A beer with Ronnie Biggs

In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.

 In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.

I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said. 

The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry. Continue reading

Confessions of a lovesick schoolboy

My teenage years, the 1950s, were spent at the all-boys Wellingborough Grammar School, in Northamptonshire, England. More than half a century later, in the spring of 2016, I was asked to contribute some reminiscences for presentation to the 50th anniversary reunion of the nearby County High School for Girls. Here is what I sent.

You girls! I look at your school photos now, and they conjure a different age: you were sweet, wonderful, mysterious beings, in those pastel-coloured summer dresses and those little white socks. In the spring, London Road and the Broadway bus stops after school looked like clusters of butterflies … Continue reading

St. Mark’s, Venice, Good Friday, 2014

Heeding a friend’s advice that we probably wouldn’t get a chance to light a candle at St. Mark’s, given the way that tourists are herded through the cathedral at a gallop, we chose not to join the long, long lines attempting to get in.

However, a visit was by no means out of our sights. We had picked up a leaflet in Italian of the services planned for St. Mark’s for the Easter weekend, and spotted that they were doing a 9 p.m. veneration of the church’s seven sacred relics from Christ’s Passion that evening (Good Friday)—no tourists allowed. Continue reading

A small town in Ontario

For all its situation at the nexus of political power in Canada, Ottawa is a small town. This is no Rome or Paris or London. Helsinki might be nearer the mark, though without the history. The grand look that political edifices and their surroundings bestow on their capitals peters out in short order here. Continue reading