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Sunday, 18 March 2018

What Better Place to Write About Nature? A Month's Retreat in the Scottish Highlands.

The view from our garden, of Ben Resipol.

The plan was to spend four weeks in the middle of nowhere. My partner, Alyson, wanted to paint; I planned to start a new book, about my many attempts, over a lifetime, to find and embrace natural surroundings. We could not have found a better place for the task than this little hideaway in the Scottish Highlands.
We arrived on a Saturday afternoon. It was a remote spot, six miles down the shore of the loch, along a rough track pitted with deep holes, most of them full of water which hid submerged rocks. But we seemed to be off to a good start. The weather was kind for mid-February, and the scenery spectacular.

The house was tucked away at the end of a muddy track, well sheltered from the north winds

It was after we’d located the key that the excitement started. The place had mostly been empty since the autumn. Empty of humans, that is. So the mice – cute little brown field mice who wouldn’t hurt a soul – had moved in. As far as we could see, they had then spent the winter months chewing. They’d chewed the plastic box that contained the candles. They’d chewed the candles. They’d chewed the foam rubber seating of the settee. They’d chewed the kitchen sponges. And, of course, they had left their droppings on every surface.

We rolled up our sleeves, lit a fire and cleaned up. I put on my ex-rat-catcher face and declared war. It was a long-drawn-out affair, lasting all but a few days of the four weeks we were there, but, although I burned the bodies and have no evidence, I am claiming victory. Those last few days we neither saw nor heard them once.

The mice were a passing irritant compared to what followed. The gas lights didn’t work – or rather, some did, but had a disturbing habit of triggering the carbon monoxide alarm. We decided to stick with candles. Romantic, cosy, but you can’t read without a lot of squinting – and the light was still fading around six most days. So we played Scrabble, nightly.
The solar power didn’t work, so neither could I. I can write a journal long-hand, which I did, but cannot compose that way. I've just been using a pc for way too long. We’d been there nine days before we located the source of the problem – defunct storage batteries – and managed to replace them. Then, at last, I could fire up my laptop and write. Which you can bet I did. 26,000 words - good words, if you want my opinion - in 16 days.

We managed too to get out hiking every day, and that was a great joy. Around us were mountains, woods, burns and lochs. The walking was never easy, but rarely impossible. The vegetation was mostly grass, which grew in tussocks, along with bracken, reeds and mosses – which meant that, although the ground was very wet at times, there was almost always somewhere to take your next step that wasn’t a foot deep in water.
This lovely stretch of water was less than half an hour's walk away, but note the coarse vegetation

As the days went by our early fair weather gave way to bitter cold. Our water supply, which came direct from a mountain stream, froze solid. We carried buckets up to the nearest pool to collect what we needed for washing, further up to fill bottles for drinking. After two or three such days the sound of gurgling in the sink was an unbelievable thrill.

For our first few days the house was icy cold. It had been empty for months. I regularly slept in a full set of long merino wool underwear, occasionally with a hat on – and that was under two duvets. One night I got into a sleeping-bag too. But slowly, with the fire on all day every day, the stone walls warmed up. That was the first great comfort of the place, the cast-iron stove. Regularly stoked with coal, it heated gallons of scalding water and gave us our second great pleasure, a nightly hot bath.

Gradually we settled to our respective rhythms - Alyson painting while I wrote. Suddenly the days were flying by. We were equally productive, equally frustrated when our time came to an end. We will return. Of that we are sure. Looking out on scenes like this on a daily basis is addictive.

A peaceful evening view across Loch Shiel to Ben Resipol


Thursday, 15 February 2018

A Creative Retreat - and a Peculiar Dream

I seems to spend less and less time on my blog these days. It's not that there's nothing happening, rather that there's too much.  The book on Eric Knight (provisionally entitles The Lassie Legend - with a suitably explanatory subtitle) comes out in April, and continues to take a lot of my time.

I am also now working on an other biographical project, this time with the family of a retired Member of Parliament. It's gathering pace and gathering substance, occupying a considerable portion of my thoughts.

Then tomorrow morning we take off to the Scottish Highlands for our month-long creative retreat. I am hoping for decent enough weather to allow a little hiking: we need to be in shape for our (unsupported) trans-Corsica hike next September. Apart from that, I expect to do a lot of writing.

The subject was going to be a big one: Nature. However, last  night I had an extraordinary dream in which I seemed to be walking with a man whose war letters I edited 20 years ago (and he wrote a hundred years ago). He had the great good fortune to cheat death, one way or another, on no fewer than 13 occasions - like the day he stepped out onto the parapet and saw his C.O., standing beside him, blown to bits while he remained unscathed.  In the dream he had just stepped off a biplane, having hitched a ride back to England with an RAF chum.

As we walked, I remarked on the fact that he had survived against all odds, but as he headed home, it struck me forcibly that the War was just as likely to do for him now as while it was in progress: he had the unenviable task of surviving the peace, knowing that all his comrades had been  killed. I was filed with a sense that this was his tragedy, to survive alone. He seemed, not so much to be telling me as assuming that I was about to, write his story. How does one account for a dream like that?

Well, I shall ponder it when we get to our cottage - after we've lit the fire and made sure the lamps are topped up with oil.

If the weather's this good I won't complain


Friday, 12 January 2018

Remembering Carolyn Cassady

Carolyn in her kitchen, around 2009

I've just put out, as an e-publication, an article I wrote in 2014 for Beat Scene (a magazine published three or four times a year in the UK.)

It's a reflective piece about my ten-year friendship with Carolyn Cassady, widow of Neal (Dean Moriarty in On The Road) and former lover of Jack Kerouac.

It reveals how I met her, how we became friends, and delves into the lengthy correspondence we shared during her final years.

There are some surprising insights into her own life, also a few snapshot scene from some of my visits with her in her home.  

It's called simply, Carolyn Cassady and Me, runs to about 10,000 words, and is available for Kindle at 99p (£1.34 in the USA). Try it -


Sunday, 24 December 2017

First Signs of Spring

Well, here we are in the new solar year. When we were out walking this afternoon we noticed the catkins already displayed on the hazel bushes, and were remarking how Nature is never really dormant, least of all in our mild island climate.

Spotted in Yorkshire, 19th December 2017

Having said that, I was stunned to see these snowdrops in bloom last week. We were in Horsforth, outside Leeds, and this was still three days before the solstice. I generally expect to see the first of them around the third week of January, depending on the kind of year it is.

Of course, the best (or worst) of winter is yet to come. For me, ‘best’ would include some decent frosts and two or three feet of snow; and just because we have reached the turn of the year with no more than a dusting of the white stuff, that doesn’t mean we’re in the clear. The legendary winter of 1947 (a little while before I was born) didn’t actually get going until the end of January, after which the heavy snows and persistent frosts made everyone’s life in those austere, fuel-deprived times, a misery -  although it was offset by one of the best summers of the century.

Well, I thought my snowdrops might bring a little cheer to anyone who sees them. And if they don’t, let me wish all my readers a very happy Christmas and a prosperous 2018.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Literary Fiction: is it a special case?

I have worked in many places (here in a motel room in Arizona)
‘The image of the impoverished writer scratching out their masterpiece in a freezing garret….’ Now there was an opening line guaranteed to grab my attention. I have been impoverished through most of my writing career. I have lived in an attic, and I have written in some very uncomfortable places – in factory canteens, working men’s caf├ęs, freight train brake-vans, at the wheel of a (stationary) Bedford van parked up by sewage works in rural North Lincolnshire where I used to lay rat-poison, and on one memorable occasion up a tree in the Terrace Gardens, Richmond upon Thames. Many of these locations were cold, some were hot, several smoky, all uncomfortable. I don’t claim to have been carving out too many masterpieces, but I was certainly writing: taking notes, making observations and recording conversations. Gathering material.


So this article was clearly going to say something to me. I settled in my chair and read on. This image (of the impoverished writer), I was assured, ‘remains as true today as it was a century ago, according to a report commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE).’ And it went on to state that, because authors are getting less and less of the publishing pie, ACE propose to support more individual authors… and to increase its support for independent literary fiction publishers.


Why did I feel, immediately, that I wanted to take issue with this? Why do I still feel prickly? I have given it some thought, and I dare say I will give it more. But, for the moment, here are a few things that occur to me.


One, I would like to know how ‘literary fiction’ is defined -  at least by ACE. If they’re going to be throwing money at it, I’d like to get in on the action. Two, why does it deserve greater support than any other form of writing? I would question that, instinctively. Close to thirty years ago I spent a year at the University of New Mexico as part of my bachelor’s degree. I attended graduate level creative writing classes. I assumed then that being a writer, certainly within a higher educational context, meant being a literary writer, churning out high minded, cerebral stuff. I was in for a surprise.


When I attended my first workshop I found myself surrounded by writers, aged 18 to 65, whose subject matter ranged from prison memoirs to drug-running thrillers, a domestic saga set in suburban Albuquerque, a bildungsroman which told the story of the author’s running away to join a circus as the snake-woman, an epic and erotic trilogy based around a Hindu temple prostitute in India at the time of Alexander the Great’s incursions and, amongst several others that I barely recall, a fantasy about hot-rodders pursued by witches in the mountains outside Santa Fe. I thought all this rather strange – until it was pointed out to me that I, with my long sentences and introspection, my avoidance of what you might call action, was the odd one out. And, much as people professed to enjoy my elevated diction, they did occasionally ask, ‘Doesn’t your main character ever get laid or get into fights?’ When one of the class told me that his main writing ambition was to make money, to be the next Stephen King, I caused an outbreak of mirth by asking, in all innocence, ‘Who’s he?’


Later I took the MA at the U of East Anglia. The big one. To this day people ask me what I learned there, and the truth is I cannot tell them. So when I read, as part of this same article, an assertion by Will Self that creative writing programmes are a force for conformity and lack of experimentation, I paused to reflect. I really don’t think I was taught a damned thing at UEA – although, in fairness to the late Malcolm Bradbury, he did tell me, in an interview I conducted a few years later, that all he wanted to do in setting up the course was to give writers a year in which to be free to write. And that’s what I did, cranking out thousands upon thousands of words every week and balking at the almost insignificant academic component they shoe-horned into the year. God, how I resented that!


But we come back to that question, what is it that annoys me about this talk of literary fiction as a special case? I think there are two main things. One is that, over the past 25 years, I have had to earn my living as a writer by taking whatever job pays the bills. Of all my fellow graduates from 1988-89 (there were ten of us) I am, by one measure, the most successful. I have kept afloat almost exclusively by practising my craft. The cost, however, has been that while I have written over two dozen books, many of those have been ghosted for other people and appeared under their names; a handful more have been self-published and mostly sold in the States (I have a small fan-base in Nebraska); and so far I have produced but a single novel – it came out this year. I cannot tell you whether that is literary or not. Probably not, although there are a few long words in it. But my next one -  that may be.


My second objection to this placing literary fiction on a plinth and to suggesting that its purveyors are worthy of another slice of ACE largesse is that I strongly support the idea that all artists ought to be thrown out of their workplaces from time to time and made to engage with the wider world. Great art comes from direct experience - you might say elemental experience - and the great failing of many an artist today, I suspect, is that they rarely leave the refined atmosphere of the studio, the workshop, the study. If they make a success early on in their career they are often doomed to repeat ever paler versions of that first novel/movie/song for the rest of their careers. One of the first things I learned during my brief career as a writer for a TV soap was that I should avoid solving our characters’ problems, rather that we should enrich the drama of their lives by lobbing the odd shell in their direction. Artists need the same treatment. As a professional writer, I have often fallen on barren times and had to take part-time work – as a barman, a bookie, a lab assistant in the sugar-beet factory – just to stay afloat. I have had to work for entrepreneurs of every stripe, for at least one ex-criminal, for a bounty hunter and a professional sportsman, and while there have been frustrations attached to those deviant passages they have, by and large, expanded my experience and extended my education as a writer. Despite having sold what were unquestionably literary short stories thirty years ago, I never really discovered that I could write fiction until I was asked (and paid, very well paid) to write a sci-fi novel on behalf of a  multi-millionaire Chinese businessman a few years ago. (Trust me, when you’re out there, and desperate, weird things can happen – and thank goodness they do. How else could I have ended up writing a sitcom with a sky-diving Elvis impersonator?)


I’m not sure this is entirely coherent. I was never sure it would be. But the article stirred something up in me. Resentment? Envy? Irritation? I’m not sure. But I feel a bit better now.