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Saturday, 24 December 2016

A Western Classic: Linda Hasselstrom's Windbreak

In the Introduction to this wonderful book, the author wastes no time in preparing her readers for the rigours of the ranch life they are about to experience (and I use that word, ‘experience’, deliberately). She tells us about a neighbour who falls sixty feet from the top of a silo but survives, despite suffering many injuries – skeletal and internal. He remarks, as he lies recovering, ‘If I’d known how bad I was hurt, I’d have died.’ As a friend of mine once remarked, a propos some random example of the offhand humanity you encounter daily out there beyond the Hundredth Meridian, ‘Cowboys. I tell ya.’

Windbreak – which was published thirty years ago and has been on my ‘to read’ list for about fifteen - is a day-by-day account of one year in the author’s life as a writer, rancher and activist in South Dakota in the mid-1980s. The book takes you beyond the meat to the very gristle of existence out there in the wind-blasted Plains. It covers you in cow-shit, slobber and blood, regardless of whether you’re freezing or frying (and you’re generally one or the other), and thrusts your nose smack bang into the brute realities of calving, round-up and fencing under the naked sky, exposed to everything the Great Plains weather machine can brew up for you.

I don’t know whether Linda Hasselstrom chose this particular year for its long, bitter winter and towering snow-drifts and cruel summer heatwave, but I’d like to think that not every year is quite this tough, not always this dramatic. Although to speak of the dramatic - that is, the range fires, the hailstorms, the floods, the passing stranger who asks to use the phone and turns out to be a felon on the run – is to overlook the sheer tedium of those airless days, slow as cold molasses, when the temperature sticks resolutely in the low 100s, or the long droughts which persuade even the mosquitoes to look for a  change of scene, or the months of trudging through snow drifts alternately ice-crusted or rotting in a brief thaw - only to find that that missing cow is now a pile of bones gnawed clean by the neighbourhood coyotes.

This book is an education. If you wanted to write a novel set in cattle country this would be a good place to start. The place. The landscape is a living entity. Its fauna become characters, its flora a rich back-drop. Its moods engender fear, delight, awe and an occasional moment of poetic abstraction.

It is also deeply personal. Through the year the author grabs any reflective moment – driving to Rapid City for supplies, riding her horse across the range in pursuit of some errant calf, mowing a frazzled alfalfa crop and fretting over the cost of bought-in hay – to sketch in a few more details about her health, her two marriages, the ranch, and of course its management.

Not that there are many idle moments. No sooner is calving over than there are fruits to harvest and freezers to fill – with pies and chutneys and apple butter; or a steer to butcher and consign to the freezer; or a surprise crop of buffalo berries discovered in some quiet draw that demands an afternoon of scratched hands under a blistering sun, an evening of pie-making – with just the briefest of pauses to savour the aroma. And even in the quietest times there are under-currents, murmuring away like some hidden water-source: her husband’s cancer; the erosion of land values; the ageing ranch population; the constant passage of trains across the range there, every one a threat to the tinder-dry grasses.

This particular year the snows came in October and didn’t really clear until May. The business of staying dry (dream on) and warm (you might get lucky) dominates page after page. The daily weather reports with temperatures dipping below zero catch your attention. Then, after seven weeks of more or less continuous cold, comes Winter. -30 at night, -10 at noon – and still all those cattle to find, corral and feed.

I was both captivated and exhausted by this book. I felt I was very much there, watching the weather, worrying about potential disasters, eager to find out more about the practicalities of this tough breed of people. I knew I was ‘experiencing it’ when we all got away to a black powder camp for a short break in the cool of the mountains and I had a palpable sense of the tension easing its grip on my body. For a brief moment we were away from the day-to-day worries, cooking over camp-fires, mingling with mountain men and their gals – although even here a fire broke out and it was all hands on deck. No peace for the wicked.

I could talk at great length about what I read. I loved it. I felt bereft when it was over. However, this is a review, not a grad school essay. I have selected but half a dozen of fifteen key moments I tagged as I galloped through twelve gruelling months in 48 hours. Sometimes, they tell you, less is more.

As I said, Windbreak has been around for a time; but it still feels significant. Not a great deal will have changed in the thirty years since it came out. The land, the weather, the beasts, and the temper of those who engage with them -  the important things - will be pretty much as they always were. Inasmuch as those elemental factors are timeless, so is the book – and I’d rate it a classic.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Why I Love Autumn in England - even at the end of November

I saw what the sun was up to. Busy as I was with this editing task, I just had to pop my coat on and take a 45-minute walk along the old railway line and back across the fields. You can see why:

Heading south along the disused railway line, oak trees glowing.

Scots pine and larch

Just larch. Not the greatest definition via my phone lens, but ... the colour!

Winter barley, emerald green.

Friday, 11 November 2016

100,000 hits

Well. Five years, over 400 posts, and my blog has just received its 100,000th hit. Perhaps some reflections are in order.

I started this in 2011 just before taking off for Nebraska, where I spent six months, mostly alone, in a hunting lodge on a cattle ranch. That was a fantastic learning experience. It satisfied my curiosity about life on the Great Plains as a pioneer might have experienced it, and yielded a book that has been very well received, The Red House on the Niobrara (

Right now I am waiting to receive proof pages of my novel, Cody, The Medicine and Me. I first wrote it 20-plus years ago, sold it once, had the plug pulled, shelved it, then re-wrote it completely while resident at the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico, last year. I am  also waiting for the proofs of the brewery history (provisionally titled, A Piss-Up in a Brewery - yes, it's not as dry as your average company history; it even  has cartoons). The bounty hunter manuscript is out and about, and I am now up to my neck in the life of the man who wrote Lassie (or, more correctly, Lassie, Come-Home).

When all those projects are brought to rest I plan to heave a big sigh, and have a few weeks away from the keyboard. After 12 books in seven years I think I've earned it. I'm planning to indulge myself, putting together a photo-book based on the many road trips I've taken in the American West over the past thirty years. A lot of the material is already in electronic form - I bought my first digital camera in 2004 when I was appointed Jack Kerouac Writer in Residence in Orlando, Florida. Previously to that, I used a conventional camera and collected transparencies. I have tracked down an outfit which converts them, and when they're done I shall enjoy compiling a single volume, for my own satisfaction, chronicling over a dozen journeys and some 50,000 miles.

On the road, Nevada, 2006


Sunday, 6 November 2016

Now available in the USA, an incredible story of fortunes made and fortunes lost

It's taken a little while, but this remarkable story is now available in the USA via the following:

Amazon (,

Barnes and Noble (

Books a Million (

...and in Canada from Chapters Indigo (

I had the pleasure of working with Robert over several years, firstly to nail down this story, then to write it, and finally to get it to publication. We are already looking at a follow-up, which will go deeper into his smuggling, treasure-hunting and deep-sea fishing activities.


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