Thursday, 6 March 2008


Sadly, Michael de Larrabeiti passed away a few months after this interview. You can read my tribute to him and an article about his funeral here.

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.

Early in 2007 I was conducting research for a chapter in the sequel to my debut novel, MY ADVENTURES IN CYBERSPACE, and googled “princess diana conspiracy forum”. Eventually I found myself on the website of an author called Michael de Larrabeiti.

Michael de Larrabeiti. 1940. Arundel
© Michael de Larrabeiti
Reading the short biography on his site I became intrigued by this man. Like me, he had lived in Clapham, round the corner in distance, albeit 45 years apart in time. He was half Basque and looked Basque, like my daughter Jodie who is a quarter Basque but looks more Basque than English.

Michael de Larrabeiti 1984
Michael de Larrabeiti
Like me he had worked in the film industry and travelled all over Europe (and for him, beyond.) He was also, like me, a photographer and a writer. But he had achieved far more than me. Even besides his fifteen published books he had been a travel writer for The Sunday Times, a shepherd in Provence, and he had retraced, on motorbike, Marco Polo's original route across Europe, through Afghanistan and onto India. This was a truly extraordinary man.

Above, Michael in Afghanistan, 1961
Michael de Larrabeiti
He had also been nominated for the Whitbread, the Crime Writer’s Association Golden Dagger, Travelex Travel Writer of the Year, and long-listed for the Booker Prize.
His Borrible Trilogy had been a best-seller and still has a hardcore of devoted fans all over the world. Though written as young adult fiction, the books deal with serious themes, most notably the debate over what causes are noble enough to die for and which aren't. My regular LA readership take note - the film rights expired in December 2007 so are once again up for grabs.

Michael de Larrabeiti in front of a Borribles promo poster, 1986
Michael de Larrabeiti
But what intrigued me most, more than any of his achievements, was a lust for life, a joie de vivre, a warmth, a chameleon-like ablility to fit in with people suffused with a subversive independence, which wafted out from his biography like heady incense.
I had to get to know this fascinating man. I had questions.

Princess Diana’s Revenge was submitted to more than 30 publishers and refused by them, even though its author has written more than 14 critically-acclaimed books. In these days of celebrity publishing the traditional publisher is less and less likely to undertake the slightest risk – or was it the subject matter of this book that made every publisher in England so timorous?

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.
Thus started a journey of emails between his publisher, James Benstead, and I, leading to a correspondence between Michael and I, that spanned a year and culminated in my spending a day with Michael at his home in Great Milton, Oxfordshire, late last year (and also meeting Jim in London last year too.)

Above left to right: To Hell With Publishing's founder Laurence Johns; Tallis House's founder James Benstead. A private club in Soho, London, November 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.
Last year Michael sent me a signed copy of Princess Diana's Revenge, the book that led me to his site through my google search, an Ealing comedy romp of a novel that his agent passed on and was eventually published by the independent Tallis House. He also sent me a signed copy of his most recent book, Spots of Time: A Memoir. But it was not until last Wednesday that I set aside a day to read what Jim Benstead told me was Michael’s most important work – Journal of a Sad Hermaphrodite.
As you will see from our discussion which follows, Michael does not consider himself to be a truly great writer, and is very humble and self-deprecating about his work, where other writers wouldn't be.
Journal of a Sad Hermaphrodite (aka JOSH) is ostensibly an innocent and unconsummated love story between the English teacher Cooper and his unnamed student, but the real love story is between the writer and the written word. JOSH is a kind of ode to literature, illustrated in human form by Cooper's secret admiration for and feelings of flustering incompetence before his gifted pupil.
I need an excuse for my actions – I know she has talent, I can see it in everything she writes, but I must not let my appreciation of that talent become the basis of an obsession – that way lies shipwreck. Two thousand years of civilisation behind me and I cannot speak to her; two thousand years and still the old are frightened of the young. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite – Page 20

Michael de Larrabeiti, London, 1948
Michael de Larrabeiti
Just as Cooper is the teacher, opening his pupils' minds to the treasures of literature through the ages, so Michael de Larrabeiti has been a travel guide, and JOSH is essentially a travel guide for writers through the terrain of literature.
‘Have you thought about writing?’ he said at one point, ‘because you ought, I mean.’...’I’ve been collecting things over the years – words, poems I mean. I want to put it all together, more tidily than it is now. You could take it away with you at the end of the year…it would be like a map of the front line, not complete, but showing you how to get through the trenches and across no-mans-land.’ Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 80
This is Cooper talking to the unnamed pupil. But it is also Michael de Larrabeiti talking to those of us who are in love with literature and the written word.

Michael de Larrabeiti, Singapore, 1969
Michael de Larrabeiti
If people tell you they have no time to read make sure you find out what they do have time for.
Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 123
Michael, like a travel guide with a map, explains, through the words of Cooper and his pupil, and also through the extensive quotes, from Horace and Montaigne to Stevenson sprinkled throughout the book, how to see whether we are on the right track or not. He doesn't take us, holding our hand, for that would stifle our sense of adventure. He holds up a mirror, a treasure chest of literary jewels, in which maybe we can see ourselves, our direction, our work and our loves.
…What one can say is that everything happens in our life as though we had entered upon it with a burden of obligations contracted in an anterior existence; there is nothing in the conditions of life on this earth to make us think ourselves obliged to be good, to be sensitive, even polite; nor for the artist to feel himself compelled to begin a passage twenty times over when the praise it evokes will matter little to the body devoured by worms…all these obligations…seem to belong to a different world, a world founded on goodness, on scruple, on sacrifice, a world entirely different from ours, and whence we come to be born on this earth, perhaps to return there and live under the rule of the unknown laws which we have obeyed here because we carried their principles within ourselves…those laws to which every deep intellectual labour draws us nearer, and which are invisible only…to fools. Marcel Proust quote. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite -Page 77

Michael de Larrabeiti, Great Milton 1986
Michael de Larrabeiti
He warns us of the fragility and transitory nature of life, and urges us to make the most of our time on this journey through life:
The aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves again since it is life. Since man is mortal, the only immortality possible for him is to leave something behind that is immortal since it will always move. This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here’ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must someday pass. William Faulkner quote. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 28.
How many young people have you heard say that they would work hard and make a fortune before they were forty-five? Where are they now? Still working, the light of wonder dimmed in their minds by years of toil.
And where are the ones who had talent but no bravery – those who could sing but didn’t dare raise their voices. Do they suffer in the deepest part of hell?
Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite – Page 30

To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, makes a very different acquaintance of the world, keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation. Robert Louis Stevenson quote.
Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 33.

Michael de Larrabeiti, Hong Kong, 1960
© Michael de Larrabeiti

He speaks to me so clearly through his words, through the words of Cooper and his pupil, through the words of the great poets and writers whose greatest works he has so selectively quoted, and through the words of "L.Lestrange" the mysterious writer whose quotes also appear in the book.

Is acting better than being?
Writing better than living?
Painting better than seeing?
Music better than hearing?
Dancing better than walking?
N Lestrange quote. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 33

Michael de Larrabeiti, Great Milton, 2002
Michael de Larrabeiti
I started reading JOSH at 9.30am on Wednesday 5th March. By 10.30am I was merely waiting to see Browning's A Toccata of Guluppi's for I was so in tune with the book, I knew it would have to be there. At midday it appeared on page 81.

'Dust and ashes!' So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too―what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

The last verse of A Toccata of Galuppi's. If you haven't yet read it all, then DO! A truly beautiful yet horrific poem that has resonated within me ever since first reading it 35 years ago.

Michael de Larrabeiti, Casablanca, 1959; the year I was born.
Michael de Larrabeiti
It is this awareness of the fragility of life, this honesty, this clarity of vision and respect for simplicity and purity, that drew me to Michael in the first place:
A man who is so fearful of poverty that he relinquishes his freedom – that freedom which is worth more than a mine full of gold – will because of his greed, bear a master on his back and be his slave forever: and all this for not knowing how to live simply. Horace quote. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 44.
Cooper forgot about our marked essays. ‘My fantasy,’ he said, ‘is almost endless travel. “Swagger the nut-strewn roads”, taking in the whole world, and every evening, as I came over the brow of a hill there would be the small auberge, with a few of the locals sitting outside, quietly talking, and I would be expected, known even, though never seen before. A seat would be ready, a table, and I could join in the conversation. In a bedroom where the beams were low, the counterpane would be turned down, the floor tiled and the shutters standing open in the summer’s dusk. All my books would have been laid out, standing in rows on shelves – and there is a desk with my papers. One morning I would move on – more adventures on the road and a new auberge that evening with new people in it. Long, extended dinners – and such companions at table! Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Leopold Bloom, Odysseus, Cleopatra, Marco Polo and Becky Sharp. What evenings we would have.’ Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 54
And by ruing his inability to write a work of genius, Michael de Larrabeiti has ended up unwittingly writing one, much as Cooper suddenly realises that by compiling his thoughts, and scraps of quotations, and pages from his pupil's diary into a cohesive whole, he has ended up writing his first book.
Davies showed me the joy of words but he didn’t warn me about the envy I would feel towards those who possess the ‘shaping spirit of imagination.’ Whenever I think of her I feel excitement, love and lust – and a deep envy of her gift. But an artist without talent cannot write that excitement, love and lust (and envy) out of his system – cannot make poetry from it. Teachers, publishers, journalists, critics and columnists would all sell their souls for that gift of alchemy – the using of words to turn base metal into gold. * Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite – Page 21
On the trestle table from the garage I am assembling my first book. All envy has gone, worn away in the work. In its place I have acquired an audacity beyond dreaming, and it is eager to match hers. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 165
Above: Me and Brian dressed up as Dennis The Menace and Minnie The Minx for a works do in Leeds, 2003. © Jude Calvert-Toulmin
* Besides all the other various Paolo Coelo The Alchemist road signs, notwithstanding our mutual love of A Toccata of Galuppi's and Dennis The Menace, Chapter 24 in MY ADVENTURES IN CYBERSPACE II is entitled "April - The Alchemy of Art." and concerns the use of alchemy to convert the base metal of ideas into the gold of art through writing, as a form of healing therapy.

Above: Michael in his Dennis The Menace hat, surveying the grounds of his beautiful home in Oxfordshire.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin
Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite, by the way, is dedicated to British poet and playright Tony Connor, who is also a close friend of J G Ballard's. One section of Connnor's 2006 anthology Things Unsaid is dedicated to Michael de Larrabeiti.
If you want to read more about Michael's work then please go to his Wiki entry and do your own research. There is a cornucopia of delights in his history which I cannot possibly cover in what is already going to be my longest ever blog article.
Before moving on to a transcipt of some of our discussion (much of which is too private to publish, and I have given my word to Michael that it will remain private), here is a little more about Michael's remarkable journey following in the footsteps of Marco Polo, a journey he undertook as the photographer for the Oxford University trip, accompanying Stan Johnson (Boris Johnson's father) and Timothy Severin back in 1961. From The Spots of Time, Michael de Larrabeiti's memoir:
‘Greater Armenia is an extensive province, at the entrance of which is a city named Arzingan, where there is a manufacture of very fine cotton cloth…It also possesses the handsomest and most excellent baths of warm water, issuing from the earth, that are anywhere to be found.’ We wanted very much to find those baths but a footnote to the entry, in my edition of ‘The Travels’ cast doubt on their very existence: ‘…of their existence at Arzengan I have not been able to find notice in the works of the Eastern geographers.’ Spots of Time - Page 62

Michael de Larrabeiti, London, 1966
© Michael de Larrabeiti
Then out of the gloom came a lonely silhouette, a peasant, behind him three water-buffalo. ‘Sejak Su?’ we asked. ‘Hot water?’ He turned and pointed, and there, a hundred yards or so away, disappearing into the dark, was the outline of a broken mud building.
We went back to our machines and found a track that brought us round to the building. It was totally dark now, but we could hear springs splashing out of the ground and running off into the marshes. The building was small, say seven yards by seven, there was no roof to speak of and a weak moonlight fell onto a rectangle of water that was contained in blocks of stone. We lay down on the ancient paving and plunged our arms into the bath; it was warm, and the bubbles caressed our hands. It was a moment of sheer delight; we had discovered Polo’s ‘handsomest and most excellent baths of warm water’. Spots of Time - Page 63

One of Michael's many bookcases.
© James Benstead, 2008
Jude: Can you tell me about Princess Diana’s Revenge? Why didn’t it get taken on when you’ve had so many books published before?
Michael: It started off as a thriller and then started sending itself up and was a kind of fairytale written as a thriller, and satirical, but also saying something about British society and this absolute obsession about Princess Diana, which is totally crazy, so it was criticised for being a thriller and then “losing its way.”
But you can mess about with genres, you can write comedy thrillers for example. Looks like a thriller then becomes something else. They don’t like that, and I told them. I believe I was totally in the right. But agents and publishers haven’t got the time for me any more. I’ve been told “I’m surprised you’ve become such an old grouse.”
Jude: A grouse or a grouch?
Michael: A grouse.
Jude: Why?
Michael: Because I'd expressed my opinion and said they were illiterate, basically.
Jude: But why a grouse? When used as a noun rather than a verb, a grouse is a bird!
Michael: (rolls eyes and smiles) Their command of English is not acceptable.
Jude: Where do things stand with The Borrible trilogy at the moment?
Michael: I got a query about The Borribles, an email from LA…
“I was a great reader of the Borribles when I was young, I’m now a producer and I’m really interested in making a film, can you tell me if the rights are free...”
And I told them the rights are not free at the moment but they will be in December when the option runs out, and I don’t think they’re going to be renewed….they show all this enthusiasm...(laughs) and publishers and agents are just very...they see themselves as...that you’re baying at the door...
Jude: You haven’t always had a bad relationship with agents and publishers have you? Otherwise you would have changed your agent...
Michael: Well it's not that’s an incestuous brotherhood...I was told “Most agents who are any good are so bloody busy that they wont take any new people on and they’ll probably get onto your previous agent and say “Why is he leaving you?” and the first agent will say “Well, he’s a bit of a troublemaker..."
I was just exercising my own right to express my opinion. I’m not much trouble really, but I was labelled as a troublemaker. There was a whole series of things for which I was hauled over the coals, which I just found amusing.
So I didn’t even submit Spots of Time. And anyway, they publish a memoir if you’ve got a name...I only wrote it for my daughters, I didn’t write it with an idea of publication, and then this sole publication thing came up with Jim, he started reading my stuff, particularly JOSH, coz I think back there somewhere is a desire to be a writer, and then also he's an IT whizzkid.
Jude: You say most of Spots of Time is true. So is the married woman sun-bathing in Greece true?
Michael: No. but it happened to a friend of mine. Got seduced in a Turkish bath.
(Michael tells me the whole story naming names and I promise to keep schtum.)
Jude: I was wondering about that coz that came across as very true.

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.

Michael: I was hitchhiking in the holidays, in Greece, and I got up to the top of this hill, wonderful place, you must go there sometime, and I thought the fairy story was a nice way of describing it. Coz a lot of Greek women don’t like their men you know. Their men are even more male chauvinist pig than I am.
Jude: Was, I’m sure. I’m sure you’ve mellowed with time.
Michael: Well, I don’t have the same energy anymore, otherwise I might still be. (chuckles)
Jude – (chuckles) Ohhhhhhh dear…
Michael: In a way one can see it as a pilgrim bringing joy and happiness to women who are unhappily married...
Jude: - (giving Michael a level, feminist look of disdain) I’ve never thought about it like that.
(Both chuckle.)

Jude: What about the characters in Princess Diana's Revenge? Are they invented?

Michael: The Bunce is totally invented. The Borribles is totally invented and Princess Diana’s Revenge is invented.

The character of Joe is a bit like me. I love that attitude where the Joe character sees everything but is a bit pathetic in that he doesn’t do very much, and I like taking that point of view. So I mean, that’s totally invented.
In PDR, the girl from the shop is not invented; there was a person like that in the shop but she never came into my bedroom. However according to village gossip she was in quite a lot of others. She looked a bit like I’d imagine Tess of the D'Urbervilles to look.
Vernon Minge was based three quarters on a real person who I hated. He wasn’t as good looking as Vernon Minge...he was a professor of anthropology at Oxford...daft as a brush...he used to say the most stupid things...bloody idiot, as a lot of academics are. So some people in the village are invented, some not. The countess is totally invented.
Jude: I like the Montaigne quote you’ve used too: "Just as our mind is strengthened with vigorous and well-ordered minds, so it is impossible to overstate how much it loses and deteriorates by the continuous commerce and contact we have with mean or ailing ones."

Above: One of Michael's many bookcases, containing, besides books, folders of photographs, clippings and notes.
© James Benstead, 2008

Michael: I recommend his essays if you haven’t read them. Penguin do a very good translation.
Jude: I’ll put that on my reading list...I’m ashamed to say there are a lot of classics I haven’t read...
Michael: Ah. Well. Ars longa vita brevis.
Jude: Yes, I'm aware of that.
Michael: Well stop enjoying yourself and start studying.
Jude: Well the thing is, it’s different for a woman. I chose to take 15 years out to raise a family. If you then want a career then that’s a big block of your life that you’re gonna be behind the men.
Michael: I appreciate that...
Jude: And that’s why there aren’t as many famous women writers or artists as men, because they’ve been raising families.
…to make something beautiful is an intoxication. Is that why so many women are happy enough to be mothers and only mothers? – such a thing they’ve made and nothing else like it on earth. If men could carry, bear and suckle children how many books would they have bothered to write and how many pictures painted? Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite – Page 75.

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.
Jude: Do you still have any connections with The Sunday Times, with your travel writing? Or has everything changed?
Michael: I don’t even read it now, the Travel Section...12 places to take your kids at half term…it’s awful…it wasn’t my style. The style changed so much...they stopped asking just died a natural death.
Jude: How long ago was that then?
Michael: I think the last one I did was 2002. In France, I filled the car up with wine and sent my daughter back as a foot passenger. It’s not as bad as it sounds. She was going to London anyway. But it’s a story she tells…you know, “I went to Dieppe with my dad and he made me get out the car so he could fill it with wine"...but that was the last one I did.
The other reason for my relative failure is that I never write the same book. What you do if you want to be a success is keep writing the same book…a detective story, whatever. The Bunce got very very very good reviews and if I’d continued in that carve out a kind of readership…like Rankin…Maeve Binchy...but I always wanted to write something different.
Jude: Personally I think you should write for yourself. These are the books that will be remembered for a long time. These are the books that are written with passion, and from the heart.
Michael: My books are from the heart.
Jude: I know. That’s why I’m here.
Michael: It’s like have the tit operation...
Jude: Katie Price is a hard working girl . She’s very intelligent. She’s used her modelling as a way into getting published.
Michael: I know, but I’m just saying that as a celebrity, however you’ve got to that celebrity status, makes getting published easy.
Jude: Yeah it makes it easy but it’s not the only way to get published. I do think what you have to do nowadays is put yourself out there as much as you can.
Michael: You're right. I’ve been lazy, and too proud. Anyway, you ask me questions, I’m talking too much.
Jude: Whaddaya mean I ask you questions you’re talking too much?! I want you to just talk! About whatever you want to!...actually I do have a few questions I want to ask...
Michael: Oh yes I know you do. Otherwise you won’t get to know what you want to know...and then we’ll have a couple of pizzas and a tomato salad.
Jude: I love tomato salad.
Michael: I do a very nice vinaigrette.
Jude: I’m sure you do.
Michael prepares lunch and as we're eating he muses...
Michael: If my mother could see me now...napkins...big house...all through 15 books or whatever it is...

Michael de Larrabeiti, Festival Gardens, 1952
Michael de Larrabeiti
After lunch...
Jude: Is it OK if I take some photos?
Michael: As long as I don’t have to take my clothes off.
Jude: Yes you do.
(Both laugh)
Michael: Not a pretty sight.
Jude: Well...none of us look like what we did when we were 20...

(Jude studies list of notes and mutters to herself.)
Jude: Some of these are questions and some are just lines I like from your books.
Michael: (chuckles)…Oh that’s all right. We writers like a bit of praise.
Jude: “It was very special while it lasted, that time with Bernadette. There was the smell of mint tea on the air and the palm trees on the boulevards looked skimpy and dishevelled like mop headed models.”
I love that line...
Michael: (chuckles) I quite like it too. She died a couple of years ago.
Jude: Oh! You managed to track her down!
Michael: Um…oh yeah, I say (in Spots of Time) that I got on the boat at midnight and left her dumped.
It’s a good story but it’s not true. However it’s a better story.
Jude: You used some poetic licence. So you kept in touch with her? That's good.
Michael: Yes, I did. I got her a job in a holiday camp in the south of France and we kind of drifted apart and then after many years, I was cycling down from the Pyrennees...and went back to Casablanca to do an article for the Sunday Times. Anyway I managed to find this friend who had her number, so I rang her up, thirty years later. Went to see her, she was living not far from Toulouse, and she was quite miserable...and I got a letter a couple of years ago, saying that she’d died. Most of the book’s true…
Jude: I’d been reading the stuff about you on your website when I first stumbled across it…I did think, “This is a very interesting bloke and I’d like to meet him", and the story about Bernadette did…
Michael: Went against your impression…
Jude: Yes…it was incongruous…

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.
Thirty thousand pounds for the Turner Prize, for an unmade bed, a pile of bricks or a room where the electric light flashes on and off. Not one of them as great in conception as the roof I put on my house. My roof is a work of art and will last a hundred and fifty years, two hundred maybe. It was made of timber I had cut, battens I had soaked in creosote, ancient tiles, and the knowledge of the builders who showed me how to do it. I had been to Blanchford’s builders’ yeard to buy galvanised nails and sacks of cement; I had bought my first claw hammer. There was nothing better than my roof.
The activity of making a roof brings with it all the joy of making a work of art, especially when you do it for the first time. It is art to the roofer even if it isn’t art to anyone else, just like the pile of bricks to the artist. You go beyond life for a while, beyond death. You are not quite sure where the work is taking you or what you are going to learn about yourself. It beats Columbus for discovery. I climbed a hundred tall ladders to the highest roofs in order to meet knowledgeable men, searching for instruction. And in pubs I talked with artisans who made celebrity sculptors look fashion-minded and fraudulent. I spent time with builders who carried the wisdom of the tribe with them. And, it came to me as a bonus, I worked out a definition of art on those roofs: art is something you want to return to, something you want to see many times, and not just a one off joke. Spots of Time - Page 145
Jude: I love that quote. Damien Hirst for me is not art.
Michael: It’s a joke. You’ve seen that once, like Tracey Emin’s bed.
Jude: Tracey Emin’s a bit different I think, because if you investigate her she’s put an enormous amount of herself into her work, an enormous amount of passion. It’s a different thing, Tracey Emin to Damien Hirst. Tracey has had a turbulent life and has put it all into her work.
Michael: I still wouldn’t want to go back and see her bed more than once.
Jude: It’s conceptual art. A different type of art, although I do think that art should be aesthetic. Like with music, I don’t like experimental jazz and stuff, I like really beautiful harmony and melody; I don’t like noise…

Michael de Larrabeiti, Great Milton, 1989
Michael de Larrabeiti
My children grew faster than roses on the wall; picnics by the river at Cuddesdon Mill, teaching them to swim, canoeing expeditions. And me loving them every minute, watching, hoping they would turn into friends one day. Learning how to get through adolescence again; second time for me, first time for them. Spots of Time - Page 162
Jude: I love that line, "My children grew faster than roses on the wall", how beautiful, and how true.
Michael: I think of my kids at school over the a tour guide I was out the house 4 and a half months of the year, and as a travel writer for the Sunday Times I was out the house even less, so three quarters of the time I was here with my children, taking them to school, reading them stories, and I adored it. And now when I think of them, I don’t think of them as grown up ladies, I think of going over the road and meeting them at school; they stay like that.
Jude: Oh, absolutely! My 16 year old daughter Jodie was here at the weekend, she was cuddling up to me on the sofa, and I could see this beautiful figure but in my head she’s a toddler and always will little pudding.
Michael: I’m glad I had girls.
Jude: What, even when they were teenagers? (laughs)

Michael: When they got to 16 I bought them a huge bunch of flowers each and said “You’re on your own. I don’t want to interfere, but I don’t want you coming back here pregnant.”
Jude: My eldest did. Got pregnant at 17.
Michael: So young. It must be so traumatic to have a baby at that age. I mean, it’s not a walk in the park at any age.
Jude: No. She’s a very young soul. My other daughter Jodie was born wise.
Michael: My daughters have all been pretty good, but Rose was also born wise. I could have a row with Rose and sit down afterwards and she’d listen to what I was saying, go away and think about it and say “Yes, you were right.” Which is unusual in children growing up. Aimee, the eldest, was always very spiky. We told her off for something once, and she came down one morning and…you know Wheatley is the next village….and she said (adopts booming voice) “I HAVE LEFT HOME! the direction of Wheatley.”
It’s become a family joke. She’s in her thirties now. We always still laugh about it. She was always very spiky.
Jude: I think first children often are.
Michael: I was talking to a psychiatrist the other day and he said he’s got a second daughter who’s more trouble than the other two put together.
More wine?
Jude: You're going to get me hideously drunk aren’t you?
Michael: I know, have my way with your voluptuous body!
(both cackle with laughter)
Michael: Might as well go and have my after lunch nap!
(uproarious laughter from both...fizzles out...)
Jude: You are naughty.
Michael: I’m only naughty verbally. I do make my friends laugh which is a gift.
Jude: It is a gift.
Michael: As I say in the last chapter of Spots of Time…about being in debt to all the authors and poets and musicians who’ve gone before you, and it was time to pay back.
I was in debt not only to Stevenson for bringing me here but to all the others – regiments of them: Stendhal, Hardy and Fielding; Dickens and Balzac. And all those poets and painters and composers too, who had sweated out their lives to give me pleasure and knowledge and a little wisdom. I owed people, not only for the lobster breakfasts of Samoa, but for many other things. That farming family who had taken me in off the road as a young hitch-hiker, in France, a night of no moon and much storm. And those folk I had met, miners and steel-workers, shepherds and coach-drivers, they had been generous too. And generosity from women – mothers, friends, lovers – who had given me moments of tenderness and understanding; kindness everywhere, and wit and laughter. And friendship was the best of it; friendship and love. ‘…the best that we find in our travels is an honest friend. He is a fortunate voyager who finds many.’ Spots of Time - Page 244
I owed the living and the dead. I had been nourished by everything that had preceded me – there was no such thing as ‘before my time’, all time was part of me: the seasons, the rain and the wind, snowrops and autumn leaves, and wars I had not fought in. I was heavily in debt and there was only one way to get out of it. It was pay back time, difficult though it was, for I did not possess much capital – I could tell silly jokes, I had the gift of making my friends laugh, I could spread a little knowledge and some love and friendship in my turn, and perhaps – only perhaps – I could leave a few decent books behind me. That wouldn’t be too bad- picture postcards from the past, thank-you letters addressed to those who read them. It was the best I could do. Spots of Time - Page 245

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.
After our lunch, the delicious vinaigrette, and a tour of the beautiful house he spent many years lovingly restoring with his own hands, it was time for me to go.
Shyly, Michael told me that if I wanted to return for a weekend I would be welcome. ‘And bring your man, Brian.’ he added.
We were quiet for a while and then he said; ‘I suppose I could take an early retirement, you know, go to Spain. Then you and Richard could come and stay, on your way round the Mediterranean.’ He made the invitation sound casual and for a moment I felt older and more experienced than he. I took a water biscuit' Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 154

Have I not made
A monument more enduring than brass
To soar above the pharoah’s pyramids?
A monument which nor the wind, nor the rain
Nor the centuries unnumbered can destroy,
Nor all the passage of the seasons?
- Not all of me shall die…
Horace quote. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 41
This is the grove of Narcissus. I lay out these stolen lines at random to show you where I have wandered for a lifetime. Round and round, back and forth. Still I haunt this familiar grove, wishing I were young. I recite the verses I learnt then. When I look into the pool I see only the grave marks on my face. A man fast becoming old, I take pleasure only in the words of others, flaunt them as if they were my own, even though their beauty and power make me melancholy. They are words beyond my inventing. There is no despair deeper than that of the artist without talent. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite – page 7
Well, the sorrow of seeing the talented artist's insecurity and laments comes close.
The jackal thinks that he has fed well when he has in fact only eaten the leavings of the lion. Quote from Abdul-Qadir of Gilan. Journal Of A Sad Hermaphrodite - Page 135.
No great artist was ever secure in their talent, no truly great artist has ever been smug, much as they may feign bravado as a flimsy disguise - this is what makes them great in the first place, for smugness is a result of blindness and reserved for the jackal, not the lion.
The artist, beautiful, dignified and powerful, will always be aware of his own fragility.
By twelve, he had written a book of poetry which he later destroyed when no publisher could be found.
From the wiki entry about Robert Browning, one of the greatest English poets to have ever lived.

Above, Michael de Larrabeiti at his Oxfordshire home, 2007.
© Jude Calvert-Toulmin.

Further reading for those of us who like to mine deeper seams and not just scrabble about on the surface larking around with everyone else:
2006 interview with BBC Radio Oxford

First chapter of Journal of a Sad Hermaphrodite

First section of Princess Diana's Revenge

First chapter of The Borribles

First chapter of The Borribles Go For Broke

First chapter of The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis

A Selection of Michael's travel articles for The Sunday Times:

Going Loco
: The Copper Canyon Line links Mexico's cowboy heartland to some of the most dramatic scenery on earth. Michael de Larrabeiti climbs aboard. First published 11 October 1998.

Heart of Stone: MICHAEL de LARRABEITI does battle with the unforgiving terrain of Greece's Mani region and achieves a childhood desire to find Cape Matapan. First published 27 April 1997.

Treasure Island:
A hero's final resting place exerts an awesome pull - more so if it happens to be a South Sea island. Michael de Larrabeiti paid his respects. First published 7 March 1999.

Press Reviews:


‘...deadly glint and sophisticated appeal.’ Kirkus

‘London’s answer to The Lord of the Rings...try The Borribles, warts and all, before they become a legend.’ The Times

‘...the offspring of a singular imagination.’ The New York Times

‘...Larrabeiti has written a modern epic.’ Publishers’ Weekly

‘...this juvenile Clockwork Orange projects a gripping story through slam-bang action.’ Los Angeles Times

‘It’s stuff as strong as Fagin’s underworld. Dickens would have approved of this book.’ Evening Standard


‘...a beautifully warm, inventively true book.’ The Guardian

‘...the whole thing is a tour de force.’ The Sunday Times


‘A dark story with overtones of Ian McEwan’s Atonement...keeps you enthralled.’ The Guardian

‘It is so well done...Michael de Larrabeiti’s book is of a high literary standard.’ Beryl Bainbridge

‘Compelling and atmospheric.’ John Carey, The Sunday Times


‘Craftsmanship, style, imagination and intelligence make this an enjoyable, sometimes alarming novel.’ Time Out

‘ in comic life...there are escapades galore, vicious, lewd, hilarious...crime as vaudeville.’ The Guardian

‘The plot roars off on a letching-retching rollercoaster... hurtling pace, sharp tin-tack writing.’ The Observer

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