Sunday, 30 June 2013

Things I'm just not good at ...

I have a book on my shelf entitled 'You Don't Need a Man to Fix It'.

I am a feminist - I believe that women and men have equal rights to the good things of life, to education and employment, and the right to walk down streets safely.

I also believe that there is nothing intrinsically masculine about mending things. Women can wield a paintbrush or screwdriver as well as a man. I know there are a few things that require brute strength - but you get the basic idea. There's no fundamental reason why I shouldn't be able to put up a shelf or paint a window.

Some years ago my iron died. (This was in the days when I did ironing. When I was travelling all my clothes lived in a rucksack and I discovered that, however, crumpled my best shirt might be, Nothing Happened! So I stopped ironing). Anyway, my iron died. So I found a screwdriver and took it to pieces, putting everything down in a logical order as I knew I'd have to put it together again. And then I looked at my book and found the instructions: it is impossible to mend irons; buy a new one.

Undeterred, I decided to sand the windowsill - it had too many overflow stains from plant pots. What a success - the windowsill was smooth as silk, and I even managed a coat of paint on it without spilling too many drips on my shoes. I turned to the sideboard: I would take it outside to sand it, I decided. Which meant taking the double glazing apart across the back doors ... my book had no instructions on what do to with several panes of glass and wooden struts when the whole thing collapses.

Soon after than the cat flap fell apart. No, I decided, I'd not try to mend it. I'd just buy a new one. Which was fine until I discovered that the holes for the old one were in a different place on the door ... a neighbour came with his four-year old to fix it.

I have tried. Honestly, I have tried. And I now accept I'm simply not good at it. I can blame my education (I was brought up to make pastry while my brothers mended the punctures on my bike). Or I can simply say that handy-stuff, like gardening and cooking, is just not one of my skills.

I'm stuck with the dissonance of knowing I should, and knowing I can't. So when the man who mended my wooden garden chairs suggested I give them a coat of something I nodded, as if I knew what he was talking about. And something else on the metalwork, he said. I nodded again.

To be fair, I managed to buy the stuff and coat the chair with weatherproofing, and it doesn't look that terrible. But if a knight in shining armour had galloped across my garden and offered a cup of tea at that moment when I dropped the can and splattered a pint of 'dark oak' across the flagstones I might have kissed him.

Does that make me a bad feminists?

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

A day out in Cambridge

I've been out and about again, and what fun I had.

In between lovely times with family (you know who you are, you and your wonderful cheesecake), I had a day to wander about Cambridge by myself.

How do you begin in a new town? Do you head for the Tourist Information Office, gather a handful of leaflets and then sit over coffee and realise that most of them are for Farm Parks forty miles away? Do you wander about, map in hand, looking for blue plaques on walls so you can take their photographs?

I often begin with the open-top bus tour. I know the running commentary is flimsy with jokes that aren't funny. And the British summer isn't always conducive to sitting on top of a bus for an hour. But they provide an overview of what a town is about - and, for me, it helps to signpost things I'd like to see when the bus finally stops.

The bus tour round Cambridge is much the same as all the others. The earphone plug-in had been plugged-in once too often and I needed to hold it in place to hear anything, so my fingers were very cold by the time I got off. And from time to time the connection slipped and I missed bits of sentences, so I'm not sure why I didn't give up and just look around me. Though I heard enough to realise that the commentary was out of sync with the bus, and so we'd be told to 'look at the gates to your left' ... by which time the gates were 20yards behind us. There we were, on the top of the bus, heads swivelling this way and that like demented dancers.

The most interesting bits of the city are pedestrianised, and so beyond the reach of buses. In order to make sure people felt they had their money's worth, we were driven round in several circles, peered down passageways from each end, and then out into the countryside to stop at a Garden Centre (no, I've no idea what that has to do with Cambridge.)

In spite of all that, I loved it. It allowed me to glimpse some of Cambridge's nooks and crannies, and confirmed that the best way to see the city was to wander around and get lost. And it is in the lost places that the real feel of the place comes alive, and I realise why I love it.

Away from the tourists, this town (or the centre of it - I'm sure there is deprivation that doesn't hang around outside Kings College) is about learning. All those young people with brains the size of planets exchanging ideas, reading, believing they can make a difference. They have an air of excitement, of potential, of urgency - of needing to know, and then to know more. They have realised that learning matters, for its own sake, because it is exciting and slightly frightening to be faced with new ideas or information every day.

They take no notice of tourists. Why would they? They belong here, in these ancient buildings, where men have studied for centuries. (Not women, until recently - I have a view on that, but I don't suppose that surprises you. And there are definitely efforts to redress that imbalance now.) This is their town, and it was wonderful to share a corner of it, just for a few days.

And here is a picture that sums this up:

Only in a university town could posters for Birdsong, and the Canterbury Tales, Guitar Concerts, Macbeth, Music for a Summer's Evening - and many more - gather on railings like this.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

How many platforms can you find for your ebook?

Calling all ebookers -

You've mastered Kindle - it's take serious coffee, much bad language and possible grey hairs but you've done it. The formatting is right, it looks fine on the e-page. Now you can sit back and feel smug.

Except you can't. You have to tackle Smashwords - which, apparently, is essential as it sells to e-readers other than Kindles. So you make more coffee, maybe something even stronger this time, reformat your precious manuscript and submit to Smashwords - this time biting your nails down to the knuckles as it goes through their 'meatgrinder.' ('Meatgrinder' is their word, not mine. It is a cruel word. You have images of your precious words coming out like mince. A made-up word, like 'e-rinser' would be kinder. I'm sure you can think of others ...)

But you've done it, waited a few days and there you are, listed as 'Premium' in Smashwords.

So you trot into town for coffee with cake this time (you've earned it) and drift by the Kobos in WHSmiths. Oh no, you forgot Kobo ... you must race home, forgetting milk and other essentials, even headache pills. It can't be that difficult, surely, starting again. I mean you've done it twice already ...

The sun is going down and the cake shop is closed. A friend rings. Is your book in iBooks she says? For all those people reading on their iPads. And what about Barnes and Noble ...

Please, fellow ebookers, what do you do? Do you burn midnight oil putting your precious book on all available sites, or do you retire, head under the blankets, and hope that Kindle and Smashwords are enough?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

We can't all be 'best-selling writers'

Next time you're in a bookshop, scan the shelves and count just how many 'best selling authors' or 'Number one best sellers' or 'prizewinning writers' there are.

Some are genuine - we can all check books in line for major prizes. But I wonder about the book claiming to be longlisted in a competition held by an obscure seaside town. And as for 'New York Times Bestseller' - how can we check that? Or did someone buy 100 copies of his or her own book in a day and earned it that way?

If you're a twitterer, or dip into Facebook from time to time - have a look at a profile or ten. Every second author is 'prizewinning' or 'best-selling' ...

It's impossible. For every book that is a 'best-seller' there has to be thousands (or more) that do fairly well but don't rock the boat. For every 'prizewinner' are all the writers who are also-rans. I don't blame anyone not including 'submitted to the Outer Mongolian prize for genre fiction but didn't get anywhere' in gold letters above the title. Or leaving off 'made it into the top 100 on Amazon for half an hour.'

How do you react to this? I respond by not believing anyone who claims any status or award (unless it's one of the big ones). It smacks of self-aggrandisement and I want to sit these writers down and remind them that they eat and sleep like the rest of us. They've written the best book they could - it's enough to be proud of that.

Or maybe they are being disingenuous - they are the best-selling writer in their family? Or their town? Or have won a prize in the short-stories-about-a-slug contest?

Pah, they write and hope and are elated one minute and disappointed the next, just like the rest of us.

(Though you might like to know that I'm the best-selling travel writer in the street where I live ...)

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Thank you.

It's been humbling, this past week or so, to be on the receiving end of such support, helping me wave to my little ebook as it sails into the high seas of Amazon (and Smashwords and Kobo).

I'll not begin to name anyone - you know who you are. Besides, if I try to list you all this will begin to look like a school register and I'd hate anyone to think you were simply a name to be ticked off.

You just need to know that all those tweets, the 'likes' on Facebook, the messages here and by email, the reviews - each one has felt like a little hug, given me a frisson of excitement, affirmed my belief that launching this book has been worth working for.

Thank you.

What a puny post. Yes - but I don't want to dilute it by waffling. I need you to know how much I appreciate you all.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

It's launch day for Bombs and Butterflies

Phew - it's been a journey, getting this little ebook ready for publication. It's very different from Hidden Tiger - there were no cyclones, no terrifying brush with wild life (though I did have an interesting encounter with a rat).

The blurb -

Did you know that Laos is the most bombed country in the world? If Jo Carroll had spent more time with her guidebooks and less with a physiotherapist preparing her creaking knees for squat toilets she'd have been better prepared when she crossed the Mekong in a long boat and stepped into the chaos of Huay Xai. But bombs still lie in Laos' jungles, in the rice paddies, and in the playgrounds. While young people open their doors to new ideas and possibilities, memories of war are etched on the faces of the old.

What sort of welcome would they give a western woman, wandering around with her notebook? Would they dare let her peer into their secret corners?

Now, I'm off to buy launch cake. Chocolate or lemon drizzle? Chocolate and lemon drizzle? Meanwhile, So maybe you'd like to take the opportunity to have a little look at my ebook.

You can buy it on Amazon here if you are in the UK, and here in America.
You prefer Smashwords: here. And you'll find it here on Kobo.

Sunday, 9 June 2013

One night in a Homestay, in Northern Laos

Soon, very soon, I'll put the links to Bombs and Butterflies on the side bar of this blog, and remind you of the various places you can find it.

But, while we're waiting for Kindle to cook it, here are two extracts, both set in the Homestay in a village near Luang Namtha. 'Nick' is our guide, and 'Lucy' one of the women I met on a bus.

A Homestay opportunity is one reason I’ve chosen an organised trip to the north of Laos. Finding a home to take you in, when travelling independently, has always seemed a little risky. This way I can spend a night in a village, catch a glimpse of rural life, and hopefully meet local people who will regale me with their stories. I have my pen and notebook ready.
There is a village walk planned, but first we must leave our luggage. . . I slip my shoes off at the bottom of a flight of wooden steps, and begin to clamber, steadily, upwards. Immediately a girl of about fourteen is beside me, taking my elbow. She smiles, steers me on upwards and into a large room. She nods, in a way that asks if I’m all right. She takes the weight off my pack as I slip it off. I feel a bit like an old person being helped across the road. Her motives are kind – and I can see her mother, behind her, grinning her approval at every step. And so I relax any grumpiness at the suggestion that I might need such assistance and accept it with good grace.
‘What is your name?’ she asks.
‘My name is Jo; what is your name?’
It seems her English lessons don’t run to replying, for her next question is, ‘How old are you?’
‘Sixty-two,’ I tell her.
She gasps; her eyes widen. She says something to her mother, who walks across and peers into my eyes. She calls down to a man standing below the house, and he runs up the steps to inspect me. The lass asks my age again, as if trying to make sure she heard right the first time. It is clear I should be dead by now.
I am, I recognise, an exhibit. But it doesn’t matter. In many ways it is an advantage; maybe I can use it as a way into conversations, find out how it feels to be really old here. Questions pile up in my head.
But there is no one to ask. The lass who helps me has exhausted her limited English. No one else in the family speaks a word. I am treated like a queen from a foreign land, when I would rather be able to put my feet up by their fire (metaphorically speaking) and swap stories.

Later, we gather round a camp fire to drink, Lao-style. A small plastic cup is filled with beer and the first person in the circle swigs it down. The same cup is refilled, passed to the second person – and on round the circle. As each bottle is emptied another is opened. And if the crate is finished, someone buys another. Maya has a hygienic hissy fit and will not drink. But the rest of us put Western germ-qualms to the back of our minds. Well, it’s that, or no beer. And it’s a convivial way to drink – though the pressure to throw it down, when you know that the person next to you is already salivating, is strong.
The Lao are very proud of their beer – known as Beerlao. It is made from rice, and is heavier than the hop variety. In fact it is so heavy it is like drinking food. Complan without the vitamins. Or any other goodness, for that matter. And it goes down particularly well round a camp fire.
Children hover behind us – they are never far away. Lucy and I play: we sing Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, and then Lucy stands up to show them I’m A Little Teapot, to universal applause. I flush with the joy of playing with children; and can’t resist that smug shiver which comes with making a child giggle.
It is your turn, we say to them, expecting Laotian rhythms and exotic finger-clicking. The children, led by one boy who has clearly done this many times before, clears a space; even the lads quieten to watch them. They sort themselves into a line; the boy on the end nods and, on his count of ‘one, two, three…’ they burst out with ‘Hey, Macarena’, wiggle their bottoms, wave their arms, sing the song and dance in a display many a party-goer would be proud of. Their spectacle complete, they puff, then look at Lucy and me as if to say, ‘Top that!’
Mercifully, Nick interrupts to tell us that it is suppertime.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

What a wonderful new cover!

Confession-time. I emailed Mark with the title of the new Laos book as I knew it would be a pain to design a cover and couldn't face that look on his face that said, 'Oooh, I'm really not sure about this.' (He did reply with an email along those lines but at least I didn't feel a need to crawl away and think of a new title.)

It all went quiet, and then this happened:

Take a quick look.

Now look again ... at all those feathers in the butterfly wing ... no, they're not feathers.

(He seems to cook ideas somehow. They simmer when he's doing other things. And then - wham - thing like this appear.)

Where, you might be asking, is the book?  It's very close now - if you want to read the extract that makes sense of the title you can find it here.

And if anyone would like a copy to review, or a blog visit, then please let me know.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Open letter to anyone with a camera

Dear photographers,

I understand why you take pictures. You want to record a particular moment. You want to show your friends what a wonderful time you have had. You want to look at them, when the skies are grey, and remember the time when ... Some of you will be skilled enough to use your images in innovative ways, so they will grow a meaning beyond that initial capture of a moment.


Just because you can see something does not mean you have to take a picture of it. Nor does the urgency of your photographic need take any priority over the rights of someone who just wants to see. You do not have the right to step on my toes, shove your long lens up my nose, stand in front of me, or push me out of the way.

Just because you can see something does not mean you have to take a picture of it. Notices that say 'no photographs' mean what they say. They apply to everyone. They do not mean that you can have a quick snap and hope no one is looking, or pretend that the notice wasn't there last time you looked. Nor can you pretend that taking a picture on your phone doesn't really count.

Just because you can see something does not mean you have to take a picture of it. Especially in art galleries. These artists have slaved over a tired easel so you can stand and stare. And maybe (dare I suggest) if you took time to stand and stare you may be enriched in a way that cannot compare with gawping at your photos of these pictures.

Just because you can see something does not mean you have to take a picture of it. Maybe, for one day only, leave your camera behind. Hide it in your underwear. Yes, you may feel naked. But stop; close your eyes; listen. Hear the birds sing, water dripping, a child playing. Notice the smell of jasmine. And then open your eyes and look. It's an astonishing world - all the more astonishing experienced first hand and not always through the lens of a camera.