From Here to Timbuktu

The fabled city of Timbuktu, once the dazzling commercial and intellectual capital of the Songhay empire, is now just another impoverished desert town on the adventure holiday trail for affluent Western tourists. From Here to Timbuktu follows the fortunes of a group of tourists as they make their way by 4x4 and pinasse across the Mali desert. Cash–rich and time–poor, they want 'to see where life is raw.' Like Chaucer's pilgrims on the road to Canterbury, these travellers pass the time bickering, gossiping, flirting and falling out, eventually sharing the stories of their lives with humour and pathos. Written in Chaucer's rime royal, From Here to Timbuktu is a book about Third World poverty and First World consumption. It's a travelogue, a satire, an epic poem, and a journey across the savannah in a four–wheel drive from here – to Timbuktu.

Sample Poem

from Part I

When Europe groans with the sullen weight
Of winter clouds and frozen naked trees
And noonday sky is washed in lemon light,
We long to follow where the southern breeze
Lifts the swallows over lakes and seas
To where the sky spreads cobalt blue
Like a wedding sheet round Timbuktu.

The endless pressures of our working lives
Stifle us. We dream and long to free
Ourselves of children, husbands, wives
So for a hefty sum the company
Will sort adventure holidays in Mali
With tents and porters, cooks and guides
Across savannah in a four–wheel drive.

We're tourists from a range of English
Speaking countries. We journey far
Beyond the ordinary because we're rich
Enough to travel through the Sahara
And sneer at holidays that we'd think kitsch
And commonplace. No, that just won't do;
We'll grin and bear the road to Timbuktu.

We seem somewhat exhausted and time–poor.
We obey the gods of work and earning cash
But now we want to go where life is raw
And take a little risk, be slightly rash,
Drink palm wine and maybe smoke some hash.
We'll see how people live at slower speeds
And question our exaggerated needs.

The Mali women sway in dazzling colour
Gowns as if they owned the dusty ground
They walk on. Songhai, Peul and Fula,
Bambara and Dogon – we'll hear the sound
Of many ancient languages but dollars,
Euros, pounds and francs will speak for us
As we're driven in our air–conditioned bus.

Annoyingly our airplane is delayed;
We get at first to know each other's names
And countries and those who'd irritate
And those who'd play the shaky friendship game.
We slowly learn some simple facts, no shame
Or tragedies or traumas just the boring stuff
Careers and cities lived in, that's enough.
At last we take the Air France flight to Bamako.
Our 4x4 takes us to Mandé hotel
And we dine on French cuisine not local toh
And wash it down with Chardonnay, chilled well.
We're silent – spare with things to share and tell
But there's swimming in the lamp–lit pool
Where precious water's filtered fresh and cool.

Finally we meet our guides so lean and fit;
They're toned and tanned from all the treks.
Inez, the skinny Spanish woman hits
It off with all the men whose unruly sex
Is stirred by her in shorts and stretchy vest.
Dark–eyed, long–haired she's pretty and petite.
She has a smile of white and sharpened teeth.

Ben the other guide is English and polite.
He'll jolly us along to hide the fact
He hasn't done his homework and he's quite
At sea on information. His friendly act
Will charm us like his gentle sense of tact.
'Don't whine and whinge,' he'll say 'about your lot.
You knew it would be suffocating hot.'

So who is on this trip? From the US
Rick's a lawyer from the sunshine state
Who wears a cheap and uncool Walmart vest
And Cubans are the people whom he hates.
He takes on only cases that will make
Him rich and is irritated that his taxes go
To shiftless folk who live on welfare dough.

He's fifty but he doesn't have a wife
Just dates a string of pretty girl–friends
But dumps them when he's bored – a fun–filled life
Where thrilling pleasure doesn't have an end.
Commitment free. Like an oyster you depend
Upon yourself – buy health, install a gym
To build up pecs plus pool for daily swims.

Mike's a Londoner who deals in land
And property. He's in the know and makes
A profit by a legal sleight of hand.
He buys from those who've lost then takes
His time to see how much the market makes.
He came from East End poverty in Bow
But lives in luxury in Pimlico.

He's bought the very best in cameras
To document in style this scenic trip:
Wide screen to capture beast or human drama,
Zooms to snap tattoos on cheeks and lips.
His travel gear is crease–resistant hip.
Don't bother him with boring observations
Unless you have some left–field information.

Jasmine is the arts administrator
Successful through her taste and charm and guile.
Her Shoreditch flat has very little furniture;
The walls are painted white or grey. 'That's style,'
She says, eyeing people's painfully vile
Clothes. She knows who's cool, who's in, who's out,
Who's scene and puts herself to schmooze about.

She contemplates the crowded mini bus
And the need to share in two–bed tents.
'I find this rather dreadful. I really must
Refuse the plan. I need one to myself.
What if a fellow tourist farts or sweats?
Or what if someone's tedious or crude?
I haven't time for ignoramus dudes.'

'You'll have to take it as it comes,' says Ruth.
Her father was from Ghana: she's mixed race.
Her adoptive mother's from up North
And white. And though she doesn't tell the truth
She hardly knew her dad and not her roots
In Africa. She wishes she was really dark
And works on this with sun beds' UV arc.

She works in inner city Liverpool
With kids whose lives have drifted, mainly black.
She tries to get them back to normal school
Away from smoking ganja, skunk and crack
And gangs and violent failure, all that crap.
Her laughter and her swinging braided hair
Present a gaiety that isn't there.

Jay leans against the tourist travel bus
We'll travel in along the roads of Mali.
His face is weather–beaten; he'll cuss
A lot you'll see but he'll have had a belly
Full of moaning, spoilt tourists who fully
Understood there'd be no luxury hotels
Along the ancient routes of the Sahel.

From Ireland there's the zealous teacher Finn
Who's never had much zeal for making cash.
Though always laughing he is hurt within.
His gaze is dreamy. 'I need to turn my back
From children on the wrong side of the tracks.
Perhaps I'm in a rut, the endless job, the life.
I'm keen to wander now I've lost my wife.'

His clothes are crinkled, worn and loose;
His hair flops on his broad and freckled face.
He wears his ancient Gore–Tex walking boots
And drinks Malian beer by the case.
With i–pod on he thinks about his fate,
A happiness he'd had, a much loved wife,
Lost when cancer dragged her from this life

Renee adds she also won't be sharing tents
Any time soon and pulls her Zara t shirt
Over Dior jeans. She skilfully pretends
She's younger than her sixty three, still flirts
With her face–lifted smile – swivels her pert
Silhouette toned through workouts in the gym.
New York requires all women to be slim.

She's stringy rather, obsessed with what
She eats. Fish she's heard will give
Longevity and brain cells. Yoghurt
Skimmed of fat, milk thistle keeps her liver
Clean – her eyes are clear – not a sliver
Of cake will ever pass her plumped–up lips.
She swings on her best–buy, plastic hips.

She teaches dance, still flexes like a snake
And has a reptilian disposition.
She wants to know who's scene, who's on the make
Makes sure she knows the competition.
Age won't affect her skills as a tactician.
She's given parties for Big Apple's best.
Bob Dylan dropped by once as vaunted guest.

She married up – Manhattan's coolest pair
In town. He was something big in bonds
Venturing on brassy cash that wasn't there,
Rolled toxic assets, sucking oxygen
From normal fiscal life – the Napoleon
Of money speculation: obscene
To think that we must live within our means.


'rich and witty poems that jog along with rhythms and rhymes that Geoffrey Chaucer would have approved of heartily.'

Ellen Phethean

'a vivid, sensuous, compassionate and intelligent collection – each poem has an emotional and moral centre.'

James Simmons

'Sheer delight for its subject, its language, its wickedly funny, marvellously erotic feast of life.'

Anne Born

'amusing, joyous and indignant.'

Other Poetry

'a warm and witty, ultimately moving narrative.'

The Recusant