Tuesday, November 27, 2007

It’s launched!

Exclamation marks and sighs all around. The signings up and down the Riviera – from Cannes to Monaco - were fun, with the occasional funny moment. Like the American lady who came across me signing books in a Valbonne store and said, “What’s it about?” Drawing myself up to the full 1.70, I said it was about the lives of writers.
“I’ll take one”, she said, “I love trivia.”
Five years of research encapsulated in three words.

Curried pronoun We’re expecting guests for lunch and she’s in the shower. The oven timer goes off. So I shout “The timer’s gone off”.
“Just turn it off”, shouts shimmering shape from shower.
So I turn off the timer.
Some time later, there’s a scream from the kitchen. “Eeeek! You didn’t turn it off. The lunch is ruined!”
“Yes I did,” I say.
Things were tense. My attempts to point out that according to such distinguished authorities as Strunk and White, Lynn Truss and Fowler, a pronoun always replaces its most adjacent noun, did nothing to calm the situation. We got ready in chilly silence.

Among the many great curries that she has made, I would have to say that this was by far the most memorable. Jamie Oliver would slaver in envy. Michael Winner would have called it ‘historic’.
I swear it was those few extra minutes cooking time...

White lies, damn lies… Statistics - you either love them or hate them. I’m addicted. I don’t mean statistics the way politicians use them: Tony Blair’s famous ’45 minutes’, for example. Or the way they use them to get out of embarrassing corners, adding in a decimal point or two to give them an air of authenticity.
No, statistics can be used for useful things, like proving that the signs of the zodiac are a load of cobblers – or that John Terry passes back to the goalie 3.6 times more frequently when playing for England than he does when playing for Chelsea - or that Alan Shearer shouldn’t be a candidate for England manager just because he scored a lot of goals, since 62.4% of them were from the penalty spot.
Or the fact that the percentage of left-handed people being born in the world increases every year and if it continues we’ll eventually all be left-handed. Or that the percentage of boys to girls being born to Inuit mothers is decreasing every year, so that there’ll soon be no male Inuits.
Yesterday, The Times, as if to prove my point, ran a story about a Mr Beane who has taken some hickie baseball team, Oakland A, to victory against major league teams – with statistics. They’re the new steroids – and they’re legal.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Into each life...

A message to all of you Schadenfreudsters out there: it’s been wet and windy on the French Riviera for three days now and shows no sign of abating. You can barely see across the bay. Not torrential tropical stuff, no thunder and writing, but English type rain: dull, dark and interminable. DG and I, claustrophobic after three days of watching the stuff go past the windows, decided to venture out this afternoon. Kitted out like Captain Scott in the gear we bought for the transit of Cape Horn, we got as far as the gate. We’ll try again tomorrow.

I know graffiti is an Italian word, but until Naples I didn’t realise how widespread a practice it was here. Very few vertical surfaces remain un-tagged. This is the railway station at Herculaneum, the town that was buried under 21 metres of ash by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79, and not found until nearly 20 centuries later. The Romans left their graffiti, too. After all, it’s only leaving your mark to show you came through.
Like blogging in fact.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

See Naples...

There are many fine churches in Naples. In fact the old part of the city is just a whole lot of churches with a few houses stuck in between. The churches have beautiful chapels containing poignant works of religious art. But the saddest altar of them all is dedicated, not to the Madonna, but to a Maradonna.
Diego Maradonna is an Argentinian footballer who played for Napoli in the 80’s – and helped them to win Serie A, Italy’s top championship, in 1987.
(In the World Cup of 1986 in Mexico, he scored two of the goals that eliminated England, the first by punching the ball past Peter Shilton, the England goalie, and the second – often called ‘the goal of the Century’ - after weaving past six England players. When accused of cheating by scoring a goal with his hand, he said it was "The Hand of God".)
The altar stands near the Piazza Nilo. It is painted in the colours of Napoli football club and bears such touching memorabilia as a plaque saying “Miraculous Chapel to Diego Amando Maradonna: Holy Year, 1987”; a bottle said to contain the tears of the Neapolitans when he left – and a notice saying that if you didn’t buy a drink [in the adjacent bar] you can’t take a photograph. I did both.

I name this book… Yes, it’s launched at last. It wasn’t exactly à la Harry Potter. First there was a rail strike, which prevented some people from getting there; others couldn't get in because of the traffic blockage that resulted - but phoned in orders. Finally, the main post office building - in the same street - started to drop masonry so the police closed the street. (We were wondering if a jealous J K Rowling had put a curse on us.) But apart from that Mrs Lincoln, the more determined fans got through and it was a qualified success

Thursday, November 15, 2007

We have books

Why, you may ask, is he sitting there with a beatific look on his face and a glass of champagne in his hand? Is it because it’s November 15, the Feast of St Albert the Great, philosopher, theologian and 13th century Wikipedia, who spent his whole life writing down ALL the knowledge that there was in the world at the time? (I’d like to see you do it today Bert.) No, he’s rejoicing because he arrived in Villefranche, switched on his answering machine, and heard an unmistakeable Australian voice saying that his books had arrived.
So for the benefit of those who were as worried as we were that we might have to hold a book signing without books, I’m breaking with tradition and posting on consecutive days. Thanks Indian Ocean, Rosie, DHL and Wells Fargo – I don’t have to sign pages of sticky labels after all. Cheers.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007


No, it’s not a small item of bathroom furniture: it's just that there are three days to go to Book-launch day. No, I’m going to go on about it today except to say that we (the bookstore owner and I) are getting nail-bitingly close to the launch – and the books haven’t arrived yet! They’re saying they’ve been delayed by monsoons in the Indian Ocean, but should be in the UK warehouse in precisely one hour from now. If they are, they’ve then got to get to Cannes by Saturday afternoon.
Worried - who’s worried?

Back from a week-end in Naples with a group of friends I first met in Padua almost eleven years ago. That was in February 1997, and most of us were in our last year of a course at the Open University, at the time doing 13th and 14th century Italian art. On that trip we also went to Venice, Florence, and Sienna – and in the course of our travels became very good friends – so much so that we resolved to continue our trips after graduation, and every year since then we have made similar trips to some European city. This year we went back to Italy for the first time.
It seems crazy now to have gone to Florence and Sienna, strictly avoiding anything to do with the Renaissance, but we did. We would lead each other firmly away from the Botticellis, Donatellos and Michaelangelos: they were ‘not our period’.
Ten years on, our artistic horizons have – like our shapes – widened, and we can now enjoy it all, from ancient Greek to Roman to medieval - to art deco.
Naples has all that and more. You go down a filthy, narrow street, able almost to touch both sides at once, dodging speeding scooters with wheezy horns. Washing - covered with plastic to protect it from the dirt - festoons the walls like political banners. You come to yet another Baroque church, encrusted with centuries of grime, open the door, and there in front of you stands a Caravaggio.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Better red...

than dead? There aren’t many things that the French Riviera doesn’t have. Even snow has been known. But it does lack sunsets: unless you’re very high up, the sun will disappear behind a mountain long before it reddens the evening sky. But the Atlantic coast has crepuscular views like this every evening across the Bordeaux Lake.

The Riviera comes good in the mornings: this was the sun this morning as it peeped over Cap Ferrat:

Our beloved PM, Gordon Brown, is supporting a Bill to prevent criminals from making profit from their crimes by publishing books about them. “Are there no lengths Brown will not go to,” said Matthew Parris in yesterday’s Times, “to prevent Tony Blair from publishing his memoirs?”

It’s Toussaint – All Saints Day - the long holiday weekend in which everyone buys chrysanths and goes to the cemetery to visit defunct relatives. A morbid way to spend a beautiful autumn day - if not as ghoulish as the Mexican dia del muerte, when the kids eat skull- and coffin-shaped candy - but a good excuse for a long weekend. The UK’s the only place I know where they don’t have any hols between August and Christmas - no Toussaint, no Yom Kippur, no Labour Day, no Armistice Day, no Thanksgiving. But there’s a lot of people not visiting necropoli - they’re here enjoying the sunshine; some are even swimming.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

You heard it here first

You did indeed: remember this?

BREAKING NEWS!!! This just in.
The Book – you remember the book? – will release on November 1, and launch in Cannes on November 17, followed by other events along the coast: in Antibes, Valbonne, Nice, Monaco and maybe Fayence, in the following week or so. Details later.

Well, it wasn’t true. I know I told you that today was the expected release date, but I just heard that my books are sitting on a wharf somewhere, and are not, as we speak, leaving the warehouse by the truckload on their way to eager readers throughout the English-speaking world.
So please do not queue outside Wally Storer’s bookshop in Cannes on November 16 in anticipation of his doors being thrown open at midnight, because unless someone extracts their digit very soon, the book won’t be there.
It’s difficult, once someone has broken a promise, to place any credibility on what they say next, but, as you might expect, it was: “But we can guarantee that they will definitely be there by the xth”. So I won’t say anything until I’ve seen them myself - except that I hope you’ll be patient and not accept substitutes. It does exist, (I have an advance copy), and it will be at any good bookshop near you – soon.

Nothing to lose but your chains Yes, Marx – Karl, not Groucho – was right – there’s a world to win. But not the way the book market’s going. I went to town the other day to do a bit of book-plugging in the two remaining bookshops – and found there was only one! A year or so ago, Windsor used to have four good bookshops – WH Smith’s, one small chain shop – small chain, not small shop - and two independents. Now, WHS has pulled out of the serious book market, and there remains only the mighty Waterstone’s. They took over the small chain and the others gave up and left. It’s not all big W’s fault: not only were the independents squeezed by Amazon, but then the supermarkets moved in on the best-seller end of the market, which was what paid the independents’ rent and enabled them to stock the less fashionable titles. You might be saying, “How hypocritical – he didn’t complain when the same thing happened to the town’s small family bakers, butchers, pet food shops etc. - 'good for the consumer', he said”.
Yes, true, but we weren’t talking about books then – this is about Choice. Fight book globalization, support your local independent – all you have to do is find one.

Franglais Over lunch with a French friend yesterday, she asked what, in English, you would say to someone who was holding you up, to show them that you were getting impatient. We told her: she wrote it down and asked us to check it, then decided she should try it out. A former teacher, she is fairly unreserved, and soon the whole restaurant could hear her stentorian voice saying, repeatedly: “What ze fuck do you seenk you are doing?”