It’s been a while since I last wrote a blog entry and I often wondered when I would get around to writing the next one but here I am.
At long last, after many years of planning and talking about it, my 6 month sabbatical (or ‘furlough’ as it’s more known as in North America) is upon me. I plan to write my next novel and market as best I can, the stories and novels I have written to date, within the world of social media. If costs allow, I may even pay for several copies to be printed to send off for review and even impromptu yard-sales/car-boot sales to set a foundation stone in the real world.
For many months, even years, I have been so busy at work that my creative juices evaporated in the searing heat of pressure and fatigue. This concerned me as writing is a passion of mine but I have to earn a crust in my day job. I saw no end to the maelstrom if I kept on the way I was and I knew something had to give but in a controlled responsible manner.
So I switched off the engine and let myself glide to the ground and this week, my first week of my freedom, I watch the propellers slowly whirr to a silent standstill while I decompress , step from the cockpit and fill my lungs with new air.
During my time, I plan an extended stay in Seattle or Vancouver and right now, a number of options are on the table and my dousing pendulum swings towards Seattle. I can’t say much at this moment about the possible house I may end up in but serendipity is a wonderful thing. I let this be my guide.
Initially, I thought I would spend my time in London, UK. I visit London more often than the ravens at the Tower. I am forever smitten by London’s surprises, incongruities, its people, its eccentricities, its avant garde theatre (where else but the wonderful Horse Hospital (behind Russell Square Tube Station) where one can spend an evening attending a film, lecture and Q&A hosted by the British Psychical Research Society about the purported case of a talking mongoose in 1930’s Isle of Man but I digress)
So why not London?
Firstly, one can become overly familiar with a city to the point where the fascinating becomes mundane and the incongruous can just become just another tree in heavily thicketed forest. Secondly, my writing and love of literature is heavily rooted in Americana. To paraphrase and to extend Orwell (daring and forward of me I know), when one is on a sinking ship, all one can think about is a sinking ship and therefore sinking ships soak into every nook and cranny of one’s writing.
Not that London is a sinking ship but it’s the metaphor Orwell used and I completely see his point.
I have visited Chicago many times on business and have had ample free time to explore it and enjoy road trips upstate and into Wisconsin. I feasted on the flora of the small towns, the expansiveness of the landscape, the long endless lonely roads, horizons kissed by cornfields, random homesteads, motels, abandoned buildings, and last but not least, hospitable and individualistic people.
Geographically, America is a very large country that ironically, resembles the properties of the tiny atom. Several specks of very busy protons such as New York, San Francisco, LA, Miami and Chicago that whizz and whirr with their millions of busy people but the space between them is vast, empty.
It’s within this space, between the cities that the romance, mysteries and awe of America exist. The ghosts of its history, legend haunt its blue highways and fill travellers with a sense of solitude and immense possibilities. It’s not for nothing that the genre of the road-movie is largely quintessential to the US ( the only British road movie worth watching in my opinion is ‘Radio On’ but even this movie artificially warps the British landscape into the shape of an American one but it works all the same without ever feeling contrived)
The spirit of the road movie is freedom. There are different categories (fleeing a bad situation to find a better life, fleeing from the law or the underworld) but what makes these movies plausible in a way that is difficult to do elsewhere is that America is a country where you can simply disappear and pop-up somewhere else and reinvent yourself. Whether or not this reflects the modern day of cellular and internet connectivity is another story but today, these stories occupy the domain of the realistic. In a highly populated country such as England, it is very hard to imagine disappearing from Cornwall and starting all over again in Newcastle with an adventure up the M1 in between without a significant possibility of running into someone who may know you or at least has heard of you.
The UK is still a highly centralized country in terms of its media. From the remote Scilly Isles to Edinburgh, everyone watches the same news channels, read the same newspapers. In the US, the national papers and TV channels do exist but they are weaker glue. What we in Europe often fail to realise is the sheer size of the US and even Canada too. America is not the size of France nor is its states equivalent to British counties.
Many European nations could fit comfortably inside a North Dakotan forest, often many times over. The physical scale of the country and the concentration of population within a few centres has given rise to a sense of isolation within many rural/small town communities that has transmogrified into the following values
Self-Reliance – unlike Europe, a town in the mid West could be 100 miles from the next one. Think about how this would have affected the townsfolk/famer mindset in the days before the telegraph and the telephone never mind before the advent of GPS, Google and smart-phones. You couldn’t have ridden to the nearest neighbouring village nor return within an hour in case of emergency. The early settlements resembled the lunar bases we often see in science fiction movies where everyone wears tinfoil suits and the men still wear bryl-cream on their head, except that they had breathable air. Its people had to fend for themselves often struggling to survive in lawless and inhospitable conditions. It was a land of immigrants who had escaped the tyrannies of poverty, war and persecution in the Old World.
The New World was a chance to form a society in the image of their dreams. It’s a matter of debate as to how well this turned out and is beyond the scope of this essay but such newly formed societies had to employ wanderlust, faith, hope and self-reliance, not just individually but within their communities too. A by-product of this was an unconscious sense of temporiness. Unlike the Old World with its solid stone castles and cathedrals that seem to have been around since the dawn of time itself, the American settlers faced a land with so such constructs. They were no longer in a land where they could use the scaffolding of history to lean against be it law or edifice.
Is it any wonder that many of these communities turned to their Gods in their many, sometimes perennial times of need. No matter how strong we think we are, we all need an anchor of some kind.
From these roots grew the modern day America we know either through first-hand experience or through the prism of movies and literature.
The hero of the road-movie is a lone pilgrim, leaving his/her old life behind to venture into unknown land and people to build or find a new life with highs and lows, a trail of trials, tribulations and dawns and false dawns along the way until they either reach the promised land or die. The road movie is the subconscious re-enactment of the history of the American soul.
Localism – Some Europeans comment on how parochial American news report seem to them. Its news networks often ignore large swathes of the outside world. Howevre, it is wrong headed for an outsider to poke fun at this is and merely shows a lack of understanding of why this maybe. It’s easy for a European to be (or pretend to be in some cases) cosmopolitan when there are thirty or so nations within a 3 hour flight radius. In Belgium, one can reach no fewer than 4 nations within a radius of one hour’s drive. America occupies a land mass similar to that of the entirety of Western Europe. Driving from LA to Boson is equivalent to driving from Lisbon, Portugal to Vilnius, Lithuania. In the former trip you remain inside one nation state; within the latter, well I don’t have enough fingers and toes to count them but you get the picture.
The nation state of America as I mentioned earlier, is a much weaker construct than we Europeans are used to for reasons I’ve touched upon above. America was not founded all at once by one set of pilgrims or immigrants but by waves of very different groups who arrived at different times. Each moved across the continent at different speeds and in different directions during a time when long distance communications were very difficult or an impossibility. These groups eventually settled and those which survived, established permanent communities that formed proto-States that still spoke the settler’s European tongue. Minnesota was largely Swedish, Pennsylvania largely German. The Federal government did not have a long reach and even then, was like a radio signal that was bedevilled with the static of the nation’s size, space and distance.
Wariness of Government: Mistrust is perhaps too strong a word. Perhaps it’s better to say that the most Americans have always stood their arms defensively folded, casting a healthily wry eye at Washington, sometimes with a gun tucked under the belt. European nations are much smaller, compact and homogenous and thus easier to manage. All modern European nations at one time or other had a King or Queen who was seen as the Father/Mother, grand protector of the nation. Many nations have since become democracies but the legacy of expecting central Government to help one out of a tricky situation has persisted to this day. Such a legacy never existed in America which goes a long way to explain why many Americans, including its poorest, are both suspicious of central Government and have an aversion towards receiving help from it.
Europeans are often bewildered at the abuse and bile levied at President Obama for his attempts to extend free access to medical care. In Europe, free medical care is seen as the 11th Commandment, an immutable aspect of nature itself but again, the roots of attitude, like a person, stem from its childhood and formative experiences. For an American to think like a European or vice versa, each would have had to have had the history of the other behind it.
These aspects of the American attitude towards Government often perplex the more communitarian minded European but it is good to remind one’s self that nations in many ways are like people; our personalities are formed through nature and nurture and it’s only a fool or a despot who expects one’s neighbour to be a carbon copy of him/herself.
So which is better, the American or the European way? I shall sit on the fence on this one as both have their advantages and disadvantages which are well documented. I am merely trying to attempt to explain the differences as best I can and I see them. When we explore the reasons behind the why, then we begin to nip the bitter buds of xenophobia, racism and jingoism. Only then we realise that no nation has the right to point the finger at the other and say ‘Don’t do it like that, let me in and I’ll show you how it’s done’ but I do believe that the exception should be in cases where people are being systemically and physically harmed by tin-pot dictators. In such cases, humanitarian intervention is justified but I am sure this is a matter of debate and again beyond the scope of this essay.
So back to my decision to move to North America to write.
I have a deep and long lasting appreciation of American writing both factual and fiction. Fitzgerald for his languid language and exposition of character and beautifully crafted and controlled narrative documenting the ascent, disillusionment and decline of one man’s wish to pursue the American Dream.
Hemingway for his muscular, sinewy yet insightful prose.
Steinbeck for his exposition of the truth. My particular favourite is ‘Travels with Charley’, a travelogue about his camper-van road trip through rural America. Every sentence a pure joy of description and insight into the human condition.
Hunter S Thompson for his single handed invention of the literary style of Gonzo Journalism. His literary documentary ‘Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail’ is an acidic, accurate, warts and all depiction of both the minutiae and the broad strokes of the 1972 Democratic Party Presidential Candidate nomination process that reads like the political equivalent of watching sausages being made. Unpleasant but peculiarly intriguing.
Cornell Woolrich for his dark tales of how life can turn into roads of despair at the turn of seemingly innocuous events. Chilling in their realism and makes one do a double-take of the paths and decisions taken in one’s own life.
Michael Connolly for his Harry Bosch detective stories where LA is a character in its own right, weaving its anxious fabric through the fabric of narrative.
Frank Bill and his modern day classic ‘The Crimes of Southern Indiana’, a collection of connected short stories. A writhing, unsettling slab of beautifully and realistically written American Literary Gothic. No angels here and reader may fear to tread.
Willie Vlautin for his plain-style tales of everyday blue collar America. The humour and the struggle of the Everyman/Everywoman is sympathetically depicted without ever retreating into the easy burrows of pity and cliché. Each of the characters is a fighter. Whether or not they win is another story but it’s hard not to empathise with even the worst of them as Vlautin’s characterisation teaches us that we all have had a road to travel, some more rocky than others. Show me your nice polished shoes and I’ll show you the smooth, well tarmacced road you just walked down. Humanity runs through his narrative landscape at every turn.
I could continue but I think I’ve made my point.
It’s these authors and more who have whetted my literary appetite. I hope that living in the land they still roam, either in body or spirit, may help sculpt the shape of my own writing to come.
I will post regular missives to this blog during my time both before, during and after my Seattle extended stay and I hope all two of my followers and their dog keep in touch