Thursday, 14 December 2017


I am a white, middle-aged male. (Don't stop reading, please). My conscience has been pricked a great deal over the last couple of years. Since I began the obstacle course that is getting a novel published, actually. I started looking at my bookshelves about a year ago. There's a ratio of 5:2, more or less. A ratio of what? Male to Female authors.

It is rare I'll pick up a pastel-colour-covered paperback. However, I did have the following: Lionel Shriver's novels, all of Donna Tartt's books (brilliant! But you knew that), Faye Kellerman (not so keen now but earlier books were wonderful, maybe you knew that too), lots of other thriller writers, Reichs, Slaughter, McDiarmid, for example. (There are a lot of books in our house). George Eliot, only Middlemarch, Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss. Mary Wollstencraft, everything by Austen except the last unfinished novel (What's it called?) I have a novel each by the Bronte sisters, same as everyone.


It's still 5:2. I have read, Louisa M. Allcott, L.M.Montgomery, Anna Sewell and Toni Morrison. I have a copy of Bridget Jones's Diary, but I preferred Helen's column in the Independent; I don't know why, seeing as they are more or less the same.

I bet if I counted up all the books I've ever read, it would still be 5:2.

Which brings me to the book in the picture. I've decided I'm going to read a book by a female author for every single one I read by a male author from now on. Katarina Bivald's book was the first one I picked up. You will note it doesn't have a pastel cover, but I'm not convinced I would have chosen it to read, if not for my "little experiment".

This is a book written by a person who loves books. On the surface it is a simple love story, not out of place in Mills And Boon or (haha) Harlequin's catalogues, I would venture.  There is much more to Katarina's book than that. Is it coincidence that Sara's pen-pal is called Amy? Allcott is referenced throughout the book.

And the jokes, the meta-glory of putting the words "all stories start with a stranger coming to town" into a character's mouth. These pleasures are strewn throughout Ms Bivald's book.

It's sentimental, some might call it twee. I would call it Capra-esque, or better still it's like a Preston Sturges film. What's wrong with creating things to make people feel good? Watch Sullivan's Travels, if you don't want to read this book - they want the same thing for us and bless Sturges and Bivard for making their film and book respectively.

Respect, Ms Bivald, I'll change that 5:2 one day, thanks to you. 

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Malaga: City of Culture

After nearly 15 years in Andalucia, I finally made a proper attack on several of the art galleries available in Malaga. An overnight stay in The Hotel Carlos V in Cister was in no way disappointing. Cheapish and very comfortable. No further away than I could throw Keith Richard was La Catedral. For the Spanish, an Art Gallery is a Museo, as is a Museum, it can disappoint the unwary, but then, who goes to an Art Gallery on the spur of the moment? (Me, if I get the chance).

On Friday we visited El Museo Ruso, currently housing works from The Winter Palace's collection once owned by the Romanovs. One day I hope to visit St Petersburg and see what treasures were too valuable to send. Some of the work was, it must be admitted, of variable quality: other pieces were unbelievably good. Like this: "The Ice House" by Valery Yakovi

The Ice House 1878
 Bizarrely decadent - and as disturbing in its way as Velasquez's Las Meninas - this striking painting depicts the Jester's wedding in The Ice Palace built by Empress Anna Ivanova. The jester was in reality Prince Mixhail Alexeevich Goletsyn, who had displeased the Empress by marrying unsuitably. On the death of this unsuitable wife, Anna Ivanova forced him to marry a servant in a degrading ceremony. How unlike the home life of our own dear Queen.

The lighting in the Ruso was most disappointing. There were sufficient spotlights to satisfy the vainest of actors, every one seemed to be positioned for maximum glare on every painting, were it oil on canvas or water-colour behind glass.

Tapas for lunch near the Hotel in the shadow of the Cathedral and then it was off to Museo Carmen Thyssen. The best thing was one of the temporary exhibitions. This compared some of Goya's goriest and grimmest etchings with work by a Belgian artist with a peculiarly Irish name, James Ensor. If you've a taste for grue, I thoroughly recommend it.

Two of Goya's Etchings Featured in the Exhibition
The lighting was better in the Thyssen, thank goodness...

Dinner was at Garum (named after an ancient fish sauce invented when the Romans ruled Malaga) an interesting Restaurant on the Calle Alcazabilla. The menu is not extensive but it really is quite different. Try the 5x2 Atun (10 cuts of Tuna cooked in five different ways) - a real treat. The service was very good too, which, unfortunately, isn't always the case here in Andalucia. 

Garum: Go, it's good.
Saturday morning, coffee in La Café de la Abuela, Granny's Caff, if you like. I read the newspaper-wallpaper, pages and pages from "Cronica de España" from the early 70s. Franco dying, Juan Carlos reinstating the monarchy, Adios à Picasso, off-plan homes on never-built urbanizaciónes with prices in pesetas: all Spanish life was there. My coffee grew cold and eventually the clock showed 10 and we could go to the Museo Picasso. The doors opened right on time. It truly is a beautiful building, a one-time town hall and beautifully laid out with lots of salas off a lovely central patio.

If, like me, you've seen Picasso's Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid, you'll feel that Pablo never did anything as good/significant/important (choose your own adjective) before it or after. So, I'd recommend the Museo Picasso for completists only. But, and it is a big but...

Oh, and Dorothea Tanning is quite good too...

Until 28th January 2018 there is a temporary exhibition entitled "We Are Completely Free: Women Artists and Surrealism". Works by 18 women are featured in this exhibition in a variety of styles. I had heard of several of those featured (Lee Miller, Frida Kahlo, Claude Cahun), many more were artists I'd never heard of. Particularly impressive were : Maruja Mallo, the Leonoras - Fini and Carrington and... (Tada!) Kay Sage.

It was one of the best things I've seen for years. Women in art seem to have been air-brushed out of the picture or painted over by male art-historians, curators and critics. This is one exhibition which makes an effort to overturn some of that. Do go.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

One Hand...

"One hand washes the other and both wash the face."
 Spanish Proverb                            

This blog post is an unashamed plug for some Unbound projects that I am supporting. Unbound gave me a chance and I'd like to see others get a chance too.

This anthology contains short pieces by various and gifted writers on what it means to be different, and how difference and variety are things which enrich our lives, rather than things to be feared. Contributors include, amongst others Salena Godden, AL Kennedy and Matt Haig.

Net profits from the book will be donated to the charities Refugee Action and Stop Hate UK

 Borrowed: Shona Kinsella (Ed.) 

Eight authors from eight locations come together to tell the stories of one small-town library and its patrons and staff. Contributors to this collection are among the best of Unbound's debut and previously published writers; Shona Kinsella, Ian Skewis, Claire Patel-Campbell, Lou Allison, Stevyn Colgan, Paul Holbrook, Elena Kaufman and Erinna Mettler.
The royalties from this book will all be donated to World Literacy Foundation.

Glarnies, Green Berets & Goons: Julie Warren.

Subtitled "The Life and Legacy of Larry Stephens" Julie's book will reveal the story of the man without whom we might never have heard of Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers or Spike Milligan. A biography of a fascinating man, who served as a Marine Commando during WWII, this book promises to be a treat for Goons fans all over the world. 

The older amongst you (okay, us) will remember the title of an Agatha Christie novel whose title is now "And Then There Were None". Damon L. Wakes' book is an intriguing  distillation of Christie's murder mystery into a tense, hard sci-fi thriller.
Well researched and based on current scientific principles and thinking, you'll find no magic space dust here, just a taut and unusual whodunit. 

Well, there you go. Four to choose from. Pre-order these books as a Christmas gift for a loved one or treat yourself. Why not?

Thursday, 16 November 2017

A Blindefellows Chronicle - A Book Review

Auriel Roe’s episodic novel is old-fashioned in the nicest possible way. Imagine a kinder, less cynical rendition of the school in Waugh’s “Decline and Fall”. Imagine Stalky & Co’s school moving with the times. In some ways reading A Blindefellows Chronicle is a sort of Goodbye, Mr Japes. None of these is any bad thing.

As a former boarder, albeit at one of the last state grammar schools, in an equally small and isolated school, I recognised many things in this book. This is a tribute to Auriel Roe’s imagination, research or experience, and most certainly to her writing skill.

The chronicled-style, skipping on a few years at a time, made me invest a great deal of emotion in the characters, good and bad. I was always trying to second guess what would happen in the next chapter. It also brought home to me how much England has changed in my lifetime.

But best of all, “Blindefellows” (the book is destined to be referred to by aficionados in this way, surely?) is funny. Wryly, sharply and dryly – funny, all the way to an end which has that much-maligned quality “pathos”.

I recommend this book very highly and hope to read more from the author sometime soon. 

An unusual book in so many ways, not least for naming a character "Mafalda" which will have raised a smile among anyone who has spent time with Latin Americans.

Monday, 13 November 2017


If you're of a certain age, the song would have gone through your head. We all like to think we have a local. If you're partial to a convivial glass, that is. I don't have a local bar any more. The one at the end of the road is all locked-up with a tenant living in the upstairs flat. Someone is still paying the lease on the building, but whatever rent is coming in will not cover that, for sure. I used to go to a place in town quite often. Eventually I remembered the names of the staff. As usual that was their cue to leave. I'll bump into them in other bars in town, of course. Most people in the pueblo know who Professor Longhair is. Some even say "Es autor. ¿Sabes?" It's fame of sorts. Because they assume - since I am a guiri- that I won't understand a word they say, they are quite uninhibited in what they do say. The saying goes that one shouldn't listen to private conversations, for one might not like what one hears. That hasn't been true for me so far. It's just as well, Andalucians do not whisper.

Winter has come, here in the sunny South. Shopkeepers mention the weather, shivering in their overcoats, gloved hands counting out change. Then they'll mention the snow in the town only a couple of years ago, the first time for 50 years.Children were clad in overcoats on top of pyjamas and taken out to stand in the flakes. Some stayed up until 2 in the morning just to throw snowballs. Just goes to show, the unusual is better than "the usual".

Thursday, 24 August 2017

Milling About

Trevélez from the dirt track
Today's wanderings were more hiking than walking: "más senderismo que caminar", you might say. In the apartment is a pamphlet showing a map of the town of Trevélez. It is not to scale, it might even be accused of being topographical. A path is shown leading out of the town, sort of eastward, to one Molino Altero - which might or might not mean Pile Mill as in piles of money. Off I set, believing, as all ex-airmen ought, in the map.

The way started as a fairly wide concreted camino rural sin numèro (Un-numbered country road, there are lots of those in Spain).  The sign-post warned of the Junta de Andalucia's contribution to its upkeep, so I wasn't expecting much. A sign placed by the local council suggested a speed limit of 30 Kph and was recommending the route to cows or warning of their presence: one of the two.

After about a kilometre it became a dirt track, which remained fairly wide  Whilst it remained so wide I passed a few horses, fields and fields of market gardening. As the track narrowed, the trees closed in. Races burbled down the hill, but still no sign of a Molino, of Piles or otherwise. One could imagine a trail of breadcrumbs or the flash of a red hood between the green trees.
One of the many streams

So beautiful, so peaceful, with the sound of the bells around the goats' necks counterpointing the water rushing down the hillside. Eventually I saw a signpost, which indicated that I was travelling in the right direction. A source of some amazement, I confess. At this point the track become a narrow, rocky path, like something the smugglers in Moonfleet might have used. Often the streams and rills crossed the path making the rocks slippery or indeed covering them completely. I kept going until I had travelled about four kilometres. The track became wetter and wetter and ever more narrow. It did not peter out, but the woodland became more dense. I turned back. On the way back, I came across one contender for the title Molino Altero, it didn't look close enough to the river or one of the many streams. No, it didn't have sails, either.
Molino Altero??

I made my way back to the signpost, and followed the arrows in reverse. This was not the way I had come. There were some tremendous views over ths true valley and the lower quarter of town. Being afraid of heights and prone to feeling dizzy I felt quite brave taking the photos, it's true. On this winding narrow path tacking round the contours I met the only other person out walking. A bandy-legged fellow of about 60, accompanied by 3 short-legged and vociferous dogs. He had an old flip-top motorola glued to his ear, but apart from that he could have been a goat-herd on his way down to have Franco's greatest innovation for his lunch: Menú de Dia.

Eventually I made it back to civilisation. I hadn't reached my goal, but so what? It was a beautiful walk on a beautiful day. It doesn't come much better than that.


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Nearer the Sky than the Sea

View from the Top of  Barrio Alto
Trevélez, a beautiful town, perched in the folds of Mulhacen's skirts some 1500 metres above sea level, is only the second highest municipality in Spain. It is the place to buy the best Iberian hams in the whole of Spain  - as any Andalucian will tell you. Of course "Everyone has the best wife at home" as somebody or other once said. Every day at this time of year luxury coaches take the winding route through Las Alpujarras before disgorging hundreds of tourists into the square in Barrio Bajo (Low Quarter).

The town consists of 3 zones, although it tickles me to use the other dictionary definition: quarter. It isn't quite a town, you see, it's only three quarters of a town. It is not what the Andalucians would consider a village, certainly. Another cultural difference between we Northern Europeans and our Latino hosts. Anyway, there is The Low Quarter, The Middle Quarter and the High Quarter. There is a walking route which winds from the bottom of the town to the top: "La Ruta de los Tres Barrios", unsurprisingly enough. The dog is too old to manage this route as, certainly on the way up, it's too steep for his old legs and weary heart, so I try to do the walk every other day. It's not the same as walking the 7 hours to the top of Mulhacen, but every little helps to fight the middle age spread.

For the third year in a row, the town where we are staying has bizarre mannikins placed in the street. These are slightly more realistic (and sinister) than the wicker men and women of previous years.
Emil and Some Friends of a Similar Age

Fresh Eggs for Breakfast Here.

Winding through the back streets is an education, there are many surprises behind some rustic looking doors on the sides of the houses in these narrow barrio streets. The higher you go, the stranger things you see. I'll spare you the occupied outside loo with the open door onto the street, but these chickens have a room in a house...

Generally I take the main roads (some licence also taken with the term here) down and stop off for a coffee, where I eavesdrop on the conversation between whomosoever happens to be in the bar. This morning the owner was complaining to the woman serving behind the bar that someone hadn't greeted him while they were at the funeral that took place yesterday. This tirade segued seamlessly into complaints that some people from Catalonia had been in the village yesterday, claiming that their ham was better than that of Trevélez. Clearly preposterous, from what I overheard. The owner was turning puce. The woman behind the bar offered the owner decaff for his next coffee. Perhaps I shouldn't have laughed.