Wednesday, 8 January 2014

New Year, No Fear

Sorry I have not been in touch (in 140 characters or other), for almost a year. Where does the time go?

I will answer that in my next post - promise!

But Christmas and New Year is always a poignant time. Amidst the hubbub and excitement, looking back on the year gone by, one contemplates the distances between friends and families and the absence of departed loved ones.

While it is a hackneyed old cliché, this year has flown by. I wish I had been more in touch in the past months, and hope to be in the ones ahead. I hope you have a wonderful and happy Christmas, full of joy and love and the promise of a peaceful and fulfilling year ahead.

This time of year Mr Springgirl invariably asks me what my resolutions are for the new year.

I invariably answer that I have none. I never want to disappoint anyone.

"Be a better person", "eat better", "be more patient". Who cares about such vague and unattainable aspirations> 

I dare not tell him my true ideals. To sleep 8 hours a day, catch a daily fix of my favourites programmes, spend excellent quality time with my lovely friends and family and learn something new every day, while having my book published and my novel sold to a Hollywood studio...

So I tend to hold back.

But last year amidst the 5000 pieces of never to be completed jigsaw puzzle that arrived on Christmas day, feeling like an enormous failure (hate not finishing a jigsaw), I decided to shake things up. I resolved that I would try new things and seek out adventure in 2013. Looking back, in a small way I managed this. I started a new job, took up acting (they call me Puck in some circles), made friends with literally scores of new people (mostly estate agents but they are terribly nice young people all the same), and embarked on the acquisition of new skills - scooting (life-changing, efficient and freeing and very youthful), kayaking (admittedly I only tried it twice, over the summer, but more will follow if I can find a strap to hold my glasses on my head, means of keeping my head out of water and wetsuit that will complement my short hair-do) and driving (though this was not so much new, as dormant). 

Now as 2013 has drawn to a close and I contemplate that question so deftly dodged last week, I turn to 2014 - now a week old!

Happily we will be moving house in the new year (needed more space for my scooter and acting awards). We will be closer to the kayak club too. Though the new sewerage pumping station will also be quite close, so perhaps dry ground rowing at the gym may have to suffice. The Off-Spring need more room to store their Harry Potter wands. And Mr Springgirl relishes the prospect of a refurbishment project around the corner from a tennis club. In sum, we are all delighted at the idea of each having a room of our own with no loud smoking neighbours banging around overhead, creaking the floor boards, throwing cigarettes on our window sills and slamming their front door.

So with these happy and exciting prospects before me, I resolve in the coming year to mix things up some more, while at the same time, slowing things down somewhat (new slow cooker already taking up half my bench space in soon to be old kitchen).

So that's it - to be more, but do less. And to be thankful. And to walk in the country more. And take up bridge. And singing in a group (very good for one, they say). I also resolve to breathe deeper and laugh longer.

Tell me what your resolutions will be - I promise I won't hold you to them. Nothing worse than being reminded of something you once said...

Friday, 8 February 2013

Drama, acting and performing

In the interests of mixing it up - as one does every now and then in order to make life more interesting, meet new people and to gain a fresh perspective - I've taken up acting. Or at least, I attend an acting class. 

To be honest, there hasn't been much acting, to speak of, so far...

However, I do know more about the art of acting than I did before I started. I've also learned a little about myself too. 

But perhaps best of all, some of the learning has had application in my work as a coach. 

In particular, I've been reminded that in class, as well as in coaching (and life), there's a distinction between acting, drama and performance.

Let me explain.

In class we have been exploring the way we move. To do this, we have observed movement in others, we have experimented with expressing an idea without words, we have tried out different ways of walking and considered what movement does for our energy levels.

This week our task was to come to class prepared to act out a scene of our devising based on the movement we had observed of another person - a friend, stranger, someone on a bus. Anyone we had observed over the previous week.

When the task was set, one of the group - a sort of Midsomer Murders character with some experience in amateur operatics - was anxious that her act might be satirical and unkind to her subject. Frankly, I should have hoped so. The teacher - let's call him Ted - a little patronisingly, explained that without an intention to ridicule, it would not be satirical or unmind. In the end, June, the anxious one, "did" her overweight food loving friend cooking dinner and watching tv.  Seven interminable minutes of tv watching. No satire at all. Ted gave her a huge clap.

Meanwhile, Rebekka, who really fancies herself as the next Marion or Charlize, and constantly dominates class discussion with a series of sounds that are words but actually say nothing - though perhaps epitomising the learning task as well as any of us might - with "I think that well, kind of, like, well, sort of, I mean, it did , rather, I mean , like what I should say is that yes, well, it was quite nice and meaningful, if you know what I mean..." did a woman on a train. She gets on. Sits there. Gets off.

We had another tv watching act - but with lots of facial expression and hand ringing.

Gordon, who thinks he's the next Ashton Kutcher, is the best of them. He could hold his own in any millieu in fact. He did an efficient and effective rendition of working through lunch in a miserable job.

We also had  a beggar, a fat old lady in the shops resting her legs and an old man waiting for a train.

Finally, it was my turn. I was getting edgy after watching 9 of these things. So I did a woman in a gym class who comes expecting yoga and ends up doing high impact aerobics and nearly passes out from exhaustion. The woman is young and attractive but not as fit as she thinks she is. She is annoyingly attention seeking and likes to have the mirror to herself. Even so, she barely keeps up with the rest of the class. It was slightly  facetious, but very "realistic". Believe me - I am expert in gym class personalities!

So we all did our acts. We all tried to be "truthful" (N.B. this means realistic but in acting we don't say realistic (!)).

At the end of the class, Ted dismissed us with our homework. He took a moment to point out that one or two of the acts strayed into "performances".

Silly me! I used to think that acting was performing. Now, not so much...

Clearly, he was referring to me. My act was a "performance" - ie - not a good thing. 

Ironically, it was funny, enjoyable, "truthful", easy to relate to and understand.

Ok. I admit it strayed into the area of parody. Possibly ridiculing the twenty somethings who think they own the gym but lack the stamina or grit to punch through the pain...

But, despite its flaws, it had some flair and panache. Compared to watching paint dry, anyway. 

Well, at least I moved...


So what's the point?

The point is that in working with coaching clients, coaches don't tend to tell the client they are "performing". We don't say they are "dramatising" things. Even though sometimes we might think saying so would create a "light-bulb" moment...

But we do help them to find this out for themselves. 

Equally, we appreciate, or should, that there is a reason the client is performing as they are, acting as they do. There is a reason why they play the roles they play. There is meaning in their dramas. And we let the client give us a role in that play. We aren't the director or the producer of their lives. We're mere players, facilitating the story telling, enabling the journey of the character.

Who said the world is a stage and we the players?

A truer word?

So yes, sometimes we act. Sometimes we perform. Sometimes we bore. But as long as we "star" in our own dramas, who is to judge? And your drama isn't mine. For mine may be a tragi-comedic tale of a hero overcoming evil. Yours - a romantic drama full of pathos and yearning. 

In my acting class there is an incongruity. We beginners are being held to a standard. A standard that isn't written or spoken. Not even hinted at. None of us have been initiated into the secret expert world of acting, in which we would never be caught "performing". 

Thankfully, in life - the standards are more realistic

The key is merely to be truthful. For your drama may be your truth. Your melodrama may be your reality. Your boring monologue may be the essence of who you are.

Just do this - in acting out your drama - give a performance that is engaging, communicative and entertaining. Don't worry about whether you're acting well, so much as whether you're taking part.

Hold your head high when asked to walk around the room in different ways. Be brash and brave when everyone else is self-conscious and fearful. 

Oh, and don't be deterred when after walking the boards, someone tells you not to do "ministry of silly walks".

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Habits of a Lifetime

As a coach I work with clients to "manage change" and to "facilitate transitions".

In theory this is a great space to work in. After all, it's universally accepted that coping with change can be challenging. Yet, we live in volatile and fast moving times where the old ways of doing things often no longer obtain. It is increasingly important then that we develop skills for embracing and managing change in order to remain effective, productive and competitive. Adapt or be left behind. A good coach should be very happy operating in this millieu!

Paradoxically, we (and I don't mean only coaches) need change to be challenging.

Many people (my dear mother among them), say: "people don't change". After much thought, I think this is correct in most cases. Fundamentally, people don't really change. Nevertheless, people can change how they react, behave or feel about a goal, person or situation. In other words, while we stay basically the same person, we evolve and develop and sometimes, we feel transformed.

This is where a coach can help - in this journey towards new ways of seeing or doing things. Indeed, given our propensity to resist change, to stick with what we know or to take the safe route, coaching can be invaluable.

Indeed, today I had a realisation that despite my best intentions and excellent coaching skills, I may in fact be a difficult client to self-coach.

I was in a driving lesson when this dawned on me...

Yes - I know - driving lessons at my time of life!

The thing is that I have been driving for 20 years but for the past 13 I haven't driven often, apart from 4 months in 2009 when I was living in Australia.

So, I'm out of practice, a little nervous and unfortunately, not qualified to drive in the UK.

But I can drive. So the challenge is not that I have no ability or competence. The challenge is to change bad habits and re-learn the skills properly.

No big deal, right?

Well, let me just say that I have new found respect for teachers of adults. How do they stay calm and patient with students who think they know what they are doing? How do they not guffaw at the silly, unforced errors repeated over and over again? How do they not just lose it entirely with people who refuse to follow basic instructions?

At one point my instructor - South African thirty-something - told me:

"You have to listen," in a tone of carefully masked frustration. Hand on heart - no one has ever had to tell me to listen before! 

The whole situation was ludicrous. I'm an experienced driver. I know the rules of the road. But I would have failed a driving test today. For a series of small mistakes - giving way when I could have gone through the junction, moving into the empty right lane without checking my right mirror, approaching a roundabout at 15 miles an hour, stopping over a white line at a red light, crossing my hands on the steering wheel. 

It was very humbling. And I was reminded that changing how we do things, breaking a habit, is not easy. In confronting the fact that change is hard, one becomes disillusioned, disheartened; one wonders why one is bothering.

There was a moment this morning when with aching knee and ankle joint from all that slow speed gear changing, I suggested we end the lesson and have a coffee; perhaps refer me on an automatic vehicle instructor? ie give up.

I mean, it's not as though we have a car or need to drive anywhere, really. I don't need to have a licence. don't really miss driving. One can manage on foot or public transport. Plenty of people can't drive...

But my instructor - coach - talked me through it, as good coaches do. 
"Don't be put off. Most new students feel some discomfort using muscles not usually used. It will get easier. You are doing well. Let's persevere."

"Ok," I said, compliantly. Mostly to save face. I wasn't completely convinced...

There came a powerful realisation. A few well chosen words of encouragement can go a long way. 

So I punched through the pain barrier - like I do at the gym without ever complaining. I even saw the humour in the situation and was thus open to the idea that I was not giving of my best, but being defensive or resistant to letting the learning happen. I was so wrapped up in the fact that I could drive already that I wasn't open to the idea that I had some learning to do. 

Thus, there came the next realisation. The instructor asked me (for the fourth time) if I noticed the car shuddering and could I tell him what I was doing that was causing that. I knew it had something to do with clutching and accelerating and pace and timing but I wasn't sure. Like when I have to reverse, I don't remember which way to turn the wheel (scary?).

So I said: "No. I don't know."
He said: "I've only told you three times."
I said: "I wasn't listening."
He said: "I know."

And there followed the third realisation. I can't learn to do something differently if I don't engage with the process openly and willingly. When the Offspring say they don't know after I have explained something to them, it's not because they're stupid or lack focus or have a poor attitude to their work. Rather, they are probably not interested enough to listen attentively. 

And in admitting I was not listening, the ear muffs came off and I finally heard him!

Thought provoking stuff.

So - next time you find yourself resisting a change you think you have embraced, pause for a moment and ask yourself, what are you resisting? Are you truly ready, willing and able? Are you listening? Do you need some encouragement? 

Or quite simply - is this a change you actually want to make?


Thursday, 17 January 2013

Mixing it up

This week I decided to mix it up a bit.

After all, what is the use of coaching clients about managing transitions if one is not also prepared to embrace  change?  Let me just preface what follows by saying - I love routine. Love it. I love the tried and true methods that work well. I often tell people about how fantastic routine can be. I extol the virtues of boundaries.

Yet, I was not always such a person, was I? While never exactly intrepid, I was once a little adventurous, wasn't I?

Well, suffice to say, a breath of fresh air was long overdue so I conducted three experiments. By definition a cautious approach I dare say. But anyway...

First, I altered my fitness routine. I did the same circuit of exercises in the gym, but I changed the order in which I do them. I wanted to see how I would feel after and what impact the change would have on my workout. I expected to be muddled, do fewer exercises and barely break a sweat.

The surprising result was that I worked harder and finished sooner. I expended more energy in a more efficient way.

Secondly, I tried a different route on a walk I make every day. This change was forced upon me by an unforeseen hitch in the school run. But in the spirit of making the best of things and avoiding recriminations, I went with the challenge of taking a different route.The astonishing result was that the new route was quicker.

Thirdly, I enrolled in and began two new courses. One I had been considering for a while. The other was a crazy whim based on a long dormant, or perhaps suppressed, desire to stop "keeping my light under a bushel". At best, I thought I might gain ideas for my book, make a new contact or two and perhaps gather some new conversational gambits. In actual fact; I met new people, had loads of fresh ideas and most gratifyingly and satisfyingly, confirmed my long held suspicion that there is an Oscar in my future.

But perhaps best of all I unlocked a treasure trove of new creative energy.

Sorry? The Oscar? Oh, that old thing. We can discuss that some other time.

I want to focus on the other discoveries and benefits of making some small changes.

The fact is, after just four days, I feel quite transformed. While I've slept less than usual, I feel more energetic. I'm sleeping better and I've watched no tv. Well, perhaps I should say: I've watched very little tv.

Moreover, making some changes led to even more unexpected openness to change. Without a thought, I tried a different cafe for my morning coffee and ate a huge plate of waffles. Something I've not done in years. And no - I'm not getting in character for a role as a larger lady. I was mixing it up.

And today, while walking home I burst into song and managed to stay in tune through a wonderful rendition of "On My Own" from "Les Miserables" (until the Off-Spring shushed me most harshly - talk about repressive and rigid!).


I challenge you all to do something different tomorrow. Not something irrelevant like changing your toothpaste, though. Do something a little bit bold. Smile at a stranger. Eat lunch in a new place. Read a new book. Try a different newspaper. Take the stairs. Stop and chat instead of rushing past the acquaintance you usually avoid.

See what you notice.

Let me know what happens?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

A change is as good as a holiday

It's been some time since I posted here. Suffice to say I was doing other things. Clichéd as it sounds, the past 13 months flew by and while I seem to remember being occupied, unfortunately I feel a little cheated. Why? Because I have nothing tangible to show for all that time passing.

So what was I doing?  I was busy with coaching and charity work up til mid July. The summer was quiet, filled with cricket with the Off-Spring, walks on beaches in Wales and lots of reading.  Now, while the memories remain, I struggle to find tangible evidence that I contributed anything at all to the world. The final quarter  of the year saw a change of gear and a focus on education - both that of the Off-Spring (number 1 is awaiting news of his secondary school place for this September), as well as other people's children with whom I work on communication skills, confidence and resilience. I hope some difference was made in that domain at least; time will tell.

On the "fun" side of things, I drank a lot of coffee, developed a keen interest in kettle bells, enjoyed some of London's finest museums. And became a little OCD about jigsaws...

But there remains a sense of dis-ease, that in spite of all that activity, I have very little to show for it (note to self: mount and frame current jigsaw when completed).

Consequently, over the Christmas and new year lull, I had ample opportunity to pause and reflect on achievement and contribution; productivity and engagement. These musings took place against the backdrop of my work as a coach.


At its heart, coaching is about managing change. Much of the time I work with clients to develop specific skills - often it will be communication skills; pitch and presentation work, interview technique, improving delegation processes and managing feedback. Sometimes we're focussed on time or stress management (or what I prefer to call - "wellbeing"), and sometimes the challenge we're managing is change itself - transitions at work, redundancy, retirement, starting a family or a business.

Sometimes a lot can be achieved quickly and without too much pain. A bit like losing weight quickly and easily when a more active way of life is embraced.

But what happens when the weather turns? When party season arrives or when the stress of the new job erodes the gains?

In order for real and lasting change to occur, there is usually a need to delve below the surface and explore the subtle and intricate issues that lurk there. Invariably in the corporate milieu, depending on who is buying the services, one tends to highlight the commercial benefits that the coaching brings about; the improved processes, the bids won, the greater levels of productivity, the enhanced satisfaction of the employees. One doesn't tend to highlight the breakthroughs made in understanding the subtleties and intricacies that underpin the issue.

At the end of the day though, without addressing those deeper issues, meaningful change is not sustainable. In other words, without understanding and addressing the "why" and the "why not", that transcend the "how" and "what, there cannot be true transformation.

For example, why is it that Mr X cannot get his subordinates to step up - what prevents him from empowering his team? Why does Johnny struggle to sell himself in interviews? Why is Ms Y unable to quit smoking and lose weight?

None of Mr X, Ms Y or Johnny lack verbal or cognitive skills. And if they don't know what to do they can soon learn. Despite this, nothing changes.

The fact is that the issue is rarely what it purports to be. And it's almost never about ability. To use the weight loss example again - Ms Y knows how to walk and run. She knows the location of a gym and has friends that swear by Zumba. And yet...

The key to change is not skills and training. It is the alchemy that comes about where there is congruence between motivation, volition, energy and action.

So what does that have to do with achievement or productivity? Or my need to have something to show for all my efforts.

I have some ideas, but now that I have your attention I will save them for my next post...

Thursday, 1 December 2011

We're not in Kansas anymore...

My apologies for such a long absence. My summer in Ghana culminated in a serious bout of food poisoning which saw me hospitalised due to dehydration and low blood pressure. In hindsight it was all a very relaxing blur - a detox, complete rest and being very well looked after by family. In another post I will share the virtues of developing-world hospitals, as well as some of the reasons why brown, taupe and dirty chartreuse are particularly well chosen colour schemes in locales where foreigners are prone to picking up stomach bugs. I will also regale you with the fantastic storylines that abound in daytime soap operas emanating from Ghana and Nigeria (initially sceptical, 48 hours in ward 3b and I was hooked!). 

Suffice to say, returning to Normal Life in London - school, work and routine - was not as difficult for me as it might have been, especially since I was so relaxed and slim. Alas, Normal Life takes a toll and I can no longer boast of such heights of relaxation or indeed such a svelte and tanned silhouette... Nevertheless, the past three months have raced by, full of school, work and routine. And the myriad highs and lows that accompany them; fatigue, homework, leaking pens, mean girls, new friends, horrible food... And that's just my set of problems. What must the off-Spring be going through? 

With the Autumn has come global anxiety too: floods and devastation, the Eurozone crisis, challenging job markets, increasing prices. 

Though it's not all terrible. The glut of good new tv shows is a silver lining this time of year (and the real reason for my long silence).  I wish I could comment on things like X factors and dancing and celebrities in forests, but I can't. What could I possibly add? I do want to recognise though, the profile and publicity that celebrities lend to causes that are important to them, such as bullying. 

I came across a very interesting article recently when researching bullying. I would recommend you read it if you or someone dear to you has faced bullying. Indeed read it in any case. As a parent, bullying looms large in the lexicon, if not the experience, of many. Yet, despite a theoretical understanding of the causes and myriad manifestations of bullying, there is nothing quite like the gut-wrenching, eye-watering sense of dis-empowerment and heartache that a parent feels when first learning that their child is a victim.

To be clear, I am not talking about playground tussles, squabbles over toys or friendly, mutual teasing. Anyone with a sibling is toughened up at home at the hands of brothers and sisters and prepared well for shenanigans such as these.

But sustained, systematic, mean and persistent victimisation is something altogether different. 

The fact that such can occur in "nice" schools, under the noses of teachers who genuinely care, is staggering. At risk of sounding like someone's elderly mother, in my day (ie when I was a child) such things did not seem to go on to this extent, with this sort of frequency or in such a prolonged and damaging way. Perhaps one forgets. I will not stray into the world of cyber bullying for now. Even a cursory glance at comments left on some of the broadsheet's web pages would indicate that common courtesy in a scarcer commodity in the electronic world than face to face. While the language and abuse I witnessed in several discussion on a writer's forum I once logged on to were so vile, intimidating and aggressive as to leave me scared to post a comment at all, let alone defend the person or point of view that was being attacked.

But returning to schoolyard and classroom bullying, it seems to me that that as Izzy Kalman suggests in his article above, there is no actual "solution". There will always be bullies and anti-social behaviour. There will always be people who enjoy excluding and oppressing others. There will always be fear and suspicion of anyone different or who stands apart. There will always be naive and seemingly innocent jokes that cut to the quick. There will always be troubled children lacking in empathy and sensitivity, desperate to fit in, to be seen as powerful or cool or a force to be reckoned with.

Worrying, there will also always be "normal" children from "good" homes who bully others, who think it's "cool" to treat others badly; to ridicule or poke fun, to put someone else down and thereby make themselves feel better. And there will be adults who tacitly encourage such by their acts or their omissions. The pages of literature are strewn with heroes and heroines who faced far worse!

So, yes, I agree, making it stop is neither a realistic nor an achievable goal.

But that is not to say one should give up.

Perhaps we can find ways of helping adults see how their behaviour, language and tone contribute to and condone bullying. Perhaps we can learn that in a pressure pot, steam must eventually escape. In other words, in hot-housing and pressuring, living through, and failing to listen to our children, we may be part, or a source, of the problem.

Sure, everyone can be mean or self-centred. We all have days when we don't want to share. There is always someone who is not really "our cup of tea", who we'd rather not have to play with. Who of us has not stood by and said or done nothing when someone nearby was being hurt, left out, teased or worse? This is the human condition, afterall.

But it also seems to be incumbent on us as humans, let alone as parents, to help and guide young people to find within themselves the courage, wisdom, heart and intelligence, not only to forgive, deal with, learn and grow, from bullying, but just as importantly, never to become a bully either.


As an aside, when I was a child, back in my day, I watched the opening moments of "The Wizard of Oz". Captivated by all musicals made before 1970 (and "Enchanted") I was very keen to find out about the yellow brick road and to where it led. The psychologists amongst you can let me know what it means that I was terrified of the red shoes and those legs poking out from  under the house. I fled in tears to my room, imploring my parents to "turn it down". Such was my fear that I never ever watched the film. Indeed, I would have to rank "Oz" as among my "top 5 scariest movies of all time" (along with Psycho, Nightmare on Elm Street and Dirty Dancing). Accordingly, until reading Mr Kalman's article last week I had no idea that "The Wizard of Oz" is at heart a simple tale about dealing with bullying. I did not realise the significance of the characters' quest. 

Luckily, (despite what you may think of me, given my penchant for US TV shows) there are other sources of information and character formation at one's disposal... We don't need an Emerald City, a Wizard or a broomstick to guide us to the courage, heart, wisdom and way home.

But I will be watching "Oz" asap!

Monday, 22 August 2011

Grass is greener

Ten days ago, the Off-Spring and I fled the London Riots, travelling to join Mr Springgirl in Accra, Ghana. A typically warm and friendly welcome awaited us as we landed at 4am in a deserted airport and a silent city. For the first time in the 13 years I have been visiting Ghana, the streets were empty, traffic was light and not a single person approached the car to offer wares for sale. It was disconcerting to be out and about and not have the opportunity to buy ones staples - toilet paper, chocolate, razors, car mats, peanuts, batteries, belts or DVDs - from the comfort of the vehicle... Thankfully the respite was shortlived and the teeming hustle and bustle of an African city was soon to be ours to explore.

And so began a wonderful and relaxing vacation.

This trip has offered, as it never fails to do, a fresh perspective on modern life. Ghana is a democratic and modern nation, rich in natural resources such as cocoa, gold, fruit, oil and natural gas. And yet despite the plenty that abounds and which ensures that the famine of East Africa is at most only the remotest of possibilities here, there is abject poverty too. This creates for me - an Australian - a confronting conundrum. For I come from a nation rich in natural resources too. My home is also hot and dry and teeming with friendly and welcoming souls. Yet, the similarities stop there.

Smarter and better informed minds than mine will no doubt have answers to my questions and solutions to the problems. All I can do is paint a picture with my words and convey, I hope, a sense of the richness of culture, the depth of community and the spirit of hospitality and humour that transcends daily life.

Imagine a place where everyone who greets you does so with a smiling: "You are welcome". Imagine reading psalms and theological wisdom on the back windows of dusty 20 year old vans (tro-tros) packed full of people, luggage, supplies for market and livestock. Contemplate a high street choked with honking taxis and hawkers all roasting together under an equatorial sun burnished with the aroma of fried fish and boiling palm oil melded with the heady scents of diesel oil, raw sewerage and salt air. This is Accra.

Five minutes from the melee is a tranquil oasis of green and bougainvillea blossoms where behind high walls, lush lawns are tended and German cars are polished, satellite tv is watched and the latest in modern convenience and comfort is enjoyed. This is Accra.

Meanwhile, in a village less than 50 miles from here, we were welcomed by the incumbent King and his Queen Mother and court. The Chief in his palace accepted our visit, arranged by our friend his cousin and explained the role of the chief. He described the ceremonial as well as day to day meaning of his post. Negotiator and lobbyist, philanthropist and judge, arbiter and father to his people. It was poignant for us used to a diet of Grazia and Tatler, The Telegraph and Hello, to see real royalty at work. The Off-Spring were a little concerned at the absence of chandeliers in the palace - a simple house and courtyard set back from the street. But the King sat on a carved wooden throne, wearing special cloth and surrounded by his advisors - his linguists, his philosopher, his wife. The warmth of their welcome and their interest and delight in meeting the visitors from Australia and London was unforgettable. The value placed on family, ancestors and tradition is clear. So too, the ties with the land, the ceremonies and key events of life (naming events, engagements, funerals, memorials). While all around there seems a hustle and bustle, a clog of cars and a thronging of people, there is also order and structure, process and protocol, purpose and productivity.

Against this backdrop of unwritten rules and modes of conduct, expats (and I too, now) joke about "Ghana time". This means come late, stay long, take your time. But it also means - in good time, in God's time and in a word - "chill".

Leaving a city torn apart by looting and rampaging thieves and muggers - albeit only briefly and in disparate areas - to come here, is a journey filled with irony. For here, living on a few dollars a day, dollars made through hard and hot labour, thousands still smile and hope for more. Not rioting for trainers and TVs. yet who would blame them if they turned to violence to secure running water, a toilet or a pension, or to protest for basic healthcare, immunisations or electricity. Church, family, prayer and the belief that "By God's Grace" all is well, seems, miraculously, to be enough. Which is not to suggest a simplicity or lack of sophistication. Ghana is a safe haven in West Africa and as such a beacon, an example and a destination in its own right.


But how is this of interest to you? Perhaps it is not...

Perhaps as a mere travelogue? If so, I will continue.

Mr Springgirl. on our arrival, typically likes to take us for a drive with the windows down to help us acclimatise to the smells and the humidity. The senses are assaulted all day in a way that they rarely are elsewhere. From the rooster crowing and the wind in the leaves to the burnt out and obsolete mufflers roaring on the dusty and potholed roads beneath the roar of departing planes flying over the house, we are confronted by noise. Bats squeak in the mango trees. I awaken to the sounds of switch brooms at work and the gardener clearing his throat - with vigour. While English is the official language, hundreds of dialects are spoken proficiently and fluently. The language is musical but to me, unlearnable, with idiomatic expressions that leave me staggered. For example, at Christmas the locals in what sounds like five words proffer a wish "that the year will go out and come back to greet you".

And that is just the sense of hearing.

Visually the strong contrast between the red dust and the dark green of the trees and the steely blue grey of the ocean is dramatic. There are no rolling patchwork hills here, nor azure seas or cornflower skies. Yet the haze belies lush plantations of bananas and palms, seaside coconuts and hills of cocoa. And the local tie dyed fabrics and woven kente cloth offer the fullest of spectrum for the eye to savour. Choosing a table cloth can take all morning such is the choice of pattern and colour.

Meanwhile the olfactory sense is taking its own beating. Not one to miss a day's exercise I was keen this trip to take to the streets to maintain my fitness (such as it is) - the weather being milder and more permissive. However, even if I could manage the absence of pavement and the constant beeping of taxis alerting me to their presence in the strongest of terms (white lady should not be running around the streets like this - here take a ride), I could not endure any real distance in the humidity. Even in the cool weeks it takes one's breath away. The sweat literally pours off one if attempting outdoor exercise in daylight! And the smells? Well, given one's own sweat production levels (ditch the Dukan diet and come here to detox, I say) and the more than occasional pedestrian relieving himself roadside, the freely grazing sheep and goats, the oozing gutters and scant supply of rubbish bins, one is assured of a very rich and "ripe" running (let's be honest, strolling) experience.

But it's not always so. Picking a pathway across a nearby field, over a small stream in which goodness knows what flows to the Atlantic, to watch a local sharecropper tend his rocket and spring onions, I enjoyed a brief diversion. Under a tree off the track was a small soiree of locals enjoying their own crop - one they could smoke. The citronella lanterns and candles offer a sweet respite and the ripe mangoes, pineapples and bananas at the Fruit Lady's stall never smell this good in Tesco (or Waitrose!).

The senses of taste and touch also get a good going over in Ghana. Tantalising tropical fruit, seafood galore and tomato and nut based stews abound. Anything savoury - from beans to rice - is laced with pepper. Though the newly arrived KFC chain may provide an alternative for the western palate... As an aside, the eldest Off-Spring is convinced all the chicken shops (the only non-local form of "fast food" here) portray the chooks looking terrifically, and indeed, unnaturally, happy as they march to the counter to be eaten.

I should also note that my skin has never looked better. The humidity seems to remove all trace of wrinkles and fine lines (my Ghanaian mother-in-law looked younger at 70 then I did when I first got off that plane all those years ago to meet her). The tropical formula DEET (mozzy cream) is working wonders on my limbs - very moisturising. Indeed, who would bother bringing cosmetics here at all, given one is covered in repellent all day for fear of malaria, even with the daily dose of anti-malarial. The mosquitoes are prolific and bite anything not covered, despite screens, nets and sprays.

My only complaint would be the dearth of book stores. Hardly a problem in this era of e-books though, as I discovered to my delight - the new Andrea Camilleri Montalbano Mystery is waiting for me on this very laptop at a fraction of what I would pay in Waterstones! And it took me coming to Ghana to give up the so-coveted tactile experience of reading an "actual" book.

Speaking of which, I have made good headway on my new novel. There is something about holidays in Ghana, but one always finds the time and space to think here. Could be the large garden full of hammocks and balls entertaining the Off-Spring, the charming husband and staff tending to the chores (freeing one from all domestic responsibility), or maybe there is something in the (non-potable) water...

I swear this is the only place to holiday. If only one could provide sanitation, health care and a basic wage for the population by doing so...

Failing that you might enjoy some of what Ghana has to showcase...

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