My latest guest post for the Huffington Post on the subject of climate change
My latest guest post for The Huffington Post on the latest trends in self-published writing.
Just in time for all those setting off to Spain for the Easter Holidays !
I was asked last month by Samantha Verant to write a short story for Valentine’s Day. Samantha published her book, Seven Letters From Paris last year.
My story is a true one and you can find it here
“The rose is a rose and was always a rose”
My latest blog is a guest blog for ALLI- The Association of Independent Authors and describes my journey as an indie writer.
Thanks to Chris Tuff Photography for the stunning photo http://ctphoto.moonfruit.com/
The End of the Road
Today is a landmark day for me, a day towards which I have been working for over two years. My book As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee is officially published today and available on Amazon.co.uk as a kindle/paperback.
Laurie Lee would have been 100 today.
There has seen a plethora of articles and broadcasts in celebration of the writer, including an article by me on one of the Book Industry’s leading trade websites Book Brunch. I tell the story behind the research and writing of my book and the journey that I made following in Laurie Lee’s footsteps down across Spain in the summer and autumn of 2012.
Crowd Funding Site Still Live-10 days to go
My crowd-funding appeal at Pubslush.com is standing at 34% with just 10 days to go, if you would like a signed and dedicated copy or a selection of other extras, check out the site and support me in raising money for good causes.
The Wheel Has Come Full Circle
In a strange and magical way my journey has now turned full circle. In my book I mention a lost love of mine that still haunted me as I made my journey down through Spain. We shared a life in Spain in the 1980’s. This is us then….
Just a few weeks ago, through the book, we were re-united and everything just fell back into place as if it was meant to be !
It looks like I have my Indian Summer, my little summer of the quince after all.
A New Dawning
To cap a lovely day I received a small gift from a friend of my mother’s who had just received a signed copy of my book. Pam had heard on the radio that Laurie Lee, who loved plants and nature, always had his favourite rose climbing up and around the front door of his cottage in Slad. It was called “New Dawn” and Pam just happened to have one growing in the garden. She sent my mum back with a cutting for me and here it is…
A new dawn for me beckons…
I have been busy with my new book As I Walked Out Through Spain in Search of Laurie Lee trying to ensure that it is published before Laurie Lee’s Centenary Birthday on June 26 2014.
It will be a close run thing but I am receiving great support from Silverwood Books who are helping me publish, Elly Donovan is helping with advance PR, The Alliance of Independent Authors, ALLI, are providing great support for a first time Indie-author and Debby Young PR is advising on all matters to do with self publishing.
The book is with my editor for a final edit and I am busy sourcing quotes etc
A significant date in my writing calendar year has now become the London Book Fair in April. For the last few weeks I have been asked several times “Are you going to London Book Fair? As it happened I was and I did last week. It is held in Earls Court where in my first life as a Tourism Marketing professional, I would also go once a year to an amazing event called World Travel Market. Over the years I would work on a stand there and promote England, London, the Heart of England, Cheshire, North Wales in competition with the Bahamas, USA, Spain, China and the rest.
It felt a bit like that last week. When I had attended the London Book Fair for the first time in 2012 I had been seeking out mainstream publishers and literary agents to promote my book to them. I got close to securing a deal but the combination of a tight lead in time and not having a track record as a writer, proved too much.
This time I showed up as a writer on the verge of self publishing my book and consciously avoiding the large and not so large publishing houses, apart from a quick chocolate stop at the Choc Lit stand, and discovered a parallel vibrant fringe event happening in a hall at the back of the show. It was much more fun and stimulating and I attended some great talks put on by ALLI, visited the Author HQ area that hadn’t existed the first time I attended. I was also selected to read at a fringe evening event sponsored by Amazon at a heaving and lively Earls Court pub, The Kings Head. Compered by Joanna Penn, it was a great experience and a video will appear soon.
Reflecting afterwards on the Fair, one comment really stuck in my mind. It was Joanna Penn at a seminar that asked her audience of indie-writers whether we felt our books were unique. Many hands were raised including mine. She suggested gently that we might well be wrong to think this and hopefully were wrong. if our books were really unique, she went on to say, we would have no core reader market-a group of people with common interests seeking out books that inspire and reach out to them as individuals. It was a marketing-led comment and one that made sense to me.
It made me think though that as a writer of memoir and biography, I am driven by the desire to give personal stories, or biographical subject stories, a universal relevance. Until recently I thought my forthcoming book was about myself and my relationship with a writer and a country, it was only when I was asked to write a blog recently that I realised that I am writing about the need to have heroes in our lives and the dangers involved therein and the lifelong need to seek the approval of parents, particularly fathers, for our actions-even if they are long dead. This was what I wrote for the Wolfson College, Oxford Life Writing Centre Blog.
So the Fair is over, what’s next for me?
Coming very shortly is a new joint initiative with Silverwood Books. We are launching a crowd funding platform on Pubslush to help market the book by inviting people to pledge to buy a copy in advance in return for some added value benefits like signed copies, invites to the launch etc. Monies raised will also assist in a range of good causes: raising money for the conservation of Laurie Lee Wood (a percentage of book sales receipts will be donated to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, a not-for-profit body who manage the wood); Pubslush supports literacy projects; the logistics of a sponsored walk by me in September will also be supported. The walk is from Laurie Lee’s Slad Valley home to London, along the Thames Path with proceeds going to a mental health charity.Laurie Lee did such a walk(though not so direct) in 1934 before going to Spain
I have been invited to speak at a British Library conference on Spain in May, Spain Through British Eyes 1898 -1936
June will also see articles by me on the book in Cotswold Life, The Lady and The Good Property Guide Travel Supplement and July will see me at the Penzance Literary Festival talking alongside Kate Lord Brown on writers and artists and the Spanish Civil War.
It is going to be a hectic period with my goal to publish in time for the anniversary.
Wish me luck and any support along the way will be gratefully received.
It is the beginning of a magical sunny day as I drive across the Cotswold Way, high up overlooking the Gloucestershire countryside, lovely views once the early morning mist burns off under the gentle intensity of a warming-up autumnal day.
It is a real “Veranillo del Membrillo” day, as the Spanish in Andalusia say, “a little summer of the quince” – an Indian Summer day – and the English are out en masse to enjoy it.
It feels like a moment snatched away from the inexorable march towards the darker days of winter and I am looking to enjoy it to the full.
I am on my way to the inaugural “Walking with Words” event, inspired and led by Kevan Manwaring, a quiet, gentle Gloucestershire poet. The collection of guided walks and tours stretch from late summer, through the winter and into spring 2014. They celebrate Gloucestershire’s links with classic English writers who took their inspiration from the natural beauty of the county. The collection of writers range from WH Davies, Edward Thomas and Robert Frost, Ivor Gurney through to John Drinkwater. Today though It is all about Laurie Lee, who would have been 100 next year. He is a hero of mine and I am writing a book about his Spanish Civil Wars years, that shaped him as a writer and a man, and a walk that started, well it started from here in Slad, a tiny village in a sumptuous English green valley on the edge of the Cotswolds.
We assemble in front of Rose Bank cottage where Lee grew up, we gaze down the steep bank to the cottage and imagine the scene of little Laurie Lee, only three, being set down from the carrier’s cart. It is 1917 and the Great War is still raging on the once-green fields of France. Laurie recollects his arrival in the village in his first memoir “Cider with Rosie”: “The June grass, amongst which I stood was taller than I was and I wept.”
There are no tears from our slightly surreal group, but I think it is close. Chantelle, a trained archeologist – IT boffin in the public sector by day, a backing vocalist for a progressive band at night – is distracting herself by knitting socks as she watches on. She is not digging up dead bones today, just gently sifting the earth and the air for traces of the spirit of a dead poet. Sylvie, a retired classical violinist who toured the world and once played with the Grateful Dead and taught Joni Mitchell’s daughter, is imagining a stained-glass commemorative centenary piece of Lee flailing against the grass much like a young Don Quijote acting against the whirling blades of the windmills on La Mancha. Sylvia, as vivacious as the uplifting vowel at the end of her name implies, another singer and a poet to boot, whose muse was Joni Mitchell herself, would be in grave danger, I think, if an older Laurie were to appear, armed with his charm, silver tipped tongue and come-to-bed eyes. In the words of the great American singer, that could have been written for Lee, he was all about “Court and Spark.”
We are an eclectic group, many, like me, looking for something, a second chance in life perhaps, after bereavement, divorce, the ending of first careers. Some first lives move into a second phase seamlessly, others end abruptly. Perhaps we are all looking for some of Lee’s alchemy to inspire and transform our lives. Anything is possible, I think, on a day like today, with grasshoppers chirping and apples, both red and green, ripe for the picking.The opening words of Lee’s second memoir “As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning” also have Lee standing where we are now. It is 1934, he is 19 years old and he is leaving home. He has no plans other than to walk to London, he doesn’t know that after a year in the capital, his feet would feel restless again and he would walk out again, this time down from the Atlantic coast of the north west of Spain to the Mediterranean…
“The stooping figure of my mother, waist-deep in the grass and caught there like a piece of sheep’s wool, was the last I saw of my country home as I left it to discover the world.”
We walk for about five miles and circle the valley, like the red kites above us, stopping from time to time to admire views, relive scenes from “Cider with Rosie” and to read extracts from the book. Sylvie reads a piece about Peace Day and the annual blessing from the squire, a man always close to tears on these occasions apparently. Somehow Sylvie creates a more evocative scene than intended when she speaks of the party being welcomed by a “wet-eyed squirrel” on the steps of the manor house. I feel this is in keeping with the spirit of our pilgrimage and that Laurie would have loved the slip of the tongue.
The highlight of the day is visiting the newly christened Laurie Lee Wood, acquired recently by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and now protected from the threat of redevelopment. I had heard recently a BBC Radio 4 programme on the wood and had been touched by the many lovers of nature and Lee’s words who had raised £36,000 in just six weeks to ensure that this particular bit of the Slad valley, immortalised in Lee’s writing, was now secure for generations to come to enjoy. Lee’s daughter Jessy had led the fight to save the wood, continuing the work that her father had started when purchasing the wood when it was threatened by those that know the price of everything and the value of nothing.
We finish back at the church opposite Laurie’s favourite pub,The Woolpack, at his graveside, but not before Chantelle had taken centre stage and with knitting put away and with a glint in her eye had read a few lines from the climax of “Cider With Rosie”, “The first bite of the apple,” Laurie’s first tryst with Rosie who was even prettier than Betty Gleed:
“Never to be forgotten, that first long secret drink of golden fire, juice of those valleys and of that time…never to be forgotten, or ever tasted again.”
Chantelle, for me, had now been rechristened as Rosie and she leads us on to our lunch that we had all earned in the enchanting grounds of the Hawkwood Centre. Our lunch, like our morning, is organic, biodynamic and utterly delicious. No cider though, just apple sauce on the side.
I linger at the end of the lunch and then go back down to The Woolpack and look over the valley again to Laurie Lee’s Wood. I fell in love with Laurie Lee and his writing many years ago when I was drifting on the cusp of manhood, recently he had helped me negotiate a crisis in my life. I am writing a book for Lee’s centenary year that starts on 26 June 2014 and I realize now that on that day too, when Lee would have been a 100 years old, the wood will be one. I am not sure how yet but I want my book, its due date of birth falling at around the same time, to play its own part in conserving the enchanted wood. I resolve to speak to the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust soon.
“Too much custard powder and not enough gobstoppers.”
This was my quote of the week from Radio 4’s new series of programmes devoted to Eric Blair, aka as George Orwell. The Real George Orwell is celebrating the 110th anniversary of Orwell’s birth and the 75th anniversary of Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of fighting in the Spanish Civil War. Orwell when struggling to make a name as a writer had turned to shopkeeping to earn a crust. He and his wife ran a small general stores in Wallington in Hertfordshire and sold desserts and confectionery. The quote came from a radio drama about Homage to Catalonia being aired at the moment.
I am particularly interested in radio drama at present as I am writing a book about Laurie Lee’s Spanish Civil War years for publication next year to coincide with Lee’s Centenary anniversary year. He was born in Slad, Gloucestershire in June 1914. His famous memoir Cider with Rosie was set in this edge-of-Cotswolds village. My part -biography of Lee, is told by myself, as I retrace Lee’s walk across Spain on the brink of civil war in 1935. I had always assumed that narrated non-fiction drama would not work well as a radio drama piece.
However, as a just graduated MA Professional Writing student, I was invited back to Falmouth University recently to attend a talk being given by James Robinson, a senior BBC Radio Drama producer. James oversees the Radio 4 Afternoon Play series and is passionate about narrated drama and has made a career out of proving that it can work in a primetime slot with 1 million listeners. James played a clip of a drama aired last year called Cry for Me: The Battle of Goose Green. It was made to mark the 30th anniversary of the Battle of Goose Green, a key event in the Falklands War. This drama-documentary looks at the events of May 1982 from the Argentinian perspective. The drama tells the story of two fictional Argentine conscripts and it is gripping. The conscripts tell their story in the moment and a narrator pulls the strands together.
James demonstrated how narration can work in a very powerful way in the very intimate medium of radio. I began to wonder whether As I Walked Out in Search of Laurie Lee’s Spain, the title of my book, could work as narrated radio drama. I had a very general discussion with James after the talk and it was clear that the subject matter was potentially appealing, the existence of a significant anniversary being a big positive (he also told me that programmes on Dylan Thomas who also has a 2014 centenary were in the pipeline.) Significantly however, from my perspective, he also warned me that first-time radio drama writers very rarely pitched successfully for prime time Radio 4 drama slots.
That’s that I thought…. and then I began to think about a tie-up with an established radio drama writer who might adapt my book…. and then I listened to Orwell last week and his custard powder and gobstoppers and was captivated.
I remembered also a radio series aired a year ago on Radio 4. It featured a contemporary writer following in the footsteps of another writer who had made a journey in the early1930s through a troubled country, Scotland. Louise Welsh, crime writer and presenter of Welsh’s Scottish Journey retraces the journey taken by the Orcadian poet and writer Edwin Muir across Scotland. Like now Scotland was a country full of savage contradictions, a country uncertain about its future while struggling to live up to its past. Similarities certainly with the Spain of 1935 and now. Spain, a nation still hiding behind a” pact of amnesia” in respect of its civil war past, and facing austerity and mass unemployment on a scale not seen since the 1930s.
England, especially with the threat of the break up of the United Kingdom, is too suffering an identity crisis and the halcyon days of Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer morning could well provide a useful tonic in 2014 when, of course, the mainstream spotlight of the publishing and broadcast anniversary season will be focusing on the start of the Great War.
I will leave the last word with James Robinson who talked generally of great radio drama “going into somebody’s head and going with them,” and specifically about “finishing a scene with a question.”
So, what am I going to do about finding a great Radio 4 drama writer who shares my passion for Laurie Lee and Spain and who has got a window over the next 12 months?
Granada is for me where it all began. It’s where I first really fell for Spain and all its charms.
I lived there for a year in 1975.
On a Sunday evening I would walk up the slick black winding cobbled streets of the Albaizin, the Moorish quarter. I would not go up as far as Sacromonte, where gypsy families still lived in caves and underground dwellings.
I would take a right turn from the main street and climb steeply up a narrow whitewashed alley, past the house with the broken guitar affixed to its creased outside wall, and enter the Plaza de San Nicolas.. my plaza.
On those autumn evenings, I would sit on the low wall, feet dangling in the cool dusk air circling upwards from the valley far below. I would drink in the silhouette of the Moorish Alhambra palace, the green watered gardens of the Generalife still woozy from the drugged warmth of the early autumn Spanish sun, as darkness fell. The snow- coated outline of the Sierra Nevada sat above the palace in a blood- red sky. A nightingale’s song would occasionally break the stillness, I would trace its journey down from that sky, through a rainbow of colours, to the Plaza.
I am drawn to this place when in need of succour. A place where African princes conversed with the birds from their homeland, mourned to their melancholy songs, rejoiced to their love refrains and whose lovers in the harem were rocked to sleep by their lullabies.
I am here again now, 37 years on from when I first came. Then, like now, it was both a beginning and an end.
I have left Laurie Lee behind in Almunecar, 70 miles to the south. I finally reached there, the end of Lee’s journey, a few days back. I have been retracing his steps on a journey he took from the North West Atlantic coast of Spain to Almunecar near Malaga on the Mediterranean in 1935, when Spain was on the brink of a civil war.
To complete my own journey I had felt the need to come back to Granada.
I had risen early to see the sun rise over the Alhambra. After 37 years my internal compass was not set correctly and I had walked up too high and to the west of the square. Glimpses of the church steeple finally led me back down through the years.
It was a cold, damp November morning, like many in Granada- a magical but melancholy city. At 21 minutes past seven,the time of sunrise, the Sierra behind the palace was covered in a grey sheet, like my memories of its Autumn sheen.
Granada was the home of Federico Garcia Lorca, a soulmate of Lee, and someone who influenced greatly his poetic and lyrical style of writing, though they never met. It was also the home of Manuel de Falla who captured the soul of the City and its people with his music. (Click to hear Falla’s Nights in the Spanish Garden.)
Lorca was executed by Franco’s followers, early in the civil war in August 1936. The favourite place for such executions was across the valley in front of me. The firing squad would line up its victims against the wall of the cemetery, underneath the cypress trees that lined the walk up to the Alhambra Palace. Lorca though was not buried there, he was buried somewhere in the green valley outside the city, the valley in which he grew up, the valley down below me covered in early morning dew.His grave has never been identified and those still alive who know the answer are silent on the matter.
I had started the second half of my journey in Madrid in October. Before leaving the city I visited the Residencia De Los Estudiantes. Part of Madrid University, it was where Lorca, Bunuel and Dali all studied and lived together back in the 1920s.
Lorca wrote about duende- the soul of the Spanish people- and defined a concept as elusive as running water. What Falla captured in his “Nocturno del generalife,” Lorca nailed down in prose. I am fascinated by his words, I think Laurie Lee, such a charmer himself, was seduced, like me, by Spain’s duende and came closest to expressing it in English. My retracing of Lee’s journey had led me to pure Flamenco song. A sound that,in Lorca’s words, originated not in the throat “the duende climbs up inside you , from the soles of the feet.” Lorca talks of “all that has black sounds has duende.” I had seen, as Lee had seen, the “moon-frozen heads painted by Zurbaran” in Seville, I had wallowed in El Greco’s “butter yellow and lightening yellow” paintings in Toledo and listened to the “innumerable rites of Good Friday…the popular triumph of Spanish death” in Valladolid.
The wind ruffles the leaves on the square of the plaza, frustrating the efforts of my only companians, two street cleaners, and spreads them out over the indented images of the Granadino, the symbol of the city, the pomegranate, whose black shells and seeds carpet the cobbled floor.
Lorca had ended his homily to duende with the lines”Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed glass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.”
As I tore myself away from the plaza to a nearby bar for a well-deserved warming breakfast. I thought of Lee’s final thoughts as he left Almunecar, for what he certainly thought would be the last time in his life, as he set sail for England, “Spain drifted away from me, thunder-bright on the horizon, and I left it there beneath its copper clouds.”
It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon and I stagger across the roman bridge into Allariz in the south of Galicia in the North West of Spain. I have been walking since that morning. It is the hottest day of the year so far in this part of Spain. 40 degrees centigrade in the town of Orense where I started the walk. A real baptism of fire, it is my first full day of walking.
“las heridas quemaban los soles, a las cinco de la tarde.” “the wounds were burning the soles of my feet at 5 o’clock in the afternoon”
I think of the line above from Lorca’s poem “El llanto por Ignacio Sanchez Mejias.”
I rest for 2 days in a lovely shady restored farmhouse two miles outside the village. A Palleira, the name of my farmhouse, like much of Allariz, has been beautifully conserved. Much of it, no doubt, with public money. Money well spent because much of Galicia is now quite poor and suffering again from the emigration of its young, seeking work, much as they did centuries ago when they went off to find the New World and their fortune. Much is made of the reckless spending of the autonomous Spanish regions in the press and media but Galicia, much like many English northern areas,has no natural industry bases and no large conurbations. It needs support and investment in its tourism infrastructure.
Allariz is celebrating its annual festival “Festa da Bois”, a festival of bull running. 90 years ago,Hemingway went to Pamplona ,to the San Fermin festival and ran with the bulls and wrote about it in his book “The Sun Also Rises”. I read this book as a young man. I had recently heard an old BBC radio recording of Laurie Lee , talking of attending a similar small village bullfight festival in the Basque country. The tale he told was one of the English visitor, Lee, taking on the experienced and wily bulls, that the locals would not touch with a “bandillero”, and emerging as a much feted hero. Like much of Lee’s tales, it is possibly best taken with a large pinch of salt.
As the excitement builds , waiting for the first bull to be released into the small winding streets of the old town, I shelter in a tiny packed bar in the main square. I am there hiding,not just from the bulls,but from the incessant downpour that has followed the heat wave. Everyone is wearing their “fiesta” bright red “panuelos” (neckerchiefs) tied around their necks in what Lee would have called “cravat style”. The stylish young women were back home in their “pueblo” for the Corpus Chrsti holiday , escaping from their professional careers in Madrid. They mix with their brothers,sisters and nieces and nephews. The chatter is a mix of Castellano-purely spoken Spanish-and Gallego, the Galician language. Gallego has Celtic cousins like Welsh, Cornish, Breton.
Gallego Is the first Spanish language that Lee would have heard following his arrival in North West Spain. The large country of Spain is home to a rich melting pot of languages, Catalan, Basque, Andaluz and many people have died over the years to protect their right to speak them. Many were executed in the Civil War for their allegiance to their region rather than to the centre. Ironically , Franco himself was born in Galicia. When in Orense, the day of 40 degrees plus, I came upon a plaque and a trail commemorating a local activist,singer and writer, Alexandre Boveda He was executed by Franco troops on the 17 August 1936, for simply being a local patriot. The date is now designated as a “Dia da Galiza Martir.” A salutary reminder that you did not have to be a cultural icon like Lorca to be hunted down. In those desperate times it was sufficient to be a simple man with values who believed in something.
Six loud blasts are heard, the signal for the first bull to be released. We all rush outside. The bull appears, disappointingly but sensibly, not running totally loose but tethered to ropes, skillfully managed by a team of men in white outfits. The crowds scream and the bull is chased by a posse of young men, high on alcohol, adrenalin and machismo. I experience a fleeting sense of fear and awe and then almost immediately, complete empathy with the bull which is clearly scared out of its wits.
I return to my rural escape. My taxi-driver, a corpulent gruff fellow appropriately enough called “Macho”, spent the short journey singing the praises of the bull.
I guess I am no Hemingway and retire to my bed consoled by this thought.