Well, it’s been a while since my last blog. My only excuse is that I have been writing books, and after a long day at the fiction table, the last thing one really wants to do is to sit down and write a blog. Oh, and I keep a private diary too, so that takes up a lot of the creative time I might be tempted to imbrue in any blog. However the public aspect of a blog is seductive. Knowing that random readers can access your thoughts. It’s a little like novel-writing. One gives away probably far more than one thinks one gives away. It’s a little like having one’s novels read by friends. They give one these old-fashioned looks, as if to say, well, no good trying to pull the wool over our eyes. We know you. We know where all this has come from. We know how much of you is in there. Anyway, I’m writing this at 3.43 in the morning because I can’t sleep (pain) and find it easier to give up fighting and go and sit in my study. As some of you know, I’ve had cancer on and off (mostly on) for twenty-six years now and counting, and occasionally one has a flare-up. At these points one wonders whether the pain one is experiencing is really the cancer, or simply the natural side effects of getting older and being pretty crocked. It’s probably a bit of both, if truth be told. But I’ll settle for it, as I never thought I’d live beyond 1992, when my doctors gave me a month to live. And here I still am, trilling away. With the good old Royal Marsden watching my back. I was trying to work out how many scans I’d had in my life the other day and ended up freezing at around 35. In thunderstorms I light up, and can be used to electrify my house during power cuts. Each time I enter the hospital precincts I get the awkward feeling that I am returning to somewhere akin to school after an endless long summer holiday. I used to feel this when coming back from France (where my parents lived) when I was aged 8-17. Real life was in France (four months of the year) and the unreal world world was in England and school (for eight months of the year unfortunately). I can’t imagine whose idea it all was, but it certainly wasn’t mine. I would have happily stayed over in France the whole year and poddled around on my Mobylette with my dubious chums (half of whom went on to commit suicide for some obscure reason). I think rural France was quite a rough place in those days. The woman who lived down the track from us adopted seven boys from the State to use as workers on her farm. I don’t think they had a good life. But they opened up the peasant world to me where otherwise I would have had no access to it. It was a world of utter simplicity, when compared to the lives most of us live today. The farms were self-sufficient. Death was omnipresent. I remember Antonia on rabbit killing day. Twenty or thirty rabbits hung up by their feet and stunned by the back of her hand. Then bled. You could call it a hand to mouth existence for them, but the French peasant has always managed well. Antonia’s voice used to echo up the valley towards my house, shouting at her boys. Or at her husband. They’d hide pretty much anywhere just to get away from her. I wonder what they’d have thought about my school. They had no idea, of course, what two thirds of my life comprised of. Just as I probably had no idea of their secrets. Thus fiction. When you write, the truth comes through despite yourself. You know things you don’t know. We all do. You remember the unrememberable. Hmm. Put this down to late night writing. Makes one ruminative. It’s a strange place, the past. One still inhabits it.
Last Monday I was fortunate enough to be invited to speak to Huish Sixth Form in Langport, Somerset, on why I am a writer, and why I think any student with a literary inclination should consider becoming one. Asked to extend my looking after of my nineteen month old granddaughter to the Monday, I asked if Huish Episcopi School minded me bringing her along. “Absolutely not,” came the reply. So Éloise and I duly turned up at the school just in time for lunch. During my talk, Éloise did, I have to admit, offer a few catcalls and loud shouts of ‘BaBa’, which is my name, and not that of a sheep, but all in all, and with the help of a charitable passel of lady teachers who distracted her at opportune moments, I managed (I think) to get my message across with a fair degree of humour (at my expense I hope) and amusement. I shall certainly consider taking her again as a prop to any other talks I am invited to give, as her presence works wonders in taking attention away from the awful tripe I may inadvertently be mouthing. All joking apart, I would like to thank Huish Sixth, and, in particular, Nicky Carter, for their kind hospitality on the day. I was vastly impressed both by the school and by the attitude of all around me. The whole day was a treat, and Éloise and I even managed to stop on the way back in Street for a go on the Merry-Go-Round.
I’ve just been looking through the French translations, by Florence Mantran, of the three books making up my Nostradamus Trilogy in France (I grew up in France, and French is my second language). The first two, Les Prophéties Perdues de Nostradamus, and L’Hérésie Maya, were published in France in 2013 by publishers Le Cherche Midi, and the final book in the trilogy, Le Troisième Antéchrist, will appear on 20 February 2014. The trilogy is also due out in Editons Pocket (smaller format) sometime in 2015.
Well, Florence Mantran has done a wonderful job. It is no easy thing to translate a book effectively from one idiom into another. The fact is that, reading the books in French, I cannot detect that the books were originally written in English. This is close to miraculous. Let me give you an example. In France the use of ‘vous’ and ‘tu’ are enormously significant - the ‘vous’ is more formal, the ‘tu’ more familiar. In Florence Mantran’s French translation, my main protagonist, Adam Sabir, vouvoies his Gypsy friend Yola, while she tutoies him. Only when they become brother and sister, following a blood oath, does Sabir begin using the ‘tu’ to her. Perfection. Here’s another passage, this time from L’Hérésie Maya (The Mayan Codex). ‘A sufficient edge of rain to dampen the cheeks.’ Florence Mantran translates this as ‘Une pluie fine et tenace trempait les visages des hommes…’ Simple and right. And very difficult indeed to do. Even the use of modern slang, in expressions like ‘Samois, ça vous interpelle?‘ is judged beautifully.
So let this blog stand as a tribute to good translators, without whom we writers, whose books are translated into many foreign languages, would be lost.
Well, my website has been down for so long that I began to despair. But a gentleman called Frank Thomsen very kindly offered to rectify the damage. He has been true to his word, and my website is now up and running again. I am extremely grateful. I’ve often been a little chary about what the internet can bring. But when it works well it works very well, and the kind Mr Thomsen is a case in point. He took the trouble to write to me when my website was down, and offer to help me out of the goodness of his heart. We have never met. I took him at his word, and he produced an unexpected miracle. As my sum total knowledge of the nuts and bolts of websites is in minus figures, I am doubly grateful. Thank you Mr Thomsen.
My apologies to all my readers who have tried to access my website over the past few months and found it down. It was infected by something nasty, apparently, and for quite some time, being computer illiterate, I didn’t notice. Then I checked Google statistics, and found that, rather than the thousands of people who usually pay the site a visit every year, I hadn’t had a single visitor for quite some time. Well, I may not be Sherlock Holmes, but even I found this suspicious. Anyway, the problem has now been rectified, and I shall have to start building up a readership from scratch again. Mea Culpa.
The good news is that I have a new book coming out in the UK next February (2014), via my usual publisher, Corvus. It will be called The Templar Prophecy, and it will take readers on a journey from the Third Crusade in 1190 in what is now Turkey, via the Berlin Hitlerbunker in 1944, through the Syrian conflict to present day Germany, and to the danger extreme right wing parties pose to the status quo. I will be introducing a new main character, too - photojournalist John Hart.
We left home at 7 am Sunday morning in thick snow. After ten miles, I was tempted to turn back as we had my eight-month-old granddaughter Éloise with us in the car. But we were right to press on, as very soon the snow turned into rain and the roads cleared. We arrived at the Royal Marsden Sutton well in time for our ten o’clock bus to the Royal Marsden Chelsea, giving us a starting time for the walk of around 11.45. I packed Éloise into our borrowed BabyBjorn, and my wife Claudia readied the pram for sleeping times en route (Éloise is rising eight months old). Then the rains began. And followed us through the entire march (with occasional breaks).
We had a splendid time - damp but happy. Éloise behaved superbly well, and spent about a third of the walk in her pram and the rest strapped to my chest either looking out, or when she was very tired, snuggled in. By the end of the march I was definitely starting to feel something in my left foot (the BabyBjorn and an 8 kilogram baby does cause one to walk slightly differently from normal). When we eventually arrived home I found a blister on the sole of my left foot the size of an oatcake. Hey ho. Cue two days of hobbling around the house.
But it was all so well worth it. It was wonderful to see all the walkers in their panoply of rain gear, team gear and assorted signage. Everybody was walking for somebody. And it’s that that the made the day so special. As someone who has been followed by the Royal Marsden for upwards of twenty years now, I’m very proud indeed of the loyalty engendered by my hospital. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be shown around the new Oak Centre for Children and Young People, and also the new Centre for Molecular Pathology - all largely paid for by charitable donation. These are both marvellous accomplishments, and all credit must go to the team at the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity, who have done so much to make the Royal Marsden the internationally renowned centre of excellence it is today.
Well, we’re off on the 14 mile Royal Marsden Cancer Charity Walk tomorrow. The only thing I wasn’t expecting is that we are now taking my eight month old granddaughter, Éloise, with us! Could be interesting. And guess what? When I picked her up from her mother’s I forgot to bring her Baby Bjorn. Life is a challenge, isn’t it? So it’s pram and carrying. For fourteen miles. Aaargghhhh.
When we first started collecting for the walk I chose a reasonably low target of £600, fearful that we would never make it. In the event people have been incredibly generous, and we’ve raised more than £1400 so far. Should anyone want to donate to a wonderful charity (90% of all cancer nurses working in British hospitals are trained by the RM), here is our Just Giving page. Thank you.
I have an eight and a half month old Maine Coon kitten called Beachy Hodge, who already tips the scale at upwards of fifteen pounds and stretches four foot from nose to tip of tail. Beachy is the Mexican for cat or pussy (sic), and Hodge was the name of Dr Samuel Johnson’s cat, immortalised in the following passage from Boswell’s Life.
‘Nor would it be just, under this head, to omit the fondness which he showed for animals which he had taken under his protection. I never shall forget the indulgence with which he treated Hodge, his cat: for whom he himself used to go out and buy oysters, lest the servants having that trouble should take a dislike to the poor creature. I am, unluckily, one of those who have an antipathy to a cat, so that I am uneasy when in the room with one; and I own, I frequently suffered a good deal from the presence of this same Hodge. I recollect him one day scrambling up Dr. Johnson’s breast, apparently with much satisfaction, while my friend smiling and half-whistling, rubbed down his back, and pulled him by the tail; and when I observed he was a fine cat, saying, ‘Why yes, Sir, but I have had cats whom I liked better than this;’ and then as if perceiving Hodge to be out of countenance, adding, ‘but he is a very fine cat, a very fine cat indeed.’
Later, Boswell tells of another episode:
‘This reminds me of the ludicrous account which he gave Mr Langton, of the despicable state of a young Gentleman of good family. ‘Sir, when I heard of him last, he was running about town shooting cats.’ And then in a sort of kindly reverie, he bethought himself of his own favourite cat, and said, ‘But Hodge shan’t be shot; no, no, Hodge shall not be shot.’
My own Hodge is clearly the equal of Dr Johnson’s paragon, but an unfortunate thing happened to him the other day. We possess two cat flaps, situated at either end of the house. I have upgraded one to the ’small dog/large cat’ variety - I have yet to upgrade the other from that used by my late feline companion, and Hodge’s predecessor, Beachy Bede (named, of course, after the Venerable Bede). It remains resolutely XL, rather than the clearly needed XXXL.
Well, on this occasion, Hodge was coming in from the back garden using the, shall we call it, smaller, cat flap. He was in a hurry, as, still a tom, he tends to get chased away by the local neutered queens, who have unfond memories of a certain ginger tom (now sadly deceased) who used to try it on with them before their fall from maternal possibility. Hodge, though still a kitten in all but size, clearly hits their top note.
Well, he was hurrying to such an extent (okay, let’s call it ‘bolting’) that he threw open the cat flap and launched himself through it like a submariner through an escape hatch. But, as with Gerard Hoffnung’s unfortunate bricklayer, gravity got the better of the cat flap, and before the full four foot length of Hodge’s overcarriage could safely pass though it, the trap shut, locking Hodge’s tail in what clearly appeared to him to be the jaws of an angry queen. The first my wife and I knew of it was the most dreadful caterwauling, that sounded, for all the world, like a cat fighting itself (and having considerable success in so doing). We ran to the scene to find Hodge curled on his back, his tail firmly locked in the jaws of the cat flap, and beating at himself with his paws. The problem was compounded by the fact that he was so incensed that something had bitten his tail and was continuing to hold it in a vice of steel that he wouldn’t let us near him, but kept on howling and twisting like a ball of Texas tumbleweed in a snowstorm. After being scratched a couple of times, I was quietly musing on taking a swing at Hodge’s tail with my machete when my wife - always good in a crisis - hammered the flap open with one of my thumbsticks. Hodge launched himself across the room, still imagining that he was being pursued by the local MILF. We caught up with him in the kitchen near his, yes, well, water feature (the equivalent of a Maine Coon’s security blanket). Readers, you will be pleased to know that Hodge’s world class tail was still intact after the incident, and that he seemed little the worse for wear (although undoubtedly emotionally scarred and forever afterwards jut a little chary of invisible feline females with large teeth).
End of tale.
PS: There is an excellent statue to Dr Johnson’s Hodge (with oyster) outside his master’s house at 17 Gough Square, London. Our Hodge will one day have his own statue too, probably involving a cat flap.
This morning, I heard that the wife of a great friend had just died. When I phoned my wife at work to tell her, she told me an uncanny thing. This morning, driving to work, at exactly the time our friend had died, she had received a very strong image of her in her head - she had felt troubled about her, and anxious, and decided that she would talk to me about it later this evening when she got back home, and that we would ask after her and see how she was doing. So what I am saying - and what I have said many times before - is this. That there are more things on this earth that we don’t understand, than what we do. And that this is as it should be.
A few days ago I was speaking to another friend who sometimes talks to the dead. He said he had been praying for me, and one of his voices had spoken to him, very clearly, using the words: ‘We know him here.’ When he told me those words, I felt a total sense of familiarity. Yes, of course they know me. I have been there. And I will be there again.
Those of us who have lived with death for many years - those of us who have died, and then returned - and those who have accompanied such people during their almost dying (my wife with me) - seem connected in some way hard to fathom to what I can only call a parallel dimension. It’s not by any volition of our own - it’s not by any desire to know secrets or to claim any knowledge whatsoever about anything - it simply is. There are moments when we are spoken to. And my wife experienced such a moment this morning. And I think it should be recorded.
I’ve been hard at work on my new novel of recent months, so I’ve rather fallen behind in the blog department, I’m afraid. Many apologies there. I know visitors to my website like to have a new blog to read now and then, and I shall attempt to be more productive in the future. This time around I’d like to ask for your help for a very deserving cause.
You may not know it, but I have been followed by the Royal Marsden Hospital in Fulham, London, for more than twenty years now. I fell ill with my first cancer in 1988, and was followed in France - most specifically Purpan, Rangeuil, and Claudius Regaud hospitals in Toulouse - for close on five years. My cancer was declared terminal in 1992, but, fortunately for me, my French doctors took a punt on where the cancer might have sprung from, and the punt proved correct. I was then passed on by my French radiologist (who had trained at the Royal Marsden) to the RM Sutton, and then, later, to the RM Fulham. The RM Fulham picked up another cancer, after eight years of follow-up visits, for which I have undergone treatment for the past twelve or so years. So the Royal Marsden has, to all intents and purposes, been keeping me (very much) alive. So I owe it. And all the people who work there.
On 17 March 2013 my wife Claudia and I will be taking part in the Royal Marsden Charity Walk, which covers the fourteen miles between the two Royal Marsden Hospitals. I’d be very grateful if any of you who feel that the Royal Marsden does brilliant work (90% of all cancer nurses in the UK train there) to please go to our site at Just Giving, and make a donation. Any amount at all would be most appreciated. And it goes straight to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Here’s the link:
Thanks for this. In my next blog I promise to get back to literary matters.