Four things to do in New York

On a recent winter trip to New York I visited four tourist attractions that were super interesting for different reasons.

Inside the New York Public Library

One: The New York Public Library. Why should you visit? Because of the literary, historical, architectural and movie-like atmosphere. The NPL simply reeks of scenes from the film The Day After Tomorrow. As I walked up the steps, nosed about in quiet corridors and soaked up my surroundings in the Rose Main Reading Room, scenes from this – one of my favourite films – flooded my mind. (Although, according to the NPL website, all the scenes were virtually – not actually – created). Apart from admiring the many books and special collections I also enjoyed a free guided tour and information movie about the history, purpose and layout of the library. Interesting note: Most of the people sitting quietly at wooden desks with soft glowing lamps next to them, surrounded by books and more books, were staring at computer screens not book pages.

Two: Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Why should you visit? Because you get entertainment and food rolled into one.

Me at Ellen’s Stardust Diner with a singing waitron behind

Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a kind of training ground for performers trying to make it to Broadway (it’s situated on Broadway itself). And the performers all work as waitrons at the diner. So, while serving you your burger or mac n cheese, the waitrons will break into song, strut around on a platform behind your seat, or drape themselves over you while singing He had it coming from the musical Chicago. And you don’t have to book.

Three: The New York Historical Society. Why should you visit? Because of the interesting way the history of New York is portrayed. Probably aimed largely at children, the layout of the exhibits does your thinking for you. Which is nice if you’ve just flown 17 hours to get there and don’t know much of the history of this amazing city. But it still gets you questioning and pondering. In the Vietnam exhibition, for instance, my husband spent ages chatting to an old guy who had actually fought in Vietnam and was sad about what was NOT included in the display.

Four: See Come From Away on Broadway. Why should you go? Because of the character-driven, funny, warm and gripping story of how thousands of people were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander during 9/11. It was brilliant. And now I want to visit Gander.

Times Square, on our way to Broadway



Bicycles and Books

In preparation for a cycling holiday I am due to go on later this year I decided to sign up for ‘Ride’ classes at the gym. I haven’t cycled regularly since I rode my bicycle to school many years ago so was a bit nervous. Reactions like ‘Are you sure you can manage?’ from friends didn’t help. Suggestions were given like using a stationary bicycle at the gym and doing my own thing at a more moderate pace instead of attending a class. But that seemed far too boring. So I went ahead and booked. On the online class booking app I was instructed to ‘choose

Me cycling in Munich in 2014

my position’. I chose the bicycle as far away from the instructor as I possibly could. I fished out of my cupboard my brand new, frightfully luminous pink, disgustingly revealing padded cycle pants. When I added the demure little skort over the top I looked suitably modest. I was ready. Let the Ride begin!

Now, before I let you know how the Ride went, I’ll talk a bit about books as no doubt you’re wondering what books have to do with bicycles.

Well, when contemplating a boring session on a bicycle by myself, my helpful friend suggested I listen to an audiobook while pedaling away. Good idea! I had recently finished listening to the audiobook The Lioness of Morocco by Julia Drosten. This book would’ve kept me in the saddle for almost 13 hours – a decent amount of training for a holiday I would say. But would it have kept the boredom away? On the whole, yes. It’s a charming romance set in a place and era I know very little about. The main character is a likeable, although rather simplistic, Englishwoman. What I did feel got a bit longwinded was the ‘saga’ nature of the story. The family and their children, and children’s children got me wondering when it would end – a bit like a gym cycling session? Another saga I’d recently finished was the historical novel Sarum by Edward Rutherford. In this ‘novel of England’ the story follows five families from 7500 years BC right up to 1985 AD. Eight hundred and ninety seven pages – and about one year – later and I would’ve had calves like a Tour de France cyclist had I listened to that while training.

Well, back to my Ride session. I did pretty well thank you very much and didn’t suffer too much from sore muscles in the derriere the next day. Success! Whether I continue with the classes or do my own thing in the gym, my holiday is approaching and time is short. So, to hasten my training along, perhaps I’ll increase the speed on my next Audible book – Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – and instead of training to a saga, I’ll puff away to a short story. Either way here’s to bicycles and books!

Snowy Transformations

I arrived in a freezing Germany on 9 December 2017. My goal: to visit the Christmas market at Marienplatz, Germany. Bundled up in five layers of my paltry southern hemisphere winter wear, my eyes watering in the cold, I braved the outdoor experience alongside my husband.

A gluhwein stand

The atmosphere was marvellous. Stands of hot chocolate and gluhwein steamed invitingly in the biting air, while visitors and tourists waddled past in their padded coats. Just taking off my gloves to examine little goodies at the stands froze my bony fingers. Shopkeepers helpfully spoke English when I looked blank at the German tongue, and people seemed generally cheerful despite the minus one degree Celcius temperature. It took three trips to the market before I had decided on what to buy. South African Rands don’t make much of a dent in Euros. And, to my practical mind, many of the ornaments and trinkets, nice as they were, wouldn’t have been very useful.

I settled on buying traditional food. The stand that got my Euros was the one

A strange kissing companion

that offered tasting samples and I enthusiastically bought packs of stollen (a fruit bread) and lebkuchen (a ginger-type biscuit) for friends and family back home after nibbling the delicious little blocks.

We had just got back to our hotel room when it began to snow in earnest. I was delighted. In two hours every horizontal surface I could see was covered in soft whiteness. But of course, with icy weather comes travel problems. My departing aeroplane that night had to undergo special de-icing procedures before it could safely take off. I have to say that this was the best part of my trip. Because I have a cockpit pass I was permitted to sit in the cockpit for taxi and takeoff and what a view I got. Before taking off the Airbus A340 was surrounded by three giant de-icing vehicles. Like weird-looking Transformers (I think the creators of the film based their models on these machines), the trio scooted back and forth around the wings and tail spraying 60 degree Celcius liquid across its surface. Using a checklist designed for such conditions the pilots did all the requisite checks and procedures before lifting off the icy runway. Beneath us the whitened landscape twinkled in gentle yellow lights until it disappeared beneath a layer of cloud.

Winter lights

What a treat. Sitting in the cockpit was much more exciting than any movie I could have watched on the aeroplane’s entertainment system.

My funny husband

Writing in a Third Place

So as I write this I’m sitting in a coffee shop about 2km from my home office. I decided to try out the writing-in-a-coffee-shop thing to see what it’s like. Author and UK resident, Phil Barrington, says in Writers’ Forum (July 2017) that he is ‘one of those coffee-shop writers. A walking cliche.’ He hogs a table he says ‘while annoying folks with constant finger taps.’ As an author Barrington likes this type of venue because it makes him feel like he’s going to work. But, unlike working for someone else in an office, he can leave whenever he likes. ‘Sociologists,’ explains Barrington ‘call this middle ground between home and office a “third place”.’

Ryan Waters of Rain Africa at I Want My Coffee

For Barrington, writing in public spaces informs his writing (he’s written in hotel lobbies and monasteries too) and it adds to his productivity. I get that. It’s like doing research. But another use for  coffee-shop writers could be meeting up with other writers in this “third place”. I did this recently when I attended a #bloggersmeetup arranged by Susan Deysel ( and in another coffee shop close to my home. Verushka Ramasami ( and Nelisiwe Zuma (Conversation Lab) spoke to the assembled bloggers about blogging tips while we all flashed away on our mobile devices Instagramming and Facebooking and Tweeting, recording the event live while ensuring multiple follows through clever hashtagging.

A theme which ran through everything from the speakers, to many of the bloggers, to the sponsors (Rain Africa, MUD and Origin Bespoke Stationery), to the coffee shop itself (I Want My Coffee) was authenticity. Being authentic in our writing, in the topics we chose to write about, in our use of resources, in our attitude to the environment. Is ‘being authentic’ a luxury? The domain of the privileged? I’m not sure, but at least trying to be authentic or real sits well with me. And it was great to meet other, real, bloggers in the flesh. As a writer you can achieve a lot with a keyboard and an internet connection. But connecting with real people in a public space is great too.







Holding onto Life: By Remembering the Dead

Much in our existence revolves around “holding onto life”. Taking holidays, doing things we love, remembering those who have died. I pretty much did all three of these activities together recently when I holidayed at Le Canonnier, Mauritius, walked The Coffin Route in England’s Lake District, and read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood while on those trips.

1967, Holcomb, Kansas, USA — Author Truman Capote poses at the grave of the murdered Clutter family, made famous in his novel and in the film. — Image by © Bob Adelman/Corbis

Capote’s book, which was published in 1966, is termed a “non-fiction novel”. Today the equivalent term might be “creative non-fiction”. The genre describes a story that is essentially factual, but written to read like a novel as opposed to, for example, an essay or a newspaper article. In Cold Blood relates the true story of the murders of four members of the Kansas-based Clutter family by criminals Perry Smith and Richard (Dick) Hickock. Readers therefore begin the book knowing the outcome. But this doesn’t detract from the product. Capote’s unique descriptions, careful character portrayal, and flowing style kept me totally engrossed – even through sections that seemed obviously lifted from official reports.

At the end of the book the reader is taken to the simple graves of the four Clutters. It is merely a “single gray stone”, which lies “in the far corner of the cemetery”. Without Capote’s book many people, myself included, would never have known or cared about the Clutters, or their murderers, and the senseless ending of their lives. In this way Capote helps us “hold onto life.”


A cannon overlooks the calm Indian Ocean. Photo Brenda Daniels

I started In Cold Blood while enjoying a week of mild April sunshine (and short rain showers) at the Beachcomber resort of Le Canonnier on the northern coast of Mauritius. This type of holiday – a Beachcomber all-inclusive package – is like being in paradise. Calm seas, copious food and relaxing activities lull the mind and body into believing that nothing outside the resort gates exists. But even paradise has a dark history of life and death. I joined a “Beautiful Story Tour” one afternoon and heard a few facts told in a creative way. Le Canonnier, our tour guide explained, was the site of a military garrison in the 1800s. Cannons, an ammunition building, a large tree which was originally the fort of 50 soldiers, and a now-defunct lighthouse bear witness. And beyond a hedge, nestled in the thick, green grass the grave of a young doctor can be glimpsed. This doctor had treated indentured labourers who disembarked a ship just south of today’s resort, before contracting one of his patient’s illnesses and succumbing. I would never have noticed the grave – the remaining indication of a life having been lived – if our guide hadn’t pointed it out.

The life of English poet, William Wordsworth, is much more well-known to me than that of this fateful Mauritian doctor, and therefore easily remembered. This is of course due to the former’s published and widely loved poetry. But also to the careful memorialisation of his English Lake District home, which I visited on a trip in early May. What I saw in fact detracted from the romanticism surrounding the poet, portraying as it did the “non-fiction” side of this “creative” writer’s life. As charming as the cottage may seem from the outside, inside it is dark, cold, smoky and wonky. No wonder William and his sister Dorothy loved their garden so much.

My daughter and I walked to Wordsworth’s home in Grasmere from Ambleside via “The Coffin Route”, a rough woodland track away from the main causeway where the sight of dead people may have caused offence.

Funny how this route is now the most delightful one for walkers wanting to escape the realities of daily living by enjoying nature.

Remembering the dead on these trips was certainly an enjoyable “holding onto life” for me.


My London Marathon Journey

Supporter sunglasses

My London Marathon journey began, of course, some time prior to 23 April 2017, the date of the event. Preparations included plotting the route, packing supplies, wearing the right gear, and liaising with supporters. My outfit was a bright orange T-shirt sporting the word Sense on it. Sense is a UK-based charity that cares for deafblind children. I was very happy to wear the colours of such an organisation. I also wore giant sunglasses to attract attention. These red plastic toys were nothing compared to what other runners wore: Darth Vader outfits, giant beer bottles and, yes, a 25kg tumble dryer. The kitchen appliance man (Ben Blowes) set a world record. Despite such competition I was very proud of my four-and-a-half-hour finish time.

It was a challenge to make my way through the thousands of people (there were 40 000 runners and I don’t know how many supporters). But the impressive work of road marshals and police men and women was a big help. They shepherded runners and supporters across roads, and channelled patient crowds into public transport stations. I maintained a good time, slowing towards the end, but was definitely hampered by a race-day toilet that held the promise of space-age efficiency but didn’t deliver. It gurgled through its automatic self-cleaning phase so slowly that I hopped about while waiting, anxious to return to the race.

The pace leading up to the 14-mile mark was the most stressful. I wasn’t sure I would be seen by those who knew me and I took so long to decide where the best vantage point would be that it took a hard sprint to get me there at the projected time. I must say that the timing chips given to runners and the mobile phone app they connected to were excellent when it came to tracking progress and therefore heightening excitement.

Spotting my loved ones through the crowds was hardest at the 19-mile mark and by then my calves were shaking with the effort of keeping me on my toes. But it was all worth it when we were reunited post-finish at our chosen meeting point.

Pre- and post-marathon

My London Marathon journey was a tiring (and expensive) one but lots of fun. I barely needed the energy bars we’d packed, so thrilling was the travel by train and by foot to the four spectator points our family had decided upon. I saw my dedicated, disciplined daughter at three of the four stops, and simply yelled her name as loudly as possible at the first as she ran past. She heard me, us, and saw us in our bright orange T-shirts, and said it really helped her to keep going for the 26 miles.

At last count Robyn had raised GBP1480.00 for her chosen charity Sense. I’m so proud of you Robyn Turton, thank you for letting me be your supporter (and for getting me a free supporter’s T-shirt)!

Robyn (front, centre) flanked by her supporters at the finish