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Monday, 19 June 2017

First Visit to Australia, Pt 3: Out West


It has taken me a ridiculous amount of time to get around to this. My excuse is that over the past few weeks I have completed a new book, edited and sold another one, and struggled manfully to get two allotments into shape at a time of year when vegetables, fruit and weeds are growing, visibly, every day - and in our part of the country, if there's no cloud cover, a day lasts around 20 hours.

Our camper-van, parked, with great skill, in a cousin's garden
 
From Tasmania we flew into Perth and picked up a rather splendid motor caravan. This was a first for both of us, but don’t run away with the idea that we have crossed some kind of age divide. The fact is, that with eight cousins to visit, some of whom A hadn’t seen in 50+ years, we were in for a lot of travelling, would be visiting several scattered towns around W.A., and we wanted to ensure that we could get out into the country as much as time allowed. However, we enjoyed the van, and indeed it did feel a little like proper camping, at times.

We didn’t linger in Perth, but headed east intro true WA country. Our destination was Kellaberrin, where A’s cousin has run a bush hospital for thirty-odd years. We were treated to a tour of the place, a highlight being the room in which patients who might be traumatised in a road traffic accident can be treated under the direction of surgeons 300 miles away in Perth through the medium of two CCTV cameras. The equipment has enabled them to save a number of lives that might have been lost in earlier times.

Western Australia is a dry country, and we were to discover that many of the towns along the highway that links Perth and Kalgoorlie are only viable thanks to the remarkable Goldfields and Agricultural Region Water Supply Scheme. The man behind it – and the big, fat pipe that carries water hundreds of miles east from the Mundaring Weir near Perth, and the lesser pipes that run to smaller towns – was C.Y. O’Connor. Sadly – tragically – he didn’t live to see his vision implemented. For some time it was mocked as delusory and impracticable; and it seems that the final straw for him was a newspaper accusation of corruption. He took his own life in march 1902, shortly before the scheme was completed. And it worked: many towns and settlements in that part of the state rely entirely on his scheme for their survival.

The old pumping station at Cunderdin, now replaced by an electric motor...

...and its identifying sign

From Kelleberrin we drove down to Wave Rock, a wonderful natural formation:

 

It's part of a huge outcrop of granite. As well as being a scenic wonder it is used to collect water, via a series of crude rock walls that direct the flow into a sizeable lagoon:  


 

Our next stop was at one of the family farms, down near Mount Barker. We stayed there three nights and got a thorough immersion in the day-to-day running of the place. They grow canola, wheat and clover (as a a fallow crop, to plough into a soil that basically consists of granite-based gravel and an inch or two of sand), as well as sheep – for meat and wool.

 
Hard to believe that this "soil" yields an excellent crop of wheat or canola

We arrived after harvesting, and right after the stubble-burning - the peaks of the Stirling Range in the background
 
After our tour of the farm we had a day of in the nearby Stirling Range, climbing to the top of the highest peak, from where we had a view, in the far distance, of our next destination, Albany
 
Not exactly a view of Albany, but we were able to see ships at anchor outside the harbour
 
At Albany, as in a number of places we visited, we dedicated time to catching up with relatives and weren't able to do more than capture a flavour of the town.

It was almost impossible to get the whole of Albany in a single shot, but this gives you an idea - of a modest sized place scattered around a series of natural harbours 

From Albany we returned to the Stirling Range for a couple of days' rest in a beautiful, peaceful camping ground. Our aim was to climb Bluff Knoll: not a great height, but one of those walks which offers very little in the way of resting-places. You just keep climbing and climbing for three hours or so and there you are, at the top. A picnic, a few photos and then it's time for the long, non-stop descent.

We got lucky at Bluff Knoll. The peak was obscured all morning, but as we made the last few hundred yards the clouds were swept away, leaving us with superb views
  
From Bluff Knoll we made our way to the coast again, at Bunbury. More cousins, more stories of the old days, and a memorable evening stroll along a huge deserted beach lapped by warm waves.  


 
We were due to fly home from Perth, after rounding up a couple more cousins who took us out to the Botanic Gardens, from where you get a wonderful view of the city.

 



And then  it was off to the airport and home. A wonderful holiday, during which we were blessed with kind weather - never too hot or too cool - magnificent natural surroundings, and good company.

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, 18 May 2017

The kind of review you hope for

I'm slowly starting to get a review or two for my new novel, Cody, The Medicine Man and Me (click on the picture, right). And this one cheered me immensely. The reviewer had delved beneath the surface narrative and thought about what I was trying to say under the cloak of the story.

"This book's weaving of historical, mythical and contemporary 'Westerns' is highly entertaining, but also a very touching reflection on loss, and the consolations of the imagination in a boy's mind. It vividly evoked in me the 'bendy' reality of being 12, when what I had last read was at least as real as the day to day. The fluidity of that experience is beautifully reflected by the inflections of 'cowboy' language drifting through the remembered boys' speech, and the dry, kind tone of the man's recollection. The book is also very funny, and it takes real authorial nerve to set up a showdown in Last Gasp Gulch and make it persuasive!"

 

Sunday, 7 May 2017

A First Visit to Australia - Part 2: Tasmania



The beach near Clifton, just outside Hobart.
 
After our visits to Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney, we flew to Hobart, Tasmania, and prepared for a week-long hike in the wilderness between Cradle Mountain and Lake St Clair. Among the highlights of our first few days were a trip out to Marias Island, once a penal colony. A climb to the highest point gave our legs a good stretch. - and tested my increasing discomfort with heights.

On our way to the highest point on Marias Island, looking back towards the  Tasmanian mainland

We were due to join our group at Launceston, and spent a few days there – more by accident than design. For all kinds of reasons – largely to do with being older than we used to be -  we had booked a fully guided hike with accommodation and meals included. We were driving along, the day before we were due to start, when I got a call from the company we had booked with to say that we had missed the bus – and therefore the hike. Checking the diaries, we realised that we had simply got our dates wrong. Not a good feeling. To our huge relief, the company gave us the option of joining another group which would be setting off a few days later. All we had to do was re-arrange our flights, miss out a trip to Adelaide, and hole up in Launceston for three days.

Launceston was a delight, a Victorian town of modest size, with some great examples of period architecture. I particularly liked this old newspaper office (above). The highlights was probably the art gallery, where we caught a fabulous exhibit, on loan from a museum in Le Havre, chronicling the Tasmanian voyages of the Frenchman Nicolas Baudin in 1800-1804 and displaying some of the works created by his on-board artists.
 
Art Gallery, Launceston


I don't think I have the will, or desire, just yet, to try to describe our hike. While I wrote over a hundred pages of notes on our vacation, I made none during the six days we spent in the wilderness. Some places do that to you: simply rob you of your descriptive capabilities. For the moment, all I can say is that the whole experience was a sheer delight, quite overwhelming. If I've done one walk in my life to compare with it, it would be our trek across the Arctic Circle in 2014 (see http://walkinonnails.blogspot.co.uk/2014/08/the-troms-border-trail-100-mile-hike-in.html)

A taste of what was to come


 
Snack-break after the first morning's climb


The lichens (above and below) tell you all you need to know about the air quality up there



At times it felt rather as though I were back in the American West 


We grew to love the button-grass,,,

...and the sunlight coming through the trees



The challenge on Day 4 was to climb Tasmania's highest peak, Mt Ossia. Quite a scramble - but I did it.


The huts we stayed in are supplied twice a year by helicopter: food in, waste products out.

The forests were joyous places, essentially unmolested since the last Ice Age, 10,000 years ago. We saw at least one tree that was 2,000 years old. 

Tasmania's flora was truly fascinating and utterly foreign to me. I never saw one plant that had a British relative I could think of. Certainly not this climbing currant.

You see eucalyptus everywhere in Australia. There are over a hundred varieties, each with its distinctive bark.


 

We were a happy group with two exceptional young guides. Here we are at the end of it all, disembarking after taking a boat across Lake St Clair.

A handy sign that does some of the work I have opted out of
 
This handful of pictures and the few scattered words really don't do more than hint at the delights of the Cradle Mountain hike. My fault, I'm afraid. I am still grappling with the experience. And, of course, I'm back in this 'real 'world now: trying to write the next book, planning a trip to the States in September-October, tending vegetable plots.
 
I'll round this off with a quick tour of Western Australia in a few days time.

 
 

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