Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Seven day wonder

I'd often been intrigued in the past by an ad in the LRB inviting me to spend some time in a large old country house near Girona, in Catalonia, with the author Charles Pallisser, working on the art of fiction-writing. How pleasant it must be, I used to think, to be able to sit around in the sun with like-minded people and a writer who was not only published but had actually written a book I much admired (The Quincunx), not to speak of cooling off body and brain in a convenient swimming-pool, eating local foodstuffs and drinking local wine. It was the stuff of dreams.

And then I published my own first book, and then my second and I began to wonder if it wouldn't be even more fun to go as the writer, and sit around in the sun, etc. This year, to my joy, that's exactly what happened when the ad, in a sense (and through Sandra - thank you, Sandra!), got in touch with me to tell me that Lee Pennington, a man of many and considerable talents, and the brains and heart behind the operation, had invited me to be one of the guest authors on his Seven Day Wonder book-lovers' week in early September. When I heard from an earlier guest that she'd had a great time, I was even keener.

I wasn't disappointed. I was one of four people to be invited. Clare Dudman was the first, to talk about her most recent novel, A Place of Meadows and Tall Trees. It's a fine book, honest and beautifully written, and I'm sorry I missed her. Next up was Adam Nevill, currently reinvigorating British horror with Apartment 16. He was there when I turned up late from Girona airport, to be greeted by pasta, wine and general conviviality, and seemed far too sunny and simpatico a man to have conceived such a dark and disturbing work. Someone once asked me how I managed to live with my imagination, and I may have asked Adam that same question.

The final author to be invited, Ann Cleeves, arrived while I was talking to the group and stayed, as I did, until the end. It was a joy to have time to talk a little shop, and discover, among other things, a shared admiration for Fred Vargas. You can see me here on the left, momentarily distracted by the view from the latest and possibly last of Ann's gripping Shetland novels, Blue Lightning.

Events like these may be built around books, but they live or die by the energy and good will of all those who take part. I have everyone to thank for the welcome we received. Lee, Debbie and Rob, who made sure that the food played as central a role as the reading, and to all of the book-lovers, whose interest and enthusiasm, and discretion, made it a pleasure to be read, and discussed, and finally, with the softest of kid gloves, given the literary equivalent of the third degree. They couldn't have been kinder, or more generous. Now all I have to do is write another book in time to get invited back...

48 hours in Barcelona

I spent most of last week in Catalonia, the first few days rather wonderfully in the country near Banyoles (about which I’ll be writing very soon) and the last two in Barcelona. I don’t know how large the real city of Barcelona is, the city where people live and work and conduct their daily business, but the part of it that gets visited - the old city, the area to each side of La Rambla, the Boqueria, the Picasso museum, the port - is soon covered. Indeed, although this may seem parochial and Anglocentric, we found ourselves returning, over and over again, in what began to feel like wilful homage, to Placa de George Orwell, a neatly paved area slipped in among the streets of the old city, lined like everywhere else with bars and various other eating opportunities, from traditional three-course meals to macrobiotic platters, with the usual range of bocadillos de jamon and tapas in between. The square, which is actually a triangle, hosts at its entrance – if you’re coming from La Rambla – a large modernistic sculpture, a twist of iron rising high above the heads of passers-by, at the apex of which is threaded a massive wooden ball, a nicely dialectic interplay of what the world has to offer, as both material and form, and, unlike much modern sub-Serra sculpture, not even an eyesore. It’s a triangle that seems to attract more than its fair share of dropouts, people who, at what must be considerable cost, have turned their backs on the rest of us, with our mobiles and guidebooks, and take their comfort from the company of large, scuffed, infinitely patient dogs and, to a lesser degree, from one another until a scuffle breaks out. Orwell, if he felt at home anywhere, would surely never have felt at home here, among this colony of winos and worse, with their elaborate skin-obliterating ‘tribal’ tattoos and white-boy dreadlocks. Down and out was for Paris and London; Catalonia was, or should have been, for sterner homage-worthy stuff. In fact, much as I like the city and enjoy what it has to offer, not least the best sandwich in the world (Café Viena, La Rambla del Estudis 115), there’s something about the Barcelona that’s on show that leaves me unconvinced, in the same way that Covent Garden and parts of Trastevere do; as though the transgression that ought to stand for creativity doesn’t go much beyond the litany of living statues along the main tourist drag, which briefly startle, and then amuse, and then seem tawdry and dispiriting, part of a world in which work can be reduced to stifling immobility on the off-chance of a handful of coins in a hat. I started this year in Madrid, a city that struck me as being more or less what a city should be, busily about the infinite variety of its own affairs, absorbing the transient rest of us without much fuss. The part of Barcelona that’s available to tourists has a different feel to it, like a naughtily disrespectful child on the look-out for attention. It’s no surprise that the artists this side of the city seems most proud of – or most eager to transform into souvenirs - are Gaudi and Dali, masters of the unfinished and the showy.