• A plan for a pilgrimage

    caminopic

    My last post, I talked about the Camino Francés. The more I thought about it, the more exciting it became. Should we start in Arles? Or Perpignan? Perhaps even Paris? Six weeks walking in France and Spain. What fun!

    “Ah Stu”, said Stu “There is not a hope in hell that I am getting a leave pass for six weeks.”

    Come to think of it, there was no chance that I would get a leave pass for six weeks either. There is a limit to the patience of the long-suffering Mrs L and abandoning her for six weeks “to go for a walk” would overreach that limit.

    What was needed here was a plan.

    Starting in St Jean Pied de Port (Basque country) would make for a 500 mile walk to Santiago, that is estimated to take 5 weeks or so. Might we manage a week a year – and finish up the route in 2020? Perhaps, even aim to finish around my 50th birthday in April?

    Now, that’s a plan.

    A friend told me of a movie, ‘The Way’. Directed by Emilio Estevez. Emilio was struggling for a lead, so he cast his Dad, Martin Sheen. Surely a bit of Hollywood would convince Mrs L that I had not taken leave of my senses? Certainly, I could alleviate any concerns about safety.

    Within five minutes of the movie starting, Emilio’s character had wandered off the path and died. Oops.

    Gliding over that slight hiccup, provisional approval was sought and obtained on both sides of the Irish Sea.

    We have a plan.

    We will fly into Bilbao, transfer to SJPDP and then walk ‘The Way’ for six days. On the seventh day, we will head back to Bilbao and return to the real world.

  • A wee walk

    CaminoFrances

    On October the 8th, I’m catching a plane to Bilbao in Northern Spain.

    I love to travel, particularly to places where I can find good food and wine. This trip is a little different. I’m going for a walk. No. Really. I am.

    I am walking with one of my oldest friends, conveniently named Stuart. There is a school of thought that Stuart and I are both results of some kind of botched cloning experiment. Close your eyes and it can be difficult to tell which of us is speaking.

    As we both embark upon our mid-life crises, Stuart ventured “Shall we walk the camino?”.

    “Absolutely. I’ll have one, if your having one.”

    I fully expected to embark on an eccentric ritual method of drinking wine.

    “No. Seriously. El Camino de Santiago. Have a think about it.”

    I got googling.

    The Camino is a pilgrimage. One that has been around for centuries. It is believed that the bodily remains of St James (an apostle) are interred at Santiago de Compostela, in north-western Spain. Pilgrims walk to Santiago by many different routes, but perhaps the most well-trodden is the Camino Francés – the French Way. The walk starts from St Jean Pied de Port in the Pays Basque region of France, crosses the Pyrenees and then meanders across Northern Spain to Santiago.

    A tidy little walk of 500 miles or so.

    Yes. 500 miles.

    To date, my mid-life crisis had been evidenced by buying a two-seater sports car. Now I was agreeing to walk 500 miles (cue Scottish folk band).

    I have thought about setting up a separate blog for the walk, but decided against it. I will post about it here. (Categorised as Camino)

    What on earth have I got myself into?

     

  • Sunday. Restful Sunday.

    Lazy Sundays

    What a day!

    I awoke early, having volunteered to be starter for a competition at the golf club. Hardly a taxing job, I simply tick off the competitors on the start sheet, remind them of what competition they are playing in what format and send them on their way with hearty “Play well Gents. Enjoy your day.”

    Just after dawn, I set out to give the dog his walk. Both he and I enjoy the early mornings, especially on a Sunday, when the village is quiet, but for the birdsong.

    The sky was darker than the weather forecast had indicated, with some drizzle looking a certainty rather than a possibility. Nevertheless, I put my trust in the BBC and donned shorts and a polo shirt. As a precaution, I put a waterproof jacket in the car.

    Drizzle? It was bloody raining sideways. I briefed each flight of miserable looking golfers from the shelter of the starter’s hut, promising them all drier weather to come. (It’s nearly always best to lie in these circumstances, after all without hope, what is left?)

    Discretion being the better part of valour, I left the course as soon as I had sent the final group on its way.

    A friend was due to drop by. We chatted, drank tea until the mighty Mrs L proposed lunch. Those who know me are aware that I have never knowingly declined an offer of lunch. As it was a Sunday, I graduated from tea to chardonnay and was soon in a state of blissful contentment.

    As Murray cruised to a two set lead, the sky brightened, and Mrs L suggested we might play a few holes ourselves. (She is a zealous convert).

    Off we went and played nine holes before retiring to the club house.

    “Drink?” She enquired.

    Here I was, at the golf course, on a Sunday afternoon, with a chauffeur.

    “Pint of London Pride for me!”

    This was shaping up to be a fantastic Sunday. I set a quick pace on the pint, and had another ordered before Mrs L had managed a sip of her soft drink. The beer gently acquainting itself with the wine in my tummy, I sauntered to the passenger seat full of bonhomie and good cheer.

    As Mrs L prepared to reverse through the drive gates at home, she pressed the button to open them. (We are terribly posh, you know.) Nothing happened. As is the way with all things electric or electronic, she pressed the offending button repeatedly, and with increasing force. All to no avail. She was obviously doing it wrong. I took the fob from her and repeated the strident button-pressing.

    I suppressed a hoppy belch with a honeyed gooseberry finish and clambered from the car. The keypad that usually glows blue was dark.

    “There’s a power cut. Give me the front door key, I’ll go around and open the gates manually.”

    Mrs L showed me a solitary key in her hand. An alarming habit has developed where to avoid the massive bulk of two keys, Mrs L sallies forth with only a back door key. An admirable strategy – unless of course the back gates become disabled for any reason. It was not clear whether I was more furious at her for only having one key or at myself for having none at all.

    I sized up the gate in much the same way as I imagine a Royal Marine Commando looks at an assault course.

    “Go and ask someone for a ladder.”

    Fortunately, Mrs L has a more realistic view of my commando abilities.

    A step-ladder was provided, tested and ascended. At the top, I took a moment to breathe and admire the view. (I was, after all five or six feet up; heady stuff.) A few neighbours looked on, in what I can only imagine, was unbounded admiration. Determined, I tucked my shirt firmly into the waistband of my shorts. The dog, locked in the house, was going bananas at the sight of his Lord and Master, slightly pissed, teetering atop a step-ladder at the back gate.

    With the grace and agility of a hippopotamus putting on cycling shorts, I heaved my myself over the gatepost, onto the wheelie bins. One made a worrying crack as my weight settled onto it. Fearing calamity, I dismounted the bins at pace, and strode to the back door to release the frantic hound and get the manual override key.

    Much patting of backs ensued, with some wifely concern over a scrape down the inside of one leg. As I fought back the tears, (and another of those hoppy belches) I assured her that I would be OK. John, our neighbour, took his stepladder back, eyeing it with a degree of concern. I suspect he will test it extensively before trusting it to take his weight.

    With the electricity down, no means of cooking supper and the hound needing a walk – there was only one option. I would walk the dog to the pub, while Mrs L got changed and drove to meet us there.

    “Pint of Ringwood and a bowl of water for the little fella please…”

  • Amanda Fleet – an interview

    Amanda Fleet

    Regular readers will be aware that I have a writing buddy. Amanda Fleet recently published her debut novel ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’. I reviewed it here. If you would like the chance to win a free copy, then scroll to the bottom of the page and sign up for my newsletter. (Offer open until midnight on July 30th 2016. You will automatically be signed up for Amanda’s newsletter too.)

    All current subscribers will be entered into the draw too. Both Amanda’s newsletter and mine have unsubscribe buttons.

    Paperback copies are available for purchase direct from the publisher. E books are available in all the usual places – here is the Amazon UK link.

    The following questions were batted to and fro over the last few weeks, when Amanda was in the midst of launching the novel, both virtually, and in person at Waterstones St Andrews.

    Congratulations! You have published your debut novel, ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’ and very good it is too. How long was it in the making?

    A number of people have asked me this. I had a look in my notebook to see when I started writing it and naturally, I haven’t written the date in there at the start, but chasing through the notebook, it would seem that the first draft took about a year from first notes to first full draft. I then left it alone for a while but had finished the first edit by six months later. It went off to beta readers towards the end of 2011 and I did some more editing, based on their feedback. I then left it alone while I wrote two more books! I was only meaning to write one more, but then the inspiration struck and I didn’t want to lose it!

    It went to Dea Parkin, my editor, in spring 2015. More editing after that. Although I technically started writing it just over 5 years ago, I think the total time spent writing and editing it would be about 20 months. I’ve written a number of other things since, which are hopefully going to come out in within the next year or so.

    An extensive process. Which are your favourite elements?

    Oh, by far the initial planning and sketching out of the plot and writing character notes. It’s a period of discovery and imagination and the ideas come thick and fast – so fast I get scared  I won’t manage to trap them all and they’ll evaporate. Once the planning is done, I think writing the first draft is my next favourite part – there’s still that buzz of creativity going on.

    And the least favourite?

    Editing. I know of some writers who love editing – checking every word and fine-tuning it all until it’s humming – and I admire them for it. That’s not how I find editing!

    Part of the novel is set in Malawi. Why there?

    I went out to Malawi with work (University of St Andrews) many times, working on a project with the College of Medicine in Blantyre, Malawi. While I was in Malawi, I met Mac Nkhutabasa – a man working with homeless children, helping them to return to education and get off the streets. A significant strand of the book developed from working with him to set up a charity – Chimwemwe Children’s Centre – to help the kids. The charity in the book – Samala – is loosely based on Chimwemwe, though Chimwemwe is 100% above board!

    I love Malawi. It is a beautiful country that steals your heart but can also break it. It’s a country that few people seem to know about or visit and I wanted to let people see a bit of it.

    Are you still involved with the Children’s Centre? What does it do?

    I am still involved. Chimwemwe works with homeless and disadvantaged children in Blantyre, Malawi, helping them to remain in education or to return to it. For many families, it is a financial struggle to send their children to school – the cost of uniforms and stationery and textbooks can be more than they can afford – and so the children get pulled out of school to work or beg. Chimwemwe helps the families by buying the uniforms and stationery for the children and paying the school fees for those in secondary education (which is not free in Malawi). For those children who have been orphaned, we help them into foster care and support the foster families as well as the kids (buying food for them so that taking the children on doesn’t mean that the foster family is pushed towards poverty). We’ve also just finished building a centre where the kids can go to do homework and get life-skills lessons. For those older kids who are about to leave school, we help them to get apprenticeships or training so that they can build their own businesses and also give them a start-up grant to help them to find their feet.

    You are Dr Amanda Fleet. You held a permanent post at the University of St Andrews lecturing on Physiology, a post which you have given up to become a full-time writer. Not a small decision. Why did you make it?

    Well… I’d been writing and working full-time for a few years, spending evenings and weekends scribbling away. That wasn’t sustainable! Or compatible with staying healthy, and so I moved to part-time work at the university – three days a week – and wrote at weekends and on the days I wasn’t working. Then, finally, a serious heart condition made me reassess my priorities in life and I decided to have a career change. Writing made me happier than working at the university did and trying to fit too much into too little time was having a significant and detrimental effect on my health. I miss some aspects of working at the university (not least the pay cheques!) but it was the right move and I haven’t regretted it so far.

    What was it like getting from an idea in your head to a printed, published book?

    Surreal. It genuinely feels like it’s happening to someone else! Everyone says I must be really proud of my achievements and delighted to see the book in print… I am delighted, but it feels as if I’m delighted for a friend rather than for myself. Maybe it hasn’t sunk in yet or maybe I live too much of my life in a fantasy world in my head, but it doesn’t feel mine to be honest.

    You explained that there are two more books already written. Do the characters from “The Wrong Kind of Clouds” feature in them?

    No. Actually, there are more than two written, because The Wrong Kind of Clouds wasn’t the first book I’d written, it was the first to get published. I have a bit of a back-log building up! People keep asking me whether there’s another book with Summer and LB going to happen and I have ¾ of one written with them in it. I think I’ll need to get that one sorted out soon since everyone seems to want more of them.

    When can we expect the publication of number two?

    Hopefully within the year. I’m editing at the moment and that book will go off to my editor at the end of June, for her to make it better.

    What advice would you give to anyone considering writing a book?

    Be sure that you have the time. You’re not writing the book yet, but you fill every minute of your day with something. What gets replaced in order to write the book? Do you stop watching TV? Stop playing sport? Stop seeing friends? You need to think what you’re going to have to give up in order to have the time to write, because there are 24 hours in the day and no more. Just because you decide to spend 2 hours a day writing, doesn’t mean the day is now 26 hours long! You need to know where you’ll get the time from. To have a head full of ideas and no opportunity to scribble them down before they vanish, is hell. Believe me, I know.

     

  • T is for ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’

    The Wrong Kind of Clouds cover

    It’s Saturday. One week until the end of the A to Z Challenge.

    Today I am writing about ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’, the best ever debut novel written by Amanda Fleet, my writing buddy. You can order a copy here, and even get a discount.

    Amanda Fleet

    I haven’t read it. Amanda had this one in the bag before I turned up. I have ‘met’ a couple of the characters. They turn up in a novella that Amanda is planning to let people have for free.

    The protagonist, Summer is someone I would like to spend some time with; tough, but good fun, I think. She also has a medical condition that I had never heard of; synasthesia. Broadly, any emotion Summer feels is ‘in colour’. Mad. But great.

    I’m looking forward to the release, I have pre-ordered a paperback version.

    Obviously, when ‘clouds’  sells well and Amanda topples J.K. Rowling, I’ll claim all the credit.

    ‘She’d be nobody without me, you know.’

    Go and pre-order one. If you are an e-book person, sign up to her website and get notified the moment the novel is available in your preferred format.

    Remember, you heard it here first.

    ‘The Wrong Kind of Clouds’.

    Blogging from A to Z Challenge

  • Four do Rugby

    Ireland-v-England

    Assuming that I can work out this scheduling posts malarkey, then as this post comes out, I will be at Twickenham watching England take on Ireland in the Six Nations. The photo above comes from the Daily Mirror report on last year’s game.

    I’ll be watching the game with three friends.

    There is Conchita, a bearded Englishman living in Dublin, CLD, a Welshman who splits his time between South West England and Warsaw and Tone – an Englishman abroad. Vilnius, last time I checked.

    Add in me, a Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Cornish mix-up in Southern England and we are quite the motley crew. We all knew each other in Prague – we played rugby together, we drank together, and to a certain extent we grew up together. In fairness, Conchita and I may have a way to go on that front.

    Conchita is flying over on Friday and staying here with us, while CLD and Tone arrive on Saturday morning. They have booked a hotel for Saturday.

    I daresay Conchita and I may have managed a couple of glasses of wine on Friday night. The long-suffering Mrs L almost certainly had an evening shaking her head as we talked nonsense and drank wine, lots of wine. Within about an hour of being each other’s company Conchita and I will have speech patterns will so similar as to be indistinguishable one from the other. It’s quite spooky.

    The Four are gathering for a spot of lunch up near Twickenham, five or so hours before kick-off. What could possibly go wrong? (That is very much a rhetorical question.)

    Once we have been fed and settled into some hop-based beverages, we will exchange some banter on the France Wales match of the previous evening. Then we will watch Scotland take on Italy in Rome. A few years ago Conchita and I took the precaution of learning the words of the Italian anthem. The thought of being caught short in a singsong was just too much for two front-row forwards to bear. I daresay that we will not be the only ones singing all of the anthems.

    Before the main event begins, we will have made one hundred new friends. Any supporting England will be known as Rupert, and all supporting Ireland, as Mick. Tradition is Tradition. Our voices will be hoarse from singing (and the odd hop-based beverage) and we will be ready for the big match.

    I have mentioned this before here. Rugby is a pretty special game.

    Of course – I may be completely wrong. We may have had a terrible time. Writing this post in advance may have been a stupid thing to do.

    But I doubt it.

    On Sunday morning, the four of us will be saying, “I’m too old for this.”

     

  • Writing Tools

    IMG_0050

    Writing, at least for me, involves quite a lot of sitting around doing all manner of things that are not writing.

    At times, I can be a world-class procrastinator. Yes, I can do ‘the gazing at a blank page’ thing. I’m even getting better at the tortured artist look, although Margaret still regards me suspiciously and asks whether I am about to fart.

    However – in addition to these basic techniques, there are more advanced methods. My latest is a deep need to make sure that I have the right tools.

    I have always had a bit of a thing for stationery, my inner geek has always been lurking just below the surface.

    This geek has been encouraged into the open by my new writing buddy Amanda.

    We ‘met’ on Twitter (how hip am I?) at #writingchat.

    A writing buddy is an essential aid to the aspiring writer. More importantly, a writing buddy saves the friends and family of the aspiring writer an enormous amount of boredom. I can now ask “Do you think the three act structure will work here?” or “How do you feel about third person limited?” without being greeted by the electronic equivalent of tumbleweed.

    Amanda is on the cusp of releasing a book. In fact, you can pre-order the physical paperback version right now. Just click HEREFollow the instructions and you can even get a discount on the cover price. Go! Have a look right now. Go on. I’ll wait…

    Welcome back. I hope that you have ordered the book. If you are electronically inclined, you will be able to pick it up soon on Amazon, Kobo and all those good places.

    Amanda also keeps a very nice BLOG where you can find some proper writing. While you are there, sign up for updates. Come to think of it, while you are here – sign up for updates too. It really means a lot to us writer-types to know that people are reading.

    Recently, Amanda and I got chatting about pocket notebooks. I daresay that one day, I’ll tell you all about my notebooks – but to cut a long story short, Amanda took it upon herself to make me the notebook cover that features in the picture. It’s a beautiful soft leather.

    Isn’t it gorgeous?

  • Spinning

    Cycling_introshot

    What an impact! The amazing effect of Spinning.

    Along with many others, I have made my annual donation to the bank account of a local gym. This year, as last, I am determined that my payment will not be a donation, but an advance payment for more than one hundred life-enhancing, health-giving visits.

    Brimming with New Year enthusiasm, I booked myself in for Spinning.

    I had a broad understanding of the concept, a group class, with everyone on specially designed exercise bikes, cycling hard and fast to loud music. Being at the “so fat you should be dead” end of the Body Mass Index, I took the precaution of booking a beginner’s class. The wife came along, I suspect to administer CPR if required.

    The instructor was sweet. She took the time to ensure that we were correctly setup on the bikes.

    “It takes practice. You probably won’t be able to stand on the pedals today, but you will get used to it. Just do what you can.”

    She eyed me with a combination of fear and concern. Quite probably, she checked her liability insurance.

    I did try to stand a few times; after all I used to mange on my pushbike as a kid. On each occasion, I managed to suddenly stop the wheels turning and jar my back. Ultimately, I elected to remain sitting, varying the resistance as instructed by the little Miss Positive over her radio mike.

    When not exclusively focused on trying to breathe, I concocted multiple scenarios where Police were mystified as to how the gym trainer had died in such cruel and unusual ways.

    After thirty minutes, I stood on legs made of marshmallow, making half-hearted efforts to stretch various bits of my anatomy, while trying to find a dry bit of t shirt with which to wipe the sweat from my eyes.

    As I thanked the torturer, our eyes met, both of us certain that we would never meet again.

    Mrs L had enjoyed things no more than I. Curiously, she could stand, it was the sitting on the saddle that, quite literally, was the biggest pain for her.

    We drove home, making plans for a late supper. Once there, I needed to get something from the garage, so the dog and I went out of the back door and pushed open the metal up and over garage door. I believe that my heart rate was returning to normal.

    As my body recovered from the unexpected assault of the class, I felt the familiar tightness in my abdomen. Pleased that I was in the sanctuary of the garage and could escape the approbation of Mrs L, I leaned slightly to the left.

    Well!

    The garage door shook on its bearings, the dog fainted and I am almost certain that a platoon of infantry exercising on Salisbury Plain dived for cover.

    Nobody had mentioned that effect of spinning in the brochure.

    I resuscitated the dog and went back into the house. Mrs L eyed me with suspicion.

    “So, going to Spinning next week?”

    “No, love. It makes me fart.”

     

  • Merry Christmas

    Merry-Christmas-pictures-free

    Merry Christmas!

    Now is the time for bloggers to write a self-indulgent post about the meaning of Christmas or about how the true meaning has been lost, buried in marketing.

    I’ll try to avoid that.

    My Christmas is already underway. I have just eaten an illicit prawn baguette – illicit in that the prawns are programmed to be part of this evening’s starter. Fear not, there are sufficient prawns to feed a medium sized army.

    The overworked and underpaid Mrs L is at Marks and Spencer, doubtless attempting to prevent the good people of Andover killing each other over the last packet of pigs in blankets “wrapped in apple and chestnut smoked bacon.” I’ll pick her up at the end of the shift and we will swing by to see my Mum, who now lives close by.

    Then the beautiful Margaret will start the mammoth task of keeping me fed, starting with a spectacular fish dinner tonight. Tomorrow, Mum will come over, sprouts will be eaten and the Queen will be listened to.

    Christmas for us will be filled with great food, British and Italian, plenty of dog walks, laughter and fun. We may even risk a glass of wine or two.

    Is that the true meaning of Christmas?

    No idea. But I like it.

    Whatever you are doing – have a great Christmas.

    Thanks for reading.

     

     

     

  • Immigration. Stop it. Now

    immigrants

    Stop spouting uninformed nonsense about immigration and immigrants.

    I posted about this before.

    I am prompted to do so again by the horrific images currently all over the media.

    A school of thought is emerging that we have an obligation towards refugees but that economic migrants are a major problem.

    I don’t want to pontificate, so I will limit myself to a story or two.

    I married the daughter of two immigrants. Economic migrants in fact. In post-war Sicily, there simply was no work.

    My father-in-law packed a bag and worked in Germany, Switzerland and Glasgow before settling in London and becoming a postman. Hardly the Cosa Nostra is it?

    Once he had saved enough money to buy a house, he brought his wife and three daughters over. His wife and ultimately daughters got work in the local hospital.

    My wife came along in London as a little surprise. Testament to the poor quality of British television in the sixties perhaps.

    Margaret got a university degree and has never been without work.

    Britain has done well out of these particular economic migrants.

    I even got a wife out of the deal, which I’m very pleased about.

    This year, my wife’s cousin has made the move from Sicily. In post-crisis Sicily, there is simply no work.

    My cousin-in-law packed his bag, come to London and become a bus driver. He is hoping to soon have enough money to bring his wife and child over.

    The parallels are obvious.

    On the phone the other day, my cousin asked my wife why no English people drove buses in London.

    All of his colleagues are immigrants. All of them.

    I daresay that some would say that all the bus driver jobs are taken by immigrants.

    For this to be true, I would need to believe that the major bus companies are intentionally filtering out indigenous English people at interview stage.

    I really can’t see why this would be.

    We might speculate why immigrants are that much more successful in becoming bus drivers than the indigenous population.

    We might wish to look at motivations of employers and applicants.

    Anecdotally, an employer might tell you that an immigrant is more likely to be flexible, and to find a way to work.

    There are good people of all colours, creeds and nationalities. There are bad ones too.

    That a man (or woman) wants to build a good life for his family is to be admired, not feared.

    We must stop demonising immigration and immigrants.