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Thursday, 20 October 2016

Not Exactly Twiddling My Thumbs

A cheery picture taken at Hartlepool to get us on our way. More on that later

A few weeks ago I put up a post here saying that I had an uncluttered landscape around me. [] Three books in their post-production stage and all that. Well, it never pans out the way you expect it to. Here I am, five or six weeks later, still fussing around with final edits, agent packages and lists of possible publishers. Someone has to do it.

However, I do at least have time to get out and about before the clocks go back and crowd us in with darkness falling at five, then four and, on a bad day, three-thirty in the p.m. Last week I took two trips, one to the races at Redcar, where I managed a short stroll on the beach before getting down to business.

Redcar: not the most picturesque place on a damp autumn day, but at least you have room to yourself

Places like Redcar - depressed by the closure of the steel works, in decline ever since cheap holidays abroad became the norm - have to try harder than most, and I have to say I liked their giant sand-sculptures along the front. Not sure how long they'll last, mind.


The visit to Hartlepool - forever doomed to be remembered, by football fans of a certain age, as the home of England's worst football team - was to celebrate a friend's completion of her PhD. On an afternoon as bright as this, it seemed criminal not to stroll around the Battery and remember the bombardment by the German Navy in 1914.

This gun actually has nothing to do with the 1914 exchanges but was captured from the Russians at Sebastopol in 1854. Still...

While I try to complete after-care on the various projects that have kept me busy over the last year or so, the next project is already occupying desk space. I'll talk about that in a few days.

The Tees estuary


Thursday, 22 September 2016

A nice 100-mile stroll along the West Highland Way

Looking back at Loch Lomond from the north

I've just had a week away from my desk, hiking the full length of the West Highland Way. It's a route of about 100 miles that starts just outside Glasgow and takes you mostly along an old military road, occasionally an equally old drovers' road,. It runs the full length of Loch Lomond and on to Fort William. Most days we walked 14-15 miles, but there was one exceptionally long section, the 20 miles from Tyndrum to the isolated Kings House pub, about eight miles short of Kinlochleven.

We found the path so well maintained that even that long slog didn't truly exhaust us. Better still - and how I wish this was always the case with these long-distance paths - it was very well marked, to the extent that we didn't have to make all those irritating stops to check the map, and as a consequence managed an average walking speed of 2.5 to 3.0 miles an hour.

There's plenty of accommodation along the Way, and there needs to be: one of our local sources told us that between 50 and 60,000 people make the trip every year, which suggests an average of 2-300 a day during the lighter part of the year. We certainly found we had a fair bit of company during the early part of each day - and soon started to recognise a few familiar German, French, American or Canadian groups who seemed to make up a sizeable proportion of the hikers. Some were young, and camped in the wild; others were more our age and booked into hotels and guest houses. Mostly we were in bed-and-breakfast places, but at  Rowardennan (day two) we put up at the delightful Youth Hostel.

Rowardennan - surely one of Britain's most attractive Youth Hostels

All things considered, we were extremely lucky with the weather. After an unusually wet summer in the Highlands ('usual' up there means around 80 inches of rainfall per year), we had seven consecutive dry days, most of them on the sunny side with very little wind. It could have been an awful lot worse. There were just a few times when mist closed in and a light drizzle had us reaching for our waterproofs - but we almost welcomed it, for the atmosphere it generated.

This was as close as we got to a wet spell, on the climb from the Kings House (tucked in amongst those trees) towards Kinlochleven

The scenery was wild in places, even barren, but we were rarely more than an hour or two from a stream or river.

Alder trees crowding in on a tranquil Highland stream

We arrived at Fort William on the seventh day and next morning caught the train back to Glasgow, along with a hundred or two fellow-hikers.

So now it's back to the desk, to finish off the bounty hunter project and prepare for another major piece of work which will fill the autumn months. 

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Linda Hasselstrom – writer, rancher, teacher and conservationist.

Looking out at the morning sky after a storm swept through the retreat at Windbreak House

With my desk clear of major projects for the next few weeks, I have finally found time to sit down and do some reading for pleasure. There was only one book on my mind. I first read Linda Hasselstrom’s Going Over East about a dozen years ago, and was charmed by its depictions of her relationship with the land she was then ranching in South Dakota, the place where she now hosts her writing retreats. I’ve been meaning to return to her ever since and, after staying there last summer (see my blog post of 15 June,, have had a couple of volumes here by my desk. Yesterday I picked up no place like home (the University of Nevada Press printed it that way, without caps) and by mid-morning today had finished it.

In some ways, reading a book like this in twenty-four hours is to do it a disservice. It’s the sort of work – a collection of 25 essays, or Notes from a Western Life (as the strapline has it) that deserves to be savoured piece by piece and absorbed the way you might absorb the Great Plains landscape – slowly, gradually, osmotically. There is such a lot to learn and understand. This, I would venture, is the writing of a very sage character, a true craftsman (woman? person? Ah, who cares – she writes, beautifully, thoughtfully!) It is also the work of the very best type of philosopher, one who studies people, considers their words and deeds very carefully, and delivers generous opinions, not judgements. She displays a very human sort of understanding of some pretty ornery folk – and animals, for that matter.

So what is the book about? Well, it deals with a lot of issues pertinent to a western life, but particularly to a life lived on land where space seems abundant, but where a delicate ecosystem and very limited water supply require us humans to tread carefully. Try telling that to the average visitor or newcomer. As well as treating the subtle complexities of cattle-raising, of range management, water conservation, fire prevention and so on, Hasselstrom weaves in a sketch-map of her own growth – as a writer, as a person and as a rancher-conservationist over forty-plus years.

In taking us through the many ways in which bad management or careless use can damage the fragile grassland ecology, she shows us how a person might accommodate herself to the demands of living out there where the nearest neighbour is generally out of sight, the nearest store twenty miles distant, the fire service run by scattered volunteers, the weather always a threat. People are shaped by that environment. In some cases scarred, deeply. Over the years they develop codes of behaviour, and a newcomer, she explains, needs to learn those codes and live by them.

As well as some beautifully formed passages on the landscape – all of them crammed with information on plants, animals and people (both settlers and indigenous)  - are an equal number of essays that deal with urban living. Like many a westerner, Hasselstrom had to live in town for many years in order to stay afloat. Her attempts to bring a little of Nature to the occasionally squalid back-alleys of Cheyenne, Wyoming offers a heroic model: you do what you can do, planting flowers along the edges and picking up the filth left by the careless, day after day. As to her neighbours, she treats them all – be they druggies, ne’er-do-wells, rap freaks or isolates - with kindness and understanding that bespeak an almost saintly regard for her fellow humans. (But let's not get carried away here: she does pack a pistol, just in case.)

Interspersed with these windows on an authentic, contemporary West, there are thoughtful and provocative essays on thrift. Hasselstrom is a great re-cycler of everything, a child of the days when there simply was no garbage route in ranch-land, when you used, conserved, buried or burned any excess goods or packaging that came your way. There are essays on the scourge of the sub-division, fuelled by the hard-pressed rancher’s need to balance the books (by selling off the odd parcel of land) and the unscrupulous realtor peddling a rustic fantasy to gullible city-folk, all of these linked predictably enough to local eco-disasters such as floods, pollution and damage to livestock.

So, as well as an education in the realities of a land that registers low on the average environmental campaigner’s radar (it just ain’t sexy enough compared with the Sierras, the Redwood forests and so on), we slowly get an idea of the shape of Hasselstrom’s development – personal, spiritual and professional. Towards the end of the collection we learn how the idea of her writing retreats was born and developed. When she writes of her relationship with her clients we see a profound understanding of her writers' many, varied needs. She takes that work every bit as seriously as she takes her stewardship of the land she loves, of her craft, and of her home place.

If you’ve not come across Linda’s work, take a look. You will come away wiser, more knowledgeable, and thoroughly enchanted.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

Suddenly, there’s an uncluttered landscape around me – and it really is the strangest feeling.

Looking across the Irish Sea from northwest Anglesey
I’ve lived in Durham for seven years now (give or take a few weeks), and I don’t think there’s been a moment when I haven’t had my mind on at least one major project, occasionally two or three. I think I have written a dozen books in that time. It may be thirteen. So going on a short holiday to North Wales with absolutely nothing to worry about felt very odd indeed. 

The brewery history awaits final orders from the publishers, who are threatening to have it out for Christmas. I think that would be a good idea, given that it’s all about beer and pubs – perfect for Dad’s stocking. Whether they manage to produce it on time is another matter entirely. Whatever happens, all I have to do is proof-read the final edit, and maybe write a cover blurb.

The bounty hunter manuscript is with the man himself, and has been for a week or two. He took it to Poland - light entertainment on a hunting trip. Wild boar, if you’re asking. And the word is that, having read it on the way out, he likes it. In fact, he liked it all the better for reading it again on the way back. Just a few factual errors to correct, the usual name changes, and we can start looking for a publisher.

And finally… This requires a roll on the drums. Back in 2015 I spent three months in Taos, and took with me a work in progress. Well, sort of: I started writing what was then called Son of a Gun in 1993, completed it a year later, and in 1994 was assured by an editor at Little Brown that it would be published. Then they pulled the plug. Over the next twenty-one years (yes, twenty-one: it does sound rather a long time, doesn’t it?) I sent out sample chapters and synopses, sporadically, each time revising and re-thinking. Occasional publishers and agents requested to see the full manuscript. The novel meant a lot to me. I would guess that it went out in some form or other around 50 times. Deep down I’d known for a long time that I wanted to give it a radical overhaul, and the three-month residency in New Mexico was the opportunity I was looking for. I was really pleased with the changes I made there, and sent it out to a few publishers at the end of last year. Finally, around March-April, I got a positive response. And some months later, after some to-ing and fro-ing (and my agreeing to cut 11,000 words, which I managed in a single thirteen-hour sitting) I signed a contract. The publisher is a young business, and offers remarkably favourable terms to authors. More in due course, but meanwhile I face another difficult decision: whether to celebrate or just sit back with my feet up.

A photographic impression of my current mental landscape.

Monday, 22 August 2016

It's Not a Horror Story (ref: The Birds), but bringing three books to their conclusion at the same time is a little... unnerving.

Goodness knows why this starling took a fancy to me, but it did. I'm not even a Hitchcock fan, either 

I feel almost as if I'm under siege. In a way, having three book projects all coming to fruition at the same time ought to be a cause for celebration. Right now, with summer coming to an end, and a pile of autumn projects looking at me, yes, I am a little nervous.

The bounty hunter project is my main concern right now. I have delivered 85,000 words to the man and await his comments. With luck, we will have something we can start sending out next month. There's always a tense moment in these projects where the client realises I have cut some of his or her favourite anecdotes which, in my opinion, aren't as funny/dramatic/significant as they think. My worst case of conflict in this area was a woman at British Petroleum, many years ago, who never messed with the actual content of the book I was writing (a history of the company's operations on the banks of the Humber), but, every time she read a draft, insisted in stuffing it full of extraneous commas. Each time I took them out, she put them back - and I regret to say that, since she was writing the cheques, she won out, even though her degree was in Chemistry, mine in literature and history. She also inflicted upon me the ugliest title I have ever been associated with, Molasses to Acid. To be fair, the company's installation did start out producing molasses derivatives, and it did end up doing amazing things with acetic acid, but... Anyway, the fact is that I never came up with a title I liked either. Mea culpa.

As well as the bounty hunter, I am still waiting for the publishers of the York Brewery history to say something - anything - about the manuscript we submitted months ago. It's unnerving when people insist 'it'll be out for Christmas', then let July slip into August, with September looming, and still no word. Some time, I guess, I will get a request for a cover blurb, some page proofs, and will then be able to tick that off as 'job done'. And besides, this publisher has some way to go if it's to bid for the laurels as The Worst Publisher I Ever Wrote For. That was the late lamented Hull University Press (aka Lampada), whose sole employee managed to set up a book launch for me (with people coming in from all across the country) without any books. His last word on the subject, prior to said fiasco,  was, 'They're in a van coming up the M5.'

Okay, third project. I have a publisher willing to take on the novel I completed when I was in Taos last year. Cause for celebration? Not yet. They want me to slice 11,000 words from it. Originally they appeared to be wanting a reduction of 21,000, which I was going to refuse flat out. 11,000? From 91,000? A different matter. There is always room for a reduction of that kind. I could get excited about this.

So, three books at that end-stage all at once. As the days tick by I feel rather more like this: