Tag Archives: Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper

This review rocked my boat

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Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper has had some nice reviews, but I particularly liked this one on Amazon.com from Mr JJ Drabble, because he understood what I was doing and why I was doing it that way and you don’t always get that:

Five Stars
I have the opportunity to read few books these days, so I give little truck to efforts which don’t have the appeal to grab and hold me within the first couple of chapters. Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper got its hooks in quickly and refused to let go. Billy (real name Zappa) tells his story in a manner that leaves the reader feeling as though they are sitting in a cafe while he unveils his life directly to them. In an unusual writing style, Lynch often has Billy expose the reader to a key fact from later in the story. On the first couple of occasions I thought “Whoa, that’s a spoiler! Don’t tell me that at this stage.” But it works. And rather than a string of spoilers it carries the story along in a series of rolling exposures and “ah-ha” explanations. Another interesting style is the use of very brief sentences peppered through the early story, tapering off to a more measured flow later as Billy’s life moves from the chaos of an existence with his shambolic family to a life driven more by his abilities. The early days of complete household anarchy and pointless bashings give way to Billy having his life controlled and “art directed” by others, most of whom have gains of their own to be made from his qualities and talents, albeit gains that also benefit Billy. The ending, although tragic, is rather satisfying and leaves the reader with sense of time well spent on the read. It was a three day book for me, and this is not a measure of brevity, but of its compelling nature. I see a movie here.

Walking in the character’s shoes

Billy McErlane is the protagonist of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I got to know Billy quite well while I was writing the book, and not just because he came into the room where I write (the one I laughably refer to as my office) and talked to me until the book was finished. Between Billy and me we decided to make him (a) a celeb and (b) a photographer. An old friend of mine, who really is a photographer (and a really good one) – his name, if you’re interested, is Jeff Drabble and he’s in New Zealand – asked me this morning why I had made Billy a photographer. I tried to explain how the demands of plot development had required that Billy take pics rather than, say, write novels (which had in fact been his first ambition) but I hope I also got across that it isn’t really that simple. Be that as it may, a photographer is what Billy turned out to be and while I am also a keen snapper (though nothing on the Jeff Drabble scale) I felt I needed to get closer to Billy’s life. So I went with him. This passage appears in the book (which is written in the first person in Billy’s voice):

McErlane’s agent, Jessica Robinson, has assembled a line of prints featuring some of the best of his recent portraits and is making them available through retail outlets at prices that mean no home need be without its McErlane. The example shown here, The Future, is one of these and is available, framed and ready to hang, at only £60.
The picture she’d chosen was one I was particularly pleased with. It showed a man on a hillside, back to the camera, looking into the distance. Nothing of his face was visible, and the idea you got was of someone staring towards what might be. He was wearing a hip-length red coat, black jeans, white trainers and a brown hat with an absolutely flat brim. Two dogs were close to his feet.

That description didn’t come out of nowhere; in fact I had taken that pic on a hillside about 3 miles from where I live. Here it is:

The Future

A little later, we get this:
I turned from the track and we walked along a broad belt of grass with trees to the side until we came to a fence, at which point I had to get the camera in both hands again because beyond the fence was a group of buildings in an open field that said everything the editor paying for my trip wanted to know about how the past could exist harmoniously in the present.
Once again, Billy is describing a photograph that I took (very early on a frosty morning):

??????????????????????

I don’t know to what extent every writer does this but I can’t write without getting inside the head of my characters and sometimes that means living the lives they lead – walking in their shoes. From time to time, I do wonder whether I’m entirely sane. But, then – who is?

A Manly Tear

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A friend of mine in California read an Advance Review Copy of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and told me how much he’d enjoyed it. ‘Did you shed a manly tear towards the end?’ I asked. I realise now that I should have said at the outset that though he lives in California and has a US passport this friend is originally from England. We’ve known each other since we met on Soc Culture British more than twenty years ago, so anyone who was around that place at that time will have a feel for the sort of relationship we have.
Anyway, he assured me that the bittersweet ending of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper had brought no sadness to his breast and he went further to tell me that “manly” and “tears” were incompatible words. Men don’t cry.
Surely this can’t be right? I wrote Zappa’s Mam with a clear picture of my reader and as I typed the last twenty thousand words I was thinking, “You think you know where this is going. Don’t you? You think you’re reading a Happy Ever After/Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Gets Girl tale. Don’t you? Well, my dear reader, do I have a surprise in store for you.” When I wrote the last line I thought, “If that doesn’t dampen the cheek of even the malest of men, I don’t know what will.” And now comes the message from California – California of all places – Men Don’t Cry.
I’ve written in the past on this blog about the story I read to pupils and parents from the stage of Benton Park Primary School when I was ten but that is not really where my desire to be a writer started. In my mid-teens I read Wuthering Heights and when I reached the end I was aware of a prickling at the back of my eyes. (No, not at the quality of the writing – it was my reaction to the story’s emotional impact).  I decided then that this was what I wanted to do. I don’t mean that I decided to write about people and their lives in a way that would tug at the reader’s heart-strings because fourteen year olds don’t think that way; what happened was that I realised for the first time how the written word could move the reader and I thought, “I want to do that”.
I still want to do it. And I’m not sure what all that California sunshine has done to my old friend’s humanity. Men don’t cry? Your child is ill, seriously ill, ill to the point of death and recovers – and you don’t cry? You watch a parent grow old and frail and the inevitable end comes – and you don’t cry? You’ve wanted for years to achieve something that has always seemed just beyond your capabilities but you worked and worked to study where you were going wrong and put it right and finally you get there – and you don’t cry?
I’m glad I’m not you.

The Genesis of Sharon Wright: Butterfly

Sharon Wright, Butterfly cover for web

I’m asked where the character of Sharon Wright came from in a way that no one ever asks about Billy, the central character in Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. I don’t find that puzzling; it reflects the unwillingness of people to accept the pursuit of self-interest in a female character when it would not trouble them in a male. It’s clear that some people find Sharon disturbing. Personally, I love the woman 🙂
When my daughter was nine, we moved house. For the previous year or so she had told us that her ambition was to be a doctor; she returned home on the first day at her new school and said she planned to be a nurse. I said, ‘What happened to being a doctor?’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Boys become doctors. Girls become nurses.’ I took her out of that school and sent her to one that accepted only girls and they set about the business of reinstating her ambition and sense of self-worth and making sure she kept it. I had better make it clear right now that I mean nothing derogatory towards nurses – my problem was with people who accepted that there must be limits on a person’s ambition for no other reason than that the person lacks testicles.
I actually wrote Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper before Sharon Wright: Butterfly but Sharon Wright was published first for reasons that don’t matter here. Zappa’s Mam is the story of a young man who overcomes the disadvantages of an appalling home background, achieves his ambition and shines in the world. I wanted to write a similar book about a young woman and that book became Sharon Wright: Butterfly.
It’s true that Sharon puts herself first but that wasn’t always so – it’s learned behaviour. If she had always put herself first she would have taken the opportunity to go to college and lead, far from the place where she grew up, a life of the kind her schoolmates could only dream of. Just like Billy does. She would not have made her sad marriage to Buggy, the Loser’s Loser, and might instead have found someone to love with whom she could share a rewarding life. Just like Billy does. Only when she sees what other people are getting out of life does she begin to plot a better future for herself – but when she does begin, no holds are barred. She plans her wooing of Jackie Gough the way a female mantis might stalk the male, with every intention of consuming him for lunch when he has served his purpose. She’s helped by the fact that she understands the men in her life much better than they understand her. She says,
‘Jackie. You know what I’ve learned? Started learning when I first went to school, and went on learning? Men need to think I’m dumb. Because I’m a woman, and I’m blonde, well, men think I’m blonde, and I like to spend a lot of time on my back with my legs in the air, and I like men for what they have that makes them men, I have to be dumb. Well, I’m not dumb.’
And Jackie has begun to realise that dumb is the last thing she is. Then she says,
‘I pretend to be, if that’s the game the man needs me to play. But what I really want is to play the game where we’re both smart and we both know we’re both smart. Think you can play that game with me, Jackie? Please?’
And Jackie says he can. Because Jackie thinks he understands Sharon and he thinks she’s going to play the game his way.
Poor Jackie.
I’m on Sharon’s side. How about you?

Danny Boy

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This evening on I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, when Tim Brooke-Taylor had to sing I’m a teenage dirtbag to the tune of Danny Boy, I found my mind drifting to my own use of Danny Boy which ended on the writer’s version of the cutting room floor. This was originally part of Chapter 1 of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper:

The Howards told me there’d been a street party when Prince Charles married Diana, though they also said they’d had it at the local primary school which sounds to me like a school party, not a street party. Mister Howard said half the Catholics didn’t come because they said they were Irish and they weren’t going to celebrate any damned English royal family foolishness, which brings me back to why do they stay here if they hate it so much? And the rest came but they negotiated their share of the festivities, which included having some young boy sing Danny Boy. I suppose we should be pleased they didn’t insist on Kevin Barry.

(Danny Boy. In Young Offenders, as I said, we’d go to churchy things just for a break. There was an RC chaplain there who talked about Catholic Guilt. I suppose he thought guilt was something we should focus on, us being what and where we were. To hear him talk, you’d think the whole world was founded on Catholic Guilt. And you know what? There’s no such thing. When did you ever hear a Spaniard or an Italian go on about Catholic Guilt? What there is is Irish Guilt. Listen to Danny Boy and you’ll see. It’s supposed to be a mother or a father singing to their son who is off to some place with more opportunity, America probably, and this mother or father says,

“And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.”

The paddies get all weepy about that. But it’s that bit about “as dead I well may be” that gives it away. What this mother or father is really saying is, “You go off and do whatever you want to do. You just look after yourself and never give me, the poor ould ‘un that gave you your miserable life, a single thought. I’ll probably be dead when you get back, if you ever do get back which you probably won’t because you’ll be having far too good a time to bother coming back to see me, but don’t you worry your pretty head about that. You just go off and enjoy yourself like the selfish little shit you are and don’t give me any consideration at all. Just like you never do.” That’s Danny Boy. And that’s Irish Guilt. The mother or father is laying a nice big slice on the departing child. Enough to last a lifetime. And that is why they keep going on about what a grand place ould Ireland is while taking damn good care never to set foot there again).

If you’re Irish and I’ve just offended you, I apologise. <Snigger>

I had to cut that passage from Zappa’s Mam and I’m used to that—to get to the 92,000 words the book has in its finished form I probably wrote a total of more than 150,000. Barbers sell the hair that ends up on the floor of their shop but writers mostly don’t get the chance to reuse their offcuts. Writing this blog post has given me a frisson of guilty pleasure.

Am I nuts?

A Just and Upright Man cover R J Lynch updated June 2014

I’m editing Poor Law, the sequel to A Just and Upright Man and second in the five book James Blakiston series. At least, I thought I was. But a couple of days ago a series of strokes of the sort of genius known only to the greatest minds meant I had to accept that I was into a wholesale rewrite and not just an edit. I’ve spent a large part of today in 18th century Durham county, the POV I’ve been writing these scenes in is that of a young woman and I got into that trance-like state that comes—sometimes—when it’s going well, you’re undisturbed and you’ve left your own world behind and moved completely into someone else’s. If you like—though it’s a word I don’t like—I’ve been channelling a sixteen year old girl from the 1760s. A number of things happened and Kate told me each time how she felt, what was in her mind and what the reaction of other people was. Times like that you have to keep going, keep writing because you don’t know when you’re going to have that rock-solid connection to another world again. When I finally came out of it (because I needed to eat) I was reminded of that time I’d been writing a 20th Century criminal and, when I finally stood up, I was patting my pockets, desperate for a cigarette. It took twenty minutes before I remembered that I don’t smoke.

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

 

That took me on to Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, where protagonist Billy McErlane stood over me while I was working telling me, “Don’t forget the anger management. Tell them about the psych. Wendy wouldn’t have behaved like that, she’d have done this.” And from there it wasn’t a huge step to When the Darkness Comes and Haile Selassie elbowing his way forward when he caught the scent of Barabbas (who he didn’t care for one little bit) and saying, “If he’s in, I’m in.” The Lion of Judah had no place in my plans but he wasn’t going to be denied. He took control, too. So I suppose the question is fairly obvious. Am I completely round the bend? Is there any hope?

Where did that come from?

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

When I’d finished A Just and Upright Man, I wanted to start on something different—a story set in the 21st Century instead of the 1760s. I sat at my keyboard and waited to see what would come. It was this: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. I sat and stared at the screen. Where on earth had that come from? I really didn’t have a clue. People ask, “Where do you get your ideas from?” and in this case I’d have had to say, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” And I didn’t.

But somebody did because the story, which became Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper,  developed—and, while it did, someone was talking to me. It took me a while to identify the someone as Billy McErlane, narrator and hero of Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper. He was so heavily invested in the story that he kept prompting me: “Tell them about the anger management”; “Don’t forget the psychologist”; “Don’t say that, because that isn’t really how it was.” By the end of the book I knew as much about Billy’s life as Billy did. I knew how he’d felt when Wendy dumped him; I felt his fear as he watched The Creep being beaten to death and his impotent fury at the lies told about him in court. But I still didn’t know where all this was coming from. Who could possibly be telling me all this?

And then I remembered that time while I was writing When the Darkness Comes—a book so complex in design that it still after four years isn’t ready to meet the public—when Barabbas walked into the Canaries hotel where a TV chat show was being filmed and Haile Selassie arrived out of nowhere in a very bad temper to tell me what I could and couldn’t do with a man he regarded as a usurper.

That was a sobering experience. One result is that, when people do say, “Where do you get your ideas from?” I don’t attempt to tell them because I know they’d think I was nuts.

Now where would they get that idea from?

 

He’s behind you! (Oh, yes he is)

I’ve been writing – fiction and non-fiction – for a long time. My first sale was an article to Good Housekeeping. I didn’t realise till later that I was starting at the top and would have to work very hard to stay there. If you’d like to hear the very first thing I ever sold to the BBC you can download it here. And I can go back further than that, to the age of ten when I read a story of mine from the stage of Benton Park Primary School in Newcastle upon Tyne to the assembled pupils and parents. Whatever I’ve written has always been full of false starts – an opening chapter or chapters that were only there as scaffolding to get the story going and had disappeared by the time I finally wrote END on the bottom of the last page.

Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper was different – and a very odd experience. I wrote the first sentence: All I’d said was, I wouldn’t mind seeing her in her knickers. Then I sat there staring at it thinking, “Where on earth did that come from?” Then I wrote the rest of the first chapter. And it’s all still there. I started writing Zappa’s Mam in 2013, it was published on February 1st 2015 and the opening line and chapter are exactly what they were when I started writing. That has never happened to me before.

All the way through the writing, editing and rewriting of Zappa’s Mam, the protagonist – Billy – was looking over my shoulder. There never was a Billy, he’s one hundred per cent my invention, but the was there. There. Watching what I was doing. Talking to me. “Tell them about the anger management.” “Don’t forget the bike.” “I didn’t know Regus then – that came later.”

I’ve had this experience of characters talking to me, guiding me, again since then – I’m currently polishing When the Darkness Comes and I couldn’t have written that in anything like its present form if I hadn’t had Barabbas and Ras Tafar butting in with their comments and demands, but Billy was the first. He took me to a new level of intensity in my writing. I’m grateful to him, though the experience was a bit like banging your head against a wall – nice when it stops.

Anyone here from Buffalo, Wyoming?

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

Yesterday I posted about Coeur d’Alene; today it’s Buffalo, Wyoming. The reason is the same: my new book, Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, will be published March 1st and I don’t want to insult anyone from Buffalo, accidentally or with intent, so if anyone there is listening to me I’d be grateful for some of your time.

The following passage occurs in Zappa’s Mam (just before the Coeur d’Alene pages I posted about yesterday). If you know Buffalo, Wyoming, please read this and tell me whether it’s going to upset anyone. I’ll be really grateful.

 Take Dan and Vern in Buffalo, Wyoming. We met in the Occidental Saloon. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane all stayed at the Occidental and when you stand in the bar you can see twenty-three bullet holes in the ceiling. It brings back every Western you ever watched.

Dan and Vern and I got talking. The conversation turned to women. Dan and Vern liked women, but things had gone wrong. ‘The design of women is flawed,’ said Vern, who it turned out was a retired engineer.

‘Flawed?’

‘Well, sure. If you bought a house in that condition, you’d sue the plumber.’

‘We’ve cracked it,’ said Dan and Vern said, ‘Yeah. My Sophie’s a real doll.’ They both cackled at that.

Dan and Vern had been friends for sixty years and they’d shared a home on Klondike Road for the past twenty. ‘Out near the Willow Grove Cemetery,’ Vern explained. ‘We don’t want to inconvenience folks too much when we go.’

Dan said it would be real polite of me if I’d step out to Klondike Road with them and meet their womenfolk. Naturally, I said yes.

It took three days before they’d agree to have their pictures taken and sign the release forms without which the publisher would never let them into print. When she’d finally overcome her scepticism and accepted that the pics were real and I hadn’t set them up, Jessica said they were some of my best ever.

They kept these two dolls permanently inflated and sitting up in their tidy, spotless living room. Vern explained that Kerry was a Backdoor Baby because Dan sometimes liked to pack fudge but he, Vern, took his sex straight. On the other hand, he’d always liked big tits. I had to admit I’d rarely seen any bigger than Sophie’s. Dan and Kerry had a two-seat sofa and Vern and Sophie had another at right angles to it. The television constituted the other side of this triangle. The four of them would sit up at night watching old movies, the men’s arms around the women, the men eating corn chips, drinking beer and smoking. At the end of the evening, Dan and Vern would tidy the room, empty the ashtrays, drop chip packets into the pedal bin and fill the dishwasher. Then they’d pick the two girls up in their arms and carry them off to bed.

They had wardrobes of tarty underwear and slutty dresses, skirts and tops they bought on the Net and, once they’d decided to trust me, they went through a whole series of changes while I took photographs. I did not, thank God, get to watch them coupling with the dolls. Dan explained that they both needed Viagra now and, once they got started, it tended to last a very long time and, anyway, they preferred to do it in bed. ‘We like a bit of privacy. We’re not nuts, you know.’

Dan and Vern were odd, but no odder than some of their neighbours. In Framingham they’d probably have been locked up. By the time I got to Coeur d’Alene, Spokane and Moses Lake they seemed almost normal.

So there you have it. The question: Is there anyone in Buffalo, Wyoming who could be offended by anything in that passage? (Especially anyone called Dan or Vern? :-))

Anyone here from Coeur d’Alene?

Zappa's Mam's a Slapper Cover for Web

I’m looking for help. My new book, Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper, will be published March 1st and I’m a great believer in the definition of a gentleman that says a gentleman is someone who never insults anyone accidentally. I don’t want to insult anyone from Coeur d’Alene, accidentally or with intent, so if anyone there is listening to me I’d be grateful for some of your time.

The following passage occurs in Zappa’s Mam (in fact on pages 295 to 302 of the paperback version). If you know Coeur d’Alene, please read this and tell me whether it’s going to upset anyone. I’ll be really grateful. (Ignore the bit about blow-up dolls—that’s actually about Buffalo, Wyoming and I’ll be posting something for them separately).

However hard the author works, books are sold on one or two incidents, one or two pictures.  What people remember I90, Road to America for is Dan and Vern and their blow-up dolls, and the Church of Forgiveness.

I’d only been in Coeur d’Alene for two days and I was walking around getting my bearings when a man so fat you were surprised he could walk stopped me in the street. ‘My son, we must talk, you and I.’ He had a voice as deep as Paul Robeson’s.

Normal people cross the road at this point and walk on. Photographers with paymasters looking for a freak show don’t.

He held out a hand the size of a rugby ball. I shook it. ‘The Reverend Humphrey Catalan.’ Humphrey? He handed me a card; sure enough, that was the name he went by. His occupation: Pastor of the Church of Forgiveness. He wrapped a monstrous arm around my shoulder. ‘Let us break bread together, son.’

We caused a bit of a stir in the coffee shop. It seemed the Reverend Humphrey had broken two of their chairs in the past and now he was only allowed on the bench that ran round the booth at the back, but this was already occupied by four teens.

‘Stay cool,’ said my new friend. ‘We don’t mind sharing.’ With which words he eased himself through the entrance to the booth, sat on the bench and pushed effortlessly leftwards, sliding the four towards the end. I expected trouble. Instead, one of the youths stood up and raised his hands palm outwards. ‘Okay, Reverend. You win.’

They filed out peaceably and took seats around a table. The Reverend Humphrey beamed at them. ‘God bless you, William Kazsnowski. Tell your mother it’s high time she made her confession.’

The waitress stood beside us, pad in hand. ‘Making confession,’ she murmured. ‘Is that what they’re calling it now?’

Humphrey ordered coffee and blueberry pie with ice cream and double whipped cream. I asked for coffee. Humphrey said, ‘You should eat something, son.’ I told him I’d had breakfast only an hour earlier. ‘So did I, son. God’s work requires that we keep up our strength.’ He turned on me the same thousand watt beam he’d directed at the Kazsnowski boy. ‘Introduce yourself, my son,’ he boomed in a voice that might have been heard twenty miles away.

I handed him my own card. While he was reading it, I took the Olympus out of my pocket and shot him three times, bracketed for white balance. The fluorescent light was flashing and you never know what sort of light you’re going to get. He tucked the card into his waistcoat pocket.

‘So,’ he bellowed. ‘What’s an English photographer doing in Coeur d’Alene?’

‘Looking for the unusual,’ I said.

‘Looking for the unusual. Well, son, you sure came to the right place.’ Lowering his voice to a decibel count that probably wouldn’t carry more than two hundred metres, he said, ‘You have the most terrible aura, son. You know that?’

‘Aura?’

‘That’s why I spoke to you. You want to know what your aura says?’

‘Maybe. I’m not sure how many people I want to share the information with.’

He looked blank. The waitress slapped down an enormous slice of pie and two coffees. ‘He means he’d like it if you kept your voice down, Reverend.’

Humphrey began to open paper packets of sugar and empty them into his coffee. He looked at me. ‘That true, son? You shy?’

Walking away, the waitress said, ‘He’s English,’ as though that explained everything. Which, in Coeur d’Alene, possibly it did.

Humphrey shovelled pie into his mouth. When he had finished, he stood up, dropped some money on the table and made for the door. ‘Let’s go, son.’

I followed him out. ‘Thanks for the coffee,’ I said. He put his arm round my shoulder and began to walk. I had no option but to go with him.

‘I’ll give you a tour of the town,’ he said. ‘And while we walk we’ll address the subject of your vengeful spirit.’

‘What?’

‘Unforgiving. I never saw a more remorseless, grudge-holding aura in my life. That’s the City Park, by the way. You want to get a picture?’

‘I’ll come back for it. I don’t hold grudges.’

‘No?’

It’s a strange place, Coeur d’Alene. Americans will tell you it didn’t exist much more than a hundred years ago, which rather rudely ignores the Indians. Now it’s a resort and you get lots of normal people, or people who can pass for normal in the northwest USA, and they have malls and restaurants and stuff to amuse themselves in. There’s sailing in the summer and skiing in the winter and golf most of the time when it isn’t actually snowing. Good old friendly USA.

But it started as a frontier trading post and went into mining and logging and gambling, and the people who did those things weren’t clubbable. Coeur d’Alene was where you got off the steamboat to try your luck at prospecting for silver, and where you got back on the boat to go home, or more likely to drift on somewhere else, when you realised this was not the place you were going to make your strike. There was no welfare state and no safety net and if you didn’t look after yourself in whatever way you could, you starved. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that environment and beneath the tourist polish all that independence and egoism is still there.

That was what I was looking for in Coeur d’Alene and I90, Road to America shows that I found it. I took a lot of photographs, far more than got into the book. I got to love the place. There aren’t many places where I think, “I could live here,” but Coeur d’Alene is one of them.

And I spent quite a lot of time with the Reverend Humphrey. He summed up the spirit of the place for me. ‘Folks here will look after you if you need it, but we expect you to look after yourself first. Folks will pick up the slack if you can’t hack it all the way. But folks ain’t your first line of defence, son. Your first line of defence is you.’

I realised after a while that he was feeding me this stuff because I was British and he’d heard all about the British and what had happened to them. We were the brave little land that had helped John Wayne and Frank Sinatra win the war but now our hearts had been poisoned by socialism and we’d lost our self-reliance. This was the second time I’d been the brand someone was going to save from the burning, Melanie being the first someone, and I have sometimes wondered what it is about me that makes people want to rescue me like that.

When I showed Jessica my photographs of Humphrey, naturally I also told her about the man behind the pics. She said he wasn’t really a priest, he was a psychotherapist. Or maybe just a dabbler in self-help psychobabble. Whatever, she said. Whatever turned your crank, or helped you survive in this jungle. She was going through a bad time just then. I got the feeling that someone she’d thought of as her long term partner had just gone, but she didn’t talk about personal stuff to me and I couldn’t even tell you whether that someone was likely to have been a man or a woman. That’s how close we weren’t. But she did tell me that life was precarious. She said the most any of us could hope for was to get through to the day we died without ourselves deciding to chuck it in before then. If we could stand there at that moment and say, “Well, I made it. I’m here. I got through to the end. And in a minute I’ll be out of it,” that would be success.

All of which I’d already worked out for myself. But I didn’t say so. I might have questioned her tact, but Jessica didn’t know I’d got so close to killing myself I’d actually walked out onto the Severn Bridge.

There was one pic I showed her that I certainly didn’t show Humphrey, and it didn’t make it into the book, either. We’d arranged to meet and walk into town where I was going to buy him lunch. There was no-one in the church and the door to Humphrey’s house next door was open as it usually was. He’d told me many times just to walk in and that’s what I did.

 It was a two storey house but Humphrey lived most of his life on the ground floor because stairs caused him difficulty. He’d had a stairlift fitted but it had broken the first time he used it. If the sounds had been coming from upstairs I might still have gone up there to investigate, because there isn’t much a photographer after a pic won’t do. But they weren’t coming from upstairs, they were coming from a room I’d never been in but which I knew was where Humphrey slept.

Of course I know I shouldn’t have shot it. I probably shouldn’t have shot two thirds of the pics I’m most proud of. But I did. The chance to immortalise the pastor’s huge naked rump as it rose and fell with astonishing vigour was just too much to pass up. You can always delete a pic you’ve taken and wish you hadn’t, but go back and grab the fleeting opportunity you missed first time around? Forget it.

Pictures capture what you can see. Good pictures also capture what you can feel. What I couldn’t get was Humphrey’s rhythmic grunting or the mewing sounds that were coming from beneath him. Who was doing the mewing, I couldn’t see. Whoever it was was almost hidden by the Reverend’s immense bulk and I remember worrying that she’d be suffocated. I could see from the position of her feet that she was face down, but her feet were all I could see.

Having got my picture, I went back to the front door, rang the bell and then slammed the door loudly as I re-entered the house. ‘Humphrey?’ I shouted. ‘Are you here?’

There was a bellow which I’m pretty sure said, ‘I’ll just be two minutes’ and I sat down to read one of the Church of Forgiveness’s newsletters. After a little more than two minutes, a small, neat woman with flushed cheeks who I knew to be one of the Reverend’s flock passed through the room, smiled shyly at me and departed. A few moments later, Humphrey arrived. He was pinker than usual and breathing quickly.

‘I’m sorry, Reverend,’ I said. ‘I hadn’t realised you were hearing confessions.’

He smiled, gestured me to my feet, placed his arm round my shoulder and led me into the street. ‘Sustenance, son, I must have sustenance. I have quite an appetite today.’

I said I wasn’t surprised. I also said God would provide for his hunger, just as he clearly provided for his other needs. I suppose it came out a bit sour. All right, I’d never been religious and never had the opportunity but I did have some idea of what priestly decorum was supposed to be and it didn’t include banging the parishioners.

‘Son, if the Almighty is opposed to men and women doing what He made us to do, he ain’t never mentioned His opposition in my hearing.’

We had reached the door of a restaurant. I said, ‘Mexican do you?’

‘Sure, son,’ he said as he followed me in. ‘Mexican be fine.’ Quality didn’t matter to the Reverend. What mattered was quantity and he knew, as I knew, that he’d get that here.

All right, so the Reverend Humphrey Catalan wasn’t everyone’s idea of a priest. Coeur d’Alene has a lot of churchgoers and many would be likely to cross to the other side of the road when they saw him coming. There are four Baptist churches in town and he’d have been drummed out of all of them. The Catholics have got two and the Lutherans are also pretty big there and they, too, would have denounced Humphrey and all his works. He was a glutton and a lecher and he didn’t say no to a drink when it was offered.

But he brought smiles to the faces of the women he rogered. He cared about people, he wanted to see them happy instead of sad and he had a very clear idea of how that was achieved. Sometimes he wasn’t entirely serious and sometimes he was and he was never more in earnest than when he outlined to me the source of his Ministry.

‘Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord. Leviticus nineteen verse eighteen. But that was an instruction to the Jewish people about the Jewish people. But then in verse thirty-four it goes on, But the stranger that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. But then came our Lord and the new dispensation, and when one of them who was a lawyer said unto Him, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? He answered him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. Matthew twenty-two, verses thirty-seven to forty.’

All of this delivered without a smile and in full majestic voice.

‘And your neighbour doesn’t just mean that sweet little thing with the big bazookas who lives next door, son.’ He laid his hand on my shoulder. ‘In this global village the Lord in His infinite wisdom and mercy has created, your neighbour is everyone and everyone is your neighbour. But what you need to take to heart, son, is Matthew eighteen, verses twenty-one to twenty-two. Then Peter came and said to Him, Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. You think that means seventy-seven times, son? It does not. It means you forgive without limit.’

‘Why are you telling me this, Reverend?’

‘Your aura, son.’

My aura. Of course. Sure. As long as you believed A that I had an aura and B that he could see it.

We had a lot of conversations, me and the Reverend Humphrey, and he got to know all about me and my childhood, me and Miss Maguire, me and my mother, me and Poppy, me and Melanie, me and Wendy. ‘Seems to me, son,’ he said, ‘that if anyone has a beef with anyone it’s Melanie and Wendy who have one with you.’

There was a cultural thing here. I’d been born with a few serious handicaps and, yes, I’d overcome them but there was still part of me that was ready to accept them as a crutch and what the Reverend Catalan wanted me to know was that that was not the American way. ‘Other people were dealt shittier hands than you, and some of them did okay. A lot of people got much better cards than you did and some of them are in jail, or bankrupt, or dead. Or maybe a combination of those things. When you come right down to it, it isn’t the hand you’re dealt that counts, it’s how you play it. And what about that maths teacher? What about Regus? He believed you when he didn’t have to. What about those teachers who gave up their time for you and didn’t charge a cent for it? Where do you get off holding grudges?’

‘I don’t hold grudges.’

‘What you have to do, son, you have to go through every single person you’re holding a grudge against in your mind and you have to forgive them.’

‘I don’t hold grudges.’

‘You believe that, huh? Forgiveness isn’t for their sake, son. It’s for yours. When you stand before the Lord on that last day He isn’t going to ask whose fault it is. He’s going to want to know what you did with what you were given. The parable of the talents, son. Matthew twenty-five, verses fourteen to thirty.’

I hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. I said, ‘Since you know him so well, is God going to have anything else to say while he’s got me standing there?’

‘Sure is, son. He’s going to point out how many people went out of their way to help you make something of your life and He’s going to want to know what you did to give something back and who it was you gave it to. Not the people who helped you, ’cos by and large it sounds like those guys already got plenty. What you did for the people who couldn’t ever have helped you ’cos they had nothing. What did you spread around, apart from shit? That’s what your Creator is going to ask you on that fateful day.’

‘He’s got a pretty foul mouth on him, then? For a creator?’

‘Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh His name in vain. Deuteronomy, son. Chapter five, verse eleven.’

So there you have it. The question: Is there anyone in Coeur d’Alene who could be offended by anything in that passage?