Sunday. I think, actually, today is officially the last day of Week 39, but if I write a bit more tomorrow, it will be Week 40. (Who numbers weeks? Apart from weekly magazines? It’s so impersonal.) I find myself in Northampton for a couple of days, at my Mum and Dad’s, and I type from “the office”, which used to be my bedroom when I last lived here, 28 years ago. Let’s run that number again: 28 years ago. I brought my new Cud mug up with me, the one that Cud kindly sent me, to leave it here as “my mug.”
I came up on the train yesterday. An easy enough journey, just under an hour from Euston if it doesn’t stop at all the incidental stations, like Cheddington and Tring, which it didn’t. (I’m sure they’re not incidental if you live there.) I was sat parallel to a party of six young men who were on their way to Birmingham for a rave-up. They weren’t the most objectionable young men you could share a carriage with, as they weren’t swearing constantly, which is frankly amazing, but they were drinking, and bantering, and doing so at a high enough volume to make it impossible to ignore them without headphones. Because I could hear literally every word they said, I know that they were staying in a hotel in Birmingham, and meeting up with some other mates for a drink, then going on to some exotically named club for 8.45. This was about 2.30. They were a pretty beefy bunch, and I’m sure they could take their booze, but, having broken open a bottle of transparent spirit, and even taken the Glyndbourne-like step of bringing ice to put it paper cups, they were playing cards and drinking shots as forfeits. Even over an hour, you could clearly detect them getting drunker and more slurred, and more “fucks” started creeping into their dialogue.
I feared they were peaking too early, but maybe a nap was built into their itinerary at some stage. When I was a young man, I’m sure I traveled with mates and made similarly gregarious noise (there was one train journey to Derby to see the Boo Radleys in 1993 …), but am I simply post-rationalising if I suggest that my generation had a bit more self-consciousness than the current younger one?
It’s always pleasant, and a bit weird, to be back in Northampton, especially as my folks still live in the house we moved to in 1983, a year before I left (and to which I returned regularly during the next three years at Chelsea). In many ways, it hasn’t changed a bit. My sister and her family still live here – a five minute drive away – and very few of the next tier of the family have strayed very far. My Dad’s sister and her husband spend a lot of time in their apartment in Spain, and one of my male cousin’s two daughters has literally just ventured down to London to go to university, which has been big news within the clan. Good for her, I say. It’s not contractual to leave the town you grew up in – and if you’ve read my books, you’ll know that I owe Northampton a lot, and regard it with massive affection – but it’s good to test your boundaries, and see if perhaps they were further out than you imagined.
Because it is Monday, I find myself at Mum and Dad’s on the very day that they go out for an organised ramble, with friends. This is a regular meet, once a month, and it involves a gentle walk though the open pastures of Northamptonshire, beginning in the car park of a pub that serves good food, and ending in the car park of the pub that serves good food. I have heard tales of these walks, and they always sound bucolic and encouragingly local and not too strenuous, and with a pint and a plate of grub built tantalisingly in. So I accepted the invitation to join them, and make the number up from 11 to a round 12.
We gathered at 10.30am in the car park of the Britannia on the old Bedford Road. Now, I know this pub of old as a remote outpost of hospitality visible from the A428 and nestled by the river Nene. Today, this once-rural inn is blocked in on all sides by newly-built office blocks and retail-park hotels (which must be good for business). The pub itself, inevitably run by a national chain owned by an even bigger national chain, seemed really welcoming, especially after a three-mile hike, but had this lunchtime been cursed by a power failure. So we drove to the next likely spot, the Lakeside, another pub run by a national chain, but also, sadly, jinxed by the same local power outage. We ended up – happily – at a less corporate, more cosy, lower-ceilinged pub in the village of Great Houghton called the Old Cherry Tree, whose friendly staff rose to the challenge of seating and feeding a dozen middle-aged ramblers with a thirst.
Mum and Dad’s friends, a bunch of retirees of similar vintage – and most of whom I’ve met at Wellingborough & Hatton Rotary functions where my Dad had to provide the speaker, so it was me – proved voluble and inclusive company, and I enjoyed being the token under-50 among their sensibly-shod ranks. They joked about me turning them into a sitcom, and the funny thing is, it might just work (mental note etc.). There’s something charming about the over-60s, as we shall politely call them, and the comfortable way they mock each other and chuck innuendo around and claim to be eating “healthily” by not ordering the chips, but then eating chips off other people’s plates. I wouldn’t mind being like them when I am over-60, and I salute them for building this exercise/booze-up into their monthly calendar. (Part of our walk, by the Nene, seemed to coincide with the famous Nene Way. It certainly took us up to Weston Mill, which is a spot I visited as a child, and which terrified me then.)
Living in London, the countryside feels far away. In Northampton, you don’t have to go far out to hit rolling fields. The town is speckled all around its edges with gorgeous villages, like Great Houghton, and a pub lunch can never be far away. They do not call them “gastropubs” round here, as they are unpretentious, but they hit the spot.
As did Hot Fuzz, which I watched again last night, having “taped” it off ITV2 the night before. (My used of “taped” on Twitter caused a degree of nostalgic merriment.) Having already been awestruck by Shaun Of The Dead, and its Pegg/Frost/Wright progenitor Spaced, I knew Hot Fuzz was going to be for me, but remember being even more blown away by its fizzing, metatextual ambition than I’d hoped when I saw it in 2007, prior to meeting Pegg for the first time for a Word magazine interview, after which we rather sweetly stayed in touch. Although the shock value has gone, I was still blown away, again, by how rich and funny it is. Bring on The World’s End, the pub-crawl finale to their Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy and being filmed, well, right now.
It is Tuesday. Here’s a weird thing. Yesterday, I picked up a copy of the finale to my own trilogy of memoirs, That’s Me In The Corner, published the same year Hot Fuzz came out. (And for the cover of which Simon Pegg kindly supplied a quote. What a shame even his mighty reputation couldn’t help us shift a few copies!) The reason I did so is that in October, it joins Where Did It All Go Right? as an e-book. I’m excited about this, so I idly flicked through it, wondering if it really was as bad as its sales figures and near-total lack of press coverage suggest.
Do you know what? It’s quite interesting. I mean that objectively. With its tales of pre-PC newspaper publishing, pre-Internet journalism, pre-digital radio, pre-satellite TV and pre-Twitter information sharing, it may just have evolved into a valuable social document. It’s only six years old, but it seems so very quaint.
Also, if Twitter had ruled the world, I would have been able to promote it myself, without the help of a disinterested publisher. I looked it up on Amazon, to confirm its e-publication (you can pre-order it for £7.69), and, of course, found myself doing the thing you should never do …
I must admit, because it was roundly ignored by the press on publication, I was delighted at the time to get a couple of rave customer reviews on Amazon. I have rarely checked back since. These raves have now being tempered by some real stinkers! Now, before you say it, I know you need thick skin to put yourself out into the public domain, but I always found negative customer reviews the most astringent (and we are talking one-star assassinations in some cases), as these poor bastards will have paid good money for my work. If a critic doesn’t like it, so what? I have not fleeced them of any money, only time. As an author, you do not wish to pickpocket anyone, and fervently hope that a combination of honest packaging, hard work and the context of your previous endeavours will be enough to frame an informed purchase, and thus rule out crashing disappointment. But this isn’t always the way.
“Disappointing … a chore … dull” … These were not the reactions I was aiming for when I wrote That’s Me In The Corner, as you can imagine! Anyway, as my publisher said to me on publication of my first book, in 2003, when I earned my first Amazon customer slag-off, this puts me in the same bracket as Ian McEwan and Martin Amis. I’m feeling more philosophical about the negative reaction to the book now – and the most negative reaction of all was not to even mention the book, a route most national publications took! – and wonder if, by the power of Twitter and the passage of time, That’s Me In The Corner will take on a new, Kindle-fanned life? If it sells two downloads, I shall be happy, as long as the two people who download it are happy. (I wonder if Ebury will let me write a new chapter dealing with that last six years? Hmmm.)
This is me posing in front of three large photo-collages my parents made a few years ago and which are clip-framed up in the “office”. (Actually, maybe my brother made them?) Not that you’ll be able to make much out from where you’re sitting, but the middle one is themed around me, my brother and my sister, from childhood to young adulthood. (The one to the left, out of shot, is based around their kids; the one to the right, partially obscured, is all Mum and Dad.) They’re fun to gaze at, with all their fashions and their haircuts. A couple of days at your parents’, and you do tend to fall into nostalgic reverie.
My new 3G phone, the Samsung Galaxy Ace I, is supposed to arrive today. I am entering the future – or the recent past, as the Ace I is very much last year’s model – while at the same time gazing at my distant past. My parents have recently bought a new PC for the “office”, and with it, changed broadband provider from Orange to BT. They wish to move certain important emails from their Orange account to BT, but due to computer woes, had been reliant for way too long on the remote Orange website client, where their emails are now stored. I set Outlook Express up for them and hooked it up to BT, so that they may now use that to retrieve and send emails, but I could not for the life of me get Outlook to import message from the Orange website. I actually spent a lot of yesterday afternoon trying, and failing. I asked the glorious hive mind of Twitter – the Twitterhive – and received a lot of helpful advice and hints, but none worked, and it looks as if my Dad is going to have to simply forward the important messages to the new account by hand – a laborious task, and one we were trying to sidestep.
If you have any further advice (and I even tried setting up a Gmail account and importing to that, but the password kept being rejected, even though it’s correct, so I gave up), there’s still time!
In the meantime, I have work to do, so will end this Northampton-based blog entry with another pic that sums these past couple of days up. (Thanks for having me, Mum and Dad!)