The distinguished author and journalist, Peter Hitchens, was once a correspondent in Moscow, and is old enough to have some experience of what life was like in the now-vanished Soviet Bloc (it remains to be seen if Mr Putin will succeed in re-inventing it...) Last Sunday, in his regular blog for the Daily Mail's on-line edition, Peter wrote about The Valley of Unknowing, which is set in the former East Germany. Coincidentally he bought his copy from a small shop near Gloucester Road tube station, close to where I lived for many years before moving to the burbs. I have a feeling I know which shop it was too (most likely The Slightly Foxed Bookshop). Anyway, he has some very nice things to say about the novel, and some thoughtful comments on the place and time that inspired it. You can read the piece here.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Wednesday, April 30, 2014
Sunday, August 25, 2013
It is common for writers to follow in the footsteps of their more august predecessors, either literally or metaphorically. It’s less usual for their notebooks to do it for them. But that’s just what mine has done. The original footsteps are those of Robert Louis Stevenson, he of Treasure Island and Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde fame. When the great Scot was still in his twenties he spent twelve days hiking through the Cévennes, a wild and beautiful region of Languedoc, along the southern edge of the Massif Central. The result was a highly readable travelogue entitled Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1878) , the donkey being Modestine, who emerged as one of the more vivid – and indeed sympathetic – characters in the book. (It seems a good few of the locals were decidedly wary of the RLS, and kept their distance.)
I was near the Cévennes earlier this summer, and took with me a notebook, as I always do when travelling. It was rather a nice one - a gift - leather bound with a hard cover. I wrote many notes for The Valley of Unknowing in it, and I had I stuck to things literary, I might never have lost it. Unfortunately on this trip I used it to write down directions to a nearby supermarket (and a shopping list, for shame!) and then left it in the trolley, on one of those little fold-out seats used to torture small children. I could never have suspected that the next person to use that particular trolley would be a man from the Cévennes, who makes a living taking visitors through the region on donkeys; but that’s just what Christian Brochier does. (I am told that his donkeys are as lovely as Modestine was, but that the locals are now a good deal friendlier. Nor are you required, as RLS was, to share a bed with any of them – unless you want to.)
A few weeks later, the notebook turned up again in England with a card from M. Brochier, in which he wrote: “I thank you for this moment of poesy and adventure in the great temple of consumption. I felt like a detective trying to resolve the question of the lost booklet – important for somebody, probably for a book or a film – and was especially puzzled by the map with the shops.”
I think the great writer would have understood this reaction very well. And I offer M Brochier my sincere thanks for his kindness.
Monday, July 29, 2013
Sunday, June 9, 2013
I recently wrote this short piece for the Vintage books blog about how I got into writing fiction, which I largely put down to a nasty lung infection contracted in the Andes at the age of twenty. The accompanying pictures, put through my rather rudimentary scanner, have come out looking like they were taken about 100 years ago using a Box Brownie, but maybe that all adds to the general sense of ancient history...
Digging them out, I found myself wondering what happened to my two companions on that journey, Vanessa and Julia, both then students at New Hall. One I know spent a long time in Madrid working for Reuters (we met up there c.1990 when I too was journalistically employed there). The other became an expert on China, a while before it became a manufacturing superpower. More than that, I do not know...