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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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How Cool am I?

I’m in LA, at the pristine headquarters of one of Hollywood’s leading talent agencies. I’m looking out of the reception window at the Hollywood sign, just visible in the distance through the heat haze. From this air-conditioned vantage point, the city seems like a toy-town, my toy-town, ripe with possibilities.

A young man in a suit taps me on the shoulder and leads me through the office. It reminds me a bit of a ship: in steerage are the hapless employees at cramped windowless desks abutting the central corridor. They stare into screens and speak earnestly into headsets.

A narrow stretch of carpet separates them from the stateroom offices. These have leather sofas, guitars mounted on the walls, and windows with views of Beverly Hills.

I am welcomed into one of these offices and handed a drink. The meeting begins with pleasantries, but I soon realise I am being assessed.

First test: where am I staying? This reflects my status. I have been put in a suite bigger than my London home in a very flash hotel in West Hollywood. It has a tennis court and swimming pool on the roof. Only the thing is, I can’t remember its name.

Second test: who do I know in London? I fire some names – I’m not without my contacts – but none of them register as significant in this west coast world.

The third test is a general assessment. How cool do I look? How am I carrying myself?

I feel I am answering my questions reasonably articulately and am wearing Armani trousers and a white shirt. I have taken care not to spill my drink down my shirt front. Despite failing the first two tests, I feel in control; I feel pretty cool.

Then I look down. I realise my flies are wide open.

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Yesterday, I experienced a minor miracle. It didn’t involve any would-be saints, Andy Murray winning a tennis match, or even David Blaine. It concerned a letter sent from Mexico.
The person who sent it didn’t have my address, so she sent it to someone who might. They didn’t have it either but sent it to somewhere I had lived, and the person now living there, redirected the letter to my present home. Some three weeks after the envelope left Mexico, I managed to snatch it away from the dog before it was chewed to bits (another minor miracle) and opened it.
It was a lovely letter, from a lady called Nina, who, having read The Mango Orchard, journeyed over 800 kilometres from her home in Mexico City to have her photo taken in front of the Bellavista factory, a place which plays an important role in the book.
Nina’s father, like my great grandfather, had set out from England for Mexico to work in the cotton industry, but unlike my ancestor, he stayed.
Nina with Juan Cañas, curator of the museum
I have received many very kind e-mails and letters from people who have read The Mango Orchard, and wanted to share the memories that the book provoked. As far as I know, Nina is the first person to travel so far to have her picture taken. I am very touched, thank you.

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A big thank you to everyone who came to hear me speak at Words by the Water last week, especially to Maggie and her book group, who suggested the festival to me in the first place.
I had fully intended to tweet in between readings, but had forgotten that the Lake District is almost entirely a mobile free zone.  There was apparently a weak signal next to the lake, a few hundred yards from the theatre, but it was raining stair rods most of the time, and when it wasn’t, it was too cold for me to have any practical use of my fingers, so the update has had to wait until now.
Someone described Words by the Water as being in like “an interactive Radio 4”. Indeed, Melvyn Bragg was there and I attended some wonderful talks by the likes of Peter Hennessy, Roy Hattersley   and Jean Baggott. I also got to meet the brilliant John Gray and Ted Nield and had been promised an introduction to John Simpson, but Muammar Gaddafi had other ideas.
During my stay there I learned that there is only one lake in the Lake District (Bassenthwaite, all the others are officially “waters”, “tarns”, “meres” or reservoirs) and that David Lloyd-George sired over 50 illegitimate children in Carnarvon alone. I learned that in the 1950s, Britain’s nuclear deterrent depended on AA phone boxes and the Prime Minister’s driver having some loose change. I also discovered that JG Ballard refused to invest any money and kept everything he ever earned in his current account. I was told by a highly respected broadcaster and national treasure (who shall remain nameless) that he keeps fit by running up and down stairs… in the nude.
Also in attendance most days at the festival was six-foot-something Welsh drag artist, who spent her days walking grandly through the theatre foyer claiming to be “the world’s first female baritone”, and trying to lure people up to the Sky Arts den to ‘see her arias’.
Ps: Thanks to Jo-anne for her media advice!

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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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My friend Claire sends me a text message. ‘I’ve just heard the new Robbie Williams and Gary Barlow single on the radio,’ she says, ‘And they’ve nicked the opening line from your book.’
I go on-line to listen to the song and read the lyrics. I’ve never tried to do this before, and I’m amazed how easy it is. Within 30 seconds of having received the text I am watching the video; an Americana Brokeback bromance gone sour and patched up within the four minutes and twenty three seconds it takes them to sing the song.
The song is okay, but the opening line is stunning:
Well there’s three versions of this story mine, yours and then the truth”
I turn to page three, line eight and nine of The Mango Orchard:
“There are three versions of every story: my version, your version and the truth.”
They are virtually identical, apart from the fact that the line in The Mango Orchard is grammatically correct. My version was also released into the public domain over six months before the Robbie and Gary single came in to being. I post the observation on Facebook and Twitter. The responses come in thick and fast, most along the lines of “sue the bastards”. I even get some offers to help me to do just that.
I don’t profess to be any legal expert – Igglepiggle from In the Night Garden could probably be more reasonably expected to form a coherent legal opinion than me – but I’m pretty sure that taking two multimillionaire pop stars to court over a line which I copied from a conversation with my grandmother 35 years ago is probably not the right way to go.
I opt for trying to exact some PR advantage from the “coincidence”. I phone Robbie’s management company. A very well-spoken lady answers. I explain the situation and I can sense her hackles rising until I say that I’m not looking to take any legal action, I’m just interested to know if either Gary or Robbie have read my book, and if they haven’t, maybe they’d like to (and be photographed reading it).
‘Well they are together at the moment, as they are promoting the single,’ she says. ‘Send me an e-mail with the details and I’ll forward it to them. I’ll get back to you in a couple of days.’
I send the mail and wait. And wait.
A week goes by and I haven’t heard anything, so I phone up. Again, a very well-spoken voice answers my call. I ask for to speak to Sarah and am told that she is in a meeting so I explain to the well-spoken voice about the similarity of the line in the song to my book, and say I am interested to know if either of the two singers has read The Mango Orchard. She asks me for my details and says Sarah will call me back the moment she returns from her meeting.
‘Thank you very much,’ I say, ‘and can you give me your name?’
There is a pause and hear panic. Then very meekly she says, ‘Sarah…’
There are three versions of every story; mine, yours and ‘they’re in a meeting’.

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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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