• How to spend a long haul flight

    View from a plane window of the Altai mountains
    Gazing down on Central Asia

    I find the thought of long haul flights intimidating. The prospect of 13 hours of reading time is mammoth even for me. I’ve no interest in the films or in sleeping, so it’s all about the plane meals and the reading. 

    Read about somewhere you fly over

    Before my flight from China to the UK, I happened to find a short novel called Jamila by an author named Chingiz Aitmatov in the local charity shop. 

    The fact that the back cover claimed he was Kyrgyzstan’s most famous literary figure gave me a thought. I was pretty sure my flight would pass over Kyrgyzstan – so why not read about it?

    Watching real time maps

    The other thing I love to do in a plane is look out of the window. Anyone who is obsessed by maps will find a particular delight in air travel. It provides real life maps that you can gaze on for hours, spotting features you knew only from atlases. 

    As we flew, I interspersed gazing down at the Kyrgyz mountains, the foothills of the Altai range and the Kazakh steppe with reading Aitmatov’s little novel. I hadn’t realised it was old, but soon understood that it was written about the Second World War period. 

    In fact, Jamila was published in 1958. Gazing down at Kyrgyzstan as Aitmatov’s story gazed back into Soviet history gave me an extraordinary sense of time and space. The story itself is beautiful and simple, the story of life and love in a Kyrgyz village. 

    Next time you travel in a plane, pick a country en route, the smaller the better. Then go and search for its greatest novelist and see what you find…

  • You’re the only person reading this

    Beech trees in the wood
    An Autumn forest brimming with SEO

    The sun breaks through the leaves. They are full on the trees, creating dappled shapes that shift and heave in the breeze. Small purple-headed thistles sway by the path, but each time I move back under the canopy, the chill in the air prickles my skin. The sun is shining, but it has no strength left. It is a light, clear sunshine, like soft white wine. It won’t last. As I move, nutshells crack beneath my shoes.

    What? Are you still reading? You see, I realised that everything you learn about how to write is SEO (search engine optimisation) madness. ‘Show, don’t tell’ is the opposite of keyword density.

    That paragraph you read, it doesn’t have a subhead saying:

    ‘Hey, It’s Autumn. Get Outside’ [well, it does now-ed.]

    …and the keyword density for ‘autumn’ is zero.

    Every time I write a blog post, I have an army of devices that help me polish the SEO. So you’ll find it and read it. Why do I write? To be read by you.

    Gutenberg is dead

    You see? That subhead is no good at all. You might be interested in the demise of traditional publishing, but you’re not going to Google ‘Gutenberg’. Better to change that subhead to ‘Traditional publishing is dead’. Be literal.

    The problem is you lose so much. ‘Gutenberg is dead’ works fine for your TED talk, because everyone in the audience knows the name Gutenberg refers to the printing press. They might even give you a few wry smiles about the allusion to Nietzsche’s God is dead. Maybe?

    It doesn’t matter if they do or not, at least your words have layers.

    2D digital

    If online is the future of the written word, and SEO is how you get that word seen, what is the future of the written word? Is it a race to the exclamation mark?

    This isn’t about being Tolstoy. But it’s about the idea that writing can reveal itself in different ways and at different speeds, depending on when and how you read it.

    If I only write in exclamation marks, I keep your attention (because we all apparently have goldfish attention spans now). That makes sense. The internet is a crowded place.

    But we’re not goldfish. We’re humans.

  • 6 Greats from the Great Plains

    the great plains of the American West
    Into the great wide open (Photo by Louis Moncouyoux on Unsplash)

    1 Plainsong Trilogy (Plainsong, Eventide, Benediction) by Kent Haruf

    On completing this beautifully sparse, stripped bare trilogy set in the imagined flatlands town of Holt, Colorado, I was struck by how the Great Plains have been something of a mesmerizing muse for me — much like the Siberian steppe in Russian literature. So, alongside this account of simple, honest farming life in a community somewhere east of Brush on Highway 34, here are a few more Great Plains classics I’ve come across…


    2 Lake Wobegon Days by Garrison Keillor

    If Haruf’s novels evoke anything for me, it is perhaps the languid timelessness of that other mythic Midwest town — Lake Wobegon, Minnesota. Across these gentle stories, Keillor portrayed a Norwegian Lutheran upbringing in the back of beyond with sparkling wit and compassion. In their audio version, read by the author in his smooth, rolling Midwest accent, they were the soundtrack to my adolescence and a schooling in great writing.


    3 Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne

    Scratch the dusty surface of the Great Plains, and you will quickly unearth an Indian. The Native Americans who were the first people of this land were vanquished an astonishing short time ago, but the last and most tenacious of them — the Comanches — survived with skill and extraordinary bravery. But what sets this book apart is its fascinating detailing of ordinary Comanche day-to-day life, not the set battles with the whites. In it, I saw a more authentic face of the Native American than I’ve found elsewhere.


    4 True Grit by Charles Portis

    “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the grace of God”

    So says Mattie Ross, the young girl who is the heroine of this classic Western set in Arkansas and the Indian Territory of modern-day Oklahoma. The book is a wonderfully self-indulgent read for anyone who’s ever enjoyed a John Buchan or similar adventure story, but it also has, well, the true grit of the American Great Plains about it. I found the book via the great Coen Brothers film starring Jeff Bridges. That was in turn a remake of a 1969 film — one I’ve never seen!


    5 Nebraska (2013), directed by Alexander Payne

    Now for some film. For anyone who loves the wide open bleakness of Springsteen’s 1982 album, a film with this title is always going to capture the imagination. In the event, it turned out to be one of the best films I’ve watched in years. A touching story of family life in Nebraska and Montana, with lots of humour, some wonderful dialogue and, of course, lots of wide open cinematic space.


    6 Certain Women (2016), directed by Kelly Reichardt

    This snapshot film follows the lives of three different women in rural Montana. But the one I want to draw your attention to is the story of Jamie, played by Lily Gladstone, a farm hand tending horses alone through a winter outside Belfry, Montana. The town sits on the edge of the Crow Reservation, not far from Bighorn country, and Gladstone herself is of Blackfeet and Nez Perce ancestry. The epic lonesomeness says so much about not only life on the Great Plains, but also the Native American experience.