Sunday, June 24, 2007

Writers' block

An item on this morning’s news said that the creative industries – arts, showbiz etc. - make a bigger contribution to the UK economy than the financial ones. I fear this will only perpetuate the myth that writers are rolling in it. A survey by the ALCS of 25,000 authors found that their average salary was 30% lower than the national average wage. Take your Dan Browns out of the mix and it’s a sorry scene.
A publisher I met at Hay told me that even if an author sells out a complete print run of 2000 hardbacks and 5,000 paperbacks he is unlikely to cover his advance. I’m not half-way towards mine yet – which means I worked three years at less than a pound a day. So you have to wonder who gets it - do publishers put their kids through college and pay off their mortgage on a quid a day? Fortunately, as the DG never fails to remind me, we don’t do it for the money.

Into each reign some life must fall. It’s the interregnum: the Gordon and Tony show. Tony, who, having taken the nation into two wars, committed it, on his last day in office, to serve the Euro-bureaucrats in Brussels – presumably with the intention of becoming one of them - and then went off to see the pope, seeking either absolution or sainthood. He should be in The Hague explaining himself to the International Criminal Court: 'well... y'know... I mean...' And, fresh from charm school, Gordon - our incoming PM, who, having devolved even more powers to Scotland, now wants to colonise England.

A market update item from Travelwriter Marketletter: 'Success magazine has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization'.
You just can't depend on anything any more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Take the A train

The mantelpiece won’t look the same this Christmas. The only head of state with whom I exchanged cards died last week. You remember the Waldheims – he was Sec-Gen of the UN, then president of Austria. Like Richard Nixon, he absentmindedly lost a piece of his life, but whereas Trickie Dickie lost only 18 minutes, Kurt lost 18 months. When his memoirs claimed that he was in Vienna studying for his law doctorate, he was in Croatia helping the Fascists to line them all up. He wasn’t tried for war crimes, but then the prosecuting authority was the UN. No wonder he wasn’t there to meet us in Vienna.

For a train freak, it’s the ultimate self-indulgence – or the penultimate if you dream of taking the Trans-Siberian Express. As Noel, our dinner companion, said, it’s something you have to do once in your life. Not wanting to leave it too late - and fast approaching the age when More Than, my travel insurance company, will drop me for a younger model after happily accepting my premium for 50 years, we decided that this was that moment. Our flimsy justification was that it was both our wedding anniversary and our joint birthday gift to each other (I actually owed her two).
Instead of the two-hour trip out, the ride home took 28 – lunch in Austria, dinner in Germany, breakfast in France and brunch in England. The train is a French-polisher’s nightmare, its vintage coaches dripping with royal blue and brass. Liveried flunkies in light blue and gold anticipate your every wish, for – as the receptionist at the Vienna Hauptbahnhof put it - ‘From here on we do not schlep’.
It’s priced accordingly: when I selected the cheapest item on the wine list – a Sancerre at £44 – the Maitre d’ suggested ‘a much superior wine that is only slightly more expensive’ – at £79. The Sancerre was delicious.
The train itself is gobsmacking. Our coach was built in 1922: on the corridor walls are polished brass light fittings – to hold the gas lamps – and beside the beds are brass hooks so that the gentlemen can hang their fob watch and chain within easy reach (a little fur-lined pad below it prevents scratching of the woodwork). The Orient Express can take you almost anywhere in Europe - Vienna, Milan, Rome, Bucharest, Venice – and never stops anywhere for more than a couple of hours, so the crew don’t get home much during its travel season. Steve, our steward, lives in the Dolomites and is a ski instructor during the winter.
The train doesn’t go to London. At Folkstone a Dixieland band plays you aboard the Pullman for the last lap, a lap of luxury. Our coach, says the plaque, is used regularly by the Queen and was a favourite of the previous one. General de Gaulle left no comment.
Suddenly it’s all over. It’s raining as we schlep our luggage out of Victoria station, pondering the thought of take-away Chinese for the next month.

It’s good having visitors – instead of chasing around to new places, you get to see your own country. It’s like never seeing French people up the Eiffel Tower. Our guest from New York this week wanted to see Stonehenge. (Des. Res., Grade I listed, construct. approx. 4,000BC, full air cond. lintels needing attention.) Missed the solstice by a couple of days, but it’s easier to see when it’s less crowded. She also introduced us to Windsor Castle. Next time she comes she’s going to show us London.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Trapp shooting

This is Salzburg – the original Salt Lake City – and the hills are alive with the Sound of Mozart. If it isn't Mozart it's Julie Andrews.
As we’re walking (yes, walking) by the Fuschlsee, (no, that’s as in ‘foosh’), a bus passes bearing, in two-storey-high letters, the words ‘The Sound of Music Tour’. We are in deepest SoM country.
To promote this piece of naffdom, the Tourist Board produce a brochure which includes a factual history of the von Trapp family, the words of all those unforgettable SoM songs (including such gems as ‘Me, a name I call myself’, ‘La, a note to follow So’, and ‘Edelweiss, Edelweiss, you look happy to meet me’), and contains pictures of the garden gates of some of the actual castles seen in the movie. But apparently the climax of the tour - the pièce de resistance - is when, at the end of the tour, every passenger receives, completely free, a packet of Edelweiss seeds.

We stay at Hof – resisting the temptation to precede it with another monosyllable – in the Salzkammergut mountains. We take the cable car up the Zwölfterhorn, where the air is as intoxicating as the beer and there’s an amazing 360-degree view of mountains and lakes: Fuschlsee, Wolfgangsee and at least three other -sees.
Austrians look and sound German, but they’re smiley and friendly - everyone talks to you. And funny: when I ring for an early call the man says they have a special offer: if you request a call before 5am, they’ll give you another at 5.30 for free. Everyone says Grüss Gott, unless you say it first, then they say Guten Tag, unless you say that first, in which case they say Grüss Gott.
I’m afraid there’ll probably be lots more Austria later, but I have to go now. Got to plant my Edelweiss seeds.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Hay again

Hay was, as usual, mind-blowing, although at one point we did have a fleeting disloyal thought: is it getting too big? The festival used to be held in the village school but it outgrew the school some years ago and is now held in a tented encampment - that gets bigger every year - in a field on the edge of the village. (Which is fine until Hay puts on one of its spring monsoons as it did this week, and you spend your time ankle-deep in red Welsh mud, and the churned-up car parks resemble the Somme. That we stayed with it either says something about the Power of Literature or a fear of getting stuck trying to leave.)
The slightly suburban location means the audience is captive – especially when wet - and they can thus charge twice as much for food and drink as they cost in down-village Hay. But it’s worth it all if only for the company of fellow book-worms: snippets of conversation in queues – like the boy (passing a line of people clutching books, waiting to have them signed by their favourite writers), saying ‘But Daddy, what's it a Festival of?’
Standing at the bar in the Swan, I heard a voice I recognized. Standing next to me, in snow-white Afro and beard, looking like an octogenarian Jimi Hendrix, was Wole Soyinka, whom I had just seen talking about The Power of Literature. There aren’t many Welsh mountain villages in which can you share a pub counter with a Nobel Prize winner.
Another difficulty is in choosing what to see out of 416 events: we’re getting pretty good at it and this year had only one dud. Crime writer Ruth Rendell made it clear with her monosyllabic answers that she hated the whole thing and was only there because it was in her contract.
But, Rendell apart, it was canvas-to-canvas joy – so good that it’s difficult to identify highlights. Was it Simon Schama doing his impersonation of Simon Schama doing The Power of Art? Or A. C. Grayling on The Form of Things? Or Brenda Maddox on Sigmund Freud and Ernest Jones; John Julius Norwich on Mediterranean History; Colin Hubron on the Silk Route; Roy Hattersley on Shakespeare; Terry Eagleton on The Meaning of Life; or my favourite biographer, Hermione Lee, on Edith Wharton (who once lived with Henry James in the house right opposite ours and whose parents are reputed to be The Joneses that people tried to keep up with? All, ALL, gob-smacking. Yes, I know they’re only 60-minute distillations of lifetimes of erudition, but what a waste it would be if they went unheard!
Oh yes, and an Aussie stand-up called Sarah Kendall, discussing linguistic problems between our two countries. (What we call 'flip-flops', Aussies call 'thongs' - so when she gets foot problems she tells the chiropodist it's probably from wearing thongs...)
We return heavy-laden with books – him 19, her 18 – and yes, we’ll be back next year, for the tenth time
So now I’m donning lederhosen and the DG her Julie Andrews habit and we’re off to the Austrian Tyrol to get our minds unblown. It has to be easier than Welsh.