Saturday, August 26, 2006

Yypres - colouring in the landscape

My curious run of research for my Haldane biography ended its current run in the landscape around Ypres, by the memorial to the Canadian forces who fell in the 2nd battle of Ypres in April 1915 - when poison gas was used for the first time. Haldane raced to the trenches then embarked on a scientific campaign to discover the nature of the gas and what gas mask might prtoect the soldiers, gassing himself and his son repeatedly in the process of discovery. Fewer than 1% of casualties of the war came about through use of poison gas, essentially because of the speed of gas mask protection which he engendered.
I wanted to get a feel for the landscape, so as to be able to colour that chapter in appropriately. An interesting sidetrip was to the trenches still surviving behind the museum of Sanctuary Woods, winding rather than straight as I imagined, shoulder height, the craters of shells now strange pools in the woods. Standing on 'Hill 62' nearby, also called Mount Sorrel, was another poignant moment for recollecting the folly of war - young Canadians crossing the ocean to die in the mud at the foot of this slightest of elevations among the fields of Flanders. Ypres itself is remarkably rebuilt from the rubble of the conflict, its main square approximating some authentic reconstitution of itself, the ramparts forming a very pleasant parkland walk around the bounds.
My next task is to actually settle into our house in the Pyrenees and write the Haldane book. Research pretty complete, the book's voice already there but as just one chapter. Internet access in the French village is dodgy. This comes from a hotel in the Auvergne, St Flour, with wifi access. One of the delights of the last years has been finding these special French towns en route between the UK and French homes. Lacking the UK home for now, this trip is a homecoming - one I am delighted with for the next two months.

Monday, August 21, 2006


This American sojourn rounds itself off at the Sundance Ranch in Utah. The rest of the state is neat and tidy in an all-American clean-cut 1950s kind of way, new housing developments each tucked around their own new temple. Sundance has a more rustic log-cabin feel, sitting smoothly into its mountain environment. It's a treat to be up in these Wasatch mountains, in a cabin on the slope of Mount Timpanogos. The first outing was up to Timpanagos cave, a sequence of three linked caves 1,065 feet up a trail, beautiful formations inside, but most fun of all the chance to walk through a fault. A river made the walkway possible, the two rock faces, distinctly different, fusing again overhead.
From the Ranch a chairlift takes you up to a whole network of trails. Yesterday's brought us down past Stewart Falls, a powerful high tumble of water and spray. Today saw us ascend and descend on foot. The aspen groves here offer birding delights - yesterday my first sighting of a magnolia warbler. I'm also pleased to be reminded how aspen groves are all the one plant, trees sharing the same root system. My every writing day is punctuated with some walk into nature, but I have needed this longer break among truly mighty peaks. I feel myself restored by the day, ready for the next writing run - this next time among the French Pyrenees.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Another Bookstore? - this must be Salt Lake City

A different city - and I find I get comfortable by finding a favourite bookstore once again. Salt Lake City is beautiful yet wholly weird. Clean cut buildings, many from the early 20th century, and a range of open spaces with mountains massing at the end of long street views. Yet it's a ghost town, almost devoid of people. The streets are largely the terrain of the occasional homeless man.
The bookstore here is one of my favourites in the world - Sam Weller's, two floors and a mezzanine, some new and a wondrous range of secondhand and rare. It's in the downtown area ... and one of the stranger aspects of the city is that it's just about the only store of any kind. You want a Wells Fargo Bank, then you have several huge towering branches. A regular store? Out to the malls, I suppose. I guess the homeless gather outside Sam Wellers just because it's the only place for people to go in and out of.
We've skipped the Mormon sites this time around. Found a restaurant with wine in this dry state - the licensed restaurants are also designated clubs. The available wine was awful - do they practise termperance here because they know no better? Someone should sponsor trips out to the California wine country just so people have a real life choice.

Monday, August 14, 2006


Still dazed from sun and sea and wonder, I'm fresh back from whalewatching off Santa Barbara. The Condor Express sped out of the Channel, 42 miles out (twice the normal distance) and I was happy enough with the gallopping sealions, the dolphins streaming alongisde the boat, the minke whale. Finding a humpback and hanging out with it through several breathing cycles, the spume, the riding, then the fluke of the tail before it submerged for three minutes or so, was a powerful experience. Motoring further to encounter a blue whale, though - this one a year old and 65 feet long - was one of those times when you are scooped out of regular life to somewhere that is immense. It was incredibly moving to be in the creature's space for a time, us humans dotting the boat and awestruck as we bobbed upon its ocean.

City of Derby Short Story Competition

The City of Derby's writing competition for 2007 is now open - I give you this early notice for two reasons. One is that I reckon the best editor a writer ever gets is time - so write your story and set it aside for three months before reading it again with a fresh perspective, redraft from that, then submit. The other reason? I'm the competition's short story judge this time around. I look forward to a summer of reading your work a year from now.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Navigating by bookstores

A day in West Hollywood on foot saw me walk a triangle between three bookstores ... Different Lights was first, on Santa Monica, for the gay aspect. Then to the Bodhi Tree for the spiritual ... I read there years ago on election night, not to be recommended if you want to draw a crowd. Then Booksoup back up on Sunset, for the literature angle. Oddly that's the only place I didn't buy ... the staff recommendations were ones I disagreed with, and the way the fiction is stacked to the ceiling (as pictured) makes it barely accessible.
Now I'm in Santa Barbara and the fine bookstore of some years ago has been crowded out by the chains. Best here is to walk the beach in the morning and read the tiny tracks spiked into the sand by the variety of shore birds. There's more adventure in this strip of coast than in most books. Yesterday morning brought us to a scene of destruction beneath the pier, a seagull feeding off a live pigeon as the waves lapped around them both.
A wine country stopover inside myself (Sunstone winery, the one organic one in the valley and most excellent reds) time to roll myself in the ocean awhile.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Reading in Colorado

I made it to the Tattered Cover at last, Denver's LoDo branch - the bookstore has wonderful outreach through its books newspaper. A fine bookstore it is too, though my visit was on an unusual day. Masking tape snaked a line round the ground floor and the floor above it, all around the shelves, and people waited patiently to be assigned a number. 600 people, Al Gore's latest book in hand, all waiting for him to come and sign it. It was good to see such enthusiasm, lots of pockets of hot environmental talk going on.
I came away with Martin Moran's The Tricky Part. Curiously this is about his upbringing in Denver. Michael Cunnungham praises it highly - and this morning I finished Cunningham's own Specimen Days - a wonderful, rich, moving book, the end of which takes place in a dystopian Denver.
It's odd how Denver has just filtered naturally into my reading while I'm here. Cunningham's book pays homage to Whitman and his poetry, sneaking it into my consciousness through the voices of his characters. A man of the century before last, Whitman still lives and speaks to us.
I come to fresh appreciation of the wonder of books. Before breakfast I read the opening chapter of J.S.Haldane's The Sciences and Philosophy. He delivered this as a series of Gifford lectures in Edinburgh in the 1920s. I've had it for some time and still it wasn't my time to read it. Today it was. Books have enormous patience, waiting for their readers to mature into the moment. Taken as a lecture it would have lost me very quickly. On the page I could take it line by line, pause and return wherever necessary.
I spent the morning in the 1905 Carnegie library in Colorado Springs (pictured, now specializing in local history archives and newly restored), doing some more Haldane research. Carnegie gifted the library to the town - and was incidentally a Scottish Neighbour of Haldane, whose sister Elizabeth was on Carnegie's first library board and helped swing the man into that educative mission. 'Universities for the people' was his notion of libraries. I guess the internet is taking on some of that role - even so, I'm glad of my fresh admiration of the old-fashioned book.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Pikes Peak & the Barr Trail Down

I'm writing this in the public room of the Avenue Hotel in Manitou Springs, doubtful that I'll be able to stand up when I've finished. Today saw me take the cog railway up to the summit of Pikes Peak, a window seat on the front row for a magnificent ride up past the views that inspired the song 'America the Beautiful'. And after an hour, tucking into the cloud that covered the summit. I miss having had the view from up there, but at least the cold and cloud offered atmospherics for my Haldane chapter about his own trip in 1911. I was also duly giddy and breathless, so got some insight into the physiology of life at altitude.
Then three hoots and the train went back down, without me. THe Barr Trail - 12.6 miles, 7300 feet in altitude - was my own track down.
An astonishing stream of people rushed up towards me as I descended - runners who had made the 5am start, maybe preparing for the Pikes Peak marathon up and down in a week or so's time. This time most had rides waiting for them at the top (a dirt road leads up there). Fairly typically I was doing the whole thing in my own way, going down rather than up - harder on the knees and toes, more prone to stumbling, but gravity's in my favour.
Also solitude - the stream of runners ended and the mountain gave me some intimate time. I enjoyed the clouds swirling round the granite boulders, and it was a thrill to enter the treeline and find the first specimens all in miniature. THen a host of flowers I had never seen before, and the finest crop of the ammanita mushrooms, those perfect fairyland species, bright red with whote spots. The trail is wonderfully well kept and signed. My normal run on a mountain sees me following a goat-track into some hidden never-never land but here I was never tempted to diverge. The path zigzags at the top and bottom, with a long straight stretch through lighter forest and meadow in between.
It's not pitting yourself against nature, more putting yourself in its hands for a while, and stretching your own body to a limit. A fine day out!

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Insomnia and the Writer

With a book in full flow I'm regularly up at 3 in the morning, and sooner than simply lie there I trot off to the desk for an hour or so. In Santa Fe this involved walking across the land to a separate writing studio, which set me at odds with a bear that liked to raid the bins at that hour. The relationship became fractious, the bear bending hummingbird feeder poles to the ground to get at the liquid, chucking the compost bin to the side every night so I had to dig the stuff back in. The issue was resolved in typical Santa Fe fashion when I started leaving an apple out for the bear each night. It accepted the offering and left the household alone.
I'm not mid-project at the moment, and the insomnia is situation specific - this is a jet-lagged posting from the lobby of the Sleep Inn in Denver. It's a wonder to be back in this land again. In a while, when the sun rises, I'll head off into the Rockies and a base at Manitou Springs. This is the merriest part of researching my J.S.Haldane bio, folowing him up Pikes Peak where he famously led a scientific expedition in 1911.
He was not so much an insomniac, more someone who had inverted his day so that he worked through the night and expected his assistants to keep the same hours. No jetlag in those days of course, his progress was much more pleasing and gradual, but he was grumpy for quite a while on the mountaintop, forced to keep to the regular hours of the rest of the world. Then someone pointed out the seven hours difference in time zones between Colorado and Oxford, so that if he kept himself on Greenwich Mean Time his work rhythm had not been disrupted at all, and the man became happy again. As I expect to be. I don't mind following him down sewera and into compression chambers, but am glad he's bequeathed me this mountain treat.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Chloe Poems - and mentoring for performance

Part of my present, pleasant, meandering, rootless existence saw me meet with Gerry Potter in Manchester's Contact on Monday, completing the round of interviews Sara Maitland and myself have been doing for our forthcoming book on mentoring for Creative Writers.
Gerry has been mentoring for five years, writers seeking him out through loving his work. He's had true success on the fringe for his plays, though is best known through his other being, Chloe Poems.
It was a fun and bracing interview, Gerry cheerfully subverting many of the 'rules' we've sought to apply to this new field as we write the book. We say 'don't meet in anyone's home for your sessions, find a neutral venue'. Gerry loves going to people's homes, taking the biscuits and tea. We suggest 'keeping to your exact hour, showing how writers need to be professional about their time'. Gerry habitually outstays his hour, but not his welcome. He mentors from real wealth of experience, intuition, and infectious enthusiasm. His next project is with a ventriloquist puppeteer in Newcastle whose doll represents her mother. One trick Gerry applies to writing which I like to prompt into being myself his having writers read their work aloud (now sometimes, I guess, without moving their lips). That way you get an intuitive feel of what works, or what Gerry calls 'what is true'.
I'm glad to have his interview for the book. Rules are helpful, guidelines are good, but I've never liked them to be rigid. One of my favourite sayings, even if it's nonsense, is: 'the opposite is also true'.