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Thursday, 20 September 2012

A new book, an old novel, and a cracking good movie.

This shortened week is coming to an end already. What have I achieved? Well, I managed to complete a draft chapter for the memoir about the workplace, and got started on another - an endeavour which more or less brought me to a full-stop.

Twenty years ago I completed what I thought would be my first novel. It was built around my experiences as a freight-train guard working out of York in the late 1970s, around the time that British industrial relations and the power of the unions were top of the political agenda - an agenda which would bring Mrs Thatcher to power in 1979. The novel, Loose Coupled Freight, dealt with other matters too - my infancy, my mother’s incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, my years at a boys’ boarding school, my state of mind as I confronted parenthood, my feelings about what it is to be a man. No wonder it was never published - although I was surprised, as I picked it up yesterday, initially to check on a few facts about freight-train guarding, to find that it is actually rather well written. In fact, so gripped was I that I went back to the beginning and read it from cover to cover - and there went another day.

It’s an odd feeling, reading stuff that I started writing in the late 1970s, that I worked on with great seriousness of purpose through the mid- to late eighties (and at UEA under the tutelage of Rose Tremain and Malcolm Bradbury). You see a younger version of yourself. You re-visit what were at the time haunting, vital memories and are forced to consider whether or not they still count for anything at all. And in this case I saw the work of a much younger writer who was capable of producing poetic, passionate but, after many re-writes way into the late 1990s, mostly disciplined writing. God knows what I’ll do with it, or about it; I am still weighing up my reactions.

Meanwhile… a film. Our latest delivery from Love Film was entitled Sweetgrass. Yes. At last. A documentary made by people who were content to remain in the background, to allow the camera to observe and the sound machinery to record, the subjects to act and speak without prompt or question. It’s an account of a summer in the mountains of Montana. Sheep-herders trailing a flock of - well, it looked like a thousand or more - through summer pastures, high up in the Absoraka-Beartooth range. It was slow, deliberate, laconic. Do I mean the people or the movie? Both. No fancy camera angles, no fancy editing, no theme tunes to tell you what you were supposed to be thinking, and no damned ‘presenter’ perched on a mountain-top between you and the view, telling you what s/he could see and how ‘fantastic’ it was; also, no voice-over - and I say that as someone who earned a crust in the late 1990s writing voice-overs for BBC documentaries.

I’m dwelling on the negatives, I suppose - what the makers didn’t do -  but that’s the reaction of a man who has more or less given up watching documentaries on TV because of all of the above failings. But let me add that the story being told - or rather the working lives being recorded - were, gripping, moving, fascinating, real. And before I get carried away I’ll stop - after recommending it wholeheartedly.

We’re off to Leeds in a few hours to be grandparents. Any survivors will report back on Saturday.