19 July 2009 Scotland on Sunday

Malawi and the Madonna adpotions

Report from Malawi about the Madonna adoption case

THIS morning the Kumbali Cultural Village is deserted. It's just us and a cluster of mud huts surrounding a thatched amphitheatre, its stage open to the sky. A couple of months ago, here on the outskirts of Lilongwe, it was all different. With a flurry of excitement, Madonna, that most Western of pop stars, came to be entertained by a Malawian theatre troupe on this very stage. With press and paparazzi kept well away, she made the short journey down the dirt track from Kumbali Lodge, her upmarket base in Malawi, bringing 24 bodyguards – nine local, the rest from her own staff – to make an unlikely audience for the afternoon show.

View from the Utstein Kloster Hotel, Mosterøy near Stavanger, Norway

Stavanger

16 January 2008 The List

Stavanger

IF Disney had designed the streets outside Duncan Robertson's studio, you'd say it was too Mickey Mouse to be true. Like the view of the sunlit mountains that skirt the edge of the city, the wooden houses of Stavanger’s old town are chocolate box cute.

December 2005 Scotland on Sunday

Catalan castellers

WHEN the Cat in the Hat is stuck with the problem of removing a pink spot from a bedspread, he seeks help from Little Cat A who's hidden beneath his hat. In turn, that cat removes his hat to reveal the even smaller Little Cat B who reveals Little Cat C and so on all the way down to tiny Little Cat Z. This vision comes to mind as I stand in the town square at Granollers, half an hour from Barcelona, watching the remarkable Catalan custom of human castle building. The surreal imagination of Dr Seuss is the only thing like it.

July 2005 Scotland on Sunday

Sri Lanka post-tsunami

THE stage is behind a cobra's nest and beneath four towering coconut trees, their fruit dangling perilously overhead The actors have seen off the poisonous centipede they discovered under a brick but they can't rule out an attack of fire ants, termites or mosquitoes. "The hazards of outdoor theatre," chirps director Toby Gough standing in the sauna-like sun of southern Sri Lanka. "If we can time the coconuts to drop at the right moments, it might be OK."

The large footprints of Hans Christian Andersen laid in his bicentenary

Copenhagen

June 2005 Scotland on Sunday

Copenhagen/Hans Christian Andersen

STORIES. We can't get enough of them. The taxi driver told me one on the way to the airport. His step-father's great great grandfather, he said, was the brother of Hans Christian Andersen. Slightly more than six degrees of separation, admittedly, but it conjured up romantic images of a family of Danes expanding across Europe over the decades, eventually for one of them to end up in Leith.

July 2004 Scotland on Sunday

Las Vegas

THIS is better than James Bond. I’m standing at an internal phone on the gaming floor of the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I’ve arranged to call Conrad Steffen, the hotel’s surveillance supervisor, and now we need a place to meet. I tell him which phone I’m at and he asks me to look over to my left. “No, not your left, your right,” he says as I turn. That’s when I realise he can see me. He’s watching me on his closed circuit TV. Freaky or what?

January 2003 The List

St Petersburg

THE temperature edges up a notch and the drainpipes start to thaw, sending ice cascading to the pavement like a jackpot in one of the city’s many casinos.That’s when I come across a bear. A forlorn thing, it’s chained to a post on Nevsky Prospect, St. Petersburg’s main shopping street. It’s sniffing a hotdog that someone’s thrown and I assume the guy standing nearby is begging or money. Moments before, I walked through an underpass past two old women belting out gutsy renditions of Russian folk songs. A moment later, a man steps out of a gun shop in front of me and, with a film star flourish, points a starting pistol at a parked van. It’s all very unsettling.

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