Tag Archives: Travel

Inspirational Holiday Reading

17 Sep

Apparently, we’re supposed to read ‘beach novels’ on our holidays. Well, I went swimming in the North Atlantic and read quite a lot over my summer break. But there the comparison  with such expectations ends, I think.

As a writer, there’s nothing more inspiring, I think, than reading a thoroughly researched and well written biography about one of your literary heroes. A few summers ago, I read David Bellos’s excellent biography of George Perec, ‘A Life in Words’. In Bellos’s book, the writer’s life becomes a fitting addition to his canon, a Rabelaisian tale about a unique individual. This summer, it was the turn of ‘Like a Fiery Elephant’, Jonathan Coe’s biography of another experimental writer, B S Johnson. Reading it, I was fired up again about fiction and its possibilities. Uncharacteristically, I even felt moved to thank the author on Twitter for spending eight years researching and writing the book… These days, the general reading public knows Johnson, if at all, as a writer of ‘difficult’ books who killed himself, in apparent despair, at the age of forty. In Coe’s words, Johnson comes across as a complex man, difficult but much loved by his friends. The insights into his creative processes and artistic aesthetic, and the barriers inherent in following such a path, are instructive for any writer seeking to work outside the mainstream. 

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My favourite beach… 

One work mentioned in the biography was a collection of short stories by Johnson and Zulfikar Ghose, ‘Statement Against Corpses’, in which the two writers were supposed to reinvigorate the form. By all accounts, they managed no such thing – not that I can comment as the collection is long out of print and I don’t feel like spending over £100 for an old copy, only to have this view confirmed. Instead, I finished reading ‘Difficult Loves’ and ‘Laughable Loves’, early collections by Italo Calvino and Milan Kundera, respectively, and was reminded of why I love the work of both writers. Calvino was already exploring worlds through minute and apparently mundane details, much as he would in his final, brilliant collection, ‘Mr Palomar’. Kundera’s comic stories expose the absurdities often found at the heart of human relationships. 

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Which half-complete track to follow?

Unfortunately, though, since returning from continental Europe, the demands of my day job and other stresses and strains have sapped my creative energies and progress on my fiction has been slow. I’ve arrived at a time-consuming stage in my vast work-in-progress, tying up all of its loose ends and re-arranging sections within its complex architecture. I’ve also been thinking ahead to my next project, of which I’ll write more in a future post. I have to decide between three options that I’ve had kicking around for some years now: a part-finished novella, a half-completed sequel and an epistolary novel of which I’ve planned much but written  little. Whichever one I choose, though, the work of those who’ve gone before – Perec, Johnson, Calvino, Kundera – remains a guide and inspiration. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

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Integration: its beauty, its ugliness

6 Jun

The world becomes ever more integrated. In many ways, to my mind, it’s a beautiful thing. I’ve been reminded of this phenomenon over the last week. My Colombian wife and I were in France, listening to Jose Gonzalez, a Swedish-Argentinian who sings in English. I read novels by an Austrian, a Frenchman and an American and began one by a Norwegian. We’d driven down via Belgium from the Netherlands where we’d been staying with my wife’s Colombian friend and her Dutch husband. Along the way we passed lorries coming from every corner of the EU – Romania, Lithuania, Portugal, Italy… How sad that Little England has begun to turn its back on the world. Ah, well… And as we travelled back to England, I began to hear news of the latest terror attack, one of the uglier aspects of our global society, perpetrated by individuals with their roots in Pakistan, Morocco and Libya. These events will only end when we’ve truly begun to understand one another and to embrace our differences. 

Below are some of the sights I encountered along the way. 

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All text and images © PSR 2017

In Manchester

13 May

In Manchester. It’s a beautiful piece of perfect pop by the band, Wire. Here’s a link to it on YouTube. It’s also where I was, last weekend. In all the travelling I’ve undertaken in recent times, I haven’t explored my own country much. Last weekend, work took me to England’s northwest and a return to the city of Manchester and its university. 

I had a little time to re-acquaint myself with the city centre. Victorian Gothick abounds. The Museum, the cathedral, the University, the City Hall… 

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My accommodation was nothing short of astonishing. I stayed at the former Refuge Assurance Building, a marvel of redbrick and Burmantoft tiles, marble and brass. It demonstrates a commitment to the aesthetic that we rarely encounter now, a testament to lost crafts and foundries. My little not-so-smart phone isn’t up to the job of reflecting the architectural splendour of the building, but it did its best. 

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 What an amazing city… It just goes to show that England isn’t just about London, as some people seem to believe. If it weren’t for the political climate here – it’s even worse than the meteorological one – I could almost fall in love with my country again. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

The Roof Above Us

18 Feb

Well, I’ve just returned from the Writing Den, where I pushed on with my work-in-progress. I exchanged the shelter of one roof for another, a”change of scenery”, to employ the truism, needed all the more in the depths of the English winter. 

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It was a good ten degrees warmer than back in England, ideal weather for exploring. Brittany is a spiritual place. You feel it in the landscape around you, in the lakes and forests, the granite hills and fast-flowing streams. You sense the countless generations that have walked there before you, from pre-Christian times onward. And when you lift your eyes skyward there are those magical cloudscapes too. 

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A friend and I walked out into the countryside from the hamlet. He was telling me about the distinctly non-Christian principles by which he has conducted his spiritual life. We came across a ruined chapel on the edge of the wood. The real sky was breaking through the holes in the painted one on its ceiling. Organised religion in the West is in retreat, in terminal decline, perhaps. If we’re not careful, we’ll lose those ancient buildings along with it. And we’ll lose something more if our lives focus solely on the material and nothing more besides.  

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You used to see elegant ruins in rural East Anglia. Not now. A derelict garden shed will be re-categorised as a “development opportunity” and priced at £100,000. But that chapel was a reminder for me. Above all else, the roof of a building must be maintained. On a practical level, I shall need to pay to have the roof of the Writing Den fully repaired over the coming year. Otherwise it’ll end up looking like the buildings in the photographs below. For me, spirituality extends to contemplating the birds in the birch trees in the garden (or the sparrows in the quince bush, since I’m back in England). I must remember to look upwards from time to time and reflect. If we neglect the interior life we leave ourselves exposed to the elements, metaphysically speaking.  

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Clearly, that roof has been troubling me at some subliminal level. It seems that I’ve been writing about it in my work-in-progress.

It all begins with the roof.  Take a four-storey suburban villa, for example.  No one lives there any more.  Once the tiles slip and start to let in water, its structural integrity comes under threat.  Unless the holes are quickly patched, the damage soon spreads.  Filthy streaks line the walls.  Wallpaper begins to peel.  Pools of standing water gather on the floors and damp stains the ceilings below.  Section by section, the plaster blows and comes crashing down.  One after another, the windows are smashed and let the rain in.  It’s surprising how quickly the floorboards and ceiling joists become saturated then turn paper-like before collapsing under their own weight, taking any remaining items of furniture with them.  The house is already beyond repair.  The garden around it has become a dark and forbidding place.  Ivy claws its way toward the gutters.  Buddleia blossoms between the bricks, the memory of Himalayan crags clinging on inside its roots.  Roof timbers rot and fall inward.  Staircases fold in on themselves like broken accordions.  Denuded of its roof and floors, the house becomes an empty box.  Its former personality is no longer recognisable.  The basement and bathrooms, the scullery and servants’ rooms, the nursery and drawing room, they exist only in memory.  Even the ghosts have moved out.  The walls themselves are in danger of collapse.  The chimneys have already fallen.  With the front door broken off its hinges and its rotten windows hanging open, the house presents the world with a hollow, senile stare. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Where America Begins

4 Feb

At the eastern end of England, that’s where America begins…

I was strolling idly through the streets of the old town on my day off, charting the large number of former inns. It’s an ancient port and the crews would have spent much of their time drinking in its hostelries when they came ashore (and womanising and fighting too, no doubt). So quiet are its streets these days, your imagination has to work hard to envisage it. 

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The house where things started

As I meandered, I noticed for the first time a plaque attached to the jettying above the doorway of a medieval house. Looking at the weather-boarding on the neighbouring buildings I might almost have been in New England. In fact, it’s a construction method once common in this part of England. A few structures of the kind still survive in my dreary hometown, fifty miles away from here.  

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Home of Christopher Jones, the real Captain America

So let’s examine that plaque…

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It informs us that it’s the house in which Christopher Jones lived. His ship was almost certainly built in the dry docks here then sailed to continental Europe numerous times over the following decade. And then, in 1620, Captain Jones and his ship were chartered to take a hundred Christian dissenters across the ocean to settle in the land that would become New England. Maybe Jones assembled his crew of thirty or so in the bars of those long-closed inns, at The Drum and Monkey and The Three Cups, The Mariner’s and The Swan. It would have been an adventurous party, for sure, willing to spend endless weeks at sea, sailing to an unknown land. And it’s where modern America begins. 

These are the American centuries, the dawning of a brave New World. Count Basie and Martin Luther King, KFC and the KKK, John D Rockefeller and Joseph Heller, Wells Fargo and Orson Welles, clap-boarding and water-boarding, Elvis Presley and Levi’s jeans, RCA and the CIA, Apple Inc and agent orange, Old Sparky and Sparklehorse, the White House and white supremacists, Donald Duck and Donald Trump, the D-Day landings and moon landings… Everything that America has become begins here. Your macrocosm is my microcosm. There’s a glistering world held inside a faded and forgotten port, a mighty tree within the seed of a New England maple…

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A letter to America?

And that is where my footsteps led me, as I wandered the back streets of an inconsequential eastern town, from a timber-framed ship master’s house to the shores of the most powerful nation that ever existed. America begins at the world’s end. As the slave or the Sioux could tell us, such power can be a force for great good in the world or can perpetrate enormous evil. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Nothing of Note

28 Jan

Lost and found, lost and found…

What’s the worst thing that could happen to a writer? Well, he could be killed by fascists, of course, like Lorca or die in a plane crash like Ibargüengoitia. He could go blind as Borges did or mad in the manner of Clare. Okay, so I’m still alive, physically and mentally intact. Otherwise, losing a notebook is just about as bad as it gets. And that’s exactly what’s happened to me. Twice. 

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Old notebook showing an outline timeline of the events in my work-in-progress

When considering what to call this post, I noticed that I already had one called ‘The Lost Notebook’ in my drafts. A year or so ago, I left my previous notebook in the bar I used to go to for a cooked breakfast and coffee. That was the first time. And I got away with it. The wonderful staff of The Golden Lion Inn (closed now, sadly) found it and put it to one side for me.  

The second time, I left my notebook at the gate in Madrid-Barajas Airport when juggling with too much baggage. We were somewhere over the Bay of Biscay when I realised it was missing, compounding the sense of loss I was already feeling (the journey was taking me away from my beloved). The flight attendant apart, British Airways proved singularly unhelpful, providing me with a series of telephone numbers that didn’t work, that were never answered, that were answered but supplied an unintelligible response… Needless to say, I didn’t get my notebook back.

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Notebooks – useful for storing railway maps when travelling and writing

I once considered using the discovery of a lost notebook as a narrative device. The location was to be a train rather than an airport. Lost in transit. Oh, the irony… It seems unlikely that my notebook will follow that trajectory. I’m pretty sure that someone pocketed the pleasingly weighty pen (bought for me as a leaving gift by former colleagues) and threw the notebook in the nearest bin. 

So what did I lose? A year’s worth of notes on my work-in-progress, the notes for my next projected novel, the diaries of my travels in Mexico and Colombia, my list of fragments of overheard dialogue… oh, nothing of note, then. To be frank, I feel rather bereft. I’m hoping that this loss will push my imagination in unexpected directions. Well, you have to finish on an optimistic note. 

All text and images © PSR 2017

Travelling the World to End up at Home…

14 Jan

Ah, globalisation. Modern communications enable you to meet fascinating people from all over the world. You can fly swiftly across continents and oceans and travel through mind-blowingly beautiful landscapes like the one below.

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Mist over the Andes

But some of its consequences are less exotic. You fly five-and-a-half-thousand miles across the ocean to Colombia and what do you find? Roott and Co., a British-themed clothing store, adorned with the Union Flag and red telephone boxes. In La 14 department store, there’s a range of men’s clothes called Burtton (note the subtlety with which copyright infringement has been avoided). If many Bogotanos had crossed the ocean in the opposite direction to witness the panache with which the average Briton dresses, they might be less smitten… 

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British-themed clothes store in a Bogota shopping mall

And then there’s “Beer Pub”. This chain seems to have branches distributed across the shopping malls of Bogota. It’s steins of craft ales are remarkably good value and the food is perfectly acceptable. The numerous TV screens were a little over the top, though, as can be seen in the picture below. Some of them were showing the Sunderland against Liverpool football match. The others transmitted Burnley versus Manchester City. “I’ll give you television,” remarked Mr Pop. “I’ll give you eyes of blue.” Is this global interchange or cultural imperialism? It depends how you see it, I suppose… 

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“Beer Pub” – how Latin can you get?

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Yes, it really is AFC Sunderland versus Liverpool FC…

Pity the Swiss. They might travel all the way to provincial Choachi, in search of the Latin American experience, only to be confronted with a Swiss-themed restaurant. Its tariff proved to be Swiss-themed too so we went to a bakery where we ate cakes and coffee instead (the bill came to £1.50/$1.80). Apparently, there’s something of a love affair with Switzerland going on in Colombia and the influence of its architecture can be found in a number of buildings, such as the passable attempts at a mountain chalet seen in the pictures below (the latter is actually a Peruvian restaurant). And thus, through the exchange of two consonants and a vowel, Los Andes become Les Alpes…

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A Swiss restaurant in Choachi

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Swiss-style architecture on a Peruvian restaurant in old Bogota

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The bakery apparently made loaves in the shape of sea lions…

“I’ll give you mens who want to rule the world,” commented Mr Pop. “I’ll ruin everything you are.” And so every other car in Bogota is a Chevrolet. Subway and Dunkin’ Donuts are ubiquitous. But I encountered very few Westerners in Colombia. That suited me just fine. Frankly, I don’t travel to hang around with my fellow Anglophones. And you can still buy a loaf of bread shaped like a seal… Popular culture aside, Colombia remains very much itself, for the time being, at least. 

All text and images © PSR 2017