Thursday, 16 December 2010

Great grandparents of the Caribbean

I arrive in Manchester to film a short documentary for the BBC about the story told in The Mango Orchard. I hadn’t prepared for the night time dagger-like icy wind that rushes in to the carriage when I open the train door at Piccadilly station.
In the morning I am collected from my hotel by the person due to interview me, Judy, who happens to be an old friend of mine. She remembers my complaint about the lack of a hospitality suite when I have previously been on the BBC and very sweetly picks me up from my hotel with a bag full of fresh fruit, which of course, I don’t touch.
She drives me to Helmshore Mill, a working mill and museum, where we join the rest of the crew and I’m introduced to Christine Taylor, a local historian, invited to add some expertise on the area where my great grandfather grew up. I have lots of questions for her but every time I ask anything, Ged the producer stifles the conversation; he wants to capture my reactions to what she’s saying on film. It takes time to set up the shot, organise the lighting and microphones. I’m standing with Christine in front of a trestle table, on which are arranged photographs of Tottington in days of yore. I begin to leaf through them but am again told to wait until the cameras are running.
We talk about the weather.
                The team is ready and just as the record light lights up on the camera, Ged says, “By the way, Christine has a surprise for you.”
I have no idea what this surprise may be, but as I spent years  investigating my great grandfather’s story, I can’t believe that anyone has managed to uncover any document I haven’t yet seen, so I brace myself, ready to feign amazement. The camera is zooming in on me and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. I realise that my face has frozen into a most unconvincing smile and as I suddenly don’t know what to do with my hands I wedge one into my back pocket. This must look very camp but I hold the pose.
                Christine hands me two sheets of paper. “I found a letter your great grandfather wrote on his way to Mexico.”
“What?!” I no longer have to pretend to be amazed. I am overwhelmed. I spent months looking for this.
I read the letter, and forget that cameras are aimed at me. I read about the storms he endured – just as I had imagined – but then I see where he wrote the letter: Jamaica. What the hell was he doing in Jamaica?? And it’s not just Jamaica. He describes going for a drive along the side of the abandoned Panama Canal project “hundreds of railway waggons and scores of engines rotting away…” He talks about passing though the Virgin Isles and Haiti, where “the natives worship a god called Omar, and it is a common thing for mothers to eat their babies as a sacrifice to this god.”
                Not for the first time, my great grandfather has dumbfounded me. His journey to Mexico didn’t take five weeks, as I had understood; it took over seven months! What was he doing? Did he leave scores of other secret families scattered around the Caribbean?
Maybe I should pop over and have a look.

The filming continues at a handful of other north Manchester locations. Judy and I are filmed walking around the mill in Tottington where my great grandfather worked. The mill is now a carpet factory and there’s little evidence of the mill that there once was. Forklift trucks with enormous, spikes on the front like jousting sticks, speed around carrying roles of carpet from one end of the factory to another. I have rarely been in a factory before. It is deafening.
How do I feel? Judy wants to know. It’s always a tricky one to answer. I’m not sure. I mutter something about my great grandfather and Judy is nodding.
“That sounded like a close,” says Ged.
“That sounded like a close to me,” confirms the cameraman. I am not sure what I’ve just said. To find out, I guess I’ll have to tune in in the New Year when it is screened.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Robbie Williams, Gary Barlow and me... the truth

My friend Claire sends me a text message. ‘I’ve just heard the new Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow single on the radio,’ she says, ‘And they’ve nicked the opening line from your book.’

I go on-line to listen to the song and read the lyrics. I’ve never tried to do this before, and I’m amazed how easy it is. Within 30 seconds of having received the text I am watching the video; an Americana Brokeback bromance gone sour and patched up within the four minutes and twenty three seconds it takes them to sing the song.

The song is okay, but the opening line is stunning:

Well there’s three versions of this story mine, yours and then the truth”

I turn to page three, line eight and nine of The Mango Orchard:

“There are three versions of every story: my version, your version and the truth.”

They are virtually identical, apart from the fact that the line in The Mango Orchard is grammatically correct. My version was also released into the public domain over six months before the Robbie and Gary single came in to being. I post the observation on Facebook and Twitter. The responses come in thick and fast, most along the lines of “sue the bastards”. I even get some offers to help me to do just that.

I don’t profess to be any legal expert – Igglepiggle from In the Night Garden could probably be more reasonably expected to form a coherent legal opinion than me – but I’m pretty sure that taking two multimillionaire pop stars to court over a line which I copied from a conversation with my grandmother 35 years ago is probably not the right way to go.

I opt for trying to exact some PR advantage from the “coincidence”. I phone Robbie’s management company. A very well-spoken lady answers. I explain the situation and I can sense her hackles rising until I say that I’m not looking to take any legal action, I’m just interested to know if either Gary or Robbie have read my book, and if they haven’t, maybe they’d like to (and be photographed reading it).

‘Well they are together at the moment, as they are promoting the single,’ she says. ‘Send me an e-mail with the details and I’ll forward it to them. I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.’

I send the mail and wait. And wait.

A week goes by and I haven’t heard anything, so I phone up. Again, a very well-spoken voice answers my call. I ask for to speak to Sarah and am told that she is in a meeting so I explain to the well-spoken voice about the similarity of the line in the song to my book, and say I am interested to know if either of the two singers has read The Mango Orchard. She asks me for my details and says Sarah will call me back the moment she returns from her meeting.

‘Thank you very much,’ I say, ‘and can you give me your name?’

There is a pause and hear panic. Then very meekly she says, ‘Sarah...’

There are three versions of every story; mine, yours and ‘they’re in a meeting’.

Thursday, 8 July 2010

The Great Social Quandary

First of all, an apology to all those people to whom I promised I would write regularly during my recent trip to Mexico. Initially I was just enjoying the holiday; for the first time in several years, I was not spending every waking moment trying to carve copy out of what I saw round me, and then, after a few weeks of not doing very much, the only thing of interest that was going on was something which I couldn’t talk about. Still can’t. Maybe I’ll explain in a few weeks.

Apart from kicking back and doing very little with the sun on my face, the main purpose of being in Mexico was to visit the family, and take The Mango Orchard home. The family held the book like a newborn. Their faces shone with excitement and pride. And then they flicked through the book to see what I had said about them.

The BBC took advantage of my trip by giving me a camera to film some scenes for a documentary, due to be aired later in the year. They asked me to film some typical Mexican scenes, as well as me talking with the family, and visiting the cotton mills where my great grandfather worked... and from where the initial sprouts of rebellion that became the Mexican Revolution began.

After a few weeks with the family, I went on a road trip around the country, often finding myself in Cotos Privados – gated communities with identical houses, arranged round swimming pools, pristine lawns and 24 hour security. These places are safe, that’s why people like them. Children play in the street, doors remain unlocked, but I couldn’t help feeling I was on the set for the Truman Show.

Staying in these new, posh estates gave rise to the Great Dilemma. Not about whether or not it is morally right to have great swathes of urban space from which the general public cannot enter. No, something of much greater importance: this is the ultimate social quandary... about toilet paper.

In most bathrooms around Mexico, and indeed of all Latin America, next to the toilet is a wastepaper basket. Everyone knows not to throw paper (or anything else) in to the loo.

But surely the people who had built these state-of-the-art houses in which I was staying had bothered to install modern plumbing, no? It’s not a question you can easily ask, though.

You are suddenly faced with a predicament: what would be more embarrassing, to be responsible for blocking the pipes with paper they weren’t designed for and flooding the house with raw sewage, or to put your soiled toilet paper in a bin normally used for cotton buds and empty shampoo bottles?

It’s a question I pondered long and hard. I generally felt that flooding the house with raw sewage would be marginally less embarrassing. 

Any thoughts?

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Speaking to Mexico from my roof

The day does not begin well.

When I stumble out of bed I get a sharp, stabbing pain in my lower back. It’s a familiar pain which afflicts me every six months or so, and over the years has kept several osteopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists in gravy.

The most painful part is always getting dressed. I hop around my bedroom, swearing loudly for about ten minutes, trying to get my trousers on. What I really want to do is swallow handfuls of strong pain-killers and go back to bed but I have to get up. I have things to do.

I rub in some deep heat cream and hobble to the bank to order my travellers’ cheques for my trip to Mexico next week, and then hobble back in time to be interviewed over the phone by the Manchester Evening News.

Interview over, I set about tidying the flat in preparation for the arrival of a film crew from Televisa, Mexican’s biggest TV network. And just in case they want some tea, I pop out to the shops to buy some milk. I have never known any Mexican to drink tea, but you never know.

The rushing to the shop and bending over to pick things off the floor does my back no favours. I swallow some pills and rub in more deep heat cream. I realise the flat is beginning to smell like a rugby changing room.

It’s five minutes until Televisa are due to arrive and I remember I need to send a text to someone I am due to meet this evening. But where is my phone? I looking on my desk and in the kitchen, I pat my pockets, look in the jacket that I wore to the bank. It’s not there. I call my number from the landline so I can track it down. It goes straight to voice mail. That’s what happens when someone steals your phone: they take out the SIM card so they can sell the handset.

I swear again. And again.

It’s now 3pm. The Mexicans are due to be here, but I need my phone so I can concentrate on my interview. If I have left it at the shop, the sooner I get there, the more likely I am to find it.

My mobile is not at the shop. That must meant that unless I dropped it on my way to or back, my neighbours, the ones I have only seen once, when I asked them not to make so much noise in the mornings, must have broken in to my flat and stolen it. The bastards.

When I get back, there is a Mexican film crew standing at my front door, looking at their watches. I lead them upstairs and try to forget about the phone. It’s my first interview in Spanish, and I am a little apprehensive; in any interview one needs to be pithy and concise. That’s tricky enough in English, much more so in a second language.

We are standing on the roof terrace and I am talking into a Televisa microphone that the journalist is holding towards me. I try to imagine my Mexican aunts and uncles eating their breakfast sometime next week, and what their reactions will be when I suddenly appear on the screen.

“Ay, mira, es Robiiiin!”

After the interview they film me sitting at my desk pretending to be fascinated by what’s on my computer screen, looking through the photos of Mexico, and finally, of me walking out of the door with my rucksack, pretending to go to the airport. The pain my rucksack gives me when I sling it over my shoulder for the camera does not bode well for my trip to Mexico.

I now have to sort out my stolen phone. I spend over an hour cancelling and replacing the SIM card and convincing the insurance company to give me a new handset. They eventually agree, but say they can’t deliver it straight away. I won’t receive it until July.

It’s 5.30pm now and I remember I am meant to be meeting someone at 6pm. Her number is of course on my phone which has been stolen and the SIM cancelled. I send her a mail, hoping to reach her before she leaves the office. My laptop has gone into hibernation mode and as I wait for it to warm up, I move some papers. And my mobile phone falls on the desk.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

Speaking to the nation from a cupboard under the stairs

My taxi pulls up to the gate at BBC TV Centre. The security guard asks the driver who he is there to see. He jerks his thumb over his shoulder to where I am sitting. The back windows must be tinted because the security man peers through the driver’s open window to look at me. From the look of disappointment on his face, he had been hoping for someone famous. He checks his list, and the car is allowed through and I walk into the grand art deco entrance.

I am due to be taken to the 5Live studio. A producer is to meet and prepare me for the interview which will take place “down the line” to the Stephen Nolan programme in Manchester. For some reason, the receptionist insists that the producer doesn’t work there, and escorts me to a tiny studio under the stairs beneath the reception of Television Centre.

There are no producers to be seen. This can’t be right. “No problem,” says the receptionist, “It will all work fine, as long as this light is on here,” indicating the power switch on the wall.

It is the hottest day of the year and there is no air-conditioning. I undo a couple of shirt buttons and gulp some water as I look around. The “studio” resembles a store room more than a place from which one can broadcast to the nation. The new government may well whine about excessive spending at the BBC, but I can assure them that there has not been any excessive spending here. There are two pairs of headphones on the coffee-stained table, one of them is in several pieces, the other has wires escaping from some unstuck gaffer tape. I sit on the chair and sink so low I can barely rest my chin on the desk top. I reach for the headphones, which I have to hold in place so they don’t slip off my head, and wait.

Nothing happens.

Sweat is dripping off me now. The interview is meant to begin any moment and I have doubts that anyone knows I’m here.

I am about to return to reception and demand to speak to a producer when lights begin to flash on the console in front of me and I can hear the disembodied voice of a producer in Manchester, sounding as if he is leading a séance. “Robin, are you there?”

Before I know it, I am speaking to Stephen Nolan and we begin the interview. It’s probably available on iPlayer somewhere, but I wouldn’t encourage anyone to listen to it. Stephen was very good, but his interviewee was not at his best.

I notice my shirt is soaking wet when I stagger back up the stairs. I turn my phone back on and see I have several messages from London-based 5Live producers, no doubt speaking from plush, air-conditioned studios, wondering where on earth I am.

Friday, 21 May 2010

A sleepy reflection on the week

It’s Friday afternoon and it’s time to reflect on the week. I think the achievement of which I am most proud is managing to sleep through the chainsaw of the tree surgeon working in the next door garden.

I did work up in a blind panic though, thinking I had also managed to sleep through the taxi due to take me to the BBC at 7.30. Fortunately, I now realise that I have another four hours to fully wake up. The taxi is to take me to record an interview for the Stephen Nolan show on BBC 5Live, which will be played out tonight, tomorrow or Sunday.

Unless I fall asleep again (and you never know), you can listen to the interview on .

On Tuesday there was a really well-written article in The Times by Helen Rumbelow. I noted that she seemed to suggest I have commitment issues, though...

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Summer Party

I have been invited to my publishers’ summer party. The invite, which arrives in a calligraphy-written envelope, evokes the type of “Dahling! Love your dress! Mwaa, mwaa” soirée at which my friends seem to assume all writers spend their evenings.

Shortly before I leave the house, I call to check the dress code. This turns out to be a good move, the dress code is very strict, and I dig out some clothes I wore in the days when I had a job to go to.

I arrive and I am ushered through to a Georgian drawing room and given a sticker with my name on.

I mingle. Momentarily, it feels like I am walking into the playground on my first day at school and I am the only person who doesn’t know everyone else.

Then I realise I do know some people, even if they don’t know me. Sebastian Faulks is the first person I notice, predictably surrounded by an adoring crowd. Then I spot Ross Kemp – I think I have only ever seen him in is Extras and the Labour Party election broadcast, in which he was very convincing, but has he written a book? I decide not to ask him this question. He looks pretty hard.

I see another bloke built like an armour-plated Hummer. He has a tree trunk neck and slightly cauliflower ear. I assume he must be a rugby player, here to promote his memoir. I watch him move fluidly through the multitude, trying to work out where I have seen him before. He collects a glass of champagne from a waitress and returns to a petite woman encircled by a group of people. Then I realise who he is when I recognise the woman he is cuddling: the publishing sensation Katie Price.

Trevor, my publisher, sees me and introduces me to a glamorous lady from the Daily Mail with sparkly eye-liner. She tells me about her book, about “William Harry”. I have never heard of the man, but don’t want to reveal my ignorance and so nod and ask what angle she has taken. 

It’s not until she talks about Kate Middleton that I realise she said “William and Harry”. Even I know who they are.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Non-pulp non-fiction

I was woken this morning by a text from my friend Luke. He was calling me Tarantino Bayley. I had no idea what he was talking about until I bought a copy of The Independent:

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Press and Biscuits

I am up early. A journalist and photographer from The Times are due this morning and the flat is a tip. I also realise that I have no biscuits to offer them. Or milk, or tea, or coffee.

While I am out, my agent calls me to tell me that a radio station, having seen an article about the book in a newspaper, is interested interviewing me about the film version of the book.

“Fine,” I say, not really concentrating as I try to decide between All Butter Flapjacks or Luxury Chocolate Chip Cookies.

I go for the Flapjacks and fret all the way back to the house whether I have made the right choice. I am plumping up cushions, and wondering whether I should pop out for the Chocolate Chips when the journalist arrives. I take her coat and offer her a cup of tea or coffee and hope the biscuits are acceptable.

“Just a glass of water, thanks,” she says as she gets out her notepad and Dictaphone. I knew I should have gone for the Chocolate Chips.

The Dictaphone is as big as an old mobile phone and squeaks as the spools turn. Somehow, I find this reassuring.

I am impressed by the thoroughness of her interrogation. She drills down deep on the parallels between my great grandfather and me, and our attitudes to relationships, family and commitment. Afterwards I feel like I have been on the psychiatrist’s couch and just hope that my answers make good copy. Being interviewed in the press is a bit like being in an exam; you never really have any idea how you have done until the results are published.

Shortly after she leaves, the photographer arrives. I was hoping for a coterie of make-up and wardrobe assistants, and that I would get a whole season’s worth of free clothing, but it’s not that type of shoot, apparently. It’s just the photographer and me. He photos me on the roof terrace, the landing and the stairs. “Stair wells often have good light,” he says.

As he is setting up the last shot, the researcher from BBC Tees phones to make sure I’m okay to be interviewed for the primetime show. I say I am and go back face the camera.

An hour later and I am on the phone, listening to BBC Tees. I am staring out of the window, my mind drifting. Suddenly, I’m on.

“And we’re now joined by the writer of The Mango Orchard, which is about to be made into a Hollywood feature film.”

I have to answer briefly, and positively, about the movie which is far from being finalised. I talk about the conversations, rather than the inconclusive nature of them.

“Why do you think your book will make a good film?” she asks.

I tell the story. I talk about the tales my grandma told me as a boy, about the bandits and the bags of silver and the narrow escape from the Mexican Revolution. Then I talk about my journey, about how I tracked down the small village near a small town near Guadalajara... Over five minutes as gone and I haven’t heard a word from the interviewer. Is she still there? I carry on talking about the factory where my great grandfather worked, about my newly-found uncle who greeted me... I still haven’t heard a thing and I wonder whether it is more pathetic to be speaking to a dead telephone line, or to say “Hello? You there?” in the middle of a live broadcast.

Finally she interrupts me. “Who would you like to play you in the film?”

“James McAvoy,” I say. I like Martin Compston, who recently starred in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but I momentarily forget his name.

I hang up and open the packet of All Butter Flapjacks.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Chatting for the first time

Last week I did something I have never done before. And it being the first time, I was abit rubbish at it. I was a chat virgin.

I have had one-to-one chats on Facebook but until last week, when I was invited to chat to individual readers and reading groups around the country, was the first time I had been involved in a mass-chat. I’m fairly sure that’s not the right terminology and saying “mass-chat” is a bit like your dad talking about musical combos or the hit parade, but hey, you know what I mean.

I logged on to the site Nothing. I waited some more, and still nothing happened. The moderator sent me a text saying that there was a glitch. Questions began to appear: Was I still in a relationship with Juanita? What were my motivations for writing the book? How did I keep track of the conversations contained in the book?

All I could do was sit and look at the screen and watch the questions build up: was I surprised at the large number of relatives you found in Mexico? Would I like to give a talk on the book at Words by the Water at Keswick?

After about fifteen minutes, the screen finally flickered to life and then I had to write as fast as I could to try and answer all the questions before the clock ticked down. It was like being in an exam, but with nice questions.

After an hour, time was up. The screen went blank and I having spent an hour typing to furiously to people all over the country, I found myself alone in a dark room.

I got up and made something to eat.  

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Reading at Hampstead Waterstones

The day of the reading in Hampstead arrives.

I receive a flurry of e-mails from friends who are Arsenal fans, making their excuses. It’s the local derby, they’re sure that I understand. I have long learned that one can’t fight football. My 40th birthday was the day that England played Portugal in the quarter final of the 2006 World Cup. Love me as they do, I knew there was no chance of getting more than a smattering of anti-football friends to attend any party that night.

Tonight though, I have no choice. I agreed to talk about my book a long time ago.

I enjoy talking about my book; it’s certainly easier than writing it. My only fear is that no one will turn up. I dread speaking to rows of empty seats. It used to happen sometimes when, in my TV days, I used to fly to conferences obscure parts of Eastern Europe to talk about my TV channel.

I once travelled for seven hours to attend a film festival in Czech Republic. When I arrived, the organiser, a corpulent man with a thick moustache and permed hair, said that he wanted me to host a press conference.

No one had said anything about a press conference. I couldn’t think who would be interested in listening to me give a press briefing when I had nothing to announce, but he insisted that local press would be fascinated to hear from me.

He led me into a lecture theatre, where there were three people sat at the back. One of them, I discovered later, was the organiser’s wife, another, was lost and walked out as soon as I began to talk. The other woman was, she insisted, a journalist.

I talked about my TV channel for about ten minutes, until I could think of nothing more to say, then I asked if anyone had any questions.

The one journalist put up her hand, and asked if I could help her. I said I would try. “My TV hasn’t worked for months,” she said. “Do you know where I can get it fixed?”

I arrive at Waterstones in Hampstead, where I see three people and about 35 empty seats. My heart sinks. I am led upstairs to the staff room, a spacious room with a sofa and large coffee table, on which are two bottles of kosher wine. The charming girl who is charged with looking after me offers me a glass, and tells me tales of previous speakers – some of whom are household names – and how much they had to drink before, during and after their talk.

She leads me back downstairs. I have a feeling of dread and prepare to tell rows of empty seats all about my journey in the footsteps of my great grandfather.

There are three empty seats at the front. All the rest are taken. As I begin my talk, more people arrive, then more. Two extra rows are added as I speak. Having spent five years writing this book, it is pleasing in the extreme that people are interested to hear what I have to say about the experience. The questions are plentiful and intelligent.

Then we all go to the pub. 

Friday, 9 April 2010

Better out than in

It turns out that it wasn’t a hangover, or brain cancer. I go to see the dentist who tells me I have a “mischievous wisdom tooth”, and pulls it out.

I now have a disconcertingly large hole in my mouth, but my headache has gone. Looks like I’ll make Wednesday’s reading after all.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Will I live long enough to give my talk?

Four days after my big night out and the hangover is no better. I’m dizzy, my brain feels like it has been replaced by candyfloss, clamped with a vice and muffled with a tea-cosy. My thought processes are slow, and a long way from my mouth – not a good day to be talking to the press. Today it has been women’s and genealogy magazines, and the regional newspapers in the North Yorkshire.

I go for a walk to the newsagent to clear my head. I buy the Ham & High to look at the interview I gave to promote my talk at Hampstead Waterstones on 14th April. The interview is not there.

I write to the interviewer and am told the piece was filed to late and will appear next week, a day after my appearance at Waterstones.

I have a lie down but can’t sleep; my head is too painful. I convince myself that I have a brain tumour, and wonder if I will live long enough to give my talk. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

PR with a tequila hangover

It’s a Tuesday and though I’m too old to be talking in these terms with any degree of dignity, I still have a hangover from my night out with some Spanish friends in East London on Saturday night. I have vague recollections of drinking gold-fish bowls of tequila through two foot long straws and after that it really is a bit hazy.

In just over a week I have my reading in Waterstone’s in Hampstead. Maybe it’s time I did some PR to promote it. Shame my head feels like it’s been hit by a truck.

I call the local newspaper, the Ham and High – the clue is in the name, it is sold (mainly) in newsagents around Hampstead and Highgate. They are interested in the story and they ask for a copy of the book, so I jump on my bike and cycle to their offices in Swiss Cottage.  

There I am met by a reporter in a sharp suit and taken to a coffee shop for an interview. I had thought I was only dropping off the book, and I feel a bit shabby in my bicycle clips and windswept appearance, not to mention the stabbing pain I still feel down one side of my face.

The reporter has done his research and already knows an alarming amount about me. His questions are thorough and fair and I leave feeling happy with the answers I have given.

I have barely recovered my breath from cycling up the hill when I receive a phone call from Sarah Freeman at The Yorkshire Post for another interview. My mind still feels like it’s on a work-to-rule but she’s an engaging interviewer.

A few more phone calls, a few more mails and I have a lie down.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Radio Sheffield

I arrive at Radio Sheffield to be interviewed by the legendary presenter, Rony Robinson.

The car park is empty and the lights in reception are off. I ring a bell by an intercom. It rings loudly for several minutes, then stops. I call the number of the radio producer and find myself listening to a recorded message about station opening hours.

I ring the intercom once more and am buzzed in by a bright-eyed production assistant who takes me to the waiting area.

Also in the waiting area are two people who are on-air before me. One of them, a sociologist, tells me that she is often on the programme to talk about equality issues.

“Are you a serial offender too?” I asked the person sitting with her.

It was perhaps not the most subtle of questions, as it turns out he has spent several years in prison.

When my turn comes, I am ushered into a studio to be greeted by Rony. He reminds me of John Peel, not just in the way he looks – close-cut greying beard and comfy cardigan – his voice too; has the warm gruffness that Peel had and he also shares that favourite uncle demeanour.

Seconds before we go on air, Rony says he wants to start by asking about my life’s turning point. I say it’s probably the moment that I discovered that my great grandfather’s secret family. “Okay, excellent,” he says and moves closer to the microphone as Carly Simon’s You’re So Vain comes towards the end.

“Or the moment when I set off on my trip,” I add.

He nods, his finger raised to indicate that he’s about to speak on-air.

Or the moment I return to Mexico with my grandmother, I want to add. They’re all turning points. You could argue that every day has its pivotal moments.

But by now he is in full flow, talking about how a son of Sheffield (that’s me) had come to be in the middle of Mexico. “Was this your life’s turning point?”

I say it was, and decide not to mention the dozens of others that I have thought of in the last few seconds.

We move on from turning points and I tell the story, Rony interrupting only to drum on the desk in excitement when I get to the part about meeting Tío Arturo for the first time.

The interview over, I head off to Sheffield Live! It’s a community station, the only one I have ever been to with an exclamation mark in its name. It’s also the only interview I have done that has started with the interviewer telling me how weird I am for not drinking tea or coffee.

Another of life’s pivotal moments? I wonder to myself.

It appears not, so I tell my story.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Radio Manchester

It’s seven thirty in the morning and I am standing on Sheffield train station en route to BBC Radio Manchester. Why is that radio interviews always seem to necessitate getting up really early? Do people not listen to the radio in the afternoon?

The train I board is running an hour late and my carriage is full of people on their way to the airport, looking at their watches anxiously and tutting. I try to sleep.

I arrive at BBC centre on Oxford Road and am taken straight to the waiting area. “Just think of some funny anecdotes,” says the producer, and leaves me with a glass of water and the Wham! song “I’m Your Man” playing on a wall-mounted speaker.

The presenter, Heather Stott, then introduces her studio guests, a wedding dress designer, a marriage counsellor and a woman who advises women how to get out of abusive relationships. How to get married, argue and split up, interspersed with some pop from the eighties.

I am trying to think of which stories to tell, but am too busy listening to the previous guests. I am struck by how cheerful everyone is, especially the woman who advises women in troubled relationships. I had no idea it was possible to be so happy about a subject so grim.

The interviewees walk out of the studio, their chatter just audible over the Trammps’ song Disco Inferno. I look at the notes I was supposed to be making for my amusing anecdotes. All I have written is “Venezuelan brothel. Corpse. Covered in baby poo.”

It will have to do as the presenter, Heather Stott, invites me in to take a seat in front of a microphone. Heather is one of those rare people who looks a great deal more attractive in the flesh than on her publicity photos. She is bright and bubbly, and satisfyingly open-mouthed as I relate the story of my journey in my great grandfather’s footsteps.

Just before we go into the sports news to hear about Rooney returning from groin injury, Heather says, “And we’ll be back in a minute when Robin will tell us about what he got up to in a Venezuelan brothel.”

I wonder how many other daytime radio presenters have gone into a break with that announcement.

The rest of the interview goes okay and Heather gives the book a good plug at the end. She shakes my hand and says she looks forward to reading the book. I like the fact that she doesn’t pretend that she already has.

I meet with an old friend, and when she has to return to work, spend the afternoon touring Manchester Waterstone’s branches, signing copies.

On return to Sheffield I am told that I have two more radio interviews planned for Friday. Yes, in the morning.

Saturday, 27 March 2010

Filthy Words

I have just done a ‘live test’ for an on-line chat event on April 15th in which I will be attempting to answer questions from members of book clubs from around the country.

I’m not a computer whizz, and I approach this event with a certain amount of nervousness. It’s not the communicating with people from all corners of the nation that worries me, it’s having to rely on my ability to interact with technology. I have always liked the idea of working like Winston Churchill, barking instructions from my bed to a full complement of staff. Alas, The Mango Orchard sales do not yet merit such a workforce, so I have to get out of bed, and be responsible for my own interface with the world.

It was a good idea to have a run-through. It took a full ten minutes, and several frantic e-mails from the moderator, for me to work out that I hadn’t even logged in.

Once that hurdle had been negotiated, it was fairly straight forward... until I noticed that my user name was “Robin B”. I asked if this could be changed, as I thought it made me sound like a Spice Girl. At least, that’s what I had wanted to say, the text that appeared was “CENSORED”.

I couldn’t work what I had said that was so scandalous. The moderator asked me what I had said. I repeated my message and again, the word “CENSORED” appeared on the screen.

To be honest, I felt quite pleased with myself. Once again I had managed to flummox a computer system.

Eventually, they established that ‘spice’ had triggered the censor, because it had the word ‘spic’ in it. They have now updated the system so it will not make the same mistake again, but it has made me wonder what other words it will pick up.

How about bumptious? Or arsenal? Or how about wankel rotary engine?

Log in to at 7pm on April 15th to see what we can get away with.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Northern Tour begins

I have just realised that I need to be somewhere else. In a very few minutes I should be at St Pancras to catch my train up north to begin my first promotional tour.

I quickly go through my mails. The first e-mail I notice tells me that Time Out have very kindly done a small write-up about a talk I am to give at West End Lane Books in West Hampstead. The only trouble is that this was cancelled a month ago. On that night I shall now be giving a reading in Sheffield.

A further mail gives me the link to the article that has just appeared in the Sheffield Telegraph: Another, details of the Heather Stott radio show on Radio Manchester on which I am appearing on Monday morning.

There’s another one from my friend Jon, who tells me he has just managed to sell his wardrobe for £127 on eBay. He seems very pleased with himself. It’s good news for me too; the drinks are on him this weekend.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Waterstone's Quarterly and F#cking Postmen!

Since my move to my new home a week before the launch of the book, I have taken to taking a walk before I start work in the morning. It clears my head and reminds me that there is a world outside these four walls and my computer screen. Thanks to my friends, Ann and James, for whom I am flat sitting, the neighbourhood in which I now find myself at the beginning of each day is more genteel and scenic than I am used to. There are less weapon dogs to dodge, the streets are winding and tree-lined, and if I ever feel the need, it is possible to spend £8.50 on a loaf of bread.

Today, on my morning constitutional, I was trying to compose in my head an article I had been asked to write for Waterstone’s Quarterly. My concentration was broken when I saw a man lumbering towards me who looked like REM’s Michael Stipe after an unhealthy cocktail of growth hormones. He was screaming about “F*cking postmen!” at the top of his voice.

I am never quite sure whether to ignore these people, or to stare them down; show them that I’m not scared. I decided to stare him down. I looked at him and found myself thinking of a cartoon character with spirals turning in its eyes.

His body posture changed instantly. From being a snarling ball of rage, he visibly relaxed. “I had a friend who was knocked down by a dustcart once,” he said, mildly. He seemed to have forgotten about the problem he had postmen.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, he’s not dead, but I think he has a headache.”
I nodded, and wondered if this person who was knocked down by a dustcart was him.

He followed me round the block, reeling off a stream of non sequiturs about the origins of romance and why he didn’t like Kilburn. He didn’t seem to notice that I was contributing little to the conversation. At one point he grabbed my arm. His hand wrapped around my bicep and his grip was fierce. Not a person to get on the wrong side of.

We arrived at my front door and I was worried he would invite himself in, but he became distracted by the number on my front door. “I don’t like the number 28,” he said sadly. “It’s wrong.”

I’m not sure that this encounter inspired me, but I wrote the article for Waterstone’s very quickly. Perhaps I wanted to finish it before lunch, in case I bumped into my strange neighbour next time I ventured outside.

You can see the article now on

Monday, 22 March 2010

Available in Sheffield for only £2

I have been receiving calls all day about the new window display dedicated to The Mango Orchard in the Waterstone’s branch in Orchard Square, Sheffield, where I am to do a reading next week.

The display says that you can “meet me” for £2 (redeemable against the cost of the book). Considering the prices to meet Geoff Hoon, Harriet Harman or Stephen Byers, it does seem a veritable snip.

It has been a Sheffield day. Most of the morning was spent in interviews with the Sheffield papers, The Star and The Telegraph, which should publish their articles at the end of this week.

Friday, 19 March 2010

The day after the party

It’s the day after The Mango Orchard launch party. My head is aching in places that only tequila can reach. It’s not ideal timing, but I have to get up to go to a friend’s birthday bash in the Lord Nelson, a laid-back gastro pub somewhere near Camden, but nowhere near any public transport links.

I decide to get out of bed and walk in the bright sunshine, walk myself out of a hangover. I love London in the sun. The man at the fruit stall is whistling, women with enormous sunglasses drive Jeep convertibles, hemp bags of groceries and daffodils in the passenger seat. I sit in the sun outside a coffee shop, luxuriating in the warmth on my face. I turn over and realise I am still in bed.

The phone rings but I ignore it. Okay, okay, I’m on my way. I jump in the shower and I walk a while but realise I’m never going to make it for the end of the meal, let alone the beginning, so I hail a black cab.

I hurriedly write my friend’s birthday card outside the pub, leaning on a table where a woman is smoking roll-ups, sitting with an implausibly fluffy rabbit, and rush in.

I sup a glass of water, wincing at the clatter of cutlery and crockery, until my friend, whose birthday it is, opens a bottle of champagne. The phone rings as I’m handed a glass. I ignore it again and allow my hangover to fizz and then fade away.

It’s several hours later and I arrive home. Music or telly? I still haven’t decided when the phone rings again. This time I answer. It’s Juanita. With timing that is entirely consistent with her character, she has flown into the country to come to the party a full twenty four hours late.

Monday, 15 March 2010

The Launch Party

There’s a Mexican phrase: No hay nada que no se puede arreglar con tequila – There isn’t anything you can’t fix with tequila.

For the launch party of The Mango Orchard, I take this advice to heart and order several gallons of the stuff. And just in case the tequila doesn’t do the trick, there are cases of wine and several hundred bottles of Corona beer, kindly obtained by the Mexican Embassy.

Whether or not it’s the tequila that does the fixing I don’t know, but all seems to go swimmingly. The night passes a blur of flashbulbs, handshakes and hugs in front of my eyes. As well as publishing and media people, there are friends and family from all over the world, some of whom I haven’t seen for the best part of twenty years.

The speeches go well, despite my reservation about looking a bit like a dictator, speaking from a flag-dressed balcony. Shortly afterwards, arriving out of nowhere, I hear the familiar sounds of a Mariachi band. They had been organised secretly by some of my friends. It’s a touching gesture.

My only real fear before the party was having sudden amnesia when signing books.
“Who would you like me to dedicate the book to?”
“To me.”
“How are you spelling that?”

All goes well however, until I see Trevor, my publisher, approach with a tousle-haired chap clutching a copy of my book. Oh crickey, who’s that? Is he an old school friend I’ve erased from my memory? Is he a relative I failed to include in the book? Is he that bloke who helped me in the National Archive, whom I forgot to thank in the acknowledgments? I’m stumped.

Trevor cuts through the crowd. “This is Steve,” he says when he reaches me.
I still have absolutely no idea who he is but hope that my lack of recognition goes unnoticed. “Help yourself to a drink,” I say as I hand the signed book back to him.

Trevor finds my discomfort amusing. “I found him outside,” he says, when Steve has disappeared. “He was just walking by. I told him about the book, so he came in to buy it.”

Steve, whoever you are, I hope you enjoy the book. And if for any strange reason you don’t, have a tequila.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Publication Day

It’s publication day, mails are arriving in my inbox and my mobile is beeping constantly. How do I feel? Everyone wants to know.

It’s the moment I have dreamed of for years and yet none of it feels real – The Mango Orchard, finally is published. I decide it will feel more believable when I see the book in situ and walk to my local Waterstone’s to see the book displayed in pride of place at the front of store.

It’s not there.

I check upstairs in the travel section. It’s not there either. I don’t want to make a scene, but having spent five years writing the thing, and having secured a much-prized promotional deal with Waterstone’s, I can’t help thinking that at least making the book physically possible for people to buy would be a good start.

A shop finally assistant locates the books in a sealed box at the back of the store. He opens the box and hands them to me. I explain that I was hoping they would sell the books to someone else...

Later in the day, a friend calls me to tell me she had just seen the book on the tables at the front of the shop. She quickly bought a copy, before they sold out.

Saturday, 27 February 2010

Appearing on Radio 4

It’s Saturday morning and I wake before dawn. It’s only my second morning in my new flat and I walk into the living room to look out of the window at the still unfamiliar sights. The sky is still a dirty amber and the lights still shining brightly on the London Eye and BT Tower.

I’ve rarely been up this early before; I’m tempted to say that the view is worth getting up for, but that’s not quite true. The sight of a still, quiet London glowing in the half-light is most certainly beautiful, but not as beautiful as a deep and restful sleep. I’m only up because I have a radio interview to go to.

The marvellous Emma, the publicity guru at my publishers, phoned me when I was in the middle of moving flat last week to tell me I had been booked to appear on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, the daddy of all travel programmes. It’s live at 10.00.

I have always assumed that guests would need to be there hours before, and would sit in the green room like Roman noblemen feasting on enormous bowls of fruit while production assistants run around after them to satisfy their every whim. This is why I am up so early. I want my bowl of fruit.

It’s 9.45, just fifteen minutes before we’re on air and I am standing in the BBC canteen with the other two guest, Chloe Aridjis, who’s promoting A Book of Clouds, and Mark Carwardine, a well-renowned zoologist . We’re sipping ice cold water in plastic cups. There’s no fruit. Not even any biscuits.

Ten minutes before the programme goes on air, we are shown into the studio. John McCarthy, wearing a very fetching floral shirt, greets us warmly and invites us to sit round a carpet-topped table. It has four microphones sticking out of a hole in the middle where there are multi-coloured cables and a computer keyboard. I am handed another glass of water and I can’t help wondering what would happen if I accidently dropped it. Would sparks fly? Would Radio 4 go off the air?

I’m gripping my water so tightly that I barely notice a green light go on. John begins his very smooth opening. He then pauses as they play a recording of a TV programme Mark made about whale-watching with Stephen Fry. I realise this was a programme I saw, though I don’t say anything as I’m not sure my microphone is switched off.

John’s brilliance is that he lulls you into thinking you’re just having a chat, which we are, I suppose, it’s just that we have a million or so people listening. I all but forget my nerves, so much so that I hear a voice inside my head say “Go on, say ‘titty turd’”.

Gosh, I hope that thought wasn’t out loud. John is looking at me, millions are listening. He’s asked me a question. What was it again, something about why I set out in the footsteps of my great grandfather?

I clear my throat and begin to talk, and try to keep the words ‘titty turd’ away from my mouth. (Where on earth did they come from anyway? Who the hell says titty turd?) John nods encouragingly and asks another question and I tell the story about Wilson, the loon who pulled a gun on me during the journey from Veracruz to Mexico City. The version in the book has a fair number of words a lot more offensive than titty or turd, but judging from the smile on John’s face, I think I’ve managed to avoid them.

John directs some questions to Chloe and then more to me and as a final question asks if we intend to go back to Mexico. We all say we do and it’s the end of the programme.

We have a brief chat as we put on our coats and within ten minutes I am in a car heading home. For a bowl of fruit.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Intrepid Travel in Kensington

Billy Connolly once said that there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. He’s right, up to a point. Personally I find weather inappropriate if it’s so cold that it I’m forced to wear so many layers my arms stick out at ninety degrees from my body like a Teletubby.

I’ve never really been one for the cold weather; I’ve never seen the point in it. This doesn’t mean I am one of the head-in-the-sand climate change deniers. I think that having both poles covered in ice is a good idea, I just don’t want it to be North Pole-like anywhere near me.

I guess I’m finding the icy conditions that much more difficult to take this morning after having spent the weekend at the Travellers’ Tales Festival at The Royal Geographical Society. There, I talked with some of the world’s best travel writers and photographers about spectacular corners of the planet – almost all of them warmer than London this February.

I was there to make a presentation on The Mango Orchard. The talk seemed to go well. The audience was appreciative and asked good questions. Afterwards, I had a book signing session in Stanfords, and pleasingly, the book sold out.

Then I set out once more into the rigours of Kensington arctic winter.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Ad-lib lines, well rehearsed.

In a few minutes I go into town to record my first TV interview to promote The Mango Orchard.

In my past life, when I worked in children’s television, I appeared on TV a few times, the last time being on a national Romanian channel, alongside a seven foot purple cat and an equally tall turquoise cartoon character called The Tick. The interview was most notable for the fact that the TV lights were very hot for the poor students in the character costumes. As I gamely tried to promote a kids concert, a sweat patch appeared around The Tick’s crotch, giving the millions of Romanian children watching the impression that their super-hero had bladder control issues.

Anyway, this time, I’m not promoting sweating cartoon characters and the interview will, I hope, be in English.

Ever helpful, my friends from my writing group have challenged me to include certain words into my interview. Just in case it’s not stressful enough to appear casual as I communicate a story that it took me five years to write, they want me to incorporate the words wobble, throbbing, velociraptor, boobies and Islets of Langerhans.

Tune in to the Holiday Show on Travel Channel at 4pm and 8pm this Friday, Saturday and Sunday and see how I get on.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Another Judgement Passed

Just got had a new review in, this time from Jason Webster, a highly celebrated author and journalist. Words taken at random from his review: "charming", "magical" and "...skeletons".

It all makes sense when you read it!

Monday, 1 February 2010

Pre-publishing Nerves

A few months ago I read an interview with Sebastian Faulks in which he discussed his “pre-publishing nerves” prior to the launch of A Week in December. I couldn’t understand how someone with his body of work and track record of success could be apprehensive about a new book coming out.

Now I am less than five weeks away from The Mango Orchard’s appearance in the bookshops, I understand what Sebastian (if I can presume to be on first name terms – we have the same publisher after all) meant, and I don’t have his reputation to fall back on.

Last week I received my first review. Having spent every other week for a couple of years being exposed to the rigorous assessment of my writing group, and then by my agent and publisher, I felt that I was inured to criticism. But with the arrival of the review in my in-box, I realised that while the incisive Jo-Jo, eagle-eyed grammar queen Caroline, Scrabble-session Charlotte and “that’s bollocks” Justin of my writing group might offer some unwelcome truths about my draft chapters, nothing would be as wounding as a mauling by a renowned reviewer of the finished book.

The review was written by the noted biographer and journalist, Andrew Lycett, and it was generous. I scanned the screen, bracing myself for a harsh assessment. Instead of rubbishing the book, he offered phrases such as “very exciting” and “cleverly constructed”.

Apart from the reviews, more of which are expected soon, there’s the launch party to plan.

I love going to parties but I’ve never enjoyed any of my own. The first I ever had was for my third birthday. It didn’t go well. My friend Patrick Edwards lost a tooth in a toffee apple incident and I was sent to my room for sneaking away from a game of pass-the-parcel to eat my entire birthday cake.

I must look up Sebastian’s interview again and see if he offered any crumbs of comfort.

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Reading in Bookshops

Last night I went to my writing group. We meet every other week in a bookshop in Kings Cross, one of the few that doesn’t display warnings about the “Adult-themed material” behind their frosted glass doors. Our bookshop, despite not being a porn emporium is hardly a warm and cosy place. It has brown carpet tiles, speckled with flattened chewing gum, its few chairs are moulded plastic and even in the height of summer, it is always freezing cold.

And you’re unlikely to find many books here that you’ll want to curl up with in front of the fire. A random selection: “The House that Crack Built”, “Marshmallows I have Loved” and “Amputee Sex”.

It was here, about three years ago, I first read aloud a section of The Mango Orchard, or Casa Familiar, as I think it was called then. It was in a workshop run by Anne Aylor. Apart from Anne and myself, there were fifteen or twenty other writers. I was terrified. Not only was it the first time that I had read anything from the book to anyone else, it was the first time that I had read anything in public since I was dragooned into reading a poem about an octopus called Henry at school assembly when I was eleven.

I’m not a very good reader. Being dyslexic doesn’t help. I know what the words are, and what they mean, I just tend to read them in the wrong order. So when I began the passage I had brought along to Anne’s group, all I saw was a mass of ink. I noticed the girl next to me yawn, and then again. When I finished, a few people shifted uneasily in their chairs as they tried to think of something nice to say. I think someone said they liked my shoes.

Anyway, back to last night. I was reading not for people to comment on the text – it’s a bit too late for that, the book’s already at the printers – but to practice for the book readings I have coming up, including the one at the Royal Geographical Society . I was about to begin when a girl in a red woollen hat opened the door and marched towards us, “Hello, I’m Jessica!” she announced, full of enthusiasm. We all looked at each other. We had no idea who she was, but it seemed cruel to ask when she so obviously thought she was expected.
A second later, another couple came in carrying a cloth bags with leaflets sticking out of the top. “Climate change meeting?”

Someone remembered that there was a meeting downstairs. Jessica looked relieved. The climate change people continued to traipse in, leaving the door ajar, oblivious to the irony of how they were changing our own personal climate. A few of them stopped for a while to listen to me read. They were distracting, but at least it suggests that my reading is improving.