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Thursday, 21 February 2013

A Kind Review From a Renowned Scholar

Not the most productive of days. Yes, I have chipped out a thousand words or so on my experiences in the sugar-beet factory, but I’m not sure I like them very much. Before I get into that, let me announce yet another new title for this memoir. I’m now thinking along the lines of Working Progress, the reason being that, as my narrative train judders towards the present day (or rather, towards my most recent casual job, and the first and only one from which I’ve been fired), the book seems to be a little less about the workplace – the characters and conditions therein – and rather more about my own progress towards some kind of writerly success.

Deep in the vaults of my journals, which stretch back to 1994, around the time I was commissioned to write my first book, a company history, I found the following, written in 2004 after I’d returned home from seeing a literary agent in London.

She thought that my idea for a book about my various jobs ought to be from the hip, from the heart, an honest and unabashed autobiography. Yes, it needed a hook – and she felt that that would have to be my opening scene wherein I am cycling to the sugar beet factory and thinking back over the many jobs I’ve had….

I have no idea whether that remains good advice, nor indeed whether it ever was. I have long since parted company with the agent in question. But it seems that what started out as a bit of a romp through the wackier jobs I had as a young lad has slowly morphed into a tale about one writer’s slow progression towards self-sufficiency; in other words, I suppose, towards something like success, because my aim was never anything more than to make a living doing what I most liked to do – mainly writing, with a fair bit of reflection thrown in.

Bear with me. I am in the midst of a bread-baking session here, Chelsea’s game is on the radio (they’re a goal down), and I am trying hard not to lose my thread, but…  Ah yes, the new title. I defend it on the grounds that it seems, better than any other, to reflect the content. Some time next week I will try to come up with a strap line to go under it. I will also hope to nail down this last-but-one chapter, then attempt to close on a genuine humdinger, the story of my final, riotous days on the racecourse scene. It will include an edited version of the 22-page letter I wrote to the Tote’s chief exec (and circulated to local and national press and radio), which resulted in summary dismissal for ‘gross misconduct’. 

I both love and detest that phrase. Gross misconduct. If one thing sums up the loathsome school-playground swagger that has been standard management style since the Thatcher revolution, it’s that ludicrous piece of hyperbole. You break a rule and it’s... take a deep breath, furrow your brow, go to the cupboard and pull out the thumb-screw and the lash. Gross Misconduct!!!
Every time I hear it I reflect that it’s a good job I’m no longer eighteen and hot-headed; if I were, I suspect I would get into terrible trouble.

This started out as a short introduction to another of the reviews I have recently found on the website. Without more ado, here it is. It’s from a really rather accomplished and renowned historian of the American West, Richard Etulain, late of the University of New Mexico, so I feel rather pleased.

British writer Alan Wilkinson provides a wonderfully evocative and complex part memoir, part travelogue, and part landscape description of an intriguing place in his The Red House on the Niobrara. A skilled writer, a keen student of flora and fauna, and a devotee of the American West, Wilkinson furnishes an interest-whetting account of his spring, summer, and early fall months in Nebraska's famed Sandhills.

Wilkinson is an inveterate traveler and addicted to the life and major nonfiction of Sandhills author Mari Sandoz. Our trans-Atlantic cousin supplies dozens of insights into the settings and experiences central to Sandoz's biography/memoir of her father in Old Jules. Wilkinson thinks of Sandoz's best-known work as the most memorable book he has read.

Wilkinson also lards his well-written narrative with other valuable discussions. We learn of his own journeys from England to the American West, about the little Red House on the Niobrara where lived in his months in the Sandhills, and meet dozens of Nebraskans (especially ranchers and small-town residents) and travelers/tourists who crossed the author's meandering paths. And the pesky crawling and flying pests - flies, bugs, grasshoppers, and fleas - hop in and out (mainly into) Wilkinson's pages.

Altogether, this winsome account reveals much about Wilkinson, his love for the Sandhills and Sandoz, and truck loads about his experiences in the interior West. These inviting descriptions in well-turned pages are more than enough to gladden the heart of this half-breed-son-of-a-Basque. Perhaps Wilkinson's obvious ties to the independent, stubborn Scots are the connecting links between this author and this reader.

Most important, Wilkinson achieves his major goal: he catches "the spirit of place"--and delivers it delightfully.



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