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Thursday, 16 August 2012

My Writerly Plans Look a Little Like This Straw-Stack


Like the straw-stack (above) my plans have all gone awry. I haven’t been near the blog for a week, and I have no excuse other than to plead a bit of ‘silly season’ lassitude. It is, after all, August, and our lords and masters in the publishing and media industry are all en vacance; but, rather than making my blood boil, as in earlier years when I seemed constantly to be awaiting answers to letters, ideas and pitches, this seasonal shutdown now has me putting my feet up as I wait for the fresher airs and shorter days of September to spur me into action. 

Oddly, I used to dread this time of year. It was a hangover from the days when the approach of September meant only one thing to me - namely, packing my trunk, quitting my summer job in the old steam laundry or wherever else I’d found work, and setting off on the bus along the North Downs to boarding school, which place I loathed with a deep and abiding passion. (Reminder to self: I need to write that book some time….)

So, having reminded myself that I am now old enough to forget a thoroughly distasteful business and am free to enjoy the summer without dreading the onset of autumn, I spent last weekend touring parts of Yorkshire by train and bike; and resting, as here, in other people’s gardens.


You’d think by the expression on my face that I was having a hard time of it; not so, but I had just cycled from Horsforth to Leeds, then from York to Malton along serpentine back-roads, a distance of about 25 miles, and was probably saddle-sore. I was visiting my mate Greg, biographer of Eric Knight (when he gets the damned thing up and out there) and catching up with his plans to move away from a little town of no great consequence in the middle of nowhere. I spent a couple of hours with him before pedalling fiften miles east towards Helperthorpe….


This is where the Chainsaw lives, a linear village with Iron Age roots but no pub, shop or post office. I found him in a very positive frame of mind, which may well have been related to the fact that one of the two pubs in the next village - Weaverthorpe, a fifteen-minute stroll away - has re-opened with a very agreeable young couple in charge, some super beers on tap, and a range of decent, no-nonsense pub meals on offer. It’s quite a boon to a guy who won’t darken the doors of the village’s other boozer, it being run, he says, by a disagreeable snob.

Sunday morning we took a four-mile walk, worked up a thirst, and drank some more beer in his back garden, then barbecued some sausages for lunch, after which I pedalled five miles over the hills to visit a farming couple at Langtoft, just across the border in the East Riding. I met these folk two or three years ago and used some of the stories they told me, as well as their beautiful Wolds setting, to add colour to a couple of chapters in books 4 and 5 of the Mike Pannett series. I’m packaging up a couple of copies to mail to my hosts tomorrow. The collapsed straw-stack at the top of the page, by the way, is on Andy’s land. However, he pointed out that it’s entirely the fault of the contractors who built it - and who will be coming back shortly to put it right.

I went back to Helperthorpe for the night, and on Monday morning cycled into York, about thirty miles. Again I managed to work out a route entirely along back-roads, picnicking by the Derwent at Kirkham Abbey, approaching the city via Strensall Common and coming in past the old Rowntrees chocolate factory, where I worked in the 1970s. (That’s where ‘The Human Candle’ was set.)     

Since I got home, on Monday night, I’ve been juggling various minor tasks. One is to assemble a package of material for the Ucross Foundation in Wyoming. They’re the people who offer residencies to writers and artists on an old ranch not far from Sheridan. I’ve decided to apply for next spring, and am proposing to work on a long-neglected project. I wrote the novel called Son Of A Gun way back in the early 1990s, and have tinkered with it from time to time ever since. I even managed to publish the opening chapter, in amended form, as a short story. It’s a very autobiographical piece, being the story of a little boy growing up on a council estate in Surrey in the 1950s who is dazzled by the visit of an American uncle, later by images of the Wild West seen on the TV screen. He grows up to become an academic in American Studies, fails to land a full-time job, but continues to hare off to the western states on madcap adventures he can ill afford. You get the picture. Anyway, SoaG has a lot going for it, I am told by people who have read the manuscript, but it needs work. Cue a 6-8 week stay at Ucross, if they like me well enough.

Otherwise I have been involved in selecting from our photos of natural phenomena for a project I am not at liberty to discuss just yet - it’s a birthday surprise for someone - and attending to the allotment, in between showers. We’ve harvested a decent crop of shallots, a delicious but paltry crop of broad beans, and are casting lustful glances at the peas - again, a thinnish crop but a very tasty one. With the shallots out of the way, I’ve been preparing ground alongside our single row of strawberries in order to make room to expand that to three rows next year. We're doing it the cheap way: there are dozens of runners growing off this year’s plants, and we’re going to root them in the fresh ground.   

And now, a roll on the drums for Chainsaw Phil’s youngest daughter. Three years ago she announced that she wanted to be a vet (as in veterinarian, rather than retiree from the Army). It is a massively competitive field, as I learned when writing scripts for eleven seasons of the BBC’s documentary series Vets In Practice, and last year she had the bitter disappointment of not quite making the necessary A Level grades. So she got her head down, studied all year, re-took the exams, and today learned that she had got the grade As she required. So she's in: The London School of Veterinary Science. It’s a cheering story, don’t you think?