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Posts Tagged ‘the mango orchard’

Fireworks-to-celebrate-the-launch-of-the-French-language-version-of-The-Mango-OrchardThe headlines in the French newspapers are united today, describing with one voice the sense of elation and even relief. The regional daily L’Independent talks about a “Turning point” and La Nouvelle Republique talks of “new hope”. Even Liberation does not hide its excitement. In an editorial by Nicolas Demorand, the paper says that there is “huge joy” in France.

Robin-Bayley-trying-to-eat-Les-Manguiers-de-Bellavista

The reason for this celebration? Why, obviously it’s the launch of Les Manguiers de Bellavistathe French language version of the modern classic of emotive travel writing, The Mango Orchard

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President-Hollande-on-hearing-about-the-launch-of-Les-Manguiers-de-Bellavista

The fact that the new president was sworn-in yesterday is complete coincidence.

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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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One of my favourite stories about the sinking of the Titanic is the one about the extreme localist agenda of a Scottish newspaper reporting on the disaster. The headline that appeared the following day was: “Aberdeen Man Lost at Sea”.

More conventional newspaper response to Titanic disaster

For my Mexican family, the story that had passed down the generations was that their English ancestor, my great grandfather, Arthur Greenhalgh, went down with the ship. The belief that they had clung to for the best part of a century, until I came along to ruin it all, was that he was on his way back to Mexico to be with them. As I wrote a week ago, the Titanic’s departure from New York on April 20th1912 was one that he might have been on, had he been further held up by revolution and flood, and had the Titanic survived its maiden voyage. There was however, a link between my great grandfather and the ill-fated ship.

Shipping chart from New-York-Herald April-14-1912 showing positions of Caronia and Titanic

When researching The Mango Orchard in the Caird Library in the National Maritime Museum in London, I came across a telegraph that was sent by the wireless operator on the SS Caronia – the ship on which my great grandfather was travelling. The message was sent at 9am on April 14 1912 to the Titanic coming the other way. It was sent from close to where the Titanic went down. And the message?   “Look out, there are icebergs” …

… especially if you are from Aberdeen.

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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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Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Last week I took part in the Woodstock Literary Festival, a boutique festival sponsored by the Independent and The Independent on Sunday. It is difficult to imagine a more beautiful setting for a literary festival than Woodstock, a town eight miles northwest of Oxford and home to the glorious Blenheim Palace, where much of the festival is held. As I walk through the village en route to my talk about The Mango Orchard, I pass well-kept greens, Georgian houses and medieval pubs. The only traffic is a rally of vintage Rolls-Royces and I feel thoroughly as though I’ve just stepped into a novel by PG Wodehouse. It’s no surprise to learn that they filmed the Miss Marple TV series here.

In the festival green room I am handed a pleasingly plush goody bag. Included is a box of “Real strawberries Enrobed in Chocolate.” Enrobed? How posh is that? I am suddenly infused with the feeling that I must finally have made it.

I leaf through the programme, which lists a hugely impressive and diverse list of speakers including Dom Jolly, Alistair Darling, Martin Bell, Robert Fisk, Terry Wogan, Richard Ingrams, Pam Ayers, Richard Dawkins and Margaret Drabble to name but a few. In such illustrious company I feel slightly nervous before beginning my talk, but am soon rattling away comfortably, encouraged by my attentive audience.

The attendees are an interesting bunch, and after I finish my talk I am engaged in conversation by a man who spent several years in Columbia prospecting for gold and a globe-trotting botanist who went plant hunting in the Amazon. Their questions on The Mango Orchard are intelligent and their comments are kind. I leave the festival enrobed in a warm glow. Toodle-pip!

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It seems a long time ago since I was in Romania, but I have been thinking about it a great deal in the last few days as my book, The Mango Orchard has just been published in Romanian as Livada de Mango by the All Publishing Group. I love their design; it conjures an image of a world where time was marked by church clocks and all news, good and bad, would arrive via a man on horseback. Several people have commented that it looks like a cover of a Gabriel García Márquez novel, and believe me, I’m very happy with that comparison, but to me, there’s also something quite Romanian about it.

In the late 1990s, when I was working for Fox Kids, a children’s TV channel, I was visiting Romania every few weeks. Most of the time I was in Bucharest, in TV studios or press conferences, often accompanied by 7 foot tall purple and turquoise character costumes. It was my job to convince the Romanian public that watching cartoons with Romanian subtitles was somehow educational. I don’t think anyone really believed that the channel was in the least bit educational, but it became popular and I ended up visiting the country so often that I filled my passport with Romanian stamps and had to get a new one, and my colleagues started to call me Robinescu.

One of my brighter ideas was to embark on a children’s party roadshow, from Timisoara in the east to the Black Sea coast in the west. There were justifications for the expedition, having thousands of screaming children playing Blind Man’s Buff with Eek the Cat in town plazas across the land did no harm to our ratings, but I really organised the tour as I wanted to see the country. We crossed into the Carpathian Mountains into Transylvania, passed palaces and medieval towns and castles. I saw brown bears and walked in woods where wolves still roam. I saw achingly beautiful women with black hair and dark blue eyes. There were no motorways and the farming communities sold their wares beside the road – blood red tomatoes and peaches the size of melons. And yes, there were men on horseback.

My Romanian friends tell me that the country has changed beyond all recognition since I was last there in 2004. Bucharest is now a modern city in the vanguard of New Europe. I dreamt that I was back there the other night, and it had changed so  much that the only Bucharest landmark I recognised was the Intercontinental Hotel.

I hope that it hasn’t changed too much, and that somewhere up in the mountains, there are still men on horseback,  evoking memories of another time and another continent

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I am getting up slowly. My aim is to have a leisurely breakfast with the newspaper propped up against the toast rack before catching the 11.30 to Norwich, where I am due to appear at Writers’ Centre Norwich’s Summer Reads.
The phone rings. It’s a producer at BBC Radio Oxford, asking if Jo Thoenes can interview me for a programme about genealogy. I readily agree; I appeared on her show when I was at the Oxford Literature Festival in March and I was very impressed with her. I am booked in for a telephone interview in half an hour. I glance at the microwave clock. I realise that I have no time for a leisurely anything; I need to be showered and ready to leave before Jo calls back.
Jo Thoenes
Shaving, I really should have learned by now, is one thing you should not do in a hurry. As well as remove my stubble, I also manage to slice the end of my nose. I have no idea how I have managed to achieve this wound, but it’s certainly very real; my nose is throbbing and blood is trickling into the sink.
When the phone rings, I am sitting on the sofa, leaning forward to avoid staining my shirt, with a piece of toilet paper stuck to the drying blood on the end of my nose. Jo and I have a quick chat and then launch straight into the interview. I’m in mid-flow and suddenly my nose starts bleeding again. I realise I am beginning to lose the thread of what I am saying. I want to explain that for me, the most important of the family historian’s art, is oral testimony, but I am now trying to dab a drop of blood from the carpet, and the word “testimony” has completely escaped me. “Oral…err,” I grab another tissue. “Oral… um… ” I don’t guess what the second word may be in case my Tourette’s tendencies get the better of me.
Jo somehow manages to divert my attention from my nose and back to answering her questions but I can’t think that mine is the most illuminating interview she will conduct today.
A few hours later, my nose has stopped bleeding and I am being interviewed again, this time by Stephen Bumfrey at BBC Radio Norwich. It suddenly strikes me as I sit in this Norwich radio studio and that I am having a very Alan Partridge-esque day. I’m even staying in a Travelodge. All I need now is to have a fight with a trouser press.
After the interview, Sam Ruddock from Writers’ Centre Norwich escorts me round the bookshops in the centre of Norwich, all of which are pleasingly well-stocked with copies of The Mango Orchard, and some even have it in their window displays.
I am delighted to be part of Summer Reads. It’s a reading campaign Writers’ Centre Norwich organises with Norfolk Libraries. I am very proud to be part of the line-up of excellent books: Joseph O’Conner’s Ghost Light, Simon Armitage’s Seeing Stars, Evie Wyld’s After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, Andrey Kurkov’s The Good Angel Of Death, and Katie Kitamura’s The Longshot.
I have half an hour to return to the Travelodge and get changed for my talk at the fabulous Millennium Library. The attendance is good, the audience are generous listeners and ask wise questions (which thankfully didn’t include “What’s that gash at the end of your nose”) and buy a good number of books. Thanks to Sam, Katy and all at Writers’ Centre Norwich for including me in Summer Reads, and for organising it so well. I hope to have another book for you soon.

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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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