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New Shores & Busy Skies

Hello again. I’m back online after moving house 10 days ago  – which meant no internet connection for a while.

The Friday before last, Carolyn and I finally got the keys to our new house. We haven’t moved that far – only about 15 miles west along the coast to Southbourne in Bournemouth.

Southbourne Beach - early morning.

Looking across Poole Bay, early morning.

But it’s our house! For the first time in nearly six years, we’re living in our own place – and all our possessions are here with us rather than being in various locations around the country.

Fitting everything in is proving a bit of a challenge. Our new house is only two bedrooms (the old one was three) and none of the rooms are that big. (The size issue began to sink in when we realised our bed wouldn’t fit up the stairs. Still not sure where the second tandem bike is going either.)

Still, being forced to downsize and declutter is proving quite therapeutic. So much stuff seems precious until you get rid of it – then you give a sigh of relief and realise you don’t actually miss it at all.

We’re still getting to know our new stamping ground but have enjoyed a few early morning dips at our local beach and checked out our nearest Indian restaurant.

Looking east to Hengistbury Head

Looking east to Hengistbury Head

It hasn’t all been peace and tranquility though – it was Bournemouth Air Festival over the past four days and we’ve had everything from fighter jets to old biplanes buzzing overhead, looping the loop and performing all kinds of rolls and other aerobatics.

At least it’s not boring here!

A Red Arrow coming up the street!

A Red Arrow coming up the street!

sthbourne05

Which way’s up?

The beach (and bay) looking a bit more crowded.

The beach (and bay) looking a bit more crowded.

Random Acts Of Kindness 01

It was only the third day of our journey. We’d left Vancouver on Sunday and, so far, travelled the grand total of 116 miles.T10Can05Not really a big deal. Apart from the fact that we weren’t in a car but riding a tandem loaded with four panniers and a bar bag. Plus we were towing a big green plastic box on a bike trailer containing camping gear and other equipment.T10Can01

Still not really a big deal. Except that for us this was just the warm up. We’d flown from the UK with our tandem and the end point for this leg of the journey was Tampa, Florida.

I reckoned we had about 4,500 miles of cycling ahead of us and until just before Christmas to get to Tampa. All on our tandem. Now that was scary.

At this very early stage, we knew it was going to be an adventure but most of what lay ahead was a complete mystery.

However, getting to the end of day three was significant. We were camping at a small town called Hope. To get here, we’d ridden roughly east through fairly gentle terrain. Tomorrow, we turned north into the Fraser Canyon and some much tougher riding.

T10Can02Hope was also significant for another reason. It was where we experienced one of the first acts of random kindness that became such a feature of our journey.

We’d spent over a year planning this journey and tried to think of everything. But feeling pretty weary on getting to Hope, we didn’t think things through when we went shopping for our evening meal.

We were back at the campsite about to start cooking when we suddenly realised we’d bought tins without ring pull tops – and we didn’t have a tin-opener!

Not a major deal. I wandered around the campsite until we found some other campers who could lend us one.

After dinner, we turned in early, knowing we had a long day ahead of us. The next morning, we were the first up on the campsite and I started getting the bike ready for that day’s ride – which is when I found a brand-new tin-opener, still in its packaging sitting on top of our trailer!T10Can03

Now buying a pair of strangers a tin-opener might seem a pretty minor act of generosity to some but it made our day. We never got a chance to thank the people who’d given it to us – we wanted to get on the road and thought they might not appreciate being woken at the crack of dawn just so we could say thanks.

But we still remember that act of kindness regularly. This journey took place in 2010 – the first part of a year-long bike ride that also took us through New Zealand, Australia and a chunk of northern Europe – and it was the first of many such acts that we experienced, all of them helping to reaffirm our belief in human nature.

There are many good people out there, doing kind things that go generally unreported.The world needs such people. We should treasure them.

T10Can04

Life Is Amazing

We’ve come away for the weekend to see my sister’s new puppy… sorry, I should say to visit my sister, her husband and the new puppy!

pup0Mali is about as cute as an eight-week-old border collie pup can be. A bundle of fur with a fat belly, innocent eyes… and sharp little teeth.

pup2

Carolyn and Mali get to know each other.

One of the best things about a young puppy, though, is just watching it. Everything is new. The whole world is there to be licked, chewed, sniffed, pounced on, wrestled with and explored.

pup6Somethings, like garden hoses, are definitely dangerous and need to be subdued:

pup3pup4pup7Other new experiences – like her first bath – are a bit more traumatic!

pup5pup9But at this age, bad things are quickly forgotten. A moving leaf, a wriggling toe… or catching a glimpse of her own tail are enough to make her forget the nasty bath.

And when all the excitement gets too much, it’s time to crash!

pup1

It’s a wonderful life when everything is new. It’s a shame that as we humans get older we often forget how amazing the world is. Maybe we all need to discover our inner puppy (or kitten – if you really must) and get out there to explore the world anew with unjaded eyes.

Demolition Dreams

Back when I was a very little boy, I dreamt of being a farmer. Don’t ask me why. Since then, I’ve done a few different jobs – journalist, fruit picker, barman, gardener, teacher…

Today, though, I think I would absolutely love to be the person pressing the button on this job:

It’s strange because I’m a creative kind of guy in many ways. On the other hand, there’s something about explosions and destruction that appeals to my inner chaos demon…

That’s one of the beauties of being an author though. You can get all sorts of vicarious thrills – like blowing up buildings – by putting your characters into situations that you know (or pray) will never happen to you.

With Findo Gask my protagonist is a thief. His life is not easy but he carries out all sorts of daring exploits for which I’d personally never have the nerve – using a bungee jump for a jewellery heist, clinging beneath a moving armoured truck, stealing the proceeds of a major drugs deal.

For Pagan’s Sphinx, I sent my hero into the wilds of the Sahara to look for an ancient statue – and set a gang of armed thieves on his trail.

In my other books, characters have had to cope with everything from serial killers to school bullies. I’ve even written about a black female police officer who’s moved from a multicultural urban upbringing to a senior post in a predominantly white part of rural England.

Hopefully my characters are convincing in their actions and mannerisms!

But that’s the wonderful part of writing stories – and one of the reasons I don’t think I could ever stop – the enormous fun you can have living someone else’s life. What else should I try?

PS I love the name of the company blowing up the chimney. Brown And Mason… BAM!

Ruthless

I’m in the process of moving house and yet again I’m reminded of the pointlessness of many of the possessions we accumulate during our lives.

Why do we do it? What is this instinct to hoard memorabilia and souvenirs that have no real purpose?

Oh little pig of inspiration!

Oh little pig of inspiration!

For the past six years or so, our house in Cornwall was rented out to tenants while Carolyn and I gadded about teaching in Portugal, riding a tandem around the world and generally escaping from responsibility and ties.

Now, though, we’re back in the UK and it made no sense getting rent for a house we owned in one part of the country while we paid to live in somebody else’s. The only winners were the agents and tax people.

So, having just exchanged contracts on the house in Truro, me and Carolyn drove down to Cornwall over the weekend to clear out the loft, which still contained an assortment of our belongings.

It was quite a task. There was just so much… stuff! Boxes and boxes of it. Maybe it’s partly because of my age. I’m 47 and I’ve done quite a few things and have been to quite a lot of places. Lots of opportunities to accumulate ‘stuff’. But do I need it?

There were bits of furniture and furnishings, boxes of photo albums, maps and guidebooks, board games, travel souvenirs, childhood mementos, spare bedding, framed pictures and photos, hi-fi equipment, my old computer… etc, etc.

I also found stacks and stacks of old writing. Some of it was printouts of different versions of my novels, sometimes with scribbled notes and corrections. I also found lots of tatty exercise books – dating back to as long ago as 1980 – full of teenage poems, thoughts and bits of stories.

Now, if I was a really famous author, maybe I could set up the ‘Huw Thomas Library’ and academics could pore over my adolescent musings and see how my writing has developed over the decades. But I’m not in that league and to be honest I’m far too busy trying to finish my latest novel. I haven’t got time to be embarrassed by the things I wrote when I was full of hormones and anxiety.

I have kept a small selection of finished ‘works’ but most of it went straight into the paper recycling skip.

We also had boxes and boxes of books, many of them good. But I’ve read them all before. I could re-read some of them again but there are so many other stories out there. I’ve already got more books on my Kindle than I have time to read – and they take up much less space!

There were also all those mementos and souvenirs. Glancing at some of them did bring back memories. But do I really need ‘things’ to make my brain remember? After all, if I can’t remember an event or occasion without something physical to prompt me then maybe it wasn’t so special after all.

There’s only room for so much stuff in our lives. Or in a two-bedroom house with limited storage space.

One van-load of stuff went straight to the tip/recycling depot. Most of it, though, has been brought back up to Hampshire and put into storage before we move into our new house. We’ve got good intentions of going through a lot of the boxes and weeding it down further. Whether we will or not is another matter.

The thing is, when we were living in Portugal we had a rented flat and we couldn’t take more possessions than would fit into our car. When we were on our year-long cycling trip, we had to fit everything – including camping gear – into four cycle panniers and our trailer.

Having spent quite a few hours over the weekend lugging all that ‘stuff’ out of the loft and into the van, I quite miss that clutter-free life. I want to be ruthless and get rid of more!

But sometimes it’s difficult. I don’t think I could get rid of all my photos. There’s also my full set of the ninth edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica – all 35 volumes of it… oh, and the nine-volume 10th edition that supplemented it. They’re so marvelously out of date but full of all kinds of esoterica. Although they are quite heavy!

And as for the little pig? Well, about 20 years ago, my brother and his wife came to visit me at my first house, up in Cumbria, and my little nephew Owen left this pig on my hearth. For many years the pig lived next to my computer along with a small dragon and a piece of coral!

I wanted to be ruthless but for some reason I couldn’t throw away the pig. Maybe I should post him back to Owen – now a university student in New Zealand!

The Spice Of Life

Variety, they say, is the spice of life. In which case, my working week has been particularly flavoursome!

Since coming back to the UK nearly a year ago, I’ve been juggling a number of different occupations in order to earn my daily bread (and stay freelance).

This week combined three of my current careers – teaching, gardening and journalism.

I spent Monday teaching English to four classes at a language school in Bournemouth. That was a long day but I enjoyed having a roomful of students from different countries. Quite a contrast from the previous six weeks when – for several days a week – my only student was an 11-year-old Saudi boy.

One-to-one teaching can be more productive but it’s also very intense and quite hard work. Particularly when it turns out your student has ADHD! (Wasn’t told that until week three but at least it explained why it was hard getting him to focus and I didn’t worry quite so much about our rate of progress afterwards.)

On Tuesday I spent four hours digging a pond for a gardening client. Not so much brain power required – just gallons of water to drink as it was extremely hot, particularly after meeting the compacted flints about 18″ down.

Wednesday I really went back to my roots, working as a sub-editor for our local newspaper. It was a bit strange being there – journalism was my first career but this was my first time working in a newsroom for about 15 years.

However, newspaper sub-editing isn’t that dissimilar to editing a novel. The content is different but a lot of the same basic rules still apply – getting the punctuation, grammar and story structure correct is crucial. Unnecessary words are also ruthlessly eradicated.

Every newspaper also has its own linguistic and stylistic quirks. Which is why one of the the first things I was given was a copy of the paper’s style guide. Maybe it’s something every writer should have – as a reader I can cope when writers break ‘rules’ but they’ve got to be consistent or else it’s just sloppy.

Today I finished the pond.

During my unpaid hours I’ve also managed to devote some time to my career as a writer. Part of that was tied up with phoning the IRS in the States so I can get an exemption certificate and persuade Amazon to pay me all of my royalties rather than withholding 30%. (Huge thanks to Samantha Holt for letting me know I didn’t need to waste a day going to the US embassy in London!)

Hopefully, once Amazon get my letter, I should get all my royalties. The next step is some paid promotion for a couple of my books in a bid to get sales back up. (Didn’t seem quite so much point when I wasn’t getting all my money).

And – hurrah! – I’ve also got a reasonable bit of writing done this week. Now on the last main scene of White Rabbits

So. Got to dash, there’s a showdown to write.

Can’t Lose The Radar

Oh, the wonders of the modern age! I got through four novels while on holiday and didn’t turn a page of paper. I also had a whole library of music in my pocket and took about 160 photographs without using any film.

Being a caring kind of chap, I also bought my wife a Kindle Fire a couple of weeks before we went away and this too proved extremely useful. It’s ability to access the web meant we could check weather forecasts on a daily basis and (mostly) follow the sun as we travelled around.

So what, you may ask. Well, it all depends on your age. Being a decade or three older than some of you young web-dwellers, I remember days when all this was… well, science fiction!

peonyI took my first ‘gap’ year in 1997 (at the tender age of 31) back when ideas like the world wide web were still techno-babble to 90% of the population and the word email hadn’t entered the Oxford English Dictionary.

Carolyn and I went backpacking through Australasia and Asia and I remember lugging battered paperbacks and a very select collection of cassette tapes (remember them?) for playing in my Walkman. Once read, books were swapped along the way or bought and sold at stalls in backpacker hangouts. Buying a new tape was a major event – although inevitably it meant an old favourite (albeit played to death) would have to be ditched.

Internet cafes didn’t exist and we would go into the post offices in major cities to check if any friends or families had sent anything post restante for us to collect.

orchid01Life is certainly easier now. In the past I wouldn’t have dreamt of taking four novels on a 12-day holiday but with a Kindle it’s not an issue. I re-read War Of The Worlds (4*) and three new books The Delphi Agenda (3*), The Moghul (4*) and Me Again by Keith Cronin, which gets 5*s and a top recommendation. (Note to self: must post review soon).

We’re also in the process of hunting for a new house and while in Slovenia were busy checking out RightMove for possible new homes.

So, yes, life’s easier in many ways: access to reading material and music, being able to stay in touch with back home and access to all kinds of information. Is it a good change? Truth is, I’m still not sure. There’s part of me that still misses the romance and uncertainty of being out of touch, off the radar and forced to try things new and uncertain.

Anyway, that’s it for today. All observations and comments welcome. I need to get back to my White Rabbits – they’ve been a bit neglected lately.

PS. The flowers have no real relevance other than being ‘holiday snaps’ – I just like them.

Signing Off… Briefly

It’s been a busy first few months of the year and – deserve it or not – I’m having a holiday. So there.

Thinking is officially suspended.

Thinking is officially suspended.

Tomorrow, me and the missus head off for a fortnight in sunny (hopefully) Slovenia. Not been there before but the guide books say it’s a bit like a small version of New Zealand. With the added advantage of being a lot closer.

Since coming back to the UK last September, life’s being getting steadily busier, even though we’ve been determined to stick to our flexible lifestyle and avoid rejoining the 9-5 grind. Being footloose and freelance definitely has advantages (freedom) and disadvantages (less money for one).

It does get confusing when people ask me what I do, though. The answer often depends on who’s asking and could be: author, English teacher or gardener. I also do a bit of writing for one of the local papers but I wouldn’t call myself a journalist (been there, done that, no desire to do it again).

I’ve also spent a fair few hours blogging and although that produces no income I do enjoy it. Normally, writing is a very solitary pursuit but blogging feels a bit more like a conversation. Pretty much a one-sided conversation but I do feel like I’m talking to you.

The blog has had nearly 2,000 views and around 800 visits so far this year. Plus there are now more than 200 of you lovely people who follow this blog. Wow! I do appreciate the follows.

One thing I really like about blogging is the total randomness of the audience. You might be another Brit reading this just up the road somewhere or you could be anywhere else in the world. You might be someone I’d bump into through another shared interest or you could inhabit a world that’s totally different to mine.

Another thing that I particularly like about blogging is that it’s writing. Okay, that might sound rather like stating the obvious but what I mean is that writing a blog post does involve some craft. Beginning, middle and end. Kind of like a story. Which is why it’s good practice for any writer. (Sometimes, writing a blog post is what I do when my current novel isn’t flowing or I’m just not in the mood for writing fiction.)

However, a problem with blogging is it that not only do the posts take time but it’s also – ideally – a two-way process. I want to read other people’s blogs and the trouble is there are so many out there. There are some people I’ve been following for a while but most weeks I discover someone new that I want to keep up to date with. Meaning even more posts to read!

Anyway, it’s time for a holiday. You get a holiday from my blog posts so you can go and read someone else’s thoughts!  Hopefully, I’ll come back from Slovenia mentally refreshed and full of ideas for my posts and enthusiasm for reading yours.

In the meantime, over and out… for now.

Too Many Distractions

Life’s rarely predictable. Just when you get used to a routine, everything seems to change and it’s all systems go on several fronts at once.

Back in 2007, when me and the wife gave up ‘normal’ life to go off and be teachers in Portugal, we rented out our house in Cornwall. Since returning to the UK last September, we’ve been renting a flat in Hampshire – roughly four hours drive away.

Didn’t take us long to realise that the only people profiting from this situation are the rental agents and the taxman. (Being self-employed, I have to declare my income from renting out my house – regardless of the fact that all it’s doing is paying my rent up here and if I lived in the house myself I’d be no better but would pay no tax!)

Also, we’ve got intention of returning to Cornwall in the near future – we’re much closer to family here and there’s a lot more work to be had. So, we’ve decided to sell our house and I took five days at the end of April to go down to Cornwall and do some painting and decorating before putting the house on the market.

Chapel Porth beach - and the most sun that I saw in five days!

Chapel Porth beach – and the most sun that I saw in five days!

I’d thought it might be a sad experience but we haven’t lived in the house for more than six years so the emotional attachment is long gone. Plus, having spent the entire time in Cornwall lost in either cloud or sea fog, my desire to linger wasn’t that strong.

I must have found a good estate agent (realtor), though, as within four days of the first viewing we got an offer of the asking price! (Who said the property market was in the doldrums?)

Of course, that means we’re now busy scouring property listings in the Bournemouth area wondering what to buy up here.

primrose

On top of that, spring has finally arrived. Big sighs of relief all round. However, apart from making life generally much more pleasant, it also means more work. Apart from being an English teacher and a writer, I’m also a gardener and, now that things are finally growing, my phone’s starting to ring with people wanting work done.

Good in many ways: more work equals more money and you can’t really beat getting paid to do something that you also do for pleasure.

Trouble is, I haven’t done any more work on White Rabbits for over a week and I’m getting so close to the end too!

It’s been a three-day weekend here but that hasn’t helped. I look out of the window, see the sunshine and the prospect of sitting down in front of a keyboard suddenly palls: which is why we spent today riding through the New Forest on our tandem, admiring spring flowers, trees bursting into life and just generally appreciating the strange feeling of warmth on our skins.

Things are unlikely to improve radically in the near future either. Next week I’ve got pretty much a full gardening schedule. Then we’re off on holiday to Slovenia for two weeks (I’m not complaining about that!) and when we come back I’ve got a six week teaching contract that, combined with keeping on top of the gardening work, is unlikely to leave me much free time.

Oh well, plenty of time for those plot lines and characters to ferment further…

One of my favourite spring flowers - the wood anemone.

One of my favourite spring flowers – the wood anemone.

Don’t Let It Get To You

It’s been grim recently: murdering bombers in Boston, a warmongering dictator in North Korea threatening a nuclear holocaust, ongoing death and destruction in Syria, kidnappings in Afghanistan etc, etc.

On days when it seems like every news story is about our race’s unique capacity to hurt and harm itself, it’s easy to think the world’s (still) going to hell in a handcart.

But draw breath. It’s not all like that. Bad news always dominates the headlines. It’s a rare day when boring stuff like everyday kindness, good manners and doing things to make other people smile gets a look in.

Last week, though, I was talking to some of my students about the marathon charity bike trip that I did a couple of years ago with my wife Carolyn. A young Thai girl asked me what was the best thing about the experience.

You might think it would be some of the landscapes on our year-long route: the majesty of the Rockies, the beauty of New Zealand, the rainforests of Queensland.

Or perhaps all those different cultures we experienced: eating in a hotel that still had bullet holes in the ceiling made by Billy The Kid, the mediaeval cities of Germany, the Guinness factory in Dublin.

No: none of those. The best thing was the kindness and generosity of the people we met along the way.

Okay, we were on a tandem bike so we weren’t exactly threatening. Plus, we were riding for charity so that clearly meant we were ‘good people’.

But, even still, we had so many complete strangers go out of their way to help us – in all of the ten countries along our journey – that the experience completely reaffirmed our belief that most people are actually fundamentally pretty nice.

I want to drink to people.

I want to drink to people.

There are so many examples: the campsite in Canada where we borrowed a stranger’s can-opener and then woke the next morning to find a brand new one sitting on our bike trailer, the lady in Wyoming who gave us a bag of dimes for the dryer after she saw our laundry hanging in the rain, the man in Australia who rebuilt our wheel for free after it was run over by a truck!

And that’s not to mention all the people who fed us, housed us and generally looked after us in one way or another. It still gives me a warm glow to think about it.

Now, I know not everyone’s as fortunate as me. I’ve never really had to go hungry. I had the opportunity for a good education; I’ve never lived in a really high-crime neighbourhood or suffered from racial or sexual abuse.

But. But. But. I know this post only gives you a tiny flavour of my experiences – and it’s a bit of a deviation from my usual ramblings about writing, books and indie publishing but I think it’s probably much more important.

What I want to say is: the next time that reports on the state of the world get you down, remember that they don’t represent what the world’s really like. It’s a few extreme examples. Everyone has bad days but I still believe that – given the chance – there’s even more people out there who are busy doing the kind of good deeds that don’t make the news.