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.