Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Psst! Wanna know a secret?

I’ve got a thing about cowboys. There, I’ve said it. Not such a shocking admission, I suppose, in this confessional age. Though if you met me – middle-aged, bespectacled, English – it would probably surprise you. And I’m actually talking about the culture and history of cowboys, not the men themselves – honestly. I also harbour a secret ambition: to write and present a TV programme about the men and women who recorded the Old American West in art. More of that later (or possibly in another post).
So where did this infatuation come from? Looking back, it seems inevitable. Few, if any, westerns are made now. But when I was growing up in the 1960s, John Wayne was still making films and for the younger adults there was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. British television screens were full of American imports like The Virginian, The High Chaparral and Bonanza. Johnny Cash was riding high in the music charts.
And then, in 1971, along came Alias Smith and Jones.
Smith and Jones were Butch and Sundance for the pre- and early teens. A dark, straight-haired one (Hannibal Heyes, played by Pete Duel then Roger Davis) and a blonde, curly-haired one (Kid Curry, played by Ben Murphy) to maximise their appeal. We loved them in the UK, and Duel was one of my first heart-throbs (before I moved on to David Essex and, um, Bryan Ferry).
The series had an irresistible premise: two outlaws apply for amnesty but have to stay out of trouble for a time to prove they deserve it, with no one else knowing about their deal.

Curry: There’s one thing we gotta git, Heyes
Heyes: What’s that?
Curry: Outta this business
Most importantly, as a voiceover pointed out at the start of every episode, ‘they never shot anyone’. Which made it so horribly ironic that Duel chose to commit suicide with a gun part-way through the filming of the second series. He was replaced with indecent haste by Roger Davis, but it was the never same. They only made three series, some of which can be found on YouTube and are available on DVD.
I was fortunate that my parents supported my enthusiasm for horse-riding, which must have come from watching those men in chaps dashing around on horseback. It was the only sport I ever showed the remotest interest in. But after moving to London at 18, for a long time the only thing I rode was the Tube. Despite this, newly divorced in the mid-1990s I chose to go on the type of holiday my ex would never have sanctioned: a week at a dude ranch in the Colorado Rockies.
I found it impossible to adapt to the sitting trot, but I did come back with these.

No one wears a riding helmet in Colorado, so I wore that hat every day. And the boots, which were branded one evening with the Bar Lazy J Ranch brand, a ‘lazy’ letter being one on its side. The antler’s too small to be mounted and stuck on a wall, but is the genuine article, found on the prairie and gifted to me by a fellow rider.
I also brought back from the now defunct Museum of Western Art in Denver a poster of the picture at the top of this post. It's by Charles M Russell, one of the best known of the cowboy artists, and is called The Fireboat.
Ten years later I travelled to see the original at the Russell Museum in Great Falls, Montana.
But that will have to be another post. In the meantime, please leave a comment if you’d like to confess to your own unlikely passion. Or far-fetched writing ambition. Your secret’s safe with me.
For now: Yee ha!

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