I was born into a farming family with a smallholding near Smeathearpe on the Devon Somerset border in the southwest of England. I still remember interacting with all the farm animals: riding Dobbin, our massive shire horse (my father could not afford a tractor back then); ducklings invading my plate of spaghetti, (doubtless believing the contents to be worms); running across fields with Laddie, our rescued greyhound and unconsciously soaking up the innocence of childhood in this (still unchanged) leafy, corner of rural England.
In 1960, my father received an invitation to take up the position of transport supervisor for several British Embassies in the Middle East and we packed up and headed to Tehran, the capital of Iran, where my parents would spend the next 17 years. This was, for me at that tender age, a fateful move because, although I would perhaps not fully realise it for some time, Iran was destined to steal my heart and live in my very bones where, half a century down the road, it resides still.
I attended the British school in Gholhaq, a region of north Tehran, until I was 10, loving not only that school set in its magnificent gardens, but the whole flavour of life in that exotic country with its 3500 years of civilization, kind-hearted people and exquisite landscapes offering unending opportunities for Boys Ownadventures: riding horseback across remote, sun-drenched plains; fording deep rivers in our Land Rover and encountering marauding wolves in the distant Lar Valley.
Life back then was a tapestry of simple pleasures and excitement and I was guided by my adventurer-father to follow his lifestyle and his frequent escapades into the wilderness and into the little-known nooks and crannies of that marvellous country that I still miss so much.
Given the limited opportunities for education in Iran back then, at age 10 I was sent off to boarding school in England and thence to Manchester University where I studied Oriental languages, but specifically Farsi (Persian) which further anchored my attachment to Iran to where I eventually returned just as my parents were retiring back to the UK. I had been fortunate to be able to return to Iran for the school holidays, three times a year and during one of these spells I was recommended by the then British ambassador to Iran, Sir Denis Wright, to become tutor to the King Mohammed Reza’s son, Reza, which involved frequent trips to the Palace, where I tutored the young king-in-waiting in English which, unknowingly, would set me on a course that would determine much of my life.
After my parents’ departure, I continued living in Tehran, staying with friends and working as an interpreter/translator in Farsi for several companies: British Aerospace; Marconi; Crown Agents and several others, all looking for business opportunities and a slice of the lucrative Iranian pie. Then, Fate played a further hand and I was asked by Prince Shahram Pahlavi-nia, the Shah’s nephew, to tutor his son as I had Reza. To begin with, I hesitated as I have never considered myself a teacher, but he won me over with an offer to assist with translations for one of his business associates but, most significantly, he proposed that I live in the palace with his family – a rare privilege.
I lived with the Pahlavi royal family until the advent of the Islamic Revolution and thoroughly enjoyed my time with them, finding them to be wonderfully kind, very well-educated, sensitive and great fun; even today, I still consider them as family for their warmth and the way they involved me in everything and I relish our frequent reunions.
Life works in mysterious ways and if someone had told me during those years in Iran that I would leave her to live out my years in Seychelles, I would have had them certified as barking mad. I had no idea where Seychelles even was; Iran was my home and I was well-suited to life there and blissfully happy – why on earth would I depart?
The answer was the Islamic Revolution, a socio-political tsunami that laid bare everything before it, changing the course of Persian history, destroying lives and upending the social order. I remember experiencing its beginnings: riding my motorbike through roadblocks set up by Ayatollah Khomeini’s supporters; watching cars get overturned by black-clad revolutionaries and their occupants dragged away; witnessing running battles between the army and armed insurgents; dodging gangs of bloodthirsty thugs roaming the backstreets and other stuff too painful to recall.
Providentially, back in 1975, my boss had the inspired idea to buy an island property in Seychelles which sent us all scurrying to the nearest map to discover where it was located, and so the groundwork had already been set for our eventual move to the Islands.
He had purchased Dárros Island, a magnificent atoll 140 miles southwest of the Seychelles mainland in the Amirantes group of islands and this is where we now made our home. The contrast could not possibly have been greater as we migrated from a hectic urban environment in Tehran, our capital city, to a remote collection of reef islands far from the mainland without any infrastructure to speak of beyond the one we would soon busy ourselves creating.
Actually, low-key construction had already started soon after purchase of the island with the carving out of a simple, grass airstrip from a forest of coconut palms and the building of some basic, really basic, habitation for the management team and the 100 or so workers still engaged in producing coprah (the dried flesh of coconut) which was a valuable commodity back then. Later, generators were installed and a rustic bungalow for the owners was constructed to add to other pre-existing buildings such as the island shop, clinic. jail and other necessary features of a remote island outpost. Soon, construction started on a magnificent main residence and two adjoining bungalows to accommodate more permanent residence.
By the time we moved to the island permanently, which was in December 1978, the main residence and bungalows were already completed and the island was already up and running as a going concern. The boss purchased a small 10-seater plane which was used to transport some supplies and personnel but the main means of transport remained the traditional, sail-assisted schooners which would take almost 20 hours to reach Dárros from the principal island of Mahé. For the 20 years I remained on the island there was no telephone; our only means of contact with the outside world was a radio telephone patched into the Seychelles network. We also had no television and relied instead on short wave radio for news of the outside world. Excitement was everywhere in this brave new island world and we all had to double up to make it work. I was asked to study as paramedic on weekends at the main hospital in Victoria to be able to tackle some of the frightful injuries sustained by the island population.
With no previous experience of the sea, except for occasional visits to Iran’s Caspian Sea, I took to my new life on the island like the proverbial duck to water. Being quite athletic certainly helped me as I learned to dive, fish, sail, windsurf and generally engage with all that my natural surroundings had to offer. I was helped along by members of our island community whose members seemed to relish taking this blanc(white man) under their wings as they took me on insane fishing trips in tiny, single-engine fishing boats so far into the ocean that we lost sight of the island altogether in search of giant shark, grouper, barracuda and the whole range of those wondrous denizens of the deep.
Today, looking back on our exploits, I am flabbergasted at the risks we took where a faulty outboard motor would have sealed our fate for sure. Had that happened, no one would have found us as we would have floated off to Africa with the current and almost certainly perished from exposure or thirst on the way. Indeed, island stories abound with such tragic tales of fishermen lost to the waves forever, never to be seen again.
Old man Leveux, the island’s longest resident, took me into the adjoining lagoon: a spectacular gem of sapphire water surrounded by nine exquisite islands, to show me how to hunt the giant blue mud crab the size of a serving plate and whose giant serrated claws would amputate a careless man’s finger with impunity. He would set off across the island from his house followed by a white goat, a black dog, and his wife in that strict order, he wearing a faded dinner jacket and ripped underpants which revealed more than they hid.
As I became more adept at island ways, I would windsurf around the entire atoll ( 25 odd km in circumference), weaving in and out of surf strung like ivory pearls on an invisible thread, always wary of the ferocious lemon shark and the deadly stingrays and stonefish which inhabited the shallows. D’arros was unbelievably beautiful but also dangerous and one always had to be on the alert for sudden squalls, pitiless currents and the shadowy demons of the open ocean.
On Sundays, we played football on the airstrip or volleyball on a court by the manager’s house and, once a year, held the D’arros Olympic Games, a grandiose affair featuring tug-of-war, climbing the greasy pole, running races and all manner of competitions, followed by a grand communal feast of mud crab, suckling pig, salted shark and fine Creole cuisine. Life was good.
I remember my boss telling me that if I did not write an account of the life we were living, the memory of it would be lost forever and so I began writing in earnest. My first book was Voices: a collection of Seychelles short storiesdepicting island life and followed that up with a 600-page historical thriller titled Kolonywhich was a dark, (pitch black, actually) fictional foray into what may once have happened on that island. My career as a writer had begun.
Months shunted imperceptibly into years and years into decades during which we occasionally would rent the island out to friends of the owners who included other members of the royal family, the actress Isabelle Adjani, the King of Greece and many other members of the jet set. Finally, in 1998, I sensed my time on D’arros was up as exposure to the sun over many years was causing potentially dangerous skin problems. Having already acquired Seychelles nationality, I decided to move to the mainland and, in November of that year, I closed the fairytale chapter of my life as an outer islander… never to be forgotten.
In the interim period, I had purchased a wonderful property in south Mahé, the main island, on a cliff overlooking the whole of the west coast. It was to here that I now repaired to commence writing in earnest but, no sooner had I arrived, than I was contacted by the newly-incorporated Seychelles Tourism Marketing Authoritymandated to market Seychelles as a tourist destination who declared that they were looking for a copywriter and someone familiar with the islands. They asked if I might be interested and, as the position would put both my experience on the islands and my writing to good use, I accepted.
A further 20 years down the line, it is a position I still fill for the, now, Seychelles Tourism Boardas well as that of their chief consultant. During that time, I have travelled the world giving talks about my adopted home and also writing the lion’s share of the content for the Tourism Board’s promotions, website and an entire range of brochures, training manuals and collaterals for our international campaigns. I have also contributed to writing several coffee table books on Seychelles and am currently editor-in-chief of a new history of the islands destined for next year’s 250thanniversary of Seychelles’ first settlement. I am also co-founder of BC Communication, my new company dealing in design, writing, editing, corporate messaging and branding.
Looking back, life has been amazing and I have been hugely privileged to know such exceptional places as Iran and Seychelles, along with the wonderful people who inhabit them. I could not possibly have asked for anything more.