More About Me

I come from a long line of Cornish folk. My great grandfather on my mother's side, Joseph Thomas, lived on St Michael's Mount and in the 1880s was in charge of Lord St Levan's boat crew and other essential back-up services for island living. He collected folk tales and proverbs and published a collection of them. Several of his daughters married sailors, captains of the tall-masted tea clippers which ploughed their way from Falmouth to Ceylon and back.

My grandmother married a farmer, John Grigg, who, we were always told, had distinguished himself just after the turn of the 20th century by being one of the first in Cornwall to own a car.

On my father's side it was all doctors, lawyers and the church - except for the two venturers who in the 1830s caught a ship down the Bristol Channel to go join the Bengal Army and the East India Company. My great grandfather was vicar of Menheniot, combining his parish duties with the Greek and Latin studies he conducted from the Vicarage's impressive leather-bound library. In the 1920s his eldest son, my grandfather, got involved with civil aviation in its earliest days, as airlines began pioneering European passenger routes out of Croydon airport. So, a backdrop to childhood and adolescence of books and adventuring, an obsession with fashion and an appetite for cookery as a teenager.

Then suddenly it was the 70s. I was at Sussex University, in the School of English and American Studies. In theory, there reading Law - in reality, pretty preoccupied as the Fashion Editor for the student newspaper, The Winepress. Fashion then was garish, sometimes daring, mostly fringed and beaded - always fun. Girls still made their own dresses to a paper pattern; we printed one for a backless mini-shift which you'd have to measure and pin out on graph paper before attacking the fabric.

A centre spread of student-as-male-model with lipstick and blusher on his face provoked more common room comments - catcalls, actually - than anything else we ran that year.

'Will this be serious enough for you?' my father asked (tongue in cheek of course, in retrospect) when I insouciantly landed a first job on Vogue, followed a year later by one developing, writing and testing recipes for a food magazine. (Elizabeth David was an inspiration I'd read avidly, how she'd lived her life as well as how she described dishes.) On the side I was freelancing: features about travels in Europe, India, and reviewing exhibitions for papers and magazines: The Times, The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Art and Artists, Sculpture.

Daddy was right, though. Within five years I was after something more meaningful, studying again so I could work in the place then still referred to puzzlingly as the 'Third World.'

I got into international development at a hope-filled time, when it looked as though things could go right for the macro-planners if just enough of the correct solution were to be consistently applied to a country's 'problems.' Oral rehydration and vaccination would minimize child mortality, 'miracle' fish and seeds would feed the famished, family planning relieve women's childbearing burden, access to education abolish human rights' abuses.

Me, I wrote a thesis on Textured Soya Protein - vaunted as ideal high-protein replacement for red meat - cans of it becoming available then for the first time. I tried cooking up a lot of it too, although I'm not sure any carnivores were converted to my spaghetti mock-Bolognese.

Recruited as a writer by UNICEF, I was finally on my way to my 'real' career. Those 'problems': the poverty, population pressure, civil conflict, natural

disasters, the complex emergencies, they were mine now. Mine to devise a communication response effectively conveying why they should matter to you, my Western audience. In villages all over Africa and in Pakistan, India, Nepal and elsewhere, I saw those problems' impact firsthand. I'd be there to go to the heart of it, get a 'story' alongside a photographer/videographer. We'd capture images we'd use to show the effect of the situation on children's health and welfare. I'd interview mothers and children, write down words I hoped would evoke compassion - and help the fundraisers bring in cash for whatever relief was needed.

Deployed over the years to countries ranging from Azerbaijan through Zimbabwe, 'big', news-grabbing communication moments for me included a coup or two, Rwandan genocide, Mogadishu hostage-takings, an erupting volcano, the Kosovo refugee exodus, the south Asian tsunami, the Kashmir earthquake.

The many 'small' moments mean more to me now - the welcoming faces and open-hearted hospitality the most memorable: occasions like the breakfast of clotted cream and smoky wild honey on rough bread outside Baku, tea brewed over coals sitting with the women, carpets spread on the desert sand somewhere beyond Timbuktu, the invitation on the Baluchistan/Iran border from the nomad family to duck into their black tent, greet the tightly-swaddled newborn.

On a holiday in Provence, one day the kiosk didn't have The Guardian - so I bought Le Figaro, sat in a shaft of sunlight to read it and saw the dogs. Eye-catching imagery, lower right of the front page: two handsome curs against a bright blue background. A photo of a 1548 portrait by Jacopo Bassano, I learned, from the Louvre's permanent collection but currently part of a Renaissance exhibition with Titian, Tintoretto and Veronese.

As I read that this painting was the first example in Western art of a portrait of dogs alone in the frame something flickered, enough for me to clip the article, keep the cutting.

Photo Credit: Viri Goswami

I love dogs and this pair were so handsome, their expressions so soulful. I went to Gallery VI in the Louvre - several times. On the right of the Mona Lisa, there it is: a brilliant painting I could look at for a long time.

The flicker became a flame and for a long while I pondered the idea of a fictional construct based on the known facts. I would explain the how? and the why? of the painting coming into being. I would visit Venice and the town of Bassano, I would research and read, visit galleries and churches, take Italian lessons. I was still covering development projects, travelling and writing, but I had an idea simmering on the back burner.

Acceptance in autumn 2015 on to the Bath Spa University Creative Writing MA brought the pot forward and me to the foot of the mountain. The Master's was a steep upward struggle. I needed crampons - and gratefully took advantage of a lot of sound advice. I emerged with a Distinction. Now that pot is on the front burner, with something over half of the story developed. Currently, the plan is to keep the heat under the brew. And to maintain it at a rolling boil until nicely done.