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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.”

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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.

 

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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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Out of the blue I receive an invitation to an awards ceremony. It’s not just any old awards ceremony; it’s the History Today Awards, run by the country’s most respected history magazine. The invite comes on a crisp white embossed card. It looks so smart I give it pride of place on the mantel piece. I even take down my Christmas cards.

I wrote a piece for History Today last year, about my great grandfather’s role in (kind of) starting the Mexican Revolution. It was not an easy article to write. Every claim had to be checked, referenced and backed up.  I struggled to hit the deadline; I sent off final copy from a train with a dodgy internet connection with about an hour to go. Could it be that my hard work was being recognised with an award?

The event is held at the Museum of the Order of St John, a Hogwarts-style oak-beamed hall just inside the old London city wall. It has a 900 year old history, and its distinguished visitors include Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare.

I imagine the event will be full of pear-shaped professors with Dennis Healey eyebrows, peering at each other over half-moon spectacles and full glasses of port. When I get there, I notice my name badge is one of the few which doesn’t

have Dr or Prof or an aristocratic title on it. And yes, many of the guests are pear-shaped and have Dennis Healey eyebrows. There are also a surprising number of young people, glamorous women and TV celebrities.

I walk into the crowded hall. I know no one.  A young woman smiles at me. She has the authoritative air of someone hosting a party and I wonder if she has she seen the list of winners, and recognises my name. Then I notice her tray. ‘Would you like a drink, sir?’ she asks.

I accept a glass of white wine and begin to mingle.

I hover on the fringes of a large group and try to follow the conversation. A man with a red face and barrel chest says, ‘But of course, what do you expect with the Tudors?” Everyone laughs heartily.

I move on.

A man with a voluminous grey beard leans into a group of young admirers. ‘And I ask myself the question: “What would Milton do?”’ The group all nods thoughtfully. I ponder the wisdom of asking which Milton he is referring to. I decide against and move on once more.

‘How are you getting on?’ asks a woman I had met at the entrance.

It’s nice to see a friendly face. She introduces herself as Sarah Wise, a journalist and writer of several books on Victorian social history. She is charming, and regales me with stories of the underbelly of London life in the 1800s. The woman who had given me a glass of wine, offers us both another. And then another. It’s only when the presentations begin that I remember that I am at a prestigious awards ceremony. I have the outline of an acceptance speech in my pocket but I can’t find it.

Sarah holds my drink as I turn out all my pockets. It’s gone.

The roof of my mouth goes dry as the first category nominees are read out. I have no speech, and even if I did, am in no fit state to deliver it.

It is with a mixture of disappointment and relief that my name is not on the list. Nor is it included in any of the following list of nominees.

I don’t know what I would have done if I had won. But if I met Milton on my way to the podium, I’d have asked for his advice.

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How factually accurate does a non-fiction story have to be? It’s a conundrum for every travel and non-fiction writer, and is hotly debated by readers and writers alike.

The latest Issue of Traveller magazine

I was not to worry, she said, someone had already written a sidebar with all the facts and figures of how to get there and what to see. From me she wanted a mood piece to accompany some beautiful photos she had of the city. “Something made hazy with the passing of time might work well.” She was also after a strong visual and sensory idea of place, with a clear narrative. So, I was to write a poetic vignette, hazy yet with a clear narrative… about a place I couldn’t really remember.

It was a tough brief. I tried to construct the piece around the few facts I could really remember, but it just didn’t work. It only started to come together when I allowed myself to remember the emotions I had felt when I was in Oaxaca.  Two days before I arrived there I had left Juanita behind in Guatemala. My heart was raw and I experienced everything through the sensation of loss.

Suddenly, the words came easily and the article was written. But how is it possible, you might ask, that my stay in Oaxaca – so ripe with emotional drama – didn’t appear in the book?

I had always intended on writing this scene in The Mango Orchard, but didn’t include it in the end because it didn’t make narrative sense. I cut it out to make the story read better.

This leads to a question I am often asked: is The Mango Orchard all true? Yes, it is. Everything really did happen; I just changed the order of some events. In real life, I left Juanita not once, but twice. To have included it exactly as it occurred in real life however, would have been confusing. It might have also made me look like a bit of an idiot.

If someone asks you about your day, you edit it down. If, for instance, during your day you bought a cheese and ham sandwich, paid a bill at the bank and then saw the Queen water skiing naked on the Thames, my guess is that you would probably neglect to mention the bank and the cheese and ham sandwich.

Bruce Chatwin

I know of non-fiction writers who create composite characters and invent key sequences to enable them to tell the story. Even a travel writing great like Bruce Chatwin was accused of fictionalising significant portions of In Patagonia. Some writers go to the other extreme and transcribe every word of every meeting, even to the extent of pretending to have diarrhoea so they can run to the bathroom every five minutes to jot down conversations verbatim.

For the record, my policy on writing non-fiction is this: events have to really have happened, characters need to exist. But if changing the order of events or highlighting a particular aspect of a character’s personality helps the story to flow better, I don’t hesitate. Also, while I quote people as accurately as possible, I don’t think the reader will complain if I edit out the ums, I don’t knows and non-sequiturs.

Finally, I have a confession to make. Amy, the editor of Traveller magazine didn’t ask me to write the article at the launch party. In reality, it was eight days later, after a phone call and an extended e-mail correspondence, following a conversation we started at the party. Would you really rather I had put that at the beginning of this blog?

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The final weeks before birth is I gather, the most tiring and tiresome period of pregnancy. You don’t sleep well and can never get comfortable. It reminds me of the old Joan Rivers joke: “I was screaming ‘get this damn thing out of me!’. Nine months earlier I was screaming the exact same thing.”
Women, especially mothers, tend to give me short shrift when I compare the publication of a book to having a baby. But after weeks of anxious waiting, and at least one false alarm, this morning the little bundle carrying the paperback (yes, with photos) finally arrives.
I rip open the box and there it is at last. I don’t have time to spend much quality time with my new arrival though, as I realise I am running late for my appearance on the Steve Scruton show on BBC Radio Essex. I run to the tube, hoping someone will notice the book I am brandishing.
Radio BBC Essex is in a white-walled building in a leafy part of Chelmsford. From the outside, if it weren’t for the BBC livery, it could be a posh dentist’s surgery. I walk into the studio as Steve is in the middle of a link. I sit down and squint at the wall-mounted TV screen showing BBC 24. The images are of men riding in the back of pick-ups carrying rocket-launchers. I read the caption at the bottom of the screen: “Lady Gaga.” That doesn’t make much sense, but I have poor eyesight, and I’m dyslexic, so I’m used to reading things that no one else sees. I look again, and see it says “Libya”.
Steve finishes his link and leans across a desk of microphones to shake my hand. I like him immediately – open and friendly. “Thanks for the Tweet from the train,” he says. I’m always amazed that anyone reads them.
The interview begins and before I know it, I find myself telling the story about how I nearly became a drug-dealing pimp in Colombia. This was probably not the kind of story Steve had in mind when he booked me, but we have a good chat and he very generously gives my appearance at the Essex Book Festival a good plug, and makes admiring noises – live on air – about my new pride and joy.

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