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Wednesday, 8 May 2013

I Thought That On Days Such As These Melvyn Bragg Might Call By With A Film Crew.

One of the things I’ve tried to do on this blog is to start putting together a record of my attempts to make a living in the 21st century. It may not say anything very profound about what being a writer will be like for somebody else, for somebody, say, who is where I was thirty or forty years ago: young, ambitious, uncertain about the direction to take, wistfully hoping that he would one day relax in a book-lined study and be interviewed by Melvyn Bragg. But, for what it’s worth, this is how my life is. 

That’s a pretty long-winded way of heralding an update, but I can afford to take my time just now. I have a little space. I was expecting to spend today working on Mike Pannett’s Yorkshire. Last week I sent the publisher my draft text, along with a list of proposed amendments and re-shuffles of the pictures and was told to stand by for an amended set of proofs early this week. The fact that they haven’t yet arrived has given me a morning in which to read some background material on… the trafficking of black-market oil in the Niger Delta. Why? Because my agent called last week and told me that he had a bright idea.

I first met R (can’t reveal his real name yet) four years ago after I’d read a manuscript he wrote and submitted to The Literary Consultancy. What he was writing about was an extraordinary life and career. After running away from home as a fifteen-year-old he worked as a diver for fish and lobster in the Caribbean, then as a bit-player in the dope-smuggling racket. Think Miami Vice: blue skies, sharp suits, fast women and even faster boats; and money – shed-loads of it.

He made his first million before he turned eighteen, trained as a scuba-diver and skilled himself up to work legitimately as an underwater fitter/welder, moved to Scotland, built up an international shipping business, and, after the authorities tried to take him down (assuming that if he was doing this well he had to be crooked), went into big-time smuggling. Big-time? Try $200,000,000 shipments between south-east Asia and the USA. After a colleague turned on him and talked to the authorities he went to ground in the Alps, was uncovered, did time in American jails and paid hot-shot lawyers to ensure he was extradited to Europe. He’s been legit for 15-20 years now, and he really is a super guy: animated, intelligent, ambitious, resourceful, funny – and of course never short of an anecdote to make your pulse race. His story is truly remarkable, but what we got after I’d written five (yes, five) chapters and a synopsis, was a bunch of publishers saying this was old hat. Been done. Well, maybe, and maybe not. Did they bother to look at the story of his childhood, running away from abusive parents in Canada, hopping a plane to Florida, thence to the Bahamas and sleeping under an upturned boat on Andros?

Among the activities we only touched on in that first attempt to put a book together was R’s activities in the Delta. Suddenly the agent has had a light-bulb pop in his head: we need to work up that stuff and outline an action story that will translate to film. This is a subject that hasn’t been done yet, so we need to move fast. Hence my revision, and hence my trip to Newcastle tomorrow to spend a day talking with R.

Back in the real world – that is, in the world where I write for myself and try to sell my work – I await the appearance of the latest Beat Scene, a magazine devoted to Jack Kerouac and the Beats. It will feature an extended essay/story about my friendship with Carolyn Cassady, and I will receive a cheque for £50 ($75). I am also awaiting news from Ucross, Wyoming, who will shortly announce the artists in residence for next autumn. I am hoping my name is among them. There are also the High Plains Book Awards, sponsored by a public library in Billings, Montana. My Red House On The Niobrara is up for consideration. I have applied for so many things like this over the years, and always promise myself that I will forget about them. And then that thing – that ‘worm of hope’ as Rose Tremain once called it in an interview I did with her – starts to stir in your breast, and you know you’ve done it again: set yourself up for a crashing disappointment. Still, as I learned in New Mexico many years ago, “if you aren’t in, you can’t win.”

So that’s me up to date – or should I mention the blitzing of a dozen agents with synopses and samples from More Jobs Than Birthdays, which I did yesterday? No. We’ll skip that.

As to the photo at the top of the page, that’s taken from the Scottish border, looking north from the edge of the Cheviots. We presume that the sign is to keep vehicles out during the lambing season, although A suggested that it had to do with the ground-nesting birds – curlews and oyster-catches, etc. We went up there on Saturday, hiking from near Alwinton in Northumberland on the upper Coquet. We bedded down in a field in our bivvy bags, and next day hiked the border for a few miles before dropping back down, returning to Rothbury and staying at my brother’s house until Monday morning, when we walked with friends over the Simonside Hills.

Here’s the view from where we slept, under the shadow of a forestry plantation:

And here’s where we stopped for lunch. Days like these help me get everything in perspective. To walk freely and know that you have your food, your water and your bed with you, that’s a privilege we should all afford ourselves from time to time.

More anon, I hope. I must get back to the black-market scene and compile a list of questions for my man.

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