“ARE YOU GOING TO THE LONDON BOOK FAIR?”

If you write books, work in publishing, or find yourself anywhere near people who do, chances are you’re hearing a lot about the London Book Fair right now. This year LBF is at Olympia from April 5 to 7. It’s the first one since 2019 and, as you can imagine, it’ll be a bit different to book fairs held before the pandemic.

For one thing, there are allocated time slots for arrival, so no meeting your mates outside the station and entering en masse, unless they have the same time slot.

LBF has put together their Covid-19 guidelines on this link. I won’t repeat them except to point out that you may need to provide evidence of Covid vaccination. And that’s in the form of the NHS app, not the NHS Covid app or the tatty little card you’ve kept in your wallet for over a year. The NHS app can take a day or so to verify your identity. Best not leave it till the last minute, then.

This year, the market focus is Sharjah and the tagline for the fair is YOU ARE THE STORY. But is it your story if you’re not a publisher?

Dipping into my experience of LBFs past, I can tell you that it’s not a place for readers, though it can be useful for authors as long as they’re realistic. Here are seven mistakes to avoid. I should know. I’ve made them myself.

1 Thrust your manuscript into a publisher’s hands. Don’t even expect to speak to a publisher. The fair is still industry-led, and, unless you have an appointment, you can’t see a publisher.

In the last few years, LBF has become more aware of authors, with the belated recognition of who it is that actually writes books. There’s a small enclave called Author HQ with a range of events relevant to writers. When I say ‘small’, I mean sitting cheek by jowl (yes, this year I’ll be wearing a mask). But LBF is still a trade exhibition, so it you can’t expect it to cater wholly for authors or would-be authors.

2 Try to find an agent. You’re more likely to win the lottery, even if you didn’t buy a ticket. You’ll even be pushed to chat with your own agent, if you have one. Literary agents are usually hard at work in the International Rights Centre, for which an appointment is needed.

3 Expect to buy lots of books. Although it would be magical to shop in a massive bookstore, LBF isn’t one of them.

4 Help yourself to books from the stands. There will be freebies like keyrings, bookmarks, carrier bags, and the like, but the books on the various stands are intended to show visitors a view of a publisher’s range. Stop stuffing your tote bag with glossy new titles.

5 Ask lots of stupid questions. Nobody expects you to know everything, but naivety has limits, and not every speaker is as patient or as courteous as romantic novelist Katie Fforde who, at one of her talks, was asked “How does one start to write a book?”

6 Wear high heels. Comfy shoes are the order of the week. Vertiginous heels will soon become unbearable, and LBF doesn’t sell foot plasters. I know. A gap in the market. Not sure they’ll sell masks either.

7 Expect to sit down. There is some seating here and there, though not much.  A lot of people end up sitting on the floor or perch precariously on an exhibit to eat their over-priced sandwich.

So why attend the fair at all if you’re an author? Mainly for the insights you’ll gain into publishing, the chance to network or make new contacts, attend a few interesting talks, and get new marketing ideas.

For me, there’s also inspiration in hearing celebrated authors like Maggie O’Farrell and Afra Atiq at Author of the Day events. This is how I met Egyptian novelist Alaa’ al-Aswany a few years ago. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of his book The Yacoubian Building. That short conversation with him at LBF encouraged me to write my novel The Girls from Alexandria.

So, are YOU going to the London Book Fair?

LIBRARIES, I LOVE YOU

Another post about books? Sorry. I can’t help it. I love them libraries, big and small. Large ones are great because they stock every book you’re likely to want, and then some. This is Cambridge University’s Library (known as ‘the UL’).

Designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the UL opened in 1934

You may or may not find it aesthetically pleasing but it’s a researcher’s dream and the staff are second to none. The UL holds 9 million books, and what it doesn’t keep on its shelves, it houses in 5,000 square metres of storage space near Ely that opened in 2018.

How to dress for winter, according to the bronze sculptures outside the UL

Smaller libraries may not provide as many books, but they’re gems – and they still smell of books which, as any bibliophile will tell you, is an integral part of the experience. There are two delightful community libraries near me in North London.

Keats Community Library is in Keats Grove, Hampstead, and part of Keats House, a listed building.

Keats House and Keats Community Library

Belsize Community Library is in Antrim Road, Belsize Park. Built in 1937, it’s a beautiful and much loved space that’s vital to the local community. More about this library later.

Belsize Community Library

My affection for libraries goes back a long way. When I was living in Washington, DC, I loved our library so much that I’d often take my cat along, even though she couldn’t read. I wanted to share with her the lovely book smell, and that hushed atmosphere where nobody shouts or screams, unless a cat suddenly goes on the loose.

I have no photos of the public library at Cleveland Park, but I plan to include it in a future novel. Here’s a short scene from the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, featuring Catherine, a 10-year-old American girl.

The only possible conclusion was that our phone was bugged. I took a look under the desk where the phone cord led to a box on the wall. A bug could look like something stuck onto it like a blob of Play-Doh, couldn’t it? Uncle Hank might have bugged it, or else gotten the janitor to do it when he came to fix the blown fuse we had the other day.

After a good feel around, I didn’t find anything that looked as if it shouldn’t be there. Only dust and a dead spider all shrivelled up.

I needed some help, but who could I trust? Nobody. That was who. Then it clicked! I’d look it up at the library.

Now here I was in the children’s section flicking through New Elizabethan, waiting for Mommy to go grocery shopping with a handful of money-off coupons.

At last. The coast was clear. I went to the main information desk and cleared my throat.

‘May I help you, young lady?’ asked the librarian.

I glanced right and left then lowered my voice. ‘As long as you don’t tell anyone.’

She looked nice, so I continued. ‘Where do you keep books on spying?’

‘Well, now, the junior section is right over there.’ She pointed. ‘And it has its own librarian.’

I gave her a serious stare above my new glasses. ‘Ma’am, I am looking for adult books on spying.’

‘I see.’ She consulted a drawer of index cards before she was able to point out the shelves I needed.

‘Thank you, ma’am. One more thing. Please would you forget I mentioned spying?’

A smile played on her lips. ‘You may rely on my discretion.’

I dashed off towards the adult non-fiction as she’d directed. I’d hoped to find something like Teach Yourself Espionage, but there were only books on photography, fishing, coin collecting, and magic tricks. I checked the entire alphabet of hobbies. Nothing.

Oh no! There was Mommy coming through the door. Act normal, I told myself. I grabbed a book on stamp collecting and went to the desk to check it out.

On Thursday March 17 at 7.30pm, I’ll be talking about the importance of setting in a novel, and particularly the appeal of medical settings and exotic locations. Based on my first-hand experience, I use both of these as integral parts of my stories, as some of you already know. Whether you’re a reader or a writer, I’m sure you’ll enjoy taking part in the chat.

Organised by the Friends of Belsize Community Library, this online event is free, but donations to the library are much appreciated. I hope to see you on the night.

To join by Zoom on the day, click here (meeting ID 889 6466 1765).

To donate to Belsize Community Library, please click here.

Do you have a favourite library? Do let me know, and tell me why.

SPEAKING OF BOOKS

“What’s your favourite book?” can be a divisive question. Well, we all have different tastes. Yet, despite this, people often ask complete strangers what to read next. Admittedly, they don’t randomly accost someone in the street with their enquiry. But posting the question on a Facebook group can be much the same thing, and the ensuing discussion can light the blue touchpaper.

If you’ve been to real live book clubs, you know that conversation can get overheated there too, and the arrival of wine bottles and a cheeseboard only goes so far in calming the proceedings. That’s why one book club I know has more or less abandoned literary talk in favour of spending the evening enjoying refreshments.

The book world is rife with snobbishness. Last November, the Sunday Times published a roundup of the Best Books of 2021. It claimed to cover every genre, but romance books were conspicuously absent – this despite the fact the romantic fiction regularly features in the Sunday Times top 10 bestsellers chart. The piece was incendiary to the many people who love romantic novels, and those who write it too. The Romantic Novelists’ Association, among others, rose to defend the genre.

There are some who speak of their “guilty pleasures” in enjoying particular books, usually titles not considered highbrow. But shouldn’t we all read what we like, and not bother with what isn’t to our tastes? When your time is, like mine, more than halfway up on the great big parking meter of life, you realise there’s little point in sticking with a book just so you can brag that you’ve read it.

For the record, I haven’t finished A la recherche du temps perdu. Proust can seem rather a lot of temps perdu to me.

Book talk tends to happen most among bookworms, authors, librarians, and publishing folk. However, there was a time when it was a mainstream conversation topic. According to my mother, ‘nice girls’ were encouraged to use books as an ice-breaker at parties.

Sparkling conversation usually begins with “Have you read any good books lately?”

Just then, a US Marine with a baby face and tight trousers came over and said, “Dance?” and instead of running away, I said, “Why yeees … I’d love to.”

I needn’t have worried about not knowing the right steps. There weren’t any. We could have been dancing on a three-cent stamp. The only thing that moved were his jaws and his hips. I wondered what Father would say if he saw me now. I really must try to make conversation.

“Have you read any good books lately?” I asked. “Really good books, I mean?”

This was the magic phrase. With an Englishman, it would have worked like a charm and we would have stood in the middle of the floor, not dancing but discussing books, and then we would have been exchanging books for years. But the Marine answered something which sounded suspiciously like, “Naw, I can’t read.”

This passage comes from the first book my mother wrote. Called Cocktails and Camels, it was published in 1960 and it’s a fictionalised memoir. It’s often regarded as the first of a genre referred to as “literature of nostalgia” that became particularly Alexandrian. I adore Cocktails and Camels and still find it funny, no matter how many times I reread it. But it’s out of print, just like another book I love, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies by Jean Kerr.

Very soon, I’ll be talking about some of my favourite books, fiction and non-fiction, choosing only those still in print. On Monday January 31, Tim Lewis (of Stoneham Press) and I will be talking on Book Chat Live. Even if you disagree with some of my choices, I hope you’ll be inspired to dip into some books outside your usual reading genres. You can catch the show on Amazon Live at 11am Eastern time, or 4pm UK time on this link: Amazon Book Chat Live.

In addition to chatting about favourite books, I’ll be revealing what I’d buy if money were no object. Think you know me? You might guess some of the books on my list, but my choice of luxury may be more surprising.

I’d love to hear about you and your favourite books, so do let me know.

THE BEST LAID PLANS

Did you start the New Year full of plans and resolutions? I know many did. Yet, nearly halfway through January, they find themselves unable to progress with new activities. It’s not necessarily lack of drive. Author Ann Richardson shares her thoughts on lack of energy.

All my life, I have felt out of sync with many assumptions of popular culture. One of these concerns leisure, such as finishing work for the day and going to a wine bar. The high point of the year is the summer holiday when you can finally lie down at the beach and avoid anything like ‘work’.

But a lot of people – like me – are more driven by the desire to do something, preferably something of value. To someone with this mind-set, the main use of doing nothing is to rest the brain and body, so as to fire on all cylinders for purposeful activities. Lazing around is not an end in itself.

There are many ways to be ‘useful’ – caring for others, building things from scratch, getting things done around the house, or doing something more creative.

We may not do these things well or be happy with the result. The key point is that the activity is important to us and helps us feel that time was well spent.

What makes us so clearly one way or the other?  It could be nature, nurture, or a combination of the two. My mother had a professional job while she raised three children, and I also attended a school whose motto was In truth and toil.

Whatever the cause, one sad discovery about growing older is that we get tired more easily. We lose our youthful resilience and our batteries run down faster. This starts at different ages for different people. It seems to creep up when we’re not looking and, as far as I can see, it worsens each year and saps our energy for getting things done.

For those eager to be active, lack of energy is incredibly annoying. It means we can’t work for long periods without becoming tired. And the definition of that long period slowly shortens from a day to half a day to even an hour. 

The body becomes a battleground – our head wants to get something done, but our body rebels. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, as the saying goes. At the end of a day, we find ourselves disappointed with the paltry amount accomplished.  And we had such great plans.

It’s not so different from the Covid-related lockdowns people have suffered in the UK and elsewhere. They are a kind of imprisonment that stops us doing what we want. One of my grandsons called it ‘being under house arrest’.

Lack of energy is close to house arrest too.

Ann Richardson

There are many causes of energy loss so I won’t offer any advice on what to do about it. But, if you enjoyed this post, I can recommend Ann Richardson’s latest book The Granny who Stands on Her Head.

WHOSE STORY IS IT ANYWAY?

Most of the time, this blog has a jovial slant. This week, I asked my friend and thriller writer JJ Marsh for a more reflective piece on aspects of control. Here’s what she has to say.

Arguments often explode on Twitter (#notnews) and some issues surface again and again. In the book world, the question of cultural appropriation sets author against author, publisher against reviewer, and generates hours of heated discussion. As I write, a debate rages about a writer’s use of clichéd terminology to refer to people of colour.

The problem comes down to an old adage: Write what you know.

The writer did indeed write what she knew, about real children, but applied her own cultural lens. This upset many people devoted to shining a light on intrinsic racism.

Write what you know.

That advice carries a whole host of issues. Do we police our imaginations and stick to our own lived experience? Or are we able to step into other worlds with ethics and empathy?

It’s a topic I brood over often.

Not ‘just’ the race or gender discussion, but the topic of mental health. I’ve written characters of various nationalities, ethnicities and sexuality, but the area I feared to broach was the characters’ inner world.

When choosing to create a protagonist with bipolar disorder, I knew I was on shaky ground. I researched, learnt about how the condition can vary and/or develop, checked chapters with psychologists and those with experience to ensure my representation was authentic. The greatest feedback was from readers who recognised and appreciated a sympathetic approach to a condition that touched their lives.

Then I embarked on Wolf Tones, a novel about coercive control from the perspective of a vulnerable male. Abusive relationships take many forms, as I know from my sister’s role as a support worker. Most victims are women, but some are men. So how to tackle such an issue without diminishing the female experience, acknowledging how it affects men and shining a light on how coercion works?

After two years of research, I came to a conclusion.

It’s all about the narrative.

Every relationship is a story, told by the players themselves. To outsiders, the reality of fraying tempers or bad behaviour might be polished, even exaggerated, for comic effect. Within the relationship, people make up their own journey as they go along – negotiating problems, harmonising habits, confronting obstacles and adjusting their own happy ending.

What about coercion? That’s when one party wrests control and becomes the director, casting a partner or family member in a role they may not want to play.

The first element of redefining roles is by eroding their confidence. Psychologists and therapists point to several techniques by which the director destabilises the victim and convinces them to give up independence. These include criticism, gas-lighting (making one believe something has/hasn’t happened) and micro-managing everything that person does.

Doubt and dependence are harder to introduce when a person has a network of friends, fulfilling job ,and supportive family. That’s why a coercive abuser begins to isolate the victim from any means of emotional outlet. Friends pushed away, families distanced or even rejected outright – the abuser paints them all as the bad guys.

This last is a common occurrence – the abuser claims the status of victim, reversing the roles in order to destabilise and gain sympathy from the person or persons they attempt to control.

Once the manipulator has command of the console, the victim is reduced to no more than an avatar; allowed no choice over money, clothes, activity, or behaviour.

This pattern of behaviour is at the heart of my psychological thriller Wolf Tones. It’s not a puppet show portraying the above because each character has a history (good and bad), ambitions, connections, a sense of loyalty and the issue of class to navigate in a professional environment.

The setting is a classical European orchestra, but the story could happen to any of us. It all depends on the narrator.

If any of the themes in this piece affects you, here are two places where you can find out more: Women’s Aid and ManKind.

Wolf Tones is a work of fiction. This story belongs to Rolf.

Fifteen years ago, Rolf was destined for the gutter.

His luck changed. Now a cellist with the Salzburg City Orchestra, he has his dream job and dizzying prospects. All because of her.

Smart, sexy, well-connected, and crazy about him, Leonor is his fantasy woman. She made him and he’ll never forget it.

Neither will she. 

Read the first chapter here.

A big thank you to JJ Marsh for her thought-provoking post. If you have any comments, I’d love to hear them.

Wolf Tones is out on August 19. You can pre-order it here.

IF CARLSBERG GAVE WRITING ADVICE…

They say writing is a solitary activity (no, not that one). After all, an author sits in isolation, ploughing a lonely furrow that meanders from page to page. But there’s a community of other writers out there and, when I got stuck with my manuscript, I turned to author friends for advice. Here are some of their very best tips.

First I consulted historical novelist Liza Perrat. ‘Write the first draft without editing,’ she says. ‘Just get the story down.’ Editor, author, and writing coach Lorna Fergusson is one of many who agree. ‘Keep going and don’t stop to check a fact or agonise over a wording. Insert XXX and go back to it later.’

As author Debbie Young explains, ‘Writing and editing use different parts of the brain, so do them in separate sessions.’ She adds that writing the first draft by hand helps connect with the creative brain more readily.

I too find that using a pencil helps the writing flow, but it doesn’t always help the quality. What if you find yourself, as I did, mired in reams of Proustian prose, only without his madeleine or his talent?

Jane Davis brought me back to reality. ‘Make sure there’s conflict on every page.’ If you don’t know Jane, she writes award-winning novels set mainly in London.

This conflict thing is easier said than done. I think I ended up boring my own cat.

I should have taken author Linda Gillard’s advice. Pretty sure she was reminding me not to bore readers when she said, ‘If you don’t want to write it, no one is going to want to read it.’ I must say I’ve never lost interest in Linda’s novels.

Sometimes it’s hard to keep up the momentum. Prolific author Jean Gill has something to say. ‘My top tip is always to stop writing when you know what’s coming next. That way you start again with enthusiasm. There’s nothing worse than facing a blank page because you wrote all the scenes that were in your head.’

When it comes to editing, you have to be ruthless, just as Samuel Johnson put it.

But don’t throw those passages away, warns Liza Perrat. ‘I’ve learned the hard way never to delete anything. I wanted to use some characters and scenes left from my first novel that was never published. But stupid me had cleaned up the folder, and the stuff was gone for good.’

I have been known to rescue discarded papers from the wheelie bin, but it’s harder to retrieve files deleted from your computer.

Another gem comes from Amie McCracken, author, editor, designer, and all-round publishing guru. ‘My number one self-editing tip is to read out loud. There’s nothing like it to help you catch errors, but also to feel the cadence and flow of your words.’

My own writing tip? I have two. One, keep a notebook to make sure you don’t forget any good ideas. Someday, to paraphrase Mae West, it may keep you.

Two, keep reading good books.

If you have any favourite writing tips, I’d love to hear them.

***

In keeping with my recommendation to read good books, you may enjoy Pandora’s Boxed Set. It’s a collection of novels by ten award-winning women authors, to be published this year in two parts, first part No Woman is an Island and the second Not Little Women. The first is out on July 20 and the second in October. You can pre-order the first part today from your favourite bookseller (the second will soon be available for pre-order as well).

I’m thrilled to be included alongside authors like Jane Davis, Jean Gill, Liza Perrat, Linda Gillard, Clare Flynn, Lorna Fergusson, Jessica Bell, Amie McCracken, and Helena Halme. Here’s the foreword by Jean Gill.

Hope was left in Pandora’s Box, when all the evils were released into the world.

The Pandora’s Box series brings together award-winning and risk-taking international authors in an unforgettable showcase, with five books in each collection. Never has it been more important to collaborate across borders and to use the power of storytelling to express the rich variety of human experience. This has been the main principle underlying our selection and we also chose stories we couldn’t put down, characters we cared about, and writing that stopped us in our tracks to savour a phrase or an observation.

The novels in No Woman is an Island travel through time and space, from medieval and modern France through England in two world wars to present-day Scandinavia. Although very different, they all show the impact on women of events over which they have no control. No woman is an island.

Happy reading.

COCKTAILS & CAMELS

I’ve mentioned my forthcoming novel The Girls from Alexandria a fair bit recently, but it’s a while since I shared something from Cocktails and Camels. Sixty years on from when my mother wrote it, I still think it’s one of the most entertaining books ever. And no, I’m not at all biased.

Published NY, 1960

Grandmother, a beautiful green-eyed woman with jet-black hair, had come from Damascus at the age of thirteen to marry Grandfather, whom she had never set eyes on before.

Grandfather had originated in Lebanon, studied in Paris, then emigrated to Egypt and prospered as a merchant. Although the marriage was one of convenience, as marriages often were, it seems to have worked out. My grandparents had eight boys.

Mother and Father were less fortunate. They had us —three daughters. A daughter was not only nothing to write home about, it was something one should definitely not write home about. As for having three daughters, it was a calamity. Obviously someone had given Mother and Father the Evil Eye.

The Evil Eye was, like the British, very active in the Middle East and responsible for everything that went wrong. If someone admired your new dress and then you spilled coffee all over it, it wasn’t that you were clumsy. It was the Evil Eye.

But, if Father was disappointed at having three daughters, he never showed it. Father never showed anything, which was very smart of him but most un-Arab. He faced his fate very well, far better than Maha, the Lebanese nanny who had been with Mother before she was married.

Maha was a big moon-faced woman with brown velvet eyes and pierced ear-lobes from which hung tiny blue beads which were meant to ward off the Evil Eye. She seemed to have been put together out of a series of cushions and looked like a Michelin advertisement.

Because she was flat-footed, but mainly because she was Lebanese, she padded around in bedroom slippers which she had turned down at the back. Her elephantine tread was always accompanied by the soft clinking of thin gold bracelets on her plump wrists. They were her entire fortune and she added one whenever she had saved some money.

Once a week on her afternoon off, she painted her eyes crudely with kohl and stuffed herself into a corset and high-heeled shoes several sizes too small. Then, pirouetting clumsily in front of us, she’d say, smiling like a child, ”I’m not all that fat, am I, my darlings?”

When I was born, Maha sobbed for a week. She did not throw her arms up in the air and cry, ”Mabrouk, mabrouk, congratulations, may the little one live to be one hundred,” and then bake some very special Lebanese dish which would sit on our stomachs for the rest of the night.

She did not utter one single little mabrouk. Such congratulations were used for happy things like baby boys, and really important things like having a new dress or getting over a corn on the foot. But having a girl was not a corn on the foot. It was a pain in the neck. As for being a girl—well, maybe one could live it up in England or the United States, but in the East it was something to live down.

Things have changed so much for women. Or have they?

THOUGHTS ON WORLD BOOK DAY

World Book Day is about every child and young person getting a book of their own, but it has also made me think around the topic of children and books.

I was about four or five years old when my mother began writing her first book, Cocktails and Camels. She did it in my room, it being the sunniest one in my grandparents’ house in Alexandria where we all lived.

As if that weren’t bad enough, silence was required while my mummy filled reams of paper with her pencilled scrawl. Sometimes she stopped to smile at what she’d written, and occasionally she even laughed, but she rarely read any of it out loud to me. Here’s a tip if you ever want to annoy a child: make sure they have no idea what’s going on, then demand they keep absolutely quiet during it.

After some time, I piped up. “I’m going to write a book too!”

Because it’s also #throwbackThursday aka #TBT, you’re getting this of my mother and me in the garden.

I did end up writing books and, like my mother, I use pencil and paper for my first drafts. The novels are entirely made up, but where do the characters come from? I don’t know. They come from here and there, I suppose, from snatches of conversation or a chance sighting of someone so offbeat that they beg to be put in a book.

They also come from ill-defined experiences that go way back and suddenly decide to leap into my head. This they usually do in the middle of the night, and I have to jot it all down on paper lest I forget, which I’m told can be annoying when it happens at 2am, and again at 4am.

As I recall, my mother was apt to do this too. And no, it’s not ‘annoying’. I prefer to think of it as the circle of writing life.

I’m very proud of my mother and all her books, including those for children, but especially this one as it’s a warm and witty tribute to the cosmopolitan Alexandria that I loved and was home.

And now my childhood has led to a novel set in the same world that no longer exists. You may know this already from my frequent mentions of The Girls from Alexandria which is out next month. I’m sorry that my mother isn’t around to enjoy it, or to hear me say how much I owe her.

***

Enough of this wallowing in sentiment. It’s not just World Book Day and Throwback Thursday. It’s also Mishmish’s tenth birthday. Her name is Arabic for apricot and she is a goddess.

كل سنة و إنتي طيبة يا مشمش

Kul sena wa inti tayyeba ya Mishmish which means Many happy returns, Mishmish.

How to Plunder Your Memories to Write a Book

For some people, a life story emerges as an autobiography or memoir. My aim was more modest. I planned to use some of my oldest memories to write a novel set in Egypt. It was never intended to be all true. While a convent education taught me not to lie, I used to be pretty good at embroidery, if I say so myself.

To aid my recall of fading memories, there were all the old photos that my mother had left me. I therefore dived into the cupboard under the stairs for the afternoon, finally emerging not with leather photo albums from 1955 but a mountain of dust and a couple of old cat toys.

In my experience, recollections have a habit of surfacing on their own now and again, usually in the small hours. Experience also tells me that, if I don’t jot it down at the time, I won’t remember it in the morning, hence what I call my amnesia pad on the bedside table. It’s not that easy to find in the dark and I’m apt to send water glass flying as I scrabble about for paper and pencil. There! I need only scribble a couple of words to nudge me in the morning and I can go back to sleep.

When the alarm goes off a few hours later, I make out the words Magic Marker

Which make no sense. I don’t think we even had Magic Marker in Egypt back then. Over a strong coffee, I try to work it out. The two words I wrote evoke the heady smell of a pristine Magic Marker and the hot tears I cried when I accidentally hit my mummy on the forehead with it. We both thought I’d marked her indelibly. At the time, neither of us quite understood how skin works. I was seven years old. I don’t know what Mummy’s excuse was.

Neither of those reminiscences is quite what I’m after. I resort to Wikipedia as an aide mémoire but, although I learn the history of the Magic Marker and the reason it smelled as it did (early versions contained xylene and toluene), it doesn’t help. I may as well have scribbled wild goose chase on my amnesia pad.

When my own recall lets me down, I sometimes consult my beloved aunt with whom I have a close bond. She clearly recalls what happened years ago, even if her version of events often contradicts mine. “At Suez, your mother was desperate not to be evacuated,” she tells me. “And Papa pleaded with the authorities for her to be allowed to stay in Alex.”

Which is totally weird since I remember with crystal clarity that Mummy had packed our bags and we spent all day at the docks in Alexandria. While she begged to leave on the US Sixth Fleet, I clutched my teddy bear and kept whining to use the bathroom. My mother’s negotiations were partly successful. Our suitcases made the trip.

Timing goes AWOL too when delving into memories. “You never know your mother’s dog, did you? Boogie got run over before you were born.”

My aunt sounds very sure, but this time I can prove her wrong simply by rolling up my sleeve and displaying a scar that’s still there more than half a century later. I had got up too quickly from my potty and accidentally stepped on Boogie’s tail. No wonder he bit me on the elbow.

Aunt is unconvinced, but I have a trump card. It’s a photo of Boogie with me and my best friend (also called Carol).

My aunt studies the picture. “That doesn’t even look like Boogie.”

From this joyous collaboration come as many as three lines of writing, most of which I cross out.

So my book The Girls from Alexandria will have no dogs and no Sixth Fleet. Even so, it will still be redolent of the Alex I knew, with vendors selling charcoal-grilled ears of corn by the sea, the seafood restaurant at Abukir, next door’s cockerel with his random commentary on the day, trams laden down with human cargo both inside and out, handsome men wearing a fez even after President Nasser banned its use, and the eternal cries of “Roba bikyaah!” from the rag-and-bone man touring the neighbourhood with his donkey and cart.

The novel won’t be out till early next year, but here’s what my new publisher has to say so far.  Introducing: Carol Cooper

 

Janet and John Go to the London Book Fair

Do you like book fairs?

Janet and John do. John is an author. Janet wants to work in publishing.  This is their first time at the London Book Fair.

“Gosh,” Janet says. “It’s very big.”

“That’s what they all say,” John says.

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Olympia is huge. There are 25,000 people here. Exhibitors come from all over the world. This year, the market focus is Indonesia.

John knows all about Indonesia. “It is a country a long way from London,” he tells Janet.

The first stand is Harper Collins. Someone smiles at Janet. So Janet foists her CV onto the person from Harper Collins.

Naughty Janet!

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Helpfully, people have their names and their job titles on their conference badges. John examines several people’s chests closely to find one he wants.

John pounces on an unsuspecting woman whose badge says AGENT, and thrusts his lovingly prepared manuscript into her hands.

Ever hopeful, John!

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“I need a coffee and a doughnut,” Janet says.  Janet drags John to the nearest café. 

“But not at those prices,” Janet says.

“Well, I’m going to splash out,” John says.

“See you when you get back from the toilet then,” Janet says.

By the time John returns, Janet has met two friendly people, studied a floorplan, and found out more about the London Book Fair.

“John, come quickly,” Janet says. “You must go to Author HQ.”

Author HQ is on the next level up, a long way from the big shiny stands. It is almost as far as Indonesia.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says.

Today Janet is wearing snazzy heels to make an impression. The only impression they make is on her corns and her hammer toes.

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Janet and John struggle up to the Writer’s Block on Level One.

“Look,” John says. “There’s a Society of Authors stand. I think I might join.”

Now John is being clever. 

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At Author HQ, there are no seats left. To listen to a talk, John sits on the floor beneath someone eating an egg and cress sandwich.

When the talk finishes, Janet and John meet up again.  

Janet still hasn’t bagged a job, but she is cradling two bulging holdalls. One of them is full of bookmarks, sweeties, and flyers. The other bag is full of shiny new books.

“Where did you buy those?” John asks.

“I helped myself,” Janet says.

“That’s stealing. You must put them back,” John says.

“My feet hurt,” Janet says. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“Well, there’s nowhere to sit down,” John says.

“What about that nice big display over there? It looks sturdy,” Janet says.

Bye, bye, beautiful display of children’s books.  

See Janet and John run as fast as they can.

John goes back to Author HQ. The next session is called Turning Yourself into a Brand.

Sam Missingham is a publishing guru,” John whispers to Janet as he scans the carpet for space.

“I know all about branding already,” Janet says. “That’s why I’m taking lots of selfies for Instagram.”

“How does Instagram work?” John asks.

“You take pictures of yourself in front of all the different publishers’ stands, upload them to Insta, and wait for the job offers to roll in,” Janet says.

“I did not know that,” John says. “Besides, the wi-fi is a bit shit here.”

“I have a personal hotspot,” Janet says.

“I know you do,” John says.

LBF day 2

“I want to go home now,” Janet says.

“Are your bunions throbbing?” John asks.

“Yes,” Janet says. “And I have a migraine.”

“Come on then,” John says. “I’ll treat you to something special on the way home.”

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Don’t be like Janet and John. Do your homework before you get to the London Book Fair. And take paracetamol with you.