Neighbours, bears and pants

June 29, 2011

I have a neighbour.  We’ll call him Alastair, because that’s his name.  Actually, he’s the perfect neighbour because he’s never here.  He’s also a Brit and together we provide the international gossip for the neighbours and make them feel very cosmopolitan.  Alastair is never here because he travels on business or is in UK visiting his girlfriend or family or sorting out his propert(ies) or the business he runs with his brother or buying another house.  Anyway, I digress. When he is here he never checks his post.  Well, maybe once a month….he’s that sort of guy; if it’s important enough the court bailiff’s will be at the door.  I should say that our post boxes are next to each other; I am 32a, he is 32b.

I’ve said before how much I like Germany(with the exception of Deutsch Telekom, about which, more later). The postal service is great; regular and reliable, like everything in Germany.  Except when the postman is in a hurry or has had too much bier the night before when he might possibly have a slight tendency to put my mail in Alistair’s box.  Now this hardly ever happens.  In fact, it’s only likely to happen if the letter is the most important life-changing document in the northern hemisphere and if Alastair is away doing whatever.  I was waiting for the agent’s contract for over a week.  Guess where it was?

OK, it’s now signed and on its way, so it’s all up to Superman Peter.  In the meantime, I am starting to plan a sequel.  The main characters will be the same, but should it be centred on political intrigue or more conventional crime?   High crime would be a complete contrast to Flight Into Darkness but it’s a slightly different genre.  Actually, I find that the ‘blank sheet of paper’ stage in the creation of a new book is rather exciting because anything is possible but it’s also rather intimidating because it’s easy to head off in the wrong direction.  In the end, I need to be stimulated by the story.  Some complain of writer’s block but my problem is writer’s surge; it’s weeding out the bad ideas that’s the main problem.  Why is nothing ever easy?

Digressing again.  Tony Slater is another writer and I met him briefly at York last year.  Apart from being the best-looking man there, he is also a complete maniac and should be doing stand-up.  His book ‘That Bear Ate My Pants’ has its launch on Friday.  Pop over to http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=245219902160197.  Looks like fun.  I think I’ll have to get a copy…..

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New Shirt

June 27, 2011

Well, I checked the post this morning and the agents’ contract is still noticeable by its absence. Sigh. Back to work today and it’s hot and sunny so the roof stays of my little car. I had planned for this blog to be a diary of the journey from the nod from an agent to buying the first copy in W H Smiths but I guess it’s time to wait and be patient. In the meantime, here’s a bit of doggerel I penned last year when my partner and I got hitched. Like my bit on the Simpsons socks, it approaches the whole subject indirectly but I think it hits the mark. Somehow, clothes seem to be quite a handy metaphor for major life events. I read out a bit at the dinner afterwards when we had all had rather too much vinho. Hope you like it:

I don’t often go shopping in the big city so when I do it’s a bit special and today I have some special shopping to do. The good people of Cologne surge around me in their woollen coats and feathered hats, carrier bags, bicycle bells and clanking trams, bustle and hustle and a symphony of idling engines in idle cars.

OK, first things first. Luis says that our wedding has got to be very informal. That means funky jeans and loud shirts to signify that conventions are only there to be broken. But the big idea is for everyone to have fun. He’s a total nutter, of course, but he has this ability to find the truffle hidden under the roots of adversity and I think that’s how he’s actually managed to survive for so long. When I think back on it, his entire life has been a lurch from crisis to catastrophe, but he always seems to have this ability to come out of it having had fun and bearing no malice to the world or anyone in it. If he could put it in a bottle, he’d be a millionaire.

As for me, I find myself watching from the sidelines as he dances through life, wondering why he can’t see those nasty things lurking in the undergrowth, as if it’s me that has to worry on his behalf. Well, he certainly isn’t going to waste much time doing it for himself. Sometimes I’m reminded of that biblical parable about the birds of the air (who do not sow, nor do they reap) yet they get by OK. Yes, well, maybe in the land of milk and honey they do, but in northern Europe they probably freeze their bollocks off.  Now, there’s the difference between us; he’ll be smelling the flowers whilst I’ll be worrying about the winter to come. Actually, that’s probably why we’re good for each other; he stops me from descending into a pit of angst and I stop him from going into a hyperbolic spiral of euphoria. If I’m honest, it makes me feel more secure, but I’m sorry if I put the mockers on his fun sometimes. I see the shades of disappointment in his eyes like a weak sunset but he never blames me because the sun always comes up again. He’s like that and I’ve never really understood why.

OK, the funky jeans I’ve got and the shoes to match. And an electric blue velvet jacket that cost an absolute fortune and has hardly ever been worn. But the shirt…the shirt is a problem, but it isn’t one to worry about because I know a place that looks like an explosion in a paint factory and it’s just up Mittelstrasse near Rudolfplatz.

I start in German and the manager immediately falls into perfect English making me feel guilty that my German is so poor. Still, I am British so I make my excuses and compliment him effusively which makes us both feel better. I tell him what I’m looking for and he says that he has four thousand of them, sir. I look around the shop and decide that he has mastered the British art of understatement. They’re everywhere, like an encircling army, stacked in neat ranks in compartments, floor to ceiling, like paint swatches, segregated into different colours and different hues of different shades and patterns and stripes, long sleeves, short sleeves, Italian collars, double cuffs, a fanfare of ties blazing against the wall like a sunbeam split by a prism. I almost want to salute.

There’s something Imperial about this shop, rather classy. The manager also has that air about him, silver haired, dark suited, friendly but respectful, as if my pleasure would give him an orgasm. I think of the surly gum-chewing youths that populate shops in the UK and wonder whether this man hasn’t managed to retain something rather fine. He lays a carpet of shirts before me. I check the collars and realise that it is a British label; Jermyn Street. Jesus. I don’t bother to look at the prices before I came in as it’s not a very British thing to do and if you need to ask, you can’t afford them.

OK, now, which one would Luis choose? I know that if he doesn’t like it, it’ll go into a cupboard and never be worn again. Having suggested three, the manager excuses himself and goes to attend to a gaggle of women. I pick up each shirt in turn and try to envisage how it will look with the jacket.

Six days away.  It’s closure to the endless and fruitless search for the perfect man; an end to the vacuous world of casual sex in dark holes, rutting like pigs and going home alone. Once, I’d thought it was a kind of freedom but it was more like a prison and we only did it because we’re men, after all, and there were no women there to stop us. I really love women; it’s only their touch that can civilise a man. It was hell really.

And, it’ll be a new beginning. We’ve been together for seven years, so what will change? He dazzles me and infuriates me but I’ve never wanted anyone else. Maybe that’s it – finally finding the perfect imperfect partner and accepting his imperfections as he accepts mine, few though they are. Mine, that is.

We’ve both got plenty of miles on the clock and although he’s pretty easy to love, I’ve never really felt worthy of it. Maybe that’s why I’ve spent so much time flitting from flower to flower like a bee. I remember trying the same thing with him once but he wasn’t going to take any of that shit. Now, that came as a bit of a shock. No one had ever done that to me before; to tell me that I didn’t know my own mind but it was the beginning of a process that would end in this celebration of life, a whittling away of my self-centred independence, a custard pie in the face of my arrogance.

‘Is it to be the stripes, the paisley or the plain one with the patterned collar, sir?’ The manager is hovering at my shoulder and I haven’t even been thinking about the shirts. I’m tempted to ask for one with a custard splash but yellow would so clash with the jacket. My eyes go from one to the other and I can’t decide. Strange how I can make decisions about life and death issues at work; just give me the facts and a few minutes and I’ll normally make the right decision, but ask me to choose my main course in a restaurant and I’m floundering.

I wonder how much control I’ve had over the choices in my life. I like to think I make the decisions rationally but, in reality, life isn’t like that. Things sneak up on you while you’re doing something else. Sometimes you get hit by a juggernaut when you’re picking a flower at the side of the road. And sometimes you take someone home and stay together because it seems right. But the decision to get married…was that mine or ours or did it just happen?  The law changed and it became possible, then it just seemed like the right thing to do. I think we both came up with the idea at the same time but it was a decision that we each made it in our own way. Now, I can make a decision like that. What about a shirt? It can’t be so difficult. I ponder and scratch my chin.

‘I’ll take all three,’ I say after a few seconds and the manager nods in satisfaction. I don’t even look at the price. What the hell. They’re carefully wrapped and put in an expensive-looking carrier bag. I pay with plastic and walk out onto the street. The sun has broken through the murk, painting the clouds yellow and the world looks new, fresh and colourful.

Yes. Luis is right; I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.


Europe’s best-kept secret?

June 26, 2011

I’m going to miss Germany.  Twenty kilometres from Cologne, we call this ‘das vergessene Tal’, the forgotten valley, but I don’t think I’ll forget it.  I sit up here in my lounge, looking down over the valley all cloaked in mist, it’s tranquil and verdant, the only sound is birdsong.  They like it here too.  In a month from now I’m off to a new life in Portugal; fish, olive oil, sun and amanha.  Amanha is Portuguese for ‘mañana’ but it doesn’t have the same sense of urgency.  That’s never been in the German dictionary, of course.  When you want something done, it just happens (apart from Deutsche Telekom but let’s leave that one for another time) and it’s done well.  A guy says he’ll be there at nine and he’s there at nine.  They don’t drive through red traffic lights.  There are no speed limits on the motorways.  What more could a person ask for?

Try using a credit card here and you’ll get a shock.  Germans save and use cash not plastic.  Now isn’t that refreshing?  While the rest of Europe struggles with bankruptcy and cutbacks, things here have got back to normal quite quickly.  Recession?  Inflation?  They know all about that and avoid it like the plague.

Maybe the Cologne people are different, but what surprised me most is that they’re actually not like Germans at all; they’re really nice.  I know all my neighbours; we go to dinner parties and barbecues at each other’s houses, celebrate birthdays and help each other out.  Liberal?  Conservative?  You have this preconception of Germans as rather blinkered, po-faced people but, believe me, they’re not.  Scratch the surface and they are more liberal than the Dutch.  Institutionally liberal, I’d say.  They have no idea until it’s pointed out to them but the idea of racial prejudice, xenophobia  or homophobia doesn’t occur to them and it’s not political correctness; it’s that the idea genuinely offends them.  I guess it’s a throwback to their history but, believe me, this is a country that has come good.

It’s actually rather a beautiful country as well.  This is Bergisches Land and, although it’s quite close to the big city, it’s hilly, rural, agricultural, forested and rather like the North Downs without the people and traffic jams.  You go east and it gets better.  Go south and you eventually come to the Schwarzwald, home of the gateau, of course.   Turn left and you’re into Bavaria and the Alps to your right.  Lakes and mountains, medieval towns that have been maintained like that for centuries, lovely old gasthauses with biergartens.  The shops are all closed on Sunday.  If you want a pinta you have to go to the filling station.  Straight up.  It means you have to spend time with your family.  You have to take the day off and relax.  Now isn’t that refreshing?

Yes, I’ll miss this place.  I think it’s the best-kept secret in Europe.


The Simpsons socks

June 25, 2011

Just an idea I got this morning, a propos of nothing:

I’ve had those socks since Peter was three and he graduates this year.  They’ve got a picture of a boozy Homer Simpson lounging like a slob with a glass of Duff’s in his hand.  Peter didn’t choose them of course; Barbara would have done that.  She might have said to him ‘Which ones do you think he’d like?’ pointing to a few and thinking at the same time, ‘….make your mind up.  It’s really not that important.’

I can see him grinning like a cat as he made his choice just like a grown-up because it was a present for his dad, not sweets for a good boy.  He’d been so proud giving them to me on Father’s Day, as if those socks were the greatest gift in the world.   He always wore his heart on his sleeve, did little Peter.  Absolutely transparent, you could see what he was thinking.

 I’ve had them for so many years now and watched the colours fade and the elastic go slack.  Each year I chuck out old clothes for the Mencap shop and it’s that time of year again.  

I glance at the phone and know that it won’t ring.  I’ve followed his progress on Facebook, of course.  I trawl through hundreds of photos of drunken parties and hope that the thing he’s smoking is not what I think it is.  If he would just call me, I wouldn’t even tell him to stop smoking, I promise, but I know he won’t.  You’d think I’d learn after all those years but I still listen for the start of the ring tone.  I didn’t expect a card, of course.  I don’t suppose young people send cards these days.

 I don’t even know why I expect him to take an interest in my life; I lost interest in my parents when I left home.  I guess boys are like that; like father, like son.  The trouble is that I left him long before he left me.  It wasn’t my choice but sometimes life is like that and I can still remember the sound of his screaming as I left, leaving him with Barbara and the new man in her life.  I remember it as if it were yesterday.  ‘Look,’ they said,  ‘This isn’t what we’d planned but we can’t change what’s happened.   We have to put the children first.’   And, when I left, I couldn’t even turn round to get a last look at Peter because I don’t think a son should see his father crying.

But time has a way of smoothing out the jagged edges of memory and we even go out to dinner with them sometimes; always get a card at Christmas.  I think we were all very adult about the whole thing.  They even like Sebastian.  Never thought they would.  But they’ve compartmentalised that little part of my life and I don’t think that they discuss it in polite company.  That was the problem, you see.  Little Peter wasn’t told.  He found out by accident.  Until then, he thought Sebastian was just my best friend.  I squirm when I think about it.  How different it would have been of he’d been told before he’d learnt how to be real adult with all that hypocrisy and prejudice.  Regrets.  I’ve had a few.  But then again, too few to mention.  I wish Sebastian wouldn’t play that music so loud.

 He popped his head around the door.

‘Have you finished yet?’

‘Almost.’

He picked up the Simpson’s socks and tossed them into the air, catching them in his mouth.  He’s always doing crazy things like that. I grabbed them back and he grinned.

‘Are you finally going to throw those ragged old things out?’

I squeezed them in my hand and put them back in the drawer, closing it gently. 

‘Maybe next year.’


Planting the seed

June 25, 2011

Saturday and I’m still waiting for the contract; just checked the post and it’s not arrived yet.  I have this feeling of impotence because I now have no control over the process, rather like being in the eye of the hurricane.  To make it worse, it’s raining.  It took a lot of effort to get here and plenty of frantic activity to come but, right now, I have little more I can do except clean the house.

What?  Am I kidding myself?  That’s the problem with dusting – you do it all, then three months later you have to do it all again.  No.  Better than that, I’ll start to think about the follow-on book; that’s like choosing a seed to plant.  OK, here’s the premise: the main character is an air accident investigator.  There’s a crash and it’s suspicious.  In the course of his investigations he uncovers more than he could ever have expected but eventually gets the bad guy(s).  So, it’s a detective story with a twist and each case has to be techie in nature but not so much as to turn off the reader.  When I write, I normally have a clear starting point and direction, then let the characters take the plot wherever.  If I’m lucky, the sapling grows into a healthy tree.  Of course, I have to cut out dead wood now and then, but it works for me.  ‘Flight Into Darkness’ ended up in the hero foiling a dastardly Islamic terrorist plot but the crime uncovered need not be massive or important.

So, a starting point – the accident.  It has to be intriguing.  How about this one:  Christmas Eve on an idyllic airstrip on the Scottish island of Mull.  A man is discussing taking off and landing at night with the aid of torchlight only.  He’s had a few drinks but decides to prove his point to win a bet.  With the others providing the torchlight, he takes off.  A squall comes in.  He never comes back.  Some months later, his body is found on a deeply wooded hillside.  He’d died of exposure but has no other injuries; there is no sign of the aircraft wreckage.  A few years later, the Royal Navy discover the aircraft wreckage in Tobermory Bay.   Interesting, huh?  It’s more interesting because it really happened and it has fascinated me ever since I was told it by the landlord of the hotel on the airstrip in question. 

Any thoughts on this one?  Would it interest you?


It’s all about names

June 24, 2011

I always liked the use of the word ‘handle’ as a substitute for ‘name’.  It says it all, really; those two words that sum up a personality, face, friend or foe, author of your favorite books, all that stuff.  When you see Ken Follett on the spine, you know exactly what you are going to get.  

Now, for my dilemma.  My name is Roger Hardy and if you google it, I appear nowhere (I’m working on it….).  The famous Roger Hardy is a political analyst for the BBC World Service and the Guardian: 

http://www.guardian.co.uk/profile/roger-hardy/rss.

 He writes on Middle East affairs.  Oh-oh.  Alarm bells.   My novel is about the Middle East.  What’s more, he’s written a book.   Anyway, to cut a long story short, I’m trying to contact him to negotiate.   I could become R J Hardy (like R J Ellory) or Roger J Hardy or whatever and  I guess that the marketplace doesn’t have a problem differentiating between P D James and Peter James.  I’ll let you know.

I spent yesterday setting up this blog (it was a religious holiday here in Germany) and the associated links to/from TWC, WW, Facebook etc.  There was a massive flurry of activity with messages and emails, Facebook prods, the whole nine yards; it was a full-time job and over 100 hits on this blog in one day, though it will simmer down, of course.  Thanks, everyone who took an interest.

Now I really have to concentrate on arrangements for my move to Portugal.  That’s a bugger, really.  With all this going on with the book, I retire in five weeks and have to close down my life here.  My partner is Portuguese and is already over there running our little business, a guest house in Carvoeiro.  Being summer, it’s really busy right now, so I’ll probably be doing the move solo. 

In a strange way, it’s like arranging your own funeral.


Flight Into Darkness – the first post-Bin Laden novel?

June 23, 2011

I thought I’d better post a few words on my current enfant terrible, Flight Into Darkness.  I started writing this last July, before the Arab Spring, so had nervous palpitations when the revoltion started in Tunisia; I was worried that I’d have to throw the whole thing away and start again, but it has actually worked out OK.   The novel is about an air accident investigator who works for an EU agency based in Germany with cross-border responsibilities (so, completely fictitious then…..).  To quote from draft back cover blurb: 

A new light jet disappears over the Saudi desert.  It should have been the safest aircraft in the world so air accident investigator James Hayward is sent to investigate.  What he discovers leads him into web of intrigue and political corruption.  He finds himself alone, pitted against a new brand of terrorist; one that is ruthless, resourceful and organised but with friends in high places.

 Ah, such fun!  It seems to be poised at just the right time.  Let’s hope some insightful publisher agrees.  Fingers crossed!