Friday, 28 March 2008

The Eurovision Song Contest

I blogged about how much I was missing the Eurovision Song Contest a few years ago when I was living in Dubai and none of the TV stations that I could receive could recognise its global cultural significance. So now I'm back in Europe, and it's looking like it'll be a closely-run contest between Ireland's Dustin The Turkey.

And Spain's Chiki-Chiki.

Analytical interview here.

Life's just grand.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

This Writing Lark

Now that Travels in Xanadu-du is out, I have finally started the sequel. I know, I know, I should have started it months ago, but I was scared to. I still am. It's a journey into the unknown. The first novel happened almost by accident, but once I'd started it I had no choice but to get to the end. I've read a few books about how you're supposed to write a novel since then. Probably my favourite one is Stephen King's 'On Writing' - I suspect because there's only about two chapters that are directly related to writing and the rest is autobiography. The things that interested me were his comments on plotting. He says he's only ever done detailed plots for two or three of his novels, and they did not turn out to be his best work.

Well, hey, me and Stevie King: birds of a feather! When I started Travels in Xanadu-du, all I knew was how I wanted it to end. I had no idea of what would happen on the intervening pages. But it was OK, because my characters took over. They just started doing the kind of things they would do. All I had to do was type it. Towards the end of the book I did write a plot and made the buggers stick to it. But, at the risk of sounding like a poncy writery jerk, these characters were briefly alive, and I just wrote down what they said and did. And, yeah, I might as well say it: it was an almost mystical experience. I mean, you read about writers saying crap like that, and you think 'nah, that can't be true.' But actually, it bloody well is. I couldn't believe it when it started happening, but I'm so glad it did.

So now Abimbola and Chinwala and Kimoni and William de Roquefort and Trevor the Flying Rug have been released from the cupboard again. I can't wait to see what they'll get up to! On a J.K Rowling note: a (not very) major character will die in this book. Because I can. Bwuhahaha!

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Travels in Xanadu-du: The Book, it has Landed!

I know most of you are desperate to know about the progress of my novel, Travels in Xanadu-du. Not least because some of you have actually paid good, hard cash money to get a hold of a copy. Only a month late, I am pleased to announce that it is shipping! Not without glitches, of course. Life would be so boring if everything went to plan, now wouldn't it? The plan was that the printers would make a big pile of books. The bulk of these would be shipped to Liverpool where my publisher is based, and ten copies would be delivered to me in sunny Madrid to do with whatever I like. Hmm. Some bugger got it wrong. The doorbell rang at about noon today, and the nice (but sweaty) young man from UPS delivered box upon box of books into our micro-piso (if you've been following the plot, you'll know that we live in the world's smallest flat, but we love it because it's right in the middle of Madrid).

I've seen my name in print many times. But to stack up a bunch of books like this, well; it's a bit unusual.

So, I spent the afternoon printing shipping notes and address labels, printing and signing maps of Xanadu-du, signing the books themselves, and then packing up the pre-ordered books and taking them to the Post Office to wave goodbye to them. Please take note: no author that you've ever heard of went to such great lengths to keep his punters happy!

Actually, this cock-up didn't work out too badly: we saved a good old British pound on postage to the UAE. But we gained an extra one on postage to the UK.

Until the current stock is exhausted, you can get your book signed and personally taken to the Post Office by the author, and a signed colour map if I feel like it. So get on over to Xanadu-du, and place your order NOW!!!

I love you all.

Thursday, 20 March 2008


It's Holy Week (Semana Santa) in Spain, so MamaDuck is off work and after spending three days more or less asleep and recovering from the rigours of the last term, is now bright and breezy (and blogging profusely). So we went for a day-trip yesterday, to Toledo.

What an amazing place! Toledo is about 80 kms south of Madrid. It used to be the capital of Spain, and is known as 'the City of Three Cultures': there is Islamic influence, there are two synagogues, many churches and a Cathedral. The old city sits on a high promontory surrounded on three sides by the Rio Tagu. It is exceptionally well-preserved/well-reconstructed, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If you ever get to Spain, and can make a day available (actually two or three would be better), get thee down to Toledo. I promise you, you will love it. We went by the Avant train from Madrid. This is a fast train, not as fast as the AVE, but it gets you there in 30 minutes in total comfort. One of the things I love about Spanish railways is that they are incredibly reliable, and when you buy your tickets for inter-city journeys, you get reserved seats. If there are no seats left, the train is full and you can't go on it: no standing in aisles allowed! Simple. The fares are reasonable, and if your train arrives more than five minutes late, you get your money back (this never happens).

So, here's a bunch of pictures of Toledo. I took about 100 pics, but this is all you're getting!

I did a web search for info on Toledo and found a very useful piece of advice. The railway station is outside the old town. You can walk it, but unless you are a glutton for punishment, you would be better off taking the number 22 bus from outside the station. It's 90 centimos well-spent, and delivers you at the top of the mountain in Plaza Zocodover - a good reference point.

Alcazar dominates this end of town. It's actually not that old, but it is important.

Moving into the centre, you'll stumble upon the Cathedral. It isn't the prettiest building ever constructed, but it is huge, and has had lots of additions and extensions over time. I found the neo-classical portico entrance on one façade to be particularly anachronistic on a mostly Gothic building: then again you might find a late 20th-century plain granite-faced addition on another façade to be equally weird.

It's not possible to get the Cathedral into one shot, unless you brought your helicopter.

Toledo is very much a Medieval city: winding, narrow lanes, mostly closed off to traffic. It's also hilly, and we were grateful for our acclimatisation to this in Madrid: if you arrive here as a car-driving couch-potato who doesn't do exercise, you might find Toledo challenging.

Toledo is in Castilla-La Mancha, the setting for Don Quixote. Wherever you go in Toledo, you see images of DQ, and there is a wonderful statue of Cervantes, the author.

Toledo retains a real sense of a walled city. The walls still stand in many places, and they are incredibly tall. The old city could be accessed only by two fortified bridges.

Amazing, amazing, amazing.

Friday, 14 March 2008

A Peculiar Incident [Un Incidente Peculiar]

I think I might have narrowly avoided being robbed again this morning. Or perhaps my Central Madrid paranoia has scaled new heights.

I was walking toward Puerta del Sol when a young bloke came hurtling around a corner and ran straight towards me. He clearly wasn't dressed for jogging, and he really was going fast: as if he was running away from something. I was in two minds about whether to trip him or otherwise interfere with his progress, but in the end I just got out of his way. He had gone maybe five metres past me when two older blokes came running round the corner yelling (presumably) 'stop thief'. They ran past me but quite quickly gave up the chase.

I suspect these might have been the possible outcomes if I had got involved:
1) The thief would have beaten me to a pulp and run off.
2) The thief would have beaten me to a pulp, robbed me, and run off.
3) The pursuers would have congratulated me warmly and given me a reward.
4) The pursuers would have congratulated me warmly and robbed me.
5) I would have a heart attack and be robbed by everybody.
6) I would be arrested and charged with assault.

Ok, forget about the last one: we're not in the UK. But I think it's interesting that not one of the hundreds of people who saw this happen moved a muscle. Another scam avoided, methinks.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

Travels in Xanadu-du: Update

Aaargh. We've had a couple of weeks of completely unexpected delay in the production of my wonderful novel. Firstly, I thought I had uploaded the files to the printer's website. There was no obvious way to verify this, so I emailed my 'client services representative', who ignored me for a few days and finally, after a whole wasted week, said the files had not been received by them, and explained the completely impossible-to-find way to find out what the situation is on their (absolutely bloody horrible) website. Marvlious.

So I uploaded the files again, and after a three-day wait the pre-flight crew in the US complained about 'multiple missing fonts'. We're talking about PDF files here, and standard practice when creaing PDFs is to embed any unusual fonts, but not to embed things like Arial or Times New Roman which are present on every PC and have direct equivalents on Macs, Linux boxes, etc. So these #$%#$^ in the US were quibbling about the absence of Arial and Times New Roman. Arial is actually used in the headers of the bookblock, but TNR appears nowhere. Anyhow, I had to produce and upload another file for the bookblock, and force the embedding of these common-as-muck fonts, and then wait another three days while they got around to opening it.

Finally: two days ago the status was 'printing'. Yesterday, the status was 'shipped'. They are using UPS for the shipping and the scheduled delivery date is the 17th (UPS donkey-cart: Royal Mail is quicker!). If it's ok I can order the initial print run and fulfill the pre-orders that we have. I have to say though, that the name of the printing company includes the word 'lightning', and I'm seriously worried about them getting done under the Trades Descriptions Act.

So those of you who have not yet ordered your copy: the special offer of a full-colour map of Xanadu-du, signed by moi, still stands, but only until the point where the book goes into production. So get thee over to the Xanadu-du website and place thy order.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

New Toys [Nuevos Juguetes]

Money was a bit tight after Christmas (after ten years in the biz, I have found this has always been the case) but I had a couple of projects for Dubai-based clients and I finished them a few weeks ago. Since when I have been gently prodding and poking for my payments. One of them came through this morning (huzzah!), and I immediately set about spending it, safe in the knowledge that when the next one comes through it'll keep us comfortable for a couple of months.

First priority: a new laptop for MamaDuck. FNAC have been selling a Packard Bell laptop for under €500 since about Christmas-time. I don't know why it's so cheap - it has a fast-enough processor, 2 gig of RAM and an 80 gig hard drive. And wi-fi that works. It is amply capable of doing the things that MamaDuck needs it for. I went to FNAC this morning - they only had the display model left, and I bought it.

I also bought myself a new memory stick, because the old one is broken. I remember when any kind of solid-state memory cost £30 per megabyte. That was the price for years and years and years, until the only two or three factories in the world that produced this stuff burnt down within a few months of each other (oh yeah?), at which point the price went through the roof. But a dozen companies simultaneously thought 'there's a market opportunity, let's build a factory'; thereafter, the price of memory plummeted, and continues to fall. The stick I just bought is 2 Gb, and it cost €10. At the old price, if anyone was actually making such a thing then, it would have cost £60000!

To round off the day, I've been thinking for a while that I'm sick and tired of the PalmOne Treo 650 'smartphone' that I've been lugging around for a couple of years. And now that I have an NIE I can get a mobile phone contract that should save me a ton of money as compared to constantly recharging a pre-paid chip. Orange have a special offer on this month; upgrade from pre-paid to a contract (if you've had it for more than six months), or defect from another supplier, and you can get the Samsung U700 for free (terms and conditions apply, obviously: an 18-month lock-in to a €25/month contract). It seems ok to me: I've been paying 30 or 40 Euros a month to recharge my card. And this is one sexy-looking phone.

I have to wait till tomorrow to actually get my hands on it. Maybe they're doing a credit check, in which case they won't find anything for or against on account of me not having lived in Europe for thirteen years. Hmmm, might be a problem. But I have to say the staff at the Orange shop down in the Plaza coped extremely well with my feeble Spanish: they used an online translation website where they typed in what they wanted to say, and had me read the response on the screen. Like all these things, the translation was poor, but quite amusing, and I got the gist: you are gonna pay us a ton of money for at least eighteen months, sucker. I don't care, it's a gorgeous phone!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Inside CaixaForum

I promised you earlier that I would try to take some shots of the inside of the CaixaForum. Here they are:

Apart from the exhibition spaces, there are two spectacular staircases. At the top of the building is the cafeteria, which is clad on the outside by perforated, oxidised (rusty, to you) iron plate. All very dramatic!

More Art: Igor Mitoraj

Having lived in an Islamic country for more than twelve years, it is more than refreshing to be back in a country where figurative art and the depiction of naked people is not frowned upon or banned. Dubai and Abu Dhabi are trying to re-invent themselves as centres of art and culture. I can't quite see how they'll do it, unless they declare themselves to be religion-free zones. Here's some more naked statues:

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Madrid's Art Squiggle

Until the middle of last month, Madrid was famous for its 'Art Triangle' - formed by the Prado Museum, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen Bornemisza. Now there's a new kid on the block, the CaixaForum. It's halfway between the other three museums, and so I think the triangle has now become a squiggle. This extraordinary building has been under construction for the last six years. The architects are Herzog & de Meuron, who also designed the Tate Modern in London. The name comes from the client/sponsor/owner: La Caixa. This is a kind of bank: actually more like a British building society or a US savings and loan. The bank is more social than commercial, and is committed to spending profits on 'social works' and supporting communities. La Caixa has a string of galleries around Spain.

The client must have Googled 'architects who turn power stations into art galleries'*. CaixaForum is basically an extinct coal-burning power station. But it now has two floors underground. And two extra floors on top clad in rusty iron (I must do a post on the Rusty Shed aesthetic one day). But the remarkable thing is they've taken away most of the ground floor. The building appears to float: there's a whole load of cantilevering going on here. I have no idea how they managed to do it without the original brick structure collapsing (perhaps it did, and that's why it took six years to finish). But it means that if there is a long queue to get in then you are in the shade.

At the front of the building there is a plaza. On one side of the plaza is an amazing vertical garden, designed by Patrick Blanc.

We spent a very relaxed half hour just looking at the garden, and at the kids who have decided that the hollow sculpture of a man's torso is actually a playground.

In days to come I might do a post on the interior, which is also very interesting. I went inside about a week ago, but didn't have my camera with me. The queue today was just too long.

*Although they would not have actually found the architects: either they have no website or it is so badly designed that no search engine can find it.