This last month, after my daily spell of writing, I've mostly spent my time cramming my way through Flemish literature. There are reasons for this, it's not just the fact that I'm caught in some strange masochistic urge. (Though halfway through the seminal 1860 classic, Max Havelaar, or The Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company, something very close to pleasure came through the pain, and I began to take genuine joy from the four-page-long paragraphs about colonial iniquities.)
I may have mentioned this before - but next week I'm acting as a lecturer on a cruise around the Low Countries. I was asked last year whether I felt I was up to the task of being one of the resident 'experts' employed on the rather posh end of the leisure cruise circuit, and naturally enough I was thrilled to accept. I love cruises - I love the fact that every day I'm in a different city, seeing new things; I love the people that I meet on these excursions; and I love the ships themselves, the elegance and the calm. So my first trip is around Belgium and the Netherlands, and I'll be delivering a maximum of three lectures, specialising in the history of Dutch and Flemish lit, and the relationship between fine art and the way it's characterised in the modern novel (with especial attention given to Rembrandt and Vermeer, as we'll be looking at some of their masterpieces at the Mauritshuis and the Rijksmuseum on the way). Then, in July, it's a two week voyage around the Baltic, where I'll be talking mainly about Russian and Swedish authors.
It's enormous fun. And a great opportunity for a book collector like myself, who buys up everything in translation by the bucketload (I have a weakness for author's names I can't pronounce), actually to *read* the damn things I've been putting on my shelves all these years. And if Max Havelaar is a bit painful - it's seen by the Dutch as their Great Classic Novel, don't you know. I beg to differ - then it's introduced me to the work of Harry Mulisch, Cees Nooteboom, Edwin Mortier, and Hugo Claus. Terrific writers who otherwise might have just sat on my overstuffed shelves gathering dust. I'm really looking forward to wittering on about them at great length to an audience trapped on both sides by a great expanse of water.
The difficulty with all this is that I agreed to do the lectures at a time when I really wasn't too busy. But the workload has really crept up this year. Last week I *finally* finished my new book of short stories, Love Songs for the Shy and Cynical, ready for its release this Autumn. (No, really. The contract's all signed and sorted. I'm so pleased. More news on this later!) And I'm now going through a series of other commissions, both for TV and for books, and enjoying it all hugely. But I'm keenly aware to make it all fit in, and to reach all the deadlines, that as most couples on board the cruise ships will spend the evening gazing dreamily out on to the banks of the Baltic, I'll be scribbling furiously into my notebook in my cabin trying to get my plotlines making sense.
I'm not complaining, mind you. After all, how great can Baltic banks be?
I'm travelling rather too much at the moment. When I got back from my latest Doctor Who convention, in Los Angeles this February, Janie sat me down gravely in the lounge, and told me that the cat no longer missed me. Usually Nero would spend his time searching my office for any signs of his master when I was out gallivanting around the world - but I'd been gone so frequently, that he'd given up. Indeed, I looked at Nero, then and there, and realised he was somewhat bemused to see me in the house at all. But if I'm in Europe come May and July, then I'm at Doctor Who conventions in June (Toronto), October (Orlando) and November (Chicago). And in August I'm in Singapore. One of the stories from Tiny Deaths, rather to my gobsmacked surprise, has been picked up by the National Library of Singapore as its international short story representative, so I'm going across there to give a few readings and talks. All rather exciting stuff, of course - but it'll only add fuel to that particular fire of Nero's, so that by Christmas there's a reasonable chance he'll no longer have a clue who I am.
The thing is, I'm a sucker for a foreign trip. Here we are. It's mid-May. I haven't been abroad now for nearly three months. I keep on googling random cities worldwide, just to see what the rainfall or the exchange rate might be. I can't *wait* to be on an aeroplane again. It almost doesn't matter where. It doesn't matter that I'll have to talk about the colonial disputes of the coffee trade in Java to get there, either.
It's not my fault the bloody cat hasn't got a passport. That's what I say.