MY PICTORIAL tribute to nine great kids

Regular readers of these posts will be aware of how prominently our 1991 trip to Chile has featured, and of its main purpose; for Dido to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. Thus far however, I’ve only ever touched upon that key element of the trip, focusing more on our impressions as first-time travellers to an incredible country (and-then reborn democracy).  

While it would be lying to say that whenever I hear a mention of Chile, my instant mental vision is not of mind-blowing epic scenery, it is also true, that this is always quickly followed by a starkly contrasting melancholy caused by memories of the faces shown here.

The plain truth is, and one of the main reasons I’ve avoided the subject as far as possible, despite the fact this happened nearly 30 years ago, there are issues of confidentiality which severely compromise my scope for description.

Suffice to say here, that with the cache of her Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship behind her, Dido was able to convince the relevant government authorities in Santiago to grant us access to a group of nine children (all boys in this case) with whom she could work. Nothing however could have prepared us for the circumstances in which the work would take place, for instead of a regular school, or, as we had naively expected, a special needs school, we found ourselves that first morning being driven through the security gates of a home for young male offenders – a borstal.

More shocking still, was that none of the nine boys – all of whom had either been orphaned or abandoned as babies and who all suffered from various forms of mental and/or physical disability – were themselves offenders or delinquents of any sort. Their only crime was to be born into a Chilean society, then-ill-equipped to properly care for them. Hopefully, during the years since, as Chile has developed into a more stable (the current, popular ructions notwithstanding) and socially sophisticated democracy, children born into similar circumstances enjoy a less bleak prospect.

Nevertheless, from the start of the week we spent with them, we were struck by most of the boy’s cheerfulness and sense of optimism, and their enthusiasm and excitement for Dido’s program of dance-based therapy. Despite some shyness and reluctance from a couple of the lads to begin with, by the end of the week all nine boys had become thoroughly engaged and were already showing significant progress with regards to their levels of creative social engagement.  

The idea had been for one or two carers and/or teachers working in the home to at least observe, and hopefully participate in the activities, and thereby learn to continue the therapy once we had left. Sadly though, despite their repeated assurances to the contrary, neither the government department who facilitated the project, nor anyone employed at the home showed the slightest curiosity or interest in what Dido was doing until the very last day, by which time, it was too late.

Thus, we left the boys for the last time with as much frustration as satisfaction, and saddened in the realisation that this week had probably been the highlight of their young lives rather than merely the beginning of a brighter future.

Following our return to England, and during the months which followed Dido often wrote to her Chilean contacts in an attempt to secure some kind of followup to her work – at least for the nine boys. Unfortunately, all her appeals went unanswered. The painting here was meant as both an expression of our frustration and also intended to insure that at least we would never forget those nine remarkable young individuals.

THE NINE SAINTS OF SANTIAGO – oil on canvas – 1992 – 100 x 78″ (254 x 198 cm)

This is arguably the most monumental of all my large paintings, and it is certainly the most deeply felt. The “missing” ninth lad, who suffered from schizophrenia, did not want to be sketched and is represented by the padlock in the centre of the painting. The padlock is obviously a metaphor for him and much more besides. The blues and lilacs represent the uniform they all wore.

The sketches above are all gouache on paper.


One of my most visited posts was Before We Met – a photo record of my wife Dido’s career as a professional ballerina and model. Dido was injured out of the ballet in 1985, about four years before we met, and so very sadly, I never got to see her dance.


Nevertheless, I was privileged to witness Dido as she utilised the single-minded commitment and personal discipline she learned as a classical dancer to retrain; firstly as an occupational therapist (OT) and then later as a scientist specialising in the development of children’s brains. These qualities combined with her intelligence, imagination and wit meant that ballet’s loss has been a considerable gain for countless numbers of children with a range of conditions from autism to hemiplegia.


Seasoned readers and followers of this blog may already be familiar with our trip to Chile through my series Our Real Cartoon Adventure. But, for those who are not in the know, I should explain that in that in 1991 Dido – then starting out as an OT – was awarded a generous Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship to go to Chile to study the role of folk dance as a therapeutic tool to support social integration and participation for children with learning problems. As we were only recently wed, and as Dido would be gone for several months we decided that I would travel along, ostensibly (and actually, to a significant degree) as her cameraman (still and video) and thus provide a visual record of her work.


All but one of the photos presented here are recreational however, and provide a happy record of our travels through that wonderful country, from Lago Chungara in the extreme north to Lago Llanquehue in the southern Lake District. What I particularly love about these pictures is the way they illustrate Dido’s adventurous spirit, her sense of fun, her incredible toughness and her beauty – inside and out. Moreover, they provide compelling evidence that there’s lots of life to be had beyond showbiz!


*In addition to being a Winston Churchill Fellow, Dido was recently made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts for her contributions to Neuroscience, Occupational Therapy and the Arts.

Glyph and Lady (Cerro Unitas – Atacama)
Lying down again at Coquimbo
Racing the tanker…Pacific swim at La Serena
Mi bella esposa neuva en La Serena
Emerging from a near-freezing Lago Llanquehue
A happy swimmer with Volcan Osorno in the background (Llanquehue – Chilean Lakes)
A seriously cold Lago Todos Los Santos (Petrohue – Chilean Lakes)
At work with the kids in Santiago.


Those of you familiar with my posts might already have seen my cartoon record of our trip to Chile in 1991. Well, here are some images from that same wondrous journey, from photos taken just months after the new democracy had been born. From the man moodily anticipating his bowl of chicken cazuela in a Santiago soup cafe to the gentleman posing dignified and proud before his humble Antofagasta home, the people of of this amazing country were an endless source of photogenic fascination. But of all the images here, the unfocused and shaky picture of two waitresses doing an impromptu cueca (Chile’s famous national dance) remains one my most cherished visual records from all of my many travels…




One of Dido’s most onerous tasks during our Chile trip entailed her working with a group of mentally and emotionally handicapped teenage boys, several of whom had what these days we euphemistically refer to as “challenging behaviours”; in truth, one or two of the lads turned out to be downright psychotic. To help her share some of the organisational and practical load Dido enrolled the assistance, for two weeks, of a former ballet colleague whom she had flown down from Los Angeles. But however difficult the forthcoming days with the boys would be, nothing could have been more “challenging” than the act of merely meeting said-colleague at Santiago Airport.

I wonder how many people reading these adventures remember the delirious scenes of joy and celebration on the tarmac at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv following the dramatic rescue of the hostages from Entebbe by Israeli commandos in 1976? Well, the arrivals hall at Santiago was that scene, but on steroids, and was happening when we arrived to meet our friend, and continued without abatement until the time we left – some three hours later – having failed in our endeavour. Fortunately, our friend – another seasoned traveller – on failing to meet up with us in the melee, used her initiative and made her own way to our hotel. As for why the arrivals hall was in such a state of continuous delirium, we never discovered…


25 Arrivals


Before the three of us began what would be an intense five days of work with the kids, we hired a car and drove up north to the small coastal town of Tongoy. Set on broad sands at the south tip of a spectacular bay it seemed like an excellent place for enjoying a few days by the South Pacific. But as with just about every feature of our Chilean adventure whatever our preconceptions or expectations had been before we arrived at a given location, the reality always had surprises in store for us. In Tongoy, as with so many of our previous destinations, it was our hotel which offered the biggest shock to the system. But in this case at least, it wasn’t a detrimental shock – no Nazis, no squalor, no shared butter and no gravity defying showers – but rather a jolt to our visual senses: For our hotel was decorated to such a degree of kitsch, it was like walking into a cliché. Each and every surface was coated, draped, carpeted or covered in garish, luridly decorated flower motifs – every facade clashing dramatically with its neighbour; Every chair, table and bed, painted, lacquered or otherwise coated in every colour, shade and tone of the spectrum and beyond; Each and every shelf and windowsill densely “adorned” with myriad pieces of chintz and fake ivory, such that if “ivorine” came from “real” plastic elephants, then plastic elephants would surely have been as an endangered a species as their actual living-breathing inspirations. And to cap it all there was the owner of the hotel: A movable temple of kitsch in her own right, who, as she strolled proudly through her establishment: With her stiffly set blue-rinse; down through her heavily painted, rouged and lipsticked face; to her violent-pink, be-flowered, polyester dress to her spangle-encrusted, patent turquoise stilettos, she resembled a chameleon in a psychedelic forest…

26 The Lady of Kitsch


As we had a car for a few days we decided to explore the Coquimbo region. At one stop we received a lesson in “car-parking vigilantism” Chilean-style. We’d parked up by some roadside cafe miles from anywhere and were about to go inside for a snack when three boys – of disparate age and stature – appeared from behind the building. Before we had a chance to get out of the car they had positioned themselves around the vehicle in a manner that I can only describe as casually menacing. The largest and oldest of the three boys leaned against my side of the car and tapped on the window. Nervously, I wound the window down and in my best Spanish asked him what he wanted. He asked me if we intended to park the car here, to which I replied, yes. He then asked me; ‘But who’s going to protect your car while you’re in the cafe?’ to which I ingenuously replied; ‘Why do we need the car protected? There’s nobody here!?’ He then smiled wryly at me, with an expression far too cynical for a lad of his tender years, and said knowingly; ‘Well my friend, you never know do you? You never can tell what could happen, even in a place like this…’ then he revealed – as if by magic – a long piece of wood, an old bat of some kind, with a jagged nail protruding from its tip. He swung it nonchalantly by his side with his wrist then added; ‘But of course, with three trusty guys like us guarding your car, I can assure you that nothing will happen to it…but if not’ he continued, waving the bat more vigorously now, ‘I would be very concerned…’

We wanted to just drive on, but the next stop was over three hours further down the road, so with a mixture of repressed rage, fear and frustration I dug out a handful of pesos from my jeans pocket and placed it in the open palms of the smallest boy whose hands were reaching up towards me. 

To be fair, the big lad was as good as his word, and they did indeed guard the car for the entire time we were in the cafe, and nothing bad happened to it…

27 We can take care of your car...




Germans had been colonizing the Lake District of Chile since the mid 19th century but somehow we were totally unprepared for just how much their presence influenced the region.

This was a break for us from Dido’s work and represented a chance to have a few days r&r and for that reason we decided to splash the cash and stay at a decent hotel. Our Lonely Planets guide suggested a timber-faced  chalet-style establishment on the edge of Villarica Lake, but what it omitted to describe was the intensity of the Teutonic atmosphere within the building. As our luck would have it, the day we arrived was some sort of German related  holiday and the entire staff together with all the German guests were donning national (Bavarian) dress, with all the men resplendent in lederhosen and feathered hats, and their “wenches” in dirndl. I’d ski-id as a youth in Austria, so I was used to this festive sartorial tradition. But what I wasn’t used to and hadn’t expected – at least not quite so overtly – was the proud and brazen identification of the hotel management with their Fatherland’s recent military past. Of course, I knew all about Nazis fleeing to South America at the end of the war, and about Eichmann and Mengele, but somehow I’d always connected this sort of thing with Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I was rudely disabused of my ignorance however, just after we had checked-in and the bellhop took us into the elevator, which, instead of the usual mirrors was decorated with numerous photographs of Panzer crews posing on and about their tanks. Amazed and naively thinking that this was some sort of retro decorative gimmick – albeit in alarmingly poor taste, but essentially innocent – I asked the bellhop who these soldiers were?

‘Ach!’ he exclaimed, putting our bags down on the the floor, obviously thrilled that I had shown an interest; ‘This vas mine faater’s Panzer groupen”  he said in an accent which was all German without a trace of Spanish,

‘Das man here’  pointing at the largest of the photos at a black-uniformed soldier leaning nonchalantly against his vehicle, ‘das man here ist mine grandfaater. A hero ov ze Eastern front!’

‘Oh gosh’ I replied limply.

‘Ya! A great hero – unt all his camaraden – all heroes!’ he added, gesturing expansively  about the elevator. ‘Such gut fellows – yah…’ he suddenly tailed off in sombre contemplation.

‘He was a great man for sure’ I said trying not to betray my total insincerity.

‘But no! Nicht vas my friend!’ he responded.

‘What do you mean?’ I queried, fearing the answer.

‘Nicht vas‘ he repeated. ‘You just met him – zer olt man at zer reception…’

As he walked us down the corridor to our room I pondered what was worse: That I had just shaken the hand of a Nazi “war hero”, or that he had our passports in his possession…

22 The Boremann Suite


The Chile trip was our first and last experiment with Lonely Planet travel guides.  While most of gripes with the book could be regarded as somewhat subjective – e.g. our constant disagreement with the guide’s descriptive terminology, such as “basic”, when they really meant “squalid”; “faded” when they really meant “decrepit” and; “comfortable” when they really meant “incredibly uncomfortable” – the several times they got essential facts wrong were far more serious. The worst example was when we decided to hike the five miles from our old hotel on Lake Villarica to another hotel out in the country. We knew it would be a long hard yomp, carrying our rucksacks and that was fine, because we wanted the exercise and most importantly, because we also “knew” – from our Lonely Planet Guide – that the hotel was open and that because this was the beginning of the season there was absolutely no need to phone first to reserve a room. Sadly for us, the hotel didn’t in fact open until the following day. The picture tells only half the story as we had to walk all the way back too!

23 Lonely Planets - we hate you!!


We decided to end our visit to the Lakes region of Chile with a day-trip to the famous Island of Chiloe – famous among other things for being the original home of the potato. However, when we’d planned the excursion we hadn’t realised that the ferries which conveyed people and their motor vehicles from the mainland to the island were converted military landing craft – apparently of 1940’s vintage. As our bus rolled onto the craft we were perturbed when we noticed no safety gear of any kind – no life-jackets, no life-rings and certainly no life-craft. Our anxiety was increased by the fact that even with the front part of the boat on the landing ramp we were already being buffeted by an extremely rough sea. Once again, with our recent flirtations with mortality still fresh in the memory, after a mere exchange of looks we were off that bus, and off that boat before you had time to say “Herald of Free Enterprise”! Chiloe would have to wait for another time…

24 Chiloe - not quite




The second of the two fruit checks took place on the border of the Atacama and Coquimbo regions. The bad thing, was that it was in the middle of the night and we were woken from our sleep, but the good news was that on this occasion we weren’t forced off the bus. For whatever reason the policemen concentrated this time on examining the luggage holds and it wasn’t long before their search paid fruit or, to be more precise, onions – a bloody-great crate of prime cooking onions. Now it was the coach driver who received the wagging finger treatment as he was asked to explain the presence of the contraband Allium bulbs. Somehow it was obvious to the carabineros that he was the guilty party and the poor chap was taken away to a little booth by the side of the road where he was interrogated for the next hour or so. Eventually, evidently chastened and downcast he was returned to us and permitted to continue driving us to Santiago…

19 Whose onions!!


As much as were enjoying the Chilean diet, after several weeks in the country we felt the need for a change. Having spent a great deal of time in Israel we both had passion for Middle Eastern cuisine – Jewish and Arab. So one evening when we stumbled upon a Palestinian restaurant near our hotel in Santiago we thought we’d give it a go. So long as we observed Basil Fawlty’s wise dictum; not to “mention the war” – or wars in this case – we presumed that we could relax and enjoy some fine Arab cooking.  However, the meal we were served up had about as much relationship to the exquisite humus and salads of Abu Shukri in Jerusalem, or the sumptuous seafood and grilled meats of the Crusaders in Caesarea as a Birmingham balti chicken has to do with real Indian street food – i.e. not very much. The two memorable things about the meal was the fact that everything presented to us was grey in colour and utterly tasteless, from the cement-like humus and baba ganush to Dido’s choice of main course – supposedly braised, whole poussin, stuffed with cracked wheat and apricots (yes, grey apricots). But the piece de resistance for awfulness was my main course. What I was thinking when I ordered stuffed sheep’s intestine is one thing, but even allowing for my foolhardyness, nobody could have expected what was placed before me that evening – including all the other diners who used their menus to screen themselves from the revolting sight of my dish.  I suppose I was anticipating something along the lines of haggis or Balkan-style stuffed “kishke”, both of which I love. But this was, as depicted in the picture below, simply a steaming hot pile of sheep intestine in all its unadulterated gory, glory – somehow stuffed with rice (dried-out grey rice in keeping with the rest of the meal). Worse still was the smell; reminiscent of compost and dirty damp towels – it made Dido come close to retching. And the fact that the head waiter stood over me, oozing pride for his establishment’s signature dish, eager to see how much I liked it made this one of the most potentially awkward dining experiences of my life. But then fate smiled on us! The intestine, having the texture of tyre rubber meant that my knife couldn’t make the slightest impression on it. The waiter slapped his head as if to chastise himself for his remissness and went back to the kitchen to get me a sharper implement. At this, without needing to utter a word to each other, we stood up, slammed more than enough money on the table to cover the bill and marched full-speed to the exit…

20 Arafat's revenge


About halfway through our stay in Chile we decided to take a few days off and visit the lake district. We booked the train for the overnight journey from Santiago to Puerto Varas and believed we had reserved a compartment. However, we were disappointed to discover on boarding that we were in a couchette with half-dozen other people. A short time out of Santiago Dido went looking for the loo. She returned in an animated state saying that the next carriage comprised only compartments, and that they were all empty. When the porter then came to clip our tickets I asked him if it was possible to upgrade to a compartment to which he shrugged, smiled and muttered under his breath ‘perhaps’… Without thinking I reached into my pocket, and pulled out about $40.00 worth of Chilean Pesos from my wallet . Then, checking his expression and seeing that he was receptive I discreetly slipped the money into his hand. ‘Twenty minutes’ he said gesturing with his head back towards the next carriage; ‘I will prepare the first compartment for you’. And good to his word, the compartment was prepared. It was beautiful: Old British rolling stock from the age of steam, like a scene from From Russia with Love or Murder on Orient Express; only slightly faded, deep green velvet drapes and furniture and shimmering mahogany paneling. The porter had immaculately turned down the crisp Egyptian cotton sheets on the two broad bunk beds, in addition to his final touch – two expertly prepared pisco sours in old-style crystal cocktail glasses placed on the little pull out table. We were in romantic heaven, and needless to say we enjoyed one of the best nights of our trip…

21 Who says bribery doesn't pay!