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Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Adulterous goings on with the shiny new Virgin

One of the stand-out memories from my latest western trip: the Spanish mission ruins at Abo, Salinas and Gran Quivira


Being on the road for a month is all very well. Getting back into some kind of groove thereafter - well, you'd think that after three weeks everything would be running smoothly. Not so.

My big mistake was deciding to change my mobile phone supplier. I've never been a massive fan of Virgin, nor their founder, Richard Branson. I don’t like his chummy style – his insistence on referring to his workforce as ‘the Guys’, and his habit of addressing me with a too-familiar ‘Hi Alan’. I would complain that we’ve never met, but that would be telling a lie, and my grandmother taught me that if I insisted on uttering falsehoods I would be turned away from the Pearly Gates.

Branson and I did meet, once, when he interviewed me for a job. It was in 1969, and he was recruiting students to flog his magazine on the streets of London. You would get rained on, frozen, shouted at – but you would pocket a portion of the receipts. I thought he was a wide-boy, a chancer, a conman heading nowhere fast. I declined.

Anyway, I swore I would ditch Virgin some months ago, after a long phone call during which they agreed to upgrade my phone and re-draft my contract. It ended when they said they would ‘just check my creditworthiness’ and reported back that my grandmother was right, all those years ago: I truly was not worthy. (It seems that to get a decent rating you need to have taken out lots of loans at exorbitant interest rates.)

We got over that eventually, and I consented, warily, to go through the process once more. It didn’t
take them long to annoy me all over again (it ain’t hard, trust me) and I decided to seek the favours of another supplier who was making seductive noises.

Like most people who dabble in infidelities, I very soon found myself in deep water. By Tuesday
morning I was juggling three separate phones – the used Virgin, the ‘shiny new’ Virgin upgrade, and the inevitable cuckoo in the nest: an offering from EE. Worse – and every adulterer’s worst nightmare - none of them functioned. It took me two full days to unravel it, and am mightily relieved to have done so, even if I do feel about fourteen years older (not what you want to feel at my age, I can assure you).

So, back at the desk, reflecting on my tour, and looking ahead. I have manuscripts to read, final edits to make to the biography of Eric Knight – on which I will write at some length as publication date approaches – and plans to draw up for a new piece of biographical work which may soon be coming my way. That would be the life story of a Welsh Member of Parliament (retired). I’m not sure how gripping his political career will seem, but I am intrigued by the fact that he was born in the Depression, the youngest of an enormous family of miners. I look forward to travelling west to see him in a few weeks’ time and get an outline picture of what must have been an extraordinary progress.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Winding up my tour at the Nebraska Writers Guild Fall Conference

A view outside The Leadership Center in Aurora, NE; it seemed especially appropriate to my last-but-one destination on a four-week tour.

I am back home. Arrived yesterday lunchtime, slept almost 13 hours last night, and feel 'as right as ninepence'. (Even most Brits are unfamiliar with that simile, so my American friends don't need to feel inadequate. It appears to have its roots in the mid-17th century, when there was a nine-penny coin in circulation, and the original phrase was 'nice as ninepence'.)

Anyway... back to the tour, before it all blurs in the memory. I thought the Nebraska Writers Guild Fall Conference was a thrilling event. About eighty attendees, plus several members of the public. Number one, I was staggered by the level of experience, talent, ambition and accomplishment amongst those present - and consequently nervous about addressing them on 'my remarkable career'. The more people I met, the less remarkable I felt. Number two, I was overwhelmed by the generous and welcoming mood. I was received so warmly.

When I took the podium at 0845h on Saturday morning, I spoke about the two strands which have woven together to make me the writer I am: firstly, the experiences I gathered as a young man, working some 40-50 jobs while figuring out how to be a writer, and then the many ways in which I have earned a crust as a professional since the early 1990s. I raised a few laughs. Even got away with a risqué story from my days in a steam laundry when, as a fresh-faced 14-year-old, I heard two 50-something women discussing contraception.

I sold quite a few books too - albeit at discounted prices. There was no way I was going to be able to fit any leftovers in my suitcase, which was already perilously close to being over-weight when I flew in.

And then came one of those 'from the sublime to the ridiculous' moments. My final gig was to be a reading from 'Cody, The Medicine Man and Me' in downtown Lincoln. I was ready, I had a dozen copies of the novel with me, and a favourite pen in my top pocket. Only one problem: nobody showed up. I'd heard of such stories over the years, and always wondered how bad it might feel. The answer is, not quite as bad as I feared. In fact, as we got to the appointed hour I found myself hoping nobody would show. Or rather, please not just a single person. How would I handle that? I suppose I could point to the fact that Garth Brooks the country singer was in town, giving eight shows over the weekend... but that would be pretty lame.

Another mood-reflecting shot, downtown Lincoln, Saturday evening

Over the next few days I shall have to evaluate the whole enterprise. And I am sure I will decide it was well worth it. I remind myself that even failures are stories. More so disasters. 

Friday, 20 October 2017

With the NebraskaWriters Guild

A rather splendid work by Helen Frankenthaler, 'Red Frame' - one of many treasures I saw while visiting the Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln

This was the busy week that was causing me worry, and after all it's turning out rather well. Phew. The audience in Kearney Library, Monday evening, wasn't the biggest, but seemed to enjoy my talk about becoming a debutant novelist in my dotage. I had young writers asking me for advice. Quite a responsibility.

At Omaha the Visit Nebraska people put me up in a superb hotel and turned out in numbers to hear me talk about why I am constantly returning to the Cornhusker state. I was embraced warmly by my sponsor afterwards, and I distinctly heard the word 'Wonderful!' escape her lips. At dinner I spent some time in conversation with V J Smith, who wrote The Richest Man In The World and lectures on Gratitude. Met too a few wine growers, a handful of brewers, as well as various other entrepreneurs promoting their tourism products. All very friendly, and the grub at the banquet, lubricated with five different local wines, was just excellent.

As to my reading at the Bookworm, well, it put me in mind of a well-known poet I once interviewed, who showed up to read at Cambridge and was confronted with an audience of one - a little old lady who stood up as he got started and said, 'Sorry, I'm at the wrong event.' My audience was in single figures - and four of them were personal friends or acquaintances. However, the bookstore bought a bunch of my wares, and one of my friends invited me to lunch the next day. Moral: you take the rough with the smooth. (or, in modern parlance, 'Get used to it.')

Yesterday I spent time in town, making myself known at the scene of Saturday night's reading, Francie & Finch, and checking out the Great Plains Art Gallery and the Sheldon - which was just fabulous.

An old favourite - Edward Hopper's Room In New York

... so fabulous that I need to put up one more picture:

Georgia O'Keeffe, painted when she was living in NYC with Alfred Stieglitz

I stayed at a super B&B on the edge of town last night. West Field, out on 27th Street NW used to be the poor farm, but has been running as a guest house for about 12 years. Highly recommended for its antique fittings, homely feel and original breakfasts. I left about 11 and drove slowly west along Hwy 34 (rather than the freeway) to Aurora. Have to mention the Bulldog Roadhouse in Bradshaw (turn off the highway to the Business District - hell, just point the car at the elevator) where I stopped for an excellent BLT.

So far, at the NWG Conference, I have attended a talk on The Building Blocks of Romance ('How to make a heart-stopping romantic novel'), and a second on creating audio books using ACX. At the first, a fellow guest turned and told me she'd read my CV and thought I was a writer in the mould of Louis L'Amour. I'll take that: I used to teach Hondo to my second-year students at Hull University. He had nearly as many jobs as I've had.

Okay, time to socialise - then an early night: I am on at 0845 tomorrow.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

A short break in rural Nebraska

I left Red Cloud Saturday morning and drove for five hours, mostly through fog and drizzle, to arrive midday at Ainsworth, where I visited my good friends Keevin and Dottie Arent. Keevin's dad grew up in the red house (as featured in my book The Red House on the Niobrara) and later bought land in the Ainsworth area.

After taking it easy Saturday afternoon we hit the road Sunday morning and took a tour of the ranch land where my host grew up. He knows that area intimately and is a mine of information on the people who used to, or still do, live there. Of course, as in any agricultural area, it's often a story of the way things used to be - where the apple orchards were, the peaches or mulberries, the fishing lakes, the best hunting spots, the old wooden houses now completely erased, the occasional barn still standing. We grow older, and things change. Sometimes it's really quite poignant.

Before we left Highway 20 we swung by the site of the old Army Air Field, now the municipal airport - which is where I photographed this rather amusing picture:

From there we drove a little further west, and called in at Johnstown, where the 'Hanover' scenes for the movie of Willa Cather's 'O, Pioneers!' were shot. More relevant to our immediate needs, the town still has an active bar, The L-Bow Room, where we enjoyed a cool beer. So nice not to be in a hurry - or driving, for that matter.

The L-Bow Room a handy place for a quiet beer on a Sunday morning.

Leaving Johnstown, we went on down to cross the Niobrara at Norden Bridge and follow the north bank. The scenery was all blue (sky) and yellow (leaves), a delightful outlook. We drove as far as Meadville, where we stopped at a wonderful riverside joint I remembered from a previous visit.

Great place for a lunch - if they're open.

We lingered over a beer (Fat Tire in my case), a steak sandwich (with cheesy potatoes), a drop more of the good stuff and a plate of cherry pie a la mode. It's a super place, and although the sun was shining there was a nip in the air, so we were glad they'd had the good sense to fire up the cast-iron stove. Speaking for myself, I could easily have put my head on the table and had a little nap, but, to reference Robert Frost, we had 'miles to go before we slept'... back over the river.

This morning it was definitely Monday - no disputing the fact -, and back to work for this writer. I took my leave around 9.30 and drove slowly down to Kearney where, this evening, I entertained a small gathering at the city library to the story of how I ended up being a debut novelist at 67. Before they dropped off I made them listen to a few extracts from Cody, The Medicine Man and Me. Tomorrow I head for Omaha, where I'll be giving a talk at the Bookworm, 6 p.m.. It's meant to be quite the happening place in town.
More in due course.


Saturday, 14 October 2017

Back in Nebraska and ready to work - and talk.

I've had my break. Been to New Mexico. Had the quick weekend in San Francisco seeing my old college buddy after 18 years. And breathed a lot of wood smoke. The air down there was thick with the stuff, and seasoned with flakes of black ash.

Two days' driving brought me back to Red Cloud, where the good folk at the Willa Cather  Foundation have housed me in what was the author's second childhood home, on the corner of 6th and Seward. It is like moving into a museum. It is exquisite.

It's not the first time I've had a literary hero watching my every move: it happened when I was resident in the Kerouac House in Orlando, 2004.

I gave my talk at the Foundation last night. For a town of barely 1,000 we didn't do badly at all. I spoke about my early life and career and explained how I came to be a debut novelist in my late 60s. Then I talked about Cody, The Medicine Man and Me, and read a few passages.

Today has been a rest day. Rest and laundry day, I should say. It soon stacks up. Tomorrow I drive north to visit friends in Alliance, and on Monday it's back to Kearney for an evening talk at the library (7.00 pm). From there it'll be Omaha for the Tourism Conference, Aurora for the Nebraska Writers Guild, with further addresses at Omaha's Bookworm bookstore and Francie and Finch in Lincoln. That's Saturday night before I fly out of Lincoln Sunday morning - and home.

It is just great to be back in this state. It may be provincial, it may be slow, but people have time. When I went for breakfast at the Bowling Alley this morning the guy was about to close the kitchen down, but he cranked it up and cooked me an eggs, bacon and hash browns meal before telling me about his own writing ambitions in the horror and fantasy genres. I got chatting too to the owner, a retired school teacher who doubles as a Sunday morning pastor, provider of activities for the town's youngsters - 'And oh, just excuse me while I go pay my beer man. Been waiting for this delivery.'

After that I rested, then drove out to Bladen for a lunch which has filled me so thoroughly I doubt I'll eat again until tomorrow morning on the road.

The sitting-room.