Ralph Goldswain
Robert Mullen


It’s been a busy day. I’ve been emailing Jeff New and talking with Gary Armitage. Now this from Ralph Goldswain:

‘Dear  Duncan,

‘I’ve  received your email and may be able to respond to some of your points. That PEN party was a long time ago: I’ve attended quite a few such parties since then and met many writers and publishers and can’t really remember much about that PEN  do. I chatted to a lot of people there and had quite a few glasses of wine.

I’m homing in on that party. I’ll be nailing it any day now.

‘I do remember chatting to Ian Rankin, whom I had befriended some time before, when we worked together on an educational project when I was an English teacher and he was a very young man in his first job, with the Folktale Institute at Middlesex  University. We keep occasional contact, although he is now one of the top-selling UK fiction writers and is very busy.’

Ian Rankin is busy all right. And I know that he’ll have started his new novel by now, a book that has to be delivered by June. Thank goodness I made myself stand in that queue and wait my turn to actually speak to him, as it may well have been that which motivated him to respond to my email. Just as all the other writers have responded.


‘I also remember having a laugh with Frances Fyfield. But nothing else. Not very helpful but it’s all hazy.’

This echoes Frances’s memory of the event: ‘blurred to say the least’.

‘I had no literary aspirations at that time and still don’t. My writing has always been essentially a hobby – something I did in the evenings after a hard day in my career in education. I have never seen myself as a career writer and have always done it just for fun.’

Ralph is admitting up front that he is not chosen in the commercial sense. Interesting.

‘For many years all I wrote were short stories. As you know, there is little market for that.  Occasionally, however, I felt that a story was good and sent it out to a journal, even though the short story market was, and is, shrinking, and is almost defunct now. I was quite successful in that so I have stories in several journals both here and in America. There was never any money in it but I enjoyed having my stories in prestigious journals. I sometimes won awards by doing that.’

Hmm. He’s wavering a bit here with this talk of ‘success’. Does it matter to him or not?

‘I have moved on to other things but still write stories, unseen by anyone for the most part. I’m interested in postmodern forms of literary expression now, and can’t write commercial stories, as they now seem so trite and irrelevant. So I just write my stories and file them away.’

I’ll be asking to look at some of Ralph’s postmodern work. Surely I will.

‘Regarding Lulu, I have sometimes made books on Lulu and put no extra cost onto the basic price. They have not sold, of course, because I haven’t done anything about promoting them. I think that one of them is a novel but I feel that novel writing is too much like hard work and I have better things to do, knowing that no publishers will be interested.

‘I still write every day and feel tremendous guilt if I don’t. I guess that makes me a true writer. I have a very successful Shakespeare site and do all the
 writing for that, under the name Warren King. It brings me a decent supplement – enough to allow me some very nice holidays. I have a book on Shakespeare being published in February.’


The site is It’s a teaching resource covering all the plays. Some distracting ads pop up when you’re on the pages. If you click on ‘Shakespeare biography’, you learn that we don’t have a clear idea of what Shakespeare looked like. There follows an ad for hair transplant surgery. I guess it’s through this that Ralph manages to afford the holidays he mentions.

He’s got a blog on the site and one of his recent pieces was about how plays were written in Elizabethan times. Apparently, there are signs of other hands on the manuscripts of certain Shakespeare plays. For instance, one of the witches scenes in MacBeth was written by Thomas Middleton, who was known to do spectacle well. So a Shakespeare play was a bit like PEN PANS then? The text peppered with the wit and wisdom of other hands than the principle author’s.

‘At the moment, while still writing short stories, I’ve become interested in history writing and am in the last stages of working with an editor on a book that is being published in June. I was most edified when my Jeremiah book was seized on by a publisher, and it was that that led me to pursuing my interest in history writing. Now, as the new book is being prepared for publication, I’m working on yet another one. But still writing short stories!

 though, I still don’t take writing seriously in the professional sense and to me it’s still just a hobby like golf or singing in a choir, and I have a full life outside of that. I don’t care whether anything I write is ever read but love it when it is. My best writing has never been read by anyone...’

Do I want to read Ralph’s best writing? Of course I do.

‘… I don’t care what publishers think. If they think they can sell it they will take it, if not they won’t. I have no feelings about it. My relationship with publishers has always been good. I have never had an agent:  when I have felt that something was worthwhile I have always approached publishers directly and because I never approach any unless I think it’s good I  have had no rejections (apart from one or two journals for my short  stories).


No rejections? That’s very good going. Mind you I’ve only had about three or four hundred.

Regarding the stories in the PEN book. I’m sorry, but I don’t have a copy and can’t remember being struck by any of the stories. I’m sure I was but can’t remember.  I do remember Suzi Robinson now that you mention her. I think she was in the giggling group with Frances during the party. She wrote an interesting story about selling words, didn’t she? When I think back it was pretty good for such a young person.

I’ve just reread my story ‘The Examination’ and I cringe. I was a toddler in writing at that stage. If reading one or two of my stories would help you I would be happy to send them.

‘The Examination’ is the story that Charles expressed disappointment in, having been impressed by a story of Ralph’s in Winter’s Tales. I’ll refresh my memory of what Charles actually said in a minute.

‘I don’t think that I have been much help to you but good luck with your book. I’m fascinated by the idea. Who would your reader be?’

Yours Ralph

My turn. Let’s keep it simple:

Dear Ralph,

Thanks for the interesting reply. I'd like to read some of your 'best writing'. Maybe something postmodern? Or something Lulu?

Have you literally sold no copies via Lulu? I wouldn't be surprised. The publisher of my first book gave me 300 copies of it that had been remaindered and were about to be pulped and used for horse litter. I put them up for sale on Amazon, calling my 'bookshop' Beeches Books. In two years I sold one book. Publicity is the thing.


As for who the reader of this new book will be. Well, firstly it's the class of '87, but hopefully it doesn’t stop there. One of the contributors to PEN New Fiction 2 reviews widely for the national press. Another contributor could add it to the reading list of her Creative Writing class. One could communicate its existence to the upper echelons of the Labour party. One is in Brixton Prison, so hopefully he would spread the word around G Wing. And surely Ian Rankin would find a way of telling millions of readers via his Twitter feed. Not to mention the book’s editor, Allan Massie, who I expect to move heaven and earth to ensure that PEN PALS sells in a way that PEN New Fiction 2 never did.

I live in hope.

Best wishes, Duncan

A week late Ralph replies:

Dear Duncan
Well good luck with your book. The main thing is to keep writing.
In response to your request for some stories, it's an unusual ask and among the hundreds of stories I've written it's difficult to choose and I have very little basis for doing so. You expressed an interest in my postmodern stories so I'm sending two: 'On the Train' and 'The True story of Lucy and Josh.' I'm also attaching one of my recent favourites, 'Concert.' How's that?
Yours Ralph
I read the attached stories and respond all in the same busy day while working on three other chapters of this book. I’m not bigging myself up, that’s just the way it is right now.

Hi Ralph,

Thanks for the stories. I've had a quick read of them all and then read 'Concert' a second time. I liked it a lot. In some ways it's quite a conventional message. Contemporary 'developed' life being seen to be at such a distance from the natural. I notice that the only characters in the story who smile or laugh are black. But they have been subsumed, and have to serve the artificial white society. The image of a black guy having to get up even before the white guys get up at 6.30am so that he can prevent the dawn chorus, which is disturbing the one white guy who has only just gone off to sleep by that time in the morning, is an absurd and appalling one


I've been asking some of the other contributors about the PEN2 launch event evening. C.A.R. Hills has written to me: 'I remember meeting Ralph Goldswain at the party, and for a special reason. He was a young, bearded, red-haired writer then (if I remember rightly) and he had a number of stories accepted for anthologies. Among them was one in Winter’s Tales called “Dube’s First Day”, about a young black boy in a South African township, who rose in revolt, and I remember being immensely struck by it, and I remember telling him that I thought it was the best story in the volume – and he was startled because one of the stories was by Jorge Luis Borges! He himself was probably South African (a New Zealander?) and, like everyone else, he had the ambition to write a great novel and be famous.'

Do you recall Charles? Does his analysis ring any bells? No sign of any of the black characters in ‘Concert’ rising up in revolt. But then that would have distracted from the main thrust.

I think Charles may have been wrong about you having the ambition to write the great novel and be famous as you told me you didn't have literary aspirations then and still don't. Just guilt about not writing every day.

All best, Duncan

I’m busy on so many PEN fronts that it’s weeks later when I realize that Ralph hasn’t replied to this email. I wonder why not.

I check his Twitter stream but see that he’s been inactive since October, 2014. He is or was following 10 others and has/had 15 followers of his own. I guess Twitter is something that Ralph briefly tried but then got fed up with. Perhaps all that Twittering got him down first thing in the morning. So he stopped tuning into it.

Seriously, it couldn’t be that he’s taken something I said in my email in a negative way, could it? When I said ‘the image of a black man having to get up before dawn to make sure there was no dawn chorus to disturb a white man’s sleep was absurd and appalling’, I didn’t mean that as a criticism, of the writing, far from it. But I didn’t express myself unambiguously and that is always dangerous.


The idea of the bird-silent dawn has stayed with me. Indeed, I’m thinking of hiring a hit-man to travel every day to Thirladean House in the Borders and to whack the trees in such a way that there is no dawn chorus to disturb Allan Massie’s sleep.

An opportunity arises to get in touch with Ralph again, so I take it.

Dear Ralph,

Recently, I lent Frances Fyfield a copy of PEN New Fiction 2. I now have it back and at the front there is a post-it note saying: 'One of the stories that struck me - the History master'. The only other post-it note in the book is marking the first page of your story.

It seems that for her your story was the most noteworthy in the book, just as for Charles your ‘Dube’s First Day’ was the most interesting in the
Winter Tales anthology.

So I thought I'd read ‘The Examination’ again. I have done today and have to say that I particularly enjoyed it. This cold fool of a teacher who has such a negative effect on everyone. In the story's few pages, your Eric Bilder, head of History, manages to ridicule the written effort of a student who has succeeded in stopping smoking, snub a colleague who was about to celebrate his silver wedding, demoralise an enthusiastic colleague intent on bringing history to life via performance, and more. No wonder the headmaster sees to it that Eric retires at the age of 55. No wonder Eric's wife leaves him with the words 'I just can't live with you any more.'. Poor Eric wants to ask her to come back but all he can actually say is 'You realise, of course, that you have put yourself completely in the wrong.' As your last paragraph states, Eric is an examiner not a gardener. All life turns to ash at the touch of his grey fingers, and his home environment is a desert.  A chilling portrait.

So my question is why, when you re-read the story recently, did it make you cringe, as you told me in your email?

I hope you felt like a successful gardener, not an examiner, that day back in January 1987. And that you still feel creative and life-enhancing today. How are those projects going that you mentioned, the Shakespeare book and the history one?


I'm looking forward to receiving a reply to my questions, if you can spare the time.

Best wishes, Duncan

PS I'm still haunted by the dawn chorus-destroying conclusion of Concert.

This time I get a swift reply from Ralph.

Hi Duncan
PEN PALS seems to be shaping up well and what investigative energy! I’m envious of others’ memories and the detail they are able to come up with after all this time. Some of you have been so kind about me, particularly about a story that I would not have thought about if you hadn’t mentioned it, whereas I think I probably had too much to drink that night. I also seem to remember Charles saying, after standing with the group I was chatting with for a few minutes, that although he loved my writing he was disappointed with me as a person because he expected to meet someone more sensitive or spiritual, or some word like that.

I am going to have to tell the governor of Brixton about this. I expect he’ll add another six months to Charles’s sentence.

When one thinks about what success is for a writer, as you know, it would be hard to define it. It’s probably more to do with what each writer thinks about him or herself. Take opposites like Camus and Jeffrey Archer. Camus published very little and probably made no money but is hailed as a great writer. Think about Jeffrey Archer, becoming a billionaire from writing utter rubbish and unreadable prose. That’s another kind of success, but I would be ashamed of myself as a writer if I were to make money like that, although Archer might think of himself as a successful writer rather than a successful self publicist. I would far rather be Camus. Two extremes but the rest of us fall somewhere between. As for myself, my only reason for submitting things for publication is that, when I’ve written something that I’ve explored and expressed, enjoyed and made this thing that only I now know about accessible, I want others to know about it too. And I want them to enjoy the reading experience.


I’ve just looked up Jeffrey Archer on Wikipedia. Apparently, he’s sold 300 million books, which puts even Ian Rankin to shame. While Camus wrote The Outsider, The Rebel and The Plague and was awarded the Nobel Prize before his early death. I’ve read both of these writers but so long ago it doesn’t count.

I’ve now looked at Archer’s official website and I can’t say I’d recommend that to anyone else. Self-promotion peeks out from every paragraph. Learn about Jeffrey’s art collection, his training regime, his latest portentously titled book –
This Was A Man. Here is a sentence from the home page:

‘This Was a Man will be published in early November this year, and I am very excited by the pre-orders, even though it won’t be available for another six months.’

Of course, this has prompted me to pre-order three copies of the novel, one for each of C.A.R. Hills, J.W. New and myself. Archer should consider hiring us for the November launch. Picture the scene. Charles, Jeff and I wearing long black raincoats, carrying umbrellas, and doing our ‘Three Little Maids’ act...

Where was I? Oh yes, in the middle of reading Ralph’s email:

That’s why I now do history. It’s not exactly history but storytelling about ordinary people’s experience of ‘great’ events of the past. I love doing the research and I love the writing because I concentrate on the storytelling aspect, where I aim to make it page turning. As I mentioned I have a new book coming out on 15 June about the settlers sent out to the Cape in 1820 by the British government to settle on an unstable and disputed frontier. I managed to get material from diaries, journals and letters of ordinary settlers. The publishers love it and I’m proud of it. I don’t expect to make money out of it but I consider myself successful because for once I managed to achieve my original concept and give birth to it. The money is not an issue. It’s called Roughing It: the 1820 Settlers in their own words, if you want to watch out for it. It will be advertised all over the internet from the beginning of June.


I unashamedly do the Shakespeare writing because I make some money out of it, as I mentioned before. Shakespeare is one of the biggest global industries, with interest in him all over the world, so there’s money in it for anyone who can think of an angle, and it will never be subject to fashion. Shakespeare’s been fashionable for 400 years and, as he said, ‘so long as men can breathe or eyes can see ....’ Because I’ve done so much of it I’m getting tired of it but my son depends on my writing to keep the website bringing in money so I keep doing it. So that’s another kind of writing. Successful? Yes, but in an entirely different way. I’ve also just had a book on Shakespeare published. I Love Shakespeare by Warren King.
I said I cringed at that examiner story because I find it quite pretentious. Also, it’s too ‘conventional’ in the telling. I prefer to look for new ways of telling stories. But I seldom sit down to follow an idea in a short story these days. Sad, isn’t it? But I have an idea that I’m mulling over at the moment.
So have I answered your questions? Yes, I do feel creative and life enhancing. Something that I love is that descendants of the settlers I’ve been writing about have been in touch and are thrilled that I’m resurrecting their ancestors – people dead and buried in dusty documents that no-one ever opens. I get a lot of satisfaction out of that and that so many people have already told me that they are looking forward to reading my book. How many writers get that? And I’m starting a new book about the same period and the same place because, as you know, research leads one into labyrinths and one could never tire of exploring them. I love going to the British Library and have made some new friends and enjoyed some conversations over coffee in the cafe there. Also, I get emails from some interesting people – academics, journalists, researchers and so on. I also go off and explore the actual geographical locations of the places I write about and take pictures. So creative and life-enhancing are appropriate words for the way I feel about things.
Keep going. Good luck.


Yours Ralph

Do I think about all this or do I get back to my PEN-pal immediately? Always when I ask that question, the answer is the same:

Great email, Ralph. Thanks.

Fascinating the Camus and Jeffrey Archer polar opposites that you posit. In a PEN context that brings to mind Ian Rankin and Jeff New (William New who wrote 'Six Heated Tales'.) The first has become a multi-millionaire from crime fiction and the other meticulously crafts 'satires' to his own satisfaction but who dislikes the contemporary literary world and has no chance of making money or establishing an audience. Of course, Ian Rankin should in no way be compared to Jeffrey Archer as he writes extremely well and to make money was not his primary objective. Rankin’s material relates interestingly to his personality, his biography, and to society as a whole. In my opinion, nobody that was included in PEN 2 writes rubbish. On the other hand, it could be said that what Jeff New writes is unreadable. He has sent me a 440-word manuscript and although each 'satire' has style and structure, there is no structure to the book as a whole that I can sense, nothing to impel the reader through it.

Sounds like your Cape history project inspired you. It also sounds as if it's a bit like my PEN project. Only the 'great' event of the past that I'm investigating was a non-event of 1987. And all the folk I am giving voice too are middle-class writers who have a voice anyway. Perhaps I'll change the name of my book to PENNING IT: the 1987 Writers in their own words. But the serious point is that we both research our subject, write, communicate with others, write, order our material, write, build up a picture, write, take satisfaction from our efforts, right! and look for an appreciative publisher and an audience.

And an equivalent to your Shakespeare project is my Evelyn Waugh one. I have a Waugh website and when the 50 year anniversary of his death came up a week or so ago, I had 400 visitors to the site (never more than 100 before that). So I kept an eye on the sales ranking for my book, 
Evelyn! Rhapsody for an Obsessive Loveon Amazon. But there was no blip in sales, damn it. Still, the website supports the book in the long term and in any case I love it for it’s own sake, knowing that it has an audience of its own.


Here's hoping I'm not distracting you too much from what you're trying to get on with at the moment.

All best, Duncan

Ralph Goldswain and Jeff New together have reminded me how important self-assessment is for a writer. For many of us, fundamentally, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks of our output and that’s clearly the case with those two.

So that list I was putting together of the chosen and the disregarded has to be amended to take account of the self-chosen. Which is where I put myself.

Of course, this cuts the other way as well and it’s possible to lack self-belief in yourself as a writer even though society has given you the job and rewarded you accordingly. Frances Fyfield has said things to me that suggest her self-confidence in her status is not high right now. She hasn’t been writing for several months and has difficulty thinking of herself as a writer any more, despite her previous successes.

Does Charles’s self-belief enable him to move from non-achiever to self-chosen? He thinks of himself as ‘an excellent writer’. He has a friend who carefully preserves his old manuscripts in Sainsbury’s plastic bags. On the other hand, he occasionally expresses doubt as to the strength of his calling and the value of his output. Will he be writing again when he comes out of prison? I’d like to think so, but that remains to be seen.

What about Ian Rankin in terms of self-belief? He is so used to being praised by reviewers and readers that the positive vibes are bound to rub off on him. But I suspect he thinks highly of his own output. He’s said before that it is unfortunate that crime fiction is seen as genre writing and of a lesser thing than ‘literary’ work and is aware that no crime novel has ever been even long-listed for the Booker Prize.


In his view, his series of Rebus books add up to a substantial portrait of Edinburgh and the Scottish people at the end of the Twentieth Century and the beginning of the Twenty-first. His detective protagonist is able to visit individuals and groups throughout the social spectrum. And of course Rankin is drawing on his own experience when portraying Rebus and the other main characters in the books.

He wouldn’t rather be writing like Muriel Spark then? I don’t think he would. He spent several years searching for a way to put over what he had to say and he’s found it, thank you very much.

At least that’s my ongoing conclusion. However, I reserve the right to turn around and rain on Rankin’s parade.


I’ve been in touch with another contributor who I think I shall introduce at this point, partly because he is the only other male contributor to have been brought up abroad, America in his case. Robert Mullen, whose story called ‘Angel’ concerns a foursome of twenty-somethings going out for the evening to a restaurant cum club.

Bob (as he’s been signing his emails) also contributed a story to
PEN New Fiction 1, which put emphasis on the relationship between two young married people. Youth, mutual attraction and the pangs and pleasures of sharing life together would be one way of summing up his writing of thirty years ago. He publishes a blog and talks about his writing there in the following way:

‘Writing, and no less so the writing of fiction, I discovered early on in my life, concentrated the mind. For so long as I was writing, my thoughts were on but one thing, and the world, while I was so-employed, would go on without me.


‘A seed for a story could come from anywhere. Its appearance could not be commanded, nor was it predictable. The mind did not need to be focussed, and indeed was probably more likely to have been wandering at the time; one might not, in fact, even have been aware, at the moment of conception, that it had taken place. It might well be long afterwards that one came upon those few lines scribbled hastily into a notebook, or jotted down on the back of the proverbial envelope.

‘It’s the attention of the writer which triggers the seed, and causes it to germinate. Then, over time, it needs to be fleshed out – and the more research that this entailed, the better I liked it. In the end, of course, the story would need to stand, so to speak, on its own two feet, but careful research, in the meantime, was the scaffolding from which I worked.’

Robert Mullen tells me he wasn’t at the launch of PEN2 in 1987 (nor at the PEN1 launch) and remembers not being paid in full for his second story. He lives in Edinburgh now, as he may have done then.

He says he’s intrigued by my project, above all because I could not have anticipated what (if anything) I would come up with by writing to everyone.

As for himself, the words in his email complement those posted recently in his blog:

‘I began writing at an early age in a feeble attempt to improve upon the world as I had found it.  The world, it seemed to me, sucked, big time, and so I employed what I would later learn to recognize as "word magic" in order to colonize at least a small corner of a world in which I might feel more at home.

‘My first attempt at writing a novel came just after I left the States to avoid the Vietnam War.  Here, however, the magic failed: the novel wasn't published, and the war dragged on.  Later, my writing became a means of finding things out.  It gave me free rein to pursue my ever-continuing education in my own way, and to get on with my search for somewhere that I could, in good conscience, call home.’


I sense Robert Mullen has struggled to get his work in print over the years, though a guide book he has written about the Camino in northern Spain has done well and is still in print. As the Camino is the scene of some of the action in Bill Thompson/Thomas McCarthy’s The Coast of Death, I send Bob the chapter of PEN PALS where the information from Thompson’s essay ‘Many are called, Few are Chosen,’ has been used. After a few days Bob gets back to me:

Hello again - and thanks for the free sample.
I have now had time to read it, and I can confirm, in spades, what you said earlier about the connections that you were uncovering.  My own story includes novels being accepted for publication by companies which folded before those novels had time to appear.  Since those PEN stories, my progress as a writer of fiction has been marked by a succession of small successes, and more sizable disappointments.  The former consisted for the most part in selling short stories to literary journals in North America; a number of these stories were later short-listed for prizes in the States and in Canada, as was my collection, but, in every case, no cigar.  Time and again I was flattered, but only, in the end, to be deceived.  This, however, did not prove fatal.

The collection he mentions is Americas, a nicely produced paperback that contains, in slightly altered form, both Mullen’s PEN stories amongst many more. I have dipped into the book and found fine writing, but the material didn’t manage to pull me in altogether. Short story collections by individuals rarely do.
Had I intended to earn a living from writing (after a career as a computer scientist) then I obviously made a big mistake in not seeking allies.  I ought to have attended the launches down in London, for instance, but I wrongly assumed, based on the decades of technical writing which I had done, that if I could turn out anything good enough, the rest would look after itself.  Live and learn.

I get the impression that Bob started off with the mindset which Bill Thompson had – hoping for ‘success’ and recognition – but, like so many of us, has moderated his expectations.


I am presently working in the no-man's land between fiction and non-fiction.  I walked the Camino for the first time in 2005, at the age of sixty, doing so not as a believer, but as an amateur anthropologist.  The appeal of the book that I subsequently wrote about the Camino, I think, owes much to the stories told to me by the pilgrims who I met along the way.  These meetings were all chance meetings, as I had set out alone, and could not have predicted who else would be starting out on the same day, or from where, or at what speed they would be walking, or even at what pace I myself would move. 

I think Bob was alluding to this experience when he commented on my own project. As he set out along the Camino, alone, so I set out last November hoping for meetings along the way, trusting I could last the pace. Charles, Wendy, Jeff, Ralph, Frances and the rest – fellow pilgrims? In which case, what is the sacred place towards which we’re journeying? Publication? Or simply Creation?
I did what an anthropologist or a travel writer does, I compressed my account by leaving out the boring bits, and I disguised the identity of the individuals with whom I conversed.  Incidents which occurred on different days, or divided by a long slog through clinging mud, were presented as though they had taken place in quick succession, and conversations on similar subjects with different pilgrims were compacted into just one dialogue, and introduced as having taken place in a setting which I may well, in reality, have visited on my own. 

How much fiction is there in PEN Pals? I’m juggling the order of things a bit, but not essentially making anything up. Oh, maybe the odd fantasy scene.

Every year since walking the Camino, I have returned to Spain to work in one or another of the pilgrim refuges along the route, most notably in a refuge on the Camino del Norteafter it has entered Galicia.  It was there, in the village of Miraz, that I began writing about the Camino, about the traditions in that remote corner of Spain, about the pilgrims who pass through in winter, about their eccentricities, and, more recently, about my own.  All of this, which I had originally intended to put into a second book about the Camino, I am in the process of "publishing" as a blog, free and gratis for anyone with the patience to piece together the various strands of a story still in progress.


Which links Bob more closely to Ralph and I, both of who also have blogs. And to Charles who wrote a blog while he was living in his mother’s house in Portugal, to which he hopes to return.

Every Friday Robert Mullen posts a new essay to his blog site, which I look at again. He seems to be writing a many–stranded story that covers his own life and the lives of others.’ But back to his email:

And enough, I think, for moment.  To tell the truth, I don't have much enthusiasm for analysing work that I did in what I now consider to be the distant past.  I have not, by the way, ever met Ian Rankin, but I have read several of the Rebus books and seen the television adaptations.  Rankin, along with Irvine Welsh, has added a great deal to the picture painted of Edinburgh by our neighbours here in Morningside.
I hope that the above will be of some use to you.  You are, of course, free to draw on the blog as well, if you wish. 

Thank goodness for such generosity. It puts my Bill Thompson set-back in perspective.

If you would like something more from me, I would be happy to oblige.  As things stand at the moment, I will probably not be returning to Spain until November.
Good luck with piecing together all that you already have. Bob

Piecing together all that I already have? Yes, I’m now on the trail of 32 writers simultaneously. I’ve temporarily abandoned my Evelyn Waugh blog to walk along the Camino with Robert, Ian, Suzi, Jeff, Wendy, Gary, Charles, David, Frances, Ralph, etc. How does that actually work in practice? It works like this:

You set off alone shortly after dawn. Maybe by mid-morning you’ve caught up with a fellow pilgrim, or a fellow pilgrim’s caught up with you. That’s when you exchange life stories, as you walk together, Mac to Mac…


There is nothing more civilized than stopping by the wayside and breaking bread together with a pilgrim you’ve got to know that very morning and who has got to know you. After lunching well, smoking Turkish cigars while resting on a sheep-cropped knoll is not strictly forbidden.

Then, setting off again in the afternoon, the sun past its hottest but still baking hot, the conversation that was begun in the morning, is continued, taking both pilgrims - the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ - into new territory…

As the day wears on. tiredness overcomes pilgrims unequally. In other words, ‘we’ split up (the I and the you reasserts itself) as the sun gathers in the west.

One afternoon, I was walking the Camino with two fellow pilgrims, Robert Mullen (starting point, the United States) and Ralph Goldswain (starting point: South Africa). Suddenly, Ralph told us he had to break off in order to deal with the evening chorus.

Bob and I didn’t know what Ralph meant, until suddenly the countryside gradually came alive, as from one olive tree after another birds burst into song.

On closer inspection, each olive tree had a pilgrim sitting under it. And each man or woman was reading from his or her own beautifully printed book.

Making light of the matter, I told Bob that my theory was that Ralph had achieved such a result by sprinkling Coke on the leaves of each tree in turn - for the birds - leaving a half-full can under each tree, for the pilgrim.

I ended, jestingly: “And Ralph having seemed like such a spiritual man!”

Bob smiled at my words, which encouraged me to stay alert. I pointed to a nearby tree where our fellow pilgrim, Jeff New, was about to begin a reading from his own illuminated manuscript:


“Judgeth not thy fellow pilgrim ill, lest God judgeth thee ill for having broken open a wine bottle by thyself and having consumed the flaming water laughing.”

Or was it Charles that we were listening to? Bob wouldn’t have known and I couldn’t quite tell. From our angle, it was mostly just olive tree we were seeing.

“Mostly just olive tree we are seeing,” I mused.

‘Mostly just olive tree,” Bob concurred.


Getting back to my analysis. It’s clear now that the first thing about most of the writers I’ve studied so far is that they themselves get a lot out of the writing.

That can be entertainment and enchantment. It’s what I get. It’s what Jeff gets. But it can also be understanding of oneself and even self-improvement.

When Charles writes about masochism, he is learning about his own character. Similarly, when Ian Rankin writes about Edinburgh, or Bill Thompson writes about life in Ireland, or Wendy writes about growing up in America several decades ago, they are teaching themselves about themselves, where they come from and where they might be going.

The writing of Ralph Goldswain’s stories gives him much pleasure, he tells me. The ones I’ve read tell us how we should be treating each other. Or at least where we might be going wrong in our treatment of others. As an individual, that will be of interest to Ralph who wrote them. But, of course, he likes to think it would be of interest and use to other people. He would like to have a readership. We all would. Jeff and I would like the entertainment and enchantment we feel about our own writing to be received by others. Charles and Ralph would like the insights they have into masochism and morality to be understood by others. David and Wendy and Bob are all in the same boat too.

Getting off on one’s own writing is a given. Getting it across to a rapturous and adoring public - there’s the rub. I reckon we all have that mission, whether we acknowledge it or not. Most recently that sense of slightly frustrated purpose keeps bubbling up out of both Ralph’s and Bob’s communications to me.

Ah, me and my pilgrim buddies. Bless our monastic – or do I mean onanistic? - habits. Underneath olive trees that stretch from here to the horizon.


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