The Lizard’s vagabond girl

Jenny on a truck in Upper Volta, 1980
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I lie in bed and listen to the waves crashing on the shore. I pull back the covers, cross the bedroom and settle into my rocking chair in front of the window that overlooks the sea. Down in the cove, the fishermen have pulled the boats up high; a storm is brewing. I always start the day this way, watching the rhythm of the waves, pondering my life and times, but these days it’s hard to believe that beyond this familiar scene, this cosy Cornish bubble, lies a pandemic-stricken world. I look at the container ships on the horizon, anchored offshore for weeks, unable to dock because of Covid-19, and my thoughts turn to some of the strange voyages I took long ago.

I see myself, a naïve young woman, on a Turkish boat, smuggling cheap clothes into Istanbul for the sailors. The day after I’d reluctantly agreed to this risk, we docked in Izmir, where  a chain gang of  stooped, shuffling  prisoners passed so close I could have touched them – yet it never occurred to me I might end up in a Turkish jail. My friend Derek and I were paid for our crime with a bottle of whisky and the promise of free accommodation in Istanbul, but a taxi driver took us to the wrong place, a dingy guesthouse owned by his friend. Wandering the streets a couple of days later we were accosted by the sailors, who assumed we had absconded with the contraband. Having switched from nautical livery to trench coats and even a trilby, there was now a touch of the Bogart about them. Back at our lodgings they locked our bedroom door, drew the curtains and spoke in hushed tones. We produced the smuggled goods and they counted the garments, whereupon we were accused of stealing two sweaters. Furious, I protested my innocence, but a few weeks later, in the frozen desert of Iran, Derek pulled them from his rucksack. I was shocked. ‘You’re pleased to be warm, aren’t you?’ he snapped.

Arab hospitality in Nazareth, 1964

A decade later found me on an ancient paddle steamer, a cumbersome vessel with a barge-like appendage lashed to either side. A Heath Robinson affair, the 10th of Ramadan had plied the Nile between Wadi Halfa and Egypt since before 1919. I stood aghast as the ramshackle boat shuddered into motion, powered by the most beautiful big black engine. ‘I can’t understand why you’re enjoying it so much,’ grumbled a fellow passenger. ‘This boat is the disgrace of the Sudan.’ On the deck it was chaos: babies rolled around amidst pots and pans; elderly people slept; people brewed tea and mashed fava beans into ful. Every evening noisy youths sang Arabic songs or played poker. ‘There’s trouble,’ whispered my friend, Abdul Aziz, a Sudanese student studying in Cairo, and he indicated a man on the other side of the boat. ‘That policeman’s Egyptian,’ he said, ‘and he’s been telling everyone you’re an Israeli spy.’ Two days later, when I awoke on the deck to find the Aswan High Dam looming over me, I whipped out my camera to record this magnificent feat of engineering, and the policeman pounced. ‘No photos! No photos!’ he screamed, and everyone turned to look at the Israeli spy. I had arrived in Egypt! As for the 10th of Ramadan, nine years later it burst into flames and sank. More than 300 of those on board were drowned or eaten by crocodiles.

Jenny in Timbuktu 1980

I had always wanted to travel. In 1964, aged 21, I walked out of my job at the BBC and bought a one-way ticket on a steamer to Israel. I had just £20 in my pocket. So began my lifelong passion for the open road, travelling rough and living by my wits, in an era before mobile phones, ATMs and the internet. Throughout the sixties and seventies I continued to travel that way, hitch-hiking on trucks and sleeping anywhere – in doss-houses, brothels, cowsheds, temples, or beneath the open skies. The extraordinary hospitality I received from people in all walks of life gave me an insight into their struggles and dreams. Taking whatever jobs came to hand, from working on an Israeli kibbutz and in an Indian factory, to teaching in the Nigerian bush and making films in Canada, I learned how to survive in a male-dominated world.

Jenny’s latest book

It is 34 years since I decided to settle down. With my husband, Bill, and our two pre-school children, I moved to the tiny fishing village of Cadgwith on the Lizard Peninsula, where we were welcomed into a unique community which, to this day, resembles one big happy family. For several years I taught English to overseas students in Cornwall, a job where my experiences of other cultures stood me in good stead, but eventually I began to write copy for the tourist guides produced by Bill, a graphic designer. I subsequently researched and wrote A Guide to Cornish Fish, followed shortly after that by a successful children’s book, a very Cornish tale entitled Percy Pengelly and the Wibble-Wobble.  

Now, with much of the world in lockdown and Covid-19 spreading across the globe, I have published a new book, Vagabond Girl, my memoirs of the 1960s and 70s. To begin with I was writing it for my children, describing exotic places, wild escapades, and multiple love affairs, but gradually it dawned on me that I had washed up in situations pivotal to world history: India and Pakistan at war; Nyerere’s socialist Tanzania; famine in Ethiopia; religious riots in Nigeria. It wasn’t just my story: it was the story of those decades and I realised that I needed to develop the book for a wider readership.

In some ways this is an ideal time to read Vagabond Girl. We need our armchair travelling and escapism. “Vicarious travelling at this time fills a gaping need,” wrote one of my fans. “I could hear the din, taste the dust and feel the heat of each remote village,” wrote another.

I still sit in my rocking chair every morning, but these days my grandchildren join me, rocking gently back and forth, watching the fishing boats put to sea, reciting their names: “There’s Scorpio,” they shout. “There goes Starlight”’ Our local fishermen busy themselves on deck, preparing pots and nets, but beyond them on the horizon the great stationary hulks remain. I think of the foreign sailors on board, imprisoned by the pandemic, and of their countries far away.

 Will I ever travel again, I wonder? Perhaps the world that moulded me has gone forever...