Wednesday, 2 December 2009

The Accidental Explorer

Rob Lilwall was teaching geography at a state school near Oxford when he decided to jack it in, take a one-way flight to the farthest reaches of Siberia and cycle back home to London on his mountain bike. No camera crew, sponsorship or book deal – just him, his Specialized Rockhopper, £8,000 life savings, an impressively flimsy tent and an adventurous spirit.

The obvious route would have been to cross Russia into eastern Europe and home. But part-way in, Lilwall decided to go via Australia. The detour doubled the length of his epic trip to three years and 30,000 miles.

He set out from Magadan, Russia, on a chilly September day in 2004 – accompanied on this first leg by his friend, Al Humphreys. “Everyone we met said, “Why have you come in September? In a month it will be winter,’” says Lilwall, 32. “They would warn us about wolves, bears, robbers, the biting cold: they all agreed we were going to die, they just couldn’t agree how.” Four days later, the snow arrived.

Temperatures reached -40 degrees. Lilwall’s water froze and his bike slipped and slid on the icy roads. His Royal Mail over-trousers – £10 from eBay – did little to keep out the chill. On the upside, frozen rivers were easy to cross and there weren’t any mosquitoes. “Cycling in winter fitted my plans, and it felt more epic,” he says. “But I was miserable – the coldest I’d ever been before was camping in Scotland.” But people offered them food and shelter, often several nights a week. “The more remote I was, the friendlier the people.”

After Siberia, he took a boat to Japan – “I was so happy to be alive” – then on to South Korea, China and Hong Kong. There, he waited three months for a passage to the Philippines with another Englishman, then picked his way down to Australia. It was there he nearly gave up. “I had malaria, I was homesick, exhausted, fed up and my money was running out,” he says. “But I thought, how would I feel if I went home early? That’s what kept me going.” That, and lecturing at schools about his trip to make ends meet.

In a world packed with professional adventurers, Lilwall cuts a charmingly innocent figure. He lacks the swagger and privilege of Bear Grylls, Ewan McGregor or Charley Boorman. He is slight, with a warm, sparky face and a cracking dead-pan wit.

He was ill-prepared for the trip. “I made up the route as I went along,” he says. “I didn’t know that part of the world, but I saw a string of islands from Japan to Australia so I thought it could be done.” He did no training, his kit was more suited to a festival than the world’s most hostile terrains, and he didn’t try to travel light, lugging War and Peace round Russia, never quite getting round to reading it.

Yet what he lacked in army-style preparation, you sense he made up for in personality, making friends easily and networking with aplomb. “I thought three months ahead – emailing anyone who might be able to help,” he says. His teaching must have given him confidence and a thick skin, and he seems relentlessly cheerful.

From Perth he took a freighter to Singapore, then cycled through Malaysia up to Vietnam, China again, and to Afghanistan via Tibet and Pakistan. By Turkmenistan, the mercury had hit +40 degrees, “easier than -40”.

Three friends joined him for the last leg through Europe. When he reached London, his new girlfriend Christine, whom he met in Hong Kong, was waiting for him. They married three months ago.

Then, a stroke of luck: a friend of Christine’s worked in publishing and suggested Lilwall send in a proposal. “Not feeling terribly confident, I did,” he says. It led to a book deal. Ten “emotionally consuming” months later it was finished, and published in September.

Lilwall filmed much of his trip, balancing his camera on a rock and cycling past cinematically, or trusting new-found friends with it. In one sequence, in Hanoi, he weaves elegantly through traffic to a stirring soundtrack: scruffy, serene, determined, a bit eccentric and unmistakably English. It’s very moving – one man and his bike against the world.

“Cycling Home From Siberia” is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price £12.99 (

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Queen of New York

Give me a celebrity red-carpet event or a copy of Grazia, and I will happily judge A-listers without pausing for breath. It’s so much fun: Meryl, sweetie, what are you wearing? Jen, Jen, he’s a waste of space. Brad, seriously – be a man. Who doesn’t love a good bitch?

Of course I’m an amateur. New Yorker Abe Gurko is a pro – he has turned razor-sharp social observation into an art-form. In his blog I Mean What?!? – peppered with OMGs and oys – he skewers celebrities, details fashion disasters and humiliates Republicans (his current obsessions are Sarah Palin’s erstwhile son-in-law-to-be, Levi Johnston, underwear-as-outerwear, and his dog, Woodstock).

His day job in events production and public relations in the fashion, design and entertainment industries throws him into regular contact with the celebrity classes – he is currently working with Carrie Fisher on her one-woman show, Wishful Drinking – but more importantly, gives his blog more ammunition.

Gurko and I met in Reykjavik (pictured) – smuggling pastries from our hotel’s breakfast room under the nose of the watchful maitre d’ and into the minibus waiting outside in the snow, tooting its horn. He was lively, conspiratorial company.

We were attending Iceland’s first design and fashion festival. Gurko works with one of the country’s best-known fashion designers, Steinunn Sigurdardottir, launching her clothing in the US a few years back. The trip was every bit as fabulous, wierd and beautiful as you’d expect. I met creative people, coveted expensive knitwear, swam in hot springs, ate a lot of fish and partied in downtown Reykjavik – a street away from uptown Reykjavik (it’s a small place).

Gurko blogs every morning. “I’m up early anyway,” he says, “so I put on a pot of coffee, read the news online and decide who’s really annoying me that day. It’s usually people who think they’re all that – there’s such an arrogance that comes with celebrity. I am a bitchy queen, but I’m political too. And I’m honest about what I say, even if it alienates people.”

He is wasted in print. In person, Gurko is like Carrie Bradshaw's acerbic, Jewish, gay best friend: no surprise, then, that he’s developing an online fashion news show. Oh, and auditioning to be the best friend of a celebrity on her reality show. A real-life version of a fictional character on a TV show may become a real-life fake character on a reality show... Only in New York.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

On Beauty

I’ve never had lunch with a supermodel before, but if I’d ever given it a moment’s thought (ok, I admit I did, back in school), Helena Christensen would be top of my list. To my teenage self, she seemed the most intelligent, interesting and likeable one. I tried to copy her sexy-hippy look. I remember her tiny Copenhagen apartment photographed for British Vogue – an elegant hall table scattered with Polaroids from ‘her latest shoot’; a small, faded painting of an old Chinese lady; pots and pans suspended over a kitchen hob. One day, I told myself, I’m going have that life. I’m still working on it.

I met her yesterday at Shoreditch House: she is starring in a new campaign to make Habitat come across as warmer, friendlier and cosier. Why approach a supermodel, you might ask. But Christensen, with Danish ‘hygge’ oozing from every pore, seems a good fit (see Oliver Burkeman’s article on hygge).

She is, of course, beautiful – in a natural, non-freakish way. She is slim, not skinny. She had messy shoulder-length hair, grey painted nails, smudgy black eyeliner, and wore a short, slouchy black jersey dress and black patterned tights. She had a mid-Atlantic/Euro accent. She ate a hearty lunch, knocking back wine and dessert.

She is obsessed with vintage Danish design, and rips pages from interiors magazines: “I board planes with piles of them, ripping away. When I look through them again, months later, I often can’t remember why I tore a page out,” she says. “So I study it until I find the one small thing that made me keep it.” She is chatty, polite, funny, curious, open, intelligent, and cracked constant jokes with the half-dozen people there – the fact we weren't interviewing her no doubt made her more relaxed. She would be a great dinner party guest.

I realise none of this is extraordinary or, to many, interesting. Yet different rules seem to apply to the famous and the beautiful: don't we feel a thrill when we discover that someone like Christensen is, in fact, normal and nice – as if that alone is an achievement? For the rest of us, this is surely the minimum requirement, after which we usually have to do something.

But she does has an interesting, enviable life. She has just returned from Peru – she is half-Peruvian and speaks Spanish – where she was photographing evidence of climate change for an exhibition heading, via the UN Headquarters in New York, for Copenhagen in December. She was off to Paris after lunch, on Eurostar. She lives in New York, summers at her Danish beach house, raises her son.

Beauty, along with material wealth, is proven not to make us happy. My favourite positive psychologist (I know how that makes me sound), Sonia Lyubomirsky, says: “We simply don’t focus on our appearance when thinking about how happy we are. Good-looking people aren’t any happier. Becoming objectively more beautiful will not make most of you happier. Coming to believe you are beautiful is another story, and research suggests that this may be one of many happiness boosters.”

That is another story. But beauty has given Christensen the means to live a fabulous, glamorous and – apparently – happy life, so perhaps Lyubomirsky is wrong.

Christensen still has her tiny apartment in Copenhagen – in cobbled Christianshavn, round the corner from my brother-in-law. It says H Christensen on the front – in Denmark, by law, you must put your name on your door.

She hugged – or should that be hygged – me tight when I left: a proper squeeze, not an air-kiss. My teenage pronouncement turned out to be right, after all.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

"I simply fell in love with that glorious food"

I hadn't heard of Julia Child before I visited the US last month. Now, after a series of Julia-related incidences and coincidences, I feel I know this remarkable woman well.

First, I saw Julie & Julia. Next, while visiting the Smithsonian in Washington with my friend Ellen (we spent most of the time in the shop), I stumbled on Child's kitchen, which she donated to the museum in 2001. Then I found myself on Olive Avenue, a street in Georgetown, DC, lined with cute clapboard house where – I later discovered – Child used to live.

But best of all, I read her memoir, My Life In France, and discovered a spirited, curious, no-nonsense, sexual, determined woman: extremely tall, extremely loud and very, very funny.

Child was America's more fabulous answer to Elizabeth David. She bought French cooking to Americans – then just discovering the delights of meals-on-a-plate – in the form of her best-selling 1961 book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She went on to host, exuberantly, several series of cookery programmes. She died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday.

Her husband, Paul Child, was posted to France in 1948, and Julia fell instantly in love with the country, its people and, most of all, its food. She found everything "terribly exciting" in a Joyce Grenfell, hockey-sticks sort of way, and was unfazed and amused by most things life threw at her.

She started lessons at Cordon Bleu – and found her calling. She spent hours at home, experimenting. On mastering mayonnaise she wrote: "I thought it was utterly fascinating. By the end of my research, I believe, I had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history. I made so much mayonnaise that Paul and I could hardly bear to eat it anymore, and I took to dumping my test batches down the toilet." She sent her tried-and-tested recipe to friends in the US. "All I received in response was a yawning silence. Hm! I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged," she wrote.

Above all, I loved Julia and Paul's relationship. They had enormous fun together. Everything and everyone had a nickname: their apartment on 81 Rue de l'Universite in Paris was christened 'Roo de Loo'. Their Buick station wagon was 'The Blue Flash' – mutating into a verb ("We Flashed into Rouen..."). They posed for silly photos on Valentine's Day (see below, in 1956). They were deeply in love, an apparent meeting of souls.

They met while working for the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA, during the Second World War, first in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), then China. He was 42, cultured, a "natty dresser" and dated lots of women. She was 32, inexperienced but game. They discovered a shared love of trying exotic food. "I was lucky to marry Paul," she wrote. "I hated being without my husband. Paul and I liked to travel at the same slow pace. He always knew so much about things, discovered hidden wonders, noticed ancient walls or indigenous smells, and I missed his warm presence. Once upon a time I had been content as a single woman, but now I couldn't stand it!"

It has been written that meeting Paul was the point in her life when Julia was found. "I was a late bloomer who was still growing up. I didn't get started on life until I was about thirty-two, which was good because I was old enough to appreciate it. I had it all ahead of me."

Photograph (top) by Arnold Newman, 1970.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Blood On The Tracks

A freshly retired crime correspondent might be happy to hang up his mac and never darken the Old Bailey again. Not Duncan Campbell. “I get terrible withdrawals,” he says when he reads about cases such as the recent £40m jewellery robbery in Mayfair. “It was exciting, fascinating, another world. There was never a dull moment.”

He has an expert's eye: the Mayfair robbers, for example, enlisted a make-up artist from a salon in Covent Garden to alter their appearances. “That was a mistake,” he says, knowingly. “The inside man is always the weak link. They’re the ones that crack”.

But he also has a writer’s feel for crime’s black, often comical, turn of events. “There was the 1991 tale of the Suffolk barrister’s wife and her flying instructor lover who plotted to kill her husband by luring him naked into the living room and drowning him in the duck pond in a fake lawnmower accident. Whatever happened to them?”

Campbell, a law graduate, covered some of Britain’s biggest cases: James Bulger, Stephen Lawrence, Rosemary West. But he doesn’t fit the profile of a hard-bitten hack: he’s a self-confessed hippy, former commune-dweller, world traveller and culture fan – when we meet, he’s just back from a week at the Edinburgh Festival.

In this latter respect he’s no different, he says, from many criminals. “The crowd I got to know best were bright armed robbers who’d got degrees in prison. On the outside they were all ‘fucking this, fucking that’. But they were extremely well-read. One told me he was reading Virginia Woolf’s ‘To The Lighthouse’. When I mentioned this to another robber, he sucked his teeth: ‘It’s not her best.’

“The police were the same, listening to Bob Dylan, quoting Harold Pinter. You couldn’t put them in a novel, they’d be too florid. It was a great lesson in never to assume anything about anybody.”

Campbell’s first big case was the Torso Murder in 1977, which he covered for Time Out: back then it had a radical news section. The wrong people were convicted – Bob Maynard and Reg Dudley, victims of a witness who later admitted to Campbell he’d made up his evidence. They were eventually cleared but only after 20 years in jail. It was Campbell’s first proper brush with wrongful imprisonment, a cause he has a championed ever since.

He joined the Guardian in 1987, aged 42, after a couple of tries. His most memorable trial was Rose West – convicted in 1995 of 10 charges of murder of young women and girls. “What struck me most was how all that horror had taken place in such a small space,” he says of Cromwell Street. Reporting on the trial was like covering the end of a more innocent time, he says, and it marked a sea change in how seriously crimes against women were taken.

He stood in the dock himself in 1997, when the police sued the Guardian for libel over an article Campbell had written about police corruption. “I didn’t sleep the night before,” he says. Against the odds, the paper won. “We had a smart jury. But it made me more cautious about everything I wrote after that.” Operation Jackpot subsequently became one of the biggest inquiries into police corruption.

Seeking a change, Campbell headed to Los Angeles as the paper’s correspondent. “Someone once said LA is a a great place to live, but you wouldn’t want to visit. I agree – it has many layers, but you have to unpeel them slowly.” The job took him far afield: Colombia, Chile, Mexico, even Sydney.

Unlike many young thrusters, Campbell was 26 – almost certainly a ripe age in 1971 – when he realised he wanted to be a journalist. So he took himself, his long hair and his bell-bottoms off to India in search of adventure and stuff to write about.

He kept a journal from that long trip, which also took him east to Laos, Thailand, Singapore and Hong Kong. “I’m glad I did: you think you’ll remember things, but you don’t.” He discovered it when he came to write his debut novel, 2008’s thriller The Paradise Trail, set in a traveller’s hostel in Calcutta in 1971. It’s full of delicious period details: the books (Siddhartha), the music (Velvet Underground) and the late-night discussions over a smoke (how to change the world and what Bob Dylan lyrics really mean). “I loved writing it.”

His second novel, If It Bleeds, is a thriller about a British crime correspondent on a national newspaper (the title refers to the news editor’s axiom ‘If it bleeds, it leads’). “It’s a strange world, writing fiction. You end up giving away a bit of yourself,” he says.

“You were a bit of a hippy back then,” said Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger at Campbell’s leaving party a few months ago. “Still am,” said Campbell proudly. Hippy ideals, crime writing and campaigning against injustice, it seems, do go hand in hand after all.

If It Bleeds and The Paradise Trail are published by Headline.

Photograph: Beth Evans (

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pro Patria Mori

“It’s ok, I didn’t know him real well. He was on my Dad’s side, I think.” The middle-aged lady, a little moist-eyed, her husband and young son had found Barry A Bidwell on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC. They’d been looking hard: it’s an extraordinary structure, a long, L-shaped walkway complete with 58,256 names of men who died or remain missing from that war.

I had memorial fatigue by the time I made a right by the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial, after already visiting the World War II memorial, Washington Monument, Ulysses S Grant memorial, White House and US Capitol. I also had Memorial Back – it’s a bit like Tennis Elbow but lower down.

But with the Vietnam memorial, that vanished. It was unexpectedly moving. A young boy sat with his father looking up at it (pictured, above). “Some of these guys volunteered,” said the father in a southern baritone. “But a lot of them were drafted. Do you know what that means?" His son shook his head. "They took the ones who weren’t doing real well in school and made them sign up.” I think there was another lesson going on there, too.

The ranks of names – all but Barry A Bidwell anonymous and without any human context – reminded me of recent front pages back home of those killed in Afghanistan. How big will those memorials be?

As I left, another young boy asked his father, “Dad, was Vietnam the Second World War?” “No,” he replied wearily. “The Second World War was different. Vietnam was, well it was Vietnam.”

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Happiness Gurus

Are these young Indian boys happy? They certainly look it, posing for my friend Christian at Humayan's Tomb in Delhi last year.

In fact, after reading a stack of nine heavy books on the subject of happiness, and interviewing the academics who wrote them, I can say with a small degree of authority that these boys are probably happier than many Western people with more money, bigger houses and greater opportunities.

"It's hard for us to believe," says Sonja Lyubomirsky, University of California, "but it's not our job, marriage or looks that make us unhappy, it's our behaviour." All agree: it's how we think about, and react to, things that happen to us that determine our happiness. Even better, we get to choose how we think or react. I found this an uplifting concept. "There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so", wrote Shakespeare in Hamlet. They all quote Shakespeare: he was the original positive psychologist.

One simple way to do this is to find the good in situations, says Barbara Fredrickson, University of North Carolina. "The bus to work, say: you could either count yourself lucky the route is long enough for you to read your book. Or you could worry if the car would have been quicker."

There are a few fundamental things we all need in order to be happy – or, as Lyubomirsky believes, things happy people naturally possess. One of the most important is to surround ourselves with people. "We need others to be happy," says Jonathan Haidt, University of Virginia. "We were made for love, friendship and family – so reduce your solitary activities." Another is to find a 'calling' – an interest or, ideally, job so absorbing you get lost in the flow of doing it. Importantly, it should be something you're good at.

All agree – and it's well-documented – that money and stuff don't make us happier. They may give us instant pleasure, but we quickly adapt to our new-found wealth/over-priced shampoo and return swiftly to our original level of happiness. Instead, says Haidt, "spend your money on 'experiences – a holiday, a great meal – rather than material objects. Work less, earn less, accumulate less," he says.

We should be braver, says Daniel Gilbert, Harvard University. "Studies show people regret not having done things more than things they did. Why? Because we can tell ourselves we learned something from the experience. Even more interesting, a real blow – a failed relationship, a lost job – trigger our psychological defences more than a small one. So we should "blunder forward", says Gilbert, "and choose action over inaction". As a serial blunderer myself, I love this idea.

Finally, it's the small things that count. "Savour life's joys – linger over a chocolate pastry rather than mindlessly consuming it," says Lyubomirksy. "Don't ruminate," says Fredrickson. "Endless mulling doesn't do any good." Be kind, write down your feelings if you're a bit sad, and be grateful. Do I feel happier after my summer reading list? You bet I do.

Photograph: Christian Schirmer

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

King of the World

The one question I want to ask Bill Goodland (pictured in red at the top of the world's highest mountain) when we sit down for coffee is so obvious I can’t bring myself to do it. Luckily, I don’t have to. “Everyone’s been asking how it feels to reach the summit of Everest,” he says, which he did on May 19 this year. “Relief. It’s overwhelming: in that moment you’re excused from all the pressure you’ve put yourself under to reach the top. I'd told all my friends about my trip – so to know I wouldn’t have to be forever explaining why I didn’t quite make it was a huge relief.”

We’d been discussing his fellow climbers. Was there any awkwardness after he made it and some of them didn’t? “Yes. We tiptoed around each other for 24 hours, and many who hadn’t summited left early. It was a bittersweet experience.”

But social pressure and post-climb etiquette aside, how does it feel to stand on top of the world? “You get to sit down. You get to stop walking. It’s sort of that simple.”

Climbing Everest involves a lot of walking up and down the mountain to acclimatise to the altitude. You inch up, camp by camp, back and forth, until you adjust. Then, when you’re within sight of the summit at Camp Three, you head all the way back down, past Base Camp, to relax, build up your strength for the final climb and wait for good weather.

Goodland found this frustrating. “This way of climbing, the way [Edmund] Hillary did it, doesn’t suit most people. Altitude saps your strength, but acclimatisation makes the climb gradually easier. At some point, the two cross – ideally at the summit.

“For me, it happened about two weeks before that. The first time I reached Camp Three, I felt great and was ready to go on. The second time was worse, but that’s when I continued up to the top.” What would he do differently? “I’d start the climb later in the season. I’d be surprised if, in 20 years time, things aren’t done that way.”

Everest is well-chronicled: the cold, the wind, the frostbite – “That was one of my biggest fears, losing my nose or something.” What you don’t hear so much about is the boredom. Before the final push, the team holed up in a village called Pheriche, below Base Camp. “There is absolutely nothing to do apart from walk round the village one way, then the other way, then go and talk to the yaks," wrote Goodland in his excellent blog of the trip. “Luckily the next village along has a tiny internet cafe in a shed (from where I'm typing this), so my daily routine (after discussions with the yaks), includes a walk over the mountain for a couple of minutes online.”

The summit team was accompanied as far as Base Camp by a lively group of trekkers (I met them all in Snowdonia in February. We laughed a lot and they drank everyone else under the table.) “I was very sorry when they left,” he says. “They were a broader mix of people and ages, and more interesting than [us climbers]. We were quite similar: mid-life crisis single men who work in IT.”

What was the highlight of his trip? “The icefall was fun,” he says – great stacks of ice that shift around, pitted with crevasses. "You clamber over it, like a giant adventure playground." Wasn’t he scared? “You’d have to be jolly unlucky to be squashed by a falling piece of ice.”

But his favourite moment was on summit day, just before dawn. His group set off for the top in the dark. “When the sun rose, over Tibet, you could actually see the curvature of the earth. Sunrise also meant we were nearly there."

And his secret for climbing the world’s highest mountain? “Think only of the day ahead. You need a sort of Zen-like understanding of what the climb involves – and that even when you’re going down instead of up, it’s still part of the journey.”

Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Escape from east Germany

Christiane and Ulf Beuck were young, in love, living behind the Berlin Wall under East Germany’s repressive regime and dreaming of escape. In June 1989, exactly 20 years ago, they took action. “We were never politically active,” says Christiane, who I interviewed while researching a piece on the Stasi, the East German secret police. “We were too scared of the reprisals. Besides, we didn’t think we could make a difference. But we did decide to escape. If that sounds contradictory, well, it was easier to try to flee the state than be political.”

She was 21, Ulf 22. They planned to escape into Austria – the west – via Hungary: the Austrian/Hungarian border was being dismantled, so they knew it was their only way out.

“We arrived at the border three days before our attempt, and walked up to the fence to check it out,” says Christiane. “Beyond were a wood and a steep hill, in Austria. The next morning, we chose a spot near a border guard tower – so we could keep an eye on it – and took cover, aiming to wait until it got dark. But at around 3pm a huge storm broke. ‘This is our chance,’ we thought. We assumed the guard would take shelter.”

Ulf cut through the fence with a pair of shears. “We crawled under and ran up the steep hill. After a short while, I noticed someone was behind us,” she says. “Then I heard shots – it was the guard. I didn’t know if he was aiming at us or just shooting in the air to scare us. Either way, from then on I felt crippled. Ulf was screaming at me to keep going, but I couldn’t put one foot in front of the other.”

“The guard caught up with us. We tried to reason with him, offered him money. But he couldn’t help, he said, otherwise – and he drew his finger across his throat. After a while another, tougher, guard joined him. He was pretty pissed off at having to climb the hill in the rain. He forced Ulf on to the ground with his hands behind his head, and held a gun at his neck. I saw stars, I screamed, I cried, ‘Don’t shoot!’ They put us in a jeep and took us to a nearby barracks. After our arrest we were sent back to East Germany, to a jail for political prisoners. Our trial was set for August 18, 1989 but it never took place: the political situation was changing, and East Germany was forced to release any political prisoners who’d been caught at the Hungarian border.”

“But we were still stuck in the east,” says Christiane. “So we lodged a request to move to the west. Two months later it was accepted, and a date set: November 10. The night before, the Berlin Wall came down, all the borders opened, so we passed through legally, along with everyone else. If we’d known that, we’d never have tried to escape. But if it wasn’t for people like us, the borders might never have opened. So, maybe, in our own tiny way, we contributed to that.”

Photograph: Michael Danner (

Thursday, 4 June 2009


Lady Macpherson, 78 (pictured, top), is sitting in the front room of her dainty London mews house having her hair cut. There is much giggling. Her identical twin sister, Anne Mallinson arrives a few minutes later. She lives around the corner, a few doors from Tony Blair, in a magnificent 1830s townhouse she “downsized” to when her brood flew the nest.

Anne bustles me downstairs to make coffee while her sister, Jean, gets a blow dry. “Now, tell me all about yourself,” she twinkles, even though I am here to interview her. We talk eyebrow threading, being a twin, children and my career. She’s warm, witty and conspiratorial.

Upstairs, the hairdresser leaves. “She was half an hour late,” Jean tuts in her Scottish lilt, before the poor girl is out of earshot. There is wet hair on the floor. “Have you been plucking birds?” asks Anne.

Jean and Anne were born in 1930 in Manchester, to liberal parents who were friends with the then Manchester Guardian founder CP Scott. They were evacuated during the war, first to Devon then to Canada. Jean, an ill, asthmatic child, married at 23 to Tommy, now Sir Tommy, Macpherson, a war hero. (He shuffles in later and shakes my hand – a good military grasp.) On her wedding day she was so frail, Anne had to stand in for her. Anne was married the following year. Unlike some identical twins, they married quite different men. Though they have the same initials: TSM.

These grand ladies live in a different London to me: one where the local parade of shops – upmarket florists, boutiques – feels like a village where everyone knows you. Where everyday London life – tubes, corner shops, buses – doesn't intrude.

Anne was the first female Lord Mayor of Westminster, and is still active with committees and charities. She gets tons of free tickets, which Jean steals. “I’m a sponger!” Jean ran the family estate in Scotland: her eldest son has now taken over.

They often get mistaken for each other. Once or twice a year they take part in twin research at King’s College – eye tests, blood tests, bone tests.

“We’re sometimes there all day – we once got a £2 sandwich voucher,” says Jean.

“But we got a parking fine the same day,” says Anne.

“We do memory tests, too,” she adds.

“I don’t remember those,” says Jean. And they throw back their heads and laugh.

Photographs: Mark Johnson (