I’ve just written a piece for Psychologies magazine on anger management and another for British Airways Business Life on anger in the workplace (I’ve never seen myself as particularly angry but, being an Ipswich fan, I do have my moments). Plus I’m doing a piece on environmentally friendly cars for Junior magazine.
All three will be published shortly but if you commission articles and would like to see them, then please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article appeared in The Guardian Family section on 25/09/10
New research shows that many of our childhood memories may be false. Yet Si Beales has no memory at all of his mother, who died when he was 23. So, he decided to go looking for her.
There is a photograph that I cannot find anywhere. I was reminded of it the other day when my little boy, Finn, told me his first joke. We were standing in the bathroom and he was refusing to clean his teeth. He turned to me and said. ‘Eat my lunch. Brush my teeth. Go to bed. I don’t know’. ‘I don’t know’ has become one of our stock phrases whenever we discover that he has emptied all the cereal boxes onto the kitchen floor or attempted to put the cat into the washing machine. Trying to remain stern, I burst into laughter as did he and we hugged each other. I would like to think that I will remember that moment for ever.
Finn is two and three quarters (the ¾ is very important). I must have been about four at the time the photo was taken. We are sitting on a rock, my mum and I, somewhere in Majorca. I am looking up at her and obviously imparting a fascinating piece of information. She is looking down at me, her eyes bright with love and wonder, a broad smile on her face. It is a photograph that proves the existence of love.
My mum died from cancer when I was 23. She was 47 and my father was 45 (the same age that I am now). My brother Daniel was 19, Alexander, 13 and Adam only 10. We five males were left to live in a world that had always revolved around her.
She had been diagnosed with breast cancer seven years earlier and had fought it bravely, believing that she had beaten it and then suffering remission three times. She left a hole in our life that has been part filled with the emotional difficulties that so many families encounter. Her beloved boys have faced despair, tragedy, even death without her by their side. And yet she also left us with an overwhelming feeling that we were loved. That we were the most important people in her world and that we deserved to be happy.
I would like to say that I think about her every day like a good son should, but I don’t. She comes into my mind on ad hoc occasions. Not just the obvious ones like a wedding or a birthday but the fleeting moments – when I see an old purple Volvo estate or a piece of lemon meringue pie. Yet the image of her as a person is missing. It is as if she has been airbrushed out by some cruel revisionist. So that when I think of her there is no memory, no stories or dialogue. To try and explain what I mean, I remember that my brother and I had discovered that you could twist the small nozzle on the rear screen wash of the Volvo, so that it would squirt directly towards the pavement. We would take great delight in shouting ‘now’ and mum would press the button and a passerby would receive a jet of water up their back. I can clearly remember that happening. I can even remember what the button on the wiper stalk looked like but I can’t remember mum.
Recently, after the birth of my second son, Rufus, I was inspired to go looking for her – or at least tangible memories of her. I have always felt a little guilty and inadequate at my lack of memory. Friends would put it down to the trauma of her lengthy illness and subsequent death – the idea that I must have wiped my memories, like a video cassette. Yet I just wonder if it is because I just have a dreadful memory and that my mind is distracted and fragmented. This came to mind the other day, when an old friend referred to a school reunion which I have absolutely no memory of attending. And in forgetting an hour long conversation I had with my wife just a week ago, a common occurrence.
Yet newly published research by Professor Giuliana Mazzoni, from the University of Hull’s psychology department, demonstrates that even if we can remember our childhood, it is very likely that our memories may be false. He interviewed 1600 students and over a fifth of them recalled memories that could not have been true. As he says: ‘Our study shows, not all that we remember about our past is true. Our research also shows that this phenomenon of non-believed memories is much more frequent than people had imagined’. Another study in the USA had people remembering seeing Bugs Bunny at a Disney Theme Park, when they couldn’t have as he is a Warner Bros character. Famously, Developmental psychologist Jean Piaget vividly remembered being kidnapped in a park at the age of two, while out with his nurse. He even had memories of the scratches on his nurse’s face, caused by the attacker. Yet 13 years later the nurse confessed that she had fabricated the story. It seems clear that memory can indeed play tricks on us. But I would at least like to have some – even if they are false.
I decided to contact some of my mum’s old friends who had known me when I was a toddler. I first met with Pat, who was there when mum spotted my dad getting off a bus in Atlantic City and warned her ‘He’s mine’. We spent a happy few hours with stories of her exploits as a young woman, but there was nothing to jog any memory within me. Then I visited Vanessa, who met mum through The Housewives Register, when we lived in Lewisham. Again there were joyful and tearful tales of mum and her vitality and laughter. As we talked, a few memories began to filter back but still grey and hazy. At one point she mentioned my infant school and compulsory afternoon naps, which I refused to take. This definitely created some connection with me but whether it is family folklore or true memory I cannot be sure. I certainly can’t remember the room or my mum, who taught at the school. As I was leaving Vanessa said ‘When your mother was there, it was a happy day and you were part of her. You were adored’. She handed me a chocolate mousse recipe that mum had written out for her and she had saved for over 40 years. As I drove away I realised that I had not felt this close to my mum for a very long time. I had been reminded of her love and generosity and eccentricity – but still had no direct memory of her.
I realised that I needed to speak to an expert and contacted Dr James Ost, Senior Lecturer in Psychology at University of Portsmouth. Dr Ost, who describes his own as ‘awful and declining’, specialises in the study of memory. He reassured me that not remembering much of your childhood is pretty normal, mostly because it is pretty mundane. He debunked the idea that a major trauma may have wiped out my memory or that hypnosis would help me to remember. Rather he suggested a much simpler idea. ‘If you want to remember something that happened at a particular place the best thing to do is go back to that place’. The practice is called context reinstatement and it’s what the police use in crime re-enactments. As we finished chatting I asked James how I can best help my children remember their childhood: ‘The more I learn about memory, the less I rely on my own’ he said ‘A photo or a video is always good.’
A few days later I met up with my father and we travelled back to South-east London where I lived until the age of 10.Firstly to Lewisham, to the first house that mum and dad bought. This is the place that I have the greatest sense of in my childhood, perhaps because there is so much cine footage of the house and garden. But my strongest memories on returning come from the street outside, where my friend Miles and I would belt down the hill on our little blue scooters. It seemed so much steeper then. And the car park opposite, where we would ride our chopper lookalikes and take turns to defend a brick wall goal. But no memory of mum.
We moved on a few miles to Ladywell. Dad was 19 when he met mum and she was his first girlfriend. He was a medical student and she fell pregnant while he was still studying. His parents refused to support them financially. He was working over 100 hour weeks and after an incident in their Hampstead flat with a teetotal landlord and some exploding homebrew, they moved to a small flat near Hilly Fields. As we approached the house, I began to get a sense of place coming back to me. I was three when we moved there, about Finn’s age. There has always been a family story about mum giving us petrol when our little legs were too tired to get us up the hill. According to my brother Alex, she would take our arm and say ‘How many gallons, please’ and then pump our arm and squeeze off the gallons by pressing our fat little fists. As we crossed the road at the brow of the hill I realised that I have a memory of having walked that path before and of mum, holding and squeezing my chubby little hand. I began to feel a little tearful but also experienced a sense of relief and belonging.
Looking back now, I’m not sure whether this can be described as a true memory or a prompted imagining. As Dr Ost says: ‘Memory is mixed up in a big pot of reconstruction and storytelling’. But it is a mental image that reminds me of my mum and how much she loved me.
It occurs to me that Finn’s understanding of childhood memory will be utterly different to mine. His days since birth have been digitally documented, stored & referenced, placed online and preserved in a bombproof vault. He will expect access to his memories to be immediate and searchable. Already he tries to change the channel by swiping the screen like an iphone, or expects Fireman Sam to be permanently on tap. So it seems logical that technology will change the way he remembers – hopefully for the better. Perhaps, when his son is born, there will be need for memory at all. But rather life will be constantly recorded and instantly available for him, and his children, to use as they choose.
Finn and I walk together to nursery most days. I look forward to it. As we reach the midpoint of the steep hill up to Queens Park, he often begins to tire. I offer him some petrol and ask him how many gallons he would like: ‘Lots and lots’ he replies ‘Four, six, ten, seven’. I hope that he remembers those walks for years to come – and that I will too. But I’ve decided that I will video one, just in case.
For eight years I was involved in the fashion business and now I’m not. The world suddenly seems like a very different place.
You may not know my former business partner, Sarah Arnett, but you might know her clothes. Virtually, every dress that Kathryn Rayward wears in her current series ‘Cracking Antiques’ is one of Sarah’s – and they look stunning. Alexandra Shulman, Editor of Vogue, chose to wear one when meeting Michelle Obama at the G20 summit, Cindy Crawford popped into a boutique in Toronto and bought one, Christina Aguilera selected one for an In Style shoot, Erin O’Connor used to shop at our store in Brighton. Geri Halliwell wore us to David Beckham’s thirtieth, although we never used to talk about that much.
And the press, when they noticed us, were kind. Vogue.com commented that ‘dresses were in and Sarah Arnett’s are it’. The FT said the clothes were ‘mouth-watering’. Elle described Sarah as ‘A Rising Star’ and called our store ‘Shopping Heaven’.
In our time we sold in some of the best stores in the world – Harvey Nichols, Liberty and Fenwick in London, Nieman Marcus in LA, Luisa via Roma in Milan to name just a few. At our height we were selling to over 100 stores in over 20 countries and generating over £500,000 in sales each season. We even won the UK Fashion Export Award in 2007, presented by Princess Anne. Although I had to collect the award as Sarah was nervous that she would trip up on the way to the stage. I sometimes wonder if HRH simply thought I was just a very butch designer.
Sarah and I first met over 15 years ago in Brighton, when I walked into a fabric shop in the North Laine. Sarah had recently returned from running a wedding dress factory in India and was a freelance textile designer. I had moved down to escape London and set up a marketing business, although I always wanted to become a writer (At 45, it’s only taken me this long – I have a severe completing disorder).
We became friends and then, in 2002, decided to start a business together. Initially, we opened a shop selling other designer’s labels. Sarah then started to design her own clothes and would sit at the back of the shop making them. They became so popular that we began to use a factory and then eventually decided to start wholesaling. Around this time Sarah began to design her prints digitally and it is this rare ability that became her signature and her strength. I would argue that she is one of the foremost digital print designers in the world. But then I would, wouldn’t I?
Our first big break came when Liberty decided to buy our collection – a huge honour for Sarah as a print designer. We were then selected for London Fashion Week and this led to us meeting a sales agency who began to represent us. Within one season they had increased our business from 15 to 50 accounts. We raised investment in the company and began to expand rapidly, increasing our wholesale accounts and starting a bridal business. With hindsight, this was where the problems started. We were over ambitious and under prepared. But the hamster wheel of fashion – constantly looking ahead to the next season and never living in the moment – meant that we could never ever stop to see where we were going wrong.
Such is the paradox of fashion that despite our supposed success we were constantly on the brink of failure. One design issue, fabric problem, production fault or late payment would tip us into crisis. Despite its reputation for frivolity this is not an easy business. Ultimately it is about design, process and production for the human form rather than baubles and beads. And those that survive and prosper are tough, tough cookies.
Eventually the business began to fail. We couldn’t pay our creditors, purchase our fabric or deliver our orders and the business went into administration. Sarah and I had, by this time, been reduced to 12% equity each. We managed to buy the business out of administration with the support of our families, but this took so long and was so expensive that we never recovered and were forced to finally admit defeat a few months ago. Although, we did made sure that our existing wedding orders will be completed so that our brides could be secure.
Ultimately we couldn’t make it work and I have to take my share of responsibility for that. I am good at sales & marketing. I have an eye for an opportunity and Sarah and I built a team of talented, loyal and likeable people who will go on to do great things. We once employed 15 women (I was the only bloke) and turned over almost £1,500,000, so I must have done something right. We had a great product and, when we delivered on time, we would sell out immediately. Yet, we never made a profit. We could never get to grips with the issues of finance, cashflow and overheads that are so crucial to any business. People lost money due to us– both suppliers and investors – and I am truly sorry for that. I dearly wish that I could have been better but ultimately I could never make fashion work.
The business is a notoriously difficult one. More designers than you care to mention -or they care to admit – have gone bust two, three, even four times before finally finding the right formula. As Alexander McQueen poignantly said:
“I’ve realised that there has to be a balance between your mental satisfaction and the financial needs of your company. A collection is two-thirds artistic and one-third business.”
For every McQueen, Matthew Williamson or Alice Temperley there are hundreds who have gone by the wayside. Some of them rise again like Allegra Hicks and Amanda Wakeley. Others drift away never to return. Consequently the banks run a mile when they hear the dreaded F word, particularly since the credit crunch. It is now virtually impossible to finance production or get credit insurance. We actually had over £300,000 of orders when we ceased trading. It is so sad that we couldn’t deliver them because it was one of Sarah’s most beautiful collections. But ultimately it wasn’t the economic crisis that killed us. It was the business model that didn’t work.
It now seems clear to me that the traditional structure of the designer fashion business is designed to fail from the very start. A designer must predict fabric, colour, shape and trend two seasons ahead of the shopfloor. They then have to finance sampling and marketing for goods that won’t be delivered for another six months. Then, the store wants winter coats delivered in July and summer dresses delivered in December. And when they get them they want a discount and often won’t pay for 90 days. Magazines want expensive images and celebrities want free clothes. It’s true to say that you can begin expenditure on a collection and not finally collect the money until 12 months later. And no small business can finance that gap. Your only chance is to get bought, do a deal with a factory or license your product but that is a tough deal to get right. And when a designer such as Luella Bartley – twice British Designer of the year and backed by a huge multinational – goes bust you realise that there must be something wrong.
The other difficulty is that there are so few reliable manufacturers left who are capable of producing low volumes of high quality goods on time and at the right price – at home or abroad. As Alice Temperley says:
“A lot of the factories we worked with in Britain have gone bust,” she says. “Really they should be supported, because it’s crazy to lose British industry, and impossible to bring it back.”
If I were to offer advice to any aspiring designer it would be to get a decent accountant and learn about finance. You might be the greatest designer in the world but you still need to understand the commercial imperatives. You can be Paul Smith or Ossie Clark – it’s up to you, but it’s cash that will make the difference. Not being murdered by your Italian lover also helps. Another option is to have a rich daddy, become friends with a supermodel or act in a few bad movies.
The colleges, industry and British Fashion Council could do far more to help. Things are getting better but a concerted effort to improve business skills within fashion would pay huge dividends in the long run. Perhaps the great and the good could set up a summer school to give intensive training in the business. It might just begin to redress the balance after all those ideas that the High St just happened to ‘borrow’ from the independent labels.
Now that it’s all over, I genuinely hope that someone will recognise Sarah’s talent and enable her to be the best that she can be. She has a rare gift. She designs beautiful dresses that make women feel special – that create an emotional connection. She has a unique signature and her digital prints are truly works of art. Importantly, her clothes appeal to women of all ages and all sizes – real women not just pipe cleaners. Perhaps one day she will have the success that we always dreamed about. Perhaps one day, someone will be able to support her properly.
As for me, I’m a lucky man. I’m getting married to Fiona, who I love and who has always been there for me. I have two lovely boys, Finn & Rufus, who bring me more joy than I have ever known. I’m doing a bit of marketing consultancy and working on a few magazine features. Plus eventually I’d love to write a novel. I’ve seen ‘The Devil Wears Prada’ and frankly if a plot as thin as single georgette can succeed, then why can’t mine?
Whatever I do, I will never regret my time spent amidst fashion’s foolery. I travelled to some great places, met some amazing characters, had some wild nights and made some lifelong friends. I had to put my house on the line to do it and I will be repaying my debts for years to come, but at least I tried. At least, for a brief moment, we created some beauty in the world and made people happy. That has to count for something.
My favourite moment? Showing at the Ritz in Paris. Each season, the very posh and very French organisers would cover the swimming pool in the basement for the trade show, which was closed off to the guests. One day, an elderly gentleman appeared, Mr Ben like, from a side door, dressed only in swimming trunks and a robe with a towel neatly folded under his arm. He proceeded to walk up one the aisles before, suddenly realising where he was, he turned and walked with a dignified step and a wry smile back to the door and disappeared. It was the best catwalk I’ve ever seen. Not quite, the emperor’s new clothes but even hardened fashionistas managed to laugh that day. After all. It is only fashion, darling – only fashion.
As the bustle of Ho Chi Min city gives way to the rice paddies and water buffalo, Bao, our guide, seems increasingly preoccupied with my size and girth. Although the Chi Chi tunnels have been considerably widened in order to accommodate western tastes, he continues to glance across at my beer belly and ‘tut’ nervously, like a concerned grandmother – all too aware that he may soon have to extricate me from a Winnie the Poo like jam. Many of the Vietnamese soldiers who inhabited these tunnels were able to exist in a space less than 2ft wide for decades and lived principally on a diet of tapioca. Considering I have spent decades trying to avoid tapioca, I can understand Bao’s concern.
Our visit begins with a gloriously anti American documentary which has our Yankee compatriots squirming in their seats. Situated just 30km north of Ho Chi Min city, the tunnels inhabit what has been described as the most bombed, shelled, gassed, defoliated and generally devastated area in the history of warfare. A free strike zone, onto which pilots were instructed to drop unused bombs and napalm before returning to base. As we walk from the visitor centre the through a sun-dappled forest, Bao reminds us that during The American War (as it is known) this landscape would have been reduced to scorched earth.
The tunnels give a unique insight into the Vietnamese psyche. Whether it’s the entrances disguised as anthills or the Viet Cong washing with stolen American soap in order to fool sniffer dogs, it becomes apparent that the Vietnamese used the principles of their much practised Tai Chi in order to turn their opponent’s strength against them. This ingenuity ands flexibility is now as much a part of the people’s desire – newly liberated by relaxations on entrepreneurial activity – to attract the tourist dollar in whatever way they can. Perhaps my favourite example of this is to be found later on in Hue where a deaf mute man has established an excellent local restaurant, communicating with pictures and sign language. Sensing a keen business opportunity, two further – supposedly deaf mute – restaurants have opened up next door.
Linguistically twinned with war, Vietnam at first seems an unlikely holiday destination. And yet it is a country that is redefining itself at an incredible rate. Possessed of an amazing natural beauty – wonderful beaches, glorious countryside, vibrant cities – a visit to Vietnam offers the chance to discover a country that has survived incredible diversity and is now prospering like never before.
Vietnam stretches like an S along 600km of the East Coast of the Indo Chinese peninsula and – protected by Thailand – was fortunate to escape the devastating effects of the Asian Tsunami. Such is its narrowness – at some points less than 50km wide – that geography dictates that most visitors travel from Ho Chi Min City to Hanoi or vice versa, stopping off at key points along the way and taking the occasional excursion inland.
These seeming limitations actually make for remarkably easy planning. The independent traveller can make choices as they wish. Some might prefer the hustle and bustle of the cities and then a relaxing few days at the beach. For others it might be scuba diving. mountain biking or jungle trekking. Getting around is straight forward – there are cheap but crowded mini buses, a frequent and efficient rail line running down the spine of the country and plenty of cheap internal flights. In the end we used a combination of all three and along the way found plenty of young families and retired couples as well as the usual gap year backpackers.
Our adventure began in Saigon – after having flown 16 hours with Malaysian airlines via Kuala Lumpur. Journeying in from the airport the first thing that hits you, often literally, is the traffic and particularly the mopeds. In an age when we seem to pride ourselves on transporting fewer and fewer people in larger and larger cars, the Vietnamese have gone the other way, attempting to get more and more people, and increasingly ridiculous items, on to one 70 cc Honda. Widescreen TV’s, staircases, coffins, all forms of livestock – chickens, pigs, the occasional calf – they attempt to carry them all. My favourite was the two workmen with a plate glass window balanced between them and the head-on-horror on the faces of the oncoming riders as they swerved to avoid becoming a cartoon like casualty.
Given the precariousness of their situation one would expect the riders to be careful, particularly as 2 million of the 8 million Saigon inhabitants are illegal and thus technically not allowed to own a moped. Instead they are the most anarchic road (and pavement) users I have ever known – and I’ve driven in Rome. Consequently crossing the road is an exercise in blind faith and one of our favourite early evening pastimes was to watch form the balcony as newly arrived tourists attempted to make their way back to the hotel.
Built in the 20’s the majestic oozes french colonial charm and offers sumptuous, but noisy, rooms over looking the river. Like the rest of Vietnam, Saigon offers plenty of choice for the romantic traveller- whether it’s the ancient haunt of Graham Greene at The Continental or the fabulous kitsch of the Rex with its glorious roof garden. There are also plenty of lower quality options but we found accommodation to be so cheap that we were happy to splash out a little.
Ho Chi Min city has been forced to pay penance through its name change but to many locals and tourists it is still Saigon. The most important commercial and financial centre in Vietnam, it can at first appear more cold and unemotional that its North Vietnamese counterpart – a little like Madrid compared to Barcelona. But one soon discovers that its bustling markets, intriguing mixture of colonial and state designed architecture, fascinating museums and excellent cuisine all mean that it is essential that you don’t miss Saigon.
On leaving HMC we decided to head inland to the jewel of the Central Highlands, Dalat, which lies 1500 metres above sea level. This is the garden state of the country and as we passed through coffee and tea plantations, then on to luscious flower farms, the driver eventually had to cut the air-conditioning to save power for the climb.
As one of the most popular destinations for Vietnamese tourists, particularly honeymooners, Dalat is known as the City of Eternal Spring for its temperate weather and le petit Paris for its total lack of resemblance to Paris (apart from a mini Eiffel Tower on a boating lake). But then, as the vast majority of Vietnamese are unable to leave the country’s borders, how are they to know. As we gazed into the eyes of the many who asked us to describe our homeland and the countries we had visited, it became all too apparent how lightly we treat the privilege of being able to travel freely.
The easiest way to explore Dalat is to ride pillion with an Easy Rider. Normally, a war veteran, these freelance motorbike guides will safely steer you around the key sites for a daily fee of just $15 and along the way offer an insight into their life, far more personal than an official guide. As we travelled between pagoda and waterfall, Crazy House and Valley of Love, I began to feel a genuine affection for my guide and the scars that he carried with him. We finished our tour at the Bao Lao Summer Palace, a wonderfully art deco villa set in carefully manicured gardens amidst a pine forest.
The beauty of travelling in Vietnam is the ease with which you can change the pace and tempo of your holiday. We decided that we were in need of a few days relaxation and so we headed for Jungle Beach – a small eco friendly retreat set amongst herb, vegetable and flower gardens where jungle meets pristine white beach. Towards the end of our first week it was the perfect place to enjoy a book, eat fabulous food and generally forget the outside world.
Refreshed, we decided to venture onwards, excited by the prospect of travelling overnight on sleeper train. Retracing the 55km to Nha Trang we boarder the gloriously named Reunification Express, sharing a cabin with a New York ER doctor who had come to see the land in which her father had fought. Racing through the night it was hard to imagine that it is just 35 years since the world’s greatest superpower finally stopped attempting to destroy this beautiful land and bludgeon its people to their knees.
After enjoying a restful nights sleep, we alighted in Danang and immediately negotiated a taxi to Hoi An, generally acknowledged as one of the most enchanting towns in Vietnam. Declared a UNESCO world heritage site, Ho An retains a sense of identity that bares testament to its history as a once great trading port colonised by the French and a stop off for many of the worlds great trading nations. Relatively untouched by the war, the town is pedestrian friendly with cars banned from the Old Quarter.
But like the rest of the country Hoi An is changing rapidly. Mr Duong who opens his French colonial house to the public in return for a voluntary donation, explained that just 15 years ago Hoi An had just one state run hotel and just 10 of the towns famous tailors. Now there are over 80 hotels and over 300 tailors – many of whom are shoddy, as the ‘bespoke’ suit lying in my cupboard will testify to. Once again Mr Duong was able to bring home the irony of seeing a country before it is too late whilst, in the process, making it too late.
A short bus ride up the coast, our visit to Citadel in Hue proved to be a wonderful surprise. Situated on the north bank of the Perfumed River, the 10km perimeter is guarded by a moat of vibrant green weeds. Created by the Nguyen Dynasty, the walled city was originally regarded as too politically incorrect for preservation but is now essential to tourism. Consequently the buildings and grounds offer a perfect mixture of the majestic and the dilapidated set amongst the hidden greenery, flowers, lakes and statues, creating a truly magical space.
Given our limited three week time span, we decided to fly out the next day to Hanoi, as the remaining stretch of coastline held little interest. A charming city of lakes, boulevards, parks and open spaces, Hanoi is more immediately likeable than Saigon. Particularly lovely is the Old Quarter, where you can happily wander, chancing upon different trading streets known as ‘Hang’. As long ago as the 13th century the products that were sold here determined the city’s street names. The tradition has continued so that now it is possible to find an entire street just selling moped seat covers, party decorations or bed linen.
It is easily possible to spend three of four days in this lovely city. Highlights include the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070 in order to honour scholars and men of literary accomplishment, and Ho Chi Min’s Mausoleum where you can gaze upon the preserved body of the venerated leader. In addition there are plenty of museums, galleries, pagodas and parks to enjoy. The city also has a wonderful culinary history and whether you choose to eat street side or in a restaurant you’ll enjoy exceptional fresh food such as the local fishcakes, Cha Ca.
Such is the versatility of the Vietnamese experience that we decided to spend our final few days on a boat trip to Halong Bay. These are easily arranged through tour operators in Hanoi and offer exceptional value. We chose a two night trip with the excellent Fansipan tours which costs a mere $90 each including accommodation and food. Made up of over 3000 islands that dot the emerald gulf of Tonkin, Halong bay has been designated a World Heritage site and it is impossible not to marvel at the beauty of this natural phenomenon. As our party of 12 headed out to sea there was a palpable feeling of excitement and we spent the next two days swimming off secluded beaches and canoeing into hidden grottoes. We then cruised to Cat Ba, which is one of the few habitable islands in the region and is becoming something of a tourist centre, although still relatively unspoilt by most standards. We chose to stay an extra couple of nights there and spent our last couple of days relaxing on the beach and enjoying the local seafood.
Driving to the airport on our way home, we passed a giant billboard erected by Sanyo. Unlike many of the marketing messages that we had seen throughout the country – from the giant 4 x 4’s with ‘Keep our nature’ on their spare tyres to the waste bins bearing the legend ‘Happiness for Everyone’ – it seemed strangely appropriate. It simply said’ We love the people and the earth’. After three weeks in this wonderful country, who am I to disagree.
Groom with a view
Fiona and I are trying to lose weight for our wedding. And it’s not easy. Until recently, I always imagined resistance training was refusing a second slice of Victoria Sponge on Sundays. But now I’m pounding the streets of Brighton, cycling the Downs and playing Beach volleyball once a week. Admittedly, the game is followed by a few pints with the lads afterwards, but then it is important to consume liquids after physical exertion.
Our nuptials are to take place in two stages. A civil wedding, with just close family in attendance, at Marylebone registry office in August this year. Then, a celebration in July next year for about 200 people. To be held at my cousin’s barn in the Sussex village of Barcombe.
I realise that two events spread over two calendar years is not entirely traditional. But then neither of us could be said to have followed the Mills & Boon path to true love.
We first met through an online dating site. The moment that I read her profile and saw her pictures, I had a feeling that something would happen. Perhaps it was her comment about understanding how crazy families could be but still wanting to have one, that rang so true. She also said that she made a fabulous cheese sauce but then no one ever tells the complete truth in these things. I managed to lose three years and gain an inch in height in my profile.
Most of all it was the look in her beautiful blue eyes. Even across the digital superhighway, I could tell that there was a pride and defiance yet vulnerability and sensitivity that I had to get to know. It’s amazing how a little casual internet browsing can eventually lead to two children, a lifetime commitment and a hefty mortgage.
There are numerous reasons for our two stage wedding – finance, family, prevarication – but uppermost in influencing us was the arrival of our new son. We already have a toddler, Finn, and we had been trying for a second baby for a little while. It just so happened that Rufus decided to pop along in February, so we felt that a big wedding straight away was too much to take on.
I have to be honest and say that I have never been that bothered about getting married. I would have happily stayed living in sin and spent the money on a beach hut. But as the first of our big days approaches, I realised that I wanted to demonstrate my commitment to Fiona, our children, family and friends. Plus I’m looking forward to having huge knees-up next year with all those that we love and care about, whilst trying not to set fire to the barn.
I think it’s fair to say that for most brides the wedding is at the front of their minds and for most grooms, the wedding is fairly close to the back. Fiona will suddenly mention something about cakes or cousins, completely out of context, and I will find my brain struggling to kick into wedding mode. I will have been busy pondering on whether Ipswich Town really made the right choice in picking Roy Keane. Or why huge shampoo companies only choose to survey 12 people to tell us how they great their products are? You know – important things. When suddenly I have to make snap decisions about Save the Date cards or whether inviting someone’s kids will end in a riot.
And I still have lots more decisions to come. How to choose a best man when ideally I would like five? Is my mate’s heavy rock band really the best choice for our first dance? How realistic is a stag do in Buenos Aries on a budget?
Luckily, Fiona has become used to my eccentricities by now, particularly after the unusual manner of our betrothal. I believe that I am one of the few men on this planet to have proposed to their prospective bride in a car park. To be fair, it was in a beautiful village overlooking the Tuscan hills outside Florence, but it was still a car park. What can I say, I panicked.
As I hope you can tell, I am a lucky man. I am marrying a beautiful, smart, funny and extremely tolerant woman. She has given me two wonderful children who have brought more joy into my life than I ever thought possible. There is nothing that I would change about her. Well, one thing. She is now refusing to buy me HobNobs at the supermarket and has taken to buying me celery instead. I know I’m trying to lose weight but that takes the biscuit –or not, as it were. Sometimes there is only so much a groom can take.
For some reason, Fiona has not taken kindly to my suggestion that I fly over to Nova Scotia for a music festival, returning on the morning of our wedding………….
Until now, I have never considered voting Tory – but I’m wavering. It’s not the policies, the TV debates, my anger at Labour or my doubts about the Lib Dems. It’s the hair. My local Tory candidate for Brighton Kemptown, Simon Kirby, simply has the bravest haircut I have ever known. There are those seeking our vote who have fought for their country, worked in coal mines, even been prepared to share a cab with Alan Duncan, but none are as courageous as Simon Kirby.
This is a haircut that is uniquely British. In fact in many ways it is three haircuts, a sweep back, a forward comb-over and a stylised question mark leaning to the right – just as Mr Kirby would like us to do. It takes its inspiration from so many seminal visual moments in our cultural life. The Whigs in Westminster (Could it possibly be one?); Little Lord Fauntleroy; Liberace; Rick Astley. But perhaps most significantly, Tim Nice but Dim. It’s as if Simon has marched into a hairdresser in Hove or Peacehaven (for this cannot be a Brighton haircut) and demanded ‘I want you to make me look dim yet privileged. And don’t forget to emphasise the ginger. That’s what the people really want.’
You must remember that just as Detroit is MotorCity, Brighton is HairCity. There are surely more hairdressers per head in this town than any other in the UK. I counted more than 250 in B&H alone. In fact, the council has recently introduced a new policy. Whenever a local trader such as a butchers, a bakers or scented candle stickmakers closes down, they can only be replaced by a national coffee chain serving bad coffee at extortionate prices, a newsagent selling beer to minors at 50p a can, a novelty sweet shop selling old fashioned sweets (that we used to like when were kids and didn’t know any better but we don’t now). Or a hairdresser.
But Kirby is clearly a man more interested in substance than style. He cares more about our splintered society than his own (split) ends. He is there for us and our concerns not damaged and fly away like other politicians.
I have tried on various occasions to find out who cuts Simon’s hair but have met with no response. But should he prove victorious, Kirby has promised to be totally open about his expenses. And perhaps we will then discover who is responsible for this unique, potentially vote winning, haircut. It’s a close run race in Brighton Kemptown and Simon’s in the fight of his life. But you never know, with a fair wind and a little moulding mud, he could just take it by a head.
Si Beales email@example.com April 27th 2010
This is my first ever post. Not earth shattering, I know, considering blogging has been around since the Ark (Jesus was a blogger – in fact the son of blog) but I’m excited. My thanks to Pete (peterrobertsmith.co.uk) who is a very nice man
I will sign off now as I I’ve not much more to say
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