Archive for June, 2010

Last Day!

June 29, 2010

Here it is, alas, our last evening overseas. Yesterday I resisted the blandishments of the ladies of the night, even though they posed in windows and doorways in the most negligent of underwear. On the other hand, Aileen bought a bodice of a deep blue colour and black lace – how could they compete?

I’m typing this at an internet cafe just round the corner from our hotel – half the price of yesterdays (probably because it’s a real internet cafe and not a dope shop masquerading as an internet cafe). I feel as if we’ve hardly explored the area, hardly settled into our neighbourhood – not as we did in Bruges. Instead we’ve been playing the tourists.

Today we did the 2 obvious tourist things in Amsterdam – we went for a canal ride and visited the Rijksmuseum. Dutch gabled buildings must be old, gables from the 17 & 18th Centuries, but they don’t LOOK old. Maybe it’s the Dutch habit of keeping things v clean and tidy, or maybe it’s because all the windows seem to have been replaced with modern frames and large panes of glass. (Though maybe neat and tidy has got left behind recently – garbage and grafitti all over the place – the new laissez-faire since they discovered dope?)

Canal ride piccy –

The Riksmuseum was great, but I’m getting to the stage where I enjoy buying (amazingly cheap) posters afterwards, knowing I can look at them more comfortably back at home.

Packing is almost done. By some miracle, my big case now weighs only 18 and a bit  kilos – which is a relief, since Malaysian Air only allows 20. Actually, the miracle has a scientific explanation – I rolled my used clothes up v v v tight and packed them into my carryon luggage, which weighs a ton. Well, probably at least 12 kilos, and Malaysian Air only allows five. I’m hoping they won’t check.

That’s all for now! Cheers, R

journey in hell

June 28, 2010

Today was the train trip from Bruges to Amsterdam. First half to Antwerp was ok, only we had to move from 1st class to standard, where it wasn’t air-conditioned. Antwerp was a nightmare, the platform was crowded with people (all young, hippyish, holidayish) and they made a rush for the carriage doors before we could make our rush the carriage doors. We had to fight our way on board, literally the last ones in, when every seat was taken, every aisle was full of people standing, and the open spaces at the end of the carriages were choc-a-bloc. We had to push people out of the way with our big suitcases – and most everyone else had cases and bags too.

So we travelled standing, squashed on every side. People trying to pass had to climb over bags. I vowed there and then to travel first class next time. We got out of that train hot and sweaty and reliieved to breathe fresh air again.

So now we’re in the Amsterdam, close to the railway station – we’ll need to do a quick take off by train to the airport day after tomorrow. Close to the railway station is also the red light district. Many many little glowing red lights in all the side streets, and the young ladies of the night are just starting to take up their position in the windows.

I’m typing this at an internet cafe that’s also a hash cafe. Just like old times, when I visited Amsterdam at the end of the 70s. There was the hash and dope menu, all laid out on the counter, different costs for about 50 varieties.

Though 50 varieties doesn’t begin to compare with the way Belgians drink beer. Last night we went to the same brasserie, called ‘Cambrinus’, where we had out first dinner in Bruges – and chose another few beers from a selection of over 400 possibilities. The beer menu weighed a ton, divided into separate categories like Special Beers, Abbey beers, trappiste beers, fruit beers, lambic beers.

Here’s the menu, an inch thick between wooden covers, about 40 pages for beer and one page for food –

I mostly experimented with abbey and trappiste varieties – my favourites – but had a lambic beer too last night. Totally different, sort of sharp and refreshing. Maybe one day I’ll go back to Bruges and work my way through the other three hundred and eighty odd.

Cheers, R

Hot in Bruges

June 27, 2010

Weather is amazing, we’ve had over a fortnight of sun and blue skies. Almost too hot today, at least for walking around as a tourist. Must be still about 30 degrees now. We wandered as far as the beguinhof – the nunnery. Aileen talked to one nun who’d been a novice for 46 years – ‘I’m very happy with the life I’ve chosen’. The beguinhof sums Bruges up in a way, like a quiet retreat from the world. Lots of Godshuises too – which means almshouse, I think, but they’re like little oases of quiet tiny old buildings around courtyards. If I didn’t have so many novels left to write, I could easily contemplate a quiet meditative retirement in a Bruges Godshuis.

Forgot to mention one funny event from yesterday – or was it the day before? see how time has stopped flowing? We went to look at the Basilica of the Holy Blood – they were in the middle of a mass, but since Aileen’s a catholic, we went in and sat down, and Aileen took communion. Here’s how it looked inside –

But this was no ordinary service – this was the one time of the week for the Procession of the Holy Blood, when a long vessel like a gold-encased tube is presented for the special prayers of the devout. (Liquid blood or dried blood? and where was it obtained? I’ll have to google when I have time0

Anyway, Aileen joined the queue to pass before the relic, touch it and make a prayer – but realised too late that you were supposed to make a donation – and not subtly, not discreetly, but right on the steps going up to where the priest sat with the vessel virtually in his hands. So she went through with it, geneflucted, touched the vessel, made a prayer – but whereas everyone else got a card, no card for Aileen!

Somehow I donùt think the nuns in the Beguinhof would have understood the less than charitable spirit of that!

Had a great birthday dinner for Aileen last night, sitting by a restaurant window overlooking a canal. With swans swimming, of course – maybe you can just see them in the canal in the background …

Oh well, maybe not, but I know they were there.   Cheers,   R


June 26, 2010

Today we went on a boat trip around the canals of Bruges. Very different to Venice, v calm and quiet, with overhanging trees, and swans taking their cygnets on morning outings.

Afterwards we went to a Saturday flea market – drove us crazy, all the things we wanted to buy and couldn’t because of luggage limits on the flight home. Every kind of knickknack at ridiculously cheap prices – including fabulour brass candelabra (we really want a nez candelabra). I bought a leather helmet, medieval soldier style – – I always wanted one, don’t know why – and even more out-of-character, I bought the Livre de Mobilisation that belonged to a Belgian soldier at the end of the 19th century. I am so much NOT an antiquarian, but it fascinated me, the worn pages with all the details of Private Van Hoolenbeck’s enrolment, duties and requirements for a soldier in the Belgian army – even a separate folded paper with his final discharge – and all in an old goatskin binding. A real treasure for just a few bucks – I had to have it.

What else? We’ve learned to adapt to a shower recess so tiny it would challenge even an astronaut in a space capsule.

We bought some evil-smelling black drawing ointment for Aileen’s toe. Tonight is Aileen’s belated birthday dinner night, this afternoon we’re just listening to the canal waves lapping outside our window counterpointed by the loudspeaker voices of multi-lingual commentary from the canal tours going by.

Only 3 more days left after today, alas!   Cheers,   R

The Score So Far

June 25, 2010

Just in case you thought travelling abroad was easy, here’s the score so far. Aileen: one swollen puffed-up toe and one v stiff neck (from carrying backpack). Richard: one sore throat (needing frequent doses of rum to keep it in check) and one bad back (thank you, Paris Metro with your lack of escalators). But we’re still having a ball – even if shuffling as we dance along.

Bruges is the perfect place for taking it easy, rambling along narro cobbled streets and green dreamy canals, drinking Belgian beer (the best, and v strong and v cheap), sampling Belgian chocolates. Did I mention before that our bedroom window looks out on a canal? Like this –

Meanwhile, what’s been happening back in Oz? We turn our backs for a couple of minutes and the whole political scene changes. Kevin out and Julia in? When I left 6 weeks ago, the worst for Kevin was a couple of bad opinion polls!!!

Cheers,   R

Paree, Paree!

June 24, 2010

Paris was wonderful! Just the perfect weather, blue skies shining down on the leafy boulevards, and our hotel was in the perfect area – the south end of the Latin Quarter, near the Rue Mouffetard.

So our hotel – near the publisher’s offices – was in an area of typical Parisian buildings, with the balconies and angled dormer roofs. Rue Mouffetard nearby is a wonderful narrow cobbled street winding up through markets and fromageries, epiceries, every kind of old-style shop, along with a million restaurants.

The journey across Paris by Metro was hell, and ditto the journey back today. No problem when we went by Metro to the Seine and Notre Dame – because then we weren’t dragging suitcases. But heavy suitcases on the hot packed Metro – and all the steps to carry them up and dozn. The escalators – of which there are hardly any anyway- never seemed to be working in the direction we wanted. And today, the rail workers were having a go-slow, so I stood in a queue of about thirty people and took over an hour to get to the front.

But those were the only bad bits. Paris itself was, well, just so Parisian. We sat drining beers at little round tables in the sunshine, we had soupe a l’oignon and red wine, and cafe au lait and croissant for breakfast – for a couple of days there, we were Frencher than the French.

There was also lunch with the people from Helium, my French publisher. We ate at a restaurant in Rue Mouffetard, of course. Great people, and for once I remembered to take a photo – that is, Aileen reminded me. That’s been the problem – she hasn’t been there to jpg my camera arm before.

From left to right – Gilberte, Gérard, Valérie (translator), yours truly, Sophie (publisher) and Sandrine.

It was good to hear that the French edition is going into reprint.

I’ll blog about Bruges tomorrow, now I’ve got internet access again.

Cheers,  R

Organic cider

June 22, 2010

Last post from the UK. We’re off under the English Channel to France in an hour’s time.

The last couple of days have been great – except for the travel part. I’ve grown so used to having everything taken care of – plane and train tickets provided in advance, cars and taxis booked, times all worked out, nothing for me to worry about. Now suddenly it’s all up to Aileen and me – queuing for tickets, finding out where to go and what to do. Travelling from Dorking to Brighton yesterday, everything went wrong – trains going from unexpected platforms, trains cancelled, me waiting in the wrong places, everyone assuming I knew how things worked when I didn’t. But apart from that, the last couple of days have been great.

First of all, there was the meeting up with relatives at cousin Kit’s place in East Croydon. I couldn’t hire a car to drive round to see people – not enough time in the schedule – but instead almost everyone managed to come to Kit’s. Not only Kit and Alan but also Vanda and Anne, also Andy and also Terry and janet. That’s all the cousins I grew up with – and they hadn’t seen one another for a long time either (especially Terry’s family) so it was a great get-together for everyone. Floods of nostalgia, rivers of reminiscence! So much to catch up on – and so many half-forgotten memories unearthed.

(No photos – I’m ashamed of myself.)

Aileen and I stayed overnight with Kit, then headed off from East Croydon railway station – Aileen straight to Brighton where she met up with a friend, me to Dorking, a one-time small market town, now an outer part of the London conurbation. Home of my UK publisher, Templar. I met up with Phil, my publicist, again, and Emily my editor – at last, I now have a face to go with so many emails. Also Mandy and Ruth and many more. Templar is an expanding publisher, but still has a great ‘team’ feel.

Emily had already read Liberator. Although I’ve felt so confident about that book, there’s still always a moment of apprehension – no need in this case, she loved it! We talked about some v small possible improvements.

Went out to lunch with Emily, Mandy, Ruth and Phil – v relaxing, under a sunshade at the back of a restaurant. I can remember a time when I was frozen stiff in the presence of publishers – but all my publishers and editors are such great people, it’s become like chatting with friends.

Later, after the hell ride to Brighton, I went over to meet Ian Miller at his house, not far from our hotel. Ian is the illustrator whose work I’ve admired for decades – and who created a wonderful cover for Worldshaker. I half expected to be in awe of him, but no, I just LIKED him. (I hope he’s not reading this.) He’s as old as me – groan! wheeze! – but he’s like a breath of fresh air, so funny, so sharp, so unpredictable. Mike Jolley from Templar was there too, and Ian’s wife Jenny – we sat in a sort of bower of greenery in the back garden, then gathered in the parlour, then had a dinner when Ian’s son Danny arrived. The whole house is a fabulous collection of art-inspiring oddities. I can’t explain ‘art-inspiring oddities’ – I nean, bits of stone, wood, toys, figurines, amazing stuff that Ian has collected (and you can see elements of them creeping into his pictures).

So anyway, we talked and talked and talked – it was a fantastic evening. And of course I drank Ian’s favourite tipple, organic cider (and bludged a cigarette off Mike). I feel sorry to be leaving England behind …

Cheers, R

Win some, lose some

June 20, 2010

Last talk yesterday at the Borders Festival (the Borders area in the south of Scotland, not the bookshop chain). I’ve enjoyed the UK tour so much, and I’m sure I’ve generated a lot of interest in Worldshaker. But this last talk wasn’t a  highlight – the kids attending were around 9 years old, a bit on the young side for a YA novel like Worldshaker! No matter – can’t expect everything to work out perfectly. And the festival as a whole was great – white marquees set up in an old garden with the sun shining. It was cucumber sandwiches on the lawn weather, a lovely holiday feel.

Earlier, Aileen and I went around Melrose Abbey, a grand ruined Cistercian abbey church and cloisters. I realised this was my first bit of true sightseeing on the whole trip so far.

Today I re-organised my suitcase so that all the stuff I use for presentations – clothes, displays etc – went to the bottom. Now it’s holiday clothes at the top!


June 19, 2010

We’re now in Melrose in the Scottish Borders country – home of a famous ruined abbey and also a writer’s festival. We arrived yesterday, staying at a delightful guest house nearby. Yesterday evening was a reeception and sitting around talking – I was a bit daunted in advance, because of course everyone knew everyone else, and Aileen and I knew noone. But everybody was very friendly and welcoming, so we soon got over that.

The UK tour is rushing to a close – I do a presentation today, travel to London and catch up with my relatives, then travel south to have lunch with my UK publisher, on further to Brighton to meet Ian Miller – then the next day is back to London and over the Channel to France. I mean, UNDER the Channel, by train and Chunnel … very appropriate, since WORLDSHAKER history begins when Napoleon digs HIS tunnel under the English Channel to invade England.

I ought to be tired with all the travel and presentations, I MUST be tired – but right now I feel as if I could keep doing this for weeks and months non-stop!

Last school presentations

June 17, 2010

I love it when kids get carried away with questions – when more and more of them put their hands up, more and more enthusiastically. That’s what happened today at Altrincham (pronounced Altringam) Grammar School.

It took me back to the school I went to in England, long long ago, when all-boys grammar schools were far more common than now. The students even wore a uniform similar to Sudbury Grammar – green jackets with red piping round the edges. Ours was more a carrotty red, and we had caps too. (Imagine, requiring schoolkids to wear caps – isn’t that a surefire way of getting caps pinched off heads, thrown, chased, hidden – guaranteed chaos!) There was a traditional feel about the school in general – in a good way. Or maybe it was just nostalgia on my part.

This morning I counted numbers of socks, shirts, undies, pants. Getting towards the end of the trip – only 2 weeks left! – and I’d hate to do more hotel room washing than I had to. Funny how some things work when tested under travel conditions and others don’t. Like my microfibre shirts and pants – they dry so fast. And my washing line for hanging above the bath, my whisky for gargling after doing talks. Other things that weren’t worth the bother – like my tailcoat and top hat, which I’ve hardly used, my steampunk cap and vest are much better.

I always think I’ll remember and plan and pack better next trip, and somehow I always forget.

Cheers, Richard