Monthly Archives: July 2013

Christina Dodwell – Explorer

I’ve slept with six snoring reindeer herders: Susan de Muth in bed with Christina Dodwell


Wednesday, 25 May 1994
Christina Dodwell, 43, has been travelling for the past 20 years. She writes books and makes radio programmes about her voyages. She is based in London, but is now somewhere in Madagascar.

WHEN I start dreaming that I’m riding an elephant through the Milky Way, I know my subconscious is kicking me back into action: it’s time to pack a rucksack and flick through my atlas, trying not to have any preconceptions about where to go.

Travel is a wonderful emptiness just waiting to be filled, and I love not knowing what will happen next. I never know where I’m going to sleep at night: the art of travelling is being able to sleep anywhere, at any time, and to stay that way. Improvisation is all – any fool can be uncomfortable.

I often camp out but never use a tent. It’s too conspicuous to loiterers and the curious. But most of all, I don’t want to be cut off from the night. I put my sleeping bag on piles of dried grass, on top of springy bushes, on the ‘hot rocks’ after my fire dies down – whatever I can find – and sleep with the sky above me. In lion country, I suspend my hammock between two trees, and wake with a ripe mango or avocado within arm’s reach for breakfast.

Night is very much for sleeping because, when I’m travelling, I get so tired – but every so often there is a spectacular exception.

Once I was on horseback in South Africa, and the moonlight was so incredibly bright that I just kept riding over these silver hills, through a landscape transformed into a black-and-white negative. And how could I merely sleep in the desert when, lying on top of a sand dune, I could see the galaxies moving and count shooting stars?

When I embarked on my first journey – it lasted three years – I still had my childhood fear of the dark. Then one night by the Congo river, my camp was attacked by bandits. As I waded through pitch-black, crocodile-

infested waters to save my canoe from their clutches, I suddenly realised I wasn’t scared any more. There simply wasn’t time.

I refined my ‘tested exits from tight corners’ in Iran. If you deal with uninvited nocturnal visitors calmly, they’ll often give up any dastardly intentions and say: ‘Would you like to visit our village in the morning?’ Sometimes they’re just curious and wake you to have a look at you.

Nevertheless, in my experience all the worst things do happen at night. In Kenya, I was sitting by my camp fire when I was bitten by a spider. Within half an hour I was completely paralysed. Involuntary muscular spasms shot the poison up and down my spine – it was mind-blowingly painful.

I thought I might die and that this night would never end. When dawn finally came, it was extraordinarily beautiful . . . and it brought redemption in the form of some tribesmen who watched over me for the next 10 days until I could move again.

I love solitude, with nothing to remind me of humanness for days on end, associating only with the weather and the earth. I often indulge this antisocial streak, yet have also enjoyed the enormous hospitality of people around the world.

Last year in Kamchatka (east of Siberia) I joined up with a group of reindeer herders for a month. It was minus 40C and I was glad to sleep in a tent, huddled up with six men, listening to six varying snores.

Unwelcome sexual advances have been rare. People in the developing countries tend to accord me the privileges and respect due to a male because I am doing what their women cannot do. It was out of consideration rather than lechery that some young men in Papua New Guinea once politely said to me: ‘We hear you’re alone and travelling a long way. Would you like some sex?’ I asked them for directions instead, and no one was offended.

I finally got married three years ago – to an Englishman. It’s hard for Stephen when I travel, but he knew I wasn’t going to sit in the kitchen studying new recipes. Of course, I miss him when I’m away – especially at night – but I wouldn’t want to take him with me. I need to rely on my own inner resources, otherwise it’s a completely different experience.

I feel at home wherever I am in the world – security has nothing to do with walls and houses, it is inside you. But I do love opening my own front door when I return, and knowing that I’ve got a bed to sleep in . . . though I’m still not quite used to always finding someone in it.

Christina Dodwell’s latest book, ‘Beyond Siberia’, is available in paperback from Sceptre, price pounds 6.99.

Feng Shui Expert Derek Walters: Never Sleep with Your Feet to the Door

Never sleep with your feet to the door: Susan de Muth in bed with Derek Walters


Wednesday, 9 February 1994
On the eve of the Chinese New Year, Derek Walters, one of the West’s leading Chinese astrologers and an expert in Feng Shui, describes his nocturnal habits. Mr Walters lives in Manchester with Leo, a ginger tom.

I was born in 1936, which makes me a Rat. Rats in Chinese astrology are characterised by their high level of nocturnal activity. I tend to come alive around midnight, which is when I do my most inspired work, either writing or devising astrological computer programs.

My computer is in front of a large window and I can see the stars as I work. I have an ancient Chinese astronomical map which I refer to and it’s marvellous to see the same things in the sky that were recorded 2,000 years ago. As I look up into the night sky I am often struck by the awesome thought that there is nothing much between me and the edge of the universe.

Chinese astronomy identifies different groupings from those we are familiar with: Orion, for example, is seen as two distinct constellations. And in astrological terms, every star in the universe has significance. The Pole Star is the emperor, and the stars around it are his court. The smallest, furthest, dimmest stars represent people like you and me.

I usually have a break from work at about 1am and take Leo for a walk. People don’t realise that cats have a lot of affection and want to relate to you: they love going for walks just like dogs. Generally, lo and behold, at least half a dozen other cats will join the procession, taking their own ways – under cars and through bushes. I talk to them as we go, and they sometimes reply. What do they say? ‘Miaow,’ of course.

Leo responds to music. Every night before I start work I play the piano, which I experience as a kind of meditation. The cat sits on top of the telephone, closes his eyes, and listens to a Bach fugue with great pleasure.

I love cats. Before I had Leo I had cat substitutes, and these now inhabit my bedroom. I’ve got about 50 ornamental cats, as well as two beautiful Chinese silk embroideries of cats on the wall. On my bed is an old tartan travelling rug which I took with me on my many voyages during the Fifties and Sixties.

My most enduring nocturnal memories are from those times. I went all over the Balkans and took the Orient Express to Moscow. There is nothing quite like standing on a dark platform in Transylvania waiting for a steam train, or pulling into Istanbul at dawn. I always travelled at night and went sightseeing in the daytime.

I don’t particularly remember sleeping during those journeys. I’d always find my fellow passengers, often from five or six different countries, too interesting. However, I recall that I once made myself a little bed and slept up a tree on an island off the coast of what was then Yugoslavia. I went to a lot of places that aren’t on the map any more.

Those journeys I made in my twenties are still the most constant theme of my dreams, even though I have travelled to many more exotic and faraway places since then. I don’t feel any regret for those times. They’re just memories. It’s like looking at old photographs. I find it interesting to fall asleep wondering where I’ll go back to this time.

I like to get my sleep these days – put my batteries on charge for a good eight hours. I’ve found the best way to go off is to do the Times crossword in bed. I have carefully planned my bedroom according to Feng Shui principles.

Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese art of arranging things for maximum peace, harmony and good fortune. I would never sleep under beams, for example – they give you pains where they cross your body. Nor would I place my bed with the feet pointing to the door – that makes you liable to nightmares and ill health: the Chinese take out their dead feet first]

The direction your bedroom faces is very important. As a child, an eastern prospect will give you the energy of sunrise; as an old person, facing west will give you the tranquillity of the setting sun. My bedroom faces north, which is perfect for a middle-aged Rat still set on following his life direction.

Derek Walters will be offering personal astrological consultations for the Year of the Dog from 10-13 February at Neal Street East, 5 Neal Street, London WC2. Details: 071-240 0135.

(Photograph omitted)

Ruby Venezuela (of Madame Jo-Jos): I Went on Stage Dressed as a Bed

Ruby Venezuela is the star and director of drag extravaganzas performed nightly at Madame Jo Jos club in Soho. Brian Pearce is Ruby’s alter ego.

‘RUBY has about 15 costume changes a night, but as soon as the last one’s off I’m Brian again. I always go home to bed as Brian – I am not a transvestite, I’m a drag artiste.

‘One night I’d had too much to drink, I was exhausted; I didn’t bother to change and took a cab back home. I woke up in the morning, stumbled into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and there was Ruby, complete with wig, make-up, the lot. I nearly jumped out of my skin. It was the most terrible shock. I sloshed on the vegetable oil and wiped it all off as fast as I could. There was make-up everywhere. It was a great relief to see Brian’s rosy round face again, I can tell you – even if he is a little bit balding.

‘Ruby is great fun. She’s saucy, kitsch and completely over the top. However tired I feel when I arrive at the club, as soon as I’m in costume it’s show time. As Brian I enjoy Ruby very much, but I’m not as naughty and jokey as she is, and I’d never dare send people up the way she does. Sometimes people have invited me for dinner and I realise when I get there that it’s purely for entertainment value. They think I’ll be a scream like Ruby, and I do resent that; I don’t mind if they invite me as Ruby, that’s different.

‘It amazes me when people think Ruby is a real woman. Middle-aged women come up to me and say: ‘Do you dress like that in the daytime?’ No woman would make herself up like that – with eyebrows half way up her forehead.

‘The eyebrows are glued on, and it hurts when I take them off. Getting out of costume when the club closes is, in a way, ritualistic. It’s a symbol of changing persona. I always shave in the evening, before I go out to the club; that’s like removing Brian in some way. I don’t feel confused, I feel equally at ease as both Brian and Ruby.

‘I go to bed when most people are getting up. I hate sleeping – I’m very energetic and it’s such a waste of time. The most I sleep is six hours. I get furious when I’m tired. But I do get ideas for the shows and costumes in dreams; I have the most wonderful dreams – all in glorious Technicolor. Walking up the stairway to paradise with angels and harps going . . . that sort of thing. A number where the boys were flowers in pots and I was a bumblebee came to me in a dream, for example; so did one featuring a stripping skeleton.

‘My career as a drag entertainer all began in bed. I had a broken ankle and was laid up with it for weeks in a hotel in Plymouth. I was terribly bored so I made up parodies of well-known songs and camped it up a bit for friends. The hotel manager said: ‘Do that in the bar downstairs, I’ll give you a booking every Thursday.’ ‘I can’t,’ I said, ‘I’m too drunk.’ But I did, on a stool, wearing a long cape with my crutches hidden underneath.

‘I just love being Ruby and entertaining people of all ages and types. We even get the odd granny celebrating a birthday in the club. I don’t go in for swearing. And you don’t have to be blue to be saucy.

‘Even if I won a fortune, I wouldn’t give it up. I get terribly bored on holiday and stay up till the early hours every night just out of habit, but there’s nothing to do. I’d rather people didn’t know how old I am – for Ruby’s sake – but I’ll go on until the last bit of stardust has dropped; become an over-the-top Sophie Tucker type.

‘Sometimes I’m up round the clock, I’m at the club till at least 4 am six nights a week and we often carry on drinking afterwards at another club. At the moment I’m working on a television quiz show and I do as many private parties as I can. I get asked to do the weirdest cabarets for the weirdest people: like 25 international bankers at the Bank of England. They’re the ones that want it extra risque, too.

‘I design and make all my own costumes. My bed doubles as a cutting table when I’m making up the costumes. I stick pins right through the fabric, which can have horrific consequences. You get into bed and then wow . . . a pin where it hurts most. I sleep alone, fortunately. I don’t have a lover, I’m too busy. I can’t deal with all that sort of thing. I moved my auntie in downstairs and I take care of her. She’s such a dear; I’m all she’s got and she’s all I’ve got.

‘I once came on stage dressed as a bed. Every night for six months I did this solo number that was so obscure everyone thought I was absolutely insane. I came on with frilly pillows behind my head and a duvet right down to the ground. It was so wide I had to come on sideways and so authentic it even had a cigarette burn on it. I stood there and sang: ‘I’d rather have you, but instead / I’ve only got crumbs in my bed’. They loved it]’