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Saturday, 25 June 2016

‘I was Maya Angelou’s bongo-player’ – or, I’d Forgotten All About the New Christy Minstrels….

The River Inn Resort, Brownville Nebraska
People are so kind. On Wednesday I happened upon the River Inn Resort in Brownville (pop 143, give or take a few). It’s an old river-boat – a barge, I guess - fitted out as a floating hotel and tethered to the bank of the Missouri river about half a mile from the town. Upstream you have a view of the iron bridge that connects Nebraska with Missouri. Downstream you just watch the quiet water slide down south with its cargo of mud and driftwood. I chatted with the owners, who also have the Lyceum bookstore and restaurant in town, and told them my story. Within half an hour we had agreed that a reading might be a good idea when I come through next year for the Sandoz Conference up at Chadron. And, since I was in town, why not accept the offer of a room for the night? Oh, and join them and a few friends for dinner?

Among the friends was 82-year-old Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels. He had some great stories to tell over a few beers. My favourite was the one that began with the wonderful opening line, ‘I was Maya Angelou’s bongo-player.’ This was back in the late 1950s, down in California,  when they were on the same bill at some night-club - he as a singer, she as a dancer (to calypso music). She told him that for her act she could do with a bongo-player. Nobody in his band could play them so he spent four days practising and went to it.


Today, Saturday, I'm in Red Cloud for my reading at the Willa Cather Memorial. More on that tomorrow, or when I get home.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

At the Shooting Range

The range in Boulder where I fired a 9mm pistol, a .45 and a rifle

The last time I fired a gun I was 17 and still at school, It was an optional activity, shooting at a distant target from a prone position with a .303 Army rifle. I wasn't bad. I got my one-inch grouping and left it at that.

In Boulder I was invited to spend a couple of hours at an indoor range and handle some of the guns I am writing about for my bounty hunter chum - a 9 mm pistol, a .45 and a rifle, not unlike the one that's been in the news this past week. Out of curiosity, and on the basis that anything I can experience that helps me understand his life is worth doing, I went along. I was also interested to see gun enthusiasts at work - or is it play?

It was fascinating. I was first taken into the workshop in which some people choose to make bullets to their own specific requirements. I was shown a number of basic safety procedures, like never putting my finger near the trigger until ready to fire, and always pointing the gun down-range. I learned never to assume that a gun was unloaded, always to check that the magazine and chamber are empty before doing anything. And I learned how to load - both the magazine and the gun. Before entering the shooting booths I was given ear-plugs, ear and eye protectors, all of which made communication difficult. A lot was done by sign language. What I wasn't prepared for was the erratic and irregular sounds of shots from neighbouring booths. They made me jumpy. Even holding a bullet in my hand made me pause to think. It's a lethal projectile, designed to do specific damage upon impact.

I'm pretty sure this is a 9 mm bullet.

Firing required far more concentration than I'd expected. I found myself tensing up and tending to wince slightly as I squeezed the trigger, resulting in a couple of erratic shots - but not so erratic as to pepper the ceiling. Yes, there were a few bullet-holes up there. Other than those one or two strays, my grouping wasn't so terrible. The pistol I managed reasonably well, ditto the rifle -  from a seated position. It was the .45 that threw me. Such a powerful thump, and quite a kick. I simply found myself wanting to move on from that. The imagination, as ever, playing havoc with my mind.

I have to say that, much as I was grateful for the experience, I never felt quite comfortable. For example, I was surprised to find the smell of gunpowder - which I've always enjoyed at fireworks parties - rather sickly and heavy. Maybe that's because we were indoors. But I think something else was going on, something that rendered the sounds and smells rather oppressive for me as a beginner. That was, I suspect, the ever-present thought in my head that what I was holding was a weapon, and a lethal one at that. I really did find it hard to get that out of my mind. Also, as I so often find these days, learning new procedures and disciplines brings on fatigue pretty quickly.

So... I was glad to have the experience. It was an education, another insight into what it is to be an American; or should I say a westerner? I must add that, despite my worries about the lethal capacity of the guns, I was able to appreciate their beauty and the craftsmanship that went into them - and therefore the pride that collectors and target shooters, hunters too, take in their own personal armouries.

A Springfield 1911 pistol, similar to the one I fired

Last year it was riding horses, this year firing guns. I'm slowly checking off a good many of the experiences that are intrinsic to the westerner's world.

For anyone who's wondering what's happening on my tour of Nebraska, I'm mostly writing that up on my Facebook page -


Wednesday, 15 June 2016

I bring rain, thunder, a power outage.

I started this in a laundromat on Hwy 79 – Black Hills to one side, Grasslands the other.

After the storm at Windbreak House
I was in South Dakota. Hermosa, to be precise. It’s a Spanish word (but you knew that), and it means handsome (and if you didn’t know that you do now). Now I’ve finally, finally met up with Linda Hasselstrom, rancher, environmentalist and writer. We have corresponded patchily since 2002 when she read a part of an email I sent to a mutual friend declaring Mari Sandoz to be a better writer, in some regards, than Willa Cather. She wanted to use a paragraph or two for an address she was giving at the Sandoz Center.

I arrived mid-morning. We traded books and talked, over lunch with her husband Jerry, about our respective work ventures. Hers include online writing tutorials and writers’ retreats. She has been interested to hear about my self-publishing endeavours, and her response has encouraged me. I learned that the two books I sent her didn’t announce themselves, to her eyes, as self-published. She seemed impressed with their quality and wanted to know how I did it, and she made notes as I answered.

I stayed the night in the retreat – formerly the ranch-house – prior to making the long drive to Boulder next day. I instantly wished I could have stayed a week. It’s commodious, comfortable, crammed with fascinating books and surrounded by things I like: tall trees, rolling grasslands, auto-gates, a rhubarb patch, grey wooden and metal remnants of the old times – outhouses, wind-pumps, shovels – and cows, one of which was licking a new-born calf as we headed out to lunch. By the time we got back he was walking around, exploring this wonderful thing we called the world.

And then, of course, there’s the sky. When I arrived it was a pale blue, and half covered by ragged white cumulus. The temperature had dropped 25 degrees since Saturday to a breezy, pleasant 73.

Before I go on I need to say something about the retreat and workshop at Fort Robinson and Chadron State College, run by two professors at CSC, Joe Coughlin and Matt Evertston. But what to say, without descending into hyperbole? Do I talk about the setting – we stayed in the hundred-year-old officers’ quarters the first two days and nights; about the visiting writers, Kim Barnes (fiction) and Robert Wrigley (poetry), their challenging workshop sessions and stunning readings; about the other writers attending – talented, charming, dedicated and always willing to share; about the later sessions in the elegant surroundings of the Mari Sandoz High Plains Heritage Center; and what about my talk, Sunday morning 0830h?

I will say that I was as nervous as a kitten going into that. 90 minutes about me and my writing life? Would I bore the pants off people? Would I get lost down one of the many byways that I’ve trodden over close to fifty years since I first decided I wanted to write, seriously? I need not have worried. I was amongst friends, old and new. They laughed in the right places, applauded warmly at the end and took the trouble to tell me, individually, how much they enjoyed the session. What more could I have wanted?

Old log cabin, brought in piece by piece to serve as a centre for Plains botanic studies

Back to Windbreak House. Shortly after my walk around the botanic reserve (pictured), black clouds swirled in from several directions, the peace in the house was broken by the sound of urgent voices warning of winds and hail in Custer County – some kind of automatic emergency warning system that kicks in independently of the radio being switched on. Then the wind blew, very hard, first from the west, then, it seemed, from the east. And it rained - seven-tenths of an inch, I found out later.

When the power was cut I realised that it had implications beyond the lights going out. There was no gas ignition for the stove either – nor any water, it being delivered by a pump, I guess. Fortunately I have with me my alcohol stove, and inside it a flint-and-steel, so I was able to light a jet and boil up some soup – after I’d burned all the hairs off the back of my hand. Jerry came by with a head-torch and the news that ‘several’ posts have been knocked over, possibly by a tornado, and a resumption might take some time – days, possibly. In fact the supply was around two in the morning, waking me from a blissful sleep.

I’ll post a few more words about this over the next day or two. For the record, I have sold about 30 books, given away a few more, and placed a copy each of The Red House on the Niobrara, ‘There Used to be a Guy… But he Died’ and Between the Rockies and a Hard Place – in Chadron Public Library. My offer was gratefully and graciously received by the librarian there. At this stage in my life, having my books read is more important than receiving an income from them. I like the money, but I wrote these for another purpose, to celebrate a place that has a hold over me.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Nebraska Road Trip (1)

Our first classroom, formerly barracks

I’m at the Chadron State College Story-Catcher writing workshop at old Fort Robinson. I suppose that, as an accredited member of the faculty – I'm due to give a talk Sunday morning – I don’t need to attend this part, but it is already proving to be well worthwhile. Yesterday’s session, led by Kim Barnes, was about short story writing. I cannot remember the last time I tried that. It must in any case be 15 years since I was in a workshop, and that was as a teacher. But there I was, trying to follow the brief, which was to create a setting, devise a character (with depth) and have him consider ways to dispose of a body.

I once gave that precise assignment to a class of old ladies in an upscale village hall in East Yorkshire, and got some shocking and lurid responses. My favourite was this frightfully well-spoken lady of regal demeanour who proposed chopping up the dead baby and hurling the parts off a bridge onto a highway where the flattened remnants would blend in with the squashed rabbits, pheasants and rats. But that was the class whose stories about sexual adventures prompting a rare male attendee to sniff and tell us, ‘I didn’t come here to listen to pornography’.

Okay, the sun is climbing, the participants are wending there way to the barrack-room where we will shortly start work, and I am bracing myself for a day’s creative endeavour.

Officers Quarters - where else would they put a bunch of writers?


Friday, 3 June 2016

An Englishman's travels on the Great Plains (vol. iii)

I am pleased to announce that Between the Rockies and a Hard Place is now out in hard copy and as an e-book, and available via and

I need to point out that a version of this originally appeared in 2012 - only as an e-book  (Toad's Road-Kill Café).  I was never really happy with that, having taken advice from an agent who demanded more of the stand-up comedian and less of the ruminative travel writer. It was at his instigation that I boosted an 80,000-word narrative to about 100,000 with a few ribald tales. I have now had a thorough, professional copy-edit, taken out 12,000 words and have ended up with a far leaner, more punchy narrative. Sometimes 'less' really does equal 'more'.

I'm pleased to have this book out now. In a few days' time I fly out to Nebraska on a promotional tour. You will be able to read all about that day by day via my Facebook page, entitled 'Nebraska. Seriously.' ( although I dare say I'll be posting on here as well.

These last few days I've been frantically mapping all the small-town bookstores and libraries in the state, seeing whether I can fit in visits to them all. The bookstores I can probably tick off: there are fewer than I hoped. As for libraries - blimey, they're all over the place, but my plan is to repay the many acts of kindness I've received through these local branches over the years (information, wifi, email services, introductions and local gossip) by giving them free copies. Might help spread the word too.

Time, however, is ticking by, and it looks as though, as so often, I'll be writing my talks on that plane. Fortunately I still have the flash-cards I made for last year's gig at the Bean Broker in Chadron. That will give me a head start.