A new beginning

July 29, 2011

Just got in after saying goodbye at work for the last time and I wanted to record my feelings.  I had expected delight but it’s more a mixture of sadness and relief.  It’s sadness because I genuinely like the people I worked with and we parted as friends rather than colleagues.  When we say goodbye we always intend to meet again but how often does that happen?  In this case, I think it will because it’s more auf wiedersehen than goodbye with email, blogs and Facebook and that makes any parting seem less final.  And it’s relief because it’s finally over; that world of working for other people, the whole greasy pole exercise when you realise that the view from the top is not that great and there are more important things in life.  It’s a little like the guilty relief when someone close has died after a long illness and you  are happy that their suffering is over.  Or perhaps it’s like the relief when a new baby is born and the pain of childbirth is replaced by something beautiful and enduring.

Well, it’s all over now; I feel drained and could sleep.  But this day is not an end, it’s a beginning; it marks the beginning of a new life and, the more I think about it, the more I’m excited by the prospect.

Sleep can wait.


Goodbye to all that

July 29, 2011

Six in the morning and I can’t sleep.  After 43 years I didn’t expect this day to ever come; my last day at work.  Paid work, that is.  I’ve handed over all my outstanding tasks and said goodbye to my friends and colleagues which was bitter and sweet at the same time.  We had an office drinks party yesterday and it was a chance to invite my favourite people from EASA for a farewell bash.  Too often these events can be like funerals but this one was rather boozy and light-hearted, short on speeches, long on Prosecco.

A few days after I’ve gone, I don’t suppose anyone will notice I’m not there anymore  and that’s the way it should be.  New people have new ideas and I wish them all luck for the future.  Technology has moved on and the Agency has grown from a small, struggling concern to become a big organisation, so I feel rather like a dinosaur before the meteorite and I know that it’s time to move on.  For me, this is a new beginning; a chance to relax, enjoy life and concentrate on writing without too many distractions.  No more northern European winters, just sunshine and fresh oranges off the tree,  writing, olive oil and fresh fish and more writing.

There’s a lot of work still to do, packing and arranging for the move but it’s all like a juggernaut now; impossible to stop or change direction.  Luis went to Portugal to run our guest house, Casa Luiz (www.casaluiz.com), four years ago and I’ve been commuting every month, contributing massively to the profits of German Wings.  But that’s all over next Wednesday when I fly to Faro for the last time and I’ll be glad for the stability because it will be nice to actually live with my partner again.  And the dogs.  And Puggie the one-eyed cat.  Sounds like heaven, or something rather close to it.

Sally Bowles and the Ampelmännchen

July 25, 2011

I keep discovering things in Germany that take me by surprise. Now you may think that the existence of Berlin is not much of a secret but, after seven years in the country, I’m ashamed to admit that I had never spent any time there. My head was full of preconceptions of a great western metropolis with a gruellingly poor east, scratching an existence from the crumbs thrown from the rich man’s table. Wrong. First, the western part is boring; you might as well be in the West End or New York. Don’t bother unless you want to go shopping. Second, having had a bit of a make-over, the east is extremely beautiful. Most of Berlin’s great historic buildings and streets are there; palaces, churches, cathedrals and museums. Berlin’s most famous street, Unter den Linden, is in the east. So is Oranienbergstrasse, home of the Cabaret/Isherwood 1930s scene and the ghost of Sally Bowles still hangs out with the ladies of the night. Berlin’s rebuilt Synagogue is there as well, but is under 24-hour police armed guard; why, we never found out.

Everywhere you look they are building the city; great skeletal cranes touch the clouds to construct Europe’s newest and oldest city. If Paris is a faded debutante and London is a proud old soldier who’s been mugged, Berlin is a recently-graduated student with Nobel prize-winning parents. The city is bursting with energy and optimism; it’s the true centre of the new Europe that has emerged with the reunification of Germany. It won’t happen overnight but it’s happening now and you can sense the progress in the air. Even the tame street sparrows are part of it. There’s enough for everyone.

It’s difficult to tell east from west these days but a fairly sure way is the Ampelmännchen. These are the little red and green men on the pedestrian crossings . The western ones are like the figures that designate the men’s toilets from women’s. The eastern ones are more friendly and have a cartoon jauntiness about them.  They have become innocent little heros…oh, yes, and they wear trilby hats. There had been a move to replace them with the anodyne western model but there was uproar from the Berliners. Now there are even shops celebrating the little Ampelmännchen and I think they’re here to stay. I rather like them.

Of course Berlin and the Wall are synonymous. The entire length of the wall is marked on roads and pavements but I get the feeling that people might soon forget that this hideous affront to human dignity was ever thought to be a solution to anything except to reveal the empty shell that propped up the Soviet Union. It was morally bankrupt because it placed the state above the people and any regime that does that, whether they be communist or fascist or anything in between, is surely doomed. The remnants of the Wall stand as a monument to the stupidity of man and the power of the individual human spirit that, unarmed, can overcome anything simply by being right and never losing that belief

The weekend was the idea of my darlin’ daughter Becky and Ian, her husband, and it was a fabulous birthday present. I think I may have another one next year……danke schön, lieblings!

eBooks – horses for courses, it seems

July 22, 2011

Following on from my piece yesterday, I have received a flurry of comments advising caution.  Here are a few that highlight the main points:

My old mate Brian: While I still find reading a book on my laptop “bulky” I haven’t tried a Kindle yet. You know my love of books but it doesn’t mean I am anti anything else.   A conversation I overheard W.H. Smiths. “I love my Kindle you should try it.  If you really like what you have read you can always buy the book.”  That would be the best of both worlds for you. I never thought that ebooks would replace books, after all we didn’t all throw our radios out when we bought our televisions.

My editor, Debi: The thing is, the demise of traditional print publishing is not around the corner. For full length novels, it remains the best possible route. Anyone who has written a really stonking book, had it edited, and has never given up will get there.

Cyberfriend Spangles: Rightly or wrongly, publishers are still very suspicious of writers who can get traditional deals but who veer off into self-publishing. To give you an example, I am currently putting together a collaboration with an author who wrote two books for a mass-market publisher, but who ten years later self-published their next book. This came up while I was discussing everything with my agent. She asked very sharply about the self-published project and said ‘Publishers won’t like that because they’ll wonder why he couldn’t get a trade deal.’

So there you have it.  Accepting that eBooks are here to stay does not mean that they can’t coexist alongside the printed word.  For me, that would be the best of all worlds because there will be more people reading and more media from which to read.  It also means that I need not get embroiled in the self-publication process and can concentrate on what writers do best – writing. 

*phew* that’s a relief!

To ‘e’ or not to ‘e’? That is the question…

July 21, 2011

Like a lot of writers, I am following the revolution in publishing with a mixture of fear, interest and bated breath.  I’m an old fogey baby-boomers’ kid who’s moderately IT-literate but am still a bit suspicious of things like Kindles and MP3 players.  It’s not because I don’t like progress it’s just that I like books and CDs.  However, just because I like them doesn’t mean my kids do or that I’m in a majority.  It seems that I’ll be in a minority in the next few weeks or months or maybe I am already.   I’m getting the feeling that we traditionalists are Luddites, wedded to the past because we don’t like the idea that change is inevitable.  But the more I read about it, the more I feel that to ignore the growth in eBooks is like trying to resist the incoming tide.  To cap it all, I have been reading David Gaughran’s book (see  http://davidgaughran.files.wordpress.com/2011/07/lets-get-digital-by-david-gaughran.pdf) which really says it like it is.  David Gaughran is dgaughran on The Word Cloud, by the way.

Now, my question is:  I have three perfectly good unpublished novels which have been turned down by the publishing world because they are cross-genre, not because they’re bad.  They were all edited by Debi Alper and have the WW seal of approval.  Now, I could self-publish these as eBooks for the Kindle, couldn’t I?  My latest opus is currently with superagent Peter Buckman and I won’t touch that as it is strict genre and should be publishable in the conventional way.  However, I would be intrigued to see how the old compares with the new; eBook versus hard copy.

Q:  Should I go for it?

Never again….

July 17, 2011

I have felt better.  I glanced at myself in the mirror this morning and that was a big mistake.  I blame Thomas’s passion for Islay malts; there are times when I wonder if he’s not Scottish because he knows more about them than any Scotsman I’ve ever met.  He and his wife Claudia have the farm down the lane and had organised a farewell BBQ in my honour and all the neighbour were there (except Alastair, of course because he’s never there).  It rained and that was a good thing because  the land needs it but we still stayed outside in their great open-fronted barn where the horses are stabled.  Chickens pecked at the ground and I flew my new little helicopter that is gyro stabilised, has three motors and is about the size of my toe nail.  We all  know that China will take over the world one day.  I feel a little sad because Luis couldn’t make it; he’s in Portugal, of course, but his mum is in hospital for her annual visit.  She likes the break.  It’s like a holiday for her.

Thomas looked out over his wet meadow and wondered when he’d be able to gather the hay.  It’s an annual ritual and the whole valley joins in which makes us all feel a little closer to nature, at least for a day.  Marion and Jupp were there with their border collie Kapu who has become a real softie.  Their daughter, Anne, who speaks better English than me, is now in Kenya for six weeks and I think they miss her,  although she’s been a globetrotter for years and even attends university in the next country.  Michael announced that everyone should get a Porsche 911 before they get too old and he had followed his own advice.  Patricia, his wife, will  probably look good in it as well; she looks as if she just walked off the pages of Vogue in any case.  Dr Stefan  and Cristina are moving away at the same time as me because the arrival of their  second child means they need a bigger place.  Somewhere sound-proofed!  Martin had just brought his boat back from some inland lake in the Netherlands and Olga was cuddling their perfect toddler who is seen but never heard.  Uli and Ruth added a dental touch before going off to Austria for a break with their perfect teeth. Udo and his family have been in the valley since the last ice age and I’ll miss the  sound of the hunting horns and songs that come from his house.

Claudia and Thomas gave me a photo album of all the people and events in das vergessene Tal since I’ve lived here and was the perfect present because all things may fade but memories are forever.  There’s so much I’ll miss here and I have only two weeks to go before I wave goodbye to the valley.  I find myself doing things for the last time; you know:  I don’t suppose I’ll be buying any more basmati rice from the Indian shop again, things like that.  I hope the neighbour’s BBQ doesn’t come into that category but maybe we can have an action replay in Portugal but I suspect that it will never be quite the same again.  The end of a chapter.

My head may ache but my heart is full.

Philosophy for breakfast

July 15, 2011

Time for an update.  My magnum opus ‘Flight Into Darkness – the first post-Bin Laden novel’ is currently hanging around on street corners wearing fishnets and too much make-up, trying to attract the attention of a kerb-crawling publisher.   Having one of the best agents in the business (Peter Buckman)  is one thing but I hadn’t realised that the remainder of the process was going to be like the Da Vinci Code – you know; Langdon has just solved the thirty-seventh damned riddle and is faced with yet another one and you’re saying ‘Oh, for God’s sake…get on with it…’

Getting into print is clearly an obstacle course and I sit here in my dressing gown sipping my morning tea and see a parallel.  I’m English, so, naturally, I drink English tea – what the Germans call Schwarztee.  We call it PG Tips.  The British Empire was created and sustained by it and only crumbled when people started drinking coffee. Well, it’s never been proven but that’s my rather unique take on history.   Anyway, to continue.  The supermarkets here don’t stock PG but there’s a little Indian shop in town that sells sacks of them.  However, PG is far too crude and in-your-face for the Germans who prefer subtle Chinese blends, jasmin, peppermint, raspberry, rooibos and bloody decaffeinated camomile.  There are so many varieties on the shelves that anything resembling PG gets lost in the crowd.  And that’s the problem, you see; like with books, it’s a matter of personal taste and shelf space.  There’s me thinking that publishers will be great money-making automatons that will immediately recognise works of brilliance with complete objectivity when, in fact, they are as subjective in their assessments as agents.  And that’s because, in the end, a publisher (a person, not an organisation)  has to fall in love with your book.  In my experience, it’s awfully difficult to make someone fall in love if they’re not in the mood.  And it’s a bit like trying to find a German who likes Schwarztee; it’s subjective you see.   And that’s a bit of a bugger.

I’m currently reading a couple of books and must tell you about Stephen Clarke’s latest opus, 1000 Years of Annoying the French. It’s informative and very funny and will appeal to any true Anglo-Saxon born since 1066 (and, no, the Normans weren’t French, they were Vikings who’d grabbed the northern bit of France).  When I retire, I plan to leave a copy for my staff to act as a kind of Operations Manual; essential procedures for working in an international agency where an understanding of les françaises is an essential survival skill.  Incidentally, I am reminded that the Germans refer to them as ‘die Fröche’ (= frogs) which is rather spooky but shows you who your friends really are.  That reminds me of another book idea, a farce based on a fictitious EU Cultural Integration Agency.  But more about that one later.  When I’m famous.

This could take some time.