Sunday, 17 April 2016

The Visitors

Six months ago my 80-year-old dad called me at four in the morning to let me know he’d booked flights for him and mum to come and visit me in Hong Kong. Two weeks before they were due to arrive, mum had a fall and needed a wheelchair. Did they cancel? No, they did not. Nothing was going to stop them from making this trip.
   I waited at Exit B in the Arrivals hall for two hours before eventually finding them in the middle of the concourse like a couple of Paddington Bears with their handwritten parcel labels on their suitcases. How they got past me, I do not know and neither do they. They weren’t in bad shape considering they’d left their sleepy Somerset village more than 24 hours before, arriving via Dubai. Their main gripe was that it was too cold on the airplane: “We asked them three times to turn off the air-conditioning!”
  Mum does not like the cold, or the hot for that matter. She doesn’t like spicy food, or bland food. She is a big fan of salt and Tetley tea.
 “This is going to be interesting,” Mick said a day before the visit as we went to collect a wheelchair from the Red Cross at a hospital in Chai Wan.
 Navigating Hong Kong with a wheelchair is no easy task. This is a hilly city with a lot of steps. On the plus side, my biceps and calves are looking pretty toned now, and I discovered a whole new world of elevators. Also, I have to admit, I was loving the preferential treatment that came with the wheelchair.
  At Ocean Park, we were whisked to the front of every line with the special ‘wheelchair plus three helpers’ Golden Ticket they gave us. They even stopped the cable car while mum got on. Dad, Mick and I cast our eyes to the floor in mortification as we trooped past hundreds of people to the front of the line – but we weren’t so mortified that we didn’t take full advantage of the situation at every opportunity.
  Apparently my dad loves penguins, I never knew that, so he was in his element in the South Pole Attraction. Obviously the Antarctic conditions were not acceptable to mother who waited outside with her little battery-operated fan. “Does it really need to be that cold in there?” Mum, they’re penguins!
  The wheelchair also came in pretty handy at Disneyland; The Peninsula Lobby (no queuing for Afternoon Tea); the (sold-out-except-for-wheelchairs) show at The Cultural Centre; Wong Tai Sin Temple and The Peak Tram. (However, I have had to promise Mick that I will never make him visit Madame Tussaud’s ever again. Ever.)
 The highlight (of exasperation) of the tour for me was partaking of Chinese tea at the Lock Cha teahouse in Hong Kong Park. (Be careful not to accidentally order the Fuyuanchang pu-er tea at $38,000!) Dad and I caught each other’s eye and looked at mum as she took her first slurp of Lapsang Souchong… “Ewwwww! This tea tastes like smoky bacon!!” And apparently the moon cake is like a ‘chocolate pork pie.’ You can take the girl out of Somerset.
 We went on the Big Bus, The Star Ferry, we visited Stanley, the Ladies Market, The Flower Market, The Jade Market, Nan Lian Gardens, Repulse Bay, Lamma and mum and dad saw panda bears at Ocean Park and the real Mickey Mouse for the first time in their lives.
 I think they had the holiday of a lifetime and I know dad will be recounting his adventures to everybody down at his golf club.
 Mick and I took the wheelchair back to the Red Cross on Saturday but the office was closed. He had to stand on my back and pass the wheelchair through the one-foot gap above the door because we didn’t want to have to come back and the hospital refused to take responsibility for it ‘til Monday. I dread to think what we would have looked like on the CCTV. “Managing Director of global research company breaks into Red Cross office,” I can almost see the headlines now. As we walked away, we were both thinking the same thing - after pushing it around for two weeks, we would miss the wheelchair… and its occupant!






Monday, 14 March 2016

The Hot Seat


We’ve lived in this apartment for 18 months now and I’ve only just discovered a switch on the toilet that heats the seat. It’s a Toto toilet - I’ve never had one before so I wasn’t aware of its true potential and anyway, who reads toilet instructions? Actually, I’ve always found it slightly irritating because it has a mind of its own – the seat lifts up and down willy nilly whether there’s anyone near it or not. I like the 30 ltr or 60 ltr flush option though, and the self-cleaning wand is fun to watch if totally ineffectual. I have no strong feelings about the ‘massage’ or ‘oscillating’ modes – other than mild amusement - but now that I have found the hot seat I’m really feeling the love - especially when I forget its there and get a lovely, warm surprise every time I pay a visit.

When we lived in Mumbai, there was a shower head attached to the wall next to the loo, which I found very refreshing. The water pressure was high and I vowed to have one of these in my ‘forever’ home – however far in the dim and distant future that might be.

Other people would keep all these ideas on their Pinterest boards but I’m not that organized and anyway, I don’t need to ‘cos its all in my head. If you were to have a rummage around in there, you’d find, amongst all the cotton wool and images of Leonardo diCaprio (my secret love), a ‘file’ marked: Stuff for the Future Dream Home. This ‘file’ contains pictures of a free standing copper bath; an Inglenook Fireplace; an Aga; The Farrow and Ball colour chart; a shower head on a wall next to a toilet (with excellent water pressure) and now, a new entry…. ta dah…a heated toilet seat.

Am I getting a bit carried away here? Heated toilet seats and adjacent high-pressure shower heads? Where will my aspirations end? A man standing outside the door offering me a hot towel and a mint as I come out? (Preferably ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ era Leo)?! Today in the supermarket I was confronted with a wall of a thousand different brands of toilet paper and I chose a scented one. Goodness me! More than half of all Indian households don’t even have a toilet and here am I sitting on my hot seat like Lady Muck with loo roll that smells of roses. Aren’t we all lucky? – We were born in the right place at the right time. Because that’s all it is: luck- that’s the only reason any of this is available to us.

And as expats, we are luckier than most because we get to see how other people live. We can experience their world for a bit, hopefully broadening our own horizons at the same time. We can take away the things that we like, ideas and friendships as well as the odd stick of furniture. From India I take as my souvenir the friendly, open and generous people I met there everyday; I take south Indian cuisine – especially dosas with chutney and sambhar. And, of course, the shower head next to the loo idea.  From Hong Kong I take super efficiency, respect for culture, tradition and family and definitely the hot toilet seat (oh, and perhaps a Mah Jong set and a couple of Foo dogs) I might never have known about many or all of these things had I never left England.

I’ve had quite a few different homes – mostly high up in the clouds - in three different countries over the past few years and I have seen some amazing things from the windows of each of them. Kites with enormous wingspans swooping through the air; hundreds of people gathering for prayer below; mass dog fights and huge container vessels silently gliding by. Some of it awesome, some of it awful, but all of it very different to the grass verge I used to see every morning when I opened the curtains before we moved overseas.

OK, so I don’t have a permanent home and I can’t plant bulbs or put up wallpaper and as a home bird that hurts. However, I have collected, over the years, a few choice items like the massive cabinet from Kolkata and the doorframe from Jodhpur that I had made in to a mirror. I can now add to the collection a beautiful vibrant cerise rug, which has been taunting me from the window of Lane Crawford all month. To be honest, it looks old and worn but for me that is the appeal. A Swedish friend described it as ‘bedagad skönhet’ when I showed her – which is a good thing. Now the Lane Crawford rug lives with the Kolkata cabinet and the Jodhpur doorframe, one day to be introduced to the old Grandfather clock who currently lives in storage. Not only do most of the pieces have their own history, they are now a part of mine.

I don’t think I’ll ever regret my days as an expat even though I have missed my friends and family and a permanent home to keep my stuff. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve tried to look for things, like the secateurs for example – did I have them in India? Are they in storage, lost in transit or at the bottom of the ocean? Anyway, not being able to find stuff is a small price to pay. There’s plenty of time to settle down in one place in the future and to be honest, once I’ve got my Cole and Son wallpaper up and painted the kitchen Wimborne White (Farrow and Ball No. 239) I’ll be twiddling my thumbs anyway.

No, much better to keep on trucking, collecting memories, experience and unusual and beautiful things to surround myself with for the few good years before they put me in a care home. It’s all about the journey, not the destination after all and hopefully, in the future, one of my great-great grandchildren will be polishing the Kolkata cabinet or vaccing the ‘bedagad skönhet’ rug and might pause to wonder about the batty old woman who lugged all this stuff home and her long-suffering husband who let it to happen.




Monday, 1 February 2016

Shanghai Surprise!

Caveat Emptor! Let the buyer beware. Here’s a cautionary tale for all you shoppers. A couple of weeks ago my old pal Julia came to visit me in Hong Kong. We are both big fans of the retail experience and were looking forward to a trip to Beijing and Shanghai with our husbands. They love a bit of military history and we love a bit of shopping - so everyone’s happy!

On Day One we set off for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City – a deeply moving experience. It was brass monkeys out there (-10) but on the plus side, a perfect opportunity to buy a hat. It was so cold I thought my head was going to explode.

Day Two: The Great Wall of China. What can I say? It was totes amaze-balls. It reminded me of The Wall on Game of Thrones; just imagine having to patrol it in these arctic conditions. It would have been unthinkable, even 20 years ago, but now you can toboggan down to a Burger King at the bottom. Yes, I was awestruck but I couldn’t resist a fridge magnet and a Whopper.  So far, a hat and a magnet – I needed to up my souvenir-hunting game.

Mick had some work to do the next day so he stayed at the hotel. Meanwhile Julia and Paul had a nice, romantic day by themselves while I went out shopping. Don’t get me wrong, I like a bit of culture but I also like to explore a place and its people through its shops. I like to think I’m more eclectic than materialistic; I’d rather bring something home from my travels than shop in Ikea. Anyway, I found myself in a sort of art gallery admiring some Chinese calligraphy paintings. Although I didn’t understand what they meant, I kind of got lost in the beauty of the brush strokes. They were obviously painted by well-known artists, as some of them were priceless. I went back to the hotel empty-handed but with the seed of an idea. I wanted to find a beautiful calligraphy painting by an up-and-coming artist; for up- and-coming, read affordable.

That evening we met as usual in the business lounge (free booze) to compare our days. Julia had been to the Silk Market AND the Pearl Market and had come back laden with gorgeous purchases which she exhorted me to look at and ‘feel the quality.’ She was like Aladdin with her pile of swag and I still only had a hat (which we don’t count) and a one-dollar magnet.

The next morning we caught the train to Shanghai and I was more determined than ever to find the perfect calligraphy painting as a souvenir of the trip. It was my mission now.

We had one night in Shanghai and ended up going clubbing – by mistake. We thought we were going to a bar in the city’s tallest tower but it happened to be Ladies’ Night and the booze was free so we ended up staying ‘til all hours. I think what happened the next day, happened because I was not firing on all cylinders.

It was pouring with rain on the last day of our hols. Julia and Paul suggested a walking tour of Shanghai and - threw me a bone - we would be passing through popular tourist shopping area Yu Yuan Gardens. Yippee!

When we arrived, dripping wet, we stopped for refreshments at the delightful Huxinting floating teahouse. After a hot cup of god-knows-what with a flower in it, and a couple of ancient pickled quails eggs, Julia and I left the boys to dry out and natter about the Qings and the Mings or whatever, while we had a quick dash around the shops.

There was a crap department store selling tat and I was beginning to give up hope when an old tout sidled up to us with the ubiquitous ‘copy handbags, copy watches’ laminated card. Despite Julia’s protestations, the tout steered us towards a lift and, because we had almost given up the will to live by this stage, we followed her…into a labyrinthine shopping paradise.

The lady in the shop pounced on us, shoving pearls and silk under our noses but I only had eyes for a framed calligraphy painting on the wall. With a practiced nonchalance, I asked it’s meaning (something about hearts and mountains?) and enquired about the artist and finally, did the deal. Within seconds, she was taking it out of its frame and rolling it up to pop it in a cardboard tube. I watched her carefully because it occurred to me that I would be gutted if I got it home to find the tube was empty. At that moment her assistant pointed to another painting on the wall to ask if I liked it. My head was turned for no more than a second. No, I was happy with this painting, thanks very much. With that, she wrapped the tube in a plastic bag and ostentatiously tied a double knot in it before presenting it to me. I gave her the cash and did not ask for a receipt because I am a stupid tourist and she saw me coming a mile off. So long, sucker! (She must have thought).

Out in the street, I carried my prize as the old tout followed us. I laughed and joked with her and said I did not want a copy watch or handbag because I had no money left. As she spoke no English, she looked at me exasperated, and pointed to my plastic bag but I made no effort to understand her. After half a mile or so, she gave up, but reached into her pocket and gave me a card. I thought it was her card and popped it in my bag.

I carried my prize all the way back to Hong Kong, careful not to crush it. When I got home I opened the tube and…you guessed it… EMPTY! The air, as you can imagine, turned blue. I suddenly remembered the card. The old tout must have seen ‘the tube switch’ and was trying to tell me I’d been stung. I don’t know why, perhaps she’d seen it once too often and was having an epiphany. When I didn’t listen, she gave me the shop’s card, knowing that when I eventually found out, I would have some recourse.

So I made the phone call to Lisa’s Art Gallery, Yu Yuan Gardens, 25 Jiuxiao Chang Road, Shanghai. Lisa was very surprised to hear from me and wondered how I’d got her details. She didn’t recall who I was at first until I threatened her with ‘Trip Advisor’ and suddenly it all came flooding back. She said she had ‘accidentally forgotten’ to put the painting in the tube and of course, she would courier it to me ASAP.

Reader, here is my happy ending; My beautiful calligraphy painting arrived this morning. I’m going to frame it and hang it on the wall. I’m still not exactly sure what it says – something about hearts and mountains or whatever - but every time I look at it, it will make me smile.... because I know (in my heart) that I can move mountains.

(Picture to follow when back from the framers. In the mean time, enjoy Julia's photo of the pickled eggs)





Friday, 19 June 2015

Space Invaders

The apartment is immaculate. There are no wet towels on the floor; the wash basket is empty and the fridge is full. A distant foghorn from a passing ship punctuates the silence; the only movement is the golden right arm of Lucky Cat waving eternally at the mountains in the South China Sea. This is the calm before the storm. Six thousand miles away Thing One and Thing Two are busy stuffing dirty washing into bags. It won’t be long before they’ll be blowing in here like a typhoon, kicking off their fetid trainers and blocking the toilet.

When Thing One was 12 I bought a white linen corner sofa. When it arrived I felt I had finally become an adult. I loved it as much as it is possible to love an inanimate object. Within two hours there was a large bloodstain on it. The Thing had been scratching a mosquito bite and blood was pouring from his leg. “Is it my fault I’m full of blood?” he asked indignantly. Coincidentally, this was about the time we sent him off to boarding school in the UK.  

We were living in Mumbai then and for the next two years I only had Thing Two at home. When she heard how much fun the other one was having, she asked if she could go too. From having two kids at home to having none, I experienced early onset Empty Nest Syndrome and set about developing a mild form of OCD (I like things at right angles.)

Four years on, we live in Hong Kong and the Things come out for the holidays. The apartment is small and the Things are big. I love them dearly and I can’t wait to see them but man alive; they can drive me crackers. 

Thing One will come in complaining about the food on the plane, he’ll head straight for the fridge and take a fistful of Babybels and a Pepperoni into his room and fire up the X box, filling the apartment with the ear-splitting din of rapid gunfire. The other one will be locked in my en suite, using all my products and blasting out rap music as she prepares to take the world’s longest shower. Later on, they’ll want Blue Tack so they can stick pictures up all over the walls or they’ll be emptying drawers on the floor, looking for a charger. 

These two mean more to me than anything else on earth. They have caused me pain and suffering and pure joy in equal measure. My heart aches for them when they are not here but sometimes breaks when they are. (Mum, does ink come off carpets? Is the telly supposed to be cracked like that? It’s not mine; I’m looking after it for a friend)

When Thing One was six he brought home his first piece of homework. He had to choose an animal and write down five facts about it. He chose a tapir but after an hour in front of Google he could only come up with a single fact: (verbatim) "There is not much TV shows of tapirs.” I laughed my socks off and could not have loved him more. When he spilt paint down himself and was not able to go to his friend’s house, I told him he would have to live with the consequences: “But I don’t want to live with the Consequences, I want to live with you and dad!”

Now he’s six foot one but I still think he’d rather live with us than the Consequences, in the holidays at least. Thing Two has always been loving and affectionate, demanding family hugs and getting cross when you let go of her hand because your hand is getting too hot.

In a couple of weeks my two worlds – World of OCD and World of Chaos – will collide, but actually I’m quite looking forward to it. I think it’s time to make amends. When they were little they asked me to come outside and play, to read to them, go on a bike ride or have a picnic. Can we make cakes/go to the park to feed the ducks/ close the curtains and watch Jumanji at three o’clock in the afternoon? Most of the time I was too tired or thought I was too busy. 

Now that the exams are over and the long hot summer approaches they can do exactly what they want. They can sleep all day, play X box all night or buy crap sugary drinks from Starbucks. I won’t lecture. In fact, I’ll even take them to Ocean Park and Disneyland and go on all the scary rides with them (even the Teacups)

I love that film Boyhood, especially the bit where the mother is watching her son pack up to go to college. She can bear it no longer and suddenly says: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is going to go just like that – a series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced … that time when we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you to ride a bike, sending your sister off to college, sending you off to college and you know what’s next? It’s my fucking funeral.”

At 17 and 15, my two haven’t got much of their childhoods left, time is running out. So this summer, we're going to make the most of it. I can tidy up in September.









Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Self Sevice

I spend a lot of time eating food here in Hong Kong but not much time preparing it. That’s because I have a helper at home and when I dine out it just appears on the plate. Such is life for People Like Us.

But now, as I type, my fingers smell faintly of onions after the 90 minutes I spent this morning chopping an unknown chive-y/grassy sort of vegetable at The Home of Love, a Nam Cheong soup kitchen run by the Sisters of Charity.

I met three other AWA (American Women’s’ Association) members at Hong Kong station at 8.30am and we caught the MTR to Nam Cheong. We had to cross a busy intersection diagonally (v.scary) before arriving at a rough-looking housing estate. It was a long way, if not geographically, from the bright and shiny Gotham City Hong Kong we’re all used to. 

We walked past one or two people asleep on benches and a lot of washing draped over tiny balconies until we got to the tiny nun-run kitchen - a hive of industry even at that time in the morning. A red-faced cook on a stool was stirring a vast vat on the stove and others were busying about with plastic bags full of vegetables I didn’t recognise.

We were handed some delightful gingham aprons and told to chop two bin bags full of the mystery chive-y/onion specimen – I'm gonna call it a ‘chunion’

We were all soon happily engaged in chopping and chatting but I was a little shame-faced when told by the boss nun that I hadn’t chopped the ‘chunion’ properly and had to do it again. A traveller guy sat outside chopping a volcano of chilies. The Sisters depend on people like this to help out, even as a one-off.

At 10.30am we walked over to the ‘dining area’ a sort of caged room lined with tables and chairs. The dinner ladies – members of the Korean Church (dressed to the nines for some reason!) – stood ladles in hand, waiting to serve the food to the men gathering outside.

From what I could understand, those who are allowed in to sit down and eat have been somewhere first to procure a ‘yellow ticket’. Without this ticket, the men have to wait outside for leftovers. It’s a bit disconcerting to watch hungry men, presumably down on their luck, stare in through the bars, ever hopeful.

At last prayers were said and what I thought would be a bun fight - ensued. Except it wasn’t a bun fight; it was a very civilised affair. I have volunteered in Mumbai where I’ve had people practically mow me down to get their hands on a samosa, but this was different. The men all sat waiting patiently while we served them. The Korean Church ladies dolloped rice, some sort of brassica and a meat/egg combo onto the tray and we took them to the tables –just like proper waitresses. One or two of the guys said ‘thanks’ but mostly, nobody caught anybody’s eye as the business of chowing down got underway. Some of these men were dressed in rags, some in suits and two or three in past season Liverpool strips (my favourite was a tee shirt reading "Who the FUCK are Manchester Utd?" - the nuns didn't bat an eyelid) but they all had one thing in common – hunger

Some of the guys came up for seconds and even thirds while those outside shuffled uncomfortably. One or two of the ‘yellow-ticket’ guys even brought Tupperware boxes so they could take away some of the grub for later (more anxious shuffling outside). Finally, one of the sisters turned up with some takeaway boxes and cups for the soup and an orderly line was formed at the door. Every one of them received soup, the main meal and a cake. Nobody went hungry I am very pleased to say because for a minute there I was getting a bit worried. Miraculously they had exactly the right amount of food. The soup kitchen runs every day of the week and these men depend on it for survival. Imagine living in Hong Kong – or anywhere - with little or no money. Thank God there are people like these Sisters in the world.

When the work was over (I was quite relieved they didn’t ask us to do the washing up ‘cos I’d just had my nails done) we went back to the city for a coffee - which probably cost more than the ton of ‘chunions’ we’d just chopped. There but for the grace of God, eh?




Wednesday, 13 May 2015

On the Buses


If someone had told me a year ago that my main mode of transport for 2015 would be ‘the bus’, I’d have thought they were a deck short of a double decker. Me? On the bus? I’m scared of buses; I don’t even know how to catch one. Buses are way too complicated; how do you know which one to get? Where is it going? When will it come? So many unknowns and anyway, I drive a car so why on earth would I ever need to catch a bus?

Reader, what was I thinking? Six months after arriving in Hong Kong, I can’t get enough of buses. I’m a massive bus fan. I flippin’ love ‘em, especially the 75 (Sham Wan to Central via Causeway Bay and Admiralty) Every time it comes sailing down the hill I get a little rush of dopamine because I’m so happy to see it. The 75 takes me to all the best places in air-conditioned comfort. I am also partial to the 72a but I don’t care for the 71, which takes a circuitous route through Pokfulam and made me very late for an AWA early morning cycle once. (Again ladies, apologies!)

I’ve come a long way since Day Two in Hong Kong when I accidentally caught a bus to Hung Hom (107) instead of Aberdeen (48). My husband Mick pointed out the bus stop the day before and gave me explicit instructions on which bus to get.
But in the heat of the moment I panicked and got on the first bus that came along. I waited until I was absolutely confident that it was going the wrong way and then called Mick to accuse him of sending me on a mission I was not yet ready for: “It’s your fault” I cried, “I told you I didn’t know how to catch a bus!”

I know; it’s pathetic when I think about it now, but I was so traumatised by the Hung Hom incident that I didn’t go out for a week. Eventually, Mick gently coaxed me onto the 75 and suddenly, the scales fell from my eyes. The last time I rode the bus regularly was in the early 1980’s as a schoolgirl in a fug of cigarette smoke – this is a whole new bus experience. Spotlessly clean with air-conditioning, TV and even free Wi-Fi – what’s not to love?

OK, well actually there is something not to love. As Jane Austen might have said: It’s a truth universally acknowledged that there are sometimes nutters on the bus. It’s the same in every country in the world; the general rule is: Avoid the back seat upstairs at all costs.

I have made the mistake of sitting on the back seat twice, both times next to different nutters; one watching a cockfight on his phone at full volume and the other enjoying as spot of porn, occasionally looking up to photograph the girl sleeping opposite. Creepy.

Other than this, I cannot sing the praises of the Hong Kong buses highly enough. Oh well, perhaps I do have one more tiny criticism: You have to hold on VERY TIGHT if you are going up or down the stairs while the bus is moving. I am surprised there aren’t more loss-of-momentum related accidents. Other than the nutters and the HANGING-ON-FOR-DEAR-LIFE stair moments, I love, love, love the HK buses. And now I have discovered the ‘Easy Rider’ app, there’s no stopping me. See a bus coming, punch in the number and see exactly where it’s going. It’s the future! I’ll never get lost again. Only another 16 years until I’m entitled to the senior citizens’ Octopus card. Can’t wait!













Thursday, 22 May 2014

Baby, You're a Rich Man


When my daughter was about nine, she came out of the bathroom asking why her friend’s dad was in the newspaper next to David Bowie. She had been perusing The Sunday Times Rich List, which I had chucked on the floor in a jealous rage when I got out of the bath.

The friend’s dad is a financier with a few million quid more than Bowie and a few less than Jagger. I explained that he was in the paper because he was one of the richest men in the world but she wasn’t very impressed. 

“Really?” she said,  “he’s never even heard of TK Maxx” 

She’d been round for a sleepover and the dad said he liked her pajamas which she said came from TK Maxx and he said he’d never heard of TK Maxx and she said I can’t believe you’ve never heard of TK Maxx and was so surprised that it was the first thing she told me when she came home in the morning. 

She didn’t tell me a thing about the mansion, which the family had recently moved into after trouncing Roman Abramovich and Robbie Williams in a bidding war. It meant nothing to a nine year old. When I asked what the house was like she said it was ‘quite big.’ 

At what stage does money become a thing? And why should it bother me how much other people have? 

According to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List, Britain’s richest people are wealthier than ever before with a combined fortune of 520 billion pounds. That’s a 15 per cent jump on the total wealth of the richest 1,000 individuals, couples or families in just one year.

So, it comes as no surprise, the rich are getting richer. I hear on the news today that even the IMF and the World Bank are getting increasingly nervous about the levels of inequality in our society.

Tycoons the Hinduja brothers topped the list with a combined worth of 11.9 billion pounds. I don’t know how much Mukesh Ambani’s got but that’s probably walking around money for him. I bet he’s never heard of TK Maxx either, or a good architect for that matter.

And now India has Narendra Modi, great news for the economy, not so great for human development. 

You could say that many of the super rich are at the heart of the economy and their success brings more jobs and more wealth to the country but does it really filter down to the common man or is the common man exploited to bring even more wealth to the individuals at the top?

I’m going to go off at a bit of a tangent here but when Samir drove me to the airport yesterday he pointed to the flyover and said it was funny that the people who had actually done all the backbreaking work, would probably never ever get to use it. They would probably never ever enter the airport building or catch a plane. Samir and I interviewed some itinerant workers when I was working on a project last year. Most of them came from villages in UP and MP, they came to work and earn money for their families back home. They had no concept or awareness that they were helping to build a mega city, the projects they were working on meant nothing to them. They just needed to earn the money to send to their families so that they could survive. Some of them had come to Mumbai at the age of 13 or 14, they stay in labour camps where they have to cook for themselves and average about five hours sleep a night. The rest of the time they are working. Up at 4 am to cook a bit of dhal before heading off to work again.  They have nothing to look forward to but the twice yearly trip home, they all miss their mothers, wives and children, and for this they get paid between 3,000 and 4,000 rupees a month (about 40 quid). It’s bloody shameful actually and I felt like crying when we were talking to them. I asked one of them if he ever got to the cinema on his day off and he looked at me like I was mad. There is no money for leisure, all the money is sent home. Compared to these people I am rich beyond belief.





On the day of the election results I was having a fabulous day in Colaba with my old mucker Bombay Jules, celebrating her birthday in style. We stayed at the Taj Palace, dined at the Table and shopped ourselves stupid. We even went for a ride in a horse-drawn tourist carriage. I loved every minute; it was a day to remember, especially as she is leaving Mumbai, our last hurrah. Of course, I chronicled the day in a volley of Facebook updates: Here’s me at the Taj, here’s me stuffing my face, here’s me shopping till I drop, here’s me quaffing Champers on a dry day. A comment appeared on one of my posts from an activist friend in the UK who (half?) jokingly accused me of (effectively) fiddling while Rome burned. She is right to prick my conscience like that but it didn’t stop me from enjoying myself. I am afraid it’s getting easier and easier to turn off. After a while, one gets used to the poverty.

I went to Amritsar a couple of weeks ago and was deeply moved by the sight and atmosphere of the Golden Temple. The people there were calm, happy and almost otherworldly, they seemed to light up from within. Their devotion and contentment was tangible. It was a beautiful thing but there, lurking at the back of my mind was the thought: “I wonder if there’s a Guru Nanak knick knack shop ‘cos I want to buy a fridge magnet.” 

Compared to these people, I’m a pauper.