Sunday, January 28, 2007


It was an act of sheer insanity! My last free Saturday spent cooped up in a car on an eight-hour round trip into the rural heartland of Central California. In my kilt!

I have to ask... what in God's name were we thinking about? Well, I'll tell you. We were thinking about our roots, and our culture, and a man who expressed it all better than anyone else before or since - the Scottish national bard, Robert Burns.

Yes, we travelled three hundred miles through torrential rain to attend a Burns Supper!

How crazy is that?

Well, it was the strangest experience. The only time in America that I didn't feel conspicuous in a kilt. It was magic. One hundred and eighty people with claims to Scottish origin - some with such typically Scottish names as Gutierrez and Pazeian - turned out to pay their respects to the bard, to eat haggis, and have a good time.

There were kilts of all shapes and sizes - draped on men all shapes and sizes. There was a pipe band who marched and puffed and blew, exertion turning cheeks that typically Scottish skin hue of pink-verging-on puce. There were lassies who danced the Highland Fling around crossed swords on the floor. There was the piping in of the haggis, followed by a lively rendition of Burns's ode to that "chieftan o' the puddin' race", and the stabbing of the beast to release its "reeking" vapours.

It was very emotional, almost like being at home - until it was announced to the assembled that there were three REAL Scots in the room (moi, la Patronne and le Beau Frere) who had driven all the way from up Newport Beach. And we had to stand up - to thunderous applause - our faces turning rouge. And those happy Californians knew for certain that their ancestors truly were insane.

What would be even more true to say was that we received the warmest of all possible welcomes from the absolutely delightful folk of the Scottish Society of Central California in this cowboy town called Fresno

We ate prime rib, and mashed tatties, and neeps, and, of course, haggis - the best any of us had had since leaving Scotland. We listened to speaker after speaker. And then, the highlight of the night. Ed Miller. A Scotsman from Edinburgh, now living in Austin, Texas, who accompanied himself on guitar to sing the songs of home Not just songs written by Burns, but a whole spectrum of Scottish folk songs that brought long-forgotten words back to mind, and tears to the eye. There's nothing more maudlin' than a Scot a long way from home - "I'm no' awa' tae bide awa', I'll aye come back tae see ye."

He was, too, very funny, with that characteristic self-mocking Scottish wit, and a Burnsian belief in the common man. He told the story of the ceremony where he took American citizenship. There were, he said, only a handful of Europeans. By far the majority were Mexican. However, the three people chosen to say something were all English speakers, which he felt was not a true reflection of those who were there. He chose not to speak, but to sing. "A man's a man for a' that" - one of those seminal Burns songs that made him so popular amongst 20th century socialists. And to correct the imbalance, he sang the last verse in Spanish.

The spell was broken as we left the hall and ran through a downpour to find our dripping vehicle in the parking lot. When began the long drive back through the night, clouds bursting all around us, roads turning to rivers, and visibility reduced to a few metres...

...arriving back at Newport Beach at 2am to find that not a drop of rain had fallen.

And with the moon rising in a clear and starry sky, reflected in the still expanse of the Pacific Ocean, we had to wonder if somehow we had just stumbled back out of the mists of Brigadoon.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Postscript to yesterday's blog...



After the abscessed tooth and the burst water main, the final, disastrous indignity!

About three weeks ago, I had a root canal done on one of my front teeth, after which my French dentist told me that the tooth was very fragile, and that I should take great care when biting into stuff.

Well, I did.

But the damn thing went and broke on me anyway - last night, at the end of a great meal. And I don't even recall biting down on anything. But suddenly there it was, rattling about in my mouth - my front tooth.

And there am I, with twenty public speaking engagements over the next six weeks, looking like someone who escaped from a Dickens novel. A great testament to French and Scottish dentistry - or maybe just my crumbly teeth!

Oh, shit!

Well, Susie got me an appointment today with Stanley - he and I are getting to know one another too well. So, we'll see what the dashing dentist of Newport Beach can do to restore my good looks.

Okay, I can hear you say it already. What good looks?

Judging by the picture below, he's got a helluva job on his hands!

Thursday, January 25, 2007


We were supposed to be out on the ocean watching for the spouts of whales as they headed south from Alaska. Instead, workmen from across the road came rapping on Susie's door to say there was water bubbling out of the ground at the front wall of her house.

We went out to look. Right enough, water was forcing itself up through the flowerbed and gushing chocolate brown across the pavement and along the gutter. A leak in the water main. Susie rushed off to phone the City, whose responsibility it would be to fix it.

I stood in the street watching. And right before my eyes, the ground began to tremble. The earth heaved and puffed and blew. A shrub got pulled up by the roots, before suddenly a powerful jet of water simply exploded out of the ground.

Thar she blows!

It was not the kind of spout we had been anticipating. But the force of it was incredible, exiting the ground at an angle, slamming against the wall of the house, ripping at the gutter, before deflecting twenty feet above the roof, a rainbow forming in sunshine through fine spray.

By now, everyone was out in the street. Neighbours, workmen, passers-by. It was an extraordinary spectacle, and a huge hole had formed in the ground. It took the waterworkers from the City more than half-an-hour to get there. All the while we were praying that the gutter would hold. Because if it gave way, the force of the water would rip up the roof and the damage would be unthinkable.

When finally the City workers arrived they gawped open-mouthed, and then spent the next half-hour trying to find the valve to turn off the water. They were up the street, down the street, round the corner, before finally finding the right one, buried under crap in a building site next door.

We left them to it, and belatedly met up with Pam and Mick who were taking us out whale-spotting on their boat. As we cruised gently out of the harbour towards the ocean, we finally began to relax after the morning's excitement.

Sadly, Susie's geyser was the only one we saw that morning. No whales to be seen. We did, however, spot an enormous elephant seal, and a handful of dolphins who played around our wake for a while, before we returned for a gentle tour of the harbour, drifting past the homes of millionaires while chomping on avocado sandwiches.

By the time we got home, the repair was finished, and the water guys had replaced all the earth that had been washed away. They had cleaned up the road and the pavement, and you'd never have known that anything untoward had happened.

The "Mushroom House", on the market for a cool 75 million dollars...

Wednesday, January 24, 2007


What was supposed to be a short respite before the onslaught of the tour proper, has turned somewhat calamitous.

It started, I suppose, the night before we left. A dull ache in a back tooth. It responded painfully to pressure. No time to go to the dentist. A train to catch, then a plane. I thought maybe it was caused by the stress of travelling and might recede.

It didn't.

Gradually, day by day, it got worse, until by the weekend I could barely eat, the pain was so bad. Susie phoned her dentist and he called in a prescription of antibiotic to the local pharmacy. Three days of taking the pills and the pain had started to wane. But I went this morning to see the dentist in person, and an x-ray confirmed worst fears - an abscess. So I spent the next hour in the chair of a charming man - Stanley Armbruster, who had treated me once before, eight years ago - and submitted myself to a serious piece of root canal treatment.

What fun! Not.

The only consolation as I sit here clutching my sore jaw is the sunshine spilling through large windows, and sunlight coruscating across the stainless steel waters of the Pacific. Pain in paradise.

On a lighter note, we went yesterday morning to buy a beach bike as a gift for our host, Susie, so she could accompany us on our ten mile jaunts along the boardwalk to Huntington Beach. We picked out a perfect Newport Beach bike - pink and green, with white trim and a white saddle. She says she's going to have to buy a new outfit to match it.

The guy who sold us the bike was patenting a new way of riding these self-balancing segway machines that turn ordinary mortals into impossible pedestrians on wheels. I'd seen a few folk riding around on them and always wondered how they never fell over. Well, he insisted I find out.

With great trepidation, I climbed on to the footboard of the thing and he strapped my knees to a central pole. It was completely hands-free. Nothing to hold on to. "Normally, it takes me fifteen minutes to train someone on one of these," he said. 'But with this model you just mount and ride." Well, I'd mounted, but I wasn't riding yet. I was waving my hands around like a demented tightrope walker. He sighed patiently. 'Put your arms down."

I did as I was told.

"You lean forward to go forward, lean back to stop. Use your knees to turn left or right."

I managed to turn straight into a wall.

"Have you never been ski-ing?" he asked.


"Snow-boarding? Surfing?"


As I found myself going round in a circle on the same spot I heard the exasperation in his voice. He turned to La Patronne. "He's the only person I've ever come across who has no control of his knees." He looked at me as I swivelled my torso left and right to no effect. "Man, I'd hate to see you on a dance floor."

As the laughter of the watching hordes - La Patronne and Le Beau Frere - subsided, he unstrapped me and showed me how it should be done - whizzing backwards and forwards along the pavement with the greatest of ease. It looked great fun. But somehow I didn't think I would ever master it. Brain-hand coordination doesn't extend beyond the computer keyboard in my case.

Having finally controlled the urge to burst out laughing every five seconds at the memory of my hopeless gyrations, La Patronne confessed, "We might be laughing, but really it's just in relief that we didn't have to do it."

We'll see about that!!

Tomorrow it's off whale-spotting.

The Newport Beach Bike...

Sunset over Catalina...

Friday, January 19, 2007


"Excusez-moi, madame!"

I had my back turned to him, so I suppose all he saw was the skirt and the pony tail. But his face, when I turned around, was a picture - of shock and embarrassment. "Madame" turned out to be six feet, two, with a prickly silver beard. For a moment, I guess, he thought I was going to hit him. But when La Patronne burst out laughing and I grinned, his fear gave way to embarrassment.

I had been about to enter one of these airport queueing mazes at the wrong end as we headed towards the security check, and the security guard had made an unfortunate error in identifying my sex.

When I take my kilt with me on transcontinental promotional trips, I never risk leaving it to the vagaries of the baggage handlers. It would, after all, cost nearly a thousand euros to replace. All eight metres of heavy tartan wool. So I wear it for travelling.

It always attracts attention, whether in France or the States. Sometimes, as at the airport, it is the wrong kind. I always get searched. Take off the boots, take off the sporran, take off the belt. And, in this case, twice. Once at security, and once again before being allowed to board the bus that would take us to the plane.

I'm sure I only get asked to take off my boots so that when I crouch to lace them up again, security officers of both sexes are hoping to get a glimpse of what I'm wearing underneath the kilt.

Sometimes the attention it attracts is a little more welcome, as on the plane itself when I was accosted not once, but twice, by pouting stewardesses anxious to talk to the man in the skirt. As I stood mid-aisle exercising to avoid a long haul embolism, a tall, elegant ebony-skinned stewardess approached and leaned close. "Are you Scottish?" she whispered. "Oui," I told her. She giggled. 'Oh, I like it,' she said, and flushed, and hurried quickly away.

La Patronne returned from another adventure at the toilet, to tell me she had overheard two stewardesses excitedly discussing the man in the skirt - "didn't you see him coming on the plane?" - blithely unaware that the woman beside them was his wife.

Then later, when the cabin steward leaned over to tell me that "you are my first Scottish", his colleague - a striking looking stewardess with brilliant red lip gloss - dipped her eyes coyly in my direction and said, "I find eet ve-ery sexee.'

Which was when La Patronne drew the line. "Don't tell him that!" she snapped - the rest left unsaid, but not misunderstood. She's a real spoilsport!

Many hours later, tired and crushed by the coach class experience, we arrived in LA to be met by a seriously unwell Susie, with whom we would be staying at Newport Beach for the next two weeks. Ravaged by a virulent cold virus (what else would a virus be but virulent?) that had reduced her voice to a sound like torn paper, we headed south for a quick meal at her home overlooking Balboa Island, before putting her to bed with a hot toddy. Then falling, ourselves, into bed, to sleep away the effects of the journey, glad to be in southern California, in the sunshine, for a brief oasis of calm before the storm of the tour.

Day dawns over Balboa Island...

Thursday, January 18, 2007


On the road again!

It hardly seems credible that nearly eighteen months have passed since I was sitting in an Ibis Hotel at Roissy Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris writing the first blog of my September 2005 tour of the US to promote "The Firemaker".

Well, here I am again. This time to promote the second tome of the China Thrillers series, "The Fourth Sacrifice", which comes out in two weeks, and the first of my new series set in France, "Extraordinary People", which came out in November to a chorus of fabulous reviews.

All this on top of having just signed a movie option for "The Firemaker", and writing the screenplay treatment jointly with La Patronne - not to mention the terrific sales of the first three China books in French translation, and months of touring bookfairs and bookstores throughout France.

All the more incredible, since just twelve months ago I was sitting without a single English-language publication deal wondering how I was going to pay the bills in 2006. Such is the precarious and uncertain life of the writer.

Ah, well, at least I start off the tour in the company of La Patronne this time. Life with the formidable lady is never dull, especially when travelling. We were barely on the train when she had her first adventure in the toilets. She either gets locked in, locked out, or flooded. This time she had locked herself in, with a mad woman hammering on the door. Apparently the woman had arrived at the toilet before La Patronne, but was unable to open the door - even although it was vacant. She went off to get help. La Patronne arrived and applied a shoulder with her usual delicacy, unceremoniously bursting into the empty cabine. She locked the door and sat down to do what had to be done. At which point the lady who had been unable to open the door returned with a burly gentlemen, who then proceeded to try to force it open. Much to La Patronne's distress.

Finally he gave up and went away, and when La Patronne emerged in a flush of relief, it was to find an elderly French lady glaring at her, no doubt wondering why she had occupied the toilet for so long. Needless to say, La Patronne felt no explanation was necessary, and hurried off to interrupt Cabrel on my iPod with her tales of woe. The moment I saw her red face approaching down the carriage, I knew that there was one. There is never any alternative but to listen and sympathise.

For most of the journey, however, my thoughts were occupied with the third book in the French series. My publisher, Poisoned Pen Press, has dubbed the series "The Enzo Files" - after my cold case-cracking main character, Enzo Macleod. I have just finished the second in the series, working title "The Critic". It is set amongst the vineyards of Gaillac, and I think I have finally sobered up after an intensive period of research. So I was turning my thoughts to the next one - thoughts which are already pretty far advanced. Endless travelling hours provide good down time for letting the mind work around story and plot, and I'm excited enough now to think I might even start it in April after I get back from the States.

Better go now. La Patronne is lying on the bed with her legs in the air, trying to realign her spine after the train journey. I think I might have to thump a few vertibrae back into place.

We fly out first thing tomorrow (Wednesday, January 17th), but I probably won't get the chance to post this until we get to LA (Wi-fi access here is 10 euros for two hours, and I'm too much of a Scot to pay it). By the time I do, there will no doubt be more adventures in toilets to report!

La Patronne demonstrates her cure for a bad back...