Saturday, 25 February 2012

Constant craving

I was talking to my eldest daughter about last week's post and my South American travels. The conversation moved on to the 60s and 70s in general, and the music in particular.
Sophie is 31 and the mother of my first and so far only grandchild. She's done her fair share of travelling, mainly in India and Southeast Asia, so she knows the score. She lives in the depths of rural Wales with her homeopath husband, and their musical tastes are fairly eclectic. Mainstream she is not.
Even so, in her eyes I think my journey seemed somehow different, perhaps almost mythical, because of the era in which I made it.
"I know so many people of my generation who have a real nostalgia for that time, for the 60s and 70s," she said, "although of course it can't be nostalgia can it, because we weren't actually there."
Strictly speaking, no. But I know what she means. We've all experienced a longing for something past, a perceived age of innocence, a Camelot, a temps perdu - whether or not we've actually experienced it.
But did we really have it easier in those days? I honestly don't know. It was easier to get jobs. The music was new and inventive and thrilling. The clothes – well they were simply ridiculous. You could still go to places where not many others had been before. There was a general sense of optimism. But the freedom...
Personally, much as I revelled in it, I also found it confusing, perhaps even rather frightening. How was one to know what to do with one's life when the only two certainties were that one was not going to do what one's parents had done, and that it was now possible to do practically anything else that took one's fancy?
My Latin American journey was a profoundly formative experience, but it was also profoundly unsettling and six months after returning I had a nervous breakdown. There were other contributing factors, difficult family circumstances chief among them, but I think more than anything else I was overwhelmed by possibility.
This was not a problem faced by my mother, now 83, whose house this weekend I'm clearing with my brother and sister; or others of her generation for that matter. Slated for Oxford in the late 40s, she had to give way to the older women returning from the war and settled for teacher's training instead, followed shortly by marriage. I was born four months after her 21st birthday.
At the same age as I was setting off for South America, she was settling down in Edinburgh with her recently qualified and impoverished advocate husband, a two year-old child, the tail end of post-war rationing still in place, and that grim decade, the 1950s, ahead of her.
It's not an era for which I harbour any nostalgia, actual or imagined. And yet, as I open yet another box of papers or books, and find a diary entry here, a newspaper cutting there, my curiosity is kindled. I want to know what it was like. I want to flesh out the stories of which these snippets offer such tantalising glimpses.
That's really what forges our connection with the past, I realise. Our constant and endless craving for stories. They’re part of the glue that hold families together and give us a sense of continuity. Without them we become isolated, cast adrift.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Halfway to heaven

Watching the YouTube film of my Latin American trip opened the floodgates again. There are still so many moments that remain clearly imprinted on my memory, almost forty years later: sailing to the Galapagos Islands on a cargo steamer, driving down out of the Andes into Amazonia in the rainy season, trying to change money in a Santiago back street a few months before the fall of the Allende government, being arrested in La Paz, hitching a lift with an opera-singing Peruvian madman, being handed a loaded revolver in a car in Guatemala and so on.
Much of our itinerary (though not all of what happened on it) is now routine for a gap year traveller, but it certainly wasn’t then, in 1973. We felt like the first European tourists ever to have set foot in some of the places where we ended up. The means of transport, rugged three-ton ex-army trucks, had a lot to do with it and never more so than when we crossed over from Chile into Bolivia. There are a couple of minutes on the film of what followed, but that really doesn’t begin to do justice to the experience.
The border was at a breathless 11,000 feet above sea-level, somewhere inland from Antofagasta, a town where it never rains, at the northern end of the Chilean Atacama desert. The Chilean side of the border crossing was manned but not the Bolivian side. We had to find our way to the town of Uyuni, we were told, where we would get our passports stamped. This proved a lot less easy than it sounded.
At the border the metalled surface stopped abruptly. Beyond, a railway line and a tracery of vague dirt tracks disappeared into the distance, but there was nothing in the arid, mountainous landscape remotely resembling a road. The only map we’d managed to get hold of was Russian, I don’t know why. Uyuni was marked on it, but it was over 100 miles distant, there was what looked like a vast lake in the way, and there were no discernible features either on the map or in the landscape by which we could navigate.
It took us two days to get there – two days of driving sometimes in circles, sometimes through dusty baked-mud villages that from a distance resembled clumps of large boulders, sometimes through swamps of mud or sand, but mostly through the absolute emptiness of the altiplano, the high-altitude plateau of the central Andes.
On the second day we had what still rates as one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. The lake marked on the map turned out to be the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flats in the world. Half the size of Yorkshire, it's a vast expanse of milky white water, a few inches deep, lying on a thick crust of salt at 12,000 feet above sea-level.
We had picked up a local guide and had been skirting the salar for some time when, to our astonishment, he directed us out onto a short, rough causeway. We watched, hearts in mouths, as the lead truck bumped along the causeway and then down into the water. The crust did not give way. The truck rolled forward, picked up speed and we followed. Soon we were bowling along at a steady 20 miles an hour on a surface as smooth as a billiards table, the lead truck kicking up a fine salt spray that coated us from head to foot.
It took three-and-a-half hours to cross the salar, a distance of 70 miles. In the thin air the sun burned down and the sky was brilliantly blue. Around us the salt was blindingly white. After a while the hills behind us dwindled to nothing. Then the horizon started to melt as a thin haze of cloud settled and met the water, and we found ourselves gliding through a surreal, uniformly milky world in which it was impossible to determine where land ended and sky began. In the middle of this, distant shapes came to life and floated upwards. It was a huge flock of scarlet flamingos. Later, a semi-circle of volcanoes began to materialise out of the haze.
Today, trips to the Salar de Uyuni are on every off-piste travel company’s itinerary. Recent photographs show squadrons of landrovers parked at one of the weird volcanic islands that rise out of the salt. I don’t doubt that these travellers marvel at the place just as we did, but I can’t help feeling a little sorry for them, and sorrier still for the desecrated salar.
When we stumbled across it we had no idea of its existence. It seemed to us like a pristine wilderness. In 70 miles we saw nothing but a solitary man on a bicycle. We had no idea that when the causeway ended, the lead truck wouldn’t simply vanish through the crust, no idea how long it would take us to cross; and certainly no idea that we would spend the best part of three hours in this extraordinary saline limbo, literally suspended between heaven and earth. It was almost as if, for a short while, we’d left the planet.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Mind the gaps

Last Saturday I took part in the final event of the 26 Treasures Scotland project, chairing a panel discussion at the Winter Words book festival in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre. February 4 is a date which, since university days, I have thought of as the absolute nadir of the year. True to form, it was a filthy afternoon, sleety and freezing. We were also up against the Calcutta Cup kick-off at Murrayfield, half-an-hour after we started. But still we got an audience of about 40 people in the main auditorium.
The panelists were historical novelist Sara Sheridan, who has been the driving force behind the project, Linda Cracknell, writer of short stories and radio plays, and Alison Weir, expert on the Tudors and one of the UK’s most successful writers of historical biographies and novels. Sara, Linda and I had all contributed to the project. Alison had not, but she was in Pitlochry anyway doing her own event and the organisers thought her presence would add something to ours. It did.
The three of us talked about the objects we had been allocated and then read our respective 62 words on Queen Mary’s harp, the Coigrich – a talismanic gold casing for the handle of a bishop’s crosier, and the Gown of Repentance. We had also asked Alison to choose an object and she had obligingly come up with 62 words of her own on a large lump of Lewisian Gneiss, at (appropriately) 2.6 billion years old, the most ancient of all the 26 treasures.
We then began a conversation about whether these short pieces of highly personal writing, essentially fictions created in response to the allocated objects, had any place in a museum whose chief purpose is the presentation of fact. To elaborate on the question, I asked Alison if she had ever written a novel about an historical character for whom she had also written a biography. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘more than once. It’s all about filling in the gaps, you see.’
And that, it seems to me, is what the whole 26 Treasures project has been about – filling in the gaps. Mostly we stand in front of objects in museums armed only with the factual information provided by curators. We may be intellectually or aesthetically engaged by them, but if our imaginations aren’t kindled we are seldom going to make the more human, more emotional connection with them and their time and place of origin.
26 Treasures encouraged the writers, first, to imagine the stories around these objects, and then to communicate those to the museum’s visitors. The stories don’t alter the facts any more than Alison Weir’s novels alter their underlying historical truths, but they do enhance them. It’s no surprise that so many of the 26 writers came away from the project with a distinctly proprietary feeling about their objects; though the Gown of Repentance, unsurprisingly, stirred no such feelings for me.
But filling in the gaps is something we are naturally inclined to do as imaginative creatures. It’s what I constantly tell business writers. You don’t need to give us the kitchen sink. You can easily get rid of half of what you’ve said and your audience will still get it. We’re hard wired to read between the cracks. We imagine and intuit and do very effectively all those unmeasurable things that the business world finds so alarming. If we didn’t we would have been savaged by sabretooths or trampled by mammoths millennia ago.

To see all the 26 Treasures at the National Museum of Scotland click here.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Close encounter

In December 1972 I quit my job at Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly and flew to Argentina with my girlfriend. There we met up with 30 other travellers of all nationalities and stripes who had signed up for a trip with the adventure travel company, Encounter Overland. With its fleet of orange-painted, blue-canvased three-ton Bedford ex-army trucks and trailers, the company had been driving the hippy trail to Afghanistan since the late 1960s. Now Latin America beckoned. At £500 a head for a five-month itinerary that would take us from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles, we were the guinea pigs.
In the event, my journey lasted nearly a year. Encounter Overland had miscalculated and by the time we got to Lima, three months into the trip, they realised they were going to have to drive 18 hours a day to make their deadline. My girlfriend and I jumped ship and continued on our own, eventually flying home from Toronto the following September.
It was a momentous year in more ways than I can describe. I was 23 and very unsure of what I wanted to do. I had a law degree but no interest in continuing with the law, I’d allowed myself to be shoehorned into articles with an accountancy firm which had lasted only a few months, and I’d tried bookselling which had just left me feeling restless. I’d had a couple of short stories published and had the vague notion that I wanted to write full length fiction, but not the faintest idea about what. So when, to my father’s dismay, my mother sent me an advertisement for the trip, I jumped at it. What I didn’t know, of course, was that on a journey like this one tends not so much to find answers as more questions. When I got back to the UK I was still none the wiser, but I was profoundly altered and the experiences are with me vividly 40 years later.
Apart from some articles published shortly after I returned, I’ve tried writing about it twice since. In both cases I’ve fictionalised the Latin American experience; and while I don’t know what will eventually happen with The Artefact, in the first instance the trip provided the backdrop for the one novel I’ve written which remains unpublished. And this, Dear Readers, is what I believe lies at the heart of the dilemma and my request for help – to which you responded so generously, almost overwhelmingly.
Some of your thoughts came as comments to the blog, others as emails or phone calls – and I’m deeply grateful for them all. Roughly a third of you said Carry on, for reasons ranging from ‘An unfinished story is a pitiful thing’ to ‘We’re desperate to know what happens’ to ‘At least give it one more try’. The other two-thirds said the more difficult thing: ‘Look within’. Well, I did – with the help of a patient wife, a long frosty walk and, among many splendid and considered pieces of advice, the words of Gillian Clelland who wrote: ‘Yer heart doesny always get it right, neither does yer head, I find yer tummy always tells ye whit tae dae. Listen tae yer tummy. You will feel what is right for you…’
I consulted the entrails, Dear Readers – my own – and divined that I need to revisit the journey more fully, more personally; that it would be valuable to understand more deeply the many ways in which that year shaped me, and that to fictionalise it is to trivialise it when it has quite clearly been knocking at my door, demanding my serious attention, for some time. Put simply, I need to connect with the emotion of the experience, rather than holding it at one remove.
This doesn’t mean that I won’t at some stage return to The Artefact. ‘It will wait if it’s really right,’ counselled Faye Sharpe, ‘artefacts do, believe me, I’m an archaeologist, remember?’ But it does mean that for the time being I have another writing job to do which may, as Neil Baker suggested, turn out to be something closer to memoir; though at this stage I’m reluctant to give it form. Meanwhile, my heartfelt thanks once more to all of you who responded to my plea. I’m flattered that there are that many of you who are even interested in my ruminations.
And now I shall obey Andy Milligan, who wrote: ‘… enough of this self-reflection, man. Away with you and start writing!’

As a remarkable postscript to this, I have just Googled Encounter Overland to check some facts, and discovered that on YouTube there are three 10-minute episodes of a film made during our trip by the cameraman Peter Sinclair who travelled with us. I had completely forgotten about it and am not even sure whether I saw it at the time. I've just spent an utterly surreal half-hour watching my younger self and others pushing a three-ton truck out of axle-deep mud on the Bolivian altiplano. See here.