In Missoula

The outskirts of Spokane, Washington. Yup, we are very much in the USA.

The outskirts of Spokane, Washington. Yup, we are very much in the USA.

I have always wondered who those people are who rush onto a plane, sweating and panting, just before the doors close. What’s their story and why are they running so late. Little short stories float through my head explaining their fluster and general chaos. We were those people on Saturday morning. We got to Heathrow at 6:20 a.m. for a 10:00 a.m flight. Yet somehow those three hours and forty minutes were only just enough to check in, get through customs and buy a bottle of water. I wondered if this was a sign of the rest of our trip – that our preparations would somehow always be lacking. Our taxi from Seattle airport to the Kings Inn downtown was also held up. Just as we got to a major intersection, flashing lights appeared, a bunch of cops showed up and  road blocks set up. We sat and waited. Then a convoy of soldiers in souped up school buses and tanks lashed to the backs of flatbed trucks the size of small houses passed before us. We were absolutely in the US.

Our hotel was great: an old-school motel surrounded by glass and steel yuppie condos. We found a 24-hour diner, The Hurricane, which alternated death metal with Frank Sinatra and served 12-egg omelettes. But as is the case in so many cities, the good things are closing down to make way for corporate ugliness: The Hurricane is closing on New Year’s Eve 2014 as the forces of high real estate prices win out over charm and character. As our waiter said, ‘History doesn’t make money the way money does.’ I was disappointed in Seattle. It seemed shiny and soulless. Even the more artsy neighbourhoods felt studied and stuck up. I had imagined it to be grungy based on my teenage image of musicians shooting up in dive bars. There is some decent signage in Seattle which harkens back to times when things were maybe a bit more fun and somewhat gritty:

Some amazing signage in Downtown Seattle. I wonder ho much longer it will survive.

I wonder how much longer Cinerama will survive.

Seattle boasts some great signage that hints at a funkier past

This sort of signage feels very much at odds with the luxury lofts going up in Downtown Seattle.

We did the ten-hour drive from Seattle to Missoula yesterday which took us through dense coniferous forests and scrubby creosote-lined deserts. We stopped in Spokane which has an amazing bookshop and a modernist car park. Two reasons to love it. Seattle also has a wonderful bookshop but, from my brief time in both cities, Spokane wins out. And not just for the car park but for the vibe and the people.

Spokane's gorgeous and brutal Modernist car park.

Spokane’s gorgeous and brutal Modernist car park.

Just before 9 p.m (which was actually 10:00 pm Montana time) we arrived in Missoula. It was just getting dark. I was trying to focus on what I was feeling as we drove into town – my first sighting of where we would be living for the next year. I was so tired and hot and hungry, I was finding it hard to concentrate on what I was seeing. My first impressions of Missoula were distinctly positive. After spending a day here, I am finding it oddly charming. The people we are meeting are interested in our story and why we are here. I feel most of the people we are meeting have tales of why they ended up here. New York or L.A or even Portland and Austin seem obvious choices, but Missoula is off the map. Over the next year, I have no doubt that I will be hearing tales of crossing the country and falling in love with this place or getting stuck here for work or love or the wilderness that surrounds it. We drove to E’s school, and as we parked up, I couldn’t help notice the sign. I thought it was a joke at first and then quickly realised it was for real:


The sign outside E’s school. It is not a joke.

It is things like this that simultaneously make me feel totally foreign and also intrigued to unpick this place. To get under its skin and become even temporarily very much part of its fabric. The one thing you do notice immediately about Missoula is the beauty surrounding it: the massive sky, the mountains, the river running through it. The woman who owns the house we will be renting told me that debates around nature and conservation are very much alive here. In a few days we will be striking out from Missoula and heading out under this immense bowl of blue into the wilderness.


Nine Books


nine books new.crop

The packing continues. We have three days to go and in that time we need to be very brutal in choosing what we take with us to Montana. I keep culling from my suitcase and either leaving things on our windowsill to be taken away by the rag and bone men, or bringing them to the Oxfam drop-off box. The terrible thing is that somehow in all this culling, I have managed to put my copy of John Muir’s collected writings into storage. It was a copy ordered specially from the US by my local bookshop. It was well-worn and full of notes I had made next to passages I wanted to remember and use in my writing. I am annoyed that I will have to buy another copy in the US and reread it. Maybe that’s no bad thing.

The books I am taking have been whittled down to nine:
‘The Oxford Manual of Style’, which is my copy-editing Bible. It is the size of a small microwave oven but I can’t work without it.
Strunk and White’s ‘Elements of Style’, which I use when I am teaching. It is blessedly tiny.
John Gardner’s ‘The Art of Fiction’, which has a section on plotting I must reread as I am really struggling with the structure of a piece of fiction at the moment.
Annie Dillard’s ‘The Writing Life’, which was given to me by my sister K in Toronto. It is a wonderful book and a reminder of so many essentials to do with writing and life.
Isabella Bird’s ‘A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’. Self-explanatory.
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘Nature’, to feed my current hunger for wilderness writing.
Frederick Jackson Turner’s ‘The Significance of the Frontier in American History’, which seems apt as we are indeed moving West.
The Moon Guide to Montana given to us by a friend.
And lastly, on a whim, a book by John Tallmadge called ‘The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City’.

This last one seemed like a good idea for someone like me. Someone who is at home in London’s grimy city streets littered with syringes and rubbish. I love the idea of nature. I am devoted to preserving the Earth and I do my bit to be green, and yet deep-down I am a Big City person. A skyscraper moves me more than a mountain. But in Montana, I want to properly confront nature. I want to inhabit it on a fundamental level and in doing so, perhaps inhabit my self in a way I have never done. In Henry Thoreau’s words, this move has urged me to ‘Simplify, simplify’, which is perhaps the first step towards an existence poised towards an understanding of nature.

Growing up in the Canadian suburbs, I felt removed from nature. I did go to summer camp. I skiied. I went to people’s cottages and I took huge pleasure in it all. But I felt small and insignificant and unable to properly connect to it. Art and literature have always been my natural habitat. When I am confronted with a beautiful vista, my impulse is to ‘do something’ with it. Write about it, draw it, make a note of it. ‘Being’ in it isn’t enough, and yet I know on some profound level that ‘being’ in it is all there is and can be more than enough.

Living in the UK, I feel at home in this tamed version of nature. The public footpaths, the National Trust walks along the coast and through pastures green and so on. It is a benign, man-made wilderness. One that has been moulded into a large, pleasant garden. There are no rattlesnakes or bears or dangerous animals of any kind – apart from one type of poisonous spider and the asp. Both of which are incredibly rare.

In Montana the wilderness is not tame. It is properly wild. It terrifies me. This terror is perhaps a form of ‘awe’ that the Romantics felt when confronted by such things as the famous waterfall of Terni. Kaspar David Friedrich’s young men standing on cliffs are what I think of when I think of wilderness. I don’t think about being that man facing the precipice; I think about being Friedrich painting that man. What moves me most about nature and wilderness has more to do with how humans see and experience it rather than the thing itself. I find it hard to plumb the mystical depths that writers like John Muir experienced when faced with a sunflower opening towards the sun. I see its beauty, but I can’t see my way underneath it to that spiritual place that that Emerson and Thoreau travelled to.

I am moved by the intelligence of nature. By the sheer doggedness with which it tries to carry on despite the onslaught we humans continually level at it. I am moved by plants growing in the cracks of pavements. I find beauty in Ballardian landscapes of broken down buildings colonised by wood pigeons. But an appreciation of the rawness of nature for its own sake is alien to my way of thinking.

In Missoula, J and I will not exactly be building a cabin on Walden Pond, but we will be attempting our own very small version of a Thoreauvian ‘cleansing’. The petty distractions Thoreau so abhorred in city life are exactly what we are hoping to escape. But is it possible in 2014 to do so? We have phones and laptops. These in themselves keep us fed and weighted down with information and ‘connections’.

We will not be going totally off the grid. We won’t be growing our own food and bartering it with our neighbours in the next valley for the skills needed to survive. But we will be living ‘deliberately’. In Thoreau’s words, we will be aiming to ‘front only the essential facts of life’ in order to see if we can learn what this simplicity has to teach us. Like Thoreau, when I come to die, I don’t want to ‘discover that I had not lived’.

Our Stuff Has Gone

empty lounge

Where has all the vinyl gone?

The removal men came yesterday to take all our worldly goods to a metal container in Essex. We are camping in our house. It feels good not being weighted down by loads of belongings. I admire the emptiness around me, and wonder if I could live like this forever.

In 2012 when J and E and I stayed in the Lightning Field in New Mexico, I had one of those ‘life changing’ epiphanies. After a night in the bare hut in the middle of the desert, I vowed to purge myself of all unnecessary things when I got back to London. But, as these life changing epiphanies so often do, this one fizzled out to become just another ‘experience’. Life went swiftly back to being cluttered, busy, messy and very unminimal. Maybe a year in Montana will have a more lasting effect.

There are eight days to go until we board our flight to Seattle and drive with our suitcases to Missoula. E is not happy. I overheard her telling Tubby, one of her soft toys, that he didn’t need to cry because we were only going to America for two days. She is angry with me and reminds me that it is my decision to go to America that is making all her friends cry. She likes her school, she loves her friends and she hates hamburgers. Her biggest fear is that she will pick up an American accent. But I am reassuring her that our adventure will start to get adventurous once we actually get going. The anticipation of anything is always worse than the thing itself. And packing up and moving is always tedious. It will be wonderful in Missoula I keep telling her. Maybe she can hear the trepidation in my voice. I tell her it will all be OK. It will be better than OK. Just like it says in our now empty lounge, it will be FUN.

Packing up

masthead photo

Packing up in preparation for the big move.


So the packing has begun. Between filling boxes with books, my partner J and I are ringing up utility companies and cancelling stuff. Getting out of a phone contract is like escaping from a prison where the door handles are made of barbed wire. I am cursing the 21st century and try to remind myself that all this automated phone service and all these utility companies are actually good. Before we had automated customer service life was terrible, wasn’t it. We lived in unheated hovels and ate stones, right? Anyway, I am resisting my inclination to hate all things modern and trying to embrace this move.

I moved to London from Toronto in 1990, and my memories of swapping continents keep surfacing. Maybe my memories are rose-tinted, but my God, things were simple then. I packed a trunk, shipped it across the ocean and found a room. It was unheated, only had an hour of hot running water a day and I got chilblains. But I didn’t need a phone or a computer. I typed my job applications on my landlady’s wonky typewriter. I soon found a design job despite the ‘e’, the ‘l’ and the ‘m’ on the typewriter being higher than the rest of the letters, making my job applications look like very polite ransom notes. Oh, how innocent we all were. No customer services to deal with, no one telling me to press ‘1’ for a service that in fact turns out to be the wrong one entirely. And passwords were things you read about in thrillers or children’s books.

Which takes me to the whole point of this move. We are upping sticks from our gritty, grimy, drug-ridden, vibrant patch of East London and relocating to Missoula, Montana. The idea is that I will finish my novel and J will make a film. Our seven-year-old daughter E will learn to swim and ride horses. The big sky, the peace and quiet, the slower pace will buy us time in order to press on with our projects. At the moment having watched J spend £500 on boxes, £4,000 on plane fares and a grand on car hire, I am not sure we have made a very sensible decision. Our US VISAs set us back a few thousand as well. This entire adventure has wiped out a huge chunk of our savings, so it will be interesting to see whether we can make it work.

The problem faced by so many of my artist friends is one of how to buy time in which to work. Life in London is madly expensive so we figured living somewhere cheaper would help with this problem. Now I am not so sure.

I will be outlining how this experiment in living and making work pans out over the course of one year, or maybe two. Despite my Luddite tendencies, here I am blogging. If you’d asked me in 1990 whether I would be some day sitting at a computer smaller than the size of my Oxford Shorter English Dictionary, I would have laughed. I wrote letters back then. And I received lots of them in return. In fact I am packing those up in order to store them. I am simultaneously cursing and in thrall to them, running my fingers over the drawings, the pages of handwritten thoughts. They are beautiful objects. They are so out of this century. They are making me feel old. E will no doubt chuck them when I start drooling in my chair in the old folks’ home, so why am I keeping them? I find it hard to throw away anything hand made. Photos, letters, diaries. Things from my hand or from the hands of those I love. I have a whole box for storage labelled ‘E’s hand-made objects’. Her first cardboard camera. A beautiful wooden car. A papier maché pig. I just can’t bring myself to chuck them in the recycling box. I haven’t made the psychological shift from ‘objects’ to ‘content’. For instance, I can’t do e-books. I love my books and want to share them, pass them along, write in their margins. Make as much of a mark on them as they have made on me. But for now I am packing them up alphabetically and flicking through them as I go. It is a joyous, tedious and melancholy task. But it is a task, like moving to Montana that I have chosen.

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