Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Inhabiting a different planet

'The journey from university graduate to pilot of a Volvo F12 on its way to Kazakhstan hasn't been accomplished by avoiding pain. I wanted to make these journeys because the human spirit yearns to be tested. Only by subjecting myself to a series of such tests and only by rising to these challenges will I discover who I am, or rather what I can become.'

When I wake up I tend to talk to my long-suffering partner about whatever happens to be on my mind. This morning I spoke to her about a dream in which I was back driving the Volvo truck that stars in Karl Marx and Careful Driving. K123 YOF was stolen while I was in a cafe somewhere in northern Italy and my boss, who improbably happened to be wobbling around northern Italy on his bicycle, was so furious with me he could hardly speak.

More usually I talk to her about a great idea I've just had about Karl Marx and Careful Driving, or one of the frequent problems I encounter in the book's construction. It helps of course that Linda is writing her own novel, intriguingly entitled A Head Full of Budgerigars and subtitled The Memories of No-one in Particular.

'It was nice that Charlotte couldn't bring herself to believe that I'm a truck driver,' I said, abandoning that disturbing dream and moving on to last night's meeting of the Severn Valley Authors (http://severnvalleyauthors.blogspot.com/)
'In the mind of a seventeen-year-old all truck drivers are hairy arsed blokes covered in tatoos and they don't generally wake up their partners at four in the morning to discuss Plato's Ideal State or Karl Marx's theories of alienation,' Linda pointed out.
'That's a preconception held by virtually everyone, not just seventeen-year-olds. I inhabit a different planet to most of the guys at work.'
'I don't think its just the guys at work. You inhabit a different planet to most people.'
'Most writers do. We create a separate world with our imaginations and then we write about it.'
'You're probably right. I know I live in a different world to most people.'

Yesterday evening's meeting, held at our place, was the last before Christmas so Linda and I provided wine and mince pies instead of the usual coffee and biscuits. We critiqued the re-written first chapter of A Head Full of Budgerigars. The chances of a work of fiction written by 'no-one in particular' being accepted in a market in which publishers and the media are in thrall to the cult of celebrity are minute, but Linda's descriptive writing is superb. Take the following:

The garden was a jungle. A machete and a pioneering spirit were needed to thwart the enthusiasm of the brambles, nettles and waist-high grasses. During the summer months little pockets had been conquered, neat little handkerchiefs of lettuce, radishes and beans, patches of indomitable courgettes and blotchy tomatoes. The gardens that ran the length of the old miners' cottages had manicured lawns and bird baths, dahlias and garden furniture with sun shades. Some had immaculate vegetable plots that made her feel ashamed of her efforts.

The cottage gardens germinated gossip. The rumours spread like weeds along the terrace, through the runner beans and over the rhubarb, gathering momentum and spice as they brushed past the aubergines and lollo rosso. No doubt they whispered about the garden at Number Eight which was a graveyard for broken mowers, clapped-out strimmers and handle-less spades.

I suspect that the description and the imagery contained within the quoted passage is way beyond many established authors, let alone the ghost-writers of celebrity 'autobiographies' and 'novels'. Sometimes I wonder if publishers publish the books the public wants to read, or if the public is obliged to read whatever rubbish they decide to publish. Answers on a postcard, please.

After the meeting we investigated a recently opened bar down by the river. Annie asked me about my background. I told her and Tony about the fascination with trucks and faraway places that began in early childhood and led, despite an honours degree in French, to what I saw as the entirely logical decision to combine these two passions in a career as an international truck driver. Six years of adventures on the road with Fransen Transport were followed by five years working in their office as a traffic clerk and transport manager. I reacted to redundancy in 1999 by cycling 16,500 miles from Bewdley to Beijing. When I returned home I was faced by a choice: either I could attempt to resume a career in transport management or I could get a less demanding job back on the road in order to be able to indulge more fully my passion for writing. The decision to take the second option was rewarded by the eventual publication in 2005 of my first book, 'Why Don't You Fly?' (http://www.cycleuktochina.com/)

Signing copies of 'Why Don't You Fly?' at Waterstones

A single letter or email from a reader who has been enthralled by 'Why Don't You Fly?' is worth far more to me than winning the lottery because anyone is capable of winning the lottery. Those letters and emails are the reward for hours, days, weeks, months and years of isolation, dedication, obsession and perfectionism - and, thank goodness, the occasional flash of inspiration - in front of a computer. There is no greater feeling than the knowledge that one has succeeded in bringing joy to others. It is that fabulous high that motivates any true writer or artist, not the thought of sales or royalty cheques. Only the hope that Karl Marx and Careful Driving will bring similar joy to many more readers is keeping me going.

Perhaps I do inhabit a different planet, but it's not a bad place to be.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009


'A three-axle Volvo F12 tractor unit fitted with the deluxe high-roof 'Globetrotter' cab and left-hand drive, K123 YOF was purchased specifically for the ultra long-haul work to the former Soviet Union and is the first brand-new vehicle I have ever driven.'

Last night's meeting of the Severn Valley Authors (http://severnvalleyauthors.blogspot.com/) brought some interesting comments about Karl Marx and Careful Driving. After I'd read out the latest 2,000-word extract the others took it in turns to make their observations. All were agreed that Karl Marx and Careful Driving was a terrific idea that had the makings of a unique book. Tony, Annie and Linda remarked that the various layers of the narrative were beginning to gel more effectively, so my hard work over the past year hasn't been entirely wasted.

'Owing to Germany's weekend ban on freight I was hoping to find Kukuryki relatively free on a Monday morning, but the trickle of trucks that used to wait at the "freight-only" border that ineffectively divided Poland from the Soviet Union prior to its implosion has become a flow. I find myself joining the end of a line of becalmed juggernauts that stretches a mile or so back from the border.' (Photo courtesy of Jeff Johnston)

One point was repeated from the last time it was my turn to be critiqued: that there wasn't enough about the truck driving or the person driving the truck. I think that one of the problems here is that during the crossing of Western Europe the Marxism and the history is a little top-heavy, partly because there is a great deal to fit in but also because the driver / narrator is bored by the autobahns and therefore spends a great deal of his time in contemplation of other matters. Tony pointed out that unlike the narrator, it will be the first time the majority of readers have ever travelled in a big truck and also the first time many of them will have crossed Western Europe - so despite his boredom the narrator must allocate a more substantial part of the narrative to satisfying their curiosity about the truck, its driver and the landscapes of Belgium and Germany. Many of the questions raised about what it is like to drive a 38-tonne artic are actually dealt with in later sections of the book, but I'll work on transferring some of them to an earlier point in the narrative.

'As always it is a relief to be on the move again after the delays and tensions of a border crossing, the Volvo bouncing and lurching gamely over the potholed and scarred dual carriageway in the evening sunshine as, wary of radar traps but eager to regain some of the time lost in the queue, I put my foot down.' (Photo courtesy of Richard Breakwell)

Rob expressed concern the lack of human interaction thus far - but truck driving is by nature a solitary occupation. It is precisely this aspect of the job that gives the driver so much time to reflect upon history, human nature and philosophy. Furthermore Karl Marx and Careful Driving is a travel book like few others in that the narrator is at work and has a schedule to maintain. He isn't therefore at liberty to stop to interview that interesting looking chap bent over the bonnet of his broken-down Lada or to make a 200-mile detour to take in a war memorial or a church. Indeed it is the fact that the narrator is working for his living that gives him the opportunity to compare Marx's observations about nineteenth-century capitalism to the capitalism of the present day. To what extent have working conditions evolved? Which of Marx's ideas and theories retain their relevance and which have been proved wrong or rendered obsolete? I reassured my fellow authors that there is a great deal more interaction after the narrator has collected Vladimir, the short-sighted, Abba-loving Russian policeman who is to share the cab to provide armed protection for several days after he leaves Moscow. Part of the winter journey, the second section of the book, is made in convoy with two other drivers.

'When you're living the life of which you've dreamed since early childhood you care little about either the hours you work or the size of your pay packet. I am truly fortunate because what I 'do' is truly who I am: the means by which I have chosen to put food on the table and pay the bills defines me because it is the culmination of my dreams and apirations. I cannot in any way be said to be alienated by my occupation because existence has become inseparable from essence and that, I think, is the definition of fulfilment.' (Photo courtesy of Jeff Johnston)

I left the meeting feeling both reassured and worried. Presumably these are familiar feelings for authors contemplating a work-in-progress.