An Andalusian Adventure (2)

Part 1 can be found here: Part 1

It was a long way to Colmenar. I was walking up into the Malaga Mountains, with no map and no directions other than a road sign at the edge of Malaga suggesting that by following this road I would eventually reach my destination.

I suspect I have undertaken other journeys where I have been better prepared.

But the day was perfect for walking, with high drifting clouds and a light breeze to keep me cool, and having done little for several days other than eat, drink and wander around Malaga, I was feeling fit, fresh, and eager to get going.

As the hours went by and I slowly gained height, the clouds began to build up, and the temperature gradually dropped. About an hour from my destination, it finally began to rain. Immediately the temperature plummeted, and I rapidly went from merely chilled to decidedly cold.

Usually, we approach rain all wrong. Buddhists would say unskilfully. If it begins to rain, we hunch ourselves up, both physically and mentally. We fear becoming cold and wet. We need to let go of this fear. It’s a good lesson to learn. Stop. Take several long, slow, deep, breaths, and let go of this feeling. Let go of this need. We act as though hunching ourselves up will keep us dry and make us warmer. It doesn’t. Unless one can find shelter, it is better to accept the rain and finish the journey.

It is a cliché to speak of heightened awareness, yet that is also a by-product of this letting go. We remove our focus from the rain and instead allow it to go elsewhere, where it is really needed. We should throw back our heads and embrace the rain, enjoy the freshness of the rain on our faces. Listen to the sound of the rain on the ground and the leaves around us.

Back then, I hadn’t learned that lesson. I hurried towards the town as fast as I could.

One of the first buildings I came to was an inn. I went into the bar and asked for a room. The room I was given was reached by leaving the bar again and walking around the side of the building. The door to my room had a gap at the bottom of an inch or two, but otherwise fitted the door frame well enough. It was locked and unlocked by the type of huge key frequently described as a jailor’s key. The room was furnished only with a bed, a chair, and a small chest of drawers. There was a mirror above the chest of drawers and a crucifix above the head of the bed, but other than those the whitewashed walls were bare. There was a small window which was shuttered. The floor was of flagstones, with no carpet or mat. To use toilet or bathroom it was necessary to leave the room again and continue still further around the building to reach a very basic room. But again, it was clean. And there was a toilet that worked, and a sink with a cold tap. There was also a shower set into the ceiling I could have braved, but it felt much too cold for that.

Later, I would occupy rooms like this in many other places, in many other countries. Simple, perfectly clean, and usually very cheap. I am not sure whether it is because they appeal to the minimalist in me, but in many ways I prefer them to more comfortable accommodation.

Whenever I have stayed in one, I have always felt I was carrying too much baggage with me. I have been beset with the feeling I should be throwing out some of the items I have in my bag – do I need all those clothes? All those other items? It has been a recurring regret of mine that I have never managed to live a simpler lifestyle than I have. I have never enjoyed the frenetic hurry and clamour of modern urban life, and I hate how easily my life can become complex and filled with what feels like unnecessary fuss.

Here, even the spartan contents of my rucksack seemed too much. Perhaps I had too many books with me…

But now I was here, I changed out of my wet clothes and opened the shutters so I could look out at the low cloud and misty horizon. The rain drummed comfortingly on the roof and I settled down to read a book for an hour or so. I was content, and that’s a good place to be.

I cannot remember what I had for supper that night, but I do remember I drank a bottle of cheap red wine with it. Perhaps that is the reason.

I rather think I slept well, too.

And as in all good stories, the morning dawned bright and clear, the sun shining low in a clear blue sky. Before I left the town, I passed a couple of shops and bought a few items for my lunch: bread, a huge tomato, a hunk of cheese, a couple of apples, a bottle of cheap wine.

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With the improved weather, and the fact I had more downhill stretches that day than uphill ones, I allowed myself the luxury of returning to Malaga slowly, including a stop for lunch of about an hour. Compared to the UK, Spain is a large country and the rural population is comparatively small. Although I was not far from the city, I saw almost no one else on my walk and I meandered along slowly through a mixture of low trees and bushes, many of them in flower – the distinctive Mediterranean maquis vegetation – rocky outcrops and clumps of flowers, and the occasional lone farmhouse. The ground was dry and dusty, as though the rain of the previous day had never happened, and the sun was hot. With my lunch consisting of about half a bottle of wine as well as the food, I was feeling extremely weary and footsore when I reached Malaga again. I found the hotel I’d stayed in before and got a room on the same floor. After showering, I finished the bread and cheese and decided all I wanted to do was read my book for a while and then have an early night.

There was a knock at the door and when I opened it Matthias was standing there grinning.

‘I saw you arrive earlier. We go for beer, now!’

Why You Should Buy Books (especially mine!)

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Hours of pleasure for the price of a cup of coffee in Bigbucks.

Like any other worker, you pay for my time. Only unlike the decorator, say, you only pay for a tiny fraction of the real time spent creating your book.

And what do you get for this investment?

Why, I bring you a whole, newly created world to explore!

I introduce you to people you never expected to meet, without the inconvenience of having to make small talk with them.

Heroes and villains, fools and wise men.

Perchance I will take you on a perilous voyage, yet you will return safely to the shore.

Encounter your deepest fears, and overcome them.

Know love, and disappointment, happy ever after and abject failure.

See through the eyes of the cruel and the eyes of the kind.

And all this for less than the price of a coffee.

And unlike the decorator, I won’t come and tread paint into your carpet, disappear for two weeks to do another job, leave your kitchen a complete mess, eat all your biscuits or drink all your tea.

I mean, really, what have you got to lose?

A Re-vamp

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I’ve had a bit of a tidy up on here, the better to reflect where I am at the moment. Don’t worry, it’s quite safe to come in! I won’t ask you to grab a broom or a dishcloth or anything like that, although if you’re any good at writing advertising blurb, I’ve a couple of books here that could do with some professional input!

I’ve updated the My Writings and About pages, and added a page for My Published Books.

You may also notice I’ve tidied up the sidebar a little.

This has nothing to do with spring cleaning or new year’s resolutions, it’s more about attempting to present a reasonably professional impression to any new visitors to the site, as well as to my regular follower, of course.

And now I’m going to take a bit of a break from all social media for a little while. Hence I’m turning comments off for this post.

Writing Update

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I’m just waiting for my beta-reader to finish the manuscript of The Night Bus – the collection of poems and short stories I hope to publish later this month – with my fingers crossed that any further editing will be quick and painless. But what of the book I said I was just finishing, a couple of months ago?

Ah, yes. Having had my first beta-reader go through A Good Place and my mulling over both the feedback from their Red Biro Of Doom and my own thoughts about parts of it I already felt weren’t really strong enough, I’ve decided to sit on it for a while and then go back and change a few things. Well, okay, a lot of things. A huge number of things, maybe. In the meantime, I shall concentrate again on The Assassin’s Garden which continues to make steady progress in the background, and which slowly becomes more complex month by month.

And I was struck by something I heard on an interview with Phillip Pullman on Sunday TV, after the screening of the first episode of His Dark Materials; (which was excellent, BTW) he commented that after the books he had already written and published, His Dark Materials was the book, and by inference the world, he had always wanted to create. And I feel that way about the world I’m creating in The Assassin’s Garden. It both is this world and is not this world, with elements of both the fantastic and of fantasy (disclaimer – my definitions of those may not be exactly the same as yours!). And it feels like the culmination of all the fantastical elements I’ve ever written into stories in the past.

And don’t forget if you’ve already read Making Friends With the Crocodile and not left a review on Amazon / Goodreads / Anywhere else, I would be eternally grateful if you did. It’s a really important way of reaching others who might be interested in buying the book.

Is it time to open the wine, yet?

Short Stories and Poems (2)

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My grateful thanks to everyone who responded to my request for thoughts on my last post about the content of my book. I was a little surprised (and very pleased!) that most comments tended to agree with my own thoughts on it, so I’ve decided I will go with a mixed collection, both short stories and poems, linked by the theme of ‘journeys’. I am also including a few illustrations with the poems, where I think the poems will benefit from them.

The book will be titled The Night Bus, and with luck it will be available by or before November 30th.

I need to finish a couple of edits, and sort out the running order, then I should be ready for the formatting headaches.

I’ll tell you a little more about it soon.

Review of The New Asylum by Frank Prem

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This is Australian poet Frank’s third collection of poems, and in a way this is a return to the narrative arc of his first collection; Small Town Kid, after the heartbreak of his second collection, Devil in the Wind, which dealt with the horrors of the bush fires in Australia on what became known as Black Saturday in February 2009

Not only is this a personal, time-ordered narrative like Small Town Kid, but it takes up Frank’s life where that collection left off, with his taking a job at the institution in his home town housing people with mental health problems. At that time (around forty years ago), these institutions were generally known as ‘mental asylums’ although that name, as well as a lot of the attitudes that coloured people’s ideas of them, have supposedly been consigned to history.

These poems take us on Frank’s journey from his visits to the institution where both his parents worked, then as naive and wide-eyed Trainee Psychiatric Nurse through to today, introducing us to a wonderful collection of colourful, sad, genial, well-meaning and, yes sometimes, mad characters, both staff and residents of the institution and, latterly, the hostel that acts as a ‘half-way house’ between incarceration and release.

All these characters are realistically and sympathetically drawn, and I suspect that not a few readers will be surprised at the humour (occasionally black) and warmth that comes through from the average day in their lives. Frank does not shy away from showing the attitudes prevalent in those earlier days, when patients were severely regimented and often treated less than sympathetically, although I suspect there is much he does not reveal. But where he is at his best, I feel, is in depicting the almost unutterable sadness of many of the inmates. In ‘Huntington’s Marionette’ it is for the young victim of this, one of the cruellest of all diseases, In ‘Lost: One Cockerel’ it is for another youngster, this time a young man with his mind destroyed by illicit drugs. Then there are the families of these victims, often victims themselves in so many ways – dealing with loss or aggression, blame, or just the horror of watching a loved one disintegrate before their eyes.

And the institution is frequently under-staffed and the staff are over-worked, a situation all too familiar to anyone working in public health today as well as then. The final poem  ‘Still its Creature’ is the book’s epilogue, and it is worth quoting the first few lines..

in aftermath

it seems so clear

there are few mental-health

happy endings

and there are no

simple cures

I give this five stars out of five.

Review of The Old Weird Albion

The Old Weird Albion, by Justin Hopper.

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The viewer sees a painting that appears to be composed of watercolour and charcoal, of a winding road or track, possibly even a river, leading towards a line of downland hills, the whole created entirely in black and shades of grey, with the title and author scrawled into the picture in brilliant white, as though it were a prehistoric figure etched into the Downs themselves.

And that’s just the cover.

This is a book quite unlike any I have read before, in that it is a book about the south of England, especially the South Downs of Sussex, but it is far more than geography and the associated disciplines such as geology and biology, rural history and architecture, and folklore. Psycho-geography was not a term I had come across before, but there is an aptness to it that becomes apparent as you read.

The book opens at Beachy Head, a beautiful piece of Sussex with a dark reputation for suicide, as a woman throws herself off the edge. Quickly, we learn that this woman was the first wife of the grandfather of the author, Justin Hopper. And we learn that this book is in part a chronicle of his efforts to discover this person and learn something of her life and, consequently, her motives for such an act.

In so doing, he needs to revisit parts of his earlier time in Sussex and examine his own relationship to the area as well as the relationship of other players, not just his grandfather and other members of their family.

He has a gift for sifting and selecting the weird in these relationships, not just at sites that might be naturally expected to encourage the weird, such as Chanctonbury Ring, high on the Downs above Steyning or in old ruined buildings, but also in humdrum blocks of flats in modern developments. He references modern phenomena like crop circles and throughout there is the presence of ‘magic’, in the sense of a natural force. Many of the people he meets are an eccentric mix of the weird, too, although I choose this description carefully, largely in the old, original meaning of the word of ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’.

A strength of this book is its intensity, and I feel impelled to look at the pictures it references and read the books it quotes. So much so that upon finishing the book, I spent some time tracking down an old copy of one of those books, which I am now reading, and which holds my interest in just the way Justin implied it would.

On a personal level, this book came just at the right time for me, in that I am reacquainting myself with the geography and history, and the plants and animals, of the South of England, where I grew up and which formed my love of the natural world, and the book has encouraged me to look at this in a new way.

It is most certainly a five star book for me.

Blogging vs Other Social Media

It’s a fight to the death!

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Well, okay, not quite that, but bear with me for a bit longer.

The other week I gave a short talk to my writing group on reasons a writer should be on social media and, more importantly, why they needed a blog. I’m not going to go into this in any detail now, but I promised I’d summarise what I said in bullet points, and then thought it might be worth putting up here to see if anyone felt like adding anything to it.

So…

Why?

  • As a writer, you need to have a social media presence to sell books, to get known. Even if you are a published author.
  • On a social media platform, you are aiming to get shares for your posts. The more shares, the more people will see them.
  • It’s all about engaging with customers, fans and critics.
  • There are a huge number of platforms, but just a few examples that I have experience of:
  • Facebook is the biggest, and the most active, with a high rate of engagement. Having an Author Page is a good way to engage through backstories, questions, surveys and daily updates (yours or your work), ‘Behind the scenes’ articles.
  • Linkedin has many users, but a low rate of engagement. A business page can be useful.
  • Twitter is short and succinct. A sort of ‘Marketing Lite’. Posts appear fleetingly and then are essentially gone, though, unless they generate lots of likes and retweets.
  • Goodreads is like ‘background’ media – people need to seek you out to find you.
  • But the number one way to be found is through blog posts.
  • Like all good social media, blogs encourage visitors to return. Unlike ordinary websites, they are updated regularly and the reader can be alerted to each new post.
  • There are many other reasons to blog, viz:
  1. Teaches you to write more professionally – you have an audience
  2. Discipline
  3. Practice
  4. Feedback from people outside your usual circle
  5. Networking with others
  6. You can upload links to other social media
  7. There is space to write more in-depth than on other social media
  8. To review work for other writers
  9. To explore ideas and get feedback on these
  • A blog is simply a website with posts being regularly replaced, although the old ones are still on the website to read.
  • There are many blogging platforms, but I use WordPress.
  • One advantage of WP is the ease by which readers can see you have a new post.
  • Whichever platform you choose, it should have clear instructions and / or tutorials to help you set up.
  • It should also allow you to block spammers, remove adverts (by upgrading), monetise your site, and change the layout. In other words, have as much control as possible over its appearance.
  • It can be really helpful if the platform provides diagnostics on data such as page views, visitors, likes, comments, and links to and from your site. This helps you plan and refine how you run it.

How?

  • Purchase your own address! It is not very expensive, but it makes your blog more personal, more professional, and the address more memorable. And the host cannot arbitrarily close it down, which might happen with a free site.
  • Start by going and looking at other blogs, to find what you like and might work for you. then use your Site Builder Tool to create your site.
  • Once you begin writing your first post make sure you are using a clear font that stands out.
  • Keep the post around 500 words, certainly under 1000. When you have a decent following, you may get away with more, but new readers will be put off by longer ones. (As a guide, this post has 945 words).
  • Add a picture or two to help it stand out and look less daunting, but not too many. And not just dozens of selfies, unless you are an established celebrity. It’s a real turn off.
  • Make the post interesting! Put some good stuff in first, to get the readers’ attention. And don’t save all the good stuff until the end, as readers might not otherwise get there.
  • Use categories and tabs on each post to help new readers find them.

Issues

  • Don’t feel under pressure to post to a fixed schedule.
  • Don’t be afraid to change the subjects you post about – it’s all under your control and there are no rules on it. Let it develop organically.
  • Don’t be afraid to take a break if you need to. It’s very easy to get into a mindset where you think you need to do all these things to a rigid schedule.
  • Don’t obsess about the number of followers you have or likes / comments you get. Chasing them is counter-productive.
  • Find some blogs YOU like, and follow them, commenting when you have something to say. That way you will begin to get visits in return and then, hopefully, follows back. It is pointless following a blog that doesn’t interest you, just hoping to get a follow back. You want followers who will be interested in what you have to offer.
  • And on that subject, if a new follower has a site that doesn’t interest you, there is no obligation for you to follow them back.
  • And don’t feel obliged to comment on / like / or even read every post on blogs you follow.
  • Do remember that copyright law applies exactly the same on the internet as it does in the real world. If you copy a photo or article from the internet without permission and post it on your blog be prepared for possible legal unpleasantness. I always use my own, just to be safe. I think it looks better, too.

Unfest at Tunbridge Wells and Books

Last weekend, Bank Holiday weekend, saw the annual UNFEST fringe music festival held in Tunbridge Wells.

It describes itself as Showcasing local and regional music, spoken word, food and drink,  the emphasis is on involving local, independent businesses.

Our writing group had a stand there on the Saturday afternoon, where we hassled unsuspecting passers-by in the hope they would buy our books or, should they be interested in writing, come along to one of our meetings to see what we are up to.

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We sold a few books and had a pleasant time.

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And later on another of our members, Paul Gunn, played with his band. Their splendid music is described as Featuring an edgy vintage piano, classical cello solos with Latin and Rock rhythms.

Should you be fortunate enough to reside in the Tunbridge Wells area you can find out about our writing group, Irregular Writers, here.

And wherever you live, you can find out more about Paul Gunn’s music here.

What on Earth are you waiting for?