Tending your lady garden and staying babyfaced…literally…

I love the attitude of the Vagenda – with their snarky, clever, sometimes angry, often hilarious and always relevant posts. They range from everything from why the Evening Standard thinks its ok to use a woman’s body as a shoe rack to what to do when Marie Claire says you need to wax your lover’s initial or a seasonal symbol into your bikini line (OK, I wrote that one…tackling all the big issues here.)

For all the silliness, the best thing about the Vagenda is that its a space where heavyweight issues can be addressed – just not in an overly earnest way. You can poke fun, laugh, be angry and shouty or just shrug and point at how stupid stuff that’s aimed at women can be, and still have a solid point to the issue you’re raising.

Here are a couple of pieces I wrote for them. For some light relief with a heavyweight centre.

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Your Bikini Line, You Disgusting Hairy Beast


New Maybelline Beauty Ad Encourages Us to Make Like a Baby (and Shit Ourselves)



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Artist? In a band? Theatre company? Read this…

imagesYou’ve got a show/gig/exhibition coming up and you want as many people to come to it as possible. Obvs. 

But you can’t afford snazzy press and publicity. 

What to do?

Tip number one: Don’t just send a blurred, out of focus, tiny black and white photo to your local paper with a brief line on how existentially challenging and ephemerally bodacious you/your show/your music is.

Read this instead (disclaimer: it’s by me):

How to write a press release – IdeasMag

When I headed up the arts section of a large local daily paper in Essex, I used to get asked for advice on how to promote yourself all the time.

I also used to get send blurred, out of focus, tiny black and white photos a lot as well accompanied by a few lines of tangled, overwrought blurb. Which is how I know how utterly useless they are.

I know first hand that there are plenty of musicians, artists, theatre and all round creative folk who really struggle when it comes to self-promoting and getting journalists the information they need.

But it’s not as hard as you might think putting together a decent, useful press release or pack. And it can get you valuable coverage and attention. If a journalist knows you’re reliable, quick off the mark and good at sending them what they need, they’ll recognise your stuff and be keen to feature you again too – so it’s an investment.

For those in peril on the sea…

Jane Dolby is one of the most remarkable women I’ve ever met.

Her life has seen her carry a heavier burden than many of us would feel able to bear.

But out of sadness and loss she had created something beautiful – music and song. And I am so chuffed that the Independent ran my interview with her today, which you can read online here.

When Jane’s husband Colin, a fisherman, drowned at sea after his trawler was caught in a storm five years ago, his body wasn’t found for over a year.

While Jane should have been laying the love of her life to rest and beginning to grieve for him, the lack of a body meant no death certificate could be obtained, and no death certificate meant bills mounted up as Jane couldn’t prove Colin’s death to banks and utility companies – she couldn’t even give him a funeral.

So she faced two of life’s toughest hardships together – bereavement and debt as she struggled to cope, looking after two small children on top of everything else.

She was helped at the time by the Fisherman’s Mission, a charity which helps fishermen and their families in times of need.

Here’s a fact: fishing is the UK’s most dangerous peacetime occupation. Something to think on next time you’re tucking into a fish supper.

The charity took over Jane’s legal battles, helping her financially and emotionally as well as practically, and she vowed to repay them for the role they played in helping her back into the land of the living.

There was another thing that touched me about Jane’s story. She’d always sung in bands, or just for fun. But when Colin died, she couldn’t bring herself to open her voice in song. She described it as too much emotion threatening to spill out if she tried. So she stopped.

Until she decided she was going to start a choir. A Fishwives Choir. Made up of women from her Leigh-on-Sea fishing community who would record a karaoke track and sell it in their local pub to raise a few quid for the Fisherman’s Mission.

What happened next is the stuff of Hollywood films. Slowly at first, with some queries from nearby Hastings down the Sussex coast, then in more volume, emails  came in thick and fast from women linked to fishing communities around the coastline of the UK asking if they could get involved.

Women who waved goodbye to fishermen fathers, brothers and husbands everyday, from Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Kent, many of whom had lost their loved ones to the sea themselves, and all of whom knew the daily worries and strains of loving a man who puts his life at risk just by going to work each day.

I met Jane when I worked on the Southend Echo as she works for the local YMCA, who’s events I covered from time to time. I was struck straight away by her extraordinary energy and capacity for positivity. So it didn’t surprise me when she suddenly found herself at the helm of something quite astonishing – if anyone could handle it, it was Jane.

And handle it she did. With laughter, inventiveness, self-deprecation, friendship, healing and self-discovery.

A single was recorded over the summer. Amazingly it’s now in the running for the official Christmas number 1. And what’s even more amazing is that Jane found her voice once more and started to sing.

It’s a long journey from November 10, 2008, when Jane took a taxi to a friend’s party after Colin failed to return home in time to drive the family.

He never did return that day. But Jane goes on with music in her life once more. And its a rare privilege to be able to tell her story.

Buy the single here (every penny goes to the Fisherman’s Mission).

The piece the Independent ran today - double page spread!

The piece in the Indy


“Suddenly it just went up in flames” – Pete Doherty’s vest and other stories…

Photographer Dean Chalkley is a man who loves to talk.

The thing is, his stories are so beguiling that I love to listen to them.

So what I imagined would be an hour or so’s worth of interview time at his London studio turned into practically a whole day of music sharing, sandwich trips and a viewing of his latest short film project.

Ever generous with his time, a gently charming raconteur with an easy manner and a disarming lack of ego, it’s easy to imagine how Dean sets the often unbelievably high-profile celebrities he regularly shoots for the likes of the NME, Sunday Times and Observer at ease.

Charlotte Gainsbourg © Dean Chalkley/NME/IPCMEDIA

Charlotte Gainsbourg © Dean Chalkley/NME/IPCMEDIA

And you can sense their relaxed participation in his work – you never get the sense they’ve just turned up for a job and are posing blankly before moving onto the next stop in the conveyor belt of photo shoots and interviews they must be used to. They’re active contributors to the distinctive works. While his portfolio is a boggling list of familiar faces – there’s a twinkling look of enjoyment and engagement behind the well-known features that’s not so familiar.

From Tim Burgess and the White Stripes through to Amy Winehouse, Patti Smith, Hollywood A-lister Scarlett Johansson (there’s a great story about her and a location mix-up in the interview), Kings of Leon and Paul McCartney, Dean’s shot them all.

Perhaps my personal favourite of Dean’s stories is a tale of Libertines and Babyshambles musician Pete Doherty accidentally setting himself on fire in the studio having become, as Dean delicately puts it, a little worse for wear.

It’s a great example of how the most unexpected of situations can lead to creative gold – as Pete promptly re-donned the charred remains of his vest and closed his eyes in a poetic state of hazy euphoria – and Dean captured the moment on camera.

Pete Doherty © Dean Chalkley/NME/IPCMEDIA

Pete Doherty © Dean Chalkley/NME/IPCMEDIA

There are plenty more tales, and plenty of inspiration and ideas for photographers, music lovers, or just those who enjoy a good yarn in my interview, which was done for fab arts magazine Ideas Mag.

You can have a read of it here

And you can browse through Dean’s wonderful portfolio here

Dean Chalkley © Dean Chalkley

Dean Chalkley © Dean Chalkley

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Eat an apple every day…

One of the fun things about going freelance is being able to write about pretty much whatever I find interesting and inspiring. 

I don’t have to think within the boundaries of a certain area or worry about whether it fits into a certain section of a paper or not. 

So when I came across organic skincare company Essential Care in my ever-ongoing quest for lovely, organic and ethically sourced products to put on my skin, I knew I wanted to feature them somewhere.

The small family run company has a great story – Margaret Weeds first started developing the natural products from herbs in her own garden to treat her family’s sensitive skin. Along with her daughter Abi, they launched Essential Care 10 years ago – and now have fans including Hollywood actor Amanda Seyfried and West End and TV star Denise Van Outen singing their praises.

Their products are pretty delicious – and all vegetarian, with some vegan as well as being certified by the Soil Association, the gold standard in organically produced goodies.

They promote Fairtrade farming, produce in small batches and cold-press their essential plant oils to keep a hold of all the goodness in there which can be lost otherwise. What’s more, my skin has never looked so good since I started using their products. Ethics are one thing, but if it doesn’t actually work, it’s no good.

So I was chuffed when fab ethical beauty blog Beauty Boots asked me to do a Q&A with Abi.

If you fancy a read, you can link to the site here: Under the Beauty-Scope

And you can visit the Essential Care website and snaffle up some of their lovely products here: Essential Care


Essential Care co-founder Abi Weeds

Essential Care co-founder Abi Weeds


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Romance ahoy! A weekend in a Gypsy Caravan

Romantics, lovers of nature and the glorious Welsh countryside, golden scooped out bays, laden blackberry bushes and crystal clear sea views – read on.

Read on too, those who love a good nod to the environment – eco-chic-ers and glampers etc. 

A couple of weeks ago, the two of us plus hound took a trip to one of right-on eco agency Under the Thatch’s most whimsical properties – a darling gypsy caravan in an orchard (with rather luxurious barn conversion with kitchen/lounge/bathroom close by).

Under the Thatch rescue quirky, tumbledown buildings and abodes – from cottages to shepherd huts, circus wagons, gypsy caravans and even a boat – restoring them with an emphasis on local, low-impact materials and labour, and giving them a new lease of life as holiday homes. Have a browse through their gloriously gorgeous and ever-growing list of properties here

Meanwhile, here’s a review of our trip.

WE’D set out to arrive before dark.

But as with all the best laid travel plans, we’d failed, and found ourselves negotiating winding, Welsh lanes in the pitch black, me clutching two phones – one with the map open, the other featuring email directions.

Tempers fraying, remarks curt and bearing a distinct tone of warning, we barked communication while the dog whined pitifully in the back, bladder full and belly empty.

But grumpiness turned to relief as we drew down a shadowy track, finally spotting lights, and were greeted by Mandy, the friendly B&B owner at Morfa Isaf Farmhouse.

“That’s good timing,” she chirped through our hopefully wound down window, directing us to our meadow and gypsy caravan.

“I’ve put the lights on for you,” she added, and all three of us experienced the wave of relief any traveller feels on reaching their destination, unfurling achey bodies out of the car and breathing in fresh, clean night time air.

The gypsy caravan by the sea is one of Under the Thatch’s most winsome properties.

A grass-green and cherry-red, bow topped wagon, it sits prettily in its own private little meadow, with views over the blackberry-laden brambles straight out to sea.

Worries about getting chilly in September were soon put to pasture by the incredibly efficient tube heating and thick, sheep’s wool insulation. And with a high, snug bed, windows framed by patchwork, floral curtains and a heart motif that would have been shmaltzy anywhere else, it was love at first sight for us and the caravan.

The temptingly snug interior

The temptingly snug interior

The meadow backs onto a converted barn, complete with well-equipped kitchen where we rustled up a late, and very welcome, dinner, and a bathroom – which proved the only slight disadvantage; dehydrated from our long drive, followed up with a couple of glasses of red, we made it through the first night, but had to take a little night time visit to the other end of our field during the second – it is quite a serious commitment to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

Waking up in the morning, the ribs of the bow-top made for such a pretty bedroom I tried to carry on dozing with my eyes open just so I could carry on looking at it – which didn’t prove very effective.

And catching September sunlight gently filtering round the curtain, the dozing didn’t last long – drawing the curtains to the view we’d missed the night before made our late arrival worth it.

Overlooking the sparklingly fresh, expansive Ceredigion coastline, the location couldn’t be more picturesque, and after a few false starts trying to find our path, we scrambled our way down to the caravan’s ‘secret cove’, a golden sweep of sand carved into the steep cliff, seemingly inaccessible unless you know the way, and half-lapped over by gloriously clear water.

The secret cove

The secret cove

We couldn’t resist a dip, and stripping down to our undies there was no chance of our privacy being interrupted – so we leapt in like seals, dragging the reluctant water-hating hound away from the seaweed she was busy killing.

September sun glinting off the glacier-blue water, smooth, silken sand, and no one but us and the hound – it knocked some tropical locations I’ve been to into the proverbial cocked hat for enjoyability and a pristine beauty that left us giddy.

A walk along the dramatic coast path took us to nearby Llangrannog, where we treated ourselves to ice creams from the practically famous Patio Cafe – they’re recommended by Rick Stein, and made for a perfect holiday treat.

And laden with produce and kindling from the nearby Llwynhelyg Farm Shop – “Oh yes, we’re a food county,” the lady behind the counter proudly informed us – we hunkered down by our campfire for the evening.

A couple of locally brewed ales and some chunky slices of Welsh fruit cake bara brith for dessert later, we tucked ourselves in for another cosy night.

The weather was even kind enough to let us enjoy another breakfast outdoors – farm eggs with local mushrooms and spinach on seedy, brown bread, before a wander over fields and through woods – it is such a pretty area.

It was with a sigh and the kind of heavy heart that means you’ve had a darn good holiday that we said goodbye to our pretty little home for the weekend.

A happy pair

A happy pair

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One from the vaults…a chat with comedian Stewart Lee

Sometimes as a journalist, you get to interview people you’re a genuine fan of, and there’s always the risk that they’ll let you down or disappoint in some way.

Although you’re there to do a job, really, you’re just like any other fan, and if someone you admire turns out to be rude, obnoxious or just…a bit boring, it can be deflating. Especially when you then have to turn it into a decent piece.

When I lined up Stewart Lee, a comedian known for his dour observations and cynical attitude, I was a bit worried he’d be thoroughly bored by an interview, but in fact, he turned out out to be one of the chattiest, friendliest folk I’ve ever interviewed.

I’ve noticed that it’s not uncommon for well known people with apparently sullen public personas to turn out to be the most generous and funny interviewees. I interviewed fearsome Strictly judge Craig Revel Horwood once, and steeled myself to be put down with a drawling ‘this is a complete dis-AS-ter darling,’ before he slammed the phone down and flounced off. But he turned out to be thoroughly loquacious and charming, hilariously catty, purring delighted insults about his onscreen enemies, but you got the feeling it was all in good humour and he was nothing but polite to me.

Anyway, there are enough people around who aren’t bothered about being particularly engaging in interviews, so it’s always a pleasure when a conversation you can see going horribly wrong turns out to be the opposite.

I love the way Stewart talks about his relationship with comedy – like being in love with someone but being annoyed by it at the same time, and trying to childishly deny it – and if you’re a fan of the man, have a read, he’s really quite wonderful.

You can read my interview with Stewart, which was published in the Echo on February 18 all the way back in 2011, below, or in PDF form here: Stewart Lee

FOR a comedian who claims to ‘not have any jokes’, Stewart Lee has certainly done alright.

The adulation he received from critics and fans is matched by the number of people who just don’t get him and are left baffled by his deadpan delivery and lack of punchlines.

But for a man who co-wrote Jerry Springer the Opera, directed the Mighty Boosh’s first live show and has established himself as a cult figure on the comedy scene, he’s not too bothered about those who don’t embrace his deconstructive approach to the game.

Stewart boasts a collection of bad reviews on his website, including the one from the Sun we’ve used as out headline,  and has even savaged himself in a negative self-penned review in Time Out.

“It’s a practical consideration,” he says, explaining his exclusive approach.

“I’d like to be able to carry on working until I die, and the couple of times I did reach a mass audience, the response from the tabloids was so hostile it meant I was unable to work.”

Because of these bad experience, he actively discourages mass interest in his comedy and prefers to carry on appealing to a smaller but loyal crowd.

Stewart caused a tabloid storm by saying he wished Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond has been decapitated in his horrific crash.

He then brushed off the comments, saying ‘it’s a joke, you know, like on Top Gear.’

But the Daily Mail didn’t share his reasoning, that if the presenters of the hit BBC show were able to brush aside outrageous remarks as ‘jokes’, then he could too.

He adds:  “TV pays less than what people would expect and I feel just about adequately compensated for the inconvenience of being recognisable to a small amount of people.

“Unless I was able to live in a gated community in the Yorkshire Dales, I wouldn’t want to be more recognisable.”

Stewart always wanted to be a writer – but admits that he had no idea how to approach comedy.

As a youngster in the early Eighties he wasn’t inspired by what he saw, but everything changed when he encountered self-dubbed ‘anti-comedian’ Ted Chippington, famed for his listless monotone and onstage air of boredom.

“The idea of stand-up didn’t exist,” explains Stewart. “Apart from folk singers like Jasper Carrot or Billy Connelly, or Oxbridge satirists like Rowan Atkinson.

“There was working man comedy, where it was all Pakistani immigrant jokes, or ultra-left wing stuff. In 1984 I went to see a band called the Fall and sometimes comedians would go on before bands.

“I saw a comedian, Ted Chippington. He didn’t have any jokes at all, he just had really long, monotonous things and he seemed to enjoy annoying the audience. I had never seen anything so exciting.

“To be a comedian you didn’t need to be happy or look like you wanted to be there – or have any jokes – I thought I could probably do that.”

But for a comedian, Stewart seems to be a reluctant one. His offbeat style sees him avoiding mainstream comedy circuits and panel shows.

“It’s a bit like being in love with someone, but it annoys you,” he says.

“So you try and deny it. I think I’ve spent 23 years trying to escape it, by doing it in a really weird way.

“I’ve avoided all the venues you’re supposed to play. I’ve got no jokes and you don’t see me in panel games. Yet somehow I’m still a comedian.

“If you try and eliminate every possible support and you’re still doing it… I suppose that means that’s what you are.”

Stewart says that having kids has altered his performances, although he’s unlikely to start cracking jokes on how amusing children are.

He says: “What had changed is about a year ago someone said to me ‘you used to be really tightly written and now it’s much looser’.

“I tried to pretend that’s a positive direction I’ve deliberately taken, but in fact I used to sit at home writing it all out. Now it’s quite hard to do that, with childcare responsibilities like giving them a bath. I tend to work out shows onstage now.”

But has the presence of children in his life changed Stewart’s cynical view?

“I’m not the kind of person who’s going to write a show about how funny children are,” he says.

“I’m quite cynical about the world, I’ve always hated everything, and I still am, I still do.

“But you’ve got to hope that things will get better. You have to have a frustrated idealism, because you want them to have a good life.”

Stewart Lee


Small is Beautiful…a Kenyan safari with a community message

Seeing as I took my Kenyan childhood home and the tragic events that recently unfolded in Nairobi as inspiration for my last blog, I thought I’d post up a piece I did earlier this year about an interesting little enclave.

Slightly off the tourist trail, LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary has been a favourite of mine for a while. Tiny in comparison to its famous Tsavo neighbours, the reserve is community owned, and fascinated by the implications of that, I went to find out a little more about its story.

The article was published in Ndege in their March-May edition this year (2013).

You can read it in PDF form here: Tsavo_Feature or below:

WHEN you think of a Kenyan safari you probably think first of it’s famous plains, the majestic Masai Mara or romantic Tsavo.

But as ideas around tourism and conservation shift, there are other options, hidden gems and smaller, community minded reserves with big plans.

Nestled snugly between the borders of Tsavo East and West and neighbouring Taita, LUMO Community Wildlife Sanctuary may not have the big name draw of it’s better known cousins, but there’s a lot more to it than it’s relatively modest borders suggest.

Community owned and run, the reserve was formed when three ranches, Lualenyi, Mramba and Oza, decided to pool a 46,000 hectare sprawl and dedicate it to conservation, officially registering as a trust in 2001.

A wildlife corridor to it’s larger neighbours it’s teeming with game, but for many visitors it’s appeal lies in it’s community ethos – and ambitious plans for the future.

For Iain Leckie and his wife Helen, when the chance to take on the reservation’s lodge Lion’s Bluff on a 25-year lease came up, they didn’t take much agonising.

“We’d been camping here for years as it was well within reach of the coast, where Helen runs an eye clinic, for long weekends,” explains Iain, a genial host – as many glowing reviews on Tripadvisor attest to.

“So when the place came up I already understood quite a lot about what we were facing.”

The community owned lodge supports LUMO’s projects as it earns money from the lease, seperate bed night charges and an overall percentage.

“There’s a huge passion there,” says Iain. “The real reason we went for the long lease is because we want to be in this area for the rest of our working lives.

“It’s a forgotten little part of Kenya and even though places like nearby Salt Lick Lodge have been there since the early Seventies, somehow it’s been taken off the tourist map.”

Iain and Helen overhauled the lodge completely, giving it the rustic, boutique feel it now has.

Walking along winding, wooden walkways above the dramatic sweep of the bluff, up to the open sided restaurant or along to the twelve timber built rondavels where bedrooms with wooden four poster beds sit, it’s won itself plenty of fans.

Most of the staff live locally – many are shareholders – and most of the food is grown nearby, while the reserve provides other employment with rangers working alongside Kenya Wildlife Service to keep poachers at bay.

Run by a board of nine directors, three from each ranch, it has big plans for the future to offer the kind of employment opportunities that are only just creeping into the rural area.

Sanctuary manager Oscar Wadero originally left the area to work in the hotel business in Tanzania, but returned to take on the position, marking a huge development in prospects for talent in the area as management and skilled jobs are created.

His interest in conservation dated back to childhood and he was delighted he could combine his passion with his professional management expertise – and return home.

Oscar sees the community’s involvement, working hand in hand to support themselves and conserve the wildlife, as the best way to instill a similar interest in youngsters who may in turn plough their skills back into the project in future years.

“When it comes to conservation I think it has to come from someone’s heart,” says Oscar. “It has to be a passion.”

Iain adds: “This is why LUMO’s so important, if it can create the income and the atmosphere where youngsters can get educated and get qualifications here then in time we’ll have real skills in the area.”

Where to Stay:

Lion’s Bluff

WITH huts decked out with rustic, handmade furniture, each with their own private balcony, you won’t feel intruded upon here.

Wooden walkways lead to the restaurant and bar, with breathtaking panoramic views – which on a clear day include Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro.

You’ll get a warm welcome with helpful, friendly staff and there’s plenty to do – whether it’s bird walks, night drives or Out of Africa style bush breakfasts where you’re greeted with champagne.

Cheetah Campsite

IF you prefer safaris stripped back – or don’t have the budget for luxury – you won’t compromise on the view.

Perched down from the main lodge, it’s perfect for a pre-campfire sundowner, and you may even get an elephant wandering by.

There are basic but clean kitchen, toilet and shower facilities and you can hire tents, bedding, cooking stoves and kitchen equipment.

For Lion’s Bluff and Cheetah Camp visit: http://www.lionsblufflodge.com

Tsavo Volunteers

IF you like your experiences abroad to do some good, check out the grass roots organisation that sees projects bridging the gap between community and conservation.

You’ll patrol the reserve, release animals from poacher snares and work in schools.

 Visit: www.facebook.com/pages/Tsavo-Volunteers/194978920522523

What you’ll see:

 Elephants, elephants and more elephants. Lion, an abundance of the usually elusive lesser Kudu, swathes of buffalo, impala, hartebeest, dik dik, klipspringer and water and bush buck. And if you’re lucky, there’s a pair of leopards with cubs.

© Jonathan Marsh

© Jonathan Marsh

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Why I’ll still be flying home to Kenya – even after Westgate

ON July 8, 2005, I watched with a sense of admiration as London commuters steadfastly made their way to work.

Heads down, grim faces and square shoulders, displaying that particular kind of dogged British stoicism, Londoners trudged to tube stations and bus stops as if the worst terrorist attack on British soil hadn’t happened the day before.

This week I, along with fellow Kenyans and adopted Kenyans all over the globe, glued myself to live updates on news websites as the unfathomable horrors of the Westgate attack in Nairobi unfurled.

I ran my phone battery down refreshing pages, mumbling monosyllabically at interruptions to my internet vigil and refreshing the pages last thing before I went to bed and as soon I woke up in the morning.

The mounting feeling of horror spread over four long days, a tight knot in my belly muddled with anger, anxiety and the bitter pull of homesickness didn’t leave me for a moment.

Scouring Facebook for news of Nairobi friends – a one line status, or the changing of a profile picture to a Kenyan flag signalled they were ok – became a nervous twitch.

Sliding underneath the hard anxiety was the same admiration I’d felt when Brits pulled together in 2005 as Kenyans all over the country queued to pump the blood from their veins into blood banks so that it might save another’s life.

Volunteers camped overnight by the besieged mall, cooking meals for the red-eyed ranks of journalists, police and armed forces, restaurants delivered pizza, celebrities delivered water and members of the Nairobian Somali community made their own brave pilgrimage to the site to show solidarity and deliver food.

The message from home was one of unrelenting solidarity, a show of togetherness that transcended race, religion and social boundaries.

I have no doubt that Kenya’s fighting, uniting spirit will be vital in healing its wounds, but there are longer term fears that trouble my mind – we in Kenya have seen violence before and the disastrous effect it’s had on the Kenyan economy.

It doesn’t feel long ago since I returned from Kenya following a Christmas visit in 2007, the year election riots bubbled up like lava as the delicate thread holding together ancient tribal wounds was ripped apart and hatred and unspeakable violence erupted through the cracks.

We sat clenched and huddled in front of our TV screens which showed images of armed and inexperienced riot police beating men in cotton shirts who held no weapons. Children howled as bullets rained down and innocents fell to the ground; women and children were burnt to death in a church in Eldoret as they sought sanctuary.

And the effect on the tourist industry was enough to see visitors opt to avoid Kenya this February surrounding the next set of elections, which thankfully turned out to be peaceful.

Before that tourism has plummeted following the 1998 American Embassy bombing – barely recovering in time to be hit another blow by the Israeli hotel attack in 2002 – and of course has suffered at the hands of well-publicised Somali pirate attacks partially prompting the Kenyan invasion of its unstable neighbour that has apparently sparked the Westgate shootings. 

Post-1998 I remember deserted hotels, run down restaurants with hopeful staff tentatively waiting on scant customers and large resorts on Kenya’s famous coast turned to ghost towns. 

Foreign owned tour businesses went under, leaving their owners penniless, often unable to afford their plane tickets out of their adopted country.

I don’t want to see that again.

Sometimes the only tool you have to counter shocking acts of brutality and violence is to carry on as normal, denying the perpetrators of violence and terror the thing they set out to take from civilians – a sense of security, hope and freedom in your own society.

Already a large tourism conference scheduled for this week is set to go ahead with Kenyan and foreign hoteliers united in trying to deflect the impact of the attack onto their own industry.

I have plans to travel back to Kenya, it’s my home, I’ve travelled back regularly for over 20 years, and I don’t intend to change them.

While I may not be in Nairobi now to donate blood or ferry food to emergency services, I can show my solidarity in another way – by going ahead as normal.

Along with thousands of disparately spread Kenyans, I’ll be returning to spend my money in the Kenyan economy; eat in Kenyan restaurants, drink in Kenyan bars and shop in Kenyan shops.

I’ll be taking care and paying close attention to travel advice, avoiding large gatherings and soft targets, but I’ll support the economy in my own small way.

The attack in Nairobi joins devastating past acts of violence on civilians in Mumbai, London and New York, and as names of the victims emerge, a global picture is painted.

A renowned Ghanaian poet, a British-Australian architect and his brilliant Dutch health-worker partner, much loved sons, daughters, mothers and fathers from Peru, Canada, France, South Africa, South Korea and China as well as of course, Kenya – the slaughter was indiscriminate and globally impacting.

But there is one way in which the globe can counter the cowardice, brutality and destruction – by not giving in to the fear and panic terrorism set out to instil.

Tourism is Kenya’s second largest economy, second only to agriculture, employing millions and without it, the country is brought to its knees.

While individuals must prioritise their own safety, closely following travel advice and taking care, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you scroll back through major attacks bearing al Quaeda’s stamp – the group al Shabaab have linked themselves with, cities include Jakarta, Casablanca, Madrid – the worst Islamist attack in European history – and of course London and New York.

Terrorist factions are a global threat, not limited to Kenya or any one country, and sometimes the most effective weapon in the face of such atrocity is the strength to carry on as normal, to not dignify brutality with the terror, hysteria and panic it aims to create.

Take care, heed advice, but if you have a holiday booked to Kenya, perhaps think twice before you automatically cancel it.

I’ll be flying home – and I know I won’t be alone as Kenyans around the globe resolutely pull together to support their country.

Hannah Marsh is a freelance journalist who splits her time between the UK and Kenya where she grew up, counting both as home.

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Arts, science and a trip home to Kenya

I’ve wanted to go freelance for a long time. So why didn’t I? Well it’s pretty bloody scary actually.

It’s possible that no one will ever publish a story I write again in my life, that I’ll have to jack it in altogether and get a job on the dark side (PR). Not that there’s anything wrong with PR. My many ex-journo buddies who’ve crossed over earn a helluva lot more cash than the ones scribbling away on this side.

They generally work for nice, kind people, get raises, promotions and have good perks. But…it’s not journalism, and I love writing, it’s my passion, and I hope I’ll always earn enough through writing to keep it a viable career.

Anyway, last year I made some tentative forays into freelancing. I wanted to see whether my ideas were really any good – it’s one thing having confidence that you’re good in the role you’re in, in my case heading up the arts supplement at large daily newspaper the Echo in Essex, but another thing altogether when you’re pitching at publications as an outsider.

This was one of the pieces I got commissioned to write, it involved a trip home to Kenya, a visit to Nairobi and it consolidated my ambitions to go freelance and have the freedom to write about anything I wanted to.

It was published in Msafiri in their November-December issue, 2012.

You can read it below or in PDF format here: A New Dimension

ART and science are seemingly worlds apart.

But as part of a pioneering global project, Kenyan artists James Muriuki and Miriam Syowia Kyambi are exploring the links between their world of art and that of medical research.

Curated by the Wellcome Collection, photographer James and mixed media artist Miriam have been commissioned to delve into the relationships between researchers, doctors, community members and the politics surrounding it all at the KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme in Kilifi.

The work – still in its early stages – will go on display at the National Museums of Kenya in December, along with work from artists working at Wellcome funded research centres in five other countries.

But before they even started, Miriam and James had challenges of their own to face up to – as partners and parents to their six-year-old son Simora, they’d never intended to collaborate, preferring to keep their professional lives separate.

“It’s amazing how many people ask if we’re still together,” laughs James from their home studio in Nairobi, where russet-red miniature clay bricks are strewn across one surface while tiny tin trunks lined with photos are lined up with military precision on another.

“ Luckily we are.”

The pair originally competed against each other – and even agreed not to talk about their ideas as they developed proposals, but on seeing the potential began to think about joining creative forces to explore the work.

“We did have reservations,” admits Miriam. “Every single aspect of our lives would be completely connected and our working styles are very different.”

“Both of our artistic egos are quite dominant, which isn’t the case in our relationship at all – it’s the opposite.

“James likes working at night, I hate it – and James needs pressure, he’s a last minute worker and I don’t, I’m like ‘no you should’ve gotten it last week, what’s wrong with you?’”

Art meets science

The two found the links between the art and science worlds as fascinating as the differences as they spoke to scientists and doctors.

“Everything was very organised, very logical,” observes Miriam.

“We were kind of overwhelmed by the acronyms – they just go ‘oh the CCL’ or ‘the ASSCR’ and you’re like ‘what’s that?’”

But James adds: “We spoke to one scientist who really got us excited – his philosophies and ideas were very similar to ours as artists.

“We’re both supported to explore certain possibilities within a certain field without saying ‘the outcome has to be this or that.’”

Key to James and Miriam’s research was the centre’s relationship with the Kilifi community, linking with community representatives and opinion leaders – schemes set up by KEMRI to engage with community members, who they’re always working alongside.

“I guess some of the issues KEMRI faced in the past are very different to the ones they face currently – in terms of engagement,” says Miriam.

“It felt like people understood a lot about what KEMRI does, what research and data collection means.

“But they also felt like they also had something to offer in terms of traditional medicine and knowledge – and wanted it to be a two way exchange.”

Miriam and James divided their findings into ideas of trust, context, money and power, exploration and experimentation to work with.

Miriam explains that the little clay bricks will be used to recreate tiny traditional houses which they’ll photograph in the lab – while the tin trunks play with the idea of education – the larger versions being a regular sight at Kenyan boarding schools.

“It’s quite interesting to venture into the scientific world,” says James.

“And yet it’s familiar.”

Further info

The Wellcome Collection is a free London destination exploring the connections between medicine, life and art.

The Art in Global Health project sees artists working in residence at centres in Kenya, Thailand, Malawi, South Africa, Vietnam and the UK to explore the personal, cultural, philosophical and political contexts of health research over a six month period.

The KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme is a joint initiative between the Wellcome Trust and the Kenya Medical Research Institute.

Photographer and curator James Muriuki, 34, explores transition in social environments while Miriam Syowia Kyambi, 32, works with various media around identity and history.

She is also head of art and design at Hillcrest Secondary School in Nairobi.

They both work in Nairobi where they live with their six-year-old son Simora.

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