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25 years ago


50 years ago




When I look back over the years, it seems that my most natural, apparently trivial and unconsidered choices have been the most significant - as if circumstances played the key part. But decisions, limited as they inevitably are, determine our futures. I think I was nearly 40 before I woke-up to how crucial even small decisions could be - and that it was up to me to challenge limitations if I intended to have any control.

I get along fine in my own company, in fact I prefer it most of the time, but several weeks back I went with a friend over to Belgium for a few days. We were both about ready for a break, and the weather was mild and dry after weeks of cold and rain. It's always uplifting, of course, to zap the brain with new experience, and to travel - I discovered long ago... even just to wander the parks and streets of unfamiliar places - is a perfect way to achieve that. It can also refocus and broaden one's perspectives.

The reason for opting to travel instead of some more audacious kind of 'new experience' was mainly because it's so easy. This time, though, it was also because I recently bought a new car - or rather, a ten-year-old car (for a tenth its original cost) - and was keen to try it out on those high-speed autobahns. This 'new' car is - wait for it - yep, a Jag.... top speed 135 mph... and what's more, it's immaculate. I'm more concerned with workings than appearances, yet it seems in every way like new. One careful woman owner.... isn't that what they always say? This time - going by the condition and the log - it's true. Even the seats are hardly worn.

But quite apart from the car, after the success of last year's little jaunt to the South of France - thanks, above all, to SatNav - I decided this year to splash-out on a ferry 'triple-return'... which means cheaper rates, plus - crucially - no booking in advance: just turn-up and present the ticket number. So between now and Jan 2015 I'll be taking at least two more trips across the channel. Anyhow, upon return from that excursion to Belgium - and this is the central point here - I discover in my email inbox an invite to a party in Perth, Aussie, for May 25.

OK. Now, as an idler I find all this potential activity a bit ominous, almost a threat. I really enjoy my relatively tranquil lifestyle of idling. It's as if I've bought more food than I can eat - or made promises I can't keep. Nearer to my heart is lounging on beaches in summer, fireside reading in winter, and between times lazing or wandering, even an occasional exhilarating sprint.... but planning, keeping to schedules, spending 20+-hrs each way on a 747 or even an A380... strikes me as excessively hectic - something I'd have keenly embraced a couple of decades ago, but for a mere 4-weeks or so on the far side of the planet, I wonder nowadays if it's worth all the effort? I mean, when I can be in France within 3-hours of home for no more - as things stand - than a leisurely afternoon's drive and the price of the petrol, then why bother with all that expense and hassle?

I know Perth isn't France, but - without having been there - I'd guess it comes scarcely a close second with its uniform terrain of savannah or desert. And the French countryside in June is perfection defined.

Decisions, decisions...

So instead of deciding whether to buy or not to buy a flight to Perth, I sit here and wonder vaguely on the advantages or otherwise of either option... and end-up reflecting on my supremely favourable circumstances when half the world is struggling on the breadline, living in rubble or makeshift camps, slaving in sweatshops... etc., while those responsible for these plights reside in equally absurd polar opposite circumstances of untold opulence and excess: ie, the deliberately engineered extreme of Inequality.

My mind drifts again, and I begin to search absentmindedly around the net .... I discover that a kid I once knew and last saw when I was about 16 is now running his own estate agents, while another is running a wholesale car-parts outfit, and yet another a taxi service.... can't identify any fellow idlers out there - at least, not who I once knew. I move to Google Earth and look at the dwellings of people I knew... including abroad.... addresses in old diaries. Why are there no street shots for Germany, I wonder, nor several other countries? Even Russia has some....

In a 2006 library chuck-out of 'International Who's Who - Authors and Writers' I find Ray Bradbury's address (before he died) in LA and wander cybernetically along his street, likewise not far away for that playful genius Richard Feynman, then for Edward Albee on Long Island whose seaside garden can be seen in a youtube interview. Tennessee Williams recorded several key addresses in his memoir, as too for various biographies of Kerouac and others..... Miller's precarious hideout at Partington Ridge, for instance.

Now I'm being lured out by bright sunshine that crashes into the room.... This kind of internal prevaricating: ie, what to decide about Perth - has been pestering me ever since I read the invite. But I could go to Perth anytime; it doesn't have to be for a party. The older I get the more difficult it is to make decisions - even simple straightforward ones. The triple ferry-ticket was easy though, as was buying that car (a stroke of luck, that - I guess I could as easily have landed a dud, though I did check it quite carefully).

A few days ago I received yet another invite - to a long weekend near Stroud. That's a 3½ hour drive, each way. All these decisions.... well, I'll make one now: to put me shorts on and scarper, to enjoy the sunshine, the moment, the very act - as Ray Bradbury proclaims - of being alive. To hell with other decisions; they can wait. Seafront, cliffs, woods... here I come - yoweeeeee....

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I'd been driving north through Oregon on highway 101 for most of the morning when the road rose high then headed east alongside the Columbia River. Where the road turned I pulled into a car park with fabulous views across the Pacific. The area was about a quarter full, with a few picnickers. I took out my little petrol stove and began boiling water for coffee.

'You've come a long way.' said a voice behind me.

I turned to face a guy of about 60. Decked in pushbike gear, and holding his bike he stared at my number plate - which reveals the registering State: Florida. 'I've come a lot further than that.' I said, standing up.

'Let me guess,' he said, after a pause, 'England?'

Obviously, he recognised the accent. I nod, 'How about you?'

'Phoenix,' he said, 'Arizona. Headed for Alaska.'

'Alaska?' I said, incredulous. How a guy of ~60 had made it here by bike from Phoenix is remarkable enough, without the virtually impossible goal of Alaska.

The kettle was boiling now. I offered him coffee - and altogether during the next hour or so I reckon he drank six or seven cups to my three. He explained how he spent a couple of decades as director for a firm that made building panels, then last year suffered a heart attack that landed him in hospital for several weeks. The scare jolted him from his former existence into a completely new life, he tells me. Now he's going to see the world - well, the US at least - and get fit again, enjoy the few years he might have remaining on this vast beautiful planet.

To my amazement, he's no less impressed with my travel ventures than I with his. What a guy, I thought, what ambition: biking to Alaska.... and from Phoenix.... in my estimation it made my endeavours seem like the proverbial walk in the park.

Soon I said farewell to Burt Cossey from Phoenix, wishing him sincerely the very best, and set off towards Portland, about 70-miles east alongside the estuary.

By mid-afternoon, halfway to Portland, I stop for a wander around Longview. A twee little secondhand bookstore catches my eye. All my adult life I've been unable to resist the chance to rummage in secondhand bookshops. I could write a whole big story on the gems I've unearthed.... maybe I already have? Unlike for the UK, in the US such stores traditionally keep the same order as those with new books. So searching for unread Hesse or Dostoyevsky translations is easy enough. Even so, a woman who introduces herself as Sarah offers to help find what I'm looking for.

Half-an-hour later, having exchanged life-histories, she tells me I should make myself known at the checkout to Caroline whose shop it is. Enchanted with every book I examine, I finally tear myself away from the shelves. Struggling to balance my armful of amazingly cheap books, I introduce myself to Caroline - who is soon enchanted with me, so much so that with typical American hospitality she invites me to dinner at her house that same evening. She'd like me to meet her husband, Dean, she tells me, who is a lecturer at the local college... and owns a Jag!

I return to my car, parked beside a long lake in a residential area, and deposit the books. It's a weekday, and there's virtually no-one about. I grab a flannel and a clean shirt and wander over to a nearby public 'restroom'... And later, after more exploring, I turn-up clean and presentable for an evening with Caroline & Dean. I know I'm there when I see the Jag looking like new on their drive. We eat on the patio overlooking a neat informal garden - and drink fine Californian wine... and later while Dean shows me some of his books, the phone rings.

'It's for you.' he says, presenting me with the handset.

'What?' I say, 'That's impossible. How can it be for me? Who knows I'm here?'

Of course, it's Sarah.

I'm invited to spend a few days with her and her husband, Dan, at a little place called St Helens back in Oregon about 20-miles south.

Next day they both charge off early to work, leaving me with the house to myself. Not even an instruction on how to lock-up. I go scouting the village, anyhow. And I end-up staying a whole week. One day, some friends visit from Seattle and Dan takes us all for a trip on the river in his 23-ft yacht. It's a wild river too - broad and choppy, serving as a shipping route for some pretty big vessels into Portland. The generosity of these people has no limit, but eventually I'm forced to make excuses to get moving again.

This time I'm headed up towards Olympia and Port Angeles - where one of my heroes once lived: Raymond Carver, who tragically died there in 1988 aged only 50.

The next weird episode - a truly extraordinary coincidence - happened in Yellowstone Village a few weeks later.... but that's another tale, another weird event.

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The story that was originally posted here has subsequently been moved. It was, on reflection, judged so lousy as to be unfit even for the substandard level of this site. Since much of it was essentially autobiographical, maybe it'll get re-written... who can say?

I guess a good portion of what remains on the site should also be re-written - or zapped (see link) - ie:

A quote from Virginia Woolf :

 A note: despair at the badness of the book: can’t think how I could ever write such stuff – and with such excitement: that’s yesterday: today I think it good again. A note, by the way of advising other Virginias with other books that this is the way of the thing: up down up down – and Lord knows the truth. 

I’d have thought she, of all people – with her middle-class Bloomsbury Set friends an’ all – would have had loads of reliable, willing reviewers/advisors. Maybe she was shy of revealing her work prematurely to anyone?

But I, well I find myself with precisely the same predicament - the key difference being that you can count the number of readers of my stuff on one hand (or one finger), while Ms Woolf's readers numbered in the thousands, perhaps millions. Unlike for me, her doubts were unfounded, as it turned out. Even so, also unlike for me, she let stupid things get to her and ended up topping herself, as the saying goes - though I don't think it had any connection with her literary activities/doubts.

Just in case, for anyone really curious: THE MENACE (as original).

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"The two greatest obstacles to democracy... are, first, the widespread delusion among the poor that we have a democracy, and second, the chronic terror among the rich, lest we get it." Edward Dowling