Reviewing books….

booksI haven’t written anything for a while, not because I lack the desire, but because there are so many ideas bouncing around that I’ve failed to keep hold of a single line of thought long enough to turn it into words. Frustrating, although at least I don’t live with a dull mind. Anyway, one theme keeps returning; it’s here again today, so I’m going to write about it before people forget I exist: A book I published in 2012, two other books and the reviews they received.

Caliente, an account of my time in Cuba has sold around one thousand copies, I haven’t kept track, and perhaps the same again in electronic format. I occasionally receive small boosts to my bank account due to people, I assume worldwide, buying it. It started as a diary, then when people liked bits and pieces, over many years it became a book. The story at the time seemed to me so alive and interesting that I had to tell it. With much help from a friend, I manfully did my best to promote it, but without a massive or even moderate publicity budget (it was truly tiny), I stood little chance of achieving big sales.

I still get emails from people who read and enjoyed Caliente, mostly travellers. At the beginning, when it was published, I got eight or so positive reviews on Amazon from friends, the other reviews, good or bad, are from genuine readers that I don’t know. I suppose everybody, even established authors, must get friends to review their books, and one thing one must always do on Amazon is try to separate the friendly from the genuine.

After a year I abandoned the publicity trail and started a novel. I have finished my novel twice and am now beginning a third rewrite which will be much longer. If I do finish it, it will almost certainly not sell. I don’t care. Some success would be good but it isn’t essential. I’m proud of Caliente and I will be proud of my novel. I appreciate the sales of Caliente and I like getting appreciative emails. I am not bitter in the slightest, but I do wonder about the reviewing process in Britain (I assume it’s the same in the USA).

In making my point I’ve chosen two books that can take a little criticism. Both have been fantastically reviewed and achieved significant sales: The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers (2012) and In The Light Of What We Know, Zia Haider Rahman (2014). The Yellow Birds is written by a veteran of the Gulf War, so has immediate kudos which people will naturally not easily criticise. On Amazon it has dozens of reviews from famous authors, actors, broadcasters and newspapers; inside its covers are printed a choice of the best reviews. Hilary Mantel (whom I admire) described it as ‘A masterpiece of war literature and a classic’; Damien Lewis, star of Homeland, thought it ‘poetic and devastating’. It won The Guardian First Book Award.

I bought the book based on the reviews, surely so many couldn’t be wrong. I must be appallingly out-of-step. I did not like the book at all. Not only did I not like it, I found hardly a page or sentence which moved me, let alone interested me. I was bored. I thought the book was badly written, had no real purpose and never came alive at any stage. I’ve read plenty of war literature, never coming across anything as bad as this. I accept that this was written by a serving soldier, and I have no experience of war, but that does not mean that the soldier can write. I believe that The Yellow Birds is a bad book.

In The Light Of What We Know supposedly ‘wrestles with the intricacies of the 2008 financial crash’. James Wood thought it ‘astonishingly achieved…ideas and provocations abound on every page’; Joyce Carol Oates compared it to Heart of Darkness and The Great Gatsby and the writers Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, John le Carre and Thomas Mann. At 554 pages, as opposed to The Yellow Birds’ 226, this was very hard going. Again, I read it because of the reviews. Again, I found almost nothing of interest. This is not to say that Rahman may not write a good novel in the future, but this is not it; it is an obvious first novel, with too much crammed into it and no recognisable structure to hold it all. To me, another bad book.

I am still mystified by the marvellous reviews for these books. I do not believe I am over critical or unreasonable. I am quite widely read, reading anything from Shakespeare to detective novels. I fully accept that books like Fifty Shades of Grey get published and people like them. But they do not pretend to be, or get treated as, literature. They are harmless, not to my taste, but harmless. Was The Yellow Birds taken so seriously because it was written by a serving soldier? I don’t think so; there are many better books on the subject that get much closer to the truth. Did the author merely know the right people, who spread the word? I really don’t know. In The Light Of What We Know was crammed full of ideas which ultimately went nowhere in very boring fashion. How on earth did it gain such reviews?

I would be interested to hear from anyone who disagrees with me. Have any of you read these books? Am I so out-of-touch? Or is there a strange system of reviewing, where a book is chosen and the same people choose to say wonderful things about it? The same books and authors seem to get reviewed by the same people, ad nauseam. Not all the books are bad, of course, but every week something awful is praised to the heavens. I repeat, I am not bitter, merely mystified.

Just to add balance, I would like to say that I’ve recently read: A True Story Based on Lies and Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement, A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, Jimfish by Christopher Hope, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, Trespass by D.J. Taylor, Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone and A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan (among others) and thoroughly enjoyed them all, for very different reasons, gaining a different kind of pleasure from each.

They were simply good stories, well-told.

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Santeria – part one

On arrival in Cuba, Yuri, my woman, asked if I remembered that I would consider paying quite a lot of money for a massive santeria campaign for her, involving over one week’s intensive treatment: clothes, occupation and all the paraphernalia that went with it. I remembered the email conversation of six months before but there had been no discussion since, and I had forgotten about it. Yuri hadn’t. I quickly calculated the reliability of the request, the chances of her staying faithful to me and agreed to finance the santeria. It would mean less money to spend on whatever, but I hadn’t intended much in the way of entertainment anyway.

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The santeria involved two afternoon preparatory sessions. I was persuaded to attend the first one. I was not a stranger to santeria, having undergone sessions in 2001, 2009 and 2012. I was not a believer – well, certainly a sceptic – but as my experience grew I realised just how firmly entrenched the religion was in Cuban culture. My 2001 experience, though extensive, paled in comparison to late experiences. In 2009 I encountered, more closely, the thoroughness of operations, undergoing a two hour session involving the sacrifice of a young goat, a chicken and a goose. Although the sacrifices took up only a small part of the operation, most of which involved two santeria practitioners repeating from the book of Yoruba, a series of litanies. I had no idea what was being said; I was ordered to bow, touch, speak, perform strange rituals, and touch objects, symbols, dust, powders and liquids. I kissed the severed neck of the young goat. At the end I was told that I was capricious and would need to be careful of my health. I didn’t need santeria to tell me that. Yuri could have told them that. But one of the practitioners told me several times that I was crazy, which may or may not be true, and also I didn’t understand ninety per cent of what they told me. My Spanish is very, very basic. Yuri speaks little English. Despite both of us taking lessons in each other’s language we have so far failed to learn much beyond the absolute basics, although we communicate between each other pretty well, mainly using my rudimentary Spanish.

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The next occasion entailed santeria for Yuri. We visited a spacious and airy building where a man began preparations for her ritual. He was impressed by my book on Cuba, Caliente; at least he appeared to be. He was accompanied by at least two women who seemed to be there permanently. While we were there he was visited by several other people; there seemed to be a constant flow of people, mainly white Cuban, during the time I was there. Some spoke English, some did not; the age and occupation varied but I was left with the impression that santeria was not a minority interest, but that practically all Cubans followed it to some extent.

123We took two bicycle taxis, first to a nondescript building where a few people waited outside. The man knocked several times and we waited several minutes before someone opened the double-doors. A very sleepy, attractive young woman opened the doors, very reluctantly allowed us access. The interior was completely dark with three walls lined with cages. The cages contained goats, chickens, cockerels, geese, and other varieties of bird. For reasons of which I know not, perhaps price, we didn’t stay long, and rejected what was on offer. Off in the two bicycle taxis again, for about a mile where Yuri, the main man and an assistant, much older, found another place. I was told to wait in the taxi. After about thirty minutes they arrived back with two chickens and a goose. A motor taxi was hailed, the animals, tied by the feet were thrust into the boot and we set off elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be about fifteen miles away, on a beach, although not facing the sea. A small lake adjoining the beach was chosen and preparations made. One of the chickens immediately escaped. I thought this funny, but just watched with amusement as they tried to catch it. They didn’t. I was secretly pleased. I have no particular fondness for chickens but I was happy to see it make its burst for freedom. Perhaps it’s still there or thereabouts. I hope so. No such luck for the remaining chicken and goose, both had their heads removed, the blood sprayed over Yuri’s legs among the usual chants and exhortations. The ceremony lasted about thirty minutes. I have no idea what it was about or what it was supposed to achieve.

We later stopped at one of the several little shops or holes in the wall (one at least on every street) to renew my bracelet, a yellow and green beaded effort that I had been wearing for three years, to protect me from I know not what.  The shop contained every trinket imaginable. We also visited, by taking the harbour ferry to its other side, the Catholic Church where Yuri lit candles for my book and briefly prayed at the altar. The santeria religion is a mixture of the Catholic faith and the beliefs that countless slaves bought with them from Africa. As far as I can tell the religion is perhaps twenty percent Catholicism and eighty per cent an unfathomable mixture of African beliefs, but be sure, it is widespread and inseparable from the rest of Cuban culture.

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Fast forward to today and the preparation for Yuri’s week long santeria initiation. I hadn’t intended to go, not knowing what to expect. First we visited the top flat of an overweight young woman, her Madrina. I was given coffee and there was much talk about what was to come. After about thirty minutes we moved to another top floor flat, the stairs to which would have been condemned anywhere else, wooden and rickety and only vaguely attached to whatever they were supposed to be attached to. The last leg of the journey upwards involved a spiral staircase covering three floors. We finally settled into a small room where the young woman and one female, very attractive assistant, prepared for whatever was to come. Although the size of the room made it impossible, I sat as far away from the action as I could. The two women were later joined by two others – so four practitioners and one subject, with me sitting in the corner with my book and cigarettes trying to pretend that nothing was happening.

What followed was three to four hours of intense chanting and activity. The overweight woman seemed to go into a trance of some sort for at least two hours. Whether she became people from the past (the dead), one person or several people, I don’t know. I was trying to avoid involvement. The other three women and Yuri followed many of the chants and vague suggestions. They all knew exactly what was going on and how to respond. The overweight woman inhabited other personalities. She shouted, screamed, had minor fits and seemed very much to be genuine. If it was at all fraudulent then it was exhaustingly so. She involved me a couple of times but I tried to remain invisible and take no part at all.

Three days later at twelve o’clock, Yuri left. Eight days were to follow of intensive treatment. She left on Tuesday. I was to join, reluctantly, on Thursday. Alone in the flat was both pleasant and unpleasant. I missed Yuri but I also enjoy being alone. Every provision had been made. I had food to last. Yuri’s mother, who had come from Bahia Honda to assist with the santeria, would come in every day and cook.

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Santeria – part two

A Room in Havana

Our flat is on the fourth floor in a busy street in central Havana. It has a living room, kitchen, bedroom and bathroom – quite luxurious for most of Havana, well, luxurious for two people; often at least one family, probably more, would live in a place like this. It has a large balcony, where I spend much of my time, watching the constant action around. My neighbour’s balconies are just a few yards either side of me, and below. We have two

rocking chairs and a metal table with four chairs in the living room, a large bed; the kitchen is small but perfectly usable. We have a TV attached to the wall. Cuba has five stations now; it used to have two when I first visited. Yuri cooks every day.

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The people below us were fitting a new bathroom. Intermittently, perhaps three days out of five, there was a constant banging, all day, until six or seven o’clock. It drove me mad. Yuri didn’t even notice it. The banging has changed. Tiles are being reshaped with an automatic grinder. The banging appears to have finished for the time being, cement has been mixed, I can just see it in the moribund bath on the balcony below, and tiles are being fixed. I assume the banging from before was making space for the tiles. There is occasional banging as the tiles are put in place. Everywhere you go in Havana, someone will be banging. Noise is compulsory.

When I first arrived I was completely sensitive to the noise. I insisted we change apartment (although, noise apart, I do like the place we have now). Later, I wouldn’t notice it during the day, but would get irritated if it continued after seven o’clock. Bear in mind that this noise is in conjunction with constant shouting, horns blaring, conversations of neighbours and assorted other noise. Now, after almost two weeks here, I hardly notice any noise. I think the banging would bother me, but it has stopped; the rest: the grinder, the soft banging as the tiles are put in place, the mixing – everything – is ceasing to bother me.

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It would be impossible to live in Cuba without acclimatising to the noise. There is something quite relaxing about that. I would not like to be Cuban; I would be at home with the organised chaos that seems to be a part of life here, but I would like to be less bothered by neighbours building a new bathroom, the everyday chaos of life. I would like to be more Cuban, while retaining whatever it is that makes me, me.

I have acclimatised before. I lived here. But I was thirteen years younger. I have certainly changed since then. I still smoke, but hardly ever drink. Before, I could barely go a day without rum. At my worst I would be drinking, perhaps, two bottles a day. I lost myself, had no idea what I was doing. I described the experience fairly accurately in my book, Caliente. I only just recognise the man who had those experiences – what was I doing? – I don’t really know. I came here with a plan. I was naive, some people tried to take advantage, others tried to help, I hardly knew which was which.

At the moment I can’t afford to stay here, although I would like to. My ambition when I get home is to promote my book (something I’ve been unable to do so far), continue with my writing and somehow find a way to live here. It would have to be partly on my terms – I would only intend to be part Cuban.  I would need a library of English books, a large library. I would need access to new books. I have discovered some Cuban and South and Central American writers I like; I’d like to discover more, but there are very few books in English here, and my Spanish is nowhere near good enough for reading. So, I would need a flat (something similar to what I have now would be fine, perhaps a little bigger) and the means to pay for it. And Yuri. That is really all I need.

The people below have started banging again, although it is fairly rare now. I have accepted it. To live in Cuba one must accept the noise, or to be more accurate: to live in Havana. We visited Tony at his Bahia house; it was perfectly quiet. In many ways it would be the perfect place for me. I didn’t like the house when I first moved there with Yamilia in 2001, or later when I lived there through necessity. I stayed there in 2009 with Yuri and I didn’t like it. The main reason for this was that the house is not within walking distance of anywhere: a few shops, a bar is ten minutes walk away, Havana a twenty minute taxi journey – back then it was not enough. But when we visited last week I suddenly realised that now, perhaps, it is ideal. It just what I need.

Before this trip I wondered if I would ever be able to visit Cuba without alcohol, specifically rum. But now I rarely drink. For three years I stopped smoking too, and I could not imagine being in Cuba without cigarettes. During the non-smoking, non-drinking years I didn’t do anything; I never went anywhere. Perhaps I was prolonging my life, but what for, for what reason?  When I began smoking again I came back to Cuba. Not drinking is now easy. I smoke far too much but I am working on that (I’ve been working on it for forty years). So now that I know that I can be here and enjoy myself without rum, Tony’s house becomes rather different. I’d often wondered what I would do with all my books, assuming that I could get them here. Well, Tony’s house is ideal; it has at least two rooms which could be used for books. And it has silence, something I didn’t want before, but now I do seek it like a pain relieving balm – I can become acclimatised to the noise in Havana, but never will I become comfortable with it. So, if I can get my books here, order the occasional new one, write, sell a few books – Tony’s house it is.

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We went to Yuri’s Padrino’s house. She is undergoing some form of santeria. Some men were banging next door; I was the only person to notice it. Later, much later, when it was time to leave, some men were banging the ceiling at Jose Marti Airport…

Holiday for God

I lived in Cuba from 2000 to 2002, and have visited maybe twenty times since then, sometimes spending three or four months of the year there. I lived most of the time with Yamilia; José was a constant friend, as was his girlfriend Celia. Tony was a business partner; he later became more than that, when I ran out of money, but that is another story. Manolo was a translator, Tony’s acquaintance.

Manolo spoke the best English.  He was word perfect, never slipped up, read books in English, could talk about anything.  I didn’t like him much.  He was bitchy and often depressed, unique in Cuba, and he looked down on people.  He was scornful of Yamilia, the ‘she devil’ and considered her stupid.  Lots of people felt the same way.  They thought she was wasting the opportunities she had by being with me. 

‘Why doesn’t she study something?’

‘Why doesn’t she learn to drive?’

‘Your woman is not clever, she wastes everything.’ 

I disagreed, particularly about the driving.  If Yamilia ever got a license no one was safe.  José had good English.  He was educated, could approach the tourists and communicate.  But, in my time in Cuba, I didn’t notice his English improve.  He often mumbled, repeated the same mistakes.  Tony spoke no English.  Celia spoke well, but never in company.  I had good conversations with her, one to one, but in company she always deferred, she observed rather that took part in life.  That was fine, he didn’t need it.  He was top of his tree.  Why should he learn English?  I couldn’t learn Spanish; I could make myself understood, but with so many English speakers around me, I just didn’t progress beyond a pidgin style, although I did understand more than they thought.

Then there was Yamilia.  Everybody, including Yamilia, considered her English poor, basic pidgin, that’s all.  She’d lived in France for a year, spoke some French and often mixed it up together with her Spanish and English.  She wasn’t sneaky.  Some people thought she understood much more than she let on.  She didn’t.  She did have an uncanny ability to pluck complete English sentences out of the air, though.  Often expressing sly humour, big ideas, home spun wisdom or insults.  Whenever she did speak English she pronounced the words clearly, spoke very well when she strung whole sentences together.  She naturally possessed an imperious, melodic, often mocking tone, and this added to the effect.

 

Once at Tony’s house, Tony, Manolo, Jose and I had been drinking, talking politics and generally putting the world to rights.  Yamilia had no interest.  She would listen to music, do her nails, hair or just fall asleep on the sofa.  On this occasion she swanned past us on her way to the kitchen singing, at the top of her voice:

‘We are the world, we are the people,’

She sang in such mocking tones that I stopped and watched her.  She gave me a sly smile.  She would have been around ten years old when a bunch of American multi-millionaire egomaniacs got together and made that record, so as not to be outdone by Bob Geldof’s Live Aid extravaganza.  All the sugary, sentimental, self-righteous hypocrisy of that record came across in her mocking tones.  It was the perfect put down of our self-important conversation, and she just plucked it out of the air.  How?  I thought she possessed a natural wisdom and the courage and sense of fun to puncture pomposity wherever she sensed it.  Cubans wouldn’t notice; it was too subtle.  I’m sure it was unconscious on her part.  I sometimes thought Manolo picked up on it, but he was far too against her to give her any credit.  I never even tried to talk about it to her.  She would have had no idea what I was talking about.  It was just there, sometimes, and it amazed me. 

 

During the longest day we were sitting in Cathedral Square, my favourite place at the time. Very touristy but beautiful and peaceful, no matter what the time of day, no matter if there was music playing, tables full of tourists or just quiet, mostly in the lull between the afternoon trade and the evening pick up when everyone began thinking differently. We would spend hours, sometimes all day there, watching the world go by.  I was in philosophical mood, thinking about the longest day in Cuba, the tropics; not as long as the longest English day, but the longest all the same.  The summer solstice, the day the sun is said to pause.  I liked the idea, something typically Cuban about it, as though the universe paused, took a day off work.  I said as much to Yamilia, explained the summer solstice to her.

            ‘How can the longest day be a holiday for God?’ she said.

She pointed to her head,

 ‘You have problem here.’

 

Exasperated, she turned away and went back to watching the tourists. I hadn’t mentioned God, or holidays.

 

YamiliaPicI thought of this story recently. Yamilia is gone. Permanently? I don’t know. I haven’t seen her for four years, although I am in fairly regular contact. She’s in Ecuador. I’m not sure why. And I’m with someone else, Yuri, as different from Yamilia as it’s possible to be. I will be in Cuba for the whole of August. I remember the days with Yamilia with affection but they are in the past; I am sure I will see her again but the three years we were together are a memory now: unforgettable, amazing but gone. During the month I spend in Havana I will write the second part of the memoir started in 1999. It will include Yamilia and bring the story up to, perhaps, 2010. Although I can never repeat the times of 1999 to 2002 (I not sure I’d want to), the next chapter awaits.

………..

Chris is the author of Caliente, a memoir of escape, love and trouble. Lots of trouble.

‘Yamilia waits in Havana. She is astonishingly beautiful and of volatile temperament. Her enemies, and even some of her friends, think she is unstable, even dangerous. José, Hilton’s closest friend in Havana, agrees, ‘She is a bad woman. Do not stay with her,’ he pleads. Hilton disagrees; he’s in love, he doesn’t see her that way – Yamilia is natural, honest, a force of nature. Like a hurricane. He will create a new life with her in Cuba. What could possibly go wrong?’

Too much information

“Distraction is the barrier through which a writer must force his way.”

Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, in a lecture at Oxford University, said that a typical ‘quality’ newspaper, the London or New York Times, for example, contained considerably more information in one day than even an educated Elizabethan absorbed in an entire lifetime:

“I suspect that an Elizabethan was less confused by what he saw. He would certainly have been less agitated than we are. His knowledge cannot have laid him so close to the threshold of chaos as ours.”

That was in 1990, the Dark Ages in technological terms. How much more information do we absorb today, with the 24 hour bombardment from television, the Internet, Smartphones, iPads, radios and the printed media? More than we are designed to absorb? Can writers rise, clear-headed, above the fray and actually observe their world dispassionately before relating it back coherently to readers and, if they can, will their views be obsolete as quickly as a new phone?

Saul Bellow considered himself above the fray. Although he admitted to a certain daily addiction to ‘the news’, he was more concerned with how to get through to an increasingly distracted audience,

“The concern of tale-tellers and novelists is with human essences neglected and forgotten by a distracted world.”

Surely even Bellow, who died in 2005, would struggle against distraction today.

In 2008 Nicholas Carr wrote an article entitled Is Google Making Us Stupid? Much has been written since on this and related topics, indeed Carr expanded his article into a book, and then another, but I believe this early, brilliant and perceptive article provides most of what we need to know. Carr claimed that the Internet

 “…is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski. I now have almost totally lost the ability to read and absorb a longish article on the web or in print.”

Carr cites a study of visitors to the British Library research sites, which provided access to journals, e-books and other sources of written information. It was found that people exhibited:

 “…a form of skimming activity, hopping from one source to another and rarely returning to any source they’d already visited. They typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would bounce out to another site. Sometimes they’d save a long article, but there’s no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.”

Users would,

“power browse horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

Rolling news requires that the viewer watch and listen to material that has been repeated hundreds of times already, and is being constantly repeated elsewhere, while also reading about ‘breaking news’ being transmitted in text across the screen, probably with a view of a busy newsroom in the background where newshounds scurry back and forth, dedicated to providing the viewer with news of everything that is happening in the world, as it happens.

Mastering the delights of technology gives the illusion of control. But, for many, is it just an avoidance of life ‘out there’ rather than participation within it? We have the illusion that we are on top of everything, but what, apart from the ability to use gadgets, do we have control of? Since succumbing to a Smartphone I’ve found distraction has increased ten-fold, where once I was available only to calls and texts, now I’m available for everything – always.

Henry James advised writers

“to try to be one of those people on whom nothing is lost.”

Wise and true, I believe, but an Einstein-like big brain is now needed to hold and make some sense of all the information available.

Michael Foley wrote in his excellent The Age of Absurdity (2010) that

“My television and laptop both behave as though they are on first name terms with their owner and have intimate knowledge of his personality and tastes. Nowhere is safe now. I visit my dentist where for, for decades, there has only been dog-eared magazines with missing covers and find a music centre behind the reception desk, a television in the waiting room and a radio playing in the surgery.”

 ***

When Harper (Nellie) Lee and Truman Capote were researching Capote’s In Cold Blood, his ‘factual’ novel about the murder of a wealthy Kansas farmer, his wife and two of their children, they took thousands of pages of notes, interviewing and often befriending residents in their homes. They encountered an unanticipated problem: trying to keep people’s attention away from the TV,

“The nuisance of manic commercials in the background tested Nelle’s and Truman’s patience, especially when the whole point of an interview was to try to talk intimately with someone.”

NBC had recently begun broadcasting from Garden City. It was 1959. Neither Lee nor Capote owned a TV because

“It interferes with work.”

The average American is now subjected to over 3000 advertisements per day. The rest of the world cannot be far behind.

Distraction is nothing new: Virginia Woolf’s dress could be so careless that, according to Quentin Bell, her

“drawers would literally fall down”

and on one occasion,

“everything dropped”

as she was saying goodbye to guests at the door. GK Chesterton once sent a telegram to his wife, saying

“Am in Kettering. Where am I supposed to be?”

Of course their distraction was of a different kind: internal; they had both probably been mentally composing an essay or a novel at the time – this is the internal distraction of the quintessential artist, not the external distraction of modern life.

So how can writers overcome not only today’s distraction of 24 hour information but the noise that accompanies it?

In the 1880s the French poet Jules Laforgue believed that

“the modern world has embarked on a conspiracy to establish that silence does not exist”

and, like Proust, soundproofed his room with cork. Kafka thought that:

“One can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”

 

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“I used to have a little studio in Brooklyn, a couple of blocks from my house – no telephone, not much else. The only thing I ever did there was work. It was perfect. I came in ready to sit at my desk. No television, no way to call out. Didn’t want to be tempted. There’s an old Talmudic belief that you build a fence around an impulse. If that’s not good enough, you build a fence around the fence.”

Wordsworth said that poetry comes from emotion recollected in tranquillity. The tranquillity available to him may have gone forever, but it does not mean that it cannot be found. I find I have to go to expensive extremes to get any serious writing done.  I must have some form of peace to write. I don’t need to be distracted to be diverted from writing. I can do that by myself. If there were an Olympic discipline in prevarication, I’d have a great chance of a medal – although that might be an event with a poor turnout. I planned and wrote by book from home, completed a synopsis and a few chapters and sent them away. When a literary agency told me that they would find me an agent if I could turn my draft into 300 pages of flowing text, I knew there was only one way to do it: get on a plane and go somewhere where I might be able to work without distraction.

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My Bali writing hole

The first half of Caliente was written in the garden of a cottage in Bali, the second half at a villa in Havana. An expensive and indulgent way to get one’s writing done, I agree, but it wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I can’t blame technological distraction entirely for that, but escaping it was nevertheless a part of the process; in neither place did I log on to the Net apart from morning emails from an Internet café in Bali, and in Havana from hotels with Internet access. I left my phone at home. I don’t regret my decision. I wanted to get the book written and I would have done anything to achieve it.

chriscuba-001My second book will take shape during August, in Havana. It will be extremely hot so I will spend the days in air conditioned isolation while I write for 6 to 8 hours per day, before enjoying a cooler, well-earned night out with friends. To complete the book I will probably need to find peace and isolation again. That peace might need to be found closer to home – a cottage in Wales perhaps – and more frugal writing sites may soon become a necessity. Like Michael Foley, I find much of modern life absurd. I have to escape from it before I can write about it.

Havana Book Fair

Despite a lifelong love of books, the Havana Book Fair somehow passed me by during my two year stay. I remember the beautiful Castle Morro as the site of a Saturday night club, where, on a lovely patio overlooking the sea, I sipped mojitos. A sea breeze slapped waves against the rocks and, through the spray, the lights of Havana winked at me from across the bay. The club has gone – bars and clubs appear, disappear and sometimes reappear in Havana – but the castle remains. And so does the Book Fair.

Cubans are generally avaricious readers – I take all the books I can carry each time I return, to give to friends. Books are expensive in the Havana bookstores, beyond the reach of most ordinary people, and the choice is limited. The Book Fair is great event, providing wider choice and the opportunity to find bargains. It is descended upon with infectious enthusiasm by readers of all ages. I’m proud to associate my story with this rich and lovely occasion.

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Caliente: a true story of love, adventure, gallons of rum and lots of trouble.

“I must say I was gripped. It has the sweet-and-bitter tang of reality and in my view it will find an eager readership.”

John Carey, Merton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford

 

Caliente CoverExcerpt from chapter one:

I sat in the empty car park and smoked a cigarette.  Then I drove contentedly, dreamily, through the grey, bad-tempered Friday night crawl.  I left my car in the Pink Elephant long-stay car park and booked into the Gatwick Hilton.  I spent the next three hours roaming the airport, drawing dollars and sterling from various ATMs and exchanges.  The next morning I did the same and posted my Pink Elephant ticket to Paul.  The car belonged to him now.  At four that afternoon I boarded a Cubana flight, direct to Havana.  Paul, now free and tagged, called as I sat on the runway,

‘All set Reggie?’
‘All set.’

I had $100 000 in an attaché case and considerably more than that in a Channel Island bank account, accessible in Cuba.  I didn’t set foot in England again for two years.

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“Hilton is a delightful guide to the very special atmosphere of Cuba in the last years of the Castro family, and his book should find many readers. I read with immense pleasure.”

Richard Gott, author of Cuba: A New History.

“A fantastic tale, full of pace and steeped in the sense of the place. Hilton really knows Havana.”                                      

Matthew Parris, The London Times

bookfairhavana

Where it began..

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Where it began..

A photo of my original advertisment in Private Eye Magazine. The start of the journey to writing Caliente. A love story. An adventure. An honest look at escaping to pastures new.