Hobbits, Tolkien, Oxford and Writing


Tolkien sign

I decided to hot foot it over to Oxford for a dose of literary inspiration, where the Bodleian/Weston Library hosts the J.R.R. Tolkien exhibition until October. The Financial Times published a pre-exhibition review that tells it far better than I can – you can read it here.

Hobbit cover
Tolkien illustrated the cover to his now-famous book

Writers’ craft

But I learned some valuable ‘writers’ lessons from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings creator.

  1. Lord of the Rings, sequel to The Hobbit, took Tolkien a long twelve years to finish, ‘squeezing his writing into late nights’ after teaching and family activities.
  2. He pursued his creative endeavors (drawing, illustrations, writing) alongside his academic day job and family.
  3. But he had a ‘room of his own’ where he not only wrote his masterpieces but also met with his students, marked essays and carried out his professor duties. In addition, it was a hub for entertaining his children with evening stories.
  4. His illustrations are quite beautiful and complement his writing perfectly. How I wish I could draw! Never mind, at least I can work on my photography.
  5. Tolkien was actually quite an extrovert. He formed a writers’ group with his mates, which served as an excuse and a ‘safe space’ to down beers, and read their written stories to each other.
  6. Nonetheless, he had a literary best mate, CS Lewis.

Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth is at the Bodleian/Weston Library, Oxford

June 1- October 28 – tolkien.bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Oxford's dreaming spires
Oxford’s dreaming spires
Trinity College, Oxford
Trinity College, Oxford

Tolkien illustration



Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong


Changi, Singapore - overlooking the South China Sea
Changi, Singapore, overlooking the South China Sea

I’m starting to prefer staying in the suburban outskirts of a city. Apart from getting more reasonably priced accommodation, it’s nice to be able to retreat from the frenetic centres to somewhere more quiet, if not totally peaceful. As long as there’s accessible transport to ferry me across to the centre when I want then that’s fine by me.

Changi Village in Singapore is a case in point. Just a few kilometres from the airport my hotel was about a five-minute walk from the South China Sea beach side. Nothing amazing about the hotel itself – but (on the whole) it was clean and quiet. Food there was horribly expensive without the quality to match, in my opinion. But, that only galvanised me to sample the nearby local restaurants, where prices were low and the quality significantly higher.

Changi, Singapore.jpg
Changi, Singapore

Quiet(er) Melaka (or Malacca) in next door Malaysia is a pleasant two-hour coach drive from Singapore (I used the bus company KKKL which I do recommend). And even in Kuala Lumpur, I stayed at Airbnb apartments that just skirted the flashy main centres, though with easy transport to shopping malls for sheltering from the heat.

KL during the day


KL at night
Kuala Lumpur (or ‘KL’) during the day and at night


Mojo Nomad Aberdeen Harbour
In Hong Kong, I stayed at the Mojo Nomad hotel, with this Aberdeen Harbour view from my window. Nice.


Hong Kong cafe.jpg
G4 Space cafe is just down the road from the Mojo Nomad hotel and worth checking out


Read my other Asia posts here:






Travels through Asia – dining in Kolkata

Kolkata Yauatcha

I had to visit the Michelin-starred Yauatcha in Kolkata’s high-end Quest Mall. Prices are around a third what you would pay at its twin/sister restaurant in London. Thoroughly enjoyed it, and still on the look-out wherever I go for the champagne/rose tea served there.

Special shout out also goes to the Bohemian Restaurant at 2/4, Old Ballygunge Place, 1st Lane, Kolkata. It’s a cab ride away from the mall. The menu includes enticing sounding dishes such as mutton and baby potatoes simmered with green mango and okra; prawn and crabmeat dumplings stewed in spicy Noler Gur reduction; jumbo prawns stewed with field grown herbs; mutton simmered with baby cabbage and fresh fennel served with steam rice and wilted greens; shall I continue? Main dishes are around 500 rupees (USD$8).

Kolkata Bohemian 2
The Bohemian restaurant. Kolkata, India
Kolkata Bohemian 3
Paraphernalia at The Bohemian restaurant.

Their home designed signature cocktails aren’t bad either, including the pictured Just Bohemian made up of Nolen Gur (Bengal date palm jaggery), ginger and dark rum. Cost around 230 rupees (USD$3.5). At this price, it’s tempting to go for more than one – but they are potent, you have been warned.

Kolkata Bohemian
The Bohemian

Travels through Asia

Miu's Coffee House, Hanoi, Old Quarter
Miu’s Coffee House. Hanoi, Vietnam

At the start of 2017 I said that I wanted to travel to Asia and Asia-Pacific that year. From May I got to work in reporting and public information for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (or, more simply, OCHA) in South Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh).

At the beginning of December and following these busy assignments I decided to make my way around India, Australia and Thailand for the first time visiting Kolkata, Sydney and Bangkok. Three weeks later I was back in London spending a lovely Christmas break with my 84-year-old Mum, my brother and his family.

Sydney breakfast
Sydney breakfast
Sydney Opera House.jpg
No prizes for guessing where this is
Bangkok night market 1
Bangkok night market
Bangkok boat

Then I hit the road again in the first week of 2018, taking in Phu Quoc, Ho Chi Min and Hanoi in Vietnam; Colombo and Galle in Sri Lanka; and Bali, Indonesia where I am now. It’s actually cheaper to be here than expensive London, whilst waiting for my next assignment, plus I get to miss all that city’s tiresome cold winter.

Acoustics bar, Hanoi, Old Quarter
Getting ready to perform at The Acoustics Bar. Hanoi, Vietnam

I like the song that blasts out from the Vietjet flight on landing in Vietnam (the link below will take you to the YouTube video).


Galle, Sri Lanka.jpg
Fishermen. Galle, Sri Lanka
Galle, Sri Lanka snake
Rather him than me. Galle, Sri Lanka


A funeral procession in Zadar, Indonesia
A funeral procession in Sanur, Indonesia



Breakfast in Kuta - tender buttermilk chicken, spinach and poached egg
Breakfast in Kuta, Indonesia – tender buttermilk chicken, spinach and poached egg


Deployed to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh

Obat Helpers sign

It began with an email: ‘the UN team has contacted us and they are requesting your deployment as soon as possible, initially for six weeks…how quickly would you be able to travel and assume your responsibilities in Dhaka or Cox’s Bazar?’

This was on Saturday evening, 7 October, 2017.  Just over one week later, I would swap my UN OCHA reports officer job in Islamabad for UN OCHA public information officer in Dhaka, supporting the response team in the humanitarian quagmire unfolding in Bangladesh.

The plight of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslims is being well documented across news and social media channels: the well over half a million surge of Rohingya refugees spilled into Bangladesh since August 25 adds to the 300,000 already here in camps in Cox’s Bazar. Such desperation to get away – from what?

What triggered that exit was the heavy Myanmar crackdown in mainly Rohingya populated Rakhine State. This left up to 3,000 Rohingyas dead, women and children brutalised and raped, many others tortured, homes burnt. There are reports of children being thrown into burning houses. It’s difficult to get accurate verification of these accounts because of restricted access into the affected areas. What’s convincing the international community, however, is the consistency of stories being told by the exhausted refugees as they defy carefully place landmines, treacherous waters, hunger, trauma, injury and sheer fatigue to reach the safe beaches of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Here, they can stand and watch as smoke billows across the sky on the opposite shore: they are watching their homes being razed. The UN – ‘textbook ethnic cleansing’. The recent Sky news report adds weight to their accounts.

With these stories in mind, it was with a certain disquiet that I set off last week to an organisation called Obat Helpers in Cox’s Bazar, the office of which is located minutes from the large purpose built Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp. My morning at this office would be taken up leading a writing workshop for a group of around ten young Rohingyas aged between 19-25. I would be teaming up with a professional photographer on assignment with UNICEF, and who would take the photography part of the session.

This non-religious organisation was born out family and friendship ties that has morphed into something bigger. Its working team consists of committed young professionals who have a cadre of international experience. One of them gave up a World Bank job in DC to return to her home in Bangladesh and support Obat Helpers.  The team is assisted by national and globetrotting volunteers, such as the young New Zealander with a strong Brit accent who is determined to stay out of the UK for a good while.

I don’t really know what I was expecting of the Rohingya students themselves.  What I found was a group of initially shy and reserved young men and women, warmly eager to learn and engage, to improve their writing and translation skills, and to make something of their lives. Pretty normal. And a breath of fresh air in such a complex and disturbing environment.

Please click here for more information about Obat Helpers



Musical interlude

I thought I’d do a super quick round-up of music that’s recently caught my attention. I’ve never been a fan of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ or any version of it. Way too mournful and dour for me, though that may be a bit rich coming from someone who has both studied and liked ancient classical Greek drama. Anyway, that was until I heard this version by Pentatonix. The lyrics are still too dark for my taste, but the rendition is on point, in my opinion. I also like their upbeat take on ‘Cheerleader’.

Following that is Kashmir, this year’s winner of Pepsi’s Battle of the Bands in Pakistan. I think the group is pretty good. See what you think. Confusingly, there’s a Danish band also called Kashmir.