Fools’ errands

Private piece of travel writing about Mallorca, no connection to the BBC

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Honoré Daumier, National Gallery London

Think of a tsunami frozen in time as it sweeps away a beachfront and you’ll be close to how I felt when I spotted the huge boulder embedded in the dry-stone farmhouse on Mallorca. It was on the valley slope opposite – the aftermath of some rockfall in the distant past, I assume. Such was my shock I yelled out to other passengers on the bus to look down. The most existential thing ever! Someone’s home smashed by a giant rock! The home of someone whose living must have been hard enough already on a rocky mountain slope. A peasant, subsistence landscape not unlike my ancestors’ own depopulated valley in Northern Ireland, Glenrone, where the slopes bear the outlines of long-abandoned potato ridges dug out of the stoney soil.

Glenrone 2021

Here on Mallorca it was like the myth of Sisyphus but without the possibility of even pushing the boulder away a little.

It was just a glimpse. On and up our little bus pushed, following the misty mountain road to the sanctuary of Lluc, the island’s most famous holy place. A few miles from the Christian shrine, I sat back in my seat reflecting on how meaningless life could seem, more fool’s errand than journey.

I also thought about a decently turned out chap I had watched earlier boarding a bus on the island full drunk but trying desperately not to let it show. He’d been having a grim, though polite, argument with an imaginary collocutor at the stop before the bus pulled up, but he drew in his hand and set the dispute aside in order to get on, and the driver did let him on, an act of pure compassion. Another man might have crumpled up on a bench but this one kept going, by a huge effort of will. And the driver gave him a chance to get from his A to his B, where I watched him through the window shuffle off.

Arriving at Lluc, I wasn’t really hoping to have a spiritual experience, just to satisfy my curiosity, and I did in fact get carried away by the excellent secular art in its museum – I hadn’t seen that coming.

Works by Catalan painter Josep Coll i Bardolet (1912-2007) in Lluc Museum

I was taken too by the view down into a neighbouring valley, a green oasis surrounded by rocky mountains.


A third distraction was the scent of cooking from a restaurant beside the basilica. Like in the Mullah Nasreddin story, I had only enough money in my budget to pay for the aroma of their delicious (?) sauce but I was still as happy as a pig in muck. I almost forgot the true spirit of the place. If I sensed it at all, it was for a moment in the breeze maybe, near a makeshift memorial to lost loved ones in the gardens.

By the time the return bus had arrived, rain was blowing in and the trip back down to the town of Inca was a blur in which I could barely see that boulder which had given me such a start.

I had two hours before a play I wanted to see, and headed off in the downpour to get something to eat. Despite my umbrella, I got soaked walking to a cafe in the town centre, and was still damp when I re-entered the rain with a map app for my guide. The walk was fairly long and lonely, down empty streets, a far cry from the lively scenes at Inca’s great annual fair which I saw in November, though the elegance of some of the old buildings tickled the feathers of my inner culture vulture.

Inca’s Dijous Bo fair

At one point I passed a shuttered warehouse where oil had evidently been spilt on the pavement. I say evidently because suddenly I was down on the paving, falling painfully on my elbow and grazing my knee, twisting the umbrella handle. Shocked I might be but damned if I would give in and head to the nearby railway station for a warm dry carriage, rolling back to the great city of Palma and its comforts. Rising up in pain, I tramped on, discarding my collapsing umbrella. I was determined not to miss the play having seen almost nothing on a real stage for a couple of years, just like tens of millions of other people.

And then, spilling a pool of light on to the dark wet pavement like some kind of urban shrine, there was the cabaret theatre, Espai Teatritx, as small and cosy as a home, and with everything just so: a welcoming box office with a stack of posters, a stage, and a few props and chairs for the audience coming to see Don Quixote.

Theatre poster near Inca Station

It was an arrangement so simple you could imagine Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves dropping by to see the show in some innyard or fairground. To see themselves as conjured up by a company of players at the top of their game, and later chuckle over the coups de théatre – the visionary and the realist seeing themselves for what they were and enjoying the delight of the audience.

I still grin at the jokes in that evening’s performance. I just wish I could go back and see their next production, Seven Ways To Be Hamlet. Writing this a month afterwards I tap my elbow. It still hurts but it was worth the journey.

Me walking an irrigation canal somewhere on Mallorca

Commuting across the room

Who’d have thought we’d all be having a plague year? A kind of year several generations of people never saw.

As a journalist based at BBC Broadcasting House in London, I have seen some big changes to the way I work since the lockdown began in Britain in March.

One is the form of the news. Now the daily live page is the main focus of the BBC website’s resources and rightly so as the coronavirus pandemic stalks the planet. What that has meant for me personally is editing or subbing a stream of content, with the line between World and UK news blurred. And for want of a newsroom there’s the Slack app and Zoom. Occasionally I will be writing or editing stand-alone web stories or cutting video but to date, most of my shifts seem to have been absorbed by the live page.

The other change is how I work physically. My trusty old BBC MacBook Pro, friend from overseas reporting trips and essential tool for my video reports, has now become my mobile BBC bureau. Because of social distancing, my colleagues and I have been regularly asked to work from home. So on a screen in my front room I find myself producing news for the world while the binmen go to work outside my window. Yes, I do still wear trousers.

At the same time, some roles on World Online require you to be there at Broadcasting House so I still come in regularly. Every shift begins with the search for a desk at a safe distance from others and then a laborious, careful wiping-down of the work station. If the pandemic has a smell for me, it is the smell of surgical spirit. If it has a texture, it is cotton on my lips.

So it’s either my front room or Broadcasting House but nowhere else for now. I had hopes of getting back to Europe this year for new reporting trips but that’s all on hold.


New challenges

Just added a page about my initial experiences as a BBC “digital ninja”. It’s been a while since I posted here. Was very busy at work, spending most of the time on World Online core desk in New Broadcasting House but with  few forays abroad. Outside the BBC, have done a tiny bit of (unpaid) journalism which usually pops up on my Medium page, and have tried to make time for videography. One thing I never wanted to write but felt I had to was a tribute to my mother, who passed away this month.

Phone-to-phone news


Interviewees in  Marseille

It’s a couple of years since I returned to the core desk at World Online, where my desk work flips between writing the top story of the day and editing. I’ve had a couple of reporting trips to Spain in rapid succession, both to the same place, Catalonia – after the August terror attacks and following the referendum day violence on 1 October. The challenge on both occasions was to gather content on the move, which is what breaking news is all about, of course.

There was more time to prepare for a trip to Marseille in April as part of our French election coverage, looking at an initiative to encourage people on a deprived housing estate to vote. One novel aspect of the trip was blogging about it intensively on social media and pulling the words and images together into a Twitter Moment called “Election time in a French no-go zone”. The beauty of the medium is how you can use vertical video – the natural format for smartphones, of course. Phone-to-phone news.

Italy just shivered

“About 200 tremors.” That’s the line (from Italian seismologists) that stood out for me when I was writing about Wednesday’s multiple earthquakes in central Italy. Some 200 tremors registering above magnitude 2 in a single day, in a small part of the Apennines, the great mountain spine of Italy. 

What I needed was someone to put that into perspective – there have been tens of thousands of aftershocks since the 24 August disaster in the region – but other stories were breaking and the day shot by. Still, the figure is terrifying when you consider that magnitude 2.5 is the point where quakes start to make themselves felt. 

Four of Wednesday’s quakes exceeded magnitude 5: three in the morning and the fourth a few hours into the afternoon. It was a mercy that they did not occur in the night, bringing down roofs on sleeping people, as happened in August or in the L’Aquila disaster of 2009. Still at least one man was killed and another was missing after an avalanche. 

Those earlier quakes were stronger, and much more destructive and lethal of course, but the head of Marche region had good reason to talk of a “catastrophe” on Wednesday: the rural areas hit were already enveloped in snow, which snarled up rescue efforts. I imagine it will be some time before a proper damage assessment can be carried out in such conditions. 
If there was any comfort to be drawn from the news, it was in seeing the speed at which accommodation was found for the homeless: those AFP photos of the people bedding down in a giant tent in Abruzzo. Italy clearly knows what to do. Just heartbreaking that it has to do it do often now…


Hoping to finish this summer all the pages I want to write about my journalism. Things change so fast, the early trips for the website look like parchment now. One day when I get rich I’ll post videos straight to the WordPress pages too. 

One post a year?

Nearly a year has flashed by since I opened this site. Much of it I spent on attachment to World TV, a few desks away from Online in the New Broadcasting House newsroom but a leap into the dark for someone who has always associated news production with the website. I hope to add a few pages shortly on my latest experiences of mobile journalism, which took me to Paris and Spain last year.  sign4rubbish_edited-1

Home at last

After a decade writing news and features for BBC World Online, I have decided to bring my pieces together in one place. Most were posted on Twitter and Tumblr but those that stretch back into the pre-social media era were feeling lonely. Hopefully the stories here keep resonating, in Europe (my stamping ground) and beyond.

Journalism students with an interest in how website reporting is evolving may find my work interesting as I was the first member of our team to use our new digital reporting kit in anger (March 2014 in Crimea). Oh yes, I wear the technical flaws with pride.

That’s me in the mafia shirt above, by the way, interviewing Podemos activists in Spain last May Day.