Portrait Of My Aunt


Miriam Wilkinson nee Hickling:  21st February 1914 – 17th March 2003


There was only one thing my aunt loved more than her Devon garden, and that was the Derbyshire Peak District – the lanes round Bradwell, Ashford and Hathersage, the byways of Fox and Bennett family forebears. To a child brought up in the suburbs of Manchester, the Peak District of spring and summer holidays seemed like heaven.

For most of her married life, Miriam was a nomad – living in 42 different rented flats. Each one she tried to make home, and always with much flair and limited funds, as she followed her engineer husband from one telephone exchange to another, whenever and wherever he was dispatched to oversee the upgrade of Britain’s telecommunications. They had married at the start of World War 2, and the header photo probably dates from around this time. After a makeshift marriage whither my grandmother had arrived wearing only her shopping clothes since she looked down on the whole affair, Miriam had been left married, but stranded with her unsympathetic parents while my uncle was posted off to West Africa.

Looking back, he must have been helping to provide British navel and military intelligence with radio surveillance capability since he had no service rank as far as I know. He apparently lived in some style out in Africa. But it was all change a year later when he was posted to Coventry during the Blitz, presumably to work on restoring bombed out telephone connections. And this is where married life actually began, in a dismal rent room smelling of boiled cabbage and with Luftwaffe bombs raining down.

My uncle did not cope well with either the bombing or the war-time privations. Miriam had to keep him together on all fronts, while she went to work in a munitions factory. I cannot imagine what it was really like for her. She had lived a life of quiet and modest gentility, though always within the orbit of rich relatives. She had endured her mother’s spirit-crushing jibes while doting on a father who, in her hearing, had once described her to a family friend as ‘a dud’. Neither her mother or father had the faintest idea about parenting or how to prepare their two daughters for adult life.

My grandmother had been mostly brought up by a housemaid and a slightly dotty aunt as her own twice widowed mother drifted around in black silk dresses, taking covert sips of gin, while presiding over a Cheshire Inn. Grandfather had been abandoned by his own mother, who apparently fled merchant-class respectability and ran off to be an actress. She deposited grandfather with his dour Victorian Hickling grandparents, though returned in later life from time to time, wafting in at the family firm for a cash injection from ‘master Georgie’.

You can well see how lives of ‘quiet desperation’ get handed on from generation to generation.

Miriam had a talent for drawing and writing but even this outlet was denied. She had poor eyesight and had terrible headaches, but my grandfather would not let her have spectacles. No visible signs of imperfection would be tolerated. She told me how once, when returning from a childhood trip to Derbyshire by train, she had developed a rash on her face. Her parents being highly alarmed, took themselves off to another carriage to complete the journey to Manchester leaving Miriam alone in a state of disgrace. By the time she was fourteen she had suffered four nervous breakdowns and had to be taken out of school. Both she and my mother, who was eight years younger, were sent to small private schools. My mother was not allowed take up a place at a prestigious girls’ high school despite gaining a scholarship. My grandfather would have no ‘blue stockings’ in his family. He had some notion that providential husbands would somehow materialise: both his daughters would ‘marry well’ and thus be taken care of.

They did not and they were not. But each in their own very different ways made the best of very bad jobs, though in my mother’s case her methods of choice were destructive and damaging to others. Miriam remained stalwart, loyal to a man whose nerves were fragile, and who, in extremis, once attempted to strangle her as she slept.


My mother, Peggy, probably sixteen years old, Miriam around the time of her marriage circa 1939. Both stepping out with so much intention.


Miriam did not have a home of her own until the mid-1960s. It was on top of the hill in Pinhoe, near Exeter. There she made a garden that was filled with wildflower reminders of girlhood Derbyshire holidays – dame’s violets, bloody cranesbill, saxifrage, cowslips, primroses, the wild yellow pansies of the limestone uplands.  In their latter years, she and my uncle took to having an annual spring holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District. It was a source of great joy to both of them. Sometime later I took her ashes there.

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Miriam around 4 years old c 1918. The first time she met her father was when he returned from France at the end of the Great War. He had been an ambulance driver, and came home with gas-damaged lungs, which left him an invalid for the rest of his life. It left him the poorer too with years of medical bills to meet.  He said wearing a gas mask got in the way when he was trying to pick up the wounded.

copyright 2016 Tish Farrell

Daily Prompt: constant

Elephants May Never Forget, But The Human Posting This Photo Has A Very Faulty Memory

I have no recollection of taking this photo. I came across it yesterday in a pile of ‘to scan’ shots that had been lurking on my desk for a while. How could I not remember this marvellous scene – elephant family against Maasai Mara backdrop of the Oloololo Escarpment? Not only that (and I know elephants are short-sighted) but the one left-of-centre, possibly the matriarch, seems to be looking straight into my lens. And the ears are out, which is not usually a very good sign. Fortunately, though, the trunk is not up. When that happens, swift retreat is definitely called for; an angry elephant can flatten a truck.

We must have driven on and left them to their peaceful browsing. Time is of the essence; it takes a lot to fill an elephant every day – 300-400lb (135-180kg) of grass, reeds and tree parts (grass is their preferred food and they actively deforest areas to encourage grasslands, which may explain the broken tusk) and 30-60 gallons (135-270 litres) of water. A full time job then, seeing to those creature requirements.

For more about elephants see the previous post.

elephant_0001 b

copyright 2018 Tish Farrell

Daily Prompt creature

Peroulia Dreaming 4 ~ Walking Through Olive Groves To And From The Sea


It was the quickest way to Peroulia Beach – left down the hill from the Iconpainter’s  gateway, with a quick wave and a kalimera to the old lady in the farmhouse opposite, then following the rough track beside the olive grove with the decomposing Volvo, then on through the trees to the pretty house with green shutters, whose owner we met several times out on the lane, clearing the drains in advance of the forecast storm; on into another olive grove, following the overhead power lines, then a dogleg round some more recently planted trees, a scramble down dirt steps in the cliff bottom (minding the little cyclamen) and finally picking our way through mature olive trees, pony droppings, the mish-mash of phragmites canes and onto the shore.

Phew! It really isn’t far, but it has the feeling of uncharted territory, and at least three of us admitted to losing our way on the return trip.


There is anyway something so momentful about olive groves. For one thing there is the complete and utter stillness; the depth of leaf litter that absorbs one’s footfalls and very probably one’s soul if you do not watch out. For then there is the existential sense of earth and weather elements and human hands, conspiring over generations to train and sculpt the trees to encourage the best possible yield; hands whose deftness is doubtless informed by Athena herself, that wise deity whose spear long ago struck the barren scarp of the Attic acropolis and so brought forth the first Greek olive tree.

From fruit and seed, empires were grown and in many Mediterranean lands beyond mainland Greece. Among the earliest, back in the Bronze Age, were the Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations of Crete. The olive tree was an all-provider. The timber served for tools and shelter, the fruits made good eating, their oil gave food, light, unguents, medicine and formed the basis of extensive trade networks. It is not surprising, then, that the trees were seen as sacred, to be protected on pain of death for those who would dare to destroy them. Athletes used the oil on the bodies to invoke its intrinsic power, and the victors at the Olympian games were crowned with olive leaves.

And so as you walk through a grove, the response is natural reverence. Every tree is its own self; its individual biography wrought in knotty bark and bough. There is more though. I would call it immanence. For if trees have spirits, then they are here. And if I had an olive grove, then I would worship it and none other.

Respect for the sheer potency of these trees is  also requisite. For I have read* that you should never fall asleep beneath an olive tree. Its shadow is said to be too heavy, and so may later induce bad dreams and vertigo. I can believe it. With all my heart I can.


* Patrick Leigh Fermor Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese


Peroulia Dreaming 1

Peroulia Dreaming 2


Daily Post

Daily Prompt: Believe

A Forgotten Photo Found ~ Tsavo West

This wasn’t supposed to happen. I was on a mission to declutter the house, which led me inevitably to the old seaman’s chest – that personal cess pit of file dumps; the place where all the research notes, photocopies, story drafts that won’t fit in the three office filing cabinets end up. In truth, this excess stuff weighs heavily on my psyche – my mental albatross.

Many times I have lifted out the boxes of Kenyan newspaper cuttings with a view to swift despatch. They date from 1992 to 2000, and are sorted into topics such as ‘forced marriage’, ‘female genital mutilation’, ‘street children’, ‘colonial residue’, ‘wildlife conservation’. There are articles on politics, land grabbing, the Kakamega gold rush, Maasai customs, Akamba myths, shape-shifting and witch finding. The period covered is one of great political change in Kenya – the World Bank impositions of structural adjustment and international pressure on the single party Moi regime to adopt multi-party politics Western-style. And there’s the catch. I can tell myself this cuttings file is of some historical importance. Is this not reason enough to keep it?

And the other reason? Well, it’s my source material, isn’t it? All the stories I have yet to write or finish off. How can I possibly throw out all this valuable stuff?

But still there’s the secret doubt. Quite a big niggle actually. Haven’t I hung on to it all because I doubt my own capacity to remember, and if I don’t remember, isn’t it too late to go back and mine this doggedly accumulated reference collection. Might I not function better without it? Liberate myself from the psychic albatross?

And so it was – in the midst of this endlessly circular argument, stacks of yellowing papers all over the floor that I opened a box and found this photograph. I don’t know how it missed being put in the album. It must have been taken in the mid-90s on a day’s safari to Tsavo West National Park. And now I see it, I remember taking the photograph. The waterholes are at the safari lodge, the red soil caught in the full flush of midday sunlight. You can just make out a herd of zebra. And in the background are the Chyulu Hills, still deemed volcanically active after a million and half years of eruptions.

However you look at it, this is a breathtaking vista – elemental Kenya. Priceless then?

The argument goes on. What is priceless, what is not. Doubtless the files will go back in the chest for another day of writerly self abuse. I’m glad I found the photo though.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell


Daily Prompt: Priceless

The Tsavo Big Game Show: it’s a dangerous pursuit

lone elephant at twilight

Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.

But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge  and do some night-time big game watching. 

Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.

The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?

And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.

And then…

And then…

The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.

And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.

In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. But they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.

We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.

And so we wait.

Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.

So: this drama is over; the stage empty. After the thrill there is anti-climax, a strange sense of banishment; depression even. We go to bed, suddenly overcome by the heat and with too many insects on the brain.

Inside, though, the room is hotter still; windows shut fast against malarial mosquitoes. Even so, and despite the rock-like pillows, we sleep for a time. At midnight it is the menacing whine of a mosquito that rouses us to a bleary-eyed seek and destroy mission. At 2 a.m. we are awake again as two waterbuck lock in high-snorting combat below our veranda.

G. huddles back in bed. I press my nose to the window. It’s at times like this that Africa looms largest, that you know you are out of your element. Night stretches ahead like a herculean trial. I stare once more at pale stage in the bush. The impala have drifted back to the pool again, but they barely move. It is like watching a Samuel Becket play where nothing much happens.

And yet…

Suddenly the antelope are on full alert – rigid stance, ears pricked, noses twitching. I stare and stare. At last I spot movement, a sinuous shape pressing through the low scrub. The impala rise on hoof-tips, torn between staying and fleeing, and then the lioness steps out from the grass and pads down to the water.

The impala draw back, still unsure of the big cat’s agenda. The lioness parades around the waterhole, but does not drink. Instead she finds a clump of grass and lies down, head up, still as stone, commanding the pool  – a heraldic lion couchant. Now it is clear. None of the animals can drink. The tension is visible. This is a new kind of drama: feline power play.

But I cannot wait for the denouement. Worn out, I return to my hard pillow and tangled sheet.

The next time I wake it is light enough to know that I can abandon all efforts to sleep. It’s a huge relief. While G. slumbers on, I step out into cool of the veranda. In the dawn light I see that last night’s set has mystically expanded into a vast new backdrop. Now the Chyulu Hills rise above the dry plains, a vision of impossible greenness that belies the violence of their birth. For these hills are new, erupting around the time Sir Francis Drake was bowling off Plymouth Hoe and ignoring news of the advancing Armada. It’s hard to believe.

But this is not all. To the west, the snow-capped crown of Kilimanjaro breaks free of the earth and floats high on a wreath of pink clouds. It makes me want to hoot with laughter. Who does this Africa think she is? Does she really expect me to be taken in by  all her absurd illusions? Poof! The mountain snuffs out and leaves only sky. (Is this possible?) And I, like the victim of some worming parasite, know I am becoming infected. All our defences are useless. This land is creeping under my skin and invading all my senses. More likely than not I will never be the same again.

© 2014 Tish Farrell

Kenya; Chyulu Hills; Campi ya Kanzi - Giraffe in the Chyulu Hills

Chyulu Hills. Photo: Abercrombie & Kent

Daily Post Prompt: write here, write now



Christmas on Lamu: views of a Swahili Community


Main street, Stone Town, Lamu. No cars only donkey transport.


I learned a great deal about community when I was living in Kenya where it meant not only an affirmation of cultural identity, but also an expression of hospitality; the call to an absolute stranger of  “karibu,” “come on in!”

And so it proved to be one Christmas, when we spent a few days on the Indian Ocean island of Lamu. I suppose, in amongst the excitement of organising our flight there from Nairobi, I had wondered what it might be like to spend a Christian festival within a strongly Muslim community. Or perhaps I had gone there expecting simply to forget it. I know I had thought about clothing, packing only things that would not cause offence by too much inappropriate exposure.


Christmas Day on Shela Beach, Lamu


But I had not expected to feel so  ‘gathered in’. From the moment we were picked up from the tiny Manda Island air field, and taken by dhow taxi to the Island Hotel in Shela Village we were quietly embraced by the locals.

Sensation was anyway heightened: it had just stopped raining as we stepped ashore and followed our guide up damp sandy paths. The sense of unobtrusive acceptance somehow fused with the scent of jasmine, the touch of steaming coral walls of deserted gardens and tumbled village houses, the warm salt breezes. 


At five a.m. on Christmas Day we woke to the call to prayer at the local mosque.  Allahu akbar  filled our room, and unavoidably so when the roof was only a thin layer of palm thatch and three of the walls were open to the elements. It seemed a transforming moment somehow. I lay in the little Lamu bed, and listened to the village stirring to life around us, hee-hawing donkeys, the clatter of kitchen pots and pans, radios quietly playing. It seemed a community well set in its ways, and for many generations. Yet later, when we set out to walk along the long strand to Stone Town, we were greeted from every side by smiling locals. “Happy Christmas!” they cried. “Happy Christmas!”


View from ‘the pent-house suite’, the Island Hotel, Shela



Stone Town, Lamu, now a World Heritage site



Christmas Day afternoon: a time for strolling, snoozing, chatting.



We went sailing with Uncle Lali: I see three ships…

Weekly Photo Challenge: Community

Daily Prompt: Memories of holidays past


Sleep (Lamu Dreaming)

Culture: the Swahili

© 2013 Tish Farrell


Blue Lagoon

Weekly Photo Challenge: Horizon

DP Daily Prompt: The Golden Hour


Beyond the shore, the reef, the sea, and then the sky: dawn one Christmas off Tiwi Beach, Mombasa


Other striking horizons:

Fractions of the World

Wind Against Current

Jolie Petite Maison

Hope*the happy hugger

Be Happy

Belgrade Streets

Artifacts and Fictions


Northwest Frame of Mind


copyright 2013 Tish Farrell