My latest guest post for the Huffington Post on the subject of climate change
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”
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…
“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.
I came to Falmouth 6 months ago to learn the craft of becoming a writer, I had a Second Chance in Life to realise an ambition. It followed a low period of my life, redundancy, divorce, bereavement. It has not been an easy journey but, at times, a satisfying and rewarding one.
The last week of February has taken me on a surreal journey, a product of my decision to dive into the fast flowing waters of academic life beside the sea in Cornwall.
The week starts with the arrival in the post of a beautiful new book, “To the River, A Journey Beneath the Surface” by Olivia Laing, An account of a walk along the length of the Ouse: the Sussex river made famous by the author Virginia Woolf , who loved it and lived by it, but who drowned herself in its waters in 1941. The opening lines of the book are:” I am haunted by water. It may be that I’m too dry in myself, too English, or it may be simply that I’m susceptible to beauty, but I do not feel truly at ease on the earth unless there’s a river nearby.”
The week continues with me wandering fairly aimlessly down Falmouth’s high street that skirts the meandering edges of the bay. I pass the Falmouth Booksellers, resplendent with its new vivid, swirly aquamarine display promoting Diving Belles. This is a lyrical debut book by Lucy Wood, a recent graduate from the Exeter MA Creative Writing course, a sister to my MA Professional Writing course at University College Falmouth. The book brings to life the rich and magical Cornish cornucopia of myth and legend : a folkloric cocktail of sea, sirens and mermaids lolling on blanched sands and bathing in moonbeams.
I glance cross the road and strike gold.
A second- hand shop. A bare utilitarian window display. Twinkling like a jewel sits a rare and coveted book. A signed 1955 first edition by the poet and writer, Laurie Lee. He of Cider with Rosie and As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning. He, that sparked my lifelong love of Spain and language and words.
I had to have this small book of poetry “My Many- coated Man.” I did have it and bore it home, unopened, a treasure to savour.
On Friday, I join the University guest speaker of the week, Sylvie Saunders, from the design agency, Pearlfisher. Sylvie has, what must be the best job title in the world,” Head of Words.” She specialises in Design and Packaging and has clients like Innocent , Jamie Oliver and Maldon Salt. She has to tell stories using sometimes just 4 or 5 words, spare, sparse minimal prose to conjure up magic. She is good at it. I can relate to this as I await to see whether my 62 word story, Blood Cell, one of a hundred such stories in 26 Hidden Treasures, gets the green light for publication by Unbound. It looks very likely which is great news.
Sylvie wraps up the talk and hands out her business card. Can a business card be a thing of beauty?
I think perhaps it can, hers is a single block of greeny- blue texture with the solitary word, Sylvie, swimming across its centre, in white.It is beautiful and minimal and just floats past the eye.
I go home and open up My Many-coated Man at page 15 and read the following from the poem “Song by the Sea.”
Girl of green waters, liquid as lies,
Cool as the calloused snow
From my attic brain and prisoned eyes
Draw me and drown me now
O suck me down to your weeds and fates,
Green horizontal girl
And in your salt-bright body breed
My death’s dream-centred pearl
I look at Sylvie’s green rectangle of green in my hand.
I go back, that evening, to that same small stretch of street in Falmouth, seemingly alive with early Spring magic, and slip into the Poly and listen to The Roving Crows, a band voted the best Irish Celtic rock folk band in 2011. My eyes and my ears are drawn to, and bewitched by, Caitlin Barrett, a water sprite of a girl from the Emerald Isle who caresses and coaxes her fiddle to evoke her Celtic ancestry and to tell stories of grief and love and hope.