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Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Chasing Black Gold - out today

Today is publication day for CHASING BLACK GOLD, the book I was working on for much of last year. This is an absolute cracker, a real page-turner, the true story of Robert Stone's adventures on the high seas. It involves black-marketeering, smuggling,  treasure-hunting, deep-sea fishing, political and corporate corruption, child soldiers - and it takes you into the USA's most frightening jails, with a few Con Air flights thrown in. (That's probably the lousiest blurb I've ever written, but I only have half my mind on this, being back at my brewery history project this morning... not quite as exciting, but a lot of fun.)

Take a look at The History Press's own page (via the link above) and see a more polished  promotional blurb. For my American readers, you can order it from 15 June on Kindle. If you want the hard copy, I know a number of people Stateside who have already ordered and received that from the UK. Hopefully, we'll have a U.S. publisher shortly.


Monday, 1 June 2015

Walking St Cuthbert's Way footpath, Melrose to Lindisfarne (Holy Island)


Looking over Melrose from the top of the Eildon Hills

I really didn't think I was fit for this walk: four daily stints of around 16-17 miles, carrying a medium pack with a change of clothes, a couple of litres of water and enough grub to get us through the day. The weather certainly didn't look as though it was on our side either: the long-range forecast promised strong winds, showers, and daytime temperatures around 9 C (48 F) - and for once it was dead right. On top of that I was still fighting off a nasty cold that had laid me low for three weeks; and as for general fitness, I had done very little hiking since those short mountain walks in New Mexico over the late winter.

St Cuthbert's Way follows the route supposedly taken by the Prior of Melrose who, in 664 A.D., was sent to Lindisfarne to see that the monks there adopted the Roman rather than the Celtic version of Christianity. This modest long-distance path traces that journey of around 64 miles, one he repeated later when appointed Bishop on the island.

We set off from Melrose, a small Borders town, on Thursday morning. Even as we emerged from the hotel door a light shower was falling from ragged clouds. Thank goodness we had opted for the west-east version of the trip, with the prevailing wind behind us. A stiff climb over the Three Sisters (otherwise the Eildon Hills) warmed us up and raised our spirits: the scenery, and the May colours, were simply dazzling, with the gorse ablaze, and the woods full of great drifts of bluebell and wild garlic.

Looking back at the Three Sisters from the east

...and from even further east: these hills remained in sight, on and off, for three of our four days
 Our destination the first night was Ancrum, where we stayed in the new camping barn in the centre of the village, just a few yards from the pub. This was a terrific set-up, the accommodation warm, comfortable and welcoming - with a lot of thoughtful touches, like the packet of biscuits and the bottle of milk laid out for our arrival. We met the proprietor next morning as she walked her children to school - and of course it's her Mum who runs the shop and Pantry right next door, making it quite the family affair. Next morning as we stocked up for the day's lunch we were served hot bacon rolls  and coffee.

After the hail, on Wideopen Hill
The second day was our longest leg, approximately 19 miles from Ancrum, over Jedfoot Bridge, through Cessford and Morebattle. By the time we confronted the stiff climb up Wideopen Hill (368 metres, 1280 feet) we were already pretty well worn out. It was here that we had our one patch of really unpleasant weather, a sharp hailstorm which, mercifully, struck just before we started the long climb.

In some of this more rugged country we were impressed with the number of stout trees that seemed to withstand whatever the elements threw at them. This remnant of an ancient  hawthorn hedge seemed particularly heroic. It's not evident from the photo, but it had managed to produce a small spray of sweet-smelling blossom.

The hawthorn that refused to die

In Kirk Yetholm we stayed in a hostel run by the Friends of Nature, and ate at the Borders Hotel -  both for supper that night and breakfast next day. They're well used to catering for ravenous hikers, being sited right at the end of the Pennine Way footpath.

A first glimpse of the North Sea, from above Wooler

Next morning we crossed the border back into England and headed for our fourth overnight stop at Wooler. As we dropped off the high moorland and started our descent towards the town, we had our first views of the sea.

St Cuthbert's Cave

From Wooler the country became less rugged, the weather colder than ever, with brief showers scudding through on a wind that was now blowing at about Force 6. The forecast had suggested '9 degrees, feeling like 5' - and again it was spot on. After sheltering in the woods below St Cuthbert's Cave - his supposed resting-place en route between the two Abbeys - we decided we could postpone the climb to the summit no longer. Mercifully, the sun came out - and stayed out for the rest of the day.

We were now descending towards the Great North Road (or A1) and the East Coast Main Line. We got across the highway okay, but at the railway had to telephone the signalman at Berwick to check that there were no 100 mph trains in the vicinity. Once over that obstacle, we were within sniffing distance of the sea and our final challenge. We grabbed a final snack by these remnants of World War II, designed to halt any German tank battalions that might land on the shore:

Vintage WWII tank traps, a mile or so inland from the coast
There are two ways of getting to Lindisfarne on foot. One is to wait for the tide to ebb and follow the causeway as it emerges from the sea. The main problem with that route is that you share it with motor traffic. So we opted to follow the more direct, but wetter, route used by pilgrims in times past and indicated by a row of tall wooden marker poles as it crosses three miles of sand, mud, and shallow sea-water. For that you wait a further hour after the opening of the causeway, then prepare to get your feet wet.

Setting off across the mud-flats. The tower here is one of two places along the way where you could shelter if caught by a rising tide. It would be a long wait.

It's a dramatic way to approach your final destination. With the wind now approaching full gale force, we were buffeted across an elemental landscape. The various warnings we'd read about possible dangers seemed to err on the side of caution. The water was rarely more than a few inches deep, while in several places grasses were growing. With my boots and gaiters on, and a few carefully executed leaps, I managed to stay dry, and we made it to the far shore in a little over an hour. From the landing-point it was barely ten minutes' walk to the Ship Inn, a huge dinner, and a taxi-ride home.

Nearly there

I'd recommend St Cuthbert's to anybody who wants a scenic hike along a beautifully maintained path. There is sufficient accommodation along its course to allow you to plan a walk of three, four, five or even six days. Although we both had maps and guidebooks, we were never reliant on them. The way was marked frequently and clearly. And if you want to make life really easy, there is a baggage-carrying service available. We also met a number of people whose B&B hosts had arranged to collect them by car at the end of each day's walk. There was every indication that all the people and businesses with an interest in promoting the use of the trail had put in a huge effort to make it an agreeable experience from one end to the other. I'd rate it as one of the most enjoyable hikes I've ever done. My only complaint is that it didn't cure my cold - but then I don't think staying at home would have done either.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Breweries, bounty hunters and bosoms

It's been a long silence. I plead the extenuating circumstances of adjusting to life back in the north-east of England after three months in New Mexico. Actually, I seemed to settle back in as easily as if I'd just been away for a weekend - and I don't know whether I'm pleased about that or slightly perturbed. But then constant change has always been a part of my life. Ten addresses in the past fifteen or twenty years; fifty jobs before I turned fifty. Maybe my psyche decided long ago just to shrug and get on with it.

I have sent the re-vamped novel, which I worked on in Taos, to my agent. I have started work on the history of the York brewery, and it promises to be an entertaining project. And just when I thought I might have time, next year, to tackle another personal project that's been on my mind, I have been approached by two people for help with their own life stories. One is a dear friend aged 86 (I think) who was for many years a stalwart of one of the village writing classes I ran in East Yorkshire. A native of Liverpool and a child of the Blitz, later a psychiatric nurse at the Quaker-founded Retreat in York, she has written  innumerable short, funny, poignant pieces which reflect her humane, irreverent and sagacious take on life. I well remember the day we had a man show up to what had hitherto been an all-female group. After sitting and listening to her story 'Thanks for the Mammary: a History of My Boobs Aged 14 to Present Day' he muttered something about 'not coming here to listen to pornography' and was never seen again. Anyway, she has now asked me to take five fat ring-binders from her - full of such pieces - and see what I can do with them. It's a privilege and will be a pleasure, but I'm not sure how I will fit it in.

The second prospective piece of work comes from a man who was for twenty years a bounty hunter in the USA. I am meeting him early next month to talk over possibilities. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile Robert Stone and I await the launch of the memoir I wrote with him, Chasing Black Gold. It's due to be published by The History Press on 9th June, and they're very excited about it. It will, we understand, be on sale at stations and airports, which is quite a coup.

Exciting times. Busy times. Better than being bored, definitely.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

So Farewell, then, Wurlitzer....

When I was granted this three-month residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, I had no idea what to expect, no idea at all. I wasn’t worried: I had three months alone to concentrate on my writing, and plenty of writing I wanted to get done. I couldn’t wait. Yes, there were going to be eight or ten other writers and artists, but they might be anything: tormented genii, workaholics, wasters, misfits. Doubtless there would be personality clashes, cliques and stony silences. It goes with the territory. But what the heck - at 65, I have learned to be self-contained when I need to be. I like solitude. I seek it out. I’m an artist: why wouldn’t I? At the same time I enjoy good company – just so long as I can close my door when I’ve had enough. Okay, thanks for coming by… and see you later, guys.

What I didn’t expect – it never entered my head - was to be part of a group who got on so well. Since the end of January we’ve met every Wednesday and, each week, have had progressively better times together. Three months later I really think we have decided that, you know what, we like each other. For creative artists that is little short of miraculous. We have supported each other, we have cross-fertilised ideas, and I’m pretty sure that we have all come to respect and admire each other’s work. There has been a generosity of spirit, a joy in the air.

And what about ability? Ah, that. I simply had not the remotest idea, when I arrived here, that I was going to be exposed to such an amazing wealth of talent. Over the past few weeks we have had the artists, one by one, open up their studios and show us their work to date. Each of those evenings has been an education for me. I have seen examples of genres I knew little about – and had my eyes opened; I have been exposed to techniques largely outside of my experience, and I’ve learned of personal (artistic) journeys which bespoke complex lives fully lived. I came to understand that I was in the company, not only of serious, accomplished  professionals, but of magicians. These people are just very, very good at what they do: inventive, resourceful, highly skilled. Well, of course: they’ve been doing it for decades, and what’s thrilling is that I have heard each of them say that, yes, during their stay here they have moved on into new areas, opened up new possibilities. In a word, they have grown. We all have.

What I’ve also realised, as we approach the end of our tenure, is that I am surrounded by people who are all - no question about it - aglow with something that looks like fulfilment. That can only come from hard work. Yes, we have socialised once a week and drunk wine and talked a blue streak, but in between times we have retreated to our casitas, closed the doors and produced. (What I should also have said about the artists, back there, is that the mere volume of their output has been staggering. If the occasional snippet of conversation – usually en route to the laundry - is anything to go by, I would say that their biggest vice has been listening to NPR.)

Last night it was, finally, the turn of the writers to go under the spotlight. We had a dinner planned in town, so we were going to restrict ourselves to five minutes each, reading aloud. No question about it, the prospect was frightening. Five minutes? To represent twelve weeks’ hard graft? That's a challenge.

I needn’t have worried. I think it worked for all us. I think in fact that it worked very well indeed. What I heard in those four brief sessions was of the highest quality, every line of it. We had extracts from two novels-in-progress, we had non-fiction and we had poetry. I’m not going to attempt a synopsis of what we heard, let alone an assessment: I’ve not had time to absorb it. However, I’m heading home in a couple of days’ time and I feel compelled to go on record as saying it was just damned good. All of it. The hardest part of listening to the work of writers you know and like is that awful tension: is their work going to be, you know, any good? Ha. This stuff simply sparkled.

As we drove home from a great night out (Love Apple, just north of town – definitely worth every penny) I found myself wondering what some of the previous Wurlitzer groups might have been like. And then I dismissed the thought. Who could possibly tell us? What I do know is that this group, in the late winter of 2015, has given me far, far more than I expected in terms of creative stimulus, friendship and education in this wonderful world of creativity we have chosen to inhabit. I thank them, and I thank my lucky stars.