Friday, 20 February 2009

Funerals, Fermat and fields.

It’s a little difficult to know where to start with this, somewhat delayed, posting. Much has occurred since my last.

A funeral in Hay-on-Wye for a prematurely-taken friend whose laughter, compassion and dedication to often hugely complicated practical-jokery will be as much missed as his full-beam smile, warmly macho hugs and constant flow of tea. The church was packed with his family and friends, abundant proof of how he touched so many lives; the service and eulogies resulting in the most heart-warming celebration of a life well-lived that I have had the honour of attending.

A weekend prior to the above spent with friends whose hospitality extended way beyond any norm and included the best walk I’ve had this year. We sighted a remarkably unafraid barn owl from about 20 yards, picked a dead and curiously head-less sparrow hawk from the middle of a field of spring barley, drove errant ewes - with their new lambs - from the riverside back to their field and generally revelled in the crisp, clear air, the fun of the two springer spaniels who accompanied us and the wonderful views of the Black Mountains, frosted with what remained of the recent snow.

In the meantime I have of course been wondering where I went wrong with the Artistic Director interview and - if I’m honest - still feeling a little sore to have not been selected. Though I do feel foolish for even saying so.

But a long train journey is a wondrous balm to a troubled mind and mine was spent reading Simon Winchester’s excellent “The Surgeon of Crowthorne”, a magnificent tale and as beautifully told as one would expect from Mr Winchester with its delicious twist in the end. Perfect for the outward journey. My return mental and rail journey was Simon Singh’s superb classic “Fermat’s Last Theorem” which is a close to a work of romance as any popular account of a scientific conundrum is ever likely to get. A complete triumph on Simon’s part, it makes the elegance of high-level, complicated theoretical maths and number theory seem approachable enough for even me to realise quite how complicated and high level they are. Both of these were given to me by a kind – and rather brave – pal. It’s a long time since someone gave me any books and given my past ten years it’s hardly surprising. In this case said pal judged it perfectly as I’d not read either and loved both equally.

Back in the metropolis a telephone message shook off some of the sadness. Another interview, this time for a yet more fascinating job. No names, no pack drill, but this one is of a very different cast from the last. It will, I imagine, be very competitively fought for and rightly so. I shall therefore keep my powder dry for now, but think good thoughts for me at noon on Monday. I will need them.

For those of you that listened to “A Good Read” last week, bless you. I hope that my recommended book, Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “Letter to a Hostage” brings you as much pleasure and food for thought as it has me.

Forgive the vagueness in this post, I can’t help but feel that there’s more to say but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is, let alone find the words.



Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Keep Calm And Carry On.

In a strange form of synchronous serendipity I was walking around Holland Park today and noticed a lady carrying a bag bearing the above legend in blue on a white background. It made me smile, of course, but it also warmed me to see the at once old-fashioned and yet curiously modern typeface proclaiming a most British of directives for a difficult time in the past in these troubled times. While fires rage across southeast Australia and economic gloom chills us here, I can think of no better exhortation to steel us.

On returning to the house I logged onto the BBC News website and there was the same phrase, proudly displayed in red and white this time, on a poster, and an article on the craze that I learn there now is for this simple, Zen-like message. I would love to know what the typeface is. I would also like to know who the author of this glorious message was, but even a website dedicated to selling goods bearing it offers no insights.

My heart aches for the poor residents of Victoria, Australia. The horror stories of failed attempts to escape the inferno that have monopolised the news over the past couple of days have made me weep for those who have lost their lives. The early indication that some of the fires have been started by arsonists – firebugs as they are known there – has driven me to a frustrated rage of pure, red, anger at the appallingly malicious inhumanity.

Closer to home, my job application and recent interview resulted in a telephone call yesterday evening informing me that the post has been offered to another of the shortlisted candidates. Such is life. Not an easy call to receive. Not an easy call to have to make, I’m sure. I’m disappointed obviously - a good word methinks for not being appointed - but am philosophical about it.

Blue would best describe the language in the house after the call. I seem to have contracted a temporary form of Tourette’s Syndrome as I keep catching myself muttering “bugger, bugger, bugger” as I wander aimlessly from room to room. Perhaps not so philosophical after all then. More blue of mind and mouth.

There is nothing to be done about it but to follow the advice of the unknown author. I shall indeed “Keep Calm and Carry On”. Soon the red anger for Australia will fade, the blue mood of disappointment will pale and I’ll be back in the pink. Forgive the purple prose.



Sunday, 8 February 2009

Parks and Patience.

There is an art to waiting for something that one wants. An art to handling the tract of time that lies between an idea and the actuality. As a child I remember being so excited about impending Christmases that the expenditure of nervous energy would render me exhausted when the day finally came. In this case of course the day may not come, my application and interview may not result in appointment. But yes, there is an art to waiting. I do not possess it.

To quell my mind I’ve taken to punctuating the work I have by walking around the parks local to the house I’m looking after, Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and Holland Park. Of the three it is Holland Park that I’m drawn to.

Despite its pocket-handkerchief size it manages to constantly surprise with it’s various domains, its differing habitats for the local flora and fauna. Its showpiece area is The Kyoto Garden, a perfectly formed and beautifully managed Japanese garden, its carp-filled small lake with its waterfall making a fine sanctuary for reflection and contemplation, at least when there are no children running around it, or tourists disregarding the “Do Not Walk On The Grass” signs. How Richard, the gardener responsible for tending it, copes with the daily destruction of his diligent work, heaven only knows. There are the playing fields, which slope down towards the striking architecture of the Commonwealth Institute, which happens to be the same age as me, but is, these days, looking less than it’s best. There is the rose garden, the woodland walks, the statuary old and new that both enhances the parks’ natural beauty and provokes the eye and the mind.

There are other, no less wonderful, areas where secluded benches allow for quiet reading under an avenue of beech and horse chestnut trees, where a statue of Lord Holland stands in a pond that last year quivered with a mass of frogspawn and then turned black with the sheer number of tadpoles. It boasts an icehouse in which occasional exhibitions are held, an orangery that in the summer hosts wedding receptions which look like a garden of hats. There are formal gardens planted for summer colour and glorious scent, lawns that Londoners bring picnic and papers to for summer Sunday sunbathing. It is one of West London’s jewels and if the number of benches bearing dedications to those who have wandered its walkways in the past is any sign, it has given pleasure to so many.

I know that it is no competition for the real countryside, the countryside without the background radiation of traffic noise and exhaust fumes. It lacks the majesty and huge sky of Hay Bluff near Hay on Wye, one of my favourite places in the world, the wild-ness of the Western Isles, the vastness of Africa's plains or the clear air of Europe's mountains, but for us poor metropolitans, it does offer a small reminder of our place in nature. It is a place to find peace, a place to ease an over-agitated mind. 

It may not actually teach me the art of waiting, but it does help me step towards a greater understanding of the art of patience. Even still, I can't help but feel that rather than moving towards a destination, I am currently parked. There are worse places than Holland Park in which to be so.



Thursday, 5 February 2009

Icy Roads, Warm Hearts.

As the snow in London slowly turns to slush and ice and the schools re-open their doors to pupils, I’m looking out at the garden and a host of robins feeding at the birdtable. Not in Mortlake this time, but in Holland Park where I’m house sitting for some friends who are away in search of sun in Spain, but who seem only to have found tornadoes and rain.

Over the past 12 years I’ve spent a good deal of my life in this beautiful, quiet backwater of the metropolis. The mosaic kitchen table from which I write this is the same table on which my first published work was written. The gorgeous dining table in the next room has hosted dinners for authors, for my radio station colleagues and for friends aplenty. The house is replete with the ghosts of fine evenings, good friends and girls I’ve loved and lost. It is something of a spiritual home for me; a sanctuary of calm domesticity and I consider myself truly fortunate that the owners are friends enough to trust me with the responsibility of looking after it.

It was from here that I set off on Tuesday, westward, for the interview about which I’ve written. The roads were still icy but the journey was wonderful. Bright sunshine reflected from the white fields and hills the length of the M4. Red kites soared in the clear, blue sky overhead in search of food. It was one of those journeys when the radio isn’t required, the glorious views and one’s thoughts alone more than enough to sustain one’s mind. Despite the journey’s reason, I was calm, not nervous as I’d expected to be. This was to be my first formal interview for a job in over twenty years and although the previous night’s sleep had been interrupted by furious note-taking and marshalling of ideas, I felt that I was up to the challenge, that I could give a good account of myself and that I could clearly explain the plans and ideas I had for the offered post.

It would be foolish to give details but I will say that it was a pleasure. The festival team are a delight and the Board were courteous to a fault, probing in their questions and discharged their responsibilities with impeccable professionalism. It was an honour to make the shortlist and whatever happens next I have no doubt that the Festival will benefit greatly from their vision and commitment.

The journey back was somewhat less pleasant. Half an hour into it the snow began to fall, and fall, and fall. And then it fell quicker and thicker until the carriageway was reduced to just one lane and all I could see were the taillights of the lorry ahead. I’ve driven in some strange and tricky circumstances all over the world but this was horrible. If I could have stopped safely I would have done. The small knot of cars and lorries that we were crawled at no more than twenty miles an hour and cautiously left huge stopping distances between each of us. The slightest movement of the steering wheel would send my car into a slow and graceful 360 degree spin before pointing the right way again and continuing. Scary barely covers it. Oddly, once near death had been avoided, it became the sort of challenge that becomes a fun experience, a pure adrenalin rush that ended with the elation of arrival home, exhausted but happy. And three hours later than expected. But the question “where were the gritting lorries?” on this important and busy route still troubles me. Should any of my unknown compatriots of the road ever read and recognise this scene, I say ‘thank you to you’ for your caution and safety.

Now I just have to wait. There’s more than enough to be getting on with, of course, but I am finding myself staring out of the window more frequently than usual. Thank goodness for the robins.




Monday, 2 February 2009

Fun and Festivals

A week that got off to a glorious start, ended on a rising crescendo of excitement. An evening spent in Dulwich with some friends I’d not seen for many months, to whit a deputy literary editor, a writer for Private Eye currently reading Law and a film maker recently returned from Washington DC where he was starting a documentary on the 1st 100 days of the Obama presidency, became a giggle-fest in which subjects as diverse as the Popham Little Chef - now flying under the Heston Blumenthal banner and thus boasting Michelin stars on the inside and Michelin tyres on the outside – to the credit crunch culling that stalks the newspaper industry were the hot topics. The latter subject proved to be devoid of any humorous potential despite our best efforts. Bless them for dragging me out of Mortlake, or Deathpuddle as I rather meanly call it when the mood takes me, and for treating me to fine food, wine and company.

The next stop on the LibraDoodle agenda was a meeting in the glamorous surroundings of One Alfred Place to discuss the first-ever literary festival in Dubai. The Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature takes place from Thursday the 26th February to Saturday the 28th and promises to be really rather good. It seems that, as the full title of the festival is too long to be comfortably repeated in conversation, the preferred diminutive is a pronunciation of its acronym, EAIFL, or ‘Eiffel’, not the ‘Dubai Festival’ which I blotted my copybook a number of times by mentioning. You may wish to take note.

The organisers have done a sterling job and have attracted a stellar list of authors to appeal to all tastes. I’m looking forward to sharing a stage with Frank McCourt, Paul Torday, Andrei Kurkov, Kate Mosse and Louis de Bernieres, mercifully not all at the same time although the thought is entertaining me. Margaret Atwood, Anne Fine, Anita Nair, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, Ran Fiennes and Karin Slaughter will also be there as will others too numerous to mention. The programme is a good blend of western and Arabic authors and it will be fascinating to see how audiences respond. Should you find yourself in the area, I urge you to come along. The sponsor, being an airline, is issuing boarding cards now, so buckle up, stow your tables and settle back for some fascinating flights of fact and fiction.

My appointment with destiny, in the guise of the artistic director interview, draws ever closer and not even the snow will keep me from it. If I have to take to dognapping and sled my way there on a tea-tray, so I will.

Finally, The Lady magazine is currently undergoing something of an update and will soon be hitting your newsstand in its very lovely new form. It is a venerable institution, being England’s oldest magazine for women and in continuous publication since 1865, and I mention it as they have kindly published a couple of pieces of mine, one on the Hay-on-Wye festival and an interview with Germaine Greer. You may wish to take a look.

And there you have it, absentminded scribblings pertaining to books. I do try to do what it says on the title. Sometimes.