My first travel stories were published in Mayfair Magazine (the gentleman's periodical that was always 'bought for the articles') and Aquarist and Pondkeeper. Hm.

Since then, stories have fought their way into the pages of The Sunday Times (UK), The Robb Report (US), The Financial Times (UK), The Times (UK), Evening Standard (UK), The Independent (UK), The Guardian (UK), South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), BA’s Highlife Magazine (UK) and BMW magazine (UK).

In Australia, they've been run in The Australian newspaper, The Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Gourmet Traveller, Luxury Travel, The Weekend Australian Magazine, SA Life magazine, High Life magazine, GQ Australia, Panorama Magazine, Elle Magazine and Playboy Magazine (neatly bringing me full circle). 


(Random stories republished)


(The Haunted House of Humpty Doo is the story that I've never quite forgotten. It's also the story I get asked about. A LOT. The Australian Magazine, 1997)






When writer Max Anderson hitched a ride with Today Tonight on the recent 'Humpty Doo' ghost scoop he knew he had a scorcher of a yarn. Camera-toting TV journos chasing ghosts in Australia's most haunted house? He couldn't lose.

Only he reckoned without one thing...

I couldn't believe it. I'd found someone who cheerfully admitted to being a professional ghost buster. True story: Stephen Bishop will rid your home or office of unwanted entities for up to $50 a room. He even teaches apprentice psychics in his 150-strong Chiara College of Metaphysics in Sydney.

"It's a big industry," he said over beers one evening in Balmain's Exchange Pub, "Sydney's huge for it. I ghost-busted a Woolhara brothel last week. It was affecting business."

Intrigued, amused, deeply sceptical, I scribbled a pad-full of notes while his conversation went merrily bump in the night. Then I secured a promise he'd take me on his next bust.

Two weeks later, events took a bizarre twist. On 3 April I learned that Channel Seven's current affairs program Today Tonight had stitched up a deal with residents of a 'haunted house' in a Northern Territory town called Humpty Doo. Local media had been reporting 'a ghost' going berserk, until Seven signed a cheque for an exclusive report. I called Today Tonight reporter Greg Quail and did some horse trading: he could have my ghost buster if he'd take both of us to Humpty Doo – I, of course, being free to scoop my own story.

Sixteen hours later, I was on a plane to Darwin with Bishop, Quail and a film crew. Angry ghosts and ratings-hungry current affairs? Truly, Christmas had come early.



[X-HEAD] Saturday 4 April

Up close, TV is scary. Ten minutes out of Darwin airport and already there was stuff flying around – namely money. Hotel rooms, hire cars, extra video tape, even a thermal camera flown up from Brisbane. And Quail had quickly quarantined my ghost-buster in the Darwin hotel lest he "scare any spirits away".

Speeding south, story details were materialising on 'Australia's most haunted house'. There'd been six weeks of supernatural aggro inflicted on five residents including 'flying objects' and words appearing on floors in gravel and Scrabble letters -- FIRE, SKIN, CAR, HELP, and the name TROY. Troy and his friend had been incinerated when their Ute, loaded with thinners, pancaked into a nearby tree two months ago. He was best mates with a resident at the house called Murphy.

But there'd also been talk by the Seven team of an elaborate hoax. The Humpty Doo (Humpty Don't?) story had broken on April Fool's Day. Most chilling of all was the spectre of 'The Great Carlos', a hoax psychic set up by 60 Minutes in 19xx. Competing shows had swallowed Carlos like mullet.

Certainly, driving through the torpid NT flatlands with its spiky pandanus trees and creaky cottage industry ("4 SALE, STUFFED CROCKS") it was hard to imagine a setting less like the moonlit imaginings of Stoker and Shelley.

Number 90, McMinns Drive sat behind a high cyclone fence, down a long gravel driveway. It was surrounded by five flat acres, studded with mango trees and wrecked vehicles.

We parked beside the single storey house painted a curious eggshell blue, and walked to the back where an extension of the baking roof formed an outdoor 'breezeway'. Under this stood a long galvanised steel table, chairs, a fridge and a Harley Davidson.

The Harley's owner Dave stood to meet us. "Gidday, how are ya?" He was heavy and bearded, wore t-shirt and stubbies, and spoke quietly. "Yeah, we've had stuff moved, thrown, broken, smashed..."

"But we're hoping it's gone," said his girlfriend Jill, a thin woman with tousled blonde hair and lit cigarette. "A clairvoyant rang from Brisbane today, said she'd got rid of it. And it's been quiet all day."

Inside, the house was sparsely furnished. The dining area was empty save for a large cabinet, its three windows held together with starbursts of orange tape. The violence of the image surprised me. Beneath the cabinet, a crucifix and Bibles with pages 'torn during a priest's visit'. The kitchen window was smashed, 'by a flying beer mug'. CDs and stereo had been 'toppled in the lounge'.

And on the bathroom floor, Scrabble letters read 'NO TV'. Someone in our group sniggered.

The man Murphy arrived home. He was short and powerfully built, tatts on his mahogany shoulders. "What do all youse fuckn vultures want?" The guy's hostility caught me off guard and I stood feeling awkward in my long pants, already wet with sweat. Quail tried to placate, assuring him we were there to take a look and hopefully expel any spooks.

"How y'gonna get rid of it?" he snapped. We talked about Steve. "Well where is he? And when can he come? I'm sick of the fuckn thing."

The remaining residents showed up, Burnie a muscular driller, and his wife Kirstie with their baby, Jasmine. Kirstie was thin, dark haired, tired and scowling.

For the fourth time, Jill said, "I reckon it's gone with that clairvoyant woman. It's been quiet all day. I'm sure it's gone."



Jill cried out around 4pm, came running from a bedroom, hugging her arms through her thin dress. "It's happened again," she said, "Murph, your bedroom – yer mattress is up in the bedroom."

Cameras, people, all there in a flash, peering into Murph's small room. A foam mattress stood upended, thrown with bedding against a dressing table. We murmured, unsure. An operator carried his thermal camera into the lounge, looking for unusual heat activity, finding nothing. I followed him, Jill talking all the time: "That's how it starts, nothing for hours, then…"

Standing in the lounge, there was a smart 'CRACK!' on a cabinet -- and I saw an AA battery land on the floor, just half a meter away.

Jill chattered: "There? See? See that? It's happening!"

I glanced to where it might have been thrown from. No-one. I heard myself yell -- "GUYS! IT'S HAPPENED!" -- only it was a silly voice, over-dramatic, stoked. Striding figures came into the room to see me pointing dumbly.



"I don't know where it came from," I said. Three rational men were sitting at midnight in a hotel bar, trying to explain what we'd seen.

And not only the battery's sudden appearance. I couldn't account for the steak knife which bounced off the steel table onto the floor at Kirstie's feet. Or the heavy glass lid which fell into view while Kirstie was looking inside the fridge.

The sound recordist couldn't account for the spanner he saw crash into a kitchen cupboard, hurled with such force from the empty lounge that it shook a video camera mounted in the kitchen.

Both cameramen were baffled by another knife that struck the hire car while they were stowing their cameras, no-one behind them.

Steve Bishop urged us to recount events in detail, amazed at so much activity. "But I don't think it's connected with Troy," he said. I sat up, listened to him. "It's too soon after his death. And if Troy was a friend, why's he causing trouble? No, it's bigger than that."

I decided that descriptions of objects being 'thrown' or 'flying around' were inapt. No, our objects had appeared in our peripheral vision; we only saw them upon or after impact, followed by any movement on the rebound which gave us clues of origin and trajectory.

Still, since these objects were obeying physics (and the angle of incidence does indeed equal the angle of reflection) then maybe we could determine who was throwing them.

"And God help whichever one it is. Burnie and Murph are at the end of their rope. Burnie said if they caught someone throwing stuff, they'd kill 'em."

That night, I slept with the light on.



[X-HEAD] Sunday 5 April 

Palm Sunday. The NO TV message in the bathroom had changed to NO CAMERA.

I watched with Kirstie while a Seven man recorded the Scrabble letters in Hi 8. In an instant we heard a scratching noise at ceiling height, all spun around to see a piece of glass the size of a playing card fall at Kirstie's heel. Again the rush of adrenalins, the excitement of seeing something utterly, inexplicably fantastic.

Minutes later, in the dining room with Kirstie there was a sharp SMACK! on the wall, a meter above my head. A small chunk of glass rebounded at my feet.

"Jesus, it's going off!" I walked into a bedroom empty except for piles of clothes and toys and for some reason the skin shrank on the back of my neck. I retreated and announced, "That room gives me the shivers!"

"What room? What fuckn room?" Murph was quickly in my face, eyes wide, yelling, pointing. "Look you don't know nuthn! You're guessin' like all the fuckn rest of 'em!"

Then Kirstie started up: "Leave the bloke alone! He's got an opinion! No-one really knows, Murph! Leave the bloke alone!"

Maybe it was being confronted by very real human stress, but I began listening to the residents and that morning, (while Scrabble letters hit the roof, Murph's mattress up-ended twice and gravel fell from nowhere), I tried to ascertain exactly what was bugging them.

Safety wasn't a concern. It was rare that anyone had been touched by an object, let alone hurt, and for the most part, damage had been inconvenient rather than costly. They were jumpy but only occasionally terrified, and they liked the place. "Buggered if we're gonna be shifted by a ghost!" they said.

No, I decided they were freaked by not knowing whether it was connected with the death of Troy; they were tired from mentally wrestling with their reality of esoteria; and they were utterly frustrated and upset to the point of fury that Humpty Doo, Darwin and soon the rest of Australia thought they were liars, druggies or mentally unstable. From their perspective, they were experiencing what US Vietnam veterans went through: no understanding and no sympathy while shit rained down all around them.

The afternoon turned into a waiting game. Quail, yet to witness anything himself, suffering from flu and desperate for pictures, had set five video cameras rolling inside.

So of course the action shifted outside. When the local priest, Father Tom, crunched up the driveway in his car, a .44 magnum bullet flew onto the steel table with a resounding CLANG. I felt my gut hollow: knives, glass and now bullets. The dilemma of live ammunition slamming into steel wasn't lost on me, either. The Priest, who'd seen it all before while blessing the house, and now quite media-shy, departed minutes later.

An hour passed, the sweat thickening to waxy grime, the talk punctuated by the 'crack-crush' of chilled beer tins and scrit-scrit-scratch of disposable lighters. Then a cameraman yelled in frustration: "Come ON!" At which a stone flew at great speed from the empty driveway, CRACK! onto the table. Quail's eyes widened. "I've seen it! My God!"

The cameraman called out again: "At least show us on camera so we can go!" Within minutes, the crew had an incident on three cameras: a baby's bottle being toppled from a microwave in the kitchen. But conclusive evidence? On tape, Dave's leg occludes a clear-shot camera the split second the bottle leaves the microwave, throwing the whole incident open to question. The timing is not just excellent: it's work of genius.



[X-HEAD] Monday 6 April

On the morning of the third day, the NT News tabloid reported the builder of the house as saying his energy was stalking the property because the banks had forced him out. Elsewhere a friend had accused Murphy of "only being in it for Channel Seven's money". And the ABC had reported a five-figure payout from Seven. (I can tell you the five residents came away with nothing like it.)

But by now my cynical 'ghosts and media' reportage story was an irrelevance.

In the quiet of the day I found myself stalking the hot blue walls of the house, my t-shirt hanging in the humidity. I was hungry for more incidents, not least so I could assuage an angry crowd of sceptics gathered in my head. I wanted – demanded – 100 per cent proof or disproof, or even a 50:50 doubt:certainty for a conclusive "Who knows?". But the persistent 95 per cent "I can't explain" accompanied by a five per cent "just maybe" drove me nuts.

By the end of the day, despite seeing scissors appearing in the pool, a coin hitting the roof and another bullet landing behind me, I was plagued with sensory denial. I dug up grounds for doubt on every incident, convinced that Kirstie was somehow culpable. The appearance of the Scrabble letters 'GO' on top of the sound recordist's fluffy microphone made me laugh. "Only three points?"

That night, a cameraman and I slept over. As I lay melting on the living room floor, I reasoned that our witnessed 'unexplainable' events were as reliable as reports filed on accidents. Cloudy re-tellings of fleeting moments poorly perceived.

I slept fitfully as the house lay quiet.



[X-HEAD] Tuesday 7 April

4pm, on the fourth day; and as ghost buster Stephen Bishop came through the gates of Number 90, I was confident of two things: (1) if anyone was pulling stunts it was Kirstie and (2) Kirstie wasn't pulling stunts.

My sceptic bubble had been burst that morning.

The other four residents had left for work. Jasmine was crying in the bedroom. I went to quieten her with Kirstie. The mother hoisted her child into the crook of her left arm, then turned and walked with me, smoking a cigarette with her right hand. I passed Murph's bedroom door on my right with Kirstie on my left. I spontaneously checked the room. I opened the door, saw it was empty and undisturbed, began to close it and heard a sudden BANG. I was confused, heard Kirstie say, "That came from in there." Opened the door again to see a piece of broken glass against the far wall.

The fact is she could not have thrown that glass. After re-enacting the event on camera, I quietly declared for the record: "Poltergeist".

But now the cameras were rolling for Steve who'd emerged from his car at the gates. "How're you feeling?" I asked him.

"I was pretty nervous this morning," he said. "That's partly the cameras, but my energy is being disturbed. I can tell you this is the most extreme case I've ever come across. I'm not even sure I can deal with it."

Dressed in white t-shirt, baggy shorts and cap, he began moving among the mango trees in the front acreage, closing his eyes behind his spectacles, putting palms out, taking breaths. "The land's dead, lost its soul," he pronounced to the camera.

I swallowed, suddenly feeling horribly responsible for setting him up as a 'ghost buster' in front of TV land. He answered Quail's questions with confidence– "Steve, tell us what you're doing now," – but I feared he sounded preposterous.

As darkness fell, he met the residents in the breezeway (the house was quiet) and asked them about their feelings, dreams, the baby's reactions, like a doctor probing for symptoms.

"It seems to be connected with the energy of the earth and the land around here. If that's the case then there's nothing I can do. It also seems to have intelligence which means it could be very dangerous."

Inside, he found the house "oppressive" while in some rooms he perceived a 'residual', like grey slime. He teamed with Dave, the Harley rider, who professed to feel it strongly as Steve mentally cleaned and re-set each room. The entity was squeezed using 'psychic seals' into a single room, where Steve, in faith healer's voice, suggested it was going away, and all would be right. Everyone was running with sweat, cooking under the camera lights.

Later that night, I watched the baby Jasmine collecting up a bunch of fibre pens once arranged on the floor to spell 'FIRE'. I thanked Steve for his help and patience, for his good faith, which seemed to give some of the residents strength. "I look at it like psychic science," he said. "If you're religious, then it would work just as well because you're focussing your energies into that."

"And you think it's gone?"

He looked over his glasses. "I don't know."



[X-HEAD] Sunday, 12 April.

Writing these events, I'm still sure of what I saw. What's more, I realise that like it or not I now belong to a minority group which wears a number of labels including Fraud, Pratt, Dreamer and Liar. None of them good for a writer/journalist.

"Tell me about it," said Greg Quail, returned to Sydney after a full seven days in Darwin. And guess what?"


"It's back. Came back Friday. And worse than before." Quail described a vase of flowers being smashed in the empty lounge room. "Shit everywhere."

"I believe it," I said.



[X-HEAD] Friday, 24 April

Quail's show rates well on Monday night after a media blitz. Today Tonight allocates a huge 15 minutes to the story. More witnesses are scheduled for the "Story of the year" on Tuesday, then Bishop will bust on Wednesday.

In the interim, the residents are threatened by the owner of Number 90 with eviction for damage caused to property. Court action proceeds. On Sunday, a freelance cameraman based in NT was commissioned by Seven for extra shots, who captured a flying object on tape. Quail rejected the shot for Monday's show because it could not be cross checked with other camera angles. On Tuesday morning a tape editor notices a glimpsed reflection of a figure apparently tossing the object over the head of the cameraman.

Quail is in shock. Two seconds of tape will trash two weeks of investigation involving some 30 incidents and 18 witnesses. We think the figure is Kirstie, and after the fanfare of Monday, her timing is terrifyingly bad.

"I was called into the bosses office, this morning" groans Quail over a beer. "He played me the tape, demanded an explanation. I just wanted to run out of the building."

"What are you going to do?" I ask.

"You know there's something in there, I know there's something in there, but what can I do? With that one incident, she's blown their whole story."

"But what about – " Once again, we painfully pick over the incidents of the four days, dividing them into 'suspect' and 'sound'. But none of it is of consequence. Quail has to make a decision quickly: TV management doesn't believe in ghosts and TV Land will ultimately judge haunted Humpty Doo on this single clumsy piece of fraud. "The story's a turd," concludes one TV veteran, "and you can't polish a turd."

The ghost busters of Today Tonight must become hoax busters. Bishop's story never gets made; sceptics are interviewed; furious phone calls are exchanged between Quail and the residents.  Kirsty admits she threw the object for the sake of being believed but on Wednesday denies everything.  The residents circle the wagons and say "Enough".

On Friday, anchor Peter Luck can barely keep the contempt off his face as he says they'll be revisiting Humpty Doo, "Hopefully for the last time". A two minute end-piece on TT tells why.

Part of me too, is relieved. I'm back in the land of the rational-thinking, albeit wearing my 'Pratt' label for falling victim to the thin woman with the baby. But if I sit down and really think through those four days? Then I'm certain a poltergeist somewhere is laughing its head off.



(Ashbourne Shrovetide Football, April 2000, Sunday Times)



I was impatient to get stuck in. But Pete Ray, the tall, thin dental technician whose tracksuit hung on him rather sadly, said he was dedicated to fixing other people's teeth – "Not me own."

We were cautiously eyeing ‘the hug’, a dense mud-spattered crowd of 400 men pressing cattle-like into a hidden centre point. Occasionally individuals from the 800 surrounding onlookers would opt to dive into it and start burrowing through bodies; others meanwhile would collapse from its perimeter, staggering, coughing for space and light.

“So are we going in, or what?” I asked.

The winds off the surrounding green hills were icy. Pete sandpapered his cold palms nervously. “Errm… Can't we go for a pint? We'll come back, later. It'll be here for a while. It's not going anywhere.”

Ashbourne Shrovetide Football hasn’t been going anywhere for a long, long time. So long in fact that the people of this Derbyshire market town – people with memories long enough to remember Bonnie Prince Charlie marching into their cobbled marketplace – have forgotten when the game first started.

But whether it was a pagan ritual played to welcome the spring, or a medieval precursor to the beautiful game, one thing is certain: it’s muddy and gruff, and anyone can play.

Every Shrove Tuesday, the town splits roughly into two, comprising those born north of Henmore Brook, the Up’ards, and those born south, the Down’ards. The idea is to get the ball and touch it to your side’s goalpost. And that's it. Only, the two goals are located one and a half miles in either direction of the town at separate water mills. The ‘pitch’ over which this is played, is everything in between – three miles of streets, alleys, carparks, flowerbeds, ponds, rivers, fields and cowpats.

An hour earlier, we'd been at the Shrovetide Banquet, held in the Green Man pub, where a selection of the town's squirearchy (all tweed and broken capillaries) gather for lunch before the ball is "turned up" at 2pm – which is less of a kick-off and more like chucking a calf into a lake of pirhana.

“There are usually 2,000 to 3,000 potential players out there,” said Chairman of the Shrovetide Committee, Philip Tomlinson. “Anything goes. You can run with the ball, kick it, or simply hug it. There’s only one rule: once the ball is away from the crowd, it must be at the goal within the hour.”

And there lies the rub – and indeed the excruciating squeeze. How do you get the ball out of a vice-like scrum of mostly Ashbourne thugs, and away to a ‘runner’ – that is, anyone lucky enough or stupid enough to pick it up and run with it?

Seated beside Mr Tomlinson was the Queen’s Lord Lieutenant for Derbyshire, John Bather, who was honoured with the task of turning up the ball. On the banqueting table before him was the ball itself, painted with rural scenes and royal iconography, and thickly lacquered. Mr Bather gave a generous speech to the florid gathering who cheered when it was suggested Her Majesty was a Down’ard; then at 1.45, he was thrown to the mob.

Looking shocked, but still gamely clutching his lacquered ball, he was shouldered above a sea of woolly hats and bad Midlands haircuts, through the streets to a carpark. Here he was installed on a plinth, and was no doubt distinctly relieved to hurl the ball (of thick leather and dense cork) out into the baying crowd.

The painted sphere hopped and spun madly over the roaring heads and outstretched hands, but the moment it was sucked down, there was an intense push from all sides and a heaving, grunting hug was formed. One which moved approximately 50 yards in an hour – across a road, down a slope and into a patch of municipal ground which was promptly churned to mud.

At which Pete and I had adjourned to the pub.

The Green Man was one of a dozen or so historic Ashbourne hostelries where Up’ards and Down’ards, with mud variously leeching from their ankles to their belts, would come to refresh and regale. Everyone else was in the pubs too: wax jacket women with long, labrador-coloured hair, Dales hikers with their bobble hats and maps, and thin-faced pram-pushers with chains of kids in Umbro shirts.

Not that there was anywhere else for them to go. The rest of the town was boarded up.

“Is it really rough in the hug?” I asked a group drinking in the courtyard.

“Can be,” said a man with dots tattooed beneath his eyes, a stud through his lower lipand ‘Heavy Duty’ embroidered across his shirt. “People will do anything to get hold of that ball. You’ve got to fight to gerrit –”

And hold onto it! And we’ll tek it off an outsider...” smiled another.

“Hiding a ball in the back of a car doesn’t go dahn too well,” offered another.

“Can you do that?”

“It’s bin done!" said Heavy Duty. "The ball’s even bin given to blokes on motorbikes who tek it to the goals." Heavy Duty was shaped not unlike the obdurate limestone tors in the nearby Peak District. "But – " he throated his pint, "—we don’t have none o'that.”

Meanwhile, the hug had moved about five feet. It was still a mile and a half to the nearest goal.

"Pete," I said, "you dive into the hug – and I'll shin up that tree and take some photos."

Pete mumbled a reply.

Installed in the tree, I could see the curious dynamics of the hug as it sweated and heaved. From the edges, the pack grew steadily denser the closer it got to the centre, where a knot of hardened men (one of whose back read ‘Heavy Duty’) had  their arms belligerently tied around the ball. All around them, their respective sides were supposedly pushing for goal, north or south.

“Me Grandad’s in that lot!” chirped a small boy on a branch above me. “He’s been trampled! And me Dad! Me Dad’s name’s Stick!” Sure enough, there were all ages pressing into the hug, including a few cloth-capped oldies working in from the lightly-packed perimeter.

Suddenly, there began a movement at the core, like a pulse, until, there was a huge cry and the ball shot out, birthed like a slippery egg. Pandemonium! The hug swarmed in the direction of the flying ball, scattering onlookers. All at once there was squealing and bellowing, until the ball was seized and a new hug gathered about. Only, this hug had some momentum and it moved quickly, spilling bodies over a low hedge.

“Back up! Back up!” someone cried, and the cry spread. As if a light had gone up on naughty children, the pack stood dead still, separated and pushed back – to allow a fallen man to right himself. Then it reformed and moved off down Belper Road, leaving a thinning group of chattering onlookers.

I shinned down, found Pete and pointed to his baggy tracksuit trousers: “Suspiciously clean.”

(A man, red and bruised with rake-like scratches around his neck and a great tear from his shirt collar to his sleeve, walked past grinning, holding something aloft. “Me pint’s safe!” he panted.)

“So,” I continued, “shall we follow the hug? Or…”

“Have another beer.”

“Of course,” said Ricky in the Ashbourne Ex-Serviceman’s Club, “all the landlords want the hug to come past their pub. Brings in the crowds. During Shrovetide Football most of the pubs round here will tek in two days what they normally tek in a week.”

Hung from the bar were rows of Shrovetide balls. After every game the artist painstakingly re-paints the leather, since his first work is rubbed away. Even the ball dated 1883 looked wet, so shiny was the lacquer. I started taking photographs, until someone called out: “Ere! Why doan’t y’photograph these?” (Much hilarity.)

“Why,” asked the barman, “are yours painted, too?”

The hug was stuck at a road intersection. "How's it going?" I asked a policeman, belisha green against a blackened terraced row. “Aye, not s’bad. There’s a few grudges being settled in there. But that’s fine. The difficulty with Ashbourne Football comes when you have to decide who teks the corner…”

“And who does take the corner?” I asked.

The policeman blinked. "From out of town, are you?"

Both Pete and I are from Derby, just 20 miles away, but at the White Hart we were declared to be definite, no-doubt-about-it, outsiders. Would we stand a chance of scoring?

“No way!” said Adie. “Yerl not get t’score a goal. Never.”

“There are 44 people from Leek Rugby Club up today,” chorused his mate, Spadge. “Ashbourne Rugby Club will have something to say about that."

But for all the Ashbourne testosterone, three women have scored goals. I talked to Jessie, aged 80, drinking with her three grown daughters. She’d been coming to the Football since she was a girl. “I remember my father got the ball once. He shoved it under a bucket and got me to sit on it. He told me, ‘Now, don’t you move!’ Of course the crowd came racing past looking for the ball. They never thought it might be underneath this little girl sitting on a bucket...”

I finished my pint. “Well, Pete, we'd better have a go at getting our hands on this ball.”

“You’ll not touch it!” piped up Adie, again. “In fact, I tell y’what: if  you touch it, before 8 o’clock, I’ll buy yer a pint.”

“You’re on!” We shook.

“And anyway,” he said grinning, “if you do touch it you’ll get such a hiding in there, you won’t be here to get yer pint!”

The massive scrum was inching up a hill, half a mile out of Ashbourne. It looked like the Up’ards had the Down’ards on the run. Or the crawl. It was after 6pm, Ashbourne's streets were turning amber in the lamplight.

“OK, lets’ do it,” I said, moving towards the wall of bodies.

“I’m right behind you,” said Pete.

I pushed in, and it felt easy to enter the press, squeezing through gaps between shoulders, driving wedges, levering bodies behind me, taking up space between red-faced retreaters. There was laughing and banter and I made good progress, maybe 40 feet into the mass. But there was suddenly a surge and I found myself squeezed up onto my toes. Ahead I could see the centre of the hug steaming in the lamplight. Some men had been in there for over four hours – strong, powerful men, farm hands, plumbers, bouncers. There was another surge, and to my horror I felt my ribcage pushing at my lungs. 'Oooof’ I said, but no sound came. I couldn't inhale and began to panic, feeling my fear eat up oxygen. Squaring my shoulders, I drove the bodies on either side away from me. Then there was a reprieve, like tide water running out again, so I dropped, leaned forward, drove on. One more push and I was into the core. It was hot and cloying, smelling of beer and sweat and farts and it was possessed of a low sound, made of exhaled curses and hissed instructions: “Goin’ left!”, “Algie’s got it!”, “Tek it offim!!” I squatted to peer under a huge armpit – there was the ball, looped about with arms. I reached through the soupy air which hissed and snorted around me, extended my arm, my hand, my fingers – and touched it.

Minutes later I was wheezing wide-eyed beside Pete. I looked up to ask if he’d been in. “Did you – “ I gasped, “did – did you – di—"

He looked at me. Sandpapered his cold palms nervously. “Shall we go for a pint, then?”



(Faroe Islands, September 2000, Sunday Times)



I was on cold and merciless shores, among killers and sadists who get sexual thrills from inflicting pain and death. One of these was Einar Petersen, a red-bearded Viking big enough to wrestle bears.

He was making me some tea.

My first night camping on the Faroe Islands had not been a success: I pitched my tent in a hollow, which I woke to find generously filled with rainwater. The sadistic killer was also the manager of the site.


We were talking about the Faroese slaughter of pilot whales - the grindadrap - about the eating of whale meat and about the Canadian environmental activist Paul Watson, whose ship Sea Shepherd regularly visits the islands to thwart the "ferocious Faroese". Watson's website brands them as killers and sadists, even invoking Nazism and child abuse.

"It's sad," said Einar, "because we realise that other people are caring about the environment and we Faroese have a long tradition with that. But Watson - he's an extremist."

The window of the prefab camp-site kitchenette was being lightly spat-spatted with rain; outside, I could see hulking geodesic mountains poking from the grey North Sea. All the 18 islands are like this: monstrous, magical and morose, with people and their houses Morse-coded along the mountain hemlines. It's a landscape as arresting as the inselbergs of Guilin, or the karst of Thailand.

Unfortunately, it's a landscape that for many people in Britain is hellish and red.

Whale blood is warm, pink and buoyant with fat. It floats merrily to the surface of the steely North Sea shallows, where it turns to a froth, whipped up by the industry of the waist-deep Faroese men, working with short-handled knives to sever spinal cords on the thrashing black bodies of beached pilot whales. These images then surface on our televisions and in our newspapers, also frothy and whipped - and whale-lovers feel it keenly in their viscera.

"It would be nice to have more people coming to the Faroes. But not so many come."


I QUICKLY felt at home in the Faroese capital, Torshavn, next door to the camp site. In the cusp of a mountain, the town was a rash of houses running uphill away from the busy harbour. On one side of this was Tinganes, the old parliament buildings, roofed in turf; I pootled around these in buttercup sunshine. By the time I'd reached the little 16th-century Skansin Fort, cute as a music box, I was drenched in murderous rain.

But being wet is part of being Faroese. It gives you an excuse to dry out in one of the smoky wooden cafes where you can drink beer and listen to the locals speaking their unique language. On the wall in the Cafe Torshavn there's an old poster showing an islander hanging by ropes on a cliff face; he is waving his welcome to a ferry full of tourists with one hand; in the other is a net; and beside him is a row of fat-cheeked puffins patiently waiting to be snared and roasted. It's dizzying naivety, the sort you find in isolated island communities.

How isolated are the Faroes? The islands are a quasi- autonomous part of Denmark - yet in a 1976 survey, many Scandinavians still confused them with Faro in Portugal. It wasn't until 1981 that they were squarely placed on the map, when the Daily Express splashed "Slaughter of the Innocents" across the front page.

A man in the cafe told me there had just been a grindadrap at Vagur. He said it was wonderful news for the village, which would be restocking its larders. Can anyone watch a grindadrap, I asked? "Yes. And you would get a share of the catch."

"Of whale meat? Really?"

"Of course. Everyone at the drive gets their share."

It's weird stuff this whale meat: roast puffin costs about Pounds 20, but you can't buy "grind" because it's free. And while it's prized, it's no delicacy; you wouldn't serve it to a guest.


PART OF the fury of the anti-whaling lobby boils up from the notion that the Faroese enjoy killing whales as a sport.

The islanders cheered their heads off, when, at the new soccer stadium, the local team scored a goal against Denmark's premier squad. Ranks of men and women, all in chunky knits, were leaping up and down. I would have been leaping, but I was busy trying to unstick my trousers from my bum. The little concrete stadium was open to the skies, from which fell a rich, full-bodied super-soaker, filling my bucket seat.

I talked some soccer talk with a young man beside me, then asked him about the grindadrap. "Have you seen it?" I asked.

"Of course." He shrugged. "My father is a beach foreman. It's his job to make sure the killing of the whales is done properly. It looks very dramatic with all the blood, but once you've seen it, it's not so dramatic. It's over in minutes." I might have been talking to a Derbyshire farmer about cutting silage.

After the Faroes lost 3-1, the youth left to catch a ferry to a neighbouring island to attend a wedding. It was 11pm.

At 1am I met again with Einar in Club 20, a hayloft-like bar now filling with revellers. He brought 16 bottles of beer to the table. "Beer's on special!" he beamed. "We live as much as we can during the summer, when it's light for 24 hours. We can sleep in the winter."

At 5am the light was pearly. We'd missed the two-hour darkness. "Maybe the whales will come today," mused Einar as we walked back to the camp site. "Let's hope so."

Next day, winding north towards Klaksvik aboard the No400 bus, I saw modern- dressed kids idling between ancient stone-made houses topped by turf, hugging shorelines on black waters. Above the roofs were steep mountainsides reaching up into the clouds; their soils looked thin and bitter, raked by wind, scoured by tatty sheep and streaked by white spines of torrid water pouring from the peaks. The only nourishment I ever saw clinging to the slopes was rhubarb, potatoes and mutton.

In Klaksvik, a fishing town, I bought lunch from a shop.

Like other shops, its aisles were stocked with goods that were tinned, dried, powdered, instant, snap-frozen, or shrink-wrapped. In a corner were three skeletal lettuces (two pounds each), sagging tomatoes (50p each), a handful of onions, some apples and an orange. Shipped in from Denmark. Lunch was a pale hotdog beaded with mayonnaise, and a packet of Walkers crisps.

I climbed above Klaksvik, which was ringing with church bells, onto the back of the 600m Hafjall mountain. The cloud layer cracked open and eggy sunshine fell through the fissure, turning the olive slopes to emerald. After a 40-minute climb, the bells were gone and in their place were the piercing alarms of oyster catchers, the splashing of tumbling streams and a banshee wind. The view from the top, of island mountains striding away across the black North Sea, was of a scale that was just - violent. And I thought: what an utterly astonishing place to eke out a life.

Next day, I visited Dr Dorete Bloch, who wore a very severe haircut and worked from home. She made coffee, then offered me a fat cigar, but I politely declined on the grounds that it was only 9am. Dorete is the Head of the Zoological Department in the Museum of Natural History; she had a cow skeleton erected next to her television.

Between tokes, she took me through the grindadrap: the process of beaching the whales (using a rubber device to bring them into the shallows - gaff hooks are banned); the importance of measuring time to death (three minutes); maintaining one of the world's greatest and most meticulous databases on any species (500 years old); and harvest numbers (0.2% of total stock is taken on average per year; the North Atlantic Marine Mammal Commission recommends 4% to ensure sustainable stocks of any whale species).

We drove to the small wooden Museum of Natural History. Inside was a model of a pilot whale. I looked at the five-tonne mammal, 90% of which is used or eaten by the islanders. And I looked at its great bulbous forehead, beneath which were little eyes and a large helpless grin. An animal with an expression.

On the walls were pictures of gangs of men in the act of slaughter, their families behind them on the shore. I scrutinised the picture: no smiles, no exclamations, no high fives - this was not a celebration. The killers looked grim. Like men at work.

Letters come to the Faroes from all over the world: some beg the islanders to stop the whaling; others wish holocaust upon their children. All receive polite replies from the grass-roofed parliament on the hill.

"Are whales intelligent?"

I asked Dr Bloch. "Postulation," she answered. "Look at the brain cavity. You can fill it with your hand." I peeped into a huge bony skull that was mounted in the museum, and gingerly put my hand in.

I looked back at the animal with the no-please-not-me grin.


"ARE YOU ready to try some?" Einar had steamed the meat in a pan on a cooker made grubby by legions of campers. His soft, boyish face was alight in anticipation of my answer...

"Yes," I said. The windows had fogged in the sweet steam; outside, my tent was bowing in the howling wind.

It was a shock: the cube of flesh was in three strata - first, the dark meat, then a creamy inch of blubber, capped off with a thick skin of what looked like wetsuit rubber. "You cut that off," said Einar.

I forked it in and a strong, dark taste filled my mouth, and as I chewed, arguments metronomed in my head. "The Faroese don't need to eat whale: if there's a protein deficiency, let them eat fish. But why shouldn't they harvest whales while we harvest hamburger animals. Ahh - but what if whales are super-intelligent? Then, so are pigs. Okay, but what if everyone wants to eat pilot whale? Well... if we can sustain stocks maybe we should. So we could farm them? Feed the world some more? (No!!) Yes."

And there it was. I can't claim to be antiwhaling, because I'm a meat-eater. I don't have a leg - hock, shank or drumstick - to stand on.

"Can I have some more?" I asked, passing my plate for another cut off my humanity.

I wasn't supposed to be caught up with whales. I'd come to the Faroes to go to Viking college. It had been a washout, figuratively and climatically: the Danish troupe of Vikings spent the week wringing out their furs, screeding water from their canvas tents. But I'd stuck it out, and spent five days in the delicious hay-smelling outbuildings of a historic farmhouse, with other apprentice Vikings - a pod of local infants. My chosen Viking craft was to forge a knife, which after 40 hours of work was proclaimed a success by the Viking craftsmen. (Even the police officer who confiscated it at Glasgow airport admired the finish.)

But now the Danes were grimly packing up their tents, eager for Copenhagen. As I stood under the black eaves of a shed, considering whether to lend a hand, a horse clopped up to me - the hoof-noise dead in the wet - close enough so I could feel its warm hay breath. "Hello," said the horse's rider.

I looked up. She was painfully lovely. Her face was dewed with rain, her long blonde hair hung in wet plaits onto her brown knitted sweater.

"Hello," I said. She was about 15. "Aren't you cold?"

"No, no," she smiled. I suddenly felt stupid in my rainjacket. "Would you like to take my horse for a ride in the rain?"

I paused. Then removed my coat, thanked the girl and took the stout little Faroese nag into the meadow, up onto a rise looking over the sea. The falling rain described patterns in wind that smelt of wood smoke, and I got very wet, so that water ran down my neck. It wasn't so bad.

The seas were thunderous. Out in the roiling grey, the pilot whales were driving south. Some would stray close to the Faroes and would never make it to the rich squid fields. Further west, in Canada, Captain Paul Watson would be readying his Sea Shepherd activists.

We can't keep plundering the planet, I thought, someone has to be vigilant - and it might as well be Watson. Such a shame, though, that he doesn't take his rubber boats and sit outside the American Meat Institute in Washington to lobby for global vegetarianism. But this would lack glamour and impact (not to mention water), so he'll continue to wage media-savvy war against "the killers and sadists" of the beautiful  Faroe Islands.

Poor bastards.




On a trail of destruction
August 5 2001, Sunday Times

The sleet fell, and nothing is more miserable than sleet in a desert. "Damn," muttered a father bunched up in his overdesigned winter jacket. "It's one helluva long way to come see a buncha nuthin'."

"Well, honey, it's been ..." his wife struggled "The boys have enjoyed it."

The boys scuffed the soles of their little cowboy boots through the moist dirt. "Are we going home now?" Dad unlocked the wet family saloon: "They shoulda told us there's nuthin' t'see ..."

The Trinity Test Site, in New Mexico, is at least 20 miles from anywhere. There's a good reason for this: in 1945, the US government wanted a place it could go about the business of detonating the world's first atomic bomb without anyone knowing about it. So, if anyone asked, Trinity did not exist. Go home; nothing to see here.

Today, Trinity does exist, but only twice a year for ordinary folk like me and the 3,000 other visitors - on the first Saturdays of April and October, when the US government grants access to the huge White Sands Missile Range, in which the historical site stands.

Trinity is a 51,000-acre site; at its epicentre is Ground Zero, the spot where the "gadget" was fired at 0630, July 16, 1945, marked by a small stone monument. Follow the racing concentrics of the blast, and your wind-blurred, watery gaze sees a chain-ring perimeter fence, a temporary car park marshalled by cheerful volunteers, then miles and miles of semidesert being licked by tongues of wind, lolling from the dark, snow-capped Oscura Mountains.

This semidesert is known on maps as the Jornada del Muerto - the Journey of Death - and in April, it was bleak. The desert flats were peppered with yellow-grey vegetation, spiky stuff with spiky names like bayonet and yucca. Tucked away thereabouts were collapsed wooden constructions dug into sand levees, where blast-measuring equipment had been housed. Signs read: "Warning: Radiation"; "You are entering active test-range areas potentially contaminated with explosive devices"; and "Stay on the roads".

There was also the sand. And though nobody had told them, this is where the disgruntled family should have started. Here, boys, take a handful of sand - feel it, let it fall. A gram of uranium contains 2,500,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms. Split just one of these atoms and you can make a grain of sand visibly jump.

Around the perimeter fence was a line of information tables sheltered by flapping polythene sheets. Bomb-history buffs bought books, pamphlets and videos; parents placated red-nosed kids with lavish hot dogs; poncho'ed army servicemen dispensed jolly baloney as they ferried infirm visitors in golf buggies; tired couples retreated to their cars, clutching souvenirs: "I had a blast at Trinity".

I stopped at a table where a scientist from the White Sands Missile Range was patiently demonstrating how radioactivity is all around us, most of it harmless. "Here," he said to a visitor, handing her a dishwasher-safe saucer, "take this. Even this saucer is slightly radioactive." He waved his Geiger counter over the saucer and it clicked. The woman looked shocked. "Oh, my Gahd! Should I be holding this? I mean - are you saying we should stop using this type of saucer?" The scientist forced a smile.

Inside the perimeter fence a faint depression was discernible - the main explosion area - some 200yd across. A stone obelisk with a plaque stood at the centre; tucked into a crevice was a small folded paper crane, a bright speck among the dark stones, a peace symbol probably left by one of the many Japanese (or Japanese-Americans) visiting that day. Visitors gathered round a man from the Atomic Bomb Museum in Albuquerque, who was explaining the detonation. He pointed to four nubs of concrete poking out of the dirt. These once supported a 100ft tower of steel, he said. It was vaporised by the bomb it held aloft.

I kicked a nub, looked up, felt curiously excited. Vaporised to nuthin'.

Also in the enclosure were knee-high glass shelters. Beneath the glass was sand coated in dull, greenish flakes, like cracked skin. Three physics students from Albuquerque peered down.

"That's trinitite," said one.

"When the bomb went off, the heat was so fierce it fused the sand, like glass," said another. "Only, it's mildly radioactive. It's real rare."

"Let's hope we won't be making any more," said the third.

The explosive heart of the gadget was a uranium isotope - an orange-sized ball of U-235 that was warm to the touch, like a live rabbit. In truth, like the Trinity Site, it never really existed. At least not until 1935, when scientists socked a piece of naturally occurring U-238 with neutrons to create its lighter, rather more unhinged cellmate, U-235 - arguably a substance not directly ordained by God.

The isotope was the progeny of Rutherford, Curie, Einstein, Fermi and others, but the trinitite was Robert Oppenheimer's. "Oppie" was a troubled man. He'd surrendered his human passion once only, on the sunny isle of Capri, and thereafter he donated his body and soul to science, philosophy and self-loathing. During the war, he co-ordinated thousands of scientists, service personnel and their families, 150 miles away to the north on a mesa in Los Alamos. So secret was the project that people who went to work on "The Hill" left the real world and became a postbox number - 1663. Within its confines, non-marriages happened, non-sex was had and non-children were born. Officially, none of them existed.

It's easy to be haunted by Oppenheimer, especially two miles from Ground Zero at the MacDonald Ranch House. The stone cottage withstood the blast, but its outbuildings are a buckled ruin. The gadget, fresh from The Hill, was assembled here four days before the test. I stood on the veranda and a peal of thunder volleyed over the Oscuras. Oppenheimer would look at them and observe: "Funny how mountains always inspire our work."

Then I noticed - was I getting carried away? - that I could smell my school chemistry lab: sweet Bunsens, bitter acids, blue crystals ... "What's that smell?" I asked a volunteer guide in the house. "Ammonium nitrate," he replied. "From all the missile explosions over the years. It's in the ground. Comes up when it's wet ..."

I levelled my gaze at the horizon towards Ground Zero. Fifty-six years ago, on the morning of July 16, in this bit of desert full of wind and thorns, there was a gadget. And it was circled by dry-mouthed scientists, 10 miles away. Then the gadget was gone, and, instead, all around, to a height of two miles, were hot gases and noise and colour and terrible, terrible power. "The brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen," said one observer. "You wish it would stop. Then there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green."

After the ultimate laboratory test came the sad, simian face of Oppenheimer, grimly mouthing Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds."

Funny how the Americans say "bomb". It comes out as "balm".

"THE PEOPLE of New Mexico heave a sigh - more like a groan of relief."

This was on the front page of The New Mexico Times, dated August 6, 1945, a day after the bombing of Hiroshima. The page was pasted to a board on the chain-link fence, wet with sleet. I read how Truman had lifted the cloak and put Rumour No 6892 to rest - that the scientists on The Hill were "working lickety-split for the production of windshield wipers for submarines".

So, the residents of New Mexico weren't crazy: the ghost places and ghost people really did exist.

Because I have the heart of a tourist, I decided I wanted a piece of this strange chapter. Outside the desert site, 20 miles away in the one-bar, lots-of-dogs town of San Antonio (the closest town to the site), I found a stone cottage converted into a small shop called Rio Abajo Antiques. This colourful box of Americana (lots of horse tack, mining tools and gorgeous enamelled tin from the 1950s) was run by LuAnn and her elderly mother, MaryRose.

"No," said LuAnn, "I really don't have anything related to the bomb." She thought a moment: "Though, I do have these." She dug out a buckled cardboard box containing tins of water. "The government gave them out before the test. In case the water got poisoned."

I looked to MaryRose and gingerly asked if she'd been around during the test.

"I was 17 when the bomb went off," she said. "I was asleep in our house a couple of streets from here. I don't remember the noise - but the flash ... this bright-red flash that woke me. I thought the house was on fire. Everything was orange."

"You didn't know what it was?"

"We weren't told until the day after they dropped the bomb on Japan."

HIROSHIMA WAS ordered to stop existing to demonstrate to the Japanese that their astonishing fealty to the emperor would be surrendered or be atomised. The city was chosen as a target not because it harboured war materiel, or had strategic value, but because it was virtually untouched by the Allies - all the better to measure the efficacy of the Little Boy bomb released from the belly of a B-29.

Today, in Hiroshima, the Industrial Promotion Hall is one of the few pieces of the old city still in existence, left standing as the memorial A-Bomb Dome. It's cordoned off by railings, a piece of dark yesterday, and, with its ribcage of a dome poking into the sky, it has a stark beauty.

And it's strange. I've read several travel stories on how the monument, the Peace Park, and the Peace Museum in particular, is a place of deep mourning, where Japanese old and young file ruefully past the statues and exhibits. These reports usually end (rather embarrassingly) with the writer staggering off to sob somewhere. Perhaps I was there at the wrong time? The spring was rich with blossom scent and birdsong, and in the gardens, children were playing, elders were reading or talking and great heaps of paper cranes had been piled on the peace sculptures, beading the green parklands with dazzling colour.

Inside the museum, the elderly Japanese visitors looked wholly engaged by the history - perhaps a wry look on the faces of some? - while the Nipponese nippers behaved like children at any museum: badly. In front of a ghoulish life-size wax re-creation of victims emerging from the blast, I watched as six infants squealed in delighted terror, ran in circles and dared each other to get close to the scorched mummies with the outstretched arms.

They were just happy to be there. Happy like the American boys once they'd got home, out of the cold sleet, home to some cookies and TV. Happy like LuAnn and MaryRose, selling two tins of "US Govt Emergency Drinking Water" for $10. Happy in the business of existing.