So. The rather awesome J K Rowling wrote swathes of the “Harry Potter” series in cafes in Edinburgh.
Can other writers do this?
With iPad at the Wolfgangsee.
When I am writing major pieces – such as a novel – I write in longhand, in an A4 pad. While typing straight onto a keyboard is in theory quicker, I find sitting staring at a screen for long periods makes my brain melt. Making quick amendments to what you have already written is also clumsier, and slower, on a computer.
By contrast, on my A4 paper pad I am constantly making amendments, (more…)
In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States.
What did I learn about the US of 1979, and what does that tell us about America today? What about me? How have I changed, and should I seek to reconnect with that carefree 21 year-old?
Find out on my page The Americans, where I have gathered together several episodes of my US odyssey. Enjoy the ride.
The changing of the guard at Arlington National Cemetery, July 1979
Here is my account of a visit to Arlington National Cemetery and the Pentagon, in Washington, D.C. on 6 July 1979.
Avenue of the Heroes
I walked towards the bridge.
Two metal statues flanked the road: huge, muscular, nude, bearded men on huge, muscular horses, each accompanied by a naked woman.
The women were both on foot.
One of the men clutched a child. Looking at pictures now, I am reminded of the statue of a Soviet soldier unveiled at Treptow, in Berlin, in 1949.
Also sculpted in metal on a titanic scale, the Soviet hero holds a child in one hand and an improbably large sword in the other.
The children which the men in Berlin and Washington are holding look eerily similar. (more…)
In 1979 I hitch-hiked for seven weeks around the United States. What became of the carefree, relaxed young 21 year-old of these pages? Can I reconnect with those qualities, forty years later?
What about America itself? Was it better then, or worse?
Perhaps the US needs to reconnect, too.
You can read more episodes from this journey on my page, The Americans.
Here is how I set off from New York on my first day of travelling, on 3 July 1979. Pictures below!
Leaving New York
On Tuesday morning, Harold and Dorothy drove me from their house in Ardsley to the Major Deegan Expressway, heading south for Washington, D.C. The road stretched out ahead. First target was to reach the New Jersey Turnpike.
How was I not terrified?
Aged 21, my primary emotion was excitement.
Looking back, I think: “how can I reclaim that boldness, that clarity of purpose, that focus on the present, that carefree calm?”
Things I was not worried about:
– my career. It had not yet started. I had nothing to screw up;
– money. I had all my cash, for seven weeks in the US, in traveller’s cheques on my person;
– other people. During my trip, I wrote several letters and postcards home. I tried to make one phone call, reversing the charges because I had no coins, to Harold in Ardsley – I can’t remember why. On the line, I heard him telling the operator he refused to accept it;
– information about the rest of the world. The Internet did not exist. I do not remember buying a newspaper. I had a tiny transistor radio (thanks, Harold) but mostly listened to music;
– death, injury or other cataclysm. Sure, hitch-hiking posed risks. But what would life be like if it consisted mainly of avoiding risk?
Things I was worried about:
– how quickly will I catch a ride?
If living in the moment had been invented, I would have been doing it.
I had arrived at JFK the previous Wednesday. For six days, even the most laidback, doped-out, rock-lobotomised New Yorkers had told me hitch-hiking in the US was too dangerous to contemplate. When I told them I planned a seven-week trip around the entire country, they predicted my rape, castration and sale for medical research before I’d crossed the mouth of New York Harbour.
It was a suicide mission, they said. If I made it beyond New Jersey, it would be a miracle.
I tried to explain the intoxicating intimacy and knife-edge mutual trust of hitch-hiking. I said Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise was inspiring. ‘Jack Kerouac is dead,’ they said. ‘He was a sad, sexist creep.’
Maybe they were right.
But I set off anyhow.
Looking back at my Rand McNally Interstate Road Atlas I am astonished not only by my courage, or calm, in setting off on an odyssey around the four corners of the USA despite the blood-curdling warnings. I am amazed too to look at the map: a baffling spaghetti of expressways, parkways and freeways (“For New Jersey, see page 57”).
No Google Maps or GPS, my first time in the States.
How did I dare do it? I just set off.
Dorothy Berkowitz seeing me off on the Major Deegan Expressway
My diary reads: I squinted into the sun for about 20 minutes (got to let the drivers see my honest eyes) before giving up and donning my ultra-dark smooth shades. Within ten minutes, four cars stopped, all going to New York (ie not Washington direction). The fourth, I took. (more…)
Several people have asked me if my Berlin Thriller Blood Summit is suitable for reading groups or book groups.
Blood Summit is ideal for reading groups and book groups. This intelligent thriller appeals to a wide range of audiences (see reviews on Amazon) and contains a host of controversy and discussion material. Here are some questions you can use for discussion in a book group or reading group.
Some publishers rejected “Blood Summit” because they said Helen, a female action hero, was insufficiently feminine or “too much like a man”. Do you agree? Is Helen lacking in feminine qualities?
How would the plot develop differently if Helen was a man? Which elements of the story, if any, would be less compelling or make less sense?
Helen is furious that her husband refuses to leave London and come with her to Berlin. How would life with Nigel fit in with her lifestyle in Germany? Are they actually sufficiently compatible to live together? How would you feel about living with Helen? Or with Nigel?
Nigel and Helen are competitive with each other. He is a top journalist. She aspires to be a top diplomat. Are they too competitive? Is competition in a relationship positive, or negative? Helen is repulsed by the fact that Nigel is too controlling, and does not listen. Are these typical male behaviours, or exceptions?
Nigel phones Helen before the Children’s Summit starts, in the hope that she will give him confidential information he can use in a story. Is it reasonable for him to ask her in this way? Should she give her husband such information, if doing so will not threaten lives, in the public interest? (more…)
People often ask me: ‘What is the best city you have lived in, apart obviously from Manchester? Is it London? Berlin? Moscow? Istanbul? Kyiv? Or Vienna?’
I usually answer with Oscar Wilde: ‘Comparisons are odious.’
Vienna has much to recommend it, including lovely countryside nearby
I thought of Oscar Wilde when I heard that that Vienna had this year taken first place in the annual Economist Intelligence Unit’s global liveability index – the first time a European city has ever won. I certainly can confirm that Vienna is a magnificent place to live, offering everything from terrific cafes (see my cafe reviews) to awesome local countryside, great outdoor pools, and – my favourite – outdoor cinemas, comparable with Berlin’s. I am very happy here.
When I was deciding in 2011 whether to try and move to Istanbul, I was influenced by a report in the Financial Times which made fun of rankings such as that of the EIU, or the widely quoted Mercer quality of living survey (where Vienna also came top in 2018 – for the ninth consecutive year). The FT said that not all of the cities which tended to do well in such surveys were actually cities where people want to live – Osaka, Calgary, Toronto or Zurich were all fine cities but not on everyone’s bucket lists. Cities where people did actually want to live, such as New York or London (more…)
Many years ago I worked alongside a young woman who, long before in another city, had had a relationship with a man who now worked in the building we were in. Whenever she spoke of him, her voice quavered and her eyes brimmed with tears. She was sure he was in love with her, but was dismayed that he showed no interest. She longed for him, but had not spoken to him for years. At certain times of day, when he might be due to leave work, she would go to the window and gaze out, hoping to catch a glimpse of him in the distance.
The cover of my (borrowed) copy of Prep
I thought of that colleague when I read “Prep” by Curtis Sittenfeld, published in 2005. The book follows a 14 year-old girl, Lee Fiora, who leaves her family home in Indiana to take up a scholarship at Ault, an elite boarding school on the US East Coast. Through her four years at the school, she obsesses about her relationships and develops a crush on a boy.
What a crush. (more…)
The influential gallery director sits down with the visiting guest in a museum cafe. Both are speaking English but only the guest is a native speaker.
‘This place is epic,’ the guest begins, meaning the museum. ‘Back home, the Arts Council is doing its bit but they don’t have the oomph to shift the dial. ITV has done a whole series on cock-ups in UK local authority arts funding but it’s a dog’s breakfast. You are blessed!’
Anish Kapoor show in Istanbul. But the conversation could be about business, politics, or anything at all.
‘We are very lucky, yes,’ the local gallery director says, cautiously. She has understood: her guest thinks the gallery director is fortunate, and something about a dog.
We live in an age where English is spoken to a high level as a second language by large numbers of people. But native English speakers often make no allowances for (more…)