The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish

and other books in the the Tinfish series

Blogs

Choli

 

I’m taking this opportunity to provide a simple four-step guide of ‘how to export a cat from Northern Ugandan’, as it’s a skill I feel everyone should have.

 

The first step is to get a cat. I adopted a very small, abandoned Kitten called Choli. The chances of unaided survival for this eccentric little character were slim, as he refused to eat anything but roast chicken. This, I add, wasn’t due to spoiling him. We were in a part of the world where access to roast chicken was about as common as people who keep cats as pets.

The second step to export a Ugandan cat is to get him vaccinated for rabies, and micro-chipped by a recognised vet. You then send a blood sample from your cat to a laboratory in the EU for approval. There are no cat-vets in Northern Uganda. (Normally if your cat is ill, you just get a different cat). Jill, my partner, is a health professional, and so administered the first rabies shot. Having received our microchip and scanner from the UK (!) we then took Choli on a three-hour bumpy drive to the nearest vet. The vet had never treated a cat before, and didn’t know what a microchip was.

Following extensive explanations to the vet, Jill also micro-chipped the cat. The vet achieved the blood sample via a lengthy process in involving a razor, a test tube, and four of us to hold the cat down – a cat who could not be persuaded that this would be eventually for his own good. The sample was sent with a friend to Kampala to be air-freighted. We made our return journey, accompanied by a very miserable cat with shaved wrists and looking like it had been attempting to commit suicide. (The time we had to take him into the local hospital to plaster the leg he had broken falling off a step, is of course a whole other story).

 

Step three. Once there is EU approval, you simply take your cat to British Airways Cargo in Kampala to have its cage approved. You then use the export agent, that you’re obliged to hire, to organise the required mountain of paperwork, which includes a signature from the head of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Step four is to send your cat to a foster family in France to get its EU citizenship (and bypass quarantine). Between connecting flights at Heathrow Choli had access to a specialist chef who cooked him roasted chicken. (Something to think about next time you’re travelling cattle-class). Choli then lived with Patrick in Toulouse for six months, before taking the ferry to England so that he could his exert his eccentricities on my family, where he is now very much loved.

 

Since this incredible journey took place, Mr. Choli has become a main character of the Mr. Tinfish series of humorous children’s books. His capacity for adventuring, self preservation, and belief in his own superiority makes him a very loveable and quirky feature of the stories.

Expeditions

 

A few years back in Cambodia I made an assessment in a remote part of the North-East with the help of my translator and a surveyor. Not only were we to do this via an equally remote province to the north, but it was to be carried out in the rainy season, on mopeds.

 

The first day out in the bush involved fourteen hours of mopeding. We were either drenched in sweat from the heat, or soaked to the skin from downpours. Much of the time we were just covered in mud from dragging our bikes through swamps, or muddy ravines, or just falling off.

 

We eventually arrived in the cluster of villages and made our assessment over the following days. On completion, my two companions refused to return the same way, stating they’d rather wait there until the dry season. Democracy dictated that we would take a new route to the south.

 

The team set off early. There was only one road, along which the villagers drove buffalo and oxen. We spent six hours of slipping in the mud, falling, sinking, and recovering bikes from buffalo deposit-filled quagmires, to reach the last village 12 kilometres away. The next challenge was the deep forest. Progress improved, however, as the light faded, there was no sign of civilization. The mud track also deteriorated as it had rained. In the dark we tried to navigate the water-filled potholes. By 9.00pm the surveyor’s bike became too damaged to continue. The team were horrified that we would camp alone in the forest, with fears of robbers and wild animals. However, with no choice I set about tying our hammocks to some nearby trees.

 

I lay in my hammock, trying not to think about snakes, and watched as the stars gave way to the black shadows of encroaching clouds. And then the rains returned. Our synthetic hammocks, I soon discovered, were just the right design for catching and storing large amounts of water. I lay shivering and miserable for what seemed like hours.

 

By midnight the rain was less heavy, and through the muffled forest orchestra, movement could be heard from inside the camp. I turned on the torch to see my translator stomping around, muttering to himself. His hammock was now on the forest floor, and the small tree, to which I had tied it, was uprooted and bent over where he’d been sleeping. I don’t think I have never laughed so much. He re-attached it to a different tree, mumbling to himself throughout. Within ten minutes I could hear snoring from his new nest through the patter of the ever-persistent rain.

 

This is one of the experiences in my life that taught me that a good expedition is an excellent setting for an entertaining story and is something that I have draw upon in the series of books about Mr. Tinfish and his lighthouse. It has also taught me that a lot of care is required in selecting where you choose to tie up your hammock.

The line-up

 

When I was at University, a good way to make an extra ten quid was to volunteer to be part of a police identity parade. One of my housemates was forever returning from the student union with news of a line-up scheduled for later in the week.  He and I would regularly get picked for the same one, despite having different heights, different length hair, different eye colours, etc. The best you could say was that we were both about twenty-years old and male. This clearly didn’t deter the local constabulary in anyway, and helped to supplement our beer money into the bargain.

 

News arrived of a line-up, for which the stipulated requirement was facial hair. My flatmate had a bit of a goatee beard, I decided not to shave for two days, and so we arrived at the police station, confident of each picking up a tenner. The Sergeant looked unusually disappointed at the group of young men that had gathered before him. Clearly our features were vastly different to the suspect in police custody, even by their standards.

 

He took the two of us, plus one other guy, to a room towards the back of the police station. The sergeant explained that the suspect had been filmed on their security camera at the desk. There weren’t enough of us for a line-up, so instead the three of us would also be filmed approaching the desk in the same way, to see if the witness could pick out the right man. My flatmate went first. When it came to my turn the sergeant took a selection of false moustaches from a tray inside the draw of his desk, and began to carefully glue one of them to my chin, to help represent a goatee beard. My sniggering mate agreed afterwards that I didn’t so much look like a criminal with a goatee, as I did a student with a tash glued to his chin. Meanwhile, the frustrated sergeant found our sniggering rather trying if I recall.

 

According to Her Majesty’s constabulary, I learned that looking the part is everything, even if you don’t. This is certainly the case with the character of Mr. Choli in the ‘Tinfish’ series of children’s books that I have written. His solution to earning his reputation as head detective is to waft around a toy pipe and magnifying glass each time anything happens that requires investigation. It doesn’t make him any more knowledgeable or useful in the process. However, convincing the others that he looks the part is all that is needed to make sure that he’s given the detective job.

Apple Crumble

 

In Mr. Vinegar and the Frozen Sea, the third book from the Tinfish series, Mr. Ginger graduates from being a mere recipient of Mrs. Tinfish’s mackerel sandwiches to becoming the team’s head chef. This transformation is accompanied by his discovery of a cookery book containing elaborate recipes, for which he has limited understanding and none of the right ingredients. Needless to say, the results of his culinary endeavours have remained somewhat questionable.

 

In many ways, Mr. Ginger’s voyage of discovery into the world of cookery is similar to my own (apart from the mackerel sandwich bit, although I can be partial to one…). My cooking experience, up to the point that I left home for university, came from two directions. Firstly, from my pub-kitchen job on a Saturday night where, after considerable dedication to the washing-up, my responsibilities were elevated to doing the toast for the chicken-liver pate and rinsing the slugs out of the lettuce.

 

Meanwhile, at school I had been prepared for survival in the outside world with a curriculum based almost entirely on jars of stewed apple. At around the age of ten, the state education system deemed it appropriate for me to get about four one-hour lessons of home economics, after which we were moved on to the craft department to make strange-looking clay animals for the rest of the term. I was packed off to school with a plastic bag containing an oven dish and the ingredients for an apple crumble. The following week we attempted a stewed apple pastry thing, and I believe we also took on the ambitions of a stewed-apple pie before my education was declared complete. So, nothing in the skills department that actually enabled me to feed myself on a daily basis. Also, unless I was away sick on that day, I don’t recall any mention of economics within the home either.

 

Since leaving home on this thin grounding of apple crumble and de-slugged lettuce, it is perhaps no surprise that my current signature dish has not been plucked straight from the a’la carte menu. My most accomplished meal is in fact the humble spaghetti-omelette, a recipe which I picked up whilst I was working in West Cameroon. It’s one I think that Mr. Ginger would approve of, so long as a large helping of mackerel was thrown in there as well for good measure.

Nan!

 

I once hit my Nan over the head with a cricket bat. It was on a beach in Wales and I was about four years old. Nan was wicket keeper, and I wasn’t very good at cricket. To be fair, she wasn’t down for too long and I’m not sure that she actually lost consciousness. However, the accident did get me into quite a lot of trouble as I recall. The balance was soon to be redressed as she took me to the park that winter and let me play on the thin ice that covered the duck pond. A pond which fortunately, as it turned out, wasn’t as deep as it was cold. I think we both learned valuable lessons that year.

 

However, my ‘Nan story’ for this blog occurred a few years later. My mother was round at my Nan’s house for a cup of tea. There was a knock on the door. Nan got up and answered it, whilst my mum sat and listened to hear who was there. It turned out to be a middle-aged woman selling house insurance. Nan told the sales-woman that she didn’t need to buy any, and so the woman moved on to Mr. Cadby’s house, which was the next door along the terrace. My Nan spotted this, and, in an attempt to be helpful, leaned out of her doorway to give advice.  “Oooh, he’s not in today. ……………He’s dead!” she volunteered confidently in the direction of the sales-woman, with the implication that Mr. Cadby might very well be in at a later date, should she decide to call back.  

The woman responded in an equally Monty Python-esk manner: “Oooh, that I’ll explain it then, dear,” and then carried on happily towards the next house. Nan returned to her cup of tea, and Mum was in fits of giggles.  

The message here is to think about what you’re about to say, and then communicate it clearly. This is something the character Mr. Choli could do with learning in the Tinfish Series of children books that I’ve written. He is regularly required to send messages back to Mr. Vinegar to relay the state of progress for his expedition. Invariably, however, the message is not understood or misinterpreted, leading to vast amounts of confusion all round.

Why I Write

 

I discovered my passion for creative writing whilst living in a small village in Cameroon. It was my first oversees posting and I was a lone volunteer managing the construction of a water supply project.

 

The village was remote. There was no TV, telephone, or electricity. We did, however, boast a village chief who was the most powerful of all the witches in the region, and the villagers lived in fear of his dark magic. He was an incredibly old man, short and crooked looking. He wore a shirt and sarong. His huge pair of thick, black-rimmed spectacles looked like they’d been placed on his face with no particular attention being paid to where exactly his eyes were.

 

During my first week, the villagers were invited to the chief’s compound for a small feast. After the food we all formed a large circle and the elders began the ceremonial rituals. It started with the oldest man of the village calling on the ancestors to join us. After a lot of elaborate shouting from him, and the odd grunt from the rest of us, he threw some pieces of cola-bean on the ground. They landed the right way up showing that the ancestors were with us.

 

It was explained to me that the chief was to ask the ancestors for forgiveness. Some days earlier he had been walking through the village to his house. Probably due to the indiscriminate positioning of his spectacles, combined with some enthusiastic imbibing, he totally missed his house. Instead he ended up splashing around in the stream at the bottom of the hill. The cold water must have heightened his senses as he turned around and headed back. Again he absent-mindedly meandered straight passed his hut and slowly back toward the neighbouring town. When the search party found him later that evening he was in a different stream on the other side of the hill. Following this experience he concluded that the ancestors were annoyed with him, so decided a major ceremony was required.

 

This was just the first week! Consequently, for the first time in my life, I had a lot to write about, and began to really enjoy sending letters home about my adventures. I then decided to write a short story about the pop band that I had played in at college. I wrote it on scraps of paper, and found myself cutting out paragraphs from different pages and sticking them at the sides of others with duct-tape. The resulting collage of scribbling needed instructions to negotiate. After discovering the pleasures of this creative process I went on to write longer stories about my adventures in Cameroon and the subsequent places I’ve worked. A lot of my travels have since influenced the characters and adventures that I write about in ‘The lighthouse of Mr. Tinfish’ as well as the rest of the Mr. Tinfish Series.

Snake stories

 

For most places I’ve travelled, people seem to have ‘snake stories’. Australia is a prime candidate for this. Mention to somebody that you once saw such a reptile, and you’ll soon be ‘out-snaked’ with accounts of then waking up with a snake in the bed, finding a nest of giant snakes in the kitchen, or snakes coming out of the dashboard while they were driving. I actually tried hypnotherapy before I left England, so great was my phobia of snakes. It didn’t help.

 

I encountered my first kitchen-snake in Cambodia. It was about two metres long, and grey with a dirty yellow belly. When I had discovered it lurking behind a gas bottle I bravely invited the office guard to deal with it. His reaction was the inevitable expression of contempt that showed he knew that I was too pathetic to remove it myself. He then took one look at the beast and went to fetch the bloke next door, who was doing an extension on his garage, to come and get it. While all of this was going on the cook was rushing about maniacally, closing my office door to protect me, and then opening it again in case I was missing all of the excitement.

 

The majority of my snake encounters have been in Cameroon. The first inkling I had that I was in trouble was when one of my technicians saw a large length of black pipe under a bush from the corner of his eye, and jumped out of the way thinking it was a snake. This I took as an indication of the size of snake I could expect. A month or so later I pointed out a Green Mamba that was climbing a tree in the village, near to where I was staying. “Ah, you’re starting to see them now,” being the concerning remark of the villager I was with, implying I’d had many close snake encounters without even realising it.

 

However, it was while I was standing on a fallen tree truck which was bridging a large stream that I saw the biggest snake. I was on my own, finishing the ties for a stream crossing on our water supply pipeline when I looked down and saw the back end of an enormous black snake swimming into a hole in the river bank. Holding on to the pipe, I edged my way along the tree trunk to the opposite bank. I then bravely decided I’d probably go and work on something else for the rest of the morning, and finish the crossing later.

 

So those are a few off my snake stories. As I do have a snake phobia I am very happy to be ‘out-snaked’, content in the knowledge that I was in a lesser peril.

 

When writing the Tinfish series of children books I’ve been very careful to avoid any characters that are snakes. From the outset I decided that they would be very positive books. The plots cause the characters to overcome challenges, but all of the characters are essentially good and well-meaning. A Tinfish book should be a fun experience which is phobia and nightmare free (unless of course you have a phobia of penguins, for example, in which case it’s not the book for you).