Oh dear. Usually writers who contribute to these diaries start with something like, ‘To Paris. To launch my novel at Shakespeare and Company.’ Well, I went instead to Penarth, which is a charming seaside suburb of Cardiff, and got a right royal welcome. I told the customers of Griffin Books (and Book-ish in Crickhowell and Cover to Cover in Mumbles) that I forbade them to buy books from Amazon. If they didn’t support their independent bookshops, they would lose them. And bookshops are vital for community health. Think what Daunt’s did for Marylebone High Street; started its transformation from a non-street to a destination street, no less.
Speaking of Daunt’s, do you realise that their business rates are about to double? Baroness Rebuck has asked in the House of Lords that independent bookshops be given special community status as far as business rates are concerned. With literacy levels at the shameful level that they are in this country — I’m banging another drum here, as a trustee of the National Literacy Trust — we need every scrap of assistance for reading to be put back on the cool agenda.
Goodness, Wales is gorgeous to look at. The landscape is sublime. I woke in Abergavenny to snow on the Black Mountains, interspersed with emerald green valleys — all that rain is not for nothing. The natural beauty only heightens a troubling question. Wales voted for Brexit, but every road, university and waterfront improvement scheme — and they are everywhere — is EU-funded. Excuse me? What were all those warmly welcoming people I met thinking of exactly?
Then Pershore, where I have never been before, and where I was interviewed by Linda Smith, the impressive Director of International Trade for Hereford and Worcester, in the community theatre (community again — of course…). This was appropriate as my new novel, City of Friends, is about women and work. I can’t actually think of another novel about work at the moment, which is odd when you think what a huge factor it is in most modern lives. It strikes me as strangely old-fashioned to identify women only by their romantic lives. I think that would make a good essay title, followed by the instruction ‘Discuss’.
I realised, sitting in the train between Durham and Newcastle, that you get a spectacular view of the Angel of the North on the horizon: it isn’t just from the A1. I am so happy to be back in Newcastle, even in the rain, which is falling in sheets. It’s a terrific city and so beautiful — all those hills for the streets to swoop up and down, and the Tyne with its seven bridges, and the lovely people. I have a view of the Sage and the Baltic across the river from my hotel window — it’s a world-class view by any standard. The Sage, especially at night, is a building of architectural wonder.
The ward of Ouseburn in Newcastle was a wasteland of industrial dereliction a decade ago. Now, thanks to the Ouseburn Trust (here we go again — a community-driven enterprise) in partnership with the local authority, it has become Newcastle’s energetic cultural heartland. I do a reading event (for the Forum Bookshop in Corbridge) in the Biscuit Factory on Stoddart Street, a vast and varied showcase for arts, crafts and design, which is humming with people, then walk back down to the river through the shining dark streets. Wonderful.
And now for the North Pennines, beloved of W.H. Auden, who was obsessed with the lead mines of the area as a boy. It is spectacular country and only 11 miles from Consett, which I can never think of without remembering the closure of the steelworks there in 1980, which cost nearly 4,000 jobs. I know it wasn’t some kind of political vendetta, and that the Ruhr Valley and Ohio were part of the same global industrial decline, but that kind of academic overview doesn’t mean anything to the abruptly unemployed. No doubt my feelings about Consett and similar closures may account for my response to regeneration wherever I find it — relief as well as admiration.
Last stop Hexham, right on Hadrian’s Wall, which Auden called, rather grandly, the Roman Wall. I’m staying in Blanchland, which is ridiculously ancient and pretty, and where the key to get into the church is a foot long. There are walkers everywhere, an amiable gathering of Hairy Bikers in the village car park, and the post office sells Kendal mint cake and ginger jam, made locally. Christopher Isherwood wrote of Auden that ‘his romantic travel wish was always towards the north’. Not the only one.