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Sunday, 2 December 2012

Wyoming? Not this time, feller.


We all make mistakes. Mine was to convince myself that my application for an eight-week residency at Ucross couldn’t fail, that in three months’ time I’d be on my way to Wyoming. I had three terrific references, and sent in a hell of an application with my $40 fee. But no… not this time. No siree.

Luckily, I’m old enough and battered enough to take it in my stride. The school of hard knocks and all that. And, as the Ucross people pointed out in their email on Friday, it is an extraordinarily competitive business, so I should not be put off applying again in March for a fall residency. I think I’ll do just that. My correspondent and referee Linda Hasselstrom (a rancher-writer whose work I highly recommend to anybody interested in the Great Plains) wrote to me and said that set-ups like Ucross expect you to try and try again - and tend to think well of people who do so. ‘Do not regard a rejection as a failure,’ she said.

Actually, now that I’ve had time to reflect on the whole business it comes back to me that I always had one niggling doubt hiding away at the back of my mind, hoping I wouldn’t notice it. It was the thirty-page sample of work-in-progress that I submitted as part of the application. It came from Son Of A Gun, a book I’ve been writing, on and off, since 1992. Yes, twenty years.

It’s about a boy, born in Britain in 1949, who falls, hook, line and sinker, for the cowboy myth portrayed on the tv. Later he pursues an academic career, teaching American literature and history, with special emphasis on the West. The book climaxes with him visiting the land of his dreams - Wyoming - in order to fathom the truth about this mythic land. I can see now that I should have submitted one of the passages set out there, not one from a Surrey council estate in the 1950s. I doubt that a panel of American judges would have understood the cultural references, or even the language, all of which was quite specific to that time and place.

Still… if I’m scrupulously honest, I must confess that my very first reaction to the news was a fleeting sensation of relief. I actually felt an easing of tension in my gut. I would have needed some time to think my way back into a book that I started as long ago as 1992 - and there won’t be much of that over these next few months.

None of that was on my mind earlier today when we awoke to a gloriously sunny morning and a sharp frost. I won’t say we actually leapt out of bed, but we didn’t exactly linger either. We grabbed a quick breakfast, then shouldered arms - a spade, a rake and some cutting implements - and took ourselves off to join a dozen other volunteers who’d gathered to do a spot of maintenance work on the footpaths that wind through Pelaw Woods, which overlook a serpentine reach of the river Wear in Durham. We put in a vigorous couple of hours, clearing away soggy oak-leaves, re-defining the edges f the paths and the wooden steps cut into the hillside. By the time we trooped off to the pub we were feeling virtue and fatigue in equal measure.

Well, if this is Sunday night, I guess it’ll soon be Monday morning. I count myself one of those fortunate enough to be looking forward to it.