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Thursday, 31 March 2011































It all seems very simple, looking back. It wasn't.

It took me until 2009 to decide that I might just be able to afford to take six months out. That was largely thanks to the series of books I've been writing, which I'll get around to later. For the first time since I was writing for Emmerdale, back in about 2000, I was solvent. Nothing in the bank, you understand, but no outstanding debts. Ask any writer: that is success.

I plunged back into the red and headed west to attend the annual Mari Sandoz conference, held at the little college town of Chadron, out in the Panhandle and barely a hop, skip and a jump away from the area where she grew up. I'd attended a couple of times previously. In 1996 there was the hundredth anniversary of Mari's birth, and in 2005 a rather special one for me: I was inducted as an Admiral in the Nebraska Navy - largely thanks to the lobbying of my dear friend, the late Mary Ethel Emanuel, who knew and liked some of the things I'd written about the Cornhusker State.

Okay, there is no Navy in Nebraska. We understand that. And I do not wear a tricorn hat - although I would, if asked to. But I do have on my wall a scroll stating my rank and according me certain privileges of office, and I do carry in my wallet an ID card signed by the Governor. I'm still waiting for the chance to pull it out and confound an over-eager Highway Patrol officer.

So, March 2010. This time, I tell myself, I am going to hustle. I am going to chew the ears of any ranch folk who show up at the conference - plenty of them do - and plead my case. Have you got a little old cabin or shack, out on the range, where a Limey writer can read, reflect and compose.

The conference barely lasted forty-eight hours. I stayed at a delightful frontier period hotel, owned and run by another dear friend, Jeannie Goetzinger. If ever you get to Chadron, check out The Olde Main Street Inn (http://www.chadron.com/oldemain/) with its brass bedsteads, creaking stairs and weathered timbers. Imagine General Miles staying there at the time of the Wounded Knee outbreak - because he did. And then relax in the Long Branch Saloon and drink a glass of wheat beer while Jeannie sits and spins her alpaca wool - or lamb's, or rabbit's, or dog's hair - and talks about the history of the place.

We'd had the scholarly papers, we'd had the Friday night faro and blackjack games, and here we were, Saturday morning, and almost everyone had gone home. And had I hit pay-dirt? Had I hell.

"So what is it you're after?" There were just four of us: myself and a group of three academics from Colorado and South Dakota restoring ourselves from the bottomless coffee-pot.

"Oh," I said, probably sounding more forlorn than I meant to, "I was looking for a place out in the hills where I can spend six months thinking and writing and...."

I was interrupted by the sound of a number being tapped into a cell `phone. "You need to talk to my brother."

It turned out that this lady's brother was busy calving, but his wife would be in town later having her hair done and would meet me for coffee.

An hour later she was describing the former ranch house, now a hunting lodge, that they have down by the river and explaining how much they liked to share the great life they had out there. So why didn't I come out to see it?

I loved the place instantly - and as soon as I say that I am reminded that in an earlier post I referred to a leaking roof and a malfunctioning shower. Well, there were a few drips, not that they bothered me; and I was more than happy to bathe in the prettiest river on the Great Plains. So maybe I exaggerated. Okay, I used to write soaps....

We struck a deal: tenure for six months for the cost of utilities, so long as I didn't mind occasional parties of deer and turkey hunters, plus a party of lady trail riders. Who, me? A writer - and a bloke?

So, the three photos at the head of this posting - and again, bear with me: there must be a way to shove them around so that they sit next to the passage that refers to them, but this blogging greenhorn has yet to find it.

Top left is the full frontal view; that's me taking my ease out front. Beside it is a shot of the picnic chairs, pointed towards the sunset. I'll be there, beer in hand, many a lonesome evening. The third picture is what you see as you approach the house: to the left a barn, to the right a large cattle shed where the calving will be taking place around the time I show up - which is in seven days.

I suppose I'm slightly jumping the gun in showing the house when I've yet to arrive there, but the fact is I did check it out and did stay there a few nights. When I got home from that trip, full of my good news, I found I had further cause to celebrate. I had earlier applied for a Wingate Scholarship (http://www.wingatescholarships.org.uk/) to fund my spell in the Sandhills, and here was a letter inviting me for interview in London.

There is a tide in the affairs of men, etc etc... Six weeks later I got the good news: they liked my project and would fund me. There was only one way of responding response to that. Yee-ha!!