Books read in 2018

  1. First Confession, by Chris Patten
  2. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
  3. In the Shade of the Mulberry Tree, by Catherine Withenay
  4. Wuthering Heights, by Emile Bronte (not finished)
  5. Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
  6. The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro
  7. Broken Glass, by Alain Mabanckou
  8. Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
  9. Cry Freedom, by John Briley
  10. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
  11. The Bridegroom Messiah, by Colin Hamer
  12. The Righteous Mind, by Jonathan Haidt
  13. Easy Motion Tourist, by Leye Adenle
  14. Bella Figura, by Kamin Mohammadi
  15. The Tony Payne Collection, by Tony Payne
  16. 12 Rules for Life, by Jordan Peterson
  17.  A Call from France, by Catherine Broughton
  18.  How to walk into church, by Tony Payne
  19.  A Castle in the Backyard, by Betsy Draine
  20.  Wrinkles, Wit and Wisdom, by R. Jarski
  21.  Montaillou, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
  22.  The House at Sugar Beach, by Helene Cooper
  23.  Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie
  24.  Speak Gargantular, by Irenosen Okojie 
  25.  A Destiny in the Making, by Boudewijn Mohr
  26.  In the Year of our Lord, by Sinclair Ferguson
  27.  When they go low, we go high, by Philip Collins
  28.  Free Trade’s First Missionary, by Philip Bowring

Linguistic challenges

Yesterday I was having lunch with a friend from Sierra Leone, when one of her friend’s, a British woman, happened to come by. « I can’t quite place your accent, » she said to me.

Although it’s been nearly 12 years since I left the UK, I’ve never stopped feeling British, and holding similar identities to when I left. But perhaps like with ageing, you change subtly in ways that don’t really register with your own self. I’ve had a number of people say to me over the past few weeks that my accent was « difficult to place », and that people weren’t sure it was British. Canadian was one recent suggestion. South African is a common one.

These sorts of comments can come as a surprise – have I really changed? In my primary cycles, I don’t have many British people, though my boss is British. I speak English with the kids, though their speaking is tinged by Sierra Leone. Otherwise, I’m speaking French at home. A lot of the aural media I consume (podcasts) are American or from Africa. I’m pretty sure Freetown has had an impact on my English, though I’m not best placed to say.

As one linguistic anecdote, I left the UK in 2006 when people (if I recall correctly) said ‘Two thousand and six’ (or is my mind playing tricks on me?). Skip forward, and I still find that I say ‘Thousand and eighteen’, but it’s taken me a while to realise that other people say ‘twenty-eighteen’. This morning, when I was wondering how I came to take a wrong turn in the road, I realised that in French it’s ‘deux milles dix-huit’, and that perhaps this was the reason I was not saying 20-18. Or perhaps the English language took a left turn after I left into making 2012 as two numbers, while I continued along the path of calling it two thousand and twelve.

This thing with accents can make you think that perhaps you’re losing your moorings. But whatever I’m drifting into, I’m quite happy to be there.

Surprising my children

On Monday evening after work, I’d managed to get into the house without the children noticing. Usually they pick up the sound of the gate opening, and are singing and dancing by the time I park my bike. But this time, they were absorbed in playing a computer game with mum on their tablet.

So, I sneaked through the kitchen, silently greeting our maid, and then peaked around the corner on the other side of the lounge. They were totally absorbed in the game, shouting excitedly. I moved a little closer, standing next to the fireplace. It was then I noticed an interesting thing. My daughter, 3.5, had her back to me, and had her hands behind her back, one hand in the other. My wife is often remarking that the children take on the body language of their father, especially hands on hips, or looks of concentration, or walking with their hands behind their back. Then I realised that I was holding my hands in EXACTLY the same position, even down to having the right hand sitting inside the left hand. I got that fuzzy feeling watching my children unobserved. They’re really my offspring!


Travelling around every few years, I actually don’t have that many long-term possessions. For a while I had clothes that had lasted for a good number of years. But beyond a few pieces of underwear that madam wished had long since been thrown away (she was largely responsible for other items of clothing being given away), almost all of my clothes are no older than four years. Thinking about my other items (and my own personal possessions took up less than two suitcases on the recent move), there is almost nothing older than five years. About the only thing currently among the possessions older than five years is my old Nokia phone (perhaps circa 2010), which I still carry around and use as a non-work number, and then my large pocket-sized Bible.

If you’d asked me about my small black leather Bible last week, I would have told you how it was a present received on my tenth birthday (or Christmas). I would have even turned to Colossians and shown you the pages that are still tea-stained from a spilled cup in the first few months of ownership. I could have even described how I had dried the Bible after that incident on the radiator in my bedroom in 22 Hazel Crescent, an address we lived at from 1988 to 1991, and that I could still picture the scene.

Only, on Sunday I was looking at the first few pages of the Bible, and noticed the phrase ‘This edition 1997’, which comes as something of a shock. This dates the Bible to a year before doing my A-levels and then leaving home for university. Providing the date is correct (I can’t come up with a reason why it wouldn’t be), then I was given the Bible by my parents much later (I was 17).

So, a bit of a surprise. This Bible is still something I’ve had and used on a very regular basis for more than two decades. It is I think the only possession that has accompanied me to all the different places I’ve lived (Nottingham, Cardiff, Leicester, Norwich, Oxford, Brazzaville, Abidjan, Dubai, Freetown, Lusaka). So I guess it can still be described as special in some way. The zip broke a very long time ago. And the leather looks worn, as do the pages. I remember there was originally a slip explaining how to take care of the leather, which stayed inside the Bible for a few years, but never led to any action. But the Bible is still as useful as it ever was, and it’s the format of the Bible that I feel most comfortable flicking through and reading from (despite the small text size). I don’t yet feel sentimental about it, but in a life that has seen frequent change, perhaps that feeling will soon come. And maybe it will, in time, become a tattered heirloom.

The Power of Fear

(I’ve been clearing out my computer desktop and found some blog posts that I’d started writing but never posted – this is one from late 2015.)

For the last few weeks I’ve been mulling over a creative project. It’s not amazingly innovative – the proposed name I have is Freetown 366. It would be one of those projects where I try to publish a street photo every day in 2016 (which happens to be a leap year). The goal is to have a big creative project for me to focus on, which gets me out taking a lot more photos (instead of just listening to photography podcasts and reading websites).

The issue is of course that that’s quite a lot of photos, when so far I’ve taken no street photos in my life! For the past few weeks I’ve been trying to get myself to walk around the streets with my camera. But here comes the rub – I always find an excuse not to. A few months back it was that I needed a new camera – which is why a bought a little Sony camera (A5100). Then the big fear was theft, so I bought a handy wrist strap. But still I kept finding excuses – including the weather. I came to realise that there was a deep seated fear inside me about stepping out. On the surface the principal fear would be getting my camera stolen, getting into arguments or getting attacked – all of which are pretty unlikely events. The most likely negative outcome, getting the camera taken from me, hardly constitutes the end of the world.

Instead there’s a really deep underlying fear of failure, and a reluctance to leave comfort zones. It’s actually a big thing for me. I don’t really have many excuses for not doing projects like this – work is calming down, I have plenty of free time (not having much else to do without family here). And I also want to be the type of person who is a good photography, carries out projects, and writes. These are things I pencil in for my post-2030 working life, though I take on board the wisdom of Tim Ferris and others that there’s no use saying ‘I’ll do X later in life’ – if you can’t do it now, you won’t do it then.

On Friday evening (when the light was really nice) I delayed again, but on Saturday I got up with the sole intention of driving to work and then walking from there to take photos on a stroll in the city centre. This time, after weeks of putting off, I actually did it. I’d like to say that after overcoming my fears things all opened up and I came back with lots of stunning images. In fact, after more than an hour walking around I came back with very few keepers. But it’s a start.


Postscript (15 May 2018) – I finally got out there, and I didn’t skip a day of publishing photos throughout 2016 on a Facebook page, Freetown Street 366. The project didn’t create a massive buzz, but those who found the page, enjoyed the project, and the photos were featured in a local online magazine, where they are continually used to illustrate stories. There were no negative experiences to report from the streets beyond a few people saying no when I asked for permission to take their photo – and the camera I bought back then with its basic lens has been kicking around in my work bag every day since then, and continues to serve me well (in fact I sold all my other camera equipment).

There’s a mix of quality in the images, but all in some way capture the Freetown street. Did it massively increase my photography skills? I don’t think so. Did I learn how to use the camera beyond the basic settings? No. But still, I have the satisfaction of having completed a major project and created a body of work that I can be proud of. So, here’s to breaking through fear.

Morning writing

A change of country is like the start of a new year – a chapter-beginning that provides a chance to make resolutions and adjust habits. Over a good number of years I’ve woken up early (530/545am) on week days for exercise before work; usually a run or a circuits workout from a phone app. At the beginning of this month, I’ve made quite a radical shift – no more exercise in the morning, but instead, close to two hours of writing time, with a 5am wake-up. At about 720am I drop off my daughter at nursery, and then cycle off to work for 8am.

The main idea is that if writing is something I want to do long term, then I need to be doing it regularly. Up to now, this just wasn’t happening. So far in the morning writing hours, I’ve been keeping a journal (first task of the day), going through a fiction writing MOOC course with FutureLearn (one that I unsuccessfully started back in 2013), listening to the ‘Writing Excuses’ podcast, and writing blogs (most work-related).

Two immediate experiences after two weeks:

  • Firstly, before the problem and stress was finding time for yet another priority. But, when you actually carve out a fixed time, then the whole issue with time just vanishes. It’s no longer about finding the time, because the time has been found. Instead it’s about working out what to do to fill the time. It feels very much like you’re giving yourself a daily present, a wonderful luxury. Perhaps from the outside, it’s odd to describe getting up at 5am as a luxury, but that is genuinely how it feels. It’s rapidly turning into one of my favourite moments in the day.
  • Secondly, although I haven’t yet got a writer’s notebook off the ground to make little observations about the world, I can already see that the fiction writer’s obsession with the little details, should help me to be much more observant and aware in the world. How much am I missing as the world spins by? It would be nice to get some time in a busy cafe with a notebook just observing. Eventually, being a writer would also perhaps give me the permission (like a journalist) to get into people’s lives, and asks them questions about their internal life.

The morning writing hours will be fine-tuned, but I think I’ve established the building blocks for a quite interesting life change. In addition to the writing, it’s nice to see the sun rise (my position at the dining room table faces the window and the exact point where the sun comes up through the trees). And I also see my family rise – generally E the nanny first, then my young son J, quite an early riser. Then we have to get the rest up so D can be ready for school. Back in Freetown, I would do my morning exercise and head to work all in the dark without seeing anyone up.

The last Saturday

Sitting on the front step of my house looking over our wooded compound, the sun is gradually setting on a warm Saturday evening, my last in Sierra Leone. In the past hour, we arrived back from grilled lobster on the beach and playing in the river just as it flows into the ocean. The tide was out and we could walk across the river and on to the shore. My son enjoyed lying in the water with the back of his head washed in the river. Returning home, the kids slept the whole way, and the passage through the market bustle of Lumley was relatively quick, despite the main opposition party holding a street campaign. I express pride that my Rav4 has completed its last major journey before being sold.

In the course of an hour back at the compound, we see everyone bar one of the inhabitants. In our absence, Moustapha, the caretaker, has organized a fire to burn rubbish, but a dead tree at the site of the fire is now smoking, worrying my wife T. Our neighbours, C and baby G, come out to play with J, while M helps Moustapha and his boys pull down the tree and cool the embers down with water. A young puppy that’s scared for its life and only arrived in the compound yesterday is being enticed out of its hide-out. For T, it’s the former dog reincarnated in some way, ‘Puppy’, who was recently put down down after colliding with a car coming out of the compound. Indeed the new dog does look remarkably similar.

An Italian man staying with our neighbour G comes out and runs his own dog around the compound, as the kids play about under the unoccupied but just refurbished new house. Then neighbour D wanders over with a beer to exchange news – he climbed one of the main peaks on the peninsula today and shows us a photo. The sun is setting over the sea, much more visible now bushes around the old house have been cut back. Warm social evenings with laughter.

Planning for the future

At the weekend I was speaking with a friend of mine, a West African retired from the UN after close to 20 years work. He lives in a big house in Freetown and I go there at least once a week for a church group. He said that when they were in their mid-40s « ambitious, young and foolhardy » they had great plans as they built the house. The reality though is that their two children are in the US and rarely visit Sierra Leone, and they basically just use one of the five bedrooms in the house. He was considering selling to get a smaller place.

I imagine this sort of thing is not an uncommon story for such people – and I felt it could be true for myself and my wife too. Spending the next decade and a half saving for the future, setting up a nice home, and then when house was built, the bank accounts filled and the pension fund strong, we retire, just as the children leave home for university in a far off country, rarely to be seen again.

This train of thought leads me to two (obvious) ideas, both of which are easier thought than acted upon:

  1. That for people in my position, the strong likelihood is that future financial strength is almost guaranteed, on a current trajectory. It is highly likely that in 15 years, I will actually have saved too much money. Having spent too much time concerned with collecting enough money, I will now spend my waking hours wondering about how to ensure I can give it away to my children as easily as possible. The three practical lessons from this should be i) you can perhaps worry less about saving, ii) it should be easier to leave salaried life sooner iii) one should not spend too much time worrying.

2. Secondly, that it would be easy to ignore that the good times are in fact NOW. The family (except our two elder children at university) is united, and will be so for the next 15 years. We are both in good health. Now is the time to enjoy, not scrimp and save every penny. Key moments are holidays – so better to invest in quality holiday time, and perhaps even a pleasant family bolt-hole for adventures, than think that all this comes from early retirement.

Books read in 2017

I could explain why I haven’t posted much this year. But that would be pretty boring. So, let me just do the usual post of books read in the last year. All things (two babies) considered, I think I got a fair bit done (33), and a good variety of topics. I think my favourite would be ‘The Pike’. Special mention to Simon Fulton – a British author who wrote about his experiences setting up a hotel in southern Senegal, and sadly died in the Spring in a road accident south of Dakar.

  1. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
  2. Persuasion, by Jane Austen
  3. Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun, by S. L. Manyika
  4. Around the world in 15 friends, by Tynan
  5. At War with Waugh, by W. E. Deedes
  6. The Pike: Gabriele d’Innunzio, by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
  7. Open City, by Teju Cole
  8. The Jesus Candidate, by James Paul Lusk
  9. Shooting milk at chameleons, by Simon Fulton
  10. Chasing hornbills, by Simon Fulton
  11. The Portrait of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
  12. Ties, by Domenica Starnone
  13. Tram 83, by Fiston Mwanza Mujila
  14. Love, Africa, by Jeffrey Gettleman
  15. Letters of John Newton, by John Newton
  16. Deep work, by Cal Newport
  17. True Friendship, by Vaughan Roberts
  18. Making sense of God, by Timothy Keller
  19. Status Anxiety, by Alain de Botton
  20. The Handmaiden’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
  21. The Church, by David Zac Niringiye
  22.  Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari
  23. The Culture Map, by Erin Meyer
  24. The Africa House, by Christina Lamb
  25. Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig
  26. The Oxford History of the French Revolution, by William Doyle
  27. Le Printemps des Pyromanes, by Abel Doualy
  28. Cote d’Ivoire – 128 jours de souffrance et douleur, by Brahima Ouattara
  29. Radio Okapi Kindu, by Jennifer Bakody
  30. Out of Africa, by Karin Blixen
  31. A Mighty Purpose: How Jim Grant sold the world on saving children, by Adam Fifield
  32. Living in the Light, by John Piper
  33. What happens when a man falls from the sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah

Happy taking part

At a birthday party mid-week I met a Nigerian doctor who I used to play football with. While I haven’t found the time to play since February, he still plays every week and says it’s one of the highlights of his life. This sparked a small thought in me. When it comes to playing football, we put in a lot of effort, try to improve, and perhaps occasionally take part in beautiful actions that give us a strong sense of satisfaction. We get joy from taking part, from testing ourselves, becoming better, and the exhilaration of the game.

But we don’t tend to get hang-ups if we’re not the best on the pitch – some people (yes, through nuture rather than nature) are accepted as more talented footballers than others, and we just admire what they are doing, while measuring ourselves to our own standards.

It struck me that this sort of attitude is exactly what we often hear in wider life-management. “Don’t stress about others’ achievements and successes, everyone is starting in a different place, and your job is just to run your own race from where you are.” Yet, an attitude that comes naturally in sport, seems to be far more difficult to apply in a different category – life. That’s an area in which we are constantly comparing our performance to others – ‘how did he manage to achieve that?’, ‘if I had what she had’, ‘it’s unfair me starting where I started, while he started from a different place’.

Even worse, and I don’t know how common this feeling is, but we want to be the best, and feel down on ourselves if we’re not. We can get down if we’re just mediocre, run-of-the-mill and standard in certain areas of our lives – we want to stand-out, be admired, be world-class.

Yet that’s not an attitude we bring to the beautiful game. We’re almost never the best footballer on the pitch, on our street, and in our community. Yet that doesn’t seem such a threat to our ego.