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Thursday, 28 July 2016


This is a Goodreads giveaway offer for the book I ghosted for Rob Stone:

This really is a cracker of a book, and here's a great chance to get a copy for nothing. Just follow the link to get your name down:

Good luck!

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Charles Bukowski - a review of Art, Survival and So Forth by Jules Smith

Sixteen years ago my pal Jules Smith published his critical biography of a writer whose work I truly admire, Charles Bukowski. At the time I wrote a review, hoping to place it in the quality press. I never found a home for it and last week unearthed it, read it and thought it would be better to have it out there than festering in a drawer, albeit an electronic one.

Bukowski is a difficult writer.  He’s rarely dull, always accessible, and he seems to inhabit a dangerous and exciting world.  So what’s the problem? 
It starts with the persona he projects, which speaks directly to something inside men that most of us – at least, most readers of poetry -  would rather leave under wraps.  He invokes a vision of manhood that we hope we have outgrown, even though we love to read about it: domestically untrammelled, sexually rampant, foul-mouthed, economically reckless.  On top of all that, Bukowski is a damned good poet.  That’s what the problem is.
There’s more to be said about the Dirty Old Man of American Letters, of course.  There’s the whole business of disentangling the poet from his narrators; the matter of his apparent ability to toss off poems at will; and the matter of his critical standing.  Jules Smith’s new book tackles all of these with scholarly zest.
Bukowski certainly had zest, as evinced by his output: eleven books of poetry in the `60s alone, four in the seventies (the decade in which he overcame his reserve and started performing) and some sixteen prose works in the period 1965-1989.  And not for him the coy little packages with one spare verse per embroidered page: his later poetry anthologies tended towards 400 pages.  Add this to his working life, his voluminous correspondence, his live readings, and there can’t have been too much time for boozing and womanising.  The womanising, in any case, only seems to be have taken off  when the poor man was on the road as a performer – and pestered by groupies. 
For all Bukowski’s expansive claims that he opened a bottle of wine, put on some Beethoven and the poetry “just came pouring out”, Smith comes up with  plenty of evidence of the reflection and graft that went into perfecting a technique which would liberate poetry from what Bukowski called its “glass-prison terminology”. 
The Bukowski of  “Let’s make poetry the way we make love” is the same Bukowski who in the fifties was writing recognisably romantic and literary poems, and corresponding with academics on the matter of aesthetics, discussing not just Hemingway and Yeats and William Carlos Williams, but Camus and Pascal too.  He took great pains over details. One publisher speaks of corresponding for weeks over a single (four-letter) word.   His poetic vernacular was arrived at by endless chiselling at a much more formal diction
After demonstrating Bukowski’s links to American precursors such as Robinson Jeffers, Hemingway, and through him Gertrude Stein, Smith shows how he shared a common aesthetic with the new generation that rose to prominence before he himself had found his true voice – the Beats.  Indeed, he argues that their eruption onto the West Coast scene in 1955 (the celebrated Howl reading at the Gallery Six) inspired him to re-start his stalled writing career. 
But that is not to say that he had much in common with the Beats.  A crucial six years older than Ginsberg, and ten years older than Gary Snyder, he was closer to the generation overshadowed by Depression than by Cold War.  Where the Beats found a spiritual home in San Francisco, and saw themselves as a `movement`; he was a loner, a Los Angeleno -  and down the coast it’s dog-eat-dog: the Individual reigns.  Most tellingly, where the Beats sought a spiritual or even ecological alternative to the American Dream, Bukowski’s narrators – for all their sufferings on the outer edges of a capitalist society -  dreamed of fast cars and glamorous women, if only they could score at  the racetrack.
What Art, Survival And So Forth  doesn’t offer is any real mapping of the poet’s life.   Smith points to two biographies of the `90s – Hank, by Neeli Cherkovski, and Locked In The Arms of A Crazy Life by Howard Sounes.  But the stated aim of this engaging work is to show how much at variance the myth was from the reality, and to that end some sort of chronology would have helped.
While we are offered a detailed account of Bukowski’s expansive - and scattered - record of publication, the context isn’t always clear.  The same goes for the poet’s working life: while his narrators assume the identity of skid-row losers, Bukowski was – as suggested by his novels Post Office and  Factotum – in full-time employment.  But when, precisely, and for how long?   And inasmuch as the poet’s relationships with women informed his work, it would have been useful to know precisely when he was co-habiting, and with whom. 
Nevertheless, Smith makes his point about the disjunction between man and (self-made) myth, reminding us that throughout the 1960s Bukowski was working a steady job for the U.S. Post Office, paying child support and taxes, running a car and “conspicuously failing to plot Capitalism’s downfall”.  And he re-iterates: the man wrote fiction, not autobiography.
Perhaps the greatest difficulty most readers have with Bukowski is in his relationships with women – or rather with the way his male characters treat their women.   They  are generally reduced to stereotypes:  whores, bitches, blondes, redheads.  And they tend to be untrustworthy, faithless, in most cases trouble.  Moreover, while they stand to get beaten, abused, abandoned, their men are often held up as victims.  While Smith acknowledges this sexism – with the caveat that we shouldn’t confuse the artist with his work – his defence isn’t entirely convincing.  The fact that some women like Bukowski’s work, and that some women were able to live with him is no more re-assuring than the observation that the man grew up in a sexist age. 
Art, Survival And So Forth is a witty, well-written book,  rooted in an impressive understanding of American culture.  If the weight of detail occasionally drags, the author’s own enthusiasm for his subject – and his wry asides – unfailingly buoy the narrative.  Smith’s painstaking scholarship is most evident in some substantial passages on the Los Angeles poetry and small press scene over the past forty-odd years, which should be a treasure-trove for fans and students of other `underground` writers.  The impressive number of names invoked highlights my one slight irritation: the lack of an index.

Friday, 22 July 2016

Free sample chapter, Between the Rockies and a Hard Place

Somehow, in the rush to prepare for my Nebraska book tour, I forgot to write a post about the launch of this book, an account of my long drive up the Hundredth Meridian from Mexico to Canada, and back. So I offer here a sample chapter from west Texas. To see more about the book - or to buy it -  visit or, if in the UK,

Leakey, Texas

My road followed the Frio River, a delightful water-course lined with flower-filled meadows and dotted with small ranches or farms. At the little town of Rio Frio the water ran right across the road and I stopped the car to walk through the cool grasses along its margins, then paddled in the deliciously chill water, digging my toes into its sandy bed.  My mind filled with romantic notions about selling up and buying land out there… but the rumbling in my stomach soon brought me back to earth. It was getting on for lunchtime. 

It’s one thing to say you’re never going to sully the temple of your body by eating at One Of Those Places, but it’s quite another, when you’re out on life’s highways, to stick to your own rules. When it comes to FRDs – Family-Run Diners – there’s no way of telling what you’re in for other than to suck it and see. It grieves me to say it, but I have eaten some excruciatingly awful food at Midwestern Mom and Pop joints.   

   So why, you might wonder, would I screech to a halt outside a shabby little place called Toad’s Road Kill Café in Leakey, Texas (pop. 401)? The answer is simple enough. I was starving. As I approached  the door I was brushed aside by a large man in a crumpled suit. He looked alarmed – and I could see why. Close behind him was a small, skinny, agitated woman with a dish-rag in one hand and a vicious-looking knife in the other. ‘I don’t have no New York Jack cheese,’ she shouted as the man hurried to his car and clambered in, ‘and I don’t have none of that Parma ham, and I don’t have no rye-bread rolls either, so git!’

   As she went back inside I stood in the doorway, eyeing the patina of grease on the counter, the pile of old magazines by the back door, the several empty tables strewn with fading menus and grubby salt-cellars. The proprietor – the skinny woman who’d just seen the fat gent off the premises – was now standing over a little table by the counter, calm as you please, somehow managing to chop onions while she read the day’s paper, her steamed-up glasses perched on the end of her nose. She looked like most people’s idea of a grandmother. A modern, feisty grandmother, that is: jeans, sneakers, and a less than reverent attitude to people she didn’t like. Maybe the clue was in the sign above her head: ‘God Bless John Wayne’. 

   There were only a couple of customers in the place, two elderly men in work-clothes, their broad, callused hands clasped round a matching pair of sandwiches which dripped mayonnaise and disgorged splinters of bacon and dribbles of ripe tomato as they raised them to their mouths. ‘Sit yourself down, stranger,’ said one. The other grinned. ‘She makes a darned fine BLT. Jest ain’t so keen on these city slickers with their fancy diets.’

   Ten minutes later I was munching a truly splendid BLT of my own - it seemed the only thing to ask for, under the circumstances - and poring over a map of Texas with Toad’s reading glasses perched on my nose. ‘Here, try these,’ she’d offered when I realised mine were out in the car. And then, because I couldn’t resist asking her, she told me how she got her name. ‘Goes back to when I was a baby. I never learned to crawl. Just hopped about the place like a little toad. Been stuck with it sixty years.’ 

   The guys at the other table had just about finished eating. The first one wiped his mouth on a paper napkin. ‘Guess you’re new to Texas,’ he said, and held out his hand. 

   ‘Yes, I’m from England. Just passing through.’ 

   ‘Name’s Bob,’ he said. Here, at last, was my chance. I took a deep breath, reached out to him and uttered the line I’d been rehearsing since I first dreamed this trip up.  

   ‘Call me Slim.’ I’d always wanted a nice cowboy kind of name and, being blessed with a fast metabolism and a slender frame, this was the one I’d long had in mind.

   ‘How’s that?’ Bob asked, cupping a hand to his ear.

   I could already feel the steam starting to leak out of me. I clenched my abdominal muscles again. Might as well face it, I thought, you’ll never make a liar. ‘Slim,’ I said.

   ‘Jim, huh? Hey, same as my buddy here.’

   At which point I gave it up. ‘No,’ I said. ‘Alan.’ And then, reminding myself that you can’t win `em all, I thought I might as well try another line I’d always liked the sound of.  ‘But you can call me Al.’

   They asked where I was heading. If I had a destination in mind it was Junction, by way of Telegraph, which they agreed was a ‘purty liddle place’. ‘But,’ I added, ‘I’m not in a hurry, really. I want to see as much of this country as possible. They told me Texas was all dust and tumbleweed, but look at it.’

   ‘Oh sure, it’s real purty round these parts.’

   I learned years ago that the straightest way into a stranger’s heart is to praise his children, his livestock or his homeland. I learned it twenty years ago in my rat-catching days, when I was doing the rounds of farms, smallholdings and out-buildings in North Lincolnshire. It worked fairly well with garden produce too.

   ‘By heck,’ I’d say, ‘that’s a fantastic patch of rhubarb you’ve got there.’ 

   ‘Aye. Not bad, is she?’

   ‘Not bad? Mine’s all thin and – why, it’s hardly worth picking.’

   ‘Well, you want to try some of mine, lad. Go on – take a few sticks. I’ve plenty of it.’

   The same went for cabbages, tomatoes, green beans, strawberries, farmyard muck, puppies, young cockerels  – anything you care to think of, according to the time of year.    And here in Toad’s place, true to form, once we got to talking about how wonderful Texas was, they were away. And before long Bob was telling me that he’d spent his working life up north – somewhere in Wisconsin – and had finally saved enough to retire to the place he’d dreamed about. ‘I got a little cabin back there a ways.’ He gestured vaguely in the direction of Cottonwood Creek, which I’d crossed on the way up from Garner State Park. 

   ‘Sounds great,’ I told him, looking as wistful as I could. I don’t know why I bothered to affect any sort of look, really, because I was to find that westerners put very little effort into being the way they are. Theirs is a casual kind of hospitality. The door’s always open and the coffee pot’s generally on the stove. It’s up to you whether you walk through and help yourself.

   ‘Listen,’ Bob said, ‘if you’re not in a hurry, why not come up to my place there and take a look around.’

   ‘I’d like that. Be nice to see some of the country after all that driving.’

   ‘I built a bunkhouse for my grandchildren when they come to stay. No one there this weekend.’

   Bob was spending the afternoon in town. He and Jim had a spot of fencing to see to out at a friend’s place, and we agreed to meet up later. I told him that to kill a little time I’d take a ride up to Camp Wood on the eastern fork of the Nueces River. Bob corrected my pronunciation. ‘We say ‘Noo – ay – says,’ he said – pretty much what I thought I’d said in the first place.

Later that afternoon I met up with Bob, stashed a change of clothes in his truck, then followed him round the corner where he said there was a good place to park my car. ‘Ain’t nobody going to take it from here,’ he said. ‘Not from right outside the sheriff’s office.’

   It wasn’t many miles to Bob’s place, but it was quite a ride. ‘County grader comes down here once a year,’ he told me as we splashed across a ford, skidded over loose rocks and ground our way up a steep-sided gulch cut out of the limestone. ‘They stir the gravel around some, and that’s all you get for your taxes.’ He stopped the truck, got out and opened a gate. ‘Another flood now and I’ll just have to wait till next spring before they fix it.’ 

   He had a twenty-acre spread set in the valley between two spurs, and running up the side of a wooded mountain. It cost him $15,000. ‘But that was three years ago. There’s nine realtors in this town – lotta people retiring out this way now – and the one who sold me this parcel of land, she’s been back more than once. “I can double your money for you – if you’re thinking of selling.” But it suits me fine. Only have to spend twice as much to get another patch.’ He had a couple of neighbours within half a mile, their houses just about visible amongst the trees, and a couple of horses down in a piece of pasture. He had a feral cat that came by to be fed from time to time, a woodpecker that tried to steal the cat food, and a selection of humming-birds and scarlet cardinals flitting about the eaves of his house. 

   The house itself was prefabricated, styrofoam panels pinned to a wooden frame and all sitting on a concrete base. His porch was supported by stout cedar poles he’d taken out of the wood. Indoors it was dry and warm, adequately furnished, but there was no stove.  ‘Do all my cooking out there,’ he said, pointing to a makeshift barbecue pit and grille set right into the earth. ‘Guess it’ll be steak for supper. Again.’

   We gathered an armful of sticks and dragged a few fallen branches up to the pit, lit the fire, and then sat on the porch drinking beer. ‘If we’re real lucky we might see a white-tail deer,’ Bob said. ‘They come down to browse sometimes.’ From across the valley the sound of a car door slamming, and a man’s laugh drifted in. I wondered how he got along with his neighbours. 

   ‘That guy?’ He glanced in the direction of the noise. ‘We had a little misunderstanding when I first came out here.’ He smiled. ‘Remember that gate we came through? It’s on his land, but I have an easement through it. A right of access, deeded at the Land Office.  First time I came along I found him putting a lock on it. 

   “Why, you don’t need to come through, do ya?” he says. 

   “Oh yes I do,” I  told him. “I bought that land through there.” 

   “Well, I aim to keep this locked, all the same.” 

  “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll just use my master-key.”  

   “Master key won’t do you no good. It’s a combination lock.”! 

   “You seen my master key?” And I took out the fourteen-pound sledge hammer.’ Bob crushed an empty can. ‘We get along real good now.’

   The thing about his neighbour, he told me later, was that he got edgy certain times of year. ‘He generally hires a couple of Mexicans when he has a job to do around the place.’

   ‘You mean illegals?’

   ‘Yeah, wet-backs. Everyone does. You won’t get anyone round here to work for minimum wage.’ We had the fire blazing now. He threw on a log.

   ‘So, you know about this,’ I asked, ‘and you’re a new-comer, right?’


   ‘That means everyone else around here knows about it.’

   ‘Oh, sure.’

   ‘And that means the sheriff’s going to know too.’

   ‘Course he does.’

   ‘Does he ever feel like doing anything about it?’

   ‘Not unless there’s some kind of trouble. Otherwise he figures it’s none of his business.  Besides, once they’ve done the job the Mexicans move on.’

   ‘Where to?’

   ‘I’ve never asked.’

   But then the canyons round here have always been home to outlaws. The Texas Hill Country was for a century a natural haven to anyone on the run. According to Bob, there are still one or two old-timers around who rode with the Newton gang back in the 1930s.    ‘Harmless bunch, really. Held up banks with a shotgun, but they never had more than bird-shot in it.’ His own father had been out this way in the old days, not on the run exactly, but certainly looking for adventure.

   ‘It’s one of the main reasons I’m here today,’ Bob said. ‘Dad was thirteen, my uncle fifteen, and they wanted to be cowboys. This would be – oh, about 1900, `cos he was fifty when I was born, and that was 1937. Hopped a freight in South Bend, Indiana, and wound up herding cattle in Frio canyon.’  He laughed. ‘He came home around 1904 or 5, but he never stopped talking about this country and how purty it was. Soon as I was coming up to retirement and scouting around for a place to buy, I just naturally wound up here too. Just wish I’d made it a hundred years earlier. Guess that’s another bit of my dad I’ve got in me. `Cos he was an ornery old cuss too. 

   ‘He farmed our spread till the 1940s and never had a tractor on the place.  Right up to when I left home I was still taking a team of horses and a buggy into town to fetch the groceries. Six miles each way. Turned over a load of potatoes one time when the team bolted. We did try to get Dad to use a car, but it didn’t work out too well. I remember one time he wanted to get the thing out of the barn to drive somewhere or other, and we heard such a commotion – banging and shouting. We ran outside and there he was, with a two-by-two, whacking the rear end. “Godammit! I said back up – d’you hear?” And after he’d given it a few cracks he got in and, d’you know, the darned thing backed up right away!’

   The fire was glowing now, the smoke all driven off. Bob threw a couple of beef steaks on a grille and perched it on top of the hot coals. ‘Dad was a hard man in a fight. We had a neighbour. Said our beagle pups were disturbing his livestock. They weren’t doing any such thing, of course. He just didn’t like them being around. But he came raging and storming and told Dad they had to be shot or he’d get the sheriff on the case. I was six years old, and I loved those dogs. There were two of them. Well, Dad just listened to what the guy had to say, then told me to go to the house and fetch the shotgun and three shells.  I was in tears, of course, but when Dad told you to do something, you didn’t question it. I brought out the gun and Dad loaded it up, took aim at the dogs and cocked the trigger.  Then he looks at the neighbour and says, “You want these dogs dead?” and the neighbour says, “That’s what I said,” and Dad says, “Cos I’ll kill `em both right now. That’ll take two shells. Then my boy here’s got another one in his hand.”

   “Oh?” says the neighbour. “Yeah, that’ll be for you,” says Dad. We never heard another word about them dogs unsettling any livestock.’

   As soon as we’d eaten I started to feel drowsy. There was a fat moon rising over the pine-trees, and despite the sudden coolness in the air, a few cicadas were starting to chirrup. In the bunkhouse Bob showed me the kitchen, a fridge full of soda-pop, a shower, and pointed to a mound of bedding in one corner. ‘Grab a mattress and make yourself at home.’

   Later, as I lay on my bed up against the window, I could see him move about his house.  On the ground between us, every blade of grass, every little rock, every fallen pine-bough was illuminated by the piercing light of the moon. When I looked up it was so bright it almost hurt my eyes. In the end I had to draw the curtain across the window before I could get off to sleep.


A pox on schedules. I could have stayed longer up at Bob’s place. We were getting along well, but time was ticking by and I had to ‘haul ass’ as they say. Five thousand miles in twenty-eight days takes some doing; and I needed to find a way of covering the distance and make time to spend in places like this. This was day five already, and I was barely 150 miles up the road from the border. I needed time to dawdle, and I needed time to stare into space like I had last night when the moon was rising over the hillside. How else do you achieve even the vaguest intimacy with a landscape? I even needed time to make mistakes, to confront road-blocks like Highway 1472. Of course, just as I was running all this through my mind, Bob came in with some coffee and told me about his friend Arnold. 

   ‘Yeah, it’s a darned shame he’s not here today, `cos he never can find enough people to take up.’ 

   ‘Up where?’ 

   ‘Up in his helicopter. He just loves to fly that thing. And he can’t seem to persuade anybody to go with him.’

   ‘Why’s that?’

   ‘Oh, because he’s eighty-seven years old, I guess. It kinda puts people off.’

   If I thought about that long enough, I could understand it.

   ‘But if you were around tomorrow he’d be real pleased to meet ya.’

   Another conundrum. They seemed to be cropping up at regular intervals. Was I failing as a travel writer by turning down an opportunity to take a flip around the hills with a man who probably learned to fly before I was born? And was it good manners – or simply good sense – to agree that it was a damned shame he was out of town today and point out that, regrettably, my schedule didn’t allow me any latitude in these matters? 

   One day out of Laredo and I was being reminded that once you slow down and let things happen, endless possibilities reveal themselves. I could probably spend the whole month in this part of Texas and never run out of things to do – and write about. It makes you wonder how much you can ever know about any place you pass through. What did Thoreau say: that an area within a ten-miles radius of home – within a day’s walk, twenty miles – was all you could ever hope to know in a lifetime? I can’t argue against that. My kids used to quiz me about where we would go for our Sunday walk. ‘Snuff Mill Lane? I’d suggest. ‘Beverley Westwood?’ ‘Nah,’ came the answer, ‘we’ve been there. We’ll stay at home.’ You can’t explain to a ten-year-old that no two days are the same in any one piece of country, that the weather’s always changing, and the light; that the trees don’t stand still, nor the grass, least of all your particular mood, the people you run into. With kids you just wait for them to grow up a little. But where does that leave most adults and their obsession with novelty? The Dominican Republic, Peru, Tuscany, Texas.

   Bob took me back to town. At the sheriff’s office we shook hands, promised to write, and he watched me get in the car. In the rear-view mirror I could see him wave across the street to some guy he knew, and as they approached each other and stood in the middle of the road Bob gesticulated vaguely in my direction, no doubt telling him about the visitor he had last night and how I missed a golden opportunity to take a helicopter tour of the Hill Country.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

In the Burlington depot, Red Cloud Nebraska - home of Willa Cather.

The old Burlington RR depot, Red Cloud
The folks at Red Cloud really looked after me on the last day of my Nebraska book tour. Special mention to Tracy Tucker and Jackie Lemmer for that. I don't think they had any idea I used to be a railroad brakeman, but they put me up in this fabulous old depot - an inspired choice that truly thrilled me.

Last time I was around the place it was 1993 and 140 attendees at the Willa Cather Conference (Hastings) gathered there for an evening concert of World War I songs, the week's central focus being 'One of Ours', the book based on the military exploits (and death) of Cather's cousin. I remember being terribly moved when everyone broke into 'Over There', a song which I'd always construed as jingoistic but which now came across as touchingly hopeful, and therefore quite tragic. And now, here I was, 23 years later, eating my dinner at that window under the red signal. I have to say (yet again) that the Willa Cather people down there have created a world-class set-up - and there's a lot more to come as the next phase in the development takes shape: green rooms for the theatre, apartments to rent, and all the refurbishments done in style with quality materials. The woodwork is just beautiful. (I don't think I was supposed to have seen that, but I did - somehow.)

My talk at the opera house went well - a good turn-out, an appreciative audience, and a decent number of sales. I really was quite sad to take my farewell so soon after winding things up, but I had to dash back to Lincoln and get a decent night's sleep before my flight Sunday morning.

I got home Monday morning and was in the dentist's' place this morning (Tuesday) with my mouth full of that gooey blue stuff they use to take impressions.

What did I achieve in twenty days? Substantial sales, a lot of good will, and a probable lecture tour in 2017, that being the year Nebraska celebrates 150 years of statehood. Made a few more friends too. So thank you, Cornhuskers.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

‘I was Maya Angelou’s bongo-player’ – or, I’d Forgotten All About the New Christy Minstrels….

The River Inn Resort, Brownville Nebraska
People are so kind. On Wednesday I happened upon the River Inn Resort in Brownville (pop 143, give or take a few). It’s an old river-boat – a barge, I guess - fitted out as a floating hotel and tethered to the bank of the Missouri river about half a mile from the town. Upstream you have a view of the iron bridge that connects Nebraska with Missouri. Downstream you just watch the quiet water slide down south with its cargo of mud and driftwood. I chatted with the owners, who also have the Lyceum bookstore and restaurant in town, and told them my story. Within half an hour we had agreed that a reading might be a good idea when I come through next year for the Sandoz Conference up at Chadron. And, since I was in town, why not accept the offer of a room for the night? Oh, and join them and a few friends for dinner?

Among the friends was 82-year-old Randy Sparks, founder of the New Christy Minstrels. He had some great stories to tell over a few beers. My favourite was the one that began with the wonderful opening line, ‘I was Maya Angelou’s bongo-player.’ This was back in the late 1950s, down in California,  when they were on the same bill at some night-club - he as a singer, she as a dancer (to calypso music). She told him that for her act she could do with a bongo-player. Nobody in his band could play them so he spent four days practising and went to it.


Today, Saturday, I'm in Red Cloud for my reading at the Willa Cather Memorial. More on that tomorrow, or when I get home.