Friday, 21 October 2011

I've moved!

Thanks for stopping by. I have recently started a new blog, which has all the entries from this one, plus much more.

I will no longer be posting on this site, so please come over to:

See you there!


Friday, 29 July 2011

A-ha! Norwich here I come

I am getting up slowly. My aim is to have a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper propped up against the toast rack before catching the 11.30 to Norwich, where I am due to appear at Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads.
The phone rings. It’s a producer at BBC Radio Oxford, asking if Jo Thoenes can interview me for a programme about genealogy. I readily agree; I appeared on her show when I was at the Oxford Literature Festival in March and I was very impressed with her. I am booked in for a telephone interview in half an hour. I glance at the microwave clock. I realise that I have no time for a leisurely anything; I need to be showered and ready to leave before Jo calls back.
Jo Thoenes

Shaving, I really should have learned by now, is one thing you should not do in a hurry. As well as remove my stubble, I also manage to slice the end of my nose. I have no idea how I have managed to achieve this wound, but it’s certainly very real; my nose is throbbing and blood is trickling into the sink.

When the phone rings, I am sitting on the sofa, leaning forward to avoid staining my shirt, with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the drying blood on the end of my nose. Jo and I have a quick chat and then launch straight into the interview. I’m in mid-flow and suddenly my nose starts bleeding again. I realise I am beginning to lose the thread of what I am saying. I want to explain that for me, the most important of the family historian’s art, is oral testimony, but I am now trying to dab a drop of blood from the carpet, and the word “testimony” has completely escaped me. “Oral…err,” I grab another tissue. “Oral… um… ” I don’t guess what the second word may be in case my Tourette’s tendencies get the better of me.

Jo somehow manages to divert my attention from my nose and back to answering her questions but I can’t think that mine is the most illuminating interview she will conduct today.

A few hours later, my nose has stopped bleeding and I am being interviewed again, this time by Stephen Bumfrey at BBC Radio Norwich. It suddenly strikes me as I sit in this Norwich radio studio and that I am having a very Alan Partridge-esque day. I’m even staying in a Travelodge. All I need now is to have a fight with a trouser press.

After the interview, Sam Ruddock from Writers’ Centre Norwich escorts me round the bookshops in the centre of Norwich, all of which are pleasingly well-stocked with copies of The Mango Orchard, and some even have it in their window displays.

I am delighted to be part of Summer Reads. It’s a reading campaign Writers’ Centre Norwich organises with Norfolk Libraries. I am very proud to be part of the line-up of excellent books: Joseph O’Conner’s Ghost Light, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Andrey Kurkov’s The Good Angel Of Death, and Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot.

I have half an hour to return to the Travelodge and get changed for my talk at the fabulous Millennium Library. The attendance is good, the audience are generous listeners and ask wise questions (which thankfully didn’t include “What’s that gash at the end of your nose”) and buy a good number of books. Thanks to Sam, Katy and all at Writers’ Centre Norwich for including me in Summer Reads, and for organising it so well. I hope to have another book for you soon.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

A Letter from Mexico

Yesterday, I experienced a minor miracle. It didn’t involve any would-be saints, Andy Murray winning a tennis match, or even David Blaine. It concerned a letter sent from Mexico.

The person who sent it didn’t have my address, so she sent it to someone who might. They didn’t have it either but sent it to somewhere I had lived, and the person now living there, redirected the letter to my present home. Some three weeks after the envelope left Mexico, I managed to snatch it away from the dog before it was chewed to bits (another minor miracle) and opened it.
It was a lovely letter, from a lady called Nina, who, having read The Mango Orchard, journeyed over 800 kilometres from her home in Mexico City to have her photo taken in front of the Bellavista factory, a place which plays an important role in the book.

Nina’s father, like my great grandfather, had set out from England for Mexico to work in the cotton industry, but unlike my ancestor, he stayed.

Nina with Juan Cañas, curator of the museum
I have received many very kind e-mails and letters from people who have read The Mango Orchard, and wanted to share the memories that the book provoked. As far as I know, Nina is the first person to travel so far to have her picture taken. I am very touched, thank you.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Taking my time with Robert Elms

I arrive at Broadcasting House to appear on Robert Elms’ BBC London programme twenty minutes early; I didn’t want to turn up late and breathless and pant into the microphone.
I sign in at the security desk, sit and flick through the BBC staff magazine, Ariel. BBC reception areas seem to have been designed to give the impression that no licence fee money what so ever has been wasted on such frippery as comfortable chairs.
A young man with spiky hair and a heavy leather jacket appears at the security gates to take me up to the studio. He is about to speak when a man in a pork pie hat charges through the sliding doors. He is panting, red in the face, and cursing the inefficiencies of the Victoria Line. “I’ve just run all the way from Oxford f*cking Circus,” he says, and kneels in front of the water cooler and drinks several cups. I notice his hand is trembling. I decide against pointing out that the tube station is only about 100 yards away, or the fact that I had managed my own tube journey without a hitch.
Still breathing heavily, the man in the pork pie hat accompanies us to the studio floor. As soon as the lift doors open, he barges out and runs straight into the studio. I sit in the waiting area, and listen on the wall-mounted speakers to his continuing complaints about the short comings of the underground system, this time without the cuss words.
I had been told that I would be on-air just after 11, for about half an hour, but it’s 11.20 before I am called into the studio. I am introduced to Robert Elms and he tells me about his travels in Mexico as I am placed in front of a microphone on the other side of a padded desk from him.
The theme for the programme today is genealogy, and I am here to talk about The Mango Orchard as an example of a genealogical search which culminates in a remarkable discovery. I’ve been interviewed enough now to be able to tell the story about how I travelled in the footsteps of my great grandfather and discovered the Mexican village in which he had left over three hundred descendants, in several different ways. Today, Robert is getting the family history-themed, half hour version.
I am mystified  when, only two minutes into my interview, Robert starts signalling for to me to make my answers shorter and snappier. What is he thinking? We’ve got thirty minutes to fill! The interview is almost over before I realise that, perhaps because of the late arrival of the man in the pork pie hat, I only have ten minutes. Or I had ten minutes. Suddenly it’s over and I am out in the street again.
            I walk to Oxford Circus station and get stuck on the Victoria Line

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Battling with Stupidity

Last week, I was told by a doctor that I was suffering from “non-specific post-viral fatigue”. As well as utter exhaustion, the main symptom has been one of feeling a bit stupid, like a hangover when you’ve not been drinking. I have to confess that none of friends have noticed any difference.

Feeling hungover is not necessarily such a problem. Sure, it makes writing a bit slower, but I can generally function. At the weekend though, I am due to appear at Cowbridge Book Festival to talk about The Mango Orchard. If I am to avoid the audience slow-hand clapping like the one Tony Blair suffered from at the hands of the WI, I have to have my wits about me.

I go to collect my train tickets from Paddington station. I pocket the tickets and go to buy some lunch. With one eye on the clock, I do a quick circuit of M&S and then shuffle slowly forward, mind in neutral, in the long queue waiting to pay. The lady at the checkout has a cheery round face and sing-song accent. She tells me how much I owe. I look in my wallet. My credit card has gone. I must have left it in the ticket machine.

After trying and failing to find the number of my credit card company – the number is, of course, written on the back of the card – I go into the ticket office to see if it has been handed in. Amazingly, it has. (Bless you, whoever you were.)

I now have my credit card, but I still haven’t had my lunch. Feeling exhausted, a little stupid and hungry, is not a good combination. I have less than ten minutes to find something to eat and get on the train.

I again rush around the aisles of M&S and then stand in the long, slow-moving queue. Again, I am served by the woman with a sing-song voice. She doesn’t seem to remember me, despite the fact that the last time she saw me, ten minutes before, I had cursed loudly, suddenly dropped my shopping basket and run out of the store.

I find my train seat and sit down. I get out my paper, open my lunch, and spill it all over my one clean pair of trousers.

At Cardiff station, I wander down the platform, conscious of the dark stain in my crotch, and am greeted by my hosts, the local writer, John Williams, and his wife Charlotte, also an acclaimed novelist. They live in a lovely, book-filled house over-looking a park. We sit in their conservatory as the sunlight fades and I feel myself relax. There’s something about being out of London that enables me to switch off more than I ever can in the capital.
Signing a book for my beloved Godmother, who came to the talk
I sleep soundly, but wake early as I am to be collected and taken to the festival at 9.30. I’m still feeling a bit stupid, but there’s nothing like a live audience to wake you up. I had worried I might forget my own name, but the talk goes well and the questions really make me think. As I write this, I am desperately trying to remember what their brilliant questions were… but I’m afraid I’m feeling a bit stupid again…

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Mango Orchard Paperback launch party

I am deeply indebted to the Mexican Tourist Board and the Mexican embassy who organised, and paid for, a press reception for the launch of The Mango Orchard paperback last week. Press, travel industry leaders, diplomats and VIPs gathered in the cool basement bar of the new Wahaca Soho restaurant on Wardour Street for delicious canapés and truly lethal (but very moreish) tequila cocktails.

It was a humbling reminder that Mexicans are the world’s most generous hosts. Gracias compañeros! 

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

For Those About to Rock… a Cup of Gin

 A Report from behind the scenes at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival

If the Hay Literary Festival is the book world’s Glastonbury, then Oxford is its Reading. It’s simply huge. Over a ten day period, three hundred writers talk about their work in theatres, halls, oak-panelled rooms and marquees.

As a writer appearing at the festival, it means I find myself chatting with travel writer Hugh Thomson, former BBC correspondent Sarah Mukherjee and legendary novelist Edna O’Brien; having lunch with David Starkey, or passing the time of day with Alan Yentob. If you will allow me to continue my musical analogy for a moment, I imagine like this is what X-Factor’s Olly Murs might feel like if he ever found himself rubbing shoulders back stage with Leonard Cohen and Van Morrison.
I first see Edna O’Brien when I enter the Green Room. She is sitting in an armchair in the corner of the room, bright sunlight back-lighting her hair, giving it the appearance of a halo. I had left my bag by her chair and I am about to collect it when she stops me with an extended hand. “Are you here to interview me?” she asks.

“No,” I reply, wishing I was. “But would you like a cup of tea?”

“My dear,” she says, touching my elbow, “That’s just what I want. They only offered me gin.”

I had been offered gin too “for Dutch courage”, and in a tea cup “so no one will know.” Edna and I agree that facing an audience half cut is not a good idea.

Just before my talk is due to begin, I am asked to sign a book that has been signed by all the writers at the festival. The signature before mine is that of Ron Moody, he has drawn the figure of Fagin – a role that helped to make his name. I sign. No one will be able to read that, I think, so I draw a Mexican sombrero to give a clue. I am feeling quite pleased with it, until Edna points out that it looks like a traffic cone in a puddle.

It’s then straight into the talk. It takes place in one of the oak-panelled chambers just off the main quad. The audience listens attentively, asks intelligent questions, and then buys a pleasing quantity of books.

From there I go to the main tent to give my second talk, to a different audience about exactly the same thing. This talk is sponsored by Highland Park whisky. The concept is for the audience to sample their whisky, while they sample some readings. Clever, eh?

I generally try to start each talk with a joke or something that relates to the event. I wrack my brains, and the only link I can think to connect whisky with The Mango Orchard is that my great grandfather’s father drank too much of it and died of dropsy. Perhaps this is not the kind of thing I should mention.

As I am waiting to be introduced, there’s an announcement for the beginning of an event with Terry Jones. At a stroke, I lose almost my entire audience. I start anyway, and bit by bit, the seats begin to fill. Eventually the crowd spills out beyond the entrance.

Afterwards, a man approaches me. He congratulates me on the book and tells me how much he enjoyed my talk. He moves closer and says, conspiratorially, “Could you do me a really big favour?”

“Sure,” I say, reaching into my pocket for my pen to sign his book.

“Could you possibly use your influence to get me another wee dram?”

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Early morning panic - it's launch day!

I live opposite a pub. It’s a posh gastro pub – the kind of place that offers braised llama loin with a lemon and tarragon reduction, and charges the price of my book (£7.99) for a cup of frothy coffee. There’s generally a combination of yummy mummies, dog walkers and confused tourists sitting outside. I like this, as it allows me to imagine, just for the moment it takes me to walk past it on my way to the tube, that I live in a chic café society.

The only downside to where I live is that the ingredients to said pretentious menu seem to arrive at odd hours throughout the night. It is for that reason that I have been awake since the small hours; that and the sudden launch day panic and fretting about all I have to do in the next few days.

Today I have to be in Oxford by 2pm to be interviewed by Jo Thoenes of BBC Radio Oxford to talk about the book and my appearance at the Oxford Literary Festival on Sunday. I also have two other press interviews and have an article to write.

The last two articles I wrote are on sale today: Family History Monthly and Family Tree magazine. It was tricky to write two completely different articles to similar audiences about the same subject, but I’m pleased with the result. Both issued look really good.

I had better get on. There’s a press reception to attend to as well…

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Essex Book Festival

For the second time in two days, I find myself on the train heading from Liverpool Street station towards Essex. Today, I’m going to Prettygate Library in Colchester, to speak at the Essex Book Festival.

I had allowed enough time to walk from the station, but when I arrive in Colchester, and I see the spitting grey sky, I jump into a cab. I arrive at the venue half an hour early so I while away the time in the nearby pub. The Jefferson Starship song We Built This City on Rock and Roll is playing on a loop on the jukebox, to about four regulars.

Sylvia, the library supervisor, welcomes me. She introduces me to Karen, the Audience Development Officer (what a wonderful title!) and the rest of the staff.

“Thanks for your Tweet,” Sylvia says as she takes my coat. “And we heard you on Radio Essex as well. We had a few people phone up after they heard you.”

She takes me up to the staff room which looks out on to the car park. It is empty. I look up at the sky. It’s still grey and spitting. Will anyone come?

Karen comes up to collect me, and she has a smile on her face. I take comfort from this. As Audience Development Officer, I figure she wouldn’t be smiling if she hadn’t managed to develop a decent audience. Indeed, when we come down the stairs, I see that the library is full.

Karen’s job of developing the audience, I see, is not limited to getting them to come, she also acts as compere. “I think we have some of the local book group here,” she says, and the whole of the front row cheers.

The highlight of many talks is often the Q&A session; today is no exception. All the questions are intelligent and thought-provoking. One man tells me how much the book had meant to him because of his own family story which, in different circumstance, had also taken him to Mexico. There is real emotion in his tale, and I’m not the only one to be brushing away a tear.

Back to London and I go straight to the premiere of the Colombian film, Los Viajes del Viento, or Wind Journeys, screened as a fund-raiser for Friends of Colombia for Social Aid. The film is stunning. I particularly appreciate it because the Colombian landscape is extraordinary and reminds me of the journey I did through Colombia with my friend Pedro (chapter 3 in The Mango Orchard) to La Guajira at the northern tip of South America.

I arrive home and check my e-mails. For the first time in nearly a year, I have a mail from… Pedro.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

From Proud Father to Drug-Dealing Pimp in Three Easy Steps

The final weeks before birth is I gather, the most tiring and tiresome period of pregnancy. You don’t sleep well and can never get comfortable. It reminds me of the old Joan Rivers joke: “I was screaming ‘get this damn thing out of me!’. Nine months earlier I was screaming the exact same thing.”

Women, especially mothers, tend to give me short shrift when I compare the publication of a book to having a baby. But after weeks of anxious waiting, and at least one false alarm, this morning the little bundle carrying the paperback (yes, with photos) finally arrives.

I rip open the box and there it is at last. I don’t have time to spend much quality time with my new arrival though, as I realise I am running late for my appearance on the Steve Scruton show on BBC Radio Essex. I run to the tube, hoping someone will notice the book I am brandishing.

Radio BBC Essex is in a white-walled building in a leafy part of Chelmsford. From the outside, if it weren’t for the BBC livery, it could be a posh dentist’s surgery. I walk into the studio as Steve is in the middle of a link. I sit down and squint at the wall-mounted TV screen showing BBC 24. The images are of men riding in the back of pick-ups carrying rocket-launchers. I read the caption at the bottom of the screen: “Lady Gaga.” That doesn’t make much sense, but I have poor eyesight, and I’m dyslexic, so I’m used to reading things that no one else sees. I look again, and see it says “Libya”.

Steve finishes his link and leans across a desk of microphones to shake my hand. I like him immediately – open and friendly. “Thanks for the Tweet from the train,” he says. I’m always amazed that anyone reads them.

The interview begins and before I know it, I find myself telling the story about how I nearly became a drug-dealing pimp in Colombia. This was probably not the kind of story Steve had in mind when he booked me, but we have a good chat and he very generously gives my appearance at the Essex Book Festival a good plug, and makes admiring noises – live on air – about my new pride and joy.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Transvestites and National Treasures

A big thank you to everyone who came to hear me speak at Words by the Water last week, especially to Maggie and her book group, who suggested the festival to me in the first place.

I had fully intended to tweet in between readings, but had forgotten that the Lake District is almost entirely a mobile free zone.  There was apparently a weak signal next to the lake, a few hundred yards from the theatre, but it was raining stair rods most of the time, and when it wasn’t, it was too cold for me to have any practical use of my fingers, so the update has had to wait until now.

Someone described Words by the Water as being in like “an interactive Radio 4”. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was there and I attended some wonderful talks by the likes of Peter Hennessy, Roy Hattersley   and Jean Baggott. I also got to meet the brilliant John Gray and Ted Nield and had been promised an introduction to John Simpson, but Muammar Gaddafi had other ideas.

During my stay there I learned that there is only one lake in the Lake District (Bassenthwaite, all the others are officially “waters”, “tarns”, “meres” or reservoirs) and that David Lloyd-George sired over 50 illegitimate children in Carnarvon alone. I learned that in the 1950s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent depended on AA phone boxes and the Prime Minister’s driver having some loose change. I also discovered that JG Ballard refused to invest any money and kept everything he ever earned in his current account. I was told by a highly respected broadcaster and national treasure (who shall remain nameless) that he keeps fit by running up and down stairs… in the nude.

Also in attendance most days at the festival was six-foot-something Welsh drag artist, who spent her days walking grandly through the theatre foyer claiming to be “the world’s first female baritone”, and trying to lure people up to the Sky Arts den to ‘see her arias’.

Ps: Thanks to Jo-anne for her media advice!

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Comic Relief in Carlisle

In The Lanes shopping centre in the centre of Carlisle, there’s a camera pointing at a booth specially erected for people to tell jokes for Comic Relief. A little boy with spiky hair is being urged by his friends to tell a joke. It looks like he has several in mind. He smirks to the camera: “What did the elephant say when he stubbed his toe?” He pauses for effect, and shouts, “Shit!”

His friends shriek with laughter. The camera operator smiles as rolls his eyes. Another bit of footage that they won’t be able to play out. 

I’m here to be interviewed by the BBC Radio Cumbria legend, Gordon Swindlehurst, to promote my appearance at the Words by the Water Festival. Being a native of Lancashire and having lived in Mexico for a time, Gordon is the ideal person to talk to about The Mango Orchard.
I had expected a massive bank of record decks and mixing desks, but thinking about it, that’s probably because the last outside broadcast I attended was a Simon Bates Radio 1 Roadshow, in about 1985. Things have obviously moved on.

Gordon wears a pair of headphones and wanders around with a microphone with the casualness of someone chatting on a mobile. A woman from the local café delivers him a pasty and he gives a wink of thanks and continues to talk away.

As he takes a break for the news, a couple of women laden with bags of heavy shopping, approach him. “You must know some jokes,” he says.
“Oh no,” replies one. “Only my husband.”

Someone in the studio plays Day Tripper by the Beatles. I sit down next to Gordon and prepare for the interview. I notice that he has two sheets of paper on his clip board. On one I can see my name and a summary of The Mango Orchard. On the other sheet, the word “Duck” is written on the top.

“What’s that all about?” I ask him just before the red light comes on. “You’ll see,” he says, enigmatically and then, in the space of 15 seconds, manages to link together some news about lager prices with some concept about a virtual pub, while some vaguely duck-like sound effects play in the background.

Just as he deftly segues from this surreal monologue to introduce me and my book, a pneumatic drill starts up and a hailstorm begins to hammer down on the roof above us. Gordon, a true pro, carries on regardless and we have a great chat. Like all good broadcasters, he has the ability to make an interview seem like a chat in a pub.

Interview over, I am encouraged to tell a Mexican-themed joke in the Comic Relief booth. I can’t think of one, so I opt for: “What’s green and sits in the corner? A naughty frog.”

Another joke that I’ll be surprised if they want to play out …

PS: Thanks to Adam for the photos