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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

A First Visit to Australia - Pt 1: the south-east

We’ve been back from Australia for three weeks now, and already the memories are becoming blurred by the slowly expanding distance that separates us from a wonderful, intense experience, and of course the maelstrom of current events swirling around everyday life.

A number of things that I observed on the six-week trip are clear in my mind, however. First, Australia suddenly seemed far nearer than it ought to be. It was distressingly close: just one long, tedious flight away. On the other hand, it was much, much bigger than I had really understood. We travelled huge distances by car and some substantial ones on foot, and whenever we checked the map we saw that we’d done no more than scratch a faint line across a tiny corner of a continental island that seems to go on forever.

I don’t know whether I’ll ever write anything substantial about the place, the way I like to about the western part of the United States. I should imagine I’d want to make another visit to sort though some of my initial impressions, expand my knowledge, confirm what I think I remember; or at least pause for a while and give it some thought; but for the moment I’ll content myself with a few notes on the three main areas we visited, starting with the south-east.

Well no, let me start with Hong Kong.

Ancient and modern in Hong Kong -  Buddhist temple overshadowed by burgeoning high-rise
 
We decided to take a short break there, partly to relax, partly to allow the scope of our journey to sink in. The idea of getting on a plane in Newcastle and getting off in Melbourne after a brief stop in Dubai seemed somehow disrespectful. It ought surely to be harder than that to travel halfway around the Earth. We chose Hong Kong and were glad we did. Although we were only there for three days and two nights, we managed to get a flavour of a place where old ways meet new. If that sounds a little glib, let me say that we took a centrally located hotel and strolled around the business district – got lost our first evening – before negotiating the automated ticket machines (quite the epic struggle, that) and hopping a train out to Star Island. The idea there was to take a cable car to Victoria Peak, a bus to a harbour further around the coast and a ferry back to the city. When we got there we found a sign saying that the thing was closed for maintenance. ‘Till when?’ I asked one of the guys who were standing selling bus tours.

‘Till June,’ he said.

So we took a walk along a sign-posted route that promised various delights including an ancient temple and a display of public art -  and delivered most of them in due course.

The route took us around what appeared to be a brand new town where 50- and 60-storey apartment blocks crept up, stage by stage towards the towering cranes that are everywhere on the Hong Kong skyline. We found the temple but struggled at first to find the ‘art walk’. We ventured into a public housing area where, beneath the sleek new high-rises, people aired their bedding on the chain-link fences, dried their fish in the sun, swatting away the flies, and fixed their bikes on the pavements. Deep among the tenements we found a lunch-counter where, by pointing and nodding, we were able to get a large bowl of delicious, traditional food and a pair of chopsticks for about £3. We ate, with everyone else, on benches in the public space, surrounded by various sculptures that attempted to link ancient and modern themes – and the soaring apartment blocks.

 

 

From Hong Kong we took the plane to Melbourne, a flying visit to catch up with a niece who works there as a nurse. What we saw of the city reminded me of mainland Europe - more specifically Germany, I suppose, because of its excellent tram network.

 
Melbourne, looking back at the city from the Anzac Memorial

We would like to have spent more time there, but only had forty-eight hours before we had to make our way towards Canberra. The fact that we managed to find ourselves on a dirt road within fifteen minutes of picking up our hire car at the airport cheered me immensely. This was, after all, supposed to be an adventure. Part of our planning involved a series of short hikes to keep us in shape for our long walk in Tasmania, so our destination was Thredbo, in the Snowy Mountains. Apart from us, there was only one other guest at the youth hostel. Next morning we took the ski-lift, and started hiking.

 

We rarely seem to go away on these trips without encountering snow. I have photos of myself in every month of the year except September standing in snow, and here we were again, late summer and several inches on the ground. Yes, we were 6-7,000 feet up, and yes, the locals agreed it had been unseasonably cool the last couple of days, but this was still only late summer. The hike to the summit of Australia’s tallest peak, Mt Kosciuszko (7309 feet), is a steady, gentle climb, and very popular indeed. It soon began to pall. So well used is it, and so degraded the old path, that they have put in a steel walkway. Sensible, but rather too reminiscent of the London Underground for our taste.



 
Perhaps a kilometre from the summit, where we could see crowds gathering, we abandoned the effort and found a circuitous track that took us eight miles or so, down through our first eucalyptus forest and Dead Horse Gap, to where we started.


 

Canberra, the capital city, was hot, around 100 degrees – one of maybe two uncomfortable days over the entire six weeks. We were there not so much to see the sights but to visit some of A’s old haunts – she lived there in the 1960s – and a few old friends. After visiting her old schools and neighbourhoods, we did have time to check out the city’s main architectural feature, the broad avenue that connects the Parliament buildings with the War Memorial, and, briefly, the National Library. It was a planned city, and it shows. The road system makes it easy to get around, and there is a wonderfully spacious feel.

Writing this down, it does make the whole trip seem terribly rushed. But as I said earlier, Australia is enormous. Normally, when you have six weeks in a place, you imagine that you’re going to have time to do everything. I had entertained hopes of taking in a cricket match at the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground) or in Sydney or the WACA (Perth). As it turned out, the domestic season was effectively over – and we enjoyed the time we spent in the Parliament buildings.   

 
 




Sydney, regrettably, got even shorter shrift. People really rate the city. We had to settle for nodding at in passing. A couple of strolls around the far side of the Harbour, another through the Botanic Gardens and it was time to get our train out to Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains to meet an aboriginal guide who would take us on a day-long wilderness hike. We were Evan’s sole customers, and were treated to an intense introduction to wilderness ways, aboriginal culture and art.

Aboriginal rock carving, Blue Mountains
 
 

We ate a bit of bush tucker, sucked on refreshing, flavoured leaves, ground up charcoal and earth to make paint with which to decorate strips of bark, and listened to him as he interpreted rock carvings and their connections to the song lines

While our guide talked to us we sat in a shallow cave under a canopy of wind-sculpted rock
 
Back in the big city we made the brief pilgrimage out towards Mrs Macquarie’s Chair so that I could stand at the feet of a writer whose work captivated me some decades ago and convinced me it was worth my time to write down the stories I heard in railwaymen’s cabins and on the factory floor. I’m talking about Henry Lawson and his collection of camp-fire tales While The Billy Boils.

One of my literary heroes, Henry Lawson
 



 

 
From Sydney we headed along the coast road towards Melbourne for a flight to Tasmania and Part 2 of our adventure.
 

 

Monday, 3 April 2017

A Debut Novelist - at 67¾.

My 25th book - and first novel, out now.

To the browser in the bookstore it's probably just another novel, but to me it’s freighted with significance – and I reveal it with no small amount of pride. After two dozen non-fiction books over the past twenty-five years, I am now a debut novelist. Aged 67¾.

I started writing this in 1991, when I was a postgraduate student at the University of East Anglia. I’d done my M.A. and the late Malcolm Bradbury invited me to embark on a doctoral course with a view to presenting a novel as my thesis. The impetus for the work I planned came from a deep love of the landscape, people and culture of the American West, and stories that had gripped me from childhood. However, I allowed myself to be persuaded that it needed an intellectual or academic bent. I really thought that that was what was required. Somewhere along the way, after I’d written the first forty pages or so, I was ambushed by two academics who had nothing to do with Creative Writing – rather History and Literature. In a formal interview, they trashed my work-in-progress. Said it was too personal. Badly bruised and very angry, I abandoned it.

Several months later, when I’d recovered my senses, I sat down and started on the novel that I really wanted to write – about my early enchantment with the mythic West and my later, first-hand knowledge of the land that gave birth to that myth. I wrote with no constraints on a manual typewriter of some vintage, sitting at my dining-room table after the kids had gone to bed. The result, which I completed in 1993 or 4, was well received by a major publisher, then ditched quite late on in the progress towards formal acceptance. Over the following twenty-some years I occasionally fiddled with it, sent out sample chapters from time to time, and, despite constant rejection, never gave up on it. I would guess I made between 60 and 100 overtures to publishers and agents during that time.

In 2015 I had the good fortune to be granted a three-month fellowship at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico. I grasped the opportunity to take the novel apart and re-write it, radically, with - I admit it now - a more mature understanding of my subjects and characters. Within six weeks I had ripped out 40,000 words and re-written the whole thing. My readers and advisers confirmed my feelings that, at last, it was working. Less than a year after I'd completed it, Paula Comley at Ouen Press took it on. I hope you enjoy it.

You can find the book on amazon (amzn.to/2otYqek) at £9.99. 
For U.S. readers, go to amzn.to/2nWr3Q2
 

Monday, 13 February 2017

A Fall tour of Nebraska

Australia is on my mind, of course; as is the launch of the novel (Cody, The Medicine Man and Me) at the beginning of April. But I wanted to give advance notice of a trip I'll be making to Nebraska at the end of September. How could I not? It is, after all, 150 years since the achievement of statehood. I've been planning this for some time, and now the pieces are beginning to slot into place.

I have several speaking engagements lined up. On September 30th I will be giving a talk at the Mari Sandoz Conference in Chadron entitled 'Getting in Touch with Mari Sandoz'. It'll be based around my experiences in the Red House (2011) and how that time alone in the Sandhills deepened my appreciation of this great author's work, the bonds that tied her to a remarkable landscape.

In addition, I have a return date at the Willa Cather Memorial Foundation in Red Cloud (provisionally Thursday 12th October), and two others that will open up new territory as far as I'm concerned. Since I joined the Nebraska Writers Guild, some time ago, I have forged some helpful links. Now they have invited me to address their Fall Conference, in Aurora, some time over the two days 20-21 October.

Finally, on Weds 18th October, I will be giving a luncheon address to the 150 or so delegates at the State Tourism office's conference in Omaha.

In between there will be a handful of talks at various libraries across the state. I'll have more details as the year unfolds.

'Amen rays', Cherry County

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Setting my sights on Mary Wesley

Some weeks have passed since I finally emerged from the jungle of projects that have paid my bills for ten years and stumbled, blinking, into a clearing.

I really wasn't sure what to expect. For so long the jobs have been lined up, sometimes two and three deep, and in many ways I have revelled in it. After two decades of uncertainty, punctuated by spells as a barman, a bookie, a writing tutor and a lab assistant in the sugar-beet factory, my future was mapped out. As I worked through the various commissions, occasionally finding time for some of my own work, I would pause now and then to think about what I would do when I reached my modest target. That was, to accumulate enough money to allow two, maybe three years in which I could write what I wanted.

Out into the sunlight, French Pyrenees, 2008
 
And now, here we are - with just a few odds and ends to clear up. First, a couple of book launches: on April 1st,  the history of the York Brewery, which will happen - where else? - in said brewery. 3 o'clock in the p.m. if you feel like showing up. Then, two days later, my novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, is published by Ouen Press (watch this space). Just this evening I have received a copy of the cover, and am still adjusting to the jolt it sent through me.

It'll be odd to find oneself a debut novelist at the age of 67. It's not unheard of, of course: think of Mary Wesley, who startled the literary world at the age of 71. But did she have a thirty-year career in writing and two dozen non-fiction books behind her? I think not - and, yes, Wikipedia agrees.

As well as bracing myself for those two events, I have been trying to sell a couple more projects, both undertaken for other people, as well as discussing a follow-up book with Robert Stone (Chasing Black Gold: (amzn.to/2kYOiFp). 

But now, at last, I am free to arrange my planned work in an orderly fashion. I have a memoir that I wish to turn into a novel. I have a series of fifteen journals from western road trips waiting to be disentangled and woven into some kind of comprehensive narrative. I have a growing list of notes about my slow discovery of, and engagement with, natural landscapes over sixty years. I have a novel, written thirty years ago, that needs to be interrogated mercilessly, overhauled, possibly destroyed... but may just turn out to be worth saving. I have the first forty pages of another novel, set in the nineteenth-century American West. Twenty-five years ago it was condemned unceremoniously by a bunch of academics. But, now that I look at it afresh, I see that it ain't so bad after all - and have garnered sufficient self-confidence to be able to tell myself that they really didn't know what they were talking about. I even have a sci-fi novel, written for a private client (don't ask!) which I'd like to reclaim. It may have been buried for three years but it still smells pretty fresh. And then there is the half-baked notion that I might write a novel about the rich, I mean the stinking rich, and the unspeakable things that we might do to them.

Next week we fly out to Australia for six weeks. Upon our return, my future kicks off. Mary Wesley produced nine more novels after her 1983 debut, Jumping The Queue. She lived to be ninety. It's looking as though I need to do likewise. 

 

Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Western Classic: Linda Hasselstrom's Windbreak




In the Introduction to this wonderful book, the author wastes no time in preparing her readers for the rigours of the ranch life they are about to experience (and I use that word, ‘experience’, deliberately). She tells us about a neighbour who falls sixty feet from the top of a silo but survives, despite suffering many injuries – skeletal and internal. He remarks, as he lies recovering, ‘If I’d known how bad I was hurt, I’d have died.’ As a friend of mine once remarked, a propos some random example of the offhand humanity you encounter daily out there beyond the Hundredth Meridian, ‘Cowboys. I tell ya.’

 
Windbreak – which was published thirty years ago and has been on my ‘to read’ list for about fifteen - is a day-by-day account of one year in the author’s life as a writer, rancher and activist in South Dakota in the mid-1980s. The book takes you beyond the meat to the very gristle of existence out there in the wind-blasted Plains. It covers you in cow-shit, slobber and blood, regardless of whether you’re freezing or frying (and you’re generally one or the other), and thrusts your nose smack bang into the brute realities of calving, round-up and fencing under the naked sky, exposed to everything the Great Plains weather machine can brew up for you.
 

I don’t know whether Linda Hasselstrom chose this particular year for its long, bitter winter and towering snow-drifts and cruel summer heatwave, but I’d like to think that not every year is quite this tough, not always this dramatic. Although to speak of the dramatic - that is, the range fires, the hailstorms, the floods, the passing stranger who asks to use the phone and turns out to be a felon on the run – is to overlook the sheer tedium of those airless days, slow as cold molasses, when the temperature sticks resolutely in the low 100s, or the long droughts which persuade even the mosquitoes to look for a  change of scene, or the months of trudging through snow drifts alternately ice-crusted or rotting in a brief thaw - only to find that that missing cow is now a pile of bones gnawed clean by the neighbourhood coyotes.

 
This book is an education. If you wanted to write a novel set in cattle country this would be a good place to start. The place. The landscape is a living entity. Its fauna become characters, its flora a rich back-drop. Its moods engender fear, delight, awe and an occasional moment of poetic abstraction.

 
It is also deeply personal. Through the year the author grabs any reflective moment – driving to Rapid City for supplies, riding her horse across the range in pursuit of some errant calf, mowing a frazzled alfalfa crop and fretting over the cost of bought-in hay – to sketch in a few more details about her health, her two marriages, the ranch, and of course its management.

 
Not that there are many idle moments. No sooner is calving over than there are fruits to harvest and freezers to fill – with pies and chutneys and apple butter; or a steer to butcher and consign to the freezer; or a surprise crop of buffalo berries discovered in some quiet draw that demands an afternoon of scratched hands under a blistering sun, an evening of pie-making – with just the briefest of pauses to savour the aroma. And even in the quietest times there are under-currents, murmuring away like some hidden water-source: her husband’s cancer; the erosion of land values; the ageing ranch population; the constant passage of trains across the range there, every one a threat to the tinder-dry grasses.

 
This particular year the snows came in October and didn’t really clear until May. The business of staying dry (dream on) and warm (you might get lucky) dominates page after page. The daily weather reports with temperatures dipping below zero catch your attention. Then, after seven weeks of more or less continuous cold, comes Winter. -30 at night, -10 at noon – and still all those cattle to find, corral and feed.


I was both captivated and exhausted by this book. I felt I was very much there, watching the weather, worrying about potential disasters, eager to find out more about the practicalities of this tough breed of people. I knew I was ‘experiencing it’ when we all got away to a black powder camp for a short break in the cool of the mountains and I had a palpable sense of the tension easing its grip on my body. For a brief moment we were away from the day-to-day worries, cooking over camp-fires, mingling with mountain men and their gals – although even here a fire broke out and it was all hands on deck. No peace for the wicked.

 
I could talk at great length about what I read. I loved it. I felt bereft when it was over. However, this is a review, not a grad school essay. I have selected but half a dozen of fifteen key moments I tagged as I galloped through twelve gruelling months in 48 hours. Sometimes, they tell you, less is more.

 
As I said, Windbreak has been around for a time; but it still feels significant. Not a great deal will have changed in the thirty years since it came out. The land, the weather, the beasts, and the temper of those who engage with them -  the important things - will be pretty much as they always were. Inasmuch as those elemental factors are timeless, so is the book – and I’d rate it a classic.