Today I will fly to Frankfurt, location of the world’s greatest book fair, with my publisher Jean Findlay of Scotland Street Press. I’m being brought along to hustle my book – 9 Months in Tibet – as I’ve proven to be a good hustler over the last three months.
I met a literary agent the other day, Judy Moir. She said, ‘authors are not welcome at Frankfurt. Publishers want to meet other publishers’. But I have a plan: I’ll seek out booksellers from Nepal; maybe they’d like to buy my book? My brother Moona, who works for the Nepalese Government on reconstruction, said: ‘There are loads of English language bookshops in Kathmandu.’ Nepal features quite strongly in my book as it is the gateway to Tibet.
Part two of my plan involves visiting my old flame Bettina, who lives near Frankfurt and has a small publishing house. In 1987 Bettina rode a horse from Kathmandu to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, and then demanded I accompany her on the next leg of the journey. I tried to refuse but she was irresistible and I spent the next month on horseback, until my horse died and had to be dumped over a cliff.
My mother just called. She knows about Frankfurt as she used to go there on behalf of Canongate Publishing. She asked if I have any smart clothes and I say no. ‘Get some,’ she says. ‘It’s essential. Go to TK Maxx. You have to look decent. It makes a difference.’
Why do I have only one set of clothes? To explain, I must take you back three months…
1 August, on the train to Sutherland
In four days’ time my book will be published. I’m going to launch it in the Highlands rather than at the Edinburgh Book Festival where I’d have to compete with famous authors. My plan is to cycle round the Highlands and Islands, get orders from bookshops in places like Durness, give talks whenever I can arrange them and sell copies to people I meet. I used to work as a book rep and have no shame about hustling, selling, getting rejected and making a fool of myself (in fact, these skills were essential when I was looking for work in Tibet).
I’ve also done a lot of camping and cycle touring and am on the train with a ton of baggage: a Moulton touring bike that splits in two and is inside two huge bags; four panniers; a vast rucksack full of clothes, camping gear, food and god knows what else; and a bike-trailer that will carry the rucksack. It’s so heavy that I can hardly walk.
At Inverness I have six minutes to catch the connection to Wick. After two minutes my muscles are screaming in protest but I can’t stop as the last train is about to leave, in fact it is waiting for me; I can see it in the distance, there is a woman in uniform by the back door and a driver at the front. Only fifty yards left. I can’t go on. I’m going to die.
I stagger on to the train like a drunk, collapse into a chair, dump my stuff in an unsightly pile. The whistle goes, we’re off and the woman in blue tells me to tidy up the mess and stop blocking the passageway.
I’m staying with a friend in the middle of Sutherland at a place called Borrobol. He can’t believe how much luggage I’ve got and the first thing I do is go through it and leave about 10kg of excess baggage. That’s where my smart trousers and non-cycling clothes are located.
5 August: Belladrum Rock Festival, near Inverness
My book launch is scheduled for 10 a.m. and it’s only now that I realize how ridiculously early this is. Nobody’s going to come and I know why – last night was the opening of the festival and all the people I’d liked to have invited to my talk were legless by midnight. So this morning they’ll either be asleep or suffering from a hangover. Ten minutes to go and nobody’s here. Shit.
Hang on, I can see people coming…my mother, a friend of hers, a few stragglers.
I read from the first chapter of my book (‘I didn’t know how to overcome this fear of travelling alone.’) and the fourth chapter which describes my first impressions of Tibet, when hitching over the border from Nepal (‘I could hear boulders crashing down from the forested gorge above’).
My micro-audience has grown; there are almost ten people here now. Maybe they just wandered in to sit on one of the sofas. We’re in the festival’s so-called Verb Garden, where literary events, slam poetry and heated political discussions take place. I spend the rest of the day selling books by the entrance flap and manage to flog 21 copies.
Most people make excuses when I try and sell my book (‘I don’t have any money on me’) and slip off; one of the shirkers is the SNP MP for Dundee, Chris Law, who defies expectations by coming back and stumping up a tenner. We talk and he tells me about his collection of Green Goddesses – fire engines from the 1950s which were designed to be linked up across the country in order to supply water to population centres after a nuclear war.
3 September, Altnaharra, Sutherland
I’ve been cycling through the middle of Sutherland for days; it reminds me of Tibet – a huge empty plain, fringed by high mountains; very few vehicles, more wildlife than people. I’ve sold over 100 books in the Highlands and on the Orkney islands.
Now I’m in the middle of nowhere, en-route to Durness and Ullapool, and it’s getting dark. I need to find somewhere to camp. Loch Naver is idyllic: a beautiful combination of water, mountain and forest. The ideal place to pitch my tent. Why is it not full of happy campers? Five minutes later I find out. As soon as I spill out my camping gear a million midges attack. There are so many of them that they form a dark cloud around me. They’re all over my arms and legs, I can’t see as they’re getting into my eyes.
‘Keep calm,’ I tell myself, knowing that the worst thing I can do is start flailing about. I set up my tent at double speed, ignoring a debilitating sense of panic. They’re getting into my throat and affecting my breathing; the cloud is so thick in front of my face that when I breathe scores of Kamikaze midges go down my throat. I start coughing and sneezing and feel like I’ve got a terrible cold.
The tent is up. I open the zip and throw in my rucksack, water bottle and other essentials. I dive in as quickly as possible – I mustn’t let the midges into the tent. Now I’m inside, killing the few hundred that followed me. Beyond the tent’s mosquito net thousands, maybe millions, of midges hum like an electric motor and wait for their dinner. I call my friends in Borrobol and they laugh (‘now you know what life in the Highlands is like’); they say midges can’t tolerate wind and so I resolve to camp only in places that are windy.
12 September, on the road from Fort Augustus to Nairn
I gave a talk in Fort Augustus to a small group of Frasers, the clan that once dominated this area. They were receptive, inquisitive and generous. I sold about eight books. The main satisfaction I get from selling books is that it lightens my load; each book weighs half a kilogramme and as I cycle up hills I curse and carry out a mental inventory of all the stuff I’ve got, wondering what can be got rid of.
I stop at a pub in the middle of nowhere. I walk in and it feels very empty. In the bar a middle-aged man sits at a table, surrounded by papers. Is he the hotel’s accountant?
‘Can I have some water?’ I ask, holding out my two water bottles.
‘The hotel is closed,’ he says in a sharp, unfriendly tone. Neither of us moves. After an awkward minute of silence, he grudgingly gets up and takes away my bottles. When he gets back from the kitchen he’s a changed man, he’s friendly and starts chatting. He tells me that he’s a chef and the scattering of papers on the table are menu plans.
‘You know Jimmy Page used to live up the road?’ he says, ‘In the next big house on the right.’
‘Really,’ I reply, ‘can I see it?’
‘No, the house burned down a few years back. It used to belong to Aleister Crowley. Do you have any rock posters from the 1970s? I collect them.’
17 September, Ballater, Aberdeenshire
After selling books in Nairn, Forres and a country estate called Logie Steadings I cycle over the Lecht which, at over 2,000 ft, is the second highest pass in Britain. Arriving in Ballater, I go to the campsite and am told there are no pitches for tents as a massive bike race is about to happen; the Etape Royale. I’m also told that a flood came burling down the River Dee last Spring and swept away the entire caravan park and flooded half the town.
I meet the organisers of the Etape Royale and they tell me I can sell books on the village green, where a fête is taking place. Local charities and crafts-folk are selling things under a marquee and I set up shop on a picnic table. The local drunk staggers by and asks what my book is about. I tell him and he says he used to work as an engineer in Hong Kong.
‘Will you buy a book?’ I ask, ‘I’m selling them for a tenner. Down from £12.99.’
‘Tell you what,’ he says, ‘I’ve got a £20 note here. I’m going to get a half bottle of gin and then I’ll give you the remaining tenner.’ Minutes later he comes back, gives me a tenner, takes a book and staggers off. By the end of the day I’ve sold ten copies.