Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

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‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’

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In Which Bob’s Wife Goes on Holiday for a Week.

Bob phoned me up.

‘Gina’s gone off on holiday and left me to look after Duncan.’ Duncan is not their pet, although you might assume that from the way he said it, but their son. Now, when I heard that, several questions popped up in my mind. Namely, why had Gina gone off without Bob? Why had she left Duncan with Bob? But mainly, how on earth was Bob going to survive a week looking after himself and Duncan?

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Some celeriac. Very nice but totally irrelevant.

There are husbands who are less capable than Bob, but there are not many of them. At least, I think there are.

‘That’s fine, Bob,’ I said, my voice oozing false conviction. ‘You two can have a great time bonding over boy things.’

‘Bonding?’ he wailed. ‘He’s already said he wants me to take him to the football! And he’s hungry!’

Well, Bob does not like football. Basically, he does not understand football. But rather than pursue that line at that point, I said ‘Uh, hungry? When did Gina go?’

‘Monday morning.’ It was now Wednesday.

‘Monday?’ I asked, in genuine surprise. ‘What have you been eating?’

‘Well, we found enough stuff in the larder for lunch – you know, bread and stuff – and we ordered pizzas for supper. I had cereal this morning for breakfast, Duncan wouldn’t eat anything.’

‘Why not? What’s wrong with toast?’ There was a brief silence.

‘Well, actually, the toaster…um…you know…caught fire.’

‘Oh.’ A thought struck me. ‘And yesterday?’

‘Er, cereal, and, er, sandwiches…’

‘And supper?’

‘Oh, we both fancied pizza again, you know. Really fancied it. Um, they’re very good, those ones…’

‘Bob…’

‘Yes?’

‘Would you like one of us to go shopping with you?’

In the end, we both went round. The kitchen looked as though it belonged in a student squat. The draining board was temporary home to four pizza boxes, several bowls and plates and a host of dirty knives, forks and spoons. There were also three pieces of burnt toast and two pieces of very burnt toast.

The toaster was sticking out of the top of the bin, and the air was perfumed with the delicate scent of smoke.

There was no sign of Duncan.

For some reason, my wife never really seems to have taken to Bob. She narrowed her eyes and fixed him with what I can only describe as displeasure, and suggested that if he would like any help at all with the bloody shopping list, then he might clear up his bloody kitchen immediately, a tactic that actually proved most effective.

He had finished that, and the shopping list had been compiled (No, you can’t possibly live on pizza for a week!), when Duncan walked into the kitchen.

‘Oh, hi!’ he said to us, in a friendly, distracted way, before looking at Bob. Duncan is a perfectly affable fifteen year old, who unfortunately takes more after his father than his mother. He had an instruction book in his hand.

‘I’ve got it Dad, look!’ he said, pointing to the open page. ‘You can do toast under the grill – it’s that thing at the top. I’ve seen Mum using it for something or other – cheese on toast, I think.’

‘Well done!’ said Bob. ‘How does it work?’

‘Um…’ Duncan stared at the page for a moment, turned it over and looked at the other side, and then turned back. ‘Not sure. You’d better take a look.’

We slipped silently out of the house while they studied the booklet.

That week, Bob seemed to drop by our house an unusual amount, generally just for a chat – just to pass the time of day – but there was always an odd question somewhere in the conversation.

‘Where has Gina gone, Bob?’

‘She’s staying in Oxford. Wants to see lots of the churches around there, apparently.’

‘Pity about the weather.’ Outside it was bucketing down. ‘The forecast is for more of this all week.’

‘I know. I’m surprised she didn’t take her waterproofs. They’re still hanging up under the stairs.’

‘Perhaps she forgot.’

‘I expect so. Er, if you were Gina, where would you put spare batteries?’

The day before Gina was due to return, Bob decided to clear up the house. To be fair to him, we didn’t prompt him this time. I think it might have had a little more to do with fear of what Gina might say when she returned to something that resembled a municipal rubbish tip under her own roof. But it all seemed to go well and when he nervously asked us to have a look, clearly worried he might have missed something, we were surprised to see the house had even been vacuumed.

‘That was Duncan.’ The boy went up in my estimation.

‘The only thing that didn’t go right was the washing,’ Bob said reluctantly.

‘In what way?’

‘Well, I put the wash on (he seemed proud of having mastered the terminology), but something went wrong.’ There was a washing basket in the corner, the floor was covered in water, and the clothes it contained were clearly still soaking wet. My wife picked out a shirt and held it up.

Not only was it still dripping with water, but appeared to be for a small child.

‘How did you manage that? Those clothes are completely ruined!’ He looked hurt.

‘Don’t blame me, it was the damned washing machine! I left it on whatever setting it was that Gina last used, put the clothes and a washing tablet inside, and just switched it on.’ He pointed at the offending appliance.

‘Even I know that’s the dishwasher, Bob.’ I said. Inexplicably, he looked relieved.

‘Oh, that’s okay, then. I was worried it might have been on the wrong setting.’

Gina came back in the evening. Despite the week of heavy rain, it must be said that she had somehow managed to pick up a most impressive suntan.

Welcome to my Crisis!

I’ve been hiding from the internet.

No, I didn’t go away, unfortunately, although a holiday was what I both have been and am still craving. I made a rash promise some weeks ago to put up a Facebook Author page, to do a minor relaunch of my novel, and to serialise a bawdy Elizabethan detective story. Really, I should know myself better than that.

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I think it was the short story that finally broke me.

Writing, for me, is a pleasure, comparable to painting. It is all about crafting the finished product, taking my time and eventually producing the best I can. When all goes well, the process is immensely satisfying from beginning to end.

Within that process, of course, there are times of writer’s block, false starts and finishes, wrong turnings, and many other things to go wrong. And the editing can be an infuriating process. But overall, there needs to be a flow.

Making Friends with the Crocodile worked for me at the length it was (45,000 words), since I wrote it almost as a stream of consciousness as the story unfolded in my mind. It came out in a rush partly because of its importance to me, and partly because I found I could visualise the characters, the story and the setting clearly. Once I had reached the end, I knew that was the end.

Obviously, many stories take a lot more coaxing to get down on paper. I’ve struggled with ones that need to be forced, certainly in places, partly because at that point they are not ‘me’ at the heart of them; I have lost that flow. But sometimes because of the length.

One reason I stopped entering short story competitions is I write a lot of long short stories. I am perfectly aware of the dictum that whatever you write can be edited down to the required length and that, indeed, they should be edited down.

But I also strongly believe that when a story presents itself to be written, that story has an internal length that needs to be respected, even after editing. Some require a few hundred words, some a lot more. But to attempt to turn Making Friends with the Crocodile into a 120,000 word novel or a 5.000 word short story, I am sure would have meant a lesser read. It would have been padded out for the sake of it, or stripped down to bare bones that would have meant that the characters could not have been drawn as strongly as I wanted them to be, and therefore encouraged less empathy from the reader.

Where is all this leading?

I began the short story / serial. It was working quite well, and I had a good few chuckles to myself as I was writing it and then, suddenly, it was almost 10,000 words long and nowhere near finished.

Oh dear.

So I attempted to cram and trim and edit and get it down to a suitable length for serialisation, but I was not happy with the result. Oh no. And I had one of my minor panic-I-can’t-cope-stress attacks and decided the only way to deal with it was to hide.

So, I’m not going to serialise it after all. I will finish it, but the attempt to condense it into a few instalments simply wasn’t working, and what I ended up with felt completely wrong. I will return to it at some point in the future, and finish it as the novella that it clearly is.

There is another strand to all this:

I made the Facebook Author page. That was the easy bit, and I’ll show you where it is next time. And I put together the re-launch promotion piece by the simple expedient of gathering together extracts from lots of the kind reviews the book has had.

But I am in a state of recurring panic, once again, over this huge need to self-promote to sell books. Of course, we all want to, but we are forever urged to use this or that platform, accept this or that offer, etc. Now, we are told that we ‘must’ have a YouTube channel. Really? And a presence on all sorts of social media. Are we not ‘serious’ writers if we are not prepared to move heaven and earth to sell a couple of extra books? That we should ‘invest’ a hundred or five hundred dollars here and there to advertise ourselves?

I have sold a few, and what is really important to me is the tremendous feedback that I’ve had.

Blowing my own trumpet is anathema to me, as I have written in the past. I just can’t do the selling and marketing the way that seems to be presented as essential. It’s an aspect of life that I hate, and a reason I have never gone into ‘business’. Everything around the promotion and marketing just seems relentless and is something that I cannot cope with.

Fortunately, I am not interested in fame. The idea frightens me.

And I really struggle with social media. I have had two goes at being on Facebook, and cope with it at the moment by not going on it very much. I spent ages trying to see the use of Linkedin, and have solved that one by closing my account last week. I really see no use for it.

And I am not doing Twatter.

So here I am back on WordPress, which is a platform I do enjoy. I’ll dip in and out of it a bit over the next few weeks or months, I suspect, since I still feel a bit panicky, but I will be there.

Thank you for your patience!

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

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At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!

Three Weeks in Middle Earth

This is a re-post of something I put up not long after I had started this blog. Since I now find that I am read by many more people than I was then, I thought I’d revise it a little and bung it up again.

With grovelling apologies to J R R Tolkien…

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Our holiday began with a couple of days home stay in Hobbiton, the only settlement of any note in the Shire. Unfortunately, this rather set the tone for the rest of the trip. Immediately, it proved impossible to pick up a mobile signal of any kind, a problem we were to encounter time and again throughout Middle Earth, which made trying to alter our travel arrangements extremely difficult.

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Our host claimed that we had been given what he called ‘the best room in the house’. Hole, more like, in every sense. One could be forgiven for thinking that flush toilets had never been invented. Admittedly, it was pleasant in a rather rustic, bucolic sort of way, and the meals were everything that we could have wished for, but the beds were a nightmare – ours seemed to be made for a child, and Cheryl and I lost count of the number of times we banged our heads on the low door frames.

Then, looking for entertainment, we visited three of the bars in the village, all of which advertised themselves as gastropubs, and I’m afraid that each was full of tobacco smoke and were quite simply too noisy. Incidentally, it was in the third one that we visited, that this guy we spoke to slipped me some odd ring, and since then a whole lot of strange dudes seem to be following us around.

The courier seemed a little surprised at our complaints, the following day, claiming that for most tourists Hobbiton is one of the highlights of their holiday, but agreed that we should move on a day early, if he could not find better accommodation for us. As a result of this, we went on to Lothlorien, which could not have been a greater contrast. Two days there at least made us appreciate Hobbiton – where that had been rather rough and ready, noisy and dirty, Lothlorien was simply bland, boring and anodyne. Entertainment seemed to consist solely of rather highbrow concerts and book readings, restaurants were all rather expensive and uninteresting and we felt that we should be tip-toeing around the whole time, hardly daring to speak other than in whispers. At least, though, the oddballs that had been tailing us disappeared for the duration.

But forgive me if I say little of the journey from Hobbiton. Several days through a bleak, cold and windswept landscape, with nothing to see and no accommodation other than our tents. The last part was the worst part, though. We travelled through some ghastly, cold tunnel, where we felt threatened by attack from bandits at any moment, and all sorts of dreadful noises kept happening. It was simply awful, but the courier insisted that it was normal and quite safe. I will be putting in a strongly worded complaint about him after we return.

And the problems we then had at the border were simply unreal. It seemed at first that they were not going to let us into their wretched land. The ringleader appeared to be a particularly unpleasant and overweight, orange-haired elf who was waving his arms around in a strange fashion and shouting, with a horrible bright red face. ‘Were we Dwarves? Had we not just come from Moria, which was one of the restricted lands?’ Were it not that there happened to be a judge in our caravan, I don’t think they would have let us in. As it was, the red-haired elf muttered something about locking us all up and making Lothlorien great again and stared at us most aggressively until we were out of his sight.

However, I don’t want it to sound as though it has all been bad, and that we have done nothing but complain. Possibly the best part of the trip so far, certainly for Cheryl, was staying in the eco lodge in Rohan. She was delighted that we were so close to horses the whole time, and the lodges reminded her strongly of the yurt that she stayed in on a previous trip away. Our hosts were friendly and happy to indulge us in our whims – mine to sit outside the lodge at sundown with a glass or two of the local (admittedly rather rough) ale, and Cheryl’s to help with the mucking out in the stables.

Personally, I definitely preferred Gondor, a modern, forward-looking country with a booming economy. Although some border regions are still occasionally subject to unrest, the capital, Minas Tirith, is considered by the Foreign Office to be safe to visit, although I was less than impressed when our caravan was attacked by a lone Nazgul, which succeeded in killing two of the armed escort that the travel company had provided for us for this stretch of our journey. Our courier, however, assured us that this was an unusual occurrence and that all steps would be taken to ensure that there would be no repeat. It was after this, though, that they suggested we abandon the day trip to see the ruins at Osgiliath, which was rather a disappointment, and something that we had both been looking forward to.

It was equally disappointing to find that they absolutely refused to take us to Mordor. We met a number of folk in Gondor who assured us that it is completely safe to travel there now, and that visas could be easily obtained at the border crossings. So eventually we booked a couple of nights on a houseboat there, through one of them. We did do our research, and after speaking to several of these guys, we are happy that what we are paying is a reasonable sum. After all, it may not seem much to us, but it is a lot to people living in these third world places. This did entail us having to make our own way there, but it proved easy enough to book a place on a caravan leaving tomorrow morning, through a friend of the houseboat guy who we met in a nearby bar.

One great plus here, is that the authorities apparently consider it vitally important that a good signal is available for everyone, which is very welcome after a couple of weeks of mobile coverage that has been, at best, very patchy. I would have been in touch sooner, but that has proved impossible. One consequence of this is that it has taken us some twenty minutes or so just to update our profiles.

Ah, the guy on the front desk has just called to say that these caravan dudes are here to meet us. We are packed ready, and just need to slip away without being seen by the courier. We have left him a note. I’ll keep you updated what happens!

Darren

Sent from my iPhone, Minas Morgul.

Happy Christmas!

To all of my blogging friends.

If you celebrate Christmas, then I hope you have a marvellous, peaceful and happy one.

If you don’t celebrate Christmas, I hope that however you pass the time is productive and happy and that the world is kind to you.

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And thanking each and every one of you for the marvellous conversations and constructive and kind comments that I have enjoyed with you all over the past year, and looking forward to more of the same in 2017.

I won’t be on here much for the next week or so, so apologise now for the posts that I miss.

See you all in 2017.

Oh, so Happy New Year, too!