Saturday, 19 January 2013

Laundry, dhobis and chilblains

Emmanuel College

a chilly pre-dawn saddle awaits

We’re in the grip of a cold snap and the city of Cambridge and the surrounding flatlands of East Anglia are frosted, white. Trees are covered with hoarfrost that tinkles in any slight breeze. I love it. Bundled up, booted and gloved to cycle to the station on Thursday I wondered at the beauty. Then speeding south towards London, snow highlighted skeletal trees and rusty train tracks. The subtle colours of green and yellow lichens looked rich against all the white.

I found myself thinking of Bryony, the laundress heroine of Tainted Innocence, the book I’m reading just now. Life really was tough in Tudor times for the poor, not unlike life for the poor in Nepal and other emerging nations. I enjoy letting my mind wander on train journeys and recalled another evocative book. I read it when I first came back home to live in East Anglia again after six years in Nepal: it was Fen Women an account of the oral history of Fenlanders whose memories went back to the time between the wars when women had few choices and little control of their lives. Their problems and complaints echoed those of Nepali women I knew and they also parallelled Bryony’s experiences.

How cushy (also the Nepali word for happy) we have it in modern Britain. Not so for poor Bryony, nor for the dhobis of the subcontinent. Imagine having to take bedsheets down to the river to wash them, and how cold would you be squatting by the icy river pounding sheets clean. And the chilblains.

But there’s no choice. They must put up with such work or starve. Who amongst us these days can imagine worrying about not being able to fill their belly? Certainly not me. Not even if I lose my day-job. I was warm, well fed and my biggest concern that day was whether my bike lock would be frozen and unopenable when I returned to Cambridge after dark.


Tuesday, 15 January 2013

How long does it take to write a book?

I'm often asked how long it takes to complete a book. I was talking about this with some of my writing friends last weekend - at a gathering of Cambridge Writers. One friend, Joss Alexander, who writes Tudor mysteries, expressed the opinion that taking as much as a year to complete a novel was slow, saying that successful novelists might aim to write three books a year and expect one of them to be published. I laughed, and I wasn't the only author who felt a year was amazingly speedy.

I believe I started scribbling notes in Nepal that I hoped might become a travel memoir in 1994. I thought it might be fun to write something along the lines of A Year in Provence, but with a title more like The memsahib messes up. I wanted it to be funny. I wanted to celebrate the wisdom of my neighbours. I wanted people to laugh at me and my ridiculous situation, and at all the stupid mistakes I made.

Four years later, I left Nepal with a shambles of a book.

I joined Cambridge Writers hoping that they would help me turn it into a story that others wanted to hear. I read out fascinating discourses on the anthropology and zoology of the Himalayan foothills. My audiences’ heads would start to nod. I thought them parochial for not being interested in my words. Some writers say they have works in progress in a drawer. I wasn't that organised: when I stopped work on my memoir, my scribbled-on typescript languished, gathering dust, in a heap of papers, bills and medical bumph.

It took me quite a while to recognise that my memoir wasn't a story at all, but it was part

learnéd essay, part rant, part history, part family saga. It needed a heart and it needed a hero. A literary agent recognised that and it was only years into my struggle to write this book that David came to its centre and the book started to take shape. It became harder to write as I recounted some of the worst events of my life but it felt more worth the effort and energy.
Then my friends at Cambridge Writers started to laugh at the scenes that were supposed to be funny and they were angry with me when I recounted injustices and cruelty. I saw how the typescript had slowly become a book and was almost ready to share with the world. Even so it took a while to find a publisher. My new agent did some excellent editorial work on the book and secured a deal in Australia. Then there was more work to do, with the publisher’s editor, and finally the book was launched in Australia and New Zealand in 2007.


The Australian edition
I hoped the rest of the world meet David though. In looking for another publisher who would distribute the book worldwide I made some changes and a generous friend and poet Shaista Tayabali ( highlighted where I could make further improvements. There was interest from a couple of publishers, one false start but after some negotiations another publishing deal. This meant work with yet another editor, and further smoothings and refinements so that here we are now at the beginning of 2013, with A Glimpse of Eternal Snows launching in North America 19 years after I began scribbling notes for this love story of a travel narrative.

It begins at the start of wee David's life in a stark clinical Cambridge hospital, skims through his first stormy month until the family escape to their beloved Nepal. Here they return to the real world of vibrant colours, sunshine, spice, incense, gongs, spirituality, straightforward baby-loving people, exotic wildlife and the spectacular Himalayas. Here the family learn how to live for the moment, relish each small victory and savour life.

The new edition co-launched by Bradt and Globe Pequot
That's what took so long to write and emerge in book form. That’s why I don’t think taking a year to finish a book is very much time at all.

My first took two years to publication

Sunday, 13 January 2013


7am Saturday after a cram-packed week. Cosy under the covers, I was ready to join the grumpisphere. It was still dark. The house was cold. I really really didn’t want to get out of bed, let alone venture out into the frosty pre-dawn. Brain-freeze on the bike-ride to the river. Nearly-frozen water dripping on my face from the boat on its rack. Internally I grumbled and grumped. But my friends were cheery and the sky moving though beautiful twilight hues reminded me of the magical polar skies of Norway. Minute by minute the sun was driving away the night, and then sunrise over Stourbridge Common was utterly lovely. Life was wonderful again. I cursed not bringing a camera.

This morning promised to be colder. Snow was forecast. I wore so many layers I hardly bent in the middle. The light wasn’t so good. The atmosphere was a little dank. Probably didn’t matter that the camera I now had with me had a flat battery.

We cruised by a heron, still as a photo. Then a bundle of fluff and a dabchick did a neat surface dive and disappeared. Two pristine gulls slept, heads under wings on a methanous black beach of river sludge; a pair of mute swans, in perfect synchrony swam forward, turned to their breakfast, paused to dip their necks together and carried on ripping grass from the riverbank. Further down, snowdrops poked through.  Two fishermen, one with an enormous malign-looking pike under his arm, while his other hand was under the beast's chin to control it. 'Look, look!' I said, yet again not concentrating on rowing as I should. The fisherman slipped the fish back into the Cam. The expression on the fisher's face spoke of his pride and he grinned when 4 commented, 'I didn't think anything got that big in this river!' 

Then the organised chaos of tens of boats spinning above Baits Bite Lock for the race back upstream. Coxes comparing notes on how cold they are. Crews waiting. Crews wishing each other 'Good row!' or 'Good luck'. Interested walkers wondering what is happening.

This is what makes it is worth getting out of bed for, the tranquil scenes on the ever-changing river. And the race didn’t go badly either. I’m not ready to join the grumpisphere just yet.

One I prepared earlier - another Winter Head

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Polar Winter

It is perhaps a bit odd to head off to the Land of the Midnight Sun, in December, but that’s what we decided to do, around the time of the winter solstice. I’ve already written of the drive to Gatwick: how I was already in the mood for something marvellous. The trip didn’t disappoint, even though snow held us up. Even the delays were interesting and instructive. It was news to me that planes need de-icing. I half realised that getting the jets clogged with solid water might not be a great idea, but spraying the wings and tail with de-icer? That’s not what I thought I'd see as the snow fell in Oslo.

I’m not sure what I expected of the fishing village of Tromsø well north of the Arctic Circle, but I didn’t expect it to be so beautifully lit or that it would be such a buzzing town. Nor for breakfast to be so colourful.

Fish eggs in traffic lights colours

A statue celebrating whaling
We arrived after dark in the evening, and woke in the dark next morning, wondering whether we'd notice any change in the natural light. There turned out to be just about three hours of rather beautiful twilight between about 10am and 1pm. Then it was back to fairy lights and a suggestion of a lightness reflecting off snowy hills in the distance. Even so we saw otters in the harbour and watched wonderful long-tailed diving ducks zipping around deep in the clear harbour waters, flying underwater like penguins.
Tromsø with, on the left, the fine Rica Ishvashotel where we stayed

Good local beer
And fine cheescake

We plumped for Norway in December because there were good chances of seeing the Northern Lights and on our first evening we headed off to the beach to await the show - expected somewhere on the western horizon at 8pm. Standing around in the cold, sand frozen and unforgiving, a chilling breeze coming off the waters of the fjord, we strained our eyes and wondered if we were imagining a glow on the north-west when our guide shouted, 'It is starting!'
Lights are mostly an eerie green but we saw reds too
The display was amazing but to the unaided eye there was surprisingly little colour. Long-exposure photos are needed to show the Northern Lights in their full glory. They move though, and at one point a swirl of lights, looking like some vast net curtain shifted as if caught in a breeze.

Self-portrait on a 30 second exposure
Then there were rumours of whales to be seen. Generally the winter isn't a good time for whale watching but humpbacks had been sighted and we signed up for a trip in Polar Girl.
Polar Girl is the red and white boat
It was of course dark when we set out and I didn't believe we had any chance seeing anything. But the half-light arrived and we started spotting dark objects in the water.
And blows.
Closer and closer.
And lots of them.
An Australian marine biologist was almost orgasmic with excitement; he'd never seen so many humpbacks together before and with orcas too he couldn't believe his luck. He even gave the captain a bearhug when we disembarked, much to the bewilderment of the Norwegian.


Dark objects up ahead
Then the humpbacks seem to want to play
We were close enough to see the double blowhole, and later to watch orcas hassling a calf
And then a stately dive. Until finally they led us home
We had just three full days in Tromsø with the enormously good fortune to be treated to two of nature's big shows. Norway is an amazing country, though it's a destination where you haemorrhage money. The locals are friendly, helpful, tolerant, great linguists and have the most charming sing-song way of speaking English. I reckon we'll be back there again....
And if you'd like more, take a look at my post of August 2012, to see what Norway looks like in the summer.
The twilight fading at 1pm