Moscow

Cold winds, queues, toothless beggars and drunks…. Yes, I’m back in London after a four day visit to Moscow, my first, tentative dip of the toe into the ocean that is Russia. The occasion was the Russian launch of Granta Magazine’s once-a-decade “Twenty Best Novelists under Forty” list. I was included in 1993. From the newly-minted 2013 list, Ross Raisin (the author of two fine novels: “God’s Own Country” and “Waterline”) accompanies me. Thus our inter-generational duo finds itself in Moscow.

The British Council has organised events. A literary lunch at an achingly hip restaurant features a ‘Flying Pig’ cooked for eight hours by super-chef Alexei Zimin. A panel on literary prizes at the Moscow Book Fair is enlivened by an attack on Vladimir Putin’s anti-homosexual legislation. Most ambitious of all is a discussion in the Pashkov House of the Russian State Library which, I can’t help notice as I’m driven past, is draped in fifteen meter high banners bearing my name.

How many people does the Pashkov house hold, I ask Alexandra Smirnova of the British Council? About three hundred comes the answer.
Later that night, Alexandra, Ross and I find ourselves in the Strelka Institute, an arts complex built in the former Red October chocolate factory on Bolotny Island. The crowd is young and hip; more wineglasses are brandished than beer-bottles. No-one appears to be downing shots of vodka. On the concourse below, a couple of members of LCD Soundsystem have turned up to spin records. Drinks in hand, Ross and I overlook the Moscow River and agree not to worry about three hundred empty chairs.
I have several Moscows in my head. One burns, courtesy of Napoleon in 1812; another features Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank. A third is an agglomeration of unexamined prejudices: grumpy officials, endless queues, terrible food and orgiastic bouts of forced vodka-drinking. But twenty-first century Moscow is smart, cosmopolitan, artsy and sunny. Under clear blue skies it’s also hot. For me, above all, it is the city of Bulgakov who lived here in a nine-room apartment with twenty-odd other people and a pig. He was convalescing after serving as a doctor (on the losing side) in the Civil War, an experience apparently so terrible that he never spoke of it again. Living in the crammed apartment (and sty) ran it a close second though, the new youthful custodian, Peter Mansilla Cruz, explains as he shows Ross, myself and my Russian editor, Alexander Guzman, around. Bulgakov’s books are here and the desk (previously owned by Gogol) which his third wife bought for him. For a long time the residents of the building fought a rear-guard action against visiting Bulgakov fans who came here in search of the artistic force that wrote “The Master and Margarita”. Graffiti, Peter explains, was the weapon of choice. The stairwell remains richly adorned.
I smell revolutionary-era kerosene in one of the tiny cooking stoves which the families living here used, examine a three litre home-made vodka bottle and try on a ridiculous helmet. The room in which the pig was kept is locked but the apartment is jammed with memorabilia. Outside, Moscow itself is a large-scale monument as various houses around the city claim to be the place where the Master first met Margarita, or Satan made his appearance. One location not in doubt is is where Moscow itself is surveyed at the end of the book and that vantage point is my own final locale: the Pashkov House.
Although considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Moscow, the Pashkov house is not ordinarily open to the public. Adjacent buildings hold the State Library collections (among which rest Bulgakov’s papers). A grand staircase leads to the main reception room, which might better be described as a ballroom. People begin to arrive. We wait.
In the event, we fill the three hundred seats. Another fifty people stand at the back. Ross, the Russian author Mikhail Elisarov and myself square up over ‘Literature, History and Mythology”. The event’s sponsor, Ahmad Tea, gives out samples and photographs us holding green teapots. People ask questions and afterwards among the books, I sign my first Kindle.
The next day is my last. The morning dawns as sunny as the others but in the car on the way to the airport the skies darken. Suddenly the light is green. A cloudburst batters the roof and we pass cars which have spun off the road. Bulgakov brought his novel towards its close with a vision of an advancing storm viewed from the roof of the Pashkov House. “This darkness which came from the west covered the vast city. Bridges and palaces disappeared. Everything vanished as if it had never existed in the world. One fiery thread ran across the whole sky. Then a thunderclap shook the city. It was repeated, and the storm began.”

At Bulgakov’s house with (l to r) Ross, Peter, Alexandra and Lidia.

Jaipur Literature Festival, 2013

The Dalai Lama waves his arms in happy disregard of the microphone clipped to his scarlet robes. Amplified crunches and thuds boom out over the thousand-strong crowd gathered under the pink awning on the front lawn of the Diggi Palace Hotel.

A distant Dalai Llama explains nuclear physics

It is the first day of the Jaipur Literature Festival. I have arrived that morning and seem to have lost a night’s sleep somewhere; possibly during the four hour layover in Delhi airport. Jet-lag adds to the air of surreality as more crunches and booms preface one of His Holiness’s artfully deployed chuckles. One should question all authorities, he tells the audience. “Including me. And Buddha.” If Buddha’s advice doesn’t work then reject it. He sounds genial and self-effacing but it is not hard to draw the political implications of wholesale authority-rejection from a man who embodies resistance to Chinese rule in Tibet. Much of his talk is concerned – surprisingly – not with spiritual or political matters but scientific ones.”I don’t discuss nirvana with scientists,” he confides. “That’s Buddhist business.” He touches on quantum physics, psychology and cosmology and is particularly taken with neurobiology. Neurons link the mind to the body, he says, thus manifesting mental processes in concrete form. How you think matters. “People who tell lies often. Much more stress!” He unleashes the chuckle again. The same applies to people concerned only with themselves. “You want to die of a heart attack? Just think about yourself!” He waves his arms happily, peppering the audience with sonic bombs. They return the compliment, applauding this indomitable and cheerful figure.
The Dalai Lama is one of over two hundred and fifty speakers who will take to the festival’s six stages and talk to an estimated quarter of a million people over the next five days. Audiences for most events are in the hundreds. When Howard Jacobson, Nadeem Aslam, Zoe Heller, Linda Grant and myself address the question of the novel’s future in the digital age, spectators fill every seat and stand five deep at the back. Everyone has to register but the festival is free and audiences are young. Indian teenagers jostle to ask questions, undaunted under the gaze of several hundred of their peers. The sessions range from poetry readings (my old pal Simon Armitage gives a hilarious dead-pan performance) to heavyweight political discussions  like “Colliding Worlds: The Quest for Justice”. After that event I find myself in a taxi with one of the debaters, Binayak Sen, who practised as a pediatrician before moving into health activism, which brought him into collision with the government. “I was in prison for over two years,” he tells me mildly as the taxi noses and honks its way through the Jaipur traffic. “I wasn’t tortured myself although I saw people tortured and very badly beaten. Many of the other inmates were very sympathetic….” A concocted charge of sedition hangs over him, as it does over several thousand other  dissenting voices: a means to intimidate them into silence. Sen, however, refuses to be silent. He is out on bail but he could be re-arrested at any time. Wasn’t he tempted to leave India? He shakes his head. “They have my passport.”
The Jaipur Literary Festival is part-circus, part-postgraduate seminar and part-revolutionary assembly. It was started in 2003 by William Dalrymple aided and abetted by (among a few others) my cousin Poonam Verma. The first reading (star performer: Willie) was in the smallest of the current venues and drew fourteeen people. Now the major publishers come and the sponsors include Tata Steel. The latter is denounced from the (Tata-funded) stage by Sudeep Chakravarti in a discussion of the writer’s relationship with the State. Alongside him Selma Dabbagh makes the point that writers are often expected to take public positions on matters of which they have little knowledge and less competence. Aren’t they (or we) setting themselves up for a fall? A genial Arial Dorfman agrees that a selective yet conscientious shutting-of-the-mouth is no bad thing. He tells how he took sanctuary in the Argentinian Embassy after the military coup in Chile. Later, penniless, he was offered a prodigious fee to write the story of the infighting among the various groups of dissidents cooped up together in the cramped building. He refused. “The story was true. But telling it would have given the enemy too much of an advantage.”
I listen in on elderly Indian poets struggling with a single microphone, discuss literary catastrophes with Linda Grant, tour the twenty metre-high instruments Jaipur’s nineteenth century outdoor astronomy centre with Poonam, listen to the Maharajah of Jodhpur introduce a book of Maharajah-inspired recipes, hear sarode music for the first time, have dinner with Rama Pandey (author, film-maker and old family friend) in the Samode Haveli and generally soak up the atmosphere of intellectual and literary ferment. An army of volunteers shepherds people about, organises flights and cars, sets up microphones and hands out (weighty) programmes. All the equipment works. Everything runs to time. The writers rise to the occasion. Highlights for me are are Gayatri Spivak (whom, as a student, I knew as Derrida’s translator) on the role of the critic, Faramerz Dabhoiwala on sexual revolution and William Dalrymple’s presentation of his new book “Return of a King” (about the first Anglo-Afghan war) which turns into a masterclass on how to hold a stage and the attentions of the several hundred people before it. “The donkey of desire will lead them into the field of stupidity,” he quotes one Afghan warlord remarking of the British. That donkey seems to get loose later when the normally-erudite Ashish Nandy suggests that most corruption in India is confined to the lower classes. Even from the audience, it is not hard to sense the advent of trouble. The Festival is very successful and some of the local politicians see it as a vehicle for their own agendas. Sure enough by the time of the closing party, among gurgling fountains and a limitless bar, Nandy has fled the state, the festival’s producer, the ever-cheerful Sanjoy Roy, has a legal complaint hanging over his head and is only one magistrate away from arrest while Willie is not far behind. “I could go to jail,” Willie tells me, although I can’t tell if he is delighted at the idea or apprehensive. “I’m not worried at all,” Sanjoy professes calmly. So will he be producing the festival next year, I ask? “Of course.”

Barefoot through America III

By my rough calculation, two transatlantic flights and just under a dozen jaunts within the States add up to something over 10,000 miles. Judge no man before you’ve walked a mile in his shoes, runs the old proverb. Mine have made it back, albeit with the right one split and both going through at the heel. It’s good to be home.
The last time I travelled anything like these distances was in 1996 after which I wrote an article on writers in transit for Die Welt. I’m not sure now if writers’ mobility is quite as significant as I felt back then. But it is a fact and it reminds me of the first poetry reading I ever attended, when I was eighteen. I had picked up a second-hand copy of John Wain’s “Letters to Five Artists” then saw that he was reading in Bath. A trio of us sat in the middle at the front and after the reading I asked the poet about these lines:
“BOAC announce the departure of their flight
Whateveritis
will passengers for this flight please
go to the top of the main staircase

See him rise from his nervous seat
flight-bag and magazines clutched in his hand
stomach already soothed with Dramamine
Dogrose, the poet in a drip-dry
suit on his way to an
INTERNATIONAL CULTURAL CONFERENCE…”

Was Dogrose meant as a portrait of Ezra Pound, I wanted to know? Pound is alluded to later in the poem, isn’t he? Wain was gracious with my over-literal questions. “Pound?” he echoed with a kind of weary wisdom. “I suppose he was the start of all that….”
Of course the traveller was partly himself, and later it would partly be me. I’m glad he took the train down to read his poetry in Bath that day.  What we leave is the work, one way or another. I’m off to Germany later in the month, India in the New Year for the Jaipur Festival, then Perth, Australia, Germany again and the Netherlands…. It’s time for a new pair of shoes.

Barefoot through America II

Delta Airlines, which flies me from Chicago’s O Hare airport to Atalanta, Georgia then down to Jackson, Mississippi, is staffed by the cheeriest flight attendants in the United States.
‘We’re going home, hon,’ one tells me when I ask why they’re in such good humour. This is my first inkling that the South exerts a definite and peculiar pull. After checking in at Jackson and taking a long cab ride out on the I-55, I reach the book-Mecca of the Lemuria bookstore. Lemuria is stacked high with volumes I’d like to read (I finally settle for Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”, a kind of post-apocalyptic vision with heart). After signing a pile of my own books I ask how easy it will be to get a taxi back to my hotel. ‘Come for dinner first,’ a trio of Lemurians answer. ‘Then we can drive you home after. Cocktails?’
As we get cocktails and beer and fried chicken, Kelly recalls a school exchange to Minnesota . ‘They asked if we wore shoes in Mississippi,’  she exclaims. ‘Shoes! Can you imagine?’. Her youthful colleague meanwhile recounts how he paid his way through college by cleaning up crystal meth factories after police raids. Called out at 3am to drive a truck into the backwoods, his job was to chemically neutralise the unstable substances – which had a tendency to explode. All this while wearing a $10,000 isolation suit to counter the HIV-infected human excrement and blood. He breaks off when the food arrives. Another mint julep? Why not… The next morning I’m up early for the car-ride to Oxford. Ron Shapiro, who picks me up, used to run Oxford’s only art-house cinema and has also seen a lot of authors. A guitar sounds from the stereo then a familiar but unexpected voice. ‘Is that Mississippi John Hurt?’ I ask and before Ron nods I know we’re going to get along fine. That’s just as well since the ride to Oxford takes three hours, or three and three-quarters when we stop off at Eudora Welty’s house. In her garden is a plaque inscribed with a quote from a letter to her agent, “Every evening when the sun is going down and it is cool enough to water the garden, and all is quiet except for the locusts in great waves of sound, and I stand still in one place for a long time putting water on the plants, I feel something new…as if my will went out of me, as if I had a stubbornness and it was melting….” Amongst the artefacts in the house are some battered volumes of Dicken saved from fire by Eudora’s mother who threw them from the top-floor window then threw herself after them. Ron and I discuss different kinds of blues traditions, some from the delta region, some from Chicago where many black share-croppers made their way and where I used to live. The hours and miles pass. Soon enough we pull up outside the house of Lisa and Richard Howorth in Oxford. Richard owns and runs the three (three!) independent bookstores in Oxford’s main square and used to be the town’s mayor. Lisa is a writer and looks twenty years younger than she should. She also knows everyone, and seems prepared to take on anyone too. ‘I’ll throw you out of here,’ warns Randy, owner of the Ajax Diner where we have lunch as she and he spar. But Lisa is undeterred. The jibing continues until Randy shakes his head and ambles off. Later we discover he’s comp.ed our bill. ‘Sign a book for him,’ Lisa urges. ‘Randy’s a big reader.’ I sign that one and two hundred and fifty more at Square Books then visit William Faulkner’s house where a friend of Ron’s shows us around. ‘That’s the telephone where he took the call from the Nobel Prize committee,’ he tells me. Local numbers are scrawled on the wall behind it. ‘Of course he’d heard a week beforehand. The local journalists got hold of it. Word gets around.’ That night I’m part of the Thacker Mountain Radio Show along with the Memphis Dawls, a protean alt folk ensemble  which tonight features cello, drums, trumpet, violin, mandolin, guitar and three women singing. I think they’re wonderful. My act is a talk about English historical cuisine and a reading but the audience is indulgent or perhaps just polite. They nod and laugh and clap.
At 6.30 am the next morning Ron and I are on the road to Memphis for a radio interview with Stephen Usery of WYPL then on to Sun Records. Here began the careers of Johny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. Jailhouse Rock and Blue Suede Shoes were recorded here. The one-storey building looks like nothing much but it seems to hum with the resonance of what was created within its walls. There’s a tour of the studio in half an hour but my plane leaves in 45 minutes. I grab t-shirts and run. Three hours later I land in Washington DC.
The last time I was here was my twenty-ninth birthday when I visited the Air and Space Museum then flew to Frankfurt for two days’ of jet-lagged interviews at the Book Fair. This time I have quick dinner with my old pal Simon Blake, lately transplanted to these shores, and a wander around the museums with new pal Paul Maliszewski. In the Freer Gallery we spend a surprising amount of time examining the stone ‘bi’ (or discs) produced by the Liangzhu culture about five thousand years ago for a purpose which today is completely unknown. More obviously appealing are a set of temple guardians busily squishing demons underfoot (here is Komoku-ten, guardian of the West). I am here to address the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers’ Association which happens (enthusiastically) in the vast basement of the Hyatt out by Ronald Reagan Airport (it was Dulles last time I was here…) then on to Politics and Prose for a signing then it’s the train up the coast to New York City. Installed in TriBeCa, I have dinner with Sherri Rifkin, author of the acute and funny novel “Lovehampton” and one-time US editor of “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”. Over drinks in Odeon we recall a past meal at the same venue which became so chaotic that neither of us can now remember the appalling event which brought it to a close. It happened though, whatever it was. We’re clear on that much.
The next day is my birthday. The weather is perfect for a stroll down to the tip of Manhattan and a view of the distant Statue of Liberty. Then a metro ride up to Harlem for lunch with old friends Liza Schoenfein, who blogs the encounter better than I could, and Mark Jannot, her magazine journalist husband. The evening gig is a reading at Bookcourt then out to a birthday dinner at La Vara courtesy of Grove Atlantic. The last radio interview follows the next morning, on the Leonard Lopate show where, after describing how Wild Boar à la Troyenne was served in ancient Rome (sausages instead of guts, comfets for part-digested acorns), I bump into Kenny Rogers about to do the next interview. ‘Don’t blow it,’ I tell him.
Outside it has begun to rain. The cab to JFK is slow, and gets slower. Luckily the flight to Buffalo is delayed. At the other end I have forty-five minutes from the plane landing to my reading. I make it to Hallwells and the auspices of the Talking Leaves / Exhibit X fiction series with ten minutes to spare. It’s standing room only in the basement of the converted church where I’m introduced by the writers Christina Milletti and Dimitri Anastasopoulos. Sometimes you can feel the audience engage and this is one of those nights; the questions that follow range from seventeenth century cooking implements to the necessity of risk in literature. It’s a good end to a long tour. The next day I will take a walk down Buffalo’s Main Street and out to the waterfront. Both are slowly coming back to life after years in a kind of archival deep-freeze. I think I know how they feel.

Barefoot through America I

America is a large and populous country whose people are known for their outgoing and welcoming disposition. Nevertheless on a book tour you tend to spend most of your time alone and so, because I’ve never been expert at taking those arm-length camera-phone self-portraits, I’ve decided instead to document my progress around the land of the free and the home of the brave by photographing my shoes. Los Angeles is the first stop, home of the renowned radio host Michael Silverblatt whose Bookworm show has hosted just about anyone who’s anyone over the years and whose deceptively casual style of questioning circles in on its target, landing gently and unerringly time after time. The interview is good, and the post-interview chat is just as good, jumping from John Barth to David Mitchell to Martin Amis, who is on the show next week. ‘I don’t care what other people think about “Lionel Asbo”‘ Michael says. ‘If they like it or not. That’s not criticism. It’s just opinion.’ The next morning I’m back on the plane, this time to San Francisco where I drop in on Paul Yamazaki, Kurosawa expert and City Lights Bookstore luminary then walk down to the waterfront and take off my shoes.  The next day finds me up at 5.00am and confronting the longest security line I have ever seen. A rushed breakfast and I’m on the plane to Seattle where the skies are grey and drizzly as they should be – none of that bright blue Californian nonsense – and the hills are steep.  I check in then head for the Pike Place market. At the event that night I meet long-time fans and college students who have been assigned ‘a reading’ as part of their creative writing course. It’s not enough to write a book anymore; you have to be able to present it too. Then it’s on to Chicago where I lived between 1993 and 1996. I’m staying with Doug Seibold, founder and owner of the Agate publishing house, my friend and ex-pool partner. He’s organised a meeting with members of the Chicago press at the city’s first winery, a friendly group who range from a senior journalist at the Chicago Tribune to a couple of post-grad students putting out a monthly journal of ideas. We talk food, and talk the writing of food. And this being Chicago we eat food too. The reading that night is in Winnetka but it feels like a reunion as old friends (and some new ones) pile in. Tomorrow I’m on the plane to Jackson, Mississippi….

Twelve years, one reading

My ex-US editor (from “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”), a college friend I hadn’t seen for twenty years, my agent…. Last night’s reading from “John Saturnall’s Feast” (my first since publishing “In the Shape of a Boar”) felt like an anthology of friends. A packed room at the Bloomsbury Institute heard my fellow-authors Esther Freud and Andrea Stuart in fine voice. Esther read a funny section about actors auditioning in America. Andrea delivered an emotive essay on her part-British, part-Barbadian ancestry. I read from the extract in Granta (the evening’s sponsors) then took questions. Why so long between books? asked one man, reasonably enough, to which I wanted to answer ‘How long have you got?’. A question on ‘Britishness’ set all three of us thinking about locale. All actors want to go to America, answered Esther. And as soon as they get there they all want to come home. The ancestors of those who survived the Middle Passage, Andrea said, are still working out exactly where home is. There was no Britishness in the 1630’s, I answered. People lived in parishes, and tended not to move. Later I remembered the wisest thing ever written by Immanuel Kant: ‘All Mankind’s troubles stem from not staying at home.’

First post, first reading….

Welcome to my first blog-post. In these posts I hope to document what I’m reading and writing and – given that it’s taken me twelve years to complete my latest novel – communicate a little more frequently with my readers. I’ve written elsewhere on this site about the writer-reader relationship. There’s also an archive section and a list of FAQ’s. What you can’t do here is buy my books. This site isn’t intended as a marketplace but as a  forum where anyone interested in my work can find out a little more about how it was created.

Tonight – in about seven hours’ time – I’ll be giving my first public reading in twelve years with Esther Freud and Andrea Stuart. Esther I’ve known since we were both picked for Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists back in 1993 and, appropriately enough, it’s under Granta’s aegis that we’re reading tonight. So now I’m looking through a scene in “John Saturnall’s Feast” and wondering how to squeeze something that takes twelve minutes to read into six….