as a tummy problem. It’s probably as a result of him being stuffed full of antibiotics to resolve his lungsy problem. The second episode of his nocturnal deposits on the floor could be described as containing vermicelli. But the vermicelli appeared to be alive. It was growling at me and the poor cat.

The vet was pleased to see us. It had been five days since our last visit and she was worried that either the cat, or we, had died.


5 December, Tuesday

Remembering George who had worked on ships. As proof, he had tattoos, scars, tall tales and a vocabulary enhanced by words you wouldn’t use in the company of nuns. He had been a hard man until his need for a colostomy bag had come along.

I’d been a seafarer too, so we got on well. I listened where his family didn’t. He called me a lightweight because I’d never sailed through the Panama Canal.

He laughed as we said goodbye for the final time but when I reached his garden gate I looked back and saw him wiping away tears.


6 December, Wednesday

Today the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates Nikulden (Никулден) or St Nicholas' Day.

Apparently he was very generous and saved sailors, which presumably involved spending a lot of time hanging round the docks.

On this day Bulgarians eat fresh fish. Cruelly fresh, as during the preceding days fibreglass vats crammed with live carp appear outside food emporiums enabling shoppers to take their pick.

In English restaurants I’ve witnessed complaints about fish being served with heads intact. Imagine the chaos if a live carp was dished up. All that flapping!  Mushy peas and chips running down the walls.

Molly Malone would love it.


7 December, Thursday

I used to think poets

Were boring,

Until I became one of them

wrote Benjamin Zephaniah, in a poem.

Years ago I felt the same way, until reading poetry written by Benjamin Zephaniah opened my ears.

He also said poetry should be for everyone, regardless of their age, race or ability to read and write. A good and principled man who spoke up for the vulnerable and for minorities and who declined an order of chivalry from an imperialist institution because of what it stood for.

His passing today is heart breaking because his work wasn’t finished.  

Lickle bit, Bredda!


8 December, Friday

I’ve had a touch of the appendicitis this week. Niggling, rather than tremendous pain in the lower-right abdomen. Dr Wikipedia confirmed this.

Rising from my slumbers today it seemed worse so I called to book the 13:30 pm slot with Dr Khrushchev.

By noon the discomfort had moved a bit, thus negating appendectomy requirements. My ailment a combination of a mischief done whilst working in the garden and chronic hypochondria.

I rang the surgery to cancel. The receptionist called me a slabak (слабак), the Bulgarian word for ‘wimp’.

Meanwhile the pages at the back of my dictionary became swollen and red.


9 December, Saturday

It’s the birthday of my thirdborn child. She’s attained the age that I was when she was born. I miscalculated that she’d be giving birth today. But in her life she does have a puppy and a drum kit, which I never had.

I watched online news footage of Shane MacGowan’s funeral. It was yesterday, on what would have been Sinéad O'Connor’s fifty-seventh birthday. I had tears for my dear old Ireland.

In addition to the appendicitis, I’ve pulled a muscle in my back and clattered my head against a metal post in the garden.

I hurt in four places.


10 December, Sunday

The weather outside was frightfully dank so I stayed in and attempted to write a poem about Shane MacGowan. Despite learning to spell Cú Chulainn I only managed a poor imitation of what he'd have written himself.

I'd have called it 'Thank You for the Fairytale', which I thought was quite good, but a poem needs more than a title.

At least it put me in the frame of mind to finish my miserable winter poem that I started a month ago.

This cheered me up so I couldn't go back to Shane's poem.

A day spent honing and groaning.


11 December, Monday

We were in desperate need of some short stubby pencils and a strong blue nylon bag for carrying logs in from the woodshed for the petchka. Luckily a new IKEA shop has recently opened in Veliko Tarnovo so we went for a gander.

We got everything we wanted for just one lev (43p). We're really looking forward to enjoying the benefits of our new loyalty card.

Before leaving we bought a jar of herrings, all of which were named after members of Abba.

When we got home we listened to a CD by the Cardigans, a far superior Swedish band.


12 December, Tuesday

The day of the Technical Inspection (Bulgarian for MOT Test) revived memories of similar automotive shenanigans endured in other countries I have lived in where I was subjected to tremendous levels of stress and brutal financial consequences.

Nikolay the mechanic smiled as I handed him a mere 110 leva (£48). Always smiling, he always has time for us and our car always passes. 1960s built Ladas usually pass, so our state-of-the-art 2007 vintage Toyota sailed through.

Some say the test isn’t thorough, or Bulgarian mechanics are slapdash, but our test certificate bears President Radev’s signature, so it must be good.


13 December, Wednesday

We drove through beautiful mountains to our lovely Nova Zagora where the antique shop could be a distribution centre for Aladdin’s Caves.

We asked a man and woman market stallholder team for gourds (for Priyatelkata’s art). Neither they nor a dozen stallholder friends had them so they showed us their holiday photographs, sold us enormous fresh leeks and gave us bulbs for growing samardala, an ingredient of the perfect condiment for eggs and tomatoes. 

Our highlight, however, was seeing a one-legged man riding a bicycle. It had only one pedal, attached to his sole foot by an elaborate elastic arrangement.


14 December, Thursday

The whiff from the arse of our little cat pumped full of antibiotics reminds me of childhood days living in Middlesbrough, just downwind from ICI’s Wilton petro-chemical plant.

Lying in bed back then, wearing my British Steel Corporation themed pyjamas and gas mask, dreaming of a life as Dusty Springfield’s adorable husband, I would wonder what ICI actually did to earn their brass.

Lately it became clear that they boiled tender felines to extract hydrogen sulphide which the local council would use as chemical weaponry to halt waves of refugees attempting to cross the River Tees to escape famine-stricken Hartlepool.


15 December, Friday

We chose the year’s wettest day to drive along the Balkans' most dangerous road to Resen where the streets have no name signs. Even if they had we would still have struggled to locate Ulitsa Buzludzha because of the intensity of the lashing rain. Priyatelkata was delighted to find that elusive gourd salesman.

Cat Nouveau’s latest ailment, says the Google Bugle, is pica. When stressed he licks settees and duvets. I hope we’ll be able to find the 100 guineas needed to pay his psychiatrist’s fee.

Also, we have a loose roof tile.

I spent the afternoon licking my duvet.


16 December, Saturday

Fair play to the people who make those advent calendar things. It’s amazing how they fit so many wee doors into their tatty bits of cardboard. We’ve already had 93 days this month with over 100 still to go. Will December ever end?

The weather outside is frankly shite, but it won’t beat me. I’ll sit on the terrace and read my book.

Meanwhile my love for allegedly outspoken Clare Daly MEP deepens as quickly as my loathing of Ursula von der Leyen (not forgetting Biden, Sunak, Starmer, et al), my sorrow for Palestine and my fear for the world.


17 December, Sunday

After days of dinginess, today’s bit of sun seemed an outright champagne supernova. So we walked along lovely old cobbled Ulitsa General Gurko (the real Veliko Tarnovo) admiring the spur in the river topped by the Boris Denev State Gallery and the Asen Dynasty Monument; a view that captured my heart forever in April 2015.

Lounging in the antique-ish coffee bar in the Yantra Hotel’s lobby we could imagine Brezhnev and Zhivkov discussing the next glorious five-year plan over coffee and sticky buns at an adjacent table.

We wished more five year plans could turn out as gloriously as ours.


18 December, Monday

The woman before me in the pharmacy check-out queue was holding a packet of the same Vitamin D capsules as me.

She stared!

Eventually I said, ‘Neh haressvam Dekemvree’ (‘I don’t like December’, in Bulgarian).

The staring stopped and the floodgates opened. She didn’t like the whole of winter but the Vitamin D cheered her up but it hadn’t mattered when she lived in a village but it had been her late mother’s house which her sister wanted to sell for the money and now she had an apartment in town… and… and… in Bulgarian.

I wanted to kiss her.


19 December, Tuesday

Since I picked up War and Peace I’ve read the first three chapters twice (so I’ve only 984 pages to go) but also some other much more readable, less sleep-inducing material. Walter Macken’s I Am Alone, for example; a brilliant book which I finished today.

Eventually I will master Tolstoy’s masterpiece but for now it’s on the back burner, along with Harry Potter and the Paedophile Ring. My failure disappoints me but I’m smug in having given something up a fortnight before the world announces New Year’s resolutions.

Giving up Tolstoy is much easier than giving up whiskey or chocolate.


20 December, Wednesday

In Gabrovo, in a pedestrianised street lined both sides with linden trees, sits a café pronounced lee-pee-tay (Липите, Bulgarian for ‘the linden trees’). Built and furnished in an epoch predating plastic and Taylor Swift, it remains unspoilt and the perfect location for strong black coffee and traditional Bulgarian cake. In early summer it’s heaven.

We went there today. A city higher than ours so there was snow covering the stylish array of nineteenth and twentieth century buildings and daunting but intriguing Communist era sculptures.

A mountain community with a unique atmosphere. We’d both be happy to live there, but we don’t.


21 December, Thursday

Some December days nothing happens and I get that old song Busy Doing Nothing stuck in my head.

Today I’ve been this busy:

  1. It took me an hour to get out of bed.
  2. I spent an hour procrastinating.
  3. I spent an hour before that planning the procrastinating.
  4. I removed my unsightly nasal hairs with the gadget for lighting the gas.
  5. I dozed on the settee for an hour whilst pretending to read a book.
  6. I sighed 57 times.
  7. I learnt how to tell my arse from my elbow.

I’d like to be unhappy but I never do have the time.


22 December, Friday

We celebrate today the Birthday of the Invincible Sun (Winter Solstice) even though there won’t be noticeably lighter skies until next month.

It’s the darkest day so we’re merely marking the point where things can’t get any worse; a bit like celebrating the release of a new Ed Sheeran album.

Outside at 5:27 a.m., in darkness, we danced our purple-stained naked flesh around burning oak logs whilst chanting the ancient words of a song by Kate Bush to rejoice the death of the crone and the birth of the infant year.

But we wore our wellies because it was muddy.


23 December, Saturday

If I had an eight-year-old grandson with the physical features of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, I wouldn’t let the parents add insult to peculiarity with a Kim Jong Un hairstyle.

The not-so-little lad’s currently staying with his grandparents across the road from us. He plays alone in the street. We try talking to him but he speaks only Dutch. His family is Bulgarian but they live near Groningen in the Nether Regions.

With his portly build we hesitated offering him chocolate but the damage seems already done. Hopefully he’ll remember our kindness when he’s aiming his nuclear missiles.


24 December, Sunday

These so-called festivities seem to highlight everything that is wrong in the world. Priyatelkata and I want no part in them. We simply consider how incredibly lucky we are to live privileged lives tainted only by the knowledge that we are toothless against those entranced by greed, power and a determination to destroy the hopes, homes and lives of ordinary people.

Living under a roof with sufficient food and without fear should be a right, not a privilege.

The rich and powerful sicken us, as do many who turn blind eyes to their inhumanity. How do they sleep at night?


25 December, Monday

The town of Tryavna dates back to the twelfth century and hand-carved wooden fridge magnets on sale in every shop there are evidence of this. A gorgeous place to visit, especially in summer as its mountain location provides cool relief from the humidity of Veliko Tarnovo. Strangely it was 20°C today, and sunny.

Although twinned with the town of Argos in Cyprus, Tryavna doesn’t have a branch of Argos. Or maybe the shop was simply obscured by hordes of people returning unwanted or malfunctioning gifts.

Driving home, we saw a pair of wild chamois goats; a perfect day’s perfect end.


26 December, Tuesday

Cat Nouveau sniffed the great outdoors for the first time since rescue day but wasn’t impressed. Nearby a large dog had escaped and got its cruelty chain tangled in a barbed wire fence. We’d no idea how long it had been there but it seemed pleased to be leaving as we cut it free.

Bulgaria isn’t always nice!

After a gluttonous lunch of sweet prátaí curry on our sun-kissed terrace I sat beneath the oldest walnut tree with pottertea, book and various menagerie members to read and doze away the warm afternoon until the sunset 47 seconds later than yesterday.


27 December, Wednesday

Whilst making coffee, this appeared in my head…

The reiki technique

Cures sick Japanese poems 

For seventeen yen

But in Bulgaria, rakia has the same effect for less.

In the absence of snow, ski slope owners are renting out bicycles. If they’d ridden bicycles all along they’d be skiing today. They consider themselves adaptable. By 2040 they need to grow flameproof skin or wear knickers made from oven gloves. A dusting of nuclear fallout may revive the pistes and festive greetings card scenes.

Bulgaria’s top astrologer predicted a catalogue of catastrophic events for 2024. How does she think them up?


28 December, Thursday

We got our Hoover back from the Hoover repair man, even though it’s not a Hoover. It might be a Matryoshka Mark III Deluxe. In his cramped little workshop, this man can fix anything electrical. He’d just completed work getting the Sputnik 2 spacecraft back on the launch pad and was cleaning up the dog hairs in it with our vacuum cleaner to ensure that both worked like new.

Plans to meet friends for lunch were cancelled this morning because they were expecting a delivery of something more interesting than us at an unspecified time. Being unsociable, we didn’t complain.


29 December, Friday

I had indigestion from eating too many Rennies. A pizza at the restaurant adjacent to the town hall was probably the real culprit. Don’t mix food and politics, they say. Attempting to discuss the genocide in Gaza with the waitress, we were told to shut up and eat our greens.

We can’t be arsed waiting for the New Year so we’ll finish what’s already in our fridge (tomorrow’s breakfast should do the job) and restore our healthy eating regime forthwith.

The local firework people can’t wait until the New Year either. Our dogs will spend the weekend under the bed. 


30 December, Saturday

In bed this morning, on my phone, I wrote a poem about what I’ll abstain from in the New Year. Being borderline saintly, it took only minutes to compose. In 1980 I gave up wasting money on fruit machines in pubs. I still see the cherries but I haven’t faltered, mainly because modern technology renders such larcenous apparatus impossible to understand. This time I’m giving up teetotalism and celibacy.

Later, there was nowhere in town to park the car so I couldn’t withdraw money. Even if I wanted to engage in sinful deeds I’ve no way of financing my wickedness.


31 December, Sunday

My Nan would say on this day that if you step outside you’ll see a man with as many noses as there are days left in the year. Thinking back, if the diabetic next door neighbour had been out in his garden, she could have said the same thing about legs.

And now, as we approach another year’s end, let’s sing an old Belgian folk song. The work, I think, of Jacobus Barbireau…

Get up, get up, get busy, do it

I want to see you party

Get up people, now get down to it

Before the night is over


The end of the shortest day in Veliko Tarnovo.

The end of the shortest day in Veliko Tarnovo.

Goody Two Shoes


I always stand for older folks when travelling on buses

I’m always kind to turtles, dolphins, whales and octopuses

I sympathise with people who need poultices and trusses

I stay away from arguments, from fracases and fusses

I rarely eat the whole KitKat to avoid those sugar rushes

And always put the seat back down; I know what a toilet brush is


I don’t smoke cigs or pipes or spliffs or Cuban fat cigars

I don’t dress up all tarty and hang around in bars

I’m not the fighting kind of bloke with broken teeth and scars

I don’t go racing down the streets in noisy motor cars

I’ve never thrown my underwear at concerts by rock stars

And in all my life I’ve only put ten pence into swear jars


I don’t eat meat or fish or frogs or little dead crustaceans

I no longer fall asleep at night in draughty railway stations

I don’t pretend I’m not at home when visited by relations

And the days are gone for being caught in compromising situations

For achieving this I must deserve New Year’s congratulations

If you count them up I’ve more resolutions than the United Nations


Goody Two Shoes.

Lingo Bingo

I was born a Smoggie, one of that unique race of people emanating from Middlesbrough in the North East of England where the local dialect is a combination of Yorkshire, Viking and bronchial problems brought on by exposure to excessive industrial pollution. Until I was nine years old I spoke with an accent similar to that of comedian, Bob Mortimer and a dirty work shirt was a derty werk shert, though if it was very derty it would be described as acky. But, despite the beautiful psychedelic sunsets and unlimited free supplies of nitrogen oxide laid on by the nearby steelworks and petrochemical plant, my parents decided that we should leave the area and my native tongue virtually disappeared.

The intermediate stage of my childhood took place along the theme of sectarian violence. The North of Ireland in the late sixties and early seventies was a great place to live if your hobbies included spotting endless coils of barbed wire, threatening military vehicles and burnt-out buses. And then there were the petrol bombs. We only had the four-star stuff in those days. The kids of today are spoilt, in my opinion, with their unleaded high-performance high-octane cocktails of highly flammable liquids and their Nectar points, though the extinction of the glass milk bottle in recent years must be quite trying for them. You’d think that having one foot either side of the Peace Line our lives would have been extra safe, but the reality was the absolute opposite. My family, built around a nucleus of an Irish Catholic father and an English Protestant mother, was a cause of suspicion for everybody, including a small community of Hindus in Ballymena. Speaking with an accent from ‘the other side of the water’ did little to help. So in a relatively successful attempt at staying alive, I quickly learnt to talk like the Reverend Ian Paisley and continued to do so until I was twelve, at which point the parents’ nomadic habits kicked in again.   

A return to the North of England was our next step. Sympathetic to our borderline refugee status, Leeds City Council allocated us a maisonette above the North Eastern Gas Board showroom in a concrete shopping centre that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the portfolio of a firm of Soviet Bloc brutalist architects but actually stood in the heart of a dodgy council scheme the size of Azerbaijan. There, on Seacroft Estate, people knew that British soldiers weren’t welcome in the North of Ireland so consequently the people of Seacroft Estate weren’t exactly opening bottles of Champagne and handing out cigars to celebrate the arrival of twelve-year-olds who spoke with North of Ireland accents. The local comprehensive school at which I was hurriedly enlisted bore an uncanny resemblance to the school in the classic Ken Loach film, Kes, and by the Thursday of my first week there, I was talking like Billy Casper, the film’s main character. Not an attractive way of speaking but the other available option of having broken teeth and fingers didn’t strike me as being very attractive either.

A couple of decades later, at the conclusion of a Channel Four Television documentary series about British towns, viewers voted Middlesbrough the worst place to live in the whole country. Almost simultaneously, the Times newspaper published its first annual league table for secondary schools and my old seat of learning in Leeds finished absolutely rock bottom. So, during my formative years, my parents had moved me from the worst town in Britain to the worst school in Britain, via a war zone. I take pride in having survived this experience physically and mentally (though in both cases, only just); my ability to adopt a new way of speaking at a crucial time being a crucial component of this skill.

Nowadays I live in a place where the people are harder to understand than even Geordies are. Here in Bulgaria we haven’t just a different language but also a completely different alphabet. We write Newcastle Brown Ale as Нюкасълска Кафява бира, but we never drink it because it’s not as strong as the purely organic stuff we have here of our own.

Cyrillic script is a writing system invented by a student of local boys, Saints Cyril and Methodius, and first used in Bulgaria in the ninth century. Since then it has evolved and expanded across much of Eurasia to the extent that it is now used by more than 250 million people. Sometimes it is erroneously referred to as the Russian alphabet but really it is ours, definitely ours! Those boys in Moscow merely stole it, fiddled about with it a bit and later forced it upon the occupants of their vast totalitarian empire.

A huge benefit of using this alphabet is its phonetic nature. Every letter is pronounced the same way every time. So if you know your Cyrillic letters you can read the writing and if you can read the writing you will notice that a fair few of our words are the same as, or similar to, words in Western European languages, and you’re well on your way.

This is the complete opposite to my partner’s native language, French, where there seems to be approximately twenty silent letters in the alphabet and twenty more that have a totally unpredictable sound, and all emphasis is done through hand gestures, shoulder shrugging and the adjusting of berets. I’ve discovered that the ‘Learn French with Marcel Marceau’ DVD is as good a teaching tool as any.

In Bulgarian there is no single word for the definite article. Instead they add a suffix to the noun and a different suffix is used depending upon whether the noun is the subject or the object of the sentence. And if the noun requires an adjective, the suffix is applied to the adjective rather than the noun. Oh, and these suffixes vary with the gender of the noun and whether or not the singular or plural applies.

A wee example: Priyatel means friend, Priyatelka means female friend, and Priyatelkata means the female friend, or the girlfriend.

Determining the gender of a noun can be tricky too. The word for a crowd of men is masculine. The word for a crowd of women is feminine. But the word for a crowd of women, even if there are a million of them, will become masculine if there is one man amongst it. The current ideas on people deciding for themselves which gender they wish to identify as will never be successful in Bulgaria because the language would no longer be able to function.

Our verbs come in aspect pairs, they being one imperfective and one perfective. My way of simplifying the complexity of trying to explain this is by taking the example of drinking a glass of wine for which there is one verb for doing the drinking on a continual basis and a completely different verb for if you are only going to do it once (as if anyone would ever only have one glass of wine) or if you’ve finished drinking it. On top of this the verbs are conjugated to include the informal or formal for the second person bit, like they do in French with their shoulders and little moustaches.

And Bulgarians use the same word (med) for honey as they do for copper.

And saying I haven’t got nothing (nya-mam neesh-toe) is grammatically perfectly legal.

And the majority of Bulgarians have strong regional accents.

And… And… And…

Oh, it’s hard work!

But the good news is that I have 6.5 million teachers. Every single Bulgarian seems to want to help me, even though some of them haven’t quite got to grips with the subject themselves. Many immigrants here still insist upon shouting in English (or muttering in French) to make themselves understood but since my arrival on these shores I have always had a go at the language and the locals seem to appreciate it.

I feel an enormous sense of achievement if I get it right and there are usually smiles all round, or even laughter, when I get it wrong. Simple mistakes with a single short word, or even just a wrong syllable, can be hilariously disastrous. In the past I have wished people a happy new garden instead of a happy new year and I have asked in a shop for food with cats instead of food for cats. After a five-minute discussion with a waiter in a restaurant, Priyatelkata and I once sat smugly congratulating ourselves on our command of the native tongue as we waited for our traditional village salads to be brought to our table and then crestfallen when we were each presented with plates laden with half a spit-roast chicken buried under half a boiled cabbage immersed in half a litre of boiled sunflower oil… and chips.

Learning and speaking the lingo of our adopted home is very hard. After eight years living here, we are probably twenty-five percent fluent, so in everyday situations we tend to get by. The problems arise when we are discussing with professionals the health of our own bodies, or of our car or animals. When undergoing a limb amputation, for example, for all aspects of the procedure, particularly the preoperative discussions, the level of accuracy needs to be significantly higher than twenty-five percent. On these occasions Bulgarian friends are more than willing to accompany us, either to help with translation or to see the blood and gore.  

So far, this business of adopting a new language has been much more difficult than it was changing accents to avoid being murdered in school playgrounds in England and Ireland way back in my juvenile past. I can still lapse into those old accents. I still speak mostly in some sort of weird mixed up combination of them all. Although Priyatelkata’s first language is French, her father was Algerian, her stepfather was Polish and her maternal grandparents spoke only Breton. We try to speak to each other in Bulgarian but other lingos are available in our house, so I can’t tell you what you would get if ever you came to visit us.

As difficult as efforts are at being multi-lingual, this is by no means a rant or a rave or even a polite complaint. It’s simply an explanation of the labour of love of my life that may have started out a long time ago as a labour of clinging on to my life.

But before I go…

Честита Нова Година. Живот и здраве през 2024г.    


 Lingo Bingo.



An old enamel sign that we bought in a junk shop and fixed to the wall of our garden shed.

It says... Не включвай! Съоражението повредено.

Pronounced as… Neh vuh-klooch-vai!  Suh-oraj-enny-etto po-vred-eno.

Translates as… Do not turn on! Device damaged.

Conclusion… Perhaps I should have fixed it to my head rather than the wall of our garden shed.


Children of the Absolution

Declan’s my best friend. We always talk to each other in the playground. We both talk to some of the other kids too but me and Declan talk about things that the other kids aren’t interested in. We talk about things like how upset our mammies were when the president in America was out in his car for the afternoon and he got shot in the head. They’ve a new president now, so they say, but he’s not as good as the dead one because he’s old and he’s not a Catholic.

Declan told me he heard Peter Sullivan talking about what happened in Doctor Who on the television on Saturday evening. We both smiled a bit because we don’t like Peter Sullivan very much because his mammy gives him a sixpence every morning to spend on Fruit Salads and Blackjacks in old Joe’s corner shop. My mammy said I’d have teeth the colour of the Blackjacks if she was giving me sixpence just like that every day and she’s not made of money. We know Peter Sullivan will be in terrible trouble with Sister Josephine because if he was at home watching Doctor Who on the television on Saturday evening he wouldn’t have been at the confession in the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena and if he hadn’t done the confession he couldn’t have been back there again at the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena on Sunday for the holy Mass and the holy Communion because he’d have dark sins on his soul.

The holy Communion’s my favourite part of the holy Mass because after you’ve been over to receive the Host from Father Crawley it’s a sort of an interval when you can stop praying for a while and you don’t have to listen up for Father Crawley telling you when to kneel down and when to stand up and when to sing a hymn and when to sit down again and you can just sit back and have a good old gawp around at all the statues of the saints and the angels and the wee boys in the nip. And I like to watch all the women in their best clothes staring at all the other women in their best clothes like they hate them because they think their best clothes are the best but they might not be. And there’s all the men who keep looking at their watches and winking at each other and pointing at the big church door behind them.

Sister Josephine said you can’t take the holy Communion if you haven’t been to the confession because the holy Communion is the body of Christ and you swallow a wee piece of him when you take it and when he’s inside you he doesn’t want to be in there with all those dirty sins going on all around him.

At the confession in the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena of a Saturday evening, Father Crawley scrubs away all your sins so it’s nice and clean for Christ to be going in there of a Sunday morning as long as you don’t have a big plate of rashers and eggs for your breakfast before going to the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena for the holy Mass. Christ wouldn’t like being in among the rashers and eggs, so they say. And I wouldn’t blame him for that.

When Father Crawley’s done giving our souls a good old clean at the confession we get the absolution which is something you can’t see but it feels good, so they say, but I can never feel it; unless it’s the same as feeling hungry.

Sister Josephine will know that Peter Sullivan wasn’t at the holy Mass on Sunday. She always knows which out of the lot of us weren’t there. She takes the class register to the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena and puts a wee tick with her special nun’s pen against our names when she sees us. If she says to you on Monday that she didn’t see you in the church on Sunday you can tell her that you went to the very early holy Mass or the very late holy Mass but you’d be wasting your time because she always goes to them all, except when she’s sick and Sister Bernadette takes the register and the special nun’s pen to the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena for her.

You can tell Sister Josephine you were sick yourself or you were away visiting your Auntie Kathleen in another town so you couldn’t go to the holy Mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena but you’d be wasting your time unless you had a note written by your mammy saying the same. Without the note you’d be standing at the front of the class and feeling the clatter of the yardstick as Sister Josephine brings it down hard three times on the palm of your hand.

Sometimes I really have been sick or I really have been away to visit my Auntie Kathleen in another town but my mammy forgot to write me the note for the Monday and I forgot to ask her for it so Sister Josephine clattered my hand three times with the yardstick at the front of the class. It wasn’t all bad though because Sister Josephine never seems like a very happy woman except when she’s just been clattering hands three times with the yardstick and then she has a smile on her face like my Uncle Neil would have when he says his horse has won; though I’ve been to his house a fair few times and I’ve never seen his horse. He hasn’t even got a cat.

Peter Sullivan always has a note from his mammy. Declan said there must be a box full of notes from his mammy in the kitchen drawer in Peter Sullivan’s house and all he has to do is pick one out on the Monday morning after he hasn’t been to holy Mass on the Sunday. Declan said he’s told his mammy this and his mammy laughed and said something about some sheets of carbon paper, but we don’t know what she meant but we know she wouldn’t be laughing if she had the feel of Sister Josephine’s yardstick across her hand three times at the front of the class.

So almost every Saturday evening, as soon as we’ve finished eating our tea, I go to the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena with my daddy for the confession. We have to say ‘Bless me Father for I have sinned. It is one week since my last confession,’ when we are in the dark wee room with the curtain across so that we don’t know that it’s Father Crawley at the other side doing the cleaning of dirty souls and he doesn’t know it’s us with the souls full of sin confessing to him. And then we have to tell him what sins we’ve committed in the week since we were last there.

Me and my daddy have to go in the dark room separately even though I’m always terrified to death of what Father Crawley is going to say to me. But maybe it would be worse if my daddy was in there with me because there’d be two men instead of just the one hearing about all the sins I’ve committed and the whole thing would be even more terrifying. I wish I knew what sins my daddy has done.  

When you’re only a young fella, like me, it’s hard to remember all the things that have happened in a week. So every Saturday evening I try to remember what I was doing while I was sinning, but I can’t. I think sometimes that maybe I haven’t done any sinning but Sister Josephine said that we are all sinners, every single one of us, and our lives on Earth would be filled with misery if we didn’t go to the confession every Saturday evening and our souls wouldn’t go straight to Heaven when we passed. One week, Father Crawley was sick so there was no one to listen to the confessions and I was terrified we would spend all eternity in Purgatory but at least we got home early from the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena so we could watch Doctor Who on the television.

When I can’t remember what sins I’ve done I go through the Ten Commandments in my head to see if they remind me of what a terrible sinner I’ve been. Usually I can only remember six or seven of them and there’s a few that I don’t understand at all. I can’t remember ever coveting my neighbour’s wife. I always smile whenever Mrs Duggan from next door says hello to me but I don’t think I’ve ever coveted her and, if I have, Mr Duggan has never said anything about his wife being coveted. And I’ve definitely never killed anyone, though I’m always a bit tempted when I hear Peter Sullivan saying that he watched Doctor Who on Saturday evening at home on the television or when he shows us the sixpence that his mammy gave him in the morning before he went to school.

I’m scared that Father Crawley will tell Sister Josephine that I think I’m not a sinner so while I’m kneeling in a pew preparing myself, I have to think of some sins I can say I committed. So I tell Father Crawley behind the curtain that I stole a biscuit from the kitchen cupboard, I kicked my sister on the leg and I hoped Peter Sullivan’s television would be broken on Saturday evening. Usually I haven’t done any of these but by also telling Father Crawley that I have told lies I get forgiven for the lies and for everything else that I’ve made up. He forgives me for sins that I haven’t even committed and I’m sure that this makes me an extra special Catholic so I’ll never need to be going within a mile of Purgatory, let alone Hell.

But you can’t just give the holy Father a list of sins and then go home looking all shiny and clean and ready for taking the body of Christ. We have this thing called penance to do. The penance for kicking a sister, stealing a digestive and telling a lie is different every week. This makes me wonder if Father Crawley knows when I really have kicked my sister on the leg and when I’m just making it up. It’s only thinking of the holy Mass and the holy Communion that makes me ever want to give her a sharp dig with the toe on the shin because she’s younger than me so she doesn’t have to do all the Catholic goings-on yet so I wish I was her. Declan said the rules are that you’ve got to be six before you can start the sinning.

Last week I wanted to tell Father Crawley that I had coveted my neighbour’s wife just to see what he’d say, but going into that horrible black hole I was already terrified and I was scared of what might happen if I made him angry, and also my daddy was sitting just by the door of the confession box and he isn’t altogether fond of people who go about the place making priests angry.

But usually the penance is round about four Hail Marys and an Our Father, which have to be recited while I’m kneeling at the big gold altar rail at the front of the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena where everyone can see me so everyone knows I’m a sinner.

I can’t understand why saying these prayers is a punishment. I think if you’re a good Catholic you’ll enjoy saying the prayers and so it isn’t a punishment at all. Auntie Kathleen says these prayers all the time, even on the days when we don’t have to go to the confession.

Declan said that saying the prayers on your knees in the cold Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena isn’t as comfortable as saying the prayers by the paraffin heater in your bedroom or at the table just before you start to eat your dinner, so that's why it’s a punishment.

I worry a lot about not knowing when I’m sinning. Sometimes I can’t sleep at night for the worry. My mammy gets angry if I don’t go straight to sleep when I go to bed and I’m terrified to death that one of those ones out of the Ten Commandments that I don’t understand really means ‘thou shalt not not go straight to sleep when your mammy sends you up to bed’. So when I’m lying there wide awake in the bed in a big panic thinking about when I am and when I am not sinning, I’m really sinning there and then. It’s awful!

Declan said there’s other bad people who are worse than the sinners. His big brother Michael told him that they’re called the fornicators and there’s no hope for them at all. Declan asked his big brother Michael what you have to do to be classed a fornicator and his big brother Michael told him you have to do fornicating which is something people do in the bed when they’re not asleep and it’s a fierce big sin. I asked my mammy if I’m a fornicator and she just laughed and said, ‘I don’t think so.’ I wish she knew for certain because I’m still very worried about it.  

Declan’s very clever. He knows everything about how to make people think he’s a good Catholic. He said he has the same problem as me about not knowing what sins to tell Father Crawley about, so every week he doesn’t say his penance and then the next week he confesses that he didn’t say his penance the week before so he gets exactly the same penance to say again but which he doesn’t say so that he’ll have something to confess the next week.

I think this is a great idea so I’ve started to do the same myself. Instead of reciting all those Hail Marys and Our Fathers I stare at the mosaic pictures of the Stations of the Cross, high up on the walls of the church. They’re very colourful and you can see a lot of suffering and misery and pain and blood in them and no one’s wearing any trousers or shoes. When that sort of thing comes up on the television at home my mammy always tells me it’s time I was away to my bed. In the mosaic pictures it’s easier to understand what they did to Christ than it is from the way Sister Josephine reads the story to us in the classroom in the Primary School of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena.

My favourite Station of the Cross is the fifth one where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus carry the cross. I like Simon of Cyrene and wonder what happened to him after the crucifixion. The Roman soldiers probably didn’t like him for what he did so I hope they didn’t crucify him too or let the lions have him. It’s very interesting to look at the pictures in the mosaics, but I would still rather be watching Doctor Who at home on the television.  

I think I waste Father Crawley’s time because I don’t say the penance. And I think my time is wasted as well because I could be at home hiding terrified to death behind the settee as the Daleks are doing all their exterminating on the television instead of me being in the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena being terrified to death behind the curtain in the confession box with Father Crawley at the other side, or just staring up at the colourful but terrifying pictures of Christ being crucified.

I’m sorry I can’t remember doing much of the sinning but if I have sinned I’m very sorry for my sins. I don’t want to be upsetting or hurting anybody. So I think it would probably be better if I could just go into the black box of a Saturday evening and say ‘Sorry Father Crawley’ to Father Crawley and Father Crawley could just say ‘Right yez are!’ straight back to me in his County Cork accent. It’ll save us both a lot of time and trouble and maybe Father Crawley might enjoy watching Doctor Who at home on the television himself when he gets in early from cleansing the souls of the sinners.

I’ve told Declan about my idea and he agrees that it’s an altogether grand idea but we’re too terrified to death of Father Crawley and Sister Josephine to tell them. We need to get hold of the Pope’s address in the Vatican so we can write to him and ask him to pass the message on in a letter to Father Crawley at the Church of the Sacred Heart and St Philomena. But before we do this we need to learn how to spell Doctor Who in Latin.


By Turlough Ó Maoláin, age 8½.


Children of the Absolution.



Nine months are quite enough

They can keep the other three

Frosty mornings brittle, cruel

Fog pilfers trees and gardens

That self-inflicted genocide

Crimes of nature's icy Roundup


They can keep their autumn hues

The only colour my eye sees

Is the black that’s cast upon us

From November, in the afternoons

Astronomical I suppose

Deep in my mind, dark hurts


Winds tear at face, hack flesh

Freeze blood, chill brain and bone

I suffocate in boots and coats

Frigid fingers grip and rip my throat

Or I choke on foetid brumal dank

Give me daylight or I’ll scream!


The year’s eventide’s upon us

Nothing left to do but sleep

So wake me in the morning

When sanity comes marching home

When winter's only weeks away

At the other end of the world



A Girl of Eastern Beauty


A girl of eastern beauty at a table by the door

An acrobatic Persian performs his tricks across the floor

A uniformed old soldier tired and bloodied from a war

Looks around remembering he’s deserted a foreign corps


Extravagant concoctions of liquors, exotic fruits

And flesh prepared with flavours of the Great Seljuk spice route

A dozen painted courtesans transported from Beirut

While a charming man enchants a snake with a tune from his magic flute


Gazing ‘cross the parlour, scything dense tobacco smoke

The room entombs with plumes of fumes, exhaust from toxic toke

I watched the girl in silence, not a single word she spoke

Then tremors quaking in my heart as a sultry smile she broke


A signal through the murkiness, a message to invite

To join her in her alcove, for us to dance away the night

And when the club was closing I would grasp her hand so tight

To stay with her in paradise ‘til the break of the morning light


A Girl of Eastern Beauty.