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Tuesday, 17 July 2012

I’ve been away for three days, and I am home, mightily relieved. Some months ago, not long after returning from my stint in the red house (Nebraska) I promised my brother that I’d give a talk on my experiences to the U3A group up at his place in Northumberland. (The U3A: University of the Third Age, a sort of ongoing Adult Learning programme aimed at the retired.)

It was one of those things that are easily said - and at the time I thought, ‘Yes, I can rattle on for an hour about that stuff. No sweat.’ As the time drew near, however, I found myself in hopeless tangle. The problem lay, not in managing to talk for any length of time (just catch me down the pub and ask me about Nebraska…); rather it lay in teasing out a narrative thread from a chaos of memories; in finding, amongst something like 2000 images, a few dozen that would illustrate the story I chose to tell. And… what story was it to be? Was it about my love of the West, sparked in the 1950s when we got our first television? Was it about Mari Sandoz, whose work drew me out to the Sandhills in the 1990s? Was it about the landscape of western Nebraska, the ranching industry, the history of the red house itself and the Danish pioneers who lived in a dug-out down by the Niobrara, then a sodhouse, before making all those concrete blocks, one at a time, in a mould?

Well, it took me many hours’ work over two full weeks, but I finally got there. 70 images, a forty-five minute talk (during which I didn’t need to refer to my notes a single time); and I think it went down quite well.  

It was a busy weekend. On Sunday, which promised to be fair and - could we believe this? - dry, we walked into the Cheviot Hills, close by the Scottish border. The higher we climbed - and we got to about 700 metres - the more the wind blew. By the time we had staggered to the top of Hedgehope Hill it was blowing a full gale. I was wearing a t-shirt, a fleece, a second, thicker fleece, a waterproof coat and a thick felt hat with ear-flaps. And I was very, very cold. I think the view gives a fair indication of the kind of day it was.

But of course, this is England (just); and by the time we’d walked back down towards the little river Breamish (turbid and coloured brown by the peat) we were sheltered from the wind, the sun was out, and we had a well-earned rest in the bracken. Briefly, it felt like summer with the odd bee working over the clumps of wild thyme.

On Monday, after the excitement of my talk, I was guest at a local book group whose members had read Just The Job, Lad and wanted to know all about my partnership with Mike Pannett. I enjoyed that hugely: for two hours I was being asked to talk about myself, my writing methods, my sources of material, my past and my proposed future. Yes, every writer needs a dose of that once in a while. It got me thinking about whether I ought, some time soon, to consider running a writing group again, or belonging to one, or perhaps even teaching a daytime class. Back in the 1990s, I taught as many as five classes a week, as well as lecturing in American Studies at Hull University. Who knows…?

The weather remains extraordinarily cool - and this week is forecast to be more wet than dry. I’ve moaned enough about the state of the garden, and the vegetable plot, so I should redress the balance by mentioning one or two surprise successes. I have never - ever - seen garlic as fat and tall as our current crop, planted out in March. The hollyhocks that stand in a cold and windy corner outside the back door are eight feet tall and full of buds; and I have been shocked by the bay trees - one at the back of the house, one in the allotment. Both had suffered in the severe frosts of 2010-11, and only survived thanks to A’s brainwave - namely, enveloping them in bubble-wrap. Even so, they had died back, and last year’s leaves seemed very half-hearted, being small and shrivelled. I thought the game was up. The bay is, after all, a Mediterranean plant and likes warm sunshine, not too much rain. Quite why ours should suddenly grow new shoots like these is beyond me.

The new book, Up Beat And Down Dale comes out later this week. Our publisher seems gloomy about its prospects. I think our publisher, like all of that community, is in a permanent state of gloom, and it is invasive. Or should I say pervasive? Either way, it’s getting me down. While we await a buyer for the proposed books about Mike Pannett’s time in the Met., I think I shall give serious consideration to a long-considered and oft-postponed project, namely Work As Playtime, an account of the forty or so jobs I had before I reached the age of forty. I’ve always wanted to write it, yet I’ve always failed to find (a) the right narrative device, (b) the right voice. It should be easy; but it isn’t. I am sure that if I were telling someone else’s story I would manage it fine. Do I write a simple series of vignettes, autobiographical essays? Or do I construct a fictional persona and compose a sort of Bildungsroman? A picaresque romp through the landscape of British industry in the 1960s and 70s? Or something else?

Well, mine to deal with. But if anybody has any suggestions… no need for a post-card; write them in Comments.

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