21. Fringed


Yeah yeah, I know, I know. But, I have actually been going to places, I have the pictures all stored up, I still have hopes of getting them all done while we're still in August. I've got a week. Come onnnnnnnn.

OK so today I popped my Fringe cherry. Not watching: performing. I'm in Edinburgh for a couple of days for the book festival. (Speaking tomorrow at 10.15am about The Lessons and 5pm about computer games, come along if you're around!) The book world is pretty sedate. One might even say: civilized. There are no heckles at book events. There tend to be hotels, restaurants and sentences like "I saw Joan Bakewell in the yurt but I was too shy to say hello". (I really did, and I was, even though I've actually done an event with her before. Crazy I know.)

But the wonderful Rachel Rose Reid invited me to take part in her fringe event, The Crow's Nest at the Pleasance. I read a story to an audience of about 20 in a venue with a dripping ceiling and snacks of hula hoops being passed around. We don't get that in the book world. Or men taking their shirts off to sing pirate songs.


It was lovely, actually. Even with the dripping ceiling. The bit of writing that's like this - the bit where you're starting out, or trying out new ideas, all happens by yourself on a page. Not among sweet, interesting charismatic people - unlike authors, performers are charismatic - being patient with each other's false starts because we all understand that you can't start off at the London Palladium. I read a story from my email on my mobile phone and no one seemed to mind. Oh, and I've never been to the Pleasance before so, job done.


9. A turning off the main road*

Sometimes, oh best beloveds, you have a bit of a day, at the end of what became a bit of a month, in the midst of what's turning into a bit of a year. And sometimes it turns out, at the end of that day, that you have inadvertently booked yourself for the night into a hotel in a rather dingy seaside town which, despite the name, you doubt the painter Rembrandt would actually have approved of.


(What can I say? The photographs of the swimming pool were deceptive and I forgot to check Trip Advisor.)

And on those occasions, sometimes you remember that the one thing a seaside town might have going for it is that it's right next to something which, despite their very best efforts, people have not yet succeeded in making entirely ugly. And then you might go down to the seashore. And watch the waves for an hour. And feel a little better.


And then you might stare at the hills surrounding the bay, dappled straw and ochre and olive and emerald. And you might wonder to yourself how a person could get up onto those sun-and-cloud-patterned slopes.


And then, if you were pursuing a project of this nature, you could find yourself thinking that if you just get into the car and try to drive up as many useful-seeming roads as you could, maybe you'd get at least closer to them.

Although all you find is a network of cul-de-sacs, lined with houses facing towards the bay like the monumental heads of Easter Island, you might feel that even an attempt to pursue the journey was worthwhile.


And then you might spot a pathway cut through the long grass at the edge of the road.


And you might follow it up the hill, as it twists around.


And you might find yourself suddenly in a place of surpassing loveliness, quiet but for the birdsong, on top of a hill, looking out at the Dorset countryside.




I find these days that I can tell I'm where I'm supposed to be if there are rabbits.

*Yes, I know I have missed out 6, 7 and 8. But I have been to 6, 7 and 8 places. There will be write-ups. It's post-modern to tell stories out of order.


5. Waterlogged


Today I stood in a gazebo made of old tin cans, listened to folk music in a yurt, saw a sand snake (pictured), touched a live snake (not pictured) and spanked a man on the bottom with a 100-year-old truncheon. However, none of those things count, because they are new things, and, since I was at the Secret Garden Party yesterday too, not a new place. 

Instead, today's new place was the swimming pool of the LA Fitness gym in Huntingdon which I used this morning in one of those free one-day trials because the idea of going several days without a swim is largely intolerable to me.

I once heard Stella Duffy say (possibly attributed to someone else) that there are two kinds of people: those who look at a body of water and want to sail on it, and those who look at a body of water and want to swim in it. I'm definitely in the latter camp. Where other writers have their sacred 'writer's walk' (actually I do too, walks are good - look how many of these pieces of advice feature walking) I have swimming. I love how swimming clarifies, how the repetitiveness soothes, how thoughts become crystalized, how you find out how long you can *really* hold your breath for.

So, in Huntingdon, with all of the Secret Garden Party to play in, I sneaked off this morning for a swim. And in Bologna, I went to the most gorgeous underground swimming pool (literally underground, not, like, a secret swimming pool which is in hiding from the authorities and needs to keep a low profile) - it was marble-floored and U-shaped. I feel almost like mentioning a swimming pool is cheating really, because all water is in a way the same place, that's what good about it. It feels like coming home.

Not everything about a person is set, ever. People can always change. But it occurs to me that right now it's almost exactly 10 years since I moved to Manhattan where, when I was looking for somewhere to live, I had two stipulations: nearish to a library and a swimming pool. Some things remain the same.



4. "Mr. Craven had it shut when his wife died... It was her garden."




Courtesy of the lovely people at Hendricks Gin, I'm spending this weekend at The Secret Garden Party festival in Cambridgeshire. I've never been to Burning Man, but I imagine it has this sort of vibe: a lot of weird and gorgeous costumes, strange art installations and more naked breasts than I've ever seen outside a women's changing room.

I'm trying to think of some pithy insight or anecdote from the festival, but my mind is a bit blurred by all this travelling around, seeing things, meeting people, changing context over and over. I am missing my August project from last year where the 'new places' were much more low key, didn't involve a lot of travel or seeing people's bodies painted bright blue or covered in glitter.

Not that it hasn't been lovely. We stood around at dusk this evening as hundreds of multicoloured balloons, and then lanterns were released and then they set a paper dirigible on fire. And Hendricks Gin sprayed us with pure oxygen, which made me giggle for about an hour afterwards, which the internet tells me is a known phenomenon. And I felt full of love for everyone in the world, even though I hadn't taken any drugs and it's not as far as I can tell a side effect of oxygen.

But lovely as it is, maybe insights come from small changes rather than enormous ones. Perhaps those thoughts which make you go "huh, maybe the reason I always do x is y" come when you've changed one tiny thing and can observe the effects it's had on you. Like, you know, the empirical method of scientific investigation. Change too many things and you find yourself going "oh, everything is new and different now, huh, OK, I don't know what to make of it." So, it's nice to inhale oxygen (although not, as I inevitably did afterwards, to look up the possible toxic side-effects of oxygen inhalation), and see various interesting things set on fire, but a huge set of new things just slip through your fingers somehow. It's the tiny changes that stick around.


3: and every chapter must be so translated


I travelled from Bologna to Paris today, on the train. Well, last night. Well, today. Forgive me, I'm a bit tired. The train was two hours late arriving at Bologna - hours I spent on a humid platform fending off beggars and weirdos, always fun to be a woman travelling alone - then it accumulated another couple of hours delay on the way across Europe. I was on the top bunk, which required a bit of an acrobatic feat every time I wanted to go to the (fetid) loo. (Actually I don't know why it was quite so horribly smelly, it was literally a seat over a hole onto the tracks. Nice.) And the bunk was uncomfortable, and the train kept jerking, and I got so little sleep I've spent the whole day literally room-spinningly-dizzy.

And yet, and yet, I loved it. I never did that inter-railing thing that everyone was doing when I was a teenager. Me and my friend Esther did a mammoth train trip around Scotland, but never the backpacking across the continent. Well, some experiences you missed as a teenager can't be recaptured, but some can. I want to do this again, something about the challenge of it, the exercise of rusty language skills, the encounters with strangers, the feeling of being in motion... wonderful.

Some of my best moments were translating between Italian-speakers and French-speakers. I wanted to go "you're both speaking Latin, for goodness' sake, surely you can understand each other?" But I really enjoyed helping out.
"Venti due," said the Italian train conductor, "venti due."
"Vingt deux," I translated for a grateful French lady.
Somehow, bliss.