I’ve never come across such a deserted place as Bridgend on the Diamond Jubilee bank holiday Tuesday. Here’s a photograph of Wyndham Street:
I had dinner at Natraj Tandoori – the only restaurant that was open. Afterwards, I walked all along the river out of town rather than up Coity Road and to the M4 where my hotel was. I came across no one but a jogger, and a cyclist who shouted something in warning as I was standing in the middle of a pathway trying to take a photograph of a lone gravestone in an empty plot across the river from a hospital. Otherwise, it was sixties housing estate after sixties housing estate jollified by bunting but as deserted as you’d find only in an episode of Dr Who.
The whole of Bridgend might have been having dinner at the Harvester Restaurant near my hotel. I’d had to cruise the car park waiting for an empty space when I’d arrived that afternoon. By the time I’d walked up out of Bridgend, families were waddling to their cars.
My reading on the Wednesday was at H.M.Parc, across the A4061. I was met by an Italian girl called Silvia who had auburn hair and a beautifully ironic smile. She was with a guy called Phil – robust, precisely shaven and in uniform. I had to put all my valuables in a little locker in reception. Phil opened all the doors ahead of us with either a key or by punching in a code, but stood aside, I thought out of politeness, to let me in first, but realised he had to lock each door again behind us.
The prison buildings looked to be made of metal – rectangular, rounded at the edges and corners, with tiny windows – a sort of Hanna-Barbera mastermind’s complex but full-size. In the library I was introduced to another Phil – a ‘facilitator’ at the prison. The second Phil was a nice man, concerned that incarceration was punishment in itself and that his job should now be a matter of figuring out how to raise his wards’ sense of self-worth. Both Phils wore uniforms with the private prison company’s logo on it – G4S. Outside the prison, they have been invited into people’s homes to investigate smells around cookers. I felt out of place in my second-hand suit and with my large black notebook. The inmate who hosted the reading event I think was called Mike and knew so much about the Pogues – even down to specific episodes in our career – that I assumed he’d read the book, but he hadn’t. After the question and answer session, I had my own question. Naively thinking that the men would go off to sew a post bag or tend runner beans in the garden, I asked one of them what they were up to now.
‘Back to bang up!’ one of them shouted out. I felt a bit of a chump.
I had a cream bun in the cafeteria with Silvia and the Phils. The second Phil used to be a teacher and was hardly regardable as a ‘screw’. The prison seemed to be run along lines not far distant from the philosophy which guided my children’s elementary school, which had self-esteem and mutuality at its core.
I hadn’t realised one of my options had been to accompany Silvia in one of the fleet of Hay Festival Range Rovers which whisked her back to the green room at Hay-on-Wye. Instead I drove through Tonypandy and Treherbert to pick up the A4059 and A470 up over the Beacons to Brecon.
I drove up into the Brecon Beacons, in awe of the fell sides, my bottle of water crackling from the altitude. I kept getting texts from Lee Brackstone, my editor, who was travelling from Cambridgeshire to Hay-on-Wye. He had been on the Central line when he realised he was on his way to work and that he’d left all his luggage on the train. By the time he got to Liverpool Street, his belongings had started their journey back to where he’d got on.
I’d been told to look out for ‘two stone gateposts’ on the Brecon Road, about a mile outside of Hay-on-Wye. I drove past them several times, covered as they were in ivy and unrecognisable as gateposts at all. The house itself was beautiful and can’t have seen a decorator since the 1940s. It had window-frames of intersecting Tudor arches.
Seeing as it was just a mile to the Hay festival site from my bed and breakfast, I wanted to walk. My landlady lifted a branch to show me the grass-choked gate down to the bridle path. I was elated to be able walk up to the brow of the hill with my notebook in my shoulder bag. The path crested the brow, to reveal the festival car park and beyond, the huddle of tents.
I’d not met John Walsh before – an abundant man, with abundant rings on his fingers, sky-blue pin-stripe suit and a white shirt open at the throat to within a button of unseemly. He talked, moistly, about Henry James and showed me his copy of my book. A lot of the pages were dog-eared. He opened the book to a page where arrows in red ink shot out from the text, between lines, round paragraphs to end in asterisks, tiny notes and abbreviations.
The Green Room at Hay was full of men with resonant vocal cords, women with high-heeled boots and volunteers, escorts, personal assistants, minders and boys bent over MacBooks. Brackstone eventually turned up, cowed from his journey. He’d located his luggage in Tottenham Hale. It had taken him as many hours to get here as it takes me to get home to Los Angeles.
I had wanted to see Nicholas Parsons’s event, celebrating the bicentenary of Edward Lear’s birth, but got caught up in conversation with Walsh and his fiancée, Angie. I could see Parsons sitting on a sofa in the Green Room. He’d had a mauve rinse, perfectly coiffed at the front, but in disorder at the back. I followed him and his escort down one of the boardwalks in the direction his event. A red elastic band held the sole of his shoe on. Nicholas Parsons is 89 this year.
My event with Walsh was nerve-racking. I tried to hold my arms out from my body to prevent salt tidemarks forming under the arms of my suit jacket. For some reason, the audience had favoured the half of the auditorium to stage right. It gave me the uncanny feeling that we were all listing to starboard. Walsh was so enthusiastic about my book that on a couple of occasions I had to cut him off to get a word in edgewise.
Afterwards, my Hay-in-the-Parc minder, Silvia, handed me a ticket for Frank Turner at the festival, but Walsh, Angie, Brackstone and I preferred to polish off a bottle of wine in the Green Room. I listened to them talk about the parlous state of publishing. Walsh bemoaned the fact that publishers weren’t interested much in books that weren’t plotted out or which didn’t readily correspond to a specific genre.
I wanted to walk home over the hill in the dark but I was drunk and it’s the sort of thing you think is a good idea when you’re drunk and the sort of thing that can result in a barked shin or a faceful of earth or branches. Instead, one of the festival drivers – a guy with the unconcern of an assassin – drove me at breakneck speed down the Brecon road in a Range Rover. I was reeling outside my bed and breakfast in seconds.
I left at about 10 o’clock. The navigation thing on my phone threaded me up through Herefordshire, between hedges that sometimes thwacked against the wing mirrors, over the slatted toll bridge at Whitney-on-Wye, took in a stretch of Watling Street for two thirds of a mile, and then up round Shrewsbury towards Chester, where I had to stop to buy a car-charger for the phone and for a piss. The girl at Carphone Warehouse directed me to a snooker club round the corner and down the stairs, a dank, harshly spotlit basement with brittle music playing and an acrid gents’ toilet and a few guys whiling away a wet afternoon in Cheshire.
The reading and book signing in Liverpool was supposed to have taken place at Leaf on Bold Street. I’d done an interview for a listings magazine and had been tweeting and facebooking a bit, but, at £5 a throw (for the privilege of listening to me talk and read excerpts, and, on top of that, maybe buying a book) not to mention the unrelieved rain and the cold, Waterstone’s moved it to their shop down the street, the doors of which were locked when my brother and I turned up at half six. We hung around in a white-painted office-cum-store room for half an hour. The Waterstone’s woman led us through into the coffee shop. I stood on a sort of dais in the window, with my black notebook resting on a stretch of rail for a lectern, with nothing in my mind but the requirement to say something. For these readings and signings I haven’t had much of a plan, other than to start with, more often than not: ‘It took me 30 years to write this book – 9 years to research it, 12 years to think about it and another 9 years to put it down on paper.’ The rest of it I talk off the top of my head. When I start to peter out, I have a look at what extract is next and begin a preamble for it.
One of the extracts has been how Shane MacGowan and I get home from Dingwalls after he’s had a couple of what he called a ‘Black Zombie’ – a Long Island Iced Tea: all the white spirits, but with pastis instead of triple sec, in a pint glass, topped off with Coca Cola. There’s a lot of swearing in it, and at full volume.
My brother and I went off to mark his sixtieth birthday in a pub. I had to relieve myself into a fence at the end of an increasingly agonising half-hour ride on Merseyrail.
When I walked into the hotel lobby in Dublin, a girl came up to welcome me and hand me a folder of information about the Dublin Writers’ Festival, and a special offer to the National Print Museum. Dublin seemed to be in the grip of a hurricane. All afternoon, the rain lashed and the wind buffeted the windows. ‘It’s weather for the high stool,’ Terry Woods said when I rang him.
Tony Clayton-Lea had written a generous review for the Irish Times, though he had issue with some of the rarer words. The reason I now give for them has been that they are the literary equivalent of traffic calming measures. Tony was my interviewer at Liberty Hall. During the interview, under lights, sitting on a plastic sort of padded armchair, I was desperate to take my jacket off, but because the sound guy had fixed us both up with lapel mikes, I couldn’t, without deafening everyone. As it was, Clayton-Lea kept bumping his lapel mike with a sleeve and filling the auditorium with bangs.
I had family at Liberty Hall. My brothers and sisters-in-law were in Dublin to celebrate my older brother’s sixtieth. We have a cousin and her husband, who live in Howth. After the event, there was a long line waiting for signed copies. My family had come by bus and had to leave. I wanted to wind down. I’d vacillated about going on to a club called Odessa to ‘meet with other writers’, which sounded illustrious and in the end accepted a lift from Sinead Connolly, the festival director, squeezing into her car which was full of chairs which had to go back somewhere with my event being the last at Liberty Hall. Sinead’s driving was cautious to the point of skittish. By the time I got to Odessa, dessert was being brought out and a birthday party was at cake-with-sparklers level. I have hearing that has been lashed to within an inch of its life by Terry Woods’s overdriven cittern and the Pogues’ on-stage sound. Nowadays it gets hard to hear when there’s crockery, cutlery and cackling about. I struggled to hear Liam Browne, the festival organiser, a man with a conspiratorial cast to his eye, preferring to cock an ear to Éibhear Walshe who I ended up sitting next to. Walshe had interviewed Mark Haddon, the writer of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at an event that had run at the same time as mine. I decided it was time to go when I finished my pint. On my way out I nodded at a guy sitting at our table. It wasn’t until I got back to my room that I discovered that it had been Mark Haddon. I would like to have said hello at least.
It was an hour and a half drive from Dublin to Coolbawn where my cousin and her husband moor their boat. We passed a couple of signs for Borrisokane, which is near where Shane MacGowan’s family is from. The Pogues played at Paddy Kennedy’s in Puckane, Shane’s hometown, in January 1986. It seemed weird to be so close to MacGowanland. After the hurricane, if that’s what it was, the sky was luminous. The Shannon is indeed broad and majestic.
On Sunday, Ireland was playing Croatia in the European Championship and the game had started by the time I’d gone through security at Dublin airport, on my way to Manchester. I was taking excessive interest in the match, airing on the screen at each gate, and as I was crossing to an empty space I banged my shin against the metalwork of the seats. I didn’t want to attract attention to myself by vigorously rubbing my leg and swearing which is what was desperate to do, but walked as if nothing had happened and sat down. After a while I happened to notice that blood was pooling in the leather of my shoe. I had to hobble off to the toilets and mop up.
I spent most of the next week up in the Yorkshire Dales, writing – I have to start another book – and reading, on John Walsh’s recommendation, ‘Washington Square’ which I’d found in Westwood Books in Sedbergh. In the evening, I walked down the river to the pub, skirting meadows of wild flowers. For a couple of days, the weather was more or less summery.
A couple of old school-friends had set up a reading at Waterstone’s in Leeds, as a late entry in the Big Bookend Festival. I drove all the way down Wensleydale, along the River Ure, through Hawes and Leyburn to the A1. Crakehall is where my gran used to live. Her house is still the end semi at the top of the rise from the village.
The last time I was there was probably when I was 7 and entered the Summer Fête Fancy Dress Competition as an R.A.F. officer. The village hasn’t changed much.
I went to school 20 miles away from Leeds. A large part of the audience at Waterstone’s had gone to school with me. My very first girlfriend at age eleven was one of the people who had set it up. Her accomplice had been a boy I used to race against to get to the head of the music department’s rosewood Bechstein grand in the Meeting House at school. Otherwise, in the audience: a girl I used infrequently to hang out with in Earls Court who, like me, had come down to London; a girl whose family used to have open-house near Keighley each summer where pretty much everyone at some point or other turned up to get stoned and listen to music; a guy who was with me when another friend lost control of his car on a country road near school and turned it upside down; a boy we hit on the head with spoons one day because we felt like it; the girl whose London accent we thought was weird, now the doyenne of the Old Scholars’ Association; a guy who was the first of us to go around wearing an Afghan coat, a grandpa shirt and Roger McGuinn glasses; lads I shared studies with in lower and upper sixth years; my dad’s erstwhile financial adviser; a cousin I hadn’t seen in years; my god-daughter; the first real love of my life together with the guy who went out with her the year after I left school and who ended up marrying her.
There has always comes a moment, in these readings, when I’ve had to pause to lift a glass of water to my mouth – for something to do to break the increasingly mournful cycle I get into when I’m talking about my other family, the one with the problem sibling who goes off the rails.
My friend who came up with the idea of the reading in Leeds and who hounded my publicist and Waterstone’s about it, had been complaining about how few copies of my book there were in the shop. He was vindicated before long, when they sold out. Thirty more had been ordered, apparently, but too late.
After a Jameson’s at the Victoria Hotel, I gave my friend and his wife a lift to near where they lived, and then drove out in the rain through Otley, Ilkley, Skipton and Settle – until just after Ingleton the navigation thing on my phone swung me through one hard right after another and hoisted me high up between hedges that were alive with wind and the lanes strewn with branch-ends and then up onto a car-wide strip of road where there was nothing to see but a dim shape of fells both sides and just one outside light, out there in the blackness and the rain. Back there I’d passed a sign that read ‘gate’ and here came the gate, in the middle of nowhere, with a hand-painted sign that said ‘Lambs asleep in the road.’ I was mortified to think I might be about to drive through their cot. I pulled open four gates in total, fearful that the wind would slam each one against the side of my sister-in-law’s car as I went through.
The road continued to plunge down a hillside, soar back up another one and hook back and forth over a stone bridges and round brows. On the top, I turned out all the lights and got out to stand on the road for a bit, in the rain, in my suit, with the fells all around and the clouds seemingly just above my head and the wind making my trousers slap my ankles. This is what it would have looked like in the daytime:
It was quarter to one when I pulled the blankets up to my ears, listening to the wind cuff the windows.