Rubbing shoulders with royalty

During my time on the QE2 I met many members of the Royal Family, from the Queen Mum and Princesses Anne and Margaret, down to some of the ‘lesser’ royals. And in 1990 the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh transferred from the royal yacht Britannia to the QE2 by royal barge, and the Queen became the first reigning monarch to sail on a commercial line with passengers.

Princess Di

People often ask me if I’d met Princess Diana, and if so, what I thought of her. I did meet her, and I didn’t think much. To be fair to Di, the circumstances were shambolic: it was in 1987, and she’d come on board to host what was then one of the largest children’s parties afloat, with 500 schoolkids running riot all over the place, like mice let out of paper bags. The ship had sailed with the children to the Isle of Wight, which is where we picked up Princess Di – she’d been helicoptered there, and was transferred to the QE2 by barge in the pouring rain.

Di was damp and bedraggled and, ahead of the formalities and festivities, which were to be attended by the press and any number of other hangers-on, needed a quick fixer-up. One of the QE2’s senior staff came into the salon and instructed me to ‘fit her in’.

I paused in what I was doing and said to him, ‘You must be kidding. Look around.’ The salon was heaving – every chair was full, every dryer was in use, every stylist was working their fingers to the bone, and there were people queuing out the door.

‘She’s the Princess of Wales,’ he hissed. ‘Fit. Her. In.’

I was still muttering under my breath when a small commotion followed by a strange silence changed the atmosphere in the salon: the Princess had arrived. She was surrounded by a security detail and as many people as could get close to her. Giving me a quick, apologetic smile, she slipped into the seat I had, somewhat grumpily, vacated for her. Perhaps she was aware of the inconvenience she’d caused; maybe my thin-lipped irritation was obvious; or it could just have been her natural shyness: whatever the reason, she sat quietly and a little nervously, her hands clutched together in her lap, while I dried and styled her hair. We didn’t exchange a single word.


One of my mom Greta’s proudest moments in my career came when I was almost made hairdresser to the Queen. It came about in a curiously low-key way, with a Steiner bigwig coming on board and showing me a diagram of a hair set. ‘Would you be able to follow this?’ he asked. I looked at it and said yes – it was a very simple style. ‘Good,’ he said, ‘because Queen Elizabeth’s hairdresser is about to retire and we’re looking for a new one.’

Queen Elizabeth

My name was put forward but this was at a time when ‘buying British’ had become a national obsession and even Princess Di was under fire for having a Mercedes Benz when a Rover would have done just as well. So I, a South African, lost the job of Hair to the Throne to one of Steiner’s senior hairstylists, Ian Carmichael.

Ian, a Scotsman, was known for his outrageous behaviour in the QE2’s public rooms. One of his party tricks was to casually sling a leg up over his partner’s shoulder while dancing. And he didn’t confine his acrobatics to shipboard. Once, at the end of the charter in Osaka in Japan, Ian went ashore with a group of hairdressers for a celebratory night out. They got completely plastered and, returning to the dock, decided to show Osaka what they were all about: they would, they decided, do a ‘Fame’ dance, using the cars parked up and down the harbour as a stage set.

For anyone who doesn’t remember the movie Fame, which came out in 1980, and followed a group of students through their studies at the New York High School of Performing Arts, there’s a dance sequence in it, to the Irene Cara song ‘Fame’, in which the lithe and athletic students dance on cars parked in the street.

Alas for Ian and his cohorts: if they were lithe when in a sober state, drunk, they were like a troupe of baby elephants. Much damage was done to the vehicles they cavorted across, including broken windscreen wipers and rearview mirrors, dented bonnets and fenders, and the like. There was, of course, hell to pay for it the next morning.

When Ian was hired by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, who starred in Quantum of Solace in 2008, to do her hair for red-carpet appearances, I was amused to read that he admitted that Olga and the Queen opt for ‘very different hairstyles’. ‘Queen Elizabeth has always gone for the traditional look, one that’s easy for her to maintain; it’s her look and she is happy with it,’ he told reporters. Then he showed a flash of his former flamboyance when he added, ‘It’s been a case of my work going from ‘‘By Appointment To The Queen’’ to ‘‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’’!’

I often think about that hair-set diagram I was shown when I see the Queen making public appearances on television today: from that day to this, not a thing about her hairstyle has changed; Ian is evidently still following that diagram.

As for my mother: she was bitterly disappointed that I’d missed out on my opportunity to become part of the Royal entourage – particularly since she’d already started bragging to her friends about it.

* Here’s some hairstyle advice for older women from Mr Carmichael himself:



For more stories about hair and hectic times on the QE2, buy your own ebook for kindle at amazon – details here:



Another gorgeous spider and a good-news service story

I’ve had the most frustrating few months when it comes to South Africa’s service industry – it’s seemed as if nothing I’ve chosen or ordered and paid for has turned out to as advertised or required. I’ve dealt with wrong colours and/or sizes, wrong or inadequate finishes, late deliveries, lost products and missing pieces. In handling these irritations, I’ve had to pick my battles – there are only so many times you can complain, and so many times you can be fobbed off by companies that just don’t give a damn, before you start wondering if you’re on Candid Camera.

I almost didn’t grumble about the missing abdomen piece in this build-a-spider (there should be 9; I only got 8 in my pack) – but it was a present from my daughter and I really wanted to finish constructing it. So, not expecting much, I emailed Xplore Designs to explain the problem.


The response was immediate, polite, accommodating and professional: Chantal asked for my postal address so she could mail me another set of abdomen parts. I gave it to her but honestly didn’t expect much. The new parts arrived, by registered mail, within a week. And here’s my completed spider (I added the mesmerising eyes – they’re beads). Isn’t it fabulous?


I was completely blown away by the can-do attitude and efficiency of this company. It’s just a shame that generally customers are treated so shabbily in South Africa that we’re genuinely amazed when companies deliver what should be the norm: excellent customer service.

• Xplore Designs does laser cutting, engraving, wedding décor and invitations, and custom designs made to order. Contact them on


The bobbitted* giraffe and other tall tales from the QE2


There were passengers who thought nothing of spending hundreds of thousands of pounds for prime accommodation on the QE2’s world cruises. For these regulars, the liner became a home-away-from-home on which they would spend four months of each year. One of these was Mr Goldberg, a ghastly name-dropper who had, after his wife passed away, married her nurse – in fact, he and the nurse had come onto the ship at Fort Lauderdale and got married on board; I was responsible for the hair for that wedding.

Over eight of the years I worked on the QE2, Mr Goldberg forked out for eight penthouses every year – for himself, his wife and his business manager. I once asked the second Mrs Goldberg why they needed eight penthouses for just the three of them. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘we have a castle on the Isle of Wight and a mansion in Florida, so we’re used to a lot of space. And if we didn’t have all this room,’ she said, sweeping an arm out to indicate the £100 000-odd worth of accommodation her husband had rented, ‘we’d probably start feeling a little claustrophobic.’

The second Mrs Goldberg, despite being married to a man of obscene wealth, had never really become accustomed to the high life. She was shy, and didn’t like to come to the salon; instead, I would go to her penthouse every Tuesday and Friday to style her hair. There, I discovered that, in spite of having her choice of the most delectable foods prepared by some of the best chefs, she preferred to make her own breakfast and lunch – and usually something very simple, like a bowl of muesli or a boiled egg on toast. For this purpose, she brought on board with her a range of the most fabulous kitchen equipment – and at the end of each world cruise, she would present me with a box of used (but only barely) silverware, glassware, cutlery and crockery.

Mr Goldberg, for his part, was simply terrified of change. He was very specific about how he wanted his hair – it was always to look precisely the same. He would book his weekly appointments with me a year in advance – he had the 10am slot every Thursday, for an invisible trim-and-style, and a manicure. He would sweep into the salon at 10 on the dot, and he required that I was always ready, holding his chair out for him, and that the manicurist was so placed that as he sat down, his hands would land in hers, ready to be pampered.

As if money breeds madness, there were always eccentrics on board. One was a charming but totally batty old dear, Mrs Macky, who regularly took two prime staterooms on the world cruises – one for herself and one for her vast collection of stuffed animals, which were as real and alive to her as anyone else’s flesh-and-blood pets. There were close on a hundred of these fluffy toys, and each was individually dressed in a beautiful, hand-sewn outfit.

Mrs Macky was scrupulous about giving each of her ‘pets’ individual attention, and could be seen with a different one at various times of the day – the stuffed bunny, for instance, would accompany her to breakfast; the toy bear would require its own seat next to her in the salon while we did her hair; a fluffy kitten would join her at lunch; a kangaroo, pert in a miniature Aussie bush hat complete with corks, was her companion at afternoon tea; and a wiry dog with lolling felt tongue would perch next to her at dinner. ‘They get lonely without me,’ she would tell us, solemnly. ‘They need a lot of love and care.’ Dear Mrs Macky: it was clear that she was the one in need – if not of love and care, then at least a bit of light electric shock therapy.

Another passenger who had more money than God was a woman called Heidi. Her marvellous generosity was mirrored in her body shape – she was one of the largest women I’ve ever met. She was always accompanied by her husband, Neville – a scrawny stick-figure of a man who spent much of his time literally in his wife’s shadow. Heidi would sweep into a room and look around for her husband; not seeing him, she would roar, ‘Neville!’ and this tiny little man would step out from behind her. ‘Yes, dear?’ he would say, mildly.

When she came on board, Heidi would pay visits to all the staff who would be looking after her for the next few months and ask them what gift they would like her to give them when the cruise ended – she didn’t want to buy them something they didn’t want or would never use.

One year, when she asked me, I told her I’d like one of those eight-foot-tall wooden carved giraffes that were all the rage at the time. Heidi thought this a fine idea, and added that she had some friends in Florida who would probably like to receive the same gift.

The ‘some’ friends turned out to number 22, and when we put in at Mombasa in Kenya, Heidi excitedly went ashore to seek her giraffes. She duly found them, and that evening 23 strapping young Kenyan men marched up the gangway, each carrying an eight-foot-tall wooden giraffe. Twenty-two of these were stowed in Heidi and Neville’s penthouse; Heidi gave me mine.

Neville was just short enough to be more or less at eye-level with the undercarriage of the gigantic giraffes, and it was this tiny man who pointed out to his wife something that might cause some of their Florida friends embarrassment: all the giraffes were male, and all had an intricately carved wooden penis.

So the next morning, 22 strapping young Kenyan men marched up the gangway once again, and left the same way, each carrying an eight-foot-tall wooden giraffe. And that evening, they returned, each carrying an eight-foot-tall wooden giraffe – each with its penis carefully removed. (Only 22 of the giraffes got the Bobbitt treatment because I opted to keep my giraffe with its penis intact.)

* John Wayne Bobbitt gained worldwide notoriety in 1993 when his enraged wife cut off his penis with a knife. The penis was found and sewed back on. Later, Bobbitt formed a band, The Severed Parts, and appeared in the porn movies John Wayne Bobbitt: Uncut and Frankenpenis.


Extracted from the ebook for Kindle Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist. Buy your copy here:

The fishing spider in my pool

morning spiderweb May 2012

I love spiders. They come in such a huge array of shapes and sizes, and have so many amazing and unique talents, from swinging a lasso to catch prey to using passing breezes to parachute away on. Anyone who’s sat and watched an ordinary garden spider spin a web – and it takes a surprisingly short time – can’t help but be astonished at the skill of these wonders of nature.


So I was very thrilled to find, in my swimming pool, a fishing spider. This clever not-so-little fellow has stationed himself above the weir, so that when the pump turns on and water starts flowing into the leaf trap, it brings with it lots of delicious little insects and other edible goodies – all the spider has to do is sit and wait for his food to come to him.

In a situation where there isn’t a water flow, such as in a pond, fishing spiders spread their legs out around themselves and sit on the water, waiting for prey. They’re very quick to dive if necessary to catch it.

In the case of ‘my’ spider, I’ve found bits of frog floating about in the area, so in addition to the insects he’s gobbling up, this spider is definitely also eating the little hoppers that are unlucky enough to fall into the pool.

Scientific names: say bye-bye to our acacias

This spider is one of the 38 I included in my little field guide to spiders and scorpions.


The book was first published in 1998, at which stage the fishing spider was in the genus Thalassius. It has since, apparently, been moved to Nilus. Here are some discussions for those interested in this kind of detail:

The issue of scientific names is a fraught one, as I learned recently while compiling the manuscript for Gardening for Birds (which will be published next April). For instance, there’s been a bit of a row brewing in the botanical world for quite some time, over the use of the scientific name Acacia, which the Australians want to claim entirely for their own. I do know that our winterthorn or ana tree, Acacia albida, has been renamed Faidherbia albida, but I don’t know if or how any of our other acacias have been renamed. Here’s an article about it:

All our Rhus species (the various taaibosses and karees, among others) have been renamed Searsia.