Richard Grant – writing his way to freedom

“I’d rather wash dishes in the States than be a journalist in London,” said Richard Grant in 1987 as he packed up his few belongings, said goodbye to his job as a diary writer on the Evening Standard and headed across the Atlantic. In the space of a couple of years, he’d acquired a reputation as a witty, slightly dangerous writer, able to extract rich, pithy quotes and stories from pimps, dealers, hookers and general lowlife crazies.

But London was dragging him down. With its “skies the colour of rain-darkened concrete” and its braying Thatcherism, he found himself growing surly and depressed, longing for sun, travel and possibility. So off he went, pursuing a dream nurtured by writers like Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson of a life unfettered by routine or even geography, where a journalist could earn a living while doing something he loved and which satisfied a deep inner compulsion.

The result, 15 years later, is Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads (Little Brown, £16.99), detailing Grant’s years criss-crossing the great American plains and deserts, his encounters with tramps, truckers, hippies and cowboys, interwoven with a discourse on the history of nomadic travel in the American West, from the first chronicled journeys of 16th century Spanish noblemen, through the travails of the American Indians, the explorations of the Mountain Men and the gradual western march of European civilisation.

It is a stirring read, crackling with Grant’s old gift for dialogue, to which he has added academic and anecdotal research, delivering a powerful narrative from the disparate pieces of journalism which have kept him alive all this time. In fact, he tells me, only around a fifth of the book draws on previously published work. He picked up a commission to write the book in 1998 and spent three years developing it.

For writers used to turning around commissions in a couple of weeks, this seems an eternity. But part of the reason Grant left London was that he didn’t like the pressure to churn out work simply in order to pay the bills: “I like to write slowly, to take time over every sentence.” He talks in the book of being able to replace all his belongings for under $200 and boasts of never spending longer than two weeks in the same place. “Twenty-five dollars a day for food, beer, cigarettes and gasoline and I was happy,” he writes. “When the funds ran low, there was always a story to be found somewhere.”

He’s never been in it for the money: “Basically I’ve been broke all my life, but I’ve always had low overheads; that’s my watchword.” So a scattering of commissions for British Esquire, the Telegraph Saturday Magazine and Arena managed to sustain him through years of riding railroads with the hobos, attending bizarre Wild Man conventions and investigating the drugs culture of Los Angeles rappers.

There is still a demand from UK editors for this kind of material. “I get offers constantly,” he says. “That’s the real appetite, ’Let’s make fun of Americans’, like a convention of people weighing over 400 lbs.” Or else something Hollywood-related. And this is where Grant decided to draw the line. Although he has written occasional celebrity profiles, it’s work he despises and he is saddened by the ever-increasing fixation on celebrity trivia in the UK press. “It’s really dumbed down in the past ten years,” he says. “It used to be possible to sell features on serious issues, but then the whole lad thing happened and even papers like the Observer have changed enormously. I’m astounded by all the health and diet stuff in what used to be a heavyweight paper.” Trying to repeat what Grant has done would be very much harder, he thinks, especially if you eschew the Hollywood drivel.

His current concerns include the drought which he believes will soon strike the southern US states, as underground aquifers run dry. Cities such as El Paso face a severe crisis. But since there is no obvious means of linking this story to Jennifer Aniston or Leonardo di Caprio, few British publications are likely to take it. He takes enormous pleasure from the beauty of his adopted country and writes with awestruck wonder of vistas stretching 180 miles, where you can see five distinct storms raging across the landscape. These are pleasures which the sedentary journalist can only glimpse in rare moments, whereas Grant has sacrificed stability for the constant surprise of motion, seeking out fellow travellers. “My truck was my armchair, the country was my house,” says one.

He’s now at work on a second book, detailing the drugs trade between Mexico and the US and the ‘narco cowboys’ whose trade is worth an estimate $30 billion a year. He’s been writing about this subject for the past ten years, for both UK and US publications.

In comparing the two countries, the American intellectual classes are “more curious,” he reckons. He sees few signs of magazines to rival Atlantic Monthly or The New Yorker in the UK (although he hadn’t yet come across Prospect and said he’d get hold of a copy after our interview). On the other hand, he remains surprised by how easily the American press is cowed by the administration. “There’s a comedian called Bill Maher who had his own TV show and said after 9-11 that it was odd to describe someone as ‘cowardly’ who was willing to give up their life for what they believe in. He was fired, the show was pulled off.”

In general, Grant has noticed that American journalists have a more fawning attitude to power. “It’s something they learn in journalism school. Most American papers are owned by big corporations and they don’t want to rock the boat. Even if someone like Susan Sontag suggests the US should examine why the Arab world is so antagonistic towards it, there is an uproar.” Grant has seen the traditional American right to freedom of speech become severely eroded over the past 18 months.

When dealing with American editors, he finds some sharp contrasts with British practices. “The amount you get paid is, on average, double the UK level, but the process takes twice as long because of the fact-checking and the endless re-writing. You get angst-ridden phone calls at three in the morning over the position of a semi-colon. UK editors are generally happy if you leave them no work to do. In the US, they’re in fear of their jobs, they’re terrified in case they make a wrong decision. There’s usually one person who has ultimate power and likes to boss everyone else around.”

When it comes to squeezing money out of accounts departments, the Americans are just as bad as the British, Grant reports.

Although he spent most of the past 15 years on the road, Grant did maintain a small house in Tucson, Arizona, for some years. It was useful for banking, writing and receiving phone calls, he says. There’s one passage in Ghost Riders which will strike a fond chord with any freelance journalist:

“When I get back to my rented house in Tucson there is no girlfriend, very little furniture and mouse shit all over the kitchen, but good news is twinkling on the answerphone. The London media is craving Americana – white supremacists in northern Idaho, a vicious greedy religious cult in Tennessee, lowrider car clubs in east Los Angeles – and a German magazine wants me to cover a horse round up in Colorado. That adds up to a good six weeks on the road, and probably five thousand miles, with all expenses paid.”

This is where you either think ‘lucky bastard’ or ‘poor bastard’, depending on whether you relish the company of white supremacists, nutty cult members or cowboys, but most journalists are probably in the former camp. It’s just that they lack the courage or energy to go out there and put their financial and physical security on the line. Getting paid a steady but unspectacular income for writing about the shoe industry suits some people better than getting beaten up by drunken rednecks in Greenville Mississippi.

“I was in a bar and a woman came and sat on my lap,” he recalls. “Then a guy comes along and starts to beat the shit out of me. Southern women are very skilled at getting men to fight over them.” He was also bashed over the head with a brick by a drifter he’d met, who then stole his belongings. When he came to, Grant discovered a ring of fur around the bathtub. After knocking him cold, “he still found time to wash his dog,” writes Grant.

These kind of details are what lift Ghost Riders out of any pigeon-hole. It’s not a travelogue because there’s no particular route and the landscape it describes is more psychological than physical; it’s not a historical work, nor an autobiography, although there are elements of each. It’s really the kind of book that an extremely good journalist writes when given the space, time and wealth of material to mould together.

“It’s certainly delivered as far as personal freedom goes,” says Grant. “That’s always been my aim in life.” Many working and aspiring journalists would agree. Grant’s career so far has been the embodiment of a certain British ideal, in a tradition going back to the gentlemen writers of the 18th century who would tour Europe and write poetry about Greek statues. The fact that, these days, we’re more interested in psychotic Americans than Greek statues is a curious sign of the times.