Days of Contrast

It’s time I told you about Valerie and my night of passion. I still quiver when I think about it.

Now that I’ve got your attention I should point out that the total duration of our acquaintance was around 2 hours and physical contact was under a minute.

But first, for those following our route, we went from Ticondoroga to Plattsburg, through the Adirondacks to Johnson, then through the Catskills to Newburgh, New York. Snag – big football game at West Point the next day, no rooms available in Newburgh. The next day we drove the full length of the Garden State Parkway, bypassing the whole New York City/Newark/Philadelphia conurbation, to Cape May in south-east New Jersey. Snag – beer festival and dragon festival this weekend, no rooms available.

We did find a room on both nights, of course, but both were in crap motels at very high prices. At least in Newburgh we found a decent restaurant but in the motel we eventually found 30 miles north of Cape May all that was available was a down at heel diner or take-away pizza with plastic knives. We had just about given up when we found Mama Mia’s and….. Valerie.

It looked like another take-away place but the noise coming from it suggested otherwise. We went in and found a wonderful Italian restaurant with an even more wonderful Valerie. She was a buxom lass, in a tight black outfit, exuding personality like a burst water main. She welcomed us with open arms (literally), told us there would be a 15 minute wait and gave us a slice of pizza to be going in with. She asked our name for the table and then announced to all the others waiting: “This is Michael, my new friend, an English cowboy.”

The wait was worth it. Chef Joe Massaglia is an artist with food. Possibly one of the best meals we have ever eaten, presided over by the ebullient Valerie and a team of delightful waiting staff. Our lady was called Mary-Beth who’d adopted 6 feral cats and drew a little picture of a cat on our bill. It was when we left I had the full Valerie enfolding treatment – not something to forget. Valerie would be a huge asset to any restaurant in the world.

So, Contrast 1: one of the worst motels ever and one of the best meals ever. Valerie saved our day.


Do you feel lucky?

Do you feel lucky?

Contrast 2: The next day was Sunday. The morning we spent in Atlantic City, a sort of east coast version of Las Vegas. Atlantic City was fascinating and appalling in equal measure, it makes Disneyland seem like the real world. Brash, depressing, but kind of compelling like a snake looking into the eyes of a mongoose. I wanted to yell: “I’m not a celebrity, get me out of here – Fast.”


And so we went back to Cape May which was now emptying, festivals and holiday season over so no problem finding a room. A delightful place, a sort of Southwold with a New Jersey accent. In the afternoon we went to the Nature Conservancy further up the peninsula.

Cape May Nature Conservancy

Cape May Nature Conservancy

This is on the West Atlantic flyway for migrating birds and is a beautiful spot. Nearby they do bird counts of migrating birds, everything from raptors to songbirds. We spent the afternoon there, saw a Peregrine Falcon and were surrounded by Monarch butterflies preparing to fly south.

What a contrast. Atlantic City eat your heart out.


Wandering Conversations

Everyman's EnglandOne of the joys of traveling (at least the way we do it) is the excitement of never knowing where you will be each night and who you will meet along the way. In our audio book, Everyman’s England, Victor Canning travelled round Britain in the 1930s, talking to many different people and learning about a way of life that was about to vanish.

On our trip we had a long chat with Ruth and Kevin in Bethel about the business Ruth runs (wonderful clothes) and about books and writing. Kevin describes himself as ‘Boston Irish’ but had a wonderful knowledge of contemporary writing and American history.



From Bethel we went to Littleton in New Hampshire where we ate in Schillings, a pub with its own brewery making artisan beers. Wonderful. Here we met a couple from Northampton in the UK who were there on business before having a few days holiday. Their description of staying locally on a previous visit when the husband got gastro-enteritis and the hotel staff assumed it was Ebola and refused to serve them or clean their room, was terrifying. We met them again the next morning in a diner for breakfast and again on our way back from shopping and still don’t know their names. Didn’t matter – the craic was good.

Then there was Pat from the Littleton motel who had recently bought a home in Florida with her husband, the young man fishing (unsuccessfully) for trout who gave us a potted history of the area and told us how the dam provided power for the whole town. The receptionist at the York Harbour motel who had just bought an RV and when the motel closed for winter was going travelling with her dog



We drove on, from Littleton to Ticonderoga which boasts a fort that figures in the French/Indian war and the American revolutionary war. It changed hands so often that the garrison never did the washing up, just left it for the next occupier. Driving north up the side of Lake Champlain we visited the village of Essex.

It did not remind us of Basildon.


Apples and Railways

Okay, so here is why you should never make assumptions.

Stonington - Deer Isle

Stonington – Deer Isle

We left Bucksport on our American adventure, wandered through Deer Isle (lovely) and Bar Harbour (crowded) and ended up in Bangor for the night. We are having trouble with our I-Phone. It does most of the stuff it should – internet connections, Satnav, makes and receives phone calls and texts from the UK. But, and it is a big BUT, it will not allow us to make internal calls within the USA. All we get is “number not recognised” but if we cadge a landline and try the number it works.

Anyway before we left Bangor we used the ‘Around Me’ app to see if there was an Apple shop in town where we might get some answers – and there was. So off we went. The phone must have felt guilty as it guided us there very easily. The only problem was that it was a grocery shop – one of the Apple Store franchise. So the phone had the last laugh and we still have the problem.

rsz_img_3877 From Bangor we drove to Bethel in Maine and then crossed into New Hampshire and took a trip up Mount Washington on the Cog Railway, an amazing experience. You climb (very slowly and very, very steeply) from 2700 feet to the summit at 6251 feet. Today it was drizzling which turned to rain as we climbed higher into the clouds. We were determined to do the last 100 yards to the actual summit but by then the wind was gusting at 70 mph and the rain was horizontal. As you can see from the picture Dee now has a new career opportunity as an Antarctic explorer.

rsz_img_3873She kept singing: “Girls just gotta have fun…” so I am slightly anxious about what tomorrow might bring.


Crimson Cats in Maine

We have  been very gently chastised for saying we would blog on this trip and then leaving you all in suspense. Sorry but 3 days into the journey and this is the first reliable internet connection we have found. We travelled north from Boston up the coast, passing out of Massachusetts into New Hampshire and so into Maine.

Our journey is for pleasure but as artists (writers and producers) we are always interested in other creative people. And so we arrived in Rockland and the Farnsworth Museum which, amongst other things, houses a set of paintings by the artist Andrew Wyeth who loved Maine.

We wanted to see them but it was not straightforward. The museum car park was full, the next one we tried belonged to an estate agent, the next one was bank customers only, the next one insisted we had to be customers of Rite-Aid or they would let our tyres down. (I invented the last bit but you get the idea). Just as we were about to admit defeat a space opened up in the museum car park and we were in.

We were very glad we had persevered. The paintings were (mostly) wonderful, especially those depicting the people and the coast of Maine, evoked with consummate skill in his wonderful watercolours. We were also reminded how much better it is to see works of art in the ‘flesh’ as it were rather than just reproductions in books.

If all else had failed it would have been worth having our tyres let down!


Crimson Cats – On the Road Again

My Life And TimesSo it’s only a few days before Crimson Cats sets out on another Trans-American road trip. This time we are driving from Maine to Georgia down the line (roughly) of the Appalachian Mountains. There will be a few diversions on the way as we drift off course to meet various people who have bought our audio books and to explore anything that looks vaguely interesting.

Not many of the people in our audio books made it to the States, in fact the only one we can think of is Jerome K. Jerome who did several lecture tours there before the 1st World War, as outlined in “My Life And Times”.

However, we have a large and appreciative audience across the pond. “The House On An Irish Hillside” is very popular in America, as is “The Beautifull Cassandra”, stories from the young Jane Austen. The anthology of stories, verses and quotes about cats “How To Own A Human” is universally liked as is “Everyman’s England” for its 1930’s observations of our own country and “Every Lady A Gardener”, an insight into green-fingered ladies from the 19th century. You can hear short extracts from all our audio books on our web site:

Everyman's EnglandWe travel across the back roads of America for the sheer joy of travelling, meeting new people and exploring small towns but it is always an extra delight to meet people in reality who before we have only met on-line.

We will try and blog about our journey every few days so watch this space for a vicarious and spontaneous American road trip.


The Starston Crocodile

Crimson Cats is based in the Norfolk village of Starston and a stream, called The Beck, runs through the centre of the village. Last winter heavy rains and winds brought a huge oak tree trunk down on the flood water which then jammed itself against the sluice gate on the stretch of The Beck which runs through the village meadow. This caused quite a problem but it was 3 months before the ground was firm enough for a local farmer to bring his tractor and chain onto the meadow and haul the trunk out onto the bank. By then it was generally being referred to as “The Starston Crocodile.”

Crocodile 1 croppedHaving cleared the blockage the next question was what to do with this huge length of oak tree and the final solution was to turn the theoretical crocodile into reality – well, almost. We found a local chain saw sculptor who, with great skill, carved our tree trunk into a crocodile seat which now sits proudly on the village meadow.


Crocodile 2 cropped

Our crocodile is benign of course, but it reminds me of the crocodile in our audio book “Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots” which tells the story of Mary Kingsley’s journeys up the rivers of West African in the 1890s. On one occasion a crocodile tried to get into her canoe with her and she had to biff it with a paddle to discourage it. She had many other encounters on her journeys, including a dead hippo floating down the river, French customs officials and a local tribe of natives who were rather partial to eating their enemies. Mary retained her sense of humour throughout though I suspect she would not have been impressed by the Starston Crocodile.

Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots

Hippos, Hairpins and High Button Boots

Hippos Hairpins and High Button Boots is available as an MP3 download or as a CD from our web site:


Gerald Durrell – Writer, Conservationist and Friend

A few months ago Crimson Cats had the privilege of helping the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust on Jersey achieve a specific project – the production of a series of posters consisting of 1st edition front covers of all the books Gerald wrote. The Trust owns the copyright in the text, of course, but it doesn’t own the copyright in the artwork on the front covers. That copyright is held either by the original artist or the publisher.

Durrell Poster croppedThe Trust was keen to have these posters as they’re a wonderful summary of all the books but the task of tracking down each individual copyright holder and gaining permission to use the illustration was a daunting one. However, this is where we were able to help. Both Dee and I were once BBC radio producers and after that we ran our own production company before launching Crimson Cats Audio Books in 2005. In all those roles we were frequently involved in copyright clearance and we knew what had to be done. So we did it.

corfu-childhoodEven so, it took several months. Many of the original publishers had either ceased to exist or had amalgamated with others and at times it was a twisty trail to find the person who could give us the necessary permissions. But we got there in the end and 3 lovely posters are the result. They are A1 size and are available in the shop at the Durrell Wildlife Park.

For us, it means that we have a lovely companion to our audio book Stories From A Corfu Childhood, in which Gerry reads some of his own stories which I recorded with him in 1985. I am proud to have known him and very pleased we can still make a small contribution to his lifetime commitment to conservation.


Crimson Cats 10th Anniversary

Crimson Cats 10th Anniversary.pubIt’s hard to believe but Crimson Cats is 10 years old. We launched in the autumn of 2005 with our first 5 titles and immediately attracted some excellent reviews in the national press. When Dee and I first decided that we’d like to produce and publish audio books we discussed it with various business people, all of whom told us that it couldn’t be done. A small organisation couldn’t take on the might of the publishing giants, they said. We thought differently and with the help and support of many professional writers and readers we went ahead. 10 years on and we have 22 titles in our list and an even longer list of positive reviews. Perhaps one of the best came from Sue Arnold writing in The Guardian.

For a tiny publishing outfit, two adults and a cat with a recording studio in the basement of their Norfolk cottage, Crimson Cats produces some of the most sophisticated, original and genuinely interesting audios around. Most last about 80 minutes, but an hour listening to, say, the journal of the naval surgeon aboard HMS Victory at Trafalgar, or Katherine Mansfield’s letters as she lies dying of consumption is infinitely preferable to the eight hour autobiography of the latest celebrity sportsman/rockstar/chef.

Thank you to all those who have supported us in so many ways over the past 10 years. We wouldn’t be here without you.


Why Does The EU Want To Destroy Small Businesses?

And what a good question that is – but that is exactly what they are doing. From the 1st January 2015 anyone selling any digital download products on-line to customers in EU member states has to register for VAT. At present a business or a sole trader only has to register for VAT if their annual turnover is over £81,000 a year. Now, for digital sales only, a single sale of £1 a year would force you to be VAT registered and, not only that, but you will be responsible for identifying which EU country that sale has come from and charging, and accounting for, VAT at the rate that is relevant in that country.

HM Revenue and Customs has put together a package that will do most of the calculations for you but the responsibility to register, make regular returns to HMRC, change your prices to include VAT and pay the relevant VAT to the authorities, remains yours. HMRC have confirmed that the changes will be enforced. The cost of this in time and money means that many small traders and on-line sellers will simply have to go out of business.

So who does it affect? It affects all sellers of digital items so in our case that means the MP3 version of our audio books. However, it includes any digital item that you might make and sell – be it E-books coming direct from authors or small presses, independently produced computer games, MP3s from musicians, technical items like WordPress themes or online learning courses – or even knitting patterns. If you currently sell anything like this on-line then you will have to register for VAT (a time consuming and tedious process in itself) and also store a vast amount of data on your customers in order to complete your returns and hang on to that information for many years to come. As someone said in the press, it’s effectively holding lemonade stands to the same tax standards as the Coca-Cola company.

This is madness. I imagine the idea was to attack the large international business who avoid paying tax but whichever one-brain-cell bureaucrat thought this up clearly has never come to terms with joined up thinking. The big international players will find a way round it – they have the money and the legal weasels to keep them out of trouble. It is the small on-line traders such as Crimson Cats which will go to the wall.

Except we won’t. Our strategy is simple. From the 1st January 2015 we will no longer sell any digital download products to anyone living in an EU country, apart from the UK. The one ray of light in this disgusting business is that the new rules do not apply to the country of origin if your turnover is below the VAT threshold.

We sell in the UK, we sell to the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and will continue to do so. But we will no longer sell to the EU. We could ask what happened to the Open Market, we could ask what happened to unhindered Cross-Border Trading but, as we all know, trying to get a straight or honest answer out of any government or bureaucratic body is like trying to tap dance on a greasy high wire in a strong wind.

The really sad thing is that I am a great supporter of the EU but sometimes they make it very hard to continue that support.

Onwards and upwards, Crimson Cats, but goodbye EU. Have a nice – tax-impeded – life. We’re not going to play with you anymore.


EU Attack

Eastward Ho…!

As we travel across America in the next few weeks, driving from San Francisco to South Carolina, there will be many literary echoes that come to mind. Far too many to list here but three stand out for me above all others. John Steinbeck mainly for “The Grapes of Wrath” and “Travels With Charley” and Rebecca Wells for “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood”.

My-Life-And-Times-Book-RESIZEThe third author is someone not normally associated with this part of the world. Jerome K Jerome. A far cry from striped blazers rowing up the Thames you may say, but just over 100 years ago Jerome did several lecture tours to the United States, a country which initially he found very foreign. In his autobiography “My Life and Times” Jerome remembers an Italian shoe-black in Switzerland who put up a sign saying: “English spoken, American understood”, a sentiment which Jerome saw no reason to quarrel with.

my-life-and-timesBut he quartered the country that man, travelling by train from New York to Niagara, Chicago to Salt Lake City, San Francisco to New Orleans. Our trip will be very different and we’ll try and capture some of it on this Blog as we go.

In the meantime you can hear Jerome’s experiences of America on Track 10 of our audio version of “My Life and Times”, available as an MP3 download or as a CD.