The map and the territory

Bud Craig

A portrait of writer Bud Craig, who goes with the flow

by publisher, Erik Empson

Bud is a little guarded when we first meet. Maybe he’s been reading the previous author profiles I’ve written and is concerned about whose clumsy hands he has fallen into. Slightly frail and shrunken after winning rounds with cancer and surviving a sucker punch from a stroke, he shuffles back into his Darlington home, beckoning me within. I’ve wanted to meet Bud for some time because he’s living proof that it is not only in fiction that the good guys can triumph and live on to fight another day, but in real life too.

To break the ice I ask if he lives alone, but it is perfunctory as the large kitchen has a woman’s touch to it. His upstairs office with a view onto the River Tees where he writes, I later discover, has a more chaotic character. From his writing I’ve always imagined that Bud might be something of man’s man – his private investigator hero Gus Keane is based loosely on a Rugby League legend from his youth – he certainly likes his sport, but he has a soft, nurturing side too. Writer and subject were social workers, Bud principally in child protection. So it is not all Raymond Chandler – the bottle of plonk I bring along will be saved for Christmas, whereas Chandler would have downed it without a moment’s hesitation – and his hard-headed paladin Philip Marlowe. In fact, wearing an elegant neck scarf and a wry grin, this one-time scholar of Latin and French, has a boyish and Rive Gauche air.

Guessing that Bud hasn’t in fact read my previous editorials, I restate my purpose, and explain that I want to discover what makes him tick. If I find that out, I should tell him first, he replies. I realise my statement is a little silly, no person can truly be gotten the size of in 1,500 words. Especially someone who has lived a rich and varied life such as Bud’s. No, the map is not the territory. In fact no one could be gotten the size of in as many words as there are atoms in the universe. At any rate he says I should write what I like so long as I mention he is “ruggedly handsome”, so here’s for it.

Bud was born in Salford at the end of the war. He throws out a comment pointing out it is a city in its own right, a cheeky but good-natured reminder that I had once described it as belonging to Manchester in a blurb for one of his books set there. He grew up in a working-class household, one governed by his father’s dictum that therein “food and education came first”. And this saw him join a grammar school and adopt its garish yellow and maroon uniform. When it came to making him stand out from the local lads, it might as well have had a target stitched on it. I ask if he got into scraps, curious as to whether he shared his character’s rugby playing prowess; he says no – he is “a devout coward”.

He headed to London for college where he met his wife, Ann, who is now an accomplished weaver – all maths and geometry she explains when she joins the conversation sometime later – and never looked back. After dilly-dallying around some, with a sojourn on the Scilly Isles, the couple by chance ended up in Darlington and never left. Their house is right on the border with North Yorkshire, a stone’s throw from the river described in a BBC TV programme as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the North, by an ancient bridge in a picturesque town. Why would you leave?

I probe further and ask if in basing his five-book series back in Salford there was a hint, if not of nostalgia, of an attempt at composing a parallel existence to his own; answering some of his personal what ifs. Bud confesses that there is an element of truth to this. That aside, fantasy or not, it is certainly a credible world he creates in his novels, and although I’ve not read the books recently – the last instalment STEALING TIME was published in January 2021 – I surprise myself at how many details I remember: the Asian detective Surita who at first suspects Gus of topping off his boss then comes to respect him and rely on him; the rugby playing hoodlum type whom the PI takes under his wing; the particular style Bud has of his main character thinking aloud so the reader can access his thoughts directly.

Like the river outside Bud’s home, his books have a powerful understated energy to them. A type of inertia where once the story is set in motion they continue to roll forward until either an imperfection or obstacle sets a new course. In truth no life has a parallel, it would be dodgy Euclidean reasoning – one that has the luxury of empty space and lines planes that continue infinitely – but in his fiction Bud does succeed in conveying the varying contours of humankind with a naturalism that speaks volumes.

We talk of Bud’s career as a social worker. I don’t take him up on his clear mistruth earlier. He may have avoided fisticuffs at school, but whereas a foolhardiness may lead one to enter that profession, no coward would remain once they have any real experience of it. He says on more than one instance how glad he is that this water is under the bridge, and one can understand why. Social workers are perhaps some of the least recognised heroes in society, and the ones who work in child protection, as Bud did, are often actively despised. No one ever wants them to turn up and are only happy when they leave, except in the rare circumstances when a child must be removed. To give one some sense of this it might suffice to recount a terribly cruel joke that circulated in the 1980s following a succession of dreadful incidents: What is the difference between a rottweiler and a social worker? The former eventually gives your kids back… It feels malevolent to repeat this mean gag, but it does convey succinctly the kind of cloud that still today hangs over this largely thankless job.

Social workers are wracked by the pains of whether the decisions they took were the right ones, and often left wondering what became of the individuals they were there to help. Fiction can offer this resolution and catharsis more readily than life does. For all that we might be surrounded by a loving family, we are often on our own. Bud has used that time to write but despite his novels garnering hundreds of positive reviews, I sense that he is most proud of his short stories. Many of these are collected in the anthology HIGH PROFILE, and almost all of them have won some prize or other. They are eclectic, the subjects ranging from Memphis to cricket, Handmaid’s Tale style sci-fi dystopias to puppy love. Like the personality of the author they are laced with a rare humour, askance jibes at life’s woes and frivolities. Like the Tees, they tumble and surge, bubble and trouble. Though often painful in their honesty, they can also provide a soothing balm for life’s barbs.

As time progresses the likelihood of encountering an obstacle that upsets linear travel increases until it is as inevitable as the universe itself. No river on earth, in fact, charts a straight course, although the Tees has been subjected to human attempts at doing just that. But the water within the river never actually disappears. It is condemned to an eternal cycle of subsumption, evaporation, and condensation. It might end up on the other side of the planet, reincarnated as a dew drop that bends the petal of an exotic flower, but return it must. Especially in the Anthropocene digital age, fiction too, though it may become obscure, endures.

After leaving Bud, I park up for the night near High Force on the Tees. I get up in the middle of the night, the weather is buffeting the van in violent bursts but I haven’t really slept as my mind has been racing. When I bedded down, the moon was to the west, now having performed its oblique arc, it sits over the majestic waterfall itself. Thick puffy clouds are hurtling past its near perfect sphere with such a velocity it is creating something like a strobe effect. I stare up at the trippy motion and I am reminded of a question posed by mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot: how long is the coastline of the British Isles? The question is not as daft as it sounds but rather highlights an apparently intrinsic limit to human knowledge. The length of a coastline, or a river for that matter, is only limited by its measure. And the same goes for a life course as much as a water course.

Zoom in, as if on Google Earth, to a given part of the geography on a map and once recognisable forms variegate into new configurations, until from the identifiable shapes of bays or meanders we know from the Mercatorian globe, we soon descend into smaller seemingly replica regions of inlets and eddies, then to the pixelated level of grains of sand and ripples. And although those are the limit of the human eye unaided, with technology we can get much further. When it comes to Mandelbrot fractals, the map is as close to its territory as we can get, because the re-emerging forms convey the ontological difference and repetition behind the scale, although always chasing after them, following their fall into infinity. To define a life by a series of events is as limiting as measuring the length of a river by looking at a map.

When Bud explores his irregularly parallel lives in fiction it is not because his life is not content, but rather because his choices have given him the freedom to. The energy that he expends is his own, lived alongside others within a myriad of detailed forms, with a view on an eternal process that, always the same and always different, flows at his feet.

Links to purchase all five books in Bud Craig’s private investigator Gus Keane series, his standalone mystery A DANGEROUS TIME, and his short story anthology HIGH PROFILE can be found here.

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