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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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It’s Friday afternoon and it’s time to reflect on the week. I think the achievement of which I am most proud is managing to sleep through the chainsaw of the tree surgeon working in the next door garden.
I did work up in a blind panic though, thinking I had also managed to sleep through the taxi due to take me to the BBC at 7.30. Fortunately, I now realise that I have another four hours to fully wake up. The taxi is to take me to record an interview for the Stephen Nolan show on BBC 5Live, which will be played out tonight, tomorrow or Sunday.
Unless I fall asleep again (and you never know), you can listen to the interview on http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0070jd4 .
On Tuesday there was a really well-written article in The Times by Helen Rumbelow. I noted that she seemed to suggest I have commitment issues, though…

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I have been invited to my publishers’ summer party. The invite, which arrives in a calligraphy-written envelope, evokes the type of “Dahling! Love your dress! Mwaa, mwaa” soirée at which my friends seem to assume all writers spend their evenings.
Shortly before I leave the house, I call to check the dress code. This turns out to be a good move, the dress code is very strict, and I dig out some clothes I wore in the days when I had a job to go to.
I arrive and I am ushered through to a Georgian drawing room and given a sticker with my name on.
I mingle. Momentarily, it feels like I am walking into the playground on my first day at school and I am the only person who doesn’t know everyone else.
Then I realise I do know some people, even if they don’t know me. Sebastian Faulks is the first person I notice, predictably surrounded by an adoring crowd. Then I spot Ross Kemp – I think I have only ever seen him in is Extras and the Labour Party election broadcast, in which he was very convincing, but has he written a book? I decide not to ask him this question. He looks pretty hard.
I see another bloke built like an armour-plated Hummer. He has a tree trunk neck and slightly cauliflower ear. I assume he must be a rugby player, here to promote his memoir. I watch him move fluidly through the multitude, trying to work out where I have seen him before. He collects a glass of champagne from a waitress and returns to a petite woman encircled by a group of people. Then I realise who he is when I recognise the woman he is cuddling: the publishing sensation Katie Price.
Trevor, my publisher, sees me and introduces me to a glamorous lady from the Daily Mail with sparkly eye-liner. She tells me about her book, about “William Harry”. I have never heard of the man, but don’t want to reveal my ignorance and so nod and ask what angle she has taken.
It’s not until she talks about Kate Middleton that I realise she said “William and Harry”. Even I know who they are.

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I am up early. A journalist and photographer from The Times are due this morning and the flat is a tip. I also realise that I have no biscuits to offer them. Or milk, or tea, or coffee.
While I am out, my agent calls me to tell me that a radio station, having seen an article about the book in a newspaper, is interested interviewing me about the film version of the book.
“Fine,” I say, not really concentrating as I try to decide between All Butter Flapjacks or Luxury Chocolate Chip Cookies.
I go for the Flapjacks and fret all the way back to the house whether I have made the right choice. I am plumping up cushions, and wondering whether I should pop out for the Chocolate Chips when the journalist arrives. I take her coat and offer her a cup of tea or coffee and hope the biscuits are acceptable.
“Just a glass of water, thanks,” she says as she gets out her notepad and Dictaphone. I knew I should have gone for the Chocolate Chips.
The Dictaphone is as big as an old mobile phone and squeaks as the spools turn. Somehow, I find this reassuring.
I am impressed by the thoroughness of her interrogation. She drills down deep on the parallels between my great grandfather and me, and our attitudes to relationships, family and commitment. Afterwards I feel like I have been on the psychiatrist’s couch and just hope that my answers make good copy. Being interviewed in the press is a bit like being in an exam; you never really have any idea how you have done until the results are published.
Shortly after she leaves, the photographer arrives. I was hoping for a coterie of make-up and wardrobe assistants, and that I would get a whole season’s worth of free clothing, but it’s not that type of shoot, apparently. It’s just the photographer and me. He photos me on the roof terrace, the landing and the stairs. “Stair wells often have good light,” he says.
As he is setting up the last shot, the researcher from BBC Tees phones to make sure I’m okay to be interviewed for the primetime show. I say I am and go back face the camera.
An hour later and I am on the phone, listening to BBC Tees. I am staring out of the window, my mind drifting. Suddenly, I’m on.
“And we’re now joined by the writer of The Mango Orchard, which is about to be made into a Hollywood feature film.”
I have to answer briefly, and positively, about the movie which is far from being finalised. I talk about the conversations, rather than the inconclusive nature of them.
“Why do you think your book will make a good film?” she asks.
I tell the story. I talk about the tales my grandma told me as a boy, about the bandits and the bags of silver and the narrow escape from the Mexican Revolution. Then I talk about my journey, about how I tracked down the small village near a small town near Guadalajara… Over five minutes as gone and I haven’t heard a word from the interviewer. Is she still there? I carry on talking about the factory where my great grandfather worked, about my newly-found uncle who greeted me… I still haven’t heard a thing and I wonder whether it is more pathetic to be speaking to a dead telephone line, or to say “Hello? You there?” in the middle of a live broadcast.
Finally she interrupts me. “Who would you like to play you in the film?”
“James McAvoy,” I say. I like Martin Compston, who recently starred in The Disappearance of Alice Creed, but I momentarily forget his name.
I hang up and open the packet of All Butter Flapjacks.

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Better out than in

It turns out that it wasn’t a hangover, or brain cancer. I go to see the dentist who tells me I have a “mischievous wisdom tooth”, and pulls it out.
I now have a disconcertingly large hole in my mouth, but my headache has gone. Looks like I’ll make Wednesday’s reading after all.

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Four days after my big night out and the hangover is no better. I’m dizzy, my brain feels like it has been replaced by candyfloss, clamped with a vice and muffled with a tea-cosy. My thought processes are slow, and a long way from my mouth – not a good day to be talking to the press. Today it has been women’s and genealogy magazines, and the regional newspapers in the North Yorkshire.
I go for a walk to the newsagent to clear my head. I buy the Ham & High to look at the interview I gave to promote my talk at Hampstead Waterstones on 14th April. The interview is not there.
I write to the interviewer and am told the piece was filed to late and will appear next week, a day after my appearance at Waterstones.
I have a lie down but can’t sleep; my head is too painful. I convince myself that I have a brain tumour, and wonder if I will live long enough to give my talk.

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Since my move to my new home a week before the launch of the book, I have taken to taking a walk before I start work in the morning. It clears my head and reminds me that there is a world outside these four walls and my computer screen. Thanks to my friends, Ann and James, for whom I am flat sitting, the neighbourhood in which I now find myself at the beginning of each day is more genteel and scenic than I am used to. There are less weapon dogs to dodge, the streets are winding and tree-lined, and if I ever feel the need, it is possible to spend £8.50 on a loaf of bread.

Today, on my morning constitutional, I was trying to compose in my head an article I had been asked to write for Waterstone’s Quarterly. My concentration was broken when I saw a man lumbering towards me who looked like REM’s Michael Stipe after an unhealthy cocktail of growth hormones. He was screaming about “F*cking postmen!” at the top of his voice.

I am never quite sure whether to ignore these people, or to stare them down; show them that I’m not scared. I decided to stare him down. I looked at him and found myself thinking of a cartoon character with spirals turning in its eyes.

His body posture changed instantly. From being a snarling ball of rage, he visibly relaxed. “I had a friend who was knocked down by a dustcart once,” he said, mildly. He seemed to have forgotten about the problem he had postmen.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Oh, he’s not dead, but I think he has a headache.”
I nodded, and wondered if this person who was knocked down by a dustcart was him.

He followed me round the block, reeling off a stream of non sequiturs about the origins of romance and why he didn’t like Kilburn. He didn’t seem to notice that I was contributing little to the conversation. At one point he grabbed my arm. His hand wrapped around my bicep and his grip was fierce. Not a person to get on the wrong side of.

We arrived at my front door and I was worried he would invite himself in, but he became distracted by the number on my front door. “I don’t like the number 28,” he said sadly. “It’s wrong.”

I’m not sure that this encounter inspired me, but I wrote the article for Waterstone’s very quickly. Perhaps I wanted to finish it before lunch, in case I bumped into my strange neighbour next time I ventured outside.

You can see the article now on http://www.wbqonline.com/feature.do?featureid=509

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