Friday, July 30, 2010

In Praise of Audiobooks

Over the last couple of weeks I have travelled about two thousand miles by train to various parts of Wales and St Austell in Cornwall in order to promote my book. The scenery was beautiful, I enjoyed meeting the many people enthusiastic about books and I returned each day by train, enveloping myself in audiobooks. Audiobooks are great for travelling by public transport. Railway carriages are sometimes noisy and it is difficult to concentrate, but listening to an audiobook I found I could escape this world.

So far I have listened to Solar by Ian MacEwan, Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. Each book quite different in character, but equally enjoyable. I think I actually appreciated the book more than if I'd read it myself.

At the moment I am listening to The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry. This is a different book again - much gentler than the others, and I find myself looking forward to doing some ironing or maybe going on a walk just so I can listen again.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Zadie Smith's Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

1 When still a child, make sure you read a lot of books. Spend more time doing this than anything else.

2 When an adult, try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.

3 Don't romanticise your "vocation". You can either write good sentences or you can't. There is no "writer's lifestyle". All that matters is what you leave on the page.

4 Avoid your weaknesses. But do this without telling yourself that the things you can't do aren't worth doing. Don't mask self-doubt with contempt.

5 Leave a decent space of time between writing something and editing it.

6 Avoid cliques, gangs, groups. The presence of a crowd won't make your writing any better than it is.

7 Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.

8 Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.

9 Don't confuse honours with achievement.

10 Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.

To read the complete Guardian article, click here.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

My Welsh Waterstones Tour: Stop 5 - Newport

Yesterday, I took an early train to Newport in Gwent.

This is another place I'd never been before, and I found attractive, flower-decorated streets

and, helped along by the blue friendly circle of my iphone sat nav, my goal: Waterstones.

The staff there had found a TV and DVD player and heaved it into the middle of their shop, so I was able to play my little movies on that (which was much better than my laptop)

and not only that but displayed my book on their 'hot of the press' shelf

and had even been kind enough to read it in advance and given it a review.

The customers were interested and I had a great time talking to them, and telling them of the story of the Welsh going to Patagonia. So thank you Newport in Gwent, and thanks especially to Louise, Paul for the review and all the rest of the staff at Waterstones - I much enjoyed my visit.

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Girl's Choir of Gaiman in Capel Gad at Cilcain near Mold

Last night I went to Capel Gad in Cilcain near Mold. It's a long time since I've been in a chapel. I'd forgotten the attractive simplicity: the plain cream walls, the undecorated rectangular windows and the functional pulpit. Four lanterns hung down from the high ceiling and yet seemed to light the entire room. There were no balconies, few wall hangings, just the dark pews with hard wood seats.

I remembered the chapel services I'd endured as a child, and how they'd seemed to go on forever. I shifted in my seat and looked at the programme with Hodmandod Senior. It seemed quite long, and it was all in Welsh.

"Sorry," I said.

He smiled and pointed to where the words of a couple of hymns were written, in their entirety, in Welsh.

"Looks like we're going to have to do a Redwood." I said, remembering the notorious incident when John Redwood, as Welsh minister was forced to stand and show he didn't know the words of the Welsh National Anthem in front of a television audience of millions.

Gradually the place started to fill. The old pews took exactly four people each and creaked with the unaccustomed weight. Soon the ushers were having to pick out spaces and directing people to the front. The organiser, Edward Williams, had warned me they were running out of tickets earlier in the week, and so I'd asked him to keep a couple aside. We counted the number of heads: Hodmandod Senior estimated at least 240. The concerts in Capel Gad are often quite popular, but this one was proving to be one of the most popular so far. The attraction was the Ladies' Choir from Gaiman in Patagonia.

I'd already introduced them in Llangollen, and seen then how they fascinated. I'd been warned not to expect much from my audience, that people tended not to listen as well to outdoor speakers, so I had kept careful watch as I'd spoken, ready to curtail things if anyone showed signs of being bored. But they didn't, so I kept going. Clearly the story of how there came to be this settlement of Welsh people in the middle of a desert in Spanish-speaking Argentina intrigues others just as it intrigued me.

Most Welsh people have heard of their Patagonian cousins at school, but know little more about the early years of the colony, or even why they went there. It is an heroic tale and a triumphant one and as I listened to the choir last night I wondered how much the members of this choir knew about their ancestors that landed on a bleak beach almost 150 years ago - perhaps not any more than I know about the details of the lives of my own ancestors (that is very little).

Little is generally known about the lives of ordinary people, unless they leave diaries or tell their children tales of their lifetime adventures. Fortunately, some of the Patagonian settlers did both of these things, and I was able to interview some of the older descendants, who had heard the tales, when I went over to Patagonia in 2004. I've incorporated some of those stories in my novel, and used the facts I'd gleaned from accounts of their lives to reconstruct what happened.

Some of the themes of the story: 'Promised land', 'wilderness', 'suffering' seem biblical, and it seemed apt last night to be thinking of all this again in Capel Gad. The Patagonian Ladies choir, which at one stage was joined by the local choir from Cilcain, and also several talented Patagonian male soloists, sang the Welsh hymns I imagine the settlers could have sung. With the 160 settlers there were three ministers, so there must have been no shortage of services.

The choir also sang in Spanish - stirring folk songs and exciting modern songs composed for them by their accompanist Hector MacDonald, son of their director, Edith MacDonald. The time went quickly, and after a few minutes I didn't notice the hardness of the seat at all. All were spectacularly successful and strangely moving and the performers were given a standing ovation.

Billy Hughes from Patagonia sang the patriotic Cymru Fach and then joined a very good local soloist, Malcolm Williams, in a series of stirring duets and we all rose to sing the final three songs together including Calon Lân and Hen Wlad fy Nhadau. A woman in front of us waved a flag, and I don't think I've ever been prouder to be Welsh.

'Wonderful, isn't it?' I said to Hodmandod Senior, and he nodded - even though he is English.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Just One More Book

In years gone by, so I am told, the larger presses published books they considered to have sufficient literary merit even though they knew they were unlikely to be big sellers. Nowadays, this is less likely. So where can experimentation and innovation now flourish? The answer seems to be in the small independent presses.

In some ways then, these small independent presses are essential for the literary health of society, and one of them, Salt, needs a little help. Last year they ran a campaign 'Just One Book', and this year they are appealing to the reading public again to buy 'Just One More Book'. Having read a few Salt books (Elizabeth Baines's Too Many Magpies, Balancing on the Edge, Tania Hershman's The White Road and Vanessa Gebbie's Words From A Glass Bubble) I can vouch for their excellence. So for this year's campaign I have ordered an anthology of essays on the short story called Short Circuit edited by Vanessa Gebbie.

There is more on their appeal here.

And interesting discussions and views on the subject here (Brian Clegg), here (Jane Holland) and here (Tom Vowler).

Wandering Gaia in Bolivia

For the last few months I have been following the adventures of Wandering Gaia whenever I have had the chance. She, and her partner Nick, search for the effects of global warming all over the planet. At the moment they are in Bolivia and her post on that beleaguered country has some exceptional writing and pictures.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Review of A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees on Now Appearing

I am extremely pleased to report that the award-winning science writer Brian Clegg has written a thoughtful and intelligent review of my book, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees on his blog Now Appearing. It is not entirely positive but he couches what he says in such generous terms that I can't help but be very happy.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Gill McEvoy's Launch of the Plucking Shed

Tonight I went to the launch of Gill McEvoy's anthology of poems: The Plucking Shed. It is published by Cinnamon Press.

I've long admired Gill's poetry and looking forward to giving these a good browse through later. The evening went well, and it was good to see Gill looking so well and happy.

(taken with my trusty iphone).

Sunday, July 18, 2010

My Welsh Waterstones Tour: Stop 4- Llandudno

Yesterday, the British summer weather returned to the traditional rain, clouds and cool breeze. I shivered in my linen dress, duped by a couple of weeks of sunshine.

Even though Llandudno is just an hour away by car I decided to take the train. It is a route strewn with romantic-looking and ancient castles (built by an English king endeavouring to keep the Welsh subservient) and mountains, becoming wilder, higher and more beautiful towards the west.

Llandudno shelters beside a headland of limestone called the Great Orme. There are railways and cable-runs to the top, which is a dome of grass thrillingly exposed to the wind and sea, and riddled with ancient mines for valuable metals.

Beneath it a busy town with elegant wide streets links two sandy beaches; one I remember classified as 'clean', the other not so, but can never remember which one, and so steer clear of both of them just in case.

Waterstones fronts a small shopping mall. My imminent arrival announced on billboard and poster

then inside my books on display.

I started my computer and immediately a couple of people came up and watched my films. A couple of local newspapers had been kind enough to feature my event, and this had brought people in even before I'd arrived. I much enjoyed myself talking to customers - some of whom had their own very interesting stories to tell.

The staff said I could stay as long as I liked (since it seemed to be going quite well), and in the end had only six books left which I was invited to sign.

Then, after a much-welcome cup of coffee in the cafe above I made my way back to the station (one of the most weird I've ever come across, a roof only over a small fraction of it, and a road right next to the platform) and swapped stories with a seagull.

Friday, July 16, 2010

St Austell's Readers Day

The St Austell's Readers Day went well. In the morning there had been a display of photographs by Phil Cope, another Seren author, on the Holy Wells of Cornwall. This was followed by a 'home' section featuring some very good writers that happened to live locally in Cornwall. The admirably prolific writer of romantic sagas, E.V. Thompson was then interviewed by Liz Hurley (the owner of a local bookshop rather than the actress). He gave a very interesting insight into his career, and also the way in which the publishing industry has changed.

After lunch there was a discussion with the panel of authors. Then readers had to choose one of four talks from the programme as follows:

  • Fran Sandham - who completed a remarkable solo walk across Africa and wrote a book about his adventure - “Traversa”
  • John Tagholm - this crime writer will discuss his walk across France in relation to No Identifiable Remains and the influence a trip to Italy had on the writing of Bad Marriage.
  • Clare Dudman - her book “A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees” is a lyrical and insightful evocation of the trials of the first Welsh Patagonian colonists.
  • Natasha Solomons - whose debut novel Mr Rosenblum’s List is already stirring up much excitement having been sold in 10 languages and the film rights sold. The book is a rather lovely celebration of all things English.

Although my group was small - I had about ten people including one of the librarians, a librarian's mother and her friend and another author - the people that were there seemed to enjoy my talk so I felt my journey was worthwhile.

Another great benefit was that I met the other 'away' authors, and having bought and started all their books in advance wished I had been able to go to their talks instead of mine (because I knew exactly what I was about to say).

Eileen Parr interviews me...

On the way back from the Lowdham Festival, I encountered the writer Eileen Parr at the railway station. We started talking and I now I have answered some questions on writing (which I found very interesting) on her blog, 'The Writer's Little Book'.

While I was away...

Alex Johnson, author of the inspiring Shedworking Book, published my piece on the importance sheds in my new novel... which actually have a pivotal role.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


I'm staying at a place called Charlestown. A small harbour is used for tall sailing ships so it makes an attractive setting.

Charlestown, I read at breakfast, was established in the 18th century, and still exports china clay. So although picturesque, is still a working place, which stops it being too quaint, apparently. Just because Charlestown is pretty, then, it doesn't mean it can't be taken seriously.

N.B. Rest of this post added later.

In the harbour people in wetsuits jump off walls into water too cold for swimming,

while fishermen sit by their lobster pots and talk to anyone who passes.

The beaches are small, and surrounded by disintegrating cliffs, and for a while I listen to the chatter of a million pebbles as they are sorted by each incoming wave. Then I walk, gingerly, along a pathway narrowing with with the incoming tide, and come across this - a piece of a cuttlefish, satisfyingly soft as pumice beneath my nail.

A few more steps and I am up on the coastal path looking back.

High cliffs, coves, small sandy beaches - the Brythonic Celts seemed to have a propensity for coasts like this. Or maybe they ended up in these places simply because there was no where else to go: the Land's End in Cornwall is repeated again in France - beyond is the vast Atlantic and the unknown.

One headland follows another, each one encouraging me onwards

So I walk until the light is fading and I am forced to return.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I set off this morning for St Austell - a journey of seven hours. I hadn't realised this island of ours was quite this large.

I am reading Traversa by Fran Sandham, and this is proving to be an entertaining read. He sets off to cross Africa and his travel crises certainly put my trivial problems into perspective.

Monday, July 12, 2010

My Welsh Waterstones Tour: Stop 3- Carmarthen

There is one problem about this tour and that is my visits are too short. I just want to come back again and see more of the places I see.

I have been through Carmarthen more times than I can remember. It is the half-way point between my mother's family in Swansea and my father's in Cardigan. I remember a hill and narrow twisting roads, and somewhere a wizened old tree, barely alive, which could not be allowed to fall otherwise the town itself would fall...

But sometime since then the tree has gone, and the town suffered little except for a little flooding (although no more than normal, so I hear).

I stayed at an old inn - a quiet convenient place in the middle of town, and after returning from Swansea made my way through the square to this.

And my table in the middle.

I had a truly excellent time. I abandoned the idea of handing out boiled sweets as an ice-breaker (which hadn't worked in Swansea - no one wanted one) and went wandering around the store a little, chatting to people before returning to my table with my films.

But then a man came into the shop specifically for my book having seen an article about it in the local paper, and then a photographer came to take my picture for next week's paper. This was all due to the efforts of the booksellers in the shop so I was delighted.

In the middle of all this my editor Penny Thomas popped in to see me, and after my allotted time I met her and the author Fflur Dafydd in a tea shop. Then, pausing to collect my bag from the inn, caught the train back home. It was a long journey (five hours) but I'm glad I made it.

My Welsh Waterstones Tour - Stop 2: Swansea

My grandmother was fond of a saying about the view from Swansea and it was this. When you can see Devon over the sea when rain is on the way; but when you can't see Devon it means that rain is already there. When I was a child on holiday there - and our holidays were always there with one grandmother or another - I knew this was the truth. In Swansea it rains a lot.

Maybe it is because of all this rain that Swansea is lush. I noticed this during my short walk from the train station. Seeds take root, and like an unwanted hair they sprout forth

not just bushes but small trees


Waterstones in Swansea is housed in an old cinema on Oxford Street. It, together with its fellow down the street,

are the sole survivors of the blitz. It is something I imagined so intensively once that I feel I know it already: the scorched smell of a recently quenched fire; the snaking of hoses across the street; the boards covering craters; the detours of the buses and that terrifying journey to where my great grandmother lived to a partly demolished street to find her house still standing and the woman herself still intact inside.

Swansea is in my bones. Half my relatives were born, lived and died here. When I hear the voices their accent causes a sudden warm flush of recognition and fondness and I feel at home.

It seems right then that when I look at the window reserved for local books

I see familiar scenes, names and faces, and looking closer notice something else

my book! In its own little pile, in line with all the rest.

My grandmother was mad for the flicks, so mad for them in fact that she named her poor daughter after a starlet she particularly admired: Shirley Temple. So I expect this cinema with its grand staircase and magnificent Art Nouveau frontage, was where my grandmother came to dream of another life; one in which she didn't have to get up at six to work in the men's clothing factory, and her husband was Clark Gable - not Bryn Wilde with his face too tanned from the radiating heat of molten aluminium.

But now it just leads to the cafe with its view over the street, and forms a splendid backdrop to this little table where I signed a few more books, met at last my father's old friend Alan Davies and his wife Maggie. It was over too soon, and I promised them that I'd be back - and I shall.

Thank you Swansea Waterstones - you displayed my books beautifully.