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