2004-01-01 The Tropical Telegraph 2003

Greetings from the north of Thailand, where it is now 'winter', and the locals are to be seen in scarves and woolly hats as the temperature plunges to +20?C or so in the early mornings and evenings. 'Cold, isn't it?' they say.

Just back from the UK (for the very last AGM of EQUUS and the definite end of that small era), with several days of grey skies, lowering clouds, persistent cold rain and really chilly temperatures in London, I am grateful that 'winter' here implies a rather different kind of climate.

I've been here over a year and a half now and am feeling settled and content: no thoughts of returning West for anything other than short trips and the occasional holiday. (Chai and I had a great time in August, when we whizzed round the UK seeing friends and staying in lovely places for three weeks.) It feels like home here - in our comfortable rented house, in this engaging city, with Chai and our friends.

This year, I've travelled enough to Sweden and the UK (and to lots, rather too many, other places) not to feel at all cut off, and a number of friends have kept their promises and visited us. The problem has been rarely having more than a few weeks at a stretch here before jetting off somewhere else.

Our biggest practical adventure this year has been the acquisition of a building with twenty-nine rooms for rent in it: a kind of student dormitory in the country on the edge of Chiang Rai. It was entirely Chai's idea and a project, not least, to keep his restless energies occupied. Peter McGrady, our ex-Sooty pupeteer friend from Balham, who intends to move out here eventually, went halves with us on the purchase. The building's only a year or so old, well-designed and in good condition, and near two large and growing higher education establishments. It won't make us rich, but is a useful asset and an interesting business to run.

For me the biggest step has been agreeing to work two days a week at the Phayao campus of Naresuan University. I'm called a Senior Academic Adviser and am responsible for providing advanced training in English for the staff, particularly those in the English Department, and for the University's output of documents in English.

I hadn't sought this occupation, but was energetically recruited by the President, whose sister-in-law had seen me perform at a conference in Bangkok. The campus is about 120 kms south from home, so more or less every week, I drive down early in the morning one day, stay the night in a room they've provided for me, and drive home the next evening.

(This now raises to five the number of establishments in which I have stocks of clothes, a stash of spare fags, jars of instant coffee and other necessities: Balham, Wappa (Sweden), Chiang Rai (main house and farm cottage), Phayao. It may all be getting out of hand.)

Anyway, the people at Naresuan are delightful and are queuing up for English lessons, many of them in order to achieve test-grades in English which will enable them to pursue PhDs abroad. Whether I shall want such a routine - however agreeable - in the long-term remains to be seen. It has been a rewarding entreČ into academic Thai society and there's a big job to be done. We'll see.

Back in Chiang Rai, the farm has continued to flourish. After planting 1,500 teak saplings and a few hundred other productive and decorative trees and shrubs this year, the stocking of the land is nearing its end: our pleasure now is primarily watching everything grow. Some of the coconut palms and other trees we put in two years ago now are well over three metres high, and most things grow at a rate which is astonishing to a European. We've recently has a long dry spell so progress has slowed a little.

We still have some thoughts about the possibility of building a small, exclusive resort (maybe three or four bungalows dotted about the hillside), but are uncertain about making such a commitment. We must wait, in any case, until electricity arrives sometime in the next year. (Roy and Ian, who recently visited, were happy to stay on the farm for a night with paraffin lamps: maybe the authentic experience of deep country would appeal to others too.)

The farm is a most beautiful place: rising several hundred feet to a bamboo-crowned summit, there are splendid views in almost every direction from the top: in one across the valley of the River Kok to the hills beyond; in another, to ranges of tree-clad hills fading into the misty distance; in another across the river to a tiny mountain-top temple, glistening white and gold in the sunshine. It's great, and when the bougainvillea and the hundreds of multi-coloured Thai irises are in bloom, a special joy.

The question of our final resting place is not settled: we have good reasons now for our principal residence to be here, but Chai's longing for the sea (and my own attraction to it too) mean that we may still look for somewhere in the south where he can fall out of his bed at dawn and fish from the doorstep. Our efforts to find somewhere this year came to nothing, but we are not impatient.

I've spent a good few days this year working in Uppsala and some time (though not enough) in the wooden house in the forest in Wappa. It's still as magical a place as ever, though my long-time partner-tenant and friend, Anna, has moved to the west coast of Sweden and will be pulling out. Maria, one of the original group from the late nineties, may move back. The house continues to be the scene of memorable conversations, great food and long, quiet periods of reading, writing or reflection. (Chai was there last year and may be again next: we are planning a sailing holiday in the Baltic with Ralph and Marie in the summer.)

There have been lots of trips to the UK (EQUUS AGMs, holiday in the summer, my mother's funeral), as well as others to Ghana, Italy and India - all great, but, as mentioned above, rather too many for someone who came east to settle down. (Chai is very patient with all this coming and going, and sometimes takes the opportunity of my absence to go away and visit his friends or family for a few days.)

My mother died in October, a few hours after a heart-attack. She was 86, and had been living in a pleasant country house home for elderly people for some years, near my brother's place. She had not recognised Iain and me for some time (not that I had been often enough to test her memory), though appeared to be well-settled and content in a distracted kind of way. She was the last of that generation in our tiny family, so Iain and I are the elders now.

She had not been my mother, I suppose, in any real sense, for such a long time that her passing itself was not the blow it might have been. But it was sad, not least, to feel that there was a good woman whose life did not seem to have delivered the happiness she dreamed of or the fulfilment her talents promised. In post-war Birmingham, she provided for her young sons magnificently: we were never aware of wanting for anything, but I doubt she found motherhood a satisfactory occupation in the end. I doubt she found life satisfactory, in the end.

Chai and I met Ian and Roy in Siem Reap in November and made our first visit to the Angkor temples. It was a great experience, not only the overwhelming temples themselves, but also the wonderful, vast forest setting where the ancient cities once existed, where there are still huge, ancient trees, but no sign at all of human habitation other than the royal residences.

The small piece of Cambodia we saw we enjoyed: warm, friendly people; good food; wonderful crafts (particularly stone and wood carving); and a persistent French influence (though we were told that all the speakers of French had been killed under the Khmer Rouge, possession of a second (European) language being regarded as evidence of bourgeois corruption).

There were large numbers of pitiful, limbless people, landmine victims, living and begging on the streets, and many signs of widespread poverty. The construction of lots of huge, posh hotels suggested that the face of the town (and its economy) will be undergoing a radical transformation in the years ahead. It's still very laid back, quite undeveloped in many ways. (We didn't get to Phnom Penh where things may look very different already.)

The four of us had a lovely day on a teak sampan on the great lake (TonlČ Sap - at the centre of Cambodia), transferring to flat, teak skiffs to be paddled through the crowns of the trees in the amazing 'flooded forest' where the giant trees spend months of the year almost underwater before the lake empties in the dry season. It was still and strange and beautiful among the tree tops.

Reading has occupied much of my spare time (quite a lot of it in airports) and I have actually written two chapters of a novel - the first time in years I have tried, and the first time ever I feel I might have something viable. Progress is, however, very slow. Among six thousand others I entered the Shell/Economist annual writing competition, but did not win a prize. Photographing our life and adventures remains a constant pleasure. (Lots of pics on the website, by the way.)

Chai and I continue to get on extremely well, having a great time relishing the differences between us as well as the profound and remarkable compatibilities. He is strong and well, having recovered completely from last year's TB. His immune system is sufficiently robust for his doctor to decide to postpone further medication. His father is very sick, and he's been to the far eastern parts of the country to supervise his hospitalisation and care. Now he's in Phuket for a few days of meeting up with old friends.

We'll be spending Xmas on the beach in Phuket again, celebrating the first anniversary of our exchange of rings, and the year in which we signed the Mayor of London's Partnership Register.

It's been great seeing friends here this year (with the promise of more to come next year), and having frequent email contact with old friends. Do come and see us and keep in touch!

Have a great holiday and a merry Christmas and all that.

Love and good wishes from