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Michael Jacobs

I rose with the desert sun, a mere two hours after having returned from a Mojito soaked evening in a salsa club. It was my last night in Mexico and I had to be up early to catch one of several flights to reach home. Why is it, I thought to myself, that an early start is so frequently foreshadowed by a late night?

I found myself thinking about my friend, the writer and bon viveur, Michael Jacobs. I’d recently been re-reading his excellent book, Andes, in which he constantly squeezes every last drop out of an evening. For him, late night carousing and early morning volcano scaling would often be punctuated only by a quick shower and change of clothes. The first time I met him we spent the night drinking Guatemalan rum until I was sweating the stuff. The following morning I felt every bit as ropey as I did now.

Michael in full flow at an event in Belgravia Books last year

Michael in full flow at an event in Belgravia Books last year

I reached for my phone, keen to head-off the unpleasant jolt of my alarm. Still rubbing sleep from my eyes, I scrolled through my mails. To delay getting out of bed a few moments longer, I opened up Facebook. Funnily enough, right at the top of my newsfeed was a picture of Michael proudly receiving a culinary award. It was a photo I had first seen a few months before. It was unlike him to repeat a photo, or indeed, to repeat anything. I read the accompanying text. It was written by two of his Spanish friends, saying that Michael had died.

I read the post again, desperately hoping I had misunderstood, but the many messages that had already been left, mirroring my own shock and sadness, put the news beyond doubt.

Although Facebook is very effective at broadcasting personal news, especially for someone with so many friends spread so widely throughout the world, we’re all still struggling with the etiquette. The post announcing Michael’s death had 26 “Likes”.

I only met Michael towards the end of 2012, at the launch of his last book, The Robber of Memories, and was immediately struck by his irrepressible modesty – on this, a night dedicated to him and his new publication – his boundless charm and genuine interest in others.

The Robber of Memories paperback jacket 2

In the book, which many believe to be his best, he navigates the often murky waters of the great Colombian river, the Magdalena. The journey is interwoven with a very personal meditation on the effects of memory loss. If there is one silver lining in Michael’s premature passing, it is that he was spared the destructive power that dementia had on the minds of both his parents and one of his literary heroes, Gabriel García Márquez.

One of the people to whom The Robber of Memories was dedicated was his much loved Uncle Brendan, a doctor who helped Michael to deal with the slow disappearance of his father’s lucid mind. His advice could have been Michael’s own motto for his time on earth: “to enjoy one’s own life with added intensity.”

When I began writing The Mango Orchard, one of the few texts I found that gave me some clues about how I should approach a book which combined an exploration into my family’s past with travel writing, was Ghost Train through the Andes by Michael Jacobs. Not only was he retracing an ancestor’s journey (his grandfather’s), it was also a journey that took him to Latin America (Chile and Bolivia).

Ghost Train Jacket

It was therefore a great thrill meet him at the launch of his latest excellent book, The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia. Despite my own memory of the evening being blurred by Michael’s generous helpings of Colombian rum I managed to remember that he agreed to meet again so I could interview him for the magazine Ventana Latina

ROM Launch, Autumn, 2012 133

The interview gives a fascinating insight into the writing of the book and the meeting with Gabriel García Márquez that inspired it. Please click here to read the interview in ENGLISH or SPANISH.

I will also be “in conversation” with him at Belgravia Books on March 14th. I can’t promise Colombian rum, but there will be wine and nibbles… more details to follow

 

 

This is an article I was asked to write by Susan Heim in May last year. This year’s  first resolution is to write all articles within 7 months of being asked!

 

Come the beginning of a New Year, we often assess our lives and make a commitment. We promise ourselves we’ll quit smoking, get a new job, give up chocolate, take up sword swallowing, learn Russian, or spend more time with the family.

 

sword swallowing

Some people will do anything to get out of spending more time with the family

 

This year several people have told me that they intend to spend more time with their family, but not necessarily in the sense that they intend to head home from the office half an hour earlier or attend their son’s soccer practice. They were talking about family history.

People embarking on a genealogical investigation are usually struck with two emotions. Firstly, there’s the heady excitement of undertaking a voyage of discovery into who we are, where we come from. There’s the thrill of the unknown: maybe there’s royalty in the family; perhaps an ancestor discovered a cure to a tropical disease, wrote a world-famous opera, or murdered his entire village and ran away to Papua New Guinea where he was mistaken by a local tribe for a hearty lunch. You never know… until you find out…

To read the rest of this article on Susan Heim’s blog, please click here

 

The Oaxaca Times recently asked if they could reprint the article I wrote for Traveller magazine last year to coincide with the release of the English language release of The Mango Orchard in Mexico, and seeing as it’s pertinent to today’s date, I thought I’d post it here:

I arrived in Oaxaca in the half light of an early April morning. Still stiff from my journey, I stretched out on a bench outside the bus Central and watched an old man walk by, bent double with the weight of the basket of pineapples he was carrying on his back. Small clouds of dust rose from his every sandaled step, as though his feet were disturbing spirits desperate to be released from the earth. I arrived in Oaxaca shattered and broken hearted; damaged after a thirty hour bus journey, away from Juanita, the Guatemalan girl with whom I saw my future, in pursuit of the ghosts of my past.

Even years later, I cannot fully explain what compelled me to make the decision to leave Juanita and follow in my great grandfather’s footsteps through Mexico. It certainly didn’t make any sense to me that morning; I was too exhausted and bereft of understanding to appreciate being anywhere.

En route to my hotel I passed a cemetery, its giant tomb stones like a skyline of gothic skyscrapers. Even at that early hour, I saw people replacing flowers and dusting headstones. It seemed fitting to begin my Mexican adventures in a town famed for its celebration of the departed; a place where the past is not so distant from the present.

I slept until mid-afternoon, when I was woken by an earth tremor. There was something ghostly about the low groaning rumble from beneath the surface of the earth. In my sleep-hazed state I wondered if Juanita was sending me messages through the elements. Or if someone else was.

One of my great grandfather’s photos from Oaxaca

Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I opened my bedroom window on to a meadow of roasting roofs and domed towers glinting in the sun. There was hardly any breeze and the heat of the afternoon had the hue and unhurriedness of treacle. There was something both unsettling and reassuring about being woken from a heavy sleep to find the wakeful world not so different from the one I had just left.

A Storm Brewing over Monte Alban

I spent a couple of days visiting Mitla and then Monte Albán, the ancient capital of the Zapotec people, for which Oaxaca is rightly famed. These were both places that I knew my great grandfather had visited. His sepia photographs of the head scarfed women standing in front of Mitla’s mosaics had helped to colour my boyhood image of Mexico. I felt no trace of his presence though. The closest I came to a spiritual encounter was a fierce storm that whipped up such whirlwinds of dust and grit in the causeways in between the Monte Albán pyramids, the staff had to close the site several hours early.

The next day I visited several of the 17th century baroque churches left by the Spanish. The air was infused with incense, cool and dark; the bright sunshine filtered by blue stained glass and weak candle light reflected in gold leaf. For all their grandeur however, I found the churches more impressive than beautiful, and more awe inspiring than nourishing for the soul.

My search to discover my great grandfather’s secrets had so far led me to tombs and temples which failed to move me. I needed to try a different tack, or abandon my quest and return to Juanita. The next morning, remembering my favourite travellers’ maxim, if you don’t have a map you can never get lost, I left my guidebook at the hotel and set out into Oaxaca once more.

Opposite the hotel a Jacaranda tree had carpeted the street with purple. Whistling and kicking his way through the blossom confetti was a man carrying a tray of cigarettes and two flasks of coffee. I reckoned that anyone with anything to sell would gravitate to where people communed, so followed him down high-walled side streets, flowers reaching across telegraph wires like bunting, and on to wider avenidas. I noticed a man with armfuls of washing up brushes and another weighed down with eggs whisks, oven gloves and several dozen boxes of women’s tights, and another pushing a wheelbarrow full of popcorn. All were heading in the same direction. They crossed a small patch of wasteland and weaved their way through a collection of VW colectivo minibuses that were gathered like cows congregated in the corner of a field. Beyond was a tianguis, an unofficial market in which people displayed their random wares on plastic sheets: second hand self-help books, plastic guns, bird cages, coat hangers, car batteries, spanners, keep fit videos and painted replicas of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and the Seven Dwarves.

The tianguis morphed imperceptibly into an official market, goods arranged on wooden stalls: net curtains, carpets, clothing, machetes, penknives and kitchen utensils, computer games and pirated DVDs, tethered goats and boxes of frogs.

On I walked, to the in-door market, housed in a giant tram shed of a building. I was greeted with the smell of roasting meat and powdered spices, shouts of pasele, pasele, the rhythmic smack of the butchers’ cleaver, competing mariachi bands and a display of watermelon sliced open, the blood red flesh crawling with bees. Beyond it were brightly illuminated pyramids of passion fruit, mangos, prickly pears and kumquats.

Children in school uniform sat on the stall steps doing their homework with satchels at their feet, or spooned their lunches from plastic containers as their parents negotiated over their heads.

I took a seat at a food stand in the heart of the market, run by a thick set woman with ruddy features who stirred a vat of black mole with a wooden spoon the size of an oar. She passed me my order of quesadillas, which I ate happily listening to her sing along with a lone mariachi strumming his round-backed guitar. The lyrics to their melancholic song cautioned a lover not to go back, but to follow his dreams. Sitting there in this cathedral to daily life, I knew that my Mexican adventures were only just beginning.

 

I’ve had quite a response to my last post – I suppose any blog that has the word pornography in the title is always going to turn people’s heads. A few people wrote to complain about the photo I’d included. “That’s not an airport floor!” they said, “Are you sure that isn’t your personal stash?

Okay, so I’ll come clean, the photo, while closely resembling the pile of pornographic magazines that were thrown on to the airport floor, because I didn’t have a camera to hand, is actually the result of a search on the internet. But before I talk about that, to the people who complained, can I just say that you obviously studied the photo a great deal more closely than me.

About the blog photo, please allow me to pass on a piece of advice: never, never, never put the words “piles of pornographic magazines” into an internet search box. The search engine returned images I wish I had never seen. As well as pictures of pornography, piles of magazines, piles of pornographic magazines, it also offered up pornographic images featuring people with piles…

So to all those people who were upset not at the site of a pile of pornography, but the surface beneath it, I offer my sincere apologies and a picture of an airport floor.

An Airport Floor

I came across an article in The Telegraph the other day listing some of the best excuses for late trains. Among my favourites are “The train now arriving on platform one is on fire. Passengers are advised not to board this train.” And a Cardiff to London train being suspended because of “a giant clown on the line”.

 

On my travels I’ve been delayed by a bus driver’s mother’s birthday party, a bison on a landing strip, and even a fleet of combine harvesters parked at the end of a runway by angry farmers. But never before have pictures of naked women been to blame.

I am travelling from “London” Luton, to fly to Bucharest for a meeting about a film I am writing. The train to get there arrives bang on time. It steams in to the station. I see the blurred faces of confused passengers who had planned to get off. Then I hear the squealing of brakes. A strong burning smell fills the air and the train finally comes to a halt with half of the last carriage at the platform. The commuters and I look at each other. As one, we start running towards the train. I am expecting it to reverse to meet us half way. But no, when we are thirty or forty yards away, the train pulls off.

I see the station announcer raise the microphone to his mouth. “Sorry,” he says, shrugging, “I think he forgot.”

The next train does stop, but unfortunately it also stops at 100 other stations en route and when I reach the airport I have to run to the gate, barely breaking step to clear security. But I needn’t have bothered, there’s another delay. I ready myself for the excuse.

Just in case you can’t imagine what a pile of porn looks like!

A young man with a bashful but defiant expression is locked in a heated discussion with the airline staff. They say his carry-on luggage weighs too much. He says it doesn’t, the airline people insists it does. This goes on for a while.

Eventually, another airline official, a woman with the air of a senior librarian, arrives at the gate. She looks over her half-moon glasses at the young man and makes it absolutely clear that the flight will go without him unless he makes his case lighter.

He sighs, then swallows and unzips his bag. He rummages around for a minute and then drops a magazine on the floor, then another, then another, then another. By the time he has finished, there’s a pile of about twenty magazines of absolute filth scattered on the floor. The other passengers (mainly male, it has to be said) take turns to tut and shake their heads while taking a good look.

The young man looks broken-hearted.

I wait for the apologetic tannoy announcement “We’re very sorry for the delay of the flight to Bucharest. This was caused by heavy pornography.”

 

Grand, the leading grandparent magazine in North America, asked me to write a short piece for their Memories of my Grandparents column.

Princess Margaret after a fall

I could have written about my grandmother telling a policeman who had stopped her for driving thirty miles an hour over the speed limit, to check her tyres, or my grandfather knocking over Princess Margaret.

Instead, I wrote about how my grandmother reacted to the news that her father had sired a secret family, now numbering over three hundred, in a small village in western Mexico. To read the article, click HERE

Robin’s grandmother