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Thursday, 14 May 2015

Breweries, bounty hunters and bosoms

It's been a long silence. I plead the extenuating circumstances of adjusting to life back in the north-east of England after three months in New Mexico. Actually, I seemed to settle back in as easily as if I'd just been away for a weekend - and I don't know whether I'm pleased about that or slightly perturbed. But then constant change has always been a part of my life. Ten addresses in the past fifteen or twenty years; fifty jobs before I turned fifty. Maybe my psyche decided long ago just to shrug and get on with it.

I have sent the re-vamped novel, which I worked on in Taos, to my agent. I have started work on the history of the York brewery, and it promises to be an entertaining project. And just when I thought I might have time, next year, to tackle another personal project that's been on my mind, I have been approached by two people for help with their own life stories. One is a dear friend aged 86 (I think) who was for many years a stalwart of one of the village writing classes I ran in East Yorkshire. A native of Liverpool and a child of the Blitz, later a psychiatric nurse at the Quaker-founded Retreat in York, she has written  innumerable short, funny, poignant pieces which reflect her humane, irreverent and sagacious take on life. I well remember the day we had a man show up to what had hitherto been an all-female group. After sitting and listening to her story 'Thanks for the Mammary: a History of My Boobs Aged 14 to Present Day' he muttered something about 'not coming here to listen to pornography' and was never seen again. Anyway, she has now asked me to take five fat ring-binders from her - full of such pieces - and see what I can do with them. It's a privilege and will be a pleasure, but I'm not sure how I will fit it in.

The second prospective piece of work comes from a man who was for twenty years a bounty hunter in the USA. I am meeting him early next month to talk over possibilities. I can hardly wait.

Meanwhile Robert Stone and I await the launch of the memoir I wrote with him, Chasing Black Gold. It's due to be published by The History Press on 9th June, and they're very excited about it. It will, we understand, be on sale at stations and airports, which is quite a coup.

Exciting times. Busy times. Better than being bored, definitely.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

So Farewell, then, Wurlitzer....

When I was granted this three-month residency at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, I had no idea what to expect, no idea at all. I wasn’t worried: I had three months alone to concentrate on my writing, and plenty of writing I wanted to get done. I couldn’t wait. Yes, there were going to be eight or ten other writers and artists, but they might be anything: tormented genii, workaholics, wasters, misfits. Doubtless there would be personality clashes, cliques and stony silences. It goes with the territory. But what the heck - at 65, I have learned to be self-contained when I need to be. I like solitude. I seek it out. I’m an artist: why wouldn’t I? At the same time I enjoy good company – just so long as I can close my door when I’ve had enough. Okay, thanks for coming by… and see you later, guys.

What I didn’t expect – it never entered my head - was to be part of a group who got on so well. Since the end of January we’ve met every Wednesday and, each week, have had progressively better times together. Three months later I really think we have decided that, you know what, we like each other. For creative artists that is little short of miraculous. We have supported each other, we have cross-fertilised ideas, and I’m pretty sure that we have all come to respect and admire each other’s work. There has been a generosity of spirit, a joy in the air.

And what about ability? Ah, that. I simply had not the remotest idea, when I arrived here, that I was going to be exposed to such an amazing wealth of talent. Over the past few weeks we have had the artists, one by one, open up their studios and show us their work to date. Each of those evenings has been an education for me. I have seen examples of genres I knew little about – and had my eyes opened; I have been exposed to techniques largely outside of my experience, and I’ve learned of personal (artistic) journeys which bespoke complex lives fully lived. I came to understand that I was in the company, not only of serious, accomplished  professionals, but of magicians. These people are just very, very good at what they do: inventive, resourceful, highly skilled. Well, of course: they’ve been doing it for decades, and what’s thrilling is that I have heard each of them say that, yes, during their stay here they have moved on into new areas, opened up new possibilities. In a word, they have grown. We all have.

What I’ve also realised, as we approach the end of our tenure, is that I am surrounded by people who are all - no question about it - aglow with something that looks like fulfilment. That can only come from hard work. Yes, we have socialised once a week and drunk wine and talked a blue streak, but in between times we have retreated to our casitas, closed the doors and produced. (What I should also have said about the artists, back there, is that the mere volume of their output has been staggering. If the occasional snippet of conversation – usually en route to the laundry - is anything to go by, I would say that their biggest vice has been listening to NPR.)

Last night it was, finally, the turn of the writers to go under the spotlight. We had a dinner planned in town, so we were going to restrict ourselves to five minutes each, reading aloud. No question about it, the prospect was frightening. Five minutes? To represent twelve weeks’ hard graft? That's a challenge.

I needn’t have worried. I think it worked for all us. I think in fact that it worked very well indeed. What I heard in those four brief sessions was of the highest quality, every line of it. We had extracts from two novels-in-progress, we had non-fiction and we had poetry. I’m not going to attempt a synopsis of what we heard, let alone an assessment: I’ve not had time to absorb it. However, I’m heading home in a couple of days’ time and I feel compelled to go on record as saying it was just damned good. All of it. The hardest part of listening to the work of writers you know and like is that awful tension: is their work going to be, you know, any good? Ha. This stuff simply sparkled.

As we drove home from a great night out (Love Apple, just north of town – definitely worth every penny) I found myself wondering what some of the previous Wurlitzer groups might have been like. And then I dismissed the thought. Who could possibly tell us? What I do know is that this group, in the late winter of 2015, has given me far, far more than I expected in terms of creative stimulus, friendship and education in this wonderful world of creativity we have chosen to inhabit. I thank them, and I thank my lucky stars.


Thursday, 9 April 2015

A bird, blurred – and other signs of spring


Just when I thought I could start coasting, it got busy. And spring arrived. It was only a few days ago that I noticed this hole in a tree outside my casita. I assumed it was the work of one of the woodpeckers I’d heard hammering away in the grounds. It may well have been, but the residents, two little birds with short, blunt beaks and long tails, are a different species altogether. Yesterday I watched for ten minutes as they darted in and out, flew to a nearby branch and spat out mouthfuls of sawdust. Here’s one of them poking his (her?) head and taking a breather.


My manuscript finally came back from my reader. She loved it. She also suggested I kill one of my darlings – a three-page ramble built around Dvorak’s New World Symphony – and tone down a rather lurid ending. I have learned over the years that the more people you ask for an opinion, the more confused you become. I decided some time ago to decide who I trusted and follow their advice. I have made both of the suggested changes and am now working on the dreaded synopsis, outline and author biog. I think I am slowly getting better at the first two; as to the last, I regard that as an opportunity to re-define myself as a buccaneering sort of chap whose life the reader will wish he had lived. It’s all about producing good copy – and hey, that’s my job, isn’t it?

Meanwhile, the elm trees around here are making zillions of lime-green seeds and raising everybody’s spirits – not that they need lifting: I think we’re all having the time of our lives.


A week on Saturday I’ll be heading to Santa Fe and Lamy, taking the train to Chicago and flying home. I’m sure I’ll be sad to leave this place – and the friends I’ve made – but there’s no better time than late April to return to England.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

Sunrise over Taos


I got up at 5.30 for these, cycled out to the trailhead and made it to a suitably high spot in time to catch the sunlight spreading over the town and surrounding mountains. Not the best photos I’ve managed, but a record all the same.




Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Some Hikes Around Taos

I hate waiting – especially when, as in this case, it’s for a report on a completed manuscript; but my reader friend assures me she’s on the case. Last week I decided it was time to get out of town for the first time in six or seven weeks. I rented a car and managed a number of hikes, starting with a stretch of the trail that runs from the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge, along the rim and down towards Pilar, where a much smaller bridge crosses the river. I would like to have done the entire 9 miles – and most likely will when I come back this way in the Fall, but at the moment it would require a car at  each end, and I haven’t managed to persuade any of my fellow artists to join me for a hike that long. It’s an easy enough walk in terms of the terrain, being essentially a flat expanse of sagebrush backed by a great view of the mountains behind Taos.

    (a Rio Grande panorama – with, yes, a step.)

A day or two later I drove down to Pilar and took a look at the other end of the trail. There are a number of gentle hikes there beside the river or just above it. After walking a few miles I elected to try one that climbs steeply back up to the mesa. It was advertised as 0.8 miles, and I have no reason to doubt that. It just seemed longer, being rocky, washed away in places, and often vertiginous. It took me 45 minutes to get up there, a mere 20 to return.

Sunday I went back to the trailheads beside Hwy 64, just a couple of miles out of town and attempted the climb on the shady (and snowy, and muddy) side of the valley.


The trouble with trails that zig-zag gently but laboriously up a mountain like that is that certain eager parties take shortcuts, and soon create a web of possible options that leave you spinning an imaginary coin and hoping for the best. And that’s how I ended up climbing the last 7-800 feet straight up through dense woods, occasionally on hands and knees, frequently polluting the Sabbath air with stern Anglo-Saxon phrases, until I made contact with the trodden path towards the summit. And suddenly the struggle seemed worthwhile: the weather was gorgeous, I’d had a decent lunch, and I’d risen to the challenge. And of course the outlook made up for everything.

There was even a first glimpse of springtime


Well, the car has gone back, and I still await my report - but the sun is out, my belly is full of porridge, so I guess it’s time to got to town and look for trouble.