On the train to Cambridge, I took a call from a nice-sounding young woman at the Financial Times. She was to ask me questions for a questionnaire in her newspaper. I’d forgotten she was calling, and found myself temporarily discombobulated, ie when the questions began, their absurdity hit me like a freight train. ‘What is your favourite book?’ ‘Who is your literary inspiration?’ All that sort of reductive guff that puffs up the pages of prints too poor to source reporting anymore.
I made the mistake of trying to think seriously about them for a while, and then gave up. When she asked me if I wore anything special to write in, I replied: ‘An orange jumpsuit modelled on those of the Guantánamo detainees, with “24-Hour Emergency Writer” blazoned between the shoulder blades.’ When she inquired as to whether I ate any special snacks while I was writing, I replied – without hesitation – ‘A foie gras entier is flown to me each week, direct from the Dordogne in a canister filled with liquid nitrogen. I eat it spread on a special sourdough toast baked for me by Fortnum’s.’ When she asked me if there was anything in my past that I regretted, I dead-panned: ‘I was born a hermaphrodite, and bitterly regret the operation that deprived me of my full set of primary female sexual characteristics.’
I wished the young woman from the FT no ill-will, but sometimes the absurdity of anatomising the writing life – which, to all intents and purposes is static and incapable of being observed – gets the better of me. I also managed to fudge my connections at Cambridge, and ended up trundling about the Fens for a while: up to Ely, then across to Bury-St-Edmunds. I’d never been there before; in the two years I lived in Suffolk I passed by on the ring road occasionally, faintly disturbed by the minatory towers of the sugar beet processing factories, the chthonic glow of their sour-sweet industry. But this time, I penetrated the ring road and found a beautiful Tudor and Medieval town, and a perfect little jewel of a Theatre Royal, complete with two circles, boxes, and a small empyrean painted on to the ceiling. The house manager had fallen off the stage into the pit the previous day, so my contract rider hadn’t been adhered to: no prawn sandwiches – what stale hell was this? They did, however, give me a freebie Mars bar after the gig.
So, I did my shtick; and the audience were warm – if heavy on the knitwear. I signed a couple of books, and left in a rainstorm so heavy that it looked as if milk were being poured over the Abbey. I’d been directed to the local Indian, which was housed in a Tudor building. They put me by the window, and the rain filtered in over my chana masala. At the next table, they were talking about the camcorder footage of Gavin on fire – and how screamingly funny it still was. I wish I could’ve seen it. Thence to the Angel Hotel and bed. I was up at 6.30 am, and donned my orange jumpsuit so I could start a little work on the second draft of my next book. Twenty-four-hour writer, indeed.