Victorian travel photographer John Thomson’s travels in Siam and Cambodia

Siamese Boatman: Photograph from 1865/66 negative by John Thomson.Wellcome Collection, London.

By Jeremy Miles

It is wonderful to see the remarkable work of pioneering Victorian photojournalist and travel photographer John Thomson back on the walls at Bournemouth’s Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum.

A new exhibition Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1865-1866) openedat the clifftop museum last week and will run until April next year. It features a powerful and insightful collection of images captured in Siam and Cambodia nearly 160 years ago.

In a series of extraordinary photographs curated from the renowned archive of glass negatives at the Wellcome Collection in London, the exhibition offers a unique glimpse of life in 19th-century Southeast Asia.  The images are of particular interest partly because they reveal a glimpse of living history but also because of their sheer quality produced at a time when such achievements must have seemed close to impossible.

Gallery-goers first saw Thomson’s groundbreaking work at the Russell-Cotes five years ago when the museum staged an exhibition of photographs he had taken in China during his mid 19th century travels.

Both shows are the result of this resourceful and talented Scotsman’s grasp of the possibilities offered by the practice of photography at a time when it was still in its infancy. Thomson had quickly become a master of the art and with finely honed technical, creative and social skills he managed to gain entry to what to the British public at the time was an unseen world.

Angkor Wat: Photograph by John Thomson from 1865/66 negative.Wellcome Collection, London

His eagle-eyed attention to detail produced exquisite studies of the people, their costumes, architecture, customs, rituals and traditions. He even received special permission to visit Cambodia’s Angkor Wat (then under Siam’s control), becoming the first person to photograph its famous ruins. Ironically his Siamese hosts are said to have considered him quite mad to want to photograph a bunch of broken old temples.

His photographs reveal never before recorded details of far-off societies captured in images of extraordinary detail and breathtaking definition. They contain a wealth of anthropological and historical information. 

To get his pictures Thomson had to make long, arduous journeys involving weeks of planning and negotiations and the transportation of heavy and cumbersome cameras, tanks of toxic chemicals and a huge portable darkroom.

Looking at the prints on show at the Russell-Cotes it is clear that his charismatic and engaging personality helped open the door to some very special areas of Siamese society, even the Royal Household of the legendary monarch Rama V – King Mongkut. Yup that was him immortalised in the musical The King and I, though it’s probably best you don’t mention this in polite Thai society.

The country’s authorities took great exception to what they felt was a less than respectful portrayal of their ruler by the actor Yul Brynner in the 1956 film and it was promptly banned in Thailand, remaining officially blacklisted to this day.

 Of course, present-day Thailand ( it changed its name from Siam in the 1930s) is a long-time favourite destination on the British tourist trail and as such the subject of literally millions of point-and-shoot smartphone shots.

Scrolling through your Instagram feed, it is worth remembering that to achieve so much more, Thomson travelled more than 5,000 miles loaded up with his massive camera and bulky glass-plates that then had to be coated with wet collodion emulsion before an exposure – often of several seconds or more  – could be made. It was a far from simple process. 

King Mongkut. Photograph by John Thomson from 1865/66 negative.Wellcome Collection, London.

Perhaps the most astonishing thing about these photographs though is the simple fact that they survived. In old age and suffering from frail health, Thomson was desperate to find a home for his archive. He contacted the pharmaceutical tycoon Sir Henry Wellcome and offered to sell him his collection of 700 or so plates. Negotiations were still underway when in 1921 at the age of 84 Thomson died of a heart attack.  Fortunately the Wellcome Library still took possession of the collection which was contained in three crates and, probably more by luck than judgement, stored them in conditions that just happened to suit the fragile negatives. 

In 1980 the crates were re-opened and test prints were made. After 60 years they were a little battered and scratched but essentially in surprisingly good condition. When finally digitised and printed as large, high-quality images for exhibition many of the scratches, marks and scuffs were left untouched. The effect is both atmospheric and strangely enhancing giving Thomson’s photographs a unique sense of time and place and an undeniable stamp of authenticity.

*Siam: Through the Lens of John Thomson (1865-1866) is at Russell-Cotes Art Gallery and Museum in Bournemouth until April 2024. More information at

All Photographs from 1865-1866 negatives by John Thomson. Wellcome Collection, London. 

Death off the Nile – a cautionary tale

Felucca’s on the Nile close to Luxor

Travels in Egypt originally written in 2005

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures Hattie Miles

As Abdullah swung the rattling wreck that had once been a car across six lanes of traffic, death or serious injury seemed a certainty. Incredibly, as if by magic, a path opened up before us and we passed unscathed though the honking, seething, fume belching nightmare that passes for rush hour on the roads of Cairo.

We had found Abdullah the previous evening when we hailed his taxi near our hotel. After a couple of near-death experiences on the roads around the city,  he had seemed an oasis of calm and common sense in a trade that seemed to be populated by the crazed and the kamikaze.

We had booked him for a day. At around £17 for ‘Wherever you want for as long as you want” it had seemed like a good deal. Now we had just watched our lives pass before us, we weren’t quite so sure.

Abdullah glanced over his shoulder at us cowering on the back seat. A smile flickered across his world-weary face. “In Cairo driving is tough. It is not an easy city,” he explained with a  resigned nod.

After this blindingly obvious observation he went on to tell us that he had been driving a taxi around Cairo for 35 years. It doesn’t get any easier,” he added with a shrug. 

That was it. If he’d survived that long the the chances were he would make it through another day. Yes I know what the other logical theory is but there are times when you really don’t have any choice but to be optimistic.

We continued happily with our day out, convincing ourselves that in Abdullah’s care we must be protected by some sort of divine force-field.

EGYPT – A Market Street in Cairo

Certainly his car had survived against all odds. It appeared to have once been a big old eight seat Peugeot but some er modifications had taken place.  It had also led a life that had left it looking like something that in this country you might find dumped in a disused quarry.

The  inside door handles had been torn off, the gear stick was just a metallic stump and the dashboard was dead.  The speedometer bounced loosely up and down and the clock had frozen sometime in the diim distant pass at 544,679 kilometres.

However our optimism was rewarded and nine hours later we were returned safely to our hotel after a day in which we had taken in everything from the Egyptian Museum and the breathtaking treasures of Tutankhamun to the mysterious alleyways and atmospheric markets of the old city. 

We explored a marvellous array of Islamic mosques and Coptic Christian churches and of course The Citadel. Sitting high above the city this medieval fortification was the seat of Egyptian government and the official residence of its rulers for nearly 700 years until the 19th century.

There had also been a surreal visit to The Cairo Tower, an impressive  landmark constructed back in the late 1950s and early 60s. From its revolving restaurant some 500 feet up we had a panoramic view of the city as we enjoyed tea and cake and were slowly jerked around in circles.

The Pyramids

A hapless waiter meanwhile was using a lot of energy trying to stand on a chair to change a lightbulb. Unfortunately his chair was firmly planted on the static floor while the troublesome lightbulb was attached to the revolving section of the ceiling.

Our trip to Cairo came as part of a travel feature based  around a Nile Cruise.After a fascinating eight days sailing from Luxor to Aswan and back with visits to tombs and temples and a journey along The Nile that offered astounding scenery, we had flown north to Cairo for three nights at the Pyramids Park Hotel. 

Located some 23 kilometres from the centre of the city, it sits amid lushly landscaped grounds on land reclaimed from the desert. As its name suggests, it’s dead handy for the Pyramids and Sphinx which we visited as a seperate trip from our taxi adventure. 

Standing by the great Pyramids and scanning the horizon you realise how fast the ever-developing city of Cairo is advancing on this historic site that just a few years ago was miles from the urban sprawl. 

As Abdullha said, Cairo is not an easy city. However it is a fascinating one and I am sure that, despite the huge number of things we crammed into our two-and-a-half days there, we barely scratched the surface. 

Night market, Egypt.

After leaving Cairo we flew back to the tranquility of Luxor and four nights in the comfort of the luxurious  Sonesta St George Hotel. 

Nestling on the banks of The Nile, it proved a perfect location for recharging our batteries, making return trips to the temples we had seen on our cruise and exploring markets and museums.

Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave […]

Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action
Thirteen soldiers from the Dorsetshires killed in action and laid to rest shoulder to shoulder in Authuile

World War I battlefields – Northern France and Belgium

(Originally published October 2014)

Words by Jeremy Miles   Pictures by Hattie Miles

In death, as in life, they are shoulder to shoulder. Thirteen First World War brothers in arms buried side by side in a wooded valley in Northern France. Brave young soldiers from the Dorsetshire Regiment, cut-down in a vicious hail of mud, blood and bullets on 8th May 1916 as a ferocious German bombardment gave way to an infantry raid.

In the gunfire and desperate hand-to-hand combat that followed the daring dozen and their 19-year-old commanding officer were slaughtered – shot, bayoneted, blown to pieces. The violence of the deaths of these men – Privates Stretton, Painter, Cottom, Barrow, Cavley, Haynes, Sergent and Matthews. Lance Corporals Keeping, Eaton, Wells and Greenway and 2nd Lieutenant Vere Talbot Bayley, the teenage subaltern who led them, was appalling. It is particularly sobering to think that Bayly was barely a year out of Sherborne School.

Continue reading “Brothers in arms laid to rest in a foreign field and reunited shoulder to shoulder in death”

Danube river cruise (2009)

Budapest on the River Danube

Words Jeremy Miles Pictures Hattie Miles

SOMEWHERE between the Nazi concentration camp in the Czech Republic and the site of the old Stalin monument in Budapest, we floated through a fairy-tale world of castles and cathedrals and, yes, schnitzel with noodles and whiskers on kittens.

Sailing down the mighty Danube – Europe’s second longest river – provides the discerning traveller with a huge mixture of experiences. Astonishing sights, beautiful scenery and a troubling but necessary history lesson.

For this great waterway (which isn’t blue by the way, more a grubby, yellowy brown) cuts a majestic swathe through Central Europe and an ever-changing world. One minute it can be Christmas every day and Julie Andrews’ voice floats on the Alpine breeze, the next offers stark reminders of totalitarian monsters, hatred and death.

A tourist poses for pictures with a Czech military guard

We started our Avalon Waterways tour firmly on dry land with a three-day break in Prague, staying in the five-star luxury of the Hilton Hotel. This is the hotel of choice for visiting presidents and rock stars, and no wonder.

It was here that we met our fellow passengers and our excellent and entertaining cruise director – the wonderfully named Dragan who, with his shaved head and theatrically sinister Austrian accent, resembled a Bond villain.

Happily his intentions proved entirely positive and for the next 11 days, both aboard our cruise vessel, the MV Poetry, and at his desk in the Hilton foyer, he would prove an unflappable Mr Fix-it.

It was from Prague that we took an optional tour to the Terezin concentration camp, a sinister holding station that played a crucial role in Hitler’s “Final Solution”. Disguised, in an extraordinary wartime propaganda exercise, as a health spa, Terezin proved a place of starvation, punishment and disease where thousands died. It was also a halfway house to the gas chambers.

Though the spectre of the Second World War and the subsequent Communist stranglehold on Eastern Europe cast its shadow across our entire journey, it also shed light on the sense of survival that inhabits so much of mainland Europe.

The Terezin concentration camp with the motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” Work Makes Free over its gates.

Boarding the Poetry at Nuremberg, scene of the Nazi War Trials, we set off on a truly remarkable trip that would take us through a dizzying mix of picture postcard scenery, including ancient castles and historic cathedrals.

Climbing through a series of spectacular locks from the Rhine-Main-Danube Canal to the river proper, we sailed to historic ports like Regensburg, Passau and Melk, gliding through the rising mist of the beautiful Wachau Valley to Vienna and then on to Budapest.

Every stop provided jaw-on-the-floor sights, amazing Baroque architecture, solid silver altars, art treasures, winding cobbled streets and history – social, religious and political – stretching back over centuries.

It wasn’t all high-culture and self-improvement, though. In Salzburg we were treated to an insight into the home city of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and also a dedicated Sound of Music movie tour. To the accompaniment of a singalong soundtrack, we visited the original film locations and heard how, while they love Julie Andrews, the locals are still not too keen on Christopher Plummer, who got all moody on set, hated the children, insisted on staying in a separate hotel and later dismissed the famous musical as “The Sound of Mucus”.

Watching the river flow: The Danube and the 12th century bridge at Regensburg, the oldest working stone bridge in Germany.

As well as sightseeing, our journey offered opportunities too for shopping and the chance to sample Bavarian beers, specialist sausages, gingerbread… the list went on.

The catering aboard the Poetry – three meals a day and quality wine with dinner each night – was so good there was barely room for an alfresco Bratwurste for elevenses.

Street graffiti in Prague

The ship was a state- of-the-art river cruiser. Supremely comfortable and beautifully run by a friendly and mainly Hungarian, crew. Entertainment was provided nightly and we quickly found convivial dining and drinking companions. Our 125 fellow passengers included doctors, lawyers, a vet, a petroleum geologist, a sculptor, an economics lecturer and even a couple who hire out private jet aircraft to celebrity clients. It just shows that it’s good to pull out of life’s fast-lane once in a while. I can’t think of a better way of doing it.

Morocco (2010)

The dust kicks up as we speed towards the dunes of the Sahara desert

Words Jeremy Miles  PhotographsHattie Miles

The sun is rising over the oasis and I have just woken up in Kate Winslett’s bed. It doesn’t get much better than this. We’re in Morocco on the edge of the great Sahara desert enjoying the eccentric delights of the inimitable Hotel Kasbah Tizimi and even though the delectable Miss Winslett has not been here for 15 long years, it is gorgeous. 

She stayed here in 1995 while filming Hideous Kinky and fell in love with the  place – there’s a framed, handwritten note in the foyer to prove it. Now we’re here too and as a special upgrade we’ve been given her room.

Photographer Hattie Miles in the desert

With a palm-fringed pool just steps away, it is tempting not to go anywhere but there is so much to see and do that soon we are heading for the nearby desert village of Rissani. We visit the mausoleum of Moulay Ali Sharif, founder of the Alawite dynasty who ruled here 400 years ago and stroll past a bustling livestock market to the souk where traders haggle over pungent and colourful spices.

In the afternoon we climb into a hired 4X4 and, with driver Yusef at the wheel, are soon off-road and heading 50 kilometers into the desert. An hour or so later we are in a goatskin tent sipping mint tea with Berber tribespeople and preparing to ride camels across the majestic sand dunes at sunset.  The perfect end to the perfect day and just one of the many memorable moments enjoyed by my wife, photographer Hattie Miles, and I on a recent Highlights of Morocco tour, a comprehensive ten day journey that does exactly what it says on the tin. 

Starting from Marrakech we boarded a coach and headed first to Casablanca and then along the coast to Rabat, Meknes and Fez. Picking up local guides along the way there were visits to Royal Palaces, ancient mosques and colourful markets.There were also comfortable hotels, and breakfast and dinner was included most days. Our fellow travellers included a dentist, an oil worker, an Israeli artist, an urban planning boss and a globe-trotting, ballroom dancing psychiatric nurse. Plenty of fascinating conversation there. They weren’t the  kind of people you’d expect to find on a coach holiday but the general concensus was that it was a most agreeable way of seeing a lot in a short space of time. 

The Hassan II Mosque in C{photographer Hattie asablanca

At Casablanca there was a chance to visit the huge ultra-modern Hassan II Mosque which towers over the seafront with its 200 meter high minaret. It can hold 25,000 worshippers, has an electric roof, a glass floor and a laser beam that points to Mecca.  Meanwhile a tour of the magnificent Chella Gardens with its Roman ruins and nesting storks near Rabat offered a reminder of Morocco’s long and intriguing history.  

At Fez ancient and modern combine. There are swish continental style tree-lined boulevards but in parts of the city life continues much as it has for hundreds of years. The 6,000 alleyways that wind through the old Medina must be the ultimate maze. We headed south, travelling through the Middle Atlas Mountains and the spectacular Ziz Valley to our Sahara hotel at Erfoud. From there we made our way through the stunning terrain of the Dades Valley to the oasis resort of Ouarzazat.

Finally it was time to return to Marrakesh but before driving across the High Atlas through the 7,414 foot high Tizi-n-Tichkas Pass we visited  Ait-Benhaddou, the setting for many films including Lawrence of Arabia and Gladiator. It was here that a cheery little man called Ali offered to take us to his primitive hillside home. His battered stone house is part of a settlement that dates back nearly a thousand years.  His family sleep on bed-rolls on the bare floor, the ‘kitchen’ is basically a hole-in-the-wall oven and until recently water had to be collected by donkey and pannier from a well four kilometers away. The village now has the ultimate in mod-cons – several standpipes.

Ali’s local claim to fame is that he worked as an extra on Gladiator. The contrast between his life in rugged, rural Morocco and the luxury lavished on  the multi-million dollar world of the Hollywood film industry could not be greater. It comes as little surprise though when we hear that at least one factor in director Ridley Scott’s decision to repeatedly use Morocco as a location for his films is that he can shoot for nine solid weeks in places like Ait-Benhaddou for the price of a few days in the USA. 

Marrakech at night

It’s a sobering thought  and as we arrived back in Morocco’s fabled ‘pink city’ Marrakech where we had opted for a two day extension we couldn’t help but notice the huge amount of development as the metropolis grows and modernises. Morocco’s ancient beautiful heart still beats loudly but the chasm between the haves and have nots is widening. Now is the time to visit, while this astonishing country is still real. 

Travels in Cambodia and Vietnam

Halong Bay

Cambodia and Vietnam (2006)

Words: Jeremy Miles Pictures: Hattie Miles 

FOR someone whose earliest memories are of torture and genocide   Sothy laughs a great deal.  The cheery 32-year-old works as a freelance tour guide helping to establish Cambodia on the tourist map. 

He specialises in taking English and American travellers to Angkor Wat and other ancient  temples near his home town of Siem Reap. His informative lectures about the kingdoms, wars and civilisations of the past are punctuated with little jokes and he always seems to have a ready smile.

Yet despite his cheerful demeanour and relatively tender years Sothy is a survivor of Pol Pot’s brutal regime, the crazed dictatorship that, in the mid to late 1970s, saw literally millions starved, beaten, interrogated, tortured and put to death. 


Sothy was only a child when the Khmer Rouge came for his mother.

Accused of trying to  exchange a shirt for a bowl of rice, she was thrown in jail. They took the boy too.  And, with his mother’s screams echoing in his ears, Sothy was stripped naked, tied to a tree and smothered in ants. 

He remembers the fear and confusion and he remembers the sores that festered until he was half crazy but he can recall little else. Three months later they were released. 

 “My mother says I cried all the time,” he told me. “That I had a big head and a little skinny body but  when I ask her about it she cries.too” He says he doesn’t know why they were spared but there’s a haunted look in his eyes as he talks about it.  

Cambodia is a fascinating, beautiful and rewarding country to visit. It’s magnificent emples are its main attraction but tourists are also confronted with the  ghosts of the all too recent recent past and the legacy of Pol Pot’s insane Maoist-Leninist experiment. 

We had arrived in this beautiful but battered country at the end of a fascinating 10 day, top-to-toe tour of Vietnam with the holiday company Archers Direct. That trip had taken us from Hanoi in the north  to Ho Chi Minh City in the south.  With knowledegable guides and extremely comfortable accomodation, it was a great way to see a fascinating part of the world.

Touching down in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh at the start of a three night Kingdom of Cambodia extension to our holiday we found oureslves embarking on an eye-opening experience. The first thing you realise is how extraordinarily poor the place is. The escalator at the airport  (one of only two, we were told, in the entire country ) is a prime destination for family outings. Not surprising perhaps. For when a schoolteacher is lucky to earn US$25 a month, a ride on a moving staircase must represent a rare and affordable luxury 

Photo by Michiel Verledens

Next stop was the Genocide Museum – a thought-provoking guided tour of Pol Pot’s feared S21 secret prison. Housed in an unremarkable  looking  former Secondary  School building, it still boasts the iron bedsteads that they manacled the prisoners and a gruesome variety of instruments of torture that led to the deaths of almost all who were taken there. Of the 14,000 plus men, women and children dragged through the doors of S21 only seven emerged alive. Inside the old schoolrooms the dead  are still present in the form of hundreds, maybe thousands of  prison photographs. The victims – Pol Pot’s supposed political enemies – each hold a number. Their crime was being educated, able to read, inclined to question. Some were tortured and executed simply because they wore glasses. Others because they had nicely manicured nails. They were beaten to death. Bullets were deemed too expensive to waste on mere prisoners.

Around both Phnom Penh and Siem Reap the notorious Killing Fields are easy to find. They are not, as I had naively imagined, remote, discreet and distant but right there on the edge of town. In fact those same fields – the last resting place of literally hundreds of thousands of innocent victims – are now sprouting four and five star hotels: a cash crop to feed the burgeoning tourist industry.

Such information can of course prove disquieting  to holidaymakers who simply believe they are jetting into an, until recently, hard to visit place to see some old and interesting temples. And so it should. I was impressed and proud of the fact that the party we were with embraced the fascinating and salutary history lesson that was Cambodia with enthusiasm and intelligence. 

The temples too of course were quite amazing. Lavishly  carved and dating back a thousand years or more the most impressive are  clustered around the ancient Khmer capital of Angkor. 


There was the magnificent jewel in Cambodia’s tourism crown – the towering, beautiful and well-ordered Angkor Wat – so much bigger than we had imagined – in fact an entire city five miles in circumference.  But there were many other treasures too, like the massive carved heads and huge gateways at Angkor Thom and the Bayon with its bas reliefs showing ancient battles, real and mythological.  Best of all perhaps was Ta Prohm which is still half-consumed by the jungle. It’s ravaged walls and tower’s entwined in the roots of giant self-seeded banyan trees.

Cambodia offers astonishing sights, including some places that even the locals have been unable to access for years. Away from the tourist trail, the country is still heavily mined. Hidden explosives continue to claim between 600 and 700 lives a year and until very recently travel in the leading carriage of the local trains was free of charge because it doubled as a minesweeper. 

In Vietnam they also bear scars of terrible times but, while what they call The American War is far from forgotten, this is clearly a young, vibrant country looking to the future. Sure ageing hippies can still find The Doors and Jimi Hendrix on countless juke boxes and you can buy  “battle scarred” Zippo lighters,  scuffed and battered and bearing such legends as “When I die bury me face down so the whole world can kiss my ass.” It’s tourism though, not history.

Girl on a motorcycle, Saigon

Flying into Vietnam via Bangkok, our  journey started in Hanoi, a bustling city with quite literally a million mopeds. Having learnt to cross the road – an art that requires courage, blind-faith and and the acquisition of a deep sense of fatalism, we spent a couple of happy days exploring street markets and stalls, temples and tourist sites.  

We then drove briefly north towards the Chinese border for a sailing trip among the towering limestone pillars, rocky outcrops and caves of Halong Bay.  

After an overnight stay we flew down to Da Nang – base for a huge US military presence during the war and still  a magnet for  veterans revisiting their past. We spent a couple of days in the idyllic  and ancient riverside town of Hoi An where tailoring is a speciality – they’ll knock you up a perfect suit, shirt, dress, you name it in next to no time – we also ate perhaps the best croissants of our lives – an indication of the culinary impact left by years of French rule. 

We drove form Hoi An  to the ancient capital of Hue.  Packed with history and war damage, it delivered some haunting images, not least the shattered remains of its astonishing 16th century Citadel most of which was smashed to dust and rubble by American troops during the Tet offensive in 1968. 

Hoi An, Vietnam

“What a pity!” said our guide. Ironically this  had been the exact phrase used by a previous guide back in Hanoi when informing us that Uncle Ho was not receiving visitors in his mausoleum because his mummified body was undergoing “technical maintenance”. It all seemed a rather undignified for fate for a man who specifically asked that he should be cremated. 

We did however get the chance to visit the Presidential Palace  and the “simple house” in its grounds where  Ho Chi Minh, president from 1954 to 1969 and leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam through the height of the war, chose to live. 

He claimed that it proved he was truly a man of the people. I’m not so sure . While based on a traditional peasant stilt house, it is relatively spacious and very attractive with lots of highly polished wood and a pleasing open-plan design.  If it hadn’t been for the special shelf for Ho’s tin hat and hotline telephone and the padded door next to his bed leading to the bomb bunker it wouldn’t have looked out of place in Homes and Gardens. 

Finally we flew to the vibrant and buzzing melting-pot that bears his name. Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as the locals still insist on calling it, is a brilliant, bustling metropolis full of sights, sounds and sensations. To reach them required more death-defying road crossing.  It really is difficult to get your head around the concept of stepping in front of 70 or 80 motorcycles which you know are not going to stop.  The instruction was “Just walk slowly and they’ll go round you” Astonishingly they do. 

Hattie in Vietnam

In 10 days in Vietnam we saw a beautiful country, wonderful street-life, pagodas and palaces. We enjoyed river trips and the hospitality of gentle friendly people, wonderful food  and of course many reminders of a war-ravaged past.  In Ho Chi Minh City we spent an afternoon at the diplomatically renamed War Remnants Museum (it used to be called The War Crimes Museum). After viewing, among other horrors, exhibits and first hand accounts relating to the My Lai massacre there was something particularly chilling about  returning to a very comfortable four star hotel switching on CNN and seeing footage of an American Marine casually blowing away a wounded and unarmed insurgent in Falluja.  Nothing, it would seem, changes.  Just the names and the places.

Walking in Memphis in memory of Elvis

Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion in Memphis, Tennessee

It is more than four decades since they carried the bloated body of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll from his Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee. Yet still the graffiti outside the lavish, white pillared pile that he called home says it all: “Just pretend Elvis lives” 

For years desperate devotees hung onto the vain hope that his death had somehow been staged. That Elvis was alive and well, working in a video store or perhaps hiding out somewhere producing new material.

Never mind that at the age of 42 he was addicted to junk food and prescriptions drugs, that he weighed more than 20 stones and that his once lean physique was in ruins. For some his death, on  August 16th 1977, was simply too much to comprehend. 


This year Elvis would have been 85-years-old and still tens of thousands of fans make the pilgrimage to Graceland. They hold vigils, light candles and weep at his graveside but now only the most delusional among them hang onto the dream that Elvis might actually still be alive. 

For every truly besotted fan there are dozens who are just curious to know little more about the man who changed the face of popular music and gave the world extraordinary hits like Hound Dog, Heartbreak Hotel and Jailhouse Rock.

A few years back Hattie and I made the journey to the heart of Elvis’ world, joining fans on a hugely popular six day package that offers a special insight into the astonishing rags to riches story that was  Elvis Aaron Presley’s life. The  tour took in his humble birthplace in the Mississippi Delta; the city of Memphis where he grew up and found fame and the hotspots of the Nashville recording industry where so much of his music was created. 


The main focus though was Graceland – the 23 room, brown-limestone mansion bought by Presley in the late 1957 as a refuge from the screaming fans. Ironically the home he hoped would bring him some privacy  is now an officially designated National Historic Landmark and visited by morev than half-a-million people a year. The house had originally been constructed in the classical revival style in 1939. Records show that Elvis paid $102,500 for it. Today its price is estimated at well over $100 million dollars.

We stayed just a couple hundred meters away on the other side of Elvis Presley Boulevard. A few years back this road was known simply as Highway 51 but folks round these parts don’t like to miss a trick. Which is why we were staying at the Heartbreak Hotel and guess what? It was at the end of Lonely Street.  

For fans actually stepping across the threshold at Graceland is a chance to briefly experience life as Elvis did, walking through the bizarrely decorated rooms, including the famed Jungle Room with its indoor waterfall, they can perhaps get a glimpse of the singer’s exotic tastes in decor. A feel for this place he called home.  In the grounds they can visit the Meditation Garden where it is said he went for quiet reflection and where he now is laid to rest alongside his parents Gladys and Vernon, and grandmother Minnie Mae. There is also a small memorial to his twin brother Jesse who died at birth. 

Across the highway Heartbreak Hotel does a roaring trade in giant cheeseburgers and – “Elvis’ favourite” – fried banana and peanut butter sandwiches. This was the King’s midnight snack of choice, brought to his room by staff and eaten by the stack.  Frankly just looking at them feels like an artery-clogging venture that could well end with a one-way ticket to the cardiac ward.  That doesn’t stop the queues of fans eager to sample the King’s favourite comfort food though. So, a brief chance to live like Elvis and maybe even die like him too?

IMG_4193 2The real Elvis Presley story has long been distorted by myths and misinformation. An entire industry exists to part people from both their senses and their money and it does so with ruthless efficiency, churning out Elvis tat that is astonishing in its tawdry inventiveness. You can buy anything from an ornamental Graceland snow-storm to a replica Vegas-style rhinestone studded bat-wing collared jump-suit.  However for all the superficiality and artifice there was something genuinely moving about this tour which combined a fascinating journey through Tennessee with a big slice of social and music history. 

The people on our tour – 98 of them in two coach-loads – came from all kinds of backgrounds and ranged in age from early 20s to mid seventies. They were united by a common love of Elvis’ music and a fascination for the story of the boy from the hillbilly backwoods who went on to conquer the world.

It offered some wonderful experiences, including  a night out on Beale Street, spiritual home of the Memphis blues and a guided tour around Sam Phillips’ famed Sun Studios. It was here in 1953 that the 18-year old Presley paid $4.00 to make some test recordings. Phillips – a man who would go on to shape the careers of Johnny Cash, B.B. King, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf –  instantly recognised his potential and offered to take the young Elvis under his wing.

Sam Phillips Sun Studios in Memphis

 A year later That’s Alright Mama was released by Sun Records as Presley’s first single.  Things moved fast with fans drawn to his smouldering good looks and high-energy performances. That same year he acquired a new manager in the form of the charismatic hard-nosed music promotor Colonel Tom Parker. He also signed with RCA Records and scored his first chart-topping single with Heartbreak Hotel. It was the beginning of a journey that took  Elvis Aaron Presley from lean, mean rock ‘n’roll star and teen idol to a lost-soul destined to end his days as a tragic, bloated, multi-millionaire icon adrift and lonely in the pleasure palaces of Vegas, drowning in a sea of excess.

But the fans would always love him. In Tupelo Mississippi – where Elvis was born, dirt-poor, in a two-room shack    they are told how as a boy he had to shoot squirrels for the pot. Our tour joined the line of hundreds of Elvis fans from all over the world who view his humble first home with tears in their eyes.

There was even a stop at the neighbourhood hardware store where, way back in 1945, a salesman called Forrest L. Bobo unwittingly wrote himself into rock ‘n’ roll history. The occasion – immortalised on a plaque on the shop wall – found Bobo persuading the 10-year-old Elvis that he didn’t really want a gun for his forthcoming birthday, he’d be much better off with a guitar. 

IMG_4139_2 2This sound piece of advice has kept the hardware store in customers ever since, cheerily supplying Elvis related knick-knacks and anecdotes along with the nails, paint and plumbing supplies. The best surprise of all though came when the tour buses rolled into Nashville. A couple of days checking out Music City included a visit to the old RCA Studio B in Nashville where our tour party got to make its very own recording.

There had been a chance to see the Country Music Hall of Fame, free time to enjoy the Honky Tonks on Broadway, a visit to the Grand Ole Oprey and more but nothing came close to the thrill of actually laying down a track on Elvis’ sound-stage. Standing in the same room where Elvis cut more than 250 tracks, the fans were invited to record a massed-voiced version of his heart-rending ballad Can’t Help Falling In Love. To be honest it was dreadful, but we all left with huge smiles on our faces clutching souvenir CDs.

Hattie plays Elvis’ piano  RCA Studio B,  Nashville

The sheer sense of history in that simple studio was enough to really get to the diehard fans. This after all was the studio where Elvis cut It’s Now or Never and Devil In Disguise, where the Everly Brothers recorded Til I Kissed You and Cathy’s Clown and where Roy Orbison laid down Only The Lonely and Crying.

For older fans simply being in the room that gave birth to the soundtrack of their youth  brought the memories flooding back. One first generation Teddy boy told me how back in the 1950s he had eloped with his 17-year-old girlfriend.

Singing Elvis songs had kept their spirits high as they drove through the night in his pink Vauxhall Cresta, with parents and police in hot pursuit. More than half a century later this couple were still together, still very much in love and still jiving… in a room that just happened to contain Elvis Presley’s piano.

Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood

New Quay harbour
Picturesque New Quay the town where Dylan Thomas wrote the first draft of Under Milk Wood

I am standing outside one of Dylan Thomas’s favourite pubs in a “cliff-perched toppling town” on the west coast of Wales. It is true that many a hostelry claims the notoriously thirsty Welsh poet as a regular. But this is New Quay, the picturesque fishing village on Cardigan Bay that Dylan often visited as a child. He and his wife Caitlin also made it their home and writing-base for a year during the Second World War.

The pub is the Black Lion where the infamous hell-raiser once got embroiled in a spat with a jealous husband who later attacked his £1-a-week “shack at the end of the cliff” with a machine-gun and hand-grenade. Continue reading “Dylan Thomas and New Quay – the little Welsh town that inspired Under Milk Wood”

Jim Morrison idolised Jack Kerouac but it seems Kerouac’s mum was not impressed

Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris in 1982. Photograph: Hattie Miles

Turn the clock back 34 years and you’ll find me standing in front of Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. I didn’t need a map to find it. I just followed the graffiti. Arrows with the word ‘Jim’ chalked on trees and monuments marked the way to the final resting place of the American rock star they called The Lizard King.  As I drew close the graffiti became more dominant and the air was filled with the smell of marijuana.

Continue reading “Jim Morrison idolised Jack Kerouac but it seems Kerouac’s mum was not impressed”

The strange case of Victor Noir the unlikely martyr who became a sex symbol

Words: Jeremy Miles        Photographs: Hattie Miles

What a bohemian life we lead!  I’m in Paris leaning on a grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery chuckling as my wife photographs a man’s erection. Right! Now I have your attention let me explain. The man in question is in effigy form.

It is the bronze memorial to 19th century journalist Victor Noir, the pen-name of hapless hack Yvan Salmon, who was  gunned down in his prime in 1870 and, for reasons lost in the mists of time, commemorated with a statue that features him in a state of perpetual sexual arousal. Continue reading “The strange case of Victor Noir the unlikely martyr who became a sex symbol”

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