Thursday, 28 November 2013
Quite suddenly, I find myself approaching the last hurdle – or final furlong, or home straight. Choose your metaphor. Fact is, as I may have mentioned earlier, I seem to have beaten a path to what looks like the climactic scene in this sci-fi book, I Know What You’re Thinking. It came slightly out of the blue, and stopped me in my tracks. As soon as I realised that, yes, I’d got the whole of Mankind in mortal danger from the mind-reading knavery of the scientists (in league with radical religious fundamentalists), and that salvation lay in the hands of my backwoods anarchists, lurking there on top of New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, it was time to go back to the beginning and start tidying up.
With the tide out (miles out) they were exercising horses on the sands. While there were still plenty of autumn leaves on the trees, it was interesting to observe that next year’s catkins were already there, waiting. It seems that, in the woods at least, there really is no dead time of year. We tend to talk of the countryside going to sleep in midwinter. In open country, that may be the case; in the woods, however, I suspect the flora just takes a short nap - in an old armchair, perhaps.
That task is taken less time than I expected. It should be done by Monday, at which point the final polishing will begin. Then, during the second week in December, I have a six-day break at an artists’ and writers’ retreat in my old home town (
With luck, I’ll be using that time to ponder the immediate future.
This afternoon I take off for
upon Kingston ’s
newly-designated City of Hull, Britain (2017).
My old university department (American Studies) is marking its 50th anniversary
with a Thanksgiving Dinner. I haven’t be
around the place since I stopped teaching part-time and became a full-time
writer in about 1993-4. It’ll be good to catch up. Next morning, Friday, I’m
off to Culture for the first of two
half-day courses in electronic publishing. London
We still await winter. It’s been a long and pretty mild autumn, for which we are all grateful. Last weekend we went over to the west side of the country to see friends. We managed one short hike around Arnside, just across the river
from Grange-over-Sands and Cartmel. Kent
Tuesday, 19 November 2013
|An aerial view of the Red House, nestled in a curve of the Niobrara river in Cherry County, Nebraska|
The festive season has arrived early. Or maybe I'm just feeling expansive. Whatever the case, here's a sample of my e-book The Red House On the Niobrara - the first few pages.
No. That's a lot of nonsense. I'm trying to sell the book. That's what this is about. So read what's here, and if you feel like it, check out the reviews on amazon.com (by clicking on the image to your right). They're good. Then make your mind up.
The Red House on The
by Alan Wilkinson
A six-month retreat in Mari Sandoz’
‘I’ll tell you what it’s like out there’
I really wanted to start with Buffalo Bill, even though I can hear Mari Sandoz snorting her disapproval at the very mention of his name. She never thought much of him. But that’s a great story, the one about my great-great-uncle. I mean the ship’s captain, back in 1887, who ferried the old scout and his troupe of showmen, sharpshooters and Indians across the Atlantic on the State of Nebraska and introduced into my family the precious Wild West souvenirs that so fascinated me as a five-year-old. It always seemed to me that if I was going to tell a story about my time here on the
Plains, that would be the place to begin, with Captain Wiltshire. Trouble
is, it turned out that just because a story’s been around for a hundred years it
doesn’t mean it’s true.
So, if I’m going to explain what persuaded a sixty-two-year-old jobbing writer to spend six months alone in a semi-derelict hunting lodge in the remote and forbidding Sandhills of western Nebraska I’d better start with an earlier escapade, and a pretty foolhardy one at that. I mean the time I set off from the banks of the Missouri river on a borrowed bicycle, and pedalled west in my sandals until I was able to convince myself that the flickering whiteness I thought I saw on the far horizon might just be the Rocky Mountains.
Rulo to Kimball, and then some - the whole length of
from its lowest point, 840 feet above sea level, to its highest, 5,424, just to
get a sense of the place. It wasn’t much more than 600 miles, but it was two
weeks of hard going in a fierce September heatwave. I was on the last leg, shovelling
breakfast down my throat in a tiny ‘Mom and Pop’ joint at Bushnell (population
124), the point where I would finally leave Highway 30 and make my way across
country on gravelled roads to Promontory Point, over a mile above sea level. Nebraska
I can still see that cowboy at the next table, rubbing a calloused hand over his chin and looking out across the dusty yard at an endless vista of low hills, their coat of bunch-grass riffled by a brisk south-easterly. ‘What exactly you say you’re doin’ out here?’ he asked.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I’m pedalling my bike across
east to west.’ I wanted to tell him about my great-great uncle, about my
interest in Mari Sandoz, biographer of Crazy Horse, who’d grown up just north
of here but got the hell out as soon as she was grown, and the way she chose to
paint it, years later, from the safety of the east: majestic, beautiful,
haunting, calling to her from a thousand miles away. But out west you don’t generally
break into poetic abstraction unless you’ve earned the right, and that’s the province
of old-timers, drunks, or bona fide oddballs. Nebraska
While I was thinking the cowboy lit a cigarette and said, ‘Now what in the name o’ tarnation made you do a damn fool thing like that?’ He grinned at me through a veil of blue smoke. ‘Lose a bet, did ya?’
It wasn’t the first time I’d had to answer such questions in diners and bars along the way. By now I’d honed my response down to a single line and couched it in western idiom. ‘Guess I wanted to see what
really like,’ I told him. Nebraska
He stared out the window some more, watching the wind tug at the yellowing leaves of the old cottonwood against which I’d propped my bicycle. Then he turned towards me. ‘We-ell, I can tell you what it’s like, feller.’ He drew on his cigarette, and exhaled slowly. ‘It’s desolate.’ Then he repeated it, nice and slow, just in case I hadn’t caught it. ‘De-so-late.’
I’d used the very same word in my diary two days previously after I rode out of Ogallala and into a 55 mph head-wind, when a level sheet of cloud spread over the landscape like a huge grey tablecloth, compressing the space between earth and sky. The dirt was flying, the visibility dropped to fifty yards and I went down through the gears, click click click, until I just ground to a halt.
It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like giving up. If I’m honest, there were moments along the undulations of the
river valley with its three, four, five inclines per mile, later beside
the railroad tracks that follow the Platte, when the
temperature hit 97 and all I had to aim
at was the next grain elevator hovering above a glassy horizon. Times like that
I’d thought hard about it – except that there was nobody out there into whose
arms a guy could surrender. No way back. The only option was to keep heading
I finished my breakfast in the little diner there under the cottonwood tree, said goodbye to the cowboy, got astride my bike and set off towards the sign on the highway bridge. PAVEMENT ENDS. Just fifteen miles on the dirt and my journey would be over. I headed south, then turned west, then south again, beside huge fields of sunflowers and bleached wheat stubble. Along the way I remember pausing to investigate an abandoned one-room schoolhouse, then braking to watch a herd of white-tail deer, twenty strong, arc across the road and slide from view, swiftly, silently, the way water sinks into sand. And all the time I kept thinking about what that guy had said, how he’d dismissed the entire area in a single word. I knew he was wrong. Had to be.
Even as I pedalled back to town that night, my quest completed, my name added to the register they keep in a tin box out at the highest point, a place barely distinguishable from any other in a huge expanse of grassland, I knew I’d have to come back and take another look. Had to find this magical
that Mari Sandoz writes about. Nebraska
It’s 46 degrees, the sky is grey, and I’m wondering whether to walk down to the river for a wash. It’s beginning to look as though I may have running water in the bathroom here by evening time, but I’m a writer, for goodness’ sake, and a romantic. I like a bit of drama.
There has been plenty of that around here lately. Matt is fortunate to be alive, and I’m damned lucky that this whole enterprise hasn’t been strangled at birth. Barely a week before I flew in I received an email from Kitty to say that her husband had shot himself. My immediate thought was ‘farm suicide’. I was thinking back to an elderly couple I stayed with in south-eastern
ago. They still farmed the old home place that had been in the family since the
first wave of settlement, some time in the 1870s. They ran it on ‘no-till’
principles. That is to say, they didn’t plough the soil between crops, just
drilled straight into last year’s litter. Saved on tractors, on fuel, and on
labour. I always remember John laughing about his two hired hands. ‘One has no
teeth, the other has a pony-tail. They’re grateful to be employed,’ he said.
This was but a few short years after they’d hit hard times, in the mid-1980s -
the era of Farm Aid. Then, they told me, they’d all sat around the kitchen
table – John, his wife and their two boys - and discussed whether he should put
a bullet through his head. It was his idea. Others they knew had gone down that
road and their families had collected on the insurance. Nebraska
What happened to Matt was more mundane. He was in the middle of calving, sleeping in a little room in the cattle-shed, right across the way from here. He has a TV, a fridge, a microwave and a bed in there. It’s cosy enough – and that’s what the skunk thought when it tried to move in under the floor. Matt spotted the guilty party outside, grabbed his rifle and gave chase on the ATV with the weapon laid across his knees. He chased it up the hill, turned to follow it down into a hollow, and that’s where he hit the patch of mud and ice. Skidded down the slope, hit a rock and stopped dead. The rifle flew forward, the butt crashed against the dashboard, and off it went.
You have to be pretty unlucky for something like that to happen. You probably deserve every ounce of good fortune that follows. The x-rays they took, after Matt had crawled to his pick-up, driven up the hill and got a ride to hospital in
gave a detailed picture of the bullet’s course. Somehow it wove a path between
several vital parts, missed his femoral artery by a whisker, then bumped into
his hip bone and came to rest before it could do any more damage. Rapid City
Matt still has the slug in there somewhere, but he’s on the mend, probably doing more than the doctor would like, but… hey, he’s a cowboy. Drafted in his nephew to take over in the shed there until he’s fit to be pulling on reluctant calves. And today he called in his buddy from up north to help him fix the plumbing down in my basement.
We turned on the main supply water and ducked for cover. Water was spurting out from fat pipes, thin pipes, vinyl, copper and steel, spraying in every direction, gathering on the floor and trickling towards the drain, which was blocked. I took a look, asked myself how many cowboys it takes to fix a few leaks, and splashed my way back to the stairs.
At least the electricity is on, so I have heat – narrow radiators that lie along the baseboards. I also have a vehicle. It’s not pretty, but it goes. Mercy is station wagon, a 1993 Chevy Blazer. It belongs to Kitty’s father, who ranches on the far side of Highway 61. It used to be blue, and still is in places. It has two bald tyres, a couple of cracks right across the windscreen, 204,000 miles on the clock and blows thick black smoke out the rear end, but, as Matt said, squinting up at the steep grassy hills that surround me to the north and east, ‘She’ll git you up there no problem. Goes where most vehicles won’t.’
‘But I’ll be using the trail,’ I said.
He gave a short laugh. ‘That two-track? Sure ya will, s’long as it’s open.’
No complaints. I’d set aside a little money in case I had to go and buy an old jalopy. This one is free.
* * * *
Despite the warmth, everything around here still looks very wintry. The grass is all brown and crunchy underfoot, as are the remnants of last year’s sunflowers. The cottonwoods are bare, their branches a ghostly pale grey; the cedars that mark the river’s course and fill the canyons that branch off it are just about the only green thing in sight - apart from the soapweeds, and the cowshit that I’ve managed to get on my trouser legs. Once everything comes to life I shall be studying my Grassland Plants of South Dakota and the Northern Great Plains. I like to know what it is I’m looking at.
* * * *
Sun, sky and wind. I don’t think I could imagine a nicer morning than we have today. There was a slight frost overnight, but by seven-thirty, when I set off for my walk, the thermometer registered forty-five degrees, the sky was blue from horizon to horizon, and – fortified by my porridge and safe in the knowledge that nobody would hear me - I was tempted to sing. Then I resisted. The meadowlarks were doing a far better job.
The landscape is mostly a dun colour, with splashes of white where the chalky rock shows through on the bluffs that overlook the river and pale yellow patches that mark the blow-outs, but there are plenty of signs that spring is happening. There’s a hackberry tree at the front of the house, and one or two of its buds are starting to open. Up on the range I’ve found the odd shoot poking through. These will be the cool season grasses. As soon as the soil starts to warm up to an appreciable degree they’ll flower, make seed and ripen off, then give way to the warm season grasses, big blue stem, switch-grass and the like. Or so I read in my books.
My walk this morning took me down towards the river-bank where I found the cedar-trees full of flowers, readily yielding a puff of yellow pollen when I flicked them with the back of my hand. Down there, out of the wind, it was deliciously warm. Spring is really on the way, and I have time to enjoy it.
Tuesday, 12 November 2013
We were even able to sit with our backs against a dry-stone wall, our faces to the low sun, and enjoy a good old-fashioned bread-and-cheese lunch with a flask of hot coffee to follow.
Having had my head buried in this sci-fi book for four months now, I was taken aback last Monday when I suddenly found myself writing what might just be the climactic scene. It was odd how it kind of crept up on me – and somewhat alarming, in that I was only at the 69,000-word mark. (My plan has always been to make it to 80,000). Once I’d got used to the idea I decided to abandon the scene, scroll back to the beginning and start on the business of making sure that all the sign-posts were pointing in the right direction – i.e., towards that moment of resolution. This has already involved major changes in the alignment of characters. For example, one of the good guys becomes a ‘baddy’ halfway through, so I am busily laying clues for that. Then there was the woman who was having an affair with one of the anarchists. Her husband is the guy who is able to read thoughts – through an electronic device that hacks into the memory chips that everybody has in their heads. I changed that too: I had her lusting after this guy, but otherwise behaving herself. But of course, when her husband hacks into her memory he ‘sees’ the fantasies she’s playing out in her imagination. Cue an in-depth discussion of what exactly goes on in our heads….
Well, it’s another cracking day out there. and the sun is up – a mere two hours after I arose. I think it’s time to light the gas under that porridge.
Monday, 4 November 2013
|Found in the wet grass, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, mid-October|
It's that magical time of year again. No time to talk about it right now, however; just enough to post one or two pictures I've snapped while out and about over the past week or two. Fungi, mostly.
I've been seriously busy. Still am. Hence my neglect of the blog. First there has been the daily grind of the sci-fi project. It's finally assuming a shape which allows me to imagine the final dramatic conflict and even the resolution. Phew! I think I've even figured out what it's about - and I guess after 65,000 words it's about time. This continues to be a voyage of discovery for me. Fiction. As I've said more than once, it's never really appealed to me. It may represent a shift in my career.
If there is to be a shift, however, it'll have to wait another year. Having signed a contract to get Mike Pannett's childhood (70-80,000 words) written up by April 30th, I now hear that my agent has found a publisher who wants to do a book about the black-market oil trade in the Niger Delta. How, you may ask, did I get involved in that. Good question. The guy I'll be writing about used to be a drug smuggler. About a year ago we produced a great outline and a cracking opening chapter or two (or three; I forget), only to be told but publishers that marijuana smuggling was old hat. Now we've found a way in with the Niger Delta angle. And I have another job to do, by late next year.
I'll start worrying about that in May. Meanwhile, a couple more images from October.
|Good enough to eat? Probably not....|
Friday, 25 October 2013
It's chucking it down right now, a proper autumn rainstorm. But two days ago I strolled to town - the long way, the scenic way - two and a half miles along the railway lines. Disused railway lines, I should add.
It's not a particularly spectacular scene but a typically English one, I think. This is the north-east of the country, and it's almost the end of October. When it behaves itself, it's a very agreeable climate we have here.