From May 2009


With ballons, in Cardiff

On Saturday I was out once again, meeting  my public. This time it was Border’s in Cardiff, a shop in the old David Morgan  building on The Hayes. It is a nice shop, large and busy and I was certainly  very well looked after by the staff, especially Vicki. However, promotion  remains hard work. My grandmother was a hard working and successful market  trader in South Yorkshire but I am afraid I don’t seem to have inherited her gifts.  People out and about on a Saturday don’t want to be harassed; they just want to  be left alone. They certainly don’t want to be approached by a writer with a  wild look in his eyes.  I can clear an  area around me almost instantly, so sales in the Biography section must have  plummeted, because that is where they put me – between bargain cookery books  and “Buy One Get One Free” offers.
I did manage to waylay the unsuspecting on  a couple of occasions and I was questioned for a while by one young woman who  seemed to believe that the book was in some way about architecture. Even after  I had explained it all to her.  A way to  go, as they say. Everyone who looks at the book is impressed by the production  values and is fascinated by the stories, but it is hard to get people to commit  their cash in these difficult times. Still, it is always interesting to observe  the people around you. If nothing else, it helps the time pass.
One young woman was pacing up and down in a  very agitated state.  She was shouting  into her mobile phone. “It had nothing to do with that! That’s not why we split  up!” If it was genuine then it was mightily tense. If it was an avant-garde type  of street theatre then it was highly effective. Either way I thought it best  not to intrude. A book that contains murder might not have been the best idea.  On the other hand…
In the end I sold four books, which I was  quite pleased about.  I was only there  for a little over an hour. One young man and his partner strode up very  purposefully. Yes they wanted a book. His mother had just given him a car so he  wanted to buy her a present in return. Stories  in Welsh Stone was apparently ideal. I was pleased to oblige. It is  important that we all do our best to keep families in a state of harmony.
So Jenny, if you do ever read this blog, I hope you will feel that you got the  best end of the bargain…
Next stop Aberystwyth in Waterstone’s, on  Saturday 16 May 2009.


Phantom Manor – 24 April 2009

I went to  Disneyland in Paris last week.  I have been a number of times before, firstly with my children and now with my  grandchildren. I know what to expect. It still exhausts me and excites me in  equal measures. I have learnt too that if you are going to get anything out of  the day then you need to suspend critical faculties at the gate as you go in or  you will find yourself in a lather of bewilderment at the sight of a queue of  people lining up to have their photo taken with a man dressed as a duck.
Phantom  Manor seems to be just a ghost train but it is much more than that. The  attention to detail is fantastic, both in the visual effects and in the way the  audio slips from one scene to another. As a technical achievement it is  astonishing. It is so carefully staged and managed, with a powerful Miss  Haversham theme, straight out of “Great Expectations.”
The ride  has all the elements of a horror story –the juxtaposition of beauty and death,  the idea that at the moment of great happiness, like a wedding, mortality and betrayal  can be laid bare. That at your moment of greatest unhappiness there is someone,  or something, there, mocking you and laughing hysterically. There is the skull  beneath the skin, watching you with empty eyes.
The great  American writer Ambrose Bierce collected his short stories together under the  title of “Cobwebs from an Empty Skull,” which is a fantastic title. He would  have understood and enjoyed Phantom Manor.
Outside  there is Boot Hill, a collection of comedy gravestones and you will not be  surprised to learn that I cannot resist them. They are based on the simple and  familiar idea that a headstone tells a story. In Disneyland  of course they frame a joke but for the rest of us a headstone comes to  represent a life. As I have said before, that is what my book is about. Often  it is the only part of a life that is actually remembered. Poor Louisa Maud  Evans in Cardiff  is a good example, remembered for her death by parachute, not because of  anything she might have achieved.
My  responsibility is to try and tell the story that is there. But I cannot tell  them all. Every cemetery I pass calls to me, with its forgotten stories, its  dramas. Disney has tried to tap into that. In the Phantom Manor and Pirates of  the Caribbean attractions, both so cleverly  done, there is an awareness of the fascination that death holds. In the Pirates  ride, amongst all the comedy pirate activity, suddenly you descend into a world  of buried treasure, storms, leering skulls and evil skeletons.
These  transitions from light into darkness are so very well stage managed, so much  clearer than the transitions in our own lives. When you look at headstones you  realise that real life isn’t quite so tidily arranged. Many of the people I  have written about left unfinished business or were cut short before they had  made their mark. My book tries to offer them recognition and respect

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