Monthly Archives: September 2014
I have once more started moving on the latest novel, The Raven’s Wing, aka 1322. Finally. I began writing it last year, but was tempted away (as you probably noticed) by the delicious allure of anthologies and short stories. Releasing ‘Blood on the Ground’ as a collection has acted as a way marker on that road, however, and I am now eager to step back 700 years and once again sink myself into the mire, mayhem and magic of the 14th century. I have 40k words already written, which at a rough guess is about a quarter of the number that I will need to fully tell the story in my head. I’ll wager that you’ve stopped reading this paragraph now, so it’s probably safe to mention that I’m writing in my jimjams, eating salty porridge with dried cherries. A little word painting of the author at work for you there.
I have also had a sudden revelation, after looking at ‘Warren Peace’, about how to improve the start of ‘Fog‘ to make it more attractive to those who make quick decisions, such as agents and publishers. I shall therefore be doing a small rewrite of that over the next few weeks, prior to sending it out to a few more agents. And no, I won’t be changing that ending.
I have not forsaken the short form altogether, as I am working up a three thousand word tale for submission to a paying magazine. When I get around to submitting that, I shall ask you once again to cross everything of which you possess a pair.
Admittedly, the #SUNDAYPIX theme for tomorrow, 21st September, is fraught with danger. On the other hand, it could be rather wonderful with a little investigation and imagination. Your theme for tomorrow is:
Yes, spheroids. Look above your head in town, in your junk drawer, anywhere except in your trousers, and find something spherical to photograph. Balls don’t have to be the focal point of the pic, as long as they’re there. As usual, post your pic to Twitter tomorrow, including the hashtag #SUNDAYPIXBALLS in your tweet.
Meaningless points will be awarded for shows of imagination and style. The photograph you post must be yours or your family’s or your mates – nowt just nicked off the internet, you get the idea. It can be an old pic you’ve previously taken.
Follow the hashtag (click on it in any tweet, or add a column to your app) on Sunday to see what others have made of the theme. Sarcastic comments are encouraged
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Wednesday 20th August – Cleveland
We were up early, ignoring the lying clock, and out quickly. Breakfast was at six, but we really didn’t have time as we managed to cadge a ride to the airport in an old lady’s cab that was just leaving, and it seemed safer to just get there than to trust that the car we’d asked for would actually arrive Mary grabbed a banana, lucky lady.
The flight to Cleveland went normally, which was turning out to be unusual for us. Cleveland was our eighth airport in two weeks – Manchester, Amsterdam, Detroit, Erie, Buffalo, Minneapolis, Sioux Falls and now Cleveland. Our list of unusual flying events that “almost never happen” was also quite long now –
- An “Is there a doctor on board?” call.
- Security cock-ups with the TSA not having the right forms available.
- Flight cancelled requiring departure from a different airport the next day.
- Flight turning around mid-air due to a technical fault.
- A missed connection due to storms.
- An overnight stay in a hotel.
- Flying TO a different destination due to cancellation.
The news that morning had been of a volcano in Iceland that was threatening to erupt. The last time that happened it had played havoc with flights. That would be all that we needed to complete the set.
As we stepped outside at Cleveland into hot sunshine (Door 1, fact fans) Tom and Kim drove up, arriving exactly on time rather like Janine and Barry had at Sioux Falls. We drove into the city and spent the day at the remarkable Cleveland Museum of Art.
The place is deceptively vast, with an impressive central courtyard roofed in glass. We meandered for hours, finding hundreds of works of art of endless variety to admire. Near the entrance, though, was an extraordinary interactive wall of art. A packed grid of pictures of works floated around. Each picture could be touched to reveal a larger image, information about the piece, and its location in the museum.
Close by there were other large screens on which the visitor could experiment, or play games. I had a go at something called ‘Embody Art’, where the idea was to copy the pose of a work of art. I tried to emulate ‘Angel’ (1583–1584 by Annibale Fontana). Apparently the angelʼs extended arm would once have held a trumpet. Her movement mirrors the blast of sound from the instrument. I’d have done better if I’d known that before making a wazzock of myself.
Tom and Mary declared that they were hungry and, the cafe looking ridiculously expensive, we wandered outside to find somewhere to eat. We ended up across the grassy square outside at the Botanical Gardens, where the food was excellent and much cheaper than at the Museum of Art AND there was an exhibit of Lego. Mary only managed half her sandwich, though. She put the rest in her bag to take home and put in Kim’s fridge where, for all we know, it remains to this day. Strolling back over to the museum we spotted a red cardinal atop a nearby tree, singing for all it was worth. A beautiful bird.
The museum was superb. Even Tom seemed to really enjoy it after being sceptical at first. The exhibits that really spoke to me were those where the artist had given the subject genuine expression, where they looked real rather than idealised. For instance Valentin’s ‘Samson’, Rubens’ ‘Portrait of Isabella Brant’ or David’s ‘Cupid and Psyche’. ‘Fifth Avenue Nocturne’ by Hassam was one American painting I loved. Other beautiful items that I coveted were a two-handed sword from 16th century Germany, an Italian table depicting Chronos and an ivory sculpture portraying ‘Christ’s Descent from the Cross’, an eight-figure group carved from a single elephant’s tusk. Poor elephant, yes, but what an intricate, impressive work of art.
Thoroughly exhausted, back we went to Erie where Kim and Tom fed us on many snacks. Mary and I particularly loved Kim’s Brie thingy. We got to say hello to Monnie once more, which was nice. We watched several episodes of ‘Jeopardy’.
“A show with a sodding theme tune that won’t ever leave your head.”
“What is Jeopardy, Merv?”
After that, much packing against tomorrow’s flights home, volcano willing. I dearly hope that we can reach Amsterdam easily, see Yvonne, and return to Manchester without incident.
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
A lazy morning, catching up on this journal and making scones once more. Also preparing for the next day’s trip back to Erie. The cheese scones had been a big hit, despite the first batch suffering from being baked at too low a temperature due to my forgetting to allow a difference for not having a fan oven.
We drove out to Jessica’s farm after lunch. Jess is Janine’s daughter, and is heavily involved in animal rescue. Every other night it seemed that she had phoned Janine to say she was heading up the rez to grab a stray dog that had been spotted up there. There are lots of stray dogs up the rez.
Out of the Missouri River valley the land was flat, featureless. I spotted more than one ramshackle falling-down building that would have made an excellent subject for a photograph, but only fleetingly, with no time to ready the camera.
The road was straight and flat and soaked by hot Dakota sunshine. We turned off onto a dirt track that led up to a green and tan farmhouse. Six or seven dogs bounced behind a fence, creating a symphony of barked greeting as we approached. There was Laddie, a gorgeous Lab who reminded me of my dear Ben, and Copper and Cha-cha and Layla and others that my swiss-cheesing memory has forgotten. I delighted in being swamped by dogs.
Jess, in wellies and shorts and calf tattoo, showed us round. In the stables we met a pair of black and white cats and a horse named BJ, who wore a mask against fly irritation. I fed him muffins. Outside a fountain tinkled and swallows flitted about our heads.
Barry wandered into a field to talk to two donkeys, and while he was out there found the other horse, Turbo, who had lost one eye completely and was blind in the other. He enjoyed popcorn while the dogs Copper and Cha-cha chewed discarded bits of hoof.
Thanking Jess for her hospitality we moved on to Jenny’s farm. Jenny is Janine’s niece. There we saw tiny goats and a young buffalo named Belle. Very playful, but on the verge of being enormous. Barry had fun playing with her. It was only later that he remembered his allergy to buffalo hide, and paid the price of a rash.
Jenny’s garden, in a lush hot corner of the farm, produced wonderful vegetables, as we saw when she collected them. Baby Colt was here, whom we’d met before, and he reached out to Mary to hold him. Such a smiley baby.
In the evening we ate at Al’s Oasis, where I had buffalo burger. It was tasty, like very lean beef. I have now encountered five types of buffalo – plastic, stuffed, skeletal, live, and cooked. This was our last day with Janine and Barry, and I felt the looming disappointment of having to leave. I made certain to enjoy every moment of my last trip out in the Grasshopper with Barry and Ranger.
Blogging our recent US trip day by day, four weeks after the event.
Sunday 17th August – Take me back to the Black Hills
We made an early start at 7:30 for the long drive west to the Black Hills. We stopped for breakfast and gas at a filling station where, Barry told us, the only white prairie dogs “in the world” could be seen. We saw them. They are what we called marmots when brown ones entertained us many years ago in the rhino enclosure at Chester Zoo. Crops in huge fields hugged the road for a while. Wheat mostly, or milo (a crop used for animal food), although we also saw large fields of happy sunflowers. The same bright flower stood tall along the margins of the Interstate occasionally. Scattered beehives squatted by the road, and stone fences lined the flat land. I enjoyed passing a sign to a town called Vivian, which reminded me of our beloved friend. Another sign exhorted us to “WEAR FUR” to keep wildlife populations in balance.
We passed a ghost town, Okaton, that was up for sale at $20,000. I think Barry was quite tempted. Near Kennebec Janine pointed out a small abandoned house up on a hill that was slowly falling apart. Now I may have confused the details here, but I think Janine’s cousin Christine had been born there. Janine will put me right if I’ve got this wrong. The cousin was a much longed for child; when she was born her parents went to the expense of putting in a proper wooden floor on top of the dirt. They’d also bought her a piano, which must have looked incongruous in such a tiny shack of a place. There’s a story there, if only I had the time to write it. We paused again briefly at another rest stop where a pleasant woman gave Mary and I each a South Dakota pin badge as a reward for being English.
Barry took a loop through the Badlands rather than heading directly into the Black Hills. The sun blazed down as the terrain grew craggy and all dusty-pale colours. Sheer peaks of multi-layered sandstone thrust up at the bluest of skies. We left the car and went to explore, ignoring a sign that said ‘Beware Rattlesnakes!’ We walked through the scrubby brush to a viewpoint nearby, where the vista before us caused a sharp intake of breath.
Millions of years of wind and water erosion have chiselled spires, deep canyons and jagged buttes from the earth. This has revealed millions of years of sediment that paint a remarkably coloured landscape. Sunflowers spattered the scrub-grassed ground. I loved the way the different coloured strata ran right across the various peaks and buttes. It was hard to imagine the thoughts of early settlers in horse drawn wagons when they first met this impossible, unforgiving landscaep. We saw a tiny frog that was quite happy with it.
Leaving the Badlands, we were soon among pine-swathed hills. In Rapid City we saw a few of the presidential statues that sit on street corners. We passed Lake Pencola, which caused a flood in Rapid City in the Seventies when a dam gave way. We were now approaching the Mount called Rushmore. From brief glimpses on Streetview, I had gained the impression that it was quite small, but I am pleased to report that in reality it is magnificently huge.
A parade of state flags fluttered in the sunshine, leading up to the viewing platform, where my mind just went Whoa! A scramble of rocks, left there in a wide scree after being blown from the mountain with dynamite in the Twenties and Thirties, led the eye up to the titanic faces. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln gaze out across the land from enormous stone eyes, beautifully carved with realistic pupils.
We watched a short movie about the construction. Most of the carving was done with dynamite to get the rough shape, which was then fine-tuned with jackhammers and ‘bumpers’ to smooth the final surface. Jefferson was originally intended to be to the left of Washington, but during construction they found there was not enough rock there to support the head, so they blasted away the half-formed face and carved him out the other side. Then they discovered a crack that would have split his nose, so that he had to be moved back and rotated eighteen degrees. Remarkable construction skills in a time before computers. We took a little walk beneath the heads for a different viewing angle, before going for ice cream and a smile at a cheeky chipmunk that scampered around the tables and chairs.
I bought a book written and signed by Nick Clifford, 93, who was a driller on the construction of the monument back in the Thirties. Had a good chat with him. We talked about a brusque librarian who had asked for a 50% discount on his book, how to spell ‘Wombat’, my hat, how the workers had reached the top of the mountain to do their work, Mary’s hair, and how handsome he had been back in the day. Nice old feller. He gave me a baseball card from when he was on the team that the workers formed.
So, back in the car to Deadwood. The highlight here was Mount Moriah Cemetery, “Boot Hill”, which perched like a dark crow on a high prominence that soared above the town. We paid a dollar to pass through the gate and quickly found the last resting place of Wild Bill Hickock, with Calamity Jane close by. Barry, a font of information as ever, told us that Wild Bill did not much like Jane. When she died, his ‘pals’ had her buried next to him as a kind of grim joke.
My lasting love of cemeteries was greatly satisfied by grassy slopes, and sweeping arcs of gravestones of all shapes and sizes, each marking the end of a person that once breathed, ran, loved, sneezed and, perhaps, cried. Many stones supported small cairns of rocks and pebbles, especially on the numerous Jewish graves on Mount Zion. In the Children’s section were buried over 350 infants who died from scarlet fever and diphtheria in 1878-1880. Elsewhere, a mass grave held the remains of people who died in a boarding house fire in 1883. Unlike in Erie, there were no US flags, save the large one that flew from a flagpole on Brown Rocks overlook, which gave a panoramic view of Deadwood Gulch and the town.
Barry pointed out a one-time gold mine atop a hill opposite that had now become a research institute, researching into… I don’t know. Something that requires depth, obviously. He also revealed that he actually owned a gold claim out there, where he had found a small amount over the years.
Deadwood, the town, was annoyingly touristy, and we simply drove right through and headed back down the I90. We drove through Sturgiss, where bikers gather in their hundreds at the beginning of every August. Every business in the town seemed geared towards this event. It was deserted when we passed through.
In Rapid City we stopped to eat at a place called Golden Corral, which was a vast buffet. You pay around ten dollars and just keep filling your plate with whatever food you fancy – roast meats, Chinese food, pizza, curries, salads. I can’t remember what I ate, but Mary noted some down – shrimp, ham, pot roast, sweet & sour pork, bread, meat loaf, hush puppies, soggy rice, and tough teriyaki beef. Plus lots of desserts. I do remember I did visit the chocolate fountain.
We stopped at Wall Drug (so called because of being in the town of Wall, which did not occur to me for ages), a fascinating warren of shops and tacky touristy things. There was much to gawp at, but for me the old photographs covering the walls near the T Rex (don’t ask) were the most fascinating.
“Anybody wanna donut?” – Barry, several times.
“I still get excited when I see a big horn ‘cos we don’t see them that often.” – Janine.
“My ring did not come off my butt.” – Janine.
There’s your porn-protected #SUNDAYPIX hashtag up there. Use it when you tweet a photograph tomorrow, Sunday 14th September, of
You know the routine by now. Take a pic of a hat, on you or someone else, and post it to Twitter, including the hashtag #SUNDAYPIXHATS in your tweet.
Meaningless points will be awarded for shows of imagination and style. The photograph you post must be yours or your family’s or your mates – nowt just nicked off the internet, you get the idea.
Follow the hashtag (click on it in any tweet, or add a column to your app) on Sunday to see what others have made of the theme. Comments are encouraged
And yes, I used Bagpuss in lieu of a hat, for no good reason at all.