Wednesday 21 March 2012

Prostitutes, oranges and burning babies.

I must confess that I did not see the baby burn; I was probably in the bar at the time drinking fizzy beer and sheltering from acoustic overload.

The event that brought together prostitutes, oranges and burning babies is a Falla. This is a Spanish tradition peculiar to the province of Valencia. Terry, who runs the pizzeria in the next village to ours, had told us that he was going to the Fallas at Benicarlo and we decided to go too.

It was a nice journey through our area of Spain, the Mataraña of Aragon, through a pleasant slice of Cataluña and finally into Valencia. For a while we followed the River Ebro and it is here that we saw orange groves and beside the roads sacks of oranges patiently waiting. Later, as we neared Benicarlo, we saw seated ladies beside the road also patiently waiting.

The ladies and the oranges have something in common: they are patiently waiting for clients. The farmers place the oranges there to make a few extra euros by cutting out the middleman. The pimp who, in a sense, is the middleman places the ladies there, though he may, or may not handle the goods. The oranges are a pleasant sight, the ladies slightly disturbing. However, back to the burning babies.

Terry had told us that Fallas are an annual event where Valencian townsfolk build castles and then burn them to the ground, the whole thing accompanied by lashings of fireworks. But we found no castles in Benicarlo. There they celebrate the feast day of Saint Jose by burning people.

Over the year each area of the town constructs complex sets of cartoon-like figures. The figures are very well made and very colourful. They seemed to be made of expanded polystyrene, but how they achieved such a smooth finish I do not know.

My favourite was a Chinese themed display which centred on a beautiful woman (top half only, yet extending to at least the fourth floor of the (very) nearby flats). Her hands seemed to rise from the ground and encircled a pudgy baby that she looked down upon with great love. The baby was unmistakeably a boy, of course. Arranged around her was a series of larger than life figures including a poor coolie dragging a cart loaded with boxes. Each box had a label: Armani, Gucci, Prado, etc. Behind the central figure, a Chinaman was holding a cat in one hand and machete in the other: dinner.

I did not see the Chinese baby burn. In the confusion I missed that particular conflagration, but I did see others which included babies. I also inhaled the black smoke that rose and fell from the burning ensembles and was deafened both by the firecrackers that ignited the figures, and by the fireworks that were stuck into holes unceremoniously hacked into them just before the off.

It was an intriguing spectacle but the real children of Benicarlo also fascinated me. Most of them carried a small box attached to a strap across their shoulders. Every now and then they felt inside the box, extracted a firework, lit it from a wick or gas lighter and threw it into the street, or down a drain, or down some stairs to get an echoing affect. Most of the fireworks were bangers, though not all. The kids ranged from early teens down to four years or so! Spain can be a bureaucratic country, but the stultifying hand of Health and Safety has fortunately not yet reached its heart. 

Wednesday 14 March 2012

Almond Blossom

I am now in Spain. The overloaded trailer and the van made it, though there were a few problems: one of the ratchet belts holding down the motorbike broke and the cover disintegrated as the wind and rain in England, then the wind alone in Spain.

We spent the first night in a town called Jaca (pronounced Haca) and the second in Solsona. Both towns are in the foothills of the Pyrenees and both are very cold at night for the poor folks sleeping in unheated motor caravans.

Jaca was pleasant. Its older parts have quite narrow streets and smart building with good shops (I’m told). The first bar we visited was the Old Station. Big and busy it was noisy, had a bar lined with people drinking and chatting and the barmaid gave me free crisps with my fizzy beer. It felt good to be back in our adopted second country. In the morning, out running in the cold sunshine and shorts, I saw the groups of skiers on their way to the pistes swaddled in their puffy anoraks. They mostly looked miserable and askance.

Solsona is not so attractive but, like Jaca, is framed in the distance by the towering Pyrenees so all is forgiven. Besides, we were there to visit relatives especially our middle grandson who talks to us constantly in Spanish which is hard work, but he is a nice lad. That night we took him and the rest of our complex family (don’t ask) to a restaurant of his choice. It was good and we were in our cold bed by midnight. In the morning when we called to say goodbye he was still asleep. He had been out again with friends until three in the morning. Oh to be seventeen.

The last leg of our journey took us through the lakeland of arid Aragon - miles of piercingly green water formed mostly by dams. We stopped at one of the lakes for lunch and there I met a man fishing: he had a copy of the Richard Dawkins’ Blind Watchmaker beside him and came from Pershore. In England we are near neighbours. Interesting to talk to he was, like me, dithering over the next generation of motorcars: hydrogen, electric, etc.

And then we were at last in our own region: the Mataranya. We had seen blossom along the way, but nothing beats the almond blossom of the Mataranya. It seems to float above the dry fields in clouds of pink and white. Hundreds of trees meet the eye, offset a little by the milky green of the interspersed olive trees. The economy is shot, fifty percent of the young are unemployed, the Rumanians are still here, but it looks like being a bumper year for almonds.

It was good to be back. I drove straight to the huerto and uncoupled the trailer. We then stared wistfully at our own almond tree. We only have one and we thought that it was dying. But there it was in full blossom. Lovely.

Tuesday 6 March 2012

Last day in UK

It’s about 11 pm and after two well deserved Belgian beers, I am relaxing. I had planned a last pint or two of real English ale, but it was not to be: things closed in.

During the past week I have bought: a motorbike, a trailer to transport it in, a rotavator (biggish one), a cement mixer, a tow bar to pull the trailer, and chains, locks and cables to secure the stuff against thieves.

The trailer is quite low and the motorbike quite high so I couldn’t get the thing into the trailer with the cement mixer, rotavator and so on. I called a friend and he agreed to come around to help at midday. In the morning the fireplace man came to view the blackened, ugly, bricky hole that for some time has been awaiting the stone fireplace that he offered us at a special price. He outlined the problems: the ‘cheeks’ of the fire area project a little too far, also the cheeks are too high and the uprights shouldn’t really sit on a floorboard.

I want to fit the fireplace myself but I sometimes think that the fireplace man really wants to do it. He told me that I would need a ‘throat lintel’, yes a throat lintel, don’t you know what a throat lintel is? I certainly did not, but he told me that most builders’ merchants stock them, though they are often known by another name. Also, I would have to cut off the top of the cheeks with an angle grinder. And I should replace the cracked back plate and I might as well replace the whole fire back while I am at it. I finally announced that I would remove the fire back and then decide what to do next and he nodded – a wise decision, I think. And so the new fireplace becomes a thing of the distant future and our lounge a sooty, no-go area.

I asked the fireplace man if he liked motorcycles, he looked the type. He did and he had sons that did. I asked him if he would help me load my bike onto the trailer. He was more than willing and, while I ponced around deciding how we should do it, he pushed the thing onto the trailer on his own! I felt an idiot, but this man does spend his time lifting fireplaces and dealing with throat lintels, and even his sons ride motorcycles.

I cancelled my friend and continued with the preparations: securing the bike, chaining up the rotavator and mixer, loading in other essential stuff: a curtain rail, a sunbed, flowerpots. By this time the four tyres of the trailer looked quite flat so I had to take it to the garage to pump them up. On the way I noticed that the indicators on the trailer no longer worked. They had done, you get a pleasant beeping from the back which is supposed to reassure that the trailer is still there. However, there was no beeping so I had to spend the rest of the night sorting out the wiring. No beeping, no beer. Hence a late night with an Angel or two – it’s a type of Belgian beer.

Ferry to Spain tomorrow. More adventures, perhaps.

Saturday 18 February 2012

What makes you choose a book?

Buying a book is a bit like buying an orange. You don’t really know what’s in it until you get it home and peel off the cover. You can see the skin of course and, in this creaky analogy, that includes the blurb on the back of the book. And you can sample a book if you are standing in that threatened establishment – the bookshop - or even download a sample chapter if you are considering an eBook. Nonetheless, you have to burrow pretty deeply into a book before you’re sure of it. Like an orange with a rotten segment - a bad ending could spoil the experience.
I was a science fiction fan as a teenager and peaked at a book a day until I moved on (that’s peaked with an ‘a’ by the way). I can’t remember, but I guess I started with the big names: Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and then branched out. I soon had a favourite publisher – Gollanz. How I loved those bright yellow covers and, you know, they never, ever had a picture on them. I mostly borrowed books from the library though I did buy some. Finding new authors was easy: I simply went to the SF section and leafed through the selection.
Now my fiction reading is less specific: I like a good novel. My favourite writers from past and present include: Graham Greene, George Orwell, John Fowles and Douglas Kennedy. However, I know that there are good authors out there who are not necessarily being pushed by the big publishers. So how do I find them?
Buying a book is a two-pronged investment: first you have to buy it, and then you have to spend a lot of time reading it – even if it turns out to be a dud. I suppose most readers are conservative: only reading authors they have heard of, or books from the Booker shortlist, or stuff reviewed in the Times. Perhaps the most powerful route is through recommendations from a friend or colleague.
I bought a Kindle book by accident recently. Pressed the ‘Buy now with I-click’ rather than the title and ended up with Nuptials for Sale by someone called Virginia Jewel. Not my sort of thing, but it was all right – a bit raw perhaps. It only cost me £2.50 so no great loss. And you never know – a random click of the ‘buy it now’ button might lead to an undiscovered work of genius, or not.
‘Course I am biased in this. All authors want readers to choose their books and most are in a state of depression because no one does. Nonetheless, I am really interested: how do you choose the books that you read?

Thursday 9 February 2012

Tourism, Ants and Hellstrom's Hive

Do you like ants? My father did. He spent a period making little plaster containers with sliding glass tops. In these he encouraged ants to go about their business and watched them at it. My mother raised her eyes a lot during this time: indulgent but slightly embarrassed and slightly concerned, I think. Anyway, the fad declined and he went on to bees.
A few weeks ago I attended a lecture by Tim King. I have his card in front of me as I type. It’s a plain visiting card except for one thing: a very realistic picture of a brown ant alongside his address. He gave a fascinating lecture in which he points out that ants have been about for a long time – much longer than us. He also claims that they, as a community, are highly intelligent (though I wasn’t entirely convinced by this).
Whilst travelling in Turkey I became interested in ants. They have big ones and small ones there and they worked together in teams to clear up the crumbs that fell as I ate my lunch in lonely, forgotten places. This, and the strange underground cities that exist in that country, moved me to write a short story called The Tourist Touch. It’s about the corrupting effect of tourism on a village that lies above an underground city and is paralleled by observation of the cold reaction within a nearby ant colony. It is part of my collection of stories called Turkey Trove.
At the end of Tim King’s talk I went to the front and told him about my story since it seemed relevant to his lecture. We exchanged cards and later I emailed the story to him. He liked it and suggested a few, mostly welcomed, changes. He also recommended that I read Hellstrom’s Hive by Frank Herbert (you remember him, he wrote all those Dune books). So I downloaded it onto my Kindle for £4.99 (more expensive than the paperback!)
I enjoyed it. Frank Herbert is a well-respected sci-fi writer and it shows. The book was a bit slow to start - scene setting perhaps - then becomes rather exciting. The plot is simple. For years a group of people in America have been living like ants. Hellstrom is their current leader and they have created a wondrous secret hive that extends some mile or so below ground and contains thousands of specialised people: workers, breeders, thinkers, organisers and so on. Like the insect colonies that they admire they have evolved a community where loyalty to the hive transcends individualism. In the story snoopers from a US government agency discover them and the whole thing unwinds from there. I will say no more because you may want to read it sometime and I could spoil the experience.
The world that Frank Herbert created in the hive is interesting and thought provoking. I found my sympathies edging towards its inhabitants rather than the agents and this may be deliberate since the author portrays the agency as a community torn by ambition, suspicion and intrigue. Still it made me think and that’s one of the things I want from a good book.

Tuesday 31 January 2012

Startling eBook Success Story

I now have seven eBooks up on Amazon's Kindle store and one has “sold” 230 copies in five days! I’m rich!
Not really. The novel that has done so well is ‘Lost Youth’. I wrote it a while ago as an exercise in grief dispersion following the death of our oldest daughter. However, as is generally my experience, the story and the characters took on a life of their own and any connection with Sheena’s life is solely in the title.
In ‘Lost Youth’ a young man called Mike enters university after a sheltered life with loving parents. The experience is debilitating and throws him into deep depression: he is friendless and neglected. The only relief in his dark life are dreams of a long dead sister and a strange friendship with a drug dealer who haunts the grounds of the university. It is this man who transforms Mike’s life by converting him into an anti-capitalist activist.
Mike leaves university and lives briefly with a revolutionary group in Germany. These are the most splendid days of Mike’s young life. Meanwhile his parents have discovered that he has abandoned his studies and so the father sets off on a search for their lost son, a search that has surprising, and then shocking, consequences for Mike’s family.
I could not get the book published and put it to one side. Now it is published: on Amazon in the kindle bookstore. Well, anyone can do that, but just how do I get anyone to read it? The answer is to give it away! That’s why I wrote “sold“ 230 copies above, I placed it on special offer for five days (i.e. free).
Of course there is a flaw here: two in fact. First, I don’t get any money for the work I put into writing and editing the book, and second my readers may not value the book since they got it for nothing. Ah but, now I am a writer in waiting. My hope is that some of my readers will like the book, will tell Kindle-owning friends about it, and will write astounding reviews about it. Then others will buy it for a mere £1.98 ($2.99) and like it and so move on to my other novel, “Shaken by China” which is up there waiting in the Kindle store. I should be so lucky.
That’s the plan and, as Mark Twain reminds me regularly, ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. So here’s hoping.
If you would like to read ‘Lost Youth’ I can still slip you one for free to view on your PC, reader or whatever. I can explain how to do it if you don’t already know – it’s not difficult. All I would like in return are a few comments, suggested corrections and/or reviews. Just click to email me.

Thursday 26 January 2012

Writing about China

Wise travellers say that someone who spends a week or so in China quickly gains a good overview of the entire place and its people; those who spend a month there begin to have their doubts; and those who spend a year or more in this vast country realise that the place is quite beyond comprehension.
I spent just eight months there in two tranches and still have moments of complete understanding – very, very brief moments. Part of the puzzle is that the country is both old and new: an ancient society with a history that predates that of the West, yet a youthful society which traces its roots to the social revolution of Mao Zedong and the financial redirection of Deng Xiaoping - the latter blossoming into the establishment of the first McDonald’s in Beijing in 1991.
I feel a little involved in China’s history, just a little. Happenstance found me taking a post as a teacher in the remote city of Yan’an where Mao’s Long March ended and the revolution began. No one outside of China is likely to have heard of Yan’an, but, to the majority of Chinese, it is the equivalent of Mecca to the Muslims.
That visit left me with a big heap of notes, blogs and emails written whilst teaching and travelling. It also gave me the urge to write more and, after many false starts, it resulted in the novel Shaken by China which I have recently launched on Amazon’s Kindle and Smashwords as an eBook.
Though Shaken by China is a work of fiction it does rest heavily on my time spent in Yan’an. It is not by any means an attempt to encapsulate China – not at all. But it does, I hope, convey a tangential view of the Republic through the experiences of a young teacher. It allowed me to explore the culture a little: a culture that surprised me in its loyalty to family on the one hand; its degree of corruption on the other; and a culture which to the innocent traveller seems quite open yet is capable of cover-ups on a massive scale.
I am inclined to bring all of my notes together into a book entitled something like “101 reasons not to teach in China”, but I could also entitle it 101 reasons to do so. My recollections of those two periods are sharp and deep. The high point of the second visit was a brief return to Yan’an to marvel at the changes which had taken place in just four years. The low was the abysmal conditions in which the majority of people still live.
Highs and lows aside it all amounted to a great experience which I owe to Margaret, the real teacher of the pair of us.

Monday 16 January 2012

Identity and economics: Africa viewed from Oxford

I’ve just returned from a lecture at Green College, Oxford. I’m a lucky chap: I can walk to Green College from my flat in less that ten minutes – and I pass two other colleges along the way!

I arrived a little early, yet already a queue tailed away from the underground lecture theatre and it quickly became apparent that the place was full. A couple of academics pushed their way through, mumbling something about taking dinner with the speaker afterwards. Then a number of the queuing students decided to give up and retire to the bar, and that’s why I found myself at the doorway. There an attractive young woman held back the throng whilst admitting the worthy. She took one look at me then, surprisingly, said:

“There is a place for you at the front sir.”

Hallelujah – there is some benefit in being old(er) beside the bus pass. I mumbled a thank you and made my elated and guilt ridden way to the front row, then sat in one of the reserved seats. I covered my stained jeans with my frayed coat, and then adopted what I hope was a worthy pose as I eyed the crush of students standing along each side of the room.

The speaker was my age, had a beard a little like mine, and there comparisons end. He wore a smart sports jacket, thick necktie and well-ironed trousers. His name was Paul Collier and he was introduced as a legend – as they usually are. His subject was ‘What will happen to African states?’It was great: calm, informative and informed, clear, unostentatious, unscripted and without slides.

I could not begin précis the whole talk, but the central theme was identity. Though the idea is probably not new to any of us its treatment as a basis for economic study was so to me. Paul mentioned a book entitled ‘Identity Economics’ by George A. Akerlof which asks the question, “How do you get a good plumber.” Not in the sense of finding one in yellow pages, but in the sense of how does a person get to be a good plumber (let’s say the plumber is a man since most are – at present). And the answer, apparently, is that the plumber identifies himself as a good plumber. He has pride in his work and his results and is self monitoring. He does not need carrots and sticks and constant checking by bean counters.

What’s all that got to do with Africa? Well, there are 54 states in that continent and, according to Professor Collier, they are mostly dysfunctional. The people of Africa do not trust them and there are plenty of reasons not to do so. We in Europe trust our states don’t we? And we identify with them, though we may have many identities (EU, Britain, Scotland...) Africans identify with localised groups within their states and distrust all others. They do not work together for the common good and their state does not work for their common good. Yet, the speaker argued, you need trusted states to do big things. One solution is to make Africa itself the trusted state. But the 54 states will not have it; they do not trust each other! Alternatively power might be handed down through devolution – a dangerous trend that is happening here (dangerous because it may never end – except in war (my comment)). However, in Belgium it seems to have reached  a peaceful end since the place seems to function perfectly well without a government: Flanders and Wallonia, the two sub-regions, keep things going.

In common with many academics Paul Collier asks questions rather than providing answers, but the questions certainly stimulated my limited brain. There was a lot more; it was a good session; and free.

In the future I shall certainly know what to look for in a plumber should I ever cease to identify myself as the plumber. I’m not sure where do-it-yourself fits in to this idea of identity.

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Kindles for Christmas

I couldn’t wait. I bought mine last week.

It’s not a very exciting gift anyway. Like so many electronic things it takes a bit of getting going, a bit of getting into. And by the time you’ve done that the thrill has gone.

Then what? Well you can read books of course. You download them from Amazon’s Kindle store or elsewhere and can keep lots of ‘em - all stored in a thing as thin as a calculator and about the area of a ‘real’ book.

But what’s this ‘real’ in quotes for? I have already downloaded a book by Mark Twain on the Mississippi basin and another by Frank Close all about Antimatter (which interests me). They are both real books; that is I could, in principle, enter a book shop and buy them. Of course the book shop would not necessarily have them. But they could order them for me, electronically. And some time later I could pick them up , physically.
The decision to buy a Kindle was easy. Its cost was covered by a cheque from Amazon for $100. The cheque’s arrival was a complete surprise, then I recalled that I had put my book on Hedy Lamarr and the mobile phone into the Kindle store (not then an easy task) on my return from China. It’s already an eBook in my own “shop” (, but that is not getting quite the number of hits that Amazon gets!

Why was the cheque for exactly $100 I wondered? I learned that Amazon only send payment when sales have reached that round sum. Anyway, in a way, Amazon paid for my Kindle!

That’s the good news. The bad news is that a rather well-known writer has re-written my Hedy Lamarr book - and is attracting rave reviews in the States where he is hailed as the man who discovered Hedy’s inventive talent. Well , that’s life, somewhat inevitable perhaps ... there were two biographies released on Hedy last year and no one owns a good story – it’s maybe how you tell them. Or, as Churchill had it: first it’s who saying it, second it’s how they are saying what they are saying and third it’s what’s said.

The Kindle wave has now swept over me. Since April 1 of this year Amazon has been selling 105 Kindle eBooks to every 100 paper books! And though it is the giant there are plenty of other suppliers pumping out eBooks. Gone are the days when eBook stores were replete with badly written sci-fi and eroticism from unknown authors. It’s quite normal for new books from well known publishers to be released in paper and electronic form nowadays. And there’s lots of free stuff around too, including many fine classics.
So I’m spending a lot of time preparing my stuff for sale through Kindle and Smashwords.

My great hope is the novel I wrote that is based on my Asian experiences: Shaken by China. It’s up there in the eBooksphere right now. However, the challenge is bringing it to anyone’s notice. I suppose that’s always the challenge. I’ve kept the price low ($2.99 or £1.91). Nevertheless, just how can readers stumble across it? They find my Hedy Lamarr book because they do searches for her name, but a novel is very different thing.
As an experiment I put my collection of short stories from Turkey (Turkey Trove) into the Kindle store recently. That’s a bit more of a target for searches so we will see. Becoming a publisher is quite exciting, but also exacting and potentially depressing.

Tuesday 8 November 2011

The Moment

Travelling to Oxford on our long journey from La Fresneda in Spain I was once again reminded of the beauty of France: the wide rivers, the quiet villages, the elegant houses. Yet, for all of that, we left the glorious cathedral of Chartres and raced frantically towards Belgium, arriving in Ostend at about seven on a darkening evening. The reason for this mad dash into yet another country is quite simple: beer.

Britain produces by far the best, and the greatest variety, of draft beers in the world. Meanwhile, Belgium produces the best, and widest variety, of bottle beers in the world (in my humble opinion) France produces some good bottled beers but it is, naturally, more wine than beer oriented. In the lovely village of Antonin en Noble Valle we paid 4 euros for a small glass of Leffe beer. Appalled at the cost we bought four bottles for less than 4 euros in a small supermarket next day and that was the moment: yes the moment that we decided to plough on into Belgium and fill the van with Belgian beers. On the last night of our trip I had my magic moment as I savoured a bottle of Maresdous Triple (10%) and followed it by many different beers. Next morning I sought out a supermarket near the port and blew 70 euros or so on a variety of bottled bliss which should provide me with many moments of relish on those cold winter’s nights that we were about to cross the channel to endure.

I have just finished ‘The Moment’ by Douglas Kennedy. I am a fan of his page turners and, though it took me a little while to get into The Moment, I soon become gripped by the book - as always. He does spin a good tale. The Moment is about love suddenly gained then equally suddenly lost. It is about betrayal and deception, and, of course, failing to grasp … the moment.

Kennedy cleverly locates the love affair in a divided city: pre-liberalised Berlin. He portrays the German Democratic Republic (the red side) as an Orwellian state where the Stasi do a very efficient job as the thought police; where almost everyone is controlled by them; and where the majority of people are informers for them. Room 101 for the female half of the intense love affair at the centre of the book is permanent separation from her cherished baby son. Betrayal, for the (American) male half, is her deception as an agent of the Stasi.
In a complex and rich tale Kennedy focuses on the moment where both lovers lose their moment and spend the rest of their lives regretting the loss, condemned to a life of compromise and regret, their experiences always blighted by the shadows of that great affair. 

Intriguingly, my reading of the book was shadowed by a very real deception. Whilst I worked doggedly on my stone hut Margaret was at home secretly reading the book; she just couldn’t wait until I had finished it so that she could begin. One night over dinner when I was just a few pages from the end she confessed that she had already read the whole thing, always carefully preserving my book marked page and never revealing the plot or denouement.