Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Here Today, Gone Tomorrow

I never cease to be amazed by how quickly bestselling authors can plummet to obsurity within a decade. Every day I see the same names: Dornford Yates, Howard Spring, Frances Parkinson Keyes, Mazo de la Roche and Warwick Deeping. In their time, they were incredibly successful, but by the mid-1960s they had disappeared from view.

At a glance, it looks as if some sort of literary Stalinist purge has taken place, but the reality is a combination of changing fashions and writers dying of old age. Nevertheless, there seem to be distinct geological periods in literature that are defined more by the forgotten authors than the ones we remember. Howard Spring and Warwick Deeping belong to the interwar years, whilst Silas Hocking and Mrs Henry Wood are indelibly linked to the late Victorian period.

I almost sound as if I know what I'm talking about. It is amazing how quickly I have gone from being a complete charlatan to someone who can convey an air of authority when talking about rare and antiquarian books.

Only last week, I received a phone call from a man whose grandparents had just died. He wanted me to value their books and, flattered by the prospect of behaving like an Antiques Roadshow expert, I agreed to pay him a visit later that day (perhaps I should have enquired how his grandparents came to die at the same time, but I did at least leave his address with my colleagues in case I never returned).

Today I discovered a new author: Harry Stephen Keeler, described by Wikipedia as a "prolific but little-known American author."

I don't think I'll ever read "The Tiger Snake", but it has some cracking chapter headings that read like the plot of a Gay Men's Press novel:
  • Queer Business
  • The "Man-Trap"
  • The Hand From Out The Dark
  • A Quandry
  • Mr Smock Receives
  • Information From an M.D.
As for Mr Keeler, he seems to have hit on a novel solution (no pun intended) to the problem of a receeding hairline:

Sunday, March 28, 2010

King's Bishop to Pawn*

Yesterday evening I was desperately trying to read an article by Rupert Thomson in the Guardian Weekend magazine, but my wife had other ideas:

"Jenny's suggested that we all go to the zoo."

"Hmm?"

"It would be lovely for the children and I think you'd get on with Dave."

"Hmm. Good idea." (at this point I pointedly picked up the magazine to indicate that the conversation was over.

"Dave often plays chess with his next door neighbour. They're nudists."

"Hmmm."

"Yes, when Dave goes round there for a game, the neighbour isn't wearing any clothes."

At this point, I thought that my wife was employing a tried and tested technique to see if I was listening to her but no, apparently Dave really does play chess with a naked man. The neighbours are nudists and their house rules are simple: no clothes. Dave never bats an eyelid.

I'm not sure if I'd be quite so relaxed about naked chess, or indeed anything that involved nudity, but perhaps I'm in the minority. Several people at work have posted rather revealing photos of themselves on Facebook.

Two weeks ago, a girl who works in our warehouse paid to have some "glamour" photos taken of her and her sister. I'm sure you can picture the scene: two teenage girls, one seedy, middle-aged photographer and a studio that looks like something out of a 1970s porn film.

The session began with some harmless, slightly revealing poses. Then the photographer opened a bottle of wine and encouraged the girls to have a glass or two. Soon, inhibitions (and clothes) were quickly shed and with minutes, the sisters wearing nothing but a smile.

I can understand how the combination of youth, flattery and alcohol helped to remove any inhibitions about posing naked. What I can't understand is why, in the cold sober light of the next day, the photo session was posted by one of the sisters on Facebook for everyone to see.

This is one of the milder shots:

Apparently, the photographer told the girl that he had "contacts" who might be able to offer her solo, webcam work. That registers 9.5 on the seedometer.

Another colleague, in a moment of madness, decided to post a profile picture of himself on Facebook, standing in a shower. Admittedly, he'd covered his offending articles with a towel, but in a pose that made him look like the poor man's Tom of Finland. He was universally ridiculed.

With so much nudity around, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm in a minority. Are more people at it than I realised?

I sincerely hope not because, with the best will in the world, most people look better with their clothes on.

*This post was originally called "King's Bishop to Porn" - I forgot about search engines.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Martin Amis

Poor old Martin Amis. He's so easy to dislike, partly because of his ridiculous bad boy persona (cultivated against a backdrop of privilege and opportunity), but mainly because he takes himself so seriously.

I admit that I'm prejudiced. When I became a bookseller, Amis was one of a generation of writers who were portrayed as young and edgy - more American than British - capturing the late 20th century zeitgeist. The reality was a small group of nice, upper-middle class men in their 40s, writing fiction that was technically innovative, but ultimately unsatisfying.

Turn the clock back to the mid-1990s and Martin Amis was at the top of his game: still the enfant terrible of British writers, but with a beautiful new wife, new teeth and a £500,000 advance from HarperCollins. Then, as in many great novels, hubris was followed by downfall.

The Information was Amis's first novel for HarperCollins. It was a disaster. It had been decided that as Amis was such a strong "brand", the usual convention of having the title and author on the dustjacket would be abandoned. Instead, there would be a simple "i".

Unfortunately, less wasn't more and the novel flopped. It's hard to tell how many sales were lost as a result of the bold cover design, but I think it's safe to say that HarperCollins didn't recoup their advance for a long time (if ever). In spite of this fiasco, the creative team behind the "i" still won an industry award.

The pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction since The Information. Amis is frequently caricatured as the young pretender who sold his soul for the Murdoch shilling to buy new teeth. Every new work seems to prompt a spate of vitriolic views.

The reason I'm writing this is because I found a copy of Amis's memoir Experience the other day, lying on top of a skip. It was a perfectly good copy, but because its sales ranking on Amazon was so low, it was about the be pulped. I picked it up and saw this passage:

"On a tube train to Earl's Court I saw a young man reading The Rachel Papers, about a week after its publication. He was enjoing the book, and in the best possible way: a reluctant smile, an unreluctant smile, a reluctant smile, and so on. I still regret that I didn't go up to him. But I told myself: listen, this will be happening all the time - get used to it."

I immediately thought "Typical Martin Amis. Bloody arrogant..." and almost threw the book back into the skip. If I had, I would have missed the next sentence:

"I need hardly add that it didn't happen again for about fifteen years. When my first novel won the Somerset Maugham Award I told myself the same sort of thing: get used to it. And that never happened again."

Monday, March 15, 2010

Hampton Court Palace

One year, I made the mistake of buying family membership of the National Trust. I'm sure there are children who love visiting historic buildings, but I suspect that most are bored rigid and can't wait until it's time to visit the gift shop.

When I told my oldest son that we were going to Hampton Court Palace before visiting Grandma, he was nonplussed. "Do you know, Henry VIII used to live there!" I added, naively thinking that this would make a difference.

My son sighed and rolled his eyes.

I was just about to launch into my standard "Well we're going there anyway" routine, when I suddenly had a brainwave. "You do know that it's haunted, don't you? Look at this YouTube clip..."


By the end of the clip, my son solemnly concluded that "it must be true" and decided that on reflection, he would like to visit Hampton Court Palace.

I should have quit while I was ahead, but ended up over-egging the paranormal pudding to the point where both sons were in a state of mortal terror. My wife gave me one of her "Now look what you've done" expressions.

By the next day, my sons seemed to have forgotten their fear - I think they were too preoccupied with feeling travelsick - and I dared to hope that the visit would go smoothly.

It was still fairly quiet when we arrived and although I don't believe in ghosts, the oldest parts of Hampton Court had an incredible presence. As we entered the huge Tudor kitchen, I saw a strange, ghostly figure with a white beard, standing by the fire:

It turned out to be Warren - someone I used to work with at Waterstone's when it was still owned by Tim Waterstone. Warren didn't suffer fools gladly and could be spectacularly rude to customers that incurred his wrath. He worked on the top floor and I often remember people walking down the stairs in a stunned silence, unable to process what had just happened to them.

But when he wasn't assaulting the Daily Mail-reading Betty Shine fans, Warren could be great fun to work with. One day an extremely malodorous tramp entered the shop and started shouting at people in Welsh, before knocking over a display of books. Warren turned to the queue of customers and calmly said "Oh I do wish my father wouldn't visit me in the shop."

How did Warren end up working in Hampton Court Palace? Watching him talking to the visitors he seemed a different man: affable, relaxed and unfazed by even the most banal questions.

I almost didn't manage to speak to Warren. He had been cornered by a man with a strange face, who was asking him one question after another. Later I remembered that this very man had stopped me having another conversation with someone fourteen years ago, when I ran a bookshop in Twickenham. Now that is spooky.

We continued exloring the palace and by now, my sons were imbuing every unfamiliar noise and sudden change in temperature with ghostly origins.

Given my scepticism about the supernatural, I felt slightly hypocritical encouraging a state of semi-hysteria and was about to start backtracking with rational explanations when my wife appeared with a man in Tudor costume. "Look boys, this man works here and he can tell you all about the ghosts."

I cringed with embarrassment. I only have to casually wonder how old something is and without any warning, my wife will track down the nearest member of staff and ask them. I'm a man. I don't ask questions, even if it means driving around a ring road seven times.

To my surprise, the Tudor guard was more than happy to talk, albeit in a conspiratorial whisper:

"I've worked here 20 years and a lot of strange things go on here. Sometimes a strange smell will appear and suddenly disappear for no reason, other times it could be a noise, or someone tapping you on the shoulder when there's no-one else in the room. One time we saw some ropes spinning round..."

The boys were lapping it up, but had they learned any history? I don't know, but all I can do is expose them to as much of their heritage as possible so that they can get a better perspective on their own time.

As for the ghosts, perhaps my sons are right. Can you see the strange apparition in this photo?

Our visit concluded with a visit to the gift shop, where visitors could buy ye olde chocolate chippe biscuits and other traditional English "fayre", like this:

In my ignorance, I thought that tea wasn't introduced to Britain until the 17th century. I stand corrected.

I always become terribly grumpy in gift shops, appalled by the mass-produced kitsch that masquerades as "heritage". On the other hand, I remember the disappointment I felt as a child when someone gave me a tasteful, hand-crafted replica of a Tudor board game. You can't win.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

More From Derek's Diaries


As regular readers of this blog may know, last month I came across a large box of personal journals, written by a former local government officer called Derek (left). If I hadn't been passing through the warehouse just after Derek's diaries arrived, I've no doubt that they would have been promptly binned. They are of no value.

I couldn't bring myself to throw four decades of a person's life into a bin and I am now stuck with the box, making excuses every time someone asks me what I'm going to do with it. I honestly have no idea.

I've now read several of Derek's diaries and although it feels rather voyeuristic, I hope I am that sympthetic, unknown reader that most of us hope for when we write.

It is hard not feel sympathy for Derek. He emerges from his writing as a compassionate, thoughtful person, with an unswerving loyalty to his faith, family and friends. But what makes Derek's journals so compelling is that he is a man plagued by passions and dark thoughts ("I am a laughing man with tears behind the smile.")

Derek dreams of behaving in an "improper" manner towards his female colleagues. He is also an incurable hypochondriac, plagued by an endless succession of minor complaints:

"I have a headache and I am tired. And flies, black flies, are killing my gladioli. They are laying their eggs inside the flowers as the devil lays temptation in a man's mind: both are destructive."

"Brenda came to me. For a while we lay upon the lawn, but decided to evacuate when a caterpilla crawled onto my hand. Brenda hates insects. So do I."

I also enjoy passages like these, which seem to appear at random:

"Satan came to me last night in the form of Edward Chave. When I brought up the question of him boring his children...he rose to his feet, put on his hat and stormed out of the house."

"Once the coach party was over, I asked Vic Lipppett to accompany me to the station as I was carrying about £200 worth of equipment and didn't fancy being mugged in the underground passage. As we were walking across, he opened his coat and showed how well-prepared he was; he had a revolver tucked into his trousers. Whether he had a licence for it I do not know."

"I looked at frilly nightdresses and underclothes today in a shop window. I had a strong urge to buy them all for Brenda."

In a telling entry, Derek writes that his journals "make me squirm when I read them. They are full of self-pity, mawkish sentiment, selfish opinions and abysmal writing. Were it not that I truly believe that the child is the father of the man, I would confine those journals to the fire."

In another passage, Derek talks about posterity. I'm glad he never knew what posterity had in store for his writing.

Outwardly, Derek led a fairly unremarkable life, but his diaries bear witness to the quiet heroism that pervades the lives of many ordinary people. I don't think I'll ever be able to throw them away.

N.B - I have tried to donate Derek's diaries to an archive, but so far haven't had any success.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Overheard in the Local Post Office...

This morning I had to drive to the local post office, to send a book to China by special delivery.

As I stood in the queue, I overheard this poignant encounter between a woman in her early 50s and the post office clerk:

"I'd like to send this parcel through the BFPO." (British Forces Post Office)

"Where are you sending it?"

"Somewhere I don't want him to be."

"What's in the parcel?"

"A Top Gear magazine and a packet of sweets."

Every week I hear that a soldier has been killed in Afghanistan and to my shame, the news washes over me. But seeing a mother sending the parcel to a son she may never see again was heart-rending. A packet of sweets - still her boy.

A few minutes later, as I was driving back to the office, I saw the woman crossing the road. She looked broken.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Very Tight Corner with a Lynx-Eyed Man

I found this very rare children's novel yesterday:

It's pure "Boy's Own": lots of "I say chaps! This is jolly unfair. I vote we give the rotter a taste of his own medicine."

Best of all are the chapter headings:

A Queer Arrival
A Little Scrap
Tony Gets Busy
Tony Takes a Chance
A Midnight Adventure
The Manacled Ghost
A Radio Thrill
The Super-Tuck Shop
A Very Tight Corner
Not a Joke
The 'Phone Message
The Curio Shop
A Lynx-Eyed Man
A Stern Chase
The Rescue
Chums

I'd love to visit the "Super-Tuck" shop and as for stern chases, I know all about those from Sheerness.

What struck me about the chapter headings was that although the book is probably complete rubbish, it has a pace and melodrama that many of the worthier children's novels of the post-war era lack. I've no doubt that the success of the Harry Potter books is partly down to the fact that they are old-fashioned, plot-driven novels.

Last year I read the complete Five Find-Outers series to my oldest son and even though I knew that Enid Blyton was no Michael Morpurgo, I had forgotten just how badly written her books were. However, in spite of myself, I had to find out who the shadowy figure in the window of the deserted cottage was.

Why one two-dimensional, cliche-ridden children's novel should be out of print while another is a classic, is a mystery. Many of the books I deal with by forgotten novelists went through several reprints in their own time. I'm sure that if some of them were reissueed today, they would find a new audience.

However, in spite of its racy chapter headings, I don't think we'll be seeing a new Puffin edition of "The Lion's Whelp at School".

Monday, March 08, 2010

Saturday in Kent

Parenthood has made me a man of modest ambitions. Once, a birthday would have involved a trip to Chile or a weekend in Paris, but these days I feel lucky if I can spend a whole day without having to repair something, look after children or take things to the local recycling centre.

When my wife asked me what I wanted for my birthday last week, I said that I wanted to spend a day exploring Kent (it's come to that). I only had one destination in mind. The rest of the day would be spent wandering aimlessly, allowing serendipity to take its course.

It all seemed simple enough. Little did I know that I'd end up almost being arrested under the anti-terrorist laws.

I began the day in Aylesford, a Medway village where nothing of any significance has happened since the year 455. In the summer, Aylesford can look like a traditional, picture postcard English village, but today it was eerily quiet.

I had come here to visit the church. Generations of my ancestors had been christened, married and buried at St Peter's Church. I wanted to visit the church and have my Kunta Kinte (or Kunta Kente) moment. It never occured to me that St Peter's would be locked.

I rattled the door, hoping that there would be somebody inside, but there were no lights on in the church. I wandered round the graveyard, wondering if I might be able to pick out a familar name, but the older stones were too badly weathered. It was bitterly cold and after two circuits of the graveyard I decided to leave.

Suddenly, the church bell started to ring and I began counting: 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13... Why hadn't the ringing stopped at twelve? Assuming that someone must now be inside the church, I walked over to the door and saw that it was still locked and no lights were on. The bell rang 47 times.

Standing in a cold, windswept graveyard, listening to a bell ringing in an empty church, made me feel as if I was in an M. R. James short story.

A mile to the north of Aylesford, there are the remains of a Neolithic burial chamber. Kit's Coty is very hard to find. There are no brown heritage signs pointing the way and I wasted the best part of an hour before I managed to find the site, but it was worth the effort:

The confusingly named Kit's Coty House may not be Stonehenge, but does it deserve its current status, unvisited by all but a few, surrounded by an ugly fence?

Kit's Coty was originally covered by a mound of earth and a 50-foot tunnel led to a burial chamber. Despite its primitive appearance, it was a considerable feat of engineering to lift the huge capstone over eight feet off the ground. Who knows, perhaps my ancestors helped to build it.

The stones are pockmarked with small holes:

These holes have become very popular with the local snails:

Kit's Coty definitely had a presence and I found myself agreeing with Samuel Pepys:

"Three great stones standing upright and a great round one lying on them, of great bigness, although not so big as those on Salisbury Plain. But certainly it is a thing of great antiquity, and I am mightily glad to see it."

My next visit was to another forgotten place: the Isle of Sheppey. Formerly home to a Royal Naval dockyard and passenger-ferry terminal, Sheppey is now an economically depressed area, with cheap, badly built housing estates, scattered across a desolate landscape of mudflats and electricity pylons.

The Isle of Sheppey is less than 40 miles from London, but I felt as if I had travelled to some rather unpleasant part of Eastern Europe in the 1970s.

The main town, Sheerness appears to be almost exclusively populated by shabbily dressed people with a BMI of over 35 and, although the town centre had an Aldi and a Superdrug, most retail chains had decided to give the place a miss. I felt that if I got out of my car, a zombie-style mob would chase after me, albeit rather slowly.

Once I was safely away from the crowds of pasty-faced, dull-eyed locals, I followed these signs and parked the car. I was completely unprepared for what was around the corner:

It looked as if a chunk of Regency London had been picked up and dropped in the middle of Sheerness. Everything around was unremittingly hideous, so how did these buildings come to be here? On closer inspection, it didn't look as if the church would be around for much longer:


Apparently, this was once part of a bustling Royal Navy base, built after Sheppey became the only part of mainland Britain to have been invaded since 1066.

In 1667, a fleet of Dutch warships arrived at Sheerness and met with some very half-hearted resistance from the ill-fed, underpaid local garrison. Sheppey was only occupied for three days - I don't think the Dutch could stand being there any longer - but it was enough to convince Samuel Pepys to establish a Royal Naval dockyard in the town.

The church in the photo was built during the Regency period. This is what it looked like a century ago:

Sadly, when the Royal Navy abandoned Sheerness in 1960, over 5o historic buildings were quietly destroyed, including these:

I tried to take a photo of the hideous container port that has replaced the dockyard, but within seconds a security guard walked up to me and told me that I couldn't take any pictures, as it was a high security area. He made it quite clear that the matter was non-negotiable. I nodded and started to walk away.

I don't like being told what to do, particularly by private security guards, so I developed an ingenious plan: I'd pretend to walk away, hide around the corner, pop out from behind a tree and take a shot. They'd never rumble that.

I found my tree, disabled the flash and quickly took a photo. It wasn't quick enough. A loud "Oi!" was followed by the sound of someone running. My car was just around the corner and I started to speed up my pace, whilst trying to create the impression that I wasn't really running away and always walked like Quentin Crisp.

I had visions of being pursued across the island, all for the sake of one stupid, dull photo of a freight terminal. There was only one bridge to the mainland and I didn't know the roads. The situation was hopeless. I slowed down and waited for the guard to arrive.

It was a different man; younger and more amenable. He soon accepted that I wasn't a potential terrorist, but seemed to think that I was a container port enthusiast, which was far worse. I tried to explain why I was there, but I wasn't quite sure myself. One thing was clear: I wanted to leave and was grateful that the guard gave me the opportunity to delete the picture without taking things any further.


I decided to head back to the mainland and felt a palpable sense of relief when I left Sheppey behind me. I don't think I'll ever go back.

At this point I could have happily driven home, but there were still a few hours of daylight left. I decided to follow the next road sign I saw. It said Faversham

I knew nothing about Faversham. It was a name that nestled somewhere in my subconscious, next to Miss Havisham and evoked an olde worlde, genteel town full of Daily Telegraph readers. Amazingly, that's exactly what it was:

These attractive almshouses are probably home to several Miss Havishams, although the real Miss Havisham would probably be more at home in the building across the road:

I liked Faversham straight away. The best towns have an ecclectic mixture of buildings from different periods and because they have developed organically over time, they work far better than planned communities. The other important ingredient in a sucessful town is a social mix and although Faversham appeared solidly middle class, I felt that it still was a working town with a broad cross-section of people:

However, this was probably the nearest the Faversham got to having any mean streets. The rest of the town centre was more like this:

Kent is a strange place. Parts of it conform to its "Garden of England" image, with historic towns, beautiful villages and a countryside dotted with oasthouses, but there are also other areas that are blighted by bad housing, overdevelopment and poor transport links.

I'm particularly interested in the darker side of Kent. Canterbury and Whitstable may have their charms but I'm attracted to the forgotten places that are barely acknowledged in guide books and tourist brochures, like this tower that I discovered last year.

The journey home seemed to take forever and when I finally passed the sign that marked the beginning of East Sussex, I felt that this was my home. Sod the ancestors.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Twelve Years Ago

Twelve years ago I had an incredibly vivid dream about being in Chile. It was sunset. The sky was a deep orange and I was walking along a quiet road that was littered with purple blossom. Unlike most dreams, which are usually a montage of random nonsense, this one was quite explicit: go to Chile.

As a hardcore rationalist, I dismissed the dream's message. I had no connection with Chile and had never visited South America, so why was this dream so compelling? Was it anything to do with the fact that it was February and I was working in Slough? More than likely.

Three days later, in a moment of madness, I picked up my credit card and booked a flight to Santiago.

Three weeks later - exactly twelve years ago - I was in Puerto Montt in the south of Chile, wondering what I was doing there. I had travelled to Chile in search of warmth and sunshine, but had travelled so far south that the climate was beginning to feel very British.

Even the landscape looked familiar. Frisian cows grazed in lush green fields bordered by blackberry bushes. Blue skies were dotted with white, puffy cumulonimbus clouds. It could almost have been Devon, apart from the snow-capped, smoking volcano in the distance.

When I arrived at Puerto Montt, the sky was grey and the sea a familiar dull turquoise. It was like Bognor Regis.

I found a cheap room, with a window that turned out to be directly above the outflow vent of a restaurant kitchen. Soon, everything I wore stank of cooking oil, but that was the least of my worries. Earlier that day I had decided to visit the loo on my coach and as I shut the door behind me, the wheels went over a cattle grid and the urine of several dozen passengers splashed up onto my jacket.

I decided that my sartorial demise ruled out restaurants, so I decided to wander around the town in search of a decent cafe.

Puerto Montt was an intriguing mixture of slightly rundown buildings with corrugated tin roofs and a modern shopping mall that looked as if it has been stolen from Fresno. Outside the smart chain stores, hawkers lined the streets selling socks, felt tip pens and used plastic bags. Most of the people were either Indian or mixed race, but all of the adverts featured European faces.

As I walked towards the seafront, I saw a circus:

It was a sorry sight. There were no acrobats or clowns around, but several ill-fed, badly-treated animals. In the picture below, a group of people were deriving great pleasure from watching a monkey that was tethered to a chain, trying to free itself. As you can see, it was too much excitement for the man lying on the ground:

But the saddest sight of all was this:

My camera, which was one of my most ill-advised purchases (remember the so-called Advanced Photographic System?), fails to capture the dull, mangy coat of the lion. The cage was so small that the lion was barely able to turn.

I was glad that I was staying in Puerto Montt for just the one night. Even so, it still beat Slough. The next day, I boarded a ferry and travelled to the island of Chiloe.

Chiloe was one of the wettest places I've ever visited. Luckily the oil from the kitchen vent had waterproofed my clothes. I smelt awful, but at least I was dry.

When the sun came out, Chiloe was stunning. The palafitos in Castro, the island's capital, are now a UN World Heritage site (I think, or I could be making that up).

I had planned to arrive in Castro on 3rd March - my birthday - and spend the evening celebrating in the best restaurant I could find. Sadly, five minutes after leaving the hotel I was caught in a downpour and, rather than let my desert boots get completely soaked, dashed into a nearby restaurant.

The moment I entered I knew I had made a mistake. It wasn't just the smell of rot and vomit, but also the lack of customers that was offputting. I decided to try and keep an open mind, but the food was gaggingly, gut-wrenchingly awful. As for the wine, I can only assume that there was a bet on in the kitchen to see whether the Englishman in the corner would drink a glass of genuine piss.

It was a very weird birthday, but memorable.

The next day the rain was so bad that I couldn't go out. I turned on the only English television channel to find Kevin Costner's Waterworld. Those are the darker moments of travel: rain, bad food and a Kevin Costner movie. Luckily I had a copy of Bleak House with me.

Obviously this post has been inspired by the news coverage of Saturday's earthquake. In spite of some rather odd experiences, I quickly fell in love with Chile. It is a magical place. I no longer dream about Chile in my sleep, but when it is February and the sky is permanently grey and the air is cold and damp, I know that there is somewhere in the world where I can feel the sun on my skin and pick blackberries.