Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and phone sex with the head of the Sudanese rebels

Reporting from a barracks in southern sudan in a pair of hot pants (2)

November 1996

The trip to Sudan to cover the civil war, began, as it continued, with a mishap or two. I had set off from Heathrow airport with a massive quantity of equipment including a Morse code machine. I’d been kitted out with a child’s size flak jacket (in case I got shot) but, of course, being blasé about my survival, I never put it on.

I arrived at the airport in Frankfurt to catch the flight to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and became unfortunately distracted by the perfume in duty free. Missing the announcement for the flight to Khartoum (how on earth can they expect anyone to understand German just because they’re in Germany) I realised, with 5 minutes to spare, that the flight was going to leave. Sprinting through Frankfurt airport with the contents of an electronics shop was not an easy feat. Particularly as the airline staff from Lufthansa kept shouting at me. Time had never been my strong point and I thought they were being unreasonable in insisting that a 10am flight should leave at 9.53. Of course just when you’re in a hurry, a massive fuck up arrives, and before I could get on the plane, the German security officials decided my satellite phone was a bomb. “It’s not a bomb!” I said, “I work for the BBC. Look at all this equipment. If I was a terrorist, I’d keep it more low key.” After showing my staff card I was eventually allowed on the plane. But with the memory of the shouting still fresh, I swore I would never travel on an airline as punctual as Lufthansa again.

The suspicion about my equipment continued when I arrived in Sudan but, eventually, I got through and settled into my hotel. Not speaking any Arabic apart from: “English… you… speak… yes?” would be a slight problem I knew. I therefore hired a translator to make sense of the newspapers for me. I was very prolific filing for the BBC, sending reports on everything from movements in the war to who’d won first prize at the Khartoum zebra show.

Sudan was supposed to be one of the strictest Islamic states in the world, with stoning still a punishment for adultery, and I had to be covered up with long sleeves and trousers everywhere I went. But it wasn’t nearly as controlled as Saudi Arabia or Iran and you didn’t have to cover your hair. In fact there were a lot of women in government jobs in Sudan, mixing freely in the offices with men, although I’m sure they all toed the line and did all cover their hair. I was amused to see the official “toilets” in Sudanese government buildings were in fact a hole in the earth. And in common with the offices, the holes were unisex.

Everyone in the government departments in Khartoum kept asking me if I was Lebanese. I do look vaguely Arab, Mediterranean, Brazilian, Cuban generally “exotic” because of my Jamaican heritage. When I later phoned all the government departments from London, they kept saying to me, “Oh yes, you’re that Lebanese girl.” I kept trying to say I had nothing to do with Lebanon, but eventually gave up and said, “Yes I’m from Beirut.” I met the BBC’s freelance reporter in Sudan, a giant man called Joseph. He told me he had been very thin when living in the South of Sudan but had got fat in Khartoum. Thinness was a problem in Southern Sudan; there had been a famine going on there for years. But there was no shortage of food in Khartoum, quite a few people looked like they’d been kicked out of Weight Watchers. I finished doing all my interviews in Khartoum, including a feature on a failed attempt by Jack Daniels to set up a mega store there, and then had to get on with the real part of trip, covering the war in Southern Sudan.

The latest outbreak of the civil war in Sudan had been triggered by the Islamic government in Khartoum cancelling an autonomy agreement for the south and saying it was imposing sharia law on the south. In the north of Sudan the inhabitants were mainly Muslim and had a lot of Arab blood. In the south they were black Africans, practising traditional African religions or Christianity. 2.5 million people were killed in the civil war in Sudan, and four million lost their homes. It was to become Africa’s longest running civil war. I was covering a story about how the government was using food as a weapon of war against the people in the south, ie starving them out. And on the divisions between the southern rebel movements who had more splinter groups than a carpentry shop. Many of the rebel groups wanted independence for the south. But the government didn’t want to give it as most of Sudan’s oil reserves are in the south. You couldn’t fly from North to South Sudan because of the war. You had to go from Khartoum to Kenya and from there to Southern Sudan. All the NGOs and media organisations had their offices in the Kenyan capital Nairobi, which was a cool, pleasant, town full of foreigners. I say pleasant, apart from the minor inconvenience that the foreigners had to have armed guards on their homes.

I was on a quest to track down the elusive leader of the main rebel group in Southern Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army or SPLA. The SPLA had an office in Nairobi, (well it was more of a shed), which I went to to make contact. They said I could interview their leader, John Garang, if I took a flight to the south of Sudan then crossed over the border into northern Uganda. This was suicidally dangerous, the border was heavily mined and the north of Uganda was controlled by a loopy rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, “Christian” fundamentalists, who thought that if they rubbed themselves with special ointments they couldn’t get shot. They would have got on well with my uncle I thought. Nonetheless I was so desperate to meet John Garang I agreed to go to Northern Uganda, and was about to jump on the flight. As I’d only just emerged from 13 years of clinical depression, in which I’d wanted to kill myself, I had little regard for my life and no sense of danger at all. Of course I didn’t tell the BBC of my plan, knowing they would ban the trip. Luckily the flight was cancelled, or I would probably have been killed or ended up as a sex slave to a commander in the Lord’s Resistance Army with 25 kids.

Instead I took a UN plane distributing corn into Southern Sudan. Flying low overhead, I could see it was barely like a country at all. Flat and marshy without any roads, towns or electricity it looked like something out of the Stone Age. I arrived at a barracks on the border with Ethiopia that was being held by the SSIM, the South Sudan Independence Movement, a rebel group that had split off from the SPLA and was allied with the government in Khartoum. Several factions had split off from the SPLA, often along ethnic lines, but the new groups were like a virus, splitting off and multiplying again. Thus there was the SPLA, the South Sudan Liberation Movement, the SSIM, the South Sudan Layabouts’ Organisation and the South Sudan Cattle Rustlers’ Group. As a result of the infighting between these groups, more southerners died at each other’s hands than were killed by northerners during the war.

In the barracks on the Ethiopian border I was sleeping in a deluxe mud hut. I say deluxe as there were no holes in the roof. You did have to dodge the multiple snakes when you went to the loo at night. It was only after a day of being at the barracks that I realised a calamity had befallen me: I had left half of my equipment on the UN plane which had gone back to Nairobi. How could you not notice that you had left the equipment behind, you say. You try travelling with the contents of the average Curry’s and see if you don’t get confused. I’m sure this experience and the terrible loss of my tape recorder in Buenos Aires has contributed to the OCD that means I now check behind me forensically wherever I go. I phoned the UN in a panic. They said there was no way the equipment would still be in Nairobi airport, as it was a den of thieves. But this time I was lucky (or protected) and the stuff was all still there. Keen for my story about the government starving the south to come out, the UN sent a plane to ferry my missing equipment into Southern Sudan. Luckily, in those days, I wasn’t worrying about my carbon footprint.

Perhaps unsurprisingly in a barracks, I was heavily outnumbered by thousands of male soldiers, with only one female aid worker for company. Despite the heavy male presence, I decided that, as it was hot, I would throw off my clothes and put on a pair of tiny shorts. It was boiling, I reasoned, bored by covering up in Khartoum, surely it was the time to dress as if I was on a beach. I’m not quite sure what kind of beach is populated by two thousand men with guns, possibly Sicily when the mafia are there on holiday.

Every morning the rebel soldiers would get up at 5am and parade around with their weapons singing acapella. They had wonderful voices, the soldiers, and could have formed a choir. That was the only thing – X Factor voices – that the rebel groups had in common. Although the barracks was stone age, the weaponry was high tech, machine guns and what looked like rocket launchers or anti-aircraft guns. Despite all the heavy weaponry, I loved it in Southern Sudan and decided that when I got married, I would go there for my honeymoon. Of course the mud huts in Sudan were not quite like the mud huts on safari in South Africa. There were no six course meals, no fine wine, in fact, no wildlife at all as it had all been eaten by the starving inhabitants.

I’m not sure what gigantic gene is present in Southern Sudan, but all the men were almost seven foot and the women over six feet. At five foot two they thought I was a child. “Why have your parents let you leave school and come here?” they kept saying to me. “Have you done your O levels yet?” I kept saying I was an adult but they just smiled and patted me on the head.

One night I set out across the bush with some SSIM soldiers, I didn’t know where we were going. I heard a tribal drumming that sounds suspiciously like human sacrifice. When we got to a tiny mud hut, with a collapsing grass roof, there were a load of children banging drums and singing tunelessly. “What are they doing?” I said. “This is the Church of the Holy Redeemer, Aloysius 25th, they’re singing Christmas Carols.” said the SSIM. I looked around the mud hut and did spot a tiny cross. And the place was in keeping with the original Christian spirit, derelict enough for the virgin birth. A minority of the southern Sudanese were Christian, though probably in a similar way as the Santeria Cubans were Christian, most had traditional animist beliefs.

After my trip to the SSIM, who were courting publicity and on their best behaviour, which was probably why I didn’t get raped, I went on to a barracks controlled by the SPLA. There it was completely different, no friendly soldiers at all. I was sleeping in a tent and accused of being a spy. It shows how little regard I had for my life that being stuck in the bush in Sudan with a paranoid rebel group did not worry me at all. I realised later that they were edgy as they were about to launch a major military offensive.

Despite my cool reception, I became obsessed with John Garang, the head of the SPLA, thinking that I could meet him and live happily ever after in a hut in South Sudan. The fact that I had never even seen his photograph, (he doesn’t, as I imagined, look at all like Will Smith), didn’t dent my enthusiasm at all. I was destined, I thought, to be a guerrilla bride. But my efforts to contact him were fruitless, I couldn’t get hold of him at all.

I headed back to Nairobi, my Afro hair turned into a massive bush. They didn’t have any hairdryers where I was staying in Southern Sudan. I was due to come back to the UK on Christmas Day and go straight in to work. After a long, hard, trip I had a piece of good news. Reuters wanted me to carry some footage back to the UK and were prepared to pay for me to have an upgrade to first class. I arrived at the first class check-in wild and dishevelled, very like my uncle after a bad day. “I think you must be in the wrong queue madam,” the officials said. I was surprised they didn’t ask if I was cleaning the plane. “No,” I said, waving my first class ticket, “I’m in the right line.” They checked the ticket and almost fell over in disbelief.

When I got back to my flat, Tarquin had decked the place out with Christmas decorations and dozens of helium balloons. He was so proud of me, he said, when he’d heard me on the radio he’d pulled over the car and cried. He took me to the Connaught for our Christmas lunch which was lovely (although I was surprised that they let me in with my hair looking like I’d survived a dangerous encounter with an electricity pylon.)

Shortly after I came home, my dream came true. John Garang phoned me at home from the Sudanese bush on his satellite phone. I couldn’t believe I was actually speaking to him. Although the conversation was strictly business, this was obviously code for saying he wanted me. It was the best phone sex I had ever had. I say that as I had, obviously, never had phone sex. And the fantasy about living happily ever after with him went into the stratosphere. We would have a giant mud hut, with an en-suite mud loo, a couple of kids, and drive around in a tank.

Of course I didn’t tell Tarquin about my feelings for John Garang. But all was not bright on the horizon for Tarquin and me. And what happened next would precipitate a rapid deterioration in my life.

Next Saturday: breaking up with Mr Right, hooking up with Mr Wrong and getting down with the Mime Minister, Tony Funfair, at BBC News 24.

Meeting Mr Right (or am I just high as a kite?) and turning down Grade A cocaine in Cocaine Utopia

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I met Tarquin through some (very posh) friends in the summer of 1996. Within two hours of us dating, he was coming up with our children’s names. He would stare at me, open mouthed, for days on end saying I was “amazing” and he’d “never met a girl like me.” My feelings for him were less certain. I fancied him when I was on ecstasy, which he would happily supply, a female Viagra that brought out the bunny in me. But I wasn’t that discriminating, I would fancy every man in the room. And when I wasn’t high, the feelings for him seemed to vanish down the loo like (so many) of my unwanted meals. But he adored me, had money, was good looking and intelligent. Surely I must fancy him I thought?

We got into hardcore clubbing, going out on Friday and Saturday night, off our heads on ecstasy. I would spend the whole weekend just dancing and drinking water and maybe eat a crisp. As someone who’s had a lifelong eating disorder, a drug that made me exercise compulsively and not eat for three days was like winning the lottery. I often had to be at work at weekends. So I would come straight in from a club, take off my bra top and feathers and glitter tattoos and change into a suit. This was fine on ecstasy, as the quantities of water I was downing were purifying in a way. But when I tried it on cocaine, it was a disaster and I couldn’t write a line. Tarquin had introduced me to coke and every time we went to a party we would immediately seek it out. If it wasn’t there we announced the party was “boring” and would leave in a huff. I had given up smoking cigarettes at the age of 25, because I didn’t want to get wrinkles. The substitution of cigarettes for cocaine seemed a healthy alternative to me.

But there was disaster between us when I was off my head on coke. I would want to break up with Tarquin and didn’t fancy him at all. I was too naïve and inexperienced to realise that I just didn’t fancy him. I soldiered on, already emotionally dependent on him, and enjoying the attention from someone who wasn’t a freak of nature or a misogynist. My lodger had left as Tarquin and I were constantly canoodling in the sitting room. He said he would be my new lodger and moved into my house. He’d just bought a maisonette in Notting Hill and was doing it up. Still innocent as a child, I didn’t think that having my boyfriend as my lodger wouldn’t work at all. He didn’t pay any rent and brought two dangerously furry cats, which caused my cleaner to resign.

When he moved in, my mental health immediately hit the skids. After spending two thousand pounds on a new double bed, I said I couldn’t share a room with him. So he was exiled to the back bedroom with the cats. They all had a lovely view of a power station. I completely stopped sleeping and when he phoned me at work (25 times a day) I begged him to leave, saying I was falling apart. He said that if I threw him out, the relationship was off. I couldn’t bear to let him go. This, at 26, was the first proper relationship I’d ever been in. So instead of calling his bluff, I shot down to a private doctor looking for something “that would put an elephant to sleep.” He gave me Surmontil and Rohypnol, the date rape drug, which said clearly on the packet you weren’t to mix it with alcohol. Still I was doing so much ecstasy I was barely drinking at all but I was so dosed up on tranquillers I felt like I was in a coma until lunchtime every day.

I had developed an emotional dependence on Tarquin and something very odd had happened. While actually 26, I had regressed to a two year old. We would call each other “possum” and “pigling” and sit around talking to each other in infant squeaks. Tarquin did mention he felt like a paedophile. I’m not quite sure what happened when I was two, perhaps it was my beloved grandmother, Doll, leaving our house. She had to look after my uncle who was having animated conversations with invisible people in his chimney stack. Either that or the fact that I’d almost died of an epileptic fit. But some kind of trauma had stunted my emotional growth. If my grandmother had stayed, my life would have been entirely different. She was loving and kind and not like my mother at all. By the time I was eight I counted eleven nannies that I could remember. Some of them left or were fired because my father got too close to them. A volcanic eruption came from my mother when I said, completely innocently, “isn’t it funny how Daddy’s always kissing Sally and pinching her bum.” I had no idea what I’d done.

From the age of three or five I’d retreated into an elaborate fantasy world with the toys. There were seventy toys and they all had their own voices and personalities. I would sit around for hours every day, bringing the toys to life, creating complex Elephant v Snoopy sibling rivalries. We had schools, hospitals, swimming pools, (requisitioning my parents’ bath), even our own Christmas Day. Although the nannies were around, after multiple departures, I knew not to get involved. My father was often in the house, as he’d inherited a lot of money and didn’t have to work. A gentleman barrister, he would pop into work at 12 and take a 3 hour lunch break at 1 o clock. I adored my father, who would take me to school every day, as he said I was “creative” and didn’t have to tidy up my room.   But he was so interested in chasing women his mind was elsewhere. My mother was out of the house six days a week, working as a diplomat, a skill she unfortunately never used on me. She would return, very unwelcome, to discipline and criticize me, saying I was “useless,” although I was top of the class. Everyone around me was unreliable or unavailable. So I took refuge in the toys.

Then something happened. Even though I was only three or four stone, I started locking myself in my room screaming that I was fat. Running up and down on the spot and weighing myself obsessively 5 times a day. Anorexia at the age of seven was an anomaly in 1977 and my family blamed my mother who was overweight and kept crash dieting. It was partly her fault. At the age of six, I had woken up shocked from a dream about putting spiders on my mother’s grave. I resented her not being around and then trying to discipline me.  I didn’t want to be like her at all. For a while, it just went away. But when I was at boarding school at the age of 10, the child psychologist said I’d develop anorexia again. My friend Susanna and I had already started having competitions as to who could eat less (I was the winner of course).

I took refuge with the toys again during my parents’ divorce, during which the toys also went to their own boarding schools. We were a massive extended loving family, completely unlike my own. When I was 12 or 13 my parents were behaving in such an abusive way, that I wanted to kill myself. I said to myself out loud at school, “I won’t let these people ruin my life. I’m going to do very well at school, get into the best university and get a very good job.”

After a rocky start at Roedean, I had come top of the class, despite being so depressed all wanted to do was sleep. My father said this was “boring” and was equally dismissive when I got into Oxford at 16. My mother still said I was useless and “a selfish bitch” nothing was going to change that.

The happiest memory of my entire childhood was a time I was totally alone. It was a Christmas Day I’d had with the toys, a week or two before Christmas, in 1984. The night before our Christmas Day the Christmas tree was lit up in my room for the entire night, and the least favoured toys had come down for the first sitting of Christmas Day. As I had an entire tribe of toys, there was a group of favourite toys, who talked a lot more than the rest and had extensive designer wardrobes. But this time they had to wait. Although there were so many, every toy got a present, a full stocking and a luscious Christmas meal. It had taken me weeks to prepare and the whole thing was magical.

Back in 1996, I was clubbing every weekend, taking ecstasy and cocaine, flying around the world on expensive holidays. But inside the house, I clamped myself to my boyfriend like a two year old and was getting younger and younger every day. Soon, Tarquin said, I would be an embryo. But I was getting more and more into cocaine which I thought of as glamorous, celebrity dust. So different from my childish self at 18 who’d been presented with cocaine cornucopia and hadn’t touched it at all.

BOLIVIA 1988.

I headed to Bolivia in the summer of 1988 to work as a volunteer for Save the Children, in a village called Inquisivi. In English, Dozy Llama. It was 6,000 metres above sea level on the Bolivian Altiplano. Luckily I had the constitution of a giant yak and didn’t suffer from altitude sickness at all. I also dodged an epidemic of cholera despite being the only foreigner to drink the local water. I’d had to raise the money for the trip myself as my parents had not agreed it to fund it, saying it was dangerous. I’d worked as a receptionist and dogsbody in a company owned by my mother’s friend. I was incapable of answering the phones or getting anyone’s sandwich order right. I mixed up all the filing so half the records got lost. “So you’re going to Oxford?” they kept saying to me in disbelief. “Umm,” I said not wanting to say I was clever but clueless at practical things. Before I left my parents had taken me to a psychiatrist. I was obsessed with extending my legs and was going completely nuts. Alas the relationship with the shrink didn’t last for long. He told my parents it was their fault that I was unhinged. So they boycotted him. But before I left for Bolivia, I had asked him whether he thought I would be alright. “You’ll be 7,000 miles away from your parents,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll be absolutely fine.”

I had brought a massive suitcase full of books to Bolivia, which was not entirely useful as I was working in the day and the village had no electricity. I say “work” though the job was sporadic and the woman in charge of the project had a close relationship with Campari and it was often closed. I was teaching Spanish in the school to Quechua speaking children, and working as a translator and interpreter. At night I was dodging tarantulas that kept trying to parachute onto my head from the ancient cistern of the loo. There was only one toilet in the village, everyone would go outdoors. But this was easy for the Bolivian women as they had massive skirts and petticoats that acted like a mobile toilet cubicle. The Bolivians were childlike and innocent, they would stare at you in the street. The village was idyllic, you could climb to the top of the mountains and see a puma or a jaguar. I was happier than I had ever been, for the first time in my life on a spiritual high, at one with nature and whoever created it. This ecstasy was probably connected to the fact that the only contact I had with my parents was via messages on a carrier pigeon that took 6 months to arrive.

But there is always a snake in paradise. And I got into trouble at a party when a man, (whose children I’d been playing with all day), asked me if I wanted to go to the other side of the square to have a drink in a bar. When I got there, the bar was closed and he dragged me into a church. He was a farmer and massively strong. I was struggling but I couldn’t escape. I knew enough by then not to say I was a virgin as it would have egged him on. But I begged god that violent rape should not be my first experience of sex. It says something about the dangers of travelling as a naïve teenager that two out of three of the times I’d come close to sex by the age of 18 were rape. A country woman came in and interrupted him in his quest. I called him a bastard and ran away. He continued to harass me and I had to leave.

I went travelling around Peru, and Bolivia getting close to the border with Brazil. In Bolivia, you could leave large quantities of money lying around on your bed. In Peru it was edgy, the terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, was rife and everyone kept hassling you for money from three years old and up. I joined a demonstration in Cusco but left because I was carrying a ruck sack and saw everyone was travelling light, ready to run from the police.

While I was by the border with Brazil, I was just about to get on a flight back to the Bolivian capital La Paz when two very good looking men on motorbikes asked if I wanted some cocaine. I had heard of cocaine though never seen it of course. Without a thought about the opportunities for Grade A cocaine I was passing up, (and clueless about how you take cocaine)I said I wasn’t interested in eating that kind of snack and had a flight to catch. “You won’t be catching a flight after this,” they said, “you’ll be in paradise for days.” Thinking that this paradise would probably involve me being blotto in a bush with no trousers on, I politely declined. On my way back to the UK, the plane lost a wing in Colombia and we had to dis-embark. My finances had forced me to take a flight on bargain basement Airline, We-hope-you-can-swim. It was the height of the Pedro Escobar bombing campaign. The airline staff escorted us nervously around Bogota but we weren’t allowed out alone. When I arrived it was amazing they let me back in the UK at all. My ticket itinerary read, “Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela, Colombia,” ie “I am smuggling cocaine.” If I’d taken that trip 8 years later it would have been an entirely different result.

But my lifestyle of cocaine and parties in London was beginning to pall. My ambitions to be a reporter had not died down, just had a brief nap because I was OD’ing on elephant tranquilizers. I submitted a proposal to the BBC for me to go and cover the war in Sudan, not as a freelance but as a fully paid trip. The proposal was accepted and in November 1996 I set off, very excited, for Kenya and Sudan.

Next Saturday: Reporting from a barracks in Southern Sudan in a pair of hot pants and living happily ever after with the Sudanese rebels.

Falling asleep anytime, any place, anywhere and major mishaps with myopic men in Rome

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Madrid Spain 1995

I woke up, from an unwise session mixing cider and vodka, with my face submerged in my handbag. The bar was so noisy it was amazing I’d gone to sleep. The bag must have been functioning as a pair of ear muffs, or a mini tent. This falling asleep in public, when I’d overindulged, had been a key element of my behaviour since I’d started drinking alcohol. I had fallen asleep at clubs, next to blaring speakers, or in the middle of the dance floor. Indeed when I went to a party the first thing I’d do was identify where I would later go to sleep, which was usually the host’s bed, not entirely welcomed by them. “Wake up,” said my friend Susanna, shaking my arm, “the bar’s closing we’re going to have to go home now.”   Susanna had moved to Spain and I was visiting her as well as covering a story about the independence movement in the Basque country. I’d already got into trouble in Madrid, scouring the streets for ecstasy with a Moroccan drug dealer, and ending up in San Blas, an area so dodgy the dealer said “we must leave.” I’d never experienced racism in Spain, as people thought I was a rich South American, but when I was walking around Madrid with the Moroccan people looked at me like I was dirt.

Nonetheless, I had a deep affection for Spain, as I had lived in Spain for four months when I was 18 in 1988. It was the first time I’d been happy in my entire teenage years. In England I felt miserable and ugly, in Spain I felt attractive and like I fitted in. I’d travelled all over Spain learning Spanish, Barcelona, Madrid, Seville, Granada and Salamanca. People said I spoke Spanish so well I must be a spy. I met the first man I fancied, a German who, rather dubiously, said he liked SS uniforms as they looked so good on blondes. I snogged him but obviously couldn’t have sex. He wrote to me from Germany but, of course, wasn’t available as he had a girlfriend there. When I got back from Spain and was doing my Spanish S level oral exam, the examiner asked me what monuments I’d visited in Salamanca. “None,” I said shame faced, “I spent my whole time getting pissed in bars.” “Well you must have done something right, your Spanish is amazing,” she said. “Well it’s amazing what you can learn with a double vodka in your hand.” Of course I’d sometimes got into problems with alcohol in Spain, a presage of things to come, as the measures were so enormous compared to British pubs. But, in typical denial, I just thought this was a problem with Spain and Spanish bars, not that I had a problem with alcohol.

I went to the Basque country to do the feature for the BBC and, amazingly for me, nothing actually went wrong. I got all the interviews, didn’t leave any of them in the back of a cab, and was warmly welcomed by the Basques. I was a bit horrified though when I was recording a pro-independence rally in Bilbao that all the demonstrators started shouting for “coche bombas en Madrid,” car bombs in Madrid. ETA, the Basque nationalist/terrorist/independence group (depending on your perspective) was still active and supported by a significant minority.

I went back to Madrid to say goodbye to Susanna, who’d saved my life when she’d phoned when I was about to cut my throat. She’d sat with me in the depths of my clinical depression, trying to make me talk. But all I could do was stare at the walls. Susanna and I had been friends since I was 10, when we bonded intensely at Wycombe Abbey, an all girls’ boarding school. Night after night all the little girls in the dormitory would howl themselves to sleep, desperately missing their parents and families. One night we had a screaming contest so loud we all had to be put in the sanatorium. I had been keen to go to boarding school, conned by tales of Enid Blyton and Mallory Towers. But there were no midnight feasts at Wycombe Abbey. Just hours of homework which we had to finish with a torch under our duvets every night. We had tiny moments of joy, greeting the stern matron with our knickers on our heads but we couldn’t even indulge in my childish passion, shoplifting Hello Kitty toys, as we weren’t allowed out alone. Solitary only children, Susanna and I became inseparable in the first term. And although I left after a year, we were still very close throughout my teenage years. Susanna was one of the only people I told the full horror of what was happening during my parents’ divorce. To my other school friends, I pretended my parents were still together and said nothing at all. Susanna was like me, chaotic, and our friendship was characterised by frequent mishaps. But we loved each other and it is still one of the most important relationships in my life.

Rome 1987 Me: 17 Susanna: 18.

MADRIDPICTURES

 

“Will you do threesome?” said a fat, hairy, man in the front car of a convoy of vehicles pursuing us down the street. “You are very pretty, how much do you want? I’ll pay you a thousand lire.” How much? we thought panicking and rushed off down the street. But in fact a thousand lire was about 50p. We’d set out dressed appropriately so we didn’t have any trouble with men. In virginal outfits with white lace tops and skirts. We were clearly street smart, mature and experienced and thought looking like a virgin was a turn off to men. As the convoy of cars had swelled to 15, including a tank and a juggernaut, we realised we’d made a slight mistake.

As we rushed down the street, all the men in the cars started flipping their hands as if we were gay. Oh my god, I thought with horror, not only do these men think we’re prostitutes but they think we’re MEN as well. It was then that I realised what my mother’s stern words not to go to a hotel near the station in Rome had meant. We were in the middle of the red light district and these men thought we were transvestite prostitutes. I suddenly noticed the lurid neon signs on the bars around, clearly pointing to a thriving trade in lady boys. I had never questioned our identity as girls, until now, and being mistaken for (very convincing) girly men was not a compliment.

I had just left an all girls’ boarding school, Roedean, at the age of 17. I was very academic and had passed the entrance exam to Oxford when I was sixteen. I only needed two Es in my A levels to get in. But I was definitely still a virgin and had barely been kissed. I was practically a child at 17. I had still been playing with my teddies, when I was sixteen, running an supremely efficient toy hospital. This inter-railing trip around Europe was the first adult experience I’d had in my life. I was travelling with Susanna, who was slightly more clued up than me. But our naivete had been a magnet for trouble with men everywhere we went.

We ran away from the line of cars following us, taking shelter in a bar. The man in the bar, who had nose hair as long as a beard, gave us an oleaginous look, scanning us up and down and saying that girls like us, “would have a great future in films. “ From his leering looks it was obvious what kind of films he was talking about. He also ran a strip club and invited us to come along and participate.

“We’re not interested in things like that,” I stuttered, blushing deep red.

“Well what about water sports, or a tiny bit of S and M.”

“I don’t like scuba diving and I’m too full for sausage and mash.”

“Can you say that on camera,” he oozed at my face, “you’ve got such a great voice.”

Although not as pretty as my luscious, blonde, best friend, I was a virgin, very busty and extremely innocent. Even in my naïve, childlike, state I could see that this would be an attractive commodity in the world of porn. Not that I had any experience of porn, the only kind of sex I’d looked at was my parents seventies bible, the Joy Of Sex.   This prompted me to write a pornographic novel at the age of 10 which had limited scope as I had no idea what a vagina was and thought babies came out of your bum.

Shaken by our experience in the red light district, we decided perhaps going out alone was unwise. There were three young men working in our hotel who had asked us to go out for the night. They must be safe, I wisely said, as they all had thick glasses on. Short sightedness was clearly a recipe for moral probity, I thought. Also, as there were three of them, perhaps it wasn’t a date.

When they arrived that night there were two of them and they’d taken their glasses off. We went out with them to a fun fair outside Rome but we decided we’d better lose them as their eyesight had improved. We then ended up surrounded by an angry and threatening group of men, facing possible gang rape, until we ran, hysterical, to the car of an Italian family.

“What are you doing out here alone?” said the mother, once we were in the car.

“Our friends took off their glasses,” I said, “we had to get away.”

“Italian men are bad news,” the woman said.

“I know,” I said, “they’re as bad news as a force 9 earthquake on the Richter scale.”

We’d had problems with men going right back to France. Men kept hassling us asking why we were alone. So we’d invented two imaginary friends, Hubert and Napoleon, who accompanied us everywhere. This was inspired by a schizophrenic we saw having an animated conversation with no one in the street. But the men didn’t care whether we were mad or not, they still wanted to sleep with us. I say “us,” in fact they all wanted to sleep with my blonde best friend and got me, with my fluent French, to work as a free interpreter. This lack of attention from men, when Susanna was around, had caused certain problems in our relationship. The situation wasn’t helped by my father who’d always told me I “would never be as pretty as Susanna.” Tiny jealousies niggled between us and on Susanna’s 18th birthday I tried to set fire to her hair. I put the little flame out with a bottle of champagne.

We arrived in Juan Les Pins on the south coast of France too late to go to a bank. The place was rammed and we couldn’t find a hotel anyway. So we decided to sleep on the beach. We were soon moved on by the police. When we asked them where we could go they said, “sleep on a park bench.” We took refuge on an empty boat, thinking we could rest there for the night. Until interrupted by a group of thirteen year old French boys who wanted to have sex with us. I say “us,” one of them did fancy me, although his friends said he was mad and should shag Susanna instead. We ended up sleeping, as the police had suggested, on a wooden bench. The resilience of youth!

It was in Venice that we both had our first experience of dope. We had gate-crashed a party in an amazing apartment and someone had handed a spliff to us. At that point the police raided the apartment, causing us to take refuge under a bed. We passed the spliff from one to the other stretched out under the bed, trying not to drop ash in our mouth. Walk on the wild side was playing on the stereo as the police crashed around the room arresting everyone in sight. But luckily they didn’t notice us silently stoned under the bed.

We had more trouble with men on our way down to the Italian coast. A geriatric man who kept telling us to be quiet, tried to snog me on the night train as I was asleep. I was horrified, turning on the light, that someone so old could be trying it on. But it was not the last time I would be molested in my bed.

When we arrived at the coast we’d fucked up our money again, missing the bank and not able to change our travellers cheques. We started stealing bread from tables at a restaurant, and a kindly Italian family invited us to join their meal. When they found out I was only 17 they were horrified saying, “you’re a minor, how can your parents let you travel alone? “

Little did they know that my parents had been in a reverse custody battle for me since their divorce when I was 12. I say reverse as neither of them wanted me. “Go and live with your father,” said my mother trying to eject me from the house at the age of 13. But he couldn’t have me either, he said.

My mother had sent me back to boarding school after the exit from Wycombe Abbey, as she wanted me out of the house. This ejection to boarding school turned out to be a lucky escape. After my father left I was so frightened of my mother I thought I would be murdered in my bed. I spent the whole time checking the house for serial killers, under my bed, in my cupboards, even the cutlery drawer and the deep freeze. They were resilient and flexible creatures these serial killers I thought. Checking wasn’t enough, I also had to find hiding places from the serial killers, such as concealed panels behind the walls, and practice all my escape routes which involved leaping out of the attic window and running along the roof. This was the origin of the OCD that in later years almost wrecked my life. It was only recently I realised that there were no serial killers at Roedean, they only existed at my mother’s house. If I’d been forced to stay at home I could have become like my uncle, who thought he’d discovered a palatial Roman bath, under a traffic light in Knightsbridge, which he thought he owned.

We went from the Italian coast by ferry to Greece, Susanna getting all the attention on the ferry, of course. Bemused by the Greek language signs all over the place, we hopped on a train to meet some friends of Susanna’s at Tholon, a tourist resort. Of course as the signs, unintelligible squiggles to us, went by, we didn’t know whether we were getting any nearer to our destination or not. We kept asking “are we near to Tholon?” and eventually someone said we were there.

We marched into the town stopping by a bar to ask for directions to the hotel. “Hotel?” they said in bemused tones, “this village doesn’t even have a road.” We looked around, the dearth of tourists was clear to see. A farmer wandered by with a donkey, carrying a bale of hay. Confused, we said we were looking for Tholon, but this didn’t seem to be it. “Tholon,” they laughed hysterically, “that’s on the other side of Greece.”

“So where are we going to stay?” we wailed.

“There are a few people camped on the beach,” they said, “but you haven’t got a tent.”

“No,” I said.

“Well you’ll have to sleep under a tree.”

“A tree?” I choked being shaken back to one of the most traumatic memories of my childhood and the origin of my problem with serial killers. I was eight, in Jamaica, watching Friday the 13th. A woman had run away from the killer and looked like she’d escaped, out of breath, leaning against a tree. Suddenly the killer reached round and cut her throat. I’d had an obsessive fear of having my throat cut since then. I barely slept a wink that night. You may wonder why I wanted to cut my own throat. Apart from desiring death, this was also, logically, to prevent the serial killers from getting in there first.

We eventually made it to Tholon, where we slept under a roof instead of a plant. But it was idyllic in Tolon beautiful and unspoilt. And no one had come onto us. In Tholon we were surrounded by sweaty youths. And I was totally ignored as I didn’t speak Greek.

Susanna and I returned to the UK, my Afro hair turned to straw by neglect, looking like Worzel Gummidge in a hurricane. But our return was not without controversy. One of us had lost our ticket and we had to vault over the barriers at Kings Cross. After this wild adventure when we’d barely emerged alive, I settled back into the madness of life at home.

Looking for Mr Right and ending up bonkers instead of bonked

EXOTIC BABE PICTURE0002

Exotic babe, 25. Slim, curvy, very attractive, intelligent, creative, professional seeks intelligent, attractive, well travelled man, 22-35.

Such was the alluring advert I placed in Time Out in 1995. I got sack loads of mail, several from men who said they “couldn’t resist” an advert like that. I weeded through all the photos, eliminating those with two heads or over 65, and created a pile of men I potentially wanted to meet. I then called them to see if we would click on the phone. Some were clearly deranged, aggressive, or thick as a jellyfish, so I created a smaller pile of people I was going to meet.

My favourite of the lot was an incredibly good looking DJ who played at clubs all over the place. Blonde, chiselled and cool I decided he was just the man for me and had fervid fantasies about becoming a DJ’s groupie. I had just started seriously clubbing and taking ecstasy. Unfortunately, he wanted my photo before he’d agree to meet. I sent him the photo but tragedy struck when he didn’t like it at all. His friend phoned me up, saying he didn’t want to meet but was looking for advice on a trip to Cuba instead. Hoping he might change his mind, I gave the advice but never heard from him again.

I became obsessed by the notion that he was “the one” and would spend hours looking at his photograph. That I was developing these feelings about someone I’d never met didn’t strike me as odd at all. If only I’d sent a different photo the outcome would have been different, I wailed. I became so infatuated that eventually I had to burn his picture on the gas stove to put out the fires of “love” in my mind. That worked to an extent but it did make a nasty mess.

Dejected, I set out to meet the other men. One looked like a foetus and was nothing like his photograph. I walked past him five times at the tube station thinking, “oh fuck that can’t be him.” What can you say when your presented with someone who looks like an afterbirth? I was too shy to say, “you look nothing like your photo, please fuck off” and wasted an hour with him.

Another seemed promising and I ended up canoodling with him in a hotel. I was lonely and bored and wanted some action now. He then phoned me up saying that he wanted to meet me in hotel rooms and pay me for sex. Not realising what a great opportunity this was to make extra cash, I said I wasn’t that type of girl and slammed down the phone.

There were quite a few men who were very into me. But I just wasn’t into them. The vast amount of interest I’d generated with my ad seemed to be turning to dust as I couldn’t find someone I liked who wasn’t into kinky sex.

A very interesting option presented itself to me as I was outside my father’s house in Notting Hill. I was discussing a man with a friend from school who I said “was much more marriage material” than her ex. I was wearing a see through peach coloured dress and straddling my bike. An incredibly attractive man with a dog looked me dead in the eye, saying “whoever he is, he’s a lucky man,” then walked off down the street. It wasn’t me that was getting married you silly man, I was talking about my friend.   I stared after him, mouth gaping, not knowing what to do, then eventually did nothing, of course. I became convinced I had “ruined my life” by not following him down the street. If I had, I was sure, we would have got married immediately. I had fantasies about the wedding, thinking the best man would be an Emperor Penguin and the bridesmaids, sheep. I wanted a unique wedding with an animal theme. Jesus was the Lamb of God so I was sure the church would let in a flock of sheep. My imagination blossomed: flamingos and peacocks could waft theatrically around, handing out canapés. And the horse drawn carriage could be pulled by a zebra instead. It has to be said that when I mentioned this fantasy to a man I was on a date with he immediately ordered the bill. Morose, I trailed around Notting Hill, with a pair of binoculars eyeing every man and especially men with dogs. When the police stopped me and inquired what I was doing I waved the binoculars shouting, “I’m looking for a man with a dog.” They mentioned something about psychiatric services but this was obviously a joke. I even thought of putting up an advert in the newsagent saying “desperately seeking man with dog.” Alas my efforts to find him were in vain and I never saw him again. It didn’t cross my mind that he was probably a player to come out with a comment like that.

At work, I had moved to the Aramaic and African desk in the BBC World Service newsroom, with a very civilised start time of 11.30 or 1 o clock. I still managed to be half an hour late every day, huffing in sweating and panting when my editor had gone to the loo. Part of my job was going to editorial meetings at the language services every day. It was there I met Gogol the gargoyle who had a profound effect. Gogol was married, to someone working in the next door room. But this didn’t stop him trying to put his wick about as much as he could.

“Leave us” he would say, waving his hands dramatically to shoo everyone out when I came in. “We need to be alone.” He would then try to chase me round the room to have a snog. I would dodge this, more and more expertly as time went on. But he was totally lacking in shame and then tried to snog me in front of ten people in the lift. We would go out for coffee, or rather he would have coffee and I would have a glass of wine. He would tell me he loved me and not to worry about his wife. His wife wasn’t my primary worry, it was turning to stone if I ever woke up next to him in bed. Of course it was sexual harassment. But I felt sorry for him. Without any awareness of sex addiction, I realised he had a problem and couldn’t help the way he behaved.

I got into serious trouble at the Aramaic Service by writing a news story that mentioned that an Israeli had bought land from a Palestinian. “No Palestinian has ever sold land to an Israeli,” shrieked a Palestinian member of the editorial team, looking like he was going to wallop me in the face. Little did I know that I had strayed into one of the most contentious areas of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although most of Israel was established by force, Israelis had in fact been buying land from Palestinians from before the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Palestinians had been murdered for selling land to Jews and a few years later, in 1997, the Palestinian Authority made it a capital crime to sell land to Jews. But the fact that they had to do this showed it was still going on. I’m sure the Aramaic translation of my story that was actually broadcast mentioned nothing about the land sale at all probably saying the Israeli had beaten him round the head and stolen the land.

One day I was heading with trepidation into Gogol’s office (not because of a political squabble but simply because he might try to feel me up) when I saw a tall, dark, handsome, stranger there. “Caroline,” Gogol rushed towards me to give me a hug. “Ah,” he flicked a hand towards the man, “this is Akbar, a reporter with the Aramaic TV news.”   Mr Hotstuff gave me a big smile and I smiled right back. This was much more the type of editorial meeting I wanted to come to.

We repaired down to the bar at the end of my shift and talked for hours and hours. He was gorgeous, and fascinatingly knowledgeable about the Middle East. We swapped numbers and agreed to go on a date. After all my searching in Time Out I had found a man right on my doorstep at the BBC.

Things swiftly progressed to a snog and then canoodling in bed. I wasn’t just keen on this man, I was absolutely obsessed. I spent twenty three hours and fifty five minutes a day thinking about him. The other 5 minutes I might have, briefly, considered work. I spent all my day on the Aramaic desk fantasising about having sex with him in every position conceivable. Of course, to my practically virgin mind, this only meant one or two. Without any awareness of love and sex addiction, I realised I was totally hooked and that, to me, he was heroin. I wondered if I should write an article about “heroin sex” for GQ. Romantic thoughts about ditching miniskirts and converting to Islam floated across the whirling Arabian sands of my mind. I noticed from all his family photos that his family looked fundamentalist and were all covered up. But he was so Western, I thought. What did it matter if you couldn’t see his family’s faces in their photographs?

But then just as I was about to have sex, disaster struck. He lost his job, as his whole television station closed down. Suddenly he was facing deportation and said he couldn’t continue the relationship until he knew what was going on. Bereft, I agreed to cool things down.

After a couple of weeks, it was clear he was going to get another job. He called me, wanting to meet up. I went round to his flat, hitting the walls with excitement, thinking this would be the time. We soon ended up in bed. But when I was almost naked expecting him to caress my lady parts, he said he didn’t touch women “down there” it was “a cultural thing.” I felt like I’d been slapped in the face, but, infatuated as I was, I carried on. But when he tried to fuck me it just wouldn’t go in. “Relax” he snapped, not making me relaxed at all. “Umm,” I said, my mind wanting to do it but my body saying no. In fact, though I was totally obsessed with the guy, no matter how many times I tried I couldn’t have sex with him. I went to extraordinary lengths to try to stretch my lady parts, buying a gigantic dildo and practising at home. Not wanting to waste any opportunities, I took the dildo into the BBC where unfortunately it fell out on the cash desk in the middle of the canteen. But all my efforts to stretch were in vain, I was tight as a drum and the damned thing wouldn’t go in.

We compromised with me giving him multiple blow jobs instead. But in the end he got fed up of the lack of sex and said he was sick of me. I felt like I’d fallen out of a lifeboat without a life jacket and the boat was now slipping away. I was devastated and almost cried; but of course I never cried. My parents had been so poisonous to me that I swore I would never cry as I didn’t want them to know how much they’d wounded me. I still can’t cry now.

Post-Akbar, I realised that no matter how desperate I was to have sex with someone, if they didn’t warm up my muffin it wasn’t going to happen at all. Having come up with nothing but a giant plastic dildo in my quest for a man, I settled back into life at work thinking I was as likely to marry Bigfoot as find Mr Right.

Next Saturday: Falling asleep in my handbag and major mishaps with myopic men in Rome.

Big Dicks in Buenos Aires and the biggest f*** up of my journalism career

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Buenos Aires Argentina 1994

“You’re very pretty,” said a fat, elderly, man with a glass eye and an artificial hand, as I was meandering lost down the street. “Would you like to go for a drink?”

“With you?” I choked, admiring his front but not his crumbling façade. “To be honest I’m rather busy I haven’t got time to socialize.”

This was something the men in Argentina had in common with men in Jamaica, a complete lack of shame in making advances to women forty years younger than them.

“Well what about you give me your number and we go for a drink later?” he smiled.

“I don’t think so,” I said, eyeing the metal hand, “you’re not really my type.”

Unfortunately everyone in Argentina assumed I was Brazilian which was not a good thing at all. Brazilian women had a reputation for being highly sexed and very available. Countless men approached me in the street asking me out on dates, not all of them geriatric but clearly assuming my answer would be yes. I was even offered a job at a Strip club but said I was fed up with nights.

The young men in Argentina were phenomenal, the best looking men in the world, like an Italian stallion crossed with an American footballer. But I was warned by several well-meaning older women that they were trouble and not to get involved. The women were beautiful too, leggy and very thin, although I wasn’t surprised to find out that there was a high proportion of eating disorders.

I was in Argentina to investigate setting up as a freelance reporter for the BBC. And to cover the story of the bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires in which 85 people died. The bombing, in which hundreds more people were injured, had caused international outrage after allegations that local right-wing elements in the Argentine police were involved.

The brutal military junta that ruled Argentina had only stepped down ten years earlier in 1983. They’d conducted a 7 year “dirty war” against opposition supporters, in which at least 10,000 were killed. The victims were tortured and dumped in unmarked graves. Even before this, there’d been allegations of Nazi supporters in Argentina going back to the Second World War.

The taint of the military junta was still in the air and there was something vaguely fascist about the architecture in Buenos Aires with its massively wide avenues. The Argentines, who are mainly Italian in origin, with some indigenous blood, thought of themselves as the Europeans of South America. Indeed I was told of a government programme to “mejorar la raza,” improve the Argentine race, by importing Europeans. They obviously weren’t talking about importing the inhabitants of Leicester or Birmingham. Thus when I did a live radio interview, on “Bonkers in Buenos Aires”, the main question they kept asking me was, “isn’t it just like Europe here.” With the smell of the military junta lingering like a noxious fart, I replied that it was not at all like Europe, so they took me off the air.

The main problem with setting up as a stringer in Argentina was that at this point, before the crash of the peso and total economic collapse, it was very expensive indeed. Thus I learned to ask the price before every cup of tea, to avoid a nasty shock when I got the bill. The Argentines, whose average wage was obviously much lower than in Europe, seemed oddly sanguine at the prospect of paying 8 US dollars for a sandwich, which I thought very dear. It was as if they thought that the fact that everything was so expensive was a sign of economic recovery. But the schizophrenic nature of the society was clear when you walked round the shops. Instead of showing a price for all the clothes, everything was displayed in instalments. While not balking at paying 8 dollars for a sandwich, no one could afford to buy a pair of shorts or a suit. In fact everything was shown in instalments in Argentina suggesting a population living beyond its means.

I threw myself into covering the story of the bombing of the Jewish centre, visiting the site of the attack, interviewing survivors and relatives of those who died. There were tears in my eyes as I listened to the testimony of the survivors and everything was recorded on my trusty tape recorder.

Alas, disaster struck, when I left both tape recorder and all the poignant recordings in the back seat of a cab. I put an advert out on Argentine radio begging for the return of the tape recorder but never got it back. This was one of the biggest fuck ups of my journalism career and of course I kept it very quiet.

My journalistic credibility in shreds I sought solace in men and bumped into a tall New Zealander at my hotel. His name was Eric and he was even more disturbed than me. He had apparently seen his father murder his mother when he was a child and had never been the same again. He had a pronounced twitch and a thousand yard stare. Lonely and upset I welcomed him into my room. But when he took his clothes off I practically fell off the bed. “Is your father a donkey?” I said, staring at his dick which was about the same length as my arm. “It is big,” he nodded shamefaced, “it’s been a great problem for me.”

I reached out to touch the knob, which had swelled to the size of a tree. “Well there’s no way that’s going to fit.”

I was practically still a virgin, having slept with one and a half men. The half was a businessman whose efforts to shag me had been thwarted by a hairy wart on his nose.

“We could try it the other way,” Mr Big Dick, said thrusting it towards my bum.

“You must be joking,” I said “if that went up my insides would fall out.”

We decided that alcohol was the passport for entry for the giant dong. So he plied me with drink until I was pissed enough to try and get it in. Alas, there was no success and we had to give up. He did admit, which in my naïve way I discounted, that he sometimes had to visit prostitutes because of the size of his dick.

Of course, once I returned to the BBC, I was silent on the subject of leaving the tape in the cab. I simply said the documentary, “didn’t quite work out.” But my flatmate, who was working for Newshour as well, unhelpfully told everyone the saga which made them all laugh. I decided that paying 8 US dollars for a sandwich and being chatted up by geriatrics with one hand, was not my cup of tea.   I would carry on reporting until I could get a paid job elsewhere.

Despite the lack of success in Buenos Aires, Mr Big Dick visited me at my flat in London to try again. This time, through luck or penis shrinking pills, the vast thing did go in. But we soon had a falling out as he caused a flood in my house, and then refused to pay for it saying I had to claim on his insurance instead. I dispatched him and his giant dick back to New Zealand and decided I would have to cast my net into the wider population to find a man.

Next Saturday: looking for Mr Right and ending up bonkers instead of bonked

Losing my virginity to Jesus and narrowly avoiding being possessed by a pig at a Voodoo ceremony in Cuba

Hello - 250px across resizedHavana Cuba Autumn 1993

“I thought this was a road,” I said to my Cuban companion as we were standing alongside one of the main streets in Havana, silent as a cemetery. “So where are all the cars?” In the half hour we’d been standing on the kerb, an elderly 1950’s Chevrolet was the only car that had chugged down the street. There were a lot of 1950’s American cars in Cuba in 1993, relics from before the revolution when Cuba and the United States became bitter ex-lovers and cut off trade. I believed I had seen a donkey, moseying down the street, but food was very scarce, I could have been hallucinating.

“Well,” said my Cuban companion, a nuclear scientist who was working as a toilet cleaner in my hotel to pay his way. “We are in “El periodo especial,” the special period, we haven’t got any petrol now.” “El periodo especial” was the wonderful euphemism coined by the Cuban government to describe the almost total collapse of their economy after the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991. Generously subsidised Soviet oil was suddenly withdrawn, leaving the entire Cuban economy stranded on the side of the road. Even public transport was patchy, in fact the only way to get around was to hitch a lift from the occasional car passing by. This was impossible for me as, though in fact half Jamaican, I looked so Cuban that I had to practically sell my British passport to get into the tourist shops. Thus I would wave my arms, fruitlessly trying to hitch a lift, completely ignored by the drivers who assumed I was a local with no dollars only the worthless Cuban currency.

I was in hot demand at the hotel though. Foreign men kept knocking on my door, hysterical at being groped every time they left the hotel, begging me to pretend to be their “girlfriend.” I’m an incredibly good fake girlfriend, in fact even won and award, and was providing a body guard service, for an exceptionally reasonable price. Every time a foreign looking man left the hotel, hordes of Cuban senoritas would latch onto their arms. It seemed a large proportion of women under 35 had resorted to turning tricks. And the prices they asked for were heart breaking – they would have sex with a man for a tube of toothpaste or a small bar of soap. There were male prostitutes as well, jineteros, gorgeous young men with gym sculpted bodies and classic faces. But none of them approached me as they thought I was Cuban and penniless as well.

Before I came to Cuba, at the age of almost twenty four, something dramatic had changed in my life. I had lost my virginity to Jesus, which almost didn’t count. Jesus was, in fact, a non-English speaking Spaniard who was incredibly square and from whom I had to conceal my acid-taking dope smoking past. Alas, after so much anticipation, it was a bit of a let down. I wasn’t in love and didn’t fancy him that much. It was just something I had to get rid of, like a sheep-encrusted jumper a clueless relative had given me at Christmas time. So I was in a relationship, of sorts. But while in Cuba do as the Cubans, who were merrily banging everything in sight, so I also hooked up with the nuclear scientist. I do have a phobia about toilets so I did make him wash his hands.

Every street cleaner, waiter and cabbie in Cuba seemed to be a doctor, research scientist or an engineer. The population had degrees coming out of their arses and there weren’t enough jobs to go round. For those who did get a professional job, five dollars a month was simply not enough to go round. A year later the nuclear scientist phoned me from Miami saying he’d escaped on a raft.

Before I arrived, I’d been confused by reading in the guidebooks on Cuba, “Go to Cuba if you want to lose weight.” As someone who’d had a lifelong eating disorder this seemed absolutely great. Cuba would not only be an interesting professional trip, launching my career as a reporter, but a reasonably priced health spa as well. But after I’d been there for a few days I realised this was because the portions in the hotels were so small that I was dreaming of bangers and mash. There were no stalls selling food on the street as government still thought private enterprise was akin to paedophilia.

Walking round lost on one of Havana’s old streets, ignored by all the passing cars, I bumped into an elderly Cuban lady on the street and asked her the way. She said she just needed to pop up to her apartment to turn off the gas and would take me there. The apartment was stupendous, absolutely massive with elaborate mosaic floors and cornices. I told her an apartment like that in London would cost a million pounds. Havana is full of such architectural gems, all crumbling away, it would be one of the most beautiful cities in the world if someone spent 100 billion dollars refurbishing it. I was amazed by the apartment and wondered around gawping in delight. I was hungry at the hotel, I moaned plaintively, and wondered if I could stay. On my trainee BBC salary, the hotel seemed extremely expensive at 15 dollars at day. She offered me a room and two meals for 8 dollars a day. This had the slight disadvantage that electricity was only available between 4 and 5 am, and a bath, apart from a bucket, was completely impossible. But it had one major advantage – food. The lady was diabetic so got an extra ration from the government so the food was plentiful and absolutely yum. It was only when I was foraging for food in the day, limited to the hotels, that I starved.

Complaining about how little food there was, was a major preoccupation of Cubans at that time. I had arrived, fired up with socialist zeal, fervently pro-Castro and the Cuban experiment. This was somewhat dented by the story I was told by a Cuban I interviewed that the government had tried to save the Cuban economy, by cutting down a load of sugar cane and planting lettuces instead. The lettuces were a perfect cash crop, apart from the inconvenient fact that they’d all died in the heat. Fear of the government was also palpable, whenever I interviewed anyone they would never mention Fidel Castro by name, instead making the sign of a beard.

I was launching my reporting career with a story about the resurgence of voodoo in Cuba and the success of the Aids “hospitals.”  Despite multiple incursions into conflicts in Africa where AIDS was rife, Cuba had one of the lowest rates of infection in the Caribbean. This was because the government forcibly tested anyone over 15 and those who had HIV were locked up in prison hospitals. The patients were allowed to go out as long as were “responsible” enough. If they weren’t they were kept inside, a permanent section from the age of 15. I bumped into a big wig on the Cuban aids programme, at the international press centre. He said I was young and pretty and would cheer the patients up so took me to a hospital in the countryside. The facilities were good, Cuba had probably the best heath system in the developing world and exported more doctors than sugarcane. But people wouldn’t be so keen on the NHS if they weren’t allowed out of hospitals once they’d gone in.

As part of my research into Santeria or voodoo, which had exploded in Cuba since the collapse of the Soviet Union, I went to a Santeria ceremony. It was a practical religion, whose objectives were filling your kitchen rather than spiritual highs. Devotees would pray for a new washing machine, a banana peeler or a fridge. The comic element of Latin American Catholicism is present in Santeria in the matching up of unlikely Santeria gods with Catholic saints. Thus I was told that Chango, the Yoruba god of fire lighting and war, was “the same as” the Catholic Santa Barbara, who was beheaded by her father and whose historical existence is unclear. I went to the voodoo ceremony at the ile or house of a priest. It was absolutely wild. People were being possessed by the spirits of chickens, zebras and pigs, men by women, dancing around pretending to put their suspender belts on. Men were spinning around like tornadoes, eyes rolling and practically frothing at the mouth. A chicken had been sacrificed, its blood all over the altar. I’m sure I saw it move after it died. It was a perfect storm of activity and I was experiencing it without my rain hat on. I almost joined Santeria myself but initiates have to do what the priests tell them. I thought they might tell me I couldn’t run the story so I declined.

I arrived at the airport in Havana not wanting to leave at all. Luckily when I asked for the flight for London I was told it had left the day before. Yet another of my journalistic mishaps not checking the date for the flight. But instead of giving me a hard time, with Latin tolerance, they said anyone could get the dates mixed up and put me on the next flight completely free. Despite the fact that all the Cubans were constantly complaining about their lives, I loved Cuba and didn’t want to leave. I had finally found a place where everyone stopped asking me, “where are you from?”

Next week: Q: – how do you avoid being shot by the police in Jamaica? A: – be white, middle class or duck…

Stumbling down the wild side of the sexual street at the BBC

BBC PICTURE SUMMER

BBC 1992

My BBC career started, as it continued, with a mishap or two. “The train,” I puffed charging into my interview at World Service Radio, at least 45 minutes late, “got stuck in a tunnel, it might have been a bomb.” A roomful of BBC managers raised their collective eyebrows in disbelief. If there had been a bomb, they certainly would have heard.

Having been as well informed about news at Oxford as a lost Japanese soldier who thought the Second World War was still going in 1963, I had decided to sort out this vacuum in my knowledge with typical OCD flair. I was reading two newspapers a day, making notes about the bulletins of radio and TV news, knew every capital and President in the world, in short was a veritable encyclopaedia of what was going on. I sailed through the interview, although my ship was rather late, and was ecstatic to be told that I had got a place as a Radio Journalist Trust Trainee. This was a scheme designed to get ethnic minorities into the BBC.

The BBC had clearly dug down deep into the underprivileged masses to find its new recruits: four out of six were Oxbridge graduates from expensive private schools. It was obviously fine to be an ethnic minority, as long as you weren’t common as well. I started off my training at Broadcasting House in September 1992 and had moved into my first flat, a three bedroom flat in Central London for sixty eight thousand pounds. God we were lucky then. I was benefitting from the housing crash of the late 80s early 90s with its interest rates high enough to get banged up by the police and tidal wave of repossessions. With a gift from my mother, who’d abandoned me to go back to Jamaica, and my thirty thousand pound mortgage I could easily cover this. I was 22, had a mortgage and my own flat. But I was still a fucking virgin, of course.

I was the only trainee who hadn’t done a postgraduate in journalism studies and the differences soon became clear. I wouldn’t have hit a deadline if it slapped me in the face. I immediately took a shine to the only other smoker in the group, a half Asian man called Krishna who’d been to Cambridge and Westminster. I decided this was a match made in heaven, though tiringly he did have a girlfriend as well, who he was always complaining about. She doesn’t understand me, he would say. I didn’t realise that that was what men always say before they play away. So love lorn was I at my inability to tie down the relationship with Krishna that in all the pictures of the RJT trainees I look like I’m going to jump under a train. When I finally got him in bed, he said, “you’re not a virgin are you?” “N…No…I stuttered and proceeded to give him my first ever blow job. He loved me, he said. Then he didn’t. He was leaving his girlfriend. Then he wasn’t. It was a roller coaster of emotion I could scarcely hang on to. When he didn’t come to my birthday party I was bereft. When he told me he wasn’t leaving his girlfriend, my suicidal depression deepened and I ended up with a carving knife at my throat. Just as I was about to do something, I’m not quite sure what, my beloved best friend phoned from Spain. The moment was broken and I’ve never been that close to suicide again.

When I arrived at the newsroom at World Service Radio, in the  Art Deco splendour of Bush House, the problem the BBC was trying to counter became painfully obvious to me. I stared into a roomful of faces as white as a party of polar bears. There was clearly a confusion, in the minds of many there between the words “white” and “write.” As well as a belief, despite numerous literary masters to contradict, that people whose first language was not English could not be trusted to write.

“Oddbog Babak is coming for an attachment from the String-vestian service,” muttered the editor of the European desk.

“Oh dear,” frowned the Chief Sub, “well we’ll put him on something simple like copy tasting.”

A funereal air presided over the European desk when I arrived. I learnt, later that morning, that this was because their reporter in Lithuania had died of starvation with a BBC freelance contract in his hand. The payment had been delayed between the Assignments unit, News Process hub, accounts department, Four Men and their Dogs department and the actual payments desk. By the time it had reached its final destination at the Onward Movements desk, the poor reporter had expired.

Not that frugality was a watchword at the BBC – I noticed that several taxi drivers had set up tents on the pavement, meters running, as they’d been waiting outside for so long. And the staff would abandon profuse amounts of food, leading all the mice in central London to head there for a snack. I believe, while I was at Bush House, the mice outnumbered the staff 50:1.

I then moved down to the main current affairs programme, Newshour, where the egalitarian nature of the BBC was clear to see. Out of a department of 30 only two had not been to Oxbridge and they kept very quiet. Several of the managers had been at Oxford with Benazir Bhutto, they all had a story or two. And everyone had written authoritative books on at least one country by the age of 25.

It was at Newshour that I decided I would finally give in to temptation and start to experiment with girls. Part of the reason I’d been so obsessed with Krishna, was because I thought I was gay. I wanted to be normal and normal in 1993 didn’t equate to snogging girls. For a year after I left Oxford I had not fancied men at all. This was one of the main reasons I had clinical depression and wanted to kill myself. The psychiatrist at St Mary’s hospital didn’t help at all, eyeing me up in my cycling shorts and saying, I “couldn’t possibly” be a lesbian. But that’s what I thought I was, I told therapist after therapist. I could even sleep in the same bed as Alex, who I’d thought I was in love with at Oxford, and feel not the tiniest tingling at all. I decided to stop equivocating and put a bi-sexual advert looking for a girlfriend in Time Out. I referred to myself as an “exotic babe” and got stack loads of replies. I started leaving my shifts at Bush house to go on secret dates with sexy women instead. Indeed, horror of horrors, I bumped into someone I was working with at Newshour at a lesbian club, which led to many awkward moments over the photocopier. I went crashing around clubs in Soho with groups of lesbians, and did meet a TV producer I wanted to date. But I realised, when I was clubbing, that I would often be eyeing up the only man in the room. I did like women, but I realised I wasn’t gay. I’d just gone off men.

My father had told me I was ugly and too short and my head was too big. When I got into Oxford at the age of sixteen, he said “that’s all very well but why don’t you just grow.” He then carted me round to doctors who might make me grow. This precipitated a crisis where I became obsessed with having an operation to extend my legs, suitable only for dwarfs, that could have resulted in my legs being amputated. My father was prepared for me to go ahead, perhaps he wasn’t fully aware of the risks, but thank god I didn’t do it. He didn’t help my self-esteem by sitting around with his girlfriend taking the piss out of Jamaicans and saying that black people were “different” as they “had a different pelvis shape.” My father had a curious history. He’d married my black Jamaican mother in 1967, in defiance of his rich father who was a friend of Lord Lucan and supporter of apartheid South Africa. My grandfather, naturally, boycotted the wedding and didn’t speak to his son for five years afterwards. When I asked my father if he had married my mother to piss off his father, he was totally silent and went pale as a tub of Dulux Ultra White. My grandfather wasn’t the only member of my family who thought that black people were as equal as a wombat taking on a wildebeest in a war over turf. At my father’s hunting, shooting and racing family in Gloucestershire, I had to sit around as a child listening to black people being the butt of the joke. I consequently didn’t like hunting and tried to abscond and join the antis when I was dragged to the Boxing Day Meet at the age of eight. My (noisy) impersonation of the Fantastic Mr Fox went down like a lead balloon.

It wasn’t just my father who thought I was ugly. All the Sloane men in Chelsea I was hanging out with when I was a teenager, and all the boys on our inter-railing trips preferred my blonde best friend. Even Alex had rejected me.   I felt totally scorned by men and had turned to women instead. Though of course being me, only attracted to men who were unavailable or gay, and too scared to embrace being a lesbian, I was still a fucking virgin at 23.

But I soon learnt the advantages of being a young woman with a posh, sexy, voice. I could not only reel in the women on Time out with my profile recording but persuade men to do interviews as well. When I rang important men in hotel rooms late at night, they would fall over themselves to speak to the BBC telling me they “loved my voice.” If only I’d recognised my potential, I’d have set up a telephone sex line on the side. I realised I had a weapon in the interview wars, that there was a particular tone of voice, that would persuade most men to do an interview. But production was not for me. I wanted to be a reporter and that meant I had to go abroad.

Bi-lingual in Spanish and English, I decided I would go to Latin America and Spain. I set off for Cuba in 1993.

Next week: losing my virginity to Jesus, narrowly avoiding being possessed by a pig at a Voodoo ceremony in Cuba, and how lettuces failed to save the Cuban economy.