California dreamin'

Beneath the redwoods

Greetings from the Golden State

9,000 circuitous miles since setting off from Connecticut, I’ve reached the sun-seared, smog-stained, traffic-choked sprawl of Los Angeles. While the tacos are great and the city’s (multi)cultural vibrancy and creative and economic clout are enthralling, I’m feeling a little overwhelmed. Coming after months of living a mostly rural existence, the concrete, noise and crowds are a bit of a shock to the system.

At least respite — in the form of mountains, ocean and canyons — is never too far away. And, when I’m not able to jog/stagger up Runyon (from where the above was taken) or get my toes wet at Santa Monica beach, I can daydream about the redwoods of northern California’s Humboldt County. A few weeks (or a lifetime) ago, I was surrounded by the forest, neck craned and spine tingling, quietly admiring the soaring sweep of these ancient, hardy giants. There’s nothing quite like trees thousands of years old and hundreds of feet high to give you a jolt of perspective. These evergreen koans are wordless yet wondrously wise — if we’re prepared to stop and listen to them.


The long road south

I’m sorely tempted to run away to live on the (blissfully WiFi-free) lavender farm we stayed at in Mendocino. In this rural, quiet, understatedly stylish county four hours north of the San Francisco Bay Area we:

  • Wallowed in a shady swimming hole (Jenny Odell captured the magic of California’s swimming holes in a recent NYT piece — thanks Carien!)

  • Browsed at the excellent Gallery Bookshop which overlooks the headlands in charming Mendocino village

  • Ate fantastic food, including crab bisque and a codfish sandwich at the all-female-run Princess Seafood in Noyo Harbour and heavenly, charred pizza from Café Beaujolais' hole-in-the-wall pizzeria, The Brickery

  • Rode horses on a beach and kayaked through rumbling sea caves

  • Tasted Chards and Pinot Noirs in the redwood- and vine-covered Anderson Valley

Then came Sonoma County: the hushed and sterile “utopia” of Sea Ranch followed by scruffy, campy Guerneville. Bougie Healdsburg nearby was more my style (and palate: a tasty stromboli in the courtyard of Italian restaurant Campo Fina; Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris from Landmark at Hop Kiln along the winery-studded Westside Road).

Santa Cruz was like a Californian Blackpool. During our brief pitstop there, I felt as if I was trapped in a Lana del Rey music video — its gaudy Boardwalk the embodiment the epitome of summertime sadness.

Luckily, we had Big Sur to escape to: bracing river swims; a hike among redwoods. And my absolute favourite: a 1am soak in Esalen’s hot springs, watching the misty moonlit waves smash the rocks below.

Pictured above: Switzer Falls in the San Gabriel Mountains, a 40-minute drive (and then two-mile hike) from our north-east LA Airbnb. Paradise!


Jottings

  • For MONOCLE’s summer newspaper, a write-up about Mami Wata, the African surf brand (PDF)

  • A pithy Q&A with artist James Delaney in MONOCLE’s July/August cities-focused issue about how he and other volunteers transformed a Joburg park from a crime-ridden no-go area into an urban sanctuary. It’s behind a paywall, but you can read the extended version on my site

  • On Medium, an account of my recent travels in the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia


Books and pods

  • The Nature Fix by Florence Williams: An easily digestible treatise on the sciencific research which explains why standing under redwoods (or hiking in the desert, or even a stroll in your neighbourhood park) benefits body, mind and soul

  • Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran: By turns hilarious, heartwarming and tragic, this 1978 novel (republished this year with a lovely forward by Alan Hollinghurst) elegantly and clear-sightedly captures the hedonistic frenzy of gay New York life after Stonewall and before AIDS. I’m pairing it with The Gay Metropolis — Charles Kaiser’s magisterial non-fiction account of gay life (and the gradually increasing tolerance of it) in American cities from the ’40s onwards. As we celebrate the 50 year anniversary of the Stonewall riots, inhabiting a time where “queer” is now mainstream and Pride has become a commodified and corporatised pastiche of its former activist self, I figured it’s worth being reminded of the courage, sacrifice, loss and lives of the queer people who’ve endured far greater prejudice than I (thankfully) have

  • Bundyville: I’m a few episodes into this rigorous, nuanced and spellbinding podcast about the ranchers fighting the US federal government. It touches on so many important themes — including religious fundamentalism, right wing terrorism, the future of public lands — and how these all intersect. This is podcasting at its addictive, thought-provoking best


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been, what I’ve read/listened to, and what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

From the mountains to the sea

Reflections from the edge.

Greetings from Oregon

Pick your poison and the Pacific Northwest will serve you it you — the small-batch artisanal version, that is. Whether its cannabis (dispensaries are everywhere), coffee (I even spotted an espresso cart on a lonely motel forecourt) or craft beer (hoppy AF IPAs, yay!), it’s here.

If nature is more your kind of fix, then there’s tons of that here too: mountains, forests, water. At times, you don’t see a building for miles, which makes the summertime hordes buzzing around touristy spots all the more overwhelming. They rather sullied my pilgrimage to the Space Needle, a structure I was obsessed with as a kid (I even had a Space Needle cake made for my American-themed sixth birthday party). As I squeezed between people to catch glimpses of Seattle below, I was grumpy. (How dare they?!) Finding a gap at the window, I paused, watching a boat’s wake slash a dark V across the mercury-glimmer of the Puget Sound. It was a sight so ordinary and yet so exquisite. The grumpiness was gone.

In this fast-disappearing blur of a year, it’s these moments —quotidian, but beautiful—that I’m trying to observe and appreciate. It’s a way of briefly dropping anchor: finding sanity in the chaos that is modern life.


Scribbles

While most of my time behind a screen over the last month has been focused on copywriting, I have had a bunch of titbits published by Monocle recently. Check out my preview of Gorgeous George, a boutique Cape Town hotel, in The Escapist, and my “How to start a gin distillery” feature (featuring Hope on Hopkins) in its annual Drinking and Dining Directory. In the July/August issue, I’ve also contributed snippets on Kalk Bay Books and Roastin’ Records. Most of these aren’t online, but you’ll find them in ye olde print on your newsstand.


Pods and pages

Lots of driving has meant lots of podcasts (and not enough reading) over the past month.

Something podcasting seems really good at is helping to make sense of recent history — a welcome antidote to the myopia of 24-hour news cycle. While Slow Burn (which delved into Watergate and the Lewinsky Affair) is perhaps the most obvious example, there are other goodies — such as Expenses (about the UK parliament’s 2009 expenses scandal) from The Telegraph and NPR’s Throughline — I found recent episodes on Christian fundamentalism (thanks, Kelly!) )and bussing fascinating. I’ve also gotten hooked on Yahoo News’s Conspiracyland in which seasoned investigative journo Mike Isikoff explores the 2016 death of DNC operative Seth Rich and the way this has been exploited by everyone from the Russians to Julian Assange.

More current faves:

  • As the name implies, the BBC’s Brexitcast combines two of my favourite obsessions: Brexit and podcasts. I’m addicted to its gossipy, smart, funny analysis of the latest twists and turns of Brexit from BBC journos and guests. Brexit might be a horrific, slow-mo car crash, but it feels rather reassuring that Adam, Chris, Laura and Katya (and their silly jokes/puns) are on hand.

  • Avery Trufelman’s Nice Try is a fabulous exploration of various utopias created over the course of history (hat-tip to Erin!). It’s better than her interesting but somewhat uneven podcast series on clothing, Articles of Interest.

  • I’ve enjoyed How I Built This — the NPR show that interviews successful entrepreneurs. Favourites include the chats with Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia and Herb Kelleher, the late founder of Southwest.

What I did manage to read:

  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. A memoir about gender transition, pregnancy, the modern family. It’s a book that is both full of raw, pulsing life as well as bristling intellect. Wow.

  • In the Absence of Men by Philippe Besson. A novel that elegantly imagines a burgeoning friendship between Marcel Proust and an adolescent in wartime Paris.


Highways and byways

From Colorado, we drove north into the wide valleys of Wyoming where we watched rodeo and went white water rafting. Then, we drove into the rippling pine-covered hills of Montana, and westwards, into Washington. After a fortnight’s sojourn across the border in British Columbia, we’re now heading southwards.

The biggest lowlight was the RV-choked roads of Yellowstone National Park, as well as anticlimactic Old Faithful, which was much less of a gusher than I was expecting.

Highlights:

  • Seattle is great: sprawling, vibrant, surrounded by water; reminiscent of a rainier, less stuck-up Sydney. I had the best ramen I’ve ever tasted at Ramen Danbo and tasty dim sum at DoughZone. Also loved browsing the Japanese supermarket Uwajimaya and Elliot Bay Bookstore.

  • Tofino, on the western edge of Vancouver Island: I surfed lazy waves, whale-watched from a zodiac, soaked in hot springs, hiked in the rainforest, and ate sweet juicy home-cooked crab.

  • A whistle-stop visit to gorgeous Portland, Oregon. Food trucks — check! Saturday Farmer’s Market —check! Powell’s Bookstore (the size of a city block) — check! Skipped the (in)famous strip clubs; instead went to the gorgeous Japanese Garden (pictured above) on a surreally sweltering day (doesn’t it always rain here?). In spite of the people (many of them yakking — the Yanks are a chatty lot), the winding pathways and trickling water offered a gorgeous opportunity to pause, breathe and savour.


    This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been, what I’ve read/listened to, and what I’ve written. Thanks for reading!

The 1.5 mile high club

Somewhere above the rainbow.

Greetings from Aspen.

Right now I’m rather high — 2400m (8000 feet) above sea-level to be exact.

While it’s better known as a winter ski destination, Aspen is buzzing right now — there are lanyards aplenty as delegates and attendees of a conference and a classical music festival throng the streets. There isn’t an H&M for me to buy cheap new jeans to fit my ever-expanding waist, but just about every luxury fashion brand has a store here (should I fancy splurging on that Gucci onesie).

Although Aspen might be a tad too chichi for my tastes (and budget), the state of Colorado, on the whole, is a delight — from its strikingly modern flag (designed way back in 1911), to its big skies, rugged landscapes, good food, tasty craft beers and lovely indy bookstores.


On page (and screen)

In celebration of Pride Month, I’ve republished on Medium the interviews I’ve done with gay authors over the years, including Alan Hollinghurst, Damon Galgut, Edmund White, Colm Tóibín and Garth Greenwell.

Further Medium musings:

Recently in print:


Between the covers

How to Love Wine: A Memoir and a Manifesto by the New York Times’s wine critic, Eric Asimov is fantastic: a passionate and eloquently argued riposte to the snobbery and anxiety that all too often afflicts our relationship with wine.

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, the debut novel by Ocean Vuong, is a startlingly powerful portrait of the immigrant experience — and an unflinching dissection of tragedy and trauma, large and small. Read my review.

I’m almost done reading Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott’s book on writing. It’s down-to-earth, funny and very wise: in short, a must for any writer.

I read about a third of The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne before giving up. While it is entertaining in parts, the novel (which traces the shifting attitudes towards homosexuality from the 1950s onwards) frequently descends into melodramatic farce, sacrificing plausibility for the sake of its dark humour.


Up the mountain

From Vermont we’ve been making squiggly progress westwards, popping in and out of Canada and swooping down to Kentucky before belting it across the barren Midwest to the Rockies.

Highlights:

  • A heavenly home-style smoked barbeque in Indiana

  • Tasting rieslings in the Niagara wine region and craft bourbon at Rabbit Hole’s extraordinary distillery in Louisville, Kentucky

  • Canoeing and reading by the fire while it rained during our stay at White Pine Camp — a holiday camp in the Adirondacks built in the early 1900s

  • Strolling around Mies van de Rohe’s Lafayette Park in Detroit —the Bauhaus designer’s largest concentration of residential buildings in the US

  • Hiking on the forested mountains above Boulder, CO. With a trail network this extensive on their doorstep, it’s no wonder that Boulder’s residents have been ranked America’s happiest.

Lowlights:

  • Although the falls themselves were spectacular, Niagara Falls was pretty ghastly otherwise: the US side is decrepit, while the Canadian side is like Vegas-on-the-river with casinos, conference centres and chain restaurants. To make matters worse, I got locked out of the hotel room (due to a defective key card); once I’d proven to the concierge I wasn’t a rent boy/criminal and gained access to our room, an hours-long power failure then commenced.

  • Trying to find a healthy takeaway on the highways of the Midwest proved impossible. Still, it gave us a good excuse to tuck into pancakes at IHOP.

  • (Yet another) flat tyre — this one in Lake Placid, NY


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been travelling, what I’ve been writing, and stuff I’ve been reading. Thanks for reading!

But why do the barns have stars on them?*

An American adventure begins.

Greetings from Bernie-land!

I’m writing this in a little off-grid cabin surrounded by silent forest. Over the last few days, I’ve been guzzling maple syrup and imperial IPAs, grazing on artisan cheese and stockpiling bacon sausage. Vermont—aka nirvana—is home to dangerously high levels of local, organic, grass-fed, Fair Trade deliciousness. Obesity appears inevitable — though at least it’ll be of the wholesome, 21st Century hippy-liberal variety.


Writing

I’ve repurposed and updated a few of my Wanted literary columns and have shared them on Medium (which is a fun platform—it reminds me of when I was an angry blogger in my late teens): take a gander at musings on travel writing, bookshops and writer’s block. My whisky tasting adventure on Islay has washed up on Medium too.

Other recent stories:

Want more? Then visit my website or Medium.


Eyes and ears.

It’s been nice reading physical copies of the New York Times but it’s a pity the print quality is so surprisingly poor (they could take a leaf out of the FT Weekend’s, erm, book). Outside, the increasingly woke nature/active magazine, is no stranger to diving deep into sometimes-controversial topics (eg its recent article asking whether sun tan lotion is the new margarine). I loved its May cover feature about the healing benefits of nature and have just bought a book on the topic — The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams (thanks for the tip, Duffy!) — so more about that next month.

My podcast obsession continues. Current favourite is financial journalist/author Michael Lewis’s new series, Against the Rules: “a show about the decline of the human referee in American life and what that’s doing to our idea of fairness”. I’ve also enjoyed the bite-sized episodes of The Last Continent — a PBS series about Antarctica’s history and uncertain future.

In celebration of the first few tentative miles taken on a transcontinental road-trip, I thought I’d inflict a few music recommendations on you too. It’s a lucky packet that includes newly-released songs from the peerless Black Keys, some South African house (such as Not Serious by Siphe Tebeka), Dancehall-flavoured pop and mournful ballads courtesy of Lou Simons and Lewis Capaldi. View the complete playlist on Spotify:


Travel

Over the last month I’ve mostly been exploring lush New England (which really does remind me of olde England — though here the locals have much better teeth and there are American flags ERRYWHERE). I also visited Jamaica for a few days (highlight: Jamaican food; lowlight: Jamaican service). A few other things that have stood out:

  • Philip Johnson’s Glass House (pictured) in New Canaan, CT, was remarkable: in spite of its minimalism, this 70-year-old masterpiece had a cosy, human feel.

  • I loved visiting Philadelphia—which has everything NYC has to offer but feels much less frenzied. Saw Impressionist treasures at the vast Philadelphia Art Museum, ate the juiciest soft pretzels (buttered and salty) at the Reading Terminal Market, listened to Mahler’s Ninth at the sumptuous Kimmel Centre, tasted stellar IPAs at Tria Taproom, and much more besides.

  • Connecticut and Vermont have so many lovely independent supermarkets—typically stocked with heaps of high quality local products. A favourite was the community-owned Brattleboro Co-op in southern VT. A welcome change to the monopolistic/monotonous UK and South African grocery retail scene. Meet me by the cheese fridge!


*Well done—you made it this far!

Curious about those barns? Wikipedia has the answer.


This dispatch is a monthly round-up of where I’ve been travelling, what I’ve been writing, and stuff I’ve been reading/listening to. If you think a friend will like it, please forward it on —I promise not to spam or stalk them, K?! And if you hate it, hit the unsubscribe button below (I’ll forgive you eventually). Thanks for reading! Xx

Farewell Facebook, hello email

I'm going old school, and you're invited.

A few months ago, I deleted my Facebook and Instagram accounts. I did this partly because I think Facebook Inc. is a truly awful company — and partly because attention is a finite, fragile, easily distracted thing, and social media was chewing up more of mine than it should.

I’m not a total luddite, though: I want to keep in touch with people, and I still believe the internet is great way of doing that. But I’m going old school: with the humble email newsletter.

So, this is the plan: unless you hit the unsubscribe button at the bottom of this (and I’ll try not to take it too personally if you do ;-P), you’ll be getting a monthly-ish missive from me. In it, I’ll be covering three areas, broadly speaking:

  • What I’ve been writing about

  • What I’ve been reading (and listening to)

  • Where I’ve been travelling.

I’ll try to keep it pithy, with links through to full articles. The news start-up Axios.com (which has a bunch of must-read newsletters like the Sunday night one from Felix Salmon) uses the term “smart brevity” to explain its approach. I like the term, and in these dispatches, I’ll endeavour to live up to it too.

So much for brevity — let’s do this. (And afterwards, do drop me a line with thoughts/news/gossip/updates of your own if you fancy!)


Writing

LEARNING TO LET GO — DISCOVERING THE ZEN OF SURFING:

A few life lessons discovered while on (and falling off) a surfboard in Indonesia.

ESWATINI BUDGETS FOR CHANGE:

Eswatini’s new finance minister is trying to put the country on a new economic path. He may meet resistance along the way.

GAY RIGHTS IN AFRICA: ‘ONE STEP FORWARDS, ONE STEP BACK’:

Though there are signs of progress towards tolerance, life for sexual minority groups in many African states remains legally and socially difficult — and downright dangerous in some regions.

UNWIND AS TIME SLOWS DOWN AT PEL’S POST IN PAFURI:

The newest and most exclusive lodge in northern Kruger National Park is a bush-lover’s paradise.

PORTO — WHERE THE HORDES ARE SMALLER AND THE DELIGHTS ARE HUGE:

From grand architecture, melodious symphonies to drool-worthy cuisine, this compact Portuguese city has plenty to delight visitors.

SUMMERTIME IN BERLIN ON TWO WHEELS:

Cycling offers an ideal way to explore the city where the Wall provides a constant reminder of history and the surprisingly warm lakes refreshment after a sweaty workout.

You can read more of my articles on my website.


Reading

I’m making painfully slow progress with Sam Harris’s Waking Up — the neuroscientist’s paean to mindfulness. Perhaps it’s because of his smug, strident, know-it-all tone. Or maybe it’s because I’ve found the stuff about the self and consciousness a little hard to follow for poor, dim me. Did anyone else struggle?

Less by Andrew Sean Greer was delicious — funny, poignant, moving, wise. It also won the Pulitzer.

I devoured John le Carre’s latest, A Legacy of Spies. It ended too abruptly, though. And, while it raises important issues around the way we reassess the past, I had to wonder if anyone not familiar with the Circus universe of his early novels would care.

Sally Rooney is brilliant. Normal People, eish! So disturbing, captivating, vital. A book that really captures the complexities of relationships, romantic and otherwise. As does Alain de Botton’s gorgeous, gentle, funny novel, The Course of Love.

Then, there’s Rachel Cusk’s Outline trilogy; I read its volumes in fairly quick succession. Outline, the first was my favourite; I loved the second, Transit, too. I was a little less dazzled by the last, Kudos; I felt there was an opacity, an elusive quality to it that left me a tad deflated. Whether that’s because of me or because of the book, it’s hard to say.

Speaking of books, Craig Mod’s Wired essay about publishing innovation, The 'Future Book' Is Here, but It's Not What We Expected is worth your time.

I’ve been driving so much recently, and finally fell in love [again] with podcasts. These are my favourites at the moment:

  • Science Vs. — brilliant science journalism that explores all sorts of things, from veganism to alcohol

  • The Dropout — a gripping account of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes, founder of blood testing company Theranos

  • Slow Burn — the addictive story of the Monica Lewinsky scandal (season 2) and Watergate (season 1)

Pod and book recommendations are always appreciated!


Travel

Since the year began, I’ve visited all of South Africa’s provinces, as well as Malawi, Botswana, Namibia and Eswatini. Here are a few highlights:

  • Delicious lunches at Wolfgat and Fynboshoek cheesery.

  • A tasting at Twee Jonge Gezellen, home of the Krone bubblies, in the Tulbagh valley — where we often went as a family when I was a kid. (My parents trained me well!) The perks of adulthood: getting to sample its fermented grape juice at last. Another Tulbagh favourite was the Waverley Hills Organic Shiraz Mourvèdre Viognier 2013 which won world’s best organic wine at last year’s IWSC in London.

  • Lowveld trees! My favourites were the jackalberries at The Kruger Gate Protea Hotel, the cathedral-sized baobab at Sagole (SA’s largest), the world’s biggest kiepersol (cabbage tree) at Kurisa Moya and Modjaji’s extraordinary cycads.

  • Paddling the Orange River. Despite rapids (and some rapid-fire #$%*), my boyfriend and I managed to not capsize or kill each other over three days of canoeing.

  • The starry skies and silence of the Tankwa Karoo and Richtersveld (the latter is pictured above).

Lowlights (because travel always has them even if you don’t encounter them on Insta):

  • Staying a night at the rather shabby Witsieshoek Mountain Lodge so we could hike the Amphitheatre in the Drakensberg and being unable to do so because of unrelenting mist and rain.

  • Getting four flat tyres in as many months (two happened simultaneously thanks to a crater-sized pothole in Mpumalanga). Oops. Europcar has probably blacklisted me by now.

  • Getting food poisoning when revisiting the otherwise idyllic Mumbo island in Malawi. (Read about my first visit here.)

If you made it this far, thank you!

The next one will be shorter, promise!

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