Saturday, 12 May 2007

He came to spread success, and he has spread it...

Above, from The Dovonian, the Dover College magazine, summer 1963.

Either I mistake your shape and making quite,
Or else you are that shrewd and knavish sprite
Call’d Robin Goodfellow.

Fairy to Puck: A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act II Sc 1.

Bushy Ruff Cottages, Kearsney, South Kent. Saturday May 12th. D-Day minus two.

For over thirty five years I’ve walked out of the back gate of my father’s home at Bushy Ruff cottages in the village of Kearsney, which is about three miles from the White Cliffs of Dover. You can smell the sea, most days.

I turn left up a slope and walk across the elegant grounds of Kearsney Abbey, passing the lake where at weekends old men and young boys steer model boats away from the many moody swans. I’ll cross the small bridge and then visit the Co-op store in River close to the water mill; buy newspapers and milk, sometimes Argentine Merlots or a pork pie. Never once have I thought that I might be following in the footsteps of a famous literary life.

But – yesterday, my last day in the British Library for some time – I discovered a fact stranger than fiction. Suitably, perhaps, in a biography entitled Stranger than Fiction. The book was written by the feisty Newsnight Political Editor, Michael Crick, and considers the life of Jeffrey Archer, author and “character”.

Crick is the kind of journalist we’d all like to be. It was said that in the 2005 General Election the five most frightening words for politicians were: “Michael Crick is in reception.” His study of Archer is quite brilliant, telling a story of which Charles Dickens or Laurence Sterne would be proud. On the cover of the 2000 paperback there are two brief quotes: “Brilliant” says The Times. “I hate this book,” says Jeffrey Archer.

But back to Kearsney Abbey, the summer of 1962. A keen young PE teacher at Dover College, “very contemporary, very pukka, with a pronounced taste for Kipling, a voice like a razor-blade, and a Henry V haircut that was never out of character,” (wrote The Dovonian), appears in a “Dover Players” amateur production right here, in Kearsney Abbey. Where I’ve walked twenty minutes ago.

As Crick writes: “His [Archer’s] most notable role was as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which the players performed in the grounds of nearby Kearsney Abbey. Every night the audience was startled as Puck, clad completely in green, suddenly leapt on to the stage from behind a tall hedge. In fact this leap wasn’t quite as agile and spectacular as it looked, since he’d actually taken off from a raised platform on the other side. But, in the opinion of the Dover Express, “Never could Dover Audiences have seen a more energetic puckish-Puck than Dover College master Jeffrey Archer who created havoc in the wood as he worked for his fairy king Oberon.”

I can, and will, make many literary allusions during this trip, but I was not expecting Jeffrey Archer to make an appearance. But thinking about it, and chance, Archer is not such a surprise – is rather welcome, actually. His lives and myths, their abrupt peaks and troughs, girdled from Oxford onwards by huge press interest that brought celebrity status for good and bad and Prison Diaries, tell us much about our times. Whatever one feels about Archer it is impossible to ignore the man. Simon Cowell of X-Factor fame was an old boy of Dover College too.

Jeffrey Archer is also geographically entwined with a very different pair of writers who I will consider tomorrow.

For a short time in 1961 Archer – known at Dover College as the “Grip Kid” as he was always telling his students to get one – lived at the digs of Alice Slaughter at Victoria Park, in Dover. She, Crick says, “was used to having lodgers with unusual activities. Before the war, she had owned a house on the seafront near the Eastern Dock, where Christopher Isherwood and W.H. Auden had briefly been her tenants. “they used to have the strangest people there,” says her daughter Joan Czarnowski, “and E.M Forster used to stay.”

More of them on Sunday.

Archer will, I suspect, be one for the historians as well as the journalists. His life is not as unusual as Tom Coryat’s, but just as enigmatic; and both are men of Somerset, for what it is worth. My fellow Contemporary Nomad, the Crime Writer Kevin Wignall, pointed out recently that Jeffrey was last year’s top British author in America – where hardback sales of False Impression – yes, really – were close to 275,000. Archer is still going strong. And there is that Judas book, as well.

Truly the ex-Dover Grip Kid has “put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.”

Thus much of Kearsney Abbey.

The Times is Very Kind

Today there is a piece in The Times of London about me and the trip:

"While my life is weighty (in a not-unpleasant way), his is light."

From Kate Muir's The Dark Ages

And Crime writer and friend Olen Steinhauer is supportive too.

Friday, 11 May 2007

Tourist Zone or Workplace?

"You’re working in the abstract, sharing space with these people who you cannot imagine existing in the world outside, and the sexual and the personal life is repressed for most of the day. But believe me, when it comes out, it comes out with a vengeance."

Elaine Glaser, BBC Producer.

Today is the last I will spend for some time in Humanities One, the largest of the Reading Rooms at the British Library in London. It has been my home for over a year now, an office co-mingled with my own history, where I’ve been writing a long novel and researching this trip. I’ve lost count of the number of old friends I’ve met here, writing novels, researching searing biographies, knocking off a column, escaping the kids/husband/wife or editor, or just hanging out in between appointments. Probably the most unlikely meeting was with my friend Ian, over from New York, who I spotted outside Rare Books last summer. “Off to Mauritius in an hour,” he said. “Going to write about Dodos. Fancy lunch?” Another was last seen knee-deep in the “Brazillian Dan Brown.” We’ll meet the American Dan in a few weeks outside the back entrance to the Ritz hotel in Paris.

Some people complain that the British Library is not what it was; Will Hodgkinson wrote two years ago that Humanities One is nicknamed “Tourism” because – more or less - half its youngish inhabitants are dressed for the beach and are as likely to be texting a friend or wilf-ing on the wi-fi, as researching the origins of socialism in nineteenth century Poland. Will’s brother is King of Idlers: I think he should let things be.

True it is harder to get a seat these days, and flesh more prominent. But I like the new kind of library. It is half private members club, one quarter scholarly retreat, one eighth dating agency, and one sixteenth PR location (in the evenings men and women in pinstripes clutch white wine in the foyers and celebrate Innovation & Achievement Awards) and one sixteenth exercise in serendipity. And the books are still great.

Several months ago Bill Gates launched Vista here, his new operating system, with the English band The Feeling playing a promotional concert in the courtyard. Like most things Microsoft, the band was late and the mix wasn’t too good. But Microsoft has given a lot to the BL (including thousands of t-shirts). And, as with Google, the future of "old" books is on their agenda – as well as the digital. I like the mix of high-tech and ancient manuscript. In fact, the entire journey I’m making is about both the digital now, and the parchment-y then. And I know for a fact that the BL is working on this relationship with some old friends. Good luck to everyone concerned.

For without the BL (and Wikipedia, naturally) this trip would be threadbare in every sense. I’ve learnt from The Master about preparation. And so many, many thanks to everyone who has helped me do just that: I’ll be back in Seat 2157 in early October.

Thus much of the British Library.

Monday, 7 May 2007

Boris Johnson, MP, becomes minor Jules Verne via John Lennon, suggests invasion

On the first day of Nicholas Sarkozy's France, a Daily Telegraph visionary has the solution to South East England's property madness.

You may say I'm a dreamer, in the words of the poet Lennon, but I'm not the only one. It was back in the 1980s that EuroRoute proposed a magnificent scheme to the British and French governments, backed by such names as Barclays and Trafalgar House. The EuroRoute involved both a road and a rail link, and it strikes me as tragic that we didn't choose it. Dial it up now, and you will see how the motorist goes out to sea on a big bridge, though no bigger than many already in existence. You then arrive at an island seven miles out, like a gigantic Fisher-Price kiddy kar park, and you descend a short spiral ramp to the sea-bed.

There will be a lot of Jules Verne over the coming weeks, and probably not so much Boris Johnson - who strikes me as a Coryat kind of figure. I pity the traveller 400 years on who tries to follow in Boris's footsteps. Or cycle-tracks.

Meanwhile, another view of invasion - the other way around.

And the National Review discovers an entirely new Kent

The Kent Corridor from London to Dover is known ironically as “France’s Silicon Valley.”

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Even Walking is Getting Faster

The picture above is from Budapest - which doesn't appear in the top twenty

'World is walking 10% faster'

Ten fastest walking cities in the World

1) Singapore (Singapore

2) Copenhagen (Denmark)

3) Madrid (Spain)

4) Guangzhou (China)

5) Dublin (Ireland)

6) Curitiba (Brazil)

7) Berlin (Germany)

8) New York (US)

9) Utrecht (Netherlands)

10) Vienna (Austria)