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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

 

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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

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I have always the Douglas Adams quote: “I love deadlines; I love the sound they make as they go whooshing by!” I can’t truthfully claim to be quite so cavalier about them, although admittedly, this article was due a couple of hours ago. But when I was working on The Mango Orchard, I had a very good reason to write as quickly as possible: one of the main characters in the book was very keen to see it finished, and she was ninety eight years old when I began…

To read on, please click here to go to the literary blog Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dave for which I have contributed this article

Robin and his grandmother discuss deadlines

Robin-writing-The-Mango-Orchard in Spain

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I’m at Broadcasting House, the new home of the BBC World Service, for an appearance on Outlook. I am, I will admit, a little nervous. This is not just a national broadcast, it’s the Whole World. And it’s live.

With ten minutes before we’re on-air, I am taken through to the studio by a producer called Jane, to meet Jo Fidgen, the presenter. She is charming, has a remarkably soothing voice, and eyes almost as blue as her hair. We talk briefly about how she plans to tackle the complex story of The Mango Orchard in the seven and a half minutes allotted.

I am escorted to the sound booth, where there are four producers, each at their station, like naval officers at the bridge of a ship. There is an air of ordered panic. There are three minutes until we go live “We’ve lost twenty seconds” calls one, “Twenty seconds of dead air. I think it’s in Nigeria.” Phone calls are made.

There are two women in the corner with electronic stop watches and clip boards. “We’ve shaved seven seconds of the first piece,” says one. One of the producers turns to me and says, “That’s good, seven more seconds for us.”

We’re in to the news and then the programme begins. The first item on the programme is a pre-recorded interview with three Irish women. Jane turns to me and says, “This is a bit depressing”. It is an understatement. The women discuss, in the most explicit detail imaginable, how, behind the façade of a respectable Dublin existence, their father groomed, abused and raped them. For years. There is absolute silence in the control booth, broken by one of the producers: “I feel physically sick”. She then turns to me and says, “We’re looking to you for some light relief!”

“I know some great jokes about the Pope?” I offer. As one, the four producers and the two women with stop watches turn round with panic on their faces.

Perhaps not.

The main producer turns round to me when it has two more minutes to run and says with a cheery smile, “You’re on!”

I feel like a Vaudeville act, asked to follow a performer who had got up on stage and read an autopsy report.

I had deliberately not looked up World Service audience figures. It’s obviously a lot, but when you are talking on live radio about a book you have taken five years to write, and don’t want to screw up, you really don’t want to know numbers. As we go to the studio, Jane says casually, “There’ll be about 40 million people listening.”

Yikes.

I am trying to imagine what forty million people looks like. If they all linked arms, could they reach the moon? How impressive would the tsunami be if they all jumped up and down at the same time? If they all called the same pizza take away restaurant, how long would it be until everyone had their meal?

Jo is looking at me. It’s time to answer the question. That I didn’t hear. I guess what it was and talk for a while. She asks me some more questions and I try to answer them as concisely as I can and before I know it, our seven minutes thirty-seven seconds of talking to 40 million people comes to an end.

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It’s early on a bright but cold Sunday morning, and I’m making my way to the BBC radio studios in the centre of London to be interviewed “down-the-line” by the legendary Radio Sheffield presenter, Rony Robinson about The Mango Orchard, and genealogy.

Outside the studio building are an anorak-wearing couple waiting for Steve Wright, who is on-air when I walk in to reception. I am shown to an empty studio, which in reality is little more than a padded cell with recording equipment. I put on some headphones and wait to be “dialled in”.

 

I hear some pops and crackles in my headphones, then they burst into life with the Sister Sledge song “We are Family”. Sly and the Family Stone then sing “A Family Affair”. .. all very cleverly linked in to the theme of the programme.

Rony has this lovely favourite uncle chuckle that makes you want to talk. I talk. After my interview, there’s a piece by his producer, Rav Sanghera, whose Indian great grandfather also had a secret family in Latin America, in Panama.

 

Rony starts to wonder if he’s the only person who doesn’t have a secret Latin American family. Then a woman phones in. She doesn’t have any family in the Americas. What, asks Rony, is her extraordinary genealogical discovery? It’s that she’s related to the former glamour model, Sam Fox.

If Rony is disappointed, he hides it very well. Amazingly, without it sounding in the least bit sleazy, he manages to get the caller to reveal that she, and her twin daughters, have all got similarly generously proportioned chests, and we go back to talking about lost families in Latin America.

 

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My great grandfather just before leaving Mexico

I wonder if anything will happen this weekend to cause people to look back in a hundred years’ time.

Exactly one hundred years ago, it was also a cold Easter weekend. I know this as when I was researching The Mango Orchard, I spent weeks in archives looking into my great grandfather’s escape from the Mexican Revolution.

At the end of March 1912, following a tip-off from a local bandit, my forebear left Mexico in a hurry. Counter-revolutionary forces were encircling the town; his life was in danger. He had to pack and leave the country which had been his home for 13 years, in an afternoon. He kissed his Mexican family goodbye on March 26th, and fled to San Blas, where he boarded a ship bound for San Francisco. He would never see his Mexican family again.

Mississippi Flood 1912

He probably thought he’d had his share of trauma, but a storm was blowing across the US. He stayed in New Orleans en route to New York, where, after days of heavy rains, the levees broke. The city was flooded by “the greatest volume of water in the history of the Mississippi”. My great grandfather himself was nearly swept to his death. The New York Times reported that one man only escaped the rising waters by cutting a hole in the roof of his hotel room with a can opener.

In the same edition of the newspaper, very likely one that my great grandfather read, were the ads for steamers sailing for Liverpool. If the floodwaters subsided, he was aiming to be in New York to catch the Cunard ship, the Caronia, on April 10th. If they didn’t, there was another ship he was considering. It was scheduled to sail on April 20th at 12 noon: the Titanic.

New York Times Shipping ads April 1912

More in a few days…

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I arrive at Broadcasting House to appear on Robert Elms’ BBC London programme twenty minutes early; I didn’t want to turn up late and breathless and pant into the microphone.
I sign in at the security desk, sit and flick through the BBC staff magazine, Ariel. BBC reception areas seem to have been designed to give the impression that no licence fee money what so ever has been wasted on such frippery as comfortable chairs.
A young man with spiky hair and a heavy leather jacket appears at the security gates to take me up to the studio. He is about to speak when a man in a pork pie hat charges through the sliding doors. He is panting, red in the face, and cursing the inefficiencies of the Victoria Line. “I’ve just run all the way from Oxford f*cking Circus,” he says, and kneels in front of the water cooler and drinks several cups. I notice his hand is trembling. I decide against pointing out that the tube station is only about 100 yards away, or the fact that I had managed my own tube journey without a hitch.
Still breathing heavily, the man in the pork pie hat accompanies us to the studio floor. As soon as the lift doors open, he barges out and runs straight into the studio. I sit in the waiting area, and listen on the wall-mounted speakers to his continuing complaints about the short comings of the underground system, this time without the cuss words.
I had been told that I would be on-air just after 11, for about half an hour, but it’s 11.20 before I am called into the studio. I am introduced to Robert Elms and he tells me about his travels in Mexico as I am placed in front of a microphone on the other side of a padded desk from him.
The theme for the programme today is genealogy, and I am here to talk about The Mango Orchard as an example of a genealogical search which culminates in a remarkable discovery. I’ve been interviewed enough now to be able to tell the story about how I travelled in the footsteps of my great grandfather and discovered the Mexican village in which he had left over three hundred descendants, in several different ways. Today, Robert is getting the family history-themed, half hour version.
I am mystified  when, only two minutes into my interview, Robert starts signalling for to me to make my answers shorter and snappier. What is he thinking? We’ve got thirty minutes to fill! The interview is almost over before I realise that, perhaps because of the late arrival of the man in the pork pie hat, I only have ten minutes. Or I had ten minutes. Suddenly it’s over and I am out in the street again.

            I walk to Oxford Circus station and get stuck on the Victoria Line

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I arrive in Manchester to film a short documentary for the BBC about the story told in The Mango Orchard. I hadn’t prepared for the night time dagger-like icy wind that rushes in to the carriage when I open the train door at Piccadilly station.
In the morning I am collected from my hotel by the person due to interview me, Judy, who happens to be an old friend of mine. She remembers my complaint about the lack of a hospitality suite when I have previously been on the BBC and very sweetly picks me up from my hotel with a bag full of fresh fruit, which of course, I don’t touch.
She drives me to Helmshore Mill, a working mill and museum, where we join the rest of the crew and I’m introduced to Christine Taylor, a local historian, invited to add some expertise on the area where my great grandfather grew up. I have lots of questions for her but every time I ask anything, Ged the producer stifles the conversation; he wants to capture my reactions to what she’s saying on film. It takes time to set up the shot, organise the lighting and microphones. I’m standing with Christine in front of a trestle table, on which are arranged photographs of Tottington in days of yore. I begin to leaf through them but am again told to wait until the cameras are running.
We talk about the weather.
                The team is ready and just as the record light lights up on the camera, Ged says, “By the way, Christine has a surprise for you.”
I have no idea what this surprise may be, but as I spent years  investigating my great grandfather’s story, I can’t believe that anyone has managed to uncover any document I haven’t yet seen, so I brace myself, ready to feign amazement. The camera is zooming in on me and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. I realise that my face has frozen into a most unconvincing smile and as I suddenly don’t know what to do with my hands I wedge one into my back pocket. This must look very camp but I hold the pose.
                Christine hands me two sheets of paper. “I found a letter your great grandfather wrote on his way to Mexico.”
“What?!” I no longer have to pretend to be amazed. I am overwhelmed. I spent months looking for this.
I read the letter, and forget that cameras are aimed at me. I read about the storms he endured – just as I had imagined – but then I see where he wrote the letter: Jamaica. What the hell was he doing in Jamaica?? And it’s not just Jamaica. He describes going for a drive along the side of the abandoned Panama Canal project “hundreds of railway waggons and scores of engines rotting away…” He talks about passing though the Virgin Isles and Haiti, where “the natives worship a god called Omar, and it is a common thing for mothers to eat their babies as a sacrifice to this god.”
                Not for the first time, my great grandfather has dumbfounded me. His journey to Mexico didn’t take five weeks, as I had understood; it took over seven months! What was he doing? Did he leave scores of other secret families scattered around the Caribbean?
Maybe I should pop over and have a look.
The filming continues at a handful of other north Manchester locations. Judy and I are filmed walking around the mill in Tottington where my great grandfather worked. The mill is now a carpet factory and there’s little evidence of the mill that there once was. Forklift trucks with enormous, spikes on the front like jousting sticks, speed around carrying roles of carpet from one end of the factory to another. I have rarely been in a factory before. It is deafening.
How do I feel? Judy wants to know. It’s always a tricky one to answer. I’m not sure. I mutter something about my great grandfather and Judy is nodding.
“That sounded like a close,” says Ged.
“That sounded like a close to me,” confirms the cameraman. I am not sure what I’ve just said. To find out, I guess I’ll have to tune in in the New Year when it is screened.

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First of all, an apology to all those people to whom I promised I would write regularly during my recent trip to Mexico. Initially I was just enjoying the holiday; for the first time in several years, I was not spending every waking moment trying to carve copy out of what I saw round me, and then, after a few weeks of not doing very much, the only thing of interest that was going on was something which I couldn’t talk about. Still can’t. Maybe I’ll explain in a few weeks.
Apart from kicking back and doing very little with the sun on my face, the main purpose of being in Mexico was to visit the family, and take The Mango Orchard home. The family held the book like a newborn. Their faces shone with excitement and pride. And then they flicked through the book to see what I had said about them.
The BBC took advantage of my trip by giving me a camera to film some scenes for a documentary, due to be aired later in the year. They asked me to film some typical Mexican scenes, as well as me talking with the family, and visiting the cotton mills where my great grandfather worked… and from where the initial sprouts of rebellion that became the Mexican Revolution began.
After a few weeks with the family, I went on a road trip around the country, often finding myself in Cotos Privados – gated communities with identical houses, arranged round swimming pools, pristine lawns and 24 hour security. These places are safe, that’s why people like them. Children play in the street, doors remain unlocked, but I couldn’t help feeling I was on the set for the Truman Show.
Staying in these new, posh estates gave rise to the Great Dilemma. Not about whether or not it is morally right to have great swathes of urban space from which the general public cannot enter. No, something of much greater importance: this is the ultimate social quandary… about toilet paper.
In most bathrooms around Mexico, and indeed of all Latin America, next to the toilet is a wastepaper basket. Everyone knows not to throw paper (or anything else) in to the loo.
But surely the people who had built these state-of-the-art houses in which I was staying had bothered to install modern plumbing, no? It’s not a question you can easily ask, though.
You are suddenly faced with a predicament: what would be more embarrassing, to be responsible for blocking the pipes with paper they weren’t designed for and flooding the house with raw sewage, or to put your soiled toilet paper in a bin normally used for cotton buds and empty shampoo bottles?
It’s a question I pondered long and hard. I generally felt that flooding the house with raw sewage would be marginally less embarrassing.
Any thoughts?

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 The day does not begin well.
When I stumble out of bed I get a sharp, stabbing pain in my lower back. It’s a familiar pain which afflicts me every six months or so, and over the years has kept several osteopaths, chiropractors and acupuncturists in gravy.
The most painful part is always getting dressed. I hop around my bedroom, swearing loudly for about ten minutes, trying to get my trousers on. What I really want to do is swallow handfuls of strong pain-killers and go back to bed but I have to get up. I have things to do.
I rub in some deep heat cream and hobble to the bank to order my travellers’ cheques for my trip to Mexico next week, and then hobble back in time to be interviewed over the phone by the Manchester Evening News.
Interview over, I set about tidying the flat in preparation for the arrival of a film crew from Televisa, Mexican’s biggest TV network. And just in case they want some tea, I pop out to the shops to buy some milk. I have never known any Mexican to drink tea, but you never know.
The rushing to the shop and bending over to pick things off the floor does my back no favours. I swallow some pills and rub in more deep heat cream. I realise the flat is beginning to smell like a rugby changing room.
It’s five minutes until Televisa are due to arrive and I remember I need to send a text to someone I am due to meet this evening. But where is my phone? I looking on my desk and in the kitchen, I pat my pockets, look in the jacket that I wore to the bank. It’s not there. I call my number from the landline so I can track it down. It goes straight to voice mail. That’s what happens when someone steals your phone: they take out the SIM card so they can sell the handset.
I swear again. And again.
It’s now 3pm. The Mexicans are due to be here, but I need my phone so I can concentrate on my interview. If I have left it at the shop, the sooner I get there, the more likely I am to find it.
My mobile is not at the shop. That must meant that unless I dropped it on my way to or back, my neighbours, the ones I have only seen once, when I asked them not to make so much noise in the mornings, must have broken in to my flat and stolen it. The bastards.
When I get back, there is a Mexican film crew standing at my front door, looking at their watches. I lead them upstairs and try to forget about the phone. It’s my first interview in Spanish, and I am a little apprehensive; in any interview one needs to be pithy and concise. That’s tricky enough in English, much more so in a second language.
We are standing on the roof terrace and I am talking into a Televisa microphone that the journalist is holding towards me. I try to imagine my Mexican aunts and uncles eating their breakfast sometime next week, and what their reactions will be when I suddenly appear on the screen.
“Ay, mira, es Robiiiin!”
After the interview they film me sitting at my desk pretending to be fascinated by what’s on my computer screen, looking through the photos of Mexico, and finally, of me walking out of the door with my rucksack, pretending to go to the airport. The pain my rucksack gives me when I sling it over my shoulder for the camera does not bode well for my trip to Mexico.
I now have to sort out my stolen phone. I spend over an hour cancelling and replacing the SIM card and convincing the insurance company to give me a new handset. They eventually agree, but say they can’t deliver it straight away. I won’t receive it until July.
It’s 5.30pm now and I remember I am meant to be meeting someone at 6pm. Her number is of course on my phone which has been stolen and the SIM cancelled. I send her a mail, hoping to reach her before she leaves the office. My laptop has gone into hibernation mode and as I wait for it to warm up, I move some papers. And my mobile phone falls on the desk.

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