January - March 2013
Penguin's publicity campaign for the paperback of Various Pets Alive and Dead is rolling out, along with the little e-book A ShortER History of Tractors in Ukrainian with Handcuffs. They have chosen some strange locations for the posters, like this one coming to a public loo near you.
To me it looks like a public toilet, but apparently it's Waterloo station. Hm.
If anybody speaks German, this Youtube trailer from my German publisher dtv is brilliant.
I've been working hard on another novel since Christmas, which is partly about the child orphans from St Pancras, who were sold to mill owners up in Derbyshire, and endured dreadful cruelty and abuse. I've long been fascinated by this story, because I often walk along the Wye valley footpath by Litton Mill and up to Monsal Head. It is a strange, eerie valley, where the sun disappears very early and the mists rise from the river - just the place for ghosts, though it's not a subject that lends itself naturally to comedy. But there is also a dysfunctional family, financial shenanigans, motorbikes, baddies with guns, school bullies and dodgy pets.
But I took time off to write an article for the Independent about Europe, a subject close to my heart. Interesting discussion at the end, though the sub-heading (which I didn't write!) suggests I accuse David Cameron of being a bully over Europe - actually, it's the tabloid press who are most at fault. And where oh where did they dredge that photo up? Anyway, here it is.
I've been much less out and about after last year's publicity blast, but I did have a really nice afternoon at the King Edward VII school in Sheffield, which is just at the top of the road where I live. I'd been rather dreading it, thinking I'd be having to woo a group of bored and cynical teenagers, but the students were lovely, interested, polite, thoughtful, and obviously there were quite a few budding writers there with the sort of intelligent difficult questions that are a real pleasure to think about.
I think I overdid it a bit in 2012, and I'm planning to do less gadding about and more writing in 2013, but couldn't resist a trip to Ennis, in Ireland, at the beginning of March. I'm also meeting up with some old friends from Keele and Sheffield for an event at Whitbourne Hall in Worcestershire. See Events.
On Sunday March 17th I've been invited to be on the panel of BBC Broadcasting House Newspaper Review (not yet confirmed, but I hope so) I love listening to this, so am thrilled about a chance to take part.
You Magazine have also selected Various Pets Alive and Dead for the Mail on Sunday Bookclub.
Finally, the short story I wrote in the summer about the Cuba missile crisis that was broadcast on BBC radio in October is to have a new lease of life as an e-book with Goggle publishing. Full details to follow.
October - November 2012
In the summer BBC Radio 4 commissioned a series of short stories to commemorate the Cuba Missile Crisis of October 1962. I contributed a short story, called Four Minute Warning, about two teenagers living in the Soviet Union, who agree that if they only had four minutes left to live, their priority must be to lose their virginity. It is based on my own memories of the fear and panic of that time. Although I was actually living in Witney, Oxfordshire, rather than in Donetsk, I was absolutely convinced that we were all going to die.
My brief was to describe the crisis from a soviet perspective, and researching the story, I realised how little I knew about the Cold War, even though I was a Cold War baby; at the time I simply saw us as the 'goodies' and the Soviets as the 'baddies' and JF Kennedy as the hero. I didn't know about the various attempts by the US to destabilise and invade Cuba, nor that they had stationed missiles in Turkey pointing towards Russia. I ended up with a great respect for Nikita Kruschev, who lost face at the time by backing down publicly and averting nuclear war, but secured a secret deal with the Americans to pull back their Turkish missiles and leave Cuba alone.
The story was broadcast by The BBC on October 12th, but I wasn't around to hear it because I was in Turkey, speaking at the International Akşit Göktürk Conference at Istanbul University about humour in English literature.
Here's me sitting in the beautiful great hall in the Rector's House at the University. Yeah, I know it's empty, but people did arrive. In my presentation, I quoted one of my favourite literary jokes from Jonathan Coe's brilliant book What a Carve Up. The main character, a reviewer, is trying to pinpoint what it is that the novelist he is reviewing, lacks. He plays with various words: ... panache ... polish ... style ... brilliance ... grace ... zest ... esprit - and finally has the perfect word: brio. He writes: The author hasn't the necessary brio. Only when it came out in print, the editor had changed it to: The author hasn't the necessary biro.
That always has me in stitches, but the Turkish audience looked a bit unamused. Humour, alas, is not something that travels well. This visual joke, below, I think is pretty universal, though not exactly literary.
Outside of the conference, I hung out in cafes with Turkish colleagues, visited some extraordinary mosques and museums and crossed the Bosphorous on a tram, but mostly I walked miles through alleys and bazaars, watching, listening, observing, tasting, wondering whether I could ever set a novel in Istanbul so I'd have an excuse to come here again and again. (Alas, probably not.) Istanbul is such a fabulous city, poised between East and West, North and South, ancient and modern, the crossroads of a great empire, the meeting place of Islam and Christianity, and Judaism too, and the melting pot of many superb cuisines.
I came back determined to keep my head down and get on with some writing, but towards the end of October, I couldn't resist contributing a letter to a Guardian feature inspired by Michael Gove's apology to his schoolteacher, called 'A Letter to my Teacher'. My apology was to my Modern Languages teacher at Witney Grammar School, Miss Mitchell, and I got some nice letters from other people who'd been taught by her too.
I love getting letters from readers, especially the ones that say I'm wonderful (glad someone thinks that) but recently I received a card from a reader in Australia. It read,
"Dear Ms Lewycka, I very much enjoy reading your books, but I am shocked that your spelling is so bad. In 'We're All made of Glue' there were two spelling mistakes on Page 14. Because of this, I do not feel able to recommend your books to my friends."
Needless to say, I immediately turned to Page 14 and I read:
"My mother had always been a great advocate of past-sell-by-date shopping, and I remembered with a twist of nostalgia how, when I was little, she used to send me scampering along the aisles looking out for the bright red REDUCED stickers that pouted like scarlet kisses on the clingfilm. She didn't think much of Listernia and Saminella, and even an unpleasant experience with some mature crabstix didn't dampen her enthusiasm."
Hm. Unfortunately she didn't leave a reply address.
I hope there weren't too many spelling mistakes in my article for the Independent on Totnes, one of my favourite towns in England, and incidentally the place where a big chunk of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was written.
The trouble with writing for papers is that they always run out of space and cut bits out. The Independent cut out the reference to two of my favourite shops in Totnes (they may have thought the names were invented, but no!) so here it is, particularly appropriate as every week we hear new revelations about companies which make millions in the UK but pay no tax here.
Many familiar high street names, including Boots, Vodafone, Amazon, Virgin and Starbucks are registered offshore, and pay little tax in this country. They don't contribute to the education and health of their employees, the safety of their premises, or the legal and constitutional infrastructure of civil society which allows them to thrive and make profit. And of course not paying tax makes them vastly more profitable - which means they can easily see off the competition from midgets like The Happy Apple organic food store or the Ticklemore Cheese Shop.
I thought I'd done a good job on tax evasion and financial wrongdoing in Various Pets Alive and Dead, but it seems like I hardly scraped the surface of what these shameless corps are capable of. So congratulations to whistleblower, former city trader and Guardian contributor, Seth Freedman, who has brought to light some dodgy dealings on the Gas Markets.
Seth is also an author, and I was privileged to read a preview of his latest pacy mystery about finance and espionage called Dead Cat Bounce.
And still in October (though the writing happened in July and August) I contributed a slightly dark short story called Not Exactly to a collection called Too Much Too Young, published by Bookslam, and found myself sitting at a table at the Breakfast Club in Hoxton, alongside David Nicholls, Jesse Armstrong, Craig Taylor and Salena Godden, frantically trying to keep the coffee stains off the one-thousand front pages we were signing. Other contributors include Emylia Hall, Diana Evans, Jeremy Dyson, Nikesh Shukla, Jackie Kay, and Patrick Neate. Launch is at the end of November.
BOOK SLAM TAKES OVER LONDON
TO LAUNCH NEW BOOK
27TH NOVEMBER at CLAPHAM GRAND
DAVID NICHOLLS, DIANA EVANS & MARQUES TOLIVER
28TH NOVEMBER at ROUGH TRADE EAST
JESSE ARMSTRONG (Peep Show/Fresh Meat), SALENA GODDEN,PETER SERAFINOWICZ, & BASEMENT ORCHESTRA
29TH NOVEMBER at THE TABERNACLE, Notting Hill
JACKIE KAY, LUKE WRIGHT & STEPHEN K AMOS
Plus special music guest
NOVEMBER looks like being another crazy month, with events including
15th-18th November Cognac Le Festival Littératures européennes de Cognac
15th-18th November Cognac Le Festival Littératures européennes de Cognac
22nd November Sheffield 7.30 pm AN EVENING WITH DAVID BLUNKETT & MARINA LEWYCKA at Victoria Hall Methodist Church, Norfolk Street, Sheffield S1 2JB. We will be talking about our love of walking in the Peak District, and the event is in aid of Friends of the Peak District. To book a ticket or to find out more please call Friends of the Peak District on 0114 266 5922.
27th November Sheffield, 7.30pm at the Cafe Des Amis, 97 Chesterfield Road I shall be chairing a reading and discussion with Palestinian authors Selma Dabbagh and Dina Matar. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details of this and other Palestinian Culture Week events.
5th December 12.00 I am looking forward to having lunch and talking with the Jewish Friendship Club in Sheffield at the Kingfield Hall, Brincliffe Crescent, off Psalter Lane. This event is for members, but you can find out more at email@example.com
Amazingly, in the midst of all this, I've been working away, not on a novel but on something much shorter which Penguin have asked me to write. The brief was a short novella or a long short story, available in e-book format, revisiting A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, and bringing readers up to date on what has happened to the characters. Quite a challenge, and I was a bit reluctant to go there at first, because I wanted to be getting on with a full-length novel, but when I got into it, it was huge fun. It's a sort of detective story, based on Laura Carter, who was the solicitor for Nikolai Mayevskyj in the Tractor book, investigating some odd goings-on at the Mayevskyj house; but suddenly, she finds that she keeps blundering into the wrong novel, from Proust to Harry Potter, from James Joyce to EL James, and a little spat between Sherlock Holmes and Philip Marlowe. I had a lot of giggles writing it, and I hope readers will enjoy it too. It will be coming out in January, it's not quite ready yet, but Penguin will know. Oh, and it's called
June - July 2012
June has been another busy month - I seem to have seen great swathes of the country through shrouds of rain, from Dovedale (still the most friendly festival, now in its new venue at the delightful Izaak Walton hotel) to Holmfirth (event in a little chapel called Choppards Mission perched on a windswept hillside - I was amazed that so many people found their way there!) to somewhere in the middle of the countryside near Andover (still no idea where it was, but had a great evening) to Clapham (Bookslam at the Grand - sticky floor - great audience).
In fact, the highlight of June came right at the beginning. It was the book festival at Montpellier. What a lovely, seductive town, and how delightful to sit out under the stars in the warm evenings with a good dinner, several bottles of wine, and (please excuse this mini-orgy of name-dropping) Jonathan Coe, David Lodge, Kate Summerscale, Gabriel Josipovici, Louise Welsh, Roger Ellory, Sarah Hall, James Kelman, Alasdair Gray, Ron Butlin, Glenn Baxter, Jon McGregor and many more extraordinary people (by the time I was onto my third glass, names all slipped into a blur, so forgive me if I left you out) for company. Just give us another couple of weeks, and a few more bottles, and we could have solved all the problems of the world. Ah! In fact, it rained in Montpellier, too, but it was a different kind of rain.
Two fund-raising evenings also stand out in my mind. One was a super dinner-evening at the Waldorf in aid of the Koestler Trust with Antony Gormley and Grayson Perry in a frock, and other famous names including ... whoops! name dropping alert!
Anyway, I was seated between my old university friend and creativity guru John Howkins and genial critic and reviewer Professor John Carey from Oxford and the Sunday Times. Thank goodness I didn't Google him before I met him - I would have felt too intimidated to say anything.
Next evening, by way of complete contrast, I was at a fund-raising event for Ukraine Charity, at the Ukrainian Institute in Holland Park, on behalf of orphanages in Ukraine. (The Panorama documentary was timely, and so sad). There was accordion music, singing, dancing, hugging, tears, cake, stuffed dumplings, and not too much alcohol. It was the night of Ivana Kupala, festival of St John the Baptist, which coincides with the summer solstice, when girls are supposed to float a wreath on the water to discover their future husband. (See pic below of me wearing the traditional flower wreath that was put up for auction.)
I donated a character name for auction - a bit nervously, because the next book will be set mainly in Derbyshire, and I was worried about fitting someone with a Ukrainian name into the story, but all will be well. Look out for a little boy called Arthur.
Now just three more events - the Dore festival near Sheffield tonight (in aid of Sheffield Cats Shelter - another great little charity!), Lewes on Friday and Dartington on Sunday (see Events) - and then off to France for a long well-earned break. It'll be a break from travelling, but not from writing. I've got so many ideas for my new novel buzzing around in my head, can't wait to sit down and see whether it works out on the page.
But I'll be sorry to leave behind the worlds of banking and hippies. It's been such fun, living there during the three years the book took to write. I've been fascinated watching the current banking crisis unrolling. When I was writing those sections of Various Pets Alive and Dead, I was trying to peer ahead in the murky dark, and see which way things would work out. I could see - in fact I was told - that the banking world was riddled with scams and crooked dealing, quite a few of which find their way into the book, but even my well-informed informants could not have predicted the Libor fixing scandal.
September starts with a literary festival in sunny (I hope) Guernsey 14-16th September, and the Oldie Festival on Sunday Sept 30th at 2pm. (Actually it's the Soho Literary Festival, at the Soho Theatre, Dean Street, but it's organized by oldies, so hopefully there will be jaffa cakes and champagne and lots of curmudgeonly behaviour) After that, I'm planning to knuckle down and write.
Bye for now!
May took me to the Swindon Festival, where the organisers 'themed' Various Pets Alive and Dead with a coop of new-born baby ducklings on the stage, which had to be removed due to bad behaviour (mine, not theirs).
The Queen's Park Festival was cold and wet, but promises to be a great event in sunnier years. Many thanks to all who braved the elements to come along, and especially to lovely Shyama Perera who was like a ray of sunshine radiating warmth on the platform with me.
Thanks to David's Bookshop in Letchworth , who laid on a lovely evening , a great audience, tea and a slab of cake the size of which I haven't dared to look at for years. My host was whacky and off-beat Russian journalist and novelist Vitali Vitaliev who lives in Letchworth and who is actually a bit like a character in a novel himself. His subject matter ranges from politics, history and literature and Life with a 'L' to Italian food. He showed me around the dizzying sights of Letchworth, explaining everything very fast, in a thick Russian accent, and whizzed me out to Wallington where George Orwell once lived, and where the original Animal Farm was set - it's still there, and still a farm.
Vitali is an Orwell enthusiast (well, he would be, wouldn't he, coming from the former USSR) and one of the movers behind the Orwell Festival in Letchworth.
Actually, it turns out that Vitali is not really a Russian at all, but a Ukrainian, like me, born in the eastern Russian-speaking town of Kharkov. In his other life, Vitali edits the journal of the Institution of Engineering and Technology , and we became friends a couple of years ago, when he published a lovely tribute to my Dad as a poet and an engineer.
Vitali writes in a garden shed at the bottom of his garden in Letchworth, which he calls Pegasus Cottage on account of ... never mind...
... anyway, over a cup of tea he told me about his latest project, which is a fabulous contemporary reworking of the scary story of the Russian witch Baba Yaga, who ends up living in a child's bedroom in Crouch End.
From Letchworth to the Peak District, where I was invited to give a fundraising after-lunch speech on behalf of Friends of the Peak District. This is one of my favourite charities, because the Peak District is my lifeline as a writer - I don't think I could function if I didn't have it on my doorstep as an escape - and they campaign fiercely to keep it green, quiet, and to keep SUVs off public walking tracks. The pictures are from their lovely website. Please support them!
Various Pets Alive and Dead came out this week; such a nerve-racking time as I wait for reviews. I wish I was one of those people who could say I never read them, but each unkind word is like a knife in the heart, while the praise just sort of soaks in and vanishes without a trace. Well, whatever the reviewers say, I hope readers will like it. Like most of my books, it draws on my own past life as well as my interest in current news. It's about bankers, hamsters and hippies; it's about the financial crisis; it's about then (1968 onwards) and now (2008 onwards); it's about parents and children; it's about north and south; it's deep and meaningful, and I hope it'll make you giggle.
Here's the review in the Guardian
And in the Daily Mail (oh, I wish they wouldn't use that bad-hair-day picture.
Others still to come. As well as having a new designer for the jacket, all the other jackets have been 'rebranded' too, (see images on left) so soon the lovely old tractor jackets will disappear into the dustbins of history. Well, I shall look out for them in Oxfam shops, where they will probably have a long half-life.
I'm going to be travelling up and down all over the country by train, giving readings, meeting people and talking about other subjects of interest - see EVENTS for full details. Lucky I have a Senior Rail Card now and can treat myself to First Class because I love all the free cups of tea.
I've finally retired from my post at Sheffield Hallam University, and the event on Tuesday 13th March at the Peak Theatre in Sheffield is sort of a 'farewell'. Apparently it's sold out, so there are obviously plenty of people who are keen to see the back of me. Actually, I shall really miss the students and my colleagues. Working as a teacher has been a great privilege, very satisfying, and a source of much humour, though it didn't always seem so at the time.
Before Christmas, I contributed a drawing on an envelope (WARNING - I AM NOT GOOD AT ART!) to a charity called Pushing the Envelope which supports the National Literacy Trust. It and a lot of other much better ones by actors, writers etc are going to be auctioned - here are the details in case you fancy a flutter. There are some really lovely, creative and clever ones, that you can see on www.pushingtheenvelope.info
Celebrities get inspired for 'Pushing the Envelope' 2012 to raise money for the National Literacy Trust
Dame Helen Mirren, Giles Deacon and Joanne Harris show their support
An eclectic mix of prominent names from the fields of art, design, fashion, television, theatre, film, sport and literature are getting creative this year by designing envelopes that will be sold to the public to help raise money for the National Literacy Trust.
The celebrities involved in the seventh annual Pitney Bowes Pushing the Envelope campaign have transformed everyday envelopes into exclusive works of art which will be sold on eBay from 12th March 2012 until 22nd March 2012.
The list of illustrious names supporting the initiative this year include actress Dame Judi Dench, fashion designers Giles Deacon and Louise Gray, authors Joanne Harris and Sir Frederick Forsyth, children's author Rod Campbell, singer Dame Shirley Bassey, musicil group Coldplay and Olympian Sally Gunnell OBE.
All entries this year are based on the theme 'Inspiration' giving extra insight into the creative minds of the celebrity supporters. Uri Geller provides a mystical design that features the evil eye, known to ward away bad luck, actress Dame Helen Mirren's colourful design is a playful take on the 'Pushing the envelope' idiom and David Nicholls' innovative take on the inspiration theme reveals that reading can open the window to creativity.
All proceeds from the auction go to the National Literacy Trust; a charity that works in disadvantaged communities across the UK, helping people to gain the literacy skills they need for success and happiness throughout life.
Interested bidders can view a selection of the envelopes at the campaign's website www.pushingtheenvelope.info
Current support for the 2012 campaign includes:
Ada Zanditon, fashion designer
Adam Dant, artist
Adrienne Chinn, interior designer
Alison Steadman, actress
Alastair Stewart, journalist and newscaster
Alexander McCall Smith, author
Andrew Davies, author and screenwriter
Anita Dobson, actress
Anita Klein, artist
Andrew Logan, jewellery designer
Sir Andrew Motion, former Poet Laureate
Barbara Dickson, singer and actress
Bernard Cornwell, author
Ben Kelly, interior designer
Sir Bernard Ingham, journalist
Chesney Hawkes, singer
Christopher Biggins, actor
Coldplay, music group
Craig Lawrence, fashion designer
Dakota Blue Richards, actress
David Nicholls, author
Deborah Moggach, author
Duncan Pow, actor
Emma Bridgewater, home wear designer
Fern Britton, television presenter
Flavia Cacace, professional dancer
Sir Frederick Forsyth, author and political commentator
Giles Deacon, fashion designer
Guy Denning, artist
Hannah Firmin, illustrator and printmaker
Helen Craig, children's author and illustrator
Henry Winkler, actor
Dame Helen Mirren, actress
Helen Musselwhite, paper artist
Jacqueline Gold, entrepreneur
Jeremy Strong, children's author
Jeremy Vine, journalist and news presenter
Jilly Cooper, author
Joanne Harris, author
John Bishop, comedian
John Burningham, children's author and illustrator
John Knapp Fisher, artist
Jonathan Pryce, actor
Jo Brand, comedian
Jo Joyner, actress
Dame Judi Dench, actress
Justin Fletcher, children's TV presenter
Justin Rowe, artist
Katie Piper, television presenter and author
Kenny Logan, rugby union footballer
Kim Woodburn, television presenter
Kipper Williams, cartoonist
Kofi Kingston, WWE wrestler
Laura Hambleton, children's illustrator
Lauren Child, children's author and illustrator
Levi Roots, entrepreneur
Lia Anna Hennig, artist
Lorenzo Etherington, cartoonist
Lorraine Kelly, TV presenter
Louise Gray, fashion designer
Matthew Rice for Emma Bridgewater, home wear designer
Marina Lewycka, author
Michelle Mone, entrepreneur
Mike Leigh, film and theatre director
Milton Glaser, graphic designer
Mimi Leung, artist
Nathaniel Parker, actor
Neil Arksey, author
Oliver Spencer, fashion designer
Paul Bradley, actor
Penny Mallory, rally racer and television presenter
Sir Peter Blake, pop artist
Private Eye - Charles Peattie and Mark Warren, cartoonists
Prunella Scales, actress
Raymond Briggs, author and illustrator
Richard Randall, interior designer
Rob Ryan, artist
Robert Goddard, author
Rod Campbell, author and illustrator
Rosie Marcel, actress
Russell Grant, astrologer
Sally Gunnell , athlete
Sarah Beeny, television presenter and entrepreneur
Sarah Waters, author
Dame Shirley Bassey, singer
Shirley Hughes, author and illustrator
Simon Pegg, actor and director
Simone Lia, author and cartoonist
Stephen Fry, author, actor, comedian and screen writer
Terry Jones, comedian
Tracy Chevalier, author
Trevor Eve, actor
Uri Geller, psychic and mystic
Dame Vera Lynn, singer-songwriter
Vincent Simone, professional dancer
Wayne Hemingway, fashion designer
Highlight of my autumn was a trip to the Salon du Livre in Montreal, followed by a visit to a bookshop in Trois Rivieres where I was interviewed by my publisher Alto in Quebec.
Don't want to brag (well, actually, I do a bit) but, because i did most of my events and interviews in French. We Are All Made of Glue has just come out over there as Des Adhesifs dans le Monde Moderne. OK, there were some awkward moments - never did find out how to say 'bondage' in French - and a few hunky French jaws dropped when I said 'jeux sexuels', but maybe it was just my Witney-Grammar-School-French accent.
What a fabulous city Quebec is - set on a cliff above the mighty St Lawrence River, with cannons and fortifications to keep off the English and stylish French delis to lure them in, and quaint cobbled streets, and beyond it, miles and miles of empty mysterious woodland.
But it was so-o-o cold - dropped down to -3° while Sheffield was basking in a balmy 13°. (In fact most places I've been to this year seem to have been colder than Sheffield). Here I am shivering outside the lovely Art Nouveau railway station in Quebec
(Fashion note: not real fur - sorry about the hat)
and with broadcaster Patricia Powers at Librairie Clément Morin, Trois-Rivières.
Next year I'm going to be gadding around even more, but mainly in UK, as my new book Various Pets Alive and Dead comes out in March. It's about a family where the older generation are slightly bonkers idealistic ex-hippies, while their kids have come of age in a society with tougher values. The son is a maths graduate who gets seduced into designing algorithms for an investment bank; the daughter is a primary school teacher who wants to make a difference to the kids she teaches; the step-daughter has Down's Syndrome, and an agenda of her own. Oh, how hard it is to summarize a book of 100,000 words in a sentence! The really unfortunate 'characters' are the pets.
This is a busy autumn, with lots of travelling. Fortunately the new book is more or less ready, under the title Various Pets Alive and Dead, due for publication in March. The cover is great, but it's supposed to be a surprise!
September took me to Lausanne, a long sunny weekend at Le Livre sur les Quais at Morges (though I didn't see much sunshine, except through the plastic windows of the marquee.) The nicest thing was meeting a whole lot of new writers. The Litfests I go to are mostly sedate affairs, with middle-aged women novelists like myself; but for some reason Lausanne attracted young blokey writers like Simon Clarke and Mark Billingham. The conversation was fast, funny and sometimes went way over my innocent head. One afternoon I came upon Roger J Ellory, (crime, gore, violent death, urban mystery - the book jackets are enough to give you nightmares) and Simon Toyne (suicide, gore, symbolism, ancient mystery) talking animatedly about .... what? As I snooped to listen in, I realised that they were talking about how much they loved and admired their wives. Aw!
The weekend when the whole of England basked in a heatwave, I was in Turku, Finland, where the weather was typically Finnish, ie 14 degrees. But I did get to eat some nice fish and forest mushrooms, and the Finns I met were delightfully eccentric and hospitable.
In October I visited Kiev, in Ukraine, for a conference organise by the International Organisation for Migration. My job was to give a human face to the statistics and graphs. It was fascinating - I learnt such a lot, and also had time to walk around this beautiful city.
It was quite a sentimental visit for me, because in the morning I sneaked off down to the river Dnieper to scatter some of my Dad's ashes in the water where he would have swum as a child and as a young man with my mother. It was a lovely crisp autumn day, the trees just turning, and the golden domes of the churches shining above the softer gold of the leaves along the Dnieper's steep woody banks. Kiev is so charming, still crumbly and unmodernised, full of surprises, though there's a whole area where massive new oligarch mansions (I thought at first they were blocks of flats) squat behind their high railings and dark-windowed 4x4s.
Here I am at the magnificent baroque St Andrews Church in Podil (1747-1754) with two lovely young Literature students, Sophia and Victoria, who volunteered to guide me around their home town.
I've attached some photos of my visit, taken mostly by Sophia, under And Finally... Walking in Kiev with Sophia and Victoria October 2011 But the high point of the visit, St Sophia's Cathedral, does not allow photography inside.
For those of you who speak Ukrainian, there's also a link here to a you-tube clip of a bookshop event in the evening, with translator Oleksa Negrebetsky reading from his brilliantly funny translation of the 10th Chapter of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian ( Squishy Squashy).
Alas, this is the only chapter of the Tractor book so far to be translated, but Svitlana Pyrkalo, herself a talented writer, has translated of Two Caravans into Ukrainian, which was launched in Lviv in 2009.
Talking about Caravans, I wrote a piece for The Times about the terrible story of the migrant workers held as slaves on a caravan site in Leighton Buzzard, which was published on 15th Sept under the title 'A Victorian World Living on Spam not Gruel'. And on 6th October I wrote a little comment piece about the pub landlady who took her case to show TV sport via a Greek company to the European Court and won her case. Hurray!
Next week I'm off to Ipswich - not quite as exotic as Kiev, but home to the famous Tractor Boys, where I'll be reading at St Joseph College Library on November 2nd 7.30pm for the Suffolk Book Group.
After that (16-24 November) I'm going to the Salon du Livre at Montreal, and from there to Trois Rivieres and Quebec. If I find out the details in time, I'll include them under Events.
June 4th Sheffield The Big Read
In June, the charity Self Help Africa mounted a fund-raising drive combined with bid to set a Guinness World Record for the Big Read - the most adults reading to children from the same published story in the same place. I helped out as a head-counter and 'witness' at their stall at the Peace in the Park festival in Sheffield.
It was utterly chaotic - kids and parents running around all over the place, some trying to escape, some breaking in, while we kept desperately dashing into the crown to recruit others. In the end, we got everybody settled down in a little roped-off enclosure - and we thought we'd broken the record with 281 adults reading to 412 children. But little did we know that on 6th May 2011 there was an event with 347 adults who read to 991 children at an event organised by Matzke Elementary School (USA) in Houston, Texas, USA.
Never mind, it was great fun, and Self Help Africa is a great charity, promoting simple but effective solutions in some of the world's poorest countries - you can find out more about the work they do on selfhelpafrica.org and remember them at Christmas.
June 15th Wirksworth Festival, Derbyshire.
A pretty little Georgian town, tucked away in the heart of the Peak District, I set for a little walk before the reading, but got caught in a spectacular rainstorm. Thanks to everyone for giving me such a lovely welcome at the Red Lion.
August 10th Totleigh Barton, Devon
I came down to Torleigh Barton in August to be the guest speaker on an Arvon course - such a magical place, and a real pleasure to be with all those fired-up trainee writers sneaking off to secluded corners of the house or garden to work on the best-sellers of the future, and to eavesdrop on inspiring taught sessions by tutor-authors Sam North and Philip Hensher. Very humbling to realise how much I still have to learn about the craft of writing.
The evening reading sessions, including mine, took place in a yurt in the garden - very cosy, with fairy lights around the walls, and a wood-burner in the middle (the barn where they are usually held is undergoing major restoration.)
The old thatched farmhouse is in a tranquil valley on the River Torridge, a mile from the nearest public road, three miles from the nearest village, and an hour and a half's drive from Sidmouth, where my next event was due to take place next day.
August 11th Kennaway House, Sidmouth
Alas, when I got to Sidmouth, I discovered I had left my suitcase behind in Totleigh Barton. All I had was my laptop and the clothes I stood up in - jeans and hiking boots. It was too far to go back so I did my evening event at Kennaway House in borrowed finery kindly supplied by my hostess Kate Norbury. Nobody seemed to notice that the top was too big, the shoes too small and the skirt held in place with a safety pin. Thanks to all who attended, for being such a lovely audience.
Next day, they drove me in to Exeter to catch the train, and we rendezvoused with my suitcase at the service station. It wasn't until later that evening that I received an email from Kate Norbury, saying I had left behind my cardigan in Sidmouth.
Maybe there's a lesson in all this - I should stop gadding about and just stay at home and write.
Totnes August 13th
I'm staying in Totnes for a few days on my way home, not for work, but to visit my old friend Patrick Lessware, in whose house A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was completed - just seven years ago, though it seems like an eternity. Patrick is an artist, and I was intrigued to find that he has been exploring the same themes in his recent paintings as I am in my forthcoming novel - Phi, the golden mean, Fibonacci, and recurring patterns in nature (though in my book, one of the characters uses this model to create algorithms for stock-market trading). Here's one of his paintings, called Entangled - work it out for yourselves - and I need to tell you, because you won't be able to tell just from looking, that the illusion is created entirely by paint - the surface of the board is absolutely smooth - even when it was right in front of me I needed to reach out my finger to check. You can find out more about Patrick and his work on patricklessware.com
My 'Private Passions' choice of music was repeated today on Radio 3 (available on Listen Again for a week) and just in case you missed it first time, here's a link to the wonderful Russian Song 'Black Raven', sung by Stella Zubkova, which was my penultimate choice. It tells the story of a young soldier watching a black raven circling above a battle field, and telling it 'I'm not for you.' But by the last stanza, when the soldier knows he's going to die, the chorus changes to 'Black raven, now I'm yours.'
January - April 2011
Sorry for the delay in keeping this up to date - I've been all over the place since January.
Jaipur Book Festival in India was awesome - what a beautiful, heart-breaking and overwhelming country. I met some wonderful people, including many Indian and international authors. Did a reading with Swedish author Zac O'Yeah (great name, great book, and he also wears a great hat) and a stimulating panel on 'Imaginary homelands' along with Kamila Shamsie, Manjushree Thapa, Ian Jack and Chandrahas Choudhury.
Met up with my old schoolfriend artist Andrew Logan, who makes glittery jewelery out of broken mirrors and was staying in an ashram in Rajasthan. I stayed in a historic and slightly decrepit hotel in a street with open sewers and herds of cows and piglets running around. Among the other guests were a couple of dodgy-looking but very charming German/ Turkish/ Kazakhstani stone dealers who told me they ate all their meals including breakfast at MacDonalds. I came to wish I'd followed their example, for despite doing all the right things - avoiding ice-cubes, salads and peeled fruit - I got very ill. Ooh, it was horrible - like something out of one of my books.
Here's me with Malashri Lal and Zac O'Yeah.
And here's me at the Taj Mahal (I'd recovered by then). However many pictures you've seen of it, nothing prepares you for the size, majesty and beauty of that dome glimmering up there in the misty sky.
In March, I attended the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai. It's hard to imagine a country more different to India. Everything gleamed with wealth, order, newness, and luxury. There was even a real (ie not fake snow) ski slope. I lounged beside pools and feasted in the desert alongside literary celebs too numerous and celebrated to mention (you might think I was name-dropping).
Falconry demonstration (see pic) dune riding, a desert feast, and many brilliant book presentations were also on the agenda, and I did a reading and discussion panel, and ran a workshop on writing skills.
Unfortunately, I somehow got confused about the time, and was in the shower with shampoo all over my head when I got a phone call from the organiser saying the group was waiting in the room. Arrived ten minutes later, shame-faced and fuzzy-haired, but had a great session. Many thanks to the organisers and participants for their patience!
In April I went to the brain-tingling Storia in Piazza Festival in Genoa, where local Italian families, international historians and writers get together in a C15th palace to mull over the distant and recent past. This year, the theme was war, and I helped judge the prize for a cartoon by a young artist. The drawings were excellent, but it made me realise how difficult it is to structure a narrative in pictures as compared with words. The winner was a talented young artist called Stevan Subic from Serbia. Here's a frame from his cartoon (sorry, it loads very slowly.)
Now I'm back in Sheffield, writing fast and furious these last few weeks, trying to resist the temptation to get out into the garden in the sunshine, and sort out the damage from the winter. My garden is full of bluebells - the Spanish variety, which look like mini-hyacinths, and spread like weeds. I couldn't resist pulling some lovely rolls of turf out of a skip, and try to lay on the devastated parts of the lawn where I've been digging up some tall stubborn yellow things (Helianthus?) with roots that have been tunnelling under the grass. Don't know whether it'll be successful.
No more overseas travel until September, but I'm giving a reading at
- West End Lane Books in London at 7.30pm on Wednesday 4th May.
- On June 4th I'm helping out at a charity event called The Big Read for Self Help Africa in the Ponderosa Park in Sheffield.
- On June 15th I'm giving a reading at the Wirksworth Festival, in the Peak District.
- In August I'll be at the Arvon Foundation at Totleigh Barton in Devon on the 10th, and then I'll do a reading at Kennaway House in Sidmouth on the 11th.
In the autumn I've got chilly visits to Finland and Quebec lined up.
Oh, and I hope I'll have my new book ready soon. It's about bankers, hamsters, a hippy commune, and elderly love. Among other things. Great fun to write, but hard to pull all the strands together. Watch this space! (but not too closely - it won't be in the bookshops until next year at this rate).
Bluebells in Whirlow Woods, Sheffield, 28 April 2011
It's already half way through January, but I hope not too late to wish you a Happy New Year. I'd also like to make a belated apology for my slip of the tongue on Woman's Hour when I mis-located Michelangelo's David in Rome. I was discussing the advantages of working on a computer as opposed to handwriting, and I mentioned the 'Find and Replace' function. Useful if you decide halfway through that a character you named David should really be called Derek. However, you must be VERY careful with the 'Replace All' button, or you could end up with a pair of lovers planning to meet in front of Michelangelo's statue of Derek - yes, I know it's in Florence. In an earlier version of We Are All Made of Glue, the minor character called Raoul was originally Alan, and only at the proof-reading stage did I came across the puzzling word braoulced tucked away in the text. When Nick Wolfe was temporarily called Steve, Georgie found herself wearing a pair of black ksteveers.
The names of the characters in the new book I'm working on are not finalized, and the book itself still has no title, but the story is shaping up as I write. It's partly about the banking crisis and the City, so I've been watching with interest the unfolding saga of public spending cuts and bankers' bonuses as the New Year gets under way. Understanding all the financial ducking and diving is a challenge, but much more challenging is trying to really get inside the mind of someone who thinks that a £2m bonus is perfectly normal.
At the other end of the financial scale, I've been getting involved in Freecycle - the free recycling website, through which your unwanted objects can find a new home. As someone who can never bear to throw anything away, it was wonderful to have keen young people arrive and take away my ancient but serviceable lawnmower, and my ancient roof rack, veteran of many family camping holidays.
Congratulations to the winners of the Bookbites short story competition for older writers. You can read the results here: http:/bookbite.org.uk/writing/writingcompetitions/10/
Institute of Engineering and Technology
It is widely rumoured that the title A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRAINIAN derives from a work about the history of tractors initiated by my father. At last the original has seen the light of day! The current issue of the magazine of the Institute of Engineering and Technology carries a translation of part of this famous work, as well as poems and technical drawings of my father's.
Many thanks to the features editor and fellow East-European Vitali Vitaliev, author of Life as a Literary Device, for making this possible. You can read it here on http://kn.theiet.org/magazine/issues/1018/engineering-bestseller-1018.cfm
Out and about
I haven't been getting out into the Peak District much this cold winter, just a few short walks around Whirlow. One late afternoon, following the path round the back of the estate, I found myself alone crossing a field knee deep in completely fresh untrodden snow. The sun was already setting but the light sparkled off the snow and there was that deep complete silence that you hardly ever get in England anymore.
Hunting around for an image later, I found this picture (below) on Wikimedia, licensed under Creative Commons, of Whirlow Woods in spring, and I thought how lucky I am still to be able to enjoy untrodden snow and unbroken silence, and yet have access through other people's technical wizardry and generosity to a whole world of knowledge and art. Which brings me back to bankers' bonuses. When they claim we are intrinsically selfish and only motivated by vast amounts of money, I'm thankful to Wikipedia, Wikimedia and to the people who donate their skill and creativity for free. And, yes, for Wikileaks and poor brilliant 23-year-old Bradley Manning now held in solitary confinement who wanted to do his bit. And I think the £2m bonus culture underestimates what we humans are made of.
Photo by Gregory Deryckère
But my month of secluded writing time is about to come to an end as I head off for the Jaipur Literature Festival in Rajahstan. I'll write more when I get back, but alas, as usual, I've forgotten to pack my camera.
November - December
Ooh, in this cold and snowy weather, all I want to do is stay in bed with my laptop, looking out over my frozen garden (see pic below) and have a cup of tea brought to me on the hour. But alas, an author's life is no longer like that.
I started off the month with a very enjoyable reading for the Sheffield Partially Sighted group for the Off the Shelf Festival. My interview with Trisha Kessler in the winter edition of Perspectives, the Woolf Institute magazine has just been published. (Woolf Institute: studying relations between Jews, Christians and Muslims) A meeting in Sheffield on migration, a (very small) seminar at the University of Westminster and a larger one at my University - Sheffield Hallam. Makes me realise I miss teaching - young people are so lovely. I also helped judge a short story competition for older reader/writers organised by Bookbites - well done to all entrants for impressively high standard of entries.
On Tuesday 14th Dec I'm taking part in a Literary Evening in aid of Medical Aid for Victims of Torture at 111 Isledon Road, Finsbury Park www.torturecare.org.uk. We will also be reading from work by the Write for Life group, which is a therapeutic writing group for torture victims. I confess, torture is a thing so horrible I try to avoid thinking about it, but this has set me looking for descriptions of torture in literature. I was very moved by Pat Barker's scene in Regeneration where a shell-shocked soldier who has lost his speech is 'treated' with electrodes. There's also the epic description of the torments of hell in Milton's Paradise Lost. But I might look for something jollier to read.
On a more cheerful note (though it didn't seem like it at the time) picture me on a freezing morning with a hairdryer taped onto a long pole, leaning out of an upstairs window and trying to defrost at gutter level the frozen condensate pipe of my central hating boiler. (Yes, I know it happened last year and I should have remembered to have it moved, but we can't all be perfect. can we?)
September - October
In the second half of September I spent almost a fortnight in Japan, attending the PEN International Congress in Tokyo, and helping to launch the translation of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in Japanese. Such an interesting, intriguing place. I saw Mount Fuji, too, from the window of a bullet train, heading to Kyoto - though it wasn't like this.
This famous print by Katsushika Hokusai is from the series thirty six views of Mount Fuji.
Japanese culture is ancient, beautiful, subtle, and utterly unfathomable. I can't begin to do it justice here, but maybe I could just pass on some hints on the subject of Japanese loos.
It's kind of eerie when you walk into a cubicle and hear a sound - zzzzzz - as the lid rises to greet you. The weight of your bottom on the seat sets in motion the heating element, and lights up a panel to one side with an array of buttons.
HINT ONE - do not try to use a Japanese loo without your glasses on.
Depending on the model of loo, you may be washed, sprinkled, squirted at, deodorized and/or dried. It's all very pleasant, and in fact I could have whiled away hours experimenting with all the buttons. I soon, discovered, though, that the most important one is the STOP button.
HINT TWO - the button with a musical note on it plays the sound of a loo flushing, but it doesn't actually flush the loo. To do this, you have to raise your bottom from the seat.
HINT THREE - make sure the sprinklers and sprayers are off BEFORE you do this. Do not try to turn off the sprinklers by raising your bottom from the seat. It does work - but not immediately.
Here's a link to a video advert for 'the ultimate guide to discreet personal hygiene'. NB This one does not include the musical feature or the deodorizer.
Quote: 'The washlet is particularly comforting to senior citizens, who can once again face the world with dignity. And confidence.'
So long as they have remembered their glasses.
OK. Enough of that.
October is my favourite month. Not just because it's my birthday (in fact I'm not so keen on birthdays anymore) but because the colours in the Peak District and even in my garden are especially wonderful.
This October I was down in Kent again for the Canterbury Festival - thanks to all who came along. The cathedral was beautifully illuminated against the starry sky, and I felt a twinge of guilt about inflicting the bondage scene in We Are All Made of Glue on these sublime surroundings.
On October 17th the recording of Private Passions in which I was interviewed by Michael Berkeley was broadcast on BBC Radio 3. I always dread listening to myself on the radio - I invariably think of the devastatingly witty and clever things I should have said, which don't come into my mind until afterwards. I apologise for my stumblings, repetitions, and unkind comments about Gainsborough and Doncaster. A number of people have said how much they liked the song called Cherniy Voron (Black Raven) sung by Stella Zubkova. So here it is (link). It describes a black raven circling above a battlefield, where a young soldier lies dying. It enters his thoughts, his memories and dreams; and though at first he tells it to go away, finally he gives himself up to death. You can download it for free (according to the BBC) from audiopoisk.com. (Click on the arrow to play the song, click on the blue link beginning CKA?ATb ... to download)
Peak District-Palestinian walks
It's more than two years since I walked on Kinder Scout in the Peak District with Rajah Shehadeh, the Palestinian writer and human rights lawyer, author of Palestinian Wlks and winner of the Orwell Prize 2008. Finally, I've added the account of our walk and conversation to this site, with pictures, which you can find under And Finally...
July - August
Two really nice things happened in July.
First, I had an event at Ways With Words in Dartington, which I love because the setting is so beautiful , the audiences are so warm, the food is yummy, and you get to meet all the other writers over dinner. This time there was no nude swimming in the river Dart, but I met up with my friends in Totnes and we did one of my favourite walks, along Sharpham Drive to Ashprington, though we didn't get all the way. Looking down towards the river Dart, you see the reed beds and mud flats (this isn't the bit you swim in!) and the Devon hills folding in all around, red earth, green pasture, bright blue sky with little white clouds chasing around. There are points on this walk when you can see no houses at all, and it really feels as though you have a little corner of Paradise all to yourself.
The other nice thing is that I was awarded a DLitt from Leeds Metropolitan University. The whole event was one of those very English things which is both faintly ridiculous (you have to dress up in a multi-coloured gown and a hat with a tassle and stand there listening to someone saying how wonderful you are) and surprisingly moving. There were about four hundred young people graduating at the same time, and you could feel their pride and excitement bubbling through the hall. Congratulations to all of them - they worked so hard and they deserve it much more than I do.
OK, so Geoffrey Boycott was there too.
In August I'm doing a Private Passions interview on BBC Radio 3, and so I've been mugging up on my music; I've chosen Brandenburg Concerto No 4, Sibelius Violin Concerto in D, Mozart - not yet sure which pieces - and Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, which was also one of my father's favourites. I've been trying to find a wonderful Russian/Ukrainian song called Chorniy Voron - it means 'black crow', and it's about war and death - plenty of that where my parents came from.
I'm also being interviewed for Perspectives, which is the magazine of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths in Cambridge, which promotes understanding between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I'm looking forward to discussing some of the religious themes in We Are All Made of Glue, which tend to have been overlooked in the reviews. Not surprisingly, perhaps, bondage is sexier than bonding.
Another big private event in my August diary is the cremation of my father's remains in Sheffield. When he died, he left his body to medical science, and the Biomedical Department at Sheffield University have now released it. I've been going through his poems and papers, including the original Tractor History, to find appropriate readings for the service. It's been a sad and moving experience - but I'm so glad he's made this contribution, and the University has held its own memorial service for all those, like him, who gave their lives and their deaths for the advancement of science. I just wish he could have been there to see me get my DLitt!
May - June
Congratulations to Ian McEwan on winning the Everyman Bollinger Wodehouse prize with Solar. I hope he enjoys his complete works of PG Wodehouse and lashings of champagne as much as I did in 2005 with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. And I hope he has more luck with his pig than I had with mine. The Guardian rang and asked me what had happened to it, and whether I got any bacon. I must confess, I didn't know (though I know what happened to the champagne, and very nice it was too). The story is here:
And here's a link to a lovely video about We're All Made of Glue which appeared on a book programme on German television - you have to know German, though.
I've spent most of May and June writing - hurray! My new book that I'm working on is partly set in the City, and I've been keeping my head down and trying to make some progress on it. It's difficult to keep track when events in the financial world change so dramatically from day to day. There's no better way of coming to grips with a subject than researching it for a book - as I found with tractors, migrant workers and the conflict in the Middle East for my previous books. I'm so grateful to all the people who have been willing to share their expertise with me. For those of you who want to learn more about the world of finance I can highly recommend a book by John Lanchester called Whoops! which gives you the background leading up to the credit crunch, and the low down on the how investment banks operate, in a direct amusing and accessible way.
My friends are deeply impressed that I can now explain what 'naked short selling' is. Sounds disgusting, doesn't it? Alas, it has nothing to do with nudity. I took time out to pen an article for the Guardian - I'm no expert, but I think some of philosophy of the banking world needs to be challenged, or rather, in my case, gently mocked.
Now here's a picture you won't often see - it's me on a bike. Usually I prefer to do things at walking speed, but I must say this 16 mile cycle ride around the Derwent Reservoir in the Peak District was fabulous. Only problem - I can't move today.
The photo was taken at Slippery Stones on the old Packhorse Bridge. Don't be deceived by the smile - my bum was in agony!
But it was worth it for the view.