Fits and Starts

Before I launch into today’s blog I’ll remind you that the first review of my novel The Wildcat’s Burden follows immediately below this post. TWB, the fourth novel in the Iskander series adventures of Gisel Matah and the Iskanders on the 17th century world, Gaia, features Gisel uncharacteristically limited in her options and movement. She has good reason – she’s now the military governor of the turbulent city of Skrona, and she’s pregnant.

I had formed a desire to write stories like Gisel’s quite early in life, but study for other activities stood in the way. Sometime while I was studying engineering, and losing interest, I decided to snatch some spare time and take one of the correspondence courses offered in the newspaper. I was probably little different than any of the would be writers who took the opportunity to submit something to the school for their critique and advice. I submitted my first ever short story – in first draft – and was advised that I’d do better learning freelance journalism.

This wasn’t my ideal but I gave it a go. It turned out that at 19 I knew far too little about the world and had done so few worldly activities that all my attempts at articles were devoid of information any presumed reader would find useful. I’m sure that from my present position, fifty years later, I could have turned any number of my early adventures into passable commentary, but I had no clue how to do it, and the ‘writing school’ instructor was no help. I remember plugging away at a couple of exercises after I joined 47 GW Regt RA in Germany, but gave up the hopeless task soon after.

I didn’t take up the pen again for about 8 years. I was then working in Libya for a geophysical exploration company, and often had free time on my hands. I remember offering to remain in camp in the desert over the Christmas break 1966 so that all the others could head off to spend time with family and friends. I had a lazy week with about five or six of us in camp – one a member of the Libyan kitchen staff, so we could eat – and spent several days working on some articles for the local English language newspaper. See – I was still trying to succeed at journalism.

Just for illustration, and because I’ve found the newspapers with them in, I’ll offer a bit of the first published one. Yes – you see that my very first attempt found a publisher ( which made me suppose I was brilliant enough that all my other first attempts would be equally successful. Ha ha, or as we say on line ROFLMAO.) It turned out that Mr Cedric Hugo Johnston, proprietor of the Tripoli “Sunday Ghibli”, had been searching for a correspondent able to write about the desert for some time.

This article appeared in the Sunday Ghibli for 29th January 1967 under the headline “Those Sahara Trails”, subhead “Habit – and the best worn path” by Man o’ the Dunes (my nom-de-plume to disguise I was carrying out some activity not on my work visa).

“It has been said before, and in perfect truth, that we are creatures of habit.

We may not think so because by being natural and comfortable things, habits are difficult to recognise. It is only occasionally that they allow themselves to be seen.

Such an occasion happened just the other day and I noticed one. This whole business of following roads has become a habit. Of course, most of us have been going places down roads for all of our lives, so it is understandable.

As drivers, except for a few early lessons on an open space, our whole experience has been gained on roads. A circumstance much appreciated by farmers and householders who would otherwise be forever repairing fences.

But there are no fences or walls out here on the desert – though there are roads, many of them.

Now, we may except the main desert roads, which are surfaced and follow pipelines, and those that connect fixed centres so take the easiest natural routes between, as we can easily justify our use of them.

But there are many more that have no apparent reason for being there.

They are those made by the modern desert nomads, the transport drivers, the rig technicians, the seismic crews, whose centres of activity migrate.

For them, travelling between locations often requires only that they point in the desired direction and go. Yet they are habitual road users. Once a set of tracks is laid down it will be followed for as long as interest remains in that direction, although in time the tracks will sprout a bewildering profusion of turn-offs.

Are they followed because the track makers alway pick the best route? Hardly: let us consider the origins of these roads. There are three main philosophies in use in the desert. They can be summed up as the “hell-for-leathers”, the “happy wanderers”, and the “inflexible”.

Those tracks stemming from the first are generally fast but swerving, and require a good deal of attention to avoid running off them into rough ground. They are created by drivers who must travel at the highest speed possible and are easily recognised by the frequent heavy brake applications necessary to avoid taking to the air over rock patches.

The second are the opposite of these. The drivers that created them didn’t care how fast or slowly they were travelling, nor even the direction they were going. They are recognisable by the fact that it is possible to follow them while almost asleep or in animated conversation with passengers.

The “inflexible” is the compass road that takes the shortest route between two points, regardless of the terrain, making vertiginous descents off scarps, and riding roughshod over the rocks even when smooth patches are in sight.

The driver making the first journey from A to B will have made one of these types of track, according to his temperament. His track will not appeal to everyone else, but almost without exception they will follow. For short distances they may recover their own initiative and start their own form of road but as soon as those original tracks are visible over the hood the driver will follow them.

Months or years later those roads are still in existence. They lead from abandoned origin to abandoned destination, but they still hold the old fascination. Other oilmen may now be working in the area, going to different sites from different camps, but wherever the new roads meet the old they are diverted along the same path.

Sometimes the earlier road leads the later for long distances in quite the wrong direction before its hold over the newcomers wanes. Any traveller in the desert can see examples of these occurrences engraved by the tire marks in the ground. There is no doubt that any set of tracks in the sand are an irresistible invitation to follow.

The reason? Sometimes the nagging feeling that those earlier travellers had a better sense of direction than oneself; more often the belief that over a period of time they found a more obstacle-free path – but in most instances I think it is just good old habit.”

Well, that wasn’t so bad – was it? I resisted any number of urges to edit as I typed from the original, except once or twice. Duplications of words had to be changed. I was even paid for that – a few Libyan pounds per article for the first three or four I left with him to fill empty spaces in the paper. I was never paid for the last two – after he reported events in Libya during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war a bit too candidly for the pleasure of the authorities he was bundled onto a plane for England and deported. Since the paper ceased to exist with his departure I know I can re-use the article without seeking permission. Have to admit we had no formal agreement on copyright – as far as I know. Looking back that seems as a golden age of trust and innocence – for me, at least.

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