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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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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.”

 

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Poole Central Library, where I have been invited to give a talk about The Mango Orchard, is sandwiched between a KFC and a Primark store, and housed in a concrete shopping centre. Inside, I am pleased to see, it is light and airy. In addition to the regular librarians – including the charming Jenny Oliver who has organised the event – there is an army of green sash-wearing volunteers welcoming people and directing them towards the drinks and refreshments.

With Judy Butt before the talk

Two volunteers heave the books I have brought with me on to a table. I feel a bit like a travelling salesman arriving at an event with a boxful of books. It’s always difficult to know how many to bring. I once travelled six hours to an event in Halifax and sold not one. I have a good feeling about Poole, though.
I am given a very generous introduction by the former mayor, Judy Butt. She is now an executive counsellor with one of the best titles I have ever come across. She is (deep breath) Cabinet Portfolio Holder for Leisure, Sport & Recreation, Culture, Libraries & Community, Learning Public, Engagement and Participation for the Borough of Poole.

The talk goes well and the questions are intelligent and thoughtful. Among the people who put their hands up are a former priest who worked in Mexico, and asks his questions in Spanish, a couple whose daughter is planning her own Latin American adventure, and a woman whose Indonesian grandmother had killed her grandfather with black magic.


“We sold all the books,” the volunteers tell me sadly as they hand me a brown envelope stuffed with cash. “Shame you didn’t bring more.”

From Poole I head to Plymouth, approximately 100 miles away. It takes over five hours. I calculate (I have run out of reading material) that Robert Stephenson’s Rocket would have gone to Plymouth and be half way back by the time we get there. I am joined, between Yetminster and Dorchester, by a group of students. They look a thoughtful, intellectual bunch. They sit down in the seats next to mine. “You know?” says one, “I had a dream last night that I could only get drunk by licking Clarissa’s knees.” The others nod and plug in their iPods.

It’s another good night in Plymouth. This time I don’t have to bring any books and a nice lady from Waterstone’s does brisk business on my behalf. And it’s back to London.

Next stop, Chicago.

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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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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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It’s Saturday morning and I wake before dawn. It’s only my second morning in my new flat and I walk into the living room to look out of the window at the still unfamiliar sights. The sky is still a dirty amber and the lights still shining brightly on the London Eye and BT Tower.

I’ve rarely been up this early before; I’m tempted to say that the view is worth getting up for, but that’s not quite true. The sight of a still, quiet London glowing in the half-light is most certainly beautiful, but not as beautiful as a deep and restful sleep. I’m only up because I have a radio interview to go to.

The marvellous Emma, the publicity guru at my publishers, phoned me when I was in the middle of moving flat last week to tell me I had been booked to appear on Excess Baggage on Radio 4, the daddy of all travel programmes. It’s live at 10.00.

I have always assumed that guests would need to be there hours before, and would sit in the green room like Roman noblemen feasting on enormous bowls of fruit while production assistants run around after them to satisfy their every whim. This is why I am up so early. I want my bowl of fruit.

It’s 9.45, just fifteen minutes before we’re on air and I am standing in the BBC canteen with the other two guest, Chloe Aridjis, who’s promoting A Book of Clouds, and Mark Carwardine, a well-renowned zoologist . We’re sipping ice cold water in plastic cups. There’s no fruit. Not even any biscuits.

Ten minutes before the programme goes on air, we are shown into the studio. John McCarthy, wearing a very fetching floral shirt, greets us warmly and invites us to sit round a carpet-topped table. It has four microphones sticking out of a hole in the middle where there are multi-coloured cables and a computer keyboard. I am handed another glass of water and I can’t help wondering what would happen if I accidently dropped it. Would sparks fly? Would Radio 4 go off the air?

I’m gripping my water so tightly that I barely notice a green light go on. John begins his very smooth opening. He then pauses as they play a recording of a TV programme Mark made about whale-watching with Stephen Fry. I realise this was a programme I saw, though I don’t say anything as I’m not sure my microphone is switched off.

John’s brilliance is that he lulls you into thinking you’re just having a chat, which we are, I suppose, it’s just that we have a million or so people listening. I all but forget my nerves, so much so that I hear a voice inside my head say “Go on, say ‘titty turd’”.

Gosh, I hope that thought wasn’t out loud. John is looking at me, millions are listening. He’s asked me a question. What was it again, something about why I set out in the footsteps of my great grandfather?

I clear my throat and begin to talk, and try to keep the words ‘titty turd’ away from my mouth. (Where on earth did they come from anyway? Who the hell says titty turd?) John nods encouragingly and asks another question and I tell the story about Wilson, the loon who pulled a gun on me during the journey from Veracruz to Mexico City. The version in the book has a fair number of words a lot more offensive than titty or turd, but judging from the smile on John’s face, I think I’ve managed to avoid them.

John directs some questions to Chloe and then more to me and as a final question asks if we intend to go back to Mexico. We all say we do and it’s the end of the programme.

We have a brief chat as we put on our coats and within ten minutes I am in a car heading home. For a bowl of fruit.

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