1993 and life in Andorra was buzzing. René de Knight, an African-American jazz pianist, had invited me round to his flat to meet Margaret Shaida. She was still aglow from having won that year’s Glenfiddich Award for best food book of the year – considered the UK’s Oscar for culinary writing. Despite her elegant prose and deep personal knowledge of Persian culinary history, her manuscript had been turned down by a number of publishers, so Margaret and her husband, Hassan, decided to produce the book themselves and then enter it for the award. The Legendary Cuisine of Persia appeared in a handsome, large format edition in 1992 and became the first self-published book in the UK to win a major writing award.
Over a cup of tea, Margaret gleefully told us a tale of revenge that took place at the Awards ceremony itself. Hovering on the edge of a circle of people listening to an editor holding forth on his ability to spot a winner, Margaret waited for him to draw breath and then slipped into the conversation in her soft-spoken voice, ‘Ah, but you turned down mine – and it’s just won tonight’s main Award.’ (Today the book is available from Penguin.)
I had reached no such dizzying heights but in 1990 my first book, The Intricate Art of Living Afloat, had been chosen as Book of the Month by the American Dolphin Book Club. Two years later my second book, A Gypsy Life, (which has just been reissued by Imperator Publishing and which deals with a dozen years of adventures sailing the world aboard an ancient, 69 foot, sailing cargo boat) received the same boost to sales. It has since been translated into Norwegian and Catalan languages.
As Margaret and I chatted under René’s interested eye, the notion grew. Why not start an Andorra Writers’ Circle to support, encourage, critique and promote English writers living here. Thus the group was born.
Next, to gather members. Our first ‘find’ was Judith Wood. Born in Bombay, Judy had lived all over the world before finally alighting in Andorra. She brought with her a wonderful imagination and a powerful line in short stories one of which had been broadcast by the BBC. In turn, Judy was friends with Ursula Simpson Ure, one of the first English-speakers to settle in Andorra back in the 1950s. A New Zealander born in Shanghai and raised in Egypt, she began her writing career aged 17 when she became the youngest author ever to be published by the venerable Blackwood’s Magazine (founded in 1817 and finally closed in 1980). Her second novel, The Vintage, was translated into four languages and made into a film by MGM.
Yes. Tiny Andorra has a remarkably diverse ex-pat community.
From then on the group fluctuated, larger and smaller, as writers came and went: Canadian, German-Israeli, British, New Zealand, Scottish, South African; just a few of the many nationalities represented in Andorra’s culturally rich international community. On retiring here, Peter Dunkley, a Canadian, became a successful travel writer, his adventurous pieces to be found gracing many airline magazines and such newspapers as the British Guardian. His autobiography, Here, There and Everywhere can be found on Amazon. As can Cathy O’Dowd’s book, Just for The Love of It. Born in South Africa, Cathy was probably our most illustrious member being the first woman to climb Everest from both sides. Now she is a much sought after motivational speaker on the International Celebrities circuit.
I have to say at this point, “Don’t get too enthusiastic!” For joining our writers’ group should come with a health warning. Of the 12 who have joined us over the past 24 years, seven are now dead! Today we consist of six members: Judith Wood, Valerie Rymarenko, Jeanne Lodge and myself originating from the UK, Patricia Gray from Australia and Alexandra Grebennikova from Russia.
Valerie, with a Master’s degree in Female Criminology, joined us in 2004. She writes exquisite and highly imaginative tales for the personal joy of it rather than for publication. Nonetheless two of her pieces have appeared in British Patchwork and Quilting; patchwork being her driving passion.
Patricia Grey, arguably our most prolific writer, joined us in 2008. Her first book, Death Has a Thousand Doors, set in Andorra, was a finalist in the 2010 Proverse Prize. She went on to publish Thirteen Families, a volume of short stories. Right now she is putting the final touches to her latest thriller, Taboo!, set in Australia.
Jeanne de Ferranti Moore is another adventurous soul. Her book, The Journey that Never Was, tells the tale of a remarkable trip she made in the early 60s. Aged 21, she set out with a friend to drive her 21st birthday present, a Mini called Honey, around the world. It took them two years during which time they slept most nights under a bivouac on a sheet of plywood laid on the Mini’s roof. Jeanne also happens to be the first British woman to hold a helicopter pilot’s licence.
Our most recent recruit, multilingual Alexandra Grebennikova, works as a translator into English, Spanish and Russian, writes a weekly column for the local newspaper Bon Dia, a monthly column for Ara.ad as well as pieces for Diari d’Andorra. Her book, Les bicicletes no es mengen, is a collection of her astutely observed commentary on Andorran life. (Jeanne, Alexandra and myself have now all given up our original passports and become Andorran citizens.)
Together the group has also published three anthologies: Anthology from Andorra in 1993, Tall Tales, High Mountains in 2001 and The Five Senses in 2010. In 1998 we published Andorra: Festivals Traditions and Folklore and, most recently, in 2016, a sub-group published Andorra Revealed, an entertaining, in-depth look into one of the world’s more enigmatic countries.
So how does the group operate? At the beginning we went online for ideas and found the most popular to be reading one’s pieces out loud at meetings. We discarded this because a) too much depended on the reading skills of the writer and b) because it was impossible to give an in-depth critique as one couldn’t remember the details. Finally, we settled for the system that we use today.
The aim is to have something new to hand in before each monthly meeting. Those writing books hope to produce the next chapter but we also set a subject for those fond of writing short stories. For instance, this month the subject is The Raffle. Recently we have had Solitude and Nostalgia. What is so very exciting about these short stories is how, all starting from the same launch pad, each writer’s imagination soars off into a separate universe.
Today, with the ubiquitous use of computers, we send our work out a few days before the meeting so everyone can critique it and return it to the author before we gather in my house. There, we go around the table taking each work in turn and making our individual comments. This way, if someone, for instance, found a sentence or paragraph hard to understand, they will say so and maybe others will say, ‘Oh no, I had no trouble with that. I thought it was obvious.’ This gives the author a choice of views with which to revisit the part in question. If everything was critiqued over the internet that conflicting view would never be heard.
In the end there is actually only one obligation for all members: to critique other members’ work. The result: a very productive group of writers.