First frost this morning. The trees on Birnam Hill are starting to turn—though not, curiously, as dramatically as they were in the Lot-et-Garonne where we were last week. There the oaks that mantle the vast Quercy forest had taken on every shade of mineral green, pale ochre, rust and gold, a soft tapestry under clear blue autumn skies.
My birthday falls at this time of year, and this year autumn has a particular poignancy. Although it’s not at all how I feel, a small part of my brain has been reminding me all week that 70 marks the beginning of one’s life’s autumn—an idea that happened to have been beautifully expressed in a poem by one of the participants on the course we were running in France.
Autumn is a time for reflection on the year, or life, that precedes it. This week my thoughts have largely been at the other end of the world, in the South America I visited in my early twenties. I vowed that on Monday, the day after my birthday, I would wrap up the research I’ve been doing in recent months and start writing the book on my great-great-uncle, RB Cunninghame Graham (Don Roberto), for which I received funding earlier in the year.
Since he is already the subject of many biographies and studies, I’ve come to conclude that the only fresh perspective I can bring to him is one of personal connection. So the book will be partly my memoir, partly his story, with emphasis on the points—which I’m discovering to be increasingly many—where the two seem to intersect. South America is one of the most prominent of these.
In 1870, aged just 18, he arrived in Argentina, looking for adventure and a chance to restore the family fortunes. He spent most of the next eight years there, leading a life of what today we would consider extreme physical hardship. A superb horseman, he became in effect an honorary gaucho, crossing huge unfenced tracts of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil on horseback at a time when the men he rode with were almost as wild as the animals they encountered, feral cattle being among the most dangerous of all.
In later life he began to write (his first book was published when he was 43; mine when I was 40). Among his finest works are his sketches of that time in South America, unsentimentally capturing every detail of gaucho life and culture, and evoking the last pre-industrial days of the plains and forests of that corner of the globe; a fierce, untamed and in places pristine world that had entirely vanished by the time he came to set it down in writing. For this—just one of his many accomplishments—he earned the admiration of Jorge Luis Borges among others, and is revered to this day in Argentina.
Almost exactly a century later, in 1972, I arrived in Buenos Aires at the start of what turned out to be a year-long journey through South, Central and North America. I knew of him, of course, he was the stuff of family legend; and perhaps subconsciously that had played its part in my decision to go. But I really knew very little about him, and at that stage was not that interested. Like him, I was looking for adventure—and found plenty in the course of the year that followed.
I kept a detailed journal throughout the trip. It became so large I had to buy a special satchel to carry it and keep it safe in, and it grew to be a mixed blessing. There were moments, as I wondered what on earth I was doing on this journey, when it offered me a reason for travelling. There were others when I felt it was coming between me and reality, an obstacle to spontaneous experience, as I thought constantly of how I would describe what was happening around me
At the time I wrote a number of articles about the journey, but I always intended to use the journal as the basis for something longer. In the mid 1990s I wrote a novel set in the Peruvian Andes, but there was a lot wrong with it and after a bruising experience with an agent who had approached me having read a previously published novel, The Mapmaker, I abandoned it.
Ten years ago I had written half of another, set this time in Amazonia, in anticipation of a contract with Macmillan, who had published my two previous young adult novels, The Witness and The Reckoning. But I was told, somewhat peremptorily, by a new editor that my sales didn’t pass muster and no contract would be forthcoming.
I put this one aside for several years then picked it up again and finally completed it, now titled Jaguar, a couple of years ago. Since then it has been doing the rounds and gathering compliments, but no offers. This week I met with the friend and agent who has picked it up after my original agent, also a friend, had exhausted all her options with it and kindly agreed to let me pass it on.
The long and short of it seems to be that the marketers, who now set the acquisition agenda for most publishers, leaving editors largely to manage the process of publication, prefer ‘issues-based’ books for young adults (an oddly artificial and constricting category that I’ve always struggled with, anyway). My books contain plenty of issues, but they don’t take centre stage; they’re there rather as undercurrents that influence the direction of the story that drives the whole thing along.
But an hour with Lindsey, who is still determined to find me a publisher if she possibly can, revived the story in my mind. I believe it’s a good story. Now, Don Roberto’s story is gaining substance and expanding in my imagination. And together they’re summoning again the memories of my own South American journey, a defining experience in my life and one that is still vivid in almost every detail.
My task this autumn is to start weaving these elements together in a way that makes sense to me and hopefully says something to others. I could use a little mellow fruitfulness.
If you’re interested in reading more about my great-great-uncle I now have another blog at http://www.donrobertoandme.com