I am writing this instead of stepping out into a warm, sunny, afternoon in Seville. This is almost certainly an error on my part, and I’m going to spend the next several paragraphs trying to persuade myself to go out and see something. But I woke up late (7am!), spent most of the morning reading e-mail and Twitter and playing Fallout Shelter), followed by an hour of yoga, and then lunch, and I have groceries to last until a couple more days, and I’m feeling very inclined to do a bit of meditation and book reading and maybe go out tomorrow instead. Since I’ve done *nothing* in Seville except wander across the city in search of good groceries, leaving the “sights” largely unseen, I’m trying to tell myself that I’m wasting my month here and really should go out more.
But I’ve rarely felt less inclined to be out and about as I have been here. Maybe because it’s a largish, well equipped studio with a nice patio, lots of sunshine, and great internet. Maybe it’s because I’m sleeping well, and doing an hour of yoga a day, and so I have 2-3 hours less time awake than I used to. Maybe it’s because my Twitter feed has filled with reports of the ongoing lunacy in our executive branch, and I feel like the obligation to be informed — and pass the important, or funny, bits along — is swallowing a massive chunk of my day. (Bans based on religious affiliation? Really? The Constitution means nothing to you lot? Thank gods for the courts, and the ACLU, because few members of our national legislature seems to have any backbone at all, in either party.) And with the blogging time, and getting back into my reading, and catching up a bit on TV shows…. Honestly, it’s amazing I manage to get out even for groceries!
So [I paused here, and am continuing this the next day], instead, I stayed home, did meditation and caught up on some good TV, and today I’ll likely do the same, plus write in the blog a bit. I’ll probably get out a bit tomorrow, following a walking tour of Seville in my walking tour app (GPSmyCity), or for groceries if nothing else, and then hit my first local museum on Tuesday
In the meantime, I’m leaving Philadelphia!
Monday, January 16th
So, as reported in my last entry, I left my Airbnb place in Philly at around 10:30, took the local subway to the airport, and hung out there until my plane left at 6:50pm. It was a bit of a wait, but I read Twitter, played Fallout Shelter, meditated, ate a couple of times, and it was a pretty easy wait. Mostly.
On the way to the airport, a guy I know from Twitter (and a friend of other friends), suddenly twigged that my tweets were coming from Philly — it turns out, he lives there. Alas, too late for us to meet for a beer, which we’d totally have done. But next time. Philly being a central airport hub — notably, for American Airlines, where most of my frequent flier miles are — I’m likely to be there again in a year or so.
One plus of flying American was that my TSA pre-check thing worked, and I got to just walk through security without having to unpack/repack my luggage. That was *awesome*, and doesn’t happen when flying out on foreign airlines. (There is a global version of the precheck, that works on more of them, but I’ll wait for my my current one to expire before I fork out for the expanded one. Especially since it lasts through 2018, and that year should be my North America tour.) And then, when boarding, they did that thing where if you have their associated credit card you get to board in an earlier group, which was also awesome. The flight itself was rather uncomfortable, but solely because I tried to sleep and maybe — maybe — got 3 hours of fitful rest. The flight lasted about 7½ hours, which wasn’t too bad, and I’d picked an aisle seat about as far back in coach as you could get, with nobody seated next at the window next to me. (The stewardesses did some weird rearranging after I was on the plane, seemingly needing to clear a couple of rows for reasons they never explained, and I ended up getting moved, a few rows forward — but the flight wasn’t too crowded and the end result was the same.) And economy class was fine: I’ve learned that on these shorter flights, it’s just not worth blowing a large chunk of frequent flier miles on business class. I have trouble sleeping on a plane, even in lying down in reclining bed-seats; then, you combine that with a shorter flight, the nonsense at the start and end of the flight that reduces your sleeping time, and then the dinner and/or breakfast time. I wasn’t going to have time for much sleep, even in the unlikely event that I’d be able to, so springing for business class doesn’t buy me much, if anything. But, even with the relative luxury of the whole 2-seat row to myself, there was just no way to get comfortable enough to nod off. Maybe if I’d put the seat back more… but I always hate doing that to the person behind me, and it probably wouldn’t have helped much. Planes and trains just aren’t places where people like me can sleep much.
So, we arrived over Madrid a little before 8:00 am, and it was still nearly pitch black outside, which astounded me. Madrid is nearly as far south in Europe as you can get without a prescription, and I wouldn’t have thought it would be that dark that late in the morning. But, all of Europe is pretty far north to begin with, and Madrid is about the same latitude as Philly, maybe half a degree further north. And, more importantly, it’s on the far western edge of the Central European Time Zone, which has been deliberately stretched out to include pretty much all of the EU proper. Since the UK isn’t part of that (and will be even less so, if Brexit goes through), my old stomping ground of Edinburgh, Scotland, is one time zone further west than CET; but Edinburgh is actually slightly east of Madrid, and therefore has its sunrise over an hour earlier by the clock. And if I’d been flying into Croatia, on the far east side of CET, the sun would have been up for a while already. In Madrid, the eastern sky was just turning that brilliant indigo color that you really only see from airplane windows.
Most of my trips through foreign immigration have been pretty easy; the UK is more uptight than most, but nothing compares to the U.S. for making a bloody nuisance out of even a citizen’s entry into their home country. So, getting into other countries generally seems like a bit of a cakewalk. Spain was cake with ice cream and ginger ale. I didn’t do much more than wave my passport under the nose of the official and in I went. There was the usual separation of post-passport routes into “I have something to declare” versus “I have nothing.” Does anyone deliberately take the “I have something” route? I mean, I had nothing, but what would someone be carrying that they’d feel they had to ask for extra hassle? Well, regardless, the “I have something” line wasn’t even staffed at the absurdly early hour of 8:10am, so if anyone did have anything to declare, they declared it to their traveling companions and kept walking. (You don’t need government assistance for everything, after all.)
Working out the route from the Madrid airport to the Seville train station had been a bit of a challenge. Based on my Google research, it looked like I needed to catch a bus from the airport to get to the Madrid main train station, about 40 minutes away. And then it was a roughly 2½ hour train ride to Sevilla Santa Justa Station, and a 22 minute walk from there to my Airbnb. My check-in was at 3pm, so I had left myself lots of time on both ends and booked an 11:00am train, figuring I could just hang out at the train stations on both ends. But I wandered around what looked like the airport bus stops for a while, on arrival and departure levels, looking for the bus Google told me I should take, with no success. Then, I found that there was an actual subway line that ran straight from the airport to the train station! How civilized! How weak of Google not to tell me! But there were very few signs in English, though, so when I found the area that looked like gates to the subway, I went to the nearby information booth and asked how to get to the train station. The very nice young woman there directed me to the farthest set of ticket machines and gates, and, with some effort, I picked my way through the indifferent English available on the ticket machine, got a ticket for the subway train to my destination, and, after trying it a few times in the wrong subway gates, was directed by an attendant to the correct ones.
As an aside here: I’ve often commented on how easy it is to get around the world if you know English. Spain is shaping up to be a bit of a weak link in that chain. I still can’t call it hard — there are plenty of people who know a little English, and my usual handful of words (“no”, “si”, “no hablo Español”, “Donde esta casa de peepee?”) plus Google Translate are enough to get me by. But it’s almost as if they already speak a language that’s used all over the world, don’t really feel a huge barrier to staying connected with it in their native tongue, and don’t feel like they need English to bridge the gap. Weird, really. Well, regardless, the most notable lack is in machine and web translation. The ticket machines — and the train company’s online presence — is surprisingly weak in English options. It’s like, they have them, but only in places, and other places they just give up and you have to guess and hope you’re not really buying a ticket to Burkina Faso, and telling them that you need an extra seat for your grandmother, who’ll be in a pet carrier. Honestly, a couple of times, I could have been saying anything, just guessing based on common web site design. So far so good, but…. The supermarket checkout ladies here (and they’re always ladies, don’t ask me why) ask me a question, and I say “no” with a vigorous head shake — but only because she’s almost certainly asking me either (a) if I have their supermarket card, or (b) if I want a bag. (And “no” is always a safe answer, there, because outside of her giving me my groceries and me giving her money, there is really no other thing that I want to have or to happen. “Would you like complimentary heroin?” “No.” “Would you like to be saved?” “No.” “Can I hug you?” “No.” My answer is always no. It’s how I roll.)
Anyway, once I had the subway ticket, with the train number on it, I was able to confirm with Google Maps that this was, in fact, an available route. Not that I doubted at this point, but Google gave me details of the timing and intermediate stops, and it was all good. I boarded the train when it arrived (one is rarely well advised to do it earlier), and 5 stops later I was at the Madrid Atocha train station.
The Madrid Atocha train station has the feeling of a transportation nexus combined with an underground mini-mall.
Arriving at around 10-ish, I played with the railway’s ticket machines for a bit until I coaxed one into giving my the ticket I’d pre-ordered. Then I checked the boards for my train and found it, but there was no platform announced for it yet. So I stopped at a nearby sandwich shop, got a ham and cheese croissant and some kind of electrolitey-looking water, and settled at a table to check e-mail, interrupted only by a rather aggressive beggar woman who, after a few rounds of “we don’t speak each other’s languages”, shoved her hand in front of my face, leaving only after I physically recoiled from the gesture. Lady, personal space, come on! (I give money to street people, occasionally — there are, sadly, too many to give to them all — but not when they’re super in my face about it. You get the behavior you reward, and I’m not rewarding that.)
While I was waiting, I got a message from my Seville Airbnb host saying that she’d be home earlier, and I didn’t have to wait until 3pm to check in. So I told her I’d go straight there when my train arrived, and should be there by 2pm. Yay, no more waiting in station diners!
At around 10:35, I got up and checked the boards — still no platform — went looking for and found a restroom (€0.60 to use it, for Pete’s sake!), and settled in front of a large board watching for my train’s platform listing and worrying that something was going wrong. Never makes sense to me when they can’t figure out the platform in advance — but maybe I’m spoiled by airport scheduling, and by Grand Central Station in New York, where you often know the platform hours ahead. Of course Penn Station, for my New York to Philly ride, didn’t know until the last few minutes before departure. (I’d even double checked with the lady at the info desk, but she’d assured me it was just arriving and would be on the board shortly.) So, maybe it’s not uncommon… but it seems really weird to me.
So, I stand there in Madrid until about 10:55, when the time finally pops up, then walk quickly to the security checkpoint (for the only set of gates with no gate numbers above the security entrance, but I triangulated…), get a cursory scan of my bags through the machine, and find my train and my seat. The rest of the trip is uneventful.
I arrived in Seville as scheduled, and started walking. Speaking of which:
Seville is a much larger city than I’ve had a chance to notice while I’ve been here. Wikipedia says that it’s the 4th largest city in Spain, with over 703K people in the city proper and over twice that in the general metropolitan area. (Which means it’s about the size of Edinburgh, but half again as concentrated in the city proper.) Seville dates back to Roman times, and has been a significant port city — while not on the coast, it’s on a major river leading up from the Mediterranean. After Columbus “discovered” the New World, pretty much all of the Spanish New World pillaging wealth came through Seville — I ran across a major statue to Columbus while walking through a public park (The Monumento a Cristóbal Colón). In deference to the large group of Chinese tourists, I did not spit on it — although they probably wouldn’t have noticed anything unusual or cared.
I was here largely because (a) I wanted a destination in Spain, (b) I was going to 2 cities in Spain, and Madrid didn’t appeal to me, and (c) I wanted a haircut. Visiting The Barber of Seville seems like a necessity.
The walk from the train station took about 25 minutes, along a street with lots of shops including a promising sushi place, and a barber. I was certain that the latter would satisfy my need for a haircut while in Seville, but I found a better alternative a few days later. (More on that when the event arrives.) Also:
The Airbnb I’m staying at is here. The host, Nadia, met me at the door, led me down a central hall to stairs going up to the top, 3rd, floor, showed me where everything was, and that was that. She was a cheerful woman in maybe her mid to late 30s, with a husband and son (neither of whom I’ve met); she spoke a very little English, and had already said that she used Google to translate our Airbnb conversations. Between her basic English and the Google Translate app on my iPhone, we managed everything just fine.
The place itself is basically a semi-enclosed, square rooftop, with a large square patio in one corner and a studio wrapping around it along the two sides of the roof, with windows and sliding glass doors facing the patio on both sides. This means, by the way, that while it was a pretty comfortable temperature in Seville — 40s-60s — it could get pretty cold in my place at night thanks to all that the radiating glass. I’d turn on heaters in the morning, and it wasn’t uncomfortable — quite the reverse, really, and the bed was soft and the blankets warm and the neighborhood quiet. Then, in the afternoon on a sunny day, the place would get quite warm and I’d open the doors and enjoy the fresh air to avoid overheating. Super glad I’m here in January, though, because I bet this place bakes in the summer.
The interior is about as thoughtfully designed as any place I’ve been. Basic IKEA-style furnishing, cupboards, and the like, but all pleasant enough and *lots* of surfaces and storage and plenty of pots and pans and utensils, and great WiFi — and even a wired ethernet cable! I kind of wish I was staying here longer. I did notice that the pans were degrading a bit. I don’t know what people were cooking in these things, but the non-stick surface was breaking down, and my first scrambled eggs were a bit unnerving. Seeing tiny flecks of teflon in my eggs did give me a moment’s pause — but a little thing like fear of eventual Alzheimers was not going to stop me from having breakfast. (“I’m going to remind you that you said that.” “You’re going to have to.”) One pan was worse than the other, so I switched to the better one for future dishes, and no more flecks, so yaay that!
She had also provided a capsule coffee machine, similar to a Keurig, and a bunch of capsules. As she started to describe how to use it, I interrupted politely to say thanks, but I had a French Press with me. (Thanks, Jane!) What I did not say was, “I wouldn’t use one of those if you paid me!” I did not say that, because it would be a lie. I would totally use one of those if you paid me to; a little extra income never hurt. But you’d have to pay me and I’m not cheap (despite what they wrote on the bathroom wall at Starbucks).
I asked Nadia about grocery stores, and she mentioned there was a large supermarket just two blocks away, and I found it on Google Maps easily. I also asked her about organic grocery stores (organic is commonly called “ecological” in Europe, in whatever the local language is), and she quickly dismissed that, saying that she didn’t know of anything like that nearby. I was suspicious of that, and later Google Maps turned up half a dozen within a 30 minute walk of me. But that was for later. For today, I just wanted the basics, and the local grocery store was fine.
And, in fact, it was fine. They had great, inexpensive goat and sheep cheeses, and sardines, and beer — your 3 basic food groups. They had mostly instant coffee, and some pre-ground, and only two bags of whole bean coffee. One of those was a mix of arabica and robusto beans (robusto are hardier, grow faster, and are more inclined to taste like petroleum), so I went with the other one. They had a wide selection of meats, some presented in forms that I was not really accustomed to, but were still very impressive:
Can you imagine walking through a RenFair munching on one of those? That’s a business opportunity there, is what that is.
Probably the weirdest thing about this first grocery run: they don’t refrigerate the milk in the supermarket! I was looking all over for milk (well, cream for my coffee, actually), and I can’t find it, and I’m thinking, how is this possible? They have cheese. They have yogurt. They have kefir. How do they not have milk? Finally, I realize that the boxes I’m passing in one of the aisles actually hold milk, rather than, say, dry goods. We. Ird. It’s one thing not to refrigerate the eggs, but the milk? Anyway, I brought home a box and put it immediately in the refrigerator. I can’t save them all, but I can save that one. Be the change, and all that.
So, with basic groceries procured, I settled in, did some unpacking, got the computer set up, dinner, YouTube, took my melatonin, and was sound asleep by 9pm.
Wednesday, January 18th
And got 13 hours sleep! 13! I don’t remember ever getting 13 hours sleep in one night before. I mean, I’ve been sick (or hungover) once or twice where I’ve mostly slept on and off for a big chunk of a day. But I don’t know if I’ve ever gone to sleep and awakened 13 hours later! That’s insane!
I was *very* happy. 😁
And I did *nothing* on Wednesday. Hung out, read Twitter, watched YouTube, played Fallout Shelter, ate groceries. It was just a day to ease back into the world and into European time.
Thursday, January 19th
This was my day I started to establish more of my daily pattern. Ideally, I’d wake up, check in with the Fallout Shelter game (for things in its simulated world that had completed overnight), do morning yoga, shower, eat, and get on with other activities. Unfortunately, yoga as an initial activity was out — it was cold enough outside that my space was just too chilly to be comfortable for stripping down to my skivvies and trying relaxation poses. My great Yoga Studio iPad app (thanks, Mark!) does not have an entry for “Downward Freezing Dog”. Later in the day, the place warms up a bit, and I can forceably rip myself away from some other activity and do my yoga, but not first thing in the morning. When the weather warmed up enough, that settled into starting at 9:30-11:00, but for the first week(ish), it was an afternoon activity.
And I’m still wrestling with how to manage Twitter. I’d really hoped it would calm down after the election, but Trump’s being Trump, a firehose of events, and it’s hard not to feel like you should stay informed about current events. I follow a lot of science and arts-related accounts, and even they can’t get away from it — national policies affect how they do their jobs. I feel like my time reading the news has doubled. Not like the good old days, when Grandpa would read the Wall Street Journal in the morning after breakfast. A newspaper will only get so large; if there’s too much news, it gets truncated or dropped. But not on the internet. More news? Great! Here, have it all! I’m skipping and scanning more, but I need to find a way to reclaim some of that time. It’s just too much.
I did get an update from Sarah with a scan of some recent e-mail. One of them I had to save off to my phone, so that I’d have it readily available.
Anyway, just after lunch I made a list of extra groceries I still needed, like organic oatmeal and vegetables and proper coffee (I was still working on the leftover bag of Whole Foods coffee I’d bought in Philly, and hadn’t started the local grocery store’s coffee yet, but I had my doubts about how good the latter was going to be). Then I marked a few organic food stores on Google Maps, and a few sports shops. The tile floors in my studio were *not* going to work for yoga — they’re fine for standing and lying down, but you don’t want to have to kneel on them. (What if Zod shows up?). So I was going to have to break down and get a proper mat. I don’t know if I have room to take it with me later… I might have to buy a new one in every city, just because of the space and weight required, leaving a trail of abandoned yoga mats behind me wherever I travel. But if I do, I do. I need the exercise, it’s well past due.
So I headed out. You’ll see on the map, above, that there’s a central area colored in brown, with lots of place names and little stars of places I’ve saved for future reference. That’s basically the core of the old city, with lots of old buildings around narrow, winding streets, with progressively more and more shops at ground level as you head towards the center.
I did find the sports shop I was looking for, the Decathlon City Rioja, in the more intensely shopping oriented, pedestrian only, central part of the inner city (you can see a star next to the shop name name in the middle of that brown section on the map), and they had several types of yoga mats, so I took the risk of buying one that looked lighter and thinner and was a bit longer and looked more likely to be something I could carry with me later. This, I discovered, was a mistake. I don’t know what function that mat was supposed to serve, but it was entirely too thin for a bony guy like me to use on hard floors. Within a couple of days I gave up trying, went back to the shop, and bought a heavier mat — which I’ve been very happy with. Quite aside from its virtues as a yoga mat, its surface is so grippy that it’s serving as a sort of loofah for the soles of my feet. It’s weird to see the little bits of ripped up callous, flaking off like a peeling sunburn, but I feel quite virtuous.
From there, I walked to what I thought would be a good organic grocery, the one closest to where I was living, “La Ortiga, Cooperativa de Consumo Ecológico”. So much more romantic than “Whole Foods”. I suspect that the Most Interesting Man In The World shops at grocery stores with names like this.
Unfortunately, when I got there, it was closed. I managed to partly decipher a nearby sign that suggested that on some days, they closed at 2pm. I eventually figured out that a *lot* of places around here close around 2pm, and I strongly suspect that this is the “siesta” thing that I’ve only heard about, but that is common in very warm climates. You close down in the heat of the day, and then reopen later and stay open later. I think. All I really know is that I’ve been to that shop 4 times, and never quite managed to get there before it closed. I blame lunch. Anyway, I’m almost surprised that they need it. With the narrow streets, I was in the shade most of the time, and I’d think that this would mitigate the summer sun considerably. Not enough, I guess.
So, with “La Ortiga, Cooperativa de Consumo Ecológico” (be sure to roll your “r”s) closed, I had to go to my next option, “Centro Ecológico Gaia”, which was a bit south along the curve of the river. The trip to the closed shop wasn’t wasted, though, as I did get a chance to pass a lovely neighborhood park on a smallish city block.
So, heading a couple of blocks west, I got to see some of the river and some of the interesting architecture on the other side:
(Note: I did check that out later — by which I mean, I looked it up on Google Maps, with the initial intention of going there, but that bridge takes me to Isla Mágica, a “New world–themed adventure park with roller coasters & water slides, plus live shows and a lake.” So, basically, Seville’s Epcot Center. Might be amusing to go with a friend, but not really on my own.)
Which reminds me, there was an anti-Trump rally in the city on the Saturday after I arrived, according to a website I ran into that listed a bunch of world-wide rallies. I tried to go — I wanted local color, and I wasn’t going to go see bull-fighting, but bullshit-fighting sounded like a worthwhile substitute. But I got there a little late, and either it hadn’t happened, or it was short, or they’d marched somewhere else without leaving a trace. Oh well.
I did find the organic food place I was looking for, a decent sized shop with a chill room that had their vegetables. I spent fricken forever in there, because they had a price list on the wall, and a little electronic scale that…. How do I explain this? I ran into these in Croatia… instead of getting your vegetables and taking them to the checkout, where the check out person weighs them and charges you appropriately, the Croatian grocery stores make you do that yourself. The produce bins have placards with the usual information on them plus a number code. You take the produce and go to a scale in the produce section where you weigh what you’ve picked, type in the number code, and it prints a price label for you. You put that label on the produce, and then checkout person rings it up accordingly. This saves the checkout person having to be trained to recognize the produce (Clementines versus Mandarins, anybody?) and weigh it themselves, but it does create a slight barrier if you’ve never seen the system before. (It also makes reusing the produce bag a bit harder, since the label sticks to the thin plastic bag in a way that hard to remove without tearing the bag.)
So, the produce section in this store had a scale like that. But the bins didn’t have numbers. However, there was a price list on the wall, so maybe you type in the price when you weight it? Except the names on the price list often didn’t seem match the names on the bins. Like, they had 5 kinds of tomatoes, and at least 6 tomato types in the price list, and only one of the names matched. Then, another customer tried to ask me for help, and I got to practice “No hablo Español” — which was cool — but the section was tiny and she kept futzing about right in front of the scale (but not using it), while I politely waited. Eventually, she asked a shop worker for advice, solved her problem and left, and I returned to futzing with the tomatoes and the scale, trying the only tomato whose name matched the price, typing in the price, looking for some button that looked like “Enter” or “Do it” and hitting buttons semi-randomly in the hopes of it doing something. Eventually, the checkout lady walked past, saw me there, and said something completely indecipherable but which I clearly understood to mean, “That doesn’t work. Just bring them to the counter.” Don’t ask me how I understood this, I couldn’t tell you. I think traveling in foreign countries is making me more psychic out of necessity. (Also, I don’t think we give context and tone the credit they deserve.) So I did, and everything worked like an American supermarket from there. Except with less smalltalk.
Backpack now loaded with groceries, I walked the half-hour home.
It’s really high time that I mentioned my (at that point) latest book. I started this on the plane from LA to New York, and continue reading it until just after my last blog entry, but it’s quite finished now and worth mentioning: The Pigeon Tunnel, Stories From My Life, by John le Carré.
John le Carré is, of course, the best-selling author of a large number of spy novels, many of which have been turned into movies (often with him screenwriting as well). He’s also the father of one of my favorite authors, Nick Harkaway, who wrote the truly excellent The Gone-Away World, which I very highly recommend if you like weird, over-the-top, super science stuff with ninjas. (And who doesn’t?) Fun fact: John le Carré is a pen name, and the author’s actual name is no secret. I was just recently surprised to discover that Nick Harkaway is also a pen name. I’d been following Nick on Twitter for some years and it never occurred to me that that wasn’t his real name, until he said something obliquely referencing the fact. It was kinda freaky, like you’ve discovered an old friend of yours has a secret identity you never knew about. (An old friend who doesn’t actually know you exist, of course, but still….)
Anyway, I’d never read any of John le Carré’s books before — spy novels don’t normally interest me. But I somewhat recently learned that he’d written The Perfect Spy, a book that a BBC series I’d seen was based on. The main character was raised by a con man, who ropes him into a number of his schemes, and when the lad reaches college, he attracts the attention of the British spy services, who recruit him into their ranks, where he’s a natural, having been raised from birth to be deceptive and take part in schemes. I won’t give away the plot, but the show overall had a deeply melancholy tone — which I don’t normally care for, but the characters were so well realized and well acted that the series has stuck with me ever since. And when I heard that John le Carré had written The Perfect Spy, I also heard that it was partially autobiographical: he, too, had been raised by a con man, and recruited into the British spy service, before eventually leaving to write novels. So, hearing that he’d written a recently published autobiography, I had to read it!
It was not the experience I expected. The subtitle “Stories From My Life” is appropriate. The book doesn’t start with his youth and follow linearly through his life, demonstrating character evolution or, at least, an historical pattern. (His early years are at the end — he says in the intro that he had chosen to put the stuff with his father at the end, because his father insisted on being the prime character in all situations and he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of starting the book with him.) The whole thing is mostly written as a series of shorts, one incident after another, initially discussing specific experiences working for the British government; nothing that you’d really think of as a spy story, just interactions with foreign people of varying levels of importance, often with a lot of historical background. And then, in the many years after becoming a writer, most of the stories dealt with writing, traveling to research his writing, working with actors and directors on movies, etc. All of it written in an intelligent, seemingly sincere, and quite mellow tone, what one might expect of a smart, relaxed guy in his 80s with a bit of a sense of humor. Most of the stories were interesting, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit bored. They were all quite standalone; there was no narrative thread tying them together really. That changed in the last 20% of the book, when he finally got to his Dad, and then it became a bit more linear and, in my opinion, more interesting. But the whole thing had a quasi-distant feel to it. There was very little about his own emotional life, except as it directly related to the point of a particular story. He refers to things like his first marriage not working out (for which he claims much of the blame), he refers very glancingly to the existence of kids, and of a second (still current) wife, and once or twice to taking a son with him on some of his trips and that son was the right age to be Nick Harkaway — so, a minor point of interest for a Harkaway fan. But that’s the limit. In that last 20% of the book, you learn more about the family he grew up in, but at the end of it I could tell you almost nothing else about his childhood (did he have friends at school? Damned if I know) or about his non-professional life once he hit adulthood.
So, this strikes me as the sort of book that people leave next to the toilet. Read a chapter in 5 minutes, and then read another one the next time you’re there. Or read bits of it on the bus or train, confident that your stop won’t shock you out of a gripping plotline. Or, possibly, pick up one of his spy novels instead, to get more in-depth characterization. Don’t get me wrong: I *like* him as a person, based on this book. But I can’t say that I got a lot *of* him and, for an autobiographical book, that seems like an omission.
And, that seems like quite enough for one entry. I shall continue with Seville next time.