Monday, 27 April 2015

Fiction and the Armchair Traveller

 (NB This article was first published in the Northern Echo on Saturday 25th April.)

 ‘Just right for the armchair traveller,’ an agent told me, having  read my new novel, Writing at the Maison Bleue.

I never went on holiday as a child living in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. That is, apart from a bus-ride to stay overnight with a relative, or a day train trip to local beauty spots Crimdon Dene, Seaton Carew or Whitley Bay.
But even then, in my head, I had journeyed to many exotic places. This was because my mother Barbara was a dedicated reader of books from the library located in a double fronted house at the end of our short street.
So, week by week, our small house was littered with books evoking faraway places like Zanzibar, Peru, South Africa, Borneo, Delhi, Hong Cong, and San Francisco. And that other faraway place: London.
It’s true that at that time these novels reflected an unreconstructed British Empire view of the world, but still they brightened my mother’s world, taking her away from her life as a single parent bringing up four children on low factory wages.
And from the age of eight - as a rather forward child - I was keeping up with her, travelling with her to these faraway places.   So from that small house in the short street in the small town in South Durham I had a an intriguingly wide  view of a world not limited by place, class or time.

This was how I began my career as an armchair traveller and, coincidentally, a writer and novelist.

The novels I read –as good novels do – made these strange places familiar. Without crossing the
threshold of my small house I could walk the mean streets of San Francisco, queue up for my entry to the Coliseum in Rome through the gladiator’s gate, ride through the Rocky Mountains, climb the Eiffel Tower and ride a rickshaw in Shanghai.
In time, when I grew up,  I got to visit such places and check the truth behind the fiction. I was never disappointed. Although there was much new stuff to discover I was pleased I hadn't come to them as a stranger.
I don’t think I am alone in my experience. Many people nowadays live a busy, hurried intense lives and they look forward to holidays which are much more common now than they were in my childhood. Certain people  warm their winters by collecting books to read by the pool or in the garden chair. Or they will read them during the winter so that they don’t arrive at their destination as a stranger.
This was the way, amongst many other fiction writers, I got to ‘know’ Henry James’ Florence, James Joyce’s Dublin, Nadine Gordimer’s South Africa, and Chinue Achebe’s Nigeria. And more recently, Kate Mosse and Sebastian Faulks’s France and Louis de Berniere’s Cephalonia and Solzhenitsyn’s Russia.
There is a difference, of course, between reading as an armchair traveller and reading while abroad. These days when I pack my bag to travel abroad in the flesh I choose novels to read at leisure by the French harbour and alongside of the French canal. The leisure time is enticing. Unlike the armchair fiction which I have read through the cold English winters the novels I take can be anything, from recent national and international prize-winners, to new novels by friends, or recommended by them.
 I am known to compete with my lovely son-in-law as to how many books we can get through in three weeks. He usually wins.
Packing your books can add (often welcome) weight to your luggage. But the advent of reading on Kindle and other eBooks has allowed some readers to ‘load up’ their machine with a dozen or so books and lighten their literary luggage. My practice is to combine the two methods. I must say I like the rustle of pages as I flick through them in the sunshine.
The odd thing for me nowadays is that   novels that other people read during the cold winters, or take for their summer’s travelling  in paperback  or  on their Kindle  - these could be books written by me! 
This is especially so because two recent titles are set in the deep South West of France. 

My newest title, Writing at the Maison Bleue, is set in a fascinating house by the Canal du Midi.

 I know this part of France well, having travelled their consistently through the last ten years. Of course underpinning this physical experience has been my lifelong obsession with reading fiction (and fact!) about France.
This made me a Francophile even before I landed. It was a familiar place to me even when I first arrived. So it’s rather nice  that one early reviewer said the novel was ‘a must for Francophiles.'

All this  might seem a long way for that little girl in a small house on a short street in a little South Durham town. But it’s not that far really. Only as far as the library.

Writing at the Maison Bleue is available at libraries
 and in print and Kindle form HERE   

The official launch is on Friday 1st May (7.30 – 9.30)  The Lafkaido Hearn Culture Centre at the University of Japan Mill Lane Durham City County Durham DH1 3YB  (Opposite the Oriental Museum)  Parking Available

The novel is available from libraries
and in print and on Kindle from

What books will you take on holiday?  

Make me a list of three books and a sentence saying why you will take them.
I will  feature the three most interesting lists here on the blog
and  I will send these readers a free PDF copy
 of ‘Writing at the Maison Bleue.'

Send them to Wendy at

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