News

American Diary: Dragonfly

31.07.2014

On the runway in Houston Texas, I have a window seat. As usual, they are all drawn down. Americans in these southern states understand the power of the sun at 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Keeping the shades pulled allows the internal AC to keep the ‘plane cool, though a little dark. Yet I am not one of them, or at least only for a time. It is true I’ve been flung across a dozen cities in as many days, but I am almost finished. I am on my way to the green state of North Carolina and then home to England. I open my shade and duck my head to peer out for one last look at the land of big belt buckles. 

I see a bright red dragonfly, darting and hovering below the level of my window glass, almost in line with the idling engines. I know, just then in that instant, that I am the sole witness to a moment of perfection, a speck of memory, with sunlight streaming in from just my window alone. The insect is large, hanging there, lurching and sticking in the air. It has pulled up beside our jet, like one of those 1940s Fords, racing engines at the lights. 

Then it is gone and I’m still smiling as I ease the blind back down.  

I don’t like to travel. I’ve visited some thirty odd countries in the dozen years I’ve been an author. I don’t mind being somewhere new, not really, I just dislike getting there. My ultimate fantasy is never again to leave my home, just to sit on a bench outside my front door, yes perhaps in a tweed suit against the nip, yes with a pint of something nice, but not a pipe because tobacco is the very devil and as out of place in such a pleasant scene as a needle full of heroin – and yes, as I sit there, thinking up stories to tell you, yes you, I might nod to the vicar as he cycles by, even if he is in lycra and doing a steady thirty miles an hour up the hill. [They do, you know. Such high speeds. Cyclists, not vicars, though I suppose they might. In these days of armband supercomputers, they all know their stats. 30mph is a little high, I think, when you are only a pothole and a layer of nylon away from leaving your buttocks on the tarmac.]

I was very, very interested to hear that Lee Child has specified ‘No Touring’ in his latest contract. I wonder how many others would include the same clause if their sales matched his? It’s an odd business to take a group of mildly autistic author types, male and female, who have between them developed one of the few talents that allows them to spend deserts of lonely hours in complete silence – and then to say to that sweating, bespectacled herd of new authors: “Let’s go! 10 cities in 10 days. Tour! Tour! Tour!”

Now, some of them enjoy settling down with a group and telling them stories. I have been known to run over my allotted time. I have never been known to run under it, especially if there is a little alcohol available. Now that I have beaten the cigarettes and have no pressing need to leave any room I’m in, I intend to stage future all nighters, where those who come to see me bring a thermos and sandwiches and I talk and laugh with them until my throat is raw – or until I am the last man standing and they have all gone to their homes. 

That’s of course if I can get there by ship, wherever it is. I liked the Isle of White Festival. The crowd was attentive and willing to smile at my more outrageous lies. I liked it most for the ferry I took to reach it. Compared to planes, well, being stuck in an aluminium tube breathing other people’s air is growing less and less enjoyable as the years pass. If that’s what Lee Child was choosing to avoid, I understand him completely.

So I’m back. I’ve seen St. Louis and Milwaukee, Chicago, Minnesota, Denver, Detroit, Arizona, Texas and Raleigh, North Carolina – where the very first colony was left to prosper at Roanoke. When Sir Walter Raleigh returned a couple of years later, they had all vanished: murdered, gone insane or perhaps they simply walked into the interior, no one will ever know. It’s a big place and it can swallow a man.

I spoke to groups in bookshops and I told them stories and answered their questions as best I could. I didn’t read aloud because I always thought that was an awful idea. Even if I’ve written something, it doesn’t make me the man to read it aloud, now does it? I suspect writers who read long passages are part of the group who would rather sit in silence forever – and never tour again, given the chance. Either way, I saw myself as Johhny Appleseed, walking barefoot across America (or flying economy anyway), dropping seeds from a sack on his hip so that one day there would be apple trees everywhere he had walked, bearing fruit, giving joy. It’s not such a terrible comparison. It’s not such a terrible ambition. 

On that runway in Texas, I remembered a poem I read recently, written by a 16th century Japanese mother after the death of her eight year old son. The translation by Boris Akunin of the haiku that I’d read was, for me, unbearably beautiful. The mother wrote it and then went into a convent, shut away in her grief for the rest of her life. Just eleven syllables in English, here it is:

Dragonfly catcher, 
Where today
Have you Gone?

[Fukudo Chiyo-Ni]

In that first line, can you sense the boy’s fast hands, his delight and his laughter? It is perfect – and it cuts. Poetry will do that for me sometimes – form an image of such power that I can only stand and gasp.

When I was a kid myself, we were not so quick. In a swamp and stream near a local council estate, we caught greater-crested newts with nets and buckets. We bore them home in triumph, watching them pad and pad endlessly at the smooth plastic, seeking a way out. I knew nothing then of them being endangered, or even had much sense of the cruelty in capturing wild things. They were exotic and strange, with bulbous fingers and orange stomachs. Amphibious, they lived in water, breathed in air. Magical, though they did not live for long. The boy I was then, before I’d ever flown to another country, before my mistakes, before injury and loss, before school and before pain; I miss him, like she missed her son. Newt catcher, river walker, lost boy, author.

Conn Iggulden