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Thursday, 25 September 2014

Coming to the end of another book

Today, three months after starting it, I will be writing the final short chapter of Chasing Black Gold, (due out with The History Press early next year). It’s already reached the target length of 85,000 words, so I’ve been going at a decent lick, but of course there’s a lot more work to be done before my October 31 deadline. The more books I write, the more convinced I am that the opening and closing passages cannot properly be composed until the whole thing’s done and revised. That’s when you finally know what tone to set, and, more importantly, where you’re heading as you usher your reader into that crucial first scene.

In this case I have about five weeks in which to look for any missing components in a complicated narrative; to make sure, once we are certain where the story ends, that all the sign-posts along the way are pointing in that direction; and of course to change all the names, lest we provoke legal action. The story incorporates a lot of criminal and sub-criminal activity, as well as a great deal of corruption involving politicians, business people and public servants. At the heart of the book is an account of the early days of Nigeria’s black-market oil business, a trade that has blighted the country physically, tainted its politics and brought suffering to thousands of people in the Niger Delta region. It will be interesting to see how the book is treated by reviewers and critics. It’s quite a rip-roaring tale, but it there’s a lot of geopolitical content.

With the end of this one in sight, although not quite in focus, I find other projects emerging from that cool, dark place where they’ve been laid up as I wrestle with this one. It’s only four months now before I travel to Taos, New Mexico, and take up a three-month residency, courtesy of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation. A few weeks ago I booked a return flight to Chicago. Yesterday I arranged the remainder of the journey which I plan to do by train. Amtrak have a leisurely service that takes twenty-three hours to cross Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. At Lamy, N.M., a shuttle bus takes passengers over to Santa Fe, where there’s another bus up to Taos. Even with a night in Chicago, both outward and upon my return in April, this was a better deal than the journey I originally planned, by plane to Albuquerque. Not only is it cheaper, but more relaxing. I travelled that same route way back in 1980, en route from Toronto, via Detroit, to L.A. It’s a different way of travelling, alien to most Americans, but really very pleasant.


A part of my mind is now throwing up ideas on the work I hope to do in Taos. The plan is to go through all the travel journals I’ve compiled over the last 35 years (I mean travel in the western states), to transcribe a number of audio recordings made in Nebraska and along the Lewis and Clark Trail, and to distil a few stories out of them. The Nebraska recordings relate largely to my interest in Mari Sandoz (above, immortalised in bronze, Chadron State College), and include two interviews with her sister Caroline, who died in 2011, another with her biographer, Helen Stauffer. There’s a remarkable woman of Bohemian origin whose father had worked on the railroad and knew Old Jules (Mari’s father) in person. As soon as Mari’s master-work was published he sent his daughter to Hay Springs on the train to buy a copy. He then read it in a single weekend, pronouncing it a faithful evocation of the man, the times and the frontier mores.


Among the Lewis and Clark Trail recordings are some significant statements by Native people: their take, for example, on the ‘celebration’ of what was a cataclysmic event from their point of view. Ponca, Nez Perce, Mandan Hidatsa, Chinook: they, and several other peoples, are represented. Quite how I’ll incorporate it all into a series of short stories I’m not sure, but that’s the challenge I’ve set, and that’s what seems to be brewing at the back of my mind. But the idea of spending three months with that material, plus diaries from my time with the veteran rodeo circuit, the bike-ride across Nebraska, and the drive up and down the Hundredth Meridian… well, it’s not a bad way of kicking off the year.


Saturday, 13 September 2014

Sleeping Under the Stars above Ullswater


Just now an outing to the countryside is a mixed delight. Our trip to the Lake District last weekend exposed us to some gorgeous late summer weather, some of our country’s most beautiful scenery, and gave us one last chance to sleep under the stars before autumn closes in. On the other hand, it was a disruption to my current writing routine, and the truth is that at this moment a part of me resents anything that tears my mind away from the job in hand. I have reached the stage when this current book is all suspended in my mind like a huge, unwieldy blob of jelly, supported here and there by slender certainties, its ultimate viability still shrouded in doubt.

Did I just write that? Very well, then; I wrote it. Maintaining a grip on all parts of a narrative – and I am now 70,000 words into this one - requires a mental dexterity that does indeed stretch your abilities as a writer and puts unusual demands on your intellect. Within a week or ten days I will have reached the end of the story I’m putting together. The first draft will be done. That gives me four or five weeks in which to liaise with the subject – the guy I’m ghosting for – and make sure that we have recorded everything that belongs in the story, that it all makes sense, that the characters seem real, and that the tone and voice are as they ought to be. Voice is quite an issue in this book: I am dealing with a guy who operated almost as a pirate, certainly a buccaneer – in commercial fishing, in treasure-hunting, in shipping, and in black-market oil trading; and he smuggled dope, did time in jail, made millions and surrendered millions in order to buy his freedom. So, in writing in the first person, I am having to develop a voice which suggests the worldliness, the scepticism, the particular wit that I hear every time I talk to this guy on the phone. I realise – because he tells me it is so – that I am getting there in these later chapters. Hey, he says, you’re writing it the way I see it. My task, when we get to the end and start revising, will be to go back and make sure that that is true right from the beginning.

However, the Lake District….

We drove to Glenridding, at the southern end of Ullswater, and hiked up to Angle Tarn. There we unpacked our steaks, our red wine and potato salad, laid out our beds and made supper as the sun went down.


It was a chilly night, without any wind, the landscape illuminated by a moon that was one day short of being full. In the morning there was ice on our packs. On the lake a moist had formed, a mist which soon caught a faint breeze and swathed the adjoining hill.  


We brewed coffee, shouldered our packs and set off on high walk that would take us back to Glenridding for lunchtime. Along the way we came to the spectacular pass which connects Windermere with Ullswater.


It’s no good: I cannot summon up the right kind of poetic language to describe, adequately, a glorious hike. In twenty minutes from now I’ll be writing words designed to spoken out of the side of the mouth – about cops, and prison cells, and briefcases full of dollar bills, about guns being dismantled and hidden under the door panels of a getaway car. I think I’m resigned to leaving the pictures to do the work for me.


Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Once You Have Good Material Assembled, It Won’t Take Long to Write Your Book

I’ve been making rapid progress with this latest book. Since I began serious work on 26 June, and despite having had two weeks away in Norway, I have got 48,000 written. That’s well past the halfway mark, meaning that I'm averaging 1500 a working day. I am reminded of the days when I was writing corporate histories and could occasionally polish off 3-4000 at a sitting. But I was younger then….

This rapid progress is all down to one thing: starting each day with good research material in front of me. The fellow I’m working with right now has been thinking about his long and adventurous life for some time. I think he started to reflect, seriously, when he was doing time in a very unpleasant Federal Penitentiary. As we searched for a buyer for the book we took great pains to come up with an outline and chapter breakdown. Of course, we have deviated from the original outline – that will always happen - but they’ve been useful guides, and we’ve kept in mind the factors that sold the idea: namely, my subject’s early forays into black-market oil trading in the Niger Delta, a field in which he was the first operator, some twenty-plus years ago. Along the way, he’s kept up his end of the ghosting deal, namely:

(a) sending me substantial chapter outlines on a regular basis;
(b) whenever I ask a question, sending a swift and detailed reply - be it a physical description of a minor character, information on the private banking system in Lichtenstein, where he hid substantial cash deposits, or an explanation of acronyms like AHTSV (Anchor Handling Tug Supply Vessel) or VLCC (Very Large Crude Container).

Having now known my subject for four years – that’s how long ago it was that we first discussed a book about his life in dope-smuggling, deep-sea fishing, treasure-hunting, deep-sea diving, black-market oil trading and running shipping fleets in South America and West Africa – I can often flesh out a chapter purely from my own recollections of the many remarkable stories he has told me. Some of those won’t find a place in the main story, but it’s always a great help to have this accumulated background knowledge when you’re writing a biography. It means that in the course of any narrative section I can get into his head and have him reflect on matters that may be tangential to the plot but are pertinent to his own personality and character. Call it light relief.

Would that all ghost writing were this easy, and this enjoyable. I cannot help but reflect on other projects, when I’ve had to conjure a 6,000 or 8,000-wprd chapter from half a page of notes consisting mostly of ‘He was a fantastic character’, ‘It was unbelievable’, or ‘We had an amazing time.’

Harrumph. An outline of Chapter 13 has this minute arrived in my Inbox, and I am promised Ch. 14 in short order. I must to start on my half of the job.  

Friday, 15 August 2014

The Troms Border Trail, Part 2

There’s a lot more I could say about our hike in the Norwegian Arctic. But really, the pictures tell most of the story.

It wasn’t the greatest weather when we set out; indeed, it was quite brooding. The trail was marked by a red splash of paint on the rocks here and there, and with cairns – not all as visible as this one:


As I mentioned in my last post, the huts are what made the whole thing practicable from our point of view. Here are the huts at Gappo, which was almost a village: two residential (or was it three?), an earth closet and a woodshed. I think we had five other people (plus a dog) staying the night when we were there. Sometimes we had the place to ourselves.


Here’s an inside shot of a typical hut. Despite the mild weather we were grateful for the log stove on a couple of occasions after we’d got caught in a late afternoon thunderstorm.

A feature of day 3, after we left Gappo, was that we managed to convert a 20-kilometre hike into a 32-km slog. We set off towards this very recognisable mountain and only after marching 5-6 km did we realise that we were heading west when we should have been heading southwest. Nothing for it but to retrace our steps and start again.


We expected to meet reindeer, and indeed we had to move through one herd that was several thousand strong – and were simply too exhausted to get the cameras out. But this sight caught our eye: a small herd apparently grazing on a snow-bank. A.’s theory was that this was the grown-up reindeer explaining to the youngsters what lay in store in the coming winter. That evening we met a couple of Norwegian women in a hut who explained that the reindeer didn’t like the kind of heat we were experiencing and were in fact cooling off; also, on the snow they would briefly be free of the mosquitoes.


Despite the rocky landscape, wild flowers were everywhere. It wasn’t always apparent what they were feeding on, but they seemed to thrive. Here are some harebells, doing well in an unlikely habitat.


… and a teasel:


With no supplies available in these far northern huts (the Trekking Association have many huts further south where groceries can be bought, or even prepared meals) we had to carry everything we would need. As well as having loads of cereals, home-made muesli, nuts, dried fruit, etc, we took our own dried ingredients for soup. We also made up batches of dry mix for tortillas and pancakes. At night we’d cook up enough for our supper – greasing the pan from our little phial of olive oil - and the using the leftovers for the next day’s midday meal.



When we got to the huts one of the first chores was always to fetch water. In the case of this place, with the supply 200 yards away, they provided a handy yoke. Note that I am wearing me midge veil: a vital piece of equipment up there.


The area where we were walking was staggeringly beautiful, but the truth is… there were few more wonderful sights than a hut coming into view after a gruelling day’s hike.


Actually, there was another very welcome sight we looked out for each morning, namely a suitable place to bathe after we’d worked up a sweat over the first hour or two. So here’s your blogger at his daily toilette – at a discreet 200 yards’ distance. I have a vivid memory of that lake. We’d just walked through one of the lowest-lying parts of the hike, through a marsh and a stunted woodland – and we’d been ravaged by mosquitoes. The feeling of cold water on our skin was sheer bliss.



We crossed rivers every day – sometimes a dozen or more, and very few caused us any real difficulty. This one, however, was a bit of a challenge, but with gaiters in place, and using our poles, we got across with dry feet.




Sunday, 10 August 2014

The Troms Border Trail – a 100-mile hike in Arctic Norway (En 160 kilometer lang tur langs Troms Border Trail)



Just back from an eight-day hike in the Norwegian Arctic, and to tell the truth it’s hard to find the words, yet, to tell the full story. Let’s just say that in a hundred miles (158 kilometres) of walking over eight days we saw not a single gate, nor a fence, nor a motorised vehicle; not even a light bulb. Just mile after mile of superb mountain scenery with the occasional fellow hiker – perhaps one or two a day.


At altitudes no greater than 1000 metres, and often nearer 500, the weather – despite the ever-present snow-banks – was what you’d expect in an English summer, the temperature varying between 15 and 23 C (60 to 73 F). At night, with the sun up for 23 or more hours a day, it never dropped below about 10 C (50 F). We had one thunderstorm, which drenched us, but the joy of this trip was that, as members of the Norwegian Trekking Association, we had a key to their beautifully equipped huts.


Each hut had a four-ring propane stove for cooking on, a large wood-burner with log-stack, and bunks with mattresses and pillows. All we had to carry was a sheet sleeping-bag, a change of underwear, some foul weather-gear, and all the food we would need. (More on that in a day or two)

The scenery ranged from grassland to long stretches of glacial boulders and the occasional woodland at lower levels. The abundant rivers and lakes provided clean drinking water and a daily opportunity to bathe and do a little laundry, using a suitably ecological detergent fluid.


There’s an awful lot more I could say, but it’s late on a Sunday night and tomorrow morning I must be a ghost-writer again. So I’ll pick this up later in the week and throw in a few more photos.