Monthly Roundup – September 2022

september

September has been noteworthy in a number of ways. At a national level there were deaths – the Queen and Hilary Mantel to name two. Closer to home, husband and I made our long delayed trip to Ireland to collect some personal effects put aside for me and my children from my late parents’ house clearance. This proved a worthwhile distraction from the media’s sycophantic mourning for a woman I admired less than the fine author we lost too early.

The Ireland trip was always going to be an emotional journey. I last travelled to the isle in early 2020 for my mother’s 92nd birthday. We had therefore decided to make it rather more epic a holiday than usual. The need to bring a car across the Irish Sea to enable transport of inherited items inspired us to book a cabin on an overnight ferry – the closest we would ever wish to come to a cruise. The boat sailed from Liverpool, a city we had never visited. We therefore booked a couple of nights in a hotel there. Although interesting, the place did not require the amount of time allocated. We were glad to take part in the Birkenhead Parkrun. A morning in Chester also helped while away some time. My teddy bear, Edward, accompanied us. You may read of his Explores in Liverpool and its surrounds here.

The Belfast leg of the trip was filled with nostalgia. We revisited several of the towns and villages located on the northern coast of the Ards Peninsula that my parents had loved and regularly took me as a child (I rarely appreciated them then). We caught up with friends and family, who made us welcome in their homes as well as joining us for dinners in fine, local eateries. Husband and I climbed Divis and Black Mountain – a first for me as they are located west of the city in an area I would have feared travelling through when I lived in troubled Belfast. The spectacular views from the ridges warmed my heart for a place I often think of negatively.

The hotel we stayed in prides itself on its comforts and grandeur. Located on the coast at Cultra – a wealthy enclave below which runs a coastal path I walked often as a teenager – I enjoyed reacquainting myself with the area. You may read my review of the hotel and spa here. Edward’s Explore of Belfast will be posted next week.

We returned home via Scotland, with an overnight stop in Dumfries to enable us to take part in their Parkrun. Good memories were made on this lengthy trip and I am grateful to those who helped make it special.

The rest of the month also had highlights. Husband bought me a fine, new bicycle that I took out on a couple of longer rides. As well as Parkruns, I started attending a new, local running club – a rare and brave sociable endeavour for me. The group is made up of new runners, or those returning to the activity after a break of many years. For the first time ever I was regarded as fast! Husband laughed when I told him this. Such opinion will undoubtedly change as the others build on their endurance and stamina, but I’ll take my brief moment while it lasts.

My little family have also faced changes this month. Elder son started a new job that requires him to work on site rather than from home, prompting him to buy his first car. Younger son returned to university. Both can still live at home and commute so we remain a unit of five, for which I am grateful. They may create a mountain of dishes and laundry for me to deal with but I value the daily updates that they are doing okay given all going on in the wider world.

I posted reviews for 7 books in September. Robyn once again took over the blog while I was on holiday and added a further 3 reviews.

As is customary in my monthly roundups, click on the title below to read the review and on the cover to learn more about the book.

Fiction

homesick  isaac and the egg
Homesick by Jennifer Croft, published by Charco Press
Isaac and the Egg by Bobby Palmer, published by Headline

odesa at dawn
Odesa at Dawn by Sally McGrane, published by V&Q Books

Short Stories

A Little Unsteadily
A Little Unsteadily Into Light – New Dementia-Inspired Fiction, published by New Island Books

Translated Short Stories

punishment
Punishment by Ferdinand von Shirach (translated by Katherine Hall), published by Baskerville

Poetry

Mathematics for ladies
Mathematics for Ladies by Jessy Randall, published by Goldsmiths Press

Non Fiction

Hysterical
Hysterical – Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions by Pragya Agarwal, published by Canongate

Robyn Reviews

stardust  feverking
The Stardust Thief by Chelsea Abdullah, published by Orbit
The Fever King by Victoria Lee, published by Skyscape

truthwitchTruthwitch by Susan Dennard, published by Tor

Sourcing the books

Robyn couldn’t resist these beautiful editions of books she hopes one day to read.

Robyn books sept 22

Along with the restrained pile of books I claimed from my father’s library – for which, as you can see, no shelf space has yet been found – a generous quantity of review copies came through my door.

As ever I wish to thank all the publishers who send me their books to review – the arrival of a book parcel remains a cheering event in my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms – your continuing support is always appreciated.

And to everyone reading this, I wish you and yours good health and the ability to pause and enjoy all that is still beautiful in our world and lives. May we strive, at all times, to be kind  xx

Holiday Review: Center Parcs Longleat Forest

CentreParcs sign

Center Parcs have long been one of my family’s go to destinations for active holidays. Although in the past we have stayed at the Sherwood Forest (Nottinghamshire) and Whinfell Forest (Cumbria) sites, Longleat Forest (Wiltshire) remains our favourite. Not only do we enjoy its layout and facilities, the location is a 45 minute drive from home meaning we can gain full value from each day of our stay there.

Last week we returned for our first family holiday since Covid restrictions were introduced. Friends who have holidayed under this regime had warned us of the changes and we had delayed booking in the hope they would be removed. Sadly, it seems these have now become a permanent feature. The main change is the need to book a limited time slot (3 hours) in order to access the swimming area before 6pm. Each lodge is offered a fixed number of these – our midweek break granted us 4 over the course of our 5 day stay. The effect is to somewhat regiment daily activities.

Our friend had also recommended pre-booking any restaurants we wished to eat at well in advance. This proved good advice. Due to staff shortages not all venues could open each evening. Those that could were running on reduced capacity.

With swimming slots and dinner tables booked we travelled to Longleat Forest with some trepidation that it would be a good use of valued annual leave.

Husband and younger son drove down in the morning as they were eager to enjoy some racquet sports before our planned late lunch together at the Sports Bar. Daughter and I joined them for this meal, arriving later as she had just come off a series of night shifts. We arrived at peak time (2.30pm) and crawled along in a queue to enter the site that backed up along the entrance driveway almost to the highway. Husband reported he had been able to drive in with no delay (11am).

Once through check-in, parking was busy but straightforward. The rubber bracelets we were each given on arrival granted entry to the lodge we stayed in and also enabled us to secure a locker in the pool area.

CenterParcs sports bar lunch

Food and drinks at the Sports Bar (and, as it turned out, the Pancake House) were ordered via a phone app. This worked well, although may prove daunting for a guest less confident with such technology. We enjoyed our lunch, eaten in the sunshine at an outside table. The weather throughout our stay was amazing – warm sunshine each day with only a light breeze.

Accommodation may be accessed from 4pm on arrival day. We had booked a Woodland Lodge in the Fir area of the site – the cheapest available. Being allocated one that backed onto a pond brightened my mornings due to the wildlife it attracted. Despite the peace and quiet, I didn’t sleep well as the bed was smaller and softer than I am used to and the bedding was so starched it crackled. Everything provided was clean if basic. Towels are provided for use in the lodge but no other toiletries other than loo paper. Only the later lodge access time had changed since we last visited so all was as expected.

Having unpacked and returned the car to the parking area we went for our first swimming session. As it was now after 6pm there had been no need to book this, thereby saving our allocated slots for subsequent days. The slides, rapids and waves were enjoyed as much as ever and we stayed until closing time (9pm).

I started Day 2 with a morning run that proved challenging due to the many hills on site and the crowded walkways linking various areas. It was lovely to run around the main lake but I then chose to head towards the car park and main driveways to avoid the many bicycles and buggy pushers on narrower pathways. I managed 5 miles of loops, exploring the site thoroughly, before re-joining my family.

CenterParcs pedalo

With the sunny weather we decided to spend some time before our daily swimming slot on the lake. We hired a pedalo in which husband and younger son had fun trying to go faster than the electric versions most people seemed to have selected. Tired from such exertions we returned to the Sports Bar for liquid refreshment.

Swimming slots had been booked each day for mid afternoon, enabling us to continue into the ‘free’ evening session and then go straight to dinner, shortly after 7pm. Apparently earlier sessions are time controlled using coloured bracelets. We were not required to wear these.

Over the course of the week we ate at Los Iguanas, Bella Italia and Café Rouge, enjoying decent food and good service at each. Elder son, who had opted not to join us for the holiday due to a shoulder injury and busy work schedule, made a late decision to come down for dinner one evening – another benefit of being a reasonably short drive away. He was added to our table reservation without complaint. Both he and daughter’s boyfriend were on our original 3 bedroom lodge booking so could come and go at will.

Mobile signal across the site is patchy so communicating with the outside world caused some issues. Guest WiFi is available in most areas so those willing to use messenger services such as WhatsApp can do so more easily.

The earlier part of Days 3 and 5 were spent at the sports complex where we played badminton, squash and table tennis. We bring our own equipment for these activities but racquets, balls and shuttlecocks can be collected on site if necessary. On Day 4 we had great fun doing a round of crazy golf by the lake followed by another visit to the Sports Bar. In between these activities we walked around the site or relaxed at our lodge. The days felt full but never too busy. Taking a midweek break out of school holiday time meant many of the other families were dealing with young children.

We had no problem booking everything we did – bar the swimming and dinner – at the last minute via the phone app. This flexibility meant we could do what we felt like each day without too much time pressure. The app itself is somewhat slow and clunky but useable. Husband preferred this system to that offered on previous visits.

There are, of course, many activities available that we did not take part in. The zip wire over the lake appeared popular. Groups of Segway riders were spotted on walkways. Paddle boarders were being given instruction on the lake. In the past my children have enjoyed taking part in tree trekking and other high level adventures. They have tried archery and quad biking. The indoor climbing wall has been well used. Younger visitors are also well catered for with numerous play areas, outside and in. It is not a cheap holiday by any means but can be highly enjoyable for those willing to make use of the offered facilities.

Day 5 was departure day so the lodge needed to be cleared by 10am. Having stayed at Center Parcs many times before we have this down to a fine art and were out and ready for the day’s activities from 9.30am. After a morning of racquet sports we had booked lunch at the Pancake House – always a treat.

Our final swim session was curtailed at around 6pm when the indoor pool and slides were closed unexpectedly – we were not sure if this was due to the regularly used excuses of a child soiling the water or staff shortages. It did not spoil what had turned out to be a lovely stay. We headed home tired but in agreement that Center Parcs was still worth visiting despite the new restrictions.

Edward Explores: Devil’s Bridge

The extra bank holiday granted for the recent Queen’s Jubilee celebration gave Edward’s bearers a four day weekend. It was decided that this would be the ideal time to leave the country for the first time since early 2020. A hotel was booked at the interestingly named Devil’s Bridge in mid-west Wales. It was hoped there would be less bunting here than rapidly proliferated as the weekend approached in the English village where Edward lives.

On entering the country Edward was immediately made to feel welcome. The hotel at which he stayed provided tasty biscuits for him to enjoy on his big bed – although sadly these weren’t replenished daily. If interested in an overview of The Hafod, you may read a review, in which Edward features, here.

Legend has it that the first of the devil’s bridges was built by the eponymous wicked being in order to trick a lady – whose cow had strayed across the river – into giving up her soul. She was far too canny for this mean minded ploy, although it was unclear from the various write-ups of the tale whether the dog she sent across in her place was rejected or taken by the devil. Edward asked the creature guarding the steps down to view the three bridges that exist today – built one on top of the other over several centuries as replacements were needed. He barked his reply before spreading his wings.

Edwards bearers took him on several river walks where he was able to view waterfalls, being careful to stay dry. He was also interested in the remains of a mine by a river, although not one of the deep ones he had read about that used to exist all over Wales, providing quality coal for trains. This one was a source of minerals, and still raises issues around water pollution today.

As well as the bridges and rivers, Edward explored the nearby town of Aberystwyth. It had a castle that had seen better days and a steep hill offering a fine view of the coastal settlement. It was quite windy on the summit so our intrepid bear held on tight to the bench where he paused to rest.

From Aberystwyth it is possible to catch a steam train back to Devil’s Bridge. Edward met a rather cheeky monkey at the station and offered words of advice about acceptable manners. Teddy bears are, of course, always well behaved.

After all his adventuring, Edward was pleased to return to the hotel each evening for dinner. He very much enjoyed his puddings and remained perplexed that one of his bearers kept opting for cheese instead.

Adventures do, of course, come to an end and our small bear – from the now defunct English Teddy Bear Company – was welcomed back to his home country, as may be expected. Although the Jubilee Weekend was drawing to a close, Edward arrived home just in time to join a tea party hosted by Elizabeth for a new friend she had made. He did wonder why Monty was guarding the teapot so carefully.

Edward was pleased to be travelling further afield again and enjoyed his few days away. He now has a more local trip pending that he looks forward to telling you all about next time.

Random Musings: A year ago this weekend

A year ago this weekend husband and I travelled to Cardiff on a planned city break. Our younger son was at university there and we looked forward to spending time with him and continuing our exploration of the city. We had booked tables at restaurants to take him out for good feeds. We also packed running gear to enable us to take part in the Bute Parkrun on Saturday morning. For reasons financially careful husband would justify, we went by train rather than driving.

Rumours were circulating in the media of some sort of proposed lockdown – whatever that meant – in response to a virus spreading from China. When our son told us a day or so before the weekend that he was feeling under the weather we decided to bring mostly empty suitcases that he could pack what he needed for exam preparation, returning home with us for an extended Easter break. I did not like the thought of him struck down in his halls of residence, alone and unwell. Husband and I had both recently suffered a particularly nasty flu that left a lingering cough it took weeks to shake. We didn’t want our son suffering as we had without support.

The weekend did not go as planned.

Eating out on the Friday night we learned that all restaurants in the city were being closed down, effective immediately. Staff at the Bella Italia we had booked – mostly empty which was highly unusual – had been invited to help themselves to perishables from the kitchen, that would otherwise go to waste. Already the impact of fearmongering could be felt in the emptying streets that were usually thronging with loudly partying tourists.

We learned the next morning that all Parkruns had been cancelled. We ran in Bute Park anyway and were amazed by how empty everywhere felt. Streets were devoid of people. There was little sign of traffic. Our hotel was the only place that would feed us on the Saturday. Our son walked back to his halls that night through a city that had unexpectedly grown feral. For the first time he reported feeling unsafe, the homeless the only others around and they actively shouting abuse as he passed by.

It was a sunny weekend so we had walked down to the harbour area where families were enjoying the spring air. It was the city centre that felt eerie, the few people around scurrying from proximity.

We packed our son’s essentials on the Sunday, leaving his room ready for his return. Since then he has been back to Cardiff just for an afternoon, last September, to move his remaining belongings to the room booked for the next academic year. Foolishly, we believed the assurances that teaching would be happening in person rather than remotely. It didn’t happen and his rented room has served only as an expensive storage facility. Nevertheless, when the media reports of students confined to halls aired, we were grateful he remained here with us.

On the weekend of our escape – for that was how it felt at the time – we boarded a mostly empty train to Bristol encumbered by our many bags and suitcases. From there we learned that trains were being cancelled without notice, including our connection. We watched the ever changing departure boards carefully and decided to catch a train to Swindon from where we could get a bus home if necessary – assuming they were still running. In the event our daughter, who had travelled from London the day before, was able to come rescue us in my car.

And lockdown began. The reports from around the country made me thankful my little family had made it home where we could be together. I felt comforted that we had each other and lived in a rural location.

There were initial benefits. The roads emptied. The skies cleared of contrails. The weather stayed mostly fine. I own a bike and was able to enjoy long cycle rides along routes normally besieged by fast moving motor traffic. I ran regularly and built up my stamina to tackle lonely half marathons. We have long had our grocery shopping delivered and this continued, albeit with regular replacements of certain staple goods that caused more amusement than hardship. We were lucky.

The months dragged on. The lifting of the first lockdown was not a return to freedoms we had never before considered at risk. We ate out twice before deciding being treated as a biohazard spoiled the experience. I discovered that wearing a mask brought on panic attacks. I carry a lanyard announcing my exemption but being unable to read others’ expressions upsets me. The only place I felt welcome – until it was closed again – was the town gym I joined when my local facility introduced measures that made attendance unappealing.

I look back on how life has changed. With travel curtailed it feels as though we have gone back a century. It seems only the very wealthy leave their home environs – that they may still travel abroad with impunity. Meanwhile husband’s car is taken out only occasionally to ensure it still functions. We venture as far as leg power can take us.

I worry at the legal powers given to the police to ensure compliance. I wonder if these measures will be revoked when – if – we are allowed to roam free again. The latest pressures coming from on high revolve around the new vaccines. With threats of travel bans for the non compliant, and eternal mask wearing, I harbour a fear that last year’s trip to Cardiff may have been my last holiday, my last enjoyable visit to a restaurant.

The death toll has, of course, been high. On a personal level this plague brought forward the deaths of my elderly parents. What cannot yet be enumerated is the ongoing cost to the many who, for now, remain alive.

Jobs have been lost and others created – not necessarily in chosen specialisms. Fear has polarised opinion, at times dividing family and friends. Unable to get together as previously, mental health issues are exacerbated. With healthcare focusing on Covid, other potential illnesses – some of which will bring forward deaths – have gone untreated.

Husband works from home now, something he railed against at first, missing the office camaraderie. We get used to so much when choice is removed. We adapt as best we can.

I read of rats invading empty office spaces. I read of scams being run by those eager to profit from others’ fear. I hunker down and nurse the injuries my body suffers, probably from over exercise – my way of coping with anxiety induced by so many changes. I watch more TV now than I could ever have imagined – a way to fill a dark evening. As one who lived by the mantra of making the most of every day as it could be my last, this past year feels a waste of what is limited time alive.

Only hindsight will tell if the reaction to Covid has been as cataclysmic as it sometimes feels.

I wanted a memento of the year. To forget is to lose the chance to learn. I chose a book – no surprise there – and was also gifted a furry companion. My cuddly plague nurse, pictured below, never fails to make me smile.

My review of the book, Spring Journal by Jonathan Gibbs, will be posted tomorrow. For now we continue this stymied existence through strange and concerning times.

Book Review: Coasting

Coasting, by Jonathan Raban, was first published in 1986. This edition is from Eland who tell us, ‘For the price of a good bottle of wine our travel books offer inspiration for passionate exploration – in the company of authors who really know, and who know how to tell it.’ The author of this book is pleasingly self-deprecating without sacrificing his obvious abilities. The tale he tells is of its time and place yet offers wider understanding of the psyche of the British. This should be essential reading for those who cannot comprehend why Brexit happened – who talk of lies believed as if those who disagree with their point of view are somehow lacking in cognitive ability, who rail against politicians without digging deeper to understand what matters to those who vote for them.

On April Fool’s Day, 1982, Jonathan Raban set sail from Fowey in Cornwall to circumnavigate the British Isles in a two-mast sailing boat kitted out as a one-man floating home. Travelling widdershins, his plan was to stay close to shore, stopping off regularly to meet with locals and gain a feel for the places where they lived – research for the book he was planning. He had never before taken charge of a boat. A retired naval commander spent a fortnight teaching him the basics. The rest he learned from books and then experience.

The journey ended up lasting four years – four circuits. Ashore, the media were covering: the Falkland’s War, the Miner’s Strike, Diana fever. Many of the British people he encountered had more prosaic concerns. Unemployment was rife, traditional jobs disappearing taking with them a way of life generations in the making. In their place came tourism – Britain as a theme park for increasing numbers of foreign visitors. Opportunities were in service rather than manufacture.

The author is the son of a war veteran turned CofE clergyman. He was educated at the same minor, public school as his father – an inexplicable parental decision given what he had to endure there. Coasting is as much memoir as travel journal. The personal reminiscences are skillfully woven into the stories of storms at sea and encounters on shore. There are also pleasing asides detailing other gentlemen’s sailing adventures over several centuries. Raban is far from the first to have decided time at sea would offer a welcome escape from a life stifled by the practical demands of finance and family.

There is much humour but also insight on offer. The writing is well balanced between details of shore time adventures and the challenges of life at sea. Raban comes to view familiar places through the lens of a tourist, albeit one who wishes to delve beneath the surface of photographic memory making. It is the views of the locals that interest him along with his own reactions to their insularity.

Evocative and entertaining, this is travel memoir that peels back the veneer of Britain to expose the preoccupations of its people. Although evaluative it is written with understanding and generosity. A reminder that change is inevitable but will likely be railed against. An engaging and recommended read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

Book Review: The Alchemist

The Alchemist: A Fable About Following Your Dream, by Paul Coelho (translator not credited), tells the story of a young shepherd who consults a gypsy and then meets an enigmatic king. The boy is encouraged to follow his dream which involves abandoning his nomadic existence in Andalusia and seeking treasure at the Egyptian pyramids. Along the way he is robbed and beaten. He must find work if he is to continue his journey. He opens himself to the possibility of omens and must decide when to share what he learns from these.

The boy recognises that he must choose between regarding himself as a victim or an adventurer. Although looking to his future, to fulfilling his quest, the importance of living in the present is often reiterated. The boy learns from every experience, including that a universal language exists to enable deeper understanding of self, other people and place.

The fable-like narrative is spiritual but not favouring any particular religion. Rather it encourages the reader to take time to observe surroundings and engage with nature.

I was somewhat put off the story by the buried treasure aspect – despite the obvious metaphor – and the repeated references to God. I enjoyed the appreciation of nature and the boy’s acceptance of setbacks – how he reasoned in order to find ways to continue. The story of his journey, personal and practical, is a device to pass on the author’s perceived wisdom. I wonder if he regards himself as the titular alchemist.

This wasn’t the tale I expected when I requested the book based on its many rave reviews. Although offering occasional nuggets of wisdom, I found progress slow in places. Evocative and smoothly written as it is, I am reluctant to recommend.

The Alchemist is published by Harper Collins.  

Monthly Roundup – May 2019

May turned into a month of short breaks away from home as my husband had an unanticipated four week lull between work contracts. We made the most of his free time to book some last minute holidays. Thus I have done a great deal of walking but not so much reading.

I posted reviews of thirteen books over the course of the month: eleven fiction (one translated), a poetry collection, and one non fiction title. I attended no literary events.

As a break from bookish posts I wrote about my trip to Wales and the hotel we stayed in.


Random Musings: Wanders in Wales

For anyone interested, my short breaks in London, Edinburgh and Appleby are recorded in pictures on my Instagram.

In anticipation of the trip to Edinburgh – planned as my elder son’s uni accommodation needed to be cleared for the summer – I read a book set in the city that has been lingering on my vast TBR pile.


In the Blink of an Eye by Ali Bacon, published by the Linen Press

I also read two other books I have been meaning to get to for some time. I feel privileged to be sent so many titles ahead of publication but this does lead to a situation where picking up books I have purchased feels almost like an act of subversion.

 

The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Contraband
The Accident on the A35 by Graeme Macrae Burnet, published by Contraband

I reviewed a double bill of fabulous fiction from Salt Publishing – both of these titles are well worth checking out.

 
Haverscroft by S.A. Harris, published by Salt
Good Day? by Vesna Main, published by Salt

Two heavily promoted titles from the bigger publishers were enjoyed – Tiger more than Plume. I suspect Plume will appeal more to the author’s demographic; certainly it is getting column inches in the mainstream media.


Plume by Will Wiles, published by 4th Estate
Tiger by Polly Clark, published by riverrun

I highly recommend both of the following titles from smaller publishers.

 
A Devil Comes to Town by Paolo Maurensig (translated by Anne Milano Appel), published by World Editions
Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, published by Granta

I reviewed one non fiction title which led me to respect hardworking midwives, and all on the NHS frontline, even more.


Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story by Leah Hazard, published by Hutchinson

I posted three reviews originally written for Bookmunch

   

Being Various, New Irish Short Stories edited by Lucy Caldwell, published by Faber & Faber
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr, published by Bloomsbury


The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus, published by Penned in the Margins

Finally, I updated my post on Literary podcasts to include those I regularly enjoy listening to when working out at the gym.

As ever I wish to thank the publishers who send me their titles to review – the arrival of a book parcel makes my day.

My thanks also to those who share my words across their social media platforms. Your support is always appreciated.

Book Review: Not Quite Lost

Not Quite Lost, by Roz Morris, is a travel diary written with an underlying sense of fun. Each of the places the author visits is recounted as a series of anecdotes such as one might share with a friend on a night out. It is a wryly humorous account of the author’s travels, mainly in the UK out of season. She is drawn to places with a quiet history, which she seeks out and shares. The stories are packed with an eye for the unusual in people and place. What could be seen as an unpleasant walk, a challenging drive or disappointing accommodation, becomes an adventure when viewed through her droll and enquiring lens.

The book opens with news of a demolished childhood home, which leads to an on line journey back into Morris’s own history. She investigates the property’s provenance and recalls her personal experiences as a resident. This sets the tone for many of the following tales. Wherever she stays, even if only for a few days, she wishes to understand the background to her surroundings, and how it came to be whatever it is today.

There are a few journeys abroad: to Paris where the language barrier renders her and her typically voluble partner mute; to Mexico where they get married without understanding a word that is being said; and to Italy where she experiences an earthquake whilst in the company of friends. These stories have been honed in the telling, affecting experiences turned into entertaining tales.

Travels around England are less traumatic but no less engaging. Some of the adventures occur due to a reliance on public transport, others are set later after a car has been acquired. This freedom to travel anywhere, and to stop at will, provides a new set of challenges and ensuing escapades. These are exacerbated when a Satnav takes them on routes best avoided by a not fully confident driver.

Encounters with tour guides, locals and other tourists provide snapshots of stories whose end the reader is left to ponder. The author prefers roads less travelled and observes the surrounding scattered history as she passes through. She recounts incidents that defy explanation, the strangeness of people and their predilections. The cryonicists of East Sussex were particularly weird.

Morris is a successful ghost writer seeking new experiences. One of these occurred when she successfully auditioned as a dancer for a commercial. Although challenging it proved that she could rise above her self imposed limitations. This inspired her to write more under her own name.

The final chapter details the places the author stayed in each of the tales recounted. Given the stories she has told the appeal of these is somewhat dubious. What is clear though is the fun to be had when determined to seek out possibilities. I laughed out loud many times while reading these recollections, and now look forward to enjoying my own next adventure armed with a fresh perspective.

Stories from Paris – Guest Post by Alex Christofi

Today I am delighted to welcome Alex Christofi to my blog. Alex’s first novel, Glass (which I review here), was longlisted for the Desmond Elliot Prize and won the Betty Trask Prize. His follow up, Let Us Be True, was published this week (my review is here). In this guest post he shares his thoughts on five real places from the book, and the stories from them that he had to include.

 

While researching my new novel, Let Us Be True, I became fascinated by the history of Paris. Wherever I looked, there were incredible stories to be found, of pioneering gardeners, hidden wine cellars, put-upon architects and bloody clashes in the streets. A few of these stories I couldn’t let go, and they made it into the novel: here are my five favourites.

1 – The Tour d’Argent

Overhead, the clouds bruised and cracked. There was a brief flash of lightning, the thunder inaudible behind the glass. He was in the world’s oldest restaurant, eating duck with a stranger who had just punched him in the head.

This Michelin-starred restaurant lays claim to being the oldest restaurant in the world, purportedly founded in 1582. Their speciality is the pressed duck, which was traditionally eight weeks old, fattened for fifteen days and then strangled, to retain the blood. The wine list is also 400 pages long. It has a great literary heritage, having been referenced not only by Marcel Proust and Ernest Hemingway, but also the 2007 Pixar animated adventure Ratatouille.

2 – Nanterre

Ralf followed the road, hoping to ask someone for directions. Next to the cleared land of the building site was an improvised town, laid out in rows to give the impression of planning, of order – a place where great pride and care presided over mud and scrap metal.

Nanterre is a fascinating place, though a little off the tourist beat. Once an improvised slum (a bidonville or ‘jerrycan town’) housing poor Algerian immigrants, who sometimes found it difficult to rent in the city either because of the cost or because of the prejudices of
landlords, the University of Paris bought a site there and built a huge brutalist campus, a little like the Barbican, but uglier and easier to navigate. The Nanterre campus would be one of the epicentres of the 1968 student protests, which spread and developed over the course of the spring into full blown riots and a general strike, bringing the whole country to a halt.

3 – The Tuileries

‘You know what they do to silk moths?’ said Elsa. ‘They boil them alive and unravel the whole cocoon using tiny looms.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘No. All sorts of things have happened here. I think it’s untoward for a garden to have so much history.’

The Tuileries in the centre of the city might look like an oasis of calm, but they are probably the most eventful gardens in the world. Named after the roof tilers that used to work there before Catherine de Medici bought the land, the garden was the site of the one of the first hot air balloon flights. At one point, they were vast royal gardens, and the head gardener decided to grow mulberry trees to foster a domestic silk industry there. Robespierre had a weird secular festival there, burning mannequins that represented an idiosyncratic group of sins (one of them was ‘False Simplicity’). It was a Russian garrison after the fall of Napoleon, and was also, at one point, used to store artwork looted by the Nazis – a Monet was seriously damaged in a shootout during the liberation.

4 – the Pont Saint-Michel

A police van pulled up at the far end of the bridge, and another on their side, at the entrance to Saint-Michel Métro.

An innocuous bridge metres from some of Paris’s tourist hotspots, the Pont Saint-Michel was the site of a terrible massacre of peaceful protesters by the police. On 17 October 1961, men, women and children were peacefully protesting against the curfew that had been set for all Muslim citizens. The Algerian War had been going on for years, with atrocious violence on both sides, and trust between communities was at a nadir. Unfortunately, a sub-section of the police were right-wing nationalists – in fact, the head of police at the time was Maurice Papon, who had collaborated with the Nazis during the war to deport Jews. The police violently suppressed the protest, beating people with long white batons and throwing them off the bridge into the Seine. There is no official death toll, but estimates are in the dozens.

5 – the Tour Eiffel

He looked out at the city. The sun backlit the dark clouds in chiaroscuro and for a moment broke through, catching each drop of rain so that the sunlight fell not just on surfaces but everywhere at once, manifested endlessly through the air.

The Eiffel Tower had to turn up at some point, didn’t it? You can’t visit the city without the tower peeking through the gaps between buildings, especially now that it’s equipped with that bizarre light which seems to have been inspired by the Eye of Sauron. Paris is unimaginable without it, but when it was built, poor Gustave Eiffel was the most hated architect in France. In 1887, a group of writers and artists clubbed together to petition against it, competing to see who could hurl the best insult (my personal favourites are ‘tragic street lamp’ and ‘barbarous mass overwhelming and humiliating all our monuments and belittling our works of architecture’). How times change.

 

This post is a stop on the Let Us Be True Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Let Us Be True is published by Serpent’s Tail and is available to buy now.

A Bookish Tour of London

I wrote the following article for Structo Magazine as a contribution to their ‘tour’ series. After some consideration the editors decided it did not fit with their ethos: “Structo is dedicated to small independent presses, works in translation and writing that may not always be covered elsewhere.” I  support this ethos and hope to write for Structo in the future. In the meantime, I post my article here.   

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Excitement in my rural Wiltshire village is rare. A mobile library visits once a month. To buy a book I must travel five miles to the nearest small town. This town also boasts a mainline railway station. It is my gateway to city life, to London and beyond.

My knowledge of London has been gleaned from books. Their stories paint pictures of places I dream of visiting, and it is to these that I am drawn when I plan a tour. My interest lies in the lives of the ordinary. History may be told by the victors, but it is made by the masses. If I visit a landmark it is to consider not the benefactor but those who built his pedestal.

Let us travel then to London as I view it through literature. I will avoid the tourist trails and the better known books. Others may seek out Shakespeare and Dickens, or the power hungry world of Wolf Hall. Included here are a mixture of more ordinary works, so if you harbour prejudices, set them aside.

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Like Paddington Bear, I arrive in the capital via his eponymous station, empathising with his feelings of excitement and anticipation at the adventures ahead. Stepping down from the train into the melee of commuters, tourists and students, I am carried by the crowd to the ticket barriers. From here I descend into the bowels of the city. The warm air of the underground rushes up to meet me. Where to first?

Travelling the underground is an adventure in itself. I glimpse abandoned stations through flickering lights and wonder at their demise. I could read of this in Ben Pedroche’s Do Not Alight, one of the few non-fiction books to grace my shelves. I prefer instead to imagine Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, his monsters and saints, murderers and angels. I think of the tunnels explored in Anna Smaill’s The Chimes. I can almost hear her music in the whoosh and scream of train on track.

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I travel first to Highgate Cemetery. Since reading Audrey Niffenegger’s Her Perfect Symmetry, I have been eager to take the tour detailed in her book. On east side and west I seek the graves of writers – Douglas Adams, George Eliot and Karl Marx are all here. The sense of history and the spirit of the place bring peace from the bustling, traffic-filled surrounds.

A short walk through Highgate and I may explore Hampstead Heath, scene of so many fictional murders. My most recent happened in Aga Lesiewicz’s Rebound, a chilling tale that causes me to glance anew at the Lycra-clad runners passing by. I visit Ladies Pond, climb Parliament Hill and admire the city stretched out below. I avoid the dark and quiet woods. The bushes may keep the cruiser’s secrets.

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When I think of London I see the Thames. Travelling to the Embankment, I marvel at the feats of civil engineering which have reclaimed this marshy land, enclosing the busy waterway. I walk alongside the river and time travel to the eighteenth century. Kate Grenville’s The Secret River evoked a London life hard to imagine today: raw sewage-strewn alleyways; overcrowded and freezing lodgings; watermen working the muddy riverbanks ferrying the wealthy for a few small coins, becoming sodden so that delicate slippers may be kept clean.

M.D. Murphy’s Dark River Melody encapsulates the social conditions, inequalities and injustices of the Georgian period. Through it all runs the river breathing in and out; emanating life, power, beauty and menace; representing the unstoppable progression of time. It is an excellent evocation of the city and the bewildering variety of life that populates its streets.

I look across the water to Battersea Power Station and consider the continuing inequalities of today. Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear tells of run down estates just beyond the luxury flats that now grace this iconic landmark. I pass the beggars, the troubled who sit ignored. Since reading Richard Butchin’s Pavement, I wonder at their thought processes, how they channel anger at so much conspicuous wealth when they struggle to find food enough to live. We must hope that they will not choose to become serial killers as Butchen’s protagonist did.  

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Travelling east I visit Greenwich Park and the locations so vividly portrayed in Alan WiIliam’s Blackheath Séance Parlour. I see no great winged creatures lurking overhead but may still view the Ranger’s House, the Royal Observatory, St Alfege’s Church, and enjoy a drink at a recently refurbished Hare and Billet. I find that a Dartmouth Terrace still exists but it is not where the sisters would have lived. The original terrace was demolished last century following war damage.  

All cities exist in a state of flux. There are still many blocks of ordinary looking houses to admire, although priced now beyond the reach of the families for whom they were built. I think of Chris Cleave’s Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, how the blitz of the Second World War destroyed so many homes and lives. I note the modern proliferation of luxury apartment blocks and ponder what it would take to drive these into the chaos depicted in J.G. Ballard’s High Rise.

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I end my journey on Charing Cross Road. There are still many bookshops to enjoy but it is the site of Helene Hanff’s 84 Charing Cross Road to which I am drawn. It saddens me that this no longer exists. I take comfort in a visit to Foyles.

And then west to catch the train home. As I pull away from the station I pass back gardens and become Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train. All journeys offer potential for a story, and all stories for a journey.

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